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In the summer of 2015, I was basking in the Tuscan sun with one of my favorite clients – the Pelos Family. This trip took several years to design and execute, and it culminated into a precious 40+ person family reunion in Italy. Interested in finding out more? Take a look at the Virtuoso Traveler Magazine article (on page 52).

 

 

When I think of Morocco, I think in colors. Casablanca and its whitewashed houses. The earth tones of Marrakech. The “Road of a Thousand Kasbahs,” with all the southwest colors, notably warm red and sage green. And the Atlas Mountains, with a mix off all of these colors, against a deep blue sky.

I am always surprised about what surprises me when I travel. In Morocco I expected to love the culture and architecture and people. The surprise was how much I was fascinated by the landscape. The vibrant images of the villages, mountains, coast and desert have remained with me long after my departure.

Morocco is a popular tourist destination because of its history, culture, arts and architecture. It’s an Arab country on the content of Africa, but it is located just across the Mediterranean from Spain and for centuries was a cross-roads for people coming and going to Europe – so, not surprisingly, it has a European flavor. In fact, French is their second language.

 

Tourists also love Morocco because you can get a lot for your money there. The country’s tourism campaign is “Cheap, Exotic and Safe.” That’s pretty much right on target.

I chose Abercrombie & Kent for my tour of the country. They have locals on the ground in Morocco so that you can get a great, authentic experience. Our tour director grew up in Marrakech and he was fantastic—very knowledgeable about the local culture.

So, let us begin at the beginning…


Casablanca

Hassan II Grand MosqueWe arrived in Casablanca from Paris on Air France. This is where many people start their visit to Morocco – mostly dictated by the convenient flight options. I would recommend finishing in Marrakech so you end on a high note.

Hassan II Grand Mosque

The highlight of Casablanca was the Hassan II Grand Mosque, which is among the largest in the world. Almost half of the mosque lies over the Atlantic Ocean. This was inspired by the verse of the Qur’an that states “the throne of God was built on the water.” Part of the floor is glass, so worshippers can kneel directly over the water while praying.

We ate at “Rick’s Café,” made famous by the movie Casablanca. The café itself wasn’t the scene of the movie, but was set up by an American afterwards as a tourist attraction. The food was good and we enjoyed the atmosphere as well.


Rabat

Rabat Walls

Rabat Old Town

Rabat, the political capital of Morocco, is an hour’s drive from Casablanca. It is a pretty city beside the ocean and I would recommend it as a starting point if you don’t care about seeing Casablanca and your flight arrives at a conducive time. We spent only a brief time in Rabat but the best part was the Oudaya Kasbah, built on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The gate is one of the most beautiful in the Moorish world and there is a wonderful, tranquil garden with a fountain and fragrant orange trees. We didn’t spend the night at Rabat, but continued onto Fez, which was about a three-hour drive from there.Hassan Tower (12th C)


Fez

Fez Views

Fez is considered to be the cultural center of Morocco and best preserved historic town in the Arab/Muslim world. We stayed in the heart of the walled city, so it was easy to step outside and get immediately caught up in the daily life of this fascinating city. The best part was being able to peek into the ornately tiled courtyards when the large double doors were open.

Fez Street Scene

Here I was surprised by how large and how spread out the ancient city was. Just walking along the streets was like traveling back in time, seeing the residents in their traditional garb, riding or pulling along donkeys (no cars allowed). And the streets! There are thousands of little lanes and alleys, each looking quaintly similar, making it simple to get lost in the labyrinth of the city. Be sure to always have a map with you (or your GPS), as you will get immediately lost!

We visited Nejjarine Square, which was a nice balance of greenery and tile work mosaics. Fez is famous for its tanneries. The leather goods are amazing and seeing the ancient process of dyeing the leather is very interesting, but be prepared for the pungent smell if you decide to go. I’ve heard the suggestion of bringing along some mint leaves to refresh your senses and I think that is excellent advice.Riad Details

Riad Courtyard

Other sites we visited were the Karaouine, one of the oldest universities in the world, and the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, established in the 15th century. Fez was once home to the largest Jewish population in Morocco and this area was walled off to protect the Jewish people from raids from Arab tribes.


