5 Facts About the Maldives (or, Why Can’t I Just Relax and Enjoy Nice Things?)

Oh, hello there. I realize I left you all on a bit of a cliffhanger. Not about the Mad Pooper. I mean, we’re all waiting for bated breath on that one, but alas, I’m not sure we’ll ever really find out who she is or why she does what she did. And the Colorado police want us all to just flush it and forget it.

No, I left you hanging over our visit to the St. Regis Maldives. Which, honestly, is not a bad place to just hang. And, because really, that’s kind of all there is to do there is…..hang.

Let me tell you a little something about the Maldives, which is sometimes pronounced “Maldiiives” with a long “i” (if you are American) and sometimes pronounced “Maldeeeves” with a long and pronounced “e” (if you are British). Somehow along the way, XFE and I had taken to pronouncing it the British way. That’s fine, too. Nobody at the very fine and expensive St. Regis Maldeeeeves ever corrected us while they were taking our credit card information. No harm. No foul. Or “foal,” however you want to pronounce it.

St. Regis Maldives welcome note for Ms Peo
Perhaps this little mispronunciation of my last name is why they didn’t correct our mispronunciation of Maldives.

Anyway, about the Maldives.

Here are 5 things to know about the Maldives.

They are incredibly remote. – The Maldives – all 1,000 coral islands that make up the tiny 26 ring-shaped atolls of this adorable little tropical paradise – are just floating along in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far, far from just about anywhere. This island nation is just under 9,000 miles (or 19 hours by plane) from our home base of Washington, D.C.

Sri Lanka is probably the closest gateway country to the Maldives at just 642 miles away (it’s a one-and-a-half hour flight from Colombo to the Maldives largest city, Male).

So it’s got that whole Robinson-family-shipwrecked-far-from-civilization vibe to it, which, I’ve got to say, freaked me out a tiny bit.

Atolls in the Maldives
Future St. Regis atolls beginning to take shape.

They are unbelievably beautiful. — Lonely Planet calls it “nature’s sunken garden” and XFE commented that being there was “like living above an aquarium.” The water is an impossible clear, light aqua blue that literally makes your eyes hurt and the sand on the beaches was so soft and white it reminded us of the sand you find in those fancy stamped ashtrays in Las Vegas.

The reefs we explored – both around the St. Regis property itself and during a day of exploring other reefs by private boat – were exceptional. Crystal clear waters teaming with all kinds of sea life and underwater cliffs covered in coral that just went on forever. The reefs were so exceptional, in fact, that we didn’t even go scuba diving. We felt we could see everything we wanted to see just snorkeling, including sharks, octopus, rays, turtles, and all the colorful small fish you can possible imagine.

They are amazingly expensive. – I already spoke a little bit about the room prices at the St. Regis, which we were lucky enough to not have to pay. But those multiple dollar signs pop up in all the other stuff, too.

Hey, you know what grows in coral? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The lack of arable land makes agriculture a no-go, which is why just about every food item (besides fish, and in particular, tuna) has to be brought in. And it’s also why everything in the Maldives (at least in my resort-laden experience) was incredibly expensive (think: $45 burgers, $36 margherita pizza).

Menu at the St. Regis Maldives' Cargo restaurant
Please note the $23 falafel starter. There was also a $45 kebab.

 

(Disclaimer: Apparently, there are a few things that can be grown in the Maldives – hello, coconuts — but even this website notes it’s mostly grown in homestead gardens, not enough to consider marketable. And if these Maldives farmers did sell them, I’m sure they’d be really, really expensive.)

They seriously rely on tourism. — The overall population of all 26 atolls is just over 425,000 and pretty much everybody is involved in the tourism industry. More than 1.2 million tourists visited the Maldives in in 2016, shacking up in one of the 126 resorts located on the atolls. Local laws require a certain percentage of the staff to be Maldives citizens (I think it was something like 51%) so it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Maldivians are somehow involved in travel and tourism.

our St. Regis Maldives Butler
Our amazing St. Regis Maldives butler who put up with us for days on end.

So these guys are total pros—very service oriented, always smiling, very professional. The staff at the St. Regis was top notch all the way. Even when there were glitches (and yes, there were a couple), they bent over backwards to fix things, no questions asked. In fact, if anything, managers and servers wanted to dwell on those glitches: we were asked about and apologized to for service snafus by multiple people throughout the staff multiple times, which sometimes bordered on uncomfortable.

