Shades of the south seas

Shades of the south seasIt's only a five-minute boat ride from two of the planet's most popular theme parks, and sometimes you can hear the screams of roller coaster riders piercing the tranquility. But the newest resort hotel at Universal Orlando, with its soothing ambience and lavish landscaping, magically transports you to a distant corner of the world and a more innocent time.

Royal Pacific Resort, so the story line goes, harks back to the "Golden Age of Travel" (1880-1939), when only the privileged few journeyed to the palmy, balmy islands of the South Pacific. The fictitious Royal Pacific Company built the romantic resort for a well-heeled North American clientele who arrived on its luxury oceanliners and fleet of planes.

Near the water taxi dock lies a float plane emblazoned "Royal Pacific Airways." In your room a vintage-style travel poster, showing a cruise ship framed by banana leaves, suggests "Sail to South Seas Isles via Royal Pacific Steamship Lines."

This upscale resort, one of three on-site Loews hotels at Universal Orlando, has spared no expense in carrying out its South Pacific theme. Colorful batik tapestries, hand-painted canvas murals, wooden panels and stone sculptures carved by Balinese artists, and original artifacts from remote island villages accent the lobby and other public areas. Employees in pith helmets lend a colonial air to the movie-set retreat.

Orchids, ferns, banana, bamboo, palms and other tropical vegetation also set the enchanting mood. Expanses of powdery white sand cushion lounge chairs in the pool courtyard.

After a day you begin believing you're in Bali or Hawaii, and the resort seems as alluring as its companion fun parks--Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Don't be surprised if the family gives up a few rides for some late-afternoon R&R at the Royal Pacific.

Besides sunning and splashing, activities at the free-form Lagoon Pool, reputedly Orlando's largest swimming pool at nearly 12,000 square feet, include sandcastle building, beach volleyball, ping pong, shuffleboard, and soaking in hot tubs. Kids spray and play with interactive water features on the Royal Bali Sun Steamship. Save Friday night for the "dive-in" movie.

Available for rent are poolside cabanas equipped with TV, phone, refrigerator, and ceiling fan. The thatched-roof Bula Bar & Grille serves sandwiches and frothy tropical drinks.

More than 140 of the resort's palm trees sport dramatically curved trunks, distorted by the winds of South Florida's infamous Hurricane Andrew and rescued by Universal Orlando horticulturalists.

Our favorite place to unwind indoors was the spacious Orchid Court Lounge, which overlooks a leafy ravine, lily pond, and orchid garden. Dark wood and oversized, padded rattan chairs give the room a rich colonial aura, Don't miss its continental breakfast spread--hot cinnamon rolls, croissants, and other treats.

The open-air orchid garden, separated by glass from the lobby and lounge, is a serene sanctuary with trickling fountains, elephants carved from lava rock, and orchid varieties from around the world.

Jake's American Bar, supposedly run by a pilot with his own island-hopper airline, is another spot to savor the old-time ambience. With model bush planes dangling from the ceiling, the bar brims with framed memorabilia--a grass skirt, flower lei, leather pilot's jacket, and yellowed "correspondence" and newspaper clippings. Travel decals decorate antique suitcases.

Menu items at Jake's include a $9.29 hamburger and fish 'n' chips ($14.95). A lounge singer entertains Friday and Saturday; Thursday is karaoke night.

Evening entertainment in the family-friendly Islands Dining Room ranges from Polynesian and Balinese dancing to a "witch doctor" magic show. Character dinners on certain nights feature cartoon favorites from Universal Orlando theme parks.

A luau, with island-inspired foods and a stage show, takes place Saturday nights in the Palm Garden, site of the resort's putting green. Catch the free torch-lighting ceremony at sunset every Friday and Saturday night at the Lagoon Pool.

Generating the hottest culinary buzz at Royal Pacific Resort is Tchoup Chop, the creation of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Specializing in Asian and Polynesian dishes complemented by his signature bold flavors, Emeril's second restaurant at Universal Orlando opened earlier this year. The name Tchoup Chop (pronounced "chop-chop") alludes to New Orleans' Tchoupitoulas Street, where Emeril's parent restaurant is located, and to the bold culinary term "chop."

Decorated South Seas style, the cavernous restaurant occupies its own building. Floor-to-ceiling pillars of bamboo and woven rattan, turquoise-and-royal-blue wall tiles, and orange backlighting set the tone. Deep blue cast-glass chandeliers hang from a huge oval wooden fixture high above a long, rectangular lily pond. Other design features: batik-fabric canopies, carved wood grilles, statues, lush plantings, and a water wall.

Besides tables with chairs, Tchoup Chop offers rattan-and-leather booths with plush tubular backrests. Or you can pull up a chair at the counter of the open display kitchen.

Dinner entrees at Tchoup Chop ($18-$32) include macadamia nut-crusted Atlantic salmon with ginger soy butter sauce and spit-roasted, Hawaiian-style chicken with sweet corn sesame bread pudding, soy-pineapple glaze, and stir-fried bok choy and baby carrots. The grilled double pork chop is served with ginger-roasted sweet potatoes, tamarind barbecue glaze, and spiced green apple chutney.

The popular appetizer dumplings, presented in a rattan box, are filled with ginger-flavored pork and served with sesame soy dipping sauce. Every table gets won ton and rice chips with spicy Indonesian-style peanut sauce.

Favorite desserts are the macadamia nut pie with homemade vanilla bean ice cream, coconut creme brulee, banana cheesecake with crushed banana syrup, and warm pineapple upside-down cake with caramelized ginger ice cream.

Emeril's famous Cajun-Creole cooking takes the spotlight at his original Orlando restaurant in Universal Orlando's CityWalk, a shopping-dining-nightlife complex outside the gates of the two side-by-side theme parks. CityWalk, a short boat ride or walk from the Royal Pacific, is open to the wee hours and features a 20-screen cinema as well as lively clubs.

With CityWalk so close, resort guests have a wide range of dining choices, from Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville to basketball-themed NBA City. Other options include Motown Cafe, NASCAR Cafe, and the world's largest Hard Rock Cafe.

Universal Orlando's 650-room Hard Rock Hotel, like the cafe, is filled with rock 'n' roll memorabilia and boasts a massive pool with a waterslide and 12speaker underwater sound system. Nearby is the stunning, 750-room Portofino Bay Hotel, Universal's first onsite hotel, modeled after the Italian Riviera village of Portofino.

Guests of all three Universal Orlando resort hotels get priority access to rides and shows at Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, bypassing the regular lines. They also enjoy priority seating at select Universal Orlando restaurants and may use their room key card to make purchases throughout the fun-filled complex.


Name: Royal Pacific Resort

AFFILIATION: Loews Hotels manages this Universal Orlando on-site property, which opened in 2002.

LOCATION: A 53-acre in Orlando, Florida, adjacent to University two distinct theme parks

ACCOMODATION: 1,000 guest rooms in three yellow-stucco towers feature Dutch colonial-style furnishings, a vintage travel poster, and a decorative wooden panel carved by a Balinese artist. All rooms have a king or two queen beds, hair dryer, coffeemaker, safe, and iron and ironing board. Guest on the Royal Club floor enjoy the services of a concierge and ironing board. Guest on the Royal Club floor enjoy the services of a concierge and a lounge serving continental breakfast and afternoon beverages and snacks.

FACILITIES: Five restaurants and lounges; two retail stores; fitness center; putting green; game arcade; Mariner's Club children's center with supervised programs; pool courtyard with children's wading pool, beach area, two whirlpools, beach volleyball, and other activities.

ROOM RATES: Starting at $179 per room, depending on season.