Thursday, December 26, 2013

An Epic Year of Elite Travel: Maui, Bhutan & Beyond


Epic. Mind-boggling. Amazing. Basically the only words that properly do justice to 2013 and all of the destinations I visited this year. Of course, traveling the world is a lot more fun when you have an incredible person to share the experiences with. Fortunately for me, this is the direction my life took one year ago this week here in Maui--my all-time favorite place in the world. Here now for the fifth time in 13 months (!), I can't help but stop to reflect on and document the year of 2013, my epic year of traveling with someone who enjoys seeing the world, meeting interesting people and experiencing luxury hotels as much as I do.

The 2013 luxury travel adventures kicked off in January with a trip to San Francisco to attend a Virtuoso meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. Next stop for me was a long-planned bucket list trip to Bhutan (below), with visits as well to Phnom Penh and Bangkok (where The Siam hotel blew me away on every level). Home for a day and then jetlag recovery came in the form of a scenic drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to spend a long weekend at the always impressive Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara.

A few weeks later, I found myself atop a snow-covered mountain for the first time since 2000 (when I blew out my knee in Vail). Still too chicken to ever ski again, I did however conquer my phobia of snow/mountains with a ridiculously fun adventure (proof below!) on a self-driven snowmobile at The Canyons Resort in Utah. And of course, gorgeous accommodations at the Waldorf-Astoria Park City were the highlight of this special winter weekend!

A few weeks later I headed to Toronto, which brought back a ton of childhood memories. I hadn't been here in decades but it was always a favorite road trip from my hometown of Rochester, NY. This visit was especially memorable as I was an invited guest of the Four Seasons Preferred Partner team, and, in addition to a stay at the brand new, just-opened Four Seasons Toronto, dinner with Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp at his private residence (and a tour of his private wine cellar, below) was on the agenda. A quick weekend at the Four Seasons New York en route back to LA included great seats to Bette Midler's one-woman Broadway show, post-show cocktails at The Chatwal, cheering on cancer fundraisers in Central Park , and an interview over brunch with a former boss/great friend/longtime supporter which led to a fab article about Elite Travel International's growth in a top travel publication a few months later.


South America was the next major adventure, with Buenos Aires hosting the annual Virtuoso Symposium; a few days in Southern Brazil was added on in the name of research and adventure. The Park Hyatt Buenos Aires did a stellar job of impressing me, as did Ponta Dos Ganchos. The latter (shown below), a stunning, exclusive 25-bungalow Relais & Chateau property near Florianopolis is designed with couples in mind (private decks/pools, indoor seaview hot tubs, a staff that specializes in romance) and it's on my short list of properties I hope to visit many times again. Highly recommend for honeymooners or anyone seeking a romantic, secluded, peaceful sun-filled vacation (don't miss taking the helicopter up the coast to/from the airport!).

On arrival home from Brazil, I made the very BIG decision to take my eight-year-old luxury travel company Elite Travel International to the next level by becoming our own stand-alone Virtuoso firm. This kicked off the second half of the year with much excitement, and set the pace for our continued growth. The new addition of a London affiliate at the end of 2013 has been the culmination of my favorite year business-wise, yet. While in the midst of the business transition, a celebratory visit to the always-lovely Four Seasons Palm Beach was followed by a relaxing beachfront stay in North Miami at another favorite, Acqualina Resort & Spa. The spa, spacious oceanview suites, incredible food (Il Mulino is a stand out) and beautiful beach make this one of my all-time favorite resorts in the Sunshine State.

My love for Maui meant I obviously couldn't resist the opportunity to attend the annual Kapalua Food & Wine Festival at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, held in early June. Along with Alyson Nash, Elite Travel's Director of Special Projects, we loved meeting the chefs and winemakers who came together to showcase their specialties in this gorgeous setting.

A staycation just minutes from my home in LA at the Beverly Hills Hotel to celebrate Elite Travel International's invitation to the Dorchester Collection's Diamond Club was a welcome change from all the flights, and it reminded me how much I also enjoy spending time in LA as much as I enjoy globetrotting. Lunch and dinners with local clients at The Polo Lounge were fun, and my maltipoo (below) clearly enjoyed his stay as much as we did.