They are all about relaxation. – I don’t want to say there’s nothing to do in the Maldives, because there probably are lots of things to do, if you are not a pasty-delicate-white flower who burns when she even sees a picture of a sun.

And certainly the St. Regis had all kinds of different buildings with a ton of different activities (a gorgeous round library stocked with books, magazines and even Kindles for guest use, another building fully stocked with games—everything from video game areas to ping-pong and foosball tables, a yoga studio with those hanging ribbons ala Pink, a cooking kitchen designed for kids, a ridiculously cool, futuristic-looking spa). They have a movie night on the beach (I think it was on Thursdays) and a very cool DJ spinning at the Whale Bar every night.

Gravity free yoga at St. Regis Maldives

But most of the times we went in those buildings, they were entirely empty. We strolled by the movie night and it was playing to empty bean bags. When we went to the Whale Bar for after dinner drinks, it was usually just us, the staff and the very cool DJ.

Maybe it was the time of year. Who knows? We’d been to resorts on an island before, but this was entirely different. This was an island resort – not a resort on an island. It often felt (other than at breakfast time) that we were the only people in the entire place, which again, made me a wee bit angsty.

St. Regis Maldives beach
Where is everybody?

The one thing that felt slightly odd to me is that every day felt identical. They were all beautiful picture-perfect days. The sun was always shining, the sky was always blue, it was always warm and humid — there seemed no variation to the days at all. I think that could make someone go crazy. You don’t even have the weather to talk about!

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about the St. Regis specifically and our overwater bungalow.

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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.

Fire dancers
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.

ST-REGIS-MALDIVES-VILLAS Points Guy.png
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.

swinging
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.

St. Regis Welcome.JPG
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.

prop plane.jpg
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.

self portrait
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: 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).

wes3560ex-105811_xx
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.

the-westin-golf-resort-and-spa-playa-conchal_aerial-view-royal-beach-club
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.

IMG_3979
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.

Poe at soccer
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.

La Cuchara san Telmo
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.

Suite_Terrace_Terrace_1600x900
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).

Hotel Crashing: W Hotel in Seminyak, Bali

It’s cold here in D.C., y’all. Like, eye-tearing, nose-running, teeth-achingly cold. Yes, the cold makes even your teeth hurt. It’s crazy.

And I won’t even get into my whole frozen fingers and toes situation.

So, with that in mind. I thought we might go back in time (to around August or so). Time to revisit someplace more forgiving and less frigid. Someplace where the gentle breezes warmly caressed our pale, pale, Northeastern skin. Ah, Bali.

Bali sunset
Bali sunset.

Our first couple of nights in Bali were spent at the W Hotel in Seminyak, a very fun and touristy little town down on the coast. Think lots of hotels, restaurants, bars, boutique stores.

We love W Hotels and have stayed in lots of them (including the one in Istanbul right after it opened. Oh, and the one in the French Quarter where I split my head open.), so we knew a bit what we were in for. And the W Hotel in Bali definitely lived up to the brand.

bag of beach goodies
Bag of beach goodies

Check in was smooth and easy. We cooled off with a cucumber/minty/lemony type drink and a wet cloth while they processed our upgrade to a private villa.

Reception at the W Hotel Bali
Reception at the W Hotel Bali

Then we went to our villa, opened the gate and saw all this.

private pool

private pool again

Private pool again again

Then we basically disappeared and barely emerged from our villa. And lived happily ever after.

The Villa at Bali W

I’m just kidding. Sort of. We did spend a lot of time in our room.

Room view at the W Hotel Bali

Bathroom at the W Hotel Bali

Oh, actually, our villa had two rooms to choose from. A master and then another, slightly less opulent room with two beds.

Second room at our villa

For just the two of us. Crazy.

Bar area between the rooms
Bar area between the rooms

But when we did leave our little bit of paradise, we found the W Hotel to be just gorgeous. And the staff were amazing. So friendly and helpful. We even had the GM come out and say goodbye to us as we were sadly leaving.

W Hotel Bali

W Hotel outdoor bar

W Hotel Bali deck bar

The perfect oasis. I would probably chop off one of my frostbitten ears to be in one of those loungers right now.

