Our Maiden Cruise, Seabourn Encore, Romance of Rivieras

As we were celebrating an important occasion, our first cruise had to be extra special, so we chose one of the top ultra-luxury cruise lines in the world, Seabourn.

Aboard one of their new ships Encore, we set sail on a 7-night trip from Barcelona on what was billed as the Romance of the Rivieras, visiting Mahon, Marseille, St Tropez, Ajaccio, Monte Carlo, Portovenere and Rome.

At 690 feet long and 92 feet wide Seabourn Encore is larger than the Odyssey-class vessels.  She embarked on her maiden voyage in January 2017 from Singapore and has been exploring the world’s ports ever since.  Carrying only 600 passengers in 300 suites this seemed the perfect size of ship to experience our first ever cruise.

Before we boarded the Encore, we spent a few days exploring Barcelona staying at the five star Majestic Hotel.  Located on Paseo de Gracia, it was perfectly placed to explore Gaudi´s famous buildings, and the city’s restaurants and bars.

The hotel was also celebrating its own special birthday, 100 years of luxury hospitality.

The Junior Suite was just what we needed to slip into the luxury life and relax.

We also enjoyed an incredible evening celebrating Linda’s birthday at the Mandarin Oriental Moments restaurant.

Read more about it here.

If you are looking for good food, culture, architecture, adventure and relaxation Barcelona has it all.

Barcelona really is an incredible city and deserves its own write up, so it is very much on our radar for a another trip.  For our first few days it provided a great base for us to set off on our maiden cruise.

When we boarded the Encore, we were chilled and relaxed. Perfect, as we had another 7 days of very much the same planned!

After a pretty slick and impressive boarding experience and fantastic welcome from Cruise Director Ross we found ourselves sipping champagne and devouring canapés on the Colonnade Restaurant deck at the rear of the ship.

After lunch we headed for the main pool area for the sail away and live opera, the champagne was flowing, the sun was shining and the entertainment team gave us an incredible send off as we departed Barcelona.  

‘Sail aways’ became a special part of our cruise experience trip and we never missed the opportunity each day on deck as we left port.

We were staying in suite 828, a port side mid ship / deck suite.  We had been advised this was a good location for our first cruise experience to see whether we had our sea legs or not.  Thankfully we did!

All Veranda Suites feature a full-length window and glass door to private veranda.  They also offered a very comfortable living area, queen-size bed, walk-in closet with personal safe, interactive flat-screen TV with music and movies. 

We also had a fully stocked bar and fridge, and a surprisingly very spacious bathroom with separate tub and shower.  Plush robes and slippers added to the luxury feel.  Our personal suite stewardess, nightly turndown service, and pillow menu was a nice touch and added to the intimate and personal experience Seabourn are famous for.

One of the main attractions of Seabourn is their award-winning cuisine. Encore offers a choice of dining venues and having the flexibility of being able to dine where and when we wanted was one of the reasons we picked this cruise line. Depending on our mood of the moment we could look out our glad rags for a fine dining experience or enjoy a casual dinner alfresco.

The food was so good and the surroundings that luxurious we never took enough pictures, a slight challenge when pulling together a blog like this.  Hopefully we’ve captured enough to give you a flavour of our experience.

The main restaurant was a stunning venue and offered a real elegant dining experience but perhaps less intimate and romantic than some of the other restaurants.  It features open seating and we always opted for a table for two.   The menu was varied and the food was impressive, we also enjoyed a special tasting menu here to celebrate Seabourn’s 30th anniversary. 

Our favorite restaurant was Sushi.   An amazing team of chefs and front of house staff created authentic and exquisite sushi directly before our eyes. 

You could choose to dine here for lunch or dinner.  Incredibly fresh produce masterfully put together for us to enjoy – a real highlight of our trip with every visit – and added a little romance to the cruise as you shared and enjoyed the amazing dishes prepared for you.

The Grill by Thomas Keller was also a must visit and highly recommended.  Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller has provided the inspiration for this classic American restaurant from the ’50s and ’60s, serving simple but iconic dishes, like premium steaks, whole roasted chicken and Lobster Thermidor.

An intimate and exclusive experience with fab food too!

The Colonnade, is a casual restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating offering meals prepared in open-kitchen style and served as a lavish buffet.  A nice venue, but we’ve never been one for buffets so we only ventured here a few times for breakfast, the odd afternoon snack and to recover from our tender incident!  Read on to find out more.

The Patio offers a relaxed poolside dining option with grilled specialties and freshly baked dishes.   This was our favorite spot for lunch. In the evening you can choose from a full menu and dine under the stars.

We did take advantage of room service most mornings and became pretty partial to an afternoon bottle of champagne and caviar on our veranda. 

A nice touch, if not just a tad opulent!

The WiFi on the ship was generally ok, however it was chargeable, so we normally waited until we were in port to contact the outside world.  This was probably our only real criticism of the ship as most luxury venues now offer WiFi / internet access as standard these days.  On one hand it did allow us to ‘switch off’ more than normal, so that wasn’t a bad thing.

