I made a trip to Abu Dhabi about a year ago and wrote about the magnificent Grand Mosque for Luxe Beat Magazine.
The article was published in May 2014. Please click on the link to read the article.
Business Jet Traveler » February 2013
To read the online version of this article as published by Business Jet Traveler please use this link: http://www.bjtonline.com/business-jet-news/11-great-hotels-and-resorts-you%E2%80%99ve-probably-never-heard-of.
The February 2013 print magazine article begins:
We asked three of our favorite travel writers to describe the finest little-known hotels and resorts they’ve discovered. Some are off the beaten path or new or do not advertise. Others are just plain obscure. All are certified great by our panel of globetrotters. Happy traveling.
I was lucky enough to be one of those three travel writers!
The five hotel reviews I wrote are as follows:
Château de la Barre
Loire Valley, France
A two-hour detour from Paris lands you in the Loire Valley, the site chosen by French kings and nobles for their châteaux. Most visitors tour the grand estates in day trips due to the scarcity of overnight lodging. However, you can sleep in a chateau instead of simply touring them.
Legendary Château de la Barre–which has been home to the Comte and Comtesse de Vanssay’s family since 1404–offers accommodations and fine dining. Each of five bedrooms in the manor house contains 18th century antiques, surrounded by bright and bold designer fabrics and wallpaper. En suite bathrooms are sleek and modern. Surprisingly, pets are allowed.
Hosts Guy and Marnie de Vanssay (Marnie is American) offer helpful, often intriguing suggestions for outings: a Renaissance lunch in Leonardo da Vinci’s home (June through September), driving a dream car around the famous nearby Le Mans racetrack, hot-air-balloon rides that depart directly from the château mornings and evenings. Other possibilities include bicycling, golfing at numerous courses, tennis and horseback riding.
Twice a week, the owners host a Grand Siècle Dinner in the 17th century dining room with family silver and crystal. On other nights, the evening meal is served in the billiard room. Daily afternoon tea is poured in the Salon Rose. Ask about gourmet picnics and wine tastings.
The château is near the tiny village of Conflans-sur-Anille in the Pays de la Loire region. The nearest airport is Tours, a one-hour drive. –Debi Lander
Little Palm Resort and Spa
Little Torch Key, Fla.
If you’re dreaming of Gauguin’s tropical paradise but lack time to visit Tahiti, Florida’s Little Palm Island Resort and Spa will fulfill your needs. Fly to Key West or Marathon Key and the resort staff will escort you via a 1930s-style wooden launch over to Little Torch Key. The five-acre private island is a rarely advertised secret and can be reached only by boat or seaplane.
Switch your shoes for flip-flops and relax in one of the 28 thatched-hut guest accommodations, each surrounded by lush greenery. They include secluded outdoor showers and full indoor baths, some with redwood tubs.
No children, no pets. Guests are asked to use their cell phones only in their bungalows, although the library maintains Internet and phone access.
The “Floribbean” three-meal plan offers the freshest of the fresh as the chef changes the menu selections daily. Sunsets are a big deal in the Keys, and Little Palm is home to an upscale Margaritaville-style cocktail hour. The resort caters to those celebrating special occasions and will artfully arrange candlelight dinners on a private beach.
Prior to 1988, the island thrived as a tiny fishing camp that President Harry Truman and other dignitaries visited. Today, Little Palm serves as a sanctuary where you can simply relax and do nothing. Snooze in one of the rope hammocks at the edge of the tranquil Gulf or on one of the chaise lounges scattered over the property. Feeling more active? Try kayaking, windsurfing or swimming in the freshwater pool.
Off-island options include diving Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, the only living coral reef in North America; deep-sea fishing; and pole fishing from the docks. –Debi Lander
Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant
Chapel Hill, N.C., which has been called the “Southern part of heaven,” is well known for its mountaintop golf courses, tree-lined streets, acclaimed university and Tarheel’s basketball. Perhaps less well known but just as noteworthy is the nearby Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant.
Located in the village of Fearrington–10 minutes from Chapel Hill and 30 minutes from Raleigh-Durham International Airport–the English-inspired 32-room lodge boasts impressive credentials. Both the restaurant and inn have earned the coveted AAA Five-Diamond rating. Moreover, Forbes Travel Guide recently ranked Fearrington No. 1 on its list of the top 10 luxury hotels in the U.S. for weddings, while Conde Nast Traveler named it the No. 2 best small hotel in the South and Departures called it a “World’s Best Foodie Destination.”
One visit should be sufficient to explain all the accolades. The charming antiques-furnished property offers a splendid country atmosphere, exquisite gardens, a spa, world-class dining and proximity to 12 golf courses and one of the South’s best-known independent bookstores.
Consult the Fearrington House calendar for wine dinners and cooking lessons taught by executive chef Colin Bedford. Come hungry to fully appreciate his seasonal tasting menu, which is served in the restored mansion house. A noted wine sommelier will assist you with a choice from the 800-bottle list. Overnight guests are treated to handmade truffles at turndown and full gourmet breakfasts. Afternoons at Fearrington always feature a proper tea. –Debi Lander
Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo
Why not stay above Donatello’s workshop when visiting the art treasures of Florence? Discover lodging so close to the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s famous cathedral dome, that special permission is necessary to drive into the restricted historic district. Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo is a 16th century palace that has been renovated into an exquisite small hotel known mainly through word-of-mouth testimonials.
Leaving the courtyard, take a tiny lift to the second-floor reception area to enter what looks like an elegant patrician home. Then slip into the warm, luxurious drawing room, which bursts with brilliant fresco, carved wooden ceilings, tromp l’oeil paintings and comfortably arranged sofas. Book a private wine tasting of Tuscan reds in the lobby.