W Hotel Bali Private Villa loungers

Hotel Crashing: Two Starwood/Libertador Hotels in Peru

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but I sometimes have trouble sleeping. (I know I’ve told it in person to every person who’s crossed my path. And everyone on Facebook and Twitter. And in the comments section of a couple of other blogs).

Anyway, it’s actually a fairly frustrating form of insomnia – I am quite able to fall asleep on my couch at 9:08 in the evening but find myself awake at 3 or 4 am, unable to quiet my mind enough to fall back asleep until somewhere around 6 am, or 15 minutes before the alarm goes off.

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The funniest part about all of this is that I used to be an amazing sleeper. Seriously, I could have done it as a job. If there had been a Sleep Olympics back in the day, I would have taken gold, silver and bronze. I’m practically a founding member of the National Sawing Logs Association of America (acronym: ZZZofA).

In my 20s and early 30s, I used to be able to sleep for 8, 9, 10 hours at a time. On weekends in my wasted 20s, I would sleep even more if left to my own devices. My mind was never racing at 4 in the morning, although considering the very sad state of my finances and job security prospects at the time, I should have been bugged-eyed and wide awake with worry.

Now, with a good job and a comfortable bank account, I am very, very wakeful.

(Although, knock on wood, for the last week or so, I’ve been in one of my good sleeping stretches. Probably due to getting up in the pre-dawn hours to go to the gym with XFE. Who knows how long it will last, but I’m definitely enjoying it.)

But, I slept like a champion in Peru.

I’m not sure if it was because there were exceptionally early morning flights (5:30 flight to Cusco) or because of the WuaynaKihlPhoe parasite, but most nights (parasite-symptom-wakefulness excluded), I was knocked right out and did not wake up until it was time for another delicious breakfast.

I’m working on a self-funded (OK, fine, an XFE-subsidized) study on the correlation between sleep satisfaction and expensive luxury resort hotels. The key to a sound sleep might be related to the weave in a set of Egyptian cotton linens + peace of mind from having a concierge/butler at one’s beck and call.

Room at Tambo del Inka in Peru

This was confirmed at Libertador hotels in Peru. I was not familiar with the Libertador hotel collections (funny fact: when you get to a certain price point, I’ve noticed that the language changes from “hotel chain” to “resort collection.”) but apparently, they’re a really nice line of hotels in Peru.

Thanks to their alliance with Starwood Properties, we stayed at two of Libertador’s seven hotels – Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru and Tambo del Inka, near Machu Picchu.

Hotel Paracas was a typical beach-type resort—white stucco buildings, lush green manicured grounds, a beach view with white sands, an outdoor beach lounge/bar area near the beach with those big round wicker chairs and an outdoor fire pit and tiki torches.

 Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

 Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

The pool, which looked huge on the website, was actually a narrow strip of pool that got crowded with vacationing families pretty fast. We also ran into some difficulty renting a cabana, which limited our pool time a bit.

Pool at Hotel Paracas in the southern coast of Peru

The other problem we had was with the onsite tour agency, T’ikariy. They were unresponsive to our (admittedly, numerous) emails ahead of our visit, and gave conflicting information when we went in person. We were trying to book a sunset sand buggy excursion with them and after a few starts and stops (“We can’t do same day bookings.” “We can’t book you for tomorrow because it’s less than 24 hours.” “We can’t book you at all because our jeep is broken.”), we gave up and went to our concierge who gave us the number to another excursion place (he couldn’t book it since he’s supposed to use the onsite agency. Who didn’t have a working jeep. So, that makes sense.)

At Hotel Paracas, we stayed in a balcony suite, which, oddly enough is on the first floor. It had a lovely porch overlooking the grounds, which we made good use of, buying our own beer and cokes from the nearby town. We’d sit out there in the evenings with XFE’s iPod, eating snacks we’d brought from Trader Joe’s and drinking beers. It was probably my favorite part of the day.

Our villa at Hotel Paracas Peru

The room was very spacious. It had clearly been two rooms converted into one with a living room (with sofa bed), wet bar, and full bathroom with shower on one side; and a bedroom with king size bed and large bath on the other side. It’s the perfect set up for a family.

