Peru has so much more to offer than just Machu Picchu, but looking at this photo it is hard not to focus on this amazing location. I will get to Machu Picchu, but let me start from the beginning.
I planned this trip at the last minute and if it had not been during COVID, I would not have been able to see everything I wanted or stay at the properties of my choice....so when you decide to visit Peru, please give yourself plenty of time to plan. The first step (as of the time of this writing), is getting a PCR test to visit Peru. The airline will verify your test results when you check in at your departure airport (for me, Portland, OR), along with your vaccine card.
Since COVID regulations were changing frequently, I worked with my partners in Peru to have them meet me at the airport and help me in each location. As a travel advisor, I appreciate all of my local partners as they know exactly what is going on in the destination and can help my travelers make any needed changes immediately. We landed without incident in Lima and headed into town for a short 2-night stay.
We stayed in the Miraflores district and headed out for a walk by the ocean. Our driver had mentioned that there had been some erosion due to earthquakes, but I was shocked to see it in daylight. Right at the ledge is a shopping mall above and the JW in the background is only a block or so away from the ledge. This is honestly the image I have when I think of Lima now. Of course, there is much more to the city. The food is wonderful and the people we met were all very friendly and welcoming. Lima is for sure worth at least a day in your itinerary (giving you 2 nights here).
Next, we headed to the Sacred Valley---we flew into Cusco and it is about a 2 hour drive from there. The Sacred Valley is a lower elevation (about 8,000 feet) than Cusco (about 11,500) and staying the valley can help with altitude sickness as your body can adjust more gradually. Machu Picchu is also around 8,000 feet.
I knew the Sacred Valley was beautiful, but I felt like everywhere I looked was beautiful. I took hundreds of photos! The Sacred Valley is a peaceful location to do some hiking or biking or simply relax. We spent 3 nights here and that gave me time to sightsee and enjoy some spa treatments (nice balance). The area is very agricultural--they seem to grow mostly potatoes and corn. The corn is nothing like I had seen before....the kernels were huge! They also had purple corn.
From the Sacred Valley, it is a 1.5 hour or so train ride to the city of Machu Picchu. We went on the Vistadome train which has windows on the ceilings and local entertainment during the journey. It was exciting to see the terrain change along the way and there truly wasn't even a moment with a bad view. The COVID restrictions were the strictest on the train---you had to wear 2 masks and a face shield. It didn't deter from the experience from my perspective and gave us a funny story along the way. We had to buy the shield at a little vendor by the train (about 50 cents) and we put it on....and couldn't see anything....it was all blurry! I thought, how terrible...this is supposed to be a beautiful journey. Our driver thankfully knew what he was doing and peeled a film off each side of the shield and suddenly everything was clear. We probably had to tell 20 or more people to take the film off their shield on trip---no one other than out driver seemed to know what was going on.
From the city of Machu Picchu (formerly called Agua Calientes), it is a 30 minute bus ride or a couple/few hour hike up to the actual Machu Picchu ruins. We stayed at the only hotel at the ruins---Belmond Sanctuary Lodge---so we took the bus up right after the train. Arriving around 3pm we were the only ones on the bus up (that is around the time of the last entry into Machu Picchu so everyone was coming back down, not going up).
From the Orchid Garden at the Belmond, you can see the citadel of Machu Picchu (to the left of the mountain in the photo above). We were glad we had seen even that small glance when the next morning at our 6am entry time (best time to go---you avoid a lot of the crowds) it was a downpour and super foggy. We literally could hardly see our hands in front of our faces. We thought the view from the garden might be all we would get. Like I mentioned, I planned this trip at the last minute and got lucky to get tickets....but there wasn't enough availability to get a second entry time (advice: if you have bad weather, it is reassuring that you have a back up time).
Our guide was patient and we waited until the end of our entrance window to enter and then walked slowly up the path. Still raining, still foggy. Then the guide began speaking about how Machu Picchu is a spiritual location and he encouraged us to think positively and actually try to blow the fog away with our deep breaths. I'm open to new approaches, but at that point my husband was looking at me like this was all a bit too crazy for his liking....but after doing the exercise, within about 2 minutes, the fog began to lift and we could see a small sliver of the citadel and a bit of the path into the main part of the ruins. The fog would lift for a few moments and then roll back in. This continued for much of our time at Machu Picchu, but I honestly felt that the mystical atmosphere made the visit more memorable. Each time we could see something, it was like we were finding it for the first time. The weather had scared away lots of people and for the first 1.5 hours or so, we were basically alone. We did get a glimpse of the sun towards the end of our visit and those views are also gorgeous. You are allowed 4 hours at the site, but no one really times you. The path is one way so you can't back track----that naturally limits your visit since once you make the circuit you have to leave.
This is the end of part one.....this part of the journey was 7 nights. 2 in Lima, 3 in the Sacred Valley and 2 at Machu Picchu. Until next time....
Like many of you, I had been waiting...and waiting...for travel to be allowed again to Europe. The morning of my flight I checked and double checked that I had all of the necessary information. It seemed pretty straightforward and thankfully it was. The airline agent checked my COVID vaccine card when I checked in at the airport and then...nothing. No one checked anything during my connection in Atlanta and when I landed in Frankfurt, the immigration officer simply asked the purpose of my trip and I was allowed in. Yes, masks are still required and Germany requires the masks to be medical masks---no cloth masks or other face coverings are allowed. There are social distancing markers and hand sanitizing stations in place. Most hotels, restaurants, stores, tourist attractions, etc are open and welcoming guests.
My main reason for visiting Germany is always to see friends...and it was especially exciting to see them this time since I hadn't been to Germany since December 2019. A long time for me... Germany is a beautiful country and I love being outside and being able to walk nearly everywhere. I can't post Germany photos without at least one of cake :)
After spending a few days with friends, I flew to Santorini, Greece. I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Somehow, it never worked until now.
Normally, when you fly within what is called the Schengen Area (many countries within the EU), there is no immigration or customs. You can land and walk right out of the airport. However, now that each country has its own COVID entry requirements, there is an additional step. For Greece, each passenger had to show proof of vaccination OR a negative COVID test. Each passenger also had to fill in a passenger locator form (PLF) on-line at least 24 hours prior to arrival and show a QR code as proof.