My summertime travels also included a second trip to both Maui (for a friend's wedding)and Santa Barbara--this time to preview the just-opened El Encanto by Orient-Express. Another one of my beloved pups Maddie (below) made this road trip to the pet friendly property with me (sadly, it was her last trip with me as she succumbed to cancer a few months later). Needless to say, El Encanto will always hold special memories for me...the cottage-style, oceanview accommodations and the sweet staff have impressed a number of my clients as well.

A long weekend at the Golden Door Spa & Resort in San Diego and another in Vancouver (first of four trips to my favorite Canadian city before year's end!) as well as the annual weeklong Virtuoso Week at the Bellagio in Las Vegas rounded out my July + August travels. This year's Virtuoso Week was especially special for me as I was named Virtuoso's Most Innovative Travel Advisor.

September started in style with an incredible Italian holiday, including visits to the new Amanresort Venice, watching the annual Venetian regatta and enjoying canalside meals with the GMs at Hotel Cipriani, Ca'Sagredo & the newly renovated Gritti Palace . Next up was five nights along the Amalfi Coast with time spent with our friends who own/run the best hotels in the region--Le Sirenuse, Il San Pietro, Hotel Santa Caterina, Palazzo Avino & Hotel Caruso. Food, wine and sunshine were plentiful during this part of our Italian dream trip, and it's an itinerary I could (and hope to) easily repeat annually! Ending with one night at the unique and special Portrait Suites Roma, owned by the Ferragamo family, was the perfect end to one of my all-time favorite trips of the year.

Before our next European adventure in early November--to London + Istanbul--I logged many miles on planes for quick visits with friends, family and loved ones to Palm Beach, Chicago & Vancouver. Chicago was a fun-filled foodie adventure, with dinners ranging from simple and delicious steaks & martinis at Gibson's just down the street from The Peninsula (long a favorite of mine, best gym in the city and an amazing team shown with us below) to two of the best meals I've enjoyed on the road: Shanghai Terrace in the hotel and the incredibly creative and fun Alinea. Book a table at Alinea now if Chicago's ever on your agenda (note: you have to book online/prepay in advance!).

After a super-fast trip down to Riviera Maya, Mexico to speak on a panel about today's luxury traveler and then one to Manhattan to partake in the Afar Magazine travel advisory board meeting, London was next on the agenda. Here, after speaking to a high-end group of British travel advisors, I visited atleast 30 hotels from Mayfair to Shoreditch (lunch at Hoi Polloi is a must). Gluten free tea at Claridges (below), The Goring & Brown's were fattening & fun, as were incredible meals everywhere from the coffee shop at Fortnum & Mason's to DINNER by Heston Blumenthal and Kaspar's at The Savoy. A Friday eve get together at Bar Boulud with local friends and travel industry colleagues (below) was a standout, as were stays at the Corinthia, Mandarin Oriental London & the new Edition London hotels.


The year was seemingly starting to wind down after this whirlwind London trip, but not before a long weekend in buzzing Istanbul checking out the top luxury hotels from Shangri-La Istanbul (new room product shown below), a duo of Four Seasons (located both in the Old City & on the Bosphorus), the Park Hyatt, the House hotel, Tom Tom Suites & the Ciragan Palace. In the very short time we had there, the itinerary included a private shopping tour with a visit to the Bazaar's best silver & carpet shops, a local dinner with friends and a private boat ride to a gorgeous authentic residence on the Asian side of the sea.

A quick stop at home in LA and then back to Europe for one last international trip of the year. The annual International Luxury Travel Mart (ILTM) in Cannes in early December was the perfect excuse to travel to there via Paris for a few days of luxury hotel inspections, dinners and Champagne with Eiffel Tower views. The suites at the Shangri-La Paris (on the presidential suite terrace shown below) blew me away, as did the whimsical, fun and luxurious Ray Charles suite (pictured) at the Royal Monceau, one of my overall favorite Parisian hotels.


