A Long Weekend in St. Augustine, Florida

While early July is a very, very, very hot time to visit St. Augustine, Florida, we continue to do so year after year.  And, we’re not the only ones!  From the early morning hours until the late night (late night here is about 11pm!), the streets are packed with tourists, artists, residents and passers-throughs. Some ignoring the blistering heat, some trying to ignore it, but all truly in it.

We arrived at the lovely, albeit dated, Casa Monica hotel and checked in.  An earlier guest was fortunate enough to get our preferred room, 212, so we were booked, for the first time, in a room on the 4th floor.  It’s been a couple of years since we’ve stayed at the Casa Monica.  While the common areas are as grand, and as beautiful as ever, the guestrooms could use some serious updating.  The old carpet smell greets you upon entry into the rooms.  Not dirty, but definitely old. The walls and doors are thin.  You can hear every sound through them.  And the bathrooms!  Oh my!  They look as if they haven’t ever been updated.  Ever! The comfortable bed and pillows made up for what the dated room lacked.  So, all was well.

We decided to brave the late afternoon heat and head out for a walk and a snack.  A1A Ale Works caught our eyes.  In a perfect location on King street, facing the lovely Matanzas Bay, this place is a must visit!  The menu features Floridian, Caribbean and Cuban-influenced selections, there’s a working brewery, and 2 bars.  Try the lump crab cakes with Cajun remoulade and the fried calamari with wasabi aioli.  Amazing! We topped off our snack with refreshing A1A/Florida Mules…ginger beer poured over St. Augustine vodka, fresh lime and mint.

Refreshed and full, we headed out to stroll the historic Lincolnville section of St. Augustine.  After just a few steps, the heat hit us like a ton of bricks.  Well, at least that was the excuse we used for having to step into a place with a big sign that read “Come In and Cool Down with Frozen Wine Smoothies”.  Little did we know that Vino Del Grotto would become a daily stopping point for us, making the hot St. Augustine summer days much easier to bear.

Weekend Road Trip – Richmond Jazz Festival 2015

 Guest Blogger, Samantha

What a gorgeous day to be outside enjoying great music! We started the day off with some good ol’ soul food at Mama J’s Soul Food restaurant in Richmond, VA. You gotta try the catfish! From there we spent the day at the Richmond Jazz Fest listening to the sultry baritone voice of Will Downing, the smooth sax of Kirk Whalum, and the oh so sexy Joe. And to top the night off, we danced & sang along with the always exciting Ronny, Johnny, Ricky, Mike & Ralph…in other words, we partied with New Edition! I even got a kiss from Ralph & a wink from Ronny!
 
Oh what a day & night in Richmond, VA!
 
 

 

In Antigua…Early To Bed, Early To Rise…And Shirley Heights

The ladies and I are night owls.  We wake early, work long days into the evening, then begin to unwind pretty late at night.  Well, not in Antigua!  We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and learned that we had until Saturday at midnight, then Sunday until 10pm (unless we wanted to venture to an “after-hours” spot) to party.  Monday through Thursday the island closes pretty early.  That proved just fine by us.  We took advantage of our time on this calm island.  We were in bed by 10pm most nights, and out the door by 9:30am most mornings.  Don’t get me wrong…we partied.  We just adjusted our time to do so.  What a great concept!  Our days consisted of the fitness center or water aerobics first, then Blood Marys and mimosas with breakfast, the pool,white wine spritzers and champagne cocktails for lunch (and in the hours leading up to and after lunch!), and wine with dinner.  By nightfall, we were more than ready to turn in.

We were told that on Sunday we could not miss the opportunity to go to a place called Shirley Heights.  More specifically, to The popular Shirley Heights Lookout Bar & Restaurant that rests at the summit.  We did not hike up to the top as many do (I’m willing to back to do that after the ankle heals, though!).  Instead, we were picked up at the resort by our awesome, private island guide, Ozzie, and driven right to the door or the restaurant/bar/soundstage.  The festivities began at 5:30ish with the steel drum “orchestra” Digicel Halcyon Orchestra, full bar and a dining spread that was a showstopper!  After about 2 hours of the steel drum amazement, came a live reggae band until 10pm.
 

The place was packed!  Packed with tourists mostly, but there were some locals.  The mood was so festive.  The sun setting over the beautiful hills,  located approximately 492 feet above sea level,  with panoramic views of the southern island of Guadeloupe and the active volcano Montserrat. Simply breathtaking!

