November 14, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Beautiful white sand beaches framed by tropical forest. A small-town Caribbean vibe. Marine parks with abundant coral reefs attracting marvelous fish and animal life. A snorkeling and scuba-diving paradise. Welcome to Bocas del Toro, Panama. To reach these islands off the country’s Caribbean coast (close to the Costa Rica border), one could opt for a short flight. Or one could be more adventurous and choose the water taxi, an experience in and of itself. The boat ride travels through old canals formerly used by the banana plantations. Peer down into the clear Caribbean-blue water, and you can see fish swimming beneath the gnarled roots of the mangroves. Where to stay? The (still-quaint) town has undergone development in recent years so that there are luxurious accommodations aplenty, in addition to cheaper hospedajes. Check out the environmentally-friendly Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge, which topped Luxury Travel Magazine’s 2005 A-List. Each bungalow is built on stilts over the crystal clear sea, your own private terrace providing vistas of jumping dolphins at sunset.
Third Stop: Tracking the Tigers
This former hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur was declared a national park in 1980. Set between the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, the park occupies 1,334 sq km of rugged, hilly terrain and deciduous forests. Ranthambore is most famous for its tigers, as the park began a conservation program in 1972 and has now stabilized the tiger population. The park offers opportunities for sighting these elusive predators on expeditions. At the lakes and water holes, visitors can also spot antelopes, sloth bears, wild boars, jackals, leopards and marsh crocodiles.
Where to stay?
Amanresorts has newly opened a wilderness retreat, Aman-i-khas, on the edge of Ranthambore. The 10 luxury tents are set in a quiet rural area, and are decorated in a rich, Mughal style, with king beds and spacious bathrooms (and soaking tubs!) The camp operates from October until the end of April-- the best period for wildlife spotting.
(Aman has a second resort in Rajasthan, called Amanbagh. Opened in February 2005, the resort’s 24 havelis and 16 pool pavilions are set within a walled oasis, within the Aravalli Hills near Alwar. Not far from Jaipur, the resort echoes the region’s Moghul architecture. Swimming pools, gardens, a decadent spa, and a Roof Terrace for dining beneath the stars.)
Aman-i-khas, Official Site
Aman-i-khas, Five Star Alliance
Second stop: The City of Lakes
Founded in 1567 by Maharana Udai Singh on the advice of a sage, Udaipur was the last of the Mewar capitals. Its romance and intrigue are almost mythical, the enduring source of inspiration for poets and artists. (And, um, this was the setting for that James Bond flick, Octopussy.) Surrounded by mountainous terrain, situated next to three lakes-- Pichola, Fateh Sagar and Udai Sagar—the city is like an oasis in the desert. The maze of narrow streets are lined by colorful markets, temples and gardens exploding with color. Set on a hill along the shores of Lake Pichola, the white City Palace seems to soar above the city. Enter through the Elephant Gate, wander the courts with carved arches, through pavilions and terraces with hanging gardens, and notice the blue tiles, inlaid mirrors, and miniature paintings depicting heroic historical scenes. Head to the markets for excellent shopping: pick up a few of the engraved miniature paintings depicting historic battles and epics, and leather books made with handmade paper (pressed with dried flowers).
Udaipur’s Lake Palace is one of the most romantic spots in the world. It appears like a brightly lit castle floating on water. Though when we visited last year, Rajasthan was suffering a serious drought, so the lake had dried up to nothing. We walked along the treeless plain of the lake-bed and noticed the water buffalo navigating the emptiness. In the distance, women’s saris appeared like billowing sails of color. The white marble palace seemed to be its own solitary island. And to think-- this 250-year old palace has been transformed into a magical luxury hotel. The Taj Lake Palace was originally built as a summer residence, designed with marble pillars, elaborate glasswork, colorful murals, and all the sumptuous details of a royal residence. Rooms offer stunning views of the Lake and Aravali mountain range. The Grand Royal Suites offer Jacuzzi tubs, marble bathrooms with rainforest showers, beautifully detailed artwork and crystal chandeliers.
