Looking for something? Search Away?

Search
Close this search box.
Author

Baldwin Ho

Browsing

Sonoma County might be synonymous with indulgence when you consider the region has bountiful wines coupled with an abundance of fresh produce. However, it is the wellness side of Sonoma that has been increasingly attracting visitors to the county. Baldwin Ho delves into this beautiful region

Sonoma Couty is a mere 48 kilometres north of San Francisco and offers one of the most diverse natural destinations in California. Not many people appreciate the region starts from the Pacific Ocean in the west and stretches to the Mayacamas Mountains.

For those who think hiking is monotonous, they clearly haven’t visited Sonoma County. You can embark on cultural, meditative, scenic, or botanical hiking.

Jack London State Historic Park

Jack London is one of the greatest American authors and journalists of the 19th century. His colourful life is akin to a Hollywood movie, akin to Forest Gump.

This park is the home and ranch of the famous author in his final years. There is the perfect mixture of short historic trails for cultural enthusiasts as well as 29 miles of back-country trails for those passionate dendrophiles. The most popular sites include The Wolf House and The Pig Palace.

The former was meant to be the family’s dream home before the interior was completely gutted by fire just before completion. All that remains today is the haunting exterior walls.

The latter highlights Jack’s keen fascination with agriculture. He built a commodious structure to house over 200 hogs and ensure maximum hygiene levels. Many of Jack’s farming practices were laughed at back in his day, but he’s shown that he was ahead of his time, as numerous sustainability initiatives have been adopted by current-day farmers.

Pre-Ukraine war, you would find countless Russians making a pilgrimage to the grave of Jack London on the grounds. His books were commonly translated to Russian and ‘Martin Eden’ is one of the most beloved books by Russian readers.

They run speciality tours throughout the week where you can hear about these quirky facts and you are driven around the estate on a golf buggy. For their back-country trails, the elevation varies from 600 to 2,300 feet where you can go horseback riding or mountain biking.

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

Discovering yourself in nature might be a misnomer for some, but a short stroll through the Armstrong Redwoods will certainly bring about a moment of self-reflection. In this park, you’ll find the ancient coast redwoods, which are the tallest living organisms on the planet.

Remarkably, they live between 500-1,000 years and stand roughly 200-250 feet tall, and generally grow to a diameter of between 12-16 feet. There is a remarkable display near the entrance which shows human history relative to the diameter of one of the trees.

You will soon realise these trees have lived through a fascinating period of human history from the Industrial Revolution and before to the present day. They have a visitor centre, picnic facilities, and self-guided trails that cater for all levels of difficulty.

This is a great reserve to experience forest breathing. Insects are not attracted by the redwoods, which in turn means there are fewer larger animals to prey on such bugs. You are more than likely to experience virtual silence, bar the occasional rustling of the trees.

With the occasional golden sun rays bursting through the canopy, you will experience the true meaning of the phrase ‘silence is golden’. Thanks to the foresight of Colonel James Armstrong in the 1870s, these 805 acres of land were protected from the logging industry and can be enjoyed in perpetuity by locals and tourists alike.

Sonoma Coast State Park

There is no better place to admire the breathtaking Sonoma coastline than hiking in the Sonoma Coast State Park. They are the only state park campground situated near the Russian River.

Established in 1934, it includes 19 miles of trails, and you can hike all the way to the coastline. It is a great vantage point to watch whale migration. Swimming is not advisable due to the wild and unpredictable nature of the surf.

Adjacent to Sonoma Coast State Park is Jenner Headlands Preserve. Here you will find the most difficult hike in Sonoma County: The Sea to Sky Trail. It is a 15-mile hike, where there is a 3,600-foot elevation gain.

There are some shaded areas in sections, but it is mostly an exposed trail. The effort you put into the experience will be richly rewarded by the mesmerising views of the coastline, you’ll encounter when you reach the summit.

Sonoma Botanical Garden

If you are looking for a less demanding hike, then take a visit to the Sonoma Botanical Garden. It is a woodland experience where you can enjoy the best of Asian and California native plants. Did you know most rose species are native to Asia, with a small minority being native to North America?

Their rose garden is particularly popular on social media as is their temporary pop-up exhibition, Ribbit. There are 23 whimsical larger-than-life frogs placed throughout the grounds. Each one is different with its backstory and created by Andy Cobb. This has helped to encourage visitors to explore all parts of the ground and to make sure the garden is promoted even more on social media apps.

Their website is extremely helpful in listing which flowers you can expect to see in what season. Hence you might experience an explosion of colour with the flamboyant rhododendrons in early spring, whilst in Autumn you’ll see the warming colours of red, orange, yellow, and crimson from their maple trees.

Need To Know

Direct flights are available on Norse Airways from £354 from London to Los Angeles. During peak season, flights run every day of the week apart from Tuesdays. Norse Atlantic exclusively operates the latest Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, ensuring the smoothest travel experience for passengers.

They also have the most competitive and upscale transatlantic premium economy product on offer. There are convenient direct flights that connect you from Los Angeles to Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport.

Website: sonomacounty.com

For countless people, visiting ‘Lapland’ is a bucket list destination most people are keen to tick off early. However, with this part of the Nordic region sparsely populated, it is hard to know where to start. If you are looking for an authentic nature adventure, look no further than Muonio. With around 2,300 residents and an area of 2,039.97 km², social distancing is never an issue there.

Muonio, Finland

What makes Muonio unique? You can breathe the purest certified air in the world. They have over 200 pristine lakes and over 20 fells, and only in Lapland will you experience eight different seasons.

Where to stay in Muonio?

