Inviato http://inviatotravel.com A Luxury Travel Blog. Thu, 15 Jun 2017 14:09:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.6 Postcard From Nekupe Sporting Resort, Nicaragua http://inviatotravel.com/2017/06/15/postcard-from-nekupe-sporting-resort-nicaragua/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/06/15/postcard-from-nekupe-sporting-resort-nicaragua/#respond Thu, 15 Jun 2017 14:09:26 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9931 Continued]]> Last fall, I was struggling to plot my guy’s birthday celebration. With island, ski and city vacations already on the books for winter and spring break, I was chomping at the bit for something different. I love the beach, but I wanted a bit of adventure and like with each celebratory trip I plan, it had to be a destination we had never been too and one that we could do in four nights to get back to our five children and work obligations. The search was endless and everything I found kept falling short until I had a Meg Ryan moment and my inbox told me “you got mail”. The Conde Nast Traveller 2017 Hot List was out and Nekupe, a new ‘all-inclusive, intimate 8-room sporting resort for exploration and indulgence’ captured my attention.

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Nicaragua, once an infamous country of covert arms deals and guerilla warfare was on my bucket list since its 2013 makeover with the opening of Mukul, a 38-room beach resort on the Emerald Coast (my review of Mukul coming soon). I decided to check off two boxes at once, and planned a Nicaraguan road trip. I packed my safari and surf attire and hit the road….the mothership was calling me home.

Nekupe Sporting Resort and Retreat is Nicaragua’s first luxury countryside resort, located 40 minutes from the historic colonial town of Granada on an 1,800-acre nature reserve. Nekupe, which means ‘heaven’ in Chorotega – the indigenous language of a native tribe in Nicaragua – opened in November 2016.  Nicaraguan philanthropists Theresita and Alfredo Pellas Jr. were driven by their love of travel, adventure and their country and set out to create a destination where people could reconnect with each other and nature. They teamed up with Feng Shui specialist Iside Sarmiento to use the practice’s principles to influence the design of the resort including the four villas and the La Residencia. Each space is aligned to specific cardinal orientations to receive positive and enhanced energies.

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Each guest is assigned a private ranger for the duration of their stay who creates a bespoke itinerary after getting to know you and understanding the intentions of your trip through several phone calls and emails prior to your arrival.

I arrived at Nekupe from the country’s capital Managua, which can be accessed by flights through Miami, Florida (the flight is about 2.5 hours). We hired a private driver and made the somewhat bumpy two hour drive making me wish I skipped the drive and opted to land in style on Nekupe’s helipad via private helicopter.  While luxury resorts are popping up throughout Nicaragua, the growth of infrastructure is slow and the main form of transportation on unpaved roads in many areas are still ox carts and horses.

The gates to Nekupe are grandiose. As they opened up and my private ranger Felipe was waiting in an ATV,  all I kept hearing in my head was the famous quote “ladies and gentleman, welcome to Jurassic Park”.  Nekupe is surrounded by lush mountain and volcano landscape, giving guests an immediate connection to mother earth, while the warm neutral tones of the property provide a sense of peace and tranquility throughout your stay.

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We spent the majority of our time on property with Ranger Felipe, listening to stories about the land, the Pella family history and the country of Nicaragua, all while riding horses, off roading through muddy fields on an ATV, hiking, indulging in cigar and rum tastings and hitting up the target range where I went ten for ten and showed the boys how it was done, thank you very much.

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Accommodations

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The eight-room resort is comprised of a main residence, La Residencia de Doña Thirstier, situated in the center of the reserve, and four villas thoughtfully positioned near La Residencia. Each accommodation offers a luxury ATV for guests to navigate throughout the resort.

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La Residencia de Doña Thirstier

The 24,000 square foot estate offers four accommodations – two grand suites, Roble Grand Suite and Caoba Grand Suite – each 1,300 square feet, one king bed in each, and two additional suites, Cedro and Cortez – each 870 square feet, with two queen beds each. Grand Suite bathrooms in La Residencia feature outdoor showers and views out to the reserve and deep soaking tubs for each guest room. The whole estate can run up to 10K a night, but if the whole Residencia is not booked, guests can book one of the rooms and have access to the whole estate, except the other bedrooms which would be open for bookings.

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The Villas

The villas are steps from the Residencia and where we stayed. Three villas, Guanacaste, Genizaro and Madroño, are 1,000 square feet and can accommodate up to two rollaways which make them a great option for families who do not want to splurge for the Residencia.

Jicaro, the honeymoon suite is 700 square feet and where we chose to stay. Each villa comes with one king bed, living area and bathrooms with a soaking tub and shower. While the floor-to-ceiling windows and open terraces allow glorious natural light and views of the outdoors including Mombacho Volcano, it was the special touches by the staff at turn down that made the room truly come to life. Luxurious bathrobes and slippers await you on the bed, while the soaking tub is hot with floating orchids surrounded by lavender scented candles taking romance to a whole other level.

The Food 

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Nekupe’s farm to table cuisine was inspired by Theresita Pellas’ own cooking. The menu is comprised of  traditional Nicaraguan fare with a modern twist using a bounty of native ingredients, sourced from the onsite garden and local purveyors. I am a true foodie and I can honestly say the rancho huevos was the best breakfast I had ever had in my life.

The lunch menu ranges from salads to burgers with a daily special that highlights a local dish. A selection of fresh squeezed juices, cocktails and snacks are served throughout the day at Casa Club which we sampled in between activities. The tapas style snack menu during our stay offered grilled vegetables, fresh cheeses, ceviche, empanadas and sliced filet over homemade bread. The candlelight dinner menu changes daily with both vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Everyone dines at Nekupe in the Casa Club or at home dining can be provided if you are staying in the residence.

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Amenities & Activities

Nekupe has one swimming pool, two tennis courts, a series of elite gun ranges, ropes course, horseback riding, ATV off roading trails, biking, culinary classes, painting classes, cigar and rum tastings, state of the art fitness facility, yoga classes, game room, spa and the exquisite Casa Club, Nekupe’s exclusive lobby lounge and communal gathering area where five star dining options leave a long and lasting taste to be desired. As we were the only guests at the resort at this time of the year, we had it all to ourselves.

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Nekupe is for the traveller who is looking for a sense of discovery at the world’s best hideout. The meticulous grounds, luxurious accommodations and mesmerizing landscape provided the restorative escape promised and the endless amounts of bespoke activities fulfilled my adventurous desires. On the morning of departure I took a solo hike of the property and reflected back on all that transpired over the past few days. As I stood high up on the hill, I felt in that moment as if I I was the last person left on earth … and that’s when it hit me, this is the purpose of Nekupe. It was not just an adventurous destination, it is also a place for spiritual transformation which is why it has quickly earned every ounce of glowing press it has been receiving. As we drove away through the tall pearly gates of heaven, I was sad to leave but I knew I would return again, but next time with the whole family….oh yeah and by helicopter!

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Review by Contributing Editor Elisa Brown. Photos courtesy of Elisa Brown and Nekupe (via Murphy O’Brien). 

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Just Checked Out: The Norman, Tel Aviv http://inviatotravel.com/2017/06/08/just-checked-out-the-norman-tel-aviv/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/06/08/just-checked-out-the-norman-tel-aviv/#respond Thu, 08 Jun 2017 16:21:09 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9708 Continued]]> I introduced The Norman in Tel Aviv here on Inviato shortly after it opened with much fanfare in October 2014. This chic boutique hotel has been universally praised by the travel media and guests alike as a breath of fresh air in a city that has had limited exciting hotel options until recently.  Two and half years later after its opening, I finally had the opportunity to stay at The Norman with my family during Spring Break in Israel.  Before I organized anything else, even my flights, I booked our rooms at the hotel. With only 50 rooms, The Norman gets booked up way in advance, especially for connecting rooms and suites.

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Israel is a small country, roughly the size of New Jersey, and an increasingly popular destination, particularly in March and April when the weather is close to perfect. It felt like half of Manhattan descended upon the country the same week as us! Our plan was four nights in Tel Aviv (serving as a base for some excursions to Caesaria, Haifa and beyond), two nights in the Negev Desert and two nights in Jerusalem.  If I had to do it over, I would do the same itinerary but add an extra day in Jerusalem. If there is one place you don’t want to be rushed, it is Jerusalem. It’s that special.

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Our first stop was The Norman, where we spent four nights. Independently owned by a British family, The Norman is housed in a private mansion – or rather two as it consists of two original 1920s Bauhaus-style villas linked by a common courtyard. Both buildings, designed by the same architect, are Class A protected as historic heritage sites and went through eight years of painstaking renovation before becoming the stylish and sophisticated hotel it is today.

It was obvious during our stay that The Norman is equally popular as a destination spot for cocktails in the Library Bar or for sushi at the top floor restaurant Dinings as it is as a hotel. Not surprisingly, we bumped into many New York acquaintances during our stay who were either guests or stopping by for a night cap. I heard through the grapevine that another hotel was being developed by the family (perhaps outside Israel). I am not sure if this ‘leak’ is in fact true but I’m keeping my ears peeled.

We loved the central location of The Norman – far enough away from the business district and its mammoth-size hotels (Hilton, Intercontinental, Sheraton and Dan Tel Aviv to name a few) and on the edge of the fashionable quarter of of Neve Tzedek. Rothschild Boulevard, the main promenade running through the ‘White City’ quarter, has lively cafes and buildings displaying beautiful examples of Neoclassic and art-deco architecture. The beach is about a 20 minute stroll from the hotel (go through Shabazi Street which has wonderful artisan jewelry stores and boutiques to peek into, although you might not make it to the beach) but you can also ask for a complimentary shuttle if you just want to get there quickly. Complimentary bikes are also on hand if you want something a bit in between the two.

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Many of the 50 individually designed rooms in the hotel possess floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors and modern baths. The 20 spacious suites – particularly the Penthouse suites with private terraces –  are the most coveted and hard to book (and the most expensive!). As the hotel was solidly booked during our stay, I did not have an opportunity to inspect any of the suites but friends who did have raved about them. As a family, we found the connecting rooms on the 1st floor worked the best for us (see Room Tips below. As we switched rooms midway through our stay, we experienced different rooms). There are only two sets of connecting rooms so book well ahead if you have young children as they go quickly.

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I loved the spacious foyers on each floor rather than narrow hallways you typically see in hotel.  You feel like a guest in someone’s mansion rather than hotel. In many respects such as this, the hotel reminded me of the  Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau in Buenos Aires.

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One of my favorite spaces to lounge after long days of touring was the inviting 1940’s style Library Bar. It was definitely one of the most picturesque hotel bars I have ever seen. The bartenders here takes the art of the cocktail very seriously. The cocktail list is extensive and they will whip you anything you like. The recommended Crazy Earl cocktail didn’t disappoint.

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We also loved the breakfast room of the hotel.  You can take breakfast inside or outside in the courtyard when it is warm enough and you can choose to eat from the small but enticing buffet or the ala carte IMG_8245menu. At least one person in your group needs to order the decadent carmelized french toast. It is out of this world as is the bread pudding that comes out steaming hot from the kitchen. It is gone in a matter of seconds. And the Israeli coffee is divine!

I was most impressed by the exquisite but subtle details throughout the hotel. From floor to ceiling, there are unique and inspiring pieces to admire like the salt-encrusted violin from the Dead Sea, now encased in glass on one wall of the Library Bar.  The inlaid wood floors, lighting (one which I am still trying to buy) and the serious art collection (ask the concierge for a tour as art pieces are throughout the hotel, most by local artists with galleries nearby) would impress even the most critical eye.

