Sunday, October 30, 2011

Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Resort and Hotel

Located in a Cloud Forest near San Ramon, Costa Rica is Villa Blanca Resort and Spa, another Greentique Hotel owned by Jim Damalas. The resort is literally located in the middle of nowhere – you’ll be driven up and down huge mountains and up a dirt road to the resort.

But once you arrive – the view will take your breath away.

The main lobby is atop a hill overlooking the Arenal Volcano in the distant (it is one hour to get to the volcano from the resort). We had a clear day view of the volcano spitting smoke from the top. The lobby is wonderfully warm and inviting – with leather couches, beautiful wood throughout and fireplaces. The resorts restaurant, movie theater, game room, gift shop and internet computer are located here. (There is also free wireless access in the lobby).

After checking in, you’ll be directed to a private (or semi-private) cottage of your own. Each cottage has a king sized bed, a fireplace with two chairs facing it, mini-bar and bathroom. The bathrooms have full glass around them with a view of the forest outside your room. Our room was a connecting room perfect for families. There is a porch with rocking chairs where you can sit and enjoy the quiet and views.

There are two unique features to this resort – a beautiful wedding chapel, where weddings can be held, and a bio-research station. The resort was originally owner by President Rodrigo Carazo Odio and his wife Estrella . For his 50th wedding anniversary, he built the chapel for his wife as a gift. The ceiling consists of hundreds of hand painted tiles his sister-in-law created, a replica of a church their daughter visited outside of Rome. The church is situated on perfectly manicured gardens with a view of the cloud forest behind it – a stunning view.

The bio-research lab studies butterflies and moths. Moths are affected very much by climate change and studying the changing habits of them are increasing worldwide knowledge of how global warming is affecting the planet.

There is one restaurant located on property and the food was very good here. The chefs cook right in front of you and Mr. Damalas has a female head chef, which we were told is very rare. A continental breakfast is included in your resort rate and lunch and dinner prices are reasonable - a good thing because there is nothing at all near the resort. You can book canopy excursions, hiking excursions, and even trips to the volcano from here.

There are no air conditioners or televisions at this resort. Ceiling fans cool the room nicely. There is a small movie theater that has a weekly menu of movies each night. There is a spa with extremely good prices. At the time we were there, Management was negotiating a contract with a new spa company and there were only four treatments available – but I had a Swedish Massage that cost $76 and was supposed to be for 50 minutes – but lasted an hour and 20 minutes. It was a wonderful way to end the day before bed!

One of the very unique things about this hotel are the many hiking trails. You can do a self guided tour on one of the trails or have a guide take you on one of the other three. The guides are excellent – they pointed out many of the different species of trees we were looking at and explained much about how the cloud forest interacts with vegetation. We saw many butterflies as well on the trails.This hotel is wonderful for a few nights or nature, romance and relaxation.

Call us for more information or to see our pictures. 516-608-0568.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sandals Halcyon - St. Lucia

They say bigger is better - but not in the case of this lovely resort in St. Lucia. Sandals Halcyon is the smallest of the three Sandals resorts in St. Lucia - but certainly the most charming. We were captivated by this resort.

This lovely resort is located an hour and 15 minutes from the UVF Airport. It is the smallest of the three Sandals resorts but the most charming. The grounds are lovely - lots of beautiful flowers blooming and a pretty beach. There is an activities pool near the lobby and a quiet pool behind the rooms.

You'll be greeted upon arrival with a drink and a cool towel. If you are staying in a Concierge or Butler room, you'll be taken to the concierge room to check in - otherwise, you'll complete your check in paperwork in the lobby and be escorted to your room.

We usually don't recommend the lowest prices rooms when booking Sandals, but the rooms at Halcyon are more than enough for a traveler who isn't fussy for details. My room was 202. I was on the ground floor and had a little patio with a table and chairs in front, where I had an oceanview. Upon entering, there was a queen sized bed, desk, small table and chair, t.v and a mini-bar. There was a large bathroom and a good sized closet.

Food is also very good here. Breakfast started at 6:30 AM. You can choose from several restaurants for dinner, including the Pier Restaurant, built over the water, Mario's for fantastic Italian and one of the best filet mignon's we've ever tasted, Bayside Restaurant, and the Beach Bistro.

You can have three vacations in one staying in St. Lucia, as Sandals offers "Stay at One, Play at Three" here. You can use the free shuttle to go to Sandals La Toc or Sandals Grande St. Lucian, and you'll have the choice of 18 restaurants between the three. Want a little more nightlife than Halcyon offers? Go over to Sandals Grande, where nights are hopping a bit more.