Our first destination was Mahon the capital of Menorca, second largest of the Balearic Islands and the second largest port in the world after Pearl Harbour.

We arrived early that morning and after enjoying the arrival and breakfast on our veranda we set off to explore. 

The winding and narrow streets of this pretty medieval town were quirky, and the Gothic architecture and religious buildings were stunning.

Overall, we had an enjoyable few hours and returned late morning to the Encore for some sun, rest, relaxation and of course champagne and caviar!

Next up for us was Marseille, located in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of France. An added twist for us cruise ship newbies was arriving into port by tender

The arrival into Marseille was a breeze, but the return journey to ship was eventful and quite simply the scariest experience of our lives! 

Have to say we were a little disappointed with Marseille.  The weather certainly didn’t help, as it took a real turn for the worst shortly after we disembarked the tender.  We couldn’t really put our finger on it, but the City didn’t really come across as welcoming and was less than impressive. 

We had also organised an open top bus tour, but given the torrential rain and lighting, it quickly descended into a bit of a wash out.  So much so that we had to cut the tour shortly, but only after we caught a glimpse of the famous Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica.  We’re putting it down to the weather; maybe our next visit will be more enjoyable.

Back at the Seabourn tender pick up point is where things became interesting.  We were greeted by a fantastic team albeit they seemed a little nervous.  It transpired that the tender before ours was in difficulty due to the weather conditions and couldn’t dock with the ship.  It then had to wait in the choppy seas until the ship could turn 360 degrees allowing it to dock under more favourable conditions.  When our tender eventually set off, we assumed all was fine, but no!  This was the most frightening 10 minutes of our life as the tender crashed through the choppy seas with us hanging on for dear lives. 

When we eventually reached the ship and docked it was clear that we were in the midst of a full-scale emergency operation as the crew, medical staff and senior officers were there to help us disembark.  Ok, we’re sure the crew knew what they were doing and wouldn’t have put us in any real danger, but it was a very scary experience.  We found out later as we recovered in the Colonnade that the tender before us had been stranded in the choppy seas for over 30 minutes, so that put our own experience into perspective.

Like falling of a bike, we were back in a tender the following day. Destination this time was the little port of St. Tropez in France one of the best-known resorts in Europe. 

Before we explored the harbour, we took a short panoramic drive to experience the beauty and contrast of modern Port Grimaud and the medieval Grimaud village.

Situated on a high hill and dominating the Gulf of St Tropez, is Grimaud, a ‘perched’ village. After a short uphill walk, we meandered through the quaint and rustic streets towards the centre of the village and then upwards again to reach a stunning viewpoint.

Back down at sea level Port Grimaud itself is a charming village which looks like an old Mediterranean fishing village, but its really a modern complex of luxury houses, fully equipped marinas, and seven miles of meandering waterways.  

We spent several hours and a short boat trip exploring before heading back to St Tropez.

Returning to St Tropez we found the harbour packed with tourists and fishing boats, excursion craft and luxury yachts all jostling for position.

On the waterfront were old pink and yellow houses, converted into cafes, cabarets and restaurants, luxury boutiques, galleries and antique shops.

After exploring some of the nearby streets and landmarks we settled down for a well-deserved cocktail or two at the famous Le Senequier Restaurant before returning to ship.

This was one of our best and busiest days off ship and we were pleased to return to recharge our batteries early afternoon. One of the things we loved about the Encore, and something we had been worried about before we boarded, was that we were always able to find somewhere to settle down for a few hours to enjoy the sun and relax.  As you can see this was not an issue.

There were always sun loungers available throughout the ship regardless of the time you returned, including some very quiet and discrete areas if you looked hard enough.

Given this was our first trip we never wanted to miss anything, and ended up burning the candle at both ends.  Waking early to ensure we never missed a port arrival and staying up late to enjoy an after dinner cocktail and catch the entertainment took its toll.  Although we enjoyed the experience we both felt that we needed another wee break to recharge after the trip.  Not great when you have day jobs to return to.  

Speaking of entertainment, we normally don’t bother, but being on cruise we had to give it a try. We had heard great things about cruise ship shows. This was our most disappointing aspect as most of the shows were geared towards the more mature passengers, and the lead singers only made an appearance on a couple of evenings during our 7-night trip.  The shows also didn’t have the scale or grandeur of some of the larger ships we had read about, but to be honest we didn’t mind as the smaller ships offer so much more in terms of intimacy and romance.

Ajaccio, located on the west coast of the island of Corsica was our fourth port to visit.

Following another enjoyable early morning arrival into port we explored the area on foot for a short time and then set off on a more successful and drier bus tour. 

First, negotiating the old town area then heading west along a very scenic coastal route towards Torra di a Parata a 16th Century tower landmark. A pretty decent morning, giving us plenty of time to relax back onboard Encore in the afternoon.

