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Fall Travel: Why Cartegena, Colombia Should be Top of Your List

Colombia has given the world a wide range of talents from Nobel prize-winning, poetic author Gabriel García Márquez to bombshell actress Sophia Vergara, so it has been exciting in recent years to see this destination creep up on top 10 travel lists and no longer as a crime-ridden no-fly zone with a dark history.

Situated on a bay in the Caribbean Sea, one of the country’s top draws is the thriving port city of Cartagena. This World Heritage Site founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, is steeped in pirate lore, with colonial architecture protected by the most complete set of fortifications in South America.

Everyone from Will Smith – who we recently spotted on location making a film – to the cast of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City, have frolicked in the irresistible and picturesque streets. This town is so hot right now that it’s almost in danger of becoming a South American Cabo San Lucas – with the recent influx of tourism. Add in the fact that it’s only a short one-hour flight on Avianca airlines from Bogota – which will take you about 6 hours from LAX, and there is only a 2-hour time difference.

Once you arrive from a 20-minute airport shuttle trip, driving around the Walled City of Cartagena de Indias, might not be the seaside town you were expecting. The perimeter looks large and imposing like they might still be trying to ward off the pirates behind those walls, but the interior structure holds a charming, Colonial masterpiece that is reminiscent of good time New Orleans and tropical Jamaica mixed with a little rough-and-tumble Cuba.  Boutique hotels blend in with 400-year-old homes sprouting tiny terraces draped in Bougainville, cafes and stunning courtyards abound filled with artists, expats, and vacationers sipping the famous coffee or rum cocktails.

It’s very easy to navigate the well-worn cobblestone streets on foot, taxi or by horse-drawn buggy, but no matter which transportation mode you choose, you’ll want to end up at Casa San Agustín – a member of Leading Hotels of the World – located in the Old City, or Downtown (Centro) area of Cartagena.

From the moment you pass the large wooden gates that lead to a courtyard reception, it feels like a grand private home. The central pool features a jaw-dropping ancient aqueduct surrounded by 20 guest rooms and 10 suites that make up the property constructed with three restored XVII century whitewashed Colonial-era homes with Romeo and Juliet balconies.

The private abode esthetic continues to the guest rooms which are all fitted with bespoke furnishings commissioned by local artisans from the chandeliers to ironwork beds that are fitted with Frette linens. For a family affair, a variety of suites offer living room areas and private patios with a Jacuzzi.

Throughout your stay, you will keep finding nods to the 17th-century history as a Spanish stronghold from the original frescoes in the Library, wood-beamed ceilings, tiles, sconces throughout the public spaces, library, rooftop bar and sundeck.

Another reason to make this your home for a visit is the acclaimed Alma Restaurant run by one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, Heberto Eljach.  Boasting another enviable indoor-outdoor leafy courtyard setting, where you can linger all day or at night while ordering traditional fare and listening to live music on the patio or a DJ in the bar area. There is a separate entrance to the restaurant from the street, so even non-guests can pop-in easily for a romantic or lively meal, depending on the night.

Chef Eljach is known for his refined classic Colombian dishes from seafood casserole, ceviche, prime aged beef, and lobster tail. Speaking of crustaceans, one item that you must order is the lobster empanadas. The flaky pastry is perfectly cooked, like a savory pie that is not too dense or chewy, and comes with guacamole and few other spicy sauces for dipping.

For breakfast, be sure to indulge in a typical Columbian feast that includes arepas (a pita looking bread made with maize dough or cooked flour) with eggs stuffed inside the pastry – almost like a hot pocket – alongside fried yucca, potatoes, sausage, cheese and salsa which are all typical side dishes for a hearty start to the day. And, you must try the famous Columbian black coffee even if you think it will be too strong. The hotel can even arrange a tasting with Café San Alberto where you will learn about the history, customs and how to taste and drink these magical beans. This coffee is so smooth you will not even need to doctor it with sugar or dairy products.

Once you’re caffeinated and fortified, time to hit the sites. Thanks to the local government the town is safe, clean and colorful teaming with preserved historic buildings, cathedrals, world-class shopping and dining.

The best way to get your bearings is by taking a three-hour walking tour of Old Town Cartagena with Galavanta Taylored Travel. The guides are all knowledgeable and charming locals, so you are in good hands.

You’ll visit the Plaza San Pedro Claver and also San Felipe de Barajas Castle. The site has a long dramatic steep entrance that leads to bunkers and a maze of tunnels and is the It is the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture.  Other notable sites include the Cathedral of Cartagena de Indias, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the Americas. Construction began in 1577, finished in 1612, its dome a symbol of Cartagena’s skyline and resilience to this day.

