The Battle for Mexico’s Beaches

It hits you in the face the minute you open a door or window. A virtual presence that is so primal, your brain goes into full denial, telling you it can’t possibly be what you think it is. Perhaps that disconnect is made all the more dissonant by the fact that you are quite literally walking out the door into a verdant paradise, where as far as the eye can see everything is perfect and manicured and designed to delight the senses.

But there is one sense that is definitely not delighted….

People, let me tell you about sargassum.

Photo from the Mexicanist

Sargassum, also known as Sargasso, stinks no matter what it’s called. It’s a seaweed (or microalgae) that is choking beaches from Mexico to the Caribbean to northern Florida. Here’s what Chemical & Engineering News (not my regular literary diet, but, ok) says about it:

Sargassum wasn’t a regular sight outside its native arena in the Sargasso Sea until 2011. That year, enormous mats of the algae started brewing farther south, in the central Atlantic, eventually washing onto beaches on the eastern and southern coasts of many Caribbean islands. By 2018, the mats had grown into the largest macroalgae bloom in recorded history, an 8,850 km long mass extending from the central Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. Chunks of Sargassum, circulated by ocean currents, now regularly wash ashore in the Caribbean, where they rot on the beaches, giving off a strong, sulfurous stench.”

That is putting it mildly. We had heard slight whispers about the sargassum problem when we first started researching our last-minute, mid-summer trip to Mexico, specifically, the Secrets Maroma Beach. But we thought it was just a bunch of seaweed washing up on the pristine white beaches and making them slightly less Instagrammable. Since we planned to spend most of our time lounging on the patio of our swim-up room or under an umbrella around the thoughtfully designed pool areas, we didn’t think it would bother us too much.

(Basically, us. Photo from Secrets Maroma Beach website)

Other than an occasional morning walk, we really don’t spend that much time on the beach and we don’t pick our vacation destinations based on the quality of the beaches. But there is so much more to sargassum than aesthetics. There’s that smell.

I would almost call it unrecognizable, but that’s not true. It is instinctually recognizable. In fact, we live in the lovely suburb called Old Town, which has a river-adjacent sewer system dating back to the late 1800s. So we are very familiar with the occasional, river-flooding-induced smell of excrement around these genteel streets lined with historic, million-dollar townhomes.

But this sargassum is a whole other poop game. And it is growing, reaching approximately 20 million tons, according to one NPR report. In fact, Inside Science noted:

“This spring, the seaweed invasion was comparable to last year’s, if not worse. In May, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instructed the country’s navy to lead the beach-cleaning effort and to prevent the sargassum from reaching the coast. In June, the situation was so bad that the southeastern state of Quintana Roo — home of the tourist destination of Cancún — declared a state of emergency.”

And just like there would seem to be a disconnect between living in one of the most expensive areas in the Greater D.C. area and smelling sewage after every heavy rainstorm, so too, was it jarringly incongruent to smell the overwhelming stench of sulfide gas at the beautiful Secrets Maroma Beach, which happens to be in Quintana Roo.

Because SMB was gorgeous. Just beautiful. Here’s a description from Trip Advisor,

“Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun is tucked away on secluded Maroma Beach, voted the World’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel four years in a row. This unlimited-luxury heaven provides opulence to the most discerning traveler with a pure white sand beach, stunning ocean views stretching as far as the eye can see, elegant suites providing 24-hour room service, daily refreshed mini-bars and several of them with swim-out access to twelve smaller pools plus a shimmering infinity pool, gourmet dining options and chic lounges.”

Photo from the Secrets Maroma Beach website

And it’s true. You look at pictures of the beach (even recent ones) and it’s all white powdered sugar magical-ness. That’s because there are dozens and dozens of workers (aka: sargaceros) busting their butts to cart away literally TONS of seaweed around the clock. Trucks full of it. But they can’t cart away that smell.

