Friday, November 26, 2010

Leave the City Behind at the Indian Lakes Resort

I spend a lot of time at city hotels, mostly in New York and Chicago, and they certainly have their appeal, but there are times when it’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle and relax at a resort.  It’s not often you can find a place like that near a major city, but the Hilton Indian Lakes Resort fits that category quite nicely.

The Hilton Chicago/Indian Lakes Resort is centered about a half hour from both downtown Chicago and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in the suburban town of Bloomingdale.  It is a full service resort on 260 acres, offering a complete vacation even if you don’t want to go into the city.  I stayed there recently with my friend Theresa Carter (aka, The Local Tourist) and we proved that point.

You can’t have a resort without a spa and the Spa Vargas fits the bill, with massages, body treatments, facials, manicures and pedicures  available.  They offer in-room services and specialize in spa parties.   I went the private route, opting for a Swedish Massage in the very relaxing facilities.  Though I felt it was a bit more of an acupressure massage than the Swedish, the spa is relaxing and convenient and I look forward to checking out their other services.  (The hotel offers a number of packages that include treatments.)

For those looking for more activity, the Hilton Indian Lakes has its own 27 hole golf course, as well as miniature golf, indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center, miniature golf. tennis, volleyball and a game room.  Though we didn’t have time to try it all, I did meet families, couples and others on girls’ getaways who said they never got bored.   It’s also a popular convention site since the meeting facilities appear to be as big as the recreational ones.

The rooms at the Hilton Indian Lakes Resort near Chicago are pretty typical for Hilton, but the hotel also offers 24 suites, including Hospitality Suites with connecting bedrooms and large living areas (like we had) and Penthouse Suites which include two bathrooms, a fireplace, a Jacuzzi and a private deck.  All rooms have large, flat panel televisions and free high speed internet.

We tried both dining options at Hilton Indian Lakes Resort, the Master’s Clubhouse for a satisfying breakfast (they are also opened the rest of the day for sandwiches and snacks) and
Shiraz on the Water
for dinner.  This contemporary restaurant is full of ambiance (a definite consideration for a romantic dinner).  They have a large wine selection to compliment a mix of entrees that includes many seafood and steak favorites.   Definitely try the Short Rib Wontons (there’s also a Braised Short Rib entrée if you prefer) and Three Onion Soup.  Leave room for desserts as the selection includes Crème Brulee, Death by Chocolate and Gelato.

For a limited time, get 80% off Gift Cards that you can use at Shiraz on the Water! Use code SAVE at checkout now through 11/28/10.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tequila Time

I’m less than three weeks from my trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, so I figure it’s time to get tequila on the mind.   Tequila is that great mix between strong, spicy and sweet that you aren’t sure if you want to linger over, or down quickly, so I figure I need some practice before I land in Mexico.  It was easy to do thanks to some samples that I happen to have from Casa Noble and Corralejo.  

So what did I think of these tasty treats?  Check out the notes and stay tuned until the end – where we have a winner…

Casa Noble
is a premium tequila that is made with carefully selected and slow cooked Blue Agave. The tequilas are organic certified, coming from 100% natural ingredients.

Casa Nobles Tequila Anejo
A complex spirit with more spice than some, perhaps because it is aged in French White Oak for two years.

Casa Nobles Tequila Blanco
This is  tequila that’s fairly light and smooth, making it perfect for drinking, not just downing shots.

Corralejo Tequila dates back to 18th century Mexico as one of the first producers of the spirit.  It is a handcrafted tequila.

Corralejo Tequila Reposado
This was a bit sweeter than the Casa Nobles.  It got mixed reviews.  I happened to like it.

Corralejo Tequila Blanco
This is good stuff, but it’s not going to go down easy.  You will find the burn on this strong, but tasty tequila.

Corralejo Tequila Anejo
If you are looking for a tequila that is forward and easily distinguishable, this is yours.  It’s very strong and you will want to either mix it in a tall drink, or down it quickly!

