Exploring the Yucatan Peninsula: Glorious Haciendas & Mayan Culture

Traveling to the Yucatan peninsula is such a short journey but feels like a million miles away! Flights into Merida are currently non-stop from Houston, Miami, and Mexico City. I enjoyed an unplanned stopover in one of my favorite food cities in the world: Mexico City.

I took advantage of this quick stop to check into the gorgeous boutique property, Las Alcobas which has its own fantastic restaurant on property and a renowned restaurant near by.

Anatol Restaurant is a seasonal, consciously-sourced, ingredient-driven restaurant. The menu consists of composed small plates, presented in a social and casual environment. Renowned Chef Justin Ermini has assembled a menu that is ideal for those seeking a laid back dining experience with a touch of Italian influence. Anatol’s contemporary and fresh environment amplifies the passion its food inspires.

Dulce Patria, directed by talented Chef Martha Ortiz, is a 90 seat, high energy venue that has redefined the Mexican dining experience. The menu is comprised of traditional plates reinterpreted in a modern context, set in a lively, stylish and urban environment. The restaurant boasts two terraces that give the inside of the restaurant a serene, spacious and open-air feel.

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As we arrived very late into the city, we walked a block down to Pastor for some truly delicious tacos!

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The next morning we arrived into Merida and were met by our driver for our drive through the beautiful remote and ancient villages of the Yucatan and to our first Hacienda visit.

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Welcome to Hacienda Tixnuc! Truly built in the ruins of this old Hacienda. Romantic and authentic with modern Air-Conditioned rooms.

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The Master bedroom is especially spacious and lovely!

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Every little snack is a surprise and a treat.
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This simple and delicious and healthy little snack is served all the time – jicama, cucumber, mango with lime and a chile citric spice! Love it!

Hacienda Tamchen was an absolute favorite for me. This 4 bedroom home has a massive master suite and two additional modern suites plus a fabulous bedroom with views in the main house. The suites are so large and set up to easily accommodate a family of 4 who would like to share an accommodation or wonderfully spacious just for a couple.  Ideal hacienda for a couples trip or several families sharing.

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The pool is surrounded by a lily pond
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Just the place for an after lunch nap
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Looking back at the main house
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The suites have a king bed on one side….
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….and a spot for two kids on the other
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One of the two modern suite additions
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Lunch time on the terrace

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View from the suite in the main house
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This is a sweet room with a bit of a view of the grounds
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What a delightful surprise to have a cold mini-coronita waiting for me.
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Expect homemade tortillas at every meal
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The meals are always creative and locally sourced – this is a cucumber stuffed with a pumpkin seed puree!
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Delicious frijoles at nearly every meal
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Wonderful Yucatan products
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One of the many Cathedrals and churches throughout the region

Next was Hacienda Itzincab Camara, which boasts 14 bedrooms – five in the main house and eight in the original hacienda outbuildings.  I fell in love with this dramatic property: its gardens, pools, and very own Mayan pyramid!

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The lovely team here was so welcoming!
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Always a delicious welcome drink and cold towel
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The indoor and outdoor public areas
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The natural gardens throughout are stunning!
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One of three swimming pools
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Two Bedrooms in the former Stables
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One bedroom is in the charming school house

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My room is in the Secret Garden – I love it!
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Morning bird watching with our absolutely wonderful guide!

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A breakfast surprise
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I love huevos motulenos for breakfast!
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My room is called the Secret Garden – so romantic!

Today we head out to explore the area:

First we are led on a private tour of Uxmal, the largest of the sites famed for their elaborate Puuc-style architecture, whose principal buildings are aligned to observe astronomical events. We visited the Pyramid of the Magician and the Palace of the Governor—two of the finest pre-Hispanic Mexican structures in existence—as well as the Nunnery Quadrangle and the House of the Turtles.IMG_4014IMG_4025

In the afternoon – another WOW experience that we can’t wait to plan for our next clients visiting the Yucatan. Hacienda Xocnaceh—a private & exclusive property is something unique. At its zenith, Xocnaceh produced cattle and henequen, the “green gold” that brought tremendous wealth to the Yucatán in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After a visit to the pyramids, we were surprised and delighted with a  delicious lunch served in the chapel ruins!

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Oh my, what have we come upon…

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…a jungle affair prepared just for us!
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Bienvenidos!
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“Jungle love, its driving me mad, its making me crazy!” – well they were not playing that, but these musicians made my heart sing.
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Perspective!
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That is my kind of quesadilla!
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Can you name these local fruits?

After a wonderful night’s sleep, I awake to birds singing and wandered in the main house early in search of a coffee. The team informs me that this morning coffee is served at the top of the pyramid (which sits incredibly just adjacent to the main house).