Picture from a 2015 TripAdvisor review of SMB

Not to mention the fact that while sargassum might be bad for tourism in the region, it is even worse for coral, fish and other seagrasses. It smothers and destroys virtually everything in its path. Again from Inside Science:

“Since 2015, we have lost a significant number of seagrasses and they will take many decades to recover, assuming that the sargassum is controlled. If it continues to arrive, they will not recover. As of last year, we already began to record massive wildlife mortality — we began observing dead animals along the beach. Last year, we identified dead individuals of 78 species on the beaches, especially fish, but also crustaceans, lobsters, urchins, octopuses and others. As of May of last year, corals also began to die from a disease called “white syndrome.”

The good news is that there appears to be a season for sargassum. It’s not a year-round thing. The sargassum season runs roughly from April to August. And, the government, science community and resorts from Mexico to Florida are studying the issue carefully and trying to find solutions, everything from literal barriers in the ocean to finding alternative uses for the seaweed. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something before next year’s sargassum tide comes rolling in.  

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Hotel Crashing: Mara Bushtops, Kenya

When we went to Bushtops Serengeti a couple of years back, we knew that if we ever got the chance to go to Tanzania again, we’d definitely stay there again and for a much longer amount of time. And, we did. For this trip, we stayed at Bushtops Serengeti for seven nights (Oct. 31-Nov. 8), which was a lot but also, totally amazing.

Since we were in the area(ish), we decided to check another country off our list and spent four nights at Mara Bushtops in Kenya.

We went on a “Behind the Scenes,” back of camp tour at Bushtops Mara and saw this hilarious sign hanging in the staff camp area. Hilarious because guess which tent we were staying in?

Now, even though both places are owned by the same camp operators and the two countries share a border, it’s not that easy to go from Tanzania to Kenya (or vice versa). The lovely folks at Bushtops helped us organize the transfer. Here’s the abbreviated version of that adventure: We took a very short flight from the Kogatende airstrip to Tarime near the Kenya border. Then we got in a van that drove us through Isebania, a small town straddling the border, where you get out on the Tanzania side and go through customs, drive across, then get out again on the Kenya side to go through customs. Then another very short flight from Migori airstrip to Siana Springs and Bushtops.

After a slight hiccup over whether in fact we actually needed a yellow fever card coming from Tanzania or the U.S. (both are non-yellow fever country) into Kenya (short answer: you don’t. Longer answer: But the customs officials will definitely try to shake you down for a nice little “fee” if you don’t have one), we were soon ensconced in our super-deluxe and way-too-roomy-for-two people tent, the Leopard Tent at Mara Bushtops.

The walk up to the deck of the Leopard Tent. Spa is just a short walk off to the left and the dining lodge is to the right.

The Leopard Tend has a large living room separating two large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

The living room and front entrance. To the left of the entrance is a bar area with a mini fridge and snacks.

It also has a huge wooden deck running along the back of it, with a dining table, built in sofa seating and a Jacuzzi tub.

Two master suites to choose from at the Leopard Tent.

The Leopard Tent is meant to accommodate a family, which it would do really well. As it was, we hardly ever went into the second bedroom or bathroom at all.

While we pretty much had Mara Bushtops to ourselves the first couple of days, a very large group of Chinese tourists were coming in on our last night and had rented out all of the other 11 tents (I guess there were no families to accommodate), so we were put in the Leopard Family Tent for our stay. Which was great, because the Leopard Tent is kinda off away from all the other tents (it’s located on the side of camp closest to the spa tents and is separated from the other tents by the main lodge/dining room/restaurant area – here’s a site plan if you really want to get into it). So even though the Chinese tourist group came in pretty hot and loud that last night, we hardly noticed.

In addition, our family tent had its own fire pit, so on our last night, we avoided the newly crowded dining room and asked to have dinner in our room. And we asked for our own campfire. Which came with its own Masai warrior/fire tender. Who I don’t seem to have a photo of. Grr.

Warrior-less campfire pit at the Leopard Tent.

As with our previous experience at Bushtops Serengeti, we use the term “tent” in the loosest sense of the word at Bushtops. These were some deluxe, luxurious digs. We had a butler (Frederick at Mara, Mustafa at Serengeti) who brought us rose wine, gin and tonics and homemade potato chips. They were also our morning alarms, bringing us coffee with Amarula (sort of like African Bailey’s) and shortbread cookies every morning at 5 am before our 5:30 game drives. They also made sure our laundry was done and returned every day and just generally took care of all our needs while we were in camp (and not out on a drive).

