Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cosmopolitan Riga: ‘Paris of the Baltics’

The enchanting city of Riga, capital of Latvia and the biggest city in the Baltic States, has emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and is slowly coming into its own as a tourist destination. Situated on the south-western coast of the country, Riga is split in two by the River Daugava, and served as a major trading port and a crossroads between Western Europe and the East. The modern founding of the city dates back to the 12th century with the arrival of German traders, mercenaries and missionaries, while its older roots date back to a settlement of the ancient Finnic tribe, the Livs.

The city, and Latvia as a whole, was long caught in a tug of war between the Germans and the Russians, and suffered greatly in World War II when roughly a third of the country's population was exterminated, displaced or fled Nazi persecution. Despite this, Riga boasts a collection of exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that rival those in Vienna, Barcelona and St Petersburg, and the fairytale historic city centre is a delight to explore.

As the cultural and economic centre of the country, Riga is home to plenty of top-class museums, galleries and performing arts centres, as well as a range of sophisticated bars, clubs and restaurants. The city is fast gaining a reputation as a party capital, and its vibrant nightlife draws hundreds of weekenders from all over Europe.

For a more traditional Latvian experience, it is well worth braving the winter cold to enjoy a spot of ice fishing, ice skating on the frozen Daugava River or a pirt, a rigorous sauna that involves being beaten with dried birch branches. With over 800 years of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed historic city centre and a modern buzz, Riga remains a largely undiscovered gem with plenty to delight and enchant the visitor.


Riga Castle
Riga Castle (or Riga pils) was built in 1330 on the site of the original settlement of the city, as a residence for the master of the Livonian Order, and later it served as the base for the city's occupiers throughout its history. The distinctive yellow castle was destroyed and rebuilt over time and today it serves as the offices and home of the Latvian president, as well as the Latvian Museum of Foreign Art and the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History. The castle is strategically placed on the banks of the Daugava, originally in order to oversee all ships entering the city's port, and has four towers and an inner courtyard.

Dom Cathedral
Dating back to 1211, the red brick Dom (or Dome) Protestant Cathedral is a highlight of the historic centre of Riga. The cathedral is situated near the Western Daugava River and boasts an incredible organ with over 6,500 pipes built in 1844, stained glass windows and a beautifully whitewashed interior. There are regular concerts held on the organ, and the cathedral also has its own boy's choir that gives regular performances.


Open Air Ethnographic Museum
The Open Air Ethnographic Museum is a fascinating reflection of the traditional Latvian way of life. Set on 247 acres (100ha), the museum consists of farmhouses, fishing villages, windmills and other historic buildings that have been relocated here to create an outdoor exhibit. Visitors can watch craftsmen at work, sample traditional Latvian cooking and ales, and learn more about the history of the country.

 Craftswoman sewing Latvian ornaments.

Central Market
One of the oldest and biggest of its kind, Riga's Central Market dates back to 1201 and is a riot of sounds, sights and smells. Anything from fresh fruits, cheeses, and whole sheep carcasses, to appliances, clothing and CDs are on offer, usually at very reasonable prices. The market was moved from its original home and relocated several times, but since the 1930s has occupied the same space in several World War I hangars, close to the bus and train stations. There is room for over 1,000 vendors, and no visit to Riga is complete without a stroll through its tantalising stalls.

 Riga city central market hangars.

Art Nouveau architecture
Riga is the world's best preserved open-air museum of Art Nouveau (also known as Jugendstil) architecture which dates from the early 20th century. The style is characterised by unusual shapes, curved and organic arches, gargoyles, and flamboyant cornices. Over 30 percent of central Riga's buildings were created in this style, many supervised by famous Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The best streets to view buildings on are Elisebetes, Strelnieku and Albert.

Motor Museum
Europe's finest motor museum is tucked away on the outskirts of town and makes for an essential outing if you enjoy classical cars and Soviet history. The museum contains Molotov's limousine, Stalin's bombproof sedan, the wreck of Brezhnev's car in which he crashed. The model dummies in the vehicles are a nice touch. There is a priceless collection of classic sports cars and motorcycles - irresistibly photogenic for petrol heads.



The Museum of the Occupation of Riga
Latvia was occupied from 1949 to 1991 by two successive regimes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This well curated museum conveys what life was like during this time, and serves as a memorial to those who died or fled as a result of the occupation. Visitors can view film archives and see a reconstruction of life in the infamous Siberian labour camps.