And the winner is…
Casa Nobles Tequila Blanco
The overwhelming favorite among my tasters – and myself, but I'm sure it will have a lot more competition when I get to Mazatlan!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Leaving Punta Cana

During the last few days of the trip, there was a dark cloud looming over us.  It wasn’t the one bringing us intermittent drops of rain, it was the one that could bring Haiti a massive hurricane.  We tried to go through the last day and think about it as little as possible, but Jaimee was unsure where she would be going when our trip was over.   She was finally able to reach a friend on our final night and found that the damage was nowhere near what had been anticipated.  So, with the help of the wonderful staff (including General Manager Francisco “Paco” Castillo) of both Paradisus resorts, she had arrangements made for a ride to the bus station and a schedule to take two buses back to Les Cayes, Haiti.

Jaimee left Punta Cana at 6:00 am and I lingered a bit for my final day.  The internet was out at Paradisus Palma Real and I kind of enjoyed the chance to play hooky for a few hours.  I had a leisurely breakfast in Gabi Club, walked the grounds and even spent a half hour lying on the lounge chair in my “backyard.”  I got to the airport just before known and got to see it in daylight for the first time.  It was new and fairly modern, with plenty of shops and restaurants.  There are a few things missing, though, that you should keep in mind when heading through Punta Cana Airport.

There is no air conditioning at the airport and I was glad to have kept just a thin skirt and tank top on, with my pants and cardigan packed in my carry-on.  There are also no real “gates” and passengers are basically called to the tarmac when their plane is about ready to go. For us, it meant waiting outside between planes as other passengers came and went off theirs.  Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of security and it was organized, but be prepared to be standing in the hot sun and then walking the stairs to your plane.

My flight on American Airlines was great, as I got upgraded on a 757 international plane with flat bed seats and individual entertainment consoles.  The four hours to New York (where I was making a stop for a few days) went without a hitch and I was already thinking about when my next Punta Cana trip would be.  I’ve been asked a lot about my favorites from the trip, so I decided to compile a list:

Beach-Paradisus Punta Cana, plenty of room for everyone, but not too big.
Drink-Passion Fruit Bellini.  Great for a hot day because the Passion Fruit puree is frozen.
Restaurant-Vento at both Paradisus Punta Cana and Paradisus Palm Real, even though they were different in their menus and style.
Meal-My last supper, at Gabi Club in The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real.
Spa Treatment-The Orchid Journey at YHI, Paradisus Punta Cana.
Spa-YHI at The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real, for the relaxing Hydrotherapy/Jacuzzi/Snack area (above) that I could spend a day in.
Activity-(tie) Segway along the beach and Yoga at the beach, both at Paradisus Punta Cana.
Pool-The Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real, with a swim-up entrance from my suite.
Biggest Surprise-A mask carved out of chocolate waiting for us on our final night.

In the coming days, look for a guest blog from Jaimee about the trip, as well as additional photos.  In case you missed any of my Punta Cana stories, they are below in order, from beginning to end.  Hasta Luego, Dominican Republic

Starting Paradisus Paradise in Punta Cana

Sushi and Beds in Paradisus Punta Cana

Spa, Adventure and Suite Surprise at Paradisus

Playful Day at Paradisus Palma Real

Punta Cana Horseback Riding, Freshwater Lagoons & Paradisus Treats

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Punta Cana Horseback Riding, Freshwater Lagoons & Paradisus Treats

It was my last full day in Punta Cana and there wasn’t an activity-less moment to spare as I savored every last drop of what the Dominican Republic could offer.

The weather here hasn’t exactly been ideal for sunbathing, but that hasn’t been on the schedule, so the on and off drizzle, low humidity and not that hot (high 70s, low 80s) temperatures have been welcome.  I waited out a bit of morning rain with a room service breakfast (the cheese plate was almost as good as what I had in France) and then Jaimee and I headed out on our Eco Tour at 8:30.  It was the first thing we had done in a group and it was interesting to see the vacationers from all over the world that come to this island.