I had only one night in Santorini and I was hoping for a beautiful sunset. Oia, a town on Santorini, is known around the world for amazing sunsets. There is hardly any rain during the summer on Santorini, so my chances of seeing one were pretty high. The sunset did not disappoint....and the surrounding area was gorgeous! I could have sat and watched a hundred sunsets and not been bored. I would certainly recommend spending more than 1 night on the island---3 or 4 nights would be my recommendation.
I had most of the next day to explore and I hired a guide to show me the island. Efi was an excellent guide and she truly showed me nearly every part of the island. I was gathering intel to help me plan trips for you---it was a bit of a whirlwind---I didn't get to spend much time in any one location and to truly see the island would take a few days.
There are beaches, but they are all black sand and while a couple of towns have beach clubs, Santorini isn't the best location to visit if you want to stay on the beach all day, every day. A beach day or two is great, but Santorini is known for its wines, views, food, architecture, and the ancient city of Akrotiri. A volcanic eruption buried Akrotiri in a similar way that Pompeii was buried in Italy...except Akrotiri was buried much earlier and is sometimes referred to as the lost city of Atlantis.
Each village on Santorini has a different feel and it is important to understand what you hope to see on the island before choosing where to stay. After seeing how narrow and windy the roads are on Santorini (and how difficult it is to find a parking spot!), I would strongly encourage you to not rent a car, ATV or moped.
From Santorini I headed to Athens---it is a quick 30 minute flight. I had been to Athens before and had seen the most popular spots (Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, etc). For this visit, I hired a guide for a culinary tour. We walked all over Athens and I saw neighborhoods I wouldn't have normally seen. It was fun not knowing what I was going to taste at the next stop.
I stayed about a 10 minute walk outside of Plaka---the main tourist neighborhood of Athens. It was nice to be so close when I wanted to visit, but far enough away that the neighborhood wasn't crowded and it was more locals at dinner than tourists.
Not all of these photos were taken on the culinary walk, but thought this was a good place to keep the food together. I had amazing food and looking and these are making me hungry for more Greek food!
Like all international destinations, I had to get a COVID test before I could return to the US. Greece has many testing options--including a testing site at the airport. I got my test at a pharmacy in the middle of a pedestrian only shopping street about a 5 minute walk from my hotel. I paid 20€ and had my results in less than 5 minutes. It was very simple. There are even companies that will come to you at your hotel---that price was 40€ for the same test.
I had an amazing time and wish I could stayed longer than 9 days, but I loved every minute. Hoping I can make another trip back to Germany this winter (crossing my fingers!).
I am here to help you plan your return trip to Europe. While restrictions and entry requirements are different for each country, more than 60% of European countries are open. River cruises are starting and ocean cruises have been sailing in Greece and Croatia since those countries opened earlier this year. This isn't the year for a large tour, but private guides are eager to show you their countries and many, if not most, tourist attractions are open for business. Please get in touch when you are ready to start planning.
This was my first visit to the Puerto Vallarta/Punta Mita area of Mexico and I was impressed. The area is beautiful (beaches and jungle) and the people are very friendly. I am even thinking of coming back for an extended stay---renting a house for a few months.
I had the pleasure of staying at 2 different resorts and visiting 7 others. This area doesn't have near as many resorts as the Cancun/Rivera Maya area, but there is a good variety of options so that there is a good fit for everyone.
St. Regis Punta Mita
Punta Mita is a quiet area about an hour away from the Puerto Vallarta airport. As you drive from the airport, you see the Walmart and Home Depot and then slowly there is nothing but trees on each side of the road. As you approach Punta Mita, there are a few smaller stores and restaurants, but it is more rural than Puerto Vallarta. The St. Regis is in a gated community with the Four Seasons resort, along with some condos and a golf course.
The St. Regis is a smaller resort (120 rooms) on a private rocky beach. Like all St. Regis properties, butler service is included. The butler can help you unpack, make dinner reservations, or answer questions about the resort. You simply text or Whatsapp and you get an answer in minutes. Meals are not included in the base room rate, but they have several excellent restaurants on-property. Even during COVID, there were two options for lunch and three for dinner during my stay. Of course, you can also order room service and enjoy the view from your balcony. The St. Regis has loaner bikes and I used one to explore the area---there is a paved path throughout the gated community. The resort is beautiful and the rooms are traditional luxury---think marble and neutral colors. I loved having a soaking tub, two indoor shower options, as well as an outdoor shower. Bathrooms are important to me :) All of the pools are open and there is wait service at the beach and pools, so relaxation is key here.
W Punta Mita
The W is a few minutes down the road from St. Regis (heading back toward Puerto Vallarta). I loved the entrance to the resort as you have to drive quite a bit (5 minutes maybe) down a little cobblestone road with jungle on each side...you feel like you are going to a secret spot. Once you arrive at the parking lot, you are escorted via golf cart to the lobby. I think of W hotels as party spots----and the city hotels are all about being seen and the party---but this is part of a different W collection of resorts that are quieter. Not to say there isn't a DJ or anything going on...there is, but it is much more chill. This property is stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. In terms of the property itself, the W was my favorite. The W is not all inclusive, but they have several restaurants on-property.
Grand Velas Puerto Vallarta
Velas is a Mexican owned company and they do a great job with all-inclusive. This property is great for parents of small children---included in the rate are things like diapers, high chairs, baby bath tubs and homemade baby food. You truly only have to bring clothes and your baby. Grand Velas also has great kids and teen clubs and plenty for adults to do. They also have speciality rooms---such as wellness, where only healthy snack and drink options are included in the mini-bar and you have the choice of essential oils to fragrance the room and a stationary bike in suite so you don't even have to go to the gym. Grand Velas is a large resort and has something for everyone.
Also part of Velas, this is an adult only property in a residential area in Puerto Vallarta. While the property is not on the beach, they have a separate beach club and a shuttle that takes you to and from all day ( a 5 minute journey). Casa Velas is located on a golf course, so it is perfect for golfers. This property is small (80 rooms) and it has the feel of coming to a friends house (very beautiful house....). There is one restaurant and the chef meets with each guest to make sure the menu meets their needs. As a guest a Casa Velas, you can also eat a dinner at Grand Velas or a meal at Velas Vallarta. This property is perfect if you are looking for peace and quiet.