We had always been a little concerned that a cruise would perhaps feel overcrowded with issues over space on deck, but this really wasn’t the case on Seabourn.  You could always find a spot to relax, catch some sun, enjoy a cocktail or two in several bars or simply chat to other guests.

Glamorous Monte Carlo was our second last trip and a must visit for anyone wanting to experience luxury and an insight into how the other half live. 

The arrival early morning was spectacular, slowly edging towards port, squeezing past multimillion-dollar yachts, cruisers, watching the town wake up while catching glimpses of the famous Casino, parts of the Grand Prix circuit and the Prince’s Palace.

After disembarking we spent the morning exploring the obvious haunts including the grand prix circuit, grand casino, Hotel de Paris and Café de Paris. 

We also took our own audio guided walk through the narrow streets, past the Oceanographic Museum and the cathedral containing the tombs of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier and stopped off to see the changing of the guard at the Prince’s Palace.

Monte Carlo was impressive and certainly a must visit destination, but we’ve done it now and we wouldn’t necessarily rush back unless of course we won the lottery and had to find somewhere to berth our mega yacht!

Our final port was Portovenere located on the beautiful Ligurian coast of Italy. 

To be honest we hadn’t really known what to expect when we arrived, but it turned out to be our favourite trip of the entire week.

An old fishing village with a protected harbour it featured beautiful pastel shaded buildings, cobbled street and winding alleys. 

It wasn’t too busy either and we enjoyed walking around exploring Chiesa di San Pietro and Castello Doria, which after climbing to the top gave us breathtakingly spectacular and dramatic views of the Encore herself as she waited for us returning. 

All in a great destination that we hope to visit again, especially in the evening as we suspect the atmosphere would be pretty romantic.

Our final destination was Rome, unfortunately our flight home ruled out any chance to explore but we expect to visit again soon.

Our entire Seabourn Encore experience was fantastic and gave us an insight into the world of cruising, something we had wanted to do for some time.  It gave us the opportunity to visit some incredible ports enjoying some stunning scenery along the way and celebrate to the full a really special occasion for us.

Importantly though we did it at our own pace and were able to enjoy the luxurious surroundings and cuisine on aboard whenever we wanted to.  We are now officially part of the ‘Cruiserati’ and already on the look out for our next trip.

Other Information: This was not a sponsored / discounted visit; the review / article is an independent, honest and true reflection of our experience.  Thank you to Seabourn for allowing us to use some of their images in this blog.

Magic of the ‘Opera’, Moments Restaurant, Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona

As soon as we entered the dining room we knew we were about to experience something out of this world. A real intimate atmosphere immediately descended upon us as we were escorted to our table.

With two Michelin stars, the award winning Mandarin Oriental Moments restaurant delivers fresh and healthy cuisine inspired by Catalan culinary culture.

It’s moments like this that makes our hard work throughout the year worthwhile – a perfect setting to celebrate Linda’s special birthday.

Sometimes it is best to let pictures tell the story so please sit back and enjoy the performance.

Act 1, Liceu – Tomato velvet, cod, black, garlic

Act 2, L’Oca Del Cairo – Goose, panko, pistachio

Act 3, Le Nozze Figaro – Ajoblanco, sardines, nora pepper, olive

Act 4, Maria Callas – Prawns, lentils, dill, American sauce

Act 5, Three Tenors – Modena, Madrid, Barcelone

Act 6, Norma – Eggplant, basil, dashi

Act 7, Opera – Lobster, monkfish, cuttlefish, hake, mussels

Act 8, Carmen – Ox tail, olla gitana

Act 9, Wagner – Montaglona, beetroot, black lemon, piquillo pepper

Act 10, Madame Butterfly – Umeboshi, sudashi, sakura

Act 11, Melba Peach – Peach, raspberry, vanilla

Act 12, Opera Cake – Almond, coffee, chocolate

Bonus course! – A life size (well almost!) interpretation of Sydney Opera House made out of cookies!

Managed by chef Carme Ruscalleda and her son Raül Balam,  Moments provided one of our best gastronomic experiences. A truly unique dining experience and a perfect setting to celebrate such a special evening for us.

We hope to visit again soon.

Other Information: This was not a sponsored / discounted visit; the review / article is an independent, honest and true reflection of our experience.  Thank you to Mandarin Oriental for allowing us to use one of their images in the blog header.

Rainforest Retreat | Three Sixty Boutique Hotel, Costa Rica – Out and about!

In recent years our trips have gradually become more active and wildlife focused so where better to take it to a new level than Costa Rica with its abundance of wildlife.  Catch our video here with all our encounters.

Staying at Hotel Three Sixty meant we had Playa Tortuga on our doorstep, Marina Ballena National Park close by and a local horse-riding tour only 10 minutes away – this was the perfect place to explore! Check out our Hotel Three Sixty blog here.

Lined with mangrove trees the mile-long Playa Tortuga is a remote beach and only a short 5-minute detour (by foot) across Route 34 from a circular walk direct from our hotel.