The Taj Lake Palace, Official Site
The Taj Lake Palace, Five Star Alliance
First Stop: Shop Til You Drop in Jaipur
Known as the “Pink City,” Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727. The rosy color of the city is alluring and magical at sunset, set against the backdrop of desert sky. By decree of the Maharaja, the entire city was painted pink when the Prince of Wales visited in 1876. Today, laws dictate that every building maintain this hue. The walled city of Jaipur was designed with the City Palace at its center, with tiers of public buildings and noblemen’s residences spreading out from it. Main attractions include the Amber Fort—the temple within showcasing the exquisite Sheesh Mahal (hall of Mirrors)—and the Hawa Mahal, the “Palace of Breezes.” This palace’s latticework is like a beehive, the red and pink sandstone intricately carved. The elaborate facade has 953 windows, where the royalty used to glimpse secretly the city life below. The old city boasts some of the best shopping in the world. At the bazaars and markets, visitors find world-renowned jewelry (semi-precious stones, silver, bangles), brilliant fabrics, prints, embroidered textiles, shoes, and rugs.
Where to stay?
Taj Hotels operates the Rambagh Palace, a destination resort that used to be Jaipur’s Royal Palace residence. Spread over 47 acres of gardens, courtyards and fountains, the Rambagh Palace embodies the rich culture and history of the former rulers of Rajasthan. The palace hotel was first built in 1835 as a hunting lodge, converted to a palace in 1925 as the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur and finally converted as India’s first palace hotel in 1957. Pampered by personalized butlers and exemplary service, guests are invited to relive the royal lifestyle within this architectural masterpiece. Rambagh Palace offers 90 opulent rooms including the former chambers of the Maharaja.
The Oberoi Rajvilas is set in an oasis of thirty-two acres of beautiful gardens, pools and fountains, just seven kilometers from the city. Like the surrounding palaces and architectural treasures, the hotel is designed with reflective pools, decorated pillars, cool interiors and tented canopies with hand-embroidered fabrics. The hotel combines the royal elegance of the past with the modern conveniences of the 21st century to provide guests with an indulgent experience. Enjoy the very best of Western, Ayurvedic and Oriental therapies in the fabulous spa.
Taj Rambagh Palace, Official Site
Taj Rambagh Palace, Five Star Alliance
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Official Site
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Five Star Alliance
Opening Scene: Backdrop and History
The Rajasthan landscape flies by outside the car window. A wash of sandy beige interrupted by dazzling color: the bright-orange turban tightly coiled on the head of a passing motorcyclist, women clad in magenta or turquoise saris with water jugs balanced on their heads, carts of lemons piled high. And the ubiquitous water buffalo and Brahmin cows with their cute, dropping ears.
Even on a short trip to India, it’s easy to become intoxicated by the country’s chaotic energy, noise, and cultural history. Rajasthan’s temples, palaces and forts are architecturally magnificent. The bazaars are brimming with handicrafts and clothes you’ll see in trendy Soho boutiques (marked up umpteen hundred times.) But more than that, traveling through Rajasthan is an experience of the senses: tiny clay pots of sugary chai tea, the smells of spices and sweet fragrances, the kaleidoscope of color in the markets, delectable tastes dancing on the tongue. It’s a constant sensory explosion.
Rajasthan’s history is shrouded in myth. For over 1,000 years, the northwestern desert state was fiercely guarded by the Rajput clans. These legendary warriors defended their turf with a serious code of chivalry and honor. Thus Rajasthan remained independent from all the encroaching great empires throughout history. Indeed, Rajasthan’s city of Jaisalmer was the last kingdom to succumb to British colonization.
No longer just a budget backpacker’s paradise, India has become an inspiration for the international jet-set as well. Rajasthan’s beautiful Palace hotels can make anyone feel like a modern-day maharajah. The winter is the perfect time to make the trip; the monsoon rains are kept at bay for at least half a year. Hire a driver, bring out the map, and dream up your perfect itinerary.
November 10, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Bienvenidos to one of the newest members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, staking its claim on arguably the softest, whitest sand in the Caribbean—the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic. The 55-room Sivory Punta Canta is scheduled to open by Christmas 2005. The luxury boutique hotel has nothing but suites, each Balinese-style room opening onto its own private garden, with ocean and beach views. Sivory offers three gourmet restaurants and the Aquarea Wellness & Spa. Take advantage of the special introductory offer: From December 22 to January 31, 2006, stay for six nights and the seventh is free! (Rate: from $3,102 per room, per stay, exclusive of 16% tax and service charge.)
