Monday, May 5, 2014

From Budapest to Marbella, Hotels that Hold a Special Place in My Heart

As Mother's Day approaches (my first without my mom), I find myself reflecting on some of the most special memories we shared. Funny enough, many of them center around places we went--and more specifically, the luxury hotels where we stayed. For this reason, a number of these hotels I visited with my mom will ALWAYS hold a very special place in my heart.

One of the first BIG trips I invited my mom on was in 1999. I was a senior editor at Travel Agent Magazine and attended a press event where I won a trip to Asia, courtesy of Ritz-Carlton. I remember thinking that since I wasn't dating anyone at the time, why not invite my mom on this incredible trip? She had never traveled to that part of the world, and was thrilled at the opportunity. The trip included round-trip business class tickets on Malaysia Airlines and a few nights at The Ritz-Carlton properties in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and our favorite, Bali. I have fond memories of how impressed my mom with at each of the properties, especially the indoor/outdoor villa-like compound we shared in Bali. Fresh watermelon juice was enjoyed before a full-on negotiation with the local vendors in Kuta Beach who would not leave us alone until we agreed to buy some of their crap.

In Singapore, we visited the night zoo and later that eve back at the hotel, my mom just kept talking about how crazy it was to go to the zoo at night. Funny the things you remember! But, we both loved that hotel for its gorgeous bathrooms with views (shown below) and impeccable service.

Years later, after my dad passed away in 2006, I was invited to visit a number of Virtuoso hotels in Prague and Budapest. Neither my mom nor I was really in an excellent state of mind having just lost my dad a few months prior, but we agreed it would be good for us to go on a big adventure. It was a bit too cold for my liking in March, but what stands out most was my mom's reaction when we checked into stunning properties such as the Mandarin Oriental and the Four Seasons in Prague, and then the insanely beautiful Four Seasons Grisham Palace (seen below) in Budapest. More than anything we saw or did on this trip, these hotels are what stand out as the highlights of this trip.

A few years later, I was invited to speak at a travel conference being held in Madrid.

My mom, whose health had been on and off at this point for a few years, was extremely excited when I invited her to join me not just to Madrid--but also for a few days in Barcelona and her absolute favorite (she talked about it nonstop!), Marbella. The Marbella Club was one of her all-time favorite hotels, she told me many times. I know she never forgot the amazing three-hour lunch we enjoyed with my friend Carlos at the Beach Club, as well as a night out on the town with friends of mine who were also visiting at the same time. Sitting on that beautiful beach gave her such pleasure, and just being in such a wonderful place for a few days with nothing to do but eat, swim, sun and enjoy was right up her alley.

Another favorite stop on this trip was Barcelona, with a few nights at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental Barcelona. We loved having breakfast in their stunning breakfast room and walking along the Passeig de Gracia for a bit of shopping. A few days in Madrid--highlighted by a stay at Ritz Madrid--will also remain top of mind for me, always. My mom was blown away by the Ritz (especially our lunch on the patio with another friend of mine) and we both loved that Mother's Day (the American version) fell while we were there and just about everyone stopped to wish her a special day when they realized she was my mom. I will always remember her expression when we walked into that property--I know she felt ultra-special staying in such a special place, and it gives me great happiness knowing I was able to share this with.

As her health waned over the past few years, the travel was limited to places closer to home. She flew out to spend my 40th birthday with me and a few close friends in Las Vegas (her favorite city in the USA) and I think she had more fun at the Palazzo than I did.
I know she loved winning $1000 at the slot machines and handing me some of her winnings to pay for my "welcome to your 40s" massage at the hotel's Canyon Ranch Spa. We had a blast seeing the Beatles' Love and enjoyed several fun meals with friends. Ultimately, she was just happy to be with me, in Las Vegas, at a hotel with slot machines at every turn. Looking back, I remember just how happy this made her.

I flew her out to spend Thanksgiving in LA in 2012 and she stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, Marina Del Rey for a week. The lovely team here knew it was a special trip for her and treated her like a queen, with an upgrade to a beautiful suite on the Club Level. That was the trip we had Thanksgiving dinner at the Four Seasons Westlake (another super fun memory) and one day during her stay, we went to the Apple store and got her an iPhone. Teaching her to text was one of my most brilliant ideas. I received texts all week long with photos and notes about how much she was loving her accommodations. Being able to receive text updates from my mom just telling me she loved me, wherever I was in the world, was something I realize now how much I cherished.