A great base for your arctic adventures is Harriniva Adventure Resort. They’ve been established since 1973, on the edge of Muonio village. The hotel is synonymous with wilderness adventures. Their five decades of experience have meant they’ve fine-tuned the very best outdoor adventures for their guests. You can enjoy fast-paced action with their snowmobile and husky tours. You can go white-water rafting in Europe’s longest free-flowing river, the Tornion-Muonionjoki. You can go ice-fishing under the midnight sun. They offer multi-day wilderness tours for those who want to spot exotic wildlife. Alternatively, you can just enjoy a relaxing stroll on the frozen river and get inspired by the northern lights and the multitude of stars.

What is great about supporting Harriniva Adventure Resort is that you are supporting a third-generation family business who are passionate about the surroundings. Their restaurant serves up the best of local cuisine including toast Skagen with white fish roe and reindeer served with mushroom sauce. They also have a dedicated vegetarian menu. Their resort is also great for those seeking relaxation with two riverside saunas and outdoor jacuzzis, offering tremendous views of the locality.

Saunas in Muonio

Another place to consider visiting is Jeris Lakeside Resort. It is situated by the mystical lake of Lake Jerisjärvi. It is considered sacred in indigenous Sámi mythology. Snowmobile is a great option here through the snow-covered forest and to the lake. The jewel in their crown is Arctic Sauna World. Sauna is a religion to the Finns and this is the equivalent of a shrine for locals to worship in. 

Their saunas are named after Finnish folklore gods: Tapio, Ukko, Ilmatar and Vellamo. They represent the elements: earth, fire, wind and water. For example, the most traditional smoke sauna belongs to Ukko, which is the fire sauna. They also have a Northern Lights sauna, which includes a two-floor panorama view experience. In the winter, they have ice holes for you to take a dip in before, during and after your sauna experience. It is supposedly ideal for improving blood circulation and the suppleness of your skin.

Hunter experience

If you want to experience activities like ice fishing, you need experienced guides like the teams from Hunter of the North. You’ll be transported to your fishing spot by sleigh or snowmobile. There are numerous lakes in Muonio to choose from. They will provide all the equipment needed whether it is traps and nets or fishing rods. The kind of fish you can expect to catch include whitefish, perch, pike or burbot. They will also show you how to handle and prepare the fish, before savouring a homemade lunch by the campfire.

You can also try the reindeer herder experience. You’ll get to feed reindeer in the wilderness as well as learn invaluable knowledge about this majestic animal.

Animal farm

If you are thinking of tours with huskies, reindeer or horses, then you need to check out Polar Lights Tours. They are a family-run business and have designed these experiences for all seasons. They can be paired with other activities like picking berries or paddling through crystal clear waters. They even own an aurora wilderness cabin, where you will have a chance to observe the northern lights from the comfort of your bed.

Embracing nature

If you want to learn more about local nature and culture, you should pay a visit to the Nature Centre of Kellokas. They provide in-depth information about Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park and nearby is Finland’s oldest hiking trail. The exhibitions focus on how dependent people are on nature and promote respect for Finnish wildlife. The national park is Finland’s most popular national park and was established in 1938 and includes hiking trails of varying difficulty and atmospheric campfire areas.

Whether you are a winter or a summer person, Muonio has so much to offer for outdoor aficionados.

For more information, visit the website

If you haven’t heard of renowned Colombian chef, Juan Manuel Barrientos, you will very soon. He is affectionately known as ‘Juanma’ by locals and at the very young age of 40 is already the founder of a hospitality group that includes restaurants and hotel across the Americas. He was named one of the 50 best chefs in Latin America and there is no doubt you will see his empire extending into Europe in the not-too-distant future.

His original restaurant is based in Medellín. It is now situated inside his boutique El Cielo Hotel. You can appreciate his popularity with a visit to his fabulously inventive restaurant there. With an open kitchen, you can see all the staff in action. They are all dressed in white lab coats with hair nets and meticulously beavering away at their workstations. You can be excused for thinking you’ve walked into the world of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory.

Their tasting menu includes more than 15 courses or ‘moments’ as they like to call them in the restaurant. They like to create a sense of mystery with their menu. If you look online, you’ll find a long list of mostly single words, which don’t describe the ingredients of the dish. They are in fact, different regions of Colombia and your gastronomic journey at El Cielo is a whirlwind tour of the different regions of the country. What is important to note is this tasting menu is only available at the Medellín branch. If you visit their Michelin-starred restaurants in Miami or Washington DC, only some of the highlights might be on their menu.

The moments are designed to stimulate your senses. The restaurant is well-known for its choco-therapy, so for one course, you’ll be crushing a chocolate truffle ball with your hands. Then you will be enjoying the delights without the use of cutlery. It will bring back innocent childhood memories when dining was less rigid and formal.

This is also the case for another course, where diners are offered edible balloons with helium inside. That is the cue for a chorus of Donald Duck voices reverberating around the restaurant. What makes their concept so successful is they take the seriousness out of fine dining and with every course, they bring a heartfelt smile to everyone’s faces.

Although not advertised on their website, they do cater for dietary requirements. They can readily prep for a vegetarian version of the tasting menu. For example, when they present locally cured charcuterie, they can offer smoked peppers instead.

Dishes are nevertheless always exquisitely presented. The “tree of life” is a case in point, it’s a crunchy canopy of yucca bread presented in a tree trunk structure that made it resemble a bonsai tree.

You might have thought the “tree of life” would represent the Amazonas course. Instead, it is the fish course that contained arapaima. It is the largest freshwater fish in the world and is found in the Amazon River. The dish is presented with burning charcoal and you do wonder whether it is intentional to represent the long-suffering rainforest. The Arapaima has a rather firm texture reminiscent of cod. Another seafood course is the Cartagena-inspired sausage course that is made with crab meat and white fish.

If you are a meat lover, your main course will be paradise. It’s a confit duck served with a peach sauce along with a duck reduction sauce. It’s a surprise you see a lot of menus offering duck and orange but rarely see duck and peach paired together.