Best samosas in all of Africa.

We seriously, seriously loved Mara Bushtops. What set this camp apart, even from our beloved Bushtops Serengeti, is a couple of things. For one thing, Mara Bushtops is located on a conservancy of 15,000 acres bordering the Masai Mara National Park. Bushtops has a multi-year leasing agreement with the Masai Mara tribe and is the only lodge within the conservancy. So, along the edges of the conservancy, you can see a few Masai communities and the cows and goats they tend. Plus, since its on a private conservancy, you can do nighttime game drives, something that’s not allowed in the National Park (or in the Serengeti National Park, for that matter).

We saw these three teeny tiny baby bat eared foxes (and their mom) during our evening game drive at Mara Bushtops.

Second, the spa. The spa was amazing, both in terms of the quality of the services provided and in terms of all the setting and treatment rooms. We just got massages (twice) but they had other cool, state of the art treatment rooms including hydratherapy and sauna. Plus the pool area with all its fountains and different pool options including the main pool, which has fiber optic “nightsky” lighting on the bottom of it, was just breathtaking. As a spa junkie, I gotta say this one was right up there with any I’ve been to.

Entrance to the spa.

The other thing that set Mara Bushtops apart is the fact that they have a salt lick a couple of hundred feet away from the main dining deck, where all the animals come throughout the day to get some nutrients. Rather than chasing animals all over the Masai Mara, you can sit at a table and watch them all come to you. It’s a destination all on its own.

Finally, I mean, have we forgotten about Harry? Because I sure haven’t. A lodge with a friendly, resident giraffe? Sign me up again and again.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops
My best bud, Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops.

That Time We Got Booted From Bali and Ended Up in the Maldives

 

St. Regis Maldives

As mentioned previously, my main man for life, XFE and I went to Sri Lanka for my birthday trip earlier this year, which was culturally enriching yet also challenging (for all the reasons I’ve gone over in previous posts). Which, since this wasn’t exactly our first Southeast Asian rodeo, we kind of figured it might be. And even though we had set aside a few days for some beach time in Sri Lanka, we knew we might want to go seriously luxe out somewhere else.

Plus, when Marriott merged with Starwood, we suddenly realized that our future loyalty perks such as free resort nights and suite upgrades might be in jeopardy, so we best use ‘em or risk losing them.

So, we put our little heads together and thought: “What was the most luxurious, most customer-centric island-retreat-type Starwood property we’ve ever stayed at?” It was actually a no-brainer – The St. Regis Bali. Not only were they very generous with the suite upgrade (an amazing little house with private pool) but the staff were just phenomenal. We could not have been treated better. We booked our room for a weeklong stay, fully confident that we’d have a similar experience again and went on planning the rest of our trip.

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St. Regis Bali fire dancers.

About a month before our trip, we got an email from the St. Regis Bali. XFE opened it, thinking that maybe it was the concierge wanting to see if we needed anything special or (even better) informing us of a suite upgrade. But no. The hotel was informing us that the Government of Bali had rented the whole place out so we could not stay there (nor could anybody else), but the St. Regis would be happy to put us up at any other hotel in Bali (including the W in Seminyak, which we’ve stayed at and really enjoyed).

I gotta admit: My spoilt butt was a little bit crushed. Sure, I liked Bali and maybe would even want to return there at some point in the future because, heck, it’s Bali! But the main reason we were going at this particular time was for that amazing St. Regis experience. I wasn’t even thinking about how we were going to Bali again….I was thinking about how we were going to the St. Regis Bali again.

St. Regis Bali bedroom
I can almost smell the frangipani.

Plus, how rude! Do they not remember that we stayed at the St. Regis back in 2014, literally a month after a very high-profile murder had been committed there? But did we cancel our reservation or bail? No. No we did not. We just looked around for clues and made sure all the heavy vases and fruit bowls were gathered up and stored in the butler’s pantry.