Living room at Hotel Paracas Peru

Bedroom at Hotel Paracas Peru

The service from the hotel staff was overall impeccable – everyone on the property was very friendly and quick to help with anything. Not that we put them through their paces or anything…other than a few calls for ice, we stayed pretty low during our two night stay.

Tambo del Inka would be where I really put Libertador hotel staff to the test.

Tambo del Inka is Incan for “Rest Stop of the Incans” and it was the perfect rest stop for us on our way to Machu Picchu. It’s located in the Sacred Valley in a town called Urubamba, about 50 minutes from Cusco. It opened only about a year ago and it is obvious that no expense was spared.

Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

The resort is small—only 128 rooms—and the entire place blends beautifully into the countryside. It’s got a whole, ski-lodge kind of vibe, with giant wooden doors opening onto the lobby with its floor-to-ceiling double-sided stone fireplace and a soaring ceiling with exposed wooden beams. However, the colorful Peruvian folk art hanging from the walls and decorating the surfaces reminds you that you’re not in Colorado.

Lobby beams at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Lobby at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

We checked out the indoor/outdoor multilevel swimming pool, but unfortunately it was too cold to swim. It’s supposed to be heated, but I would have to say, no way. We also peeked into the spa area and water circuit, which looked amazing. Our biggest regret was that we didn’t book a spa treatment at Tambo.

Indoor pool at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Pool at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

But the most stunning place was the bar right off the lobby. It had this jaw-dropping wall of translucent, backlit golden marble. The bar also has a lovely outdoor deck that made it even more difficult to choose where to sit.

Bar at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Deck at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

The check in was slightly unusual, but in a very nice way. They lead you over to one of the comfortable couches in the lobby area, and bring over some mate de coca tea (it’s supposed to help with altitude sickness) or a choice of other beverage. Since I wasn’t feeling too well and we’d been up since 3 am, we tried to rush our check in a bit to get to our room. The staff was understanding.

We were immediately upgraded to a very spacious senior suite room overlooking the Urubamba River, which came with its own butler, Alan. The room was just as gorgeous as the lobby, with a large walk in closet and one of the best beds I’ve ever slept in. Which I promptly did, right after a long bath in the sunken tub.

Room at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Bath at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

Living Rooom at Tambo del Inka Sacred Valley Peru

I was full on sick by this point (thanks, coconut popsicle in Lima!) and XFE was left to his own devices. He went to the afore-mentioned bar for a late lunch and then wandered into Urubamba for a look around. While taking pictures of the square, he made this little friend, who kept popping up just as the camera clicked.

Urubamba
Urubamba photo bomber

I still wasn’t feeling well that evening, so I ordered chicken soup from room service. I think it was great soup, but honestly, I was just incredibly hungry by that time. It could have been dirty bathwater and I think I would have slurped it down. They also brought me a birthday cake, which, while it didn’t help my stomach, it did make me very happy.

Birthday cake at Tambo del Inka in Peru

We chose Tambo del Inka because it has a train station taking hotel residents to Machu Picchu, which is a huge perk. The train leaves at the crack of dawn (Of course. Why must everything on vacation occur when the sun is not even up yet?) and a staff person walks you over to the station. Not because it’s a long and confusing walk. More likely, because you’re so sleepy and bleary eyed, they’re afraid you’ll end up snuggled up next to an alpaca in some farmer’s field somewhere. That’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen.

alpaca cuddles in Peru
But we’re so soft and cute, come sleep with us….

Most of the Tambo residents went up to Machu Picchu for just the day, but we stayed overnight at the Sanctuary. We packed a small overnight bag and the staff at Tambo held our bags for us, bringing them back to our room upon our return (we were put in the same room, which was nice.)

We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant our final morning (full buffet plus cooked-to-order eggs) and it was delicious. Well, as delicious as two scrambled-to-oblivion eggs could be, since I was still pretty sick and not feeling adventurous enough to try the quinoa pancakes (although I really wanted to).

Lobby at Tambo del Inka, Peru
Another lobby view.

We also looked at the dinner menu while we were checking out and really regret that we didn’t get a chance to eat there. It looked incredible and the prices were very reasonable.