The meal is also interactive. For one of the dessert courses, you are a paleontologist looking for an ammonite, as you brush away the edible powder to reveal your dessert. History is never far away from your experience. With the petit fours, it is presented alongside a replica of the Muisca raft, which is the most famous artefact from the Gold Museum in Bogota.

Coffee is an integral part of the Colombian dining experience. The cafetal course includes the use of liquid nitrogen before your coffee is served to resemble the misty conditions of the coffee-growing regions of Colombia.

Throughout the meal, the kitchen excels in showing its mastery of molecular gastronomy. The full experience generally takes at least 3 hours, so make sure you plan either a full afternoon or evening for your meal. ‘El Cielo’ means heaven in Spanish and you will be in gastronomic heaven by the end of your meal.

For more information on the restaurant, please visit –

Home

If you follow travel content creators on social media, there is a very high chance you would have seen the unique town of Guatapé in Colombia. The Rock of Guatapé with the iconic zig-zagging staircase features prominently on the likes of Instagram and TikTok. Surprisingly, the monolithic rock is a natural formation. It takes a short 15-20 minutes to ascend the rock, and climbing the 740 steps to reach the summit will offer a great cardiovascular workout. The panoramic 360º views of Guatape Lake and the El Peñón region as you reach the pinnacle are worth the endeavour.

The town itself is filled with ‘zocalos’, which are vibrant, colourful murals that surround the cobbled streets of Guatapé. The paintings often depict local life or concealed messages about local beliefs and products. This is one town where you want to ensure you have enough storage on your camera phones to ensure you capture countless photo opportunities.

If you want to know where to stay in Guatapé, I would highly recommend booking a glamping experience with Bosko. This is glamping with a capital G. Their ‘tents’, the Mush.Rooms are geodesic structures that resemble globe lanterns in the nighttime.Their concierge service is on par with any 5-star hotel in the country. They can arrange a private transfer for you from José María Córdova International Airport in Medellín. It’s an approximate 2-hour drive through some of the most scenic parts of the country.

On arrival, you are offered a detoxifying welcome drink immediately and this is followed by a coffee exfoliation ritual to cleanse your hands. Unsurprisingly, Colombians are fervent coffee connoisseurs and don’t just use it for drinking but in all aspects of their lives. Next, you are led to your Mush.Rooms, which are scattered throughout the property and provide maximum privacy. The pathways are relatively narrow but thankfully their staff team will assist with luggage transfer. There are three types of accommodation: deluxe, golden and presidential.

If you want a bucket-list experience, I would strongly suggest booking for the presidential Mush.Room. It is surprisingly affordable if you are comparing it to other presidential suites at 5-star hotels. The pièce de résistance is getting your private thermal pool with jaw-dropping views of the surrounding forest and lake. If you enjoy taking selfies, you will be in seventh heaven. Even if you are camera-shy, this is sheer paradise.

The Mush.Room also offers high-speed WiFi, internal heating including an electric blanket on your bed and a fully-stocked minibar including exquisite wines. The dark wood interior is smartly designed and resembles a showroom in a high-end interior design store rather than a camping site in a rainforest. They offer an open-sky shower with luxury amenities from L’Occitane.

For those staying in the other Mush.Rooms, they do have a general sky pool for you to relax and enjoy the surrounding scenery. They helpfully have signs posted throughout the grounds which highlight the animals you might encounter such as the great trush or the sparkling violet ear. There is also a QR code for you to hear what the birds sound like.

Dining at Bosko is a hidden gem, which you won’t read much about even on their website. Breakfast is cooked to order and delivered to your tent at no extra charge. It is delivered in one of those luxurious hampers which you suspect might be floatable in your thermal pool. You can opt for traditional options like sunny-side-up eggs on toast or Colombian specialties like freshly baked arepas with Colombian-style red beans. Naturally, Colombian coffee is served along with an exotic fruit platter selection.

If you don’t feel like heading into town, their restaurant is a superb option for lunch and dinner. They have an eclectic selection that caters for all tastes. Typically, they offer western dishes with a hint of Colombian flavour such as pork tenderloin served with mashed potatoes and a sweet and sour coffee sauce. The dishes are all exquisitely presented and wouldn’t look out of place in a 5-star hotel. For vegetarians, they have stronger options in the starters and finger food section such as empanadas with homemade aji sauce. and creamy sweet corn with cheese and tajin. In your travels in Colombia, you are more than likely to come across their love of cheese. They even enjoy hot chocolate with cheese.

If you want to offset some calories post-meal, they have kayaks and paddle boards for hire free of charge by the lakeside. The vast Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir is a man-made phenomenon rather than a natural lake. It was built in the 1980s as part of a hydroelectric project that powers up to 30% of the electricity supply of Colombia. You can paddle to your heart’s content as long as you return by 17:00, which is when the lake closes for water-sporting activities.

If you prefer the luxury James Bond-style experience instead, you can book a private speedboat tour instead and see more of the lake area. Your guide will show you the famous houses owned by the likes of footballers from the Colombian national team and Pablo Escobar’s former mansion. If you are lucky, you might be allowed to drive the boat at some point during your trip.

Whether you are a nature lover, a thrill-seeker or just want a tranquil wellness break, there is something to offer for everyone in the magical town of Guatapé.

For more information on the hotel, please visit –

https://bosko.com.co/en/home

It’s no wonder why Cartagena de Indias captivates locals and tourists alike. This medieval walled city on the Caribbean coast boasts charm, culture, vitality, and a vibrant nightlife scene. Explore its narrow, colorful streets lined with boutique shops in one of the best-preserved old cities in the Americas.

