Crystal Mozart: Cruising the Danube River

Crystal has been wowing ocean cruisers for years, but now with the launch of the Crystal Mozart on the Danube River, they are setting a new standard for service on the riverways!

The Crystal Mozart was stripped to the steel and completely rebuilt before debuting as Crystal’s first river vessel. It is the widest ship on the Danube and boasts some of the most sumptuous public space on the river. So while it cannot always get into every city center port of call, it’s always within a stones throw, and you can be sure you’re coming and going in style!

Crystal has three new state-of-the-art luxury ships coming on line in 2018 and 2019 that will sail the Rhine, the Main, and the Danube.

If you were not one of the lucky 18 who joined our fun group of friends (lovingly called “the Boat People”), please join me below as I share some of the highlights of our most recent voyage!

First, the ship:

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Top deck, where many libations were enjoyed day and night as we cruised the Danube
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Stylish Bistro Mozart for a Viennese coffee or glass of Grüner Veltliner or a gelato anytime
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The Waterside Restaurant for a lunch buffet or decadent multi-course dinner

Below is a typical dinner on the Crystal Mozart:

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Foie Gras appetizer
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Caviar and potatoes second course
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Fresh fish, grains and greens for my main.
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Pre and post cocktails in the Palm Court

Our favorite spot for lunch was Aft at Blue which had a great team – they were always happy to prepare a fabulous burger, a niçoise salad, and, as we say, a glass of “rosé all day!”

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The spa is terrific, featuring a forward location with beautiful views in the relaxation lounge and luxurious treatments. My treatments with Maria – massage and facial – were truly some of the best I have had! The pool is excellent for laps and the hot tub is a cozy option for warming up on a cold day.

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First Port of Call – Vienna

Vienna is lovely and stately and elegant. There are opportunities to enjoy music everywhere including the famed Opera House, the Vienna Philharmonic, and even the lovey Crystal signature event with an orchestra at the Belvedere Palace!

Most delightful about Vienna in my opinion is the cafe culture that is so prevalent throughout the city – it is not unusual to sit for hours with a single coffee or beer or glass of Grüner. I love this pace!

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Something else that the Crystal Mozart does for their guests is allow them to select a Michelin star restaurant experience in Vienna or Budapest and completely includes it the price of your cruise! Crystal arranges the reservations, transfers to and from the restaurant, and prepays a three course meal with wine. It is a very nice touch!

We enjoyed a spectacular dinner at Konstantin Filippou pictured below:

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As the Crystal Mozart embarks and disembarks in Vienna, this is a perfect opportunity to stay at the immaculate and historic Hotel Sacher, owned and run by the same family for generations.  A step back into a sumptuous, by-gone era!

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The Restaurant of Hotel Sacher
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What an elegant spot to dine!
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An amuse-bouche of salmon
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A first meal in Vienna must always be Wiener Schnitzel
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And at Hotel Sacher, there is nothing more appropriate than the famed Sacher Torte with fresh cream
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Mr. Sacher himself
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Even I feel almost a celebrity next to one of the many walls of famous patrons
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A drink in the Blue Bar
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The impeccable bedrooms are charming and bright
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In such a prime location, expect a wonderful view!
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Well appointed and comfortable bathrooms
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Hotel Sacher chocolate amenities
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A view of the Opera House from Hotel Sacher

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This lovely design suite has quite the penthouse and terrace!

Second Port of Call – Krems, Austria

A cycling trip through the Wachau River Valley:

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Of course with a stop or two to try the local Reisling and Grüner wines of the region!

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River cruising is special because you are never far from land. The Danube is particularly scenic.  The top deck is the place for sipping something cold and taking it all in!

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A fellow boat person – Jan the ham!

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Third port of call – Melk and the lovely Abbey

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Back on board the Crystal Mozart

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Going through one of the dozens of locks along the Danube – a very cool feat of engineering.

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And as evening falls, another wonderful dinner is served. Seating in the dining room is as you wish – some nights Gil and I dined alone, some nights we joined another couple or two from our group, one night we invited a single traveler to join us, and a few times our entire group of 18 – the “Boat People” dined together.  The nice thing about Crystal is that everything is included – all meals and always terrific wines, champagne, beers and spirits! No one ever needs to reach for the bill.

