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House of Coco’s wellness editor Anji McGrandles uncovers the hidden gems of S’Agaró, Catalonia’s best-kept secret nestled between Barcelona and Girona on the stunning Costa Brava coast

Situated on the Costa Brava coast, sandwiched between Barcelona and Girona is S’Agaró, Catalonia’s best kept secret that promises an unforgettable escape. This exclusive garden village is home to some of Spain’s most sought-after villas.  Built in the 1920’s it hugs the renowned Cami de Ronda coastal trail and boasts breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea and golden sands of Sant Pol beach.  At the heart of S’Agaró is the elegant Hostal de La Gavina, the region’s most glamorous, exclusive hotel which I checked into for the weekend.

The region offers an abundance of pristine beaches, Michelin Star restaurants and natural beauty without the crowds.   Its easily accessible, just one hour drive from Barcelona and 30 minutes from Girona and what makes this a fabulous getaway is you can easily explore both vibrant cities while making this tranquil retreat your base, its perfect for those seeking a blend of relaxation, culture, and stunning scenery.

While Barcelona is a popular Spanish city break, I recommend you spend time getting to know glorious Girona.  This stunning, quieter and more compact city packs a punch when it comes to architecture, history, food and drink. 

I arrived in Girona at the end of Temps de Flors, Girona’s flower festival that sees the streets come alive with colour each May. The city is a carpet of colourful, delicate flowers with beautiful blooms decorating gates and doorways.

Girona has a new and an old town, divided by the Onyar River. Several small bridges connect the two districts, the most famous is the bright red bridge built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (who also built the Eiffel Tower in Paris). Grab a coffee and one of the city’s most famous breakfast pastries, Xuixo de Crema (pronounced choo choo), a traditional Catalan pastry, that’s crisp on the outside and stuffed with an irresistible creamy filling.  Sit on one of the cute bridges, enjoy your Xuixo de Crema and take in the charming colourful town houses that are dotted along the river.

There’s so much history in this pretty city and the best way to explore it is a walking tour.  Discover filming locations from Game of Thrones, boutique shops and the city’s striking cathedral.   It’s also a gastronomic destination, and if you want to uncover all the hidden gems while trying some of the tastiest local delicacies then book an evening walking tour with Girona Food Tours.  Enjoy the freshest seafood at L’Arros or indulge in something sweet at Jordi Roca’s Willy Wonka style gelato, Rocambolesc.  Afterwards make a pit stop at Sol Gastrobar in the ‘Wine Square’ for a cold glass or Albariño.   If you are looking for fancy dining there’s 12 Michelin star restaurants in and around the area, the most famous of these is the three-starred El Celler de Can Roca, run by the Roca brothers. 

During a visit to S’Agaró it is impossible not to be swept up in the silent glamour and history of Hostal de La Gavina, built in 1932, it still has some of the original features, artwork and furniture.  There are so many stories seeped into the walls of the hotel, guests like Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Jack Nickolson and more recently Lady Gaga have all stayed here. 

The hotel beautifully marries an eclectic mix of opulence and hacienda finca.  As soon as you enter the sweeping reception area you are greeted with polished marble floors, high ceilings, rich dark wood furnishings and showstopping floral arrangements.  Each of the 75 rooms and suites are uniquely designed all in line with rest of the hotel’s chic style.

Hostal de La Gavina is also home to four restaurants, Candlelight, which is overseen by Michelin-starred Chef Romain Fornell and spearheaded by Sous Chef Oriol Fernandez, is renowned for its innovative dishes.  Fernandez, a protege of Alain Ducasse, brings his passion and creativity to the table serving exquisite haute cuisine.   Garbi, which offers healthy Mediterranean dishes is perfect for lunch, here you can retreat from the sun and sample a spectacular Paella and a glass of the local wine.   El Barco, is home to a beautiful outdoor terrace and serves an a la carte menu of seasonal tapas.  Just a two-minute walk, perched on the beach is La Taverna del Mar, famed for its locally caught seafood served on the water’s edge.  Expect plump pink langoustines, delicate sea bass in salt and juicy mussels served in a rich marinera sauce.  El Barco bar is a cute snug, where Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra had a showdown after he flew out to Spain amid rumours swirling of her affair with a bull fighter.  It’s great for a late-night tipple or signature cocktail.

For those who love water sports you can head to Sant Pol beach just below the hotel and try out paddleboarding, water skiing and kayaking.  The hotel can also arrange for you to try some local excursions.  I’d recommend booking the boat trip with husband and wife duo Clara and Jaume at La Gastronomica.  This three-hour journey along the Costa Brava coast is a great way to learn more about the region’s food and wine.  Clara, a sommelier has an infectious passion for everything local and along with chef, Jaume they showcase the simplest, freshest ingredients onboard the boat dishing up one of the most delicious brunches I have ever had. Local cheeses, octopus and chickpea stew are served alongside a delicate white Grenache from Empordà.   The boat stops off at a wonderful cove where you can swim, sunbathe, snorkel or paddle surf. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of S’Agaró and to celebrate there are a series of events being held from May 2024 – February 2025.  There will be exhibitions, a regatta, concerts and a firework display amongst other celebrations, so its worth checking out what’s happening if you plan to visit.

S’Agaró is a standout Spanish destination that delivers the perfect blend of natural splendour, cultural richness and laid back charm. So, pack your bags and discover this enchanting corner of the Costa Brava – where the Mediterranean meets a sense of timeless tranquility.