The day began with horseback riding.  I used to ride regularly as a teenager, but I haven’t been a teen in a very long time.  It took a bit of time for me to get comfortable with the horse and I still wasn’t too happy when he took off on me through the tropical forest, but when I got to trot slowly along the beautiful Punta Cana beach, I was so glad I came (photos to come since I decided to bring a disposable camera on the excursion).  Jaimee and I rode for a total of about an hour with our two guides and a Canadian couple also experiencing it for the first time.

Back on the ranch, we had a snack before joining a family of five on the trip to Reserva Ecologica, a complex of 12 freshwater lagoons.  The trek through the jungle (ok, the deadliest creatures were termites and turtles) took us passed some small lagoons until we got to Azulfa’s favorite one.  I can’t say it was mine, as the flight of stairs into the lagoon was quite slippery, but I enjoyed standing back with a few other unwilling participants while I watched a few swimmers and a lot of fish in the water.  From there we took a quick trip to the very beautiful Playa Blanca (White Beach) for a short rest stop with some tropical drinks before we were heading back to Paradisus Palma Real.

Jaimee and I had a delicious lunch at Gabi Club. She enjoyed a fruity salad and onion soup au gratin and I chose a roasted vegetable dish that was like vegetarian lasagna without the noodles.  I then headed to the mall to pick up some souvenirs for an article I’m working on while Jaimee checked on the hurricane damage back in her Haitian home of Les Cayes, which wasn’t nearly as bad as we had feared.

Our final afternoon was spent at the YHI Spa at the Paradisus Palma Real's Reserve section where we were staying.  While there are YHI spas at all Paradisus resorts, the spa manager explained how they are all totally different in their design even though they share the same treatments (in addition to a few signature treatments at each one).  This particular spa was perhaps the nicest I’d ever seen, with relaxing Zen gardens and ponds. 

Beyond the treatment rooms there was also a large area to relax in with chairs, canopy beds, a hydrotherapy pool, a bare foot bath, Jacuzzis, tea, juices, snacks and more. There was also a sauna and a steam room in the locker area, making it a place you could linger all day before or after treatment.  I had a stress-relieving Lotus, Gold & Rice Massage, while Jaimee enjoyed the Bijao Massage. It was pouring rain when we got out, but we dried off quickly and got dressed for the evening’s festivities.

Isaias Henriquez met us by the bar at the Gabi Lounge to first tell us a bit about the history of the Tango, which originated in Argentina.  This is one of the Life Enriching Experiences Paradisus offers complimentary to their guests. We watched a demonstration by the very talented Maria Cecilia and Francisco de Luna and then it was time to get into action.  They broke the dance up for me into five movements, having me perform each one with and without music.  It was lots of fun and, though my brow was full of sweat, I had a blast.  Jaimee also got up for a few dances and we re-energized with Champagne between movements.

I switched from the straight stuff to the slurpee-like Passion Fruit Bellini pre-dinner and was cooled off quickly.  It was a shrimp and cantaloupe cocktail for Jaimee while I had the Cucumber Salad with Mango Sautéed Duck in soy, honey ginger sauce for an appetizer. It was followed by a perfect T-Bone of Lamb with Rosemary Sautéed Peaches in a Cold Mint Sauce.  I decided it was fitting to have Flan for the final dessert and then we went over to the Palma Real to listen to some music and play a few (very few) slots.

When we arrived back at our suite, we had the last of our “presents” waiting.  Each night, we had received a different souvenir and this time it was something really special – a mask made of chocolate. Unfortunately, we were too full to eat it, but Jaimee reminded me that we still had the morning.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Playful Day at Paradisus Palma Real

It was another sunny day in Punta Cana paradise, and we took full advantage of it.

The breakfast buffet at The Reserve was just perfect – where else can you get an omelet, a chocolate croissant and Plantanos in the same place?!  It was then onto my tour with Oliver and then meetings, where I learned about the resort and it’s eco-friendly efforts, which includes working with the community and other hotels to educate the locals. I had a great exploration of the grounds, dozen restaurants and enough bars to keep the pina coladas flowing.  I got to check it all out (including the bar) in my afternoon with my friend Jaimee.