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Fourth Port of Call – Linz, Austria

From here we took a day trip to Salzburg

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I love that whenever you order a glass of wine, it automatically comes with a water! Such a nice touch!

Fifth Port of Call – Passau, Germany

This is a lovely, lovely town and I wish we had more time there. We instead opted for a day trip to Munich. Munich was a great time but, in retrospect, the transfer was too long to warrant the trip – over 2.5 hours each way.  Suggestion: Enjoy Passau instead. We traveled to Munich with our friends John and Carrie and had a blast visiting several beer halls! “When in Rome!”

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Yes, the beer drinking continued on the coach!

Everything in Germany is about their wonderful sports cars and Munich is the home of BMW. For those that are BMW enthusiasts, a visit to the BMW headquarters and show room may be in order.

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We enjoyed an overnight in Passau and wonderful meal aboard the Crystal Mozart.

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Roasted Beet Salad with nuts and cheese

The next day we joined a cycling trip that rode along the Austrian-German border. The bikes on the Crystal Mozart are e-bikes which means anyone can pedal along and it is never too strenuous.  Not a great way to burn a lot of calories, but a lovely way to sightsee!

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Cycling with my friend, Reid, newly indoctrinated to the “Boat People”
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A bridge uniting Austria and Germany

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Passau

Enjoying some comfort food aft at our favorite lunch spot on board, Blue.

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And some post lunch R&R on the top desk of the Crystal Mozart, my kind of sight seeing!

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The crew on the Crystal Mozart is spectacular – truly outstanding service, always with a smile, just like this:IMG_2024.jpg

The entertainment aboard river vessels usually includes some wonderful piano bar music, some well informed lectures, an occasional round of group trivia, and on this occasion, a hilarious bout of the “Not-so-Newlywed Game!” Gil and I participated and came out BIG LOSERS!  We did become minor celebrities though and gave everyone a good laugh!

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Sixth Port of Call – Bratislava, Slovakia

A stunning capital to a small, new country with a big history!

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A walk through the old town to a local brew pub where we enjoyed tasting several local beers.

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The Bratislava Opera House

Final Port of Call – Budapest

This lovely lady greeted us as we cruised into Budapest. Lady Liberty!  She was erected by the Russians as the self-proclaimed liberators of Hungary from the Nazis. Today the Magyars (as the Hungarians rightfully call themselves) say that she is actually saying goodbye to the communists as she liberated the country once and for all from all oppressors. She is beautiful and Budapest may be one of Europe’s most breathtaking cities!

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The pubic transportation throughout the city is excellent and we easily moved about by tram, bus, and subway!

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Always a cake to be found. This is the Sacher but I really wanted the Dobbos!

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One of my favorite things to do in ANY city is to visit the local market – this is always the heartbeat of the city where you can shop and dine as a local.

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It was fun to try local specialties such as the stuffed cabbage and the goulash, with sauerkraut, of course.

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Budapest has absolutely wonderful cafes and wine bars through out the vibrant city, especially lovely in the summer time!

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And not to be missed is one of the grandest hotels of all of Europe, Four Seasons Hotel Budapest Gresham Palace, a stunning restoration of a former palace overlooking the Chain Bridge and the hills of Buda.

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We stopped in to listen to live music and have a cocktail on their new terrace and I must say I think the libation I found suited me to a T – the Señorita!

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We enjoyed a wonderful dinner of innovative contemporary takes on traditional Hungarian dishes at Tigris.  Did you know that Hungary is one of the world’s most important procurers of Foie Gras?  You are in for a treat! Here it is prepared four ways as my appetizer:

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Budapest by night truly takes your breath away!  Upon returning to the ship from dinner, the Crystal Mozart graciously sailed up and down the Danube for guests to gawk at the lights of Parliament, the Chain Bridge, and the many palaces and monuments completely restored and rebuilt after the Nazis and then the Communists left the country.

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What a magnificent trip with a great group of “Boat People!” Crystal, I will see you soon on the Rhine and the Main rivers, no doubt!  Well done!

Laura Madrid is an avid cruiser and can help you navigate the many ships and private yachts from the oceans, to the rivers, to the canals.  Read a bit more on options and climb aboard here!