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Out is 7am and the Pyramid climb awaits!
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Oh the details and the view at the top. I imagined what the Mayans felt and saw.
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Indeed worth the trip up – strong and lovely brewed coffee!

This morning as we set out for our next adventure we came upon another simply magnificent restored hacienda. We saw it being prepared for a jet setter wedding from abroad. I envisioned so many over the top parties being held here! We can absolutely help! My iPhone pictures won’t do justice so I won’t try but if you are looking for a truly singular experience ask me about Hacienda Tekik de Regil.

IMG_4083Next I had the privilege of visiting the new Chable Wellness Resort and Spa. I have been talking about it incessantly since its debut and finally got a peek. The groups and buildings are very special, and the spa and wellness regimes are completely customized. It is a first class resort to relax at while visiting the area, but it’s also an excellent destination spa to completely focused on well being. Like all of the properties I am highlighting in this blog, it is a former hacienda with a rich story.  The restoration and modern additions are gorgeous!

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The modern bar
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The welcoming terrace

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Their villas are designed for maximum relaxation and boast spectacular jungle views, indoor and outdoor showers, and a private pool. It also features a signature restaurant by Jorge Vallejo, one of the most prominent chefs in Mexico, where we’ll taste their specialties.

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The entrance to the ruins of the Presidential Suite

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Of course the spa is a significant part of the experience and the resort:

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One of the main pools and restaurants….where we enjoyed lunch

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The largest tequila selection in the world!

Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural capital of the entire Yucatán Peninsula. At times provincial, at others ‘muy cosmopolitano,’ it is a town steeped in colonial history, with narrow streets, broad central plazas and the region’s best museums and restaurants.  Many consider Merida the new San Miguel de Allende where artists, free spirits, and those looking for something different are settling.

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Our hosts were the TOPS!  These are the people that make our clients’ experience in the Yucatan over the top special!
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Some of the best chocolate you will ever have!

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Perfumes from Coqui Coqui
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Who knew beans and pork is a coveted ice cream flavor!IMG_4139

Finally we arrive to Izamal —where almost every structure is egg-yolk yellow! But Izamal is no mere tourist trap—it’s a living Maya town and art colony.

We stayed at two private villas here: Casa de los Artistas and Casa de Madera. Both full of character and charm and perfect for those wanting a fully serviced home in a more urban setting in order to explore the peninsula.

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Dinner at the One Bedroom Casa Azul –

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Waking up at the 4 bedroom Casa Madera:

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A morning visit to the 6 bedroom Casa de los Artistas:

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Perhaps my favorite day was our afternoon at  Xocempich, a private cenote on the ruins of an historic ranch. We had a refreshing treat where we swam in the cenote’s crystalline waters and relaxed for hours in total privacy.

The cenotes through out the region are very unique to Yucatan. They are sink holes hundreds of feet deep that have pure filtered water from underground rivers – a pure delight to swim in! Some are in caves and some are in collapsed caves with lovely sunlight.

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The best treat of all was a lunch of cochinita pibil – my favorite Yucatan specialty – pork slow cooked in sour orange, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground.

Here the delicacy is being dug up and served – tremendous!

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The slow cooked pork is unearthed
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succulent local pig is slow cooked in sour orange and banana leaves – incredible.

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Served with all the local Yucatan accompaniments makes for a feast!

Many people have been to Chichen Itza but if you have tried to go in the past 10-15 years, you know that the crowds are insufferable. Let us set you up with a private after hours tour with a reknowned archeologist!

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Fascinating afternoon with this world renowned expert archeologist

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Touring after hours with our private guide…
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….means access to areas not open to the general public.
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Another spectacular surprise – a flutist so moving that many of us were in tears.

Farewell dinner was held at one of the three Haciendas that are small hotels, also restored haciendas, and now run as small exclusive hotels managed by the Luxury Collection – Temezon, San Jose and Santa Rosa.

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Here is our fun arrival to Hacienda San Jose for our farewell dinner.

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I have always loved the Yucatan Peninsula – the Mayan culture, the history, the food, the people!  My heart has been captured yet again and I will most definitely be back to this rich civilization quite simply on our door step!

Cuba Libre: A Magnificent Island on the Verge of Transformation

Cuba is an isolated island nation full of life, music, and people that give so much!

