Meet You on the Mexican Riviera



DSC_0728December break – I always find it difficult to zero in on a destination, much less a hotel, for this infamous “Christmas break”.  It never fails – by the time I start looking, almost a year out, I either get “sorry, 10 day minimum over Christmas” or “sorry, we’re fully booked that week”.   The past few years I have had the added complication of trying to find a location that would suit a multi-generational vacation.
After checking into a number of options, we decided on Grand Velas in the Mayan Riviera (http://rivieramaya.grandvelas.com/).  It looked nice, got great reviews, was easy to get to, and was one of the more reasonably priced options we found at this time of year.  I had heard that it was like the Four Seasons of all-inclusive hotels but I was admittedly concerned about its immensity.  The 500+ room property was a significant departure from the boutique hotel I had initially envisioned.  Nonetheless, I was looking forward to escaping the blustery NY winter for a week.
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The 3 1/2 hour Jet Blue flight from JFK to Cancun is a no brainer (http://www.jetblue.com/).  A pre-arranged van was waiting for us just outside baggage claim to take us to the hotel.  Just forty minutes later, we arrived at the hotel through a mammoth entry and I immediately realized the owners of this hotel were not fooling around when they chose its name.  EVERYTHING at Grand Velas is enormous.  The reception area of the Zen Jungle (inspired by the surrounding Yucatan jungle) section of the hotel boasts a dramatic and beautiful thatched roof that must be 60′ high.  Given the number of rooms in the hotel, I was impressed by the warm welcome of a concierge who knew our names the moment we arrived. After greeting us with refreshing juices and cool scented washcloths, he explained a few details about the hotel and escorted us to our room through a lush pathway surrounded by jungle.
Our room was very nice – modern, simple and spacious, with a small terrace.  My husband and I shared a room with our three children.  Despite the room size, given the layout (a large rectangle – no separate living room area), it was challenging to have a conversation or keep a light on until after the kids fell asleep.  However, we did use a hotel babysitter for three of the seven nights we were there, and that worked out well.
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Aside from the Zen Jungle, where we stayed, the hotel has two other sections – the Ambassador, located on the beach a very short shuttle ride from Zen Jungle, and the Grand Class (adults and children 12 and up), located directly beside the Ambassador.
DSC_0729The van that shuttles guests from one area to another is very easy – never more than a minute wait and pleasantly clean, cool and relaxing.  Each of these areas has a pool and multiple restaurants.  The Zen Jungle’s pool felt Asian-influenced to me – clean lines, surrounded by lush landscape, infinity edge.  It is much quieter than the Ambassador pool, which is right next to the beach and is the hub of activity.
DSC_0739The Ambassador pool has a swim-up bar and tons of organized activities for kids  throughout the day.  One of our kids’ favorite activities was a seal show.  Another fun family activity was a nature walk through the property’s gardens, where you get to see all the vegetables, fruits and spices the hotel grows and uses in its restaurants. We missed a bunch of activities but I recall the schedule included a juggling show, magic show, pirate-themed dinner and a traditional Mexican dance show.
In the evenings there is karaoke for kids and adults.  And I would be remiss to omit the kids club, which is clean and has programming throughout the day and evening. My daughter loved walking there by herself in the afternoons to get a break from the sun.
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The beach is really nice but it was super windy when we were there and not so conducive to swimming with children.   In terms of activities on the beach, there are a variety of boating activities such as wave runners and catamarans, as well as beach volleyball, a small soccer area, and bungee jumping for the younger set.
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There are seven restaurants on property, not including the bento box lunches you can have delivered to your lounge chair if you are so inclined.  The food was good everywhere, although if you are looking for a barefoot beach vibe with mariachis, margaritas, guacamole, salsa, chips and tacos (like we were!), you may be disappointed.  The closest we came to satisfying that craving was the fish tacos and guacamole available to the pool lounge chairs.
One incredible convenience at Grand Velas was our personal concierge, Osiris.  Although we had made dinner and babysitter reservations in advance of our trip (recommended, especially if you’re going during a school break), Osiris checked in with us daily to review and confirm, and modify, if necessary, that evening’s dinner plans.   He also answered any questions, made sure we were satisfied with our stay and checked us in for our flights when it was time to leave.
My breakfast preference was Azul because of its well stocked buffet and location overlooking the beach.  I also liked Azul for lunch, or the bento box option at the Zen Jungle pool.  For dinner my favorites were Frida, Bistro, and Piaf (order the grand marnier souffle for dessert here!).  The evenings we ate at Chaka and Lucca were partially buffet style, which was fine but I would probably skip them next time around.  The service was incredible everywhere – attentive, accommodating and so polite.
If you have time, the spa is definitely worth checking out.  It is so huge that the staff recommends 40 minutes, at a minimum, to experience the thermal baths.  Our massages were just okay, although the setting was so serene I would give it a second try.
All in all, we had a wonderful and memorable week.  Grand Velas is in many ways perfect for multi-generational travel because it really has something for everyone and has the space to accommodate big groups.  The biggest disappointment for me is that we only left the property once, to go to Playa Del Carmen (which was just okay).  I would have loved a daytrip to Tulum (about 45 minutes by car) and one to Chichen Itza (closer to 1.5 hours away) at the very least. There are a number of other daytrip options, such as visiting the natural cenotes that this region is known for.  It was difficult to motivate given the size of our group and how happy they all seemed to be relaxing poolside every day. What can I say – while this vacation ranked low on the cultural immersion scale, it is a huge nod to Grand Velas that their top notch staff and amenities made the place hard to leave!
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Weekend in Turks & Caicos