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The rooftop pool was disappointingly closed while we were there for some renovations. It was a bit too chilly too swim anyway!  The outdoor patio adjacent to the sushi restaurant, Dinings, on the top floor was open and a wonderful place to lounge with a cocktail in the evening.

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We were very pleased with this stylish, sophisticated and timeless hotel and would not hesitate to stay at The Norman again or recommend it to others. Although next time, I think I will splurge for a suite.

Other general Israel touring observations and insights:

  • Flying to Israel: As I fly long haul flights often, comfort is key for me. Seat Guru is my best friend when picking airlines and seats!  From New York, El Al and Delta offer direct flights into Tel Aviv. El Al is the most popular but its planes are outdated (no flat seats in Business Class, poor entertainment systems) as are the Delta flights. For this reason we chose to do a quick connection through Toronto and fly the Air Canada’s 787 Dreamliner which offers hands down the best business class to Israel. It was the best decision we made. On the return flight, customs is conducted quickly at the Toronto airport so you don’t need to do it in New York. It does add an hour or two to your flying time however.
  • The VIP Service offered at Tel Aviv airport is worth getting for your arrival, especially if you are on a packed flight from New York. The walk from the plane to passport control can be very long. With VIP service, a representative meets you at the airplane, drives you in a car directly to customs and escort you through passport control and customs, avoiding the often long queues. This may often save up to an hour of your time.  Either your tour company or hotel can arrange this for you (it is about $200 for 4 people). Worth every penny!

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  • Choosing a tour company or guide: Almost everyone who travels to Israel for the first time or in a large group uses an Israeli-specialist travel company who arranges everything A-Z for you, including your hotels. There are many and they vary greatly (as we found in our own research) in quality and pricing so its important to do your homework and compare. A reputable company will speak to you, learn about your interests and send you a proposed itinerary with an estimate before committing. We have a list of vendors used by colleagues and friends who come highly recommended and you can contact me at jackie@inviatotravel for a list.

For me, given we were only a family of four and on a shortened schedule time schedule with specific ideas of what I wanted to do in mind, I preferred to work directly with a guide. I had reviewed enough of my friends itineraries and conducted enough of my own research to know pretty much what I wanted.  Many guides are freelance when not working with a tour company and it just takes a bit of asking around (just ask on Facebook!) and interviewing (if they are too inexpensive, be wary and make sure they are accredited) to find one that works for you which is how we found our incredible guide, Kobi.  As you are spending almost your whole time with your guide, it is important you find the right fit!

Working with a guide direct allowed us to adapt our schedule as needed (which we did almost every day – a huge benefit) with free time to explore on our own when we wanted (and to sleep in a little rather than wake up at 7 am!) and the savings were huge (up 3x lower than going with a tour) as our guide was also our driver.  This takes extra preparation on your part if you go this way (although a good guide will work with you on your itinerary in advance which is critical due to driving distances, traffic and the need for advance reservations at many places). For us, it worked perfectly. We lucked out with our incredible guide Kobi even though I’m sure we drove him a bit crazy.

  • Aside from its history and geography,  Israel is very much a foodie destination. The culinary experience is so much more than Israeli salads, falafels and Hummus, although I would be perfectly happy with that! Our most special experiences in Israel were surrounded by experiencing the many different tastes of Israel: an incredible, enlightening and FUN culinary tour of Carmel Market in Tel Aviv (a must with Inbal Baum of Delicious Israel), a special lunch at a small Bedouin village in the Negev Desert, and tastings at the stalls in the Arab, Muslim and Jewish souks in Old Jerusalem. Not to mention the long list of amazing restaurants we dined at.  And the fresh baked bread everywhere, don’t get me started on the bread! A special ‘Eating our Way through Israel’ post is coming shortly!
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  • Unique experiences.  One thing important to me in my travels, especially with my children, is to not only travel consientously but also to find non cookie-cutter experiences that are special to us.  IMG_8390Discovering unique opportunities off the beaten path is my favorite part of the planning process and it typically ends being our most memorable experiences during our trips. Adding a mitzvah project to our itinerary that we could give back to was important to me so we chose together to visit the Israel Guide Dog Center in Beit Oved, an hour outside hotel which was an enlightening and fun experience (if you are lucky you will get to see new litters of future guide dogs like the ones on the right).

Other special add ons to our itinerary such as a private Bedouin lunch with a family in the desert (not accessible to tours), a private tour with a renowned doctorate of animal behavior and ecology of the Ramon Crater, a private tour of a military base through the Friends of the IDF with the opportunity to meet woman soldiers defending Israel and a special culinary tour of one of the food markets in Tel Aviv with Delicious Israel made our trip particularly special.

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Dr. Haim Berger of Negev Jeep Tours
  • It goes without saying that a visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is a must. A planned visit for an hour turned into three hours. I could have spent a full day here but it can be tough on the little kids. The Childrens Memorial was particularly impactful. Note Yad Vashem is closed on Saturdays. It also offers special Bar and Bat Mitzvah programs that are worthwhile to explore if this is one of the reasons for your visit to Israel.
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  • We spent two nights and one full day in the Negev desert staying at the Beresheet Hotel (now a Virtuoso property!), a stunning hotel right on edge of the Ramon crater. The views from the hotel were stunning. Rates are offered inclusive or exclusive of meals, but as there are no real options nearby, I would recommend getting an inclusive rate. Only a few 2-bedroom family villas, which we had, as available as room options. While they are not directly in front of the crater, they offer private plunge pools and are close enough to the edge (Our villa was #142, which was close to main building. Others might require a golf cart to get there). I recommend at least a night at this special place. Make some time to do a crater tour with the incredible Dr. Haim Berger of Negev Jeep Tours during the day. Evening star-gazing tours are also available.

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  • In Jerusalem, we stayed at the historic King David hotel despite my initial inclination to stay at the modern Mamilla in the Old City. Our experience was unfortunately disappointing. We had requested and confirmed renovated rooms (only offered currently on the 5th and 6th floor of the hotel) facing the old city. Upon check-in, however, we were told we were ‘upgraded’ instead to larger connecting suites that were not in fact renovated or on the floor we were confirmed for. This happened to other friends staying at the hotel a few days prior as well. While incredibly spacious, the suite was outdated, dirty and unsatisfactory. While the concierge was very helpful and knowledgeable and the historic relevance of the hotel did not go unnoticed, our experience left us soured and I would be hesitant to recommend it to others unless they were assured renovated rooms.

 

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Just Checked Out: Belmond El Encanto, Santa Barbara http://inviatotravel.com/2017/05/30/just-checked-out-belmond-el-encanto-santa-barbara/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/05/30/just-checked-out-belmond-el-encanto-santa-barbara/#respond Tue, 30 May 2017 21:14:12 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9801 Continued]]> Ever since I watched the 2004 film Sideways, I have wanted to visit California’s Central coast. Over the last few years, I have seen a few friends and colleagues migrate to Santa Barbara and its nearby towns, remarking on the relaxed lifestyle, Mediterranean-like weather and it’s many other outdoor and cultural attractions. It was due time to visit the ‘American Riviera’ – as Santa Barbara is often referred to for its fine wine, hilly landscapes and oceanfront views.

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Santa Barbara

A girls getaway originally slated for Scotland (we are unabashed Outlander fans) was scrapped without hesitation for a more ‘rejuvenation-style’ type trip to sunny Santa Barbara.  The timing in late April worked well for both of us as we both had nearby business to attend to afterwards. The plan was simple – relax, hike, drink some fine wine, and spa over three nights. A girls version of Sideways, if you will, without the drama.

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I considered a few places for us to stay, from Bacara Resort and Spa in nearby Goleta to the romantic San Ysidro Ranch and ocean-side Four Seasons Biltmore, both in the outskirts of Santa Barbara. But it was the legendary 100-year old Belmond El Encanto hotel that captured my attention. The location of the 7-acre property, the only 5-star Forbes hotel in Santa Barbara, with drop-dead views (or so it appeared on the website) of the Pacific ocean made it an easy choice.

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Facing a 97-mile drive after we landed at the Los Angeles airport, we picked up a Mercedes convertible (after all we were in ‘getaway’ mode. The convertible turned out useless however as it was a hard-top that had to be physically removed) for a two-hour journey to the hotel.  We experienced the infamous L.A. gridlock which was a bit of buzzkill to start a vacation. But after we got out of bumper to bumper traffic, the last hour of our drive on the 101 North, which hugs the coastline, was breathtakingly gorgeous.  Following recent heavy rains, literally everything was in bloom.

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A quick detour to Jeannine’s Bakery in Montecito for a bite on the way and we arrived at El Encanto after a few winding streets up the into the hills of Santa Barbara.  The entrance is so inconspicuous, we literally drove right past it.  In hindsight, it’s a fitting introduction to the essence of El Encanto as this hotel basks in its understatedness. As we arrived at the tail end of the weekend, the hotel was seemingly quiet except for guests attending a small wedding in progress (I snuck around to take the picture below because the setting was so pretty) and a few people from Los Angeles staying over to see Willie Nelson perform at the nearby Santa Barbara Bowl (which features an impressive roster of upcoming concerts this summer including John Legend, Blondie, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode and Boston – am I giving away my age?).

But even at full capacity, I doubt this serene sanctuary would ever feel crowded.  That is one of the reasons El Encanto has long been a popular discreet hideaway for celebrities looking to escape for a few days. When it opened its doors as a hotel in 1918, El Encanto quickly became a favorite mainstay of silver-screen stars Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and the like.  I am sure there a lot of good stories behind the walls of these ivy and wisteria-lined bungalows and cottages at this 100-year old property, Maybe even a ghost or two?
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Wedding in progress during our arrival
Wedding in progress during our arrival

From the moment we left our car at the valet, all stress from everyday life (and admittedly watching too much CNN) dissipated. It is supremely difficult not to feel immediately relaxed here. Taking in the fresh air, with the sun on your face and contemplating the postcard-perfect views of the Pacific Ocean directly beyond the expansive hilltop terrace – which, in my view is the crowning glory of El Encanto – will do that for you. But it is the intoxicating scents of honeysuckle, lavender, jasmine and bougainvillea that descend upon you from the moment you step on to the property that enthralled us (‘How can I bottle that smell?’ my girlfriend asks). It was like being in one big outdoor spa.

To truly appreciate Belmond El Encanto, you have to know a little about its origins. Back in the 1870s (that is when the eucalyptus trees on the property were planted), the original 4-acre property was used to house faculty at a nearby college (the old UC Santa Barbara campus is across the street) . The ten-room Craftsman and Spanish Colonial-style houses and cottages are all still intact and used as guest accommodations today. Not until 1918 did the property turn into a hotel. It operated as one until 2004 when it was sold to the Orient Express Hotels (now Belmond). A long seven years transpired before the hotel re-opened in 2012.  During that period, Belmond put significant funds into restoring all the original architectural details, updating accommodations and adding a spa, fitness center and saltwater pool.

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It was evident, as I walked the brick winding paths that take you throughout the property, that Belmond went to great pains to keep the historical integrity and charm (incidentally this is the translation  of ‘encanto’ in Spanish) of the property intact. The hub is the main house which contains reception, an attractive small bar and lounge area, and the indoor/outdoor dining spaces. Other than the spa and fitness room, these are the only indoor spaces. Here, the outdoor setting is the star. Sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine in hand as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean is a pretty special place to be. 

