Blue Mountains Live!

“We were supposed to be going to the beach!”

It’s “I Have a Dream” weekend 2013 and LivingSocial has once again selected our destination!  After Paris and Amsterdam we had been longing for a warm weather getaway and doing some research on Turks & Caicos.  But it was the LivingSocial deal for the Ice Hotel in Quebec City that caught our eye.  So rather than lounging in the Caribbean sea, we found ourselves chilling in the hot tub in -24C!  Yikes!

But true to form IHAD2013 was an experience for the books (for my new followers, my friends and I take off each year for the Martin Luther King holiday for our “I Have a Dream” getaway – we visit a place where we haven’t been or long to go back to and jumpstart the new year with an adventure).  I’ll tell you more about the “Hotel de Glace” in my next post but, as usual, we landed and hit the ground running.

We made an impression immediately.  The four of us each stood before one of the four immigration officers at the airport who all asked us where we would be staying in Quebec.  When we told them the Ice Hotel, without exception they all responded, “That will be cold”.  You know you’re in trouble when even the locals raise their eyebrows.  The trouble continued as the taxi drivers stood perplexed wondering how to get all four of us and our suitcases into one small sedan.  It was never clear why the mini-van a few vehicles back was not available to us.  As we left the airport looking like a bunch of clowns, we learned that the Ice Hotel is actually located on the site of the old zoo.  So actually, we were staying in the zoo, which seemed appropriate.

After checking into the hotel and assessing the lay of the snow, we were glad that we had made a dinner reservation at a nice warm restaurant in Old Quebec!  Panache is located in the old port area and actually situated in an old riverside warehouse.  The restaurant décor is built around the structure rather than vice versa.  That means the old stone walls are proudly exposed and the tables are fit in around the lofty wooden beams and the staircase that leads to a second level of the restaurant.  Honestly, we would have been happy with just a nice fireplace and a full bodied red to warm our bellies.  What we got was one of the most exceptional dinners any of us had ever had (and yes, in case you’re wondering, I have been to Per Se).

Throughout the Quebecois province, the food is very local.  They are proud of their gaming and fishing history and put what they call a “quebecois” twist on all their dishes.  At Panache that meant pine needles with the Nova Scotia lobster and a blueberry glaze on the Saint Apollinaire duckling.  They are not looking to follow the latest trend, they celebrate their region’s traditions.

I’m sure when we sat down the waiter was expecting this table of four professional women to be high maintenance – sharing entrees, splitting the bill, etc.  What he got was cocktails before the meal, a bottle of red and a bottle of white since we had ordered practically one of everything on the menu and needed both for appropriate pairings, ice wine for dessert along with a brilliant negotiation to purchase four of the custom Panache wine glasses (which, by the way, are not for sale).  I think ultimately they really just took pity on us for the fact that we were soon to be heading back to the Ice Hotel to freeze our tooshes off all evening.  No one missed an opportunity to remind us that it was the coldest night of the year so far!

We finally pulled ourselves away from our warm, cozy table and the four of us, with our four wine glasses, headed back to the Hotel de Glace.

The adventure will continue in the next post!

Ohm Sweet Ohm

After one of the most culturally and intellectually curious trips I’ve ever taken (Joburg) followed by one of the most ridiculously fun (or funny) vacations ever (Scotland), I am ending the year with a soulful yoga retreat to Costa Rica.

I’ve thought about doing yoga trips many times.  I was meant to spend a long weekend in Byron Bay Australia (at The Byron at Byron) back when I first started TravelsfromMadAve.  Over the past three and a half years I’ve researched many yoga retreats, longingly,  but it wasn’t until my girlfriend of almost 30 years called me about the Soul Sparks retreat hosted by her local yoga studio in Costa Rica at Blue Spirit that I actually pulled the trigger.

Blue Spirit takes you to the Guanacaste Peninsula of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast.  The miles of dirt roads and trees as thick as thieves is a constant reminder than you are in a rain forest.  But the views from Blue Spirit make you feel like you’re on an island, surrounded by ocean (which of course, being on a peninsula, you’re not).

Yoga twice a day and vegetarian food would not be many people’s idea of a relaxing vacation.  But don’t leap to judgment.  Blue Spirit is a beautiful, calming place.  Yes you are in Costa Rica, which is a second world country, but if you’re willing to let the area envelope you, you will find yourself able to embrace it.

If you’re not interested in the yoga and want a hamburger now and again, you can still have a great time here.  There are plenty of excursions to take you off the resort.  You can go zip lining, take surf lessons, enjoy a nature hike to a waterfall (complete with an organically prepared lunch by Sherry) or go kayaking.  It was actually difficult to decide whether we were here to do yoga or if we should partake in everything Nosara has to offer.  You also don’t have to eat every meal at the resort.  The tiny town of Guinones is nearby and has a couple of cute cafes and shops.  We ate Café de Paris (which is not French, but is delicious) where we sat poolside while eating delicious ceviche and sipping wine.  The waiter made us order in Spanish, which was hysterical because he spoke perfect English.  And, had the heat really gotten to us, we could have just take a dip in the pool!  It’s welcome to restaurant guests.  Instead of taking a swim, we walked down the street for the infamous ice cream at Robin’s Café.  The ice cream is incredibly rich and creamy and very yummy.  And there was no guilt because we walked about a mile and a half back to the hotel along the beach.

