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We fell head over heels for The Francis House in Calistoga. Built in 1886, it is the only stone building with authentic French Second Empire architecture in all Napa County. Sitting proudly in a wooded suburb of single-story homes, the house dramatically towers over the neighborhood, looking just like a regal French chateau has been time-warped through space and time in a corner of this enchanting country town. Its rebirth may have been much more dramatic, actually. A private manor built for a prominent local merchant, the property was used as a hospital in the 20th century until completely closing in 1964. For 52 years, it wallowed in disrepair, no doubt a spooky sight for neighborhood kids to gossip about as their parents shook their heads while passing the vacant eyesore. In 2015, Dina and Richard Dwyer made the risky move of taking it over, meticulously restoring the house to its initial luster. We can’t imagine it ever looking newer or this beautiful. A solid construction of local limestone bricks under a glorious mansard roof bearing peaked dormer windows, the mansion is a sight to behold and not soon to be forgotten, starting with the stone fountain of water-spitting frogs that greets you just past its wrought-iron gates. Indeed, when ENTREE strolled the town in search of vintage bric-a-brac and wine tastings, we met more than one local shopkeeper who praised the Dwyers for restoring the landmark to its new glory.
The good news: not only can you admire Francis House, you can stay in it. The Dwyers have opened their part-time home as a five-bedroom hotel. Each room is quite different, sterling in its embrace of Parisian charm and clever in accoutrements. While the manor is stately, the occasional exposed steel beam makes for smart design, attractively woven into its antique aesthetic, and giving one a sense of the complex construction that took more than three years to complete. Rooms are simple but beautiful, with contemporary touches such as heated marble floors, Diptyque bath products and heated Toto “smart” toilets in the bathrooms among the stylish marble sinks and brass fixtures. We were delighted with a large bed that highlighted French linens, much as the curtains looking over a pool, fragrant herb garden and sauna and salt room did. We also appreciated the hidden-but-abundant electrical outlets, fresh tulips by our bedside and the absolute absence of any blinking lights in the bedroom nor any other touch we typically deem obtrusive or worse, unattractive. Charm seeps through every pore of the residence. While the beauty of the house, both inside and out, is unparalleled, making for the most memorable stay for miles, there are still reminders, for better or worse, that you are staying in someone’s house.
Breakfast was a delicious and indulgent meal of smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice that Dina prepared herself. Dina and Richard cheerfully do most everything themselves with a small staff. This gives the sensation that you’re staying with close friends at their country estate and we enjoyed the personal touch this intimacy offers as well as the company of the Dwyers, who are both fun, smart people we instantly formed an admiration for. Their love and passion for the house is infectious, making it a stay guaranteed to be like nothing you’d find at one of the big places that charge similar rates (they start at around $400 a night mid-week, higher on the weekends). And in the end, it’s nice to feel like you have a home full of warmth in Calistoga, and not just another hotel room. 1403 Myrtle St.; (707) 341-3536; thefrancishouse.com. This is an ideal headquarters for doing wine country. Massages are available on call. We did expect to see the ghost of Napoleon III floating around, but no such luck. Guests are the emperors here, no doubt about it. Check out CABBI.com; it is a fine resource for finding top drawer boutique hotels like The Francis House.
We love Mexico. We love the colors, the flowers, the beautiful turquoise ocean, the rivers and waterfalls, the green mountains and valleys, and hidden pueblos, the music and of course, the food. But more than anything, we love the warm and cordial, welcoming people of Mexico and her rich culture. When visiting the stunning coasts of Jalisco and nearby Nayarit, we highly recommend Velas Vallarta, a jewel of a resort in the Marina of laidback tropical Puerto Vallarta. You’ll hear songbirds in the lush gardens and the sound of a cascading waterfall upon stepping onto this splendid and luxurious resort. Paradise awaits, amigos. Velas Vallarta, from the award-winning Velas Group, boasts a 10-acres beachfront location with views of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the distance. Located in the Marina Vallarta, one of the most exclusive areas of Vallarta-Nayarit, the resort is also just a few steps away from an 18-hole championship golf course. The center of activity is a lush tropical garden courtyard with three sparkling swimming pools, a cascading waterfall, swim-up bar and even a resident iguana, koi fish, and friendly, splendorous peacocks. For friends and family getaways or a romantic couples retreat, there are numerous exciting activities for day and night; water sports, tennis on lighted courts, and the Spa—the beachside massage is a must and will lull you into a sweet wave-crashing, tropical breezy siesta. Velas Vallarta also has a modern fitness center, offers yoga and the Kids Club has a range of fun games and activities for the kiddos. The property’s turtle hatchery program is an admirable effort to preserve the fragile ocean life on their shores. You’ll be eating well at Velas, with two restaurants, La Ribera, and Andreas, serving fresh caught seafood, and fine cuts of meat. Evenings bring the best of Mexico's entertainment as guests enjoy a Veracruz dance night, Mexican Fiesta, international show, or drinks in the breezy lounge with live music. Dining is a highlight of the experience, with restaurants offering elegant and casual oceanfront settings and cuisine ranging from gourmet Italian and Mexican to seafood and themed dinners. For more information, visit www.velasvallarta.com or call (800) 823-8809.
We’ve never been to George Clooney’s place in Cabo. Nor do we need to. Not when we have Blue Desert, a collection of private, rentable beachside homes tucked into a gated community between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The houses are big, private, beautiful and to paraphrase Stefon from SNL, “These places have everything.”
To begin, the property picked us up at the airport in a regal black SUV. Entering through a garden and through the giant doors of Casa Edwards Too, our three-story Spanish-style abode, it was hard to believe our ears when we were told this entire gorgeous manor would be ours for a few days
A vast sunken living room fitted with plush sofas awaited us under whirling ceiling fans and a massive TV and stereo set-up on the wall. Beyond it, wide stone balconies with built-in nooks and rocking chairs had unobstructed views of the blue ocean and crescent-shaped beach on which we would soon be dallying.
A third-floor master bedroom, right past a home gym with recumbent bike, stair climber, weights and treadmill, lay upstairs. Down on the lowest floor were three spare bedrooms separated by a library, each hand-painted with birds, flowers and vines. In the kitchen we met Maria, a cook we’d reserved to fix us chilaquiles in the morning and delightful fish tacos at lunch. We passed on the opportunity of having our own bartender but appreciated the option.
After a quick lunch with endless guacamole, we ran down to the beach, stopping to inspect the infinity pool, hot tub, lawn and palapa-topped margarita bar overlooking the beach. We played in the sand and walked along the coastline towards an outcropping of desert rocks capped with a lone vulture watching the ocean. Returning to Casa Edwards Too, we plopped down in a pair of chaise-lounges to deepen our relaxation under the sun. The sound of crashing waves and the reggae we put on the stereo, interconnected through a system of outdoor speakers, was all we could hear, a welcome departure from the noisy city we’d fled that morning. As the afternoon eased into dusk, we took a quick drive out of the gated private community to the impressive supermarket that’s practically across the street. We brought meat, tortillas, chorizo verde and mezcal back to Casa Edwards Too to take advantage of a fully stocked, outdoor grill and the aforementioned margarita bar with its professional-grade blender.
In the evening, after more icy cocktails, we ventured back down the lighted stairs to the hot tub and nearby day-beds to soak in the stars and bright moon. When one third of us retired to a comfortable, air-conditioned guest room on the ground floor, we climbed to the master bedroom for a great night’s sleep, serenaded by the cannon-like booms of the crashing surf.
The next day, the staff at Blue Desert, who mostly stay out of sight, helped arrange a day trip to Todos Santos. The staff is eager to help guests book all kinds of adventures, including whale watching, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, yoga, surfing and SCUBA diving in the Sea of Cortez. But mostly we just wanted to kick back, and with everything thoughtfully provided, Blue Desert made that a snap. The overall experience was smooth, relaxing and comfortable. While we were only three people, the house can easily accommodate large parties here for bachelorette parties, retreats and friends’ getaways. We truly enjoyed staying at Casa Edwards Too, free of the frenetic energy, sterile mechanics and random crowds one finds in a hotel. We were the only people ever on the beach, always felt taken care of and had total privacy as we frolicked around the spacious house, beach and beautiful surrounding neighborhood. Blue Desert currently has several privately-owned houses for rent, each one able to accommodate parties of different sizes. So, until Clooney sends that long-delayed invite, we know where we’re staying for maximum comfort and luxury when we come to Cabo. www.bluedesertcabo.com.
Pulling up to Fairmont Grand Del Mar, one of our most treasured places to stay in Southern California, makes us feel like we’ve accepted an invite to stay at the Medicis for a weekend. A faithful Tuscan palace proudly capping a tall peak over Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, just north of San Diego, the sight of its colossal fountains and elaborate entrance sets the stage for unrivaled hospitality and pampering. The property’s beauty extends to a picturesque 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed golf course, a Forbes 5-star spa for the worn and weary, hiking trails once trod by California natives and wild west adventurers, and a network of dazzling pools, one of which has the ability to pipe crystal clear classical music underwater. It’s this kind of attention to detail that marks the Fairmont experience. It’s a world where staff are always there when you need them. And kindly invisible when you don’t. Where a library of warm woods and a roaring fireplace await anyone suffering fits of tossing and turning. A place you hesitate to leave to go sightseeing, knowing you probably won’t feel any better than you will relaxing by the pool with a light drink in hand. That reluctance to leave the property is further compounded by the dining options available at the resort. The handsome, regal Amaya delighted us with elegant Italian coastal cuisine; beginning with Snake River Farms beef carpaccio bearing a tiny quail egg, before a pizza topped with ‘nduja and a squid ink carbonara that continues to come up in conversation with our dinner date long after we’ve left the table. But the true jewel of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar’s culinary crown, and arguably the whole of Southern California’s, is Addison, the 13-year-old restaurant overseen by Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef William Bradley. The awards netted by Addison are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that if one could bet on such things, we’d plunk down a year’s salary that this California-influenced haven of contemporary French cooking will be wearing three stars once Michelin makes its recently announced return to the region. Here, dinner moves like a dream. White-glove service is synchronized with the grace of a Muscovite ballet, a certain tongue-in-cheek formality perceptible in its performance. The smallest details have been considered. We appreciate the discrete stools given to secure our purses and cellphones. Dinner itself, based on multi-course seasonal tasting menus, should be on every eater’s bucket list. Delicate, beautiful plates appear in succession, every individual molecule seeming to possess a maximum concentration of flavor. After an amuse bouche, our first eye-catching plate was a tight grouping of “fruits de mer,” a mound of gold-flecked black caviar encircled by tiny, pristine shards of oyster, ikura and sea urchin. Next arrived a tender arrangement of sake-cured kampachi hidden by delicate slices of citrus and pepper-flecked radishes. A diamond-shaped wedge of golden-skinned loup de mer floated on a pool of saffron broth, bookended by nebulous webs of impossibly thin, ink-black crackers.
Again and again, each plate arrived like a canvas we wavered to disturb, every nibble paramount with flavor, every plate, every movement complete with intention. 10 courses later, including a soy caramel-glazed A5 wagyu and the best duck á l’orange we’ve tasted in the 21st century, we floated out on a cloud, sweet parting gifts in hand. With over 3,500 selections, Addison’s wine program is an equal to the kitchen, pairings fusing old world legends with rarities, curios and exciting cult finds. Simply put, do not miss the experience of dining at Addison, if staying at, or even passing, the resort. The experience only serves to further tie together one’s opulent stay with artistry, mastery and a studied sense of place. Rooms at Fairmont Grand Del Mar are similarly sumptuous. Overlooking the sweeping courtyard pool where children are verboten, we’d take coffee on our patio, enjoying the changing shades of the resort’s Tuscan walls before sinking into a large marble bath and beginning our day. If you’re in search of a true retreat, one in which the last strenuous action you perform is giving your car over to a valet before sinking into deep states of leisure, we can think of no more indulgent a place to stay than Fairmont Grand Del Mar, an experience we frequently hope to return to. Located at 5300 Grand Del Mar Court, San Diego, (858) 314-2000, www.fairmont.com/san-diego/.
Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa is an outstanding wellness sanctuary and holistic spa on the lush, palm-fringed tropical island of Koh Samui, Thailand, a magical, peaceful, luxurious and centering enchantment, all at the same time.