New Zealand – Luxury Lodges, Food, Wine, & Adventure

New Zealand has long been on my must do list! Each year, I send many clients to the North and South islands to explore beaches and mountains, quirky towns, the ancient Maori culture, breathtaking golf courses, and to experience dart boating, bungee jumping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, glacier climbs, heli-rides, and skiing. There are countless incredible, cozy lodges in which to unwind – each completely unique, with bespoke and customized service, staff, and setting that make you feel very much at home! I have at least a dozen favorite MUST DO places to suggest, but on this trip I will highlight the ones that I can. Keep in mind that when I plan your New Zealand holiday, providing as much lead time as possible will help me to get you in to the most sought after lodges in a nice flow from North to South or South to North with out too much zig–zagging. With less time, we may need to be more flexible on the routings. Either way, you will feel completely cared for. The gastronomic and wine options in New Zealand are very much worth the trip. Some consider New Zealand one big farm with spectacular beef and lamb dotting every hill, but the bountiful seafood all around and the award winning vineyards producing Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Shiraz (just to name a few) will keep you well-satiated throughout the journey!

I started my visit in the far north of the North Island in Kerikeri. After landing in Auckland, a short 35 minute flight whisked me up to the spectacular Bay of Islands and on to the famed Relais & Chateaux property, Kauri Cliffs.

The relaxing nature of this perfectly elegant and homey lodge in the tropical Northland was the perfect antidote to jet lag and a climatizing my southern blood to the cool climates of New Zealand.

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Arriving to the incredibly beautify, understated and elegant Kauri Cliffs.

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Welcome to Kauri Cliffs
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The style and design is understated and elegant – each furnishing and piece of art is worthy of a private collection.
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The golf and the views are certainly worthy, even if you will only bike ride or hike the course.
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The in-room bar and coffee set up is both functional and inviting. Homemade brownies in my jar mysteriously disappeared each day!
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I loved my little cottage.
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Heated floors, comfy tub, all perfect for the New Zealand weather.
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Welcome Home to Kauri Cliffs.
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Balcony with a view
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The Main house
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Pool and hot tub with a view.

Nothing like beating the first day’s jet lag with a picnic at the Pink Beach. What a feast complete with the incredible fish, vegetables and wines from the area!

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Now this is a welcome to the Pink Beach at Kauri Cliffs!

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Chef in waiting.
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Food for the soul!
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I am happy!
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Pink Beach

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No detail missed.
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Some of the best wines of the North Island.

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Cycling the golf course
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Chasing Sheep.
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The Spa
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and tennis
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Oh…. but the food is incredible!
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…and the wines always a treat!!
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Nothing makes me happier than waiting up to a fire, French pressed coffee and a home made brownie, all while still in my robe!

Today we head out to do some touring with a local Mauri (a Native Kiwi). We visited a Saturday Market which is the true gathering spot for the locals.IMG_0298IMG_0299IMG_0302

New Zealand Chocolate is some of the best!

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A historic government building from the Europeans who settled the area.

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Stunning water falls…
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The incredibly huge Kauri trees….

Dinner at Kauri Cliffs is served wherever you might like it. This evening in the library was definitely unforgettable!!  Feast your eyes…..

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Next stop to The Landing.

The homes on this spectacular setting are top quality craftsmanship with views to knock your socks off. This is a wonderful place for families who want to settled in with a chef, a wine maker, privacy, and activities-galore!

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Arriving to the landing

The first home we saw was the Boathouse – perfect for an active family on the beach. basketball court, multiple barbecue and entertainment spots, all the bells and whistles.

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This home is located overlooking the vineyard and the coast and has glass walls that open or close depending on the weather.  Loved the privacy and setting here!

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Finally, the creme de la creme was the main house with its own wine cellar, star gazing roof top, incredible indoor and outdoor public areas – this is the place for a big birthday celebration with friends or family!  WOW!

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The Landing has its own wine maker and all the wines are included in the price of your rental. We had a marvelous afternoon with the wine maker who admits that his wines are not where he wants them with such a young vineyard but each year we tried simply got better and better! No complaints whatsoever! Lovely!

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And the chef may have prepared the most healthful and flavorful meal of the week – that is saying something! It was SIMPLY Wow!

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What a delightful surprise to depart in such style after a lovely afternoon.