It is such an exciting but tenuous time as Americans are starting to travel legally under the 12 officially allowed categories enforced by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The one by which most American travelers enter the country is on a educational trip or a People-to-People.  I can legally arrange a completely customized itinerary on a private basis for just you, a couple, or a small group of friends. We arrange our visits with our hand-selected private guides and ensure you are staying the best possible hotels and dining in the most exciting restaurants in Cuba. If budget is a concern or you like the idea of traveling on scheduled and escorted small group itineraries run by outstanding and trusted tour operators, Resort to Laura Madrid can suggest and reserve the best options.

Check out my photos below for a taste of Cuba Libre – this happy and impressive island nation! (Tip: Hover your mouse over photos in order to see the captions)

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Commercial flights have started from the US to Cuba and we flew from Miami directly into Santa Clara (in the past Charter flights generally from Miami and in and out of Havana)

For our first stop, we traveled to the gorgeous and historic city in the rural area of Trinidad and we luckily arrived on the last day of a week long festival. The Cubans know how to party and the streets were lively until the wee hours!

We walked the streets and came across a mobile brewery, lots of art, and many historical buildings. When walking past the bank, there was a line out the door! Americans cannot get cash anywhere in the country – bring all the money you will need. There were chalkboards in stores we went to outlining what you can get per capita of different items. In Cuba, everything is rationed and each person is entitled to a certain amount.

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In Trinidad, Yes, We Can!
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Ham and cheese
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Bring your own bottle and fill it up at the mobile brewery
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Rum everything!
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Showing off his colorful glassware
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Che Guevara is a national hero and his image is more prevalent than even Fidel
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Taxi Luis can take you
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The Cathedral
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The bank -There is always a line to get into the bank. Americans cannot get cash anywhere in the country – bring all the money you will need!
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The library
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Cuba has stores where everything is rationed and each person is entitled to a certain amount.
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Here is the chart of what you can get per capita, eggs, rice, coffee, soap…

Music and art are everywhere on the streets of Cuba!

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Music is everywhere, it is spontaneous and it is always very, very good!
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This artist carves older Cuban figures in wood – the talent is incredible….

Below you can see a cathedral, the bell tower, a wealthy colonial home, the courtyard of that home and an image from inside a Santeria Church.

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The Cathedral
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The belltower
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A wealthy colonial home

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Visiting a Santeria Church – Afro-Christian

We had a beer break, saw a whole roasted pig on a spit, and listened to some incredible singers! Lobster was served at almost every meal–it was never more than $15 and was always delicious!

Our fun and motley crew was led by the unflappable Marcel, our expert guide for the week.

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Beer break
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A whole roasted pig on the spit
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Their voices were incredible!!
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Lobster served at nearly every meal – never more than $15 and delicious!

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Marcel, our expert guide was unflappable.

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Banana anyone?
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….I think I will!
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Climbing the watch tower on a sugar plantation
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The view from above.

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The plantation house
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Stopping for a drink of fresh coconut water
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Our guides Marcel and David took amazing care of us!

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The drive from Trinidad to the UNESCO world heritage city of Cienfuegos involved a stop at the local yacht club

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It is Rum O’Clock somewhere!
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Our driver, Fernando, and guides David and Marcel really made the trip!
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Taxi?
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A cigar with famous Cienfuegos musician Benny Moré
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Even a lady on the phone stops to smile – the Cuban people are lovely!
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Gil and Tony posing with our guides – great group of guys (Conrad missing in action)
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The Colonial architecture is stunning…
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…inside and out!
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This is a serious shave!

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Schoolgirls with their sitter
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Schoolboys
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Political art everywhere!

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When in Cuba, the answer is always rum!

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When on our bus, this crew was always sleeping off the last party!

If you are lucky, you will dine in several Paladares, or private homes. It is a very exciting time to eat in Cuba, and this was the best meal of the trip at La Guarida. La Guarida is a massive mansion in the process of being restored – it will take years and years and a lot of money!

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Roof top bar at La Guarida

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A stroll through Havana:

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The Cubans are proud of their defeat of the Americans at Bay of Pigs – propaganda everywhere.

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Old city walls
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A square in Old Havana

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School kids in old Havana – the color of the uniform designates elementary, middle and high schools.

We visited and had a private performance at the Habana Compas Dance School and Professional Troupe. These talented musicians played with sticks on the back and on the seats of beautifully decorated chairs.

We had a fabulous lunch at El Carbon where everything is cooked on an open fire. Here we had lunch with Carlos, a Cuban international relations expert and former Ambassador to the UN for Cuba

Visiting the oldest boxing school in Cuba. All Cuban school kids are offered after school sports for free.

Art is other worldly and so prevalent in Cuba. Bring money to buy something special.

Without question our best and most fun night out was at Paladar San Cristobal dining in the very same seats and being served by the same team that just took care of President and First Lady Obama. They were so proud, as were we!