Erfoud and the Sahara Desert Caravan

Road to Erfoud

Next we travelled to Erfoud, a small town on the edge of the desert, to rest for the night before our caravan into the Sahara the next day. The journey took about eight hours, with a stop for lunch in Midelt. The latter part of the trip featured stunning views of palm plantations, Berber villages and the spectacular Sahara Desert.

Road to ErfoudAfter a restful night, we departed the next morning and visited the fortified town of Rissani and its quarry of fossilized fish where you could buy countertops, flooring or other stones and have them shipped home. After lunch, we departed in luxury 4-wheel drive vehicles for the highlight of our tour—the Sahara desert!

Sahara GlampingWe spent the night in tents in the Arab “Caidai” style with a decidedly luxurious twist (aka Glamping). The tents were decorated with colorful, tribal carpets and each one had its own jerry-rigged shower and bathroom. When we arrived at our remote tented camp via our camel caravan (!), we were greeted with mint tea and pastries. We then left on camel back again in the early evening to see the desert sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, which can rise as high as 500 feet. (These were the same dunes featured in Star Wars, Sex and the City 2 and many other movies!) The image of the sun setting over the desert (sundowner-in-hand) and the huge dunes was more extraordinary than you could imagine.

Dinner was a delicious, traditional Moroccan meal served in the common tent – of course, we had to find our way following the lanterns which defined the path. We all agreed our Sahara desert experience was the highlight of the trip thus far.Sahara at Dusk


Ouarzazate

Sahara BerbersSahara BerbersAfter our night “roughing it” in the tent, we headed out to our next destination, stopping along the way to visit a family in the desert to see a little of authentic Moroccan nomadic life.

Road of a Thousand KashbahsWe then drove on the “Road of a Thousand Kasbahs,” linking the Sahara to the Atlas Mountains, with an amazing landscape of limestone hills full of palm groves and rose gardens. Driving over the Atlas Mountains was spectacularly beautiful!Road of a Thousand Kashbahs

All the southwestern colors blending together took my breath away and, along with spending the night in the desert, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. In the morning we did a little sightseeing in the city, which is known for its pottery and carpets. We saw the Glaoui Kasbah of Taourirt, considered to be one of the most beautiful Kasbahs in Morocco. Next we toured the fortified village of Ait Benhaddou, with its decorative kasbahs perched upon steep slopes. This village has been featured in many movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and Gladiator.Road of a Thousand KashbahsRoad of a Thousand Kashbahs

Fortified Village: Ait BenhaddouIn fact, you can also visit a number of the movie sights throughout this region – a Hollywood favorite!


Marrakech

Marrakech: RiadOur last stop was Marrakech, known as the “red city” because of the hue of the many red sandstone buildings. We stayed at the Four Seasons Marrakech, which is a true five-star resort and the perfect spot to spend our last days in the country. The hotel’s design is a modern take on traditional Moorish architecture, with elegant, clean lines, rose-hued pavilions, gardens, courtyards and pools. All of the rooms have balconies that feature views of the lovely grounds, the historic Menara Gardens or the Atlas Mountains.

Marrakech: MedinaMarrakech is known for its architectural and cultural attractions, most of which are inside the old walled section of town, or the Medina. The Medina is a great place to go at night, as you can see generations of families all eating and socializing together.

Jardin MajorelleOne of the highlights of the city was our visit to the Jardin Majorelle, created by a French artist in 1924, with its vivid cobalt blue buildings, exotic groves, lily-covered pools and enormous sculptural cactuses. This garden truly represents all the beauty and exotic nature of the country, with extraordinary plants such as lotus flowers, cacti, bougainvillea and palms and streams filled with fish. In 1980 Yves Saint-Laurent purchased the garden and villa and restored it to his exact specifications, which really put a personal stamp on it.Marrakech: Market

We took a carriage ride through Marrakech, which was a wonderful way to see the city and all of its neighborhoods. The light in the city was brilliant; it’s easy to see why Westerners would want to live there.

Too soon it was time to return home. Fortunately, a brief stay in Paris on the way made the leaving the beauty and magic of Morocco a little less sad.


Things to Know:

Language: English is a second language at best. Arabic and French are the most commonly used languages.

Where to Stay: There are a wide variety of hotel options in Morocco, from the well-known 5* brands (Sofitel, Four Seasons, Aman) to wonderful Riads.

