Saturday, October 24, 2015

Three remarkable Signature hotels on a road trip from Rome to Florence

Borgo dei Conti

Borgo dei Conti is an easy three hour drive north from Rome. Be sure however, to access Google Maps and arrive in the daylight, as it lies 8 miles west of Perugia, on a tiny lane in the hills above Lake Trasimeno.

A home built centuries before, as all these properties were, the interior has been completely redone, with charming original accents such as beamed ceilings, yet some very modern design elements as well.
I suggest you book one up from the minimum category, to get the spacious feel so many of the rooms enjoy with remarkable views of the countryside. The GM, S. Mereu, is a truly delightful gentleman
 who will make you feel immediately like his personal guest, as will Elena at the front desk and all the staff.

A luscious pool, bikes, truffles to gather, sophisticated cuisine, and a serene atmosphere, complete the picture.
For my clients: complimentary full breakfast and a 3 course lunch or dinner for 2.

Castel Monastero

 A former convent, this lovely property is near Castelnuovo Berardenga. Multiple ancient buildings with renovated rooms and suites surround a courtyard, and adjacent to these structures is an entire wing dedicated to wellness with a state of the art spa and available long term health programs. In between lies a spectacular multi level pool, and around you are the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Rooms are all very individual, but even the least expensive is full of charm, light and space. The bathrooms are very high tech yet retain a sense of the history of this place.

A Gordon Ramsey restaurant, and less formal trattoria provide an excellent choice of fare, and the bar is a wonderful mix of hip and traditional, with soft jazz playing and unique and delicious cocktails!

Enzo, the deputy manager is a gem, and you can feel the feminine touch of GM, Graziella Arba, on everything. We slept so well here, we missed the wonderful breakfast!

For my clients: complimentary full breakfast and $100 spa credit + lunch.


Castello del Nero

Moving northwest from the Castel, we wandered through such iconic towns as Radda in Chianti, Cortona, and San Gimignano, all very scenic and easy to navigate. Off the toll highways, the road dips and winds with vines covering every hillside. Our final stop was at the very grand Castello del Nero, which lies halfway between Siena and Florence, outside  the town of Tavarnelle.
Here is the private home of royal and wealthy families since the 1200s. The main floor was the stables, now the site of 2 excellent restaurants.

The family lived on the 2nd floor and the staff on the 3rd. No room is alike and all are full of atmosphere and perfectly maintained. There are two enormous terraces with many sitting areas and outdoor dining above the beautiful pool. On the lowest level is also a modern and very complete spa. 

Trails surround the property and bikes are available. They even offer a shuttle service to Siena for a memorable day trip. As at all of these properties, the staff is extremely well trained and welcoming. We enjoyed a glass of local vino on the terrace one night with my friend and the head of Silversea's wine program, Lawrence d'Almeida, who lives in Greve nearby and is sometimes available for private wine touring. Contact me if you are interested. 
Following that, we dined on bigoli pasta with fresh 
white truffles, accompanied by a memorable bottle of Amarone. Windows wide open, we enjoyed our last night's rest in beautiful Tuscany.

For my clients: complimentary full breakfast and $100 dining credit.

Below: Two sisters in Tuscany. Mary Pat Bauman on the left, and your blogger, Sheelagh King, on the right.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Crystal Cruises Review

After 20 some years of being known as the only mid size (900+ guests) luxury cruise line, 2012 saw Crystal also become an all-inclusive experience. Like Silversea, Regent, Seabourn and Sea Dream, cruise fares now include gratuities and complimentary spirits and wines.
So how does Crystal compare in other ways? We spent two weeks aboard the Symphony to check it out.

Overall: The ships are very traditional in styling, with a full teak walking/promenade deck  with teak loungers in the shade. There is a good size pool with lots of upholstered sitting areas around it. More umbrellas were needed on our itinerary. Public spaces are quite grand and this feels like a very large ship, but not at all crowded, with only 900+ onboard. There are many activities, a good workout area and spa, a terrific internet cafe with state of the art Apple desktops, plus their classes offer languages, piano, art, cooking and more. For a cruise with days at sea, you will likely never be bored!