Palazzo Niccolini has just two large suites, one junior suite and five double bedrooms. The oversized, airy rooms feature king-size canopied beds among antique and reproduction furniture, oriental rugs and original art. The ceilings are so high, you’d have to erect scaffolding to repaint them.
Florence is a walking city and this hotel sits within easy distance of all the famous museums, churches, palazzos and shops. Spend your days strolling the Ponte Vecchio, gazing at Michelangelo’s David and Italian art, then return to rest your feet.
The Dome Suite on the top floor presents an extraordinary view of the Duomo, likely the best in the entire city. Overnight stays include a bountiful continental breakfast and aperitifs. –Debi Lander
Viceroy Riviera Maya
Near Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Riviera Maya developed some of the world’s most lavish all-inclusive resorts–gorgeous facilities that cater to upscale conventioneers. But move beyond those huge properties and bustling streets of Playa del Carmen to the small village of Playa Xcalacoco. Here, 40 miles south of Cancun International Airport, the Viceroy Riviera Maya showcases 41 palapa-roofed villas with heated private plunge pools and outdoor rain showers. Guests are enveloped within an eco-sensitive jungle-like property and enjoy beachfront or ocean views.
Maya-inspired ceremonies welcome you to the residential compound. The staff is known for prompt service and extras such as presenting iced face towels at the pool. Dine at the first-rate La Marea or the Coral Grill by the beach. Request Mayordomo (butler) service for breakfast or whenever you desire it.
The Viceroy includes seven miles of white sand beach, cabanas and daybeds by the water. The site is perfect for honeymooners, who should request a jungle villa for ultimate privacy or private romantic dining.
On-site activities include ceviche and tequila tasting, mixology and cooking classes and yoga. Those wanting to detox can experience the Temazcal steam cave treatment or other Maya-inspired spa ritual. Nearby you’ll find cenote and reef diving and snorkeling, golf, sailing and windsurfing. Plan to visit the Yucatan’s archeological ruins at Tulum, Coba, where you can still climb the ancient 140-foot pyramid, and World Heritage Chichen Itza. –Debi Lander
No splashing. That’s the first rule when you immerse yourself in Dead Sea. Even a tiny drop in your eyes or mouth burns fiercely.
I wasn’t worried; it was January and I’m a Floridian. Call me wimpy, but I don’t swim outside when the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Nonetheless, some do.
Israel’s Dead Sea isn’t really a sea; it’s a lake in the Negev desert, about 1,300 feet below sea level. That makes it the lowest point on Earth that’s not under water.
My first glimpse of the glass-like expanse came from Highway 90 (the world’s lowest road) as we drove beyond the Judean Mountains toward Masada. The water looked oddly colored through my camera viewfinder. In some places it appeared neon green and in others, electric blue. Undoubtedly, the water’s mineral content contributes to this psychedelic effect.
The bus drove on to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Masada, the ancient mountain top palace-fortress of Herod the Great. Back in 70 A.D. Jews fleeing persecution in Jerusalem joined fellow refugees there. The Romans made violent organized charges and attempted to takeover, but the Jews held out for two years. In the end, they chose suicide rather than be conquered. The site is considered a Jewish cultural icon.
Tourists enter the rather posh Masada Visitor Center and either hike or ride a cable car to the dramatic summit. (Watch the short introductory film first as it helps understanding.) Rising nearly 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea, the hazy views from the plateau seem endless and the 2,000-year-old ruins are impressive and well preserved. Stroll among some original enclosures and other areas and lookouts that have been restored.
On the ride back to Tel Aviv, my group stopped at a seaside resort. Only a few hardy folk felt like a dip, but everyone wanted to see the salty sea up close.
As I walked along the near empty beachfront, I passed crusty edges at the shoreline rimmed in white. These salt deposits were created when the water hit the shore and dried in the sun. The Negev gets about 330 sunny days a year, but this day was not one of them.
Nothing grows in the Dead Sea (hence the name) because the salinity is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. The mineral content ranges around 30 percent compared to 3.5 percent in the Mediterranean. That’s known as heavy water with high viscosity (love that wonderful word I learned in Anatomy and Physiology 101). The surface air is also heavy from mineral compounds in the evaporating water.
The area’s dark mud or clay is believed to have therapeutic qualities, along with a soak in the briny liquid. The usual procedure is to apply thick mud all over your skin and let it dry for 10 minutes. Then, slowly walk into the water and float on your back. Swimming is not a good idea because it creates a splash. No more than 20 minutes is recommended or you’ll become dehydrated.
I didn’t partake the treatment on my January trip to Israel, but as luck goes, I made a visit to Jordan five months later. (Jordan is clearly visible from Israel, on the opposite side of the bank.) In May, I whole-heartedly caked my arms, legs and face with mud, chuckled at myself and then sat and baked in the sun.
Feeling rather prune-like, I slithered off the edge of a low platform into the water. I could barely keep my feet down. They wanted to pop up, honestly demanded it, and so, I let them. Floating on my back took no effort because of the buoyant properties of the salt water. As a swimmer, the sensation was strangely different, laughably fun and totally liberating.
While in the water, I rubbed the mud off my skin, which then felt rather slimy, but in a good way. My hands slid over my skin as if gliding over waxed paper. When I came out of the Sea, I could have recorded a commercial for baby soft skin. The experience brought to mind a costly spa treatment, but a free one you give yourself. Some medical experts say a dip helps those suffering with psoriasis and arthritis. Whether curative or not, who cares? I came alive in the Dead Sea.
If you go: