Sunday, September 27, 2015

Not Your Average Hotel Stay!

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Record Holder Stay: Memories Splash Punta Cana:
A kids' haven that's not quite directly on the beach, this 525-room all-inclusive resort one-ups King Neptune with what's billed as the largest resort water park in all of the Caribbean. Rooms are upscale and some categories have big whirlpool tubs; Family Suites with bunk beds are available. Restaurant options include a buffet, three a la carte restaurants, and multiple bars, and guests also have access to some options at sister property next door, the Royalton Punta Cana. The Royalton is more upscale, right on the beach, and better suited to couples. 

Organic Farm Stay: Villa Azalea, Inn & Organic Farm, Puerto Vallarta
Villa Azalea is an upscale, eco-friendly boutique resort and organic farm on 10 acres of countryside just outside of Puerto Vallarta. This tiny bed-and-breakfast offers just seven rooms and suites in a relaxed, stylish atmosphere with extra special details. A babbling river runs through the property, and guests can dine at a picnic table that’s placed directly in the clear, cool water. The farm offers fresh fruits and vegetables, including a grove of agave plants that are used by the hotel to make its own organic tequila, which can be sampled and purchased inside.

First-Of-Its-Kind Stay: Metropolitan by COMO, Miami Beach

The 74-room boutique Metropolitan by COMO is a gorgeous Art Deco property from the COMO brand; this hotel is the first and only US outpost from the luxurious chain. The pistachio-and-gray guest rooms are stylish, and outfitted with modern features like 42-inch flat-screen TVs, Nespresso machines, and free Wi-Fi. The hotel's other amenities include a pretty outdoor pool, beach service, fine-dining restaurant and bar, elegant spa, and rooftop hydrotherapy pool. Service is genuinely friendly and doting, and the hotel attracts an upscale clientele of primarily couples. If you're looking for a calm, relaxing getaway in South Beach, Metropolitan by COMO is the premier pick.

Scenester Stay: Capella Washington D.C., Georgetown
Opened in 2013 in the heart of Georgetown, the Capella has quickly become one of Washington’s hottest luxury hotels. With just 49 rooms, this property offers a level of boutique intimacy that’s lacking at nearby competitors like the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton. Highlights include a scenic rooftop with an infinity pool, upscale rooms with free non-alcoholic drinks, and a classy bar and restaurant. Prices are steep, but you get what you pay for. 

Bird's-Eye View Stay: Panorama Boutique Hotel, Santorini

The Panorama Boutique Hotel is an upscale, 15-room property set cliffside in Fira, overlooking the stunning caldera. The property takes full advantage of the views, with vantage points from its chic rooftop lounge, swimming pool, and the balcony of every room. Rooms are fresh and contemporary with nice amenities -- though most bathrooms are small. For a lot more space without losing the views check out the Enigma Apartments & Suites just along the cliff, but lose the pool and bar areas. 

Feng Shui Stay: Villa Air Bali Boutique Resort & Spa
Set in lovely, lush gardens, the Villa Air Bali Boutique Resort & Spa consists of 16 villas featuring modern Balinese architecture that includes sloped, thatched roofs and partially open-air designs. Surrounding landscaped grounds adhere to Feng Shui principles and bloom with tropical flowers, palm trees, and lush plants as well as soothing water features dotted throughout. Lavish extras here include a host of freebies like breakfast, afternoon tea, and daily fruit baskets, plus there’s a spa on-site.

Lighthouse Stay: West Usk Lighthouse, Wales
The West Usk Lighthouse is a unique bed-and-breakfast, full of charming quirks, set overlooking the Severn Estuary on the Welsh south coast. While the quiet and secluded location -- down a long dirt track -- feels remote, it's within easy driving distance of both Newport and Cardiff. The four guest rooms vary in size and views, though all are cozy and well-maintained with nautical touches. The owner provides a hearty cooked breakfast each morning, while guests can soak in the hot tub overlooking the pretty surrounds -- as well as a distant factory or two. While rates aren't cheap for bed-and-breakfast accommodations, the property certainly makes for a more memorable stay than most. 

Secret Garden Stay: Paradise House, Bath
The 11-room Paradise House is an upscale property set in a charming honey-colored limestone Georgian, a 10-minute walk away from the city of Bath. This bed-and-breakfast is a great example of English country house hospitality, with its fire blazing in a high-ceilinged lounge with wing back chairs and arched windows along with a manicured garden full of perennial beds, mature trees, and peaceful tables for two. Rooms here are homey and cozy, with electric kettles, flat-screen TVs, and comfy armchairs. A free breakfast, served in a subdued dove gray room, is a property highlight. Those looking for a Victorian-era bed-and-breakfast in town should consider Villa Magdala.