Book Hostal de la Gavina here.  Rates start from €280 (approx. £239) per night for a Classic Room, including breakfast.

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

Shutters on the Beach or ‘Shutters’ as coined by its nearest and dearest marries the elegance and charm of an East Coast beach house with the laid back energy of its West Coast surroundings. A perfect blend of interiors that wouldn’t look out of place on the Cape with a view that takes in the Santa Monica pier and beyond, a stunning contrast of old meets new.  

Setting the scene

Beginning a trip up the Californian coastline, the iconic Shutters Hotel – named on account of its multitude of rooms boasting white wooden shutter doors that open onto sun drenched balconies with views of the ocean – seemed like the perfect starting point. Having had it saved on my ‘one day I will stay here’ list for a number of years, I was beside myself to see if she was as beautiful in the flesh as the many influencers and socialites depicted her across social media.

Pulling into the valet of the hotel, eyes already on stalks at glimpses of the iconic white woodwork and the blue ocean beyond, I felt as if I were entering another world, one of luxury, slow paced living and five star hospitality. Having spent the previous night in a very cool yet incredibly urban (think blocks of raw concrete in the middle of bedroom) hotel in downtown LA, this was the exact contrast I needed. Scooting around important media types who were taking important phone calls on the terrace, I entered into the lobby of the hotel, this couldn’t be further from the brash brutalism of the night before. Dark wood floors draped in exquisite rugs, roaring fires, sofas that invite you to fall into them and wood paneling and low lighting that created an ambience of being in your friend’s (albeit a very wealthy one) living room, which I later found out is what the hotel refers to the lobby as given its relaxed nature and palpable warmth.

The room

I mosied my way through the lobby, people watching on route, finding my way to my room, a further extension of the aforementioned friends’ Cape Cod home. Curated books and artwork line the shelves, accents of blue to mirror the ocean a mere few meters away bring the outside in, hardwood floors adorned with Tibetan rugs, soft billowy comforters placed on top of luxurious linen sheets create an extra layer of cosines. Well thought out details such as an elevated mini bar and a couples kit show why this hotel is considered one of the best in the area. 

A huge bathroom housing a whirlpool tub and flat screen TV sits beneath shutters opening into the room allowing for the most romantic of evenings and outdoor views. Touches such as Dyptique shower products mean you will smell as expensive as the hotel itself.

As eager as I was to jump on the enormous bed that needed a step ladder to go with it, I was even more eager to throw open the iconic white shutters open and see what lay beyond – as natural light flooded the room, the breeze of the Pacific whipped around me, I squealed at the miles of white sandy beach back dropped by the Santa Monica pier stretched out in front of me.

This is where things got tricky – with only 24 hours to take in this incredible place, how is one to choose between lounging at the roof top pool that boasts some of the most incredible views across Santa Monica beach, ambling up the Venice boardwalk, running straight into the ocean or sipping a cocktail at one of the hotels stunning bars. You need a good few days to drink this all up.

Opting for a walk along the beach to settle into our new surroundings, this is where the hotel came into its own. As I walked down to the soft white sand, waves crashing ahead, I turned to see where we had come from. The majesty of the hotel proudly opening itself up to the beach below genuinely took my breath away.

Bars & Restaurants

The hotel has three F&B offerings, 1 Pico the more formal of the family draws influences from Italian menus and is a seafood forward menu – perfect as the restaurant boasts even more views across the ocean. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, this is the place to head for some Coastal Californian dining at its finest.

Coast is the more laid back of the bunch, the perfect place to head for breakfast after a spot of morning yoga (more on that later) for great eggs and the most beautiful chia pudding I have ever seen. Outdoor seating is right on the boardwalk so prepare to watch the world go by as you sip your morning cup of Joe, we were even treated to some top notch busking on our visit. There is also a communal table inside, further cementing the laid back family dining vibe. 

Lastly, the Living Room, redefining hotel lobbies for its guests – a meeting place, a spot to have a cocktail or a coffee, somewhere to read in front of the fire or enjoy live music in the evening. Sipping a Pina Colada on the Living Room balcony, I was treated to one of the most epic sunsets as I have ever seen, as the sun slips behind the Santa Monica pier, the bar comes to life, cocktail shakers shake, guests congregate for supper, the energy is bustly yet refined, the perfect spot to start your evening – or any other part of the day for that matter. 

The pool

The pool at Shutters is nothing short of iconic. Sitting atop the roof terrace and stretching nearly the entire length of the hotel, it is flanked by cabanas and sun loungers alike, all boasting the striking white and blue colour palette like a precisely turned out army.  If you can get there early doors to secure a front row lounger with uninterrupted views of the beach below, even better but truth be told, there isn’t a bad spot here.

The beach

Santa Monica beach is known for surfing, volleyball and beautiful people. The beach concierge team is on hand to provide you with anything you might need, from parasols to bicycles. The hotel also offers beach fitness and yoga classes. Booking on to the latter the following morning as I really tried to lean into this California way of life, when my alarm rang bright and early, I was more than a little tempted to hit cancel and roll back into my memory foam supported slumber. However, a promise had been made and so I  heaved myself out of bed and onto the beach. Toes buried in the sand still cold from the night before, waves crashed, sun warmed my skin, occasional dogs ran past in a blur and surfers could be heard discussing whatever it is surfers discuss – it was truly a special moment, as the mist rolled in off the ocean and the rest of the world was near still, there was something ethereal about breathing in tandem with the ocean. I would urge anyone to do it. 

