Sleep Well, Do Good at This Sustainable Hotel in Antigua

When I first learned about The Good Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, I thought, what a neat idea! This socially responsible business thrives on reinvesting 100% of their profits into the local community. Started by Amsterdam born, Marten Dresen, The Good Hotel came about from a personal backpacking trip through Guatemala which led to opening schools for low income children in the country. Now the Good Group trains unemployed and single women to work in the hospitality sector, and hires them to run their properties. Also, they invest in the education of kids from low income families, and source local products for use by guests.

The Good Hotel is located on a relatively quiet residential street in Old Town Antigua. The city is a charming colonial UNESCO World Heritage site with cobblestone streets and colorful bohemian buildings. One can walk along the streets lined with bougevvilla trees to get to the Parque Central (main square) in about 10 minutes.

As soon as I arrive at The Good Hotel, I can see the Scandinavian influences in the construction and decor. Though the building was a colonial private home, it has been renovated to look like a modern log cabin with high ceilings, farm style wooden sliding doors, white walls and contemporary chandeliers. The rooms are located along a long hallway surrounded by a garden with tropical foliage. They are minimalistic, yet functional. I stay at the Patio Room, which is the second highest category. Being in a corner, it has more privacy and a private patio with an outdoor shower. The Pila Rooms are about half the size and open up to the corridor, which gives a hostel like feel. These can get noisy as you can hear people passing through. There were no fans or air conditioners in the rooms so you have to keep the windows open.

On my pillow is a worry doll, a traditional handmade doll that according to local legend, takes away your sorrows, fears and worries. It is generally used to help kids overcome their problems and help them sleep through the night.

The common spaces at the hotel are inviting to grab a drink, catch up on emails and chat with other travelers. At the entrance, you can read about all the hotel’s projects and how your stay leaves a positive footprint in the community. The Living Room is modern with sofas, kitchen counters, a TV and garden tables. Each morning, I grab breakfast of freshly baked croissants and locally sourced cappuccino coffee. At night, I return for a glass of wine or a scoop of gelato. All the produce is locally sourced, fresh, organic and home-made by their team.

The friendly staff is always there to give advice on the best restaurants, attractions and how to get around. Because they are young and sustainable, I tend to take their recommendation and eat at Cactus Taco Bar (the best taco I’ve ever had),  in Antigua. There is also free WiFi throughout the hotel which works rather well, so you can stream movies or research your next destination.

The Good Group also has hotels in Guatemala and London, and plans to open in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, Guatemala City and Rio over the next three years.

Must Have Bajan Experiences in Barbados

The term Bajan or Barbadian is referred to the people of the Caribbean island of Barbados. Bajan is also an English based creole language that is spoken on the island. It can be quite confusing to a native English speaker, as the locals have a very fast slang way of running the words together.

During my recent visit to Barbados, I discovered that one can discover the authentic cuisine and culture at all-inclusive resorts as well. Elegant Hotels is a Bajan company that employs a majority local staff, from the chefs, waiters and beach ambassadors, to the management. They pride themselves in creating experiences that expose guests to the Barbados style of living – be it engaging in a game of road tennis, tasting rum while “liming”, or taking lessons in steel pan drumming. Here are a few Bajan experiences offered by two of the resorts that are in the western and southern parts of the island.

Crystal Cove is on the platinum west coast of Barbados where the gentle waves lap at the stunning shoreline with the resort on an elevated position offering fantastic views out to sea. The all-inclusive four-star property is in a charming traditional Bajan style and has an elegantly intimate feel that makes it popular with families and parties. Crystal Cove features three freshwater lagoon swimming pools, a swim-up bar, two restaurants, complimentary watersports for all guests, two tennis courts and a free water taxi to other Elegant Hotels Group properties on the west coast.

