Sunday, July 31, 2011

Welcome to Food, Wine & Festival Fun in Atlantic City

For the second year in a row, I was invited to the Food Network's Food and Wine Festival in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As much fun as I have in South Beach, this one is extra special to me. The Jersey Shore isn't a television show as far as I am concerned. It's a place where I enjoyed the boardwalk with my family as a kid, and came to enjoy the casinos and the beach as an adult.  And, when you add in friendly chefs, great food, wine from around the world and lots of spirits, it all spells a whole lot of fun.
I'm lucky enough to have my daughter Sam helping me out with photos and stories this year (and having fun). We arrived at the Chelsea Hotel, a modern boutique property at the end of the strip, in time for some of their "Bikinis and Martinis" party. The rooftop at Chelsea is a great place for a party and though the only ones in bikinis were the servers, there were plenty of interesting Martinis made with Cruzan Rum.

We went straight from the party at The Chelsea to Harrah's Resort, where we quickly checked into a spacious room in the Waterfront Tower and headed down to The Pool for the Kick Off party to the Food Network Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival. I hadn't been at The Pool since my trip here last year and I had almost forgotten what a great space it is. It's a huge solarium filled with jacuzzis and bars (upstairs and down) and, of course, a pool. It's a fun place for the day and a hot spot at night, but it was especially exciting for is party, with wonderful representation of the food, wine and spirits to come.

I enjoyed a some of Mumm's Rose Sparkling Wine, always a favorite, as well as Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which I was trying for the first time. Among the food we were able to sample were two delicious items from Food Network star finalists: Braised Lamb Shank Crostini from Chris Nirschel and Asian Meatball Sliders from Jeff Mauro. Sam love the Tuna with Sushi Rice from Harrah's McCormack and Schmidt.

The Kickoff Party was definitely a hit in my book and as I settled in for a few hours sleep I knew that this was going to be quite a festival!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dining Through Delray

I’ve spent a lot of time down in Florida visiting my mom and watching tennis at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, home to a major professional tennis event as well as numerous junior ones. The one thing I haven’t spent a lot of time doing is checking out the restaurants downtown Delray.  Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach is buzzing every night, with visitors and locals walking the streets and enjoying the eateries. The selection down there is varied enough to satisfy everyone’s dining desires, and I got to check out four that are among the best.

Mom and I headed down Atlantic Avenue for an evening of restaurant hopping. Parking was much easier than I remembered in the few times I had been downtown. Most of the restaurants have valet, and there’s free parking in the streets behind them. Our first stop was at the opening of the downtown area – Tryst.

When you first walk into Tryst, the immediate thought is that this is a nice pub, but as you look around at the European art and antique touches, you realize it is something more. You will find a large selection of beers (many local) and wine here. The menu is far from just pub fare either. Executive Chef Julian Greaves uses his imagination for dishes like Glazed Spare Ribs, perfectly tender and tasty as they are slowly baked into a sweet and sour creation; and an Australian Lamb Chop you will not soon forget, with a cherry and arugula salad and balsamic/red wine reduction.

Chef Greaves makes whatever he can on his own, from bacon to sausage to duck prosciutto (served with Grilled Asparagus and Pine Nuts in a truffled balsamic sauce… yum).  All of his ingredients are fresh, local and homemade whenever possible. This is similar to the philosophy of  Executive Chef Nick Morfogen, just next at 32 East. Chef Morfogen has worked in some of the finest restaurants in the country and was named a Top New Chef at the start by Food & Wine Magazine. He makes use of the seasonal ingredients abundant in Florida at this cozy restaurant, which offers an incredible selection of wine by the glass.

I had a glass of Casa Blanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Chile while the chef told me how he has his own fisherman to make sure his seafood is the freshest he can get. His prep in the kitchen is orchestrated to perfection and it shows in the finished product. We started with the Prosciutto Wrapped in Peaches and Figs Stuffed with Goat Cheese, a great compliment to the wine. Then, the Mushroom Brushetta came out.  It was described by the waiter as a “decompressed carbonara,” However you want to describe it, it is worth a trip downtown for this dish.  Full of meaty mushrooms, roasted garlic and parmesan cheese, the bread holds it nicely.