The number of guests on board can go past the 900 mark, whereas the largest ships of the other four ALL INCLUSIVE competitors are at 700 on Regent, and about 500 on Silversea and Seabourn. However, there is more public space as Crystal's ships are at 68,000 tons and Regents are at  48,000 making them half again as large.

Service is very comparable on all of these lines, but I have to say that the professionalism and impeccably attired staff on Crystal deserves a shout out.

Whereas some of the other lines have shown a bit of delayed maintenance during the recent challenging financial years, one gets the impression that Crystal's Japanese owners have spared no expense to keep these ships in immaculate and updated condition.
Accommodations: A variety of sizes starting at   200sf  with obstructed views (E category on Symphony only) compared to about 240-300 sf  minimum on the others. This does give guests a wider range of pricing. The cabins are very tasteful and elegantly furnished.

Guests: Crystal seems to attract a more American and more mature crowd, but this may be due to the fact that they used to do almost entirely long cruises of 10+ days. Recently they have introduced many shorter cruises and I expect the average age to lower as a result.

Entertainment: Here is where Crystal really shines.Shows that are  exceptionally and professionally staged and costumed with a very high level of performers on most evenings. Along with the other bars and live music venues, there  is also a full size movie theater showing first run films. This was quite fun to take in.

Dining: Due to it's size the dining room is still a little challenging, as one can do early and late dining and pre- assigned tables in the traditional style, or sign up online before, for specific times over a 3 hour range and preferred table sizes including for just 2. Clients have had challenges doing this and you are relegated to a certain part of the lovely dining room. However, their specialty Asian and Italian restaurants are second to none and well worth the $30 fee. There are also other, more casual venues, and the staff does it's best to accommodate all requests.

Pricing: Crystal used to suffer from rather high pricing. This has changed radically in the last 2 years and they are now often the best deal out there. Comparing veranda Cat A and B to suites on Silversea, the pricing is comparable. But for the lower categories, you can book a 12 day trip for as low as  $3500pp. However, port charges are additional and should be added in, to do a true comparison with Regent and Silversea. We are offering some great extras on most Crystal sailings, and especially  recommend these ships for a multi generational family reunion, or any type of group with a variety of ages to please. This will allow us to offer you even more amenities.

                                           CAT. B VERANDA ROOM ON CRYSTAL

Sunday, June 8, 2014

When you have visited a port before, what to do the next time?

Maybe you know the feeling. You have been lucky enough to call at a beautiful Mediterranean port more than once, and it shows up again on a new itinerary. Do you eliminate the cruise because of that? No! You find new things to do.

We did this recently aboard Silversea, in Ibiza, Mallorca and Lisbon.

Ibiza: Always an enjoyable stroll in this walled town with fun boutiques and open air restaurants, but this beautiful day, we yearned for a great beach, and so we walked around the harbor to the ticketing office for the ferries that go regularly to the 4th Balearic Island of Formentera. We were just in time, as a high speed boat was departing in 10 minutes.We felt safe doing this, as our ship did not depart Ibiza until 10:00pm. I would not recommend you try this with a ship departure before 7pm.
Formentera is just an hour away by hydrofoil  and just above sea level, surrounded by amazing white beaches. Some beaches are walkable in good shoes, bikes are for rent at the port or, as we were four, we took a taxi to Playa de las Salines, about 15 minutes away. Renting 2 umbrellas, we stretched out  on a beautiful white sand crescent and swam for hours in the clear turquoise water. Added to the entertainment were the occasional nude sunbather and topless young and old. After beers at the local beach bar, where patrons sat in swimsuits and gold sandals to long lunches and plenty of wine, we had the bar call us a cab to catch the 4pm ferry back to Ibiza. A great day and memory!

The beach at Formentera

Ibiza at night from the ship.