Founded by John and Karina Stewart in 2005, their vision was to bring together diverse traditions of healing and culture in a nurturing environment from which people can explore and embrace life’s potential. The facilities and accommodations encircle a centuries-old cave, once used by Buddhist monks as a place for meditation and spiritual retreat. Customized wellness programs merge the ancient holistic healing traditions of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda with contemporary Western philosophies. Holistic fitness practices, group retreats and individual programs such as Stress & Burnout, Detoxification & Rejuvenation, Sleep Enhancement and more are integrated with a healing diet for optimal wellbeing.
We visited Kamalaya recently to languish amongst coconut groves and dense, mountainous rainforest and arrived to a welcome of chilled butterfly tea tonics as a total sense of calm embraced us. We immediately spied other happy and relaxed guests who were drifting from one wellness experience to the next, completely unplugged from technology (cell phones use is only permitted in guest rooms). Many guests were solo—about half the guests at Kamalaya come alone—and seemed to be in no hurry to do anything.
We started our visit with a Vital Oil Essence Massage, but not before a consultation with an on-site homeopath who reviewed our health history, lifestyle habits at home, and wellness goals. The masseuses were the best we experienced in Thailand—highly skilled and truly attentive to problem areas and personal concerns. Post massage tea was self-serve in the “quiet room,” an outdoor living room for silent recuperation with private lounge chairs up in the trees.
Karina Stewart and John are a dream team; he was a practicing monk for decades, she is a Master of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese medicine bringing wellness through food. Together their special knowledge and this sacred space make true transformations occur. The fitness and spa facilities were are world class. There are inviting plunge pools, steam caverns, fitness and yoga facilities. A small boutique sells stylish beachwear and necessities.
The attractive Zen-like rooms do not have televisions, encouraging serene connection with oneself. Villas line the path down to a private stretch of pristine beach. Alcohol is available, but many guests chose to abstain, making the public lounge areas quiet and free of chatty distractions.
Founded on principles of time-tested holistic healing traditions, Kamalaya offers artful and inspired cuisine that is healing in function and tantalizing in taste. Their extensive menu has western and Thai options for many diets such as detox, maintenance and weight loss. Dishes featured local Thai produce we hadn’t tried anywhere else on the island, and left us feeling light and very much satisfied. Every guest is gifted with the Kamalaya cookbook at the end of their visit, and we walked away with one, too.
Over all, Kamalaya is a very special place for those seeking a wellness program to destress, detox, connect with their mind, or improve physical health. But even if your ideal vacation doesn’t include working on yourself, Kamalaya is an incredible option. The resort itself is as beautiful as any five-star hotel but has a much more secluded feel. You will be indulged working your way through their huge menu, but will walk away from your vacation more svelte than when you arrived. And to top it off, because they employ wellness experts in massage and homeopathic medicine, you know any spa experience will be more than skin deep. Kamalaya has the power to truly improve your current state by realizing your life’s true potential.
All stays at Kamlaya include complimentary attendance to the scheduled holistic activities: yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Choose a cozy room, hillside villa, sea view or pool suite and opt for one of Kamalaya’s results-oriented wellness programs or custom design your own. Accommodations start at approximately $250 for two. A five-night Basic Optimal Fitness program is approximately $5000 for two. Evening activities like films and discussions are on the house. Start the healing and enhance the inward journey, comfort and nurture your physical body and mind with the extraordinary Kamalaya experience. www.kamalaya.com.
We are pleased to name Majorelle New York’s finest restaurant. It is a such a welcome relief from today’s hard-edged industrial dining rooms where high decibel noise is evidently part of the “fun,” a return to the highest quality of food and service that reminds us of Manhattan’s best (think Lutece and Le Caravelle) of the 1970s.
Discreetly located in the prestigious Lowell Hotel, this elegant dining room artfully designed by Michael S. Smith, has stunning architectural details like chateau-quality etched mirrors, engaged columns, egg-and-dart moldings, and highly polished inlaid marble floors.
We entered via a cozy leather-trimmed bar called Jacques named for the artist Jacques Majorelle, whose gardens are a treasure of Marrakesh. Majorelle seats only 75 lucky people for lunch and dinner, 20 of them in a lovely, trellised, topiary-filled garden. A comfortable library/lounge, the equal of any fine London club, with a working fireplace is adjacent to the dining room.
We were greeted by the distinguished and charming Charles Masson, scion of a family devoted for decades to classic French cuisine, and service and shown to a table set with fine crystal, silver and little posies. Charles is formal but he sets a tone of warm, friendly hospitality, free of any snobby Gallic pretense.
Looking about, we were bowled over by the masses and masses of fresh flower arrangements. We were sitting in a virtual garden of fragrant blooms. This artistic floral extravagance alone is worth a visit to Majorelle.
The chef, Richard Brower, in collaboration with the consulting Chef Roger Souvereyns, have their focus on traditional French blended with the Mediterranean, with an occasional hint of Morocco. Lunch plat du jour highlights include a tajine of red snapper; chicken curry; raw sea scallops with orange vinaigrette; and steak tartare. Dinner highlights include saffron risotto with lobster; duck with rosemary, calvados and apples; and braised lamb shank. Dishes come fragrant with mint, fennel, lemon, olive oil and coriander. There is tableside service for carving a chicken for two and finishing a wonderful baba au rhum. The pastry chef, David Carmichael, produces breads from grains milled in-house. The show stopping dessert at Majorelle: Oeufs à la Neige—whisked egg white coated in vanilla crème anglaise, surrounded by wisps of spun sugar. The bar menu has lighter fare like chicken liver mousse, ceviche, and an excellent hamburger.
Majorelle is refined dining at its best and the clientele reflects this commitment to excellence. We saw many distinguished faces from the fashion, business, entertainment and social worlds happily enjoying themselves. You’ll need to book ahead as Majorelle is popular, filled day and night with male diners in dark bespoke suits and ties and meticulously dressed, coiffed and bejeweled ladies.
Must you load up on rubles, bitcoins and euros to dine at Majorelle? Yes and no. Lunch can easily run over $100 a person plus wine (from a very deep list) and dinner twice that, but Monsieur Masson has instituted a generous $40 three-course lunch that is a true bargain. There’s also a prix fixe dinner at just $122.
Whatever the cost, you will be in for a rare treat at Majorelle, a very civilized place, with properly choreographed service, the décor a thing of beauty, and delicate ungimmicky French cooking. Everything is so perfectly judged here, you could happily eat at Majorelle every day for the rest of your days and be rewarded with the best life has to offer. Majorelle, 28 East 63rd Street, (212) 935-2888, majorelleny.com.
So happy were we about Majorelle, we decided to spend the night at The Lowell and were delighted by a tastefully furnished sun-filled comfortable suite with wood-burning fireplace and enchanting views of the city from our landscaped terrace. It was done in subdued calming tones with very good pieces and some antiques. This is top-drawer, graceful, residential-style living in the heart of the Upper East Side, an iconic hotel that is more like a sophisticated private townhouse. Established in 1927, The Lowell reflects timeless refinement and classic tasteful soul. We give due credit to the charismatic and unfailingly polite General Manager Heiko Kuenstle for the staff’s warm smiles, attention to detail and discreet service. The Lowell Fitness Center overlooks East 63rd Street with top-of-the-line exercise equipment including treadmills, Stairmasters, rowing machines, stationary bikes and free weights. In-room massages are available. One of New York’s best-kept secrets is the hotel’s Pembroke Room. Steeped in elegance and rooted in ritual, high tea in the newly-redesigned Pembroke Room preserves a time-honored tradition for modern-day Manhattan. A quiet refuge also for breakfast and a weekend brunch, especially on the pretty terrace. We must compliment the owners for their great taste and talent plus uncompromising dedication to excellence in creating The Lowell and Majorelle. www.lowellhotel.com
You don’t find a lot of places like Mukan anymore. Where you can take in the full spread of the solar system from the side of a bioluminescent lagoon, unspoiled by the aura of a frantic nearby interstate. Where the strains of a gentle surf mingling with the sonata of nesting songbirds is never shattered by the sound of leaf blowers or chainsaws. A place of blissful isolation, where you can live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies between white sand beaches and a sacred Mayan biosphere brimming with fish and the occasional crocodile or manatee.
We had, in fact, been cautioned that Mukan may not be what we were looking for. A city-based couple with a baby daughter attached at the hip, we were notified more than once that, in fact, there wasn’t a whole lot more than a beautiful beach. In other words, exactly what we were looking for. And significantly more. Mukan is certainly as kicked-back as a resort can be, but in the kind of smartly-tailored, service-intensive way that would make you comfortable sending your most famous or used-to-being-pampered friend.
After rambling through the increasingly and increasingly annoying boho chic corridor of Tulum, which, we swear, is starting to look a little indistinguishable from Abbot Kinney, we boarded a motorboat to speed and twist roughly 45 minutes through the captivating, unspoiled splendors of the Sian Ka’an, a biosphere reserve and UNESCO site. Greeted at the docks with a cold and greatly-appreciated drink, our journey and any last effort on our part had come to a close.
Led through an open lobby that looks like it could be Richard Branson’s vacation house living room, we didn’t even need to go through the formalities of checking in before we were escorted to our comfortable, modern corner room suspended over the white sand, which never even needed to be locked in this tranquil refuge of just five rooms and four ocean suites. Though we had intrepid options like spear-fishing, exploring a lush reef within swimming distance, or excursions to Tulum’s ruins, we opted to spend our days with considerably less ambition. Our routine went roughly as follows: fresh coffee in bed followed by a walk on the sand. Breakfast might be quesadillas stuffed with local herb chaya with one of the most complex salsa habanero we’ve ever tasted, followed by some combinations of jumping in the ocean and back into hammocks and oversized canopy beds on the sand, rinse and repeat.
We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the incredible service of the small, gracious staff, attending to our every need and desire. When refreshment was needed, an on-site coconut concierge was quick to select choice cocos from the trees overhead, preparing the water into a carafe to be placed on your hammock-side tree stump, the sweet meat served ceviche-style in an accompanying bowl. The staff, notably two hard-working young men named Willie and Ali, and a spa and yoga director, Nicole, felt like friends shortly into the stay.
Explanations of Mayan and Central and South American traditions and tales of enviable travels captivated us during great talks. This feeling was often compounded by an optional sunset cocktail, just a short saunter through a tiny and well-lit jungle, on the resort’s stunning lagoon side. There we’d enjoy short swims or easy-going kayak rides towards the setting sun followed by a fine sipping tequila or glass of Baja red, the sky above blazing in divine reds and oranges.
Meals were always a revelation at Mukan, the menus a nightly surprise to look forward to with relish. Lunches were often comprised of simple, grilled shrimp tacos with an addictive mojo al ajo, fresh ceviche and bowls of guacamole big enough to satisfy the biggest avocado advocate. Dinners were similarly simple, often starring local catches and traditional Yucatan fare imbued with complimentary alta cocina touches, including a perfect version of regional favorite sopa de lima, but with a deft touch that betrayed the presence of a master in the kitchen. Meals were thoughtfully located, with guest tables set in different locations from one another each night, allowing privacy and intimacy among settings like a rooftop under the plentiful stars or a seafood dinner directly on the sand.
Following dinner, with Cancun and a zillion Riviera Maya party spots safely miles from mind and sight, a short walk to the sand or back to the lagoon to observe the waters that glow at night https://replica-iwc.sodareplica.com/ when disturbed were equally miraculous. With five-star hospitality, excellent and locally-rooted cuisine and stylish accommodations in an ultra-relaxed setting wedged between the Caribbean and a hallowed sanctuary, Mukan is the kind of place you know is going to hurt to leave once when your boat pushes back from the dock for return to the real world.
But it’s the kind of place that weaves beautiful memories you return to again and again once you’re back in the grind, a place of rare magic that you’ll be happy you discovered can actually be real in this day and age. One you’ll fall asleep while dreaming of returning to, in those times when it’s hard to believe that a place built on peace, quiet, natural beauty and utter relaxation still exist. Mukan, www.mukan.com.
Following an easy flight and a considerably less simple time trying to negotiate a taxi transfer, we arrived at Iberostar Cancún to a captivating sight. Checking in at the premium gold level, we were seated in a cool glass and white box looking onto an impossibly light blue ocean and the region’s famous white sand. It felt like arriving on Abramovich’s yacht, Eclipse, with icy beers and handmade sandwiches smoothing our admission into this impeccable all-inclusive property. We checked in to our rooms in the beachfront villas, noting the large rectangular pool that merged with our patio, chaise lounges already wading in the shallow end, and a semi-private beach waiting beyond it. That night, we dined on fat sausages, tender marinated arrachera hanger steak and sumptuous ribeye at steakhouse La Parilla, with a nearby buffet offering endless ceviche, guacamole and mussels, among other sides. The service, as we typically found throughout Iberostar, and all of Mexico for that matter, was attentive and kindhearted, crowned with a ballad from a mariachi trio winding around the tables.