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Embarking on the Ata Rangi
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The Ata Rangi is something we can most definitely arrange for our clients – it is wonderful for day trips or overnight charters.

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Eagles Nest

We were guests in the 4 bedroom presidential villa, affectionately nicknamed by us as “Villa Rockstar” as that is how we felt staying here!

 

 

Helena Bay

It was a true WOW to be some of the first guests at Helena Bay. This over the top, no expense-spared resort is made up of five one-bedroom villas and approximately 50 staff.  The location alone is incredible with some of the most beautiful and private beaches in the world and a working farm.

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Cocktails on the lawn
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The range of toys and equipment available is mind blowing and always TOP QUALITY! Fun to explore on 4 wheelers, mountain bikes, paddle boards or your own two feet!

 

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Mr. Ian Swain living it up with the ladies! Love this guy!
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The amount of original and special art throughout the property is over-whelming!

The food is all grown on the farm – livestock, produce, fruit – and only what is needed beyond that is imported. The chef is from Don Alfonso in the Amalfi coast and his whole concept of cooking is SIMPLICITY – let the flavor of the product shine through on its own! Wow, did we eat the most gorgeous foods and chef was right!

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Today we toured the grounds – visiting the sheep, cows, and gardens! Truly incredible to see how a farm is run and to be able to enjoy the fruits of it all with a cooking class!

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The service at Helena Bay is mind blowing! 50 employees take care of up to 10-14 guests tops!  They do not miss a beat, know your preferences, and can not do enough for you!

One more delicious dinner…..

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All good things must come to and end….but not really – how about being picked up by the fastest and sleekest helicopter operating in New Zealand? I am most definitely up for it!  This shaved off a 3 hour drive to the Auckland airport.  We definitely suggest at least a heli or two for our clients. The best way to set up a golf trip of New Zealand is via helicopter – heli-golf anyone?

Our views from Helena Bay all the way to Auckland are below…

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From the airport we departed Auckland on the North Island bound for the South Island and marvelous Queenstown, Adventure Capital of the World!

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There are many wonderful places to stay in the Queenstown area. The question is do you prefer to stay outside the city in a stunning lodge immersed in nature or inside the city in a chic hotel within walking distance to all?

Matakauri Lodge – Stunning!!

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Next stop Blanket Bay – New Zealand’s Ultimate Alpine Escape! Cozy, comfortable, and quite possibly perfect!

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Off on a heli-glacier ride and landing –

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Jet boating on the Dart River –

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For those wanting to be in the wonderful city center of Queenstown, THE place to stay is Eicharts Private Hotel which is walking distance to everything, but chic enough to not want to leave! Eicharts Private Hotel has nearby wonderful residences and a terrific sister hotel – The Spire Hotel.  Just outside of town in a lovely residential neighborhood, we love Azur Lodge.

Quaint shops, fun restaurants and live music await those who chose an in-town location.

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A couple of shots of the fabulous Eicharts Private Hotel –

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The ultimate thrill, Bungee jumping.  Believe me, this was not planned nor ever even remotely on my radar, but as they say, “When in Rome….do as the Romans do!” Or in this case, do as the Kiwis! How could I resist when I got to personally meet the co-founder of Bungee jumping and being at the exact spot of the original Bungee jump – the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown.

It is completely exhilarating and I am still pinching myself.  I did it! Check!

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Farewell, New Zealand! I will absolutely with out question return! One of my most favorite trips and places ever.  Your kindness, hospitality, and genuine love of life shines through! As you say,  “Sweet As!”

If you have a minute and 44 seconds, check out my epic jump video – still makes my hands sweat!

 

 

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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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!

The Italian Dolomites: Hut-to-Hut Ski Safari

The Dolomites – These UNESCO World Heritage mountains may be the most beautiful in Europe! Located in Northeastern Italy at the Austrian border where “guten morgen” works as well as “buongiorno,” the gorgeous limestone peaks of the Dolomites wind through four ski resorts, seven centuries-old villages, and four mountain passes!

As is typical with European skiing, you’ll have a cappuccino in one village, a “bomarbardino” (a brandy-laced eggnog) in the next, and a Michelin star lunch in another — just a typical day in Alta Badia! Oh and yes, there are also 4,000-vertical-foot runs and off-piste trails that rival the most sought after ski resorts in the world.