Chef Morfogen also brought out two of his popular main courses – Mesquite Filet Mignon with Homemade Bacon and Portobello with Fava Beans and Creamed Corn for me (tender and flavorful) and a Grouper with Tangerine Olive Oil that Mom really enjoyed.  We were starting to feel stuffed, but there was still a restaurant to go and we got in the car to go down a few blocks to Cut 432, the first steakhouse in downtown Delray Beach. Cut 432 was nothing like the previous places we visited. The inside was loud and fun, with crowds of people enjoying the unusual cocktail menu and a few scattered tables. Outside, where we sat, kept the white them, with comfy couches and tables full of people enjoying the food.

The food at Cut 432 is all based around steak – Nebraska beef, dry and wet aged for flavor and tenderness – and seafood. The collaboration of Chef Tony Pizzo and co-owners Brian Albe and Brandon Belluscio works well and shows in the food presentation. While the steak and seafood basis is a simple one, it is expanded just a bit to make it more interesting: instead of rolls or bread, we were served biscuits with honey and butter; the salad was not a green one, but a Watermelon & Feta Salad, with cherry tomatoes and cucumber, just what you want on a hot summer night; and the Steak is served with a trio of homemade sauces – the Cut 432, which is sweet and tangy; a Horseradish and Bernaise. We enjoyed the steak and creamed corn and the fantastic Blue Cheese Tater-Tots as much as we could fit in, finishing up with a Mascarpone Cheesecake with a blueberry compote.

Before I left Florida, I did go to one more restaurant in Delray Beach, Tramonti. Even though it was my birthday dinner and I wasn’t "working,” I have to give a shoutout to this place. The atmosphere is warm and inviting and everything was delicious. I shared an order of Pappardelle Campagnole, with wild mushrooms and cherry tomatoes in a garlic sauce, and one of Veal Sorrentino with a friend and both were just spectacular. For dessert, I had the Chocolate Soufflé, which was much more like a Molten Cake, but still decadent and delicious.

I will be back to Delray Beach often to visit Mom (and watch tennis), but I’m also going to make a point of trying out more that the downtown has to offer, as well as visit more of the Palm Beach County area.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Lastest in Champaign - Being Home Is My Vacation

I’ve often said that a vacation for me is time at home. While I still had to work, I did recently get two weeks back in Champaign. I had a chance to discover a great new place in the neighborhood and a major change for another.

When you go to your regular salon to get your haircut and find out that they’ve done a few renovations it’s not shocking, but when you find out they are building their own one stop beauty block, it’s a different story. That’s what I faced at Rod Sickler Salon & Spa in Champaign. The expansion has added chiropractic care, cosmetic dentistry, photography, personal training, a medical spa and a tattoo parlor!

“We’re getting all ages, from teenagers up to people in their 60s.” says Rod Sickler himself. “We call it now a ‘Center for Art, Beauty and Wellness.’ Where else can get a tattoo and have it lasered off in the same place?!”

In addition to the unusual set up he’s orchestrated, my reason for giving a shoutout to Rod is that he is very involved in charitable events. “I just think you can’t expect your business to grow without the support of the community unless you give it back.  We try to say ‘yes’ to every Philanthropy that comes in. Sometimes we can do more than others with shows and sometimes we do ‘cutathons.’ Even if it means giving 200 $10 gift cards out, I feel that I should give back.”

The new momentum of the Rod Sickler Salon is definitely not the only thing people in Champaign have been buzzing about while I was busy travelling. I kept hearing about the great food and fantastic time they had at Destihl. I was curious about it so I decided to check it out myself, bringing my friend Paul to take care of the two things I don’t do – drink beer and eat seafood.