NOW Amber and Secrets Vallarta Bay
These two resorts are together because they are both on the same property---and are mirror images of one another. NOW is family friendly and Secrets is adult only. Guests at Secrets are able to use the restaurants at NOW, but guests at NOW are only allowed in the NOW restaurants (with a couple of exceptions, like live shows). These are both part of chains and some clients like the familiarity---for example, the Coco Cafe at NOW is similar to that at properties at other NOW (and Dreams) resorts in the Caribbean. These resorts are on a beautiful beach and Secrets is a popular spot for weddings (you can also get married at NOW). Both NOW and Secrets have a preferred club...rooms with added amenities like lounge access and premium liquor.
Garza Blanca has a different feel than many resorts---you can choose to book it all-inclusive or as the room only. They also have lots of sizes of rooms---from junior suites (normal hotel sized rooms) to 3 bedroom suites. The kitchen in the larger suites are bigger than some I've had in apartments! You could truly stay comfortably for weeks or longer. I would be happy to live in the hammock on the huge balcony. They also have several buildings with some being close to the beach and some are across the road a bit higher up (for better ocean views). They have a trolley that will take you where you need to go.
Hotel Mousai is next to the Garza Blanca property and it is adult only. The trolley will take guests down to the beach and beach chairs and cabanas are reserved for Hotel Mousai guests. Many guests never leave though once they see the rooftop. The spa is also amazing and they have a hydrotherapy circuit. This property is often sold out, so they started building a second tower that should be complete by the end of 2021. The service is amazing and the rooms are large (with a very stocked mini-bar).
Last, but certainly not least is Hyatt Ziva. This is a family friendly all inclusive resort, with some adult only areas. Hyatt Ziva is located on a cove and the beach is very private. Hyatt has scheduled activities like beach stretching, classes to learn how to make cocktails, and live entertainment most nights. I went on the jungle hike and loved it (although it was more challenging than I was expecting for an all-inclusive resort). There are several restaurant options and room service is available 24/7. I can attest that the spa is amazing---my massage was very good and you are allowed in the sauna, steam rooms and spa pool for an hour before or after your treatment which is a nice touch.
I look forward to planning your trip to Puerto Vallarta!
Charleston is on almost every "must see" city list. The city has so much to offer. This was my first visit and I loved walking around the city....after eating some amazing food :) This is sort of what Charleston is known for...
Charleston is steeped in history and you don't need a guide to see the beautiful architecture---many old buildings have been well maintained and preserved. I like to wander around on my own and take everything in, but as I've gotten older, I also like to balance that wandering with a few hours with a guide so I know what I'm seeing. During my private tour with Brian, owner of Charleston Sole Walking Tours, I was amazed at how many things I had simply walked past the day before and never even noticed. Charleston has lots of wonderful stories to go along with the character and Brian brought the history to life.
When I wasn't walking around exploring, I was eating. Charleston is for sure a foodie city and the eat (and drink) local movement has been at the forefront for years. New restaurants open frequently and they are balanced with options that have been around forever. While ten plus years isn't forever, in the restaurant world, that is often considered a long run. I was fortunate to score a reservation at Husk one evening (reservations are still a little difficult to get) and experience what was once the most famous option in Charleston. My photos don't do justice as I was eating outside at 9:30pm, but the food was incredibly fresh and the menu describes where the ingredient is sourced. Husk, and much of Charleston for that matter, isn't especially vegetarian friendly...and with the local food movement, menus at places like Husk are released each day...meaning you have to take a leap of faith when reserving a table. Husk and others will accommodate dietary restrictions, but I wanted to eat off menu as that is what the chef thought was freshest that day. I had the choice of 3 small plates the night I dined and I chose 2--- pimento cheese triangles with pickled green tomatoes (they were AMAZING) with pepper jelly and local greens AND a gorgeous salad of local greens, oranges, strawberries, golden beets and yogurt. I loved every bit, but the dessert was what was especially memorable. I had a chocolate and peanut butter torte with buttermilk ice cream...peanut brittle was sprinkled over everything and added a nice crunch. I am drooling thinking about it! The signature cocktails were also inventive. I could describe every meal with this much adoration....every place I tried in Charleston presented amazing and fresh food. Bring your stretchy pants :)
Ok, so now you know you need to visit Charleston, so where to stay?? For a relatively small city, Charleston has many accommodation choices and staying in the historic center means you can do most of your exploring on foot (no need to rent a car, except for a day or two to explore outside the city center).
I started off at the Grand Bohemian. This is a part of a small group of hotels that focus on art and design. There is a gallery on-site and art is placed all throughout the property----much of it is also for sale if you find something you like. This is not a cookie-cutter property. Grand Bohemian has a rooftop where you can have drinks or a meal and they have a ground floor shaded patio near the wine bar that has a very European feel. You can even do a wine mixology course and create your own wine blend. Your blend is bottled and makes an awesome souvenir.
My next stop was the iconic Belmond Charleston Place. This is a beautiful property full of old school luxury touches, like marble floors and fresh flower arrangements. I stayed on the club level which offers several food and beverage presentations throughout the day. During COVID, it was nice to have a small space to enjoy a drink or snack---masks are required when you are standing, but can be taken off when seated (eating and drinking). They have a rooftop spa and pool---the pool can be used year round which is a nice feature. The location of Belmond can't be beat---you are minutes away from everything and the staff is EXCELLENT. You will be well cared for if you stay at the Belmond.
I also toured several other properties while I was in Charleston. Hotel Bennett and Zero George were two of my favorites---total different from one another, but both great properties.
Hotel Bennett is a newer property and they have really thought about having great spaces to spread out. Even if you book an entry level room, there is an outdoor lounge where you can relax. You can upgrade to a Club Level room for another outdoor space with amazing views of the city (specifically overlooking Marion Square). Speaking of Marion Square, that is a great location for the weekly Farmers Market and outdoor concerts and events. Hotel Bennett was built on the location of the former city library and they brought that theme into the hotel (all of the rooms have bookshelves with decorative books). There are several options for dining, including Camellia's----they serve afternoon tea on weekends and Champagne all night long.
Zero George is a historical property and you feel like you are visiting friends as opposed to staying at a hotel (in a good way!). They have thought about outdoor space and each room has a little nook to themselves to have breakfast, tea, or read a book. There is a great restaurant on-site and the chef is one of the few in Charleston to offer cooking classes (both the restaurant and classes fill up well in advance). The rooms vary in size and are comfortable with a few luxury touches. Zero George is a great respite from the busy city, but still close to the action to be walkable.