The last set of hotels that really stand out in my mind as super special are those we stayed in closer to her home in Florida. She stayed with me at nearly every luxury hotel in Palm Beach, as well as at the SLS in Miami (where we celebrated her 66th birthday and "successful" chemo treatments in July 2012. We also had incredible times together at The Breakers, the Four Seasons and the former Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach (now the Eau Palm Beach).
The latter is where we stayed on my visit to Florida in September 2013, prior to her being hospitalized and passing away this past winter. We had a lovely weekend but I could see the signs of her slowing down. She was set to begin another round of chemo days after this Palm Beach "get away" which was a really special 48 hours in a peaceful oceanfront setting.

Over the years we celebrated a few birthdays and Mother's Days at The Breakers and she loved nothing more than relaxing at their Beach Club or playing in the ocean with my nephews. The Four Seasons Palm Beach also holds a very special place since it is where we stayed last June, with my sister, my nephews and my mom's closest friend Diane, as well as their two dogs Romeo and Jack. The weather was beautiful and we had a terrific time. Dinner in the form of huge lobsters at the nearby Station House for the boys' birthdays was one of the last times I truly got to see my mom laughing out loud and just enjoying the moment. Her health was "stable" at that moment, she was able to enjoy a few glasses of wine and a wonderful dinner.

It is these joyous memories that get me through the tougher days when I find myself sad that I can no longer invite her to join me on trips around the world. I am so incredibly grateful that the luxury travel world is my life, as I have so many phenomenal friends who not only welcomed me on my visits to their properties but did the same for my mom. These memories meant so much to her, and for that reason, the hotels I have mentioned above will forever have a extra-special meaning to me.

If you are able to share luxury hotel experiences with the special people in your life, DO IT. There is nothing that can replace the warmth I feel when I think about these permanent memories and how much these world travels brightened up my mom's life--even as her health declined. I'll forever think of her anytime I hear mention of the hotels we stayed in together

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Selling Moments as Memories: A Personal Story

I recently wrote this column which appears today on the TravelPulse ( I wanted to also share it here on my personal blog, as it is a personal story that provides insight into what is most important to me as both a business owner and in my own daily life. On a recent visit to a top luxury hotel in Honolulu, it was a sweet note left on my pillow at turndown the first evening that reminded me what is most important in my life, as well as in my business as a luxury travel advisor.

That note said, “You will remember the moments, not the days.” I thought to myself, that’s exactly what we want our clients to take home from every trip we plan for them—reminders of the very special and unique moments they enjoyed while they are traveling. I realized that what I remembered from that particular day was sitting on the hotel’s beautiful terrace at sunset with a loved one, enjoying live Hawaiian music and a delicious cocktail. I also remembered the five-mile hike we took along the ocean that morning, and the gluten-free French toast I had for breakfast in a gorgeous oceanfront setting.

The Zen shiatsu massage I treated myself to that afternoon was so fantastic that I rebooked another with the same therapist a few days later. It wasn’t just the massage I remembered, it was the kindness and compassion of the masseuse when I told her my reason for taking this mini-getaway. I was actually on this trip as a much-needed escape from everything I’d experienced the previous few weeks. My mom had recently passed away after a long battle with breast cancer, and I truly needed a few days in a beautiful setting with no agenda other than taking some time to relax.

I kept thinking about that note on my pillow, and it actually came up in conversation over dinner with the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. He explained that creating moments was tantamount to the success of his hotel. It also was a practice the entire staff was encouraged and empowered to do.

I shared with him the story of how touched I was when I returned for my second massage in three days and went to say good-bye to the therapist I adored. She had read me so well that she asked if it was okay to give me a hug. It was as if we were old friends, and she knew exactly what I needed. I can’t remember any other hotel spa experience where the masseuse hugged me to say good-bye, but it was completely appropriate (and memorable) in this situation.

As specialists in “luxury” travel, we need to constantly stay focused on reading our clients and deciphering what kind of moments we can create for them that will remain top of mind as memories. Whether it is suggesting an off-the-beaten-path local restaurant that you’ve personally experienced (I find that clients love when I do this) or knowing just which guide to hire for a particular client, you need to figure out just what will make the trip a special experience. You can steer your clients to a cool local boutique or maybe simply remember to share their dietary preferences with the hotel so they are wowed by the details. Regardless, it all falls to us to make sure we are constantly creating special moments.