We secured spots on the front row of the stage at the picnic tables (not an easy feat at all!), and while I sat and enjoyed the music, the ladies went to buy drinks (rum punch, Dark and Stormy, rum and coconut water) and food (grilled lobster, jerk chicken jerk ribs, potato salad, rice and peas, coleslaw).  Yes, this place ROCKS!!!

We only stayed for half of the reggae set.  The food, drinks and steel drum orchestra more than satisfied us.  We had scheduled our pick-up for 9:30pm.  It was 8:30, and we were ready to leave.  Fortunately, we got Ozzie’s card.  And, fortunately Ozzie is well-known at Shirley Heights.  We went up to the bar, asked to use the phone to call him,  The bartender looked at the card, motioned someone from the doorway over to the bar, she looked at the card, told us to wait a second, and she returned with Ozzie.  We were resort-bound in no time!  What a great night.  And we were happily in bed by 10pm.

3 Besties, 2 Checked Bags, and 1 Carry On…Antigua, Here We Come!

We travel so well together.  London/Paris/Rome, Miami, Las Vegas, and now Antigua.  This was a much needed, BFF bonding vacation.  A few months ago, we loosely “saved the date”, and surprisingly, to all three of us, we pulled it off.  With our crazy schedules and family and work obligations, this was a long shot. But we did it! 

Our flight departed at 6am.  We wanted to arrive as early as possible and get our party started.  We kicked off the morning with Bloody Marys.  They seemed to make our plane fly faster.  One plane change later, we arrived safe and sound (and by 1:30pm!) in Antigua.  The small, sunny, festive airport was pretty crowded.  But of course…everyone wants to be in tropical paradise, right? There were visitors from all over.  The U.S., the UK, South America, Australia.  The customs line was pretty long.  But, there was the boot!  Yes, the bane of my existence helped soar us through the line (actually, through every line we encountered on the entire trip!)  During our speed-through, we learned that the creole greeting in Antigua is “wa gwaan” (what’s going on?).  We used it every chance we got during our stay.  Our hosts really seemed to appreciate our efforts.

We hailed a taxi, as instructed by the resort when we called ahead days earlier to request a pick-up.  There were plenty of friendly drivers waiting in a well-organized section of the airport for visitors.  The fare was exactly as the resort said it would be…$31 USD.  The driver’s side is on the opposite side of the vehicle for us US tourists.  That, combined with the curves, really small roads, and steep overlooks, made our 30-minute ride to the resort very interesting.
 

Upon arrival to St. James Club, we sought out the front desk agent that I had had the pleasure of speaking to on the phone a few times leading up to our vacation.  Shaneika.  She was awesome!  She seemed to smile through the telephone, so I was determined to meet her face to face and thank her for all of her pre-trip assistance…and patience.  We walked up to her at the counter, greeted her by name, and she smiled and said “I know who you all are.”  How cool.  As she began to check us in, we confirmed that we would have three beds.  We then joked about getting an upgrade.  She excused herself for a second, and came back smiling even larger.  “Ladies, I have some good news”, she said.  “You have been upgraded to a 2 bedroom villa.”  What in the world?  How awesome! She continued with our check in, and we happily accepted the glasses of champagne that were being handed to us by one of the hostesses.   “Ladies, I have some good news”, she said again.  “There’s more?”, we said, about to burst with enthusiasm.  “Your villa is ready for check-in.”  Great!  Then, just before we turned to walk away, one of us asked Shaneika if the villa, our private, get-away-from-the-world for 5 days had Wi-Fi.  Shaneika excused herself for a few seconds.  She returned and said “Ladies, I have some bad news.  Your villa is too remote to get the Wi-Fi signal.”  “Yes!”, I thought!  That’s not such bad news at all!  There was, she assured us, complimentary Wi-Fi in the lobby.  Perfect.
 

Our “buggy” (a 6-seater golf cart) arrived, with Vincent, our driver and personal resort guide, at the helm.  He drove us up the winding road, through the beautiful resort grounds to our villa.  It was a 3-level, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, full kitchen, dining room and living room villa, with lounging patios/balconies on each level. Antigua, we’ve arrived.

Casa de Campo…Put It On Your List!