Food: I would stick with restaurants the Riads/Hotels recommend – there are plenty of great options! We were encouraged not to eat at the markets – even though it was terribly tempting. We also stuck to bottled water. These precautions certainly paid off!

Religion: Morocco is a predominately Muslim country which has a history of being very welcoming to Westerners.

Bathrooms: In general, the facilities were what we see in the West, however, there were some public bathrooms which were simply holes in the floor. Even so, most places had attendants and the facilities were kept clean.

Photos: Be sure to ask permission before taking a photo. Some people expect to be paid, and many do not like having their picture taken.

Shopping: Leathergoods in Fez, and colorful, tribal rugs, jewelry, tiles and pottery throughout the country, but especially in Marrakech and Fez. We also found some wonderful and interesting pieces made with fossilized stone in the Erfoud area.

The winter is such a perfect time for an extended weekend vacation! Even though our weather here on the Mid-peninsula is mild, it’s always fun to get away to someplace even warmer and sunnier and experience a little peace in the midst of what can be a busy time of holidays and year-end quotas. It can also be the perfect time to take advantage of a lull in the tourist season to visit a popular destination that’s more crowded at other times of the year.

Here are my suggestions and a few quick highlights for some great winter weekend getaways:


Cabo San Lucas

I love Cabo in the winter for the whale watching and the glorious weather, usually in the 70’s to 80’s. Cabo has lots of terrific food and, of course, fabulous tequila to wash it all down! There’s a little something for everyone—lounging at the beach or pool, horseback riding, swimming with the dolphins, whale-watching (winter is their migratory season) and zip-lining for adventurous souls.

Whale Watching: Cabo, Mexico

Capella Pedregal: Cabo, Mexico Capella Pedregal: Cabo, MexicoOn my last visit, I stayed at the Capella Pedregal, a beautiful resort where I go purely to relax and be pampered. This hotel is absolute luxury, but with a homey feel. Every room has a private plunge pool—how awesome is that? The beach is secluded and hard to get to (in Mexico, all beaches are public, so this can be important if privacy is a priority). They have a wonderful spa and accommodations that range from private rooms to three-bedroom villas. All that and a great kids’ program if you want to have it all—a romantic getaway and a family vacation.


Other 5* hotel options are the Esperanza, an Auberge hotel known for its fabulous food, and Las Ventanas al Paraiso (Rosewood), with an especially amazing spa that feels very authentically Cabo. If you want the movie-star experience, and you enjoy a little celebrity-gazing, One and Only Palmilla may be your ideal spot. Super luxurious with one of the only swimmable beaches in Cabo, you may feel like you’re ready for your close-up.
Las Ventanas al Paraiso: Cabo, MexicoOne & Only Palmilla: San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta Colonial Town

If you want a Mexican vacation with swimmable beaches and a colonial city with a little history, Puerto Vallarta is just the place. Like Cabo, the weather is beautiful in the winter, there are lots of things to do, and wonderful hotels where you can sunbathe, relax and enjoy the Mexican cuisine. The difference is that Puerto Vallarta has a more historically authentic feel, while Cabo seems newer. It’s fun to wander the city center, where you can shop at public markets, visit the Cuale Archaeological Museum or light at candle at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. If you are an ocean swimmer, then Puerto Vallarta is much better than Cabo, since it has many more beaches suited for swimmers.

Punta Mita: Four Seasons BeachIPunta Mita: Four Seasons Suite

I stayed at the Four Seasons, Punta Mita, about 15 minutes north of the city. The Four Seasons was the first to build a hotel in the area and they built on the best beach–lovely and very private. I love the hotel so much that I just camped out there and ate every meal in their restaurants, which are fabulous.

Punta Mita: Imanta Common AreaAnother hotel option is the Imanta resorts. The Imanta is located on a hilltop overlooking the beach, in the middle of the jungle, with a very exclusive, remote feel, like you’re on a private island. Because of the location and the hills, you need to be in somewhat of a decent physical shape to really enjoy the resort. While the Four Seasons can be either a romantic or a family resort, the Imanta is more of a hotel for adults and can be a super sexy place for a honeymoon or anniversary. The Imanta also has “guest experience managers and adventure specialists” that can put together special itineraries like fishing trips, snorkeling and diving and, if you’re really adventurous, even a nighttime jungle walk.