Mallorca:One of my favorite islands in the world. But after two spring breaks spent there, and at least 4 visits to the port of Palma, we were looking for a special and low key afternoon with our friends Gerry and Maruta. After heading into the capital, we negotiated a  4 hour rate with a cab driver and headed out of town to the northwest. The highway gets you to the beautiful countryside fast, then you go through Valdemossa and on to the stunning cliffside environs of Deia, a fairytale place with stone villas (royal family members + Michael Douglas have homes here) and on to one of my favorite hotels  in Spain, La Residencia. The lobby features old photos of Mick Jagger, Liz Taylor and other past guests who have sought an exclusive but unpretentious getaway. Rooms are scattered around in various buildings, and  decorated in white fabrics or florals with exposed timbers. The beautiful indigenous carmel stonework is  inside and out, and shuttered french doors keep the hot sun out and bring in the cool evening air. Pools are scattered around among the palms and verdant foliage. The beach is a walk or shuttle below the cliffs. Sitting outside, with a light and delicious lunch of a perfectly dressed salad nicoise and glass of dry white wine made on the island, is a perfect afternoon. Service is unobtrusive, warm and efficient. After this lovely experience, we head back to the bustle of the great Cathedral of Palma and wander the streets of the old town. I love Mallorca. It is worth a week or two.

Lisbon: Such and interesting city with it's monumental plazas, many hills and unique neighborhoods perched above the Tagus River. But after several visits there, we decided to venture to the medieval walled town of Obidos some 90 mins. north. Here life remains much the same as in past centuries, with ramparts, whitewashed buildings, tile roofs, but with the addition of of many galleries and artisan shops. It would make a memorable night stop in a driving tour of Northern Portugal. And the place to stay is the beautifully restored Pousada de Obidos.

The Pousada

Creating lace in a time honored tradition.

Visiting Chewton Glen in the New Forest, UK

Chewton Glen

Who knew? Who knew there was such a place as the New Forest in the southwest of England. Where William the Conquerer in 1079, set aside these 200 sq. miles as his personal hunting grounds.

It is still there. And also there, and well provided for, are over 3000 wild  ponies, small villages with wonderful histories, and to offer you a home away from home, is Chewton Glen.

Set in the middle of nowhere, but in fact just 35 minutes from the cruise ship dock at Southampton, and walking distance from the coast, is this remarkable, rambling brick country house on 136 acres. A maze of delightful and unique rooms and suites (only 58) are bookended by serene sitting rooms, beautiful pools, all manner of sports facilities, grand spa and superb dining. Take a croquet lesson from a master of croquet! Or take a cooking class, explore their organic gardens and learn about the new and impressive wine areas of England

As an unexpected addition, the owners have recently constructed ¼ mile away,in a quiet glade, uber modern safari like villas on stilts called the tree houses  with multiple bedrooms, private decks, top of the line kitchens, hot tubs and complete privacy. Popular among the celebrity circuit, they offer a most un –English type experience, but with all the amenities that this most English country house offers. 

What is there to do other than tennis, croquet, spa and swimming? There are wonderful villages to explore such as Beaulieu, where you must tour the estate of the Montagues with it's superb guide, Maureen Broughton. Hiking the trails, and horse riding nearby, will also fill your days.
Great for families or for an adult getaway, or for a country house experience prior to or following the ship docking on the southern coast. The staff from sommelier to the  very personable GM, Mr. Andrew Stembridge, will ensure you have a perfect stay!

A cozy spot to read the morning paper.

Spectacular baths at the exotic tree houses.

Clivedon, UK-Living the Upstairs Downstairs Life!

Clivedon House

This spring I had a great opportunity to see 2 iconic country hotels in the UK, thanks to Ellen Freschauf of Select Resorts and Hotels and the hospitality of the hotels' management team.

Just 30 mins. from Heathrow Airport, nestled in 376 acres of formal gardens above the Thames, lies the magnificent Clivedon House, former country home of Lord and Lady Astor. Built first in 1666 and after various fires and disasters, re-built finally once again, in the mid-1800s, it will take you back to the Britain of many glories and famed tradition. 

The main house is flanked by two wings, which have been completely renovated creating lovely rooms and grand suites.
The central part of the building houses a cozy living room with grand fireplace imported from France by Lord Astor himself, as well as an even cozier library and 2 beautiful dining rooms with views opening out to the glorious gardens.

Service was warm and professional. There is only a small desk at the entry to complete a painless check in, and then it is on to tea and crumpets and cookies in front of the fire, while your room is prepared for you.