Cartagena de Indias

Discover Historic Elegance at Casa San Agustín in Cartagena de Indias

There is a more modern part of the city, filled with glass-laden high rises, which is reminiscent of Miami. However, I would recommend staying in the old city to soak up the magic of Cartagena. Staying in one of the refurbished, grand colonial homes from the 17th and 18th centuries is the best way to discover the city.

Casa San Agustín is one such property and it is situated in the heart of the action at Plaza de los Estudiantes. The refined boutique hotel was created from three meticulously restored 17th-century mansions. It has only 20 guestrooms and 11 suites, so attentive service from the staff is guaranteed. It seamlessly blends modern comforts with authentic Colombian features. You’ll notice the original frescoes in the library where they serve complimentary afternoon tea. In the guest rooms, you’ll see their iconic wood-beamed ceilings that are centuries old.

Accommodations at Casa San Agustín, Cartagena de Indias

The main feature of the hotel is a 300-year-old aqueduct that serves as a backdrop to the main plunge pool. It is precisely because of the existence of boutique hotels like Casa San Agustín that helps to keep these important relics well-preserved. Plenty of greenery such as palm trees surround the public areas to offer a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the old town.

The rooms are relatively spacious even at the entry-level deluxe rooms, which range from 409 and 839 sq. ft. They provide luxurious Frette linens as well as renowned Ortigia amenities from Sicily. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the eye-catching Suite Prestige. They are duplexes with an area between 1539 and 1732 sq. ft. They include two bedrooms which is ideal for families and close friends to share. All the rooms offer a complimentary mini-bar that includes soft drinks and beer. The combination of dark wood, polished marble and ornate painting tiling in the bathroom adds to the colonial grandeur of the surroundings.

Their sister property, Casa Pestagua offers a similar level of comfort and sophistication. It is known as “the most beautiful house in Cartegena”. It belonged to the powerful 18th-century aristocrat, Count of Pestagua. It had undergone a major 15-million-dollar refurbishment and had only reopened last April. Now you can live the life of a count too, when you book in to stay at Casa Pestagua. The hotel is a proud member of the Relais & Chateaux group, the only hotel in Colombia awarded with that honour.

You might feel even more exclusive at this property with only 10 spacious suites and 6 deluxe rooms. The laid-back charm is very similar to Casa San Agustin. The central plunge pool is ideal for escaping the occasional sweltering Caribbean heat. The shaded sunbeds underneath the tropical palm trees are an ideal spot for catching up with your reading list. You’ll notice plenty of Moorish-inspired arches around the boutique hotel that recount the colonial times of previous centuries.

Indulge in Culinary Excellence

The rooms have a light and airy design, no doubt helped by the double-height ceilings and excellent use of natural lighting. You’ll find sturdy-looking light wooden beams on the ceiling of all the rooms. Similar to the sister property, the entry-level room is deluxe and includes luxury linen and ever-reliable Ortigia amenities. Having been refurbished recently, the decor is marginally fresher looking than her sister property but both boutique hotels are maintained to the highest of standards.

The restaurant offering at both hotels is headed by renowned Chef Heberto Eljach, who is one of the most celebrated chefs in Colombia. At Casa Pestagua, we have the culinary delight of AniMare. The menu is a journey of Colombian cuisine with modern touches. It takes in both influences from the Caribbean and the Pacific side of the country. You’ll get to savour local classics such as shrimp and snail cocktail Cartagena style. Typically, such a dish is found as street food in the local streets of the city, but here it is served in a much-elevated format, with avocado and homemade bread. Their seafood casserole main course is equally elevated with treasures of the sea served up in lobster cream and coconut milk sauce along with fried plantain chips. At Alma situated in Casa San Agustín, you’ll enjoy a similarly extravagant fine dining experience. They are particularly proud of showcasing the best of Colombian cuisine and cater for all kinds of dietary requirements from gluten-free to vegetarian needs.

For those looking for a beach holiday, you can enjoy that as well whilst staying at both hotels. They have a private beach club at ACASĪ on Isla Barú. You can immerse your feet on the white sandy beaches and swim in the turquoise waters of the beach. The hotel can arrange a private round-trip boat charter that takes about 45 minutes and you can admire the picturesque coastline along the way. It will be a different experience to the history and culture of the old town.

Photography by stephane louesdon .

Finally, if you want to relax further, they have the Aurum spa. You can enjoy everything from a detoxifying body scrub in the hammam to a gold wrap to help nourish the skin. Aurum is the Latin word for gold.

For a holiday where you can enjoy both a city break and a beach holiday. One where you can embrace history and modernity. Make sure you check out the romantic city of Cartagena.

For more information on the hotels, please visit –

https://casapestagua.com/en/
https://www.hotelcasasanagustin.com/

Explore the wonders of adventuring in St Lucia, nicknamed the “Helen of the West Indies,” renowned for its lush rainforests, stunning peaks, and captivating history of changing hands between the English and French. Discover world-class diving sites and immerse yourself in its natural beauty. In this article, we examine the accessible adventures on offer that will allow you to soak in the alluring beauty of the island without over-inducing an excess of adrenaline.

Adventuring in St Lucia

Bamboo rafting

One of the newest experiences on offer in St Lucia is bamboo rafting on the Roseau River. It is the longest and largest river on the island. The tranquil beauty of the river in the Anse-la-Raye Quarter is in distinct contrast to the busier resort-laden parts of northern St Lucia. The enterprise has been started by the ex-tourism minister. What is particularly impressive is not only is the raft made entirely of bamboo, but your guide sets sail only with a bamboo pole. It is an entirely non-motorised experience down to the beachfront for a carbon-neutral experience. Your local guide will serenade you with facts on the local flora, fauna and topography. Mid-journey you will break at a rustic shack where you can sample local coconuts and cocktails from a local entrepreneur. There are multiple add-ons such as a rum distillery tour (more on that later) and a segway tour.