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When not chilling at the pool or getting a massage, I enjoyed exploring the property, checking out the arbor-covered cottages tucked throughout the 7-acres. In one short walk, I encountered a 1928 wishing well (original to the property) the Arbor and Lily Pond where you can feed the turtle and Koi residents during the day (at night, the frogs come out and get pretty vocal serenading their mates) and five beautiful ceramic pigs, gifts from the Belmond Maroma property scattered throughout the property.  But wherever you turn your head, the glistening Pacific ocean is always visible to remind you to go outside the property to check out the beaches! 

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Rooms

Cottages and bungalows are spread widely across property. While many are stand-alone, there are some that are adjoining or in quads (like ours).  All the original cottages are spacious at an average of 560 square feet and were updated before the hotel re-opened in 2012. It should be noted, however, that strict landmark guidelines apply to the property and, as such, the structural design has stayed intact. For sure, that is part of the charm and personality of the hotel but in some rooms, the small original windows do not bring in enough natural light. 

Our accommodation was a top floor Premiere Deluxe double-bed bungalow (although not a bungalow in true sense as was part of a 4-suite complex). #1804 was a comfortable room with a very spacious bathroom outfitted with a deep soaking tub and shower. It was simply designed, similar to other bungalows I inspected, with a large flat screen TV, fireplace, and terra-cotta floors. While perfectly comfortable, the terrace was too small to fit more than a small chair and the room felt particularly dark as only one window. The room was also very close to the main entrance which, while convenient, doesn’t have the charm of being further immersed in the lushly landscaped property. Which is the whole point of being here.The next time I return to El Encanto (and I will), I would definitely upgrade to a stand-alone cottage or at least request a lower floor bungalow which feature spacious patios (see Rooms to Get below). 

We appreciated the deliveries of delicious fruit plates, cheese, wine and champagne during our briefly stay. We did have a few glitches with our room upon check-in which were addressed quickly but I believe were due to some staff communication/training issues when we were there. This is one area that could have been improved during our stay.  It felt understaffed in many areas and the service just fell short of my expectation for a 5-star property.  

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View from our room
View from our room

During our brief time here, we accomplished what we set out to do – hike, relax, eat great food, and drink great wine.  Belmond El Encanto could not have been more ideally located for our mission as it is within 5-10 minutes of the incredible beaches, hiking trails, the authentic town of Santa Barbara as well as within 30 minutes drive from the Santa Ynez valley and its many wineries.  It is a place that feels private and remote yet it isn’t as you are smack in the middle of one of the most beautiful places with so much to do and see.  What sets it apart from many other properties I have visited is that it hasn’t strayed from its original style which is lost in so many renovations I have seen. Aside from modern conveniences, it simply feels timeless. 

Things To Do 

For a relaxing outdoorsy girls getaway, Santa Barbara is about as good as it gets (although I can do without the LA traffic. Note to self: next time fly directly into the local airport). There is no shortage of things to do. Wineries, beaches, mountains and amazing restaurants are just a starting point.  Here is a small sampling of suggestions.

Return To Freedom wild horse sanctuary in Lompoc CA
Return To Freedom wild horse sanctuary in Lompoc CA

Whale Watching. The Santa Barbara area offers some of the best whale watching in world with 20 different species of whales. Spring is sure bet for whale watching – even from the Pier – especially when new calves are on display. Ask the concierge about the 2-hour cruises that take you right from the marina.

Wild Horses. Just one hour drive North and you can visit Return to Freedom, a 300-acre wild horse rescue and sanctuary, that opens one Sunday every month to allow visitors to see and learn about the 175 wild horses it rescues and takes care of. 

Historic District and State Street. The town of Santa Barbara is host to great restaurants, cultural attractions, great shopping, and a wonderful farmers markets on Tuesdays. 

Hikes. (see Tips below)

Wine Tasting. This is a given as you are in the heart of one of the best wine regions in the U.S. Napa and Sonoma may be better known but Sideways has uncovered the secret of the Santa Ynez region, along with the towns of Los Olivos, Solvang and Los Alamos, less than an hour drive North of the hotel. If you are deprived of time, no worry. Hit the Funk Zone and the self-guided Urban Wine Trail  and check out the many wine tasting rooms in an old industrial complex (Riverbench, Whitcraft, and Santa Barbara Wine Collective are some notable ones recommended to us).

Where to Drink and Eat 

Cocktails

Boat House at Hendry's Beach
Boat House at Hendry’s Beach

Test Pilot – A tiki-inspired craft cocktail bar in the Funk Zone.

Good Lion – A swanky speakeasy serving tapas and inventive cocktails.

Boat House at Hendry’s Beach (unofficially known as ‘Dog Beach’) – a must at least once during cocktail hour from 3-6 or at sunset. Located right on Hendry’s Beach, this is where you can get your dog fix or just watch the surfers.

Bakeries (breakfast, lunch or picnic fare)

Helena Avenue Bakery
Helena Avenue Bakery

Renaud’s Bakery. On State Street, this Parisian style bakery is known for having the best chocolate croissants.

Jeannine’s Bakery. Located on Coast Village Road in Montecito as well as in Santa Barbara. Known for their breakfasts.

Helena Avenue Bakery. Decadent French toast.

Restaurants

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The Lark. Named one of the top 100 Hot Spots in the country on Open Table, The Lark is a very popular urban eatery housed in a former fish market in the Funk Zone. Always packed and very good! Make reservations well ahead of time and ask for outdoor seating when the weather is nice.

Loquita. A hot new tapas joint in the Funk Zone and sister restaurant to The Lark just around the corner. Sit at the bar or the beautiful outdoor (and heated) garden with fire pit. Loved it here!

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Olio e Limone. Italian restaurant that is a favorite of many locals and considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the area.

Mony’s Mexican. Very casual Mexican in the Funk Zone. Known for their tacos and salsa bar. Most always packed.

La Superrica. One of Julia Child’s favorite restaurants when she lived in the area, this cash-only small shack serves excellent but simple tacos. Usually a line out the door. Highly recommended by a foodie friend!

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Spotlight On: The Vik Retreats in Uruguay and Chile http://inviatotravel.com/2017/04/11/spotlight-on-the-vik-retreats-in-argentina-and-chile/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/04/11/spotlight-on-the-vik-retreats-in-argentina-and-chile/#respond Tue, 11 Apr 2017 14:34:14 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9363 Continued]]> Ever since I first read about the opening of the stunning ranch hideaway, Estancia Vik, seven years ago, it has been on my expansive bucket list. Since then, three more properties under the Vik ‘luxury retreat’ brand have opened, including one in Chile.  Each are completely different but spectacular in their own right.

Ania Wroblewska, a luxury travel consultant with Inviato Travel booking partner & NY-based Virtuoso agency, Classic Travel, was fortunate to visit all four properties this past October. I am thrilled that she agreed to provide us a thorough overview on each of these properties to share with our readers:

Playa Vik Estancia Vik Vina Vik Bahia Vik

I first learned about the VIK properties when, still a lawyer, I was “inspirationally planning” trips that my work schedule would have never allowed me to take. I was dreaming about South America and, as a huge wine enthusiast, I happened upon Vina Vik in Chile. The property, with its own winery and gorgeous vistas, looked out of this world. The internet rabbit hole led me to more and more articles about the Vik family (the owner, Norwegian Alexander Vik was named the Most Interesting Man in the World in 2014 by Forbes – you can read why here) and I quickly learned that there were three other properties in Uruguay. I was hooked and vowed to visit all four properties sometime in the future.

Fast forward to 2016. As a luxury travel consultant at Classic Travel, I was invited this past October to stay at two of the Vik properties and do a site inspection of the other two.  Of course, I jumped on the opportunity. Each property is completely different: Vina Vik is ultra modern and all about wine; Estancia Vik is a Spanish colonial-style hotel/ranch that is all about Uruguayan art and culture; Playa Vik, a contemporary beach villa with stunning views of the coastline, oozes romance;  Bahia Vik are beachy bungalows out on the Uruguayan dunes.

VINA VIK

We started our trip with a 2 night-stay at Vina Vik in Chile, the latest addition to the Vik portfolio and the only hotel outside of Uruguay. In order to get there, we flew to Santiago, Chile where we were picked up by the hotel driver for the two and a half hour drive to the hotel (for a quicker and more exciting option, I recommend splurging for the 40-minute helicopter transfer). I woke up groggy from a jet-lagged nap in the car to peer up to a Frank Gehry-esque building surrounded by an emerald lake, mountains and a vast winery.

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As this is not your typical hotel with separate reception space, we were greeted in the living room pavilion of the hotel. The hotel was designed to feel like home (albeit not your everyday home). In fact, Alexander Vik and his family spend time at the hotel each year and utilize it as one of their (many) personal homes.

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Vina Vik is simply spectacular and clearly no expense was spared in the building and design – from the titanium roof (Titanium has a thermal capacity to withstand the climate of the Chilean wine country), Frette linens and robes in the rooms to the individual design of each of the 22 rooms with custom artwork and furniture.

No room is the same and, when booking, guests are given a room menu to pick the best suited room for them. Make sure you do this as waking up to large portrait of a transsexual homeless woman pushing a trolley full of trash may not be everyone’s cup of tea! You may prefer the whimsical Redonodo Suite with its colorful polka dot headboard, the Azulejo Suite where you will wake up everyday to two Oscar-esque velvet dresses hanging over your bed, or my favorite, the Shogun Master Suite which will transport you to Japan. See the slideshow below to see some of these rooms:

Click to view slideshow.

The rates at Vina Vik include all meals, drinks and hotel activities, with the exception of some specially designed bespoke experiences. Alas, this is not the typical “all inclusive experience” – the food is of the highest quality and the wine served is of course the winery’s own. Breakfast is a buffet with a menu of made to order eggs. Lunch and dinner are casual affairs with no set menu. The chef prepares two main dishes and an appetizer based on what is fresh. During my three day stay, I ate foie gras, beef tartar, garden vegetable tempura as appetizers and duck, octopus and lamb for the main entrees. Everything was fantastic. If you are a picky eater or have food allergies, do not worry as the chef adjusts the dishes to each guest’s preference. If you do not like the options offered, they will find an alternative.

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What I loved most about the hotel the most was that it is not only great for adults looking to combine a vacation with a tour of the winery but is ideal for entire families as well. The hotel offers plenty of activities for everyone: horse back riding, hiking, bike riding, fishing, yoga classes with a view of the infinity pool, paintball, and cooking classes. Kids can visit the garden and pick their own vegetables from the garden or get eggs for breakfast from the henhouse. Even the tour of the winery can be done with kids – the adults get to sample the wines and kids grape juice.

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After our two night stay at this exceptional property we were whisked back to the Santiago airport for a quick flight to Montevideo in Uruguay. We were heading to the Punta del Este area, the ‘Hamptons of South America‘. The three Uruguayan VIK properties are a two-hour drive from the Montevideo airport but the drive did not feel long and I was amazed by how beautiful the countryside was – full of farmland, estancias, and open fields.

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ESTANCIA VIK

On our way for a 2-night stay at the ultra modern Playa Vik, we stopped for a tour of the sister property, Estancia Vik. As we visited in October, the property was empty and closed, although the manager was in the process of getting the property ready for a weekend buy-out. The Estancia experience begins during the arrival on the long unpaved road through 4,000 acres of pastures and undeveloped lands with the white-washed hotel looming in the distance on a small hill. This may not be one the “hot hip” properties in Punta del Este but it certainly feels special.