Just like Hotel Paracas, the service was spot on, perhaps even a bit better. When walking through the lobby of Tambo del Inka, you literally ran a gauntlet of “buenos dias” and “hellos.” Our butler Alan was very helpful and concerned about my health, and offered to call a doctor to the hotel. I stoically, and stupidly, refused. Regret #3: if you’re sick, let them call a damn doctor in.

Tambo del Inka, Peru
More grounds at Tambo.

We loved our Tambo del Inka experience and just wished we’d booked a couple of extra days to enjoy the resort some more. Or, as was my case, roll around in that giant soft bed some more.

It’s a gorgeous place and definitely on my list of top 5 places we’ve ever stayed, intestinal parasite notwithstanding.

Hotel Crashing: Westin, Marriott in Lima

I love, love, love hotels.

I love the sometimes modern, sometimes classical, sometimes retro, but always sweeping and grand front desk areas.

I love the smiling friendly people who work at the front desk area and the way they focus so intently on their little screen while trying to find you the absolute best room upgrade.  I love the concept of a concierge to help you with every single little request, no matter how weird of small.

I love the music they play in the lobby and all the lovely flower arrangements. I love the free coffee in the lobby in the morning or the free wine in the evening and the chance to make small talk with fellow guests.

Lilies in Lima
Lilies (my favorite) in one of our rooms.

I love the huge, luxurious beds with the fresh clean sheets and towels every single day (and sometimes in the evening, if you’d like) and the pillow menus that let you pick the firmness and composition of your pillow. I love room service and I definitely love the toiletries.  Oh, and the turndown chocolates.

Basically, I wish I was Eloise (especially since she lived at the Plaza. Can you just imagine what the robes must be like?? I. Die.)

One of the best compliments my co-decorator XFE and I ever got was, “You’re house looks like a W Hotel.”

To me, walking into a hotel is kinda like opening a present. And then opening the door to the room is like opening a present inside a present. There have been many a time when we’ve opened the door to our room and I’ve looked back and thought, “Is this all for us? All of it? We don’t have to share it with anybody?”

Which is all to say: We stayed in some pretty freaking great places in Peru.

Lobby at the Westin Lima Peru
Like this one.

We stayed at two hotels in Lima. Because, really, why wouldn’t you hotel hop when you get the chance? Actually, our Lima hotels bookcased our trip down to Paracas, so we chose the second hotel based on its proximity to the car rental drop off. I mean, that wasn’t the only reason we picked it, but it did make it an attractive option.

First we spent two nights at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood. It’s the newest major hotel in Lima and was the tallest building in the country when it opened in May 2011. The lobby was gorgeous with lots of dark wood, and low couches and open-sided fire pits in the lobby bar area.

Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood.
Fire pits!

We were immediately upgraded to an amazing executive suite on the 19th floor. This suite had a living room, eat-in dining area, powder room and master bath; and a humongous bedroom with panoramic views of the financial district. In total, it was 700 square feet. Basically, a little more than half our house. Yeah. It was basically, slightly bigger than the lower half of our house.

Bedroom, Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center in the San Isidro neighborhood.

 

Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center bathroom

They had the most amazing lilies in vases throughout. Our “room” smelled like a really upscale florists’ shop.

Living room at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center
Our living room. For two nights.

We also got access to the Westin Executive Club Lounge a couple of floors up (home of the legendary best pisco sour we had the entire trip). Poor people: listen up. There’s this big secret amongst the rich people out there, which is: They get to eat for free! Like, every meal. And sometimes even drink for free! And it’s pretty good stuff! I mean, it’s not like a full menu or anything, but there are usually meats and cheeses and salads and sandwiches. In the morning, there are even free mimosas to go with your pastries, sausages and eggs (although, if I do have one complaint, it’s that the scrambled eggs are always a bit runny for my taste at these executive lounge places. But the same could be said at any breakfast buffet, really. Blech.)

westin lima welcome
Free food! In our room! Thanking us for staying with them. KRAY-KRAY.

I swear, if I’d known all of this free food stuff was going on when I was a poor college student, I would have spent all my time lurking outside hotel executive clubs. It’s insane.

Between the amazing room and the free food and wine, I really didn’t even want to leave the hotel. Ever. And we didn’t even have time to check out the other amenities, (although I hear they had a fantastic heated indoor pool.)

Closet at the Westin Lima Hotel and Convention Center
Oh, did I mention the walk in closet?

