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!

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
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Wedding glitter

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Call to Prayer at the Mosque in the Medina
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Candles

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Breathtaking Lights

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One of oldest Quranic Schools
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Leather Tannery
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Dying the leather hydes

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Aspgaragus, poached egg, hollandaise perfection
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Cermanic workmanship
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Freestyle design is incredibly precise
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I almost took home a fountain! Custom made and shipped for an incredible price! They are beautiful!!
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The work that goes into cutting the tiles alone is astounding
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Putting together the puzzle – such talent!

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We were invited to tea at this simple home
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Our hosts were so welcoming. This room is for meals, entertaining guests and for some even sleeping.
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What a beautiful spread for afternoon team in a Moroccan home
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Back at Riad Fes, another meal fit for a Sheikh
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And I got to hold this little guy!!
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Dessert is always a good idea!
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Drives in Morocco are very long but unavoidable – a few treasures along the way!

MARRAKESH –

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Arriving to our hotel in Marrakesh -Villa des Orangers
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The staff stoke the many fireplaces throughout the Riad
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Our crew all cleaned up after a 9 hour drive from Fes to Marrakech and ready for dinner with the General Manager, Jean Paul
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Gorgeous Detail…
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..with a meal to match

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Villa des Orangers is romantic and beautiful and very much all about LOCATION TOO! Walking distance to the main square!

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My bathroom…
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…and bedroom at Villa des Orangers

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The spa and hammam is very special – a must!
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The hammam at Villa des Oranger

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Walking the Medina – beautiful spices, herbs, and colors!
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Entering the Bahia Palace

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19th Century Palace

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Yves St Laurent Majorelle Gardens
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Moroccan Salad’s are always delicious!

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Wow wow wow – Arriving to incredible gem outside of Marrakech in the Palmerie – Ksar Shar Bagh
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Ksar Shar Bagh is incredibly sophisticated, yet an oasis just outside the hustle and bustle of Marrakech

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In my room – long stemmed roses.
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The private garden and pool of my suite at Ksar Shar Bagh

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Love my bed in this cozy alcove!
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My suite’s private pool area
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Delicious Sweets
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After Dinner Pool Game
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Our dinner room was designed with such attention to detail!
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Once incredible course after another – may have been best meal of the trip!

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And to return to my room after dinner and I find it completely bathed in flowers and candle light – so romantic. No detail left unturned!
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The Fire Lit….
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The bath drawn….
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Ksar Shar Bagh is unforgettable!
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Several Suites are terrific for families with multiple rooms and fabulous views!

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Roof Top Private Pool  – This Royal Suite is an incredible value!

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Such a Fond Farewell from the Team at Ksar Shar-Bagh

 

ESSAOUIRA – Is a fabulous ancient port town which should not be missed.  Some of the weeks best images were captured here on my iPhone so don’t miss it now, or when you go to Morocco!

 

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Entering the Walled City
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Arriving to our Hotel L’Heure Bleue
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Roof top View of the Medina from our hotel
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It is always time for Rose

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Yes, they make wine in Morocco and it is delicious.
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Happy Crew having a relaxing beach lunch in Essaouira.

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Shopping in the Medina

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Our Last Supper at the L’Heure Bleue was phenomenal!! We ate so well and loved this Moroccan Salad before my lamb!

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À tout à l’heure, Morocco!!

 

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!

Croatia & Montenegro: All Along the Adriatic

MONTENEGRO– Wild Beauty (UNESCO: Kotor)

It takes a few flight connections to get to some of the wonderful, newly formed countries of the former Yugoslavia along the Adriatic coast, but it most certainly is worth the trip! We started in gorgeous Montenegro where we overcame our jet lag at the sleek and luxurious Regent Porto Montenegro overlooking some of the largest private yachts in the world! Our first wonderful meals of the trip were enjoyed here – the freshest seafood, lovely produce, spectacular wines, and delicious olive oils!

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Welcome to the Regent Porto Montenegro
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The Terrace at The Regent Porto Montenegro
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I love the Nautical Theme through out the rooms – their residential style rooms with kitchenettes are perfect for families!
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Yachts Galore from all over the world, but many from Russia
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Even the tiny sleek boats are stunning!