Surrounding area.

If you can drag yourself away from the hotel (near impossible but doable), walk up the boardwalk to Venice Beach which is a lovely way to spend a day. More people watching, lots of coffee sipping, oodles of shopping. A turn around the Venice canals and some serious properly lusting is an absolute must. Walk back down Abbot Kinney, a street full of independents and the chicest stores. From here we grabbed a cab back to the hotel but the walk is pleasant and takes about an hour. 

Of course, no stay here is complete without a turn around the pier – we found the best way to do it was tipsy from our cocktails, laughing our way across the beach and up on to the ferris wheel complete with candy corn and corn dog. Perfection.

I can happily confirm that Shutter’s is just as beautiful as I had been led to believe and what those little squares on instagram don’t depict is the level of service and hospitality of everyone that works here. You truly are made to feel like you are entering a home to share with the friendliest of families.

Find out more about Santa Monica.

When you think of the Maldives, what comes to mind? Crystal-clear waters, pristine white sand beaches, and overwater bungalows perfectly tailored for romantic getaways, right? While it’s true that the Maldives has long been synonymous with honeymooners and couples seeking a romantic escape, there’s so much more to this tropical paradise than meets the eye.

While it’s great for relaxing and taking time out, each resort has unique experiences to spark your sense of adventure, stoke your senses and light your imagination.   Two resorts that excel in personalised experiences and deliver in abundance are Gili Lankanfushi and Six Senses Laamu.  Both resorts serve up lashings of luxury, plum sunsets, pink skies and azure waters but what sets them apart from their Maldivian neighbours is the exceptional experiences.  Here’s my favourite things to do in the Maldives.

Discover an underwater world at Six Senses Laamu

One of the things that sets Six Senses Laamu apart from the other resorts is the spectacular house reef that hugs the edge of the island, coupled with a state-of-the-art immersive research facility and you have a unique marine experience that lets you take a deep dive into ocean life.  

The Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) by Six Senses Laamu is a collaboration of marine biologists from the resort and three partnered NGOs; the Manta Trust, Blue Marine Foundation and the Olive Ridley Project. The Sea Hub of Environmental Learning in Laamu (SHELL), home to MUI, is a stunning visual and interactive experience that showcases the marine environment.  Here a cool team of marine biologists conduct innovative research in the lab facilities and take guests on an extraordinary journey into the ocean.  This awesome facility wouldn’t look out of place at the Science Museum.  Full sized manta’s hang from the ceiling, while a series of dedicated informative stations are dotted around, jam packed with fun facts and statistics on the mysteries of the ocean and those who inhabit it.

The SHELL is home to an interactive room designed for guests to discover the secrets of Laamu and the underwater world. Highlights include an augmented reality sandbox which allows you to change and redesign habitats and topography using projection mapping technology. There’s a nifty little piece of animation kit that lets you get creative and watch your favourite marine creatures come alive on a large screen and watch them swim in a virtual world.  I came away with a plethora of facts and a better understanding of the ocean.

Following some time exploring the SHELL you can get up close and personal with sharks, parrotfish and green turtles at the house reef.  Private tours are available for beginners as well as seasoned divers and snorkelers.  

The coral reefs of the Laamu atoll are rich in colour and brimming with marine life. I took a snorkel tour with the resident marine biologist who knows all the best spots along the reef to get a glimpse of Nemo and the impressive eagle rays.  I spent over an hour exploring the stunning coral garden coming face to face with oriental sweetlips, a moray eel, schools of needlefish and pretty Moorish idols.  It’s easy to get lost in this breathtaking world.   

Whether you are a marine enthusiast or a novice, I’ll guarantee you’ll quickly fall in love with the ocean and this is without a doubt the most impressive snorkelling sites of the atoll.

Experience your own private jungle cinema

Upon arrival at Gili Lankanfushi you are assigned your own Mr Friday, a dedicated butler service to ensure that your stay and experience is second to none.  I can vouch that this is very much the case, with my Mr Friday going above and beyond to make sure my stay was nothing short of incredible, recommending a series of unique experiences to enhance your stay.  My Mr Friday arranged for a slice of movie magic under the stars, a fantastic way to spend an evening.  Nestled in the middle of the island ensconced in your own private leafy jungle is an outdoor cinema like no other.  Ahead of my private screening I got to request my movie of choice and select from a mouthwatering barbeque menu.  This wasn’t your run of the mill burger and sausage menu, instead it comprised of succulent lobster and fresh seafood with wagyu beef and premium cuts of meat, accompanied by delicious sides and salads.  

After drinks on the beach watching the sun go down, I was whisked to a quiet nook of the island where flanked by tress and foliage was the most fabulous outdoor cinema.  I was greeted with a glass of champagne while a private chef was getting to work on dinner discreetly in the corner.  The set up was nothing short of spectacular.  A large screen played out an action-packed Denzel Washington movie while my date and I were served starters, and our champagne was topped up at an intimate candle lit dining table.  After our main course we retreated to a cosy lounge area, with reclining beds and blankets.  Here we sipped more champagne, indulged in a delicious chocolate treat for dessert and enjoyed the rest of the movie. 

Be warned, once you experience the private jungle cinema at Gili, popcorn and a slushy at the local Odeon just won’t cut it.  It has ruined the regular cinema experience for me!

Indulge in Culinary Delights

Situated amidst the outstanding beauty of Six Senses Laamu, the team at Kaji bring the vibe direct to your dinner. Combining the artistry of Teppanyaki with the stunning backdrop of the Indian Ocean, this culinary gem promises an unforgettable journey for the senses.