Historic Mansion Stay: Hotel & Spa Le Doge, Morocco

A quiet refuge in the heart of Casablanca,Hotel & Spa Le Dogeis housed in an elegant white mansion erected in the 1930s. The luxurious property is filled with authentic Art Deco furniture and objects, and has 16 rooms named for 1920s and '30s cultural icons like Coco Chanel and Charlie Chaplin. Rooms feature plush beds, free Wi-Fi, and flat-screen TVs, while facilities include a hammam steam room, sauna, hot tub, full-service spa, and fine French restaurant. The Church of the Sacred Heart and Ligue Arab Park are a block away.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Israel: a Sample Family Itinerary

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Day1: Discovering Roots!: venture into the Old-City of Jerusalem, home to three faiths, bringing to life 4,000 years of Jewish, Christian and Muslim history. 
  • Reflect and pray at the newly opened “Azarat Israel” along the Western Wall.
  • Underground tour of the Western Wall Tunnels. 
  • Enjoy the smells and tastes of the Arab Suk (market) including authentic middle eastern foods for lunch.
  • Visit the City of David, uncovering Jerusalem’s roots while walking through King Hizikaya’s water tunnel from 2,700 years ago! Walk through the Cardo, a shopping strip from the Byzantine period. 
  • Visit Temple Mount for a “close up” of the Dome of the Rock, holiest site of Islam in Israel (Pending security)
  • Visit Mt. Zion and King David’s tomb. Head upstairs to The Room of the Last supper. Share an “eye opening view” from Mt. Zion.
Overnight: Jerusalem

Day 2: Mountains of Jerusalem

  • Take a short nature walk through the Jerusalem hills, discovering the Avshalom Cave, an impressive stalactite and stalagmite cave, beautifully lite up with colors.
  • Archaeological Dig and cave spelunking at Tel Maresha, Maccabean era site and Sorek Stalagmite-Stalagmite cave 
  • Scavenger Hunt/tasting tour in Mahane Yehuda Market. Also enjoy a guided tour of Yad Vashem, located on Mt. Remembrance, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, including tours of: New museum, children’s memorial and Avenue of the Righteous amongst the Nations. 
Overnight: Jerusalem

Day 3: Golan Heights
  • Drive north via the Jordan Rift Valley, experience the backroads on Israel’s longest highway, alongside the boarder with Jordan.
  • Raft down the Jordan River. 
  • Hike through the dormant volcanic mountains of the Golan and swim in the waterfall pools.
  • Enjoy a sunset Jeep ride through the orchards and along the Syrian border for an eye-opening view.
Overnight: Kibbutz hotel

Day 4: Galilee

  • Tour the Mystical city of Tzfat. 
  • Wonder through the artist market and into the ancient synagogues. 
  • Drive to Rosh Hanikra, Border of Lebanon. 
  • Ride a cable car down the side of the cliff, over the Mediterranean sea. 
  • Walk through grottos carved by the force of the sea. 
  • Tour Caesarea or Akko, ancient port cities.
Overnight: Tel-Aviv

Day 5: Tel-Aviv
  • Visit the Palmach Museum, interactive museum that shares the story of the pre-state underground fighters. 
  • Visit the Carmel Market and taste the wonders of the local cuisine. 
  • Shop in the bi-weekly artist market on Nachalat Binyamin st. 
  • Tour the old-City of Jaffa, where the east and west, old and new come together.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bali: Kiddie Paradise

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Whether surfing along the gorgeous beaches, scuba diving amidst diverse marine life, or exploring Hindu temples, Bali has plenty of activities for travelers of all ages. But there are some hotels throughout Bali more geared toward the traveling family with large rooms, kids' clubs, and playground facilities.

Club Med Bali

The 393-room Club Med Bali is an enormous, upscale all-inclusive chain resort. Rooms and suites are small and nothing spectacular, though they do have large marble bathrooms and most have balconies. It's the multitude of activities -- for all ages -- that attract visitors to this beachside resort. Along with multiple pools and sports courts, there are golf classes and water sports, even trapeze lessons. Families make up the majority of guests here, and there are activity clubs for babies, children, and teens.