After a comfortable sleep in a dreamy king bed, we stepped straight through the patio doors and into our patio-pool, before the sun could unleash its total fury. A dip in the surf was followed by some playtime in a pool riddled with waterslides and fountains, for the youngest member of our team, who also delighted in pool games, iguana sightings and hammock naps in this paradise for families. Meanwhile, the parental part of the equation appreciated a swim-up cocktail bar in a massive infinity pool that appears to unite with the marine horizon.
The grounds of Iberostar are beautiful all over, layered with waterways, jungle vistas and stunning modern materials. We enjoyed local fish and salad for lunch, making dinner reservations at a pan-Mexican restaurant El Maguey with the beyond-helpful front desk staff, who went beyond the norm to make sure everything ran smoothly and comfortably, be it an excursion to Tulum, finding a misplaced sippy-cup or seeking an adrenaline-rush in the ocean. Our time at Iberostar had a dream-like quality, running smoothly from pleasure to pleasure and wonder to wonder. In so many ways, it was the perfect place to go for the kind of Cancún escape one imagines when planning a vacation there. In fact, there’s one important thing that really distinguishes Iberostar from many other Caribbean resorts we’ve seen in the past few years, including on the Riviera Maya. And that’s those famous white beaches. A plague of red seaweed known as Sargasso has been devastating holiday experiences around the region, falling relentlessly and decaying across beaches once known and frequented for their beauty and often making things unswimmable. We didn’t see this problem at Iberostar, allowing us to run on the beach and jump in and out of the ocean all-day, as we pleased and expected. Whether it’s a matter of a blessed location or the same hidden magic we’d seen at play so many times at Iberostar, we’re not exactly sure. But we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it were the latter. Iberostar Cancún, www.iberostar.com/en/hotels/cancun/iberostar-cancun.
ENTREE flew down south this winter to revisit the historic city of Charleston. The buzz was simply too loud for us to ignore: Here’s a town where having a bad meal is practically impossible. So we checked into the wonderful Belmond Charleston Place, a grand-dame American hotel in the truest sense from a company we admire. Black-tied revelers and live jazz piano spilled out of the bar area of the hotel’s restaurant, Charleston Grill, as sharply-dressed families squeezed between Christmas trees for photos and to watch an elaborate train set circle a miniature alpine village. From the traditional shoe shine off the lobby to the Club Level lounge where we’d idle over Benne Wafers and bourbon in the evening, we were charmed thoroughly by the hotel’s timeless halls and pronounced Southern hospitality. We spent our downtime in the Presidential Suite, a large two-bedroom spread with a king size bed, wet bar, and Italian marble bathrooms, which also provided wide views of the skyscraping steeples that have earned Charleston the nickname, “the Holy City.” Charleston Belmond Place, www.belmond.com/charlestonplace.
Leaving the comfort of this well-tailored apartment behind, we had our first dinner at Slightly North of Broad, one of the city’s most legendary and elegant restaurants. There, we enjoyed an excellent, regionally-sourced dinner that included local flounder on famous Carolina gold rice, steamed clams (from a local clammer named Dave) with garlic cream, tilefish caught that day and oyster mushroom tamales with red wine-braised oxtail.
Our servers gave us the kind of attention we pine for at restaurants back home. Wine glasses were ever-filled, and the chef even sent out a dish he prepared specially for the youngest member of our staff, drawing envy from adult diners. If you’re seeking a place to wear your Billy Reid blazer or silk dress while dining on exalted Low Country cuisine in a room of eminent southerners, Slightly North of Broad is the refined, but far-from-stuffy, restaurant for you. Slightly North of Broad, www.snobcharleston.com.
Considering it is absolutely unacceptable to venture to the South Carolina coast and not gorge oneself on shellfish, we made our next reservation at The Darling Oyster Bar. A bright, buzzing dining room on one side and a more atmospheric, royal blue study on the other, we appreciated the restaurant’s eclectic mix of materials, as well as the Clash, Dinosaur Jr. and the Cure playing over the speakers. We dove into a dozen shucked-on-the-spot oysters, bivalves we’d yet to have the pleasure of meeting prior to this stop, and every one of them among the very freshest we’d tasted. Here, we chased a gleaming shellfish tower with a rich recipe of shrimp and grits and a titanic, delicious lobster-King Crab roll. We loved the experience so much, we ditched our lunch plans to return a day later. The Darling Oyster Bar, www.thedarling.com.
ENTREE’s sleeper hit meal of this journey to Charleston was found at Henrietta’s, a sort of Southern brasserie operating from the ground floor of Downtown’s Dewberry Hotel. With a charming Gallic aura of re-purposed pews at the bar, mahogany panels and bistro tile in the dining room, we occupied a romantic corner to dine on elaborate presentations that merged French-and-Southern U.S. cuisine. Among our favorites were an early offering of chicken liver-filled gougéres, pickled shrimp with vegetables a la Grecque, rosemary-smoked oysters, deviled eggs studded with trout roe, steak frites and a local seafood stew. While many, possibly almost every, restaurant in this city seems to be obsessed with elevated Southern comfort in the style of Sean Brock, Henrietta’s French-Dixie marriage was enlivening, most notably as the dishes were flawless. Henrietta’s, www.henriettascharleston.com.
Walking back along the stately homes and unique shops of King Street, resplendent in its Christmas best, we stopped at a bar on our last night for a nightcap of local sweet tea-bourbon, codifying the memories of all the biscuits, grits, shrimp and crab we spent our days sampling. Should you desire a trip that brings U.S. history and genre-pushing cuisine together in a charming, picturesque, and very walkable city, book that flight to Charleston today.
Consider for a moment, the allure of a barge cruise, a very personalized adventure designed to immerse you into authentic culture in a most delightful way. We asked our resident travel savant, Charles de L’Arbre, who heads Santa Barbara Travel, to recommend the best and he unequivocally enthused about The Barge Lady. “Niche experts,” is how Charles describes The Barge Lady who skillfully delivers outstanding barge cruise journeys via 50 luxury barges, 30 waterways, and 8 European countries.
The Barge Lady carefully curates and enriches each experience for their clients. A team of four ladies who collectively boast over seven decades of experience in the worlds of barge cruising, luxury hospitality, and culinary tourism, they are the undisputed leaders with longevity in the barging industry since 1985 and their greatest pleasure is using their unparalleled expertise, educated insights, and exclusive connections to confidently match guests with the “perfect” barge cruise.
What exactly is a barge cruise, you ask? Throughout Europe, there is an intricate series of antique waterways of canals and rivers meandering through the countryside. Once used for transporting cargo, the barges now plying these preserved canals are floating boutique hotels, having been lovingly refurbished to offer small groups a boating experience of deluxe accommodations, top service, interesting sightseeing, and gourmet cuisine. Known as “barges,” this type of vessel carries only between 2 to 22 passengers. A dedicated, English-speaking crew accommodates guests both onboard and ashore; a private chef crafts regional and seasonal cuisine; a Tour Guide coordinates onshore excursions; a Hostess performs daily tasks; and an experienced captain expertly pilots the barge from mooring to mooring. Leisurely in pace and intimate in ambiance, almost all barges gently cruise approximately 50 miles over the course of a week at the canal speed limit of 4 miles per hour. The landscape varies between pastoral and rustic countryside and verdant woodlands.
Mr. de L’Arbre is no stranger to barge cruising. He is an unabashed fan of leisurely gliding down a canal, savoring fine regional cuisine and wines, an occasional bike ride and top tour guides. He reminds us that all barges are rated based on a star system, which is modeled after a hotel rating star system. The Barge Lady deals with barges that range from three to six stars. The higher the star, the bigger the cabins and more amenities on the barge. It is important to note that the service, cuisine, daily excursions and overall experience remains comparable across the board. The star system is helpful in establishing a budget and setting expectations with regards to cabin size and barge amenities.
What is included on a trip organized by the Barge Lady? Chauffeured transfers to and from the barge pre- and post-cruise at a designated meeting and drop off point. Six night’s accommodation with private bathroom. Daily maid service of cabins and bathrooms. All meals on the barge’s dining program*, which include breakfast, lunch and dinner. (*There are some barges that offer dining on shore at the guest’s expense). Wine pairings with on board lunches and dinners. Open bar with top shelf liquor, local and regional wines, premium spirits, waters and soft drinks. Unlimited coffee and tea service. Daily escorted sightseeing to local places of interest, including all entrance fees. Use on all onboard amenities such as hot tub, bicycles, electronics, music, games, library, etc. You will rarely need to open your wallet.
“The reason I put my clients on a barge cruise selected by The Barge Lady is because of their very special relationship with the barges, their captains, their crews and their chefs. They know every inch of the canals these barges navigate. They are geniuses at matching an itinerary perfectly with a client’s interests and manage to elevate each trip.” Without a doubt barging is better with The Barge Lady. A European barge cruise offers it all: an enchanting balance of exclusive sightseeing, gourmet dining, and natural beauty, with an emphasis on cultural authenticity, epicurean experiences, and stellar service. While France is without doubt the most popular country for a barge cruise, with its extensive network of preserved manmade canals from the 17th and 18th centuries, The Barge Lady offers outstanding barge cruising in Italy, Holland, Scotland and Ireland also. Visit www.bargeladycruises.com. Or call (800) 880-0071. As always, we highly recommend you book with Charles de L’Arbre of Santa Barbara Travel, (805) 969-7746, who have been helping clients fulfill their travel dreams since 1947.
A large slice of enchantment awaits those who enter the unmarked doors on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and into the deliriously delicious world of Nobu Ryokan Malibu.
The fact that the bedside pens at Nobu Ryokan Malibu are by Balmain gives only a hint of the exquisite details that have been attended to in an effort to surpass guests’ highest expectations. Owners Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert DeNiro, and film producer Meir Teper have spared no expense to create a magical world unto itself smack on the ocean.
The former 1950s-era Casa Malibu Inn has undergone a heavy renovation and been transformed into the highest end Japanese-inspired inn, a two-story, 9,200-square-feet gem with just 11 guestrooms and five oceanfront bungalows. Hotel grounds are exclusive to guests only and feature in-room room service from a custom menu by Nobu Malibu which is next door.
The accommodations are a study in simplicity and understatement, all teak and white linen. The highest grade electronics are hidden from sight. At Nobu Ryokan Malibu each room is one-of-a-kind, with luxurious common threads that run through them all, including en suite fireplaces, sweeping skylights, private decks, and thoughtful design that guarantees peace, privacy, and true relaxation.
Our room ($2400 a night), named Aozora which means Blue Sky, felt decidedly pure and refined. Peace and zen prevailed. Hot green tea, cool apricots and salty rice crackers greeted us. Sunlight streamed in and we could hear the waves crashing gently on exclusive Carbon Beach. The bathroom was clad in sand colored stone and our mellow teak tub was warmed by the sun. The bed was as soft as a dove.
After a brief workout in the very smart oceanfront gym, we walked to indulge in a dinner at Nobu Malibu. The joint was jumping with the beau monde of Malibu, jammed with the young, beautiful and restless. We feasted on scallop truffle chips with shaved black truffles and sweet Yuzu miso sauce then dug into pan roasted tender sea bass set in a spicy Ponzu sauce with shimejo mushrooms, tossed with Nobu salsa and microgreens. A bottle of Pinto Noir was the perfect accompaniment. If you want to capture what Los Angeles 2017 in full flower is all about, you must eat a meal here. Nobu’s chefs are simply wizards at presenting beautiful plates that sing of Eastern exotic flavors.
After dinner we strolled through Nobu Ryokan Malibu’s private, perfectly manicured gardens and sat before the outdoor fire, mesmerized by the ocean. It was heavenly. Serene and exclusive, this is an exceptional caravanserai which has no equal in Los Angeles, perhaps nowhere in the United States. We can only compare it to Japan’s legendary Kayotei or Beniya Mukayu, both in the Ishikawa prefecture on the island of Honshu.