You can enjoy some amazing wildlife encounters and one of the most wild and natural beaches you’ll ever experience.

On our first walk down to Playa Tortuga we had the most amazing encounters with a troop of White-Faced Capuchin monkeys who were performing some aerial acrobatics directly above us and on our last visit we managed to catch a small flock of macaws.

We found it best to visit Playa Tortuga a couple of hours before low tide as it allowed you to paddle across the inlet easier (watching for crocs of course  – another reasons for those walking poles!) and give you enough to time reach the other end and spend time exploring the beach and caves.

Watch out for the less than friendly crocodiles as you approach the end of the track and the inlet to the lagoon.  Also, don’t swim or paddle in the lagoon to the left of the beach entrance as crocodiles have been known to frequent there accordingly to the locals.  Final piece of advice at the height of the day the sand became incredibly hot – so keep those sandals handy!

Marina Ballena National Marine Park is located just offshore along the Central Pacific coast in South Puntarenas and protects more than 13,000 acres of ocean and 9 miles of coastline.

Comprised of mangrove forests, coral reefs and untouched beaches, the national park was only a 25-minute taxi ride from Hotel Three Sixty, so a must visit for us.

We arrived an hour or so before low tide so we could enjoy the famous Whale’s tail.   Rocky formations surface about 1 kilometre from the shore and along with an open and vast sandy beach create the impression of an enormous Whales tail.

Worth a visit, and we spent a few hours exploring the beach returning via a jungle trek through the mangroves, where we had a few more wildlife encounters including a friendly spider monkey.

We also managed to explore the Ojachal hills and local waterfall during our stay with an exhilarating trip on horseback courtesy of Lalo tours.   

Only 10 minutes by car from the hotel, this is an experience you won’t want to miss.

These are just a few things we got up to – with still so much more to do on our next visit !

Other Information: This was a sponsored / discounted visit; however the review / article is an independent, honest and true reflection of our experience.  Thank you to Hotel Three Sixty for allowing us to use some of their images in this blog.

Rainforest Retreat | Three Sixty Boutique Hotel, Costa Rica

It’s late February and we’ve just booked a low-key week long break to the Canary isles in March – but less than 24 hours later there’s been a change of plan and we’re instead heading off on a bucket list trip to Costa Rica! 

We had left our usual winter trip plans a little late this year; it’s amazing how things come good when all elements of a trip line up.  British Airways released some business class reward flights at the very last minute and we found possibly THE most incredible place we have ever stayed on our travels so far.  

Step up Three Sixty Boutique Hotel, Ojachal, Costa Rica.  Located on the South West coast of Costa Rica with breath taking views of the South Pacific and quite simply the most extraordinary sunsets you will ever see. Three Sixty provided a complete transformation from our usual trips.

Just over a year old Three Sixty is built on a 58-acre trail lined rainforest reserve, with 12 individual villas and the main building taking up less than 8% of the total area. Floating at an altitude of almost 1,000 feet the views of the fractal rainforest canopy and its flora and fauna, palm-lined beaches, distant islands and the endless Pacific Ocean are simply incredible, transporting you to another world.  The 300 km coastline view encompasses panoramas from Manuel Antonio to the Osa Peninsula, the migratory route of many species of whales and dolphins. 

We arrived around 9pm and were greeted with a warm smile by Rebecca who offered us a refreshing fruit cocktail.   There weren’t many guests around and as the place was so peaceful and quiet, we thought we were the only people staying.  

Our 24-hour door to door journey from Scotland had taken its toll, with the final 3 ½ hour leg from San Jose Airport well and truly putting us into the exhausted territory.  We checked in and headed to our villa to unpack and settle down for the night.

Despite being tired the first impression of our villa was impressive with a large open plan living area and bathroom with separate rain shower cubicle.  Furnished with luxury Indonesian furniture, a king size bed and Egyptian cotton towels and linens – we immediately had a sense of luxury and something special. 

The villa had the usual amenities you would expect from a luxury hotel, but it was nice to see a Nespresso machine, mini refrigerator, impressive Wi-Fi and importantly a first-class modern remote-controlled air conditioning system.   WiFi speed was pretty good at around 7mbps and coverage was excellent throughout complex – so good in fact we had to remind ourselves we were indeed at the top of a rainforest!

We had a sneaky glimpse through the floor to ceiling windows, but it was pitch black outside, so we had to wait until the morning to see whether we had a ‘good’ view.  As first nights go, we had a great sleep, but we were both excited with what the morning would bring so keen for dawn to break.

Wow! – I don’t think we will ever experience a more exhilarating first morning.   

Waking early to enchanting jungle sounds we drew back the curtains, the views were simply breath taking with butterflies, toucans and parrots to name a few in the trees providing a natural background soundtrack.  See for yourself here.

We had caught a glimpse of the main building the night before, but as we made the thirty second walk to breakfast in the Kua Kua Restaurant the beauty of the main building became apparent. 