You’ll pass plenty of street musicians, artists, and vendors, all speaking Palenquero which is the Spanish-based creole language spoken in Colombia, but Spanish and English are also widely used. Be sure to buy a few colorful hand-made woven bags, head scarves or wooden jewelry. For something a little more durable and impressive, this is also a fantastic place to buy emeralds and there seem to be plenty of jewelry stores in this tiny town who are willing to make you a ‘good deal.’ Guests can also book the hotel’s personal shopper, who can give an insider tour of the city’s best and most authentic boutiques for clothing, accessories, handmade crafts and souvenirs.


El Encanto Santa Barbara is Back in Business

El EncantoSuite2Perched high above the hills in the ‘California Riviera’ aka Santa Barbara, the landmark El Encanto reopened it’s doors last month and the restaurant is fully open after a seven year closure. This grand reopening also marks the first West Coast property for the Orient-Express, who is primarily known for European trains and restoring historic villas around the world. 

“The addition of El Encanto to the Orient-Express family is another milestone in the strengthening of the Orient-Express footprint in North America,” says John M. Scott, President and Chief Executive Officer, Orient-Express Hotels Ltd.  “El Encanto is an icon on the West Coast and fits perfectly with our existing international portfolio of unique assets.”

El Encanto spans seven acres amid lush garden landscapes with an expansive ocean view and has been a hideaway in the hills for close to 100 years.  While the footprint remains true to it’s original design, the property now boasts 92 individually designed California-style bungalows, with hardwood floors and plantation-style shutters that reveal wild growing Bougainvillea. 

Each bungalow has its own private patio or garden, where guests can choose to dine al fresco or enjoy a romantic sunset in complete seclusion or take in the ocean view via a terrace Telescope.  The 800 square-feet Hummingbird Bungalow even features its own outdoor rainforest shower.

World famous artist Damien Hirst’s ‘Psalm print: verba mea auribus’, which is prominently located at the concierge desk, was created on a silk screen with diamond dust. The abstract piece depicts butterfly wings, as the hotel is located on a significant butterfly migration path.

The kitchen is now overseen by Executive Chef Patrice Martineau, who has created a ‘Californian Coastal’ menu, incorporating seasonal produce from the Santa Barbara region, as well as freshly picked herbs and vegetables from the hotel’s Chef’s Garden. Chef Martineau has recreated the ‘Floating Island’ dessert, which first made its debut on the menu in 1920. And, in a culinary twist indicative of the Orient-Express, the property has its very own Holstein cow, Ellie, whose milk will be solely used to produce handmade cheese for the guests.  

The spa consist of seven treatment rooms, including a couples room and wet room, with a selection of therapies infused with calming sea elements, such as seaweed from Patagonia, or vinotherapies, which offer healing properties extracted from regional vines. One of the spa’s signature treatments, The Pinto and Cabernet Crush Sugar Scrub, drains toxins and stimulates circulation through a refining and renewing body scrub that combines Pinot and Cabernet grape seeds, brown sugar, and Kaolin clay for an invigorating experience.

Discover the surrounding area with a custom made electric bike. With a quaint basket at the front of the bikes, the hotel can prepare adventurous cyclists with a picnic for their journey down to the Santa Barbara town center, or to a secluded leafy spot where you can relax and take in the views.

For further information please visit
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Four LA Boutique Hotels with Destination Dining

Perfect for a quick long weekend getaway or even a staycation, these four LA area hotels have caught our eye again thanks to the new cooks in the kitchen and updated menus.

The Hart & The Hunter, Palihotel 
From sibling hotel the Palihouse in West Hollywood, this property might appear to be the shyer, younger sister of the boho-chic, long-stay hotel brand founded by Avi Brosh, but this trendy Melrose and Fairfax adjacent kitchen has finally come into its own. There were a few false starts with British Chef Brendan Collins (who is also the Executive Chef at Palihouse), but Chefs Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga – last scene at the wildly popular ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing pop-up in Venice, are making exciting southern and regional American comfort foods with a twist. Chicken cracklin’ is self-explanatory fried skin that is insanely addictive and doesn’t even need the splash of hot sauce; the trout spread on a crostini type of bread with avocado could fit in with a high tea at an upper crust hotel. The low country shrimp boil and black eyed-peas are a standout but be sure to save room for the best cheddar biscuits this side of the Mississippi.
7950 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles (323)424-3055