Much credit must go to Janelle Eng, Nobu Ryokan Malibu’s exceptional General Manager, who has a team of dedicated and extremely gracious people totally devoted to their guests’ splendid stay. They are obliging, polite and kind in every way. Nobu Ryokan Malibu, 22752 Coast Highway, Malibu, CA, (310) 317-3080, www.noburyokanmalibu.com
Needing to find a special spot in the Provence, we turned to the impeccably-credentialed travel agent, Charles de L’Arbre, who owns Santa Barbara’s best travel agency, Santa Barbara Travel. Santa Barbara Travel has been catering to the carriage trade since 1947 and we highly recommend them. Of course, Charles had the answer: Le Phébus, a family-owned, stone-walled former farmhouse set behind gates and located in the Luberon between Roussillon and Gordes, is a lavender-perfumed property steeped in history. The tasteful accommodations—just 29 rooms, suites, a five-room villa and a separate stone three-room mas—are set between lawns trimmed with flowerpots, overlook the tranquil water of the private heated swimming pools and have rustic beam ceilings, terra cotta floors and antiques. Some have fireplaces. Botanical prints and regional paintings line the walls. Rebuilt on remains dating back to the medieval knights of the Order of Malta, this is a jewel of a hotel and the perfect place to take shelter when the mistral wind blows across the garrigue. Its location in the heart of Provence is ideal to explore the region and its attractions. Nearby one can fish, horseback ride, golf and go hot air ballooning. In the restaurant, traditional cuisine breathes new life into ancient Provençal recipes and serves up a superb soupe au pistou, the hearty regional vegetable soup with garlic and basil. Chef Xavier Mathieu is Michelin-starred and regularly shares his passion for gastronomy by organizing cooking classes. Chef Mathieu’s cuisine is superb: you will need to head for the on-site tennis court, pétanque circle or fitness trail to work off the calories. The spa at Le Phébus is by Carita and presents relaxing body and facial treatments plus a wide range of beauty treatments developed according to Carita expertise. Our favorite: a scrub with essential lavender and salt oils, wrap with shea butter. Le Phébus is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group and assures exceptional gastronomy, wellness and relaxation in Provence. Rates start at about $235, a true value in Provence. Places like Le Phébus are rare today, totally family-owned and personally run with care where the Mathieu family is devoted to your stay of pure relaxation. www.lephebus.com/en
It’s hard to think of a better location for a San Francisco stay than at the fantastic Taj Campton Place. A short and pleasant three-minute stroll from Union Square and the abundantly rich shopping experiences encircling it, this small hotel’s lovely, understated majesty is tucked just far away enough from the action to feel like a real retreat from the bustling streets. We recently stayed two nights at the property, our room an elongated, Zen-like stretch of simplicity with the understated feel of a modern ryokan. Between restoring tired feet and souls in a large bathtub, reading the paper in our window seat, and napping in crisp linens, we made trips to the open-air rooftop fitness terrace to tone our hill-climbing muscles. A more indulgent, effortless experience was had at Taj’s Campton Place’s eponymous, lobbyside restaurant. A two-Michelin star bearer, we’ve relished some of our most memorable meals in recent years right here in this dining room. Indian-influenced modern cuisine, enjoyed in a tasting menu format, included wonders for the eyes and palate under chef Srijith Gopinathan, a visionary of culinary technique, innovative textures, and edible design. Expertly-paired wines matched eclectic dishes such as a signature “smoking” garden pot of chaat with tamarind chutney under a bed of micro greens. A faultless foie gras torchon found a lively counterpoint with local blueberries and ginger syrup. Then dinner crescendoed with a masterful duck breast and Pacific King salmon, both revealing the subtle interplay of Subcontinental spices. Ingredients here are paramount, showcasing the region’s best with a passion for faraway flavors. The restaurant, the cherry on top of the hotel’s regal service and refined manner, will keep us coming back to Taj Campton Place each and every time we set foot in San Francisco. And we look forward to the next rendezvous with this flawless haven. Taj Campton Place, 340 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94108, 415-781-5555, www.tajcamptonplace.com.
A California destination resort that offers natural beauty, calm and gourmet cuisine can often be hard to find, one free of screaming kids and badly-dressed adults. But we found one in Paso Robles at Allegretto Vineyard Resort and Spa, a peaceful European-inspired refuge that recalls a true Mediterranean escape with lush, rolling hills and Central Coast skies. This is an inspiring place that presents itself as unique to every guest as it offers all and whatever one seeks. Allegretto is as Tuscan as it gets: 20 acres of vineyards and orchards, an oasis devoted to a rich tapestry of food, culture and endless beauty. We entered a lushly-landscaped courtyard in the center of which was a fountain and large olive tree. Our eyes caught majestic columns, fascinating statues, spectacular art work and subtle lighting. We were led to a beautiful and meticulously-prepared accommodation, one of Allegretto’s 171 guestrooms and suites, that feature tall ceilings, private terrazzas and custom bath amenities. The bed was as soft as kitten’s tummy. Our view was of the pool, vineyards, olive trees and a manicured explosion of green foliage. We enjoyed the large fire pits and relaxing by the picturesque pool surrounded by vines.
We pampered ourselves with one of Allegretto’s signature spa treatments then dined at Cello Ristorante. The Spa at Allegretto is a quaint boutique spa with six beautifully appointed treatment rooms, a gentle infrared-detox sauna and a lounge patio. There are no shower facilities or wet area adjacent to the spa, however all resort guests have access to the resort pool, Jacuzzi, and fitness center. Our choice was a hot stone massage but we could have selected a vine-inspired aromatherapy massage, body scrub or any of dozens of treatments. Executive Chef Eric Olson brings his global culinary experience to Cello, where his eclectic seasonal menu is inspired by the gardens, farms and vineyards of the wine country and the spices of his travels. Cello is all about fresh ingredients and artisan cookery. The kitchen celebrates every farmer, rancher, fisherman, chef, and server who makes every guest’s dish possible. Allegretto seems delighted to share the bounty of Paso Robles and the Central Coast with one and all. We could not resist starting with a Burrata Martini, a refreshing salad of caramelized Anjou, mache, ginger, fresh Burrata, micro greens and toasted almonds. Some wood-fired flatbreads went well with the first glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Risotto with earthy, foraged mushrooms followed. Criso and intense Saltimbocca prosciutto was next. Of course we relied on the team to select some fine local wines for us which they did admirably. The staff at Allegretto is young and congenial. Nothing seems to faze them and they are eager to please. It is obvious management is committed to the highest levels of service. The teamwork at play is finely-tuned.
We worked off our calories doing yoga in the quiet French-inspired Abbey. We walked the meandering pathways through gardens, vineyards and inspired vignettes that invoke the luxury and warmth of the good life. We eschewed bocce ball though it looked and sounded fun, but we did swim a lot in the heated, crystal-clear pool. In music, the term allegretto describes a cheerful tempo, but at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort, it best translates as a life lived joyfully, playfully, in harmony, and with intention. “Allegretto” at Allegretto Resort is all about eliciting joy during your stay. This is a super spot for body and soul restoration, a magical, relaxed and peaceful oasis that has none of the chain-like atmosphere one often finds but a rare private personality and character that is well worth a detour. Allegretto: lively or happily, not necessarily quick or fast. This perfectly describes an experience at this special place. Allegretto is located at 2700 Buena Vista Dr, Paso Robles, CA 93446, (805) 369-2500. www.allegrettovineyardresort.com.
Ashford Castle, the 13th-century castle hotel in County Mayo, Ireland, has unveiled the latest addition to its accommodations, the all new Hideaway Cottage, situated on the edge of Lough Corrib. It took our breath away. As part of a large renovation project, the estate’s former boathouse has been fully modernized, while keeping true to its Irish heritage, to create a luxurious cottage hideaway. The Hideaway Cottage offers maximum privacy for the ideal romantic retreat, while still offering guests access to all of the amenities and services of the Castle and its 350-acre estate.
Surrounded by woodland with a 180-degree view over Ireland’s second largest lake, the secluded Cottage is offset from the Castle and gated for complete privacy. It is comprised of one bedroom, an entry hall and bathroom, and is perfect for honeymoons and romantic getaways. Alongside all of the services that the Castle offers to guests, the Hideaway Cottage also provides a personal Hideaway Assistant who is just a phone call away to accommodate any requests.
In addition to the myriad dining options on the Ashford Castle Estate, guests can also dine privately in the Cottage, which has been lovingly designed incorporating materials found on site such as original stones and old fireplace lintels from the Castle’s Estate. With its elegant bathroom; French parquet flooring, handmade by Geraghty’s of Ireland; built-in cabinets from Loughnanes of Ireland; lush fabrics; a blue Murano glass chandelier; ceiling designs by David Faulkner Interiors; and building finishes by Edward Deacy, the cottage feels like a sumptuous and cozy private home.
Like the rest of the Castle, the Hideaway Cottage is characterized by individually selected original art, antique pieces and custom-made furniture. These include a pair of French Empire marquetry chest of draws, a four-fold European canvas screen from the early 20th century, art by Louis Icart and a late 19th-century pair of walnut armchairs covered in tapestry by Brunschwig & Fils.
Guests of the Hideaway Cottage will have their own bicycles and access to all facilities of the Castle and its Estate, including falconry, fishing, horse riding, a nine-hole golf course, a billiards room, zip lining, a 32-seat cinema, wine cellars and three restaurants in addition to the private dining options that the cottage itself offers.
Al fresco dining on the Hideaway Cottage’s pier, with the Castle as its backdrop and the stars reflecting on the lake is the magic that fairy tales are made of. With a host of personal, thoughtful touches and services including a dedicated room service attendant and housekeeper, guests are promised a luxurious Irish experience like no other.
Room rates for The Hideaway Cottage start from $3940 per night on a B&B basis. For more information about The Hideaway Cottage and Ashford Castle, visit www.ashfordcastle.com.
Ashford Castle is set on 350 acres in County Mayo, on the shores of Lough Corrib and the gentle River Cong, with a spectacular backdrop of woodlands, lake, river, and mountains. It features 83 guestrooms, suites and a Lakeside Cottage, and is renowned for a range of country sports including an equestrian center, fly fishing, an exclusive nine-hole golf course and Ireland’s first school of falconry. Several dining rooms and bars, along with a gracious afternoon tea service are among the amenities. It is a member of Leading Hotels of the World.
Red Carnation Hotels is a collection of family-run, award-winning boutique hotels in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the U.S.. Each hotel is a landmark of history and tradition; from the recently restored Ashford Castle in Ireland, to the Milestone, a historic mansion hotel in the heart of London, to the truly iconic Oyster Box in South Africa—their hotels are unique and characterful with a personal approach to hospitality. With a peerless reputation for exquisite fine dining, leading spas and sumptuous surroundings, Red Carnation prides themselves on delivering warm, thoughtful and highly personalized service. For more information about these award-winning hotels and the rest of the Red Carnation Collection, go to www.redcarnationhotels.com.
An exceptional new rail experience is taking shape in Ireland. Launching in August 2016, the Belmond family will offer the first ever luxury touring train in the Emerald Isle, lifting travel there to dazzling new heights. The magnificent yet intimate Belmond Grand Hibernian will feature just 20 en-suite cabins, with design inspired by Dublin’s classic Georgian architecture, evoking the golden age of travel in the style of its legendary sisters, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Taking its name from the classical Latin word for Ireland—Hiberia—the Belmond Grand Hibernian recalls the ancient isle’s romance and culture.
Itinerary options include two-, four-, and six-night journeys from Dublin, encompassing both the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland. The two-night Realm of Giants itinerary will head north from Dublin to Belfast where guests will take in the Titanic Experience, Old Bushmills Distillery and the awe-inspiring Giant’s Causeway. The four-night journey, Legends and Loughs, heads west towards Cork and Blarney Castle before continuing on to the spectacular Lakes of Killarney, Connemara National Park, and the charming city of Galway. Or combine the two journeys for an exciting six-night Grand Tour of Ireland.
Be whisked away to remote areas, traversing the breathtaking scenery that is Ireland—the unspoiled, verdant landscapes, stunning vistas, and dramatic coastline that define this captivating land. Enhance your adventure with exclusive attractions--explore ancient castles, spot rare wildlife, sample famous whiskies and visit vibrant cities. Three fascinating journeys await that will capture both the enriching heritage and vibrant modernity of Ireland.
For more information on this or other Belmond Trains and Tours, contact Robertson International Travel Consultants, (805)-969-3221 or email@example.com.