Estancia caters to those who want to be close to the beach (only 1 mile from the ocean and 20 miles from Punta del Este, on southernmost tip of Uruguay), but are looking for a respite from the nearby hotspots making it a fantastic choice for families with children who want to experience the best of what Uruguay has to offer. Built in the Spanish colonial style, Estancia offers colonial architectural elements like adobe walls and red tin roofs, accented by clean white lines, expansive public spaces and, as in all other VIK properties, original contemporary art. Just as at Vina Vik, each of the 12 guest rooms is completely different and features 18 Uruguyan artists creating an impressive gallery of modern local art.

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Estancia Vik offers something for everyone – you can partake in horseback riding along the nearby river, canoeing (offering the chance to observe indigenous birds) and even take private polo lessons, play tennis or challenge your family to a paintball match. Or you can simply laze around the spacious main building and pretend you are the owner of a beautiful country estate. A small and scenic outdoor pool provides respite from the hot summer weather and the game room offers pool table, ping-pong table and board games for the perfect family evening. And, of course, with its short distance from both Jose Ignacio and Punta del Este, beach time is only a few minutes away.

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BAHIA VIK

Bahia Vik, opened in 2014 and deemed one of the hottest hotel openings anywhere, did not disappoint. I was immediately blown away by the Klimt-esque ceiling mural by a Uruguayan artist, which welcomes you in the entrance hall. As with the Estancia, local art is seen throughout the property – from larger-than-life portraits of the Vik family in the dining room to vibrantly colored bedrooms and unique bathrooms.

 

Much like its sister properties, no room is the same at Bahia Vik, enticing guests to want to see each and every room to find their favorite. Ten of the 37 rooms are located in the main building, spread between the first and second floor, which offers stupendous views and can be taken over to form a family suite. The remaining 27 rooms are spread out among 11 stand-alone bungalows with one, two and three bedroom options. Each bungalow is made of different material making them unique. One might be made from Uruguayan staple whitewashed adobe while another one may be clad in titanium or covered entirely in sand. The hotel also offers a four-bedroom villa for bigger families that comes with exclusive use of a private pool in front of it.

Photo Oct 21, 10 47 03 AM Photo Oct 21, 10 51 18 AM Bungalow in Vik Bahia Photo Oct 21, 10 57 45 AM

Estancia Vik offers a small gym and game center room around an interior courtyard as well as four pools with mind-blowing views of the dunes and the water. With 37 rooms, Bahia Via is the largest of the VIK properties and perfectly suited for families with children.

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PLAYA VIK

We arrived at Playa Vik at dusk, just in time to see the dramatic sunset over the rugged coastline of Jose Ignacio while sitting on the edge of the black granite infinity pool protruding from the hill on which the main hotel building is built on. Despite our rush to get out and photograph the stunning views (and selfies), we managed to notice the epic bronze door sculpted by Uruguayan artist Pablo Atchugarry reminiscent of gates that might have protected ancient Rome. In fact, the entire property is a work of art. Thanks to its uber-modern design by world famous Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott (famous for the Paris Opera House, the National Bank of Dubai and the Carlos Curbelo airport in Punta del Este), the hotel is recognizable from a distance due to its “living-roof” planted with Uruguayan wild flowers.

Photo Oct 21, 8 11 28 AM Photo Oct 20, 6 08 52 PM Photo Oct 20, 5 36 07 PM

The Ott-designed masterpiece consists of six grass-topped, glass-and-steel villas that revolve around the main building the Viks refer to as “the Sculpture.” The main building is home to three of the most spectacular rooms on the second floor and public spaces on the main floor, including a comfy living room, a library with a wide selection of books and a formal dining room. As with the other Vik properties, art is everywhere. A stroll into the library reveals a James Turrell wall installation and a striking acrylic bench by Zaha Hadid. The pièce de résistance, however, is the view – stunning and unfiltered view of the azure Atlantic Ocean. At night, the dramatic infinity pool is illuminated by a celestial pattern with small fiber-optic lights lights, making the guests feel as though they were swimming in the Milky Way while listening to crashing ocean waves.

While children are welcome in this property and the hotel offers 2 and 3 bedroom suites perfect for families, the best rooms are stand alone rooms in the Sculpture building perfect for couples In fact, with its Milky Way illumination and a cozy fire pit and its relaxed quiet ambiance, Playa Vik oozes romance, making it the perfect place for couples. Its location in the Jose Ignacio Village allows guests to go for romantic strolls through the neighborhood and along the beach.

Photo Oct 21, 12 00 34 PM Playa Vik barbeque Photo Oct 21, 12 01 36 PM

How to get to the Uruguayan Properties:
The best way is to fly into Punta del Este and drive for 40 minutes or to fly into Montevideo and drive for two hours.

When to go:
Vina Vik in Chile is a year-round destination but the most pleasant months to visit are October to April. Summer (November to April) is warm with lots of sunshine. Over their winter (June to September), you’ll see the Andes wreathed in snow but the weather is chilly and rain can be an issue.  Spring-like September is Chile’s national independence month, and is full of activity.

For the Uruguayan Vik properties, ‘the high season’’ is between Christmas and mid-January when Argentine families escape. There is a 7-night minimum during festive season. Due to the high demand for these properties, we recommend you book at least a year in advance for holiday breaks. As of the publishing of this post, only one suite is available at Estancia Vik during the winter holiday 2017/18. All other Vik properties are sold out.

Post and photos by Ania Wroblewska at Classic Travel and not for reproduction 

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Inside Look: 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/17/inside-look-1-hotel-brooklyn-bridge/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/17/inside-look-1-hotel-brooklyn-bridge/#respond Fri, 17 Mar 2017 12:10:59 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9574 Continued]]> I am embarrassed to say, in all the years I have lived in Manhattan,  I never stepped foot on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. It may well have been another country. Other than knowing this is where the River Café and Girls is located, I’ve been pretty ignorant about this wonderful borough.  So when the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge opened two weeks ago right in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I jumped at the opportunity to do a private tour of this exciting new property and get acquainted with the area. Although the subway is just as efficient from the Upper East Side, I took a short Uber ride down the FDR last Thursday, a sunny but windy day.

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View from a 5th Floor room at the 1 Hotel South Beach

Just over a month ago, I stayed at the 1 Hotel South Beach property and was introduced to their eco-luxury concept (You can read my review here as well as the background and premise of the 1 Hotels). The 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge is the third (Miami and NYC are the other two) property of this fairly new hotel brand and the first developed from the ground-up. The waterfront hotel, housed in the former Domino Sugar Factory, was a five year undertaking in the making. The drawings were nearly complete for the property when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. Waterfront zoning changes required the building to raise its base by three feet without increasing the overall building height, requiring a massive redesign. The 10-floor 194-room hotel, once fully completed by Fall, will have five restaurants, a spa, fitness center, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor event space. And what about transportation, you ask? A complimentary Tesla house car provides guests transportation wherever they want to go within three miles and provides a complimentary shuttle service to subway stops and Wall Street three times daily. If you want more exercise, you can take one of the Citi Bikes to explore the neighborhood.

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The location of the hotel, right on the foot of the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, could not be more ideal. The restored Fulton Ferry Landing (one of Brooklyn’s most historic sites, marking the first ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1642) and landmark River Café (also recently renovated) are a stones throw away. The beautifully restored 1922 carousel, Jane’s Carousel (above), is open year-round. Bike paths run from Pier 1 to Pier 6 with Pier 2 offering over five acres of basketball, bocce, and other sports as well as a roller rink . And then there are the vistas of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a photographer’s dream.

Public Spaces

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One of the first thing you notice when you walk through the entrance of hotel is the front desk – or rather what is behind it. The massive Jarrod Beck installation is constructed of remains of rubber roofing stripped from a retailer’s roof after a tornado.  Right by it is another installation, this time at the foot of the industrial-style stairs leading to the 2nd floor. The 6,000 rock installation was created to evoke a sense of place – particularly the port and bridge surrounding the hotel.

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The industrial aesthetic that continues throughout the impressive open air lobby/lounge (as well as the entire hotel) is softened with luxurious shaggy rugs, ottomans and pillows and natural leather seating. I loved the unique combination of textures – ropes, bricks, marble, stone, glass and wood.  Not just any wood, mind you. Almost everything is reclaimed here (over 50% ratio, I am told) whether it is beams found in neighboring factories, walnut from Brooklyn Bridge Gardens or pine flooring from the Old Crow Distillery in Kentucky. Most of the furniture was designed by the local Brooklyn furniture designer, Uhuru.

A look at 1Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.

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Uhuru is not the 1 Hotel’s only Brooklyn partner.  An important part of the 1 hotel’s mission is to create deep ties with the community. Even before the hotel opened, the 1 Hotel partnered with the NYC Restoration Project to locally plant 500 trees. They are partnering with Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy to create joint events and activities. The 25-foot living green wall of plants in the lobby, as well as all the plantings on property and in the guest rooms, was created by the Brooklyn husband and wife team Harrison Green. Works from other local artists such as Olivie Ponce and Daniel Phillips, whose photography, sculpture and video installations using reclaimed items from abandoned and demolished Brooklyn buildings, can be seen in the guest rooms, 2nd floor and even on the chimney roof!

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The industrial feel is not just decorative.  For example, those massive pipes you see in the lobby below are actually collecting rainwater to irrigate Brooklyn Bridge Park. Impressive, right?

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Rooms

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There are 194 rooms, including 28 suites, at the 1 Hotel. Worth noting is that there are no twin or queen beds in any of the rooms. Just king beds.

The 1 Hotel’s sustainable architecture ethos continues in the rooms from the recycled wood chips used for your room keys to the repurposed leather scraps used for room numbers. Even Do Not Disturb signs have been creatively replaced with Now and Not Now rocks.  In the rooms (or anywhere in the hotel), you won’t find a single plastic bottle. Triple filtered taps and in-room glassware are used instead, already resulting in 750,000 saved water bottles to date. Likewise, low flow fixtures and optional shower timers have saved 10 million gallons. As a guest, you not only have to respect that but it makes you more conscious about being less wasteful when you get home.

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All the rooms feature custom hemp blend-filled mattresses (incredibly comfortable, I might add), natural cotton knit towels and robes, cozy cotton socks to take home (instead of slippers).

I was able to view two of the Skyline Suites 504 and 507 (pictured above). Aptly named, these premium rooms (there are 16 of them) offer unobstructed views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Skyline and the Statue of Liberty. These suites can be connected to neighboring rooms for a family or group and are twice the size of the standard rooms. 

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Restaurants 

Shortly, the 1 Hotel will feature five food and beverage options: a main restaurant (still under wraps but due to open in May), the Neighbors Cafe, the lobby, the roof, and 10th floor lounge. An outdoor space with fire pit will be opening soon as well.

Already open is Neighbors, a bright and airy floor-to-ceiling windowed café featuring artisanal grab-and-go sandwiches and panini. Local vendors such as L’albero dei Gelati for gelato, The Jam Stand for artisanal jams and Bocce’s Bakery for all-natural dog biscuits are prominently featured. Only the coffee, from farm-to-table Columbian roasting company Devocion, is exotic.

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Similar to the other 1 properties, there is a lobby farmstand providing fresh fruits, nuts and granola daily.

Event and Outdoor Space  

The 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge provides 20,000 feet of indoor and outdoor event space. 11,000 of the event space will be next door in the Meadow Rue, ideal for receptions.

