Iceland- An Adventure in the Land of Fire and Ice

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My husband, 10-year-old son and I visited Iceland for 4 marvelous days this October.  The flight from JFK is very simple with limited customs and immigration hassle upon arrival.  At 5 1/2 hours fly time the flight is a bit shorter (yes you heard right) than you might like as it really doesn’t offer enough time to get a good night’s sleep.  Saying that, the time change is only 4 hours, so we adjusted after the first day.   I recommend visiting Iceland between the months of April to October as during winter months there is limited day light.   I might also recommend staying away from June to August if you can, as this is PEAK PEAK season and can get busy but also has the upside of extended daylight hours which allows for more time to see the sights. April, May, September and October might be the best months to travel.   I have created for my clients a detailed day by day itinerary including hotel reservations at the newest and best located hotels and links to pre book tours (which do sell out) to ensure your trip is perfectly planned. Please reach out to me if you are interested in having me plan your adventure.

The entire country has a population of only 330,000 people with about 40% of the population in Reykjavik and an expanse of scenery to be seen.  Reykjavik is a beautiful and vibrant little city with lots of interesting restaurants, coffee shops, shopping and interesting architecture.  Most of the new downtown hotels are walking distance from restaurants so no need for taxis.  I strongly recommend renting a car and self-driving if you want to truly explore and see the country.  It is very easy to get around, the roads are excellent, and everything is well signed and combined with google map’s getting around is simple.  If you hate to drive you might investigate a private car and driver or tours that will pick up at your hotel however that will come at a premium cost. I would not recommend the larger bus tours.

Our first day we landed around 6:00 am and picked up our car rental. From there we drove about 30 minutes to The Blue Lagoon, a massive thermal outdoor bath.  It’s a great way to “ease” into your Iceland Adventure and arriving early to beat the rush worked out well especially since our hotel check in time was later in the day.  We spent the remainder of day 1 exploring Reykjavik.

Day 2 was up early for a drive called the “Golden Circle” which as implied is a driving tour that goes in a big circle and hits a half dozen prominent waterfalls/geysers/historical sites with a myriad of stops on the way with crazy scenery.  On that point, be sure to take a decent camera as the photo ops are unlike anything you may see again in your lifetime.  The total drive time is around 4 to 5 hours (all beautiful scenery) plus whatever time you spend at the various sites.

Our day 3 and 4 was an exploration outside the city with overnights to Vik and Jokarlsalon with a glacier hike and stops at along the way of numerous beautiful natural sights.

There is no shortage of things to see and do in Iceland and if you google “tours in Iceland” there are hundreds of options for walks, climbs, snowmobile, back country jeep tours, plane rides, lagoon tours by boat etc. and it can become overwhelming.  I would recommend a glacier hike, the lava tubes, and a zodiac tour at the Jokulsarlon Glacier all educational and interesting.  We also heard great things about snowmobiling on the glacier however it didn’t fit into our action packed schedule.   Some of the more popular tours require a bit of pre planning as Iceland has become a popular destination and these tours do book out in advance.

The only drawback of Iceland is the sticker shock for food and tours.  Restaurant pricing can be upwards of 50% more than NYC pricing…although there is no tipping expected.  Saying that, Iceland can be taken in with a 3 to 5 night stay, so your wallet only opens for about 8 or 10 meals.   Most of the hotels include buffet breakfast in the room rate.   On a separate note, the quality of the food in Iceland far exceeded my expectations this time around. This is my third visit to Iceland (15 and 30 years prior) and the quality and variety of food options has changed dramatically in a very positive way.

When packing make sure to take good hiking boots, a pair of sturdy runners and layers of clothing including a top rain/wind layer.  Rain gear is a must.  The sun comes and goes, and you layer up and delayer as the day progresses.  No Gucci loafers or Channel handbags in Reykjavik!  You don’t need much but you do need the right stuff if you are getting out into the landscape.

We loved Iceland.  The people couldn’t be nicer, everyone speaks perfect English, and the scenery is off the charts breathtaking.  This is a fantastic highly recommend family adventure.   I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with a short excursion to this country.