Budva

Budva is considered to be one of the oldest settlements in the Balkans. This ancient town lies on a little island that was linked to land by a sandbar and in time became a peninsula. We kicked off our first day with a walk around the 15th century ramparts and medieval fortifications. Inside the walls, we found a combination of narrow streets and little squares, with superb monuments of the different Mediterranean cultures. Later, we visited Kotor, home-town of the famous sailors and traders of Boka Bay. Kotor’s architecture, a post-modern mix of the various epochs and its position at the bottom of the sharp cliffs of the Lovcen Mountain, makes it different from any other Mediterranean town. The Old City is a well preserved urbanization typical of the Middle Ages, built between the 12th and 14th century. Highlights included the Cathedral of St. Trifun and the Maritime Museum where visitors admire portraits of the famous captains, models of old galleys and sail boats and other artifacts from rich heritage of Kotor.

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DUBROVNIK – Pearl of Mediterranean (UNESCO)

We continued on with our driver to the absolutely stunning walled-city of Dubrovnik and were lucky enough to check in to the charming Villa Dubrovnik!

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Villa Dubrovnik has the same owner as the famous Capri Palace in Ana Capri, Amalfi.
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Guests met by the extraordinary Roberto at the front door will feel right at home!
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You can enter a small elevator at street level or take the dramatic staircase to the hotel’s multiple levels that hug the cliffs at sea’s edge
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What fate – we arrived just in time for late afternoon cocktails!
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The restaurants overlook the water and the natural island paradise beyond
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Isabella approves!
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The Old City is just a 10 minute walk past very pretty mansions
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Entering the walled City of Dubrovnik
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The city gates are still guarded today.
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The entire town of Dubrovnik is UNESCO world heritage
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Cocktails and Dinner at restaurant “360 degrees” is a must for the view and the food!
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Scallops and Foie Gras
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Shrimp and Local Prosciutto
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Fish
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Pork
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We returned to the hotel to watch Croatia win their Euro Cup Match Against Spain – we enjoyed it with the happy staff!
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Do mornings get any better than this?
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Local cured Salmon Eggs Benedict
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How good fried eggs and bacon can be!!

Today we met up with our expert guide Yelena for a fabulous walking tour of Dubrovnik, one of the most beautiful stone-built cities in the world. An important maritime port and a one-time state, it has always been a cultural metropolis. As one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Dubrovnik owes its special charm to the historic monuments which testify to its rich history. Some highlights included the Franciscan monastery of the “Order of Friars Minors” that preserves one of the three oldest pharmacies in Europe, the Orlando Column, the Sponza Palace, the Church of St. Blasius, the patron-saint of the town, the Rector’s Palace, the magnificent structure of the dukes of Dubrovnik, and the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary with a treasury containing the originals by Tiziano and Rafaelo.

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One thing that I hear consistently from clients of Resort to Laura Madrid is how fabulous our private guides are – many become life long friends to our clients! They certainly enliven the local experience for them whilst traveling!  Here are a few of our special guides in Croatia:

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Yelena was so bright and so much fun!
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Elisio was not my guide, but he was the guide for some dear friends and clients, and I ran into him in the market!
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There are great little places along the wall to stop for a cold beer and a view.
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Some of us are happier to find a candy store!
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The Public Beach is great for people watching but we loved relaxing at our private beach at Villa Dubrovnik!

Dubrovnik is worth three nights for sure.  This would allow time to walk the length of the city walls, kayak over to one of the islands, and to take the funicular to the top!

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A wonderful place to relax at Villa Dubrovnik after  a day of touring
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A delicious little alcove to swim at Villa Dubrovnik – the water is strong and chilly so be ready to be invigorated!
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Some may prefer doing flips at the pool!
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Meals in Croatia are all a treat!  Such spectacular food and at a much more attractive price point than you will generally find in Italy and France. Here we are at Taverna Posat.

Ston

Today we depart with Yelena for Ston to taste the freshest and most incredible oysters I have ever had anywhere, anytime in the world!  With our fun guide Yelena, we were met where we board a local man’s boat and travel to his family’s private island for a very special surprise!

