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.


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  3. Nicely written Varun!!! A perfect travelogue for an equally awesome place..

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  4. A well put together interesting and informative account. Enjoyed seeing the photos too.
    You must've enjoyed the serendipitous tour! :)

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  5. A great place to travel, thanks to your information

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  6. What an amazing year you had! Seems like you had a lot of adventure and relaxation too :-)

    I'm totally jealous of your Maui trip :-D

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