Rainforest hike

There are numerous stunning hiking trails throughout St Lucia. One I would recommend is The En Bas Saut Falls Trail. Ideally, you’ll need a 4×4 to drive to the start of the trail near Soufrière often through rugged cobblestone roads (though we did spot one brave soul trekking up jungle slopes to the hike). The trek through the majestic rainforest takes anywhere between 1.5-2.5 hours to complete. It is a sub-4 km hike which involves uneven steps down to the waterfall and then steps back up. You’ll visit a 7-8 metre waterfall and the best part is you can swim up close for a cooling escape from the tropical heat. There will be offers of guided tours as you travel closer to the starting point of the trail. However, note that this is not essential given the route is an easily identifiable trail. The trickier part would be finding the starting point with your hire car. The best way to get there is to book a guided tour with reputable boutique hotels such as the nearby Têt Rouge Resort. The excursions are reasonably priced, and the options are varied.

Adventuring in St Lucia

Catamaran cruise

A catamaran tour is the best way to appreciate the overall magnificence of the island. Têt Rouge offers a 40 ft catamaran for hire privately. You can enjoy a sunset cruise, savour a barbecue on board, swim or snorkel in the refreshing waters or simply get taken to remote, pristine beaches. You get arguably the best angle at spotting the iconic twin peaks of Gros Piton and Petit Piton. You can peek into the most exclusive resorts on the island such as Jade Mountain Resort, or if you just want to unwind the Caribbean way, recline your back onto the catamaran trampoline, listen to the sea breeze and stare into the cloudless blue sky with a rum punch in your hands.

Cacoa Sainte Lucie

If you want an elevated dining experience and still have views of the verdant tropical rainforest, make sure you head to Cacoa Sainte Lucie. Situated in Belvedere Canaries, the site is at the perfect vantage point to soak up the surrounding greenery and the soothing ocean scenery. As they are a small-batch premium chocolate maker, the menu in their restaurant unsurprisingly contains countless cocoa. One of their signature dishes is the cocoa-crusted grilled Mahi served with a sweet chilli creole sauce. You might wonder: why add cocoa to dishes? Raw cacao is a superfood containing high doses of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Their chocolate trio dessert is not to be missed. They have an interactive chocolate-making workshop as well as a gift shop selling everything from gourmet chocolate truffles to hot chocolate powder (and my personal choice: a decadent chocolate lamington).

Rum distillery tour

Next to the bamboo rafting experience, you can also partake in a distillery tour at St Lucia Distillers. The tour has the perfect blend of video presentations, a brief rum-making tutorial, a kitsch carnival exhibition and an unbelievably generous rum-tasting finale. From April to November, when the sugarcane is harvested, guests can observe the harvesting at the cane fields which is a 5-minute walk from the distillery. The tour is about how they’ve used what’s abundant in nature in St Lucia to turn the product into one of the most popular spirits in the world. Their knowledgeable guides will take you around their working distillery and explain the concept in layman’s terms.

Rum is intimately linked to the carnival spirit and they have a carnival room displaying a dazzling array of fanciful costumes. The exhibition also goes in-depth about the origins and traditional practices that accompany carnivals in St Lucia. The finale of the tour is truly breathtaking. You get to sample their whole range of rums, rum-based creams and liqueurs. This is from the entry-level range to their most premium range, and it is all self-service and free pouring. This is a must for all rum aficionados. Afterwards, you should take a trip to their gift shop where their spirits are offered at factory prices.

Experience St. Lucia’s most iconic nature trails designed by your very own hiking butler! Discover more about these exclusive trails in our article on House of Coco.

There are roughly 29 flights per week flying from London to St Lucia. The average flight time is only 8 hours and 55 minutes. The lowest average temperature is in January at a barmy 26°C. March is the sunniest time of year, with over ten hours of sunlight per day. With these wonderful weather conditions and a diverse offering for tourists, make sure you consider St Lucia for your Caribbean holiday.

https://www.stlucia.org/en/

A trip to Athens is perfect for those who enjoy artisan shops, independent restaurants and boutique hotels. It is a multi-faceted city where you don’t have to plan your trip but still have plenty to do if you are based in downtown Athens.

They have a dazzling array of shopping experiences from concept stores to historic shops. One place that should be high on your list of places to visit is The Naxos Apothecary. It is the oldest herbal pharmacy in Athens.

The exposed labs will immediately attract your attention. You can observe the preparation of herbal remedies, face creams and fragrances. The Korres products you are likely to find in your home countries. However, the tailor-made face creams and bath products of The Naxos Apothecary product collection are worth purchasing. They feature a set of five fragrances inspired and named after some of the most breathtaking villages of Naxos.

Next door to the apothecary is the newly opened xenodocheio Milos boutique hotel. It is the perfect base for you to explore the city, being a short walk away from Syntagma Square. It’s the Athens equivalent of Trafalgar Square. It is the first luxury hotel from the world-renowned restaurant group, estiatorio Milos. They’ve offered elevated Greek cuisine specialising in seafood since 1979 when it was founded in Montreal.

The hotel oozes effortless elegance from the moment you step out of your car in front of the hotel. It is a 19th-century neo-classical building that was designated a landmark building by the Ministry of Culture in 1979. It is situated opposite the Old Parliament House which is now the National History Museum.

The rooms have a serene minimalist style and soothing wooden panelling that are reminiscent of Nobu Hotels. Even though they have 43 rooms only. It’s sub-divided into nine categories from your entry-level classic room to the neoclassical apartment, that is the Milos signature suite. Most of the rooms enjoy mesmerising views of the Old Parliament House or Lycabettus Hill. The summit of the latter is the highest point in central Athens.

They make exceptional use of the window area by creating a cushioned nook area, which is perfect for reading a book whilst admiring the flow of Athenians in the downtown area.