Cocktails are taken in the library before indulging in the best of new British cuisine, paired with an expansive wine list, amid crisp linens, cozy banquettes, and fresh flowers.

Bed linens are superb as well, and what can be better than having two gentlemen in starched white shirts, black vests and trousers, come knocking at your door at 9am, with silver salvers and china dishes full of breakfast goodies, to set up for you in front of your fireplace. Oh to be among the gentry!

A close second is a leisurely walk among the formal gardens and hedgerows, a treatment at the spa, or best of all, hiring a vintage cabin cruiser with Capt. Steve, to pick you up at the riverbank below, and pilot you down the Thames to the charming town of Bray, home of three Michelin starred restaurants. Mist rising over the river, manicured lawns, homes of the 1% along the banks, and on the aft deck cushions, champagne flows and savory sandwiches  are yours to enjoy!

This is the perfect break in your trip onward to Europe or on your return, or simply as a long weekend before heading into the mad crush that is London. Any time of year! 
Clivedon is a Signature preferred hotel which offers our clients a  full breakfast  daily and food credit, when booked through our office.

The magnificent Clivedon House.

On the river Thames, which lies below the house.

Lady Astor's Suite

A typical room in the newly renovated wing.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Take A Trans Atlantic Cruise

Why Take a Trans Atlantic Cruise

I get this question a lot, as we will be taking our fourth this fall from Barcelona
to Miami aboard the beautiful intimate (270 suites) all inclusive Silver Spirit.

First, there are usually some interesting stops prior to the crossing. In this case, we will explore the great ports of
Barcelona, Cartagena, Valencia and Malaga in Spain. Then we will make a day stop in charming Funchal, Madeira.

After lots of touring for 5 or 6 days, we will kick back and enjoy the ship as she crosses the Atlantic, usually in beautiful weather in the fall.
This part of the trip is not unlike spending a week at a resort except: There are 375 staff to take care of every whim, there are 5 restaurants to try,
all your beverages and gratuities are included, and when you tire of watching the sea from your cozy outdoor sofa or lounger (which I never do) or swimming in the pool, there are lectures to attend, cooking classes to take, and all other manner of activities to enjoy if you wish.

Usually I try to get into an exercise program (the facility will never be closer!) and learn something new from the guest lecturers on board, but I have to admit that many of these days are spent reading, writing, and stretching out on our private veranda or on the back of the ship, mesmerized by the great expanse of water. 

Toward the end we will have a day to explore the island of Bermuda, and then on to Florida, where we hop on a quick 5 hour flight to home. AND-no jet lag, as you gain an hour each night of the crossing. Painless.

So what does it cost for 15 nights of relaxation and travel in  your suite, with butler, delicious dining, unlimited champagnes, wines, cocktails and all gratuities?

Well this year, it is about $4000 pp. Air is under $1000. What are you waiting for? It is the best of all worlds.

Arriving in the early morning Funchal

Setting up for dinner at the hot stone grill above the pool.

How we spend our late afternoons at sea

Some of Silversea's Finest: Hotel Director Gianni
and Maitre'd Jorge Caeiro

Rancho La Puerta

An Annual Week at Rancho la Puerta.

Most women have a week at a spa on their bucket list.The Golden Door, Ashram,Canyon Ranch are well known and prestigious. But for a truly wonderful spa experience, luxe but not fussy, in a beautiful setting, you cannot do better than the oldest spa in North America, Rancho la Puerta. Just 8 miles south of the border and 30 miles inland, set in the low mountains of Baja, lies this spectacular 3000 acre respite from the stress of real life. Founded 73 years ago by a Hungarian professor, it offers today a lush landscape dotted with brick and stucco casitas that surround organically designed gyms,studios, pools, spas and the gracious  2 story dining building, with its tile roof, rustic, traditional interior and  massive fireplace. All guests take their meals here and enjoy the delicious organic , primarily vegetarian fare which also features fresh fish most evenings.