Santa Fe

If you love the desert, but don’t want to endure the heat of the summer, Santa Fe is an excellent choice for a winter vacation. I love Santa Fe because of its bright blue skies that contrast with the beautiful desert colors. While the skies are blue year-round, the desert colors change with the seasons, with the winter offering the most dramatic colors. There are also some natural springs and spas nearby that can make fun day trips (Check out Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa or Ten Thousand Waves) . Good food, great art and museums and gorgeous hiking are all reasons to visit Santa Fe.

Canyon Road Arts: Santa Fe, NM

Four Seasons - Encantado Resort: Santa Fe, NMI stayed in the Four Seasons Encantado, which is a 15-minute drive outside of town. Its remote location is great because at night it is pitch black outside and you can really see the magnificent stars. The food is quite good and the hotel is surrounded by hiking trails, but my favorite feature of the hotel is the availability of a Mercedes for your use at no extra charge. Even though we had a rental car, we took advantage of this perk and took the Mercedes convertible for a lovely drive to Los Alamos. The hotel also has a car service that will take you to town and back, which is nice if you want to enjoy dinner and drinks downtown without having to worry about driving.

Inn of the Five Graces: Santa Fe, NMAnother hotel option is the Inn of the Five Graces (Relais & Chateaux). While the Four Seasons is a great place to stay, where you know exactly what to expect, this hotel is artistically exciting, with beautiful tile work, carved woods and textiles from Morocco, India, Tibet and other exotic locales. It sits on the Old Santa Fe Trail – in fact, the oldest inhabited block in the U.S.-  in heart the of Santa Fe, just a five-minute walk to downtown and right around the corner from one of the most popular streets studded with art studios. Every room is completely different, which is a great reason to use a travel advisor if you want to stay there . In a nutshell, if you love luxurious and comfortable consistency, stay at the Four Seasons. If you like to be surprised and stimulated by your environment and you love color, the Five Graces is the hotel for you.

Wine Country

Winter is a fantastic time to visit the wine country of northern California. Since the high seasons are summer and fall, winter is a quieter time to visit, with relatively bargain hotel rates, less crowds and more private attention at the wineries and restaurants. Also, most of the hotels have a two-night minimum during the busy season, so if you just want to pop up for a quick night away, winter offers that advantage. If you go in the late winter you can see the beautiful mustard flowers that carpet the fields of the area.

Calistoga Ranch: Calistoga, CAAlthough there are many, many lovely places to stay, my most recent experiences have been at the Calistoga Ranch and the Meadowood Resort. Both are amazing properties with first class service. My favorite is the Calistoga Ranch because of its Zen feeling and the privacy of the resort. We had our own 1200 square foot house, a porch with fireplace, and bedroom kitchenette. The hotel has a lovely Japanese-style spa and a big pool overlooking the valley.

Meadowood: Napa, CAA lot of my clients love Meadowood for its New England style feel and 18-hole Golf Course. Couple that with impecable service, attention to details, and an excellent kitchen – what more could you want for your restful week-end getaway? All of their rooms recently went through an extensive renovation, so they feel super fresh and modern, yet stay with the properties roots. They are currently undergoing a major renovation project over the next couple of years and building a new 10,000 square foot spa and expanding the dining venues. The pluses of Meadowood are its distinct New England architecture, their own croquet lawn, tennis courts and golf course, and their Michelin Three-Star restaurant.

That’s all for now! These locations are all places I love and I could write pages and pages about each one of them. If you’re thinking of a trip to any of them, I’d love to help you plan the perfect inclusive experience—from hotel, to restaurants, to activities.

This new hotel being launched by Francis Ford Coppola in the lesser-traveled region of southern Italy comes across romantic, eclectic (mix of modern design, craftsmanship and non-Italian elements), and intimate – all attributes I love in a hotel:

Palazzo Margherita (not yet opened, but worth bookmarking)

These articles provide you with a nice sense of what to expect:

The following NBC Today Show interview of Matthew Upchurch (Virtuoso CEO) reinforces why many people find it useful to have a trusted travel advisor and it is certainly in sync with feedback I receive from clients:

http://www.youtube.com/user/VirtuosoTraveler?feature=mhee

P1020083As a Swiss Specialist, Switzerland is one of my all-time favorite destinations. There are so many things to love–the gorgeous views, fabulous hiking (or skiing), variety of great food, excellent infrastructure, and the wonderful fresh air. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate and fondue. But on my most recent trip with my husband, we had two other legendary reasons to visit Switzerland—luxury watches and spas.