The 2nd and 10th floor holds most of the hotel’s event space. There are several board rooms and meeting rooms  (all named after plants found in the park), all which provide floor to ceiling spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. The hospitality lounge spanning most of the 10th floors makes for an incredible entertainment space with private access to the rooftop.

Which takes us to the 11th floor Roof, one of my favorite spaces of the hotel. I was able to take a quick walk (it was really windy!) on the 3,500 square roof, complete with a three-foot plunge pool for guests. I’m not sure any views get better than this – it’s pretty breathtaking.

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What Else? 

I’m very excited for the Fall opening of one of my favorite spas at the hotel: the British-based Bamford Haybarn Spa (also at the South Beach hotel). with nine treatment rooms. A 50-seat screening room one floor below lobby will feature screenings and also be available for private rental. The 24-hour fitness center on the 2nd center,  Field House, offers weights and personal training. Yoga is offered on Sundays (conveniently, there are yoga mats in every room).

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I can’t wait to return to the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge on a warm Summer evening and take in the stupendous views on the rooftop. Or maybe I’ll come for their Full Moon party on May 10th or one of their candlelit evenings they offer each month to raise awareness for global brightening (next dates are March 27, April 26 and May 25).

The 1 Hotels are taking their eco-chic concept next to China (2018) Cabo San Lucas (2019) and Silicon Valley (2019).  I was sold after my stay at 1 Hotel South Beach and even more so by this visit to the 1 Brooklyn Bridge hotel. I left both properties inspired, wanting to be a better citizen of the planet. I am sure I am not the only one.

Note: The 1 Hotel Brooklyn has a Spring ‘Say Hello to Brooklyn‘ offer valid through June 30th. Receive a complimentary upgrade, $25 to spend on food & drinks at Neighbors and a $10 Lyft credit or 2 ferry passes with your booking.  With every reservation, 1 Hotel will donate to a local organization to plant new trees.

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Inside Look: The Whitby Hotel, New York City http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/13/inside-look-the-whitby-hotel-new-york-city/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/13/inside-look-the-whitby-hotel-new-york-city/#respond Mon, 13 Mar 2017 20:53:43 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9494 Continued]]> It would be hard to find a more devoted fan of Kit Kemp – interior designer extraordinaire and co-owner of the Firmdale Hotels – than me. Over the course of the last few years, I have visited each one of their ten hotels in London and New York. Each luxury hotel has its own unique personality, style, and loyal clientele but all possess the same signature design aesthetic: vibrant prints and colors overlaid with unique antique and modern pieces that Kit Kemp personally discovers or creates.

The Ham Yard Hotel, their most recent hotel in London and flagship property is one of my favorite places to stay (it will be my fourth time this summer. You can read my reviews here and here) – l love its energy, ‘urban village’ concept and prime Soho location. And as a New Yorker, I always make a point to drop in at Crosby Street Hotel in Soho for breakfast and lunch any chance I get.

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The opening of the latest Firmdale hotel (its tenth in the portfolio and second in New York), The Whitby Hotel, has been highly anticipated since the announcement it was being developed. Located on prime real estate Midtown on 18 West 56th Street, The Whitby opened two weeks ago on March 1st.  I was fortunate to get a private walk-through two days later. The main restaurant, The Orangery, and adjoining bar, The Whitby Bar, are not open yet (they will open March 20th) and some of the rooms are still being finished.  But I saw enough to be once again blown away by Kemp’s creative design mastery.

I recognized many of the same trademark items at the Whitby as other Firmdale hotels: floor-to-ceiling windows in the guest rooms, mannequins, Rik Rak products and so forth.  But The Whitby Hotel, like each and every other sister properties, has its own distinct personality. I definitely saw touches from the Ham Yard (the back lit vessels on the walls, long bar and hanging baskets in The Orangery, for example) and Crosby Street (the cinema and event spaces in particular). YetI also detected a host of new botanical and floral influences throughout the hotel.  l was particularly enchanted by the whimsical Wedgwood “mythical creatures’ china (a Kit Kemp design you can purchase here) in The Orangery, the fantastic Christopher Farr and Chelsea Textiles fabrics used on the guest room headboards, cushions and pillows and pretty much everything I saw in the downstairs Reading Room.

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Whatever it is, it works beautifully. I instantly felt uplifted the minute I walked in the front entrance. And walked out wanting to completely redecorate my apartment!

I look forward to returning to The Whitby Hotel for tea, on that wonderful china of course, at the end of March!

Public Spaces

On the street level, you will find the main public spaces: reception (below), guest-only Drawing Room and The Orangery and the Whitby Bar.

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The Drawing Room below is for guests only and a lovely place for guests to sit by the fireplace, grab a drink at the honesty bar or have a classic English tea.

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The Whitby Bar is simply a gorgeous space with beautiful upholstered banquettes, colorful hanging baskets and a captivating collection of vintage china plates that Kit Kemp collected from her travels – each has a different story.

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The impressive 30-foot pewter bar has a collection of hanging baskets originating from different areas of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Orangery, reserved for hotel guests, has vaulted ceilings and skylights that bring in natural light. A spectacular wall of 40 beautifully crafted vessels are lit from within.  A similar aesthetic to the Ham Yard, yet here each vessel features a different landmark New York building or bridges etched into it.

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The Guest Rooms

There are 86 rooms and suites on 16 floors, each with their own design and color scheme. No two rooms are alike although you will find the trademark mannequin, granite and marble baths with double basins in each along with Kemp’s line of Rik Rak products (I’m addicted to the lavender, eucalyptus pillow, linen and room mists. I bought a few at The Ham Yard). The Whitby Suite – a 2,000 square foot 2-bedroom suite occupying the entire top floor will be the crowning glory. Disappointingly, I was unable to view it as it is not yet ready.

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Junior Suite 404
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(I love these headboards, especially those that are embroidered! Each one is different and exclusively for The Whitby Hotel.)

During my visit I was able to visit several of the Junior Terrace suites and Deluxe Rooms. Rooms start at the Superior Room level – these rooms are located on the 2nd floor and are about 330 square feet.  Luxury Rooms are slightly larger at 350 square feet. Deluxe Rooms are located on the 9th and 10th floors.

The suites begin at the Junior Suite level which provide a larger seating area at 450 square feet.  I was able to view a few of the six junior terrace suites on the 12th and 14th floors. These are spacious airy rooms with corner terraces, an open plan sitting area and king size bed. My particular favorite was #1408, a corner junior terrace suite that is especially nice for views and light.

Junior corner terrace suite #1408
Junior corner terrace suite #1408
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Event Spaces

Beginning in April the private event space, comprising of two floors below street level, will be open for private events, meetings and screenings (reservations are open now). 

The 130-seat state of the art theater is available for private screenings.

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There are three private event rooms – Araminta, Anrep and The Reading Room. The Araminta and Anrep rooms can be combined for one beautiful party or event.

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Event Lobby Bar

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Above, the Araminta Room features a fantastical wallpaper mural on its walls by Melissa White, a British designer and painter of decorative interiors.

Below, the Anrep Room is named after Boris Anrep, the late Russian artist known for his mosaic prints featured in the National Gallery and Westminster Gallery. The prints of his mosaics adorn the walls of this room (the originals can be found in the National Gallery)

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My favorite room though is the Reading Room, a stunning 832-square foot room with hundreds of carefully curated books, organized by genre. The space fits about 48 people perfectly for an elegant sit down dinner or 100 people for a reception.  I am just going to have to find a reason to do a private event here.

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Just Checked Out: Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/06/just-checked-out-four-seasons-oahu-at-ko-olina/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/06/just-checked-out-four-seasons-oahu-at-ko-olina/#respond Mon, 06 Mar 2017 18:53:46 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9441 Continued]]> For our family trip to Hawaii in December, we wanted to experience another island after our experience on the Big Island. Oahu felt like the right choice with plenty of outdoor activities, beaches, and Pearl Harbor.  Choosing to stay at the 371-room Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina, Four Season’s fifth Hawaiian resort which just opened this past summer, was not a difficult choice.

Of course, I was eager to check out any new hotel opening anyway, especially a Four Seasons property. But frankly there were also very few other luxury properties on the island (most are located on the Waikiki strip) that appealed.  Many seemed tired (confirmed by friends and colleagues who have stayed there) and in need of a major face-lift.

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Our experience with the Four Seasons Oahu had a bit of a rocky start before we even arrived. Anyone going away during festive season knows how essential it is to book your restaurant reservations, treatments and activities beforehand or you risk missing out when you arrive.  My experience dealing with the concierge staff over e-mail to secure appointments was surprisingly an endless source of frustration. Too many different people at the Concierge got involved in seemingly easy reservations, providing inconsistent information and sometimes not responding at all.

It would be unfair for any place to be compared immediately after the Four Seasons Hualalai, where we stayed before arriving at the Four Seasons Oahu. But as a Four Seasons resort, and new one at that, we still had high expectations.  Visually, it was a shock to our senses coming from a serene oasis to this more urban style beach resort. The resort is more condensed than the sprawling Hualalai compound and felt very crowded in comparison (although granted it was the height of the Festive Season), especially as it shares a small man-made lagoon beach with the Disney Aulani resort. The hotel is housed in a former JW Marriott property and not a new edifice. While everything felt new and looked shiny as it should be after an 18 month renovation, the shell of the former 17 floor hotel is the same (see more below on location).

During our week-long stay, we were very pleased with the overall service and dining options at the hotel as well as the comfort and spaciousness of our rooms. Unfortunately, as we planned to spend most of our week in Oahu exploring the island and its beautiful beaches, the location of the hotel was not ideal.

Location

While we wanted a location away from the Waikiki hotel ‘strip’, we found the location of the Four Seasons Oahu too simply too far (everything is about a 40-60 minute drive) to spend the week as we spent much of our time in the car driving to and from the places we wanted to explore. The remote location also discouraged us from checking out other restaurants we wanted to try on the island for dinner.

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The biggest negative for me about the location is the actual property. The main beach is a man-made lagoon inlet offering a very small sand beach. The fact that it is shared (the inlet is actually roped off and divided in half between properties) by the Disney Aulani property next to it was a huge damper in my opinion. I knew the hotel was next door, but was not prepared for how close it was (it is conveniently not mentioned or photographed on the website or materials). The massive Aulani (819 rooms – more than twice the size of the FS Oahu) and its crowded beach is just such an eyesore, that it ruins any chance of having a typical ‘Four Seasons’ experience here.

Although the Four Seasons does the best it can do with a less than ideal situation and it is a beautiful resort otherwise, the small beach was just overwhelmed during this holiday time between Four Seasons guests, Disney Aulani guests and public visitors for us to bother lounging on it. The best location for anything resembling an exotic island setting here is on the West side of resort.

Amenities/Activities

Adult pool
Adult pool

Like Hualalai, there was an abundant number of on-property amenities and activities but in a much more condensed setting. I was told that the Jim Courier Tennis Centre, offering 5 tennis courts on the 6th floor rooftop of an adjoining building, is by far the best facility on the island. It certainly made my husband very happy and should be enough to attract anyone looking to play while they are on the island They were still refining the center during our stay as it could get windy.

Paddle-boarding, snorkeling and other activities are also offered on the property which you can do on the lagoon, although it appeared very crowded most times. There are other lagoons and a marina (by shuttle) on the property but we did not get to visit them.

You will find four pools on the property: a lap pool at the Spa, a small family pool near the beach and an adult pool tucked away on the West side of the hotel. The adult pool was by far the prettiest and most serene option – a disappointment that we could not use it.