 

 

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The Ritz Arts Barcelona – Now I know what all the fan fare is about

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In short, I would highly recommend the Hotel Arts (as the locals call it).  The rooms are generous in size, very nicely appointed with large bathrooms and top end linens and bath products.  If you are a family traveling I would certainly recommend this property due to the larger size one and two bedroom suites which you can reserve for a reasonable rate if booked in advance.   The rooms have spectacular city and/or ocean views and while we had a majestic ocean view it would not be a hardship to overlook the city of Barcelona, particularly as you can view down the expansive boulevards.   Personally, I thought that the city view was more interesting than the sea view and comes at a better price point.

Breakfasts were indulging and are included if booked through Protravel and there is both indoor and outdoor sitting.   The swimming pool is on the 2nd floor rooftop overlooking the beach and sea and proved a great mid -afternoon hangout in between our morning and late afternoon or evening tourist excursions (especially if you are traveling with children).  The hotel has a good gym with cardio and free weights in addition to a well-regarded Spa.

The Hotel Arts has everything you would expect from a top luxury hotel with excellent service.  At all the common areas of the hotel there was an abundance of staff helping with check in, bags, taxis and directions.  We never felt we had to chase down information as it was always in front of us.

 

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San Sebastian – Your Next Destination when visiting Spain

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San Sebastian, Spain a great destination for walking, dining, surfing and shopping.

I recently spent 4 nights at the end of August in San Sebastian.  The town is tucked in the North West Corner of Spain roughly and hour south of the French border.  The terrain is semi mountainous yet set against the ocean so both the topography and architecture were unique from much of other destinations in Spain.   We originally decided to visit this city to experience the amazing dining that they are known for however we were taken away by the beauty of the landscape, the old world feel for the town and the great beaches.

Dining options are endless and there are a host of Michelin rated restaurants with both local and fusion cuisines.  Needless to say, if you are a “foodie” you probably know about San Sebastian.  This is a must visit destination for anyone driven by cuisine and particularly if you have an adventurous palate.  (Pigs feet, boars ear, sardine prepped 20 different ways, spider crab pies….it’s all there).  They also have Pizza, burgers, sushi, pasta and more mainstream dishes beautifully prepared if you are not so adventurous.   One of the best experiences we had was doing a walking food tour where you stop in various restaurant/bars for a small tasting portion called De Pintxos paired with a glass of wine.  There are a number of tours and guides that help tune you in to the best offerings at each place.  It’s a fun and interesting way to dine and I suggest you do it early in your trip as you may just dine that way each and every night.

We sort of heard about surfing in San Sebastian before we arrived but it is a bigger component of the local vibe than we thought.  There are dozens of surf schools (very affordable) with waves for all levels of surfers.  My 10 year old son took three days of 90 minute private surf lessons (70 Euro for the session) and was catching waves and getting up within a half hour of his first lesson.   The school generously allowed him to sign out a board and wet suit for free when he was not working with their instructors.   The beaches are expansive but unlike most other destinations in Spain don’t really offer lounge chair and umbrella rental.  But don’t let that deter you from a day at the beach.

All in all San Sebastian exceeded my expectations and I highly recommend as a “go to” destination when considering Spain.

 

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Maria Cristina is the “Go To” hotel in San Sebastian

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The Maria Christina is a landmark property set one block from the old city and one block from the beach so the location could not be better.  A large luxury hotel traditionally styled with all the big hotel amenities that you would require such as concierge desk, valet parking, small gym, good internet service.  The rooms are typical European traditional décor and the bathrooms are large and well appointed with great products.  Our room had the largest king size bed I have ever seen and a nice view overlooking the town and a large courtyard.

Since San Sebastian Spain is a large “foody” destination having the concierge desk to help with reservations and dining ideas was a big plus.   (Read my separate entry on San Sebastian for more details on dinning and things to do).  We ate breakfasts only at the hotel and the service, food quality and venue were all excellent.   Maria Christina is the” go to” hotel for luxury travelers to San Sebastian and certainly deserving of their strong reputation.  SPAIN

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Four Seasons Nevis- Sneak Peek New Rooms

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My family spent 3 days on the island of Nevis at the Four Seasons Resort.   The resort is situated on a very long stretch of beach and most of the resort’s rooms face the water and also due west which allowed us to enjoy the most beautiful sunsets every evening.  All the rooms had a small balcony or outdoor space with lounge chairs and a table and chairs.  The setting certainly takes advantage of the great beach and sunset views.  The rooms themselves (more on this below) are nicely sized with large bathroom space and a small seating area which included a pull out sofa.  Linens and toiletries were in keeping with Four Season’s high standards.   Luckily, the resort and island were spared in the recent hurricanes of 2017.