Monday, April 29, 2013

The Island of Eternal Spring, Tenerife Spain

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands with an area of 2034km² and is located about 290km off the coast of Africa. The island offers a tremendous diversity of landscapes and micro-climates; the green and forested north contrasts with the arid south coast, while the high altitude interior is often 
compared to the surface of the moon. 

These factors along with year-round sunshine and a well-developed tourist infrastructure go some to explain why this is the most popular Island in the Canaries, attracting up to 4.5 million visitors per year. 

Most people think of the Playa de las Americas resort and its busy nightlife, when they think of Tenerife, but the Island has so much more to offer. Teide, Spain's highest mountain at 3718m, is often covered in snow while tourists lie on the beach on the south coast. The mountain overlooks the spectacular Cañadas del Teide Caldera - a 17km diameter volcanic crater. 

The northern part of the Island with its forests and greenery is in stark contrast to the dry south and offers great hillwalking and spectacular drives.

The neighbouring cities of Santa Cruz and La Laguna are full of beautiful colonial buildings as well as paved streets with open air cafes. La Laguna is home to the university of the same name and has been a centre of learning since the early 18th century, while Santa Cruz's annual Carnival is the second biggest in the world (after Rio de Janeiro).

Dutch Treat

The Caribbean island of Curaçao holds an appeal that goes beyond stellar snorkeling and diving opportunities. There’s a rich history and cultural lesson that isn’t to be missed.

The Tree House Mansion Terrace
The 171-square-mile island of Curaçao, in the southern Caribbean Sea off the Venezuelan coast, is the largest and most populous of the three ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) of the Lesser Antilles—or specifically, the Leeward Antilles. Like Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is geographically part of South America, but is also considered to be part of West Indies and one of the Leeward Antilles. Confused? Don’t be. All that matters is that you have a valid passport and can get there, and once you do, you’ll understand why.
Close to 40 beaches with amazing coral reefs and diving spots on its calm southern coast make Curaçao feel like one of those Caribbean islands that one imagines when dreaming of an island getaway. The sea floor here drops steeply within a few hundred feet of the shore—this is known as “the blue edge”—and the reef can easily be reached without a boat, meaning beachgoers can walk a few steps from the comfort of their beach chairs to the water’s edge, don their scuba gear and get busy. (Strong currents and lack of beaches make the rocky northern coast dangerous for swimming and diving, but make for fantastic photo ops.) The country’s semiarid climate makes it comfortable, with relatively constant temperatures that average out at 88 degrees, so it lives up to the Caribbean’s reputation as a balmy place to be. Delicious tradewinds help cool down warm daytime temps and warm cooler temps at night. The shape of the island is often said to resemble that of a “bikini top,” because of its two distinctive sides.
That’s the islandy part of the Curaçao experience. But there’s much more available than sunning and swimming to the inquisitive visitor, most notably in the form of a rich and colorful history.

The colorful historic buildings of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital
Willemstad, which was originally founded as Santa Ana by the Spanish in the 1500s and renamed in the 17th century by Dutch traders, is Curaçao’s capital. Compact and bustling, it’s alive with local color of both the literal and figurative kind. Historic pastel-colored buildings line up like crayons in a Crayola box, as breathtaking to view by night, when they are lit up and visible across Saint Anna Bay, which runs through the heart of the capital, as they are in the light of day. The pedestrian-only Queen Emma bridge, a pontoon bridge, opens approximately every 30 minutes to allow boats to pass through, as ship repair is the main industry here.
The lobby at the Lodge Kura Hulanda

Guestrooms at night at Hotel Kura Hulanda
Downtown Willemstad has two central districts on either bank of the bay. There’s Punda—which is Papiamentu, the native language here, for “The Point”—and Otrabanda, or “the other bank” in Papiamentu. Punda is the east and oldest part of town, while Otrabanda on the west, home to Rif Fort, which was run by the U.S. Army during World War II, is home to high-end retail stores, restaurants and a casino. The Dutch heritage is evident everywhere, and should be embraced, especially when taking meals. Indulge in local specialties like keshi yena, a traditional baked dish that marries spicy shredded chicken, dates, raisins, olives and melted Gouda cheese, or tu tu, local polenta with beans. More adventurous types may want to go for the iguana soup or goat stew. Purists who prefer to go for what they know should make it their business to be in Curaçao on a Friday night and get an in-the-know local to take them to Equus. Open only on Friday nights, this barbecue spot is on the premises of a horse trainer’s ranch; he personally oversees the cooking to perfection of giant skewers of beef and chicken, which are then hung overhead before guests, who yank off the juicy chunks with their hands (no silverware here) and bliss out. The meat is served with heaps of crusty bread and an indescribably delectable garlic sauce for dipping, and buckets of ice-cold beer or wine. The vibe is cozy and rustic, with a lively bar, flatscreens and excellent tunes wafting through.