Eventually, we did have to leave, and it was a very sad day indeed when XFE had to pry my claws off the door frame so we could check out.

The JW Marriott in Miraflores was our next hotel in Lima, and while not quite as amazing as the Westin, it was still pretty damn nice.  Or, actually, I should say that the room itself wasn’t as luxurious, but I actually preferred the executive club at the Marriott better. It’s true I liked the Marriott club food slightly better, but primarily it was because our fellow club attendees were vastly more entertaining (there was a fighting couple sitting nearby who it turns out weren’t a couple, but were actually work colleagues who were quite fed up with each other. Also: an exceedingly large man explaining a diet that he was on, and a bunch of other personal things, all very loudly).

It’s been a long time since I stayed at a Marriott. I guess I thought they were a bit dated and appealed more towards and older clientele. Our room basically enhanced my pre-conceived impressions. There was nothing wrong with the room per se (in fact, the ocean view was very nice), but after the grandeur of the Westin, it seemed kinda basic.

JW Marriott in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

However, it did the trick and provided a good home base for our last, short evening in Lima. Also, the front desk staff was great and we were particularly grateful they remembered our 2 am wakeup call so we could catch our 5:30 flight to Cusco.

View from the JW Marriott in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

Couple of other notes about the Marriott: the location is great. You’re right across the street from the Larcomar mall, and there’s a casino next to the hotel. In case you’re feeling lucky. In fact, we saw quite a few people straggling in as we were leaving for the airport at 3 am, including a proud Longhorn dad explaining craps to his two young UT-togs-wearing sons as they waited for the elevator. If I hadn’t been so bleary-eyed, I might have grabbed a cup of free lobby coffee and made small talk with them. But I had other hotel rooms awaiting me in other parts of Peru.

 

Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

“This Gehry guy really seems to know what he’s doing,” I said out loud, albeit, a bit breathlessly. I’m pretty sure the bellhop heard me on that one.

The swirling riot of metallic ribbons of fuschia, gold and silver that make up the roof of the Hotel Marques de Riscal will do that to a girl.

You would think after seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I’d have been a bit more jaded, a bit more prepared for the impact of a Gehry-designed building. I mean, how many times can one swoon at the site of some curved titanium?

Apparently, in my case at least, there is no cap on being awe-stricken by a building. And as the Spanish sun reflected the colors of the roof onto the ground beneath my feet, I was again amazed by architecture.

Marques de Riscal hotel and winery

The Hotel Marques de Riscal was the whole crazy origins of this trip to Spain. As a Starwood Luxury Property, we would stumble across pictures of it on Starwood’s website. It seemed incongruous to see this crazy modern property nestled in the center of a tiny old Spanish town.

It went into the “maybe someday” file.

But as we started talking about our trip to Spain, we decided we wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path. Someplace neither of us had been and that we would see together for the first time.

And then, of course, there was the wine.

Continue reading Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

Hotel Crashing: Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas

Last week, I talked about my favorite place that we stayed at in Australia. Today, I’m talking about my least favorite place. Actually, that’s a bit harsh. I didn’t dislike the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, but it definitely was not my vibe.

So let’s take a trip in the way-back time machine to our vacation to Australia, specifically, our time up north in Queensland, which is the equivalent of Australia’s Caribbean, very tropical, lots of sun, lots of rain.

Sheraton Mirage, Australia

The Sheraton Mirage is very much in the vein of Caribbean resorts. It totally reminded me of all-inclusives we’ve stayed at in Dominican Republic and Mexico – huge, multi-building properties set on lush, gorgeous grounds, acres of lagoon-like pools, with private access to pristine beaches.

Room 2115 at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

However, staying at the Sheraton Mirage is like travelling back in time, to the 1980s, specifically. To a time where white wicker furniture was accented with peach and turquoise cushions featuring a tropical, palm pattern.

Beach access at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

The place was massive. The lobby, which I think had recently been updated, was the size of an airport terminal. Huge. Like, we’re talking an echo huge. And it was never very busy, so I don’t know why it needed to be so large.

Room at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia
Welcome to the Jungle.

The desk staff when we arrived was very nice and courteous. No check in drama. (And I will say, the management responds to every comment onTripAdvisor, which is very impressive.)

Room at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

We made our way to our upgraded room, which was miles from the front desk.