Time out room for rowdy girlfriends.
Butler’s room in our villa at the St. Regis Bali. Good place to hide potential murder weapons.

(Side note: My favorite headline for a TripAdvisor review ever “Everything is perfect, until the murder happened.”)

But then I realized just how awful it must be for the hotel to have to move and re-accommodate all those people, including wedding parties and people on their honeymoon. All because the late-to-the-party Balinese government couldn’t book a conference in advance.

While I shrugged and tried let go of my dreams of kite-flying on the beach, champagne sabering and releasing baby sea turtles back into the sea, XFE got creative and offered up an alternative suggestion that neither one of us thought the fine people at Starwood/the St. Regis would EVER take us up on.

Room 805 at the St. Regis Bali
Room 805, our little piece of Balinese paradise.

That trip-planning-genius-of-a-man kindly suggested to the fine people at the St. Regis that they book us a room using our Starwood loyalty points (ie: with us only paying taxes, basically) at the newly-opened, super luxurious St. Regis in the Maldives. Oh, and he wanted an overwater, sunset bungalow, pleaseandthankyou.

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NOT my photo. The Points Guy gets the credit on this one.

Now, just for comparison, rooms at the St. Regis Bali (looking at March dates, since that was the time of year we were looking at) run about $469 to $2,092 per night – definitely a chunk of change and nothing to sneeze at. The lagoon villa (with private pool) we stayed in in 2014 currently retails for around $1,200 a night.

Meanwhile, rooms at the St. Regis Maldives in March START at $2,580 and go up to $4,500 for a family villa. The sunset water villa (with private pool) that we ended up slumming it in for the week retails for $3,500 a night.

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At that price, I think you get to keep the slippers.

We thought they would laugh in his face. We thought they’d say, “Ummmm, yeah, nice try. Now, may I direct your attention back to the list of luxury Balinese properties we’ve offered up to you, including a Bulgari and a Four Seasons? Surely one of those would do, no?”

But no. The exceptionally fine people at the St. Regis Bali just said, “Sure. We can make that happen. We’ll talk to the property and make sure they can accommodate your request.” And then THEY DID. Which is just another reason to add to the list of why the St. Regis Bali is amazing and wonderful and all of the great things. All of them.

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Popping bottles, St. Regis Maldives style.

We had to change our flights from Sri Lanka, obviously. And book and pay for the prop plane to take us to from the Velana International Airport in Maldives to Vommuli, which was $645 roundtrip per person for a 45-minute flight to and from the resort, and yikes, that’s a lot of money but still.

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You don’t even get snacks on this expensive flight.

And that’s how we accidentally, unintentionally, and maybe undeservedly got to go to Maldives. THE MALDIVES. Without even planning to. All because of those conference-planning slackers, aka the Government of Bali.

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Me in the Maldives, where I do not at all belong. Literally, everybody there was rich. Like, really REALLY rich. It was crazy.

Hotel Crashing: 4 Other Places We Stayed in Sri Lanka

Because I really cannot top our stay (and odd massage experience) at the Signature Amaya Kandalama, I’m condensing (ha!) the rest of our hotel accommodations in Sri Lanka into this one little (ok, NOT little) post. Most of them were one-nighters anyway, with the exception of the beach house in Unwatana. But they each had their own odd charms.

Langdale by Amaya in Nuwara Eliya – This is another Amaya Spa and Resort and a hotel listed among the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The description on the SLH website says Langdale is “a picture of old-world elegance in Sri Lanka’s tea-growing heartland,” and that is certainly true.

Exterior of the Langdale Amaya, Sri Lanka

It’s got a very old school, British colonial feel to it, which is always something that makes me slightly uncomfortable, especially in a country as colorful Sri Lanka where the culture is just so vibrant. And that tea country setting is just spectacular.

 

Instead, the Langdale feels like a stuffy British outpost/country with impeccably manicured grounds (the grass looks like a carpet), squeaky floors, a preponderance of chintz and even a dusty reading nook at the top landing. If I were to compare it to something in the U.S., I definitely would not put it in the luxury category. Maybe, more like an inn or a bed-and-breakfast.