The Food

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There are four restaurants at the Four Seasons all were remarkably excellent with menus serving delicious, inventive as well as popular choices. I was very impressed given the hotel was open only a few months and this was their first festive season with full occupancy.

Waterman's Bar and Grill Fish House La Hiki

La Hiki serves a wonderful breakfast buffet as well as Pan-Asian menu for dinner, serving an array of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai dishes – this is where you can get your sushi fix.  Noe, their Italian restaurant, offers the most serene experience with beautiful indoor/outdoor seating areas and fresh pasta dishes.  Fish House, located off the beach, was our favorite for fresh and inventive seafood dishes (get the Hawaiian Poke sampler). Waterman Bar Grill is a casual outdoor bar that is great for light bites and sunset cocktails (booze soaked popsicles!). All the restaurants had children menus. A taco truck serves up fresh fish tacos on the West lawn during the afternoon.

The Service

Overall the staff, particularly at the restaurants, was very welcoming and hospitable with tons of enthusiasm and energy.  A few areas were in need of polishing, such as pre-arrival assistance through the concierge (a frustrating experience with inconsistent information provided from time to time), housekeeping (inconsistent) and at poolside service.

There were exceptional stand-outs: Joe Witherell with the Concierge staff expertly sorted out all our previous difficulties and Philip Clough, the Resort Manager, who flawlessly oversaw the opening of resort and was ever-present during the Festive Season.

The Rooms

For our family, we chose connecting Ocean Front King to King rooms, shared by a common vestibule. Our hotel rooms were new, modern and very spacious. Oddly, while there was plenty of closet space in both rooms, the rooms lacked adequate drawer storage (one of the porters told us they were still waiting for storage).

As the Disney Aulani property, a massive eyesore of resort in my opinion, is on the East Side of the property, I would ask for an ocean-facing room on the West side of the resort.

TAKEAWAY

The new Four Seasons Oahu is the newest and most luxurious property by far on island of Oahu right now and has raised the bar for some other properties that are a bit tired and in need of a renovation to catch up.

However, the hotel felt atypical to me than many other Four Seasons properties I have been too – less a resort and more of an urban hotel like those high-rises you might find on South Beach in Miami. The service, restaurants, rooms and in some cases, amenities are all 5- star but in a 4-star location and building.  It is still on its own a very attractive resort and as long as you know what to expect, I would recommend it highly for 3-4 nights if you are lucky enough to be in Oahu.

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What To Do in Oahu

There is no shortage of things to do in Oahu – beaches, hikes, whale watching, zip lining and more. Here were our favorites:

Waimea Valley on the North Shore in Haleiwa, a 2-000 acre rain forest including botanical gardens, waterfalls, hiking trails and sacred native Hawaiian burial caves, shrines and temples. There are hikes for all abilities. We went here before going to Kualoa Ranch but you can also do on way to North Shore.

The view from the Pillbox Lanikai trail
The view from the Pillbox Lanikai trail

Lanikai Pillboxes Trail in Kailua – a easy/moderate 1.6 mile hike that is great for families.  It’s a 20-30 minute climb to get to the first military pillbox bunker but you only need to hike up about 10 minutes to get your first selfie or family shot with a stunning backdrop of the shore and islands. It can be steep and muddy in some areas.  We liked this hike also because it was so convenient to the gorgeous Lanikai beach and restaurants in Kailua (go for breakfast at Cinnamon’s or Boots and Kimo’s before you hike). Friends have said Diamond Head is also a wonderful hike but that is much farther from the resort.

North Shore. Our favorite time in Oahu was on the North Shore. Pick a beach, you can’t go wrong – Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline or Waimea Bay, the sites of some of the best surfing in the world, sometimes with 40-50 foot waves, and just watch the surfers do their stuff.  Than after having worked up appetite watching (or perhaps surfing yourselves), head for the famous North Shore food trucks. The trucks are all in one spot on Kamehameha Highway: Giovanni’s for shrimp, Elephant Truck for Thai were the ones we recommend. Stop in the town of Haleiwa to browse the cool boutiques and the site of Matsumoto’s Shaved Ice. On your way back, get a drink and catch the sunset at Turtle Bay Resort (Forgetting Sarah Marshall was filmed here) at the Point.  Or go to Banzai Sushi in Haleiwa for what is considered the best sushi on the island. 

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Pearl Harbor – It goes without saying and worth the time at least to see USS Memorial (get tickets in advance for this memorial or you won’t get in due to strict daily quotas). You could easily spend a full day here. It was very moving. See Tips below.

 

Kualoa Ranch – a 4,000 acre private nature reserve and working cattle ranch as well as popular film location for movies and TV shows such as Lost, Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, Godzilla, Pearl Harbor, 50 First Dates, the Brady Sequel and so many more. You can do ATV tours here (as Michelle Obama and the girls did the day before we arrived), zip line, horseback riding or a film location tour. We had a lot of fun on our private tour (even though we were the only family who hadn’t seen most of the movies!).

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Restaurants in Oahu

There are seriously a ton of great dining options in Oahu – from Honolulu to Kailua to the North Shore.

Monkey Pod – is across the street from the resort and very popular for residents in the Ko Olina community, Four Seasons and Aulalani guests. Worth going  to this family-friendly restaurant with fun, good menu at least once when you are at the resort for a change of scenery. We sat next to Adam Sandler, a guest at the resort, both times we were there.

Cinnamons in Kailua is a popular breakfast spot known for its guava chiffon and red velvet pancakes along with other breakfast fare. Go early or risk a 45-minute wait or more as we did.

Boots and Kimo’s in Kailua, around the corner from Cinnamons, is another popular option for breakfast. They are known for its Banana Mac Nut Pancakes.

132225While you are waiting in line for either of the above, there are a few cute boutiques worth checking out on Hekili Street in Kailua: Guava Shop (clothes) and Island Bungalow (home furnishings) are both beachy-chic boutiques next to each other. Aloha Beach Club nearby is a cool men’s clothing boutique that conveniently also serves crushed ice.

 

Matsumoto’s Shaved Ice – A hugely popular family shop serving shaved ice (ask for ice cream on bottom, condensed milk on top for a complete sugar fest) since 1951, is always packed. Tons of exotic flavors and colors to choose from but the Hawaiian (a 3-flavor tropical fruit combo) is the most popular. Have someone stand in line so you can explore boutiques in like North Shore Surf Shop which has great creative tees and sweatshirts

Banzai Sushi – Sushi with a Hawaiian twist is the style at this Japanese fusion restaurant in Haleiwa on the North Shore (and the only sushi restaurant on the North Shore). Get the ahi carpaccio, Kobe beef gyoza. Fish is caught fresh daily.

Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu or Agnes Portugese Bake Shop in Kailua for world-famous Malasadas (a Portuguese, creme-filled doughnut). Call before going to make Unknownsure they are open and go early!. We went to Agnes only to find they ran out already for the day!

Pig & The Lady – for lunch or dinner in Honolulu’s Chinatown (ideal after a visit to Pearl Harbor). Communal dining Vietnamese fare. It was closed during Christmas Day when we tried to go but our friends highly recommended. Instead, we found a wonderful restaurant nearby Lucky Belly that served amazing Ramen noodle dishes.

House without a Key at the Halekulani hotel – No reservations but go before sunset and sit outside and eat to live band daily. Very popular.

 

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Just Checked Out: Four Seasons Hualalai, Big Island http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/03/just-checked-out-four-seasons-hualalai-big-island/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/03/03/just-checked-out-four-seasons-hualalai-big-island/#respond Fri, 03 Mar 2017 12:30:35 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9198 Continued]]> Since the Four Seasons Hualalai opened a little over 20 years ago, it has scooped up every type of accolade and award you can possibly imagine. It is one of the top-ranked hotels in the world by both travelers and the travel industry. Naturally, it has been on the top of my list to visit as everyone I know who has been fortunate to stay there has returned raving about it.  In fact, we found many are die-hard repeats who return to Hualalai year after year, explaining why it is so hard to secure a reservation here during the holidays!

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I decided last June it was time to explore the Hawaiian Islands for the winter holiday break as it was a destination neither my husband or I had yet traveled to but was high on both our lists. With some determination, we were fortunate to secure four nights at the Hualalai on the Big Island followed by another seven nights at the newly opened Four Seasons Ko Olina in Oahu.

Our trip had a bumpy start with inclement weather in New York delaying our flight departure time by several hours and causing us to miss our connection to the Big Island via Honolulu. Thus we were sadly deprived of one of our four nights at the resort (a costly loss, I might add!). We arrived at the resort in a downpour – the heaviest rain the island had in 6 months we were told – which thankfully only lasted our first day and transformed the resort into a lush oasis. We were greeted promptly with traditional orchid leis and yummy tropical drinks to get us into ‘island mode’. As we were escorted by golf cart to our suite, Richie Sambora smiled as he passed us walking by. Any stress from our journey instantly dissipated for this Jersey girl.

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The Hualalai resort, sitting on an ancient land division that was once a fishing village on the North side of the island, now spans a whopping 865-acres with an ocean-paved walk spanning the main areas of the resort. While most of the guest rooms, restaurants and pools are all nestled in the hub of the resort, it did take me about a day to get my bearings (admittedly, I am directionally challenged). Many loyalists of Hualalai proudly boasted to us they come and never leave the resort during their stay and I certainly can see why. With 7 pools, an expansive fitness facility, a 28,000-square foot spa, an 18-hole golf course and more, there is quite enough diversions to keep you entertained night and day inside the resort.

Yet, while there may not be a need to ever leave the self-contained property, it would be a shame not to explore the stunning Big Island (see tips further below). With four days here, we only left once to go on a helicopter tour (a must-do). If we had more time, we would have rented a jeep for the day to explore the beaches and areas of the island.

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Flying over one area of the volcano

The Property

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The grounds are simply beautiful and lush – a dramatic combination of black lava rock, palm trees and foliage that is devotedly tended to by staff. The beach itself is very narrow and only one inlet is suitable for ocean swimming as the sea can be rough and the reefs sharp. There are plenty of lounge chairs and sun beds oceanside and by the pools. Even at nearly full capacity, it never felt crowded, so there was no need to panic about not getting a spot if we didn’t claim one before breakfast.

Activities

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There is no shortage of things to do at Hualalai. Yoga, pilates, meditation and spinning classes were offered daily at the Sports Club next to the spa during our stay. The tennis and golf facilities are excellent and several clinics were offered at each during our stay.  Kings Pond, a sea-water snorkeling pond stocked with 4,000 fish and eagle rays, is an obvious favorite for the little kids (but also, quite frankly, for the adults).

4- man and 6-man outrigger canoes and snorkeling rib-crafts are offered on a separate beach, Kukio Beach, on the Southern end of the resort and I would recommend both highly. You are likely to pass by sea turtles basking in the sun and may get lucky to see whales or snorkel with a school of friendly dolphins, as our friends did.  Unfortunately, I cracked my ribs on the side of our Outrigger Canoe my second day at the hotel so the rest of my stay was predominantly in a horizontal position with a book. But if there is one place to chill, this is about as good as it gets. Although I was unable to even get a massage due to the pain, my husband said his 90-minute massage was incredible (grrr).

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Restaurants

As Hualalai is pretty remote from any other hotels or restaurants, you will most likely eat at the resort for all your meals during your time here. And you won’t be disappointed – all the restaurants we ate at were excellent, serving a wide variety of healthy, delicious cuisine and the staff will cater to most any request if you want something off menu.