This resort has a fine beach and plenty of options for water sport, including:
  • Canoes/Kayaks
  • Windsurfing
  • 2 Pools, 2 Whirlpools
  • 2 Swim-up Pool Bars
  • Glass Bottom Boat
  • Hydrobikes
  • Water-skiing
  • Beach Volleyball
  • Kneeboarding
  • Sailboats
There is plenty to go round at this wonderful resort. Halcyon has the best pricing of the three and offers a romantic setting to enjoy some quiet time - and use of two other resorts to indulge in your wilder side.

Call us for more information or to book. 516-608-0568.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Si Como No Resort, Spa and Wildlife Refuge

Three hours from the San Jose airport in Costa Rica lies a beautiful romantic resort near Manuel Antonio Beach called Hotel Si Como No Resort and Wildlife Refuge. The words translate to “Yes, why not” and this is the attitude you will find here from the wonderful staff.

Upon entering the beautiful wood lobby, you’ll be greeted with a drink and a warm welcome from your hosts. Check in was quick and easy. Let the room stewards bring your bags to your room – the rooms are situated in the mountains with many steps to maneuver and they are pros at getting your luggage to your room for you.

After you check in, you’ll be met with a magnificent view of the natural forest beneath the resort and the Pacific Ocean. The ground are unbelievably beautiful, with many of the trees and exotic flowers labeled so you’ll know what you are looking at.

Continue on to your room either at the top of the hotel, or one of the luxurious cottages nestled within the mountain, all with spectacular views. We enjoyed cottage 53, a honeymoon suite. Inside was a kitchenette with a sink, mini-bar and the usual assortment of snacks and liquor for purchase. There was also a sofa bed facing one of the three sliding glass doors that give you wonderful views on three sides of your bedroom. On the side was a very comfortable king sized bed. There was a balcony we spent hours on lounge chairs listening to howler monkeys and a huge variety of birds throughout the day and night. There were also a few bats flying at dusk!

The bathroom was beautiful, with a whirlpool tub, separate shower and beautiful wood vanity. There is a hair dryer in the bathroom.

The rooms are air conditioned and there are no t.v.’s! Many of us groaned when we heard that, but the fact of the matter is that no one missed them. Instead of watching t.v.’s, we sat outside and watched birds.

There are two pools on property and a naturally heated whirlpool. Both pools had pool bars and one was strictly for adults. The family pool had a small water slide. A small spa with a wonderful menu of massages and other beauty treatments is on site.

There are two restaurants – Rico Tico and Claro Que Si , a seafood restaurant that also had some awesome steaks. A continental breakfast is included and the price of meals was reasonable. Drinks were a little expensive though – but you can easily take the hotel shuttle to a supermarket in Manuel Antonio and buy the liquor and drinks you’ll need.

There are several restaurants within walking distance if you feel like going off property. One we enjoyed was El Avion. The restaurant is built around an old plane. There is a daily Happy Hour and the meals are reasonably priced. Our meal consisting of two entrees, a drink and a beer cost all of $29 including the tip.

There is no beach access at the resort, but that is not a problem. A shuttle runs almost every hour to and from the beach at Manuel Antonio. You can also do a great nature walk through Manuel Antonio Park – well worth it for the surprise fun with monkeys and raccoons at the end.

Across the street from the resort is Si Como No’s private butterfly and bird farm. You can walk through or have a guide take you in to see many wonderful birds and butterflies, including Toucans and more.

This resort is a member of Greentique Hotels. Costa Rican hotels are heavily into recycling and this particular hotel recycles 82% of it’s garbage and plastic. The hotel and two others owned by Jim Damalas, an ex-pat Californian are CST certified – Certified Sustainable Tourism. These hotels are inspected by the government to ensure they are adhering to strict recycling and reusing standards. Costa Rica is way ahead of the rest of the world in eco- tourism and in their attempt to save the natural beauty of the country.

If you’d like to hear more about this resort, give us a call at 516-608-0568

Costa Rica - A Little Heaven on Earth

Looking for a place less than five hours from New York that offers some adventure, a little romance, some lessons on recycling and great beaches? Then come to Costa Rica, where you’ll find all that and more.

A few hours outside of bustling San Jose finds volcano parks, rain and cloud forests, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.