A view of one of the villas at the Lodge Kura Hulanda
Where to stay if you go…
Kura Hulanda Resorts has something for every traveler’s interest, and that’s because it comprises two properties—the Hotel Kura Hulanda, and Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club. Hotel Kura Hulanda, located in downtown Willemstad, is an 80-room boutique resort that was restored from 18th- and 19th-century Dutch Colonial Caribbean former residences, and no two rooms are alike. Like a little town unto itself, winding cobblestone walkways lead guests to their rooms; a center courtyard with umbrella-shaded seating is the perfect place to congregate for meals, enjoy an after-dinner drink with friends, or get a little work done on the laptop as birds swoop down and vie for your attention(and the sugar packets off your table). A spa and a fitness center are at your disposal, as are gift shops and the Museum Kura Hulanda (see sidebar), which are both on the premises.
Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club—and by the way, there is a complimentary scheduled shuttle service between the two properties, which are a 45-minute drive apart—is a different world. A beachfront getaway on the island’s west end, it offers 74 villas, suites and guestrooms, and most remarkably, a treehouse mansion that must be seen to be believed. Most notable here is the diving, as there is a magnificent natural reef located just off the beach (an on-site dive shop offers snorkeling and scuba gear and paddleboats). Hang by the pool, tuck into some lunch or a cocktail (two of note: the Wiki Wacki Woo and the Beach Bum, both of which will, shall we say, relax you for several hours at a time), take in a massage, but whatever you choose to do, it will be some form of chilling.

Between the Sun and the Fun
Visit the Museum Kura Hulanda for a true understanding of this island’s fascinating history.
Kura Hulanda owner Jacob Dekker has a passion for Curaçao and a fascination for its history, as evidenced by the investment he has made in the country and in telling its story. His quest to share, with no detail spared, is evident in the Museum Kura Hulanda, which focuses on the predominant cultures of Curaçao, highlighting the African slave trade through 10 exhibits, along with West African and Antillean art and more. It’s been called “quite daring,” as it deals frankly with the complex history of the island’s slave trade and colonization (indeed, we were warned by our guide that experiencing it would be “heavy” and to be prepared to be stunned by items in the museum, such as KKK robes stained with blood). In the 16th century, upon the request of Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas of Chiapas to replace the native Caribbeans—who, because they were less hardy as laborers and often became so sick and physically broken down that many chose suicide over the fate of slavery—with more “durable” African slaves, King Charles V gave the green light to transport slaves from Africa. Eventually, in the 17th century, Curaçao became a center of the slave trade, and it’s believed by many historians that there was a slave depot in the area where the Museum Kura Hulanda now stands. It’s on the grounds of Hotel Kura Hulanda.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

From your balcony, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge Orlando FL

Step into the heart of Africa at this magnificent Resort hotel.
It's the thrill of staying at a wildlife reserve with animals grazing just beyond your balcony. Rejuvenate both body and spirit in luxurious surroundings while sharing the grandeur of the African wilderness. The beauty of the savannah, the rhythm of tribal drums, exquisite cuisine in lush settings and the lure of authentic African treasures all come together to celebrate the beauty and wonder of this vast and untamed continent. Resort features 1,293 guest rooms, pool with slide and zero-depth entry, two spas, kiddie pool, arcade, playground, children's activity center, animal programs and a health club with spa services. Rooms are available for guests with disabilities.

       What Makes This Resort Unique

The Uzima Pool area at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, lit up at night 

Pool with Waterslide

Escape to an 11,000-square-foot pool with an exciting waterslide and gently sloping, zero-depth entry point similar to that of a natural watering hole. Surrounded by large canopy trees and Floridian palms, Uzima Pool includes a children’s wading pool and 2 whirlpool spas.

The dining room of Jiko – The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

Award-Winning Dining

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge serves award-winning, African-inspired specialties and classic American favorites for breakfast, lunch and dinner, amid a lush, wildlife preserve.