In between meals, your day can be as full or empty of classes as you wish. There is no pressure to accomplish anything except whatever pleases you! Most women I know, were  only pressured by how many new activities they wanted to try and how to fit them into their week.
Cardio, kick boxing, circuit training, Pilates, yoga, tai chi,spinning, tennis, water aerobics and weight classes are just a fraction of what is on offer. In addition, there are hikes for every level, cooking classes, water shiatsu (Watsu) meditation classes, cranial sacral therapy and more. Not interested in working out? Join the bird watching walks, read in a hammock under the trees, try crystal bowl healing or your hand at sculpture and water colors. Take a Spanish class, attend a concert or lecture on nutrition, dreams, or relationships given by an ever changing roster of experts from around the USA. And of course, take time for a few spa treatments such as a loofah scrub, hot oil hair treatment or Swedish massage.

Who will you be around? If you come with our great group from Seattle on Jan. 17th 2015, ( our 4th year!), you will have a built in group of instant friends. If you go a different week, you will likely find 85 per cent women ages 35-75, no celebrities or prima donnas, but many interesting, well educated and successful women, who happen to be interested in meeting other women. One feels at home quickly, which is enhanced by the ranch creating a special welcome program for new guests.
The cost? Quite reasonable compared to other spas and all the elements that are included. A full week in your own casita with private patio, all classes and all meals, transfers from and to San Diego airport can be had for as low as $2800. Share a room with a pal, or perhaps a daughter or sister, and the price goes down. Accommodations range from cozy cottages called rancheras up  to lovely casitas that feature 2 bedrooms, kitchen, living room with fireplaces that are set twice daily with aromatic piƱon wood. These are perfect for a group of 4 or two couples.

The staff will charm you, the cuisine delight, the instructors are so welcoming and perhaps most importantly, the classes are never intimidating. On the final night, a local Malbec wine is served at dinner, and the Mexican band plays your music, and you will feel like a real dancing queen!

Our group is already looking forward to next January. Make plans to visit the ranch, book through me and enjoy exclusive pricing on some weeks, or at least the lowest offered, plus a 50 minute spa treatment on me! See you at the Ranch!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Panama Today

Panama Today

More cruises are starting in Panama, so the question is, is it a viable destination itself?  As more travelers try Belize, Costa Rica and even Nicaragua's only luxury resor,t Mukal,can Panama be far behind as a destination?

I spent some time there last fall checking out the Buenaventura coastal resort and the capital city. First, the climate is more humid and tropical than countries further north. This means winter months are best, for less rainfall. The city is a work in progress, with evidence of international investments everywhere, as illustrated by the impressive skyline and numerous cranes. What I loved was the ongoing  renovation  of the 17th century old town on a peninsula jutting out from the downtown. Beautiful colonial buildings that had been taken over by squatters for decades, were decayed badly, when the government offered the owners a choice to renovate or lose the building to the government. What you see now, are lovely pastel 2 and 3 story tiled roofed, balconied buildings, lining newly brick paved lanes. Even the Presidents residence is here. Shops, galleries and wine bars are sprouting, and I imagine in another year or two, this will become the primary attraction for visitors.

We stayed at the boutique Bristol hotel which has just had an Ian Schrager  type  restyling, in shades of grey, ivory and metallics. I loved the decor and the rooms are very generou,s set off by dark hardwood accents and huge bathrooms. Service is not up to Europe, but we must remind ourselves this city is on Latin time. The famous restaurant Sol el Puedes, is a major attraction for the city's elite, as evidenced by the 70 or 80 new SUVs and BMWs  that pulled up for an event one night, disgorging glamorous couples dressed to the hilt.

2 hrs from the city, lies a resort development with a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, riding stables, hundreds of glamorous Mediterranean style homes facing a long stretch of Pacific beach.At the center lies the JW Marriott Buenaventura. With just over 100 elegantly appointed rooms, spectacular pools, 3 restaurants, it is the most upscale Panamanian resort, and attracts the upper crust for holidays and long weekends. This resort is close to being exceptional, because of its luxurious  accommodations and facilities. What is lacking is maintenance and nightlife. But this is a resort community to watch, especially when the new airport is built, eliminating the 3 hour drive from Panama.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 Days Aboard Ponant's Le Boreal

10 Days Aboard Ponant's Le Boreal 

We were ready for something different, and this new luxury expedition ship owned by Ponant, a French line, seemed just the thing. Averaging 200 guests, it meets our preferred size. Very contemporary in design, casual in dress, zodiacs on board for exotic island stops, and French food-what's not to love! Also for the American market, all inclusive of wines, cocktails, and gratuities. The staff is a mix of French, Mauritian and Indonesian. The guest mix on board this particular cruise was 140 French vs. 8 Americans! Yes, it was like French immersion school, and that is not for everyone. But the crew was very accommodating, and we were happy to  be part of this very Gallic experience. And in all fairness, we are told that in Europe it is more of a 40/60 split. Our suggestion, cruise with your own group of friends.