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Oyster traps set in a bay of the most pristine water
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We are shown how the oysters are grown

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Oysters – Welcome!
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Arriving to our island for the afternoon.
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Our own private picnic awaits
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Daughter and father graciously host us for lunch.
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Shucking oysters.
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We are beyond excited!
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First Bite! Never an oyster in my life quite like this one!
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This is the family’s homemade wine and grappa – scrumptious!!
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Yelena and I enjoy a cup of homemade grappa!
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Isabella is a sport!
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Oh my, no one told me to save room for the most incredible mussells with garlic and wine. There are only 4 of us!!
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We do justice to this incredible meal – freshness like I have never experienced!
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Hard to leave this place! What an afternoon!

After departing Ston Bay, we stopped for a visit to the incredible walled fortress of Ston town and the salt mines. Ston’s famous 5 kilometer Medieval stone defensive walls are the largest in Europe and protected the precious salt pans that contributed to Dubrovnik Republic’s wealth. The history of the salt works in Ston goes back for more than 4,000 years. It is the oldest salt mine in Europe and one of the the oldest still working mines in the world!

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The lovely stone walls of Ston
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Visiting the oldest salt pans and mines of Europe

HVAR – The Sunniest Place in Europe

After quite a long day of driving, a ferry and another car ride, we arrived to the charming but lively island of Hvar.

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Hvar Harbour
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Hvar Main Square
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Sunset Cocktails
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Hvar by night
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Gariful for diner – great views on the water and lively!
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Best Lobster linguine with the delicious Teran red wines.
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For lunch we took the local ferry to the smaller island of Palmizana
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A lovely place for lunch – reserve in advance for the terrific beach front table under its own wooden canopy
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Happy camper with a glass of the refreshing and dry Malvasia grape
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A Croat beer for Gil
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Excellent service and beautiful fish to choose from
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Local octopus in white wine and garlic – this is the dish!

The best way to get to and from the islands is on a private boat.  Here we are departing  Hvar for our 90 minute ride to Split.

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Arriving to Spit

SPLIT – 1700 Years of a Living Monument (UNESCO)

The first inhabitant of Split was the Roman emperor Diocletian who started to build his palace in this friendly bay around 293 AD. After his abdication he withdrew to this luxurious palace to enjoy the rest of his days. The following turbulent centuries made the palace into a town first populated by the citizens of the nearby Salona, fleeing before Avars and Slavs. The town overgrew the walls of the palace and its authorities kept changing – from Croatian kings, Hungarian and Venetian administration, to French rulers and Austro- Hungarian monarchy.

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The Old town of Split
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One of the bellowers from Diocletians Palace

We walked with our guide through this living monument and all its magnificent sights – the basement halls, the main square of the Palace, the Cathedral of St. Domnius, and the temples of the Palaces with its many monuments from antiquity, to the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

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We drove to the outside of Split where we had stunning views of the inlets where many pirates hid before and after attacking large ships. We headed to the small village of Gata to enjoy a special lunch in the home of a lovely local lady named Anka.

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Arriving to the home of Anka
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Anka is welcoming Gil, Isabella and I along with our fabulous guide Linda
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The amazing ANKA – she is one of 6 women in Croatia who has the authority/ability to make the UNESCO designated food – Soparnika
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The beautiful simple home of Anka
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Swiss Chard and all locally grown foods make up her cooking
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The fire pit with chimney in Anka’s kitchen and the wooden board to roll her dough for Soparnika
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A lovely welcome of local cheese and prociutto and family made cherry and walnut brandies!
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Anka has been perfecting the fire for hours

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Rolling the dough
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This is an art in itself
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Fresh swiss chard from the garden along with onions and garlic
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Top layer of the Soparnika goes on
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Enjoying some home made cherry brandy with our guide, Linda.
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This is hard work for Anka, she is about to put her savory pastry on the fire and cover it with hot ash
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Isabella checking it all out!
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Surprise! Aka has also been cooking a dish of Peka all day under the embers – a hearty dish made of pork, veal and chicken with spectacular potatoes
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The lid comes off of the Peka
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Peka made with chicken, pork, veal and potatoes
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Lunch is served at Anka’s home
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All good meals start with a glass of wine!
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The Soparnika is also ready – the actual cutting and shape of each piece is also designated UNESCO – there is a specific way that it must be done every time.
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How beautiful is this! Topped with Croatian Olive Oil and salt – oh my!