In this big wide world, there are castles. Many of them. And then there are Castles. Around the globe, it's not uncommon for hotels to label themselves as castles without being truly deserving of the word. Ashford Castle is not one of these hotels: this imposing property is as castle-like as it gets, from the sweeping manicured lawns, to the authentic suit of armor greeting guests in the foyer, to the turreted towers. But cascading over all this grandeur is a sense of the warmest Irish hospitality one will ever know.
Ashford Castle has been around since 1228 when the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family first built a castle on this location and then lost it after being defeated by the O’Connors in the 16th century. It is a stunning pile of dramatic limestone, part French-style chateau from 1715 and part Victorian dating from 1852. The castle sits on a 350-acre estate with a stunning lakefront location on picturesque Lough Corrib.
And its sprawling estate grounds allow for practically every activity, including falconry, clay pigeon shooting, fishing, horseback riding, and even golf. The wooded trails for hiking and walking are splendid beside the lake or a meandering river filled with jumping fish.
The interior common spaces are as splendid as the exterior. The lobby, drawing room, and aptly labeled Oak Hall have rich wood paneling from the 18th century; oil paintings, chandeliers, and fireplaces can be found throughout and stunning vistas of the lake can be enjoyed from many rooms.
Despite the size of the castle, there are only 83 rooms, which means the highest levels of service, and always that irrepressible cheery Irish happy service. Each of the rooms and suites at Ashford Castle represent traditional elegance and finesse. Following extensive refurbishment, many of the rooms and suites have been individually and lovingly designed, combining the castle’s original features with the latest modern luxuries. Meticulous attention to detail can be found in the unique works of art, carefully sourced antique furniture and sumptuous fabrics with custom designed carpets, bespoke beds, feature lighting, exquisite toweling and Egyptian cotton bed linen.
The overall mood is grand but not too formal although jackets and ties are required in George V Dining Room at dinner, a very civilized place to dine like royalty. Ashford Castle has been hosting distinguished guests for almost 800 years—one of the most prominent being the Prince of Wales, who subsequently became George V of England. In honor of his visit in 1906, the Guinness family built a special dining room which still bears his name proudly to this day. The graceful setting, with rich, paneled walls and twinkling Waterford Crystal chandeliers bestows a grand sense of occasion. A resident pianist plays softly in the background while you relax and enjoy exceptional dishes from the kitchen of acclaimed Chef Philippe Farineau, combined with much loved recipes of Beatrice Tollman and complemented by a fine selection of wines from Restaurant and Wine Program Manager, Robert Bowe. Choose from dishes such as Slow Roasted Rib of Beef from the famous carving trolley, served with a homemade béarnaise sauce and a red wine and shallot jus. To end your meal an array of tempting desserts await including Nyangbo frozen chocolate mousse served with estate grown crab pear gel, chocolate cremeux, pear and vanilla sorbet and salted chocolate crisp.
Fine wines are a passion for the owners of Ashford Castle. You’d expect a terrific wine list to be a priority at a property of Ashford Castle’s caliber, and you won’t be disappointed when you look through the fabulous selection they’ve put together for the enjoyment of guests. Robert Bowe, who has been responsible for the wine cellars at Ashford Castle for the past 20 years, has witnessed the incredible development of wine in Ireland during this time. Today, with an impressive cellar of over 600 wines, Robert is particularly proud of the selection of Irish wines featured, with Irishmen making wines in nearly every wine region in the world. The castle also proudly features wines from sister property Bouchard Finlayson, a South African vineyard producing some of the finest wines of the region.
In the mood for more casual dining? There’s the dramatic and atmospheric Dungeon. As its name would suggest, the unique setting located on the lower ground floor of the castle invites diners to enjoy a range of satisfying dishes from a bistro-style menu with a focus on traditional Irish cuisine beneath the historic curved stone ceiling. Together with a relaxed atmosphere, it makes for a wonderful and memorable dining experience. This is one dungeon you wouldn’t mind being sent to for life.
We also liked dining at Cullen's at the Cottage, the perfect seasonal setting. This traditional thatched cottage provides a warm and relaxed dining experience with international and local dishes inspired by the castle’s owner, Beatrice Tollman. Open seasonally, it’s just a short stroll over the bridge from the castle.
Another dining option is Wilde's at The Lodge, where fine Irish cuisine is served. Under the inspired direction of Jonathan Keane, recently described as “one of the country’s most exciting chefs” and with many award nominations to his name, it has become a popular destination not just for local foodies but visitors from afar. Expect fine contemporary Irish cuisine in a stunning setting. Jonathan creates a variety of delicious dishes that showcase the unique flavors and textures of the finest local produce, from succulent Irish beef and lamb to fish and seafood fresh from the waters of Galway Bay and the Connemara coastline. The Lodge at Ashford Castle is a sister property located on the estate a short distance from the castle itself—either a 15-minute stroll or the hotel car can be easily arranged to whisk you there.
The Wine Cellars at Ashford Castle offer private wine tastings and wonderful wine dinners in the secret passageways of the castle, which were unearthed during recent renovations. The old servants' entrance was originally a coal bunker and walkway underneath the castle, where the servants used to come in and get their coal buckets to take up to the rooms. It has now been transformed and the 16th century tunnels provide three unique private spaces with a very cozy feel and inviting, soft lighting.
After a meal, retreat to the Billiards Room and enjoy a game of billiards, sink into comfy chairs with a glass of your favorite tipple or relax with a newspaper and catch up on the day's affairs. Open to residents only, the traditional elegance of the Billiards Room, with its grand assortment of antique furniture and furnishings is a most welcome addition to the castle.
Or head for The Prince of Wales Bar for refined traditional style. Built in the late 1800s, the bar is to this day reminiscent of its captivating past, with its opulent fabrics, polished wood paneling, traditional furnishings and original fireplace creating a warm and welcoming ambience—the perfect place to enjoy your favorite tipple or a pint of Guinness. In 1905 the bar was where the Prince of Wales took his brandy. Offering a full selection of cocktails, liqueurs and brandies, you, too, can sit back and relax and enjoy the finest Irish hospitality.
The Drawing Room allows guests to relax at leisure overlooking Lough Corrib. As you enter The Drawing Room you’ll immediately be struck by the breathtaking views across the lawns out across the expansive Lough Corrib. The ideal setting for morning coffee, light lunches from the bar menu, and Afternoon Tea, simply sink into comfortable chairs to enjoy fine hospitality in total comfort. Whether you’re enjoying a romantic break, catching up with family and friends or hosting a relaxed meeting, The Drawing Room lends itself perfectly for the occasion.
Ashford’s new spa has five treatment rooms and services using three different luxury product lines including the organic Irish brand Voya, a further example of Ashford Castle’s commitment to using the finest local produce and suppliers. The space includes a bronze conservatory with a pool, three seashell chandeliers and an oak tree mural by the South African ceramic mosaic artist Jane Du Rand. An Awaken Your Senses at Ashford Castle Spa Package includes two nights’ accommodations, daily breakfast, one dinner and either a facial or warmed spiced mud wrap at the spa, priced from $795.
At Ashford, you can hike to your heart’s content by the river or lake, swim, ride, golf, fish, cycle, play tennis, go clay shooting, kayaking, on a hawk walk or lake cruise, or just sit and dream surrounded by that pervasive green Irishness which is without comparison. There is even a sumptuous 32-seat cinema where special films are screened for guests, including of course the beloved Quiet Man movie.
Ashford Castle is an experience you owe yourself. It’s not really worth going anywhere else in Ireland. Where else can you live like a king and queen for a few nights and fantasize about knights in shining armor. Ashford is much loved by all who stay there and work there. Everything is first rate and Niall Rochford, the eagle-eyed, well-dressed General Manager, effortlessly keeps it that way as he has for decades. Full marks to this extraordinary country estate you would love to own and call yours. In so far as you can see and sense all of Ireland from a hotel, you can witness it all totally from this rare place. Visit www.ashfordcastle.com.
As we enter into a new year of travel, with lists of emerging destinations and bucket-list hotspots across the globe, Robertson International Travel reminds us to reflect on the wonders that surround us in our own backyard. America boasts over 400 national parks comprised of 84 million acres of protected, iconic and treasured land to explore. In 2016 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service—the caretakers of these sacred, wild and monumental parks so dear to our country. What better way to honor that service than to visit the parks they work so hard to protect? The array of our National Parks offer year-round options that will appeal to all demographics: naturalists, explorers, photographers, adrenalin junkies, and dreamers alike. They are a perfect concept for families to capture the attention of all generations by exploring waterfalls, rivers, canyons, geysers, glaciers, mountains, caves, lakes, wildlife and native cultures. And now, through their international network of preferred travel partners, Robertson Travel can offer the option of visiting the National Parks in style. From luxury resorts to iconic lodges, with expert private guides bringing to life the majesty of your surroundings, insider knowledge of off-the-tourist track destinations and the best local restaurants, you can visit the parks like never before. Imagine exploring a famed slot canyon with not another tourist in sight, a private dinner under the desert stars with a Navajo storyteller, or a hot air balloon ride over Yellowstone. Crunched for time, but desperate to see Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon? Let them arrange a private jet between parks to maximize your time. Looking to take the slow and winding road? A customized road trip along the famed Route 66 might be more your style. Robertson International Travel is the perfect adventure concierge, with attention to every detail, and will arrange the trip of a lifetime…in your own backyard. firstname.lastname@example.org, (805) 969-3221, www.robertsontravel.com.
A stay at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea is majestic year ‘round. Spread above a breathtaking crescent of alabaster beach, the property’s thoughtful layout guarantees there’s always some hammock-tethered nook or sweeping ocean vista awaiting your repose. But as summer fades into fall and families return to their mainland rhythms, “Couples Season” commences. This marks the resort’s three-month metamorphosis into a paradise for honeymooners and lovers and couples of all ages looking for intimate adventures and indulgences between the sand and surf. Four Seasons offers a long list of couples activities and treats to burn brightly in the memories of duos coming to stay. If you and your partner are adventurous, the resort will launch you from its shores on a traditional outrigger canoe to snorkel with large and languid sea turtles at a nearby cove, knowledgeable guides leading the way. Or they’ll happily arrange unforgettable experiences spanning from helicopter tours over the island’s covert coasts and emerald corners. Surfing, spearfishing, zip lining and bamboo forest hikes are all at the ready, distinguished by the brand’s signature touch of pampering and elegance. For example, they’ll connect you with a vintage Porsche if you prefer to drive the island yourself in such style. But you need not venture far from the resort if opulence and leisure top your list. This is, after all, a Four Seasons of remarkable beauty in a remarkably beautiful land. The resort’s three restaurants consistently rank among Maui’s best. With a formidable Spago putting its inventive spin on local seafood and Hawaiian recipes, Ferraro’s Bar e Ristorante piling fresh lobster on tagliatelle over incomparable sunset views, and a dynamite steakhouse named Duo where a traditional Japanese breakfast often tempted ENTREE away from the decadent, delicious crab cake Benedict. But Couples Season has an even more memorable meal up its gilded sleeves. The Ultimate Dinner finds you and your sweetheart personally guided to a secluded, private table overlooking the waves, to be waited on hand-and-foot over a multi-course, wine-paired menu the chef strategizes with your consultation. Elbow-driven lomi-lomi massages and a couples massage instructional happen in a thatched-roof hut perched over the gently rolling surf. If sitting poolside with a pineapple mimosa is more your speed, the resort thoughtfully has a beautiful, 21-and-over serenity pool with spacious cabanas and a negative-edge pool complete with underwater slack key guitar music blending seamlessly into the blue sea below. Couples Season at Four Seasons is the ultimate Hawaiian escape for pure romance or just “reconnecting” and unrivaled luxury. Sunset strolls, breakfast-in-bed, private fitness classes, and poolside spa treatments. The resort really leaves no stone unturned in pampering its guests. Its beautiful, open layout ensures spectacular breezes and vistas at every turn. Complimentary amenities like pool-and-beachside sunscreen, fresh towels perpetually at the ready, radios built into your room’s walls, and even nice sandals provided if you inevitably forget yours at the beach at breakfast, demonstrate the kind of thoughtfulness the resort embodies, ensuring your enjoyment is carefree once you check in. Four Seasons staff is beyond accommodating and kind, always there with a smile and an aloha to fortify your relaxation. Hawaii’s natural splendor, famous hospitality and leisure are exalted at this pristine, superior property. Couples Season at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, through fall, 3900 Wailea Alanui Dr, Wailea, HI 96753, (808) 874-8000, www.fourseasons.com/maui. Here’s a special link with more about the very special Couples Season: www.fourseasons.com/maui/services_and_amenities/couples_season.