My husband has long been interested in luxury watches and I love a great spa. We decided to combine the two interests into one fabulous trip, featuring some of the finest hotels in Switzerland. We spent 16 days in this wonderfully diverse country – there are not many places where you can taste the foods, see the architecture, and hear the language of four cultures (French, German, Italian and Romanasch), all wrapped in the world renowned Swiss hospitality. This is one of the reasons why I love what I do and enjoy using my experiences to help people plan the perfect vacation.

Basel

Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois: View over the RhineFirst stop—Basel. We wanted to begin and end with watches and Basel was the perfect place to start. With over two centuries of watch-making history. Girard-Perregaux was a fascinating place to visit. We took a private tour in which we were able to see every aspect of luxury watch making—from concept to design to manufacture to marketing, and also learning about the old-world apprenticeships. I loved seeing the workrooms with the original work desks from the 1800’s and the floor-to-ceiling windows to let in the light required for such intricate workmanship. This unique tour was followed by a private luncheon with key executives in a nearby mansion – talk about stepping back in time! This was truly an eye-opening educational experience and a MUST SEE for luxury watch aficionados.

Girard Perregeux: StudioBasel is located in the northwest of Switzerland, bordering France and Germany. Among so many great European cities, Basel is overlooked, but is worth visiting for a couple of days for the history, art (Art Basel is a destination in itself), the charming village and, of course, the watches. A perfect way to do this is either start or stop (my preferred direction) your Rhine River cruise in Basel – and maybe you too can say you swam the Rhine in Basel.

Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois: View from BalconyWe stayed at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, a spectacular historical building on the Rhine River with discrete and excellent service. The hotel is family-owned with many collector pieces throughout the property. Every room is different and selecting the right one is unique to each person. Although you expect all 5-star hotels to have the same level of service, I know from experience that they can disappoint. This hotel is truly a 5-star resort, with one of the highest levels of services I have ever experienced.

Gstaad

Gstaad: Hiking above GstaadWe drove in our rental car from Basel to Gstaad to leisurely enjoy the sights along the route. (It should be noted that one could easily take trains to all of these destinations, but we drove part of the way and took trains for the rest of the trip for a little variety.) Gstaad is a village up in the mountains with a very exclusive, luxury feel. To give you some idea of the clientele, Gstaad is where the UK Royalty goes skiing. Part of the town is pedestrian only, which lends to its old world charm.

The scenery is incredible and so is the skiing and hiking. There are cable cars and gondolas stringing little villages together, so you can choose to hike part of the way and ride part of the way along most of the trails. The trail system is very extensive and there are little restaurants dotted along the trails, which make for lovely resting spots.

Gstaad: Classic ViewWe stayed at the Grand Hotel Bellevue, a lovely late 19th century house that is different from the other chalet style hotels in the area. Each room is unique with modern Italian furniture, modern art pieces and Bose TV and stereo systems. When we drove up and were welcomed by name, I knew we where in for a treat.

They have put a lot of money into their gorgeous spa, which features multiple treatment rooms for facials, massages and hydrotherapy treatments, as well as an aromatic sauna, Himalayan salt room, ice grotto and Turkish bath. I LOVED the Sauna and Steam room solarium, which were not only relaxing, but also stunningly beautiful. Be aware that there are co-ed nude areas throughout, but those who prefer privacy can drape themselves in a towel.

Glacier 3000 is the tallest viewpoint in the area at 3,000 meters above sea level. We took a hair-raising gondola trip to the top to have lunch, where we felt like we were truly on top of the world. This is a perfect stop on your drive to Lausanne.

Lausanne

We drove a leisurely hour and a half to Lausanne, where we dropped off our car and traveled by train for the remainder of our journey. Lausanne, although a city, is very charming and sits right on the shore of Lake Geneva. The International Olympic Committee is located in Lausanne and the Olympic Museum there is one of many museums and other sites to visit. The city is close enough for day trips to many other little villages and attractions, like the Swiss Chocolate Train, the town of Gruyere, renowned for its eponymous cheese, and Montreux, famous for its annual Jazz Festival.