Banyan Tree Ungasan
The Banyan Tree Ungasan, Bali is a gorgeous five-pearl resort with 73 luxurious (and enormous) villas, many with private pools and/or Indian Ocean views. Located on Bali's southern coast, the hotel is ideal for quiet relaxation, with an elegant spa, a kids' club, a library, a modern gym with cardio and weight equipment, and a peaceful infinity pool abutting the ocean. There are numerous on-site dining options, ranging from a casual pool bar to a themed buffet restaurant, which frequently features traditional dance and music performances.

Padma Resort Bali at Legian

This 409-room, luxury hotel is nestled near the beach on 16 acres of landscaped tropical gardens. Family-friendly -- with a kids' club and three huge swimming pools -- the resort is about a 10-minute drive to the traditional art and fashion markets, and showcases artwork throughout the property. In addition to the three outdoor pools, there are six restaurants, a full-service spa (with sauna and steam room), a fitness center, and tennis courts. Rooms are large and clean, and have comfortable beds and balconies, minibars, flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. Kid-friendly activities include fish feeding and contests in the family pool, which has two water slides. 

Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran

Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran is a five-pearl luxury hotel with 118 rooms and suites, all of which have large balconies and some that feature direct access to the hotel's star attraction: an enormous, wraparound saltwater lagoon-style pool. Le Meridien does not have a private beach, but instead offers access to a luxury beach club on a nearby stretch of sand, though guests are expected to spend a minimum amount in order to use the sunbeds. The hotel include a fitness center, a luxury spa, and a wide range of bars and restaurants with international cuisine. Family-friendly facilities also abound, including an activity-packed kids' club and special family packages with all-inclusive meal plans for little ones.

Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort
The sprawling, 278-room Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort is a luxury property that sits on over 250 acres of land along the coast of the Indian Ocean. With a celebrated 18-hole golf course, six bars and restaurants, and several pools with waterslides and waterfalls, the hotel has a lot to offer guests looking to get away from the bustle of the more populated towns of Kuta or Seminyak. The remote location means that there are few restaurants and shops nearby, so it's best for those looking to camp out on a sun lounge or enjoy spa treatments. A variety of rooms are on offer, including spacious suites and villas with private plunge pools and gardens, all featuring a simple, modern style with tasteful decor and an array of amenities.

Elephant Safari Park & Lodge
The 25-room Elephant Safari Park & Lodge is a luxury property that delivers a one-of-a-kind vacation on a refuge with 31 Sumatran elephants, safari rides, elephant chauffeur service, a show arena, a museum, a gift shop, and a botanical garden. There’s also a modern gym, spa, and on-site indoor and outdoor dining. Balinese-style rooms have flat-screen TVs, safes, and elephant pick-up platforms, and some even have elephant park views. Suites feature whirlpool tubs and butler service. The gritty safari experience (which requires getting your hands dirty) isn’t for everyone, and the location is a bit removed from the sights, but it nonetheless delivers a luxurious stay with high-end amenities and features.

The Kana Kuta
Opened in 2013, this 92-room upscale hotel nonetheless offers budget-friendly rates, and is located near the main intersection in Kuta, close to area attractions and the airport -- but a bit far from the beach. The Kana Kuta has a nice outdoor pool, small fitness center, free area shuttle, and free breakfast. Rooms are minimally decorated but spotlessly clean, with high-quality mattresses and linens, and flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, mini-fridges, and coffeemakers; some rooms have balconies. The kids' center is a draw for families. While the Kana Kuta might be slightly removed from the action, but it's good value for the money. 

Ayodya Resort Bali
Formerly the Bali Hilton, the 541-room Ayodya Resort Bali is a sprawling, upscale beachside property with an enormous spa, a fitness center, a colorful kids' club with a big playground, and lagoon-style and infinity pools. Extensive meeting facilities also make the Ayodya Resort an obvious venue for conferences and events, and there are plenty of restaurants with cuisine ranging from Italian pastas to Japanese teppanyaki. Most rooms have attractive Balinese decor and marble bathrooms are lovely, though some furniture looks a touch dated -- still, they're a great value for this caliber.