New Elegantly Bajan initiatives at Crystal Cove include:

Oistins Night – A weekly culinary sensation, Oistins Fish Fry on a Friday night is where locals and tourists alike head to the south coast to savor some rustic dining on local seafood and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere. Crystal Cove recreates the vibes of Oistins with a range of local authentic dishes at Drifters Restaurant for some beachside dining. Dine on a feast of local fish marinated and cooked live on George’s BBQ grill. Delicacies include granny’s fish cakes with Mount Gay Rum cocktail sauce, fried flying fish with Bajan pepper sauce, grilled sweet potato, fried plantain, calypso rice and pumpkin & ginger soup. Musical entertainment is in the form of a local popular DJ mixing sounds of Oistins with everything from calypso to reggae, as local artisans at the resort display local crafts and souvenirs.

Bridgetown Heritage Tour – Barbados’ capital is often overlooked by guests and offers a genuinely fascinating array of attractions for visitors to the island. Exclusively for Crystal Cove guests, this day long tour will soak up the most beautiful architecture and historic buildings in the capital as well include visits to the Mount Gay Visitor Centre, Kensington Oval, St. Mary’s Church, Parliament Buildings, Garrison Savannah and the Prime Minister’s Office. There will even be time in the itinerary for some duty-free shopping in Bridgetown followed by lunch and a trip to one of Barbados’ most beautiful beaches, Brown’s Beach, for a spot of snorkeling and relaxation.

Heritage Night – For an evening like no other, Crystal Cove puts on a Caribbean cabaret floor show with dancers wearing carnival costumes and performing a range of dances and feats including fire eating and limbo dancing. This is accompanied by the Tuk Band and the famous Calypso King; authentic dishes from around the Caribbean and The Chattel House Bar which serve a variety of coconut cocktails.

Steel Pan Classes – One of the quintessential sounds of Barbados, this is a chance for travelers to get to grips with the steel pans and have a go at producing well known songs as well as calypso classics with some of the best professionals on the island.

Road Tennis Classes – Road tennis is the little known national sport of Barbados – unique and exclusive to the island, road tennis involves a ‘skinned’ tennis ball, a stretch of road for a court and wooden paddles to bat the ball between two players. Easy to learn and fun to play, Crystal Cove staff show guests how to master this local sport as well as set up some tournaments for a vigorous work out.

Rum Shop initiation – It is said there is a rum shop on every corner of Barbados and that liming (Bajan slang for relaxing) at a local village rum shop is an essential part of the Bajan experience. To test this theory, Crystal Cove staff coach guests on how to ‘lime’ and really learn to relax, chill and clear their minds of any stress, by teaching them rum shop games. Dominos is a national obsession in Barbados and Crystal Cove staff teaches guests how to play slam dominos like a real Bajan as well as drink some rum based forfeits. Guests can also sample local rum shop snacks including corn beef and biscuits as well as cheese cutters made with local salt bread.

Turtle Beach, on the south coast offer a host of Elegantly Bajan experiences for families, couples and parties alike. A premium all-inclusive property in the lively St Lawrence parish of Barbados, Turtle Beach is popular with families and couples who love the relaxed atmosphere, 1,500ft beach and general feeling of space and tranquility the resort offers. With two swimming pools, three restaurants and bars, two tennis courts and the infamous Captain Sam’s watersports center with free water-sports including dinghy sailing and surfing.

Bajan initiatives at Turtle Beach include:

Turtle Pioneers – Get the inside scoop from locals. Turtle Pioneers – Hermanius, Maradonna, Nigel and Captain Sam are an elite team of Barbados experts and are a powerhouse of knowledge about what to do, where to go and when to do it in Barbados.

Pastry School – Guests at Turtle Beach can take part in a weekly pastry class with award winning dessert chef Ezra Beckles. Known for his sinfully tasty treats, Ezra uses unusual ingredients including noni flour and cactus as well as traditional ingredients from Barbados including local tamarind, cherries and coconut. He takes guests through how to create local delicacies and most importantly, how to enjoy them!

Santa, Sleighs and Igloos in Finland

Do you believe in Santa Claus? What if I told you that the letters you address to “The North Pole” actually make it to a small town in Finland, where Santa and his helpers sit at their desks and read each and every letter? You probably won’t believe me, thinking it was a made up kids story. But really, it is actually true and I have seen it with my very own eyes!