This hut-to-hut trip was focused on skiing from village to village and through National Parks, with each night ending at an incredible “rifugio” or small “hut” – (really a nice inn).  The inns are family run with love and passion. The rooms: simple, comfortable, and spotless. The decor is so charming and unique, including collections of mountain and family memorabilia displayed proudly. While the inns just have a hand full of rooms, they each have kitchens, wine cellars, and service to blow your mind and create a culinary experience worth the trip!

While the Sella Ronda is stunning and a photo op “must” for experienced skiers, heading off-piste or from village to village will be much more exciting.

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OFF TO THE MOUNTAINS – DOLOMITES BOUND!!

We had a 2.5 hour drive to Alta Badia – a stunning drive as we approach the majestic Dolomites and arrive into the town of San Cassiano and check into the Five Star, family run Relais & Chateau property, Rosa Alpina.

Cute village of San Cassiano including a cute Chapel and a little apres lounge:

An incredible meal at the two Michelin Star restaurant at Rosa Alpina! What a first night in the Dolomites! Restaurant St. Hubertus with 2 Michelins Star Chef, Norbert Niederkofler!

Day 1 of our Ski Safari – Alta Badia & Cinque Torri area

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Meet your local English speaking UIAGM/IFMGA professional mountain guide Marco Spazzini for a trip briefing and enjoy your first ski day in the Dolomites. In the morning you will ski in the area of Alta Badia, located between 1,400 and 2,700 meters (4,593;8,858′) above sea level and this altitude ensures optimal ski conditions throughout the winter, and offers breathtaking views of the most beautiful peaks of the Dolomites. Fast and comfortable ski lift connections (53 total), miles of wide, well; groomed slopes (130km / 81 miles), and the spaciousness of the ski area allow you to enjoy pleasant and safe skiing days. Charming mountain huts and first class mountain restaurants round out the appeal, making Alta Badia a ski area for connoisseurs. You will have the opportunity to venture on the famous World Cup slope of Gran Risa or on the more relaxed slopes of Piz La Villa, Gardenaccia, and Santa Croce. In the afternoon, ski on the slopes of Cinque Torri (Five Towers) area in the heart of the Eastern Dolomites, at the confluence of three valleys: the Ampezzo valley, Val Badia and upper Val Cordevole.

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RIFUGIO GIAU:

After a great day of skiing, we arrived at our first “hut,” or as the Italians call them our first “rifugio.”  These are mountain top family run inns that are incredible! Simple and charming rooms with friendly and immaculate service and wonderful Alpine character. The wines and cuisine are simply spectacular with the local food being a wonderful mix of Italian and Austrian influences.

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Our room with a Panoramic View at Rifugio Giau
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Charming touches throughout the Rifugio including this heater
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Room with a View at Sunset
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The Owner’s Son loves his Harley Davisons and a fun motorcycle collection is found throughout
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The wines in this area are astoundingly delicious and diverse
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What a wonderful surprise to discover this little inn has a wonderful cellar – love the delicious bubbles “Franciacorta”, “TrentoDOC”, and “Prosecco”  –  all bubbles widely enjoyed in this area.
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Pumpkin stuffed pasta called “candies”
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The lovely family who own and run Rifugio Giau – absolutely charming!
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The view as I open my eyes this morning
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Breakfast involves multiple homemade cakes and strudels – I better ski my tail off today!
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Our two incredibly capable and fun mountain guides – Marco and Marco!

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Breakfast of champions – no shortage of prosciutto in Alta Bada

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Day 2 – Ski Safari Recap – Civetta and Passo San Pellegrino