It was simply stunning, made from traditional and modern materials it has open and airy architecture, natural floral walls and vaulted ceilings.  

In the centre an enormous fountain fed by natural rainwater reminds you that you are in the middle of a rainforest.

We were greeted by Christina who immediately made us welcome with her incredibly warm and engaging smile. Keeping with the ‘three sixty’ theme, the restaurant offers the concept of a full rotation of cuisine through the seasons – for the time being though we had our sights set on the Banana Bread French toast with maple syrup!

Breakfast was always special with fresh coffee, baked breads / pastries, fruit juice smoothies and some impressive dishes to choose from, including scrumptious avocado toast and freshly made waffles with fried chicken and syrup!  

Yes, that’s what we said.  Fried chicken and syrup.  See for yourself – a great start to the day. Don’t forget the pancakes too!

The hotel was quiet and peaceful during our stay and when we weren’t out exploring, we simply chilled out by the infinity pool.  

The views from the sumptuous padded sun loungers were incredible, and you easily lost yourself in your thoughts as you watched the array of birds soaring above you and looked over the rainforest canopy towards the Pacific Ocean.  

The team knew exactly when to bring us an ice bucket with a chilled water bottle, a sneaky afternoon cocktail or a beer served up by Eddy.  Even better, was when we harnessed just enough energy to lift our head off the sun lounger, we had to walk no more than 10 steps to reach the Kua Kua for an afternoon snack.

You can choose from the bar Bocas menu or an afternoon lunch menu.  We pretty much worked our way through the Bocas menu during our stay.  The menus were very reasonable in terms of cost and perfectly sized portions kept us going until early evening dinner.

Don’t forget the desserts!

A gin and tonic cost around $10, a very enjoyable bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was $26, and bottle of Corona beer was $7.   Bocas ranged from $11 for fish tempura to $15 for a homemade burger.  All very reasonable and tasty too!

In recent years our trips have gradually become more active and wildlife focused so where better to take it to a new level than Costa Rica with its abundance of wildlife.  Look out for our other blog on this soon and a short video here!

With Playa Tortuga on our doorstep, Marina Ballena National Park close by and a local horse-riding tour this was the perfect place to explore.

We had had mixed information before we arrived at the hotel over how easy it was to explore the area on foot direct from the hotel.  Some reviews said you could, and others were clear that it was impossible to walk anywhere, and you needed a car.

The hotel team were a little  surprised at our exploits, indeed possibly thinking we were a little crazy, however, provided you’re relatively fit, avoid the hottest part of the day, take a water bottle and don’t mind a few more challenging inclines there is a 5km / 1hr 15mins circular route direct from the hotel front door.  

Halfway round there is a great pit stop at Restaurante Citrus where you’ll find a cool beer (or two) the perfect thirst quencher, ever!

We were a little apprehensive at first setting out to explore an unknown area, but we felt safe and comfortable exploring on our own on foot. You’ll experience some amazing vistas as you descend the tracks as well as some interesting bird life.

The locals had been performing rain dances during our stay as they were going through a very dry spell for the time of year.   It meant that the dirt tracks up from the main Route 34 to the hotel were very dry and dusty; top tip is to take walking poles to help you keep a sure footing.

If you’re up for the challenge the last 100 metre climb to the front of the hotel is one to burn off some of the banana bread french toast calories – alternatively a golf buggy is normally on hand if you’ve ran out of energy!

Special mention to Jose from guest services, who was always on hand to offer us his personal insight into potential trips and wildlife in the area.  A very guest focused individual who had a very natural way of engaging and making guests feel at ease – a real credit to the Three Sixty team.

Our villa was one of the best placed to enjoy the sunsets with the terrace offering an outstanding level of privacy and a feeling of being the only couple for miles around.  Whether we had chosen a lazy day by the pool or had been out exploring the Costa Rican wildlife we always found ourselves on our terrace enjoying the mesmerising and ever-changing sunsets. Have a look here to see what we mean.  

This was a real special part of our trip as we relaxed with music playing. Not too loud though that it drowned out the jungle noise but just enough to create a chilled feeling as we watched the sun gradually disappear over the horizon.  Even when the sun had disappeared it was amazing how the sky kept cycling through its kaleidoscope of colours and the jungle sounds began to change as night set in.

Before we forget, depending on where your villa faces, make sure you manage at least one early rise to catch the dawn from the main building – we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise sipping a Nespresso in the main building – a perfect start to the day.

Evenings at Three Sixty were very relaxed with a very intriguing dining menu to choose from including shrimp ceviche, octopus toast, a fresh fish main course, yellow curry and beef tenderloin.    

Chef Nelson Spichiger sources his fresh ingredients locally, visiting local produce markets and fishermen each morning.  The result is some very fresh and vibrant dishes.