Paul and I were greeted by Manny Martinez, the executive chef and on of the owners of Destihl. I had actually stopped by the previous day to meet Manny and get a feel for the Normal location, the only other Destihl property they currently have. Like that location, the one in downtown Champaign popped up without any fanfare, but word of mouth has led them to a packed bar, patio and restaurant every night.

The idea behind Destihl, which has been fulfilled to perfection, is to make a variety of high quality beer to go with an unusual menu that was closer to gourmet dining than pub fare. The Champaign Destihl has windows showcasing the brewery. Once inside, the bar area is large and has a blackboard highlighting the current beer selections. The dining areas are separated into various rooms, making it a comfortable place for intimate dinners or parties of all sizes.

While I was more than happy with the fruity White Sangria and then the Pomegranate Gin-Lit (there’s also an impressive wine list), Paul got to work sampling the 13 beers currently available. His favorites were: Black Angel Stout, which he called like an espresso, full bodied with chocolate overtones; Hawaii Five-Ale light with no hops after taste and soft tropical fruit; Lawnmower Ale, citrusy and light in body and alcohol; and Champaign Blonde, a mixture of light and dry, with a hint of hops, made in an Americanesque fashion. He also added that the Frankengluten Belgian Sorghum Ale, a gluten free beer, was funky and fizzy, and a bit tart. (Note: Destihl brews are also available to go if you can’t get enough in the restaurant. )

The idea to start a Destihl actually started with a home brewing kit that the wife of now CEO Matt Potts got him as a present. Potts, a lawyer, had been selling beer to Biaggi’s, an Italian restaurant Manny Martinez was the chef at. The duo became friends and brought in Laurie Nelson and Jason Brather to the partnership.

While the beers at Destihl are appealing, I was more interested in the food and each dish I had impressed us more than the last.  Some can’t miss appetizers that the restaurant is fast becoming famous for are the Beer Battered Asparagus, Thai Wings, Potato Croquettes and Marinated Stuffed Olives. For a meal, try the Flat Iron Steak Quesadilla with Blue Cheese, which you can eat with the steak on the side or inside, or the pizzas (Mediterranean, with roasted garlic, artichokes, olives, mozzarella, spinach and feta is wonderful). Paul loved the Spiced Seared Swordfish with carrots, mint, bok choy and grilled pineapple in a coconut curry sauce. The Gaucho Skirt Steak on rice and beans is excellent, but the best Tex-Mex you are going to ever find is their Stuffed Poblano Pepper.

Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat another bite, Martinez brought out the most scrumptious desserts.  His own take of S’Mores – baked marshmallows, melted dark chocolate, homemade cinnamon cookies and cinnamon cream – was delectable, and the Sour Cherry Bread Pudding was creamy, rich and fruity. For something lighter, we tasted the Fresh Berry Napoleon, with flaky pastry, homemade lemon curd and fresh berries, topped with raspberry-lemon ice cream. There was even more treats on the dessert list that I wish I could try so I guess I’ll know next time that I need to save some room!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Secrets Farewell to Riviera Maya

The hospitality of Riviera Maya was felt everywhere, but the staff at Secrets went the extra mile to make me feel at home. I was practically the only one at the resort not celebrating my honeymoon or anniversary, yet I never felt alone.

My final night at Secrets Maroma happened to be the night of the Mexican Fiesta. Maria accompanied me to the weekly event, which includes a celebration of the culture, from vendors with silver jewelry, to Mexican food, tequila and a new favorite of mine, Mango Margaritas. There was a wonderful show of music and dance that took us through the various regions of Mexico. I remarked to Maria how impressed I was with the performance and she told me that this professional group is one of many hired to perform at the AMResorts. I have to admit this was my first show in the week I spent there and I wished I had seen more.

After a night of enjoying the food and music, I was off to go pack. I bid my new friends farewell and enjoyed the breeze off the Caribbean Sea for one final evening.  The next day my flight wasn’t until the afternoon so I enjoyed a final breakfast at World Café, where I tried the crepes with nutella (not very Mexican, but how often do you see crepes at a breakfast buffet?!).