The year of epic travels culminated with four nights in Cannes at the Majestic Barriere hotel, in a beautifully redone seaview room--steps away from the Palais, where ILTM, the luxury travel world's version of Fashion Week takes place. Dozens of meetings with hoteliers from new properties in Israel to Malaysia to Fiji to Iceland and new friends made from Greece to Bali to pretty much every corner of the world are the key reasons Cannes is on my annual calendar for nine years running now. I flew home to LA via Vancouver for a last bit of holiday cheer before putting away the winter business travel clothes and trading them in for sundresses and flip flops. Maui (pictured) is now my home base until early January, and from here, am doing lots of yoga, soaking up the sun, and planning next year's adventures which already include China, Tibet, Whistler, Southampton, Tuscany, Brussels, Venice and many more hot spots!

For more information on planning your own luxury travels for 2014 and beyond, please email me at stacy@elitetravelinternational.com. You can follow my elite travel adventures on twitter at @elitetravelgal and www.instagram.com/elitetravelgal.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

London #ETISTYLE: Luxury Hotels, Gluten-Free Tea, Brushes with Royalty, Celebrity Chefs, Martinis & More (Part One)



On my recent weeklong visit to London, I chose to stay in three very different hotels while visiting with friends and General Managers at dozens of others. I pride myself on being a luxury hotel matchmaker, thus, what better way to hone my skills than experience a variety of luxury hotel styles & locations.

From the ultra-posh Corinthia Hotel in the Whitehall neighborhood with a private terrace overlooking the venue where the 2013 Remembrance Day tributes took place to the happening Edition Hotel (Ian Schrager’s latest project) to the always-classy Mandarin Oriental London (seen below) just steps from Hyde Park and Harvey Nichols, my London accommodations did not disappoint.

I’d last visited the Corinthia a few years ago--just weeks before it opened, and the final product blew me away. The bi-level 7th floor penthouse suites (like the one I stayed in, shown below) are amongst the coolest in the city, with themes ranging from music (Katy Perry’s fave) to literature, politics and art. I was quite impressed by the attentive butlers who meticulously unpacked/packed our bags, delivered a forgotten prescription and printed out a late-night presentation. The four-floor spa borders on ridiculously gorgeous, and the in-house Daniel Galvin salon where I could get an 845 am blow-out before a busy day was a bonus surprise. Cocktails at the chic Bassoon Bar are a must to start or end the day, and a meal (oysters and Dover sole top my recommendations) at Massimo’s is always a good idea. GM Matthew Dixon has done an incredible job of staffing up the entire hotel with a seasoned team who truly go above and beyond. The hotel, in one word? Flawless.


Equally impressive was the new Royal Suite (complete with butler service fit for royalty) at the Mandarin Oriental London. A longtime favorite of mine, this hotel has noticeably stepped up the level of luxury from the outstanding on-site restaurants (Bar Boulud and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) to the stunning new indoor pool and fitness center opening early 2014. My favorite accommodation here--the Royal Suite--is massive, with a beautiful terrace fronting Hyde Park and a butler at your beck and call. Heated floors, a steam shower, a full kitchen, dining room, huge living room (pictured below) ideal for entertaining or relaxing en suite, and a beautiful master bedroom with additional Park views are key reasons to book my favorite Mandarin London suite. Leaving the hotel for meals is hardly necessary with dining options inclusive of both Boulud and one of Britain’s own Blumenthal (his take on ancient British cuisine with a modern twist is amazing, and the well-trained staff make it an experience you’ll want to repeat). Lest you do want to leave, just cross the street and Harvey Nick’s food hall awaits (everything from fresh juices to gourmet cheese to sushi can be found here). And by all means, be sure to try the K’bridge martini at the Mandarin Bar!