All dishes were exceptional and served with a real attention to detail complemented by first-class table service from the waiting staff.  A special mention to Fauricio who was so passionate and enthusiastic about what he did; he and Erica were so attentive and genuinely made our dining experiences more enjoyable.

Again, dishes were very reasonable with starters ranging between $12 and $18 and main courses around $21 to $25.

If you’re lucky to be there for as long as we were Chef Nelson may offer to rustle up some specials for you.  Don’t forget if you’ve had an active day and want a lazy night you can always order in room service from the Bocas menu to enjoy on your secluded terrace.

We really can’t thank Amalia and her team enough; from our contact before we arrived to the experience during our stay Amalia and her team made us very welcome and genuinely provided us with a very personal, intimate and relaxing stay complemented by a very high-class level of service.   We would have to say that the entire team at Hotel Three Sixty has set the level of service benchmark for others to aspire to.

Costa Rica was on our bucket list before now and with so much to see and do it is certainly high up on our list for a second visit very soon – hopefully capturing a glimpse of the elusive Perezoso (or Sloth) next time round.

Hotel Three Sixty was an incredibly ambitious and innovative concept.  A special mention to the team behind it who have created an architectural masterpiece uniquely and sympathetically nestled into the Costa Rican landscape. 

More than likely Hotel Three Sixty will feature on our itinerary when we return as we’re looking forward to seeing the next stage of their eco-village plan fall into place.

Pura Vida as they say in Costa Rica.

Other Information: This was a sponsored / discounted visit; however the review / article is an independent, honest and true reflection of our experience.  Thank you to Hotel Three Sixty for allowing us to use some of their images in this blog.

Gran Melia Palacio De Los Duques, Madrid, Spain

An unusual blog here for us here as Mrs Amberpark has been off on her own wee adventure!

My three girlfriends and I normally enjoy spa weekends in the UK on special occasions. This trip to Madrid was arranged to celebrate two ‘memorable’ birthdays. However, being our first overseas trip together it would set the tone as to whether we would revert to spa weekends or make this adventure the new ‘norm’.

No pressure then Gran Palacio de los Duques – here come the girls!

We arrived in two separate parties around midday. Red level check in was in a separate area from main reception desk. The process was seamless with champagne being a very welcomed addition.

The initial ‘feel’ on entering the hotel was one of opulence and relaxation and these factors combined to make us feel part of something rather special.

The hotel is stunning both artistically and structurally. The reproduction Velazquez artworks, the strikingly beautiful individual pieces of furniture and the careful restoration of facets of the original building were all breath taking.

As a party of four females, after a glass or two of champagne, we all aspired to be the princess in Velazquez’s Las Meninas but clearly there is only one princess. There is also of course, a nun, a jester, a dwarf, two ladies in waiting and the famous man himself. Suffice to say we didn’t allocate roles! Four princesses continued their trip.

The hotel is extremely central. Very well located for some major tourist sights including: Teatro Real, Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor and numerous shops, bars and restaurants. The Parque del Retiro is about a 30-minute stroll away or a couple of stops on the underground and also worth a visit. Lots to see and do.

The street the hotel was located on was rather ordinary and it is easy to miss the hotel entrance  so its worth noting this in advance to aid any journey back especially after sampling the ‘comida y bebidas’ in the close by Mercado de San Miguel.

We occupied two red level junior suites for three nights.  At 45 square metres the suite was compact, but this is not unusual for a city centre hotel.

The bathrooms had a waterfall shower and freestanding baths , clarins toiletries and hair straighteners. There was a choice of pillows and water was replenished each day.  During our stay we obtained a kettle, additional tea, extra towels etc promptly and efficiently.

We didn’t manage to visit the Thai wellness centre however we did use the rooftop pool area several times. No problem obtaining four sunbeds despite it being the weekend. Service was efficient with water and towels on tap. The 360-degree rooftop view was simply stunning, punctuated only by us averting our gaze to reach for midday refreshments!

We would like to thank Lydia Sanchez who afforded us an upgrade to junior suites and arranged for small birthday cakes in each room. Reception staff were very helpful while being inconspicuous – not an easy combination to master and waiting staff were generally good, the only exception being when we ate at Monmatre restaurant on our last night.  There, we felt our initial waiter rushed us to order even after we advised him that we wanted a little more time. This slightly tainted the experience of indulging in such a varied and delightful menu.

Overall staff were very pleasant and clearly trained in a corporate ‘melia’ standard approach. They were also patient and friendly even when one of our party practiced speaking Spanish with them.

Our red level privileges allowed us to indulge in complementary cooked breakfast, varied buffet items, hot and cold snacks and all alcoholic drinks during both day and evening as part of our stay. The benefit of this cannot be understated.

It afforded us the ability to mix our experience perfectly. Booking restaurants in the evening and availing ourselves of the hotel facilities during the day. Importantly, while this facility was prepaid it still felt like a privilege and brought us back to the hotel.  This is a clever marketing strategy and it results in a guest / hotel win win situation.