As I look back on my most recent trip, I also recall special moments like walking on the beach at sunset and throwing a lei into the ocean (a Hawaiian friend told me that this is a ritual to partake in when you lose a loved one). I also found myself sitting on my lanai and watching the whales frolic out in front of me. That also proved to be a memorable moment since it is not something you are lucky enough to see every day.

Fortunately for me, three of my clients were also in town over the same dates, and so I took them to lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants. They were impressed that I knew exactly where to take them and it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know them better. Taking the time to meet my clients in person gave them the opportunity to see how much I appreciate their business. It also was really cool to hear about the various moments I’d help create for them over the years—including multiple birthday celebrations!

Regardless where we are sending our clients, we can never lose sight of the importance of crafting moments that will translate not just into memories , but also into reasons for them to remain loyal to us. We want to ensure that they call us every time they are looking to plan a trip filled with memorable moments.

Note: A version of this column appeared in the March 2014 edition of Agent@Home Magazine.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Maui Musts: The Best of Everything Island-Wide

After five trips to Maui in 13 months, including spending nearly three weeks there this past holiday season, I've enjoyed scouring the island in search of the best eats, drinks, workouts, views, spa treatments, music, sunsets and sushi. I'm a tough critic and there are so many great options, but below are my personal favorites in each category from Kapalua to Paia:

Best Overall Restaurant Island-Wide: Mama's Fish House
Best Overall Restaurant in Wailea: Alan Wong's Amasia
Best Overall Restaurant in Lahaina: tie between Mala Ocean Tavern and Honu Seafood
Best New Restaurant: Morimoto's
Best Sushi (shown below): Kai Sushi at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
Best Shave Ice: Ululani's in Lahaina (the original location)
Best spot for Fresh Fish (take out): The Fish Market Maui
Best French Fries: Mala Ocean Tavern
Best Italian Restaurant: Puleho
Best 24/7 Gourmet Snack Shop: Mokapu Market at Andaz Wailea
Best Prime Rib: Kimo's
Best Coffee Shop: Maui Coffee Roasters
Best Grocery Store: Napili Market
Best Ice Cream Shop: Royal Scoop at the Royal Lahaina
Best Gluten-Free (and other) Pancakes: Slappy Cakes
Best Dessert: Tie between Hula Pie at Kimo's and Chocolate Kuau Pie at Mama's Fish House
Best Private Chef: Chef Kristen with Private Maui Chef
Best Date Night Spot: Japengo
Best Cocktails: Pineapple Grill
Best Happy Hour/Oceanview Bar: The Sea House
Best Live Music: Fleetwood's
Best Waiter: J.J. at Merriman's
Best Health Food Store/Juice Bar: Farmer's Market Maui
Best Lunch Spot: Paia Fish Market
Best Yoga Studio: Island Spirit Yoga
Best Serenity Pool: Four Seasons Wailea
Best Hotel Gym: Montage Kapalua Spa & Fitness Center
Best Masseuse: Renate at the Montage Kapalua Spa
Best Surf Lessons: Maui WaveRiders
Best Sailing Excursions: Trilogy
Best Family Beach Hotel: Napili Kai Beach Resort
Best Golf Course: The Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort
Best Animal Shelter (where visitors can volunteer): Maui Humane Society
Best Hike: Village Walking Trails on the original Village Golf Course
Best Coastal Running/Walking Route: Kapalua Coastal Trail
Best Beaches: Kanaapali Beach, Napili Bay, Big Beach, Sugar Beach
Best Bathing Suit Store: Cruise Maui
Best Beachfront Villas: Andaz Wailea
Best Kids Club: Keiki Lani at the Fairmont Kea Lani and Ritz Kids at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua
Best Family Beach Resort: Napili Kai Beach Resort
Best Oceanview Club Level Suites: Four Seasons Wailea
Best Boutique Hotel: Hotel Wailea
Best Hotel Transformation in the Works: Montage Kapalua

To book your next Maui vacation and enjoy the absolute best the island has to offer, contact me via email at