Those of us who have had the fine good fortune of being a houseguest at a great Jamaican home will easily recall the intoxicating aroma of highly-polished mahogany, the glow of antique silver, tropical blossoms embellishing four-poster beds, old family portraits, 18th century English landscape paintings and the bonhomie of fine company savoring life and good rum. This experience is rare and totally special. Since today we live in a world of cookie-cutter hotels that are standardized to a fair-thee-well, many hotel experiences limit your exposure to people at check-in and check-out times with an extraordinary absence of personalization. Machines do most of the work in a hotel today. Yet there is not a hotel manager on earth who does not tout his specialness due to staff and “personal service.” That’s why family-owned Bluefields Bay Villas in Jamaica is so very extraordinary. Washington native, Braxton Moncure, first traveled to Jamaica in 1977 and was smitten by the beauty of the island and by its incredibly warm and welcoming residents. In 1981, he discovered the small fishing and farming village of Bluefields on the South Coast of Jamaica, and felt this location was exactly what he had been seeking. Over the years he, his wife, son and daughter have created and burnished their collection of six secluded seafront villas into the Caribbean’s most luxurious private country retreat by the sea. The Moncures are the true pioneers of the all-inclusive villa experience. Our adventure started at Montego Bay’s airport where the Club Mobay VIP staff whisked us through Immigration and Customs with nary a wait. They then took us to meet our Bluefields Bay Villas chauffeur named Neville who was unfailingly considerate and irrepressibly cheery. We began to de-stress immediately. After a gentle 65-minute drive, we entered Bluefields and were embraced by the sights, smells and sounds of our new and peaceful Jamaican home. Time lost its urgency. Each 5-star villa is perched on the crystal-clear sparkling blue and calm Caribbean Sea, and each has its own private pool and expertly-trained staff. Bespoke gourmet meals are prepared by your own personal chef. Each villa has a dedicated butler who serves meals and drinks and helps your experience unfold like the tropical foliage. We stayed at the San Michele villa with wraparound natural vistas of mountains and sea. Most distinctive, San Michele has a private island reached by a footbridge where you can spend countless hours truly “on” the sea. San Michele’s Jamaican furniture is part of a larger collection saved from export by the Moncure family—and now able to be enjoyed here. This 1+ acre property of expansive flat lawn is perfect for small children and adults with its easily-accessible private pool, expansive pool pavilion, and personalized staff contoured for each group of guests. San Michele was extensively remodeled and enlarged in 2000, now with two spectacular master bedroom suites and two other bedrooms in the main house. Two more bedrooms are in San Michele’s guest cottage behind the house. Suzanne, head housekeeper (also called “The Lady of the House”) with four years of experience at the property, lovingly decorated our bed with bougainvillea blossoms each night before the turn-down service and then relocated those precious flowers to our bathroom surrounding the shampoos and soaps. Marvin, our sunny butler, with over 20 years of providing excellent service to each and every guest coming here, was on call 24-7. Richard, our chef, oversaw all the culinary treasures of Bluefields (think fresh seafood and local delights) and Arthman, the gardener (who lovingly takes pride in maintaining the beautiful landscaping and has been here for what seems like forever—over 18 years), never tired of explaining the plants, birds and bees to us. There is even a 24-hour watchman to make sure all is truly safe and tranquil. All of this is seamlessly overseen by Alfred, the General Manager, and his wonderful colleague, Carmen, who has proudly been with Bluefields for over 23 years. They all sensed our every need and fulfilled them effortlessly. They genuinely delighted in our company. How did we fill our days? Easy. Snorkeling, sea-kayaking, playing tennis, hiking and enjoying the beach are all complimentary as are laundry services, fiber-backed wireless, and international telephone calls too. Deep-sea fishing, spa services, and chauffeured excursions are all readily available too. One lacks for nothing at Bluefields Bay Villas. We hiked and we paddle boarded, got massages, swam and were served fancy cocktails as we floated in the Caribbean Sea. Most evenings, we relished the gorgeous colorful sunsets while enjoying tropical drinks and appetizers, and we exulted in this newly-discovered magical connection with nature. Housekeepers not only keep all rooms sparkling, but also send guests home with suitcases of clean clothes at no extra charge. And, if people bring their children, devoted and caring nannies are provided. Bluefields Bay Villas’ location-Jamaica’s leeward South Coast—is unspoiled by commercialism, and is a place where visitors can interact easily with local residents who welcome them heartily. It is a timeless elegant paradise, lovingly curated by this family who actually cares. It is never pretentious, and always authentic, pure and gracious. It is the perfect romantic spot for lovers, a jolly place for families, an ideal spot for business gatherings, a heavenly spot for destination weddings. See www.bluefieldsvillas.com. Rates vary depending on the season starting from $955/night for one couple having their own villa in Peak Season, less in Off-Peak Season. If there is a second couple sharing that same 2-bedroom villa in Peak Season, the cost per couple is $655/night. If there are several couples sharing a larger villa, the cost will be even lower. There is also a 15% charge for gratuities. Call (877) 955-8993 for availability and price quotes. Most likely the charming Debbie Moncure, Braxton’s wife, will answer the phone and help you.
Nestled on a Pacific coast hillside and overlooking golden sand beaches, Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo awaits, a premier eco-adventure destination without equal. If you long for Costa Rica’s renowned “pura vida” lifestyle, this is the place. Nature is the main attraction in the country that practically invented ecotourism. From world-class surfing and beaches to exhilarating jungle encounters with rare howler and white-face monkeys—not to mention more than 800 bird species—diversity abounds. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica appeals to a wide range of travelers because of the equally wide range of things to do in and around the resort, including the fine art of doing nothing at all. Choose your travel style and get started planning a perfect couple’s or family getaway. Amazing adventures await. Enjoy spacious accommodations near the beach. The resort’s 181 guest rooms, suites and residences capture the exotic character of Costa Rica, with comfortable rattan and bamboo furnishings, local artwork and indigenous wood and stone finishes. Our Canopy Suite had a large screen porch overlooking the beach and trees, an ideal spot for sunset-watching. On our first day we played tennis and golf (the course was designed by Arnold Palmer, 18 championship holes, par-72, with the resort golfer in mind and ranked among the “Top 100 Courses Outside the United States” by Golf Digest.) The next day we went deep sea fishing. Then it was river rafting, scuba lessons and diving followed by sea kayaks and catamarans. We also attended pottery classes, chocolate making, cooked with the chef, hiked, and went on nature walks. Whew! Even the workout room overlooked the ocean and that made pumping iron a joy. No wonder we couldn’t wait to get to the spa which floats above Playa Virador on the azure waters of the Pacific. There we indulged in holistic experiences inspired by nature. Every meal at this Four Seasons is an experience to savor. There are five restaurants and the resort specializes in Latin and Italian cuisine, using fresh local ingredients to create innovative menus that offer one-of-a-kind dining experience. This is the essence of Costa Rica for romance, adventure and relaxation. Time spent here is a treat from check-in to check-out, no extra charge for the playful monkeys that scamper about. The staff was unfailingly polite and helpful, an energetic cadre of young fresh faces eager to please. While lounging on the carefully raked sand, attendants offered us yummy complimentary appetizers. Pascal Forotti, the General Manager, deserves a lot of credit for calmly orchestrating this magical pristine scenario. In three words, an impeccable paradise. Visit www.fourseasons.com/costarica. One last word: Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo is much closer to the airport than the resorts located in the rain forest area of the country and this means you wind up deep in wildlife and on the beach headed to relaxation much much sooner. Security and privacy is excellent and perhaps that is why this is a favorite spot for celebs and business moguls.
It was Oscar Wilde who wrote that it is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection. Maybe, maybe not. Because we found perfection at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin star restaurant and hotel in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, probably Britain’s finest country house dining and lodging experience. Dining at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is an experience that will stay with you forever. We went on a sunny Sunday for lunch with an aristocratic Etonian (he owns the esteemed Bellamy’s in Mayfair and confidently knows his food and drink) and could have stayed forever. The drive from London is a pleasant one and you will arrive at a very pretty ivy-covered Cotswold house staffed by smiling well-dressed attendants, We got the ball rolling with Pimms in the garden while masterpieces of canapes were passed. Then it was on the The Conservatory where we dined on duck, veal sweetbreads followed by sea trout, then cheese and finally something chocolatey. Five- and seven-course menus are offered that sing of natural essences, perfumes and unexpected flavors. Or roam about a la carte. Described as “a twist of imaginative genius,” Raymond Blanc’s dishes utilize the freshest, best quality ingredients. The two-acre kitchen garden produces 90 types of vegetable and 70 varieties of herbs. The hotel’s wine cellar is home to around 1,000 different wines from around the world. Around 60% are of French provenance. After lunch we walked the gardens and admired the streams, birds and flowers. Pity we didn’t book one of the clutch of evocatively decorated rooms, a nap would have been in order. You’d think such grandeur would be poncey, but it wasn’t....the staff is courteous and correct yet casual and self assured. Their moves are faultless and never over the top. A sublime posh nosh in every way. Visit www.belmond.com/le-manoir-aux-quat-saisons-oxfordshire.
Owning a lordship title is such a privilege and joy. Knowing that you own a piece of English history, perhaps connected to an ancestor or place connected to your family, is very humbling and exciting. The best news is that any of us can own a lordship title, a little piece of “Old England.” But you must deal carefully with a trusted source. Manorial Counsel Limited is the leading authority and purveyors of reconstructed hereditary lordship and barony titles. Manorial Counsel Limited has taken a completely different approach to owning a right to an English lordship title. Working with a large legal team made up of solicitors and barristers, they have devised a novel solution to the legal issues surrounding acquisition/ownership. With confirmation of what English law defines as ownership of a lordship title they are the foremost in the field. Whereas other “title sellers” are trying to prove an almost impossible situation that you own English title rights, Manorial Counsel Limited has devised a legal right to use English lordship titles that have been dormant for many years. So instead of proving an ownership they will guarantee that it is impossible to disprove an ownership. They will research a particular lordship and identify what records remain. From these a risk assessment is undertaken whether a legal equitable challenge could be mounted. Using this intellectual property their legal team convert this into a right to use the English lordship titles. The beauty of their method is that they sell you a new legal right based on the original Custom law. If anyone was to try and mount a challenge based on the old rights, they would fail as your right is justified in a completely different part of English law. Thus, they have managed to devise a method of allowing their customers to enjoy and be proud of an English lordship title without any of the risks involved. For further information contact Manorial Counsel Limited who are experts and specialists in manorial and incorporeal law, at www.manorialcounselltd.co.uk. To view a partial list of their titles for sale, go to www.manorialcounselltd.co.uk/lordship-titles-for-sale.
