If you haven’t heard of Ocala, Florida, you’re not alone. But here’s why you should have the Central Florida city on your radar. It’s rich with unspoiled natural beauty (imagine crystalline springs, oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, and lush, rolling hills). The city’s historic downtown is wonderfully pedestrian-friendly, and filled with charming small businesses from antique shops to craft breweries. Last but not least, Marion County, where Ocala is located, is considered the Horse Capital of the World. Because of its mild, year round climate and and soil rich with limestone – which promotes strong bones – the region lays claim to over 1,200 horse farms, and a legacy of producing some of the sport’s most iconic champions.
This is why Ralph “Larry” and Mary Roberts built the World Equestrian Center, a 380-acre equestrian venue that was unveiled in December 2020, and more recently, The Equestrian Hotel. Opened last May, the 248-room hotel was created with equestrian pursuits in mind – the horse theme is everywhere, from the bridle-print carpeting to the custom saddle stools in The Yellow Pony Pub – but really, anyone can book a stay here. And that’s because the property feels more like a luxurious, full-service resort than your typical hotel, with something for all kinds of travelers.
The interiors by Ric Owens of Roberts Design are unabashedly opulent, as evidenced by the Grand Lobby adorned with soaring 20-foot ceilings, twinkling Swarovski crystal chandeliers, oversized stone fireplace, and grand piano. But it’s approachable, too. Upon closer inspection of the hanging art, you’ll discover all the pieces are dog portraits, which nod to Mary’s love of animals. Look around further, and you’ll pick up on the refreshingly low-key vibe of the guests, many of whom wear riding boots for their events. (Though the popular Saturday Night competitions at the Grand Arena, which attract up to 7,500 spectators, are a more ritzy affair.)
This elegant, yet comfortable design approach extends to the accommodations with their light and airy feel, handsome furnishings, and spacious marble bathrooms. If you’re able: book a room overlooking the arena, because there’s nothing like peering out your window, and having a virtual front row seat to a horse competition.
Eating and drinking well come easily, thanks to seven food and beverage outlets with distinct personalities and a best-in-class team including Executive Chef Ryker Brown, Pastry Chef Yohann Le Bescond, and Roland Micu, who became the world’s youngest master sommelier at age 28. So whether you’re craving The Yellow Pony Pub’s Buffalo Smoked Chicken Dip, delicate macarons from Emma’s Patisserie, or Stirrup’s juicy rib eye, there’s something enticing for every appetite. Another thing that makes The Equestrian’s culinary program exceptional is its dedication to making as much as possible from scratch. While it’d be more than acceptable for a property of this scale to outsource and use ready-made products, it doesn’t. (Case in point: even the chicken in the aforementioned dip is smoked on-site.)
Other ways to make your visit to The Equestrian even more memorable are shopping at its special boutiques, such as Lugano Diamonds and Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear, a whimsical shop that stocks high-end toys like Breyer Horses. There’s a pristine fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment if you want to squeeze in a workout, and a sparkling outdoor pool if relaxing outdoors is more your style. If you need to unwind even further, head to Calluna Spa. The 7,000-square-foot oasis features four treatment rooms, and specializes in unique, results-driven treatments like Rider’s Recovery Massages and cutting-edge HydraFacials.