I walked past some of the things that I had admired even though I didn’t have time to try…. The ping pong tables in the water… the giant chess tables… I had to take one final trip down to the pool before bidding farewell to Secrets Maroma and Riviera Maya.

It had been a wonderful trip…
…and I was sure I would be back to this part of Mexico someday, but for now-
Hasta Luego…

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Now to Dreams in Riviera Maya

The weather was still bringing a little bit of rain to Riviera Maya, but I was seeing plenty of this region’s beauty through three of the area’s top all-inclusives.

I started the day with breakfast in the World Café at Secrets Maromawhere you can literally get anything imaginable.  One of the chefs saw me looking at the Chilaquiles (fried squares of tortillas in sauce with green sauce and cheese), and when I asked if there was any without meat they said they would go make me some. The delicious bowl was delivered to my table a few minutes later. After breakfast there was a car waiting to take me over to Now Sapphire, one of two Now properties in the area.

I had been very curious about what exactly AMResort’s Now was.  I knew that Zoetry is boutique, Secrets is for adults, Dreams is for families, but I wasn’t sure where Now fit in until I saw it. This brand is a bit more modern, a bit more “now.” It is open air, with a preferred section and contemporary look, smaller than Secrets and Dreams, but not quite as condensed as Zoetry. Kids are welcomed here with an Explorer’s Club full of activities for those aged 3-12. 
The Explorer’s club for kids at Now Sapphire was very nice, but what really impressed me was something I had never seen before – a pool just for teens. At Now Sapphire 13-17 year olds have their own program, their own swimming area and their own nightly entertainment. It’s a wonderful idea since it’s a group that frequently vacations with their parents yet doesn’t want to spend all day with them.

As we went through the Mediterranean restaurant I could smell the lamb cooking in the open air. The Adults only Lemon Grass restaurant has three palapas outside for private dining. The spa is small at the moment, but in the beginning stages of a major renovation, mostly to accommodate the weddings that take place here.

From Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun, I just went down the block to Dreams Riviera Cancun, the newest resort in the area. I think I expected it to be much bigger and was not disappointed that it wasn’t. This hotel also has programs for kids and teens, with restaurants, bars and pools throughout the property. I discovered something I didn’t even realize I had a Secrets Maroma – CoCo Café, which is basically everything you love about Starbucks without any cost! The lattes and frozen drinks (I tried a frozen cherry with white chocolate coffee that was perfectly refreshing) are available all day.

Dreams is also a property that was mostly open air, with a huge lobby area surrounded by tropical foliage. The 486 rooms at Dreams Rivera Cancun are built to take in the ocean views as much as possible and some of the rooms at Dreams are literally on the beach. I loved the outdoor patio at the main restaurant at Dreams. It looked over a wide stretch of beach allowing for very scenic alfresco dining. This was one of the outdoor casual dining options that included the Grill, where you can enjoy pizza and burgers, and Oceana, where I had a great lunch with Marco, the Sales Manager, which started with a frozen Cucumber Mojito and some of the best guacamole I’ve had.  

The spa at Dreams Riviera Cancun Resort was rather inviting and I was tempted to stay and check it out more carefully, but I had some free time and was ready to get back to Secrets Maroma Beach. As unbelievable as it may sound, it was this afternoon – after nearly a week in Riviera Maya – that I finally got down to spend time on the beach.  That’s just what I did, enjoying my copy of fellow writer Dan Dunn’s “Living Loaded” (more to come on this book) and a Sea Breeze, brought to me by one of the beach waitresses. I then spent one more hour at the pool, feeling almost like a vacationer, before it was time to go upstairs and get ready for my final night in Riviera Maya. It was Mexican Fiesta night at Secrets and I was going to enjoy it with some of my new amigas.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Riviera Maya Luxury from Secrets to Zoetry

I knew the day would be great when it started with a walk out to the balcony for a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea. The beach at Secrets Maroma is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in this half of the world.