In the morning, ski down to Passo Giau where you will take a transfer to the Civetta ski area. Surrounded by plenty of uncontaminated views and majestic peaks, the valleys of Alleghe, Selva di Cadore, Zoldo, and Palafavera of Monte Civetta are rich in history and tradition. This area became famous during the 19th century, during the final century of the Venetian Doges, when the first winter guests discovered the imposing beauty and timeless charm of Monte Civetta and in particular Monte Pelmo – known as “God’s Throne.” On the slopes of these two giants surrounded by the Sella Group, the Tofane Massifs and the imposing Marmolada, you will find the largest ski district in the Veneto region. The Ski Civetta area offers a wide range of slopes and attracts skiers of all levels, for a total of 80km / 49,7 miles and 23 lifts. The hotels of the area are very welcoming and comfortable, and families with children are more than welcome. In the afternoon you will have a private transfer to Falcade, where you will ski at Passo Pellegrino, with more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) of slopes of varying length and difficulty, spread out at altitudes between 1,918 and 2,513 meters (6,293;8,245′), all equipped with 26 cutting edge lift systems. At the end of the day of skiing this beautiful terrain, a snowmobile will pick you up on the pass and bring you to your rifugio (1,980m / 6,496′) for the night. Set in a magnificent group of isolated old huts, this rifugio is immersed in the marvelous silence of a wide valley with a view of the Pale di San Martino. You will get to taste delicious dishes typical of the Trentino region. The renowned and traditional restaurant, mentioned in several culinary guides, will be appreciated not only for the quality of the food, but also for its warmth and welcoming hospitality.

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What a lunch stop!

And if breakfast was not enough to fuel us up for the day, stopping at this little 3 star inn for an incredible lunch, was just what we needed! SUCH A TREAT!!

Arriving to our mountain top rifugio – “Rifugio Fuciade”

It is the end of the season so not as much snow as they often have but an incredible welcome after a long day of skiing!

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The chapel at Rifugio Fuciade located at Passo San Pellegrino

 

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Always glad to serve you an espresso or a delicious glass of wine!
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Our sweet and bright little room at our rifugio
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Oh my, incredible to find this caliber of a kitchen at this tiny mountain top inn – travelers come from all over just for the food and often find themselves staying the night!
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The restaurant is worth the trip alone!
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Walking down to the wine cellar
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Superb collection of wines!
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How charming is our dinner table?
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All the cheeses and sausages and hams are house made!
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No words!
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Aperitif time – bubbles of course! With service to match! First class!

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We were incredibly well cared for by this lovely gentleman!

Day 3 – of the Ski Safari – Val di Fassa – Alta Badia

Today we skied a part of the Sellaronda, one of the most spectacular ski tours of the world, circumnavigating the Sella Massif. Considered somewhat of a “merry-go-round” for intermediate level skiers, this unique circular connection of lifts and runs was once the only way the ancient inhabitants of the Ladin villages could maintain a connection with each other. Nowadays it’s a modern day carousel that connects four Dolomite passes, four Ladin valleys (Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Val di Fassa, and Livinallongo), and three districts – you’ll have the opportunity to see more of the Dolomites in one day than many see on an entire trip! Although the Sellaronda is a relatively short tour that can be easily done in one day, with a length of just under 40 kilometers (25 miles), 26 of which are ski slopes (16 miles), but requiring approximately 2 hours of ski lift travel time and high elevations, you will begin the tour in the morning to ensure ample time for completion before lift service closes for the day.

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First morning stop for the famous hot drink in the Dolomites – the BOMBARDINO – part egg liquor or egg nog and part brandy (it can also include espresso). The Italian name comes from the original imbiber who said it was “like a bomb”!
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What is a few more calories, top it with whipped cream!

We stopped for a fabulous lunch of wonderful cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, and absolutely stunning wines in a cozy mountain top lodge with views!

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So the safari starts and ends at the Five Star fantastic Rosa Alpina. We arrived for our last night in to this welcoming and cozy suite! I know eating wonderful meals like this 3 x a day is not sustainable, but I am also am not ready for our last night to be here already!

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Last meal and yes a little after-dinner antics in the lounge with a fun group of new friends!!

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These mountains are incredible – I never imagined how beautiful the Dolomites would be! I can’t wait to return in the summer. Hut-to-hut hiking in the summer time is equally fabulous and cycling, rafting and climbing and repelling with our expert mountain guides complete with wonderful dining, make this a fabulous way to explore Italy during the summer months! Contact me to help plan your perfect family or romantic Dolomite adventure!

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Cabo – Sophisticated and Luxurious, if you know where to go!

Cabo is such a perfect beach holiday destination. While arriving by car would be a grueling 25 hour drive from San Diego down to the tip of the Baja Peninsula, arriving by plane from much of the continental USA is a breeze and the remote location pays off quickly!

Cabo is most simply defined as the cities of Cabo San Lucas in the far South and San Jose del Cabo in the North, connected by the “Corridor” made up of a variety of unique and varied resort properties. While the purpose of my trip was to check out the newly opened and spectacular Chilean Bay, I took advantage of my time in Cabo to see and experience several of the properties that clients of Resort to Laura Madrid love.

I was taken aback by the dramatic rocky and cliffy topography where the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific ocean sandwich the desert between! Incredible food, service, design, natural beauty, and a fantastic array of activities are a huge draw for Cabo’s well heeled-clientele.

Chileno Bay is the new kid in town and will absolutely get everyone considering a return to Cabo!

The vibe at Chileno Bay is sleek and sexy, chilled out but fun!  Large rooms with terrace or balcony and large bathroom including outdoor showers are their standard accommodation,  but families or a group of friends will absolutely love their 2, 3 and 4 bedroom suites and villas. I am in love with the 3 and 4 bedroom sky suites!

Due to its geographic location between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez and its rocky nature, most beaches in Cabo are not swimmable.  Chileno Bay has one of the few swimmable beaches in the area and lots of fun toys to take out on its calm waters.

 

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One of the swimmable beaches at Chileno Bay
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Three dramatic pools wind down to the beach.
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One of several comfortable spots to sit and chill through out the resort.
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Loved my make your own welcome amenity – the Chileno fast became my favorite cocktail!

 

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Terrific snacks to accompany my welcome cocktail!

 

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One of the TOP selling points of Chileno Bay is its food. This is not just good resort food, this is incredible cuisine making the resort a destination in itself. The talented culinary team right down to a pastry chef who will knock your socks off is the reason you will not miss a meal while on holiday at Chileno Bay!

Dinner at Comal was absolutely phenomenal!

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Mexico offers fantastic wines these days!

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However, nothing beats lunch and cocktails at T&T (Tacos and Tequila). These tacos are NOT dumbed down for the “hotel” market, they are completely authentic and delicious!

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The team throughout Chileno Bay is so engaging and so much fun!

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Lots of fun toys at Chileno Bay

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With such great food, guests will love the incredible fitness center with top end equipment and fantastic trainers and fitness sessions from Cross Fit Northern Cal.  Here I am at one of the morning boot camps.

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Next stop was to Ezperanza, like Chileno Bay, part of Auberge Hotels and Resorts.  For foodies, this is another important property to consider. Auberge has a philosophy of insuring the culinary is a prime consideration, never an afterthought. The special touches and service are felt throughout. This property is understated luxury where you can go and completely relax. While the room product is older than some of the competition, Esperanza is romantic and relaxed and has a very loyal following. They come for the service, the view, and the high touch but relaxed service. Children under 18 are not allowed at the main pool, keeping the romantic and sophisticated feel at the main resort. That said, Esperanza has fantastic options for families in their multiple villa and residential units complete with lawns for playing sports, family pools, restaurants and shops at an attractive price point. For couples, I definitely suggest the two  bedroom villa with plunge pool and direct private beach access!

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Sunset at Esperanza
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Bienvenidos a Esperanza
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Desert meets Sea
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The service is the best! Love the genuine Mexican hospitality!
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Homemade and absolutely special micheladas prepared by the Chef (beer with clamato, mulled herbs, chili, lime and vegetables – a meal in itself!)
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Guacamole station with all the fixings including chicaron.
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Ahi tacos – incredible combination of fish tacos served sashimi style.

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Oh what a night at Esperanza!

The Resort at Pedregal has always been a favorite of my clients. It’s ideal for couples, but also a terrific option for families.  The location at the Tip of Baja makes it a dramatic and beautiful setting for whale watching and privacy but definitely a dangerous and non-swimmable sea. Enter the resort through a tunnel carved in the mountain and let the magic begin. While completely private and unreachable by non-guests, Pedregal guests have the option to walk through the tunnel and into Cabo San Lucas if they wish to go to some local restaurants. This may be an ideal place to come with teens who may wish to go out and party while the parents enjoy the sophistication of the resort.

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As I exit the vehicle on arrival to Pedregal a margarita is offered.  Si, como no?!

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In my room, beers and guacamole await and I am told this is replenished every afternoon during my stay.

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Walking through the resort on my way to the spa, I encountered this tree hung with glass hearts. The following images are of the spa. Terrific spa and outstanding treatment!img_3164img_3169img_3170img_3172

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Healthy spa snacks
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For my cliff side dinner, I simply choose my fish and all the chef’s nightly accompaniments come automatically.

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The day time pool and bar setting is truly beautiful!

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My final visit was to One & Only Las Palmilla. This stunning and incredible property is high energy with excellent and scripted service. The staff to guest ration is a jaw-dropping 5 to 1. This property has a swimmable beach, fabulous service and very chic and trendy restaurants. This is the place to see and be seen.

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Guests are welcomed with a homemade “paleta” – popsicle
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I chose the guava and coconut – unreal!
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Welcome to One & Only Palmilla

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Loved this artist in residence –

 

 

 

 

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The meats on display in their steak restaurant

The resort has many room types that will appeal to couples and families or groups of friends. They even have multiple types of suites and even queen/queen accommodations if a family prefers to share a room.img_3097img_3098img_3100img_3101img_3102img_3103

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Tequila and snacks replenished daily.

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The swimmable beach at One & Only Palmilla
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Lunch with a view
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In Baja California, it is all about the fish tacos!

The only property that I did not get to see on this trip, is the incredible Las Ventanas. Quiet and romantic, with outstanding attention to detail, this is without doubt a great spot for couples wanting to completely chill out and not be bothered. There are several new hotels in Cabo that I can talk to you about including Grand Velas for those wanting the best of the all inclusive experiences and The Thompson for young couples of friends who want to party. Cabo has something for everyone and is a MUST do destination!

Magical Morocco with Relais & Chateaux

MOROCCO is magical!  I visited Marrakesh and the High Atlas mountains with my husband and kids for Spring Break years ago. I had always wanted to return to see the other fascinating cities of Fes, Rabat, and Essaouira.  Morocco is a captivating destination for adventurous and patient travelers – getting around the country to anywhere besides Marrakesh requires connecting flights through Casablanca or very long drives – 8-10 hours days.  The drives are incredible with gorgeous landscape and village after village living what appears to be a still a very primitive life.

While Marrakesh can easily be a long weekend for those seeking a cosmopolitan and romantic escape complete with dining, shopping, spa and night life, for travelers wanting to see the rest of the country, count on at least a week for adventures from the High Atlas mountains to a tented camp in the Sahara.

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Our Journey with Relais & Chateaux

The perfect start is to fly into the capital Rabat (or if necessary into Casablanca for a night at the new lovely Four Seasons) or a 90 minute  drive to Rabat, the serene, lush and spotless capital of the country.  Because the Royal Palace is here and all of the embassies, Rabat is very beautiful and polished – this makes for the perfect way to “ease” into what will feel in some cases like a chaotic Morocco.

I loved the 12 room perfectly positioned Villa Difaya – lovely gardens, a superb restaurant, an excellent fitness center, and spa with hammam.  Additionally families will love the two bedroom private villa.

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Living Room at Villa Difaya
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Gardens at Villa Difaya

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The Spa and Hammam at Villa Difaya

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Moroccan Pastiche
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Moroccan Tagine
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Magical first meal – Fish Tagine

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Mausoleum of Mohamed V Rabat

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Hassan Tower Rabat

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FES – What an authentic, marvelous, and raw city.  Fes is like Marrakech with out the European influence.  One feels that they have really arrived in Morocco here.  The markets, the artisans, the history, the food and the Riad Fes are all special highlights.   Arriving to Riad Fes is quite mysterious and exciting.  An original Riad surrounded by 4 other newer Riads built it the same historic architecture and tradition.

 

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Entering the walled city in Fes
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The Astonishing Riad Fes
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The bellmen delivering our luggage to the Riad Fes
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A Welcome fit for a Sheikh!

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Riad Res Living Room

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Dramatic and Historic Riad Fes
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My Room
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Another beautiful Dinner
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Each Tagine is better than the last!
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How beautiful is this place?

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Rooftop cocktails overlooking the Medina at Riad Fes

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The Fes Medina

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Making pancakes
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Camel

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Making very sweet sweets