Stay a night or two in the San Jose area, a bustling city with a new soccer stadium and interesting malls and restaurants. You can do excursions to the Arenal or Poas Volcanos, a day trip to Tortuga Island, a tour of San Jose City, Canopy Tours and White Water Rafting. The Barcelo San Jose Palacio hotel offers this and more a mere 20 minutes from the airport.

A must see is the Arenal Volcano. Stay at one of the many beautiful resorts in the area and go to the Hot Springs for a wonderfully relaxing day of jumping in and out of naturally heated water pools and waterfalls. How about a hiking trip around the Arenal Volcano area, where one of the most active volcanoes in the world is located. In fact, if you stay in one of the many hotels in the area, you may even feel the ground jostling if the volcano is having a very active period.

Or see the Poas Volcano, which is one of the worlds largest geysers with a crater over 1.5 km wide. Your tour may begin with a drive through the many lush coffee plantations located in the high mountains, where the best coffee is grown. At Poas, you can actually walk on the crater and look into the volcano.

There are Rain Forests galore here throughout Costa Rica, where you’ll see monkeys, exotic birds, perhaps some unusual frogs, leaf cutter ants, three toed sloths and more.

Or visit a beautiful Cloud Forest, where the vegetation is lush and butterflies and beautiful moths are plentiful. The Villa Blanca Resort has wonderful cabin rooms with a romantic fireplace and a bio reserve where you can see scientific experiments being done with moths. Did you know moths are one of the animals affected by global warming and that studying moths is helping us learn about the effect of global warming on forests?

Or go southwest to beautiful Manuel Antonia, and visit the Manuel Antonio National Park. Take a hike through the park - you may see snakes, frogs, leaf cutter ants and you will definitely see capuchin monkeys, who know where their bread is buttered and go to the end of the trail looking for food – or beach bags. There is a marvelous beach at the end of the trail that is a bit more private than the public beach – but subject to raccoons or monkeys escaping with your beach towel or beach bag!

Is it rainy? You bet ! During the rainy season from April to December, mornings are usually beautiful and rain may come in the early afternoon. Perhaps you may be as lucky as we were and only have rain at convenient times – night or dinner time, which allowed us to enjoy the days. And does it rain! We have never seen it rain as hard as it does in Costa Rica – but the result is a lush beautiful green country with orchids growing wild in some spots.
All visitors must pay a departure tax when leaving the country. Upon arrival at the modern airport, you'll need to head to the right in the airport to the line to pay - then take your stamped forms to your airline and check in.

Some suggestions for traveling in Costa Rica:
1. Book through a travel agent who uses a well known supplier in the area. Local suppliers offer the best value and will be there to assist if there are any problems. In addition, if there are any surprises at the resort you choose, you'll have the help of an agent to get you moved to another hotel if need be. This is one area that the expertise of an agent who has actually been to the country will help to ensure you see as much of the features as you possibly can.

2. If you decide to drive yourself, make sure you rent a 4 wheel drive car and a GPS. There are many dirt roads and if it is raining, some washouts. There are no street signs and a GPS to get where you want to go is a must.

3. Don’t leave valuables in the open if you rent a car.

4. Buy excursions before you leave. Tour operators use excursion companies that are insured and maintain their vehicles. Some people in our hotel did an ATV Adventure they found in town. Their guide’s ATV ran out of gas in the middle of the forest, resulting in having to go back for more gas. The guides didn’t time the excursion right and they were in the jungle when it got dark – and had a harrowing ride back to the start of the adventure with lights from three helmets. And finally, the bus broke down on the way back to the resort and they had to walk to rest of the way to the resort. You can avoid this by using a licensed vendor.

5. Do see one of the volcanoes.
6. Be ready for bugs and little critters, which are found even in the most upscale and spotlessly clean resort. We had a few ants in two of our hotels, another couple had a gecko visiting that they had to shoe out of the room, and one couple had a scorpion in their room. It is a fact of life when visiting - you can find them anywhere.
7. Costa Rica is a difficult place for those who cannot walk long distances or up and down stairs or steep walkways. Almost every hotel is situated in a mountain or on the side of a mountain. Some have tremendous walks to get to rooms, even many of the beach resorts. You will need to find a hotel that is handicapped accessible or that have golf carts to take you around the resort. These resorts are few and far between – but we have some suggestions, so contact us - we are Costa Rica Specialists and can help find the right resort for you.

Be ready for a great vacation in Costa Rica. Call us – we can personalize your vacation with as much or as little as you’d like to so or see to ensure you will have the vacation of a lifetime. 516-608-0568.