I flew to a city called Ivalo, in northern Finland, located inside the Arctic Circle. Even in April, there was snow as far as my eyes could see. Reindeers appeared wandering around the alpine forests, as I took a 30-minute shuttle ride to Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Lapland.

Most people say they have never heard of Lapland, until I mention the “igloo hotel.” The iconic photo of a village dotted with glass igloos glowing against the twilight sky in wintery wonderland, has appeared across many social media posts. I had only dreamt of going there myself someday, and here I was.

igloo resort finlandThe shuttle dropped off the passengers at a log cabin used as the reception area. We fetched our keys and were told to use the sleighs kept outside to carry our luggage to our respective cabin rooms or igloos.

While it was snowing heavily outside and temperatures dipped under 30F (“unusually warm for this time of the year” they informed me), I dragged my wooden sleigh to my cabin.

laplandThere are three kinds of rooms at the resort. The first and most popular are the glass igloos, available in two sizes – sleeps 2 (with toilet, no shower) or 4 people (with shower and toilet). The igloos have limited space to store luggage and almost no privacy, since they are made entirely of glass. Though you have to walk through the snowy cold weather to get to the igloo, once inside, it is nice and toasty.

The second option is to get a log cabin. Here, you can get a very comfortable king size bed, kitchenette, breakfast area, as well as a personal sauna. Now, that’s luxury! For those who cannot decide between the igloo or the cabin, there is the Kelo Glass Igloo, which combines a cabin with an igloo, so you get the best of both worlds. Store your luggage in the cabin, enjoy a nice hot sauna, and sleep in the igloo at night.

kakslauttanen_kelo-glass_igloo_rgbPicture yourself lying in bed, looking at the sky, while the Aurora Lights dance around in their green, orange and red hues. That is the main reason to come here. In Lapland, you can see northern lights almost every night from August-April, in their full splendor. The resort also offers activities “Aurora Hunting” on snow mobiles or reindeer sleighs.

During the day, guests can enjoy winter sports such as cross country skiing, dog sledding, hiking, riding snow mobiles, and more.

dsc06915For lunch, there is always all-you-can-eat soup (two choices) and homemade breads. Dinner at the restaurant is also quite good. The menu features local ingredients and Lappish dishes, such as reindeer stew, Alaskan crab, grilled salmon, and stewed cloudberries.

reindeer & salmon

The resort is actually quite large and worth exploring for a few hours. First, you want to visit Santa’s house. Here, resident Mr and Mrs Claus live, meet guests and participate in activities through the season. The Celebration House is where Santa throws elaborate parties. It is also used for weddings and events. There are other small workshops, an ice chapel, and of course, the local wildlife. Couple of dozen reindeers live on the property.

Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is one of it’s kind. It was started by a visionary, Jussi Eiramo. While on vacation, he discovered this patch of beautiful area where he could camp and see the Northern Lights almost every night of the year. So, he opened a souvenir shop about 40 years ago, then made ice igloos for people to stay at, and later designed the first glass igloos using unique Finnish technology.

Today, Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a bucket list destination for those who seek adventure, romance and off the beaten path travel. It is a place where families flock to in the winter to celebrate the holiday season, party with Santa, and enjoy the essence of the North Pole.

Hotel Genova – Treasure of Turin

When I was told that I was going to be staying at a Best Western Plus hotel during Turin Epicurean Capital, I didn’t expect much, mainly because I rarely find anything interesting about chain hotels. But Hotel Genova contradicted all my beliefs!hotel genova Turin

First of all, this hotel has been a family owned business since the 1880s. According to the current hotel manager and owner, Dr Fabio Borio (his grandfather bought the property after World War 2), it was originally an inn with a restaurant with just a few rooms.

The name “Hotel Genova” can be confusing, since it’s not in the city of Genova, or anywhere close to it. I discovered that the name came about because it was on the way to Genova. Back in the days, when people left Turin to head towards the Italian riviera, they would stop at Hotel Genova for a meal.