Continue reading Hotel Crashing: 4 Other Places We Stayed in Sri Lanka

Hotel Crashing: Lemala Kuria Hills, Tanzania

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was a bit bummed out by the election results.

For a variety of reasons, I’m not going to get too far into this topic, but this post from my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, pretty much sums up EXACTLY how I feel. Go. Read it. It’s really good. Then come back here to read about luxurious lodges in Tanzania and maybe I’ll throw in a few gratuitous cute animals, just to soothe all our souls.

Serengeti zebras
See? A baby zebra and it’s mommy. Makes everything all better, right?

It was not easy leaving Leopard Hills, in part because the place and its’ staff were just so wonderful, but also, literally: it was not an easy transit. We’d had enough foresight to rent a car and drive ourselves to Sabi Sands because we knew from our last trip to South Africa just how unreliable Federal Air (the small-plane airline that flies into Sabi Sands) can be. We didn’t want to risk it.

So, on the day we left Sabi Sands, we got up at the crack of dawn so that we’d have plenty of time for the four-hour drive from Sabi Sands to Johannesburg, where we’d catch our 1:30 pm flight to Dar El Salaam, Tanzania. I had slept horribly the night before, dreaming of dead giraffes. Then, we forgot where we’d put our Sabi Sands/Kruger Park exit pass (which was my responsibility to keep track of) and had a 5 am panic attack before we finally were reminded that we’d stored them safely in the car when we arrived five days before. And then I spilled coffee all over the front of my t-shirt (the exact same t-shirt I’d spilt coffee all over at the airport before we’d even left D.C.). Oh, and then, honey badgers. Very eventful morning.

There was, of course, some confusion at the Precision Air check in at Dar El Salaam (which I described here), but we caught our 3 pm flight to Arusha (landing at 11:30 pm). Where we had the pleasure of taking a $70 cab ride along 50 kilometers of the worst road I’ve ever been on (and I’m including unpaved ranch roads in West Texas, y’all), for the honor of spending the night in Arusha ($200 basic room!) before our 8 am tiny-plane flight to Kogatende.

In case you can’t tell, I was not at all charmed by Rip-Off Arusha.

After two full, long days of not-completely-smooth travel on sketchy-ass small airplanes, we were thrilled to see the Lemala Kuria Hills Land Cruiser at the Kogatende airstrip.

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
A sight for sore eyes.

(I just looked it up and it’s about 4,000 miles from Sabi Sands to Kogatende and Google estimates it would take you 52 hours to drive it. We flew and it took us about 2 days, so yeah. That checks out.)

And right away, just during the drive from Kogatende to Lemala Kuria Hills, you realize that the Serengeti is about to blow your lid off. You basically do a game drive right after you get off the plane. We saw a wildebeest crossing, lions mating, and got a flat tire, all before we even arrived at the lodge. (I don’t think that last event was supposed to wow us).

Mating lions in the Serengeti
Right before the big (and very quick) main event. You can see she’s flirting with him.

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The other main event on our drive to the lodge.

We were met by the managers, Anita and Peter. I had already been in contact with Anita to arrange a few birthday surprises for XFE and she was incredibly helpful and gracious in every way. From what I understand, they took over management of the lodge about six months ago and there have been a few minor changes, from what I understand, including a new upcharge for premium alcohol—which was only a couple of extra bucks per drink, but still a bit annoying.

Main tent & bar at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti
Main lodge with bar in the background. And Peter photobomb.

After getting the rundown on the schedule and amenities, we were shown to our tent, Room 12, on the far end of the camp, and it was gorgeous. Huge, comfortable bed, beautiful modern African artwork, sliding glass doors lead to an expansive deck overlooking Rift Valley with a plunge pool and outdoor shower, and huge bathroom with a giant soaking tub in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. I will say, those floor-to-ceiling windows turn out to be a bit of a negative. There’s no air conditioning in the tents and the windows really turn the room into an oven in the late afternoon.