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Turks & Caicos is easy to love because just a three-hour, nonstop flight (from NYC) can transport you so quickly to welcoming powdery soft beaches, warming sunshine and a super mellow vibe.  I recently spent a long weekend there – left home at breakfast time and by lunch, I was in flip flops and a bathing suit, relaxing by the pool.
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We spent the first night at the Amanyara (http://www.amanresorts.com/amanyara/home.aspx), which had me at hello.  The property is exquisite and the service is so perfect that I would actually be curious to know how it is they they train their staff so flawlessly.  The staff seem to levitate in and out of your presence at all the right times.
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The hotel is the only private property located inside of Marine National Park on the otherwise sparsely occupied northwest coast of Providenciales. As if that were not enough to make you feel like you’re on a deserted island, the accommodations are comprised of villas, each surrounded by lush landscaping to maximize guest privacy.  The hotel is designed in a modern, Asian style, from the architecture to the furnishings to the service.  In fact if I just loaded a bunch of pictures onto this post without words, one might guess that these photos were taken in Bali.
My husband and I were there without the kids, which brought the zen factor to an even higher level. Although children are permitted, I would imagine this hotel might not be ideal for families with young ones –  no kids club, waterslides or pool toys.
All meals can be prepared by a private chef, pool side at your villa (most villas have gorgeous infinity pools).  We took advantage of this amenity for our first lunch and it was heavenly.  The hotel has a spa, tennis courts and a host of non motorized water sports if you’re too antsy to sit on the breathtaking beach with a book or a cocktail.
We opted to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was located on a lagoon and lit only by candlelight and torches.   Although a menu was provided, we basically created our own meal and the service could not have been more accommodating.  We sat for hours basking in the beautiful setting.  The next morning we visited the spa and had massages which, not surprisingly, were spot on.
After one night we transferred to the Gansevoort (http://www.gansevoorthotelgroup.com/hotels/gansevoort-turks-caicos), located on a beautiful stretch of Grace Bay.
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The Gansevoort was an altogether different experience but still great.  We were in a very pretty and spacious one bedroom suite with a terrace overlooking the ocean. The property is quite compact and I actually liked that the pool, beach and restaurants are all very close to one another.  We thoroughly enjoyed our buffet breakfasts and one dinner at the restaurant on property.   For anyone looking to enhance their mind-body wellness, there is an exhale spa (http://exhalespa.com/locations/turks-amp-caicos) where you can decompress with a massage or energize with a core fusion fitness class.
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We ventured out one evening to Coco Bistro (http://www.cocobistro.tc/), which was terrific. The last time I was in Turks & Caicos the food was very mediocre
(and very expensive) everywhere, so I didn’t have high expectations.  But Coco Bistro blew us away. The setting alone, amidst of the largest palm grove on the island, was worth the ride. Fortunately the food was impressive as well.  If you go, you might also want to check out a cute bar/restaurant just down the beach from the Gansevoort called “somewhere”.  Although the drinks were nothing to write home about, the barefoot beachfront setting was pretty amazing.
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The Doctor Is In: Travel and Skincare

I love a good beach vacation just as much as the next person, but I admit I am always tormented by my concerns about sun damage.  I hope I’m doing an okay job of protecting my family’s skin from the effects of the sun and try so hard to be mindful of applying SPF despite the annoying process of getting everyone to sit still while I rub in gobs of the stuff all over the kids’ bodies (no spray for us!).

I reached out to my dermatologist’s office to see if they would answer some of my most burning (no pun intended!) questions about SPF and travel and was so pleased when they agreed to the interview below.  Hope it’s helpful to you as it was to me!  Thank you to Gramercy Park Dermatology (http://www.gramercyparkdermatology.com/) for taking the time to answer these questions.

ME:  Do you like a specific brand of SPF for the face? For the body?

DR: I like the Neutrogena products, particularly Ultra Sheer Dry Touch, La Roche Posay Anthelios and Elta MD – all for the face and body.

ME: Would you use different SPF if you are going swimming v. if you are staying dry? Or is it just a matter of reapplying after a swim?

DR: I have all of the above SPF products and use different ones for different applications. If I am swimming, I’ll wear a higher Helioplex Neutrogena and reapply every two hours. If I am staying dry, but am outside, I still reapply to the body but to my face I like ColorScience SPF powders especially if I have makeup on.

ME: Do I need to apply SPF first thing in the morning or is it okay to apply closer to 10am and allow the skin to get a bit of Vitamin D early in the day?

DR: I put SPF on first thing in the morning. We know that approximately 15 minutes of transient sun exposure, which you likely get from walking around or driving in the car, is sufficient and still penetrating despite your SPF product. I also have had my vitamin D level measured and do supplement as directed by my own physician.

ME: Do I need to apply SPF under a UV Protected rash guard or UPV clothing?

DR: As long as you do not plan on removing the clothing, then it should be sufficient. Remember these clothing pieces are rated based on the tightness of their weave. So there is a difference in UPV clothing.

ME: If we are traveling to a non-beach destination, i.e., a hiking or biking trip, do we need to apply SPF under our clothing as well as exposed areas, or is it safe to assume our clothing will provide sufficient protection under those circumstances?

DR: Again, it depends on the clothing you are wearing and the weave. If it is a cover-up with seemingly open holes then you will need to apply. Just as a point of reference, a white t-shirt is an SPF of 4! When hiking, consider the altitude that you are out – the higher the altitude, the more SPF you require.

ME: We are taking a road trip and it is a beautiful, sunny day? Do we need SPF in the car?

DR: Yes!! UVA comes through glass even in tinted car windows (where the films are going there to block UVB).

ME: We feel like we have been diligently applying SPF but we notice new freckles appearing. Does this mean we are not being careful enough or that we are using the wrong SPF? Or is this to be expected on certain skin types?

DR: It may mean all of the above. I recommend more liberal application of at least an SPF 30. Most of us don’t apply the right amount. The studies to characterize SPF are based on the thickness of the product in a square 1 centimeter area. In real practice, we all skimp on the amount we apply partially because it is easier to blend in less. There are certain skin types that are prone to developing freckles or sun spots – but good UV protection is the mainstay of youthful skin.

ME: What if my spouse has olive skin and I have fair skin – should we apply our SPF differently in quantity or frequency? Do we need tu use different brands based on our different skin types and protection needs?

DR: The person with olive skin is less likely to show signs of sun injury with burning as the person with fair skin may. The person with olive skin will tend to tan and maybe develop some pinkness. The person with fair skin will require less UV exposure before they burn or blister, both signs of injury to the skin. The brand does not need to be different but the person with fair skin can’t afford not to be vigilant with their liberal and regular applications. Both skin types will age with UV exposure – it will just show more in the person with fair skin.

ME: I like to go out for a walk on the beach early in the morning when on vacation. Do I need to apply SPF if I’m walking at 7:30am?

DR: Yes!!

ME: Can my kids use the same SPF as I use?

DR: The FDA indication is for babies 6 months and older. There are gentler

formulations for babies and kids. One particular product line is by Neutrogena. These lines tend to have more physical blockers than chemical blockers – mostly because kids don’t mind looking opaque. We also recommend an SPF 30 for babies and kids.

ME: Any chemicals to specifically avoid or look for in SPF?

DR: Look for a broad spectrum UVA and UVB product. Buy a small size and make sure you like it.

ME: We are going to the rainforest where it is warm but very shady. Do we need SPF?

DR: Make it part of your every day routine and before you know it, it’ll be the same as brushing your teeth!

 

Be a Tourist at Home

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Sometimes all it takes is a single day trip within your own city to feel like you’ve taken a vacation.  This past weekend we went to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Despite the misty weather, the day was perfect.  The ferry ride transported us to a historical wonderland where we learned about our country’s (and my family’s) history. We basked in the beauty of Lady Liberty (she is even more impressive close-up) and could see all the way from the Verrazano Bridge to the northern stretches of the New York City skyline.  The self-guided audio tours of Liberty Island and Ellis Island were equally interesting for my children as they were for us, and there was plenty of open space for the kids to play.

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Make sure to buy tickets well in advance if you want to go up to the crown.  Pedestal access and grounds tickets are easier to come by.  If you go, consider departing from Liberty State Park where tickets tend to sell out less quickly and there is plenty of parking if you plan to drive.  You can also ferry to Liberty State Park from the World Financial Center.  For more information and details, cut and paste this this link in a new browser:  http://www.nps.gov/stli/planyourvisit/index.htm

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Long Weekend in New England

Recently back from a long weekend in the Boston-NH-Maine region. While the primary purpose of our trip was to look at sleep away camps for my children, we took the opportunity to make a mini-vacation out of it. Despite the short timeframe – 4 nights – our journey felt unhurried and very “full”.

Brief outline immediately below; read on for details!

Mode of transportation – car! approximately 4 hours from NYC to Boston, and approximately 5 hours from Ogunquit, Maine, to NYC. All other timeframes are tricky to calculate as we made many stops along the way.

Hotels – Intercontinental Boston; Hanover Inn, Hanover, NH; Lodge on the Cove, Kennebunkport, ME – part of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection (http://www.kennebunkportresortcollection.com/), which has a great assortment of hotels at different price ranges.  For a huge treat, check out Hidden Pond, their most high-end option.

Our first stop was Boston. We began with a walk through the Boston Commons and the Public Gardens. Between petting dogs and pausing to listen to live music every few feet, my kids could have spent the entire afternoon there.

IMG_1771It was exciting to be in the place that is the backdrop for one of our family’s favorite books, “Make Way For Ducklings” – to actually see the mallard ducks and the swan boats was exciting.

IMG_1778We made our way to Commonwealth Avenue long enough to marvel at the beautiful green mall that runs down the center of this residential street.

IMG_1802We then then shot over to Newberry Street (the Madison Avenue of Boston) for some locally made ice cream at Emack & Bolio’s (http://www.emackandbolios.com).

IMG_1873With tons of alluring boutiques, we (or should I say, I) could have done some serious damage there in a hurry but we had already booked the Duck Boat Tour (http://www.bostonducktours.com/) and had no time to spare. We boarded the Duck Boat at the Prudential Center and thoroughly enjoyed the 80 minute trip around the city, both by land and by water, on the Charles River.

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After the Duck Boat, we went for dinner at Trade (http://trade-boston.com/), a Mediterranean restaurant near the waterfront. After a satisfying meal al fresco we decided to take a walk. We accidentally, and very fortuitously, discovered the Rose Kennedy Greenway (http://www.rosekennedygreenway.org/). We spent hours along the Greenway uncovering many of its little treasures.

IMG_1822 Aside from the beautiful open green spaces, we discovered a “free” library box with fun books to browse through, a harbor fog installation with cool lights, all triggered by movement, a choreographed water fountain/light show and an adorable carousel at the end of the Greenway near Faneuil Hall.

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IMG_1845We finally checked into our hotel, the Intercontinental Boston (http://www.intercontinentalboston.com/), late in the evening and had a sound night’s sleep after such a full day. The Intercontinental is a very nice hotel, though more corporate than I would opt for on my next visit. We initially booked there because they are pet-friendly, but then ended up leaving our pooch at home. Its location was convenient to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Faneuil Hall and the waterfront, and a short cab ride from most other areas of town.