Breakfast was at the World Cafe buffet, where the choices are endless. I couldn’t decide what I wanted so I took a small taste of everything. I didn’t have much time before my ride to Zoetry Paraiso del la Bonita would arrive.  I had never seen a Zoetry and, after seeing the “unlimited luxury” of Secrets, was anxious to see what more could be offered by AMResorts' highest level property.

We passed by Puerto Morales, a small fishing village, to the other side of  Riviera Maya. As soon as we arrived I realized this place was different. This boutique resort reminded me a bit of Royal Plantation, which I had visited a number of years ago, but it appeared to be even more intriguing thanks to the artwork the owners had picked up around the world. Around every corner there is a new unique piece, which flows with the open design built by a local architect.

Guests are greeted with Orange Cinnamon Iced Tea and there is an Afternoon Tea daily where you can sample more of the resort’s infusions from their plants. The Library Bar is warm and inviting, as it has been to many of the celebrities who stayed there and left their photos behind (Heidi Klum had just left the resort). Another celebrity is always in residence -- Maquita, one of the many beautiful parrots here, already has 275 Facebook fans of her own and receive emails!

I was very interested in the Thalasso Center, where the Therapeutic Seawater Pool is available to all guests. The full service spa has yoga lessons every morning and a gym that faces the sea. Wellness and well being is definitely a theme here at Zoetry, even down to the food. Calorie counts are available for all menu items in the restaurants and they are quite reasonable. I could certainly see coming to Zoetry and eating gourmet meals without gaining weight (and possibly losing a few pounds if you are taking advantage of all the activities). La Canoa is a Four AAA Diamond restaurant (the property itself has been rated Five Diamond). Children are welcomed here with their parents, but there are no programs specific to the younger set.
My lunch at Zoetry’s Kaax with Sales Directors Hayde Bacelis and Irene Prado was perfect and started with my choice of the restaurant’s homemade tequilas. I chose the cinnamon and was quite happy with it, along with my Caprese Salad Skewers. For a main course I chose the Chicken Skewer with Peanut Sauce and Wild Rice with Coconut followed by a Cappuccino and delicious chocolate raspberry dessert. It was more than satisfying and the whole meal came in at about the same amount of calories as an entrée in most restaurants.

Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita has 90 rooms, making it the smallest of that chain’s properties. It is built horizontally so that all of the rooms are ocean view. In keeping with the luxurious theme, there are some wonderful amenities at this resort that you won’t find included at no extra charge in many all-inclusives: private, chauffeured airport transfers; aromatherapy pillows and scented linens; shopping excursions to Puerto Morales by boat; 24-hour laundry service; unlimited worldwide phone calls; and maid service three times a day. At this time, there are only two other Zoetry Resorts, in Los Cabos, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. All three run specials so don’t presume you can’t afford this high end chain.

As inviting as Zoetry was, I was happy to get back to Secrets Maroma Beach with a bit of time to spare. I spent an hour floating on the pool (I love hotels where there are enough floats that everyone isn’t fighting over them) and relaxed on the lounge with a piña colada for a short time before getting ready for my very special dinner. I was going to experience the Wine Cave Dinner with Maria Rivas, Sales Manager, and Maru Suarez, Director of Sales, with visits from Chef Cesar to explain each course. The chef, as he does for the couples that chose this dinner, made up a menu just for me, based on my allergies, likes and dislikes. It was quite an event and I enjoyed the company as much as the food and wine.

We started with some Foie Gras with Apple Compote and Chocolate Sauce. (I may never be able to appreciate “plain” foie gras again!) Next, it was a Mix of Soups, actually three bowls of soup: French Wild Mushroom, Italian Minestrone and Mexican Tortilla. They went well with the recommended wine, Albarino Lagar de Cervera, a complex wine with light spice.