Room at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

The room was ginormous. It had a patio and large windows with plantation shutters overlooking part of the lagoons. The 1980s design aesthetic was in full force. There was even a control panel by the bed that was fabulously 80s.

Time traveling at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

But the bathroom! Oh the bathroom. It was a marble temple dedicated to the God of 80s Excess. Gordon Gecko would have been quite comfortable in there.

Time traveling at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

We only stayed there for two nights and we really didn’t make use of the facilities. We were out early in the morning and back fairly late in the evening. We had our own car so we didn’t have to rely on the shuttle to go into downtown Port Douglas, so I can’t speak to how that works. We also didn’t really eat there (I think we had room service one night, but I don’t really remember it), but we did notice that the menu prices seemed really, really high.

Time traveling at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia
Yep, that’s a boom box.

It’s a nice resort, I suppose, if you just want to go somewhere and relax by the pool (you can’t go in the ocean most of the year because of jellyfish). We saw a lot of families and older people there, probably people who had been going there for years and years.

Mini bar at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia
The deluxe mini bar set up. Yep, those are cheese AND crackers.

Oh, and speaking of older people, we noticed that there were warning signs on everything! Signs warning you how to use the tub, signs warning you about how to use the shutters, signs warning you about the weight of the doors. And, of course, a warning about ants. It was crazy.

Warnings at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

be careful!
More jacuzzi tub warnings. Shit must be dangerous.

Warnings at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia

It’s an interesting place. They’re definitely trying hard, but it’s just really old and dated.

80s excess at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia
Yep, those are fish. The carpet has a fish design.
80s excess at the Sheraton Mirage, Australia
A close up. Yep, still fish.

Typical Hotel Check-In Conversation

This is an almost verbatim transcription of our typical check-in procedures at any Starwood Property around the world.

Desk clerk: OK, Mr. XFE, we’ve put you in a lovely garden room with a view of the park. It’s not ready just yet, but if you come back in an hour, we’ll get that ready for you.

XFE: Hmmm, ok. Oh hey, I’m a platinum member who stayed at your properties about 65 billion times last year, which means I’m eligible for an automatic upgrade. Do you have any suites available?

Desk clerk: (immediately). Oh, no, sorry, I’m afraid we don’t. You see it’s Mardi Gras/Gay Pride/Prom/multiple weddings/dingo took your baby/other excuses weekend and we’re fully booked. There’s not a single suite available in the entire hotel.

"I'm rolling in suites, but I'll be damned if I'm giving one to some low-life vermin like you. We're saving our suites in case JLo shows up."

XFE: (who has been looking at his phone during the exchange) Well, according to your Starwood app, there are several suites available at this very property in three different categories, including executive and terrace suites.

Desk Clerk: (after multiple keyboard clicks) Well, they’re not showing up on my system. Perhaps the online booking system hasn’t been updated to reflect actual current hotel conditions?

XFE: So if I were to click this little ‘book now’ button, pay full price for the suite, and show you a confirmation number, you would have to tell me that that room that I just booked and paid for is in fact, not available?

Desk Clerk: Hold on a second. (several minutes pass, including lots of keyboard clicking, mouse scrolling, telephone calling, walkie talkie exchanges, more squinting at the screen. Meanwhile a line is forming behind us). Ah, ok, we do have a suite available that I can put you in. It will be ready in a couple of hours.

XFE: Much obliged.

Dear reader: there are always suites available. But we literally have a variation of this conversation every time we check in to a Starwood hotel. Usually it involves leaving and then coming back and speaking to a different desk clerk, who maybe, just might be less of a pain in the arse.

Just once I’d like the desk clerk to say: “Mr. XFE, I see that you are a platinum member. Thank you for your loyalty. We’ll be automatically upgrading you to a suite, per our programs clearly stated rules. Please have a seat while I make the necessary arrangements. May I offer you some lemonade?”

OK, I know that’s not realistic. But it would be nice if every check in didn’t result in a Mexican standoff.

As for revenge, I will be stuffing my bags with toiletries. Take that, Starwood.

No sharks yet here in Australia, but I will tell you about some other crazy vermin we saw and ate (separate vermin. We didn’t go hunt and eat or anything) here in our first day in Sydney in my next post!