We left Bean Town early the next day to visit a couple of camps in New Hampshire and then settled in for the evening in Hanover, NH, home of Dartmouth College. After checking out this adorable little town, we had a dinner that hit the spot at Market Table (http://www.markettablenh.com/) – try to get an outdoor table if you are going in the warm weather – followed by freshly made gelato that made me feel like I was back in Italy, at Morano Gelato (http://www.moranogelatohanover.com/). The night was not complete without a game of tag and relay races with the kids on the beautiful Dartmouth Green, located directly across the street from our hotel, the Hanover Inn (http://www.hanoverinn.com/).

IMG_1957We had heard mixed reviews about this hotel but we were so pleasantly surprised. It was modern with a rustic flair and our room was clean, spacious and comfortable. The limited contact we had with the staff was very cordial. We did not get the chance to try the hotel restaurant, Pine, but it looked very pretty and the farm-to-table menu was inviting (http://www.hanoverinn.com/dining.aspx).

Next morning we grabbed an early, hearty breakfast at Lou’s (http://lousrestaurant.net/), a throwback restaurant opened since 1947 (check out their original menu in the bathrooms!) located 1/2 block from the Hanover Inn. We then loaded into the car again, this time headed for Maine where we visited another camp in the north and then shot down to Portland for the afternoon. We quickly got into the Maine state of mind by making our first stop at Becky’s Diner (http://www.beckysdiner.com/) for lobster rolls. We practically inhaled them and agreed with the reviews we had read about them being some of the best lobster rolls in town. Then we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through town checking out some of the local shops. That evening we took a short drive down the coast to the sweet town of Kennebunkport. We knew we would enjoy The Lodge on the Cove (http://www.lodgeonthecove.com) the moment we checked in. It’s a hip, modern motor lodge with a great common area. From the spacious, light and airy Jonathan Adler-esque living room we could see the fire pit, ping pong table and pool just steps away. The kids were particularly excited to warm up by the fire pit each night and roast marshmallows to make s’mores (all ingredients provided by the hotel). The rooms were nothing to write home about, but they were perfectly clean and sufficient. Its proximity to town was a pleasure.

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On our first full day in Kennebunkport we drove to Mother’s Beach (about 5 minutes from town), where the kids spent hours on the playground and then making sand art and catching snails by the water.

IMG_2203 IMG_2172We went for lunch at David’s (http://boathouseme.com/dining/), located right in the middle of town.

IMG_2222David’s has the best water views in Kennebunkport with a great outdoor terrace, but don’t expect the food to match the setting. That said, it was decent and our server was very accommodating (she brought the kids blankets to keep them warm when the breeze got to be too much).

Another day we went out on a lobster boat tour, which departed from the center of town (http://www.firstchancewhalewatch.com/kylieschance.php). We all enjoyed the tour, although we spent more time cruising on the boat and spotting harbor seals than actually catching lobsters. I have heard that the Rugosa does a terrific lobster tour but it was booked when we were there (http://www.rugosalobstertours.com/).

IMG_2288After the tour we grabbed lobster rolls at the award-winning Clam Shack (http://theclamshack.net/) right next to the port where our lobster tour started and ended. They were simple and tasty!

IMG_2319After spending the afternoon swimming and playing games at the hotel, we headed back to town for dinner at Abbondante (http://www.abbondanteme.com/), an Italian restaurant that we all enjoyed.

IMG_2242Food and décor were great, though the service was slow. Luckily there was a lot of wall candy to keep us occupied during the wait.

The next day, before driving home we stopped in Ogunquit where we all fell in love with the Marginal Way, a paved path surrounded by a massive, beautiful beach on one side – replete with great rock climbing opportunities for all and huge tidal pools for the kids – and lovely homes and hotels on the other side.

IMG_2333We grabbed a quick dinner at Caffe Prego, where the food was mediocre but the outdoor seating and abundant Italian menu made for an easy meal. After filling our bellies, we settled into our car for a long ride home. Luckily we had many fond memories to reflect upon during the drive.

If we had more time, I would have loved to have hit Portsmouth, NH, Newburyport, MA, Watch Hill, RI and Stonington, CT on the way home…guess that could be another itinerary!

Destination DR

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I recently returned from a week on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic with my family – and by that I mean, 15 of us – where we were celebrating a family member’s birthday.  I had a feeling when planning this trip that we would be in for a treat, but I had no idea we would be able to achieve the “experience” we had at our rental home there.  Let me start by saying that I did A LOT of research on traveling with a big group in the Caribbean.

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While we found a few hotels that seemed like they might fit the bill, my concern was keeping the group together and minimizing the hassle of organizing restaurant reservations, beach chairs and group activities that is inherent in trying to reserve for a group of our size, not to mention that we were looking to accommodate the enormous age range in our multi-generational crew.  Initially I was hesitant to book a house for the week because we are an active group and I feared we would either get bored or be too on top of each other to enjoy a full week in a house.  But I was dead wrong.  Traveling in a group ranging from age 3 years to 72 years old can actually be fulfilling, relaxing and really fun.

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The northern region of the Dominican Republic is beautiful.  It’s green and lush with a dramatic coastline and a stunning, although not always child-friendly, Atlantic Ocean hugging the coastline.  We rented an exquisite house with a full-time staff, including house cleaners, a brilliant chef and a house manager who checked in daily to answer any questions and assist us with any plans we wanted to make for the day.  The house staff and other locals we met during our stay were absolutely lovely, the food was delicious (and made to order each day) and the weather was perfect.  The price tag, while high, was very fair considering all the services included in our stay.

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We only went on a few outings.  The first was a sunset boat ride through Laguna Gri Gri near Cabrera.

