October 30, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
The press has gone gaga over this sexy addition to the swanky boutique hotels of South Beach. Last year’s $60 million make-over of the Hotel Victor has utterly transformed the formerly-tacky Ocean Drive. Right next door to the famed Versace mansion, the Hotel Victor is centrally located in the middle of the Art Deco district, just a hop from the city’s buzzing nightlife. Parisian designer Jacques Garcia has created a sensory explosion of rich color, aromatic infusions and whimsical retro furniture, the lobby marked by an illuminated moon jellyfish tank. The hotel’s 91 rooms and suites are situated around an infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic. Mini-bars are stuffed full of “South Beach life-style essentials” (chilled eye mask, anyone?) The 6,000 square foot Spa V entices with signature treatments (like the Jet Lag V which incorporates a patented formula of volcanic mud) and the only Turkish Hammam in South Beach. The best part of the hotel? Your personal “vibe manager,” who can arrange just about anything you want to do in Miami-- from salsa to surfing.
Hotel Victor, Official Site
Hotel Victor, Five Star Alliance
Where on earth is Tonga? Sure, I used to sip those elaborate tropical concoctions at the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room in SF, soaking in the kitschy atmosphere, complete with faux-Polynesian glasses and timed thundershowers, that would rain from the ceiling in synch with the cheesy tunes played by the live band (stranded on the—um-- floating “island” that moved across the artifical lake.) But before last year’s adventure, I could barely find Tonga on a map, let alone trust the captains of my Air New Zealand flight to spy the air strip among the hundreds of islands in the middle of the Pacific. I was only about to discover this tiny island kingdom in the South Pacific: the first place in the world—positioned just to the west of the International Dateline—to see the dawn of a new day.
Unequivocally, Tonga is paradise: Long stretches of white sandy beaches. Not a soul in sight. A coastline marvel of magnificent blowholes, the surf erupting like geysers out of holes in the reef. Unique and lush vegetation on islands mostly uninhabited, though the main island—Tongatapu—is largely cultivated with fields of taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and mango trees. For the adventurous: caves to be explored (bring a torch, and candles to stick in fissures between stalagmites, so that you can swim in the cool freshwater pool in the pitch black of ‘Anahulu Cave), snorkeling and diving, yachting in the sailing capital of Vava’u Island, whale-watching tours where you can actually swim with the humpback whales. I laughed in disbelief when the Peace Corps workers in Tonga advised me to track down a local boat operator to ferry me to an outlying island to camp for a day or two. Roughing it “Survivor”-style-- surviving on fish, more fish, and fruit).
The group of islands that comprise Tonga are undeveloped, untouristed, and largely rural. Pigs and dogs root around in the foliage, and lounge roadside, in traditional villages. Above and beyond the very real paradise landscape, Tonga is a place utterly distinguished by its culture, and very serious sense of hospitality. A word of warning: Be prepared to eat. Eating a lot in Tonga gives great joy and pride to your hosts, who will no doubt serve portions bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. (Guidebooks love to point out how Tongans embrace fatness. After all, the king was in the Guiness Book of World Records for his weight. And I’m yet to find another place in the world where the national airline requires each passenger to step on a scale before departure.)
Christianity pervades all aspects of Tongan culture. It seems (that terrible flick) Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ generated more excitement in Tonga than anywhere else in the world. On Good Friday, I chatted with a girl in the airport who was on her way home to the neighboring island group of Ha’apai, who complained that it had been impossible to rent it from the video store in town. She was desperate. I watched pirated versions make their rounds around town. Discreetly changing hands in brown paper bags.
On the one hand, Tongans are very proud to say that they have never been colonized—that all the other Pacific Islands are under the jurisdiction of some foreign power-- but on the other hand, Tonga is very much colonized by religion. Indeed, it seems there are more churches in Tonga than there are villages (there are often multiple churches of different denominations in one village.) And all businesses—even Royal Tongan Airlines—are closed on Sunday. This same Good Friday, I saw a man walking down the road, burdened by the weight of a large white cross, with a trail of people behind him. We were in a Catholic village, and a series of shrines had been erected all along the road. These towering crosses—draped with woven pandanus mats and artificial flowers and images of Jesus—seem to be the ultimate fusion of cultures.
Ready to lounge and eat, lounge and eat, like the locals? For the ultimate Tongan vacation, head to the awesome, German-run Sandy Beach Resort, in the Ha’apai island group. Bungalows are set right on the beach, with the outlying coral atolls perfect for snorkeling. Meals are lavish and delicious. Royal Tongan Airlines flies daily from the capital, Nuku’alofa, (a 45 minute flight) though the airline is notorious about delays.
Want to know more? The Tonga Visitors’ Bureau has posted extensive information on their website.
The Independent UK recently reported about the world’s first sea-floor luxury resort: the Poseidon in the Bahamas. Underwater suites will boast panoramic views of unique varieties of fish on private artificial reefs, lit up by underwater lights controllable from an inside switch. And guests can enjoy use of an external fish feeder—just push a button and feed the fish outside! Additionally, each suite has a large Jacuzzi tub with spectacular views of the surrounding coral reef. Luxury underwater suites will set you back $1,500 a night. The Dude behind this development? The President of U.S. Submarines, L. Bruce Jones. Gotta figure that a submarine guy would be the one to pull off this stunt. They’re shelling out US$53 million in this novel concept, so it’ll (better be) good. Scheduled opening? The end of 2006.