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Here, as at the other lodges we stayed at this trip, we were told that it was high season and we had been charged high season prices. But in fact, none of the three lodges we stayed at had full occupancy on any of the nights we were there. If you aren’t going to be fully booked, maybe offer us a better deal?

The main reception/staging area at Lemala Kuria Hills is a collection of tents, including the dining tent and a large central tent with lots of nice seating areas for reading, talking, playing board games, and the long bar area on the other side. A tree-shaded deck runs along the back of the tent and leads down to a very cozy fire pit area.

The staff is amazing and everyone—from the management to our guide (Nahume) to the housekeeping staff to the bartenders and waiters—went above and beyond to make sure XFE’s 40th birthday was celebrated in fine African style. So for that, I will be forever grateful. It was a great, great night.

Guide at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
Our guide, Nahume, during an amazing sundowner on top of a rock.

There are, however, a couple of areas that could be improved at Lemala Kuria Hills. We thought their safari trucks had seen better days – in addition to the flat we got on day one, our truck also got stuck in a mud hole another day, and there was a super annoying, persistent and loud squeak along the pop-up part of our Land Cruiser where the joists meet the top of the vehicle. Three days in and we were hearing that squeak in our sleep.

And, unfortunately, the food was not that great. Or, I should say, the food at the lodge wasn’t that great. The food out on the bush was just fine. Simple, but fine. Most days, you’re up and out early (6 am) and you eat a bush breakfast of pancakes/crepes, bacon/sausage, hard boiled eggs, homemade granola with milk and fruit and coffee. I actually liked the bush breakfast very much. Then you’d stop midday for a bush lunch, which would be maybe some tortilla-type rollups of some sort, strips of grilled chicken, pasta and vegetable salad, some cookies and again, I liked that a lot.

Bush lunch in Tanzania, Lemala Kuria Hills

But the dinners were kind of a disaster – meats were often overcooked, sides were a bit lackluster, potatoes tasted slightly off. I probably would have just written it off as some difficulties in logistics except when we finished our trip with a two-night stay just down the valley at Bushtops Serengeti, we found the food there to be really, really excellent.

Sundowner at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Still, a beautiful, friendly lodge in a gorgeous setting. Just bring some earplugs for the squeak!

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Hotel Crashing: Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve, South Africa

In case you are wondering, yes, you will definitely see leopards at Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Sabi Sands.

Leopard at Leopard Hills on safari
A little Leopard Hills branding opportunity right there. Clearly, a stunt leopard.

 

And a whole lot of other animals, including (if you’re very lucky like we were) the very rare African wild dog.

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We actually saw three generations of the adorable calico-spotted dogs a ton during our first couple of days on safari in South Africa. I mean, a ton. To the point where I was like, “OK, got it. Dogs. Yeah. Can we please see something else?”

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Then our guide Stefan explained to us just how rare African wild dogs are. They’re the second most endangered species in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. There are only around 6,000 African wild dogs worldwide and less than 500 in South Africa. Human encroachment is one part of the problem—more people means less land for these shy creatures. And, because they are such effective hunters and they hunt several times a day, African wild dogs are being killed by humans seeking to protect their own animals and livestock. Hence, looming extinction.

And here we were, watching a pack of around 25 of them (including baby pups) frolicking around their den (a renovated termite mound) and even (one morning) the older dogs out hunting (successfully) for food.

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Suddenly, I saw the dogs in a whole new light and I remembered just what makes safari in Sabi Sands, and at Leopard Hills in particular, so special.

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Leopard Hills is a five-star luxury lodge located in the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park. The lodge is situated on top of a rocky outcrop, with most (if not all) of the eight luxury suites offering spectacular views over the bush and the natural waterhole on the plains below.

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Each suite has its own plunge pool, deck and outdoor shower, and yes, the suites are air conditioned. In fact, pretty much every modern hotel amenity is available at Leopard Hills, including a gym, a spa and complimentary daily laundry service.

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The rooms are decorated just as you’d expect a safari lodge to be decorated – Ralph Lauren-meets-Out-of-Africa, with mosquito nets, lots of wood and wicker.