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There are four main restaurants on the Hualalai property: Ulu Ocean Grill, Beach Tree, Hualalai Grille (at the Golf Club) and the Beach House (for residents). Both Ulu and the Beach House were excellent. Breakfast is served at Ulu each morning with an incredible buffet with live hawaiian music – a wonderful way to start the day after yoga or tennis. Tons of healthy (gluten-free, almond, soy etc.) options are offered and we loved the ‘make-your-own’ protein shakes each morning. At night, Ulu features a wonderful sushi menu as well.

While we did not have the opportunity to go to the Hualalai Grille, we did have lunch at the ultra-casual Beach House, a 5-minute walk from the Palm Grove section of the resort. Typically for residents only, guests are welcome. We loved the casual fare and quiet, beautiful setting on the beach here for lunch or evening cocktails.

Surf Shack Beach House Trading Company

The surf shack, nestled between Ulu and Beach Tree, is a popular choice with the kids for frozen yogurts and crushed ices (while also offering sunscreen and sunglasses). The Hualalai Trading Company, located between the tennis club and the spa, is a great place to stop for casual to-go sandwiches, snacks for the room, coffee and sundries.

Every few nights, a luau is offered on property, a popular event. While we enjoyed the show immensely, this was the only time we left disappointed with the cuisine at the resort. I found the buffet options (we steered clear of the traditional pig roast) surprisingly dismal, especially for the price of attending the luau.

Accommodations

Palm Grove
Palm Grove

243 rooms (51 suites) are spread across the property in low-rise 2-story units in four crescent-shaped clusters facing the ocean: Kings Pond, Beach Tree, Seashell and Palm Grove. All of the rooms and suites have ocean views and are located close to the ocean or the pool (there is a pool or pools in each cluster). Resident Villas, which are located by the Golf Course and farther from the hub of the resort, can also be booked for those looking for more space and privacy.

Ocean Suite
Ocean Suite

Our Suite 2902 was located on the ground floor of the Palm Grove cluster, which is located on the South side of the resort, farthest from Ulu and Beachtree restaurants but closest to the Beach House restaurant. We liked the quiet location although the villas in this cluster have the longest walks to the spa, reception, tennis and other activities. As the pool in this cluster is adult-only (21 and over), we would prefer being in the Beach Tree cluster next time. The Kings Pond cluster is most ideal location-wise for those with young kids as it is the closest to the Kids Club, restaurants and reception.

Kings Pond
Kings Pond

We found our 1-Bedroom suite spacious and comfortable, quite fine for our family of four. Only a little maneuvering was required in the living area for individual cots. In addition to 2 full baths, an outdoor rain shower is provided off the master bath. Two large flat screen TVs keep adults and kids entertained separately although we honestly didn’t turn the TV on more than once during our stay – why would you in paradise? 

Whether you prefer a ground floor or top floor suite is a matter of personal choice but I prefer the ground floor suites with the large patios, enabling us to conveniently enter and exit from either the front door or back sliding glass doors at our convenience. 

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Final Impression

Hualalai is a special place – truly a ‘get away from it all’ escape offering every amenity and activity you could want or to do nothing at all. Luxury like this in a paradise setting attracts a certain crowd seeking the same ambiance as you. Yes, you will definitely see a recognizable face or four from the screen or news but no glitz/no fuss is the operative word here. ‘Laid back luxury’ is the best way to describe it – just the way I like it when I go on vacation, seeking to escape everyday life. 

TBH (as my teenage daughter would say), we had barely enough time to experience even a little of what Hualalai had to offer. That is why we are on the wait list to return for a longer stay next winter. Keeping our fingers crossed.

My daughter Justine trying on hats at the boutique
My daughter Justine trying on hats at the resort boutique

 

Photos courtesy of Inviato and Four Seasons Hualalai

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10 Takeaways from the NY Times Travel Show http://inviatotravel.com/2017/02/13/10-takeaways-from-the-ny-times-travel-trade-show/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/02/13/10-takeaways-from-the-ny-times-travel-trade-show/#respond Mon, 13 Feb 2017 13:16:31 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9256 Continued]]> Now in its 14th year, the annual New York Times Travel Show is the longest running travel event.  Over 250 speakers, 30,000 travelers and industry attendees and 500 exhibitors descended upon New York City two weeks ago to ‘talk’ travel and inspire travelers. UnknownHaving never been to the show, I decided to attend the first day of the 3-day show, which is a special day of workshops, conferences and exhibits for the travel trade before the event opens to the public. Plus, I badly needed a distraction from the non-stop nastiness coming out of the new administration over the past two weeks.

Trade day at the show is an opportunity for industry experts, travel writers and bloggers, and travel advisors to network, discuss and debate on the latest travel news and trends along with outlooks for the future.  Keep in mind that this was the day after the Mexican President canceled a meeting with Trump after renewed tensions erupted over Trump’s tweets and threats but only hours before Trump announced his executive order on the travel ban.  The chaos in the airports from the order would come later that night along with it’s continuing aftermath. The s–t didn’t yet hit the fan, so to speak.

FRINYT_021 Saturday coverage of the New York Times Travel Show.(Photo by Sandy Huffaker)

Given the events that have been taking place, it was more than ironic that the theme for this year’s conference was ‘Welcome to the World‘. Nonetheless, here were my top ten take-aways from the conference.

  • Mexico. On everyones minds was what effect deteriorating Mexico-U.S. relations, as Trump promises to make good on his campaign promise to build a wall, will have on travel to and from Mexico. Yes, some jokes were cracked that we should be more concerned about increased prices on tequilas and Coronas here at home with a possible tax on Mexican imports but the worries about what this all may mean for travel are very real on both sides. In 2016, over 11 million tourists visited Mexico, of which 8MM tourists were from the U.S. Tourism accounts for over $13 billion dollars of revenue to Mexico – that’s HUGE! The concern is that the current administration may tax tourists going to Mexico as a way to punish Mexico and pay for the wall.

The other concern is the negative perception the administration is casting on Mexico which may deter tourists from traveling abroad. Some tourists have already expressed their concern of how they will be treated while they are Mexico. We need to remember Mexico are our strong allies, not enemies. Me? I say all the more reason to get to Mexico now and show our neighborly support. From Tulum to Cabo, Riviera Nayarit to the colonial city of San Miguel de Allande, some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world are in Mexico. Read about some of our favorite resorts, boutique hotels and haciendas we have reviewed in Mexico here including Esencia, Nizuc, Viceroy, Grand Velas, Resort at Pedregal, Cuixmala and Imanta to get you inspired.  

Cuixmala Resort
Cuixmala Resort
  • U.S. Travel. Likewise there are concerns about the negative image the United States is projecting around the world. It is likely that inbound tourism will sharply decline, as it already has since the temporary travel ban was implemented (and even after the halt to the temporary ban due to the unknown of what is next). Travelers abroad are already diverting their voyages to elsewhere, such as Canada or Europe. New research shows there has been a steep decline in flight demand and bookings to the U.S. and overall flight searches have declined in 94 out of 122 countries analyzed just since the inauguration. That was only 3 weeks ago! What can we do?  Think of the positive role you can demonstrate as Americans when traveling abroad as well as here to tourists coming from abroad.
  • River Cruising. Onto lighter subjects, river cruising is hotter than ever.  Get rid of any thoughts of river cruising being just for your grandparents – it is changing…booming, actually. In fact, river cruising is the fastest-growing travel segment and one of the hottest trends to hit the travel industry in years. Seeing the uprise of multi-generational travel and trend towards more authentic and unique travel experiences, companies like Adventures By Disney are targeting the family market and introducing river cruising to a new generation. Healthier cuisine. More modern ships with bigger cabins and connecting rooms. Shorter sailings. More active and more itineraries specific for families.

But that’s not all, popular river cruise companies such as Cunard, Viking (the ship you saw on Downtown Abbey all the time), Crystal and Uniworld are not only expanding their fleets on the Danube, Mekong, Rhine and beyond but are also adapting their itineraries to be more flexible based on customer demands. Shorter schedules, new locales, better technologies, more fitness-based options (check out Backroads collaboration with AmaWaterways here offering biking and cruising) and so forth.

Once a skeptic, I am now a convert: I was among the first passengers to experience the new AmaWaterways ship on the Danube last summer with my daughter – you can read my review here.  One thing I love most about river cruises?  You get to see many new places without having to pack and unpack your bags more than once – that’s a big deal.

 Amawaterways cruise on the Danube
Amawaterways cruise on the Danube
  • Culinary Travel. Another hot topic and trend talked about quite a bit in the trade show. If there was anything Instagram made for, it would be food and travel. Combining the two is plain irresistible. I wrote several posts over the years about unique culinary travel opportunities  – from an exclusive ‘Kids in the Kitchen week at Blackberry Farm to truffle hunting in Italy to a culinary yoga retreat in Mexico. Now more than ever you can find incredible array of culinary offerings.  From exclusive week-long culinary tours such as the Flavors of Provence with New York Times Journeys to food-market tours and chef workshops to a home-cooked meal at a local’s home, there a ton of irresistible options to choose from.

I was drawn especially to one exhibitor at the show, Fabiolous Cooking Day, which allows you to discover Rome by a multitude of interesting hands-on culinary experiences with a top chef including an excursion to a medieval village. Another culinary option we did in Rome two years ago that I avidly recommend is Trust Ever Tastes where you can take a group or private class with wonderful Chef Paola in her charming professional kitchen in Trastevere making gelato, pizza or pastas – it was by far our favorite activity during our week in Italy. I’m looking forward to our Carmel Market tour with Delicious Israel in March when we are in Tel Aviv – the city that Forbes has recently declared as the ‘World’s Best Restaurant Scene’!

Baking at Esencia Carmel Market Tel Aviv Truffle Hunting A market... Fabiolous Cooking Day
  • Nature.  Now is the time to detox, get out of the suburbs or city and reconnect with nature. We live in a fragile world, where many of the most incredible places are disappearing before our eyes. Climate change IS real and it’s mostly human-driven – glaciers are melting, reefs in Australia are dying, rainforests are being destroyed for palm oil and land is disappearing due to over population and over-development. It’s depressing, I know. But we can reverse it. People need to get out more and remember what it is that we risk losing forever as once it is gone, it can not be recovered.  By traveling to many of these locations (as a responsible tourist with a low-carbon footprint, of course) you are helping protect these places as local communities depend on tourists to help them. So go and explore the spectacular National Parks in the U.S. and abroad (National Parks Revealed is one outstanding travel company that provides private tours and gives back to conservation of the parks). Go on safari. See the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, discover Costa Rica and Belize, Borneo, Hawaii, Alaska or Australia.
Kenya Yosemite Rwanda Costa Rica
  • Experiential vacations. More and more travelers, particularly families and millennials, want to go on meaningful vacations that feel authentic and are more attuned to the local culture of the country. Many hotel, cruise and tour suppliers are meeting this demand through more add-on experiences (including home stays, charitable projects, and language immersion programs) as well as dedicated travel experiences.  For example,  you can go on a river cruise on the Mekong River and bike through Cambodian and Vietnamese villages with Aqua ExpeditionsEleven Experiences, a villas/adventure travel company, offers a host of activities along with stays in luxury villas in Bahamas, Colorado, Iceland and the Alps. At Four Seasons Golden Triangle in Thailand, you can spend the day walking or bathing rescued elephants at the on-site Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation. Safari lodges in Africa such as Great Plains and Singita are adapting as well, providing unique offerings such as explorer-style mobile camps, equestrian activities and photography weeks with expert photographers. Another interesting trend related to this: the growing desire of post-high school students like Malia Obama (and growing acceptance by prestigious universities) to take a GAP year before college to do something meaningful, most often involving travel.
Great Plains Conservation Eleven Experiences Golden Triangle Elephant Program Aqua Expeditions
  • Emerging destinations.  Places like Iran, Mongolia, Myanmar, Laos, Cuba, Iceland and Uganda are largely unspoiled to tourism. These destinations have become more accessible to tourists due to a multitude of factors: travel restrictions have eased and diplomatic relations are being restored, in-country tensions have dissipated and are now safe to visit or airlines have created new flight routes to make ‘difficult to get to’ destinations more accessible. In the case of Iran, this was before the travel ban and things are now uncertain: Iran has vowed to retaliate and close the doors on American tourists and rising anti-American sentiment there should be of some concern.

