Luxury with an Italian Accent

Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, Florida

Portofino Bay Hotel pool picture
••• Private cabanas line the stately Villa Pool at the Portofino Bay Hotel. Jeremy Levine, 2004. Licensed to About.com.

When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that's -- the Portofino Bay Resort? The hotel is the priciest -- and most luxurious -- of the on-property resorts (all of which are operated in conjunction with noted hoteliers, Loew's Hotels) at Universal Orlando. It's also the most secluded and quietest hotel on Universal's compact grounds.

Things to Know

Visitors who lose themselves in the idealized, hyper-themed environments of central Florida's parks often get a rude blast of reality when they trudge back along the area's tacky, neon strips to their drab motels. The fantasy continues, however, for guests who stay at Universal's Portofino Bay. After you've stared down The Mummy, you can relax in a re-imagined Italian seaside town.

Unlike Disney's vast resort, land is at a premium at the much smaller Universal. Still, the Portofino Bay is tucked into a relatively quiet, far corner of the property and guests approach it via a dramatic, winding roadway.

Instead of the over-the-top glitz on display at Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio, the Portofino Bay features more understated Italian charm.

Bright courtyards, hallways disguised as outdoor markets, characteristic trompe l'oeils (architectural flourishes that trick the eye), hand-painted tiles and elegant marble all contribute to the theme.

The unusually large guestrooms feature beds with overstuffed, old-world style mattresses. Kids will need a boost just to hop into bed.

Enormous bathrooms include stall showers, separate tubs, and two sinks. A louvered door over the tub gives guests in the bathroom the option of seeking privacy or maintaining contact with their roommates. Attention to service and elegance is evident everywhere. For example, motion detectors recognize when guests are in the room and automatically adjust the temperature.

Plenty of hot tubs

Want more service and elegance? At the hotel's Villa pool, which includes Bocce courts and sculpted fountains, guests can rent private cabanas stocked with food, beverages, fax machines, computer modem hookups--even a masseuse. Two large hot tubs offer ample room to relax.

In fact, the per-capita hot tub elbowroom at the 750-room Portofino complex is quite impressive and demonstrates the hotel's level of pampering. Three pool areas include five Jacuzzis. Compare that to the single highly coveted hot tub at Disney's 2100-room Caribbean Beach resort. In addition to its two hot tubs, the Portofino's Beach Pool features a sandy-edged zero-depth pool, a huge water slide, and a children's play area.

Pampering is also in abundance at the hotel's spa. There's nothing like a massage or a dip in an aromatherapy tub to purge the tension after a ride on the Incredible Hulk coaster.

Restaurants include the quirky Mama Della's Ristorante. The food is -- what else? -- family-friendly Italian. Looking like she stepped out of central casting (but actually recruited from Italy, according to the Universal folks), Mama welcomes guests into her funky dining room adorned with family photos and furnished with a hodgepodge of mismatched tables and chairs. The Portofino Bay's signature restaurant is Bice Ristorante, a high-end chain with locations in Milan, Paris, Tokyo, New York and San Paulo. Think strolling musicians and soft lights. Think...expensive. In fact, all of the Portofino's elegance comes at a price. Universal is clearly not targeting the Motel 6 crowd, but it does often offer package deals that include theme park tickets and other special offers.

In the inevitable comparisons with Disney, the Portofino Bay holds its own.

As with its competitor, Universal's hotel guests enjoy early admission to the parks, can use their room key as a charge card throughout the property, and have priority seating at the resort's restaurants. Unlike Disney however, Universal offers its hotel guests an incredible perk: complimentary "No Line, No Wait" access to its theme park attractions. For more details, see my article, Universal Orlando Hotel Benefits.

Universal's more compact size has its advantages and disadvantages. Instead of Disney's sometimes maddening bus system, shuttle vans transport Portofino Bay guests to a central hub where they can easily stroll to the two theme parks or the CityWalk entertainment complex. Even better, hotel guests can board a water taxi or take a lovely walk along a river to reach the parks.

However, where Disney can easily shield guests inside its 30,000-acre cocoon, the outside world occasionally seeps into Universal. Instead of the mountains that border the real Portofino, guests can see fast food joints and other diversions along International Drive from the hotel's upper floors.

If you can afford it, the Portofino Bay is a wonderful place to stay. Dean Martin croons and Pavarotti booms in the background. The smells of garlic and espresso waft in the warm breezes. The setting sun reflects off the harbor, lighting up the tethered fishing boats and the muted, multi-colored facades of the quaint buildings along the shore. Now THAT'S amore.