Beau Rivage Lausanne: View from Room

We stayed the Beau Rivage Palace , an incredible Belle Époque style hotel which sits on the shores of Lake Geneva and boasts drop-dead gorgeous views of the lake and the Alps. The rooms are a good size, with flat-screen TVs and sound in the bathrooms. Some rooms have balconies and whirlpool baths, so if those are your preferences, be sure to ask. There are a number of good restaurant choices at the hotel, including one featuring a famous female three-star Michelin chef.

The spa is fairly new with an Asian flair and a nice mix of spa treatments. There are both indoor and outdoor pools and an inside whirlpool spa. The steam and saunas are separated by gender, which is a nice feature for those craving a little more American style privacy than is found in most European spas.

Zermatt

Next we traveled to Zermatt by train, which is how most visitors arrive since it is a car-free zone. Zermatt is known for its skiing, hiking and its fantastic view of the Matterhorn. It is one of the best ski resorts in Switzerland, with runs for everyone from very beginners to experts. Located at the very southern part of Switzerland, visitors can easily go to Italy for the day for skiing or lunch. Gondolas connect the two countries, as do trails where you can go hut-to-hut hiking. The Glacier Express, which is on many people’s bucket list, originates in Zermatt and travels through gorgeous scenery to Davos or St. Moritz. We took this train on our way to Flims – what a beautiful way to arrive!

Cervin Palace Zermatt: View from RoomIn Zermatt we chose to stay at the Mont Cervin Palace, which consists of several connecting properties: a main hotel, a villa and a chalet. The accommodations range from 3.5 to 5 stars, and all have different clientele. They are family run and very family friendly with an onsite petting zoo. There are several restaurants and you can pay one fee and dine at any of the establishments, although that’s probably only a good deal if you go to the high-end eateries every night.

All of the properties have access to the spa. There are two heated outdoor pools and a children’s pool with a water slide. The two large outdoor whirlpools have magnificent views of the mountains and lots of cool water features that massage you with bursts of water. There is a Finnish sauna with different aromatic essences daily; a bio sauna with colored light therapy and steam and footbaths. The Beauty Spa offers a range of facial, body and hand and foot treatments featuring their own excellent line of spa products.

Flims 

Our stay at the Waldhaus Flims Mountain Resort and Spa was similar to our experience in Zermatt in that the resort consisted of multiple properties and it was also very family-oriented, including a very popular petting zoo and family Bernese Dog (how Swiss is that?)! They have a similar pre-paid meal plan option and several restaurant choices. The rooms are really varied. The Grand Hotel rooms were updated in 2008 and feel fairly fresh, but the rest of the resort needs some renovations to meet a 5-star standard. The owners acknowledge this and plan on making some major investments in the property in the next few years, so we will have to check back and see how it all turns out.

Flims Waldhaus: Indoor PoolThat said, the location is stunningly beautiful—located near the largest park in Switzerland. Close by is an area dubbed Switzerland’s “Grand Canyon,” surrounded by dramatic mountains and alpine lakes. It’s a great year-round vacation spot, notable for skiing and hiking. It’s an easy trip to Zurich, with a bus to the Chur train station and then a train that can take you straight to the Zurich airport.

Flims Waldhaus: Zen Spa ZoneI really liked the mix of spaces of the spa. They have an indoor pool, and outdoor thermal hydrotherapy pool, a Zen pool with Koi pond, and a variety of saunas and steam rooms. They also have a variety of treatments and private spa/treatment rooms that can accommodate up to six people. They have separate women’s as well as co-ed areas.

Zurich

Dolder Grand Zurich: ExteriorWe saved the best for last. On a divine vacation full of wonderful resorts, The Dolder Grand was my absolute favorite hotel. The whole resort had a WOW factor that took my breath away. It’s a great combination of new (with a $500 million renovation in 2008) and historic 1800’s Belle Époque architecture. The interiors felt like they were museum quality, with lots of fun, whimsical artwork. Like modern rooms? Have that option. Like traditional rooms? Have that option too!

Dolder Grand Zurich: Entry StaircaseThe hotel sits on a hill in an upscale neighborhood (think of Atherton in Switzerland) with a commanding view of Zurich. There were a variety of excellent dining options, including eating a light dinner on the verandah—a great spot for people and car watching. Public transportation is easy and there is a complimentary shuttle service into town. Even though it is not in central Zurich, I really appreciated the birds-eye-view over Zurich/Alps, the quiet setting, and how quick it was to get to the airport. We even had a fun dinner with the locals at a farm-like restaurant right up the road.