Originally, the hotel had only 20 rooms. Over the years, the family has added floors and contemporary style rooms, bringing the number of rooms up to 88. Because of this, each floor is done in a different fashion, with staircases, carpets and decor representing many decades. Guests can see that no two rooms at the hotel are alike. For example, on the fifth floor – known as the Parisian floor, there are all attic rooms with wooden beams. My room looked like it was out of a children’s story book, with slanted roofs and all!

hotel genova turinThe fourth floor has more elegant rooms with high ceilings, glass chandeliers and huge baths. The room I ultimately stayed in also had a 2-person jacuzzi tub right in the room! There was also a small patio with beautiful views of the city.

genova hotel turinThe third floor of the hotel has contemporary furniture but wooden floors dating back to the 19th century, and the second floor was originally the piano nobile or the main floor of the original building back in the 1800. Walking around the hotel can be quiet interesting, as one may discover   original stained glass windows, paintings, antiques, and world war memorabilia.hotel genova turin

Now in 2016, the hotel has modern features such as free WiFi, spa, Turkish bath, Finnish sauna, music room and salt room, beauty center and gym. There is also a delicious breakfast buffet served in the basement.

The hotel is centrally located across from Porta Nuova station. It is 5 minutes walking distance to Via Roma, the hub of shopping, restaurants and cafes, as well as to most tourist attractions.

Hotel Genova is truly a charming family-owned boutique hotel that is now part of the Best Western Plus family.

Book your stay at Hotel Genova today with TripAdvisor

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Cherry Blossoms at the Ritz

The exact time of the blooms may be hard to predict with the March weather in Washington, D.C., but it is the season at the Ritz Carlton already!

As soon as I walk through the elegant lobby, the scent of cherry blossoms embodies me with happiness. The hotel’s signature scent, Sakura (meaning cherry blossom in Japanese) subtly fills the air as cherry blossom flower arrangements brighten the public spaces. Downstairs in the conference area, an incredible hand-painted mural depicting a wind-blown cherry blossom tree set against a metallic gold background is perhaps the most photographed location at the hotel. When visitors come to D.C., they want to take home a memorable moment with the backdrop of the blossoms, even if they didn’t get to see them in bloom.

ritz carlton dc

Located off the main lobby is Westend Bistro, a vibrant modern bar that serves lunch and dinner. I was told that it took the mixologist months of perfection to create the house drink, Sakura cocktail. A pale red colored gin-infused drink arrives in a cold martini glass. It has layers of flavors starting with sweetness of cherries, boldness of Sakura tea, to dryness of the gin and bitterness of grapefruits. It is flavorful in a way that one could drink a few glasses and only later realize the alcohol content.

cherry blossom cocktail

Westend Bistro under the supervision of Chef de Cuisine Adam Barnett was named Washingtonian’s Top 100 Restaurants for 2015, so I have to try the food. The Kabocha Squash Salad arrives as a hearty, healthy treat with baby kales and spinach, grilled honeycrisp apples, pumpkin seed granola, and hazelnut vinaigrette.

I arrive in my room to find a card made with recycled paper at the desk. It says “a cherry tree has been planted in your honor.” The Ritz Carlton Washington, D.C. partners with the National Arbor Day Foundation‘s  Cherry Blossom Give-A-Tree program. Guests can purchase an overnight room package that includes the tree donation.

give a cherry tree

Afternoon is a time to experience high tea at the Lobby Lounge. Over Cherry Blossom Festival, they offer a lovely Sakura blend tea that is especially designed for the hotel. Notes of bergamot, black currant, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, soft vanilla and white musk are complimented with, well of course, cherry blossom flowers. The tea is served in a traditional Japanese cast iron teapot (tetsubin) and cups, with sliced lemons and rose petals on the side. It is refreshing and deep, without an overwhelming floral presence.

Tea comes with a surprise dessert amenity that is not listed on the menu. Homemade little cherry tart square and chocolate covered cookie sticks resembling tree barks with cherry flowers, placed in a Japanese vase look too beautiful to eat. This presentation is worth taking photos of, even if you are not a dessert person.

high cherry tea at the ritz

cherry chocolate barkAfter enjoying all the cherry blossom themes at the Ritz Carlton, it was time to explore the festival related events in the area. The hotel’s concierge guides me to a list of events including parades, runs and banquets organized by the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Book your stay now at the Ritz Carlton!

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