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It was a relaxing 1.5 hour tour through mangroves and out along the coast – we learned about local wildlife as well as some interesting historical facts about the region.   Another day we went on a jeep “safari” (which wasn’t really a safari at all) to visit a few nearby beaches and to see where and how the locals in the region live.

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This outing was probably longer than it needed to be but still interesting and culminated in a lovely pre-arranged lunch at Playa Grande, which is one of the most famous beaches on the north coast of the DR.  In fact, for anyone who knows the luxury Aman resort chain, rumor has it they are currently building a resort and villas on this beach.

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The remainder of our time was spent at the house, which was loaded with amenities to keep us busy for hours each day.  It had a pool table, ping pong table, karaoke, speakers with music piped throughout, amazing indoor and outdoor sitting areas, a fire pit set between the house and the ocean and the most incredible three-sided infinity edge pool I have ever seen.  The house sat just above the Atlantic Ocean and from it we were able to walk on a well-marked path to the nearest beach.  This beach was not really swimmable, although my brother did manage to go for a dip one day and emerged from the water unscathed and refreshed!

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Visually, it was a beautiful beach and a favorite place for us to visit in the afternoons.  In addition, with the help of our house manager, we arranged for a few activities at the house – on two occasions a group of masseurs and facial aestheticians came to the house.  We were all in heaven after our respective services-these people were GOOD!  We also organized a cooking demonstration one day where the house chef, Mario, walked us through the steps of one of his beautifully prepared meals.    One evening we hired a merengue trio to come play for an hour while we enjoyed cocktails on the terrace and the kids played and danced in their pajamas.

 

Although our Spanish is not strong and not all the house staff’s English was perfect, there was no real language barrier – communication was practically effortless thanks to the staff’s consistent warmth and patience.  At the end of our trip everyone in my family wrote on a piece of paper his or her suggestion for our next family vacation.  I think we all agreed that my husband’s wish was the best one – back to the DR to duplicate the week we had just spent there!

 

To note:  we stayed just outside of the town of Cabrera, which is approximately 1.5 hours by car from the Puerto Plata airport.  There is not much to see in Cabrera, although there is a small inn nearby called La Catalina (http://www.lacatalina.com/), which I understand has a cute bar and restaurant worthy of an evening visit.  The town of Samana is supposed to be fun and have a surprisingly cool French influence.  If you’re looking for a hotel there, I’ve heard Sublime Samana is a great one to check out (http://www.sublimesamana.com/).  It is approximately 1.5 hours east of Cabrera (in the opposite direction of the POP airport).  And if you’re looking for the fully staffed villa experience I described above, luxuryretreats.com and villasofdistinction.com offer some great options!

Soak up the sun in St. Barth’s

 

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I am excited to bring to you my very first guest post contributed by my sister.  She is incredibly selective and thorough so I was thrilled when she volunteered to tell all about her favorite island in the sun.   Immediately below is the bullet-point version.  Read on for the details.

Travel – Fly to St. Martin or San Juan and then take a short flight on WinAir (http://www.fly-winair.com/) or St. Barth’s Commuter (http://www.stbarthcommuter.com/)  to St. Barth’s.  You can also take a 45-minute ferry ride from St. Martin (http://www.sbhonline.com/St-Barts-Transportation/St-Barts-Ferry-Schedules.htm).  Easyway-VIP Services (http://www.easyway-sbh.com/) can assist with the particulars.

Hotels – Most luxurious are Guanahani (http://leguanahani.com/en), Eden Rock (http://www.edenrockhotel.com/) and Isle-de-France (http://www.isle-de-france.com/eng/welcome/).  Smaller and more charming are Hotel Les Ondines (http://www.st-barths.com/hotel-les-ondines/en/home.html), Le Manapany (http://www.lemanapany.com/) or Hotel Baie-des-Anges (http://hotel-baie-des-anges.com/).  Chic boutique hotels are Le Sereno (http://www.lesereno.com/), Le Christopher (http://www.hotelchristopher.com/), Le Toiny (http://www.letoiny.com/) and Carl Gustaf (amazing champagne bar and gorgeous views of the harbor) (http://www.hotelcarlgustaf.com/index.php?lang=en).  Villas are also a popular option.  Sibarth.com and Stbarthproperties.com are good resources if you’re in the market for a villa.

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Restaurant Highlights – Nikki Beach (http://www.nikkibeach.com/stbarth/), Do Brazil (http://www.dobrazil.com/), La Plage (http://www.st-barths.com/tom-beach-hotel/en/restaurant.html), Isle de France (http://www.isle-de-france.com/eng/restaurant/), L’Esprit, La Langouste (http://hotel-baie-des-anges.com/), Jo-Jo Burger,  Kiki and Mo (http://www.st-barths.com/kiki-e-mo/), Maya’s To Go (http://mayastogo.com/), Le Ti http://www.letistbarth.com/), Baz Bar (http://www.st-barths.com/bazbar/en/home.html), Bagatelle (http://www.bistrotbagatelle.com/)

Beaches – Gouvernor’s and Saline Beaches for white sand, clear water and waves.  Colombier Beach if you want to hike to your destination.  Flamands Beach for boogie boarders/surfers.  Shell Beach, St. Jean Beach and Grand Cul-de-Sac are calmer.

Shopping – Designer boutiques abound in the main town of Gustavia. Also, Lili Belle, Poupette, Lolita Jacca and Kiwi.   The St. Barth’s Exchange is a bit off the beaten path but worthwhile for more unique designs.  Mandarine for pearl necklaces popular on the island.