Perhaps the best reason to consider this vessel, other than the lovely staterooms, open bridge policy and scrumptious baked goods, are the remarkable destinations from Antarctica to the Arctic. Even the more traditional itineraries such as Colon to Lima, which we did, offered some unusual ports, such as a day swimming at one of the impossibly beautiful San Blas islands, and an unscheduled morning swim stop in the Las Perlas islands off the Pacific side of Panama. Having a young captain on board with a certain amount of authority to divert his vessel, was a pleasant change. In fact he referred to it often as our yacht! This is a cruise line to consider for the adventure and style it offers. And when you get home your French will be much improved!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Augustine Hotel Prague

View at dawn from an upper floor room at The Augustine

The professional Mr. Lubos, our maitre'd.

The very elegant and cozy bar.
Returned to Prague and Budapest recently and chose one of our preferred properties for the corporate incentive group we escorted. The Augustine is a former monastery comprising of 7 buildings dating from the 13th century, and now offering 101 luxury rooms. It is a beautiful example of retaining historical ambiance and architectural detail, while adding modern day luxuries like heated floors and linen sheets. The location is delightful, just  5-10 mins walk to the Charles Bridge and just below Prague castle.

Lobby and public spaces have a contemporary vibe and the courtyard that sheltered monks in past centuries, now is dotted with lovely sofas, greenery and an outdoor dining venue. But on cold afternoons, nothing beats the cozy and luxurious bar with it's high windows and ceilings and delicious light bar menu.

The lower level houses a small but lovely spa and the original brewery, (the monks still produce a scrumptious beer), which now is a fun and atmospheric pub in the evenings.

And one more comment. Mr. Lubos the low key and completely competent maitre'd , is not only great to work with, but the first  in my experience, to absolutely refuse a well deserved gratuity. How impressive. The staff over all was anxious to please. Enjoy some lovely extras here when you book through me.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hotel Report Barcelona

In June we renewed our impressions of this exciting port city in Spain. Checked out four of our preferred properties, two of which are quite new to this city's central area. The Mandarin Oriental on the main artery of Passeig de Gracia is an exercise on 21st century modernism. Soaring spaces, mostly white and minimal. A unique terraced garden in the rear has all sorts of privates nooks among lime colored plantings, with wicker seating arrangements, ivory umbrellas, but alas no pool.Great location, MO service and all you might want in a well designed room.

The El Palace is the former Ritz (not the Ritz Carlton Arts) and has been redone top to bottom in a very opulent manner. Spectacular decor, quite staid in feeling, particularly the formal restaurant. But a back garden and more casual green house restaurant gives one an option. definitely grand but intimate.
For those who prefer to save some Euros but want a good location, comfortable rooms and a friendly and very accommodating staff, the Claris on Pau Claris is a good choice. Eclectic in decor (modern to ancient Egyptian) with a rooftop pool, and walking distance to Passeig de Gracia and Sagrada Familia, we found our clients to be well satisfied at a rate of under E200 including a sumptuous buffet breakfast.
Sheelagh and Maruta strolling the Passeig de Gracia

  Rooftop pool at the Claris. 
The central atrium of the Claris Hotel . An Egyptian museum is on the premises.

Rear garden at the Mandarin Oriental

Casual dining at the El Palace. 

Down the street is the Majestic, a long time player with traditional interior but a jumping scene at the rooftop pool bar. I have had mixed reviews on staff here, but that aside worth consideration for location and a grand feeling.
The amazing unfinished edifice of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

The Ancient City of Petra

The Ancient City of Petra
Just like the Indiana Jones movie! Hidden from civilization for thousands of years, it is a wonderful sight!