This summer marked the 40th anniversary of Casa de Campo‘s opening.  This beautiful sporting paradise began with the vision of Alvaro Carta, who arrived to La Romana in  the 1960’s to run the Sugar Mill, which was then part of the Gulf & Western empire headed by Charles Bludhorn.  In an effort to grow this area’s tourism industry, Carta eventually brought in  famous golf course designer, Pete Dye to create the amazing Teeth of the Dog (TOTD) course.  Opened in 1971, it is to this day, still considered the best course in the Caribbean, and one of the best in the world.

As the fame and popularity of TOTD grew, Carta, in that same year, took a trip to Spain and returned with one of the world’s best polo players, Maharaj Jabar Singh.  Singh worked with Calixto Garcia-Velez Sr., the V.P. of Livestock and the father of Casa de Campo’s current polo director, Calixto Garcia-Valez Jr. to develop their small breeding and training program into one of the best equestrian and polo facilities in the Caribbean.

In 1976, La Terraza Tennis Club was created, and Pete Dye’s second course in Casa de Campo, the Links,  was opened.

Over the years, the resort grew to meet the needs and embrace the passions of it’s guests.  In 1979, Altos de Chavon was developed as an arts and entertainment center, and dining and shopping were eventually added.  In 1982, Casa’s famous Grecian-styled amphitheatre was opened with a concert that featured Frank Sinatra, Santana, Heart and Buddy Rich.  In 1983, the Altos de Chavon School of Design opened, and today it is known as the leading design and art institute in the country.

In the mid-1980’s, the resort and the sugar mill was purchased by a group of private investors of the Central Romana Corp. To solidify the Sporting Life title, Casa opened a world-class shooting facility in 1986, created by British marksman, Michael Rose.

Today, the area boasts an international airport, an international port for cruise ships, and the Marina.  Also added was the third Pete Dye golf course, Dye Fore, which opened in 2003, with amazing holes along the cliff of the Chavon River, and a total of 27 holes since the addition of Dye Fore Lakes in 2011.

Five days was not enough time for us.   Along with all of the activities listed above, there is kayaking, a pool that you’ll never want to leave, Minitas Beach and beach bar and restaurant, a spa that will take your breath away, and some of the best dining we have ever experienced int he Caribbean.

Again, we say, “Put Casa de Campo on your List!”

When I Grow Up, I Want To Be Panama!

On our most recent visit to Panama, we had an opportunity to really see it!  To really experience it!  And, it’s unanimous.  We love Panama! With close to 3.5 million inhabitants, Panama’s population is of mestizo origins, descendants of Indian, African and Spanish heritages. This mixture of cultural origins and diverse traditions has been stimulated by a long-standing atmosphere of harmony and tolerance.  Their is great ethnic diversity, and the high rate of urban development in recent years is attracting a growing urban population. 

Views From Our Room on the 23rd Floor at Trump Ocean Club Hotel and Tower International

The country of Panama is a little smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina.  It is bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north, Colombia to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the south, and Costa Rica to the west.  The climate in Panama is tropical, with a dry season from January to May, and a rainy season from May to December. The temperatures range from a hot 73-95 degrees Fahrenheit (23-35 degrees Celsius) in Panama City and the beaches, to a milder average of 73 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees Celsius) in the Highlands.

Guest Rooms at Trump Ocean Club Hotel

Pool At Trump Ocean Club Hotel

Panama has a cultural mix that is unique to the region.  The constant presence of visitors and ex-patriots from around the world contribute to the cultural richness.  In addition, the tight connection of Panama and the sea make for a tremendous Caribbean island feel.

 

Playa Bonita, Intercontinental Resort and Spa

 Panama’s economy is one of the more stable in the Americas. The main economic stimulants are financial, tourism and logistics. From 2003-2009, the GDP doubled, and according to the UN and IMF, the country has the highest per capita income in Central America.

Traditional Dress

There is so much to do in Panama!  Cruise, dive, surf, fish, golf, kayak, and much more.  If you are interested in learning more about the amazing Panama Canal, you can visit the Canal Expansion Observation Center, take a Canal tour, have dinner on the banks of the Canal, visit Miraflores Center, or take in the Canal Museum.  In the City there is plenty of great shopping, lovely walking tours of the Old Town and the Viejo Ruins, the Biomuseo, and the Panama City museums.  Into customs and traditions?  Check out the ethnic dances, folkloric dances, traditional clothes and national festivals.  And, then there’s our favorite.  The ecotourism.  A visit to the rain forest is a must!  See Gamboa via the Gamboa cable car, go bird watching, whale watching, see dolphins off the coast, go camping and so much more.

