From our media partners Sun Sentinel.
A historic brick-faced mansion in Charleston. A restored guest ranch in the mountain foothills outside of Palm Springs. A rustic-chic fly fishing lodge in Montana.
And a cluster of three 1960s suburban block houses in Wilton Manors?
Yes, South Florida's own Ed Lugo Resort was included among these exotic enclaves on the 2013 Travelers Choice list of 25 top small U.S. hotels. The coveted awards are given out by TripAdvisor.com, the world's largest travel site with more than 650,000 hotels, the picks culled from traveler reviews.
Read what revieweres had to say about the little five-room resort that could, and you'll see why it's standing tall among more glamorous properties in top tourist destinations: owner Ed Lugo's philosphy is service, service and more service.
"Hi, welcome, you want something to drink?" Lugo, dressed tropical casual with an impressive black beard, enthusiastically greets visitors and gestures to a tray on his desk: white and red wine, vodka, water. He also stocks the in-room refrigerators with free beverages and snacks -- he knows his international guests often arrive hungry and thirsty but too tired to run to the store after a long flight.
A honeymooning couple from Texas said in their TripAdvisor review that Lugo brought them mangos from backyard trees. " like luxury and service, but don't have a Ritz-Carlton budget, Ed Lugo is just the ticket," penned another guest, a conventioneer from Connecticut.
"You see the reviewers like the little luxury touches, and have a lot of good things to say about the owner," said TripAdvisor spokeswoman Leslie Carlin. The best small hotel list, where all contenders must offer no more than 30 rooms, is her favorite category as mid-priced places can realistically compete against top-dollar digs.
The Ed Lugo rooms go for $189 to $269 a night, depending on the season. The resort often is full.
Lugo, a real estate agent for 16 years, was floundering in 2007 as the housing market imploded. He figured out there was one thing he knew better than anyone else: how to be a pampered guest. He thought about his heyday as a world traveler, when property sales were booming and he bunked at luxury hotels.
What had made him feel like the center of attention? That the money he spent was well worth it?
Although he had no hospitality industry experience, he decided to convert his own modest home and two houses he owned on Northeast Eighth Avenue into a laid-back relaxation compound. His former backyard now is an oasis complete with a waterfall and 40-foot-long pool. Lounging guests cool off on hot days with thick towels Lugo keeps in buckets of cool water – a trick he picked up at a pricey resort.
Lugo has tried out in-room chocolates, plush robes and may experiment with special flip flops. "I love beautiful towels!" he said, and stocks the resort accordingly. He also freely dispenses insider tips: Which restaurant has the best specials, which nights are the liveliest at what bars.
But the resort's greatest asset? Lugo's determination to please his guests and resolve any problems. "I can see when a person isn't happy," he said. "You try to accommodate them and they feel like you care about them."
Wilton Manors officials are delighted with the Ed Lugo Resort's win. "The list was, like, all of these places you would have to save all year to go to. And then, there was Ed!" said community development services director Heidi Shafran, who knows Lugo from his many civic activities. "We are very proud of him."
But she wasn't surprised that Wilton Manors -- which doesn't have a beach, golf course or even a large hotel -- has become a tourist hot spot. The gay-friendly businesses, nightclubs and restaurants clustered along Wilton Drive draw visitors from around the world "who want the opportunity to stay in a gay village," Shafran said.
Ten years ago, the city created a special zoning district in a primarily residential neighborhood adjoining Wilton Drive. The designation allows housing to be converted to small bed and breakfasts or resorts with three to six rooms, as long as the owner lives on site.
While the resort has many gay guests, Lugo said he does not market himself as a LGBT resort. His customers have included single senior citizens, vacationing straight and gay couples, drag queens and executives in town for business.
Although he has stayed in the past at gay-centered places as well as luxury Fort Lauderdalebeachfront hotels, guest Alexander Krochmal says he prefers Ed Lugo's.
"Ed is here to tell you how to experience the area. Other places, you are on your own," said Krochmal, a 29-year-old gay Oregon man on his third visit to the resort.Diane C. Lade