Dolder Grand: View from TerraceLike the resort, the spa was perfection. It is very large (over 40,000 square feet!) and offered an extensive treatment menu of services that I had never seen before. They had tubs full of warm stones that massaged your body, where you could then go into the sauna/steam room/polar room and then back again. The only downside was that the outdoor whirlpool felt small, considering the size of the hotel, but the large indoor pool and view of Zurich made up for it.

We began and ended our trip with watch making and in Zurich we toured the IWC International Schaffhauson. Like our previous tour, this was fascinating to see the end-to-end process of the art of watch making. This tour had a more modern feeling and was a nice contrast to the tour in Basel.

Our sixteen days flew by and, as usual, I could write pages and pages about every little thing that we enjoyed from hiking to eating at great restaurants to the amazing spa treatments. This was my eighth trip to Switzerland and I feel like I know the country intimately. If you are interested in planning a trip to Switzerland I would love to help you plan all the details for the perfect vacation for you.

Lisbon

Lisbon

Prior to leaving for my 7-day trip with fellow Virtuoso Travel Advisors, I wondered why more people do not travel to Portugal. Unfortunately, I did not come back with the answer. What I did come back with was continued awe that this country is not swarming with tourists. There are so many intriguing reasons to visit, so here is my attempt to put them into a couple of simple themes:

Excellent Value: Euro-for-Euro, you get more hotel, quality food and unique experiences compared to most places in Western Europe. In time, this will change, so I would recommend visiting sooner-than-later.

Historical Relevance: Portugal was one of the wealthiest kingdoms for centuries. Being the cross-roads for many cultures during this era has left the country with a variety of architecture, religious influences, and sense of history. Which brings me to the next point.

Gorgeous Architecture: One of the key results this history has stamped on Portugal is reflected in its architecture. The element seen most prolifically throughout the country is the influence of Moorish architecture in the form of tiles … everywhere.

Sintra: Pena Palace

Sintra: Pena Palace

Exotic Feeling: Portugal somehow feels less familiar and more off-the-beaten-track. From its language (Portuguese) to its music (Fado), to its storytelling (they love their fables and folklore), each of these traits make it unique.

Bucolic Countryside: There is an exciting variety of beautiful terrain to enjoy –  Mountains, Seaside, Farms, Fields of Oak / Vineyards, Valleys, and Rivers. I never got tired of what surrounded us in our travels up and down Portugal. This coming from someone who lives in Northern California (confession: Portugal reminded me a lot of home; particularly flying into Lisbon which could easily be San Francisco, or traveling through the Douro Valley which is reminiscent of Sonoma or Napa Valley).

Locally Produced Food, Wine & Port: Being someone who greatly appreciates regional foods, there was a wonderful variety of locally-sourced culinary delights such as seafood, river fish, pork (the Black Pig was particularly decadent), soups (hot and cold), cheese, fruits, vegetables, pastries (my favorite: Pastel de Nata), wine and port  (Douro Valley was particularly scenic).  Like the architecture, cuisine has been heavily influenced by the different cultures which have passed through and lived in Portugal.

Douro Valley: Hotel Aquapura

Douro Valley

Easy to Get Around: People are friendly and for the most part, speak English. Public Transit is very good within the cities and between the larger cities. Would otherwise recommend renting a car (with GPS) and be prepared for getting a bit lost on their excellent roads (the traffic was very manageable outside of the cities).

Embrace Health & Well Being: There are excellent health and well being facilities throughout Portugal. Simple spa treatments (facials, massages) to medical treatments (weight loss, liposuction) can be found in charming family-owned Pousadas to luxury hotels such as the Lisbon Four Seasons Hotel Ritz.

Off the Beaten Track: Portugal is not as touristic as Italy and France, but it has many of the same experiences to offer.

The Unexpected: Highlights, in addition to those mentioned above, would be wonderful Graffiti Art in Lisbon, Cooking School in Alentejo, Yurts in Brejeira (Algarve), and a scattering of  World Heritage Sites (13 at last count).

Here is a collage of sites we visited during our 7-day visit:

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