November 9, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
I used to think of historic Healdsburg as Napa sin crowds, the little country town where seekers of great wine could avoid the weekend traffic jams that plague the neighboring valley. (Napa’s long corridor usually jammed bumper to bumper just like 5 pm on the Bay Bridge.) Indeed, Healdsburg’s country stores, fantastic deli, and boutiques embody country charm. Surrounded on all sides by vineyards, Healdsburg is the epicenter of three distinctive growing regions: the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley. After a blissful drive to vineyards like Pezzi King, along country roads snaking through spellbinding scenery, you’d find yourself alone with the vintner, enjoying a delicious glass of wine and basking in the warmth of familial hospitality. Healdsburg is now undergoing a chic transformation, as new restaurants and hotels have added a touch of luxury and decadence to Sonoma County’s charming capital. Opened since March, the $3.5 million Les Mars Hotel is a splendid, European-style inn, full of gracious artwork and antiques. Sixteen guestrooms have been created out of what used to be an auto parts store. Room rates range from $425 to $995 (depending on the season and choice of room). The French-inspired Cyrus restaurant, directly off the lobby, has been called “Sonoma’s answer to French Laundry” in Napa’s Yountville. The owners hail from some of SF’s best restaurants: Gary Danko and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. Elegant menus are fixed course: three, four or five for $58, $69, and $80, respectively.
November 8, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Barcelo shelled out 31 million dollars for the luxurious La Jolla De Mismaloya, known worldwide as the setting where Ava Gardner and Richard Burton got it on during the filming of The Night of the Iguana. The 303-suite luxury hotel—now dubbed the Barcelo La Jolla de Mismaloya— was built in 1989 on the site of the sets used by John Huston in directing the 1964 film. With this new addition, Barcelo will operate 11 hotels (3,613 rooms) in Mexico, including the Yucatan’s Barcelo Maya Colonial and the Barcelo Maya Tropical, planned for late 2005.
November 7, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Well, I suppose now isn’t the best time to pack your bags for Paris. But I can’t help but wax poetic about one of my favorite hotels in the world, the grandest of the Parisian Palace Hotels: The Crillon. Its location on the world-famous Place de la Concorde can’t be beat. This is the center of the City of Light, man! The hotel is mere steps away from the swanky boutiques of the Faubourg St.-Honoré. Strap on those walking shoes and just a short marche away are the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Champs Elysées, and many more of the city’s most famous attractions. The 103 rooms, 39 suites, and 5 luxury apartments are sumptuous and magnificent, without sacrificing the intimate atmosphere of a private residence. (This is the only Palace Hotel that has retained private-ownership by a French family—the makers of fine bubbly, the Taittingers.) The Leonard Bernstein Suite, named for the great conductor and composer who used to camp out here, is exceptional. Three bedrooms, two living rooms, a sauna, Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and all the modern technology. Its large terrace overlooks the most majestic view of Paris: from the Eiffel Tower to the Musee D’Orsay across the Place de la Concorde. With fully personalized service, hotel guests feel like the royalty who are frequent guests here.
Hotel de Crillon, Official Site
Hotel de Crillon, Five Star Alliance
November 4, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Ahhhhh, the Halekulani Hotel. How best to describe one of the world’s best and most luxurious hotels? (I mean, these digs are truly fit for a king!) For almost 100 years, the Halekulani has proudly sustained its global reputation for gracious hospitality, flawless service, and extraordinary cuisine. The pool alone is a landmark. (Not just for the views overlooking the famous Waikiki Beach. The orchid mosaic on the bottom is made up of 1.2 million pieces of glass tile imported from South Africa. By God—it’s a work of art!) SpaHalekulani has got its own exclusive line of bath and body products, and La Mer restaurant—with its French cuisine created with fresh island ingredients-- is Hawaii’s only Five Diamond restaurant. But the best part of the Halekulani is the Vera Wang suite: arguably the most romantic on earth, and created by none other than the designer herself. Exclusive, stylish, and sophisticated, the 2,135 sq. ft suite is decorated with rare furnishings from Hawaii, the Pacific, and Asia. Each adornment—from the fine-china in the formal dining room to the fragrances and body lotions—were hand-selected by Vera Wang. The expansive deck (642 sq. ft.) overlooks the sea, sand and volcanic landscape of Hawaii. Other details include: private butler service, TOTO deep-soaking tub, master control system (room temperature, lighting, butler and in-room dining), welcome amenity of French champagne and amuses bouche.
Halekulani Hotel, Official Site
Halekulani Hotel, Five Star Alliance