The Churchill, The Orlando
Located in the heart of Third Street’s trendy shops and restaurants, Chef Bruce Kalman hails from the Lettuce Entertain you group and joins The Churchill team after opening The Misfits in Santa Monica. Kalman makes wonderful charcuterie in-house, 10-hour beef short ribs and beef cheeks but the true creativity comes out in the Farm House pizza with seasonal produce, local cheese, topped with an egg, or the duck fat popcorn – which we want to find in our local cinema next time.  Mixologist Queen Mia Sarazen makes one of the best Pisco Sours in town, so pull up a bar stool in the lounge if you don’t have time for dinner.
8384 W. Third Street Los Angeles (323)658-6600

Blue Plate Taco, The Shore Hotel
This new seaside, economically priced hotel along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica – a stone’s throw from the new mall and promenade, was the perfect spot for the third outpost from the folks behind Blue Plate on Montana and Blue Plate Oysterette down the street. The tiny bar and main room is just steps from the hotel pool where you can order guacamole and blended margaritas or the house Chardonnay from Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. Menu musts are the ceviche or kale salad with goat cheese, mushrooms and corn, but the stuffed lobster or brisket tacos should not be overlooked, though you will be torn from the extensive list including chicken, shrimp carnitas, veggie and the daily seafood specials.
1515 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica (310)458-2985

The Roof on Wilshire, The Hotel Wilshire
Boisterous Chef Eric Greenspan of The Foundry on Melrose seems right at home at this poolside, rooftop eatery in this Wilshire corridor hotel near LACMA.  While the chef has been in-house since the opening, and is already well-known around town for his gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, he whips up more refined comfort fare with sashimi flatbreads, tuna tartare nachos or mushroom risotto that are perfect for sunset cocktails or a late night bite. Perhaps his most ingenious dish is the breakfast pancake lasagna which will not leave you much room for lunch, but you really won’t care.
6317 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles (323) 852-6000

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The Best with12 Rooms or Less

I’ve covered many lavish, lush and romantic resorts on my world travels, particularity for honeymoon suggestions, but I’ve decided to let you in on some of my favorite places with a dozen rooms or less. Sometimes you just want privacy and to feel like you own the place.
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Imanta – Punta De Mita, Mexico
12 villas

Just under an hours drive North of Puerto Vallarta, this Mexican jungle sanctuary is one of the most romantic spots on theRiviera Nayarit. Try to book an ocean front villa or casona with a private plunge pool and you’ll also have direct access to the deserted beach. The spacious, airy rooms are decorated with natural elements such as wooden tree trunks for a table and stone walls. The property never feels crowded and features two Presidential suites amid the 250-acre natural reserve. Whether you enjoy bird-watching, horseback riding, sailing or snorkeling, everything is available with our leaving the property or private beach.  With one ‘formal’ restaurant and one palapa located down by the shore, the emphasis is on utilizing fresh, local ingredients – the ceviche and guacamole should not be missed.  Enjoy the sunset with cocktails, or a private meal at the resort’s chic rooftop terrace, offering a 360-degree view of jungle and Pacific. 

Poetry Inn – Napa Valley
Five rooms

Poetry Inn on the grounds of the Cliff Lede winery and art gallery in the charming town of Yountville which should be your focus of a visit to this region. You can easily walk the town’s main street and taste your way through some of best food and wines available within this one mile radius (including The French Laundry and all of Thomas Keller’s eateries).  Back at the Inn you can also opt to rent the farm house with roaring fireplaces, four poster beds, a pool and large porches overlooking the Silverado Trail.
This vineyard-view sanctuary perched on the hillside is so perfectly romantic and ideal for the chic-country-cozy town (it isn’t called Poetry for nothing.) At the Cliff Lede winery you just might see Canadian born Cliff walking amid the outdoor sculptures with his black beret slightly tilted on his head. Sip his sublime Poetry Cabernet while perusing modern art at the on-site gallery. Sign up for their new three day wine making package and try your hand at producing your own vintage. To Cliff ‘the poetry of life’ includes fine wine, food, art and the natural beauty of the valley. Who can argue?

Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
38 rooms but rent one of two private homes on the grounds.

This Big Sur favorite immediately puts you in a relaxing state of mind as you drive up or down the coast on Highway 1 from LA or SanFran.  Newer suites with names like ‘Peace’ now complement the existing tree houses, while keeping the new age meets upscale vibe. Wooden curved walls, gun metal fireplaces and stone floors appear to have been carved right into the side of the mountain. Whimsical granite and metal sculptures mingle the creative edge of the local community with epic craggy edge views up one of the most beautiful forest trimmed shore lines in the world.  Admire the waves from one of the heated infinity pools not far from the spa. In the kitchen, try a different four course tasting menu nightly. Not to worry, you can hike up Bill’s trail on the grounds to burn it all off in the morning. 