Please send me a message to start planning your trip to Charleston. I can offer exclusive perks at all of these properties, as well as many others.
This was my first trip to the Florida Keys...my husband wanted to go diving and I decided to join him. The dive sites are close to land so it is easy to combine scuba with one of the many other activities the Keys have to offer. Depending on what part of the Keys you want to visit, you can fly into Key West or Miami. I wanted the full Keys experience, so we flew into Key West and out of Miami and rented a car.
The Key West airport is small and even during COVID, there were 2 flights landing at the same time. That overwhelmed the system, so flying into Key West requires some patience. The line to pick up a rental car was long and the agents were on "island time" so it can take a awhile. Masks are required in the airport, but the small space made social distancing difficult. Somehow in that small space, they found room for a bar (in between the door and the baggage claim carousel). Key West begins the party as soon as you are off the plane.
Key West is known for being the Southernmost point in the U.S. and Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba than it is to Miami. Key West has a lot of history and you see lots of beautiful old buildings driving into town. As you get closer to Mallory Square and Duval Street, you also see a lot of bars and clubs :) I would say most people who visit Key West go for the party scene. There are lots of hotels and bed and breakfasts within walking distance from the main areas of Key West. It is nice to not have to drive...or pay for parking which can be very pricy. Many people think there are great beaches in Key West---a few hotel properties have private beaches and there are a few public ones, but they do not compare to the beaches of other parts of Florida like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Naples or St. Petersburg. If you are looking for a beautiful beach, Key West is not the best fit (public beach photo below).
There is only main road in all of the Keys, so it is easy to find your way. As we headed north, the crowds thinned considerably. The scenery is beautiful in between towns. There are lots of bridges, including one that is 7 miles long....called 7 mile bridge (so creative!). It is also possible to bike up and down the Overseas Highway (US Route 1), although some points just have a small bike lane next to car traffic (other places have a dedicated bike trail off the main road).
We stopped at Isla Bella Resort in Marathon for a quick tour. This resort opened in 2019 and brings luxury to an area of the Keys that hasn't had it before (at least without having to take a boat to the resort). Isla Bella sits on 24 acres of land and offers beautiful rooms and 1 to 5 bedroom suite options. They are also pet friendly and have their own (small) dog park on-site. There are lots of options for spending time outdoors and the resort grounds feel like a botanical garden...super relaxing.
About 45 minutes further north is Islamorada, a town known for sport fishing. There are lots of options for restaurants, shopping and places to stay in Islamorada (along with a Publix grocery store). As you drive into town (which is actually quite large), you can only see the ocean as you go over bridges....the rest of the road is built up. Turning onto a small street, brought us to our stop at Cheeca Lodge. Cheeca has been around for decades and they have a history of welcoming many very important guests, including presidents. The vibe is luxury, but also has sort of a camp feel. There are several pools, a golf course (9 hole), tennis, pickleball, volleyball and basketball courts, tons of watersports, the longest pier in the Keys for fishing (or admiring the scenery) and bikes for exploring. We saw lots of families and the resort is very kid-friendly. Checca Lodge also has one of the larger beaches in the Keys. The sand is coarse (no powder soft sand here) but there are beautiful sunrise views.
Key Largo is the Northernmost Key and is about 30 minutes from Islamorada (depending on traffic). Key Largo is also well developed so you can't see any of the beautiful scenery from the road, but just a minute off the road on either side give you views. Key Largo's most famous spot is probably John Pennekamp State Park...the country's first underwater park. You can snorkel, dive or take a glass bottom boat. There are also a few walking paths through the mangroves on a boardwalk. The sunset views are great at several restaurants in Key Largo (many have lots of outdoor seating). We chose to charter a boat with a some friends so we could see the mangroves and see the sunset from the open water. We were 6 people in total and the price of chartering our own small boat was about the same price as paying for 6 people to join a larger sunset sailing. Having a private experience was so much better...there are lots of boats offering this option (or options to go out snorkeling during the day).
Key Largo has lots of options for lodging, including The Bungalows. They are one of the few all inclusive resorts in the United States. They are an adult only property and have several options for dining and drinks. Key Largo also has several larger resorts, like the Marriott Key Largo, where you can snorkel right from the hotel beach. Plenty of options and Key Largo is only about 1.5 hours from Miami.
I am happy to plan your next trip to the Keys. Please message me to get started.
I wanted to look back at 2020 in order to think about how 2021 is going to be better, but I quickly realized 2020 gave me plenty to be grateful for...even if things were different. I find looking back therapeutic any year--to see how far I've come and to set goals and aspirations for the future--this year it all seems more important.
The photo above is from Seaside, OR. Henry (the dog) and I took a spontaneous trip last January to the beach--low season prices were too hard to resist. We had the beach almost completely to ourselves and while chilly, it was really nice. I will take worse weather over crowds any day :) We made our way from Seaside up the coast and into Washington State. We stopped at Olympia and headed to the Olympic Peninsula. All a great time for reflection and long walks.
February brought me to Chicago. You may be asking who in their right mind goes to Chicago in February?? My reason was my dad's 85th birthday and I am so thankful we could all get together to celebrate before the world changed. The idea of having 25+ people inside at a gathering feels crazy now, but just 10 months ago, it was business as usual.
I took advantage of leap year to use the extra day to fly to Africa. Very productive use of an extra day in my opinion :) I used the quiet and reflection of my January trip to plan this last minute trip of my dreams. I couldn't shake the feeling that if I didn't go now, I wouldn't go (or wouldn't go for awhile). I was thinking more of simply life being busy with work and I knew we were moving again in 2020, but I am so grateful I took that nudge to make it happen.
Thinking back to my time in Rwanda and Uganda brings a smile to face and I hope it continues to for many years to come.
I was on my scheduled flight from Kampala, Uganda to Amsterdam en route home when President Trump announced the travel ban to Europe. I knew COVID was becoming a larger problem, but I didn't imagine the world would change so dramatically...or so quickly. I was on the second to the last flight from Amsterdam to Portland and took an Uber home thinking I was exhausted and perhaps I shouldn't be around that many people. As we all know, what has happened since mid-March is....sitting here thinking for the right word...perhaps unbelievable sums it up.