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The most delicious rum I have ever had!
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Par for the course!
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Girls Gone Wild!

What a grand time in this cigar lounge having a private demonstration

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Rum, espresso and cigars very much sums up this trip!
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Gil shaking the cigar makers hand
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The impressive making of a Cuban Cigar

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Castro banned American auto imports since 1959 – these beautiful cars are everywhere in Cuba and painstakingly and meticulously kept.

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The people waiting in line are all buying wifi cards and those hanging around are taking advantage of the wifi hot spot. This is how people get on the internet in Cuba.

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Another incredible night included dinner and drinks in the tower at El Cocinero, a former oil refinery. Incredible night!

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Another incredible gem of a bar where the owner could not have been more of host and the drinks all hand made – so cozy and so much fun!

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Homemade sangria, worth it!

An entire little town created in tiles by the artist Fuster – below are images of the town and Casa Fuster

All of this glamor and history, relived by visiting a by-gone era, seemingly frozen in time but simultaneously full of life. This is Cuba today. It is an exciting time for our Cuban friends full of hope and opportunity.  The hands on the clock will undoubtedly start spinning a whole lot quicker on this island.  RUN, don’t Walk

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Only made so special due to my spectacular partner in crime. Our guides around the globe are always top notch, but Marcel totally rocked it!  I cant wait to send you more clients!! Viva Cuba!

Southern Italy: Puglia and Basilicata

What a glorious region of Italy to discover! For those who have been to Italy multiple times and would like to get off the beaten path, the heel of Italy awaits!

First stop was to Puglia, on the Southern Adriatic coast. This is a magical and authentic destination full of Italians and Europeans enjoying the beaches – far less crowded and at a more attractive price point than the Amalfi coast.

Nearby historic towns and cities to visit make this a relaxing hub from which to sight see and enjoy downtime at the seaside.

I checked out two fantastic properties which I can highly recommend.

In the Puglia region, the “masserie” were large agricultural centers used for farming the land and became self-sustaining villages.

The Masseria where we stayed is Masseria San Domenico -an absolutely drop-dead, sophisticated, romantic and  serene resort which was originally a XIV Watchtower used by the Knights of Malta.

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Arriving to Masseria San Domenico and our room

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The stunning pool is lake-sized

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Arrival Cockails
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Morning coffee delivery

We had a fabulous time enjoying San Domenic0’s beach club where each afternoon they serve a buffet of fabulous fresh seafood and fresh produce (with spectacular wines, of course!)  For guests wanting to stay on the beach, San Domenico al Mare offers 4 guest rooms located at the beach club.  They share a common living area and would be perfect for a family of a group of friends.

Another fantastic option for guests who prefer a larger resort with cutting edge design, is Borgo Egnazia. The resort consists of the main building which is sleek and contemporary, multi bedroom villas which are fantastic for families, and a fabulous Borgo (neighborhood) built to resemble and feel like a traditional Puglian village (No, it is not like Disney and yes, I can assure you that it is exceptionally high quality and very, very well done!).  This is the place I would suggest for families that would like golf, tennis, gym, multiple pools, several restaurants, kids club, a large beach club and many amenities in one place including excellent service!

We were fortunate enough to be at the Borgo the night of their big festa.  Local food artisans came in to serve so much wonderful local produce and food from the region including the most wonderful Burrata (fresh mozzarella stuffed with creme)!

A fabulous day trip to Alberobello – Alberobello famous throughout the world for the characteristic, conical houses known as “trulli”, is divided into two districts: Monti and Aia Piccola, both national monuments and UNESCO world heritage sites. The history of this unusual little town dates back to the second half of the 16th century, when the Counts ordered the farmers to build the limestone houses in dry layers, so that they could be destroyed if there was a royal inspection, since the creation of an urban settlement meant that taxes had to be paid. This area is definitely one of the hidden gems of Italy!

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Superb wines are found in Puglia!!

The best grapes for the white wines are Vedeca and Fiana and for the red wines, Negromaro and Primitivo! Salute!

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Another great day trip is the charming town of Polignano al Mare –

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Everyone that comes to Polginano must try their CAFE ESPECIALE (more like a dessert!) with espresso, creme and liqueur – delicious!!
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With the fabulous Mina, the shop owner at Oro della Terra.  She will gladly allow you to taste all of her wares and ship a box of Puglian local goodies to your home!

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The highlight of the trip was visiting Matera in the region of Basilicata. Matera has been settled since the Paleolithic period and is famous for its Sassi, or cave dwellings, thought to be among the first ever human settlements in what is now Italy. The Sassi are habitations dug into the calcareous rock itself, which is characteristic of Basilicata. In the 1950’s some of Italy’s poorest people were still living in these caves until the government relocated them to the modern part of the city. Matera has now become a very hip place to visit with excellent restaurants, hotels and shops.  Go quickly as in 2019, Matera will be the European Capital of culture and you may have a hard time finding availability once the word gets out!