After four days of yoga twice a day.  We treated ourselves to dinner at La Luna.  The restaurant was recommended to me by a friend before I left but was met with ringing endorsements throughout from the locals.  Situated right on Playa Nocera La Luna offers a front row view to the most spectacular sunsets as well as exceptional food, both seafood as well as delicious pizza.  You will have to take a cab there (it is about a 15 minute drive from Cafe de Paris which will cost you approximately $30).  And beware, it is a cash only restaurant.  Thank God for our angel Mauricio.  We arrived at La Luna penniless and by the time we found out credit cards weren’t accepted and there was no ATM we were ready to start washing dishes.  The restaurant called our hotel, Mauricio came back and offered us $100 bill to stay and enjoy our dinner.  We paid him back on our way home.  Our reward?  One of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.


Recreating TravelsfromMadAve @SAYCreate!


Inspiration doesn’t always just “hit” you, or at least not for me.  I often find being inspired is an active process.  So being at Say:Media’s #SAYCreate conference while I’m re-imagining is serendipitous.

The opportunity to spend a few days with “the best creative minds in media” is an opportunity to step back from our day to day and find inspiration in surprising places.  It’s a proven process known as “bisociation” and introduced by Arthur Koestler in the 1960’s.  Bisociation is about bringing together two seemingly unrelated things, or concepts, together in a new way.  That is pure creativity.  This creativity can only be fostered by stepping back and exposing ourselves to things that, on the surface seem irrelevant.  Throughout the next couple of days I’ll be capturing this “irrelevance” @TravelsfromMadA on Twitter and will hopefully be translating some of it into what becomes.

On the plane ride out here I watched, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”.  Maggie Smith’s character (who just happens to be Muriel Donnelly) is consoling Jean Ainslie who is finding her adventure to not be quite what she expected.

Muriel: Most things aren’t (sic). But sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.  

While TravelsfromMadAve has not taken me exactly where I had envisioned when I first embarked on creating this blog, it is getting me to the good stuff, for sure.



A Tale of Two Ritz’s

I have often criticized the Ritz Carlton hotel chain for being too consistent.  While I love the service, the luxury and quality, I have in the past, complained that you can enter a Ritz anywhere in the world and be in any other.  The look and feel is all the same.  Case in point, the Ritz in Cancun boasts a beautiful, ornate French restaurant as its signature, high end dining option.  The only indication in the entire hotel that one is in Mexico is the random decorations in the casual dining restaurant that were hung amidst the standard issue tables and chairs.

After my last couple weekend getaways, I have a renewed respect for the sameness.  I found myself bookending at two Ritz hotels recently.  First at the Ritz Carlton, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, GA and ending at the Ritz Carlton South Beach.

On the plus side, the two hotels could not have been more different architecturally.  Arriving at Reynolds Plantation, I rode up a long, winding, tree lined road that lead up to a sprawling estate.  Approaching the circular drive, I was greeted by bellhops donning knickers and tweed caps.  Take away the humming engines and cell phones and I could just as easily have been arriving in my carriage to visit my uncle’s plantation 100 years ago.  The foyer was decorated in an arts and crafts style with dark, heavy woods and furniture.  The wall of windows looked out onto the heavily forested lake area.

Alternatively, arriving in South Beach Miami, I was deposited into a dark, cool, flirty space.  Club music playing in the background and low cushioned chairs provided places to gather, unnoticed.

I found these distinctions welcomed, I like having a sense of place when I travel. But that is where the benefit of distinction ended.  My stay at the Ritz Carlton SoBe could be likened to a newly opened boutique hotel that hasn’t exactly gotten everything right yet (an argument I will make next month when I return to South Beach to stay at The Sanctuary, a small, boutique hotel).

As our cab pulled up, no one was interested in greeting us, they were there, but we were more of an annoyance than a welcomed guest.  I couldn’t help but wonder had we had arrived in a Mercedes convertible instead of our airport taxi if we would have received a different welcome.  We were met with equal indifference at the front desk.  Hospitality 101: a guest’s experience at check in lays the foundation for their perception of the entire stay.  People make up their minds, argues Malcolm Gladwell in the first seven seconds of an encounter.  A line, too few clerks and a long wait made being rushed through our check in process even more frustrating.

Once settled in our room, we made our way out to the beach to catch some much needed sun and a few fruity cocktails.  Getting a drink proved to be as challenging as check in.  Once we were able to wrestle down a waiter, and he discovered we drank for sport, I must say service did improve.

From the twenty minutes I spent on the phone getting a wireless connection (and paying an additional $10/day for the privilege) or finding our room being cleaned at the end of the day (precisely when we needed to change for an appointment) or the fact that we weren’t offered the house car for a one mile journey, the weekend was the worst experience I have ever had at a Ritz Carlton.

Made even worse, I believe, by the contrast of Reynolds Plantation.  The staff did a phenomenal job of anticipating every need.  Even when things went wrong, they were made right.  When the maid curiously tucked my straightening iron away somewhere in the bathroom, resulting in my leaving it behind, they immediately fedexed it to my home, no problem.  When the fire at our lakeside barbecue wouldn’t light, the staff didn’t rest until it was roaring.  With thirty minutes left before departure, I needed lunch before the two hour ride back to Atlanta, I was led to the beautiful lakeside restaurant where the waitress went out of her way to serve me the Brunswick Stew (a southern specialty) quickly and sent me on my way.

Marriott consistently rates high in overall satisfaction in hospitality surveys.  They do so, respondent say, not because they love the Marriott, but they know what they’re going to get.  That’s why we stop at McDonald’s off the highway, why we go to Starbucks and pay more for our coffee.  Above all else, we like consistent service.