There are few things in life that give us as much pleasure as a trip to Napa after a quick stop in San Francisco. A more salubrious adventure is unimaginable. So, we put the top down and took off for Fog City, anticipating fine cuisine and wines, rolling hills and cozy hotel nights. Our San Francisco headquarters was the iconic Ritz-Carlton. In a city whose iconic golden bridge stands as the gateway to new experiences, The Ritz-Carlton delivers unforgettable moments, right from the heart and soul. Look for the white Corinthian columns and the handsome 1909 neoclassical landmark and you know you’ve arrived. A sophisticated urban retreat with 336 luxurious guest rooms and suites, produce-driven Californian dining in Parallel 37, and a cable car stop right outside to whisk visitors to the city’s most treasured sites, the timeless elegance of this Nob Hill location prevails. This is the most distinguished of luxury hotels, recently honored with the 2014 AAA Five Diamond award for the 20th consecutive year. The room we were billeted in was clearly crafted for total tranquility with oversized marble bathrooms, state-of-the-art entertainment systems, feather duvets and stunning city views perfect for unwinding. We were fortunate to be on the full-service Club Level, where complimentary food and beverage are served throughout the day and garment pressing and Internet access come free. Every evening, the Club Lounge presents hors d’oeuvres inspired by the delicious culinary offerings of the city’s diverse neighborhoods and on select weekends, special evening tastings with local wineries. To work out the kinks, we stepped into the ultimate in relaxation and reflection at Spa-de-Vie, where a world of comfort swiftly supplants worldly concerns. The full menu of services includes massages, facials and body treatments, reconnecting body, mind and soul. We were especially moved by the creative cuisine at Parallel 37, the hotel’s recurrently lauded restaurant, named for the prevailing geographic latitude that runs through this culinary capital. Michael Rotondo, an eight-year veteran and former executive chef of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, cooks global food armed with hyper-local produce like mushrooms, fruits, herbs and lettuces. The hand cut tagliatelle with pine nut mousse and root vegetables, and Wagyu strip loin with black truffles and yuzu, were among many great testaments to The Bay Area’s distinguished produce and boundary-driving chefs we enjoyed at Rotondo’s hands, www.ritzcarlton.com. We slept like babies and lazily awoke in time to trot through the Ferry Building’s must-see markets over to Fog City for lunch. The original Fog City Diner attained legendary status in its quarter century of business, part of the very fabric of the Embarcadero. The owners recently unveiled a newly revamped adaptation under the name Fog City, starring chef and partner Bruce Hill’s custom seven-foot wide wood-burning grill among a supporting kitchen he designed. Lots of fun, flavorful throwback brunch dishes improved with high-quality components, including prawns and grits, open-faced Hot Brown turkey sandwiches on sourdough, juicy burgers and local oysters. With made-to-order and to-die-for crullers for dessert. 1300 Battery Street, www.fogcitysf.com. On we pushed to Napa, making our way to Wydown Hotel, a 12-room boutique gem in the heart of downtown St. Helena. Inspired by the heritage of Napa Valley and the cosmopolitan setting of downtown St. Helena, the Wydown offers guests a modern take on the classic wine country getaway. For us, the act of arrival in wine country means relaxation is already in the air. Arrival at the Wydown Hotel takes that journey to tranquility one step further because it feels like home. The lively charms of St. Helena’s downtown Main Street are at your doorstep, but we loved just lingering in the Wydown’s warm lobby—also known as the Living Room—which gives an well-appointed, modern artists touch through comfortable black couches, oversized jigsaw puzzles and library. We frequently popped into adjoining tasting room, where our neighbors and friends at Materra Wines offer guests complimentary tastings of their fantastic local vinos. Despite so many intriguing dining options surrounding us, we can hardly stop help ourselves from enjoying an evening at bold modern Mexican restaurant, La Condesa, which seamlessly blends casual Mexican cooking and cool cantina décor with sophistication for a truly unique and unforgettable repast in wine country. Though our oenophile allegiances were swayed by the restaurant’s impressive flights of superb tequilas, mescals and margaritas, we conquered four types of luscious guacamole, pork shoulder carnitas slow-cooked in Coca Cola and unforgettable, high-end tacos with lamb, chicken and beef bearing every Napa menus’ requisite farm names. When we did collapse in our spacious, beautifully-appointed room, we didn’t want to leave. The attractions of St Helena are right outside—but inside the Wydown, reality is miles away. And relaxation is everywhere. www.wydownhotel.com. We did stir happily to dine at Redd Wood, famed chef Richard Reddington’s second, more casual outpost in Yountville. We found a superbly stylish, rollicking Italian-inspired eatery where house made salumi dangled in a chilly closet to the bar’s immediate left. We overindulged in Reddington’s hearty menu-addictive fried, spiced Brussels sprouts, thin, leopard-spotted pizzas with the restaurant’s pancetta, unreal bucatini with its guanciale—but still pined for everything we couldn’t try. A speedy return to this irresistible jewel of Yountville is definitely on our minds. www.redd-wood.com. Our last stop was The Meritage Resort and Spa where we frolicked in Tuscan-inspired Napa heaven for three nights. This is a premier destination for romantics. Our room had high ceilings, sumptuous bathrooms, Tuscan-inspired decor and many rooms include private balconies or patios with views of the property’s own vineyard. We dined at Siena, blending Italian and Californian influences, and experienced a rewarding on-site wine-tasting in Trinitas Tasting Room, located below the vineyards, in the same subterranean cave that houses the enchanting spa. We plunged into swimming pools and hot tubs and warmed ourselves at outdoor fire places, after hiking through the nine acres of wine vines. The Meritage Resort’s spa is a true mindblower, one of the more transporting we’ve seen. It’s a cavernous, brick-lined maze of steam grottos, soaking pools, waterfalls, revitalizing treatments and therapies for individuals and couples. Since wine tastings, spas and grottos do tend to lull one into a deep state of relaxation, the hotel kindly offers a 27-passenger shuttle to Downtown Napa’s restaurants, tasting rooms and theaters. The Meritage Resort and Spa is the perfect blend of wine tasting, dining, spa, handsome event spaces, romance and indulgence. www.themeritage resort.com
We have just returned from a marvelous trip to Ireland to experience Ashford Castle in County Mayo, now undergoing an extensive program of renovation and refurbishment by Red Carnation Hotels. The objective: to restore this stunning, historic medieval building to its former glory. This is the right group for the job. Having acquired the Castle earlier this summer, Red Carnation, a family-owned collection of fifteen luxury award-winning hotels, will work to preserve the Castle’s history and charm, while enhancing its guest facilities and levels of comfort. Former country estate of the Guinness family, Ashford is nestled on the banks of Lough Corrib and surrounded by a wonderful 350-acre estate. When the hotel hosted the last visit by a British Monarch to Ireland, King George V in 1905, it was so successful, that the King extended his stay at Ashford by three months. Wish we could have done the same. We reveled for four days playing golf, riding horses, learning falconry, boating, fishing, practiced archery, clay shooting, dining (on local game, birds, fish, cheeses and vegetables served under silver domes) and drinking very well, and just languishing in the beauty that is Ireland. We walked the gardens and river trails. We gazed at the sun dancing on the lake; watched fish jump in the river. A car and driver took us on a glorious day trip to wild and scenic Connemara where we ate briny Galway oysters. We got massages. We walked the village streets where the famous film, The Quiet Man, was shot. The first stage of Ashford’s grand scheme will focus on guestrooms, which will be beautifully refurbished and lovingly restored and furnished by Mrs. Beatrice Tollman, Founder and President of Red Carnation Hotels, and her team, with carefully sourced antique furniture, original artwork, exquisite fabrics, bespoke carpets and an updated wifi system throughout. Ashford is unique, a wondrous place of history, fresh clean air, green forests, pristine lakes, endless trails, wildlife and pure nature, and tons of caring Irishmen and women who look after your every need with smiles. The elegant and witty General Manager Niall Rochford sees to that with genuine warmth. We know of few more romantic, more entertaining, more dramatic places in the world. Ashford’s crenellated walls, turrets, moat and roaring fireplaces set a scene out of a Maeve Binchy novel. And it promises to emerge with Red Carnation at even a higher level. We cannot wait to return. The Red Carnation Hotel Collection is an award-winning collection of five and four star family-run boutique hotels in London, Dorset, Guernsey, Geneva, Florida, South Africa and now Ireland. Each property has its own individual character and unique location that reflects the local environment, culture and cuisine. They all share the qualities that win Red Carnation so many prestigious awards—splendid luxury, generous hospitality, inventive and traditional cuisine, private art collections, passionate service and loyal people committed to creating richly rewarding experiences for all their guests. What makes Ashford so special, apart from its outstandingly beautiful location and facilities, is that it retains the character and characters of a Great Country House. Quintessential Irish hospitality is lovingly provided by a staff, some of whom retain family links to the property for two and more generations. What else we like: the castle and its team are very Green, committed to responsible business practices including the reduction of their carbon footprint and ending waste of energy and natural resources. For more information about these award-winning hotels and the rest of the Red Carnation Collection, go to www.redcarnationhotels.com. Getting to Ashford has never been easier or more reasonable with a number of carriers servicing its three local airports—Galway, Knock and Shannon—from numerous locations throughout the UK. Look for the new, massive and handsome Irish wolfhound statues that now guard the castle’s entrance. One of Ashford Castle’s claims is “Excellence since 1228.” No truer words were ever spoken. By the way, we met an outstanding artist, John Dinan, who we consider one of Ireland’s greatest living artists. John and his wife, Sheila, run the admirable Cong Art Gallery, www.congartgallery.com, just a short walk from the castle and a must visit. This gallery shows the work of some of Ireland’s best artists and sculptors. More on this very very talented man in a future issue.
We arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, an 18th-century manor house, in the midst of party planning. Six thousand roses from Holland were being delivered and coordinators and consultants from various corners of Europe were busy at work. We watched young lads and lasses practicing the art of petal strewing, as arriving party guests prefer treading on petals to mere wood and stone. Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire is a perfect location for such an occasion, especially when flying privately, as it is located only fifteen minutes from Farnborough’s private airport. Otherwise, Heathrow is only 45 minutes away. Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, originally known as Dogmersfield Park, is where King Henry VIII first met his future Queen Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Today, transformed after a large fire, the hotel offers respite from the hectic whirl that is the countryside of England during summer. We arrived from a nearby residence, where we had been attending polo, tennis, races, and flower shows, and think this is a perfect oasis for a few nights of bliss, and yet close enough to the fun to continue accepting invitations. Other guests were there to escape London’s soaring temperatures. We were correct. The hotel’s lovely rooms, gracious baths, and soothing décor enveloped us. Hmmm...what to do? Tennis, falconry, clay pigeon shooting, horse riding, and canal boating are just some of the activities from which to choose. Otherwise, Winchester Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Jane Austen’s House, and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, are less than one hour away. We chose the spa. Contemporary and elegant, the 27,000 sq ft spa is located in the 18th-century stable block and is as professional, luxurious, and perfect as any we have found in the English countryside thus far. Beyond the spa’s many choices of therapies are tranquil relaxation rooms, a gym with private training available, and a very inviting 20-meter conservatory-style pool. After our therapies we meandered through the formal walled garden and discovered a beautiful, lavender-lined walk, which led to croquet, tennis, and special cottages with programs for children of all ages. At the end of the day we suggest tucking into banquette 30, 31, or table 10 by the window for an upscale French-European dinner at Seasons. Or, if you are feeling more casual, their Bistro Brasserie offers terrace seating. Don’t miss trying a cocktail from Bar 1086. The bartenders are fun, imaginative, and love talking concoctions. We have memories of sipping on what seemed to be liquid gold only to find out that our cocktail was, in fact, garnished with 24-carat gold. Another cocktail was topped with honey from the hotel’s many hives and was cradled in a hot pepper. Yes, hot! Twenty-two is another divine cocktail and comes with a great story. Ask. The Christmas Festive Season package looks wonderful for families and especially those with small children. There are Christmas Carol Suppers with hourly menus that include: movies, mistletoe manicures, gingerbread workshops, a children’s New Year’s Eve disco, and even rooms filled with snow. Four Seasons Hampshire has 133 rooms including 22 suites with prices from approximately $435 to $6975 for the Royal Suite. For further inquiries www.fourseasons.com/hampshire or telephone +44 (1252) 853 3000.