The beach has shallow water with virtually no waves, perfect for young kids.  This hotel has a ton to offer when it comes to keeping kids entertained.   Just 50 yards from shore was a large bouncy tube/trampoline were my 10 year old spent about 3 hours per day.  The hotel supplies water toys, kayaks, paddle boards, snorkel gear and there was a boat for hire for excursions, tubing, fishing and additional snorkeling and jet skis for hire.  There is certainly no lack of entertainment by the water, that is for sure.   For those not traveling with kids, no worries as the property has a beautiful ADULT only infinity edge pool located right on the beach where serenity can be found!

There is a large well equipped gym and spa.  If you enjoy tennis, you will certainly not be disappointed as you will find many tennis courts (including clay, grass and asphalt) and to boot……the property also has an 18 hole golf course on site.

I had the privilege of being one of the first to get a “sneak peek” preview of the new room upgrades coming very soon (completed by end of 2018).  The new rooms are contemporary, bright, clean and extremely functional.   These upgrades that are about to take place will bring the resort into the standard that matches the majestic location the property enjoys.    I did also preview the Pinney Beach villas which are gorgeous 3 bedroom contemporary villas each with their own private pool and yard and located on the beach at the hotel.

And I should not forget to mention….I can’t say enough nice things about the people of Nevis, service here is always with a smile.   They could not have been more accommodating or nicer.

 

 

 

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Park Hyatt St Kitts- Get there before the Secret is Out

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My family had the pleasure of a 4 day stay at the brand new Park Hyatt in St Kitts.  On almost every level this was one of our better Caribbean beach vacations in recent memory.  As a starter the island of St. Kitts itself is beautiful, very well maintained,  and the people could not be friendlier.  The island was luckily spared in the recent devastating hurricanes of 2017.  The terrain is relatively hilly presenting lots of splendid landscapes.  The hotel was situated against a horseshoe shaped hill with roughly a half mile of uninterrupted beach sprawled before it facing the island of Nevis.

The hotel rooms were a series of mid sized buildings that housed about 6 rooms rooms, all with ocean views and a short walk to all the amenities.  The rooms have a beachy chic vibe with mahogany floors, white washed shiplap walls and relaxed furniture with a splash of trendy shapes and colors mixed in.   Each room had 10 feet floor to ceiling windows covering almost the entire ocean side giving you un-interrupted views of the beach, ocean, and the island of Nevis  just a couple miles away.  Our room (Nevis Peak Suite) had an outdoor area of roughly 1,000 square feet with a small plunge the pool, day bed, couch and seating area along with dining table and wet bar.  We spent a bit of time reading and relaxing here at the end of the day as it caught late afternoon sun.  The bathroom was very large with double vanities and a huge shower room that could fit the whole family.   Towels, bedding, toiletries and amenities were all top shelf.   I can’t imagine the most discerning traveler being disappointed with the décor and/or amenities.  Indoors we had a nice closet area (however they could have used a couple more drawers) and a lounge area with a couch, chairs, coffee table and a small dinning table for 3 or 4 which works equally well as a work station.   Rooms were great.

There were 3 restaurants each with varying menus and themes.  The décor at each restaurant, including the adjacent bar spaces, found the perfect balance of trendy and warmth that made me want to hire the decorator for a visit to my home.  Nothing chintzy here, all the furniture, linens, table and glassware were ultra high end.  It also helps that everything is spanking brand new.  As for the food, I would say that The Stone Barn which is an adult’s only restaurant would stack up with many of the fine eateries in NYC…and that says a lot.   The other two restaurants, Fisherman’s Village and Great House were nearly equal to Stone Barn for food quality and would certainly have rated 9/10 for the menu and food.  On a couple of occasions we asked to Raoul (the chef) to go off script he was open to accommodating any requests and we did a number of substitutions to the menu to tailor our dining experience.  Service at the resort was solid on most fronts and would certainly get an 8/10 but we did note a couple small lapses but nothing that really affected our stay and more likely just the mind set of “Caribbean service” vs. “New York service”.

The common areas include a well equipped gym, a nice spa a huge family pool which is almost like a big lagoon (probably an acre of just pool) with a multitude of loungers and chairs nearby.  Umbrellas were plentiful and there were a few large day beds for ultra-zen around the perimeter of the pool.   There was a recreation shack area near the beach that offered free kayaks, paddle boards, snorkeling gear, games and kites for kids and adults of all ages.   There was also a very quiet adult only pool (which we never used) that looked very chill.