Tom Beach Hotel, St. Barts, Caribbean
10 Rooms

St. Barts is a perfect French Island in the Caribbean consisting of 8 scenic miles of beach, beauty and bistros.  As you fly into the narrow landing strip, the scenery is dotted with yachts scattered in the harbors, pink colored buildings and lush green landscapes that blended into the expanse of azure blue water. What sets the island apart is that you won’t find any poverty, crime or beach hustler, but you will find Prada, Gucci and some of the best French food outside of Paris. Now all you need is an under the radar 10-room hideaway in a tropical garden setting. Tom’s Beach Hotel may not be as well-known as Le Toiny, Eden Rock orGuanahani, but for a small, chic and private venue with a pool, this is a little known island secret. The rooms are swathed in white and feature four poster beds with netting. The property also include an Art Studio with fine art, photography, video, and sculptures that lead out to La Plage where you can experience their French restaurant on the sand.

Lautner Hotel, Palm Desert
Four rooms

Located at the northern end of the Coachella Valley, a former run down motel, has morphed into the retro-glam Hotel Lautner. The famed architect’s mid-century modernist building was originally constructed in 1947, as a prototype for a master planned community. The enter-locking four-suite boutique property has been resurrected to an oasis by Tracy Beckmann Design (The Tar Pit, Mas Malo). Staying at this architectural gem will be like having your own flat with a contemporary kitchen, private rare succulent garden, spa pool, outdoor shower and vintage decor. The furniture was designed by Ryan Trowbridge using steel and redwood for custom made bed frames that mirror the original building structure materials including concrete floors and expansive glass windows encased with wood. New amenities include induction cook tops, Frette linens, a library of design books and unique hand-crafted Heath tiles.

The New Chicago from Haute Hotels to Gastropubs

New hotels in Chicago have been springing up in the past year from the upscale Elysian in the Gold Coast area to the trendy Public by Ian Schrager of Morgan’s Hotel Group. Rounding out this new crop is the first North American outpost of the Radisson Blu Aqua property from Carlson in Europe. It’s modern, affordable and accessible on Columbus off lower Michigan Avenue. The sleek Filini bar can be seen from the street and should be a strong lure on a chilly night with Italian small plates and pizza. 

Upstairs the Filini restaurant features more communal tables and an open air kitchen with Chef Christian Fatoni who hails from legendary New York eateries Le Bernadin and Le Cirque. You will find plenty of pasta, seafood and Osso Bucco Milanese on the menu, you’ll also find one of the best roast chickens. It might sound simple but to pull off a juicy bird with perfectly crispy skin is not an easy feat and Chef Fatoni has mastered the one that most home cooks try to make and never quite succeed. The trick, according to Chef Fatoni, is to pan roast the chicken before placing it in a 500 degree oven for about 25 minutes.

Although it’s not brand new, another top table in town that I’d recommend booking if you only have a few days in Chicago, is the Michelin-starred Sepia. The below image is an example of an array of bar snacks from a mini-croque to meatballs. The main dining room has several private areas with a few draped booths where Michelle Obama likes to dine. We also discovered one of the best desserts in the malted chocolate mousse on peanut butter crunch.

The Girl and The Goat is must for the lively bar atmosphere and if you’re prepared to sit at the communal table, you just might snag a seat without a reservation, otherwise you are probably in for about an hour wait. The roasted cauliflower, ham frites and the goat leg are good  bets for sharing plates to order when you do sit down. 

If you are having trouble getting into any of Rick Bayless’ eateries, particularly his new street food venture,  XOCO, try jutting across the street to Michelin-starred Naha for lunch. Highlights include organic Carnaroli risotto with braised oxtails or the BLT made with such a thick slab of slow roasted bacon it’s more like pork belly, and the duck jus onion rings.

You can walk most of this off shopping on Michigan Avenue, viewing the Modern wing at The Art Institute or hitting the blues bars on Rush Street, but if you grow tired of the chill factor in the winter months, take an architectural cruise on Chicago’s First Lady. In about 90 minutes, you’ll learn all about the famous buildings including Trump Tower.

When you finally do head to the airport, if you happen to be flying out of O’Hare, be sure to stop at Hot Doug’s for a real Chicago style dog with peppers for your last bite. You’ll want to come back to banter with the jovial owner Doug and to try the rattlesnake special or the ‘Elvis’ with polish sausage. Just leave plenty of time or have a taxi standing by as there is usually a long line out the door.