I was scheduled to be home for a couple of weeks and then head to Guam to see my husband. This would have been my last trip to Guam before our scheduled move in the summer. Each day we thought the next would bring good news and somewhat surprisingly, the flights between Hawaii and Guam never stopped flying. The challenge for me was how to get to Hawaii. I almost went for it since I thought COVID would pass in the time I was gone. Guess I don't have a career in fortune telling, huh?
So, I stayed home like the rest of the world. I cancelled dozens of trips for clients and each week brought more. I love being a travel advisor so I can help people experience wonderful places around the world. I don't imagine there is an advisor out there that enjoys seeing those trips get cancelled (and for some, cancelled 3, 4 or 5 times). I tried to be hopeful and I continue to be hopeful for a better travel future.
As I mentioned, we were scheduled to move this summer (my husband is active duty military). I was in Oregon and we were headed to Washington, DC. Just a short little drive :) I missed my husband and decided I could travel safely on the road---choosing hotels that were doing the best job of COVID precautions and with a couple bags of snacks and microwave meals in case restaurants closed again while I was en route.
July and August were spent getting settled in our new home of Alexandria, VA. I had clients begin to travel in the United States and Mexico and the glimmer of hope was getting brighter. I wanted to see if it was possible to fly safely and see what the precautions looked like in reality (plus, you know me, I was itching to travel). I booked a trip to Mexico about a week before I left. That is one travel trend that seems to have stuck during COVID---the average booking is now made 2 or 3 weeks out instead of 2 or 3 (or more) months in advance.
My first flight post COVID was to Cancun. They had been open for months and seemed to have their act together and data suggested COVID transmission wasn't happening at resorts or on airplanes, so I felt confident. Yes, I had to wear a mask. Yes, things were different. In my experience, different wasn't bad. My trip was literally a breath of fresh air---I could be outside most of the day and since resorts are capacity controlled, there was more room to spread out and less waiting in lines. The local tourism providers were very thankful for visitors.
Up next was a little road trip with Henry to the Delaware Shore (Dewey Beach). Henry had his first ice cream in a dog ice cream parlor (didn't know they existed!)...sometimes it is the small memories that make a trip.
October had more clients traveling and I explored the Dominican Republic for the first time...and had so much space to myself. Travel was just starting back up and resorts were at limited occupancy. November was a time for me to explore DC a bit (outdoors and wearing a mask) and as COVID numbers increased again, I weighed the pros and cons and decided to continue on with my planned trip to Sandals Grande Antigua. Antigua was the first destination I visited that required a COVID test, so I had my first test the end of November (the requirement was within 7 days of arrival). Antigua was beautiful and Sandals did an excellent job with COVID precautions.
2020 was certainly a year, but on reflection, not all bad. I visited places I probably wouldn't have under other circumstances. I also had to be creative to help find clients who wanted to travel spaces that would be safe and responsible to travel to under the circumstances. I'm grateful for the things I've learned this year and am hopeful that 2021 is the year we can all get back to travel. I am here to help you whenever you are ready to start planning. Happy New Year!
I recently visited Antigua and fell in love with the island. Antigua is currently (as of the time of writing) a CDC Level 2 destination which means they have excellent COVID-19 precautions in place and the number of infections are considered low. I was required to have a PCR test within 7 days of arrival and travel with my negative test result (I printed multiple copies and saved the file on my phone).
Upon arrival at the airport, you need to fill out some forms, have your temperature taken and answer a few questions. The process from getting off the plane to walking out of the airport took about 45 minutes which is very good (not much longer than pre-COVID).
I had the pleasure of staying at Sandals Grande Antigua which is a 15 to 20 minute drive from the airport. If you are not familiar with Sandals they are a chain of exceptional adult only, all inclusive resorts. They are all 5 star resorts and have nearly everything included---even scuba diving. Airport transfers and most staff gratuities are also included (if you have a butler level suite, tips for the butler are not required, but encouraged). The dining options range from a pastry shop to high end fine dining and all are included in the price, as is premium top shelf alcohol (you can also get local drink options). Sandals also has many on-site entertainment options throughout the day from beach volleyball, yoga, Hobie Cat sailing to live music and themed parties at night. Each resort has a little different vibe with Antigua being on the quieter end on the party scale (perfect for me and my husband!).
Sandals is also known for its service. Staff are there to help you with whatever you need and it is certainly service with a smile. I'm not a huge drinker, but felt like something while I was relaxing at the pool. I asked the bartender for a suggestion for something frosty, refreshing and not super sugary. She said I have just the thing and made me an amazing mango mojito. The staff to guest ratio is high, so there are plenty of chances to chat and get to know the staff and ask their recommendations. As many of you know I am a vegetarian and that can be a challenge at some resorts, but Sandals did an excellent job. They had at least two vegetarian options on each restaurant menu and the chef was always willing to create something for me if I didn't like the options (they have many veggie options with fake meat which isn't my thing). One lunch my husband had the Thai fish curry and they made me Thai tofu curry. Perfect and very tasty :) My husband enjoyed being able to have surf and turf each day if he wanted...the food is truly high end and ordering off the menus feels like you are at a gourmet restaurant (except there is no bill at the end). For those of you that love going to Europe, the crepes at the pastry shop were very, very good. If I closed my eyes, I could almost believe I was eating my Nutella and banana crepe in France :)
Sandals has many different room categories------something around 30 to 40 of them at each resort. Each category is based on the location of the room and the amenities offered. As your travel advisor, I'm here to help you figure out what is the best fit. Even the lowest room categories have access to all of the restaurants and activities. You won't have access to room service for free or have liquor in your minibar, but a bar is only a couple minutes away. Some rooms are large with a separate sitting area and/or even your own private plunge pool and hot tub (sign me up!). These rooms come with a butler who is there to help you secure the best loungers at the beach and pool (with a cooler of drinks waiting) and get you priority dining and spa reservations. You barely have to lift a finger :) Many couples choose to stay in these suites and villas as part of their destination wedding or honeymoon (contact me for more information about having your wedding at Sandals).
I also like Sandals because as part of their Sandals Foundation, they give back to the local communities where the resorts are located and encourage guests to participate in Pack for a Purpose. This is a program (not limited to Sandals) where local agencies upload a wish list of items that guests can bring in their suitcase from home or purchase locally. COVID has impacted communities around the world and these donations are needed more than ever---the staff at Sandals Grande Antigua were very appreciative of the small items I brought. If you are a shopper, this gives you an opportunity to bring needed items from home and then gives you space for your new purchases on the way home.