If you’re looking for a true European vibe in the Caribbean, head to St. Barth’s. Although it’s not a straight shot from NY (you need to fly through St. Martin or San Juan, Puerto Rico to get there), Easyway-VIP Services is a great resource and will assist you with the challenges of getting there on WinAir and St. Barth’s Commuter, the local airlines that fly from St. Martin and Puerto Rico.  A 30-minute ferry ride or private jet from these islands is also an option.   While I will not even attempt to underestimate the inconvenience of the travel, the moment you step out of your tiny commuter plane, ferry boat or private jet, a certain “je ne sais quoi” instantly takes over and you’ll feel like you’re in the south of France.

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St. Barth’s is all about its beaches, and the options are bountiful.  Head to Gouvernor’s or Saline Beach if you’re looking for white sand, clear water and rolling waves.  If you’re feeling really adventurous, take a 30-minute hike up and over a couple of steep hills and sometimes narrow passages to Colombier.  After working up a sweat you will arrive at a stunning beach with small whirlpools where boats often anchor for a picnic lunch and relaxing swim.  The only drawback is the hike back with the wet towels and the afternoon heat so you may want to go early.

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One of my favorite beaches is Flamands Beach at Ile-de-France.  If you are a strong swimmer or looking to boogie board, this is your destination.  However, it is not ideal for small children because  of the heavy undertow and strong waves.  Here you can have a drink at the beachside bar or get a table at the restaurant for a wonderful meal.  Other beach options are Shell Beach (true to its moniker) in town and St. Jean (great for small children), as well as Grand Cul de Sac.    Note:  To get to all of the incredible beaches, you’ll definitely want to rent a car as there is no public transportation on the island.

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There is no shortage of good food in St. Barth’s.   Lunches tend to be long and relaxing.  Some destinations you might want to hit are Nikki Beach (very child-friendly despite the reputation), La Plage, Ile-de-France and Do Brazil (where you might want to hang out until sunset).

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Another top choice is L’Esprit.  I love the sophisticated cuisine set under the palm trees.  Expect the checks to be hefty, especially if you add rosé, which seems to flow quite freely around the island.  One great deal for terrific seafood is La Langouste-go for the pasta with lobster as it never disappoints, except that they sometimes they run out early.  For a great burger, there’s JoJo Burger or Maya’s-To-Go across from the airport for a picnic lunch.  Pizzas are also an option but prices vary wildly; we once ordered pies from L’Isoletta, and although they were delicious, they cost $40 per pie….and they were  practically individual size!  You won’t run into this problem if you stop by the roadside pizza parlor near the shopping area of St. Jean or opt for an Italian panini at Kiki and Mo. Don’t miss Bar L’Oubli  (http://www.loubligourmetbar.com/Loubli/Welcome.html) for a real French treat – Caribe Beer, Menthe a l’eau or Liptique, with a side of french fries (bien sur)!

If you want to experience the pleasure of food shopping as if you were in France, great options are Marché U (across from the airport), Oasis, JoJo Market in St. Jean or the conveniently located market on the main street in Gustavia.  Gustavia is the island’s hub for shopping and restaurants and also has a beautiful scenic port.

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For adult soirée fun, hire a babysitter for the kids and go to Le Ti (make reservations ) where you will find plenty of entertainment.  Without giving away too much, you should expect to dance, don a costume (once there-they provide!) and rub elbows with the fancies on island.  La Plage also hosts some cool entertainment from fire dancers and pole dancers (mildly erotic) to hip musical talent.  Baz Bar on the port is THE place to go for sushi and music.  Other choices for nightlife include bbq’s at Nikki Beach, Bagatelle (same as in NYC) and a more bohemian vibe at Do Brazil.

Note:  If you’re visiting at the end of March, do not miss the Bucket Race, where you will see some of the most incredible sailboats and yachts, not to mention celebrities and other eye candy.

Captivated by Cartagena

My family and I recently returned from a five-day trip to Cartagena where we went for my brother’s wedding.   Although I looked forward to seeing the city, I had no idea we would be in for such a treat.