I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Edition London, Schrager’s collaboration with Ritz-Carlton which opened a few months ago in the former Berner’s Hotel in Fitzrovia (steps from Oxford Street). Suffice it to say, this fun, chic boutique hotel exceeded my expectations on every level. It is obvious that the staff has been well-trained by Ritz-Carlton as everyone from the bellmen to the front desk agents to the restaurant teams to the management go out of their way to deliver. Dinner and cocktails (try the Dill or No Dill) at Berner’s Tavern is an absolute must (hotel guests are given priority for tables at the hot spot I’m told by an Edition insider). The rooms (like mine, shown below) are stylish with warm touches, and surprisingly spacious for a boutique hotel. I’ll look forward to seeing the gym and spa on a future visit as I’m told both are being given a refresh to better suit guests’ needs. GM David Taylor—formerly of the Huxton in Shoreditch--is a terrific host here at the city’s hottest new boutique hotel.


What impressed me most about each of the three hotels where I stayed was the level of customization and attention to my preferences. Healthy delicious and gluten free snacks, dark chocolate, Rose Champagne, still water, a yoga mat (thank you Mandarin!) and even treats and toys for my beloved pups were delivered as in-room amenities. Talk about knowing your guest!



For more details or to inquire about rates/VIP amenities at each of these three London hotels, contact me at stacy@elitetravelinternational.com. And stay tuned for future posts on my other favorite luxury hotels in London serving up the city’s best gluten-free teas, cocktails, meals, martinis and more!








Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pink Power: Elite Travel & Golden Door Combining Forces to Raise Funds For BCRF



When your mom has been battling breast cancer on and off for 18 years, and your 40-something-year-old best friend has a mastectomy & undergoes chemo, it's obvious that raising funds for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) isn't a choice but an obligation. For years, I have worked closely with many of my travel industry partners to help raise funds for BCRF (www.bcrfcure.org) and now, in conjunction with our amazing friends at Golden Door Spa & Fitness Resort, my company Elite Travel International is taking our fundraising efforts to the next level.

Simply book a 4- or 7-day stay at gorgeous Golden Door in Escondido, CA through Elite Travel International during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October 2013) and ETI & Golden Door will team up to donate $500 per stay to BCRF. The stay can be booked for anytime between now and October 31, 2014.

I had the opportunity to visit Golden Door this past summer and was wow'ed by the peacefulness of the Japanese Zen-inspired grounds and the quality of the healthy, delicious meals. I loved working out daily with my daily personal trainer as well as the challenging and inspiring classes from yoga to cycling and Tai Chi. I loved that I had plenty of choices in my daily fitness regime, and that my meals were customized to my preferences (gluten free, dairy free). The original destination spa resort in Southern California, Golden Door is undergoing a major transformation under new COO Kathy Van Ness, a longtime fashion/lifestyle exec who ran Diane Von Furstenberg and Warnaco's swim group. Under the new owners of Golden Door, Van Ness has "a unique opportunity to express a commitment to health, happiness and a more balanced approach of how to best define modern American life."

To book your upcoming stay at Golden Door and help Elite Travel International and Golden Door raise funds for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, contact Stacy Small at stacy@elitetravelinternational.com or call 310 826 2939.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Mad about Mayakoba: The ideal weekend beach retreat



It's been over 10 years since my last visit to Riviera Maya. The last time I was here, there was no Mayakoba, the eco-tourism development now comprised of beaches, lagoons, a championship golf course, and the Fairmont, Rosewood, Banyan Tree, and soon, Andaz luxury hotels. What a stunning spot to relax in a beachfront suite steps from the sand. The sister property to Las Ventanas al Paraiso (another one of my Mexican favorites), Rosewood Mayakoba has blown me away on every level from the attention to detail in the suites, to the incredible friendliness of the staff from the bellmen to the butler to the housekeepers all the way up to the top. General Manager Graeme Davis sets a fantastic example for his team, and it's obvious they all truly enjoy their surroundings and their jobs. It makes for a very peaceful vibe that extends throughout the property from the Sense Spa to Punta Bonita poolside restaurant.


It always impresses me when a luxury hotel takes the time to customize the suite with welcome amenities they know their guests will appreciate. In my case, I was welcomed with a tray of freshly cut veggies and fruit along with freshly squeezed "green" juice. There was also a selection of CDs that matched my musical preferences, a yoga mat and, at turn down each evening, dark chocolate (my favorite) was in my suite for me to enjoy. It's clear this luxury hotel did some homework on me, and it makes me super-confident that they will do the same for my high-end clients who notice these small details as much as I do (the monogrammed beach bag and pillow cases were also an amazing touch!).