I did leave the resort for a private tour, but Sandals has plenty to do on resort to keep you busy for days. Each location has a little different COVID precautions or restrictions in place---for Antigua, I was allowed to leave property with no additional testing or restrictions. Everyone in the car (driver and passengers) had to wear masks and capacity was limited (a mini van now could hold 3 passengers for a tour). I will leave you with some beautiful island photos. Please get in touch to plan your trip to Sandals (I have some exclusive promo codes for a limited time!).
I had the pleasure of checking out several resorts while I was visiting the Dominican Republic. About half of the resorts in the Punta Cana area are currently open, with many other resorts planning to re-open late November or early December. I honestly feel like now is the time to visit. Punta Cana can be very crowded, but during my visit, occupancy levels were around 10-40% of capacity. Some resorts were very, very quiet and others had quite a bit of their normal entertainment up and running with capacity controls in place. So, something for everyone :)
Sanctuary Cap Cana
Sanctuary is an adult-only resort in the beautiful Cap Cana area. This area is only a 15 minute or so drive from the airport and the main entrance to Cap Cana (which has several resorts) is gated. Sanctuary has several different areas within the resort (including a building that looks like a castle), so it is easy to feel like you have been to more than 1 resort during your stay. The resort is still small enough to be walkable though. The photo above is of one of the suite "balconies". Talk about oceanfront--I would never leave if that was part of my room :) All of the rooms have ocean views and even the lowest category of room is very nice. Sanctuary also has stand alone villas for people who want extra space--they are very popular at the moment and are sold out for the next few months. Sanctuary is doing a very good job with COVID precautions---the restaurant seating has been adjusted to give guests extra room and several options have outdoor seating. Upon arrival, luggage is sanitized and your temperature is taken. Hand sanitizer is offered frequently and plexi glass dividers are in place at reception and concierge desks. The beach is more of a cove than a long stretch of beach and is located on the Caribbean side of the island. This resort is gorgeous very sophisticated, but the vibe is more chill than some other options (this can be a positive or a negative) Some resort photos are below.
Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara
This property is divided into 2 sections---Ziva is the family friendly side and Zilara is the adult-only. If you are staying staying at Zilara, you have access to everything (restaurants, pool, beach, etc) on the Ziva side and adults also have the option of visiting the Zilara side (but children are not allowed to visit Zilara). These resorts are also in Cap Cana. I think one of the main reasons to choose Hyatt is the excellent food choices. All of my clients that stay here love the food. The buffet options (one on each side) are currently open, but staff have to serve you the options you request. The al la carte restaurants are capacity controlled, but with the lower occupancy levels, it is easy to get in to the restaurant of your choice. The pools at Hyatt are large with plenty of room to spread out. There are fire pit areas on both sides that are popular at night...with bars very close. The beach is a long and on the Caribbean side. Hyatt is taking COVID seriously and are giving people plenty of space at their entertainment venues. I am not a gym person, but if you are, Hyatt is your place! This gym area is HUGE. There are several rooms with equipment and weights, a section dedicated to CrossFit, space for yoga as well as spinning. The hours are reduced because of COVID (used to be 24/7), but the gym is still open longer than other resorts. They also have a water park--some of the larger slides are even for adults (or older kids)...and they have food trucks so you don't have to walk back to the main part of the resort if you get hungry or thirsty (no alcohol here).
Secrets Cap Cana
This is the 3rd resort I saw in the Punta Cana area---they are all within about a 5 minute drive of one another. Secrets is an adult-only resort that is part of a chain. You can find Secrets resorts throughout the Caribbean and Mexico. Some people like that they are a chain as the restaurants and bars are all the same across properties. There are local specialties at each resort (like the best fresh passion fruit juice I've ever tasted!). Secrets was the busiest resort I visited and they were at about 40% of capacity. They are taking all of the COVID precautions. Secrets is broken down into the regular resort and a preferred club. The preferred club has been selling out because the rooms have more space than regular rooms....and we all want as much space as we can get at the moment. The wedding program is up and running again and they have adjusted some locations to make sure there is plenty of social distancing. There are several pools and a gorgeous long stretch of beach. This was the one resort where I saw plexi glass at all bars...so it is safer to go get drinks and chat with the bar staff.
Iberostar Bavaro Beach
This resort has several resorts in one...so this really isn't the resort name, but it helps decipher the location. I was able to visit Iberostar Selection Bavaro and the Coral Level at Selection Bavaro. Iberostar Punta Cana, Dominicana and Grand Bavaro were all still closed. The resorts at this location vary from 3 star to 5 star---Punta Cana is the lowest option and you are only able to use the amenities at that resort. However, if you stay somewhere like the Coral Level, you can use the amenities at that resort as well as resorts lower than that category (so everything except Grand Bavaro...at Grand Bavaro you can visit all of the resorts). Iberostar has the strictest COVID entry requirements of my visit --- the driver and I had to have our temperature taken in the vehicle at the entrance and then again in the lobby. The machine in the lobby required you to be close to have your temperature taken (no thermal cameras here--that is what most other resorts have so you don't even know they are taking your temperature). This resort is quite large and most people use golf carts to get around. They require you to use hand sanitizer before getting in the cart and they have capacity controls in place. The grounds are very nice and very green. They also have a golf course on site---it is about a 5 to 10 minute golf cart ride from the reception desk (depending on which resort you are staying). Golf is not included for most of the resorts (it is included for some rooms at Grand Bavaro). The beach is wide open and has plenty of space. I was a little surprised about the dining options---Iberostar typically is all or mostly all buffet restaurants---and now even with COVID, they are continuing. Guests have to wear a mask in the buffet area and social distance. The portions are all grab and go or prepared at a station. The tables are all set up with social distancing in mind and during my lunch time visit, there were plenty of tables to space out.