Discovery Kartika Plaza Hotel
This upper-middle-range, 381-room hotel is located right on Kuta Beach next to the Discovery Shopping Mall.  Rooms and Villas vary, but all are clean and comfortable and some have private pools. Garden View Rooms can get noisy as there's a nightclub nearby. Features include a lagoon-style pool with a swim-up bar, a full-service spa/salon, fitness facilities, and three on-site restaurants. There's also a huge kids' club here, and the playground and dedicated kids' pool are fabulous. Adults can play too, thanks to tennis and squash courts, and a full-size chessboard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sicilian All Inclusive Hotels

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Located at the southern tip of Italy, the region of Sicily is popular for vacationers because of its rich history, stunning landscapes, and delicious cuisine. For travelers that want to simplify their vacation by staying at the property most (or all) of the time and eating at the on-site restaurants, all-inclusive resorts are a great option. Here is a list of our favorite all inclusive hotels located in the area…

Fiesta Hotel Garden Beach

The 232-room Fiesta Hotel Garden Beach is a simple, modern resort outside the town of Cefal├╣. Fairly remote (it's a 30-minute shuttle ride to town), the hotel is ideal for those looking for a waterside getaway, particularly families. With a private beach, large garden, and four pools on-site, including a beach-side pool and a children's pool, there are plenty of places to relax and take in the sun. Rooms are large, clean, and comfortable, though they aren't particularly charming. The hotel has an all-inclusive package, though some guests are less than impressed with the buffet and drink options.

Caesar Palace
The 220-room Caesar Palace is not exactly regal but offers guests a resort-like option outside of the center of Giardini Naxos. A few minutes’ drive from the town center, the hotel is nestled in the suburban hillside, with little entertainment beyond the property. Still, the Caesar Palace runs a shuttle to the beach and there are nearby buses to the rest of Giardini Naxos and Taormina, so there's no reason to feel too isolated. The hotel has a big pool with two infinity edges as well as a separate (and large) children's pool. Geared towards families, there may be a lot of children running about during the high seasons, but the palace's entertainment and mini-club teams attempt to keep kids entertained throughout the day.

Club Cala Regina

Part of a complex of four hotels, this sprawling property near the beach is a favorite with French families. It is set about eight miles from the small town of Sciacca, and offers a good number of on-site amenities, including indoor and outdoor pools, and several children’s play areas. Guests have complained that the rooms are poorly soundproofed, and that the hotel is isolated from other activity and nightlife.

Hotel Conte di Cabrera
This mid-range resort overlooking the coast of Ragusa is in a prime location with a great private beach complete with sun chairs, umbrellas, and water sport rentals. Manicured green spaces, swimming pools, sports fields, and entertainment for kids and families means guests don't spend much time in the basic but bright rooms. The hotel caters to its French guests, and many of the on-site entertainment options are in French and Italian. There's lots to do on property and a shuttle service available, but those who want to explore further afield should bring a car.

Torre del Barone Club
This large, mid-range '60s-era hotel is part of a complex of four different hotels clustered together near the sea and a 10-minute drive from Sciacca. Guests can use the facilities at different properties, but some guests complain that the huge size of the complex and the number of guests circulating around it can make their experience impersonal and a little overwhelming. The 230 rooms are slightly spartan, and could use better soundproofing, but are bright and pleasant, and generally receive high marks for cleanliness. The resort is family-friendly with many entertainment options, and guests report that they enjoy the seaside location, and the possibility to explore the surrounding area's beaches.

Club Alicudi Hotel

This sprawling mid-range property, which has become particularly popular among French families, is part of a four-hotel complex overlooking the Mediterranean. Alicudi’s 175 rooms are situated about a 15-minute walk from the beach; the hotel runs a shuttle service to the water, as well as to the nearby medieval port town of Sciacca, known for its thermal baths. Rooms are large and clean, and the all-inclusive option generally receives positive marks. Some have remarked that the property is large, and that navigating it can become tiring, particularly for young children.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fairy Tale Destinations- Literally

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Perhaps the most alluring part of a fairy tale is the setting, filled with grand castles, forbidden forests, and charming villages galore. These fascinating worlds come to life before our eyes thanks to the rich descriptions of our favorite fairy tale authors. And there's good news for all of the dreamers out there: many of these otherworldly settings were inspired by real life destinations around the world.

Now we all know Sleeping Beauty's castle was based on the gorgeous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, and that Colmar, France could be La Belle et La Bete's hometown, but what about lesser known fairy tales?

From Sicily to Scotland, we have the scoop on some of the most idyllic lands of folklore that are just waiting to be discovered -- and, of course, the dreamy hotels where you can almost imagine Prince (or Princess!) Charming awaiting your hand for a dance.