Two giraffes graze in the morning sun at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

Exotic Animals

Discover over 30 species of African wildlife, including zebras, giraffes, gazelles, kudu and flamingos. Identify each species with a Wildlife Field Guide (found in your Guest Room, with extras available from the Lobby Concierge), and learn more about African animals and ecosystems during fun programs led by Animal Specialists.
A Disney Cast Member holding a plush pelican as another Cast Member interacts with 3 kids

Supervised Children’s Activity Center

At Simba’s Clubhouse, kids 3 to 12 years of age can play games, have dinner and snacks, make crafts, watch Disney movies and make new friends—while parents enjoy an evening to themselves.

Munich, Germany

The Bavarian city of Munich, centre of southern Germany, is one of the country's favourite tourist destinations, offering a unique combination of modern flair and traditional charm, all mixed together with a heavy helping of 'Gemutlichkeit', the special German term for hearty, happy, healthy togetherness.

Traditionally the city, famous for its breweries and beer halls, conjures up images of jolly red-cheeked, portly men in lederhosen, downing steins of beer. There is plenty of this fun to be had, but Munich and the Bavarian region has plenty more to recommend it to visitors. The city has numerous great museums, art treasures, hi-tech industries and gems of Gothic and Baroque architecture. It is also the gateway to the Bavarian Alps, drawing winter sports enthusiasts from near and far.

Munich itself was founded in 1158 on the River Isar, and acquired its name, Munchen (home of the monks) from its first monastery. It was the monks that started the beer brewing tradition for which the city is now world famous, particularly since it started celebrating an annual beer festival in 1810. Today close on six million people visit the Oktoberfest every year, and consume more than five and a half million litres of beer during its two-week run.


Olympia Park
Munich's massive Olympic park complex was constructed for the 20th Olympic Games in 1972, but remains a marvel of modern engineering. Its main stadium is a like a massive tent, which can seat close on 70,000 spectators, topped by the largest roof in the world, extending for 720,000 square feet (66,890 sq metres) and made of tinted acrylic glass. The roof collects rainwater which is used to fill the adjacent Olympic lake. Tent roof tours (with or without an abseiling option) are on offer. Visitors to the site can enjoy a spectacular view from the revolving restaurant and observation terrace which tops the 950-foot (290m) high Olympic Tower. Near the tower is the BMW Museum, which displays the history of Germany's famous automobile manufacturer. Far from being a remarkable 'white elephant', the park is still in constant use as a lively leisure and recreational centre for the city; on more than 200 days of the year it is the venue for rock and pop concerts, sports events, exhibitions and trade fairs.

Alte Pinakothek
Munich's art museum houses one of the most important collections in Europe on two floors of a large neo-classical building. Nearly 1,000 paintings are on display featuring the work of the greatest European artists from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Highlights include works by Dutch and Flemish masters, as well as the Italian masters such as Botticelli and Titian. The gallery is massive, consisting of dozens of rooms, and requires a great deal of time to explore thoroughly.

One of the most beautiful lakes in the Bavarian Alps, Chiemsee boasts two islands and is lined with resorts. It can be reached by train from Munich in an hour, or by road via the A8 Autobahn. Visitors can take a steamer cruise around the lake from Prien on the west shore to explore the islands in the lake. Frauenchiemsee is the smaller island, site of a quaint fishing village with some colourful traditional customs, and a Benedictine nunnery known for its liqueur. The larger island, Herrenchiemsee, bears one of King Ludwig's famous fairytale castles. This one was never completed, but was intended to be a replica of the palace of Versailles. The centre of the palace still stands, complete with a splendid hall of mirrors and surrounded by gardens and woodland. It is an extremely popular tourist attraction with its gaudy splendour.

Romantic Road
To experience the best of medieval Germany, hundreds of visitors drive, bus or cycle their way along the Romantic Road, a 180-mile (290km) route between Munich and Frankfurt that links together a string of quaint, well-preserved walled towns dating back a thousand years or more. The towns en route have banded together to market their attractions and ensure Romantic Road travellers are well informed and accommodated. Bicycles can be rented at any train station along the road, and tourist offices along the route provide maps and information. Best known of the towns on the Romantic Road is Rothenburg in the Tauber River Valley. Other favourites among the cute towns are Dinkelsbuhl and Nordlingen.