First up was the grill by the pool, where I had a great cheeseburger and Jaimee enjoyed the spicy chicken wrap.  I spoke with some other visitors to Paradisus Palma Real, a number of whom had been here many times.  It was easy to see why.  This place seems to have everything and it is the only Leading Hotels of the World recognized resort in the Dominican Republic. I enjoyed a few minutes in the lounge in the pool before swimming to and from my room to get ready for our beach trip.

The beach is over at the main hotel and it is as beautiful as the one at the Paradisus Punta Cana.  We were originally scheduled for wind surfing, but it was changed to a sail on the catamaran.  It was a great ride with our guide, who insisted I take the reins for awhile.  Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t cooperating and neither he nor I could get the boat back as when we wanted.  There are worse things than getting stuck in the aqua water on a beautiful day, so we just enjoyed it until the wind improved.

After the sail it was time for a cocktail and a little more mingling at the pool before getting ready for my tennis lesson.  Wrist pain kept me from playing for years and I haven’t had much time to do so since my 2007 surgery to fix the problem.  The good news is playing tennis is like riding a bike and after a few minutes it all seemed to come back to me.  The bad news is that – since I could keep up the rally -- Raimundo, my instructor, took advantage to run me around through forehand, backhand, volleys for an hour! It seems the stamina doesn't come back (especially in Caribbean humidity) as fast as the recollection of how to hit.  I’m not complaining, though, because there was a lot more food to work off.

Jaimee was enjoying our backyard Jacuzzi when I came back to the room and just had enough time to shower and get dressed up for dinner.  We had chosen Vento, an Italian restaurant with a different menu than the one by the same name at the other resort.  The dinner was absolutely delicious.  I had the Tomato Consommé and then the Trilogy pasta – small portions of Spaghetti Bolognese, Fettuccini Alfredo and Farfalle Pesto.  We couldn’t decide on dessert, so the waiter brought us all three choices and we nibbled a bit with our cocktails before Jaimee settled on the Peach Compote with Vanilla Ice Cream and I favored the Brownie with Cream Cheese topping.

After dinner we listened to the live music for awhile and enjoyed the beautiful night lighting at Palma Real.  From the main lobby you can see all the way through to the pool and then the ocean, a sight that is even more spectacular at night.

Our final stop for the night was the casino, where I managed to play the slots for an hour and walk away $2 poorer.  Jaimee actually won her bus fare back to Haiti, however, looming in the back of both our minds is the fact that a hurricane is about to hit there.  There’s not much either of us can do about that so we went to catch some shuteye in our rose petaled beds and so we could be ready to enjoy our final full day in Punta Cana.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Spa, Adventure and Suite Surprise at Paradisus

Every day in Punta Cana seems to bring more fun and more pampering.  Wednesday was not an exception.

After a great breakfast in the Royal Service Restaurant, I headed over to the YHI Spa at Paradisus Punta Cana.  Before you even get inside this spa, you enter a state of relaxation with the soft music through the long path filled with flowers and trees.  Spa Manager Mayra Ramirez was waiting for me and showed me around the spa, which includes a pool, Jacuzzi, steam bath and sauna, in addition to private treatment rooms inside and outside in cabanas by the pool.

It wasn’t long before I was laying on a massage table, with flowers all around me as Tao started on my Hibiscus Journey, the spa’s signature treatment.  It was an hour and a half of bliss as I was exfoliated with the hibiscus scrub and then, after a hot shower, massage from head to toe with warm oil!  It was followed up with a Jacuzzi and a sauna, while Jaimee was treated to a treatment of her hands and feet (she had been relaxing in the facilities while I was in having my "journey").

Mayra joined us for lunch at Vita, where we had a beautiful, private table, a glass of Castillo Logar wine (a semi-dry white, which was very good) and sampled the restaurant's Banana Blue Cheese Pizza.  Before I left for Paradisus Punta Cana, I actually got an email from someone telling me that I needed to try the pizza and it was as delicious as they said it would be.  I also had a perfect Gnocchi and finished up with some tea because I needed a bit of caffeine to stay awake for my afternoon adventure.