My favorite accommodations at Rosewood Mayakoba are the Beachfront Suites with private deck, plunge pool and direct access to the beach (it's an easy walk down the beach to the pool and restaurant). The d├ęcor of dark woods, light stone, leather and woven textured fabrics complemented by subtle Mexican artwork is comfortable and modern. I also loved the spacious bi-level oceanview suite with rooftop hot tub. Getting around the property by bicycle is one option, or you can cruise around the lagoon by boat or hop aboard the golf carts that regularly criss-cross the property which straddles the lagoon on one side and fronts the beach on the other.

For those partial to crystal clear ocean water and powder soft white sand, a weekend (or longer!) in a beachfront suite should be on your "must do" list. It's easy enough to get to Mayakoba with nonstop flights to nearby Cancun from LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, New York to name a few key gateways. And, if you're looking to bring your family and/or travel with a few couples and enjoy total privacy, the resort's brand new (opening this November) Casa Loma (below) is the perfect option. A full kitchen, multiple outdoor decks, private pool, dedicated chef and nanny, and four full bedrooms plus spacious living areas as well as your own boat and golf cart take it to the next level of luxury at Rosewood Mayakoba.


All of our Virtuoso clients will of course enjoy the daily delicious breakfast buffet (complete with authentic Mexican specialties), a $100 Spa credit, and priority upgrades and early check in/late check out on request. For more details or to book your upcoming stay, contact Stacy@elitetravelinternational.com.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pontas Dos Ganchos: The Ultimate Beach Retreat in Southern Brazil




Fresh off a four-day weekend in Southern Brazil and I will go on record saying that Pontas Dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort is one of the absolute best resorts in the entire world. Not that I've visited everywhere (it's on my list!), but I've hotel-hopped around the globe enough to know an A+++ experience when I land there. From the moment we arrived and were greeted by the GM Julio Jost to the genuine friendliness doled out by the entire staff during our entire stay, I simply could not stop snapping photos of the insanely gorgeous setting.


This clearly is a resort designed with romance in mind. Kids under 18 are not allowed, and each of the 25 "Bangalos" are designed a deux (oversized double rain showers, ocean view Jacuzzis & the private deck with plunge pool are a few clues).

In addition to the scenic beauty from the private "Praia" (beach) to the beachside restaurant, the attention to detail at Pontas Dos Ganchos is over-the-top. The staff pays close attention to when guests vacate their bungalow for meals/activities and coordinate their housekeeping efforts so as never to disturb them while en suite (a pet peeve of mine!).

As a Relais & Chateaux property, the quality of the food is outstanding. And lest you worry that the extensive tasting menus may be a bit on the fancy side, rest assured that simple comfort foods (burgers, fried fresh calamari, steaks, grilled fish, bacon & eggs) are all available upon request in the restaurants or in room. For a truly romantic treat, don't miss the opportunity to enjoy a "Private Retreat" complete with a couples' massage, Champagne, a rose-petal bath followed by a course-by-course dinner with wine served on your private patio. It's truly the ultimate in R&R&R (rest, relaxation & romance!).

Speaking of ultimate, be sure to request the private helicopter transfers to and from Pontas Dos Ganchos to Florianopolis Airport. The scenic 20-minute flight is breathtaking and will afford you the luxury of one additional hour on property as the heliport is on-site.

Ponta Dos Ganchos is easily reached via a short nonstop flight from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Book through Elite Travel International to receive special VIP treatment, breakfast inclusive rates and an extra-special welcome from our Brazilian friends who run my #NewFavoritePlace. For more information and to book, contact me via email elitetravelgal@gmail.com or phone: 310-826-2939.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Top 10 HOT New (or Newly Redone) Hotels To See in 2013


With the economy on the upswing, so too is the completion of long-talked about luxury hotel projects. As a self-proclaimed luxury hotel junkie, I am super-excited to visit many of these new--and newly redone--properties around the globe, starting with the uber-chic Siam (below) in Bangkok in a few weeks.