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We spent most of our time in the colonial part of the city, which is surrounded by incredibly thick stone walls built by the Spanish in the 16th-18th centuries.  The entire city was bursting with color and rich in culture and history.  We were amazed by the Spanish influence as we strolled through the picturesque streets.
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 From the brightly hued buildings to the sculptures of Colombian heroes in just about every square, to the locally made necklaces and bags for sale on the sidewalks, there was plenty of eye candy to keep my entire family (including my three-year old son) intrigued each day.
The Colombian people were incredibly friendly and the food was terrific. Colombia is known for its local seafood, especially ceviche.  The weather was balmy and beautiful, although early afternoons tended to be a bit hot, which was the perfect excuse for our long, relaxing lunches.  We took a slow pace and enjoyed taking in the culture of everyday life there so we did not get to as many of the “sites” as I would have liked…..but it was so fulfilling to just hit the pavement that we could not resist.
See below for basic information and read on for details.
Airline – Jetblue non-stop from JFK to Cartagena.  5 1/2 hours down, 4 1/2 hours back.
Activities – Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Walking around town, Daytrip to the beautiful Rosario Islands, Sunset horse-and-buggie ride, Museum of Gold (Museo De Oro), Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno), Relax by the pool!, Gambling at casinos in the new section of town, called BocaGrande
Restaurants – La Vitrola (great live music nightly!), Alma, Candé, Don Juan, and so many more great options around the city that we did not get to try, such as La Perla, Ooh La La, Maria, Juan del Mar, Peru Mar, Pepe Anca, Donde Mila and La Casa De Socorro, to name a few
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We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon to our hotel, the Hotel Santa Clara, which was originally built as a convent in the 1600’s. It is situated in a beautiful square that comes alive at night with star-shaped lights suspended from trees, cafés abuzz with outdoor dining and mariache-style musicians, and horse-and-chariots waiting to be hired.  After a brief swim in the pool, we took the kids for a quick bite of dinner, settled them with a babysitter (hired through the hotel for all five nights – she was terrific) and headed out for delicious dinner at La Vitrola, an International restaurant that specializes in seafood and offers live music nightly.
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On Wednesday we explored the city by foot, discovering the beautiful architecture and artwork at just about every turn.  Most streets were so charming I felt like I was on a film set (note: there were a few streets that were somewhat seedy, but we never really felt unsafe).
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We were completely immersed in the street vendor culture that surrounded us, from artwork, to jewelry made by hand from beads, to handmade bags and Panama hats in every size and color.
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The watermelon and mangos sold on the streets were the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.
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There were even men selling what my husband referred to as “Colombian Starbucks” on the street.  They had gallon-sized containers with different types of coffee that they served in dixie cups.
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We had lunch at a very pretty restaurant called Don Juan ((http://www.donjuancartagena.com/), which serves Caribbean-inspired seafood, after which we stumbled upon a delicious gelato store called Gelateria Paradiso (http://gelateriaparadiso.co/) and ducked in for dessert (an equally deliclius “Paletteria” is right next door – artisanal ices and ice cream served on pops).
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That evening we went to a beautiful and delicious restaurant called Alma http://www.hotelcasasanagustin.com/alma-restaurant.php), in the Casa San Agustin Hotel.
On Thursday we headed out to the Rosario Islands for the day, which is about an hour from Cartagena.  A friend of ours reserved a fully-equipped yacht to take us to a stunning area where we swam and relaxed on lounge chairs before heading back to the boat for fresh lobsters and fried plantains.
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What we saw of the island was beautiful, with a well-preserved natural landscape. I only wish we had had more time to explore because there were foot paths beckoning us. There is an aquarium there as well that I understand is worth a visit. Next time I would love to spend a night or two on the island at the Hotel Majagua (http://www.hotelmajagua.com/en/).
Shortly after arriving back at the hotel, we took the kids on a sunset horse-and-buggy ride through the colonial city, which made us all feel as if we were in a fairytale – any “flaws” were hidden under a night sky, and all of the beauty radiated through strategically placed lights and live Colombian music resounding through the streets.
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Later that evening we went to the rooftop terrace of the Movich Hotel (https://movichhotels.com/) for cocktails and dancing. The Movich is a modern, boutique hotel (yes, they have them in Cartagena!) that is definitely worth a visit. As we sipped on dangerously delicious mojitos, we admired the views of the city around us.
On Friday we took to the streets again, this time discovering another part of town.  We then went for a terrific lunch at Cande´ (pictured below), which serves typical Colombian food. We feasted on local fish, coconut rice, plantains and ceviche.
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 We then jumped into a taxi to visit the Castillo de San Felipe (http://www.colombiainfo.org/en-us/cities/cartagena/castillosanfelipedebarajas.aspx), which is about ten minutes outside of the walls of the old city.
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Besides being a critical historical site, it was a terrific place for the kids to run around and experience an “outdoor museum” in an interactive way. They climbed to the top of the castle, went inside old prison cells, climbed on cannons and echoed their way through tunnels.  Additionally there is a series of underground tunnels that is worth exploring.
On Friday evening we went to Don Juan Restaurant (http://www.donjuancartagena.com/) again, this time for the rehearsal dinner for the wedding.  It was excellent – I definitely recommend it for dinner over lunch.  The owner also owns the restaurant next door, called Maria (http://www.mariacartagena.com/), which has a great reputation for cocktails and small plates.
Our last full day was filled with wedding-related activities, but if we had the time, I would have loved to have visited the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art), the Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold) and the Palace of the Inquisition, as well as some of the art galleries scattered about town, many of which looked very inviting.   That’s okay, I have a feeling we’ll be back…..

Weekend Getaway, Anyone?

It may be too late to plan a local getaway before December break, but come January you might just crave a weekend of peace and quiet to recover from the holiday craziness. Now is the perfect time to boo
If you are prepared to shell out the big bucks:
Winvian (http://www.winvian.com/) – A 113 acre property nestled in the Litchfield Hills with 18 spacious cottages, each decorated with a different theme. Plan on at least one dining experience at the restaurant, whose chef trained under Boulud and DuCasse.  Treatments available at their on-site spa.  Approximately a two-hour drive from NYC.
The Wheatleigh (http://wheatleigh.com/) – This luxuriously restored 1873 mansion located in Lenox, MA was originally built as a wedding gift by a father for his daughter.  Features two restaurants, one of which is set in a windowed alcove overlooking the property’s gorgeous rolling hills.  Massages and private yoga classes available upon request. Complimentary snoeshoeing on property. Several internationally renowned museums located within a 10-40 minute drive.  Approximately three hours from NYC.
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If you are looking for luxury at a “discount”:
The Inn at Kent Falls (http://www.theinnatkentfalls.com/) – A charming bed and breakfast in Litchfield County that caters to the discerning traveler (sweet dreams on Frette linens) looking for an escape from the city. Yoga, pilates and spa services available upon request. Snoeshoeing and skiing at Mohawk Mountain. Approximately a two-hour drive from NYC.
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Bedford Post Inn (http://www.bedfordpostinn.com/) – Although this Bedford, NY inn has just eight rooms, the amenities are impressive – two terrific restaurants (The Farm and the Barnhouse), the Yoga Loft, where you can practice your downward dogs daily, and afternoon canapes by a toasty fire. Approximately a one-hour drive from NYC.
Buttermilk Falls Inn (http://www.buttermilkfallsinn.com/) – This 72-acre bucolic inn is located in Milton, NY just off the Hudson.  Ten rooms plus eight guest houses and cottages for larger parties.  Homemade, full breakfast and afternoon tea served daily, and an evening farm-to-table experience worth writing home about.  Spa with an indoor pool on property.  Approximately a 1 hour 45 minute drive from NYC.