The main course was a Duo of Beef &  Lamb – Beef Filet with Potato Gnocchi with Basil Pesto and Tomato Sauce, and Lamb Chop with Mashed Polenta and Demi-Glace Sauce. We had that served with Chateau d’Arains, a Bordeaux blend of four of the region’s best reds.  Dessert was tasty, but not too rich: Melon Cannelloni; Kiwi Carpaccio; Tiramisu; Chocolates, Ganache. All were great.

I relaxed a bit with an after dinner drink before calling it a night. It had been a great day in Riviera Maya and I was ready for another, as I still had to tour Now Sapphire and Dreams Riviera Cancun, where I was having lunch. Then, there was my final evening which was fittingly a Mexican Fiesta at Secrets Maroma.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Discovering Secrets in Riviera Maya

I was picked up at Grand Velas by the Secrets Maroma driver for the next part of my Mexico adventure. It was only a short drive, but we had to go through some areas of unpaved road in • Riviera Maya so it took longer than expected. 

When I arrived at the resort, I was greeted by management and staff who all said the same thing, “Welcome home.”  As much as the unlimited-luxury was a theme here, so was the feeling of comfort. My home for the next four days would be in the Preferred Club, which reminded me quite a bit of the Royal Service area at Paradisus Punta Cana. That area of the Secrets Maroma offers rooms with ocean views or swim up suites, and extra amenities such as a lounge with daily continental breakfast and afternoon hors d’oeuvres; free internet access; and upgraded mini bar and bath amenities.

Carlos, my concierge, introduced himself and gave me his private extension before he took me to my building. My room could not have been better. I had a corner room on the fourth floor with a tub on the balcony (and a Jacuzzi inside between the bed and bathroom) and perfect views of the pool and ocean. There was a bottle of champagne waiting for me, but what I was most impressed by is something that is available in all rooms of all Secrets resorts – the Secrets Box, which allows the concierge and waiter to leave food, drinks or whatever you order from 24 hour room service in the box if your “Do Not Disturb” button is pressed.  For the (many) honeymoon couples it offers complete privacy, but for the rest of us it’s nice to not have to run out of the shower to get the door in your towel!

Lunch was at the World Café, a huge buffet with an incredible selection of pizza, pasta (made to order), sushi, salads, and just about anything you could want. As soon as I walked in and gave my name I was told they had noted my allergies and the maître took me to the chef, who confirmed anything that might have been cooked with fish that I couldn’t eat.  With that in mind, I filled a plate with a little of everything else, enjoying it all with a glass of iced tea brought by the friendly waitstaff.

I went back to the room a bit, unpacked my suitcase and got ready for the only thing I had to do on my first day – get a massage in the spa.  I was going down early to check out the Hydrotherapy Circuit, which is included with most treatments : Sauna, Steam Room, Jacuzzi, Sensations Path, Cool Plunge,  Warm Plunge, Rustic Shower, Pressure Shower, and Water hydrotherapy with swan and cascade jets, high pressure water hoses and bubble massage beds.  Yes, it was as heavenly as it sounds and by the time I got done with my massage in my private cabana, I was so relaxed I didn’t even have the urge to turn on the computer.

It was also late in the day so I missed the scheduled activities, of which this resort has an impressive amount. Almost every day you can find yoga, tennis and Spanish lessons; jungle bike and kayak tours; scuba demonstrations; volleyball; water aerobics; and even swim up poker and bingo!  There are also special classes called “Sharing Secrets” that take place once a week, including tequila tasting and cocktail mixing lessons.

I was happy to learn that reservations are not needed at any of the eight restaurants. I had been eating mostly Mexican food and the Italian in me was craving pasta, so I headed over to Portofino for dinner. It was dark (maybe too dark, the waiter had to bring everyone flashlights to read the menu), cozy and comfortable, with soft pillows in the private booths. I started with a selection of their warm breads, which included a warm onion roll with a touch of cream cheese. It was hard not to ask for more, but my Eggplant Parmesan appetizer showed up just in time, with a semi-sweet glass of Blanc de Blanc from the Baja vineyard Vinos Domecq.