Dorvil from Segway Eco Tour met me by the beach for my Segway lesson.  I had never been on a Segway before and, honestly, never really thought about it, but I took to it immediately.  It’s all about balance and I learned that my yoga paid off as I spent the next 45 minutes riding along the beach and the grounds.  It was so much fun as I dodged people, cars and mopeds, watching the blue water of the ocean go by.  I wished I had time to take their full Segway beach tour, something I will have to put on my schedule for the next trip.

It was time to pack up after the Segway because a car was waiting to take us to our next hotel, Paradisus Palma Real.  I was told this hotel was very different, a bit more luxurious and a bit less tropical.  That was definitely  true, but there was a surprise waiting – our room at The Reserve.  We got one of the best, the one bedroom swim-up suite.  In addition to the separate bedroom, two bathroom areas, living room, dining room and kitchenette, we have indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, a beautiful deck with seating and our own “bed” to relax or sunbath we had…. our own entrance to the swimming pool from our yard!

It wasn’t long before I was in my bathing suit, out the backyard and doing some laps around the pool.  From our room, we can actually swim to the bar, the restaurants, or just relax in one of the in water lounge chairs!  Jaimee joined me and we swam back for some champagne time in the Jacuzzi before dressing for dinner.

Aqua was probably my favorite restaurant yet.  The modern décor created a relaxing ambiance as we enjoyed more champagne and a wonderful dinner.  Everything was great, even the cheesecake that followed.  We had a nightcap at the Gabi Club (there is a Gabi club at every Paradisus, named after the owner’s daughter) and made it to sleep before midnight for another busy day ahead.  After my morning meetings, it’s pool time, windsurfing and then afternoon tennis!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sushi and Beds in Paradisus Punta Cana

My first full day in the Dominican Republic was a full one as I got to know Paradisus Punta Cana from the inside out.

Guest Service Manager Maria Luisa took me on an extensive tour of the grounds.  This is probably the biggest Caribbean resort I’ve ever been to and there appears to be something for everyone.  I was really impressed with the kids’ pool and club, where you can bring babies as young as four months if you want to get in some private time in the swim-up bar.  We also went through the main lobby and The Reserve section, which is a hotel in itself.

Paradisus Punta Cana has 14 restaurants, offering every food imaginable.  Something I’ve never seen before and thought was a great idea is the “Templo de la Gastronomia.”  To put it in simple terms – it’s a food court.  In the middle of a half dozen different restaurants, there’s a place to gather and eat.  So, if you and your spouse or BFF can’t agree on where to eat, you can each get what you want and still eat together.

Another thing we passed that you won’t find at a lot of resorts is the activity center.  In addition to the rock climbing wall, there’s bungee jumping and archery, as well as biking and hiking trails.  I won’t have time for those this trip, but there is definitely adventure on my schedule. 

After the tour I was thrilled to see that my friend Jaimee (after two days and about 14 hours on buses) made it from Haiti.  We had a great buffet lunch at Luna with Christelle Luchini, the Guest Experience Directrice.  Christelle is from France so it was a delightful conversation as I reminisced about my trip to Burgundy and Champagne (with a slice of Brie to keep me in the mood).  Christelle came with us for the next stop of the day – Sushi Making.

Paradisus offers all its guests “Life Enrichment” classes and Sushi Making was what we had chosen for our first experience.  Now, let me clarify that it was Jaimee making the Sushi since it does not go well with my seafood allergy, but it was fun for all as the Sushi Chef – Santiago Romero – spent an hour teaching us how to make Sushi with Seaweed Wraps, Salmon, Marlin, Crab, Carrots, Cucumber, Avocado, Wasabi, Pickled Ginger, Sesame Seeds, Cream Cheese and Roe (fish eggs). 

After making the typical California Roll, Santiago showed us some other interesting combinations, including “Tropical Sushi de Santiago” which, fittingly for the Dominican Republic, included Plantanos.  (Doesn’t everyone put fried bananas into Sushi?!)