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They also provide a variety of books to help you learn more about some of the animals you see on the game drives and a handy checklist to tick off the ones you’ve seen. But, if you’d like more reading material (or to catch a soccer game on TV), there’s a very good library onsite.

The lodge is pretty much all inclusive, including the mini-bar in your suite and all of the meals and drinks. And man, do they stuff you with the delicious food and drink! There’s morning coffee before the 5:30 am game drive, coffee and muffins or biscuits during the 4-hour game drive, breakfast ordered off the menu when you get back from the morning game drive, lunch later in the afternoon, tea with snacks before the evening game drive, sundowners with snacks during the evening game drive and then dinner (which you ordered from a list of two options per course while you were busy stuffing your face with tea sandwiches before the game drive) when your return to the lodge.

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There’s a beautiful main lodge area where you have your meals and gather for morning coffee or a quick tea/snack before the game drives. Breakfast and lunch were usually served on the outside terrace (if the resident vervet monkeys weren’t too aggressive) and dinner at one of the three long, communal tables inside.

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To change things up a bit, the lodge also had boma nights, which are outdoor barbecues a couple of nights a week in an outdoor enclosure made just for it and featuring a large, central fire pit.

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But as great as all these luxuries and amenities were, (and they seriously were) what really makes Leopard Hills (and Sabi Sands, in general) stand out, are the people. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. The people at Leopard Hills are awesome. From general manager Duncan Rodgers and his daughter, Meaghan, to the incredible guides and trackers (we had Stefan/Sipho for a couple of days and then Hugo/Moelle) to the excellent chef (Jock) and waitstaff (including Millet, Sam and Neville), it was clear that everyone who worked there took a great deal of pride in their work and really wanted us to have the best possible experience. They were always professional but very friendly and welcoming. The perfect hosts for our stay in every way.

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That’s Stefan on the left, Hugo on the right.

After six days at Leopard Hills, we were genuinely sad to leave and had already began planning our next trip back before we’d even finished packing. After all, we’ve got to come back and check in on the African wild dog pack. There aren’t too many places left where you can get that opportunity.

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Hotel Crashing: Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

I’ve got an impressive assortment of bug bites on my legs (and, probably zika), a bruise from ramming right into a concrete stool at the swim-up bar, and a right ear that’s still ringing after a scuba dive.

I have survived another beach resort vacation.

(Actually, we got back from Costa Rica a week ago and luckily, all of those vacation-related injuries have subsided. Especially the ringing right ear, which went on for several days and had me all sorts of freaked out.)

We spent six glorious days at the Westin Golf Resort & Spa, (also known as the Westin Playa Conchal), Starwood’s first Costa Rica all-inclusive property. It’s on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, up north in an area known as Guanacaste. We flew into the Liberia airport, which is about an hour’s drive from the resort.

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Yep, it really does look like that (Image courtesy of Visual Itineraries)

This was actually our third time at this particular property. We first went in 2012 (when I also sustained a few vacation-related injuries) and in 2014, where I don’t remember if I sustained any injuries, so that probably means I absolutely did.

Our first trip, in 2012, we stayed at one of the regular rooms/bungalows (“Deluxe Junior Suite”), which was located on the far northern end of the property (near the beach access).

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Like one of these (Image via Starwood)

It was fine, but when we went back in 2014, we upgraded to the adults-only section known as the Royal Beach Club, which was fabulous! It has its own designated check-in area/lounge, adults-only pool and restaurant with no kids, other than the numerous, painfully young honeymooners we met over the six days.

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RBC area (Image via WestJet.com)

(I will say, the rest of the property is very family-friendly and I highly recommend this place for families).

The rooms at the RBC, as us hipsters call it, were pretty nice in 2014 (I think we stayed in a “Royal Beach Suite,” from what I can remember. We had a balcony with a Jacuzzi tub on it, which seemed a bit odd in a hot, humid, jungle/beach setting.