 

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Spending the afternoon with Anka has been so unique and special not to mention DELICIOUS!

Back to Split for the night, and where to stay but in Diocletian’s Palace at the 7 room Hotel Vestibul Palace! Each room is unique and below the court yard where breakfast is served.

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The life of the modern day city takes place in and around the former Palace of Diocletian – what a view!
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Bokeria – A great choice for your dinner!

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How lucky were we to be in Split for the Croatia vs. Portugal match in the Euro Cup finals. Croatia lost, but this lovely man with whom we shared a table in the bar went to his restaurant next door to bring us the most gorgeous local prosciutto and cheese! LOVE THIS PLACE!

Plitvice National Park – Beauty Unspoilt

Croatia has stunning national parks, lakes and waterfalls.  It takes some driving to get there but truly beautiful.  Here are are at Plitvice National Park. The oldest and largest National Park in Croatia, Plitvice is located in Central Croatia close to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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The Istrian Peninsula – Mystical Land of Gastronomy

This region has always attracted those who consider gastronomy as one of the most important reasons for traveling – namely me! The alluring gastronomic character of Istria consists not only of the exquisite Mediterranean seafood of the coast but also of the products of the inland’s gardens, orchards, and vineyards.

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Every wine we had in Croatia was exceptional.
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I would come back to Kantinon in Rovijn, just for this appetizer platter!

As you drive through the rugged and hilly terrain you will come to the village of Livade, one of the most important centers of truffle farming in Europe. Until recently the Istrian white truffle was unknown on the world’s stage of luxury gastronomy. Only those who are the true connoisseurs of this magical fungus come to visit the small corner of the world from which this delicacy originates.

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Hot chocolate never hurts!

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A very artsy little town!
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Always an inviting place to sit
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You may want to have them ship a box home of the delicious local products!

We continued towards the charming village of Momjan for a private wine tasting at Kabola Winery. Throughout the past, Momjan area was known as one of the most productive wine regions in Istria. It even provided the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy with wine. We tasted many of these famous wines made with the grapes muscat, malmsey, and teran.

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All Local!

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We enjoyed a private truffle hunting demonstration with the truffle hunter and his dogs – this may have been Isabella’s favorite day!

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One of the most important restaurants for truffles is Restaurant Zigante. It’s a must for those wanting every course made with the local delicacy!

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A model of the largest truffles ever found is in the restaurant

After the truffle hunting demonstration we went to the medieval ruins of the town of Motovun to taste some local products made with truffles.

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Truffles in everything!

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Typical Istrian Village
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Istrian Walled Village

Meanwhile back in Rovijn, this is the charming and special authentic city where we stayed while touring the Istrian Peninsula.

We stayed in a very modern, largish luxury hotel – not what I would normally select, but this actually is the perfect spot to unwind after several days of touring, staying in quaint boutique hotels, and moving from place to place. Hotel Lone and Monte Mullini are terrific for the large modern rooms and bathrooms (the kind you just won’t find while staying in a palace dating to 200 AD)! The beach, spa, gym and modern conveniences were all much appreciated, and better yet, the old town Rovijn is just a short walk along the beach! Enjoy the bars, restaurants, and village life of one of our favorite towns of the trip!

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How cute is this stairway bar in Rovijn?

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Will miss this cafe life!

Now on to Southern Italy!

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!)

 

PERU: An Epic Family Adventure

My husband and I hiked the Inca trail over a decade ago, and throughout that experience I dreamed of not IF, but WHEN we would return with our children! I challenge you to float to the end of these images – each experience tops the last! Let me know when I can help craft your customized journey to the fascinating land of the Incans – gastronomy, culture, nature, art, history and active adventures await!

FIRST STOP: THE SACRED VALLEY

The most beautiful place to acclimatize, take on some active pursuits, and experience a bit of culture:

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Alpacas, Llamas & Vicunas, oh my!

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