Only the very best amenities will do at xenodocheio Milos. You’ll find Simmons luxury mattresses, a Nespresso coffee machine, and an Alessi Kettle Machine. You won’t be surprised to find the toiletries are made exclusively for the hotel by The Naxos Apothecary next door. They even provide dental kits which is a rarity at most 5-star hotels.

Even though the mini-bar isn’t complimentary, it is well worth trying out the handpicked treats on display. They include Popy’s gourmet popcorn, luxury Leonidas milk chocolate and a dry “Enotria” red from the Douloufakis Winery.

You can’t talk of their hotel without mentioning their outstanding restaurant. They have branches throughout the world including London, New York and Miami. The clean design of the restaurant works perfectly with the rest of the hotel. It was designed by renowned architects, Divercity Architects.

Prominent in the design is an artist’s interpretation of a fisherman’s net on the ceiling. That is a gentle clue to the main focus of their restaurant: supremely fresh seafood. The menu includes signature dishes such as whole fish baked in sea salt and lobster from Nova Scotia either grilled or served with pasta Athenian style.

Even the breakfast buffet is filled with Greek delights. You are served with fresh juice and a break basket including Koulouri, the iconic Greek sesame bread ring. The buffet station has the signature spanakopita. The eggs of your choice cooked to order are served with local tomatoes, cheese and a smattering of olives.

Service is attentive yet discreet and you never have to wait long for any dishes to arrive. They truly embody the Greek philosophy of ‘philoxenia’, which means an act of hospitableness and welcome. Note the in-room dining is 24 hrs and carried out by the kitchen team from estiatorio Milos.

They do offer an ELEMIS SPA Suite, which is all about ‘evexia’, the Greek word for well-being. Their deeply relaxing aromatherapy massage will unwind any modern-day stresses within 60 minutes. They use Mediterranean essential oils including extracts of bitter orange, cardamon and ginger.

The massage begins with inhalation exercises and ends with a mist of Aloe Vera sprayed over the body. I would strongly recommend booking in advance as they only have one SPA suite.

Alternative dining options in the area are in abundance. Most are independently run restaurants that offer a wide variety of cuisines.
Asian food is particularly well-represented in the area.

You can enjoy comforting ramen at So so so! on Apollonos Street and in fact, most of the neighbouring restaurants offer Asian cuisine. If you want high-quality yet casual-dining sushi, there is Akira Japanese restaurant. If you fancy some aromatic Vietnamese food, there is Hanoi Vietnamese restaurant. And finally, baos are all the rage in Athens. You can enjoy very affordable baos at Thess Bao with unusual combinations like their mushroom ‘gyros’ which is served with cannabis oil.

Athens is a truly vibrant city bursting with individuality. Make sure you check out my recommendations when you are next in Greece.

For more information on the hotel, please visit –

https://www.xenodocheiomilos.com/

You might be wondering why Hollywood heavyweights like Kevin Costner and Oprah Winfrey choose to live in Santa Barbara County rather than Los Angeles. And even the likes of Harry and Meghan have chosen to call Montecito home. Much like the French Riviera, the small-city, Mayberry coastal setting is an irresistible attraction. It is popular with surfing aficionados, culture vultures and wine enthusiasts. However, paparazzi are rarely spotted in the region. In this article, we examine why Santa Barbara is ready to blossom, not just for celebrities but for the international tourism scene.

World-class hotels

Hollywood royalty adores discreet five-star hotels and it is no surprise you’ll see the likes of Jane Lynch and Michael Keaton falling in love with Hotel Californian. The ornate Spanish colonial revival architecture along with the Moorish interior from celebrity designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard is a magnet for celebrities. The Mirador Rooftop Deck, which offers panoramic 360-degree views of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean is a crowning jewel of the hotel. All of the surrounding buildings are three storeys or lower due to changed building laws post-1925. The stunning Majorelle spa is equally popular with Majorelle blue tiles that are often found in Moroccan designs

Santa Barbara

The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara is the place for celebrity weddings. Hollywood couples who have celebrated their wedding there include Nick Carter and Lauren Kitt, Fergie and Josh Duhamel, and Travis Barker and Shanna Moakler. The hotel is just slightly outside of downtown Santa Barbara and tucked away on 78 acres of land overlooking the Pacific to offer that seclusion and privacy celebrities require. You can appreciate the beauty of the surroundings by going on a nature hike along the Chumash Nature Trail. They have one of the finest steakhouses in the region with Angel Oak and their newest opening, Bacara Wine Tasting Room is attracting countless plaudits.

Funk Zone

The area by the waterfront has risen like a phoenix from the ashes in recent years. Evolving from decrepit warehouses to the trendiest district of Santa Barbara, it is now home to countless wine-tasting rooms, gourmet restaurants and art galleries. Wine appreciation rather than mere wine consumption is the name of the game here. You are very likely to encounter one of the Baldwin brothers at The Society: State & Mason, the newest wine-tasting room in the zone. Exquisite wines are either paired with tapas-style dishes or innovative truffles from Jessica Foster. Madras curry-flavoured milk chocolate anyone?

The trendy restaurants are equally in demand in this part of town. Blackbird Restaurant pays homage to one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, Alfred Hitchcock, with subtle nods including a photo with Alfred Hitchcock and a seagull on one shoulder and a blackbird on the other. The menu passionately supports local produce from Santa Barbara spiny lobster to Hope Ranch mussels. The cocktails from renowned mixologist Devon Espinosa are not to be missed. On the border of the Funk Zone, you’ll find upscale Mexican cuisine at Santo Mezcal and a meat lover’s paradise at the retro-decorated, Rare Society.