As a group of four professional women our conclusion is interesting and completely reflective of our hotel experience first and Madrid second. This surprised us. Not only have we decided to do something similar again, we have agreed to choose the hotel first and the location second.

This is solely down to our experience at Gran Palacio de los Duques in Madrid and we hope that Melia group will remember us on future trips as we will remember our first trip abroad as a group to a Melia hotel.

Muchas gracias y esperamos verlos a todos pronto.

A big thank you to a special friend for the help with the write up on this one.

Pangkor Laut Resort, Malaysian Five Star Island Luxury

Sea otters, monitor lizards, hornbills, fruit bats and macaque monkeys with a background track of enchanting jungle noises played out for us during our morning walk to breakfast – we couldn’t believe how lucky we were – this was our kind of island!

We hadn’t visited this part of the world for over 15 years, so there was an unusual air of excitement before we set off from Scotland.  This was also our first big trip of 2018, kicking off a year of special birthday celebrations.

With an almost 27-hour trip from our home in Scotland via London ahead of us, we’d bagged a great deal on Business Class flights, so the journey was a breeze and started as soon as we arrived at the British Airways Lounge at Glasgow Airport.

The James Bond style speed boat trip at the other end of the journey was another story!

Located off the Straits of Malacca, Malaysia, Pangkor Laut Resort is a five star luxury resort situated on its own 300 acre privately owned tropical island.

We arrived shortly after 8pm at the Resort’s reception at the Marina Island Jetty on the mainland.  The Resort had arranged private transfers for us from the Airport. Fully air-conditioned, with comfortable leather reclining chairs, the luxury theme of our trip continued, making the 250 kilometre, 3 ½ journey much more enjoyable.   A great touch was the mobile Wi-Fi device which meant we could catch up on social media etc. during the journey!

The welcome at the Marina Island reception is what we expected – refreshing drink, cold towel and air conditioned lounge – what came next was not!  We were shown to a private jetty where our speed boat transfer was departing.

It was a little dark for any great pictures, however, the experience was exciting and exhilarating with the boat crashing through the waves – only thing missing was Sean Connery!  As the bow of the boat began to settle we saw the lights of the sea villas gradually come into focus and the magic of the island began to take hold.

We were given a great welcome on the island and shown to our Spa Villa to the south of the island.  A unique and mesmerising walk along the raised boardwalk ended our 27-hour trip from Scotland.  It was also the very first resort that our luggage had arrived at the villa before us – simple things make such a difference.

These private villas on stilts over the sea provide access to the Spa Village.   Linked by raised wooden boardwalks, they really are the signature accommodation of the Resort and provided us with an incredible level of privacy and exclusivity.

Our villa had an oversized bath, large balcony with padded sunbeds for private sunbathing and a great view of the Straits of Malacca.

One slight negative we had heard about the resort was the number of industrial ships which spanned the horizon of the Malacca Straits, especially in the views from the Spa Villas.  While it would have been nice to have had a clear horizon, we would have to say they really didn’t affect our trip at all and at night their lights provided an interesting feature to the sky line.   Really not a problem.

One piece of advice is to ignore weather forecasts.   Weeks before we arrived these had us worried, with very poor weather predicted.  The region has its very own micro climate.  For the periods we were there, we had the same poor forecast, which bore no resemblance to the weather we enjoyed.   Overall the weather was excellent, but very humid, just don’t move anywhere too fast and you’ll be fine.  For female readers, your hair can have a mind of its own and in Linda’s case its own personality – remember those hair clips!

The large oversized bath with overhead shower had shutters that folded back for a real ‘outdoor’ shower experience!

We even had our very own Nespresso machine to enjoy refreshing morning coffees on our balcony.   The mini bar was very reasonably priced and the complementary bottled water a great feature throughout the resort.

Complementary WiFi was provided via a small pocket size device, which worked very well.  Keep it charged and, except for the jungle trek, you’ll enjoy decent internet speeds across the island.  Top tip though, it’s great to leave it back in your villa on occasion and simply enjoy what the island has to offer.  There’s plenty time for social media later.

A minor comment was the limited number of power outlets in the villa, so we would highly recommend some form of ‘multiple’ USB charging plug to keep your various devices topped up.  A mobile power bank also goes down well if you’re out and about a lot.

The resort is very linear in nature and excellent if you want to work up an appetite or work off your evening meal!  Our villa was probably the furthest away as possible from the main lobby area, down at Coral Bay, and took around 15 mins to walk between these points.

Every walk though gave us a different experience with an abundance of wildlife to look out for.  Short video here.

The highlight being the sea otters that regularly joined us on our trips to and from restaurants.

Or was it the other way around?  Were we joining them on a visit to their restaurants?

Worth saying there were also air-conditioned shuttles available across the resort, but we rarely used them.  For the more adventurous there was the ‘jungle trek’ which took us through the 2 million year old rain forest to Emerald Bay, considered by some as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

The short trek is approximately half a kilometre long through the northern perimeter of the lush rainforest, while the longer more challenging two and half kilometre trek offers great views of the sea from the top of the southern perimeter.