If you want to get off the resort taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced.  There are a few “toes in the sand” local restaurants and bars that were pretty good dinning as well as a couple restaurants that would have been more “fine dinning” in nature although at any venue shorts, t-shirts and flip flops seemed acceptable.  I definitely recommend Salt Plage for a sunset drinks and appetizers and The Pavilion for dinner which were just 5 minutes taxi ride from hotel.  Spice Mill (which is a 10 minute walk) is very casual, cheap and cheerful dinning with good food and service.  Again, I can’t overemphasis how nice all the people are on the island..very outgoing, jovial and always smiling.

Park Hyatt, St Kitts was an amazing place and I would highly recommend for families and/or couples.   Both the property and the food were absolutely fantastic.    If you have questions about specific room categories please feel free to reach out to me as I toured all the various rooms.

Oh ya, and take the kids zip lining it’s a great way to spend a half a morning.

 

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Tuscany, Amalfi, Sicily, Sardinia, been there done that? Looking for your next Italian destination? Head to the “heel of the boot”.

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The opening of Borgo Egnazia in 2012 has put the region of Puglia on the map.  Puglia makes up the area that is considered the heel of the boot.

Borgo Egnazia is a large five star luxury resort located in a small town called Silvestrano about one hour south of Bari.  The property was built from the ground up.  The buildings are made of local stone and the resort was designed and built to mimic a typical village in Puglia.  Borgo means “village” in Italian and the resort appears to be a village.  The décor is very Moorish with tones of whites and creams throughout the common areas and guest rooms.   The property has both rooms, suites and large villas with their own private pools if you are traveling with your family or a group.     As a result of being recently built, everything is new and modern.  The rooms all have outdoor seating, comfortable beds, large modern bathrooms and impressive amount of closet and storage space.  Beddings, toiletries and shower pressure (you know, the basics) were to a very high standard.

What to do?

There are many reasons to go to Puglia……the beaches and beach clubs, the tomatoes, the friendly people, the grilled fish, the history, the weather, the wine, the architecture I could go on and on.

The property itself is large, complete with two beach clubs, a golf course, gym, spa, three pools, fantastic kids club, four restaurants and a few bars.  If you don’t want to leave the property you would want for little however the area has so much to offer.

Each guest is assigned an “experience manager” which is basically your own concierge.   The hotel has a myriad of “extra-curricular” activities, both complimentary and paid and both on and off the property.   From cooking classes to Pomodoro Festivals to biking in the olive groves to exploring local villages and UNESCO sites by Segway.  You can chose to keep yourself very busy or chose to just relax at the beach or pool.  The property is a great fit for both families and couples.

If you are a family, there are a number of reasons your kids will love this place….the kids club has a massive staff/kid ratio so if a kid was not playing with another kid someone was playing with your kid.  They had a diversity of activities every day and my 9 year old son could not have been happier.  The counselors and organization in the kids club could not have been better.  The resort is large (requiring golf cart shuttle) and the staff went out of their way to coordinate bringing our son to us at the beach club toward the end of the day, saving us the 10 or 15 minute shuttle back and forth to retrieve him.  The property has a unique bicycle rental shop with 4 wheel go carts that the kids explore the resort.  Great idea.

There are three common pools, two adult pools and one family pool.  In addition, the villas also have their own private pools.   All of them offer food and beverage service and are surrounded by ultra-plush padded sun loungers, something one might appreciate when spending most of the day lounging by pool or beach reading a book.   The hotel offers two beach clubs, one is a rocky, very hip club like scene with a substantial restaurant attached. The other beach club is a sandy beach with a more Zen like setting and a modest but very good food and drink service.  They are each a short shuttle from the main entrance to the property.

This is a great destination for couples, a large group and certainly for families with kids.  Service is exceptional and room quality and dinning would impress the most demanding traveler.

I would rarely write about an individual staff member but we were impressed with Sabina who is the head experience manager at the Borgo.  I joked with her that there must have been a few clones of her running around with a smile as she keeps all the balls in the air.  The staff was super attentive with a concierge assigned to help us with anything on the property or off the property.  So which beach club, restaurant or nearby town to visit was driven by great local advice and local contacts.

 

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