We left Sokuro Restaurant and changed for the beach around 3.  Unfortunately, our snorkeling was cancelled because of the winds and waves created by Hurricane Tomas (even though he probably won’t come near here, he’s certainly making his presence known in the Atlantic).  Since we couldn’t workout another activity, we had to suffer through an hour on the beach beds by the aqua blue water, while a butler brought us pina coladas!  While my friends probably visualize that this is my job all the time, it’s something I haven’t really done in ages, so Jaimee and I really enjoyed the catch up time.

It was back to work at 5:30 for my private yoga lesson.  I happen to love yoga and practice it often, but I’ve never done it at the beach at sunset and I can’t even begin to describe how relaxing, exhilarating and peaceful it was.  The hour seemed to fly by before I was back in the room showering and getting dressed up for dinner.

Dinner was at Vento, the Italian restaurant, with the resort’s Managing Director, Francisco Castillo.  “Paco,” as he asked us to call him, was a fun-loving Spaniard who loves the resort and shared my passion for wine and food from around the world.  He had the waiter bring us a crisp Vina Maipo Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, which went wonderfully with my Pate and Cheese Stuffed Cannelloni.  It was so good that I didn’t want to give it up for red when my tender Ossobuco arrived.  During dinner, some dancers came in to give us a brief Tango show, a prelude to our upcoming Tango lessons.

We bid Paco farewell with a glass of Dominican rum --  an aged Ron Barcelo Imperial on his recommendation -- and caught the end of a disco show by some talented staffers.  We spent a bit of time at the main lounge and bar (which also have beds to relax in) and lost a few dollars (strangely, the slot machines will take dollars, but not pesos) in the Casino before retiring for the day.

The schedule for Wednesday is also full, though it’s mostly at the spa and beach, so you won’t see me complaining!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Starting Paradisus Paradise in Punta Cana

As you can see from the photo of the backyard of my room (yes, that is a queen size bed, in front of the beach with  the aqua blue water of the ocean), I’m not exactly roughing it in Punta Cana

The view is certainly heavenly and I’m looking forward to some time on that beach at the Paradisus Punta Cana (with my Royal Service butler bringing me a Pina Colada) sometime today.  There are a few minor glitches here, but I keep reminding myself that we are in the Caribbean and things happen a little slowly. 

Speaking of slowly, I am still patiently awaiting my friend Jaimee’s arrival from Haiti and hoping her delay is only due to the slow roads between the two countries.  It is hard to imagine this is the same island, where Spanish is the language instead of French, and champagne is poured instead of rationed water, but we all need our relaxing getaway and that’s what Punta Cana is all about.

My three flights all connected without a hitch and a driver was waiting for me right outside the airport to take me to my first hotel.  A lot has changed (mostly with me) since I was in the Dominican Republic years ago and I knew better than to hand my luggage to one of the porters to take it a few feet.  They were respectful of my “No, gracias” and I was soon on my way to the resort.

This was probably the first time I ever arrived in the Caribbean at night so I can’t say much about the scenic view.  I can say that Punta Cana appears to have developed nicely do to tourism and, though the resorts are still gated, locals and visitors seemed to mingle nicely in the bars and restaurants that line the streets.

I am staying in the Royal Service section, which has its own concierge, pool and beach.  Check in was quick and included a glass of champagne. My room is modern and lovely, within steps from the beach.  The bathroom and closet are a bit small, but the comfort, 24 hour room service and stocked mini bar (plenty of bottled water) were welcoming.   

Dinner was just a short while after I arrived at the Gabi Club, an exclusive restaurant for Royal Service, Reserve and Family Concierge Guests.  It is in a contemporary setting with a very large selection.  I had a tasty Artichoke/Mushroom soup; Beef Tenderloin in mushroom sauce with a small Potato Casserole in Ham; and cheesecake in kiwi sauce for dessert.  Everything was good, except the cheesecake tasted a bit more like custard than cheesecake.  I had a glass fruity and sweet Santa Helena Sauvignon Blanc and was about ready to pass out from the day in my suite.

I woke up early this morning and was greeted by clear skies, soft sand and the blue water.  After enjoying it with my room service breakfast, I’m ready to begin my first day in Punta Cana paradise.