In addition to pretty standard Italian specialties, the Portofino Restaurant  at Secrets Maroma Beach lets you put together your own, choosing your type of pasta, sauce, vegetables and, if you want, chicken, shrimp or meat. I chose Fettuccine with White Wine Sauce, Mushrooms, Asparagus, Artichokes and Sundried Tomatoes, served with fresh shredded parmesan cheese. It was absolutely scrumptious, but I didn’t finish it all because I knew dessert was coming. It was a touch choice and I settled on a cappuccino with my Pana Cotta in Caramel Sauce. The restaurant manager brought me a special cordial for dessert, a Pomegranate Tequila from La Pinta that I highly recommend.

Before I went back to my room, I went over to the Rendezvous Lobby Bar for a little while to listen to a great piano player and have a Pomegranate Cosmo.  There was also an “American Idol” show in the theatre, followed by Disco Night at Desires Bar.  It looked like I would not run out of things to do, but first it was time for a good night’s sleep before my day at Zoetry Paraiso De La Bonita, and it appeared my four poster bed was ready and waiting for me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Farewell to the Grand Velas Rivera Maya

It seemed like we had just arrived in Riviera Maya, but it was time for the group farewell dinner and yet another example of Five Diamond food and service was chosen at Grand Velas. We were having dinner at Frida, and Chef Daniel Garcia Gomez had prepared a special meal for us at this modern Mexican restaurant.

We started with some Margaritas. I had become quite fond of the mango ones and this one was very good, except for the salt on the rim. Salt may work for a plain Margarita, but not a fruit one. Our first course was a delicious Goat Cheese in a Pumpkin Seed Crust with Agave Honey Dressing and Amaranth Croutons, followed by a Poblano Pepper Cream Soup with Crisp Pork Skin, Corn and Panela Cheese, very tasty, but a bit too spicy for me.

The third course was a Sea Bass in Yellow Mole Sauce with Cilantro Rice and Green Beans. My fellow diners raved about the fish while I enjoyed the rice and vegetables. The main dish was Rack of Lamb with a Bread and Oregano Crust in a Birria Lamb Broth Reduction with Caramelized Onions and Radishes, which was tender and tasty. Dessert was quite unusual, but I really liked it – Mexican Chocolate Mousse with Mole Poblano Cream, Amaranth and Pumpkin Seed Tile Served with Caramel Rum Sauce. I’ve never had such a hot (and I’m not talking about the temperature) dessert, but I have to say it worked.
I met with Jennifer Hamer for breakfast at Azul, a Gran Velas restaurant I had yet to go to. It was another delicious egg white omelet for me, presented beautifully with beans and fried cheese. It also came with a delicious bread basket full of goodies that I was glad I discovered on the final day rather than the first one (though this trip certainly had no shortage of goodies to eat).

The Grand Velas Spa was the largest I’ve ever seen. The complex is over 89,000 square feet and has 40 different suites, including five couples suites that are bigger (and have more amenities) than most hotel rooms. The “Experience Pool” area includes a heated pool, “Volcano Geyser,” sensory foot walkway, “Cascade Falls,” water bubble beds and a circular neck jet. The spa also has a sauna, steam room, clay room, whirlpool, ice room and polar pool. I was also impressed with a full elevator for those unable to use stairs.

In addition to standard treatments, they offer seven packages that they call “Journeys through the World,” which include unique treatments such as a Diamond Sublime Experience and a Gotu Kola and Oat Firming Body Envelopment. I also saw for the first time anywhere the Garra Rufa Fish Pedicure. These are the (toothless) fish who gently clean your dead and hardened skin while you relax.

The only thing I didn’t like about the spa was the fact that I never had a chance to use it, but my spa time was coming soon. I said goodbye to my fellow writers and to Grand Velas, but I was certainly not leaving Mexico, or even Riviera Maya. I still had a few more days to go. I was heading to Secrets Maroma, where I would stay for the next few days, while also exploring its sister resorts.  And, maybe, I’d even get to enjoy the beautiful beach a bit before I head home!