If you have ever wanted to sleep in a cave, I highly suggest you spend a night or two at Sextantio.

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The bellman carrying our bags up to our cave hotel

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Our hotel for the night
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Checking in

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The breakfast room
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Arriving to our cave

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Our cave for the night – perfect for a couple seeking some extra space or with two roll a ways added for the kids 12 and over

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Now we are off to explore this gorgeous city!

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The best pizza of the trip!!  Fantastic and we each finished our entire pizza ourselves!

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Everyone needs to stop for some ice cream and this place was well worth the calories!

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Our phenomenal guide Daniela who made all the difference!  Our guides are the BEST! (you will need sneakers for Matera, the stone is all so slippery!)

 

Loving the Lowcountry in South Carolina!

Montage Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton South Carolina

Montage Palmetto Bluff has always been one of my favorite resorts in the country with its prized location on 22,000 acres on the May River. When I last visited the property, it was under the management of the fabulous Auberge Hotels and Resorts and was called the Inn at Palmetto Bluff. The new management company, also a prized boutique hotel company, Montage hotels and Resorts, has made some significant changes to the property, and I wanted to come see what it was all about.

In addition to the fabulous River Cottages and suites and the 50 or so private homes that make up the guest offerings at Palmetto Bluff, Montage has plans to introduce a stunning new Inn, a massive destination spa, and some moderately priced Guest Houses including many interconnecting options that will appeal to families. The final project will be completed and introduced in a grand opening in September 2016.

What has not changed are the fantastic fishing, tennis, cycling, walking, and equestrian opportunities, as well as the rolling private golf course and the adult and family pools (though there is an additional pool or two in the works).

Many guests come to Palmetto Bluff simply for the outstanding Lowcountry cuisine and seafood, and the offerings here will certainly impress.

Palmetto Bluff is perfect for couples getting away from the kids and families alike, and the resort does a great job of making both travel segments feel special. I would suggest a long weekend but many families easily make a week of it.  This is an outstanding option for multi-generational family get-togethers as there is something for everyone and some great places to celebrate and relax together

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Nightly S’mores around the fire pit

My favorite accommodation is still the River Cottages and River Suites shown below but there are many other options for guests to consider now with the grand opening of the new Inn and Guest Cottages in September 2016.

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Kids can ride bikes and explore the property without a care in the world!  Check out the tree house below.

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Even with an unseasonably cold day during our visit, we had an epic tour of the May river with our guide Boo including tons of dolphin sightings!

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ANCHORAGE 1770, Beaufort, South Carolina

At over 300 years old, Beaufort is a genuine landmark in American history with its authentically preserved Antebellum homes and quaint downtown district. The Union Army occupied the city and ultimately helped save the beautiful old homes in the charming neighborhood known as “The Point” where Anchorage 1770 is located.

A 250 year old waterfront mansion, Anchorage 1770 has been meticulously restored and transformed into a 15-room luxury inn run by the charming and fun Amy and Frank Lesesne. Amy and Frank earned the loving nickname “The Insane Lesesnes” by taking on such an ambitious project, and while no-one doubted they would succeed, landing a spot in the New York Times 52 places to visit in 2016 is a massive testament to their success.

Beaufort is a place to step back in time, soak in some history, and grab a piece of peace! The fine dining scene, cute main street shops, and festivals give this small town enough cosmopolitan to captivate guests for a few days stay and certainly invites them to return again. Romantics, couples, and groups of friends will really enjoy a stay at Anchorage 1770, and families will love the fishing adventures, state parks, kayaking and history it offers as well. A visit to Beaufort is a great long weekend or a great way to cap off a longer stay in Kiawah or Palmetto Bluff.

TIP – Plan on dinner at Saltus River Grill!

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Vivi is the capable and lovely Inn keeper

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Frank welcomed us with a glass of bubbles, he is also known to jump in the kitchen and cook breakfast for the guests on occasion.

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Frank and our group of luxury travel consultants

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Each room is spacious and charming, many with a water view
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A tour of the stunning Beaufort Mansion from horse drawn carriage
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The old arsenal

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Low Country Produce – a lunch stop must (made famous by Oprah)
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The Chocolate shop where Forest Gump bought his special box – delicious!
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Frank and Amy host daily sunset cocktails and nibbles on the top deck
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Sunset in Beaufort from the deck of Anchorage 1770 – priceless!