October 24, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
“Don’t bother with Agra. Actually, keep away at all costs.” Fellow travelers in New Delhi warned me—on my month-long trip to India-- to avoid the grime, pushy peddlers and chaos of Agra. That the Taj is best seen in coffee table books, postcards, even on the internet. I went anyway. Fly half-way around the world and not witness “the most extravagant monument ever built for love”?!? Who were they kidding?
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capital of India under the Mughals, and both the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal date from this era. This majestic mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the Emperor so heartbroken that supposedly his hair turned grey overnight.
We arrived in the afternoon, and watched the sunset fade salmon against the walls of the Agra Fort. Emperor Akbar began the construction of the massive red sandstone fort on the banks of the Yamuna River in 1565. I hadn’t pictured that the ferocious Mughal warriors would be such architecture buffs. But the fort is beautifully designed. From slat-like windows in the ramparts, you can see the Taj Mahal rising like a mirage out of the flat plain.
The next morning’s sunrise over the white marble grandeur of the Taj Mahal took my breath away. An hour within the presence of the Taj is nothing short of epic. The smooth stone was soft on our bare feet as we wandered beneath the dome, spellbound as we squinted into the irridescent rainbows shimmering from the sun’s reflection on marble. As the light increased, the Taj seemed to change with each fresh squint, the light dancing across the pearly facade. Apparently the lovesick emperor had originally planned to build twin mausoleums, one brilliantly white and one of daunting black marble. Thank God he abandoned that plan. (And spared 20,000 more artisans and workers.) It’s hard to imagine a duplicate. From sunrise to lunchtime, we could not take our eyes off of it. The only thing that could get us to leave was our growling stomachs.
Where to stay?
Just 600 meters from one of the greatest wonders of the world, The Oberoi Amarvilas is a breathtaking hotel, providing every modern service in a haven reflecting the grandeur of the surrounding monuments. Set among pools and terraced gardens, The Oberoi Amarvilas appears itself to be a Mughal palace, fusing Persian and Moorish influences in its exquisite architecture. The blue and gold domed entranced pavilion provides brilliant views of the Taj Mahal. Check into the regal Kohinoor Suite, with its separate living and dining rooms, private study and enormous walk-in closet. Even the bathroom overlooks the Taj Mahal.
Oberoi Amarvilas, Official Site
Oberoi Amarvilas, Five Star Alliance
Located on the fifth floor, the Royal Suite of the Hotel Plaza Athenee boasts 450 square meters, overlooking the Eiffel Tower and Avenue Montaigne. The decadent suite is furnished like an elegant Parisian home, brimming with antiques and beautiful fabrics. Two enormous, luxurious bathrooms have their own Turkish bath, a Jacuzzi and a mini-bar full of cosmetics. The good folks at the Athenee haven’t skimped on technology; the Royal has eight plasma-screen televisions, lights adjustable by remote control, and a private office with high speed internet. A night will set you back EUR 14,000. Hotel Plaza Athenee, Official Site Hotel Plaza Athenee Booking at Five Star Alliance
Taj Hotels and Resorts has created a seemingly ephemeral paradise—smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Situated on one of the largest lagoons in the Maldives, the all-new Taj Exotica Resort & Spa will open in early December. On the 20 minute boat ride from the airport, you’ll think your eyes are playing tricks on you. The Taj Exotica is glorious. The resort seamlessly blends with the island’s natural beauty, creating your own private sanctuary in the middle of the ocean. Each of the 62 villas is built entirely over the lagoon and sea. Balconies, sundecks, and even private freshwater plunge pools open out onto the vast, surrounding turquoise. Get this: the Rehendi Suite even boasts a glass bathroom providing infinite views of the sea. Plus, there’s diving, snorkeling, fishing-- galore. But what we’re really drooling over is the authentically Indian spa. The Jiva Grande Spa is like its own private island, accessible by a bridge from the main resort. Spa Pavilions-- each containing private sundecks and relaxation space—include two luxurious Couple Suites. But on top of this, the Jiva Grande offers a Signature Indian Royal Mud and Bathing Experience Pavilion (with Hammam and couple experience showers), an Ayurveda Sanctuary Pavilion (with traditional Ayurveda treatments), and Heat, Hydro and Relaxation Experience Pavilion. Wow.
Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Official Site
Taj Exotica Resort & Spa Booking at Five Star Alliance
October 10, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Escape the winter blues and thaw by the turquoise Sea of Cortés at this new luxury property near Cabo San Lucas. Created by Auberge Resorts, Esperanza is deliciously alluring, chic and impossibly romantic. The sandstone villas are carved into the bluffs overlooking the sea, where the humpback whales migrate just offshore. The infinity pool seems to spill into the private cove beneath, with sweeping views of the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula. At the terraced Restaurant, enjoy a star-studded menu of local fish, like almond seared rare yellowfin tuna with warm avocado pie or grilled dorado steak with ricotta crepes and dark pasilla-huitlacoche mole. Or toss back a Piña Dorada at El Bar, watching the sun dip below the Pacific’s horizon. The resort's 56 guest rooms and suites have oversized tubs, large outdoor terraces and handcrafted furniture. Don’t miss the unique spa treatments—like grated coconut and lime body exfoliation—that feature natural, indigenous ingredients. After a yoga or pilates class, relax in the warm soaking pool or the indoor steam cave. Diving, sailing and kayaking trips are phenomenal.
Esperanza Resort, Official Site
Esperanza Resort Booking at Five Star Alliance