Ganna Walska Lotusland

If Willy Wonka was in the botanical industry instead of confectionery, this is precisely what he might have created. 37 acres of the most fantastical gardens and stunning architecture. Ganna Walska, who used to own the estate until she died in 1984 (aged 96), used to call herself the ‘head gardener’ and ‘enemy of the average’. It is one of the top five gardens in the world in terms of comprehensiveness. The attractions range from the immaculately pruned Japanese Garden to the imposing cactus garden to the priceless cycad garden with plants that date back to the Jurassic period. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are known to be regular visitors and live close by.

Eclectic Museums and attractions

For a city of under 89,000 inhabitants, the museum-to-local population ratio is extremely high. One of their finest is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art . With around 25,000 pieces of distinguished artwork that span over 5,000 years of human creativity, it is no surprise over 150,000 visitors flock to the museum every year. They often have special pop-up exhibitions that highlight lesser-known, yet deserving artists such as Joan Tanner. Her outlandish sculptures made of plastic corrugated roofing sheets, re-bar, cast concrete etc. were displayed earlier in the year. The museum even has Oscar links, thanks to Christopher Plummer who famously won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Beginners”. In the film, he played Paul Chadbourne Mills who was the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and came out as gay later in life at the age of 75.

For family-orientated experiences, there is MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. The ultra-immersive installations will get your scientific brain motivated whether you are 8 or 80 and is popular with celebrities like Julie Bowen. A visit to historic Stearns Wharf is a must where you’ll find the equally interactive Sea Center. There you can touch an exotic array of marine life from sharks to rays to sea stars. To explore the rich history of the city, there is the Old Mission dating back to 1786, when the Church was building its presence in the area through these settlements. The graceful charm of the Mission has earned it the nickname “Queen of the Missions”. There is also a historic cemetery and mausoleum, a nine-room museum of classical artwork and artefacts, and numerous lush gardens.

Quirky experiences

With the philanthropic nature of the locals, you will be unsurprised to find a cat therapy cafe in the city centre. You can visit for an hour and play with 15-20 free-roaming rescue cats. They also sell apparel as well as help their resident cats find a forever, loving home. Not far away, you’ll find Salt cave Santa Barbara, the largest in North America. There are numerous therapeutic benefits to resting in their crystal cave rooms lined with pink Himalayan salt.

https://santabarbaraca.com/

London boasts a plethora of dynamic rooftop restaurants in the city centre. One that has stood the test of time is Galvin at Windows. Being situated on the 28th floor of the historic London Hilton on Park Lane, you won’t be surprised to find unimpeded views of London’s fascinating skyline.

Galvin at Windows: Dining in the Clouds

A Culinary Powerhouse Overlooking London’s Skyline

Chef Patron is Chris Galvin. Along with his brother Jeff, they’ve dominated the London restaurant scene for years with their Michelin-starred cooking skills at restaurants like Galvin La Chapelle. They famously opened the Wolseley restaurant in 2003 and Chris had already earned his first Michelin star at the Orrery back in the year 2000.

At Galvin at Windows, he has appointed talented Marc Hardiman as head chef. Marc had perfected his skills at the Ritz as Senior Sous Chef. Interestingly, Chris had worked as a commis chef at the Ritz back in the day.

With such power-packed CVs, you wouldn’t be surprised to find the food at Galvin at Windows is remarkably polished. Service is attentive yet discreet from the moment you step into the restaurant.

Indulge in a Luxurious Sunday Lunch Experience at Galvin at Windows

A great way to experience their menu is to try their Sunday lunch menu. For the quality of food and service and the views on offer, it is very reasonably priced at £59 per person for 3 courses. It is available from 12 pm to 3 pm every Sunday lunch.

Furthermore, they are dishes you readily pay a premium for, as the ingenious combination of ingredients is unlikely to be recreated at home. Think locally sourced Halibut paired with St Austell Museels, yuzu kosho, nori, Champagne and rose. It is rightfully decadent as you would expect dining at a rooftop restaurant in the heart of Park Lane.

Savor Exquisite Flavors: Must-Try Dishes at Galvin at Windows

Dishes I would recommend trying include a beautifully sweet heritage tomato salad. It has a beautiful zestiness due to the addition of ponzu dressing and has some weighty substance with the presence of moreish goats curd.

Their beef carpaccio was a delightful surprise. It had a real depth of flavour due to the fact it has been dry aged and they used the finest quality black Angus. It was very cleverly paired with artichokes, mustard seeds and a smoked egg yolk for added complexity.

Enhanced flavours were also the order of the day with the main courses. Cornish Brill had an extra umami kick with the inclusion of Porthilly oysters and coastal herbs. The extra ingredients are always given careful consideration on how they can enhance and support the main act.

Innovative Creations and Spectacular Views at Galvin at Windows

They had a very healthy take on the classic lasagne. The ‘lasagne’ sheets were made with celeriac whilst the filling was stuffed with meaty confit king oyster mushrooms. There was a hint of truffle used, but it was never overpowering. This is very much unlike less celebrated restaurants, which often use truffles to compensate for a lack of flavour in their dishes.

The highlight of their not-to-be-missed dessert section is the blackcurrant soufflé. Blackcurrants are incredibly underrepresented in fine dining menus. They have high levels of Vitamin C and antioxidants. The soufflé rose to just the right height and it had the perfect smooth consistency inside. It was paired with a delectable cheesecake ice cream and topped with crème de cassis to add to the blackcurrant notes.

Pairing the right ingredients to enhance the flavours is also evident in most of the other desserts on the menu. Case in point is the exquisitely executed white chocolate and blackberry crème brûlée. They’ve included a blackberry sorbet, so the tart and sweet notes come through even stronger. The texture was silky smooth along with the requisite crunchy topping. The dessert was finished off with a muscovado sugar shortbread.

When booking your table, check which side of the restaurant you might be sitting on. For example, when we visited for Sunday lunch recently, it was particularly glaring on the Hyde Park side. I would recommend booking for the Oxford Street side of the restaurant for Sunday lunch. You will still enjoy spectacular views of the London topography.