Sicily remains one of the most intriguing regions of Italy. A mix of cultures -- including Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and African -- provide the island with a heady history filled with intrigue. You can see the blend of cultures reflected in the island's cuisine, architecture, language, and -- yes -- folklore. Fairy tales from Sicily have all of the traditional components: heroes and heroines, magic and might. But they also have some surprising twists that make them entirely their own. In Sorforina, for example, our titular heroine is a well-educated young woman, the daughter of a Sicilian merchant, who falls in love with a young, belligerent prince. The tale of their love affair is tortured, filled with artful witchcraft and steamy seduction (this is an Italian fairy tale, after all). It is a fairy tale of its own unique making, filled with the wry and unabashed sarcasm Sicilians are known for in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

Stay: Grand Hotel Villa Igiea

The Grand Hotel Villa Igiea offers a magnificent and ornate example of Sicily's 19th-century architectural history -- as well as a plausible backdrop for our Sorforina. Visitors have noted that this is considered one of the best, if not the best, hotel in Palermo. The grounds are spectacular, and the outdoor pool was built to incorporate ancient stone ruins. Inside, there’s a romantic bar with vaulted stone ceilings and wall frescoes.

The Irish are known for their storytelling, so it should come as no surprise that their folklore tradition is alive and well. Many of the stories take place amid Ireland's stunning countryside, where larger-than-life hunters, warriors, kings, and fairies play out some of the island's most treasured tales. The landscape comes into play in nearly every story, but none so great as the legend behind Giant's Causeway, which folklore would have us believe was created by actual giants many centuries ago. In the story, Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. How Fionn managed to defeat his much larger foe is still debated, but it is said that in his haste to be away, Benandonner destroyed the causeway behind him so that the two could never meet again. The remaining basalt columns on either side of the Irish Sea stand as the testament to their great battle.

Stay: Ashford Castle

Though some distance from Giant's Causeway, Ashford Castle embodies a different Irish folklore fantasy: that of castles and kings, medieval honor and political intrigue. The hotel features a massive historic stone facade, complete with towers and turrets; gorgeous, manicured grounds; a stunning setting on a huge lake; and common spaces that are truly grand, with rich wood paneling, chandeliers, and antique furniture. The wide range of estate activities includes falconry lessons, boat tours on the lake, golf on the 9-hole course, clay shooting, and archery. You'll be ready to join Tristan and Isolde's court by the end of your stay.

Hong Kong
China's folklore tradition sees the blending of the mystical with reality in many of the country's most treasured stories. Pu Songling is one of the best known Chinese storytellers, having composed or collected over 500 supernatural tales during the 17th century. His stories are filled with magical foxes, ghosts, scholars, court officials, exorcists, and mythical beasts. Fox spirits are prevalent in a large portion of Asian folklore (in Japan, they are called kitsune) and are akin to Western fairies; they are mischievous and can be good or bad depending on the story. The setting for these tales range from the Chinese countryside to its vast shores, with some stories talking of mermaids and demons guarding treasure buried deep beneath the waves.

Stay: Intercontinental Grand Stanford

Travelers today flock to Hong Kong, where its harbor location speaks to much of Chinese folklore. Location is indeed a big draw at the InterContinental, as it is within walking distance of museums and major sights. The rooms are also a highlight, and are tastefully decorated in a classic style, with understated wood furnishings and neutral-toned carpeting. Some rooms offer beautiful views of the harbor and Hong Kong skyline, which is especially stunning at night.

Though traditionally one often thinks of Hans Christian Andersen when reminiscing on fairy tales of the Scandinavian variety, to the north of Andersen's Danish homeland lies a nation equally as rich in storytelling. Countrymen Asbjornsen and Moe are considered the Brothers Grimm of Norway, having amassed a collection of traditional tales and legends some 150 years ago. Their stories feature mountain trolls and talking bears and foxes, as well as figures that resemble the Nordic gods and goddesses that once prevailed throughout Scandinavia. The Norse god of thunder -- Thor -- is a familiar hero whose likeness can be seen in several stories. He steals and lies, and boasts and kills to get his prize -- often with magical help. He is not a perfect hero, but he is vastly entertaining. Set against Norway's stunning natural beauty, his stories become a grand adventure of battles and witchcraft. Disney fans will also be keen to visit Norway: The setting of Frozen was based on the country's rugged landscape and charming architecture, despite the actual story drawing inspiration from Andersen's The Snow Queen.

Stay: Britannia Hotel
The Britannia Hotel is Trondheim's grande dame. This historic luxury property (opened in 1897) has hosted royalty, celebrities, and diplomats over the years, and today continues to be one of the city's most prestigious options -- we're sure Elsa would approve. Its rooms have traditional decor (most have plaid fabrics and wood furniture), but the hotel's real draws are its historic character, impressive restaurants, and most notably, full-service spa -- one of the only hotel spas in Norway.