For the budget-minded:

The Graham and Co. (http://thegrahamandco.com/) – A 20 room hotel located in Phoenicia, NY, at the foot of the Catskills Mountains.   This property goes for a modern, campy feel.  While the vibe is quiet (board games are readily available) and there are no restaurants on site, just a few steps away are a decent selection of eats, including my personal breakfast favorite, Sweet Sue’s.  Hunter and Belleayre mountains are a stone’s throw away if skiing is your thing.  Approximately 2.5 hours from NYC.

Puglia on My Mind

 

When I began thinking about my family’s summer vacation last March, I quickly honed in on Europe because I wanted a cultural experience for our children.  At the same time, I did not want the pressure of having to sightsee and be on our feet all day, every day. While browsing through hotel options in Europe one day, I came across Borgo Egnazia, located in the Puglia region of Italy. Immediately, I was drawn to Borgo’s beauty and proximity to so many day trip options. The hotel looked pristine, sophisticated and child-friendly – just the trifecta I had hoped to find. Read on for the skinny and continue reading for the details.

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Accommodations: Borgo Egnazio in Fasano, Italy (Puglia region – in the heel of the country) (http://www.borgoegnazia.com/). Traditional rooms, villas and casetas available. Spa, tennis, golf, beach, multiple pools and restaurants, including one adults-only pool and restaurant.
Restaurants to note: The hotel food was very good. Also, Il Poeta Contadino in Alberobello (http://www.ilpoetacontadino.it/en/), Anticalama in Pezze di Greco (http://www.anticalama.it/), La Cantina (http://www.ilristorantelacantina.it/chisiamo.asp),
Activities: Swimming at the hotel’s beautiful pool and outings to nearby historic and UNESCO world heritage sites. Tennis, golf, pool, beach, spa, biking all available at or near hotel.
Good to know before you go: Although the coastline and the Adriatic Sea are beautiful, this stretch of Italy is more about dramatic coastlines than about perfect sandy beaches.  The hotel has two terrific kids clubs with activities daily to accommodate kids of all ages.

 

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The uncut version:

We flew from JFK to Rome overnight and then took a second, one-hour flight from Rome to Bari, which is one of two main airports in Puglia (the other is Brindisi). After arriving in Bari, drove a rental car 50 minutes to our hotel, Borgo Egnazia (http://www.borgoegnazia.com/). When we finally made it to the dirt road leading to the hotel, surrounded by olive trees on both sides, we had a good feeling. Moments later we were greeted by a warm staff and an exquisite property.  The hotel is traditional looking on the exterior with classic modern, luxury interiors.  It is modeled after a small Italian village with private villas and casetas built around a central piazza, or public square, where events such as dinner and live music, movies and themed festivals take place almost nightly.

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Our caseta was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a living and dining room and three huge, private outdoor terraces. We were centrally located between the hotel’s  beautiful spa, gym, tennis courts and bikes, which are available for guests’ use. The hotel also has a golf course across the street and two nearby beaches accessible by foot or by shuttle from the hotel entrance.

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We spent half of each day relaxing at the hotel and the other half exploring one of the many nearby, historic towns, several of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. Two of our favorites were Alberobello and Polignano a Mare.


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Alberobello is known for its trullis, small circular homes made from dry stone with conical shaped roofs. We had a terrific time strolling through the more historic portion of the town, stopping often to talk to locals and listen to live music in small parks. We also visited a museum here, Trullo Sovrano (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g580227-d1860833-Reviews-Trullo_Sovrano-Alberobello_Province_of_Bari_Puglia.html).  Housed inside the only two-story trulli we saw, it gave a great perspective on what life might have been like long ago in Alberobello.  There is a very touristy side to Alberobello too, with tons of boutiques and restaurants housed inside of modern-day trullis.  We all enjoyed walking in and out of so many trullis!

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Polignano a Mare is a historic town perched on a cliff above the Adriatic with stunning views of the sea around every corner.  We spent hours exploring its narrow, windy roads.  We also visited a nearby fishing village called Savelletri, where we were able to walk down to the sea with gelatos in hand! Each of these towns had its own special charm, architecture and authenticity.  In the few hours we spent in each place, we were able to get a glimpse into what life is like for the locals there.

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The food in Puglia was delicious and fresh everywhere, and very simply prepared.  We ate plenty of orecchiete, or ear-shaped pasta, locally caught fish, pureed fava beans with chicory, all of which are traditional “apuglian” dishes.  We had a few especially memorable meals. One was at a restaurant in Alberobello called Il Poeta Contadino (http://www.ilpoetacontadino.it/en/), which my husband and I went to one evening while the kids were back at the hotel with a babysitter. Set inside a converted stall, it is rustic and charming with beautiful arched stone ceilings and chandeliers throughout. The menu was traditional apuglian, and our meal was just perfect.

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We had an unforgettable meal at Anticalama (http://www.anticalama.it/), located in a converted olive oil press about 15 minutes from our hotel. We had a multi-course meal of delicious pastas, grilled vegetables and fish on a grape vine covered terrace overlooking an olive grove with trees up to 700 years old.


I wish we had more time in Puglia – this beautiful region offers so much more than we were able to cover in a week.   Thank you, Puglia, for hosting us this summer!  We miss you!