As soon as I enter the restaurant, I’m hit by the aroma of warm sizzling garlic that fills the air and entices my taste buds.   

There’s a set menu of five courses, each thoughtfully curated to showcase the freshest seasonal ingredients and bold flavours. From tender cuts of beef to seafood delicacies, each dish is a masterpiece.

The dining experience revolves around the ancient Japanese cooking technique of Teppanyaki, where skilled chefs showcase their talents in an open kitchen setting.   What makes Kaji exceptional, is the theatrical element where right before your eyes, chefs expertly grill and flip.  I get to take a seat around the Teppanyaki grill, where I am treated to a front-row view of the culinary action unfolding before me. The chefs, deftly wield their knives and spatulas with precision and grace, chopping with speed and accuracy, turning cooking into an art form. It’s not just a meal, it’s a performance.

But beyond the spectacle, it’s the quality of the food that truly shines at Kaji. Every ingredient is sourced with care, ensuring the highest standards of freshness and flavour. The chef takes time to talk you through each dish, explaining with passion the process.  Whether it’s the buttery texture of the scallops or the umami-rich taste of the miso-marinated black cod, each dish is a testament to the resort’s dedication to excellence.

And let’s not forget the fun factor. Dining here is not just about satisfying your hunger – it’s about enjoying a lively and convivial atmosphere with friends and fellow diners. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or simply indulging in a night of gastronomic adventure, you need to book a table at Kaji.

Nightly rates at Gili Lankanfushi start from £1,397/$1,722 based on two adults sharing a Villa Suite with breakfast included. For more information or to book please visit Gili Lankanfushi

For more information on bookings at Six Senses, Laamu please contact reservations-maldives@sixsenses.com or visit the website

House of Coco travelled to the Maldives via Dubai with Emirates.  London Heathrow to Male return is £1,749. This is based on Premium Economy from London Heathrow to Dubai and then Economy from Dubai to Male. Prices subject to change. 

The Maldives has been on my bucket list for a while so when I received an invite to visit not one, but two prestigious resorts in the heart of the Indian Ocean, I jumped at the chance.  It didn’t disappoint, it’s one endless picture postcard with dusky pink and peach hazed sunsets, overwater hammocks and endless blue skies.  What I didn’t expect was for the place to touch my soul and stir up so many emotions. With its sun-kissed beaches and turquoise waters, it’s not just a vacation destination but a soul-soothing haven for resetting and recharging.

www.sandrobruecklmeier.com

From the moment I arrived at Gili Lankanfushi I felt a mental shift.  This award-winning eco-resort is a destination within a destination.  With just 45 sumptuous overwater villas, including seven Crusoe Residences and The Private Reserve, it feels intimate and exclusive.    Their Robinson Crusoe, barefoot luxury philosophy extends to all guests having a dedicated Mr or Ms Friday butler service, ensuring you have everything you need.  The service here is immaculate, it’s so discreet it’s invisible.  At one point during my stay, I did wonder if the staff had been given ninja research training because the personal touch is second to none, from the bar tender knowing your favourite drink to a personalised breakfast menu.

Post 16 hours of travel I needed a boost, and an Integrative Massage with visiting wellness practitioner, Virginie Claret was welcomed.  Virginie is a Reiki Master with over 15 years’ experience in massage, specialising in energy healing.  I’m well versed when it comes to massages having been fortunate as Wellness Editor, to road test many, so I don’t say this lightly when I say it was the best massage I have had.  Virginie has healing hands.  Focussing on the meridian lines of the body she works on balancing your energy, any blockages and restoring peace.   Within minutes I had dissolved into the bed, any post flight tension was lifted as I went into a deep state of relaxation.  Six weeks prior to traveling I had suffered a bout of Covid and as a result had ongoing chest pains and a persistent cough.  I was astounded when following my treatment with Virginie the cough stopped and I no longer had chest pains.  It may have been a coincidence, or the sunshine and the break I needed, either way I felt a lot better.

Meera spa is a holistic haven set on a secluded bay away from the villas. Over-water treatment rooms are airy and light, with expansive views and sea breezes.  Glass bottom floors allow you to catch views of the marine life while experiencing a relaxing massage.

The spa offers a selection of Ayruvedic treatments. This 5,000-year-old alternative medicine system is designed to correct imbalances in the mind and body. With a dedicated champa for Ayruvedic treatments, that use local herbs you can go on a one-day personalised Ayurvedic wellness journey or let the therapists recommend something bespoke to restore your body, mind and spirit.  I experienced a full body massage using a warm herbal poultice massage, this hits different to a regular massage and quickly soothes any aches.  The warm oils and herbs penetrate the skin to help increase blood circulation and detoxification.  The therapist works her magic and I float out of the spa and back to my villa.

What sets Gili Lankanfushi apart is not just the breathtaking scenery but the curated wellness experiences that cater to the body, mind, and soul. As the day unfolds you might find yourself participating in mindfulness workshops, guided meditation sessions, or even indulging in a moment of peace, barefoot in the soft white sand, soaking up the unparalleled views.  One of the standout features is the presence of visiting practitioners. These experts in holistic wellbeing are renowned in their field and host curated programmes providing guests with the opportunity to design their own wellness plan. Gili is a stunning, serene sanctuary that scoops you up and envelopes you in tranquillity and love.  You arrive a guest and leave as family.