In other cases, take heed: some destinations don’t have the supply or infrastructure yet to satisfy the demand of the influx of explore-hungry travelers. In the case of Cuba, you still need to carry cash for everything and there are no 4-5 star hotels. Luxury hotel brands such as the Four Seasons and Kempinski are buying, updating and opening historic hotels – some expected to be open as early as this Summer.  Be cautious though to all the hype. If you are a real explorer, by all means go. Others may wait a little bit longer or go with a reputable specialist tour operator who knows and specializes in that destination for the time being.

Cuba Iceland Iran
  • Millennials, Millenials, Millenials.  Everyone was talking about the Millenial Generation (those who are born 1982 through 2002), the fastest growing travel segment, and how to best tap into this niche (ahem, social media and technology). Millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history and reshaping the travel market. The recent survey estimates that 20% of all travelers are younger travelers, representing 200 million annual travelers and $180 billion in revenue each year.

Millennials, yearning for a better work-life balance, have a thirst for travel and prefer to splurge on experiences over material things. They often travel in groups (interesting coined ‘tribal travel’) of friends or family and as such are more often interested in renting villas or homes than hotel rooms. And, surprising to some, they rely on travel agents who have the expertise and relationships to get them extra perks (ahem again, Virtuoso) and provide them options after they have started their own research online.  Also, this group is more apt to do destination weddings – a growing trend that is relatively untapped.

  • And, on the other end of spectrum. The 65+ age segment – the Seniors Market – is also changing drastically. Forget the stereotypes of out-of-the-box packaged tours and cruises that were once so popular when you hit a certain age.  The senior segment today is more healthy, physically fit and active then ever before.  As such, they are seeking adventurous and cultural activities and want more freedom, flexibility and choices during their travels.  Many luxury cruise lines and tour operators have recognized this and are adapting their itineraries as such. This is a golden segment that has been relatively ignored – there is no other demographic with so much spare cash and spare time and they are eager to travel!
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Just Checked Out: 1 Hotel South Beach http://inviatotravel.com/2017/01/20/just-checked-out-1-hotel-south-beach/ http://inviatotravel.com/2017/01/20/just-checked-out-1-hotel-south-beach/#respond Fri, 20 Jan 2017 12:50:04 +0000 http://inviatotravel.com/?p=9201 Continued]]> As the U.N. has declared 2017 as the international year of sustainable tourism, it is only fitting that my first review this year would be the eco-focused 1 Hotel in South Beach.  Housed in the former space Gansevoort Hotel, the South Beach hotel opened in March 2015 as the first hotel of the new 1 Hotels brand founded by Barry Sternlight, former Chairman and CEO of Starwood Hotels. This new lifestyle brand is creating something truly exciting with the mission to be the ‘ultimate eco-focused’ hotel with a low carbon-footprint – taking eco-consciousness to a level that I’ve only seen myself employed at boutique safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. And they are doing it an away that makes it hip and trendy.

Mind you, to execute such a concept is no easy task. It was a massive undertaking to develop the South Beach hotel, costing $500 Million along with thoughtful design and implementation. 

lobby

When we had an opportunity for a quick family trip over MLK weekend to Miami, I set my sights instantly on this 425-room hotel, eager to see what it was all about. I’ve stayed in South Beach several times before on girl weekends at the Setai, W and Shore Club along Collins Avenue but this would be the first time visiting with my family and I was not altogether sure if South Beach was going to be ‘family-friendly’. But I was won over by the whole concept of the hotel and the fact that this beach-front property had four pools. I found the room rates more reasonable than some other luxury neighboring properties on the strip such as the Faena, Soho House, and Edition.images

Upon arrival at the hotel, we were greeted warmly by attendants at the front entrance and hosts at the front desk and check-in was a quick and easy (and most notably, paperless) process. I instantly loved the Zen-like lobby accessorized with bleached driftwood, oak and teaks and furnishings in varying shades of ivory. The airy light-filled interiors with plants and terrariums nestled throughout set a calming tone and is a refreshing change from the art-deco and club-like lobbies you typically see in other hotels in South Beach. People were lounging on the couches listening to live music as we passed by (there was live music each night). We were introduced to the elevator system which requires you to take a recycled wood chip that is your guest key and tap it to be assigned an elevator.  It took a bit to get used to this but it is really an efficient system. If only we didn’t lose these small, round keys so many times during our stay. I just found one in one of my pockets, two days after I returned home!

Seeing pictures of the accommodations prior to our stay, I had booked a 1-bedroom suite for our family. We were thus surprised when we were shown to a much smaller suite than we expected – nothing at all like the photos on the website. While we were upgraded to a suite with a balcony with partial ocean views, it was obvious this confining layout would not suffice for our stay (in addition, we were told we would need to pay $100 per cot for each child). After a pleasant conversation with the hotel manager, we were offered a different suite in the same category. We were much happier when we moved to a much more spacious and inviting corner suite with kitchenette. Our corner unit #423 had a generous living area with 1 1/2 baths, floor-to-ceiling windows (2 sides in the spacious master bedroom), a terrace and a small open kitchen with Nespresso maker, water filter/tap and flat screen TVs in both the living room and bedroom – perfect for a family of four.  The same design aesthetic was carried over from the lobby. The master bath had a long teak vanity with concrete trough sink (although not much room for cosmetics and such) and a wonder rainfall shower.  Although we didn’t have an ocean view, we were delighted with our new setup (similar to the photos below).

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 9.50.27 AM guest room

We only had two full days to acquaint ourselves with the hotel and honestly needed a lot more time to thoroughly investigate what the 1 Hotel had to offer. The hotel impressively occupies a full city block although it never felt massive. Only when I was strolling on the beach looking back at the hotel from a short distance, could I get a sense of how expansive the 425-room/155-residence hotel truly is.

IMG_7115

At the Lobby level, you have a wonderful Tom Colicchio farm-to-table restaurant Beachcraft that also serves delicious continental and buffet breakfasts (included with our rate). We had dinner the first night by the restaurant’s open kitchen and everything was delicious. Unfortunately we were paired with a server an attitude who was more interested in himself than us. I’m happy to say that was an exception to the rule as the hotel’s staff was otherwise extremely friendly, eager to engage and accommodating during our stay – whether at breakfast, the pool or front entrance. You also have two boutiques (Big Drop being one of them) and lobby bar Tom on Collins, an inviting area to lounge with live music in the evenings.

During the day, fresh fruit from local farms is offered daily and complimentary from the Farm Stand. Right across, café Nativ Made, serving light bites, juices and coffees, is particularly busy in the mornings post-pre workouts. Instead of the typical gift shop, Plant The Future store features terrariums, plantings and moss wall art that I wanted to take home with me. I was particularly happy to see (and others were too, judging by the logo outfits in the lobby) a Soul Cycle studio onsite.  Lastly is the popular eatery STK where Sasha Obama visited (along with her secret service) during our stay. And this is just in the lobby!

Beachcraft Nativ Made Farm Stand

On the 2rd floor, guests will find the  24-hour 14,000 square foot Spartan Gym (available only to guests) featuring Peloton bikes and classes, and the newly opened Bamford Haybarn Spa, the first U.S. offspring of the delightful English country holistic spa brand.  Sadly, I was too limited in time to go to either other than to take a quick peek inside.

bamford haybarn Spa

 

Spartan_Gym_1Hotel_Miami_0001_HDR_Edit

The 3rd floor is pretty much the outdoor hub of the hotel (particularly for guests with children) – this is where you access the beach club and three of the four hotel pools along with the myriad cabanas, daybeds (which also purposed as diving boards for the kids when not occupied!) and lounge chaises. The Sandbox, the poolside cantina, serves up excellent tacos, guacamole and cocktails.  We saw equal amounts of champagne in ice buckets as we did ice teas and waters besides lounging guests. Additionally, there is a small beach boutique (teen daughter-approved) and Seedlings kids club for the younger set (younger daughter-approved).  The whole area is generously laid out and only steps away from the beach and private hotel beach club. A running path along the length of this strip was perfect for a morning run.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA IMG_7031 IMG_7029 running paths Pool Boutique IMG_7075

You will find the hotel’s fourth pool on the rooftop – one of the signature spots of the 1 Hotel – along with a very good (so I’m told) seafood and sushi restaurant, Watr, and bar. Note: the rooftop is open to guests only 21 and over. I tried unsuccessfully to sneak my 13-year old in but no dice. Next time.

Rooftop+Pool+Daybeds

Rooftop+Bar+and+Lounge

Our whole family equally loved the look, vibe and energy of the 1 Hotel – it was hip for sure but not overly so that any guest would feel out of place. I loved that the hotel partnered with specialty brands (Soul Cycle, Spartan, Bamford Haybarn etc.) inside the hotel, each unique in their category. You can stay here for a long weekend and never feel the need to leave with so many excellent options at your disposal.

But let’s get back to 1 Hotel’s eco-consciousness because to me this is truly what sets this hotel apart from others. It’s not treated just as a term to proudly boast on their website or press materials but put into action everywhere you are as a guest. In your room, not a plastic or piece of paper is in sight. Instead you will find cardboard hangers, reclaimed wood keys, reusable socks instead of slippers, ‘Do not disturb’ signs made out of cardboard boxes, chalk notepads on the nightstands, and large toiletry dispensers (instead of the small bottles we are all used to and often steal!) in the bathroom.  Triple clear water filters in the kitchen replace plastic water bottles you typically would find on your nightstand. A mobile ‘1’ guide’ serves as both an in-room ‘do it all’ (ie. thermostat, TV) and a communications tool with hotel staff. I am still old-fashioned in this respect and never used it – instead sticking to the remote control and phone.

1hotel

In the public spaces, the thought and care is evident as well – from the 3,000 foot ‘living’ wall of 11,000 green plants at the front entrance to the fleet of Tesla electric vehicles standing by which guests can use for a 3-mile radius (ironically placed next to two Ferraris I saw out front – a bit of an oxymoron).  Ceilings, walls and furniture are made from reclaimed and salvaged wood and terrariums and plants are placed throughout instead of cut flowers.

All this really made me aware of how much waste there is in the hotel industry and how it can and needs to do better. While plenty of luxury hotels are ‘eco-friendly’ (more and more I’m pleased to say), they are not necessarily eco-focused. I hope the new 1 Hotel brand will serve as a model and source for inspiration for other properties to follow. Sternlicht’s vision for 1 Hotels to be places ‘to celebrate and protect nature’ has already extended beyond South Beach with  the recent opening of the 1 Hotel Central Park in Manhattan and a 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge (in the former Domino Sugar factory) to open next month.  12 more locations are in the pipeline. It’s simply time be more green and help protect our planet.

pool

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