Traditional Dance
Lunch at the Wyndham Veneto Hotel and Casino in Panama City

 

With fantastic dining options, great drinks (be sure to have the Ron Abuelo!) casinos, concerts, theaters, sporting events, bars and discos, you’ll soon learn what we did…Panama does not sleep!  Put it on your list of places to visit again and again and again.  Be sure to rest up first!

Guest Room at Hard Rock Panama City

Hard Rock Panama City

Hard Rock Panama City

An Alaskan Get-Away

By Guest Blogger, Samantha

‘Just spent a week cruising on Norwegian Pearl to Alaska and it was fabulous! We sailed from Seattle to Juneau, Skagway,  Glacier Bay, Ketchikan and Victoria, BC.  While onboard we danced, ate, drank, worked out, saw fun shows & met great people – I also sang onstage with one of the bands, learned a few new line dances & even performed in a Michael Jackson Thriller flashmob!

About to set sail on the beautiful Norwegian Pearl.
 Sun setting on the way to Juneau.
We went whale watching in Juneau & saw 5 Orcas & 3 humpbacks.
Did you know a humpback can hold 15,000 gallons of water in it’s mouth! 

Humpback lunge-feeding in Juneau
Killer whales in Juneau

In Skagway we hiked & ziplined. That was a blast! Crossing the bridge of ropes was a little dicey but definitely fun…whew!

Walking through Skagway.
1st.  bridge to cross prior to ziplining.

Me maneuvering another crazy bridge.

Weeeeeeeeeeeee!

A view from the zipline in Skagway.

 We cruised through Glacier Bay & were in awe of how truly amazing nature is.

Glacier Bay

We took a ride on a seaplane in Ketchikan & saw some breathtaking views of the Misty Fjords national monument.  We also saw a brown bear strolling about.

Aerial view from the seaplane in Ketchikan.

Victoria, BC is full of beautiful gardens & architecture.

It rained a bit in Juneau but otherwise the weather throughout was excellent – beautifully sunny & in the 60s. If you’re looking for a cruise with amazing sights & the opportunity for lots of adventure, I definitely recommend this one.

A City Escape to The Foothills of The Blue Ridge Mountains

On one of the warmest, sunniest days of the year so far, we hopped in the car and headed out on the 1 hour and 45-minute drive from Washington, DC to Hume, Virginia to spend the day at the Marriott Ranch.  This isn’t your typical Marriott.  In 1951, J. Willard Marriott purchased this beautiful piece of land that reminded him of his childhood days on his family’s farm in Utah.  Over the years, Marriott brought the historic buildings, the surrounding grounds and the farm, Fairfield Farm, back to life. 

Sitting just east of the Appalachian foothills, and surrounded by the vineyards of Virginia Wine Country, this 7-mile, 4,200+ acre working cattle ranch is host to horses, registered Hereford cattle, and black-faced sheep.  The rolling hills, streams and meadows made us feel like we were hours and hours and hours from the hustle and bustle of our starting point of Washington, DC. 

Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, as well as other world leaders have been guests of Mr. Marriott here at the tranquil bed and breakfast, named The Inn at Fairfield Farm.  The accommodations include 7 lovely, comfortable guest rooms, located in 2 understated, but really beautiful, buildings.  A 3-course breakfast is served daily from 8am-10am, and an assorted cheese tray is offered each evening from 4pm-6pm.  Boxed lunches and picnic basket meals are available for purchase.  There are also local, small restaurants and pubs to enjoy. 

This is the perfect location for romantic weekend getaways, weddings/receptions, girlfriends wine country weekends, and corporate retreats.  With the many Riding Vacation packages, Trail Rides and Cattle Drives, there’s a lot to choose from.  Along with a hearty, delicious meal of grilled beef, chicken breast, shrimp, root vegetables, potatoes and freshly baked oatmeal cookies and brownies, we enjoyed Virginia wine tasting, horseback riding, hayrides, Texas Hold ‘Em lessons and line-dancing lessons. 

This was the perfect way to enjoy a perfect Spring day!

Contact Ingrid’s Travel Boutique at travelingwrite@gmail.com for assistance with planning your visit/stay at The Marriott Ranch/Inn at Fairfield Farm.