Just a 45-minute sea plane ride from Male is Six Senses, Laamu.  Here wellbeing takes centre stage and is integrated into your overall stay from the food you eat, to your sleep hygiene and activities you experience. My wellness journey started a few weeks prior to travel when I received a digital package with a complimentary jet lag plan, journal and a questionnaire on my preferences for room scents, pillows and the option to request additional toiletries, yoga mat and eye mask.

On arrival you receive a warm welcome on the jetty from the team and your very own Guest Experience Maker or GEM.  Hamza, my GEM was on hand the whole stay, assisting with dinner reservations and experiences.  Laamu is a big, spacious resort offering plenty of choice for food and drink as well as activities, so you’ll never be bored. 

I checked into one of the over water villas with large split-level decks, an infinity pool and roof terrace, perfect for yoga and stretching.  From the decking you can access the ocean, where avid snorkellers can spot black tipped sharks, turtles, mantas, and some of the prettiest marine life.  Inside, the spacious interior has been designed to bring the outside in, using natural fabrics and lots of wood.  There’s an outdoor shower that looks over the ocean, but the show piece is the glass bottom bathtub.  Indulge in the views and watch the fish swim below while you soak in the tub.

Six Senses is synonymous with wellbeing and the resort offers a layered approach to wellness, combining some of the best holistic treatments, with the healing benefits of the environment and expert knowledge of their spa team to create a bespoke programme.  I started with a non-invasive health screening, which measures your key physiological biomarkers. I was strapped to a couple of machines and within 15 minutes, following some simple exercises and instructions I had my results.  The screening highlighted high dopamine and endorphin levels and low serotonin which reflects my lifestyle.  As a regular gym goer, I wasn’t surprised my endorphins were high.  Tech overload and my ongoing need to hit targets and results exposed the high dopamine levels and a bout of poor sleep coupled with a busy period at work was no doubt a factor in my low serotonin.  It was an opportunity to step back and make a few changes.  The Maldives is the ideal destination to do this, and I spent the next couple of days thinking of small adjustments I could make to be a little gentler with myself. The great thing about Six Senses is they can design a wellness program based on your results and goals. My wellness therapist recommended some dietary adjustments to boost my serotonin and ideas to support my sleep and switch off.

After a restful sleep, I start my day with a Pilates class surrounded by the soothing sounds of the ocean.  There are various classes available at the resort including Aerial Yoga, Yoga Nidra meditation and Thai Chi, all gentle and restorative. 

My GEM booked me into the resort’s award-winning spa for a tailor-made, therapeutic full body and scalp massage including face reflexology. The spa makes full use of the outdoor space with uniquely designed treatment ‘nests’ dotted along the beach or among the lush landscape.  Once I was ensconced in my nest, sound bowls and aromatherapy scents helped me tune out.  Around 15 minutes into my massage I had fallen asleep, a sign I am calm and at peace.  Following 60 minutes of utter bliss, I retreat to the juice bar for a gut soothing shot and views of the beach. 

There’s a unique energy at Six Senses, that resonates with the rhythm of the ocean and the pulse of nature. It’s a place where time seems to stand still, allowing you to press pause on the chaos of everyday life and focus on the simple joy of being. With its powder white beaches and crystal-clear ocean, It’s canvas for self-discovery and renewal.

Nightly rates at Gili Lankanfushi start from £1,397/$1,722 based on two adults sharing a Villa Suite with breakfast included. For more information or to book please visit Gili Lankanfushi

For more information on bookings at Six Senses, Laamu please contact reservations-maldives@sixsenses.com or visit the website

House of Coco travelled to the Maldives via Dubai with Emirates.  London Heathrow to Male return is £1,749. This is based on Premium Economy from London Heathrow to Dubai and then Economy from Dubai to Male. Prices subject to change. 

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 –

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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/

Nestled in the Hollywood hills (no, not those ones) sits The Culloden Estate and Spa. A former Bishops palace and now a luxury five star hotel with far reaching views of the County Antrim coastline, manicured gardens and woodlands and enough antiques to shake a stick at – this was exactly what the doctor ordered for some serious R&R and we couldn’t wait to feel like queens for the weekend. 

As we touched down in Belfast the rain lashed and the skies darkened. In the brief walk from departures to taxi rank we were sodden, suitcases now resembling sponges, hemlines of jeans fully saturated. Undeterred we laughed, plans of ambling around the coastline in early winter sun were soon replaced with visions of log fires and glasses of red wine and this suddenly felt all the more enticing. If we were going to do Northern Ireland, we were going to do it properly – chowder and chunky knits all round.

Location, location, location

As our taxi made its way up the winding drive, through the gates of the hotel and pulled up alongside the revolving front door, the backdrop of Belfast Lough bleeding into the moody grey skies, our jaws dropped. We knew we were in for a treat, further cemented by our taxi driver cooing “ooooh, fancy” when we told him our destination, we didn’t know we were in for this much of a treat. Towering spires drawing our bulging eyes upwards, following the pitched roof line down to the manicured gardens which at our time of visit were hosting a sculpture exhibition, further adding to the drama. Beyond this, the warm glow of the on site pub, The Cultra Inn, shining like a welcoming beacon and behind that, the faint outline of Antrim coastline and its rolling hills promising breathtaking views as soon as the clouds cleared. Ushered out of the rain by the impeccable concierge team, we were instantly enveloped in warmth radiating from the log fires and staff alike.