The name Berchtesgaden is most closely associated with Adolf Hitler's country house, but it is in fact a delightful Bavarian alpine village with ancient winding streets and a medieval marketplace, popular as a side trip from Munich. Hitler's holiday house, the Berghof, is actually at Obersalzberg about half a mile (2km) up the Kehlstein Mountain. Afternoon bus tours to the Fuhrer's playground can be undertaken from the tourist office in the village, but there is little to see besides some underground bunkers which are open to the public. Most tourists, however, do delight in visiting the Kehlsteinhaus or Eagle's Nest, a remarkable building perched precariously atop the mountain, which was originally commissioned by Martin Bormann as a 50th birthday present for Hitler. The notorious Nazi leader seldom visited it because of his fear of heights. Today it is the site of an excellent Bavarian restaurant and provides breathtaking views at the end of a stunning winding mountain road. The town of Berchtesgaden itself has some interesting attractions, besides its 16th-century architecture and enticing inns. There is a small wood-carving museum at Schloss Aldelsheim which can be viewed on a guided tour offered on weekdays at 10am and 3pm. Wood sculptures, Renaissance furniture and some art works are worth seeing at the Konigliches Schloss, which was originally an Augustinian monastery. The most fun to be had, however, is in the salt mines to the east of the town, which offers guided tours. Visitors wear protective clothing and ride on wagons to the mine, then explore the mine on foot and ride miner's slides, finishing with a trip on the salt lake ferry. The tours run daily, all year round. The mine has been in operation since 1517. Berchtesgarten also boasts a world-class ice-skating rink, the Eisstadion, which is sought after by winter sports enthusiasts in the winter months, along with the skiing opportunities in the surrounding area.

Dachau Memorial Site
About 10 miles (16km) to the northwest of Munich on the Stuttgart Autobahn is the town of Dachau, once a quiet artists' community that became the site of the first notorious Nazi 'death camp', where thousands of perceived enemies of the Third Reich were imprisoned, starved, and killed between 1933 and 1945. The camp has now been turned into a memorial museum to the prisoners (67,000 were liberated alive by the US Army on April 28, 1945). The museum contains three memorial chapels. The Lagerstrasse, the main camp road, still exists lined with poplar trees but only two of the original 32 barracks that lined it remain, having been rebuilt to illustrate the conditions endured by the prisoners. The original kitchen, laundry and shower block is now a museum containing exhibits, photographs and documents depicting the persecution of Jews and other prisoners.

The fairytale castle built by King Ludwig II (known as 'Mad King Ludwig' until his death in 1886) has become the trademark of the German state of Bavaria, with its Gothic wedding-cake tiers and towers. Day tours to the castle are available from Munich, or self drive via Garmisch. From the parking lot there is a steep half-mile (one km) climb to the castle, but one can ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The interior of the castle is as extravagant as its outer aspect, particularly the King's apartments, which are decorated entirely with hand-embroidered silk, elaborate wall and ceiling paintings, and carvings.

Nymphenburg Palace
About five miles (8km) from the city centre, accessible by tram and bus, is the interesting Schloss Nymphenburg, originally a summer home for the Munich aristocracy. The palace has been expanded, altered and fitted with various eccentricities by succeeding owners over the centuries since building began on it in 1664. Today it is a delight for tourists who revel in exploring the villa and grounds. Inside there are some interesting frescoes in the main hall. An arcaded gallery features a collection of 36 provocative paintings ordered by King Ludwig I showing the most beautiful women of his day. The surrounding park has some surprises too, with some interesting pavilions hidden among the English-style gardens. There are also collections of Ludwig's elaborate coaches on display, and a porcelain museum.

The Marienplatz is the heart of Munich and the site of its most important historic buildings. The square is dominated by the Neo-Gothic Town Hall featuring its famous Glockenspiel, both built in the 19th century. The Glockenspiel delights visitors when it chimes the hours every day at 11am, 12pm and 5pm with its 43 bells, accompanied by moving clockwork figures that display vignettes from Munich's history. The Town Hall has a tower that can be accessed by a lift. The centre of the square - which was once a vibrant farmer's market - features a statue of the Virgin Mary after which Marienplatz was named. Visitors can also explore a toy museum in the Old Town Hall on the square, and the Frauenkirche, Munich's cathedral, dating from the 15th century.

Deutsches Museum
The Deutches Museum is a perfect activity for kids in Munich, giving them plenty to explore and interact with, whether the weather is nice or not. It is the world's largest technology and science museum, with roughly 28,000 artefacts on display. The museum is located on a small island in the Isar River, with additional facilities outside of Munich and in Bonn.


Munich Opera Festival
Munich - Nationaltheater

The Opera Festival is the most important event on the city's music calendar, held every summer since 1876 in one of the world's most beautiful opera houses. Enthusiasts from around the world gather to listen to the renowned Bavarian State Opera, with a programme of about 70 different performances. Two free, open-air performances are also held outside the opera house in the square.