Hard Rock Punta Cana
This resort is one of the largest in Punta Cana with 1,775 rooms. I have never visited a resort this large before and it certainly is immense...and they are expanding to include a water park scheduled to open Summer 2021. The resort has a huge array of things to do---from a casino to recording studios, as well as a huge shopping area. Many options are included in the all inclusive package, but some are available at an extra cost. Like Hard Rock Cafes, the theme is all music related and there is music memorabilia throughout the resort. I noticed Hard Rock didn't have as many COVID precautions in place as the other resorts I saw, but they are requiring social distancing. I don't have as many photos because my tour was by golf cart and we didn't stop---drive by photos never turn out all that well. The beach is beautiful and is a long white sand one where you could walk for some distance. There are many pools, so you have plenty of options. While you could walk the property, it would likely be a 15 to 20 minute walk from reception to the ocean. Most people take the shuttle golf cart or you can rent your own private golf cart if you don't want to have to wait (or to share with others). There are lots of restaurants and bars here to give you plenty of variety. There is more of a party-vibe here than the other resorts I saw (can be a positive or negative).
Please message me when you are ready to plan your trip to the Dominican Republic. I am a Certified Dominican Republic specialist and have exclusive perks at many of these resorts.
The Dominican Republic (often abbreviated as the DR) surprised me. This was my first visit and while Punta Cana is far from its normal self, resorts are open and the scenery is gorgeous. I stayed at Zoëtry Agua which is in Uvero Alto--an area about 40 minutes from the airport on the Atlantic Ocean side. Uvero Alto has fewer resorts than the more bustling area of Bavaro Beach and the resorts are more spread out here than they are in the Cap Cana area. From the moment I arrived, I felt very welcome at Zoëtry. The reception area is all outdoors, so no boring check in here. Under new COVID precautions, there are a few extra items that need to be completed before heading to your room, but the whole process is still done within 5 minutes. One extra item is to confirm enrollment in the Dominican Republic COVID insurance program. One form is filled out on the plane and given to immigration and a follow up form confirms your arrival as a tourist at the resort. Of course, all staff wear masks and you are asked to use hand sanitizer upon arrival and before entering buildings (restaurants, spa, etc). Masks are not required for guests, but signs are placed suggesting masks where you might encounter other guests (walking into the restaurant, even just to walk to the outdoor seating).
After the formalities were taken care of, I was escorted to my suite by a member of the concierge team...welcome drink in hand :) As we walked I was given a tour and told which parts of the resort were currently open. Traveling during COVID requires flexibility and that means understanding some things will not be open for your visit. Zoëtry's occupancy was quite low (I traveled Monday to Thursday which is slower even pre-COVID) and so only one of the five restaurants were open. At first thought, it is hard not to be a little disappointed. Some of the fun of going to resorts is having a choice of several types of food in one place. However, once I understood a bit more, it made complete sense. The restaurant open varied by the day and I quickly learned that the chef and his team was willing to make items by request. As many of you know, I am a vegetarian. After one meal, the chef basically said why don't I prepare you a special menu for each meal. Um, yes! So each meal I would sit down and poof...an amazing 4 or 5 course meal would simply appear. I never knew what I would be getting, but let me tell you, it was all fantastic! Zoëtry has a focus on organic and local foods wherever possible and the freshness came through in the food. The coffee shop was also not open, but the bartender could go into the coffee shop and make you whatever coffee drink you had in mind. I appreciated Zoëtry's flexibility and willingness to make guests happy. Room service was still running 24/7 (one of the few resorts in Punta Cana to continue 24/7) and you could request staff to set up your table or have them place the order in the service box---a large box built into the side of the suite with a door that opens on the outside so staff can place items in or take items away contact free---these existed before, but the main reason was privacy (yeah, no reason to get dressed for room service delivery!). Staff knock to let you know it has arrived and you open the door inside the suite and can set your own table.
Zoëtry is designed to hold 200 guests, so even pre-COVID, it was a resort where you could easily find space to yourself. The grounds are expansive, but not so big that you are never further than a few minutes walk to the ocean or your room. Certainly no golf carts needed here. All of the rooms are similarly designed with the different categories being mostly for the views you get from your own private patio or balcony. They also have a few villas for when you want some extra space. The beach is beautiful sand and there is an opportunity to walk in either direction for a nice long walk---no neighboring resorts. Zoëtry has swim out suites where you can enter the pool right from your room, as well as two main pools (one is currently closed, but slated to open in November). There are fitness options---like yoga, water aerobics (with bikes under water), or pilates offered every day, as well as a tea time or mixology lesson and live entertainment at night. This isn't the resort for you if you really like to party, but there are activities to keep you busy if you don't want to simply relax. Zoëtry also offers non-motorized water sports, like paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkeling. The water was too rough to enjoy any of those during my short stay, but the water sports office is right on the beach and appeared very easy to use.
The spa is currently undergoing some renovation, so all treatments are now performed on the beach (or a room patio if the weather is bad). A massage at the beach normally costs extra, but now it is included. An extra little perk for traveling now :) I enjoyed every moment of my treatment and was certainly lulled into relaxation a little easier with the sound of the waves. As I sit here on a rainy day back in VA having tea, I wish I could go back to that moment....
I will write more about my inspections at other resorts in the area in another blog post. Zoëtry Agua is high on the list of resorts that I will be recommending to my clients---they do a great job of making you feel that you are at your own private resort and I felt very safe during my stay.
I had the pleasure of visiting several resorts during my recent trip to Mexico. Each resort is adapting to COVID-19 in different ways, but all of the resorts I saw were doing an excellent job of social distancing. These are by no means the only resorts in the Cancun/Playa del Carmen/Tulum areas excelling in this time of COVID---these are simply the ones I was able to visit during my short trip.
Palmaïa, The House of Aïa
This is a brand new wellness resort on the Riviera Maya and they have a strong eco and sustainability focus. This concept sets them apart from many of the resorts in this area. The vibe is intentionally chill and zen and the resort was designed with social distancing in mind...even before social distancing was a thing :) That gives me confidence that this resort will be a safe place to travel even when occupancy levels are allowed to climb back to 80% or higher. All of the staff are required to wear masks and the dining areas have staggered seating to ensure you have plenty of space to yourself. The grounds of the hotel are beautiful and the beach is a short walk from any of the rooms (this is not a huge resort). There are 3 natural cenotes and spaces designed for yoga, quiet reflection or meditation. The meals offer plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, but meat is also available. The spa is made up of little casitas with a wall of windows overlooking the gardens (in the direction where no one can see you....) and seemed very peaceful. If you want to relax and disconnect from the world, this is the resort for you.
This resort is family friendly and in all of the family rooms, there are 2 showers. A cool (and very useful!) perk. There are also suites where one side is a regular room and the other side is a bunk room for kids (with their own bathroom). The kids club is also different than most---it is inspired by Waldorf education and allows kids to have personalized attention. All of that said, in my opinion, this resort seems better suited for older kids and adults who want to disconnect.