If you want a great recommendation for an apéritif or digestif, do check out their neighbouring bar, 10 Degrees Sky Bar. They offer some highly innovative cocktails and you can still admire the stunning views from the 28th floor.

For more information on the restaurant, please visit –

https://www.galvinatwindows.com/

Away from the glitz of Miami and the theme parks of Orlando, Florida is a state bursting with natural beauty. You can experience the untouched beauty in places like The Charlotte Harbor Gulf Island Coast, encompassing destinations like Punta Gorda Englewood Beach.

Punta Gorda Englewood Beach

Often you’ll hear, Americans from the New York side gravitate towards the Atlantic side of Florida. The populace from the Midwest and centre of the country tend to travel to the Gulf side of Florida. In places like Punta Gorda and Englewood Beach, you’ll experience genuine American hospitality in a laid-back environment. There are memorable outdoor experiences you’ll remember for a lifetime.

Punta Gorda

Babcock Ranch Eco Tours

For those seeking to observe the flora and fauna of Florida, you should consider taking part in Babcock Ranch Eco Tours. Their swamp buggy eco-tour will take you through a working cattle ranch as well as through dramatic swamp lands. Throughout the 90-minute tour, you might spot majestic osprey, soft-shell turtles and wild turkeys. You are almost guaranteed to see alligators.

You get to travel through four different ecosystems. There are surprises along the way including petting a baby alligator and getting out of the buggy for a stroll through the Telegraph Cypress Swamp on a raised platform.

The Sean Connery film, Just Cause was famously filmed on the ranch and they even donated a hunting shack to the organisation.

If you are in the mood for a bite afterwards, they do have the Gator Shack restaurant. You won’t be surprised to hear they serve gator bites and wraps on their menu.

Alligator Creek Preserve

If you are looking for a relaxing nature preserve to spot wildlife that is also free of charge, do check out Alligator Creek Preserve. There are four plus miles of nature trails inside the preserve, but it is also next to the 45,000-plus acre Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.

They have recently rebuilt a sheltered alligator dock for you to spot the lounging reptiles. They have commercial-grade viewfinders that are coin-free to help you spot the fauna.

They are a non-profit organisation and their chief focus is educational activities for the local school children as well as raising environmental awareness and preservation for the local surroundings.

Peace River Wildlife Center

Travelling through various parts of Florida, you’ll realise their preference is not to build zoos but wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres. At Peace River, they have an adorable collection of animal friends.

Their iconic ambassador is Luna the white Eastern Screech Owl. He is leucistic rather than albino. That means he lacks the cells that make pigments throughout his body. As they are heavily reliant on camouflage to protect themselves from larger predators, Luna stays permanently at the rescue centre for his protection.

Due to a shortage of space, they currently mainly house rescued birds. However, they are currently fundraising for a brand-new education centre in downtown Punta Gorda. With the increased capacity, they are hoping to be able to support more rescued mammals and reptiles in the coming years.

They run very strong education and awareness campaigns including responsible fishing and awareness of invasive species.

Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens

Having only opened in 2017, this botanical garden is one of the most impressive you’ll encounter in the United States. This 30-acre waterfront haven consists of five ecosystems including marshlands, wetlands, mangroves, uplands and tidal basins.

They have over 4,500 plants, trees and bamboo blended in with Florida’s natural landscape. They’ve created one of the largest botanical and sculptural gardens in Florida. Highlights include a rainbow eucalyptus. You’ll need to walk up and observe the bark to see why it has the rainbow moniker.

Their cycad garden is also worth visiting. These prehistoric plants appeared on Earth before the age of the dinosaurs. Most species are in decline around the world with four species on the edge of extinction. They are hugely valuable and have been known to be a target for opportunistic thieves.

A significant part of the experience is also about art appreciation. They have some outstanding sculptures on loan at the site. The ones to highlight include Next Summer and Bibi on the Ball. Both are from Carole Feuerman. The hyper-realistic style means you need to observe the sculptures up close, where you might spot individual eyelashes or veins on the elegant legs.

Englewood Beach

Kayaking through Englewood

If you are looking for something more active. I suggest a kayaking tour with SUP Englewood. If Punta Gorda is all about the flora and fauna, then Englewood is all about embracing the Florida coastline.

They run kayaking tours in various locations, but I would recommend the Don Pedro Island State Park tour. Their knowledgeable guides will give you the best practice for ethical paddling. You’ll be able to get up close with dolphins and manatees. You might spot fascinating shellfish like conch and crabs or hear majestic coastal birds like herons and ospreys.

You can paddle through scenic mangroves or take a short walk on Don Pedro Island to observe the pristine beauty of this barrier island.

An unspoilt beach haven

Experience an uncrowded side of Florida with the pure, wide, white sandy beaches of Englewood. There is a scenic 900ft boardwalk that crosses over the beach vegetation if you want to observe the shoreline from a distance.

You’ll find all the amenities you need such as water stations, restrooms and shower facilities, but it never feels commercialised. There are no vendors to approach you selling tourist gifts. The few bars and restaurants in the area are within walking distance but not right on the beach.

You are allowed to fish on the shoreline. You can walk for miles on end with pure sand on your feet whilst admiring the captivating Floridian coastline.

For those who think Florida is overcrowded and commercialised, think again. A visit to Punta Gorda and Englewood Beach will show you what the real, pure Florida has to offer.

Fact box

Punta Gorda and Englewood Beach is Florida’s best-kept secret of a charming natural paradise located on the idyllic Southwest Gulf Coast.

This coastal community surrounding the state’s second-largest harbour sits conveniently between Tampa and Naples. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have daily direct flights to Tampa.

For more information on the region, please visit –

https://www.pureflorida.com/