The Culloden is a short drive from both Belfast City airport (ten minutes) and Belfast International (forty minutes) and a mere fifteen minute drive from Belfast city centre. For non drivers, taxis are cheap and easy to get or guests can opt to amble through the estate gardens to the nearby train station – fear not, it’s close proximity has no negative impact on the hotel itself – from here they can take the very scenic fifteen minute train ride along the coast right into the centre of town. Or do as we did, walk half the way along the dramatic shore armed with a Baileys laced hot chocolate, making sure you take in the impressive houses and quaint fisherman cottages along the way and jump on the train when the Irish wind gets a little too much. The location and accessibility of the hotel makes it a fantastic option for city breakers and weekend awayers, however, you will be hard pressed to find the want to leave the hotel with everything it has on offer.

Spa time

Having checked into our room and performed the appropriate checks : starfished on the bed to ensure we could both share comfortably – check. Gasped and squealed at the views the floor to ceiling windows offered – check and gobbled the chocolates left for us – check. We de-robed from our sodden clothes, re-robed with our complimentary soft, fluffy gowns and headed down to the spa. It’s always a bit of a ‘hold your breath’ moment when your plus one has worked in the spa industry for years but with an offering like this there was no need. If the hotel started its life as a palace, the spa is the jewel in its crown. As we entered through a hallway lined with geodes and crystals, the air heavy with the heavenly spa smell  – not a whiff of chlorine – a wave of calm and serenity washed over us. The unavoidable flusters of early morning flights and damp commutes washed away instantly. Our shoulders dropped, our chests opened, this is exactly what was needed. A huge octagonal pool swathed in natural light from the glass vaulted ceiling called to us, its warm waters desperate to soothe away any tension. Next to it a long jacuzzi with floor to ceiling windows looking over the hills. A sauna with the same square footage as a family home meaning no uncomfortable knee bumps with other spa dwellers. Loungers dotted around in such a way that never felt crowded. 

The spa treatments boast a fusion of advanced techniques with ancient therapies, menus include ‘inner strength and resilience massage’ and ‘solar experiences’ all of which are aimed with one main focus – to leave you revitalised and restored. We both opted for the inner strength massage, the promise of yogic stretches combined with resilience boosting massage techniques was an offer we couldn’t turn down. We walked into our respective treatment rooms and entered another plane, ninety minutes later and politely brought back down to earth via the relaxation suite, we looked at each other and with nothing more than a smile and a grunt, knowing we had both had the same otherworldly experience. We sipped our herbal tea in smug silence as we returned back to reality.

The Cultra Inn

That evening we ummed and ahed with the idea of heading into the city center for dinner and drinks but with the rain lashing, the massage induced coma only just subsiding we opted to get snug and head down to The Cultra Inn, a pub less than a five minute walk from our room – winner winner chicken dinner. Well, steak dinner for me. 

The traditional pub, all wooden beams and vaulted ceilings, champions local seasonal produce. Relaxed and cosy, the lick of the fire reaching into every corner, this was the perfect end to the day. A full bodied bottle of red, a steaming bowl of Irish chowder followed by a locally sourced sirloin steak with all the trimmings – yes please. A moment of transparency if I may, this pub is not fine dining, nor should it be. Would I say it is up there with the best meals of 2023? No. Would I say, it was exactly what was needed on a cold, gloomy night? Absolutely. Full and content we mosied back to our room, bottle of unfinished red in hand. Climbing into our giant cloud bed – an actual term the hotel has coined and uses with pride, armed with chocolate cake (swiped from earlier) and a glass of red wine – this is how you do a girls weekend.

Breakfast of champions

The following morning, well rested, muscles still soft as butter from the previous day’s relaxation, we headed down for breakfast. Served in the main dining room, all white table cloths and china tea pots, I suddenly thought perhaps my baggy jeans and complimentary slippers were not the correct attire. I was quickly put at ease because the thing The Culloden does so well is blur the lines of what is very clearly a historic palace and all the fixings that go with such a place with buckets of irish charm and an air of laid backness. Yes the wait staff and concierge are suited and booted but they are also ready and waiting to chat the breeze and crack a joke with the guests as if they are lifelong friends, instantly removing any feeling of austerity. 

The breakfast was bountiful, silver cloches itching to be lifted and reveal their treasures – all the components of a full Irish (and English) breakfast, plus touches such as porridge laced with local whiskey and an a la carte offering for those who prefer smashed avocado to white pudding. 

Things to do

Fuelled on a very hearty breakfast we were ready to brace the elements and explore the surroundings. A quick turn through the gardens and on to the coastal path where we allowed ourselves to imagine we were on our way to the Iron Islands (for any Game of Thrones fans, this hotel is the perfect base to explore the Northern Island filming locations and the concierge team can help you plan the best excursion). A short train ride and we were at the Titanic Museum, a must for everyone and then on to an exploration of the city itself.

Returning to the hotel it was time for the rest portion of our R&R weekend and we couldn’t have asked for a better setting. Deciding to head to the drawing room where big sumptuous sofas called our names and a fire roared, we both curled up with our respective books armed with tea and biscuits. Looking up every so often at the big grey sky, listening to the rain pound down until eventually it was time to pull ourselves from our cocoons and get ready for what can only be described as one of the best meals of the year. But not before a long, hot bubble bath.

Supper fit for a queen at Vespers

Vespers is the hotel’s main restaurant – a fine dining affair, serving modern Irish cuisine in the format of a tasting menu. Perhaps unfairly of me, I didn’t have the highest expectations – I have been burnt in the past by hotel restaurants. Chefs stifled by owners scared to push boundaries for fear of losing more traditional hotel guests. Having eaten in the pub the previous evening, I wondered if the offering here would be similar, good but not great. How wrong I was. Perfect plate after perfect plate expertly paired with exciting and interesting wines, all explained in depth by the wonderful sommelier. 

We started with homemade bread and butter and an amuse bouche of  chicken liver parfait and cherry cannelloni with candied oats – my bouche was well and truly amused and if this was the precursor of things to come, I was ready and waiting with baited breath.

Courses followed of duck ham paired with fruity condiments such as cherry puree and pickled pomegranate. Expertly paired so that the acidity and freshness of the fruit cut through the rich game. The most perfect scallops I think I have ever eaten, caremlised on top, pillow soft in the centre, doused in a bisque foam, sitting on a bed of sweetcorn puree. Welcomed texture introduced onto the plate through the charred corn kernels and roe biscuit. Local venison loin cooked to perfection, served with burnt chicory and a chocolate jus. I don’t even like chicory. I would go as far to say it is my most loathed of all the leaves. This iteration however, I gobbled up like some sort of feral beast, using it to scoop and swipe any remnants of the beetroot ketchup until my plate was clean. A plate of local cheese and oatcakes presented so elegantly it seemed a shame to eat it but eat it I did before being presented with a dessert that could have held its own with the works of art residing in the sculpture garden. A perfectly formed ‘Granny Smith apple’, as my spoon cut through the dazzling green glaze to reveal the lightest apple and vanilla mousse – it was heaven.

Concerned if we put another morsel of food in our bodies we may explode, we began to gather ourselves to leave the restaurant when our wonderful server shrieked “you can’t leave yet, you have petit fours and Irish coffee”. We looked at each other, fear washing over our faces but being of the firm opinion if a job needs doing, it needs doing properly we retired to the bar, briskly followed by a tray of homemade chocolates and an Irish coffee that I am sure was more whiskey than caffeine but who am I to tell the Irish how to make their coffee?

The final goodbye

The next morning, with slightly hazier heads than the day previous, we pulled ourselves out of bed, sad that it was time to go but content with a weekend of sheer joy and nourishment. We packed our bags and pulled back the curtains just in time to see the clouds part and the sun beam through, casting its fan of rays across the water. And with that, we thought it would be rude to leave such a gorgeous setting just at this moment and so with our last hour to spare we donned our robes, ordered pancakes to the room and affirmed that a girls weekend is the best kind of weekend. Especially one spent at The Culloden Estate and Spa.

Suites at Culloden Estate & Spa (https://www.cullodenestateandspa.com// 028 9042 1066) start from £650 per night and Garden Rooms from £350 per night, including breakfast. 

When most people think of Mauritius the first things that come to mind are turquoise waters and white sand beaches, the second is the price tag – Veranda Grand Baie is offering a more cost effective option removing Mauritius off the bucket list and on to the doable list.

Veranda Grand Baie – a background story.

Mauritius is an island synonymous with honeymooners (where you don’t leave your room) and fly & floppers (where you don’t leave your lounger) but Veranda Grand Baie is changing the way things are done, allowing you to visit the island on a budget (sort of) and actively encouraging guests to explore more than the infinity pool to gain an understanding of what really makes the island tick.

Veranda Grand Baie’s slogan of “Feel Mauritius, Feel Mauritian” coupled with the MO of an ‘ethos of authenticity’ whets the appetite of what is in store. Sega shows, Creole lessons, rum tastings, cooking lessons and snack shacks offering local cuisine are all included in the price of the stay to ensure guests truly immerse themselves in the local culture. There is no pretense, the authenticity is felt in spades from the passion of the staff to the detail of the interiors.

The hotel popped onto the Mauritian shoreline forty years ago as one of the first boutique hotel offerings on the island. In a landscape that was being heavily peppered with resorts and large scale hotels, this small and intimate affair has been doing things differently since its conception.

A design led hotel putting the chic in Creole Chic.

This year the hotel has seen a major refurbishment but ensuring the heart and soul of the establishment is not lost as it proudly labels itself as ‘Creole Chic’.  It wasn’t until a food tour around Grand Baie itself that the hotel came into its own. As we wound down residential streets and peered through gateways to the houses behind I could see the inspiration behind the design of the hotel. White washed homes, wrap around porches – or should I say Verandas – corrugated tin  roofs, shutters painted bright blue. Trees heaving with tropical flowers hanging low over pavements. Palms and fronds lining pathways and well weathered white patio furniture sitting under fruit trees. Every house I saw, no matter how humble, had an energy about it that welcomed you inwards. A feeling of warmth and comfort which I was soon to  learn is the Mauritian way.  On returning to the hotel from the tour, I saw it in a completely different light – it had never not been a stunning accomodation but now the Creole pride was palpable.  The Veranda Grand Baie shines a light on a culture and a history somewhat unknown, it wears it’s roots as a badge of honour and it ensures that everyone that stays there experiences a little bit of Creole magic. 

Following an exploration of the town of Grande Baie town – a mere ten minute stroll away – we ambled down the shoreline back  to our beach front hotel, our group formed a plan of a quick shower and freshen up before meeting back for dinner. However, on reaching the property all plans went out the window as it was impossible not to be enveloped into the big hug that the hotel bar exuded – the tinkle of cocktail shakers dancing on the evening breeze as sundowners were lovingly prepared. The warm glow of ambient lighting pooling onto the veranda – not too stark as to detract from the out of this world sunset that was about to take center stage but just enough to ease the transition of day to dusk. Low soft seats dotted under palm trees, perfectly positioned to take in the lapping waves and aching to be filled with sun kissed bottoms. If this is what it is like to feel Mauritian – sign me up.

The Veranda Grande Baie hotel – in focus.

The hotel houses 95 rooms, all with nods to the surrounding island through design features such as antique furniture from the area and specially curated wallpapers depicting island vistas. In addition to this is an infinity pool, small private beach, two restaurants and a kids area. What the hotel does so well is provide discoverable corners such as a library and games room, cozy seating areas and enclosed bars, further cementing the ‘Creole Chic’ way of life – warm, welcoming, wonderful. A calculated decision has been made not to offer ‘too much’ to guests in a bid to get them to explore the island be that through the kayaks and paddle boards provided free of charge or local excursions such as the aforementioned food tour, katamaran experience and local botanical gardens to name but a few, all of which can be arranged by the hotel. It is truly refreshing to stay somewhere that actively encourages guests to get out and see what makes a place so special rather than just provide a plethora of options that could be plonked anywhere in the world although, should you be in camp ‘fly and flop’ – no judgment  – you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful infinity pool backdrop and the house special Pina Colada could be argued as reason enough to anchor yourself to a sun lounger.

The redesign of the hotel is a thing of beauty. Natural colour palettes complimented by pops of bright colours be it from the bright blue shutters, the turquoise water surrounding the property or the Birds of Paradise flower arrangements that adorn every console and table create a relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere. The design team behind the refurb have done what so many strive (and fail) to do – created a perfect balance of barefoot living coupled with oodles of sophistication. White linen sofas and dark wood club chairs sit beneath palm fronds, beamed ceilings and wicker chandeliers. Fresh grass pathways and sandy flowerbeds bleed into natural stone floorings and rattan rugs. The two worlds of outdoor and indoor don’t exist here, rather they blend together to create this unique experience further cemented by stunning design led features such as cottages with outdoor showers and floor to ceiling windows. 

Things to do

Take a food tour with Taste Buddies

When it is time to drag yourself away from your outdoor shower (I don’t think I have ever been so clean in my life) and discover what the island has to offer, guests are spoilt for choice. The town of Grande Baie is a short walk away and offers  the opportunity to shop and eat to your heart’s content – from beachside street food shacks to more formal sit down restaurants, all serving up local delicacies such as fish gratin and fresh Marlin smoked over local wood. The food scene in Mauritius is a melting pot, with influences of Indian, Chinese, African and European cultures all playing a huge part, that coupled with the bounty of the Indian ocean means that menus are unusual and exciting. Not only has the identity of the food offering been shaped by the multitude of visitors and inhabitants of the island but also the enslaved as our food guide explained that those enslaved were given the most basic of crops to grow but still managed to create something wonderful such as palm hearts cured in citrus and then soaked in milk, this in turn trickled up into the masters kitchen and became a popular dish that still resides on most menus today. The history behind the plates here is truly fascinating and the best way to learn, see and most importantly taste it all is through ‘Taste Buddies food tours’ which can be organised through the hotel’s concierge.

A day at sea with Croisieres Australes

A trip to Mauritius wouldn’t be complete without a fill of Mauritian rum. Daily tastings are on offer at the hotel but in my humble opinion there is only one way to drink rum on a tropical island and that is at sea. Luckily for me, a Catamaran tour to neighbouring Gabriel Island made this dream a reality. Guests are welcomed aboard by a jovial crew and a captain with a penchant for Barry White – amazing how his crooning voice seems to dissipate any notion of sea sickness – as the Catamaran sets sail and bounces over white capped waves, Mauritius disappears into the distance and the big blue swells in front. After an hour or so we arrive at a picture perfect beach. A sunbathe for me and a snorkel for my more active friends resulted in a) a fantastic tan pour moi and b) a sighting of a barracuda and a multitude of tropical fish for them. Once sun’d and sea’d we were welcomed back aboard for a lunch of freshly barbecued meat with lashings of homemade hot sauce and even more lashings of rum punch. It was at this point I took it upon myself to orchestrate a rum fueled photo shoot on the hull of the boat, the aim was the Duran Duran Rio music video, the reality more of a swaying Jack Sparrow aesthetic. Be warned, the rum punch punches! Headache aside it was a great way to see more of what makes Mauritius so special. We were even treated to a sighting of humpback whales on our sail home.

Sated on rum and sun, it only seemed right to have our last evening dining on fresh fish in the beach side restaurant, under the stars, listening to the waves lap beneath the beat of traditional Mauritian music and so we did just that.

The following morning as I had one final outdoor shower under the hot Mauritian sun I asked myself if the hotel had hit their brief – “am I leaving with an understanding of what it is to truly feel Mauritian?”. My sunkissed skin, slightly rounded belly, heart full to burst and a slightly sore head all told me, yes, absolutely I did. 

Veranda Grande Baie Hotel – the details

Prices from £240/€276 per night, in a Comfort Garden room with breakfast and dinner included. Price based on two adults.

If you choose to eat outside of the hotel, there are plenty of wallet friendly options within Grand Baie town and the concierge team will happily advise you on where to head.

Direct flights from London with Air Mauritius start from £650 return

Activities within the hotel such as rum tasting, cooking lessons and creole classes are FOC.

Taste Buddies Grand Baie tour – Price : £45 

Catamaran tour to Gabriel Island – Price : £52