Below (in no particular order is my own personal list of 10 newly opened, soon to open or recently redone hotels that I simply cannot wait to see. Each is very unique and defines "luxury" in its own special way. My choices also reflect a growing trend among my young, affluent, style-conscious clients who tell me they prefer chic, unique, non-cookie-cutter-style hotels to the same-old, same-old style of established brands that really need to step the WOW factor up to capture their business in years to come. Now, where to go first?!

1) J.K.Place Rome: If this property--opening this summer in the heart of Rome--is anything like its super-cool sister hotels in Florence and Capri, it's bound to be an instant hit. With General Manager Samuel Porecca (who formerly ran the still wildly popular JK Capri) at the helm, and promises of style as chic and warm as the Florence and Capri gems, this hotel will bring a new level of much-needed luxury to Rome.

2) Amanzo'e, Greece: Amanresorts' 25th property (and first in Greece) opened on the east coast of the Peloponnese last September after two years and a $125 million build by famed architect Ed Tuttle. Featuring 38 pavilion-style suites with courtyards, pools and other Aman signature style points, Amanzo'e has been fashioned after an ancient Greek village vibe translated to modern times (complete with an Aman Spa, private yacht and exclusive Beach Club).

3) El Encanto by Orient-Express, Santa Barbara: Fans (like me) of Hotel Cipriani, Hotel Caruso, Hotel Timeo, Villa San Michele and Hotel Splendido in Italy should be uber-excited that Orient-Express is transforming this iconic 20th-century hotel in Santa Barbara. The redone version with 92 bungalow-style suites opens March 18. Everything about it sounds inviting from the California cuisine, boutique spa, serene garden-filled setting and Pacific Ocean views.

4) The Siam, Bangkok: Bangkok's newest luxury boutique hotel, The Siam, is set on 3 acres along the city side of the Chao Praya River. The 39-room hotel offers multiple restaurants, a cooking school, spa, yoga terrace, Muay Thai boxing ring, a library/cinema, infinity pool, gift/antiques gallery, and spacious suites (some housed in traditional teakwood Thai houses).

5) The Gritti Palace, Venice: One of my favorite Old World Italian palazzo-turned-hotels reopens in style on the Grand Canal in February after a 14-month restoration and the addition of a bi-level suite with rooftop terrace.

6) Park Hyatt Sydney: My favorite hotel in Sydney is better than ever according to my colleagues who've visited the recently reopened harborfront icon following its 10-month redo. Highlights are new rooftop suites, fully upgraded rooms, remodeled public spaces, a redesigned spa and rooftop pool (below).

7) Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve: Open since 12/12/12, this 115-room, 50-acre property brings a much-needed ultra-luxury option to Puerto Rico. Sitting on the former estate of Laurance Rockefelle5 15 miles from San Juan, there are three golf courses, a private Beach Club and restaurant by the Chef Jose Andreas (a personal fave!).

8) Mandarin Oriental Pudong Shanghai: Shanghai will welcome its newest luxury hotel this year when Mandarin Oriental enters the market with its striking 362-room property on the banks of the famed Huangpu River. Six restaurants, a world-class spa and the city's most impressive Presidential Suite will be a welcome addition to this booming city.

9) The Peninsula Paris: As a huge fan of their Asian and U.S. properties, I an't imagine Peninsula Hotels' European debut will be anything less than spectacular (!) when it opens later this year in Paris near the Arc De Triomphe.

10) Cheval Blanc Randheli, The Maldives: The second hotel project by LVMH opens this year on the Noonu Atoll 40 minutes (by private seaplane) from Male. Everything about this "Maison" oozes Louis Vitton-level luxe from cuisine designed by a three-Michelin starred chef t the four-bedroom Owner's Villa and a Spa with treatments by Guerlain. Sign me up.

For more information, or to book a visit to any of these amazing luxury hotels and enjoy special VIP perks and amenities, contact Stacy Small at Stacy@elitetravelinternational.com or 310.301.9036.