Tulum is about 1.5 hours from the Cancun airport and the area has a quieter vibe. You are close to the Tulum archeological ruins and turtles lay eggs and nest right on the resort beach (how cool!). While the vibe is more relaxed in general, Dreams has plenty to offer and you won't be bored unless you want to be. The resort has 2 sections and each has a different atmosphere. Staff are all required to wear masks and there are limitations of the number of people allowed at a time for things like the stores and cafes, and weddings are only allowed with a limited number of guests (it maxed out at 60 during my visit). During my visit, the guests had plenty of room to spread out on the beach and in the pool areas---it was well done. Guests are requested to wear masks in all indoor areas (but currently not required).
Dreams has a beautiful spa, with indoor rooms or outdoor areas for special occasions. There are several room categories from tropical views, to swim out rooms (show in one of the photos) and of course ocean view and ocean front options. There is a kids club that has its own little water park, splash pad, rock climbing wall and they offer different excursions (like scavenger hunts) throughout the day. There is entertainment each night and while some options are limited during COVID, something is going on every night.
Secrets is a chain of adult only resorts and this location is in beautiful Akumel. Of the resorts I visited, Secrets was doing the most related to COVID. In addition to the hand sanitizer when you arrive, you are also asked to stop part way to the lobby for a sensor to take your temperature. Other resorts took my temperature, but no other resort told me what they were doing (it was seamless....all behind the scenes). Secrets wants guests to know about the temperature screening so guests feel more comfortable. They also had a few other precautions in place that I didn't see elsewhere---like wearing shoe covers in the spa to having individually wrapped wash cloths in the public restrooms. The resort is beautiful and the buildings are well connected via covered walkways---each building feels private, but the walk to the beach is never more than about 7 or 8 minutes.
I think the highlight of this resort is the beach---it is beautiful and there is wait service available so you don't even have to get up when you want a drink or snack :) There are lots of options for entertainment on-site and most were open with limited capacity. The nightclub is still closed due to COVID. Weddings are back and there is plenty of space on the grounds to have private ceremonies (this is a popular location for destination weddings).
This resort is only a few years old and is known for offering guests a local experience. They want you to feel like you are in Mexico and each guest is assigned a local host. They can help you arrange excursions or things like spa treatments or dinner reservations. This resort includes more items in their all inclusive plan than most resorts---from spa treatments to excursions to golf. You do need to pay a 25% gratuity on what the item would have cost (so a $300 spa treatment would be charged a $75 gratuity). UNICO has changed check in during COVID to get you to your room as quick as possible and they require staff to wear masks. They were not requiring guests to wear masks anywhere, but they do recommend them indoors. Most of the restaurants were open, some with outside seating. The main bar with live entertainment is still closed due to COVID, but the lobby and pool bars are open.
UNICO is a gorgeous resort and the emphasis is on social areas---they are one of the most Instagrammed hotels. The pools and beach are the main attractions and there is a less of a jungle feel here. Many of the rooms have outdoor bathtubs on the balconies and all rooms are decorated in a chic, contemporary style. UNICO is an adult only property, but tends to have less of a romance, couples feel than other adult only properties. UNICO attracts more groups of friends or multi-generational families (with kids being all 18 years or older). There are still plenty of couples and UNICO is a great option for a honeymoon when you want your friends and family included.
Viceroy Riviera Maya
This is a boutique resort with only 41 private villas. This is the ideal example of social distancing. Each villa has its own outdoor space with a hammock, seating area and plunge pool. The staff all are wearing masks, but they didn't have to change much else to respond to COVID---the resort is designed for privacy. The villas aren't as expensive as you might think and you can choose an all-inclusive plan, breakfast only or no meals included in the rate. The resort has little areas designed for peace and quiet---including one for artists. Viceroy can supply the canvas and easel or a table to write in nature. The spa has offerings from the local area, including one option that ends in a bath in a hollowed out tree trunk (how cool!)
The villas all have indoor and outdoor showers and some have soaking tubs. The way the resort is laid out, you feel like you are alone...until you choose to go to the pool or beach. The resort is in a central location about 10-15 minutes to Playa del Carmen if you want more activity than this resort has to offer.
The Fives Oceanfront
You might be a little confused thinking I already told you about The Fives...and I did detail one of the 3 resorts that are included under The Fives brand in my previous post. Each location is very different. This one is a brand new resort in the residential neighborhood of Puerto Morales. The location allows you to eat off-site easily (plenty of options within a 5 to 15 minute walk) while staying in luxury. The theme of residences/condos is true here---each room has its own kitchen, dining and living area (just like The Fives Beach Resort) . This resort is using a spray disinfectant booth when you enter and they disinfect luggage prior to delivering it to your room. All staff are required to wear masks. Most of the common areas are outdoors or are indoor/outdoor living, so it is easy to avoid confined spaces.
The rooftop stole the show for me at this property. Absolutely gorgeous and plenty of seating to spread out. The beach is gorgeous and it is one of the few resorts to have no neighbors on one side, so it feels very private. Families are allowed here, but there isn't a kid club or any kid focused activities. In my opinion, this resort is better for adults or older kids. The resort offers an all inclusive plan, but most people choose to include no meals or only breakfast and then eat locally for the other meals.
The Fives Downtown
This hotel is set right in the middle of Playa del Carmen---one block off from the famous 5th Avenue. People choose to stay here to participate in city life---from markets to shopping to local restaurants. The beach is only a 5-10 minute walk and the ferry to Cozumel is about the same distance. Like the otherThe Fives properties, this hotel also has rooms with a kitchen, dining and living areas. The entrance is designed to mimic the jungle and cenotes of the area...and is open (no roof in the middle).
The rooftop terrace also steals the show here. Absolutely stunning! The views from the room balconies are more city views with a touch of ocean. This hotel is a great place to come back to after spending time in the hustle and bustle of the city. Staff are required to wear masks and there is plenty of signage encouraging social distancing (a little harder to do here as it is only one building....but still possible).
Here to help
Travel during the time of COVID can be more complicated than before, but I am here to help you every step of the way. I have partnered with all of these properties (and plenty of other resorts) to offer something additional to give you an extra special experience. Please contact me when you are ready to plan your travel.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.