I’d show you photos except ALL of my previous Costa Rica photos were part of the Great Laptop Meltdown of 2014 and I, quite literally, have no Costa Rica photos…..not from 2012 and not from 2014. It’s all very odd. (And yes, I am currently backing up my photo folders onto an external hard drive as we speak. Thanks for the reminder, Costa Rica)

But, right after our 2014 visit, the property owners closed down both RBC towers and completely renovated the rooms. And they did an amazing job, incorporating lots of really nice (presumably local?) wood, updating the floors and furniture, and replacing the Jacuzzis with cool, modern bathtubs (I still think it’s weird to have an outdoor bathtub on your patio, but XFE used it and was happy).

A lot of the staff at the Westin Playa Conchal and at the Royal Beach Club specifically, remembered us from our previous visits and treated us like total VIPs. We felt really well taken care of.

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Our favorite vacation game at our favorite spot: dominoes at the main lobby bar. 

We chose to return to this property because it’s just an easy fly-and-flop option for us. We know exactly what to expect. We don’t have to make a whole bunch of plans and reservations, which suited us fine since we’re belly-deep in planning our next big trip….to South Africa/Tanzania/Zanzibar.

We did go scuba diving again one morning, mostly as a refresher since we plan to dive in Zanzibar. We went with Pacific Coast Diving, which we used in 2014. Still a good outfit that’s responsive over email, is located close to the hotel, and picks you up and drops you off in a nice, air-conditioned van. Anyone who’s done a bit of scuba diving knows how rare an air-conditioned dive van is! The diving, however, was a bit meh, and the snorkelers said similar.

And there was the whole ear-ringing thing, which I could have done without. I noticed it after our second dive and it got a bit louder over the course of the evening. By the next morning, it had lowered to a semi-tolerable, steady, annoying pitch that could be drowned out in areas with ambient noise in the background (talking, music, dishes clattering). But at night, when things were quiet? Really, really distracting and disturbing. That lasted about a week or so.

We spent most of our time by the RBC pool, reading books, drinking frosty drinks (like the popular Dirty Monkey – a sort of banana/coffee/chocolate/rum smoothie) and avoiding direct sunlight so I wouldn’t spontaneously combust (ie: burn to a crisp).

We did, however, go to the beautiful Playa Conchal beach early one morning so I could try jet skiing for the first time. I’ve got to say: I’m not really a fan. I guess I just don’t feel the need for speed. Any activity where the instructions start with, “It’s much easier/better if you go faster,” isn’t likely to win me over. I prefer life in the slow-to-medium lane. Adventure-man and James Bond-look-a-like XFE, however, took off like a madman and was killing it all over the ocean waves. He’s clearly not afraid of the throttle (seriously, my hands and arms were so sore from squeezing so tightly in the slow, mid-throttle position).

So that’s it. A brief recap of our brief visit to the Westin Playa Conchal. Now the compulsive obsessing about South Africa/Tanzania/Zanzibar can truly begin (and has).

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

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Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

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A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

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This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

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It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

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Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

Back to Vieques

Photo: DesignBoom

We’re off again to Vieques, Puerto Rico. So, I thought it might be fun to revisit our last trip there in December 2011.

Hotel Crashing: The St. Regis in Nusa Dua, Bali

When I was a young, sprightly Poe running wild and breaking hearts (ie: dating), I went out for a bit with a bartender/soccer player named Ian. He was pretty hot with dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes. And very fit, obviously. Ian was sleek, sexy, laid back, and a ton of fun. He was also far too cool for my nerdy self. We dated for a summer and that was it.

A little while later, I dated Alistair (yep, I was in the throws of my British dating phase). Alistair was also gorgeous, but in a far more patrician way. He was calmer, more established and successful, very classy act. Well, classy except for the fact that I found out soon after we started dating that he had a live-in girlfriend. That was the end of that.

What I’m getting at is this: If the slick and cool W Hotel in Seminyak, Bali was Ian, then the St. Regis in Nusa Dua was all Alistair. Minus the live-in girlfriend.

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The view from the lobby down through the length of the property. Yep, those are fire dancers.

Continue reading Hotel Crashing: The St. Regis in Nusa Dua, Bali