Fasching (Carnival)
Munich - Viktualienmarkt

Marking the period before Lent, carnival season or Fasching in Munich is a time of parades, elaborate costumes, masked balls and street parties that reaches its peak on Shrove Tuesday and is when most of the festivities take place, including the traditional dance of the market women. The streets are lined with food and drink merchants and the whole city turns up at Viktualienmarkt in fancy dress costume to eat, drink and dance the night away. 


For two boozy weeks towards the end September/beginning of October each year all roads in Munich lead to the Theresienwiese, a giant grass meadow about the size of 20 football fields near the centre of the city. The occasion is the world's biggest party, the Munich Oktoberfest. The field becomes a beer-drinking city, complete with its own post office, police force and fire department, and most importantly numerous huge tents, erected by the various Bavarian breweries, that serve as massive beer halls. The first keg is tapped in ceremonial style to open the two-week celebration, which draws hundreds of thousands of revellers from all around the world. Apart from the rollicking beer halls where traditional Bavarian bands belt out their old favourites, the festival offers a host of carnival games and fun park rides, as well as stalls selling a range of German delicacies.

Munich Ballet Week
Munich - Nationaltheater and Prinzregententheater

The talents of the internationally recognised Bavarian State Ballet are exhibited every year during the week-long Ballet Festival alongside various international guest ensembles of high acclaim. Of long-standing tradition, the event encompasses modern and classical dance.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Central To Your Summer, Orlando FL

Just a short five-mile drive from Walt Disney World, a few miles more to Wet ‘n Wild, SeaWorld and Universal Orlando, lies a fabulous little village that needs to be on your must-visit list this summer. Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa, the largest of the staySky Hotels & Resorts portfolio, boasts sprawling one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom suites complete with full kitchens, private balconies, and Jacuzzi tubs—you don’t need to worry about bringing a thing except your clothes. You don’t even need to bring groceries, because an on-site convenience store is stocked with the ideal getaway items—from beer, wine and mil to bread, peanut butter, canned goods and even baby formula. Or you can always order from the Garden Grocer delivery service, which will bring your grocery order straight to you at the hotel.

Reflections-129And while the resort is located super close to all the attractions Central Florida is world-famous for, you really don’t need to leave the property to enjoy your family vacation. Shoppers can get their fix at the Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores at favorite retailers such as Nike, Gap and Izod. A zero-entry Pirate’s Plunge pool is a kid’s paradise, complete with a 61-foot-long pirate ship, water slide, hot tubs, shooting water cannons, hammocks and loungers (there’s a poolside tiki bar, Lani’s Luau, where you can score a cocktail with the kids tire themselves out). But if the joyous screams of youngsters splashing about doesn’t get you motivated, take note: there’s also a lovely, quiet, heated Relaxation Pool with lounge chairs and towels where grown-ups can chill in peace.

Another spot perfect for doing just that is Reflections Spa & Salon, where you can spend way more time than it takes to have your treatments (try the sugar scrub that dissolves into skin to moisturize rather than being washed off after it’s applied). In addition to ten treatment rooms, a hydrotherapy tub room, sauna, and salon where you can indulge in manicures, pedicures, hair treatments and facials, there’s even a special treat for little girls—the Princess Moments pre-park “royal treatment,” including an updo with rhinestone tiara, makeup, glitter, and mani-pedi.

Family Gateway in Club Med Sandpiper Bay, Port Saint Lucie Florida

When you hear the words “Club Med,” you may think of bronzed, bikini-clad bodies moving about Turks and Caicos, drinks served up in hollowed-out coconuts and steel drum music tinkling in the background. But Club Med Sandpiper Bay is a whole different story from the stereotype that’s come to define Club Meds over the past few decades.

The only all-inclusive family resort in the U.S.—that means all food, beverages, tips and taxes are included in the price, as well as most activities—the 216-acre Club Med Sandpiper Bay, tucked into the lush natural landscape along the St. Lucie River, offers up surroundings that include palm tree-lined pools, a sandy beach, and beautifully landscaped grounds vibrant with colorful flowers. The village has five pools, including an infinity pool exclusively for adults and a splash park for the Mini Club Med. The 307 guest rooms are set against the banks of the St. Lucie River and have an airy, Floridian-inspired décor with floral upholstery.
Closed for three months while the property underwent renovations, the newly minted Club Med Sandpiper Bay now features, among other things, completely redone restaurants, an all-new L’Occitane spa, and new cabanas and lounges. But there’s so much more here than the term “resort” implies.

The fact that Sandpiper Bay is home to the Club Med Golf, Tennis and Fitness Academies means its guests can take golf lessons with the Golf Channel’s Brad Brewer, who was mentored by Arnold Palmer; train for a triathlon with 5-time Ironman champion Heather Gollnick; and experience video stroke analysis of their tennis swing with Gabe Jaramillo, one-time coach of Andre Agassi. Active types will find their days packed with options: there’s Fitness School, Flying Trapeze and Circus School, Bocce ball, table tennis, cardio-tennis, basketball (a new basketball court came as part of the renovations, as well as a new tennis center with 21 courts), golf, volleyball, football and soccer, plus there’s a cardio training and weight room on the premises for those who can’t bear to miss a workout, even when on vacation. Kids can even get in the act with a special Zumbatomic class designed especially for them. 

A Taste Of Paradise


If extraordinary food and wine are a temptation as you plan your next vacation to a farflung location, consider these seven outstanding options.

Babylonstoren interior of restaurantbabylonstoren-1Babylonstoren

Babylonstoren, StellenboschSouth Africa (DrakensteinValley)
Here’s something you’ve likely not yet experienced in your travels: a farm hotel. The guest suites here echo Cape Dutch farm buildings in the Cape Colony style of the 17th and 18th centuries, situated in the Drakenstein Valley between Franschhoek and Paarl and surrounded by mountains in the heart of the Cape Winelands. So it only stands to reason that food and wine are a major part of the sojourn: mornings, a must is the Babel breakfast, with fresh juices, homemade muesli and thick yogurts served with farm honey, plus eggs and local ham. Guests are invited to join chefs in the open kitchen or gather herbs from the eight-acre garden (they grow peanuts here among the 300 varieties of plants, and you’re welcome to taste), into which water is gravity-fed from streams. And, naturally, they make wine here: Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Shiraz, Chardonnay, and more; wine tastings and cellar tours may be booked online on the hotel’s website, and you can order it by the case as well. +; babylonstoren.com.

Ponte-Vineyard-Inn-Lobby-2 ponte vineyard - crustini-salmon-and-bottle GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA 

Ponte Vineyard Inn

Temecula, CaliforniaThis Temecula vineyards debuted their
first harvest in 1985 (the just-next-door Ponte Winery opened 10 years ago), and the inn opened just last spring. Wine snobs need not bother visiting—the motto here is “If you like it, it’s good wine.” They’re a boutique producer that makes their wines in very small quantities—typically 1,500 cases per year for each variety—based on the premise that it allows the focus to remain firmly on quality rather than quantity. Also on premises is a topnotch restaurant that serves up market salads, grapewood-fired pizzas, fresh pasta, natural beef, sustainable seafood and homemade desserts—and, of course, a selection of wines, in a cozy outdoor dining area that you reach by walking through the Tasting Room. If you go, and you love it enough that you just know you’ll be returning, you can join the Ponte Winery Wine Club—members enjoy discounts on wine, stays at the inn, dinners at the Restaurant at Ponte, The Cellar Lounge, and Bouquet, and more. 35001 Rancho California Rd., Temecula, CA; 888.563.8885; pontewinery.com.

Loisium_Hotel_im_Weingarten_klein Loisium Wine & Spa Resort cellar - Austria 

Loisium Wine & Spa Resort

Suedsteiermark, Austria
A hotel and spa for wine lovers set amid rolling vineyards in one of Austria’s most popular white wine regions—and just opposite the famous Loisium Wine World, which is built over an underground labyrinth of 900-year-old wine cellars—this hotel designed by American architect Steven Holl appears to be floating on pillars and glass. All 82 guestrooms here feature the wine theme and have large windows overlooking the vineyards. Start your days with traditional Austrian breakfasts that include artisanal cheeses, sausages with mustard, local pastries and baked goods and a variety of coffees. Indulge in spa treatments that integrate grape and wine products, and wine-themed dinners in the resort’s restaurant. Among the activities guests can enjoy during their stay are wine-tasting seminars at the wine center next door to the hotel, tours through the surrounding vineyards, or a visit to the Danube valley’s monasteries and old castles. Loisium-Allee 2, 3550 Langelois, Austria, +43.2734.77100; designhotels.com.

CuisinArt Resort hydroponic tomatoes 

CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa
CuisinArt consistently draws rave reviews from vacationers and travel journalists alike—US News gave it five out of five stars on its Best Hotels list and Frommer’s awarded it three stars, the highest possible. And it’s no surprise. Perched on the edge of Rendezvous Bay at the western end of Anguilla, the hotel has huge rooms with walk-in closets, marble bathrooms and private terraces, plus a spectacular spa, to name a few of its attractions. But foodies get an added bonus: five restaurants. Drawing inspiration from flavor profiles of the world, executive chef Daniel Le Guénan and his team create a menu that maximizes the best of their global experience while including local flavors and fresh ingredients from the on-site hydroponic farm. Of particular interest to foodies: the Chef’s Table food and wine experience (every Wednesday from 7:30 pm-10:30 pm) includes a menu comprising six courses presented by Chef Guénan that are paired with wines from the property’s wine cellar, and cooking classes that include one Japanese-themed (think sushi rolls, traditional Japanese entrees and desserts) and one Professional Cooking Class in which participants work with the chef to create a meal from one main item. Rendezvous Bay, Anguilla, 264.498.2000; cuisinartresort.com.

maremma, tuscany - garlic LAndana-la-lobby-1 

L’Andana, Tuscany
(Tuscan Maremma retreat founded by Alain Ducasse)
Renowned French chef Alain Ducasse has always loved Italy, so in 2004 he set up this resort in the Tuscan Maremma, an area of Italy that borders the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas. The building housing L’Andana was once a Medici villa and now is home to 33 rooms and suites; the property contains a gourmand spa and Tuscan trattoria—aptly named Trattoria Tuscana—that organizes cooking courses held by the team of resident chefs. When you’re not cooking, you’ll want to be eating: the La Villa restaurant here, with cast iron ovens that turn out freshly baked doughnuts, orange flower brioches, currant buns and cheesecake daily, is also the place to taste homemade yogurts, jams and marmalade, risotto with peas, streaky bacon and pecorino cheese, and exotic offerings such as stewed octopus and Borlotti beans. From March-Nov. 2013, the MasterChef at L’Andana 4-day package includes an array of unforgettable experiences including trips to the fruit and vegetable and fish markets with the kitchen’s chefs, time in the kitchen, dinners and autographed copies of Ducasse’s book, plus a certificate of attendance to the MasterChef class. For more details and pricing information, visit the website. 58043 Castiglione Della Pescaia, Italy; andana.it.

Hotel Marqués de Riscal - Vista general MarquisdeRiscal - lobster hotel-marques-de-riscal 

Hotel Marqués de Riscal
Elciego, Spain (in Spain’s Rioja region)
Designed by Frank Gehry and nestled in the Rioja alavesa, this 43-room hotel has made its name as the ideal destination for wine lovers. Local cuisine and fine wines are the specialty at Bistro 1860 and Marqués de Riscal Restaurant, both overseen by Michelin-starred chef Francis Paniego, where special tasting menus (including a wine tasting one) are offered. In between meals, grab light bites and wine (or a cocktail) at the Wine Bar, with its breathtaking views of the village of Elciego. Wine even plays a part in the spa experience: The Caudalíe Vinothérapie Spa specializes in elemental wine therapies; its signature treatment, the Grand Caudalíe facial relaxes, restores your complexion and accelerates cell renewal thanks to the grapeseed polyphenols in the products used. Calle Torrea 1, Elciego 01320, Spain; 34.945.180880; hotel-marquesderiscal.com.

fierro_v2-44 HG_02-16 Sweet Breads fierro-hotel-2 

Fierro Hotel
Buenos Aires, Argentina
This hotel’s tagline is “the hotel for the gourmand,” and that is in no small part because of its HG Restaurant. HG stands for Hernán Gipponi, a native Spaniard but worldly chef who has earned Michelin stars during his previous stints at the Michelin-starred El Poblet (now called Quique D’Acosta) and the Guggenheim restaurant in Bilbao. Gipponi’s nine-course tasting menu makes excellent use of his skills, wherein locally sourced produce and the best of Argentine culinary traditions are given new life in a series of painstakingly prepared and impeccably presented dishes. The Tasting Menu (at $40 US, an insanely good value) features five, seven and nine courses served to the entire table. Wine lovers will enjoy the Friday happy hours and wine tastings (arranged by request in The Cellar, a special underground tasting area showcasing some of the country’s most interesting wines curated by Andrés Rosberg, President of the Argentina Sommelier Association and a Master Sommelier; private (optionally wine-paired) dinners can also be arranged in The Cellar for parties of up to eight. Guests of the hotel receive complimentary breakfasts throughout their stay. Soler 5862, Buenos Aires, Argentina, +54.11.3220.6800; fierrohotel.com.