Despite the merciless desert heat and spiking summer crowds, we sallied forth into Las Vegas last month without a care in the world, knowing we’d be in good hands at the Forbes Five-Star Mandarin Oriental. In fact, “good” is practically a criminal understatement here, as Mandarin Oriental is redefining luxury, offering an unparalleled world-class experience in Sin City and spoiling us for any other property with its unmatched standards of understated excellence. There was a time when Bellagio and Wynn were the hotel names to be reckoned with on The Strip. Mandarin Oriental vaults high above both in terms of setting, service, accommodations, atmosphere and cuisine. Discreetly tucked left of the entrance to the dynamic, soaring CityCenter (think Prada, Gucci and Tiffany) right in the heart of the action, one shouldn’t be surprised at the spectacle of seeing His and Her Ferraris pull up to the valet, such is the crowd who covets this casino-less sanctuary. The hotel’s lobby is on the 23rd floor of a sleek condominium building (like The Pierre or Carlyle in New York, this is not a hotel driven by gambling but by resident owners), where guests are instantly enveloped in a calm Eastern ambiance that is soothing, refined and understated. There is no pulsating techno, no gaming, no badly dressed tourists milling about, no inebriated riff raff, and you won’t catch a whiff of the stale smoke smell assaulting you at most Vegas check-ins. What you will find are compelling views, peace and quiet, fine art (Maya Lynn, Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella among others) and rare antiques, plus a charming, gracious, dedicated staff to greet you. With only 392 tranquil rooms, the Mandarin Oriental is intimate by the town’s bloated behemoth standards (how can Wynn hope to deliver personal service with 2176 rooms and suites? And Bellagio has almost 4000 rooms!), easing the stage for bright, smiling young ladies and gentlemen to deliver the most personalized service. The rooms and suites at the hotel are decorated tastefully in muted silks and linens, residential fabrics that depart from other garish neighbors. Room technology is high-tech with a short learning curve, housekeeping fastidious, and the room condition achieving perfection. It is obvious that Mandarin has also made a serious investment in and commitment to cuisine. The hotel is home to iconoclast Michelin 3-star Paris chef Pierre Gagnaire’s only restaurant in the United States, Twist. A dinner here is reason enough for a trip to Las Vegas to indulge in Gagnaire’s cooking style which, like Nik Wallenda, walks a tightrope of sublime innovation bolstered by expertly provoked flavors, all grounded in solid French technique. Our dinner soared to sublime heights. It is a privilege to dine at Twist and feast on chef de cuisine Ryuki Kawasaki’s creations (unless you strike a jackpot and happen to come on a lucky day when Gagnaire is passing through). Several levels of tasting menus are presented as is a la carte featuring lobster, veal, fish, foie gras, pork, rabbit, prime rib eye concocted with such daring elements as horseradish Chantilly, black mushroom mousseline, tandoori-apple marmalade, black truffle coulis, and boudin noir ice cream, all supremely creative juxtapositions of flavors, tastes and textures in challenging compositions. There is a considerate vegan and gluten-free menu, too. Matthias Maier, the restaurant’s talented director, and sommelier Will Costello, keep things humming like a Patek Philippe watch, without being stuffy. Mandarin is also home to MOzen Bistro, a restaurant of serious intent that maintains four different chefs to cook authentic and sterling Indian, Thai, Japanese and Chinese dishes to order. We journeyed through Asia here and never had better Thai green shrimp curry, nigiri, tandoori roasted marinated chicken, Murgh Makhani and steamed grouper. Live jazz can be heard during Sunday brunch. There is also a comfortable bar with a dramatic birds-eye view of The Strip, a Tea Lounge serving tea, coffee and treats, and a Pool Café with a menu of light fare over breakfast and lunch. These factors alone would be enough to push us into always calling the Mandarin our home in Vegas. But there is more. The hotel’s spa is a two-floor oasis with 17 treatment rooms and relaxation lounges that feature inspiring views and expert treatments. Included among the variety of spa amenities are steam rooms, experience showers, a hammam, a laconium, vitality pools and a Chinese foot spa. Spa therapies combine the ancient and contemporary and were devised to address guests’ increasing desire for simple, effective and authentic experiences. Developed in consultation with specialists in traditional Chinese medicine and master aromatherapists, each signature therapy consists of a relaxing, hands-on body massage ritual that combines the powerful effects of Eastern meridian massage with the therapeutic benefits of custom-blended essential oils, created uniquely for Mandarin Oriental. Orchestrating all of this with quiet elegance is the Mandarin’s personable manager, Cliff Atkinson, a distinguished hotelier who appears to be everywhere at once with an eagle eye and whose staff praises him even when he’s not in earshot. Atkinson has a finely-tuned inner compass (which the Chinese invented, by the way) and his touch is superb. There is simply no place like the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. Any Mandarin prince worth his salt would feel right at home here and so will you. ENTREE has given the hotel three E awards of Excellence, the only hotel in our 31-year history to receive a trio of accolades. They deserve it and you deserve to experience the extraordinary indulgent delight of a stay here. No wonder discerning international poobahs, captains of industry and fun-loving discriminating jet setters gravitate here. Rates at this time of year start at $195, a steal for the superior quality. Visit www.mandarinoriental.com/lasvegas or call (702) 590-8888.
Mandarin Oriental, Paris is a true luxury hotel located on rue Saint-Honoré just steps from the Louvre and the Place Vendome. With 99 rooms and 39 suites gleaming with Art Deco and Asian details, this is a paragon of style, luxe and warmth. If you seek calm and superior service, you will love it here. The suites are especially dramatic: some have 360-degree-views of Montmartre and are just incredible. There is no more perfect cocoon for honeymooners or high rollers wanting passion in Paris. The spa here is a haven of tranquility spread over two luxurious floors complete with a 46-foot pool. Treatments combine ancient and contemporary techniques with expert knowledge from around the world. The spa’s product line is enhanced by unique scents from French perfume house, Guerlain. Hotel guests also have access to a Turkish hammam, and a fitness center. There is haute cuisine dining at Sur Mesure (awarded two Michelin stars) and modern cuisine in Camelia, all inspired by noted chef Thierry Marx. If you long for a pastry, there is Cake Shop, which receives much fanfare. The staff is truly inspired, no doubt due to the talents of the urbane Philippe Leboeuf who is in charge of this seamless operation. Mandarin Oriental Paris is the perfect pied-à-terre for discerning travelers who expect the best. We love the interior courtyard garden, one of the most serene spots in Paris. Visit www.mandarinoriental.com/paris, 251 rue Saint-Honoré, Paris, France, +33 (0)1 70 98 78 88.
A drive to Carmel seemed in order recently and we prepared the motor car accordingly with snacks, Random House audio tapes, and cool drinks. One of our objectives was to see the Holman Ranch, the ultimate venue with a healthy dose of creature comforts. Our senses were reawakened there with endless outdoor activities and hearty healthy dining. Holman is exclusive and private—it is not open to the public but must be booked in advance for your special event. Set on 450 acres of a working cattle ranch, its historic hacienda and up-to-date cabins offer an unsurpassed experience. Be sure to stop by the Ranch’s tasting room in the Carmel Valley and taste their full-bodied Pinot Noir, their light, fruity Pinot Gris and their lightly oaked, food-friendly Chardonnay. Tucked away in the rolling hills of Carmel Valley, historic Holman Ranch provides a unique and memorable setting for weddings, special events, family gatherings, corporate retreats, and team-building events. With charming gardens, stunning mountain views and serenity, this private estate affords old-world charm while providing modern day conveniences. This stunning Property includes a fully restored stone hacienda, overnight guest rooms, vineyards, olive grove, horse stables and more. Holman Ranch can be found at www.holmanranch.com and its new Tasting Room in Carmel Valley is located at 19 E. Carmel Valley Road. Suite C. Headquarters for us was the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa, where we found plenty to do including Pebble Beach Company’s championship Del Monte Golf Course. Guests of Hyatt are welcome to enjoy a swim in one of the two heated outdoor pools or the amazing treatments at Accista Spa. Another popular destination of the hotel is TusCA Ristorante, where we dined well in a casual atmosphere. Visit www.monterey.hyatt.com. Where else did we eat? We enjoyed a wild taste of Spain in Carmel at Mundaka Restaurant. Mundaka is located in a small charming courtyard off a side street in downtown Carmel, and is named after the province of Biscay, a community of the Basque Country in northern Spain. As if we were exported to the coast of Spain, Mundaka was full of dance, laughter, music, and locally-grown produce, fish, meats and cheeses. This is surely the place to land if you are tired of the walking the more touristy streets of downtown. Greeted by charming waiters, the owners and the chef, we took a seat to music being played by a local DJ. We felt like we were in the hip cities of Barcelona or Madrid, and delightful smells from the kitchen filled the air. Mundaka is an intimate culinary experience decorated with the crafts of Spanish culture, with a small stand-up bar. Extraordinary wine from the wild grapes of the Canary Islands was poured. The delightful chef-owner, Brandon Miller, greeted the many locals who came to drink, dance and enjoy the tastes of regional cuisine and culture. Mundaka’s menu states the following with respect to the type of cuisine you can expect: “fresh, local, organic, biodynamic, free-range, line-caught, sustainable, fair-trade, homemade, from scratch. NO: antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, artificial anything.” Changes to the menu occur during the week to reflect seasonal variety of the food grown in Monterey County and harvested from the Monterey Bay. The menu has its own vernacular that speaks to the spices of the Mediterranean. The Paella Valenciana “che” with traditional saffron rice and seafood paella (that included farmed clams from Washington and regionally-caught ridgeback shrimp) was served as our main course, and was delicious. We also ordered tapas that included a delicious wild arugula, braised pepper, and boiled egg salad with Basque cheese and “ugly” (heirloom) tomatoes with homemade mozzarella cheese and fried garbanzo beans. In the greater context of the central coast, Mundaka captures a unique dining experience with an atmosphere that includes the smells and tastes of an exported Basque countryside. The authentic menu and the charming atmosphere is a rare find that is worth a visit and exploration. Don’t be surprised if you are dancing in your seat with the music and joy that comes with a beautifully prepared meal. We also were delirious at Fandango Restaurant. Fandango is a very special old-style European-style restaurant situated in the historic downtown of Pacific Grove. Pierre Bain, the restaurant owner and proprietor, is a truly charming European host, who has overseen the cuisine and every detail of the restaurant with his dazzling beauty of a wife for over 20 years. Pierre was born in Provence at the Hotel Bain in Comps-sur-Artuby, the inn his family has owned and operated since 1737. His French background shines thorough in every aspect of Fandango, from the abundant fresh flowers, to an impressive wine collection of over 1800 varieties. The décor feels as though you are in France, with a soft breeze of the Mediterranean. We decided to try Sunday brunch at Fandango, and were not disappointed. The “Filet Mignon Fandango,” with broiled medallions of beef topped by two perfectly poached eggs, béarnaise sauce, vegetables & potatoes, was delightful. We also feasted on a rare delicacy: wild abalone, prepared with a lemon caper sauce, lightly breaded. A specialty dish at Fandango, this is something worth trying. Each dish came with lovingly prepared vegetables and roasted potatoes. We will be back, hopefully for dinner the next time. If you are staying in Carmel or Monterey, Fandango should be a destination. Next issue we will tell you about two more of our Carmel restaurant favorites: the extraordinary creative Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel and fine coastal cuisine at Grasings.
The Dali Lama, who visited the Scottish Highlands recently, was quoted as saying this stunning area was surely “God’s Country.” We could not agree more. ENTREE has been a regular visitor to Scotland over the years and each time we return it seems more inviting. This is a magical land of immense natural beauty where the scenery is breathtaking and the many activities and attractions are as exciting as the landscape. One way to visit the Highlands is to rent a car in either Edinburgh or Glasgow and start driving north. While this method has some advantages, it’s not for the timid or faint of heart. Driving on the left-hand side of the road at high speed on narrow country roads with inches to spare from oncoming traffic is a test of nerves. The drive has been described by some as a prolonged near-death experience. We have a much better idea, The Royal Scotsman train. This is one of the most beautiful trains ever built and is still the standard for luxurious train travel. Think of it as the Orient-Express in tartans. This train has the intimacy and style of an Edwardian country house on rails. Composed of nine vintage cars painted a deep maroon, the train welcomes passengers on board with a highland piper wailing at Edinburgh’s Waverly Station. When first entering, passengers find that the train is both cozy in some areas and expansive in others. Compartments are intimate and lavishly paneled and decorated in rich Edwardian hues. The Royal Scotsman carries a maximum of thirty-six passengers which ensures everyone plenty of room. The train is berthed at night so you will sleep especially well. Each day, there are excursions which might include a trip to the Strathisla Whisky Distillery, or an afternoon skeet shooting, fly fishing, or hiking at The Rothiemurchus Estate. There is the occasional formal night where either tuxedos or formal kilts are worn. These are never stuffy occasions, just a lot of fun. The food service is exceptional and comes from a space just big enough for the two chefs to stand side by side. Dining is an elegant production. Meals are multi-course, candlelight affairs, prepared with the finest local ingredients: Scottish salmon, Angus beef, scallops, langoustines. Wines are paired with the various courses. Dinner is served in the two charming dining cars, one of which was Winston Churchill’s book-lined personal railway carriage. The tables are laid with white linen, bone china, silverware and crystal glasses. In the morning, there is a feast of fruit, porridge (with a lot of Scotch whisky), eggs, kippers, and fresh baked goods. We delighted in the time we spent relaxing in the lounge car and the observation car, the only such car with an open-air viewing platform to enjoy the passing sights. Here you can just do as you wish...read, chat with companions, sample the huge collection of single malt whiskies or just gaze out the windows. A few nights are just not enough on this grand train. If time and budget allow, combine two of the itineraries into an eight-day journey. The cost of the tour includes everything except well-earned gratuities to the train staff. Traveling by rail may no longer be the most practical of options but it can be the best way to experience the essence of an exotic place. If one of the most beautiful trains ever built moving through one of the most broodingly dramatic landscapes in the world strikes your fancy, then why not hop aboard? Visit www.royalscotsman.com for particulars and tour pricing.