On our first day we had planned to accompany the resort’s resident naturalist on his daily trek through the jungle, but we were delayed at breakfast.  After lathering up on sun cream and mosquito repellent, we were brave and decided to venture out on our own.

The jungle trek is part of the Chapman’s Challenge an event which celebrates British Colonel, Freddy Spencer Chapman, who made Pangkor Laut his destination for thirty-six hours in 1945. After spending three and a half years in hiding from the Japanese in the jungles of Malaya, he made his way to Pangkor Laut’s Emerald Bay to escape by submarine.

We obviously had much more of an enjoyable and luxurious encounter with the island, than Mr Chapman, but our daily circular trips reminded us of the conditions he must have experienced.

The packing of our walking shoes, digital camera and binoculars were great decisions and a must for anyone with an interest in wildlife.  Have patience and you’ll get great rewards, especially at the end when you see Emerald Bay.

We were on a full board package meaning we could enjoy all the dining options from the resort; this really was great value for money.   For a 5 star resort the drinks prices were not too bad with a pleasant New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as one of the house wines.

Situated in the Spa Village, Fisherman’s Cove provided western grill, fresh seafood and Italian cuisine and was clearly our favourites restaurant, dining here five nights during our stay.  A great excuse to dress up.

With an open show-kitchen and stunning sea view this really was what we had come to the island to enjoy.  Peaceful, relaxing, fine dining and great service from a team of staff to make your evening special.

Highlight of the menu was the Fried Marine Prawn with Citrus Aioli and caramelized walnuts starter and the Banana Crumble dessert, both amazing dishes.

Mains were great, but the Catch of the Day Chargrilled Lobster with garlic butter was something special.

On one evening we were treated to a unique ‘lightning’ show as a storm rolled over the mainland – there’s that micro-climate again.  You might be tempted to go for an outdoor table, but the secret is to be one row inside where you’ll get the luxury of a cooling ceiling fan.

Uncle Lim’s Kitchen was another restaurant we enjoyed, although not as exclusive as Fisherman’s Cove.   The restaurant is built atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea and named after the chef who has been with the resort since it opened.

Uncle Lim’s Kitchen specialises in Nyonya and Hockchew Chinese style home cooking and would have to say it went down very well and we enjoyed a few more casual evenings there.

Perhaps a little rushed at times but make a point in asking for service to be slowed down and you’ll be fine.  Certainly a restaurant not to be missed.

The Straits restaurant is another experience not to be missed, set on the rocks by the beach, and only open three nights a week, serving a maximum of 10 couples per evening.

It provides a very exclusive fine dining experience with bespoke personal menus drawn from South East Asian influences.  Private dining booths line both sides of the restaurant with one side offering exclusive views of the sea.

Another unique experience for us was the fruit bats flying overhead just metres above our head as we enjoyed our pre-dinner G&Ts.

The overall experience here was first class, however the food on offer at Fisherman’s Cove edged it for us.

The team at the Royal Bay Beach Club were great and helped us enjoy our afternoon lunches.  Overlooking the infinity pool, the menu had a selection of Asian and Western dishes and was the perfect setting to cool down with a warm beer or glass (or two) of wine.

The Feast Village featured a patisserie, café, Chef’s table and wine cellar where guests could purchase wines of their choice and is open for breakfast and dinner.

This was the main restaurant and quite busy.  Although the food here was good, we preferred the fine dining / leisurely experience at Fisherman’s Cove and the Straits.

The Spa Village located in the south east comprises eight treatment pavilions, a deluxe Belian Treatment Pavilion, three Healing Huts, two Bath Houses, three Thai Pavilions and a Herb Garden really is a unique retreat.

We were able to enjoy the Spa surroundings and use of the infinity pool and sun terrace, but we also tried out the treatments including the bath house ritual.   A soothing footbath and an invigorating chinese foot pounding, started off our experience.  We were then escorted to respective male or female Bath Houses to enjoy the traditional Malay “circulating” bath.

A Japanese-style cleansing with a goshi-goshi cloth in followed, before a dip in the heated rock pool.  An exfoliating Shanghai Scrub then set us up very nicely for our 80 minute Balinese massage.    An all-round great experience which really took us into the relaxation zone for the rest of our stay.

Our trip went by at a reasonable pace, not too fast and not too slow.  We really enjoyed the privacy and intimacy of our Spa Villa and were able to switch off and just be in the moment for most of the stay.

Our return trip home was pretty much the same but obviously in reverse.  It was light enough for us to enjoy the speed boat journey back to the Marina a little more before our journey to Kuala Lumpur and onward flight to the UK.

YTL Hotels owns and manages Pangkor Laut Resort and a prestigious collection of other award-winning resorts, hotels, boutique experiences across the world.  This was our first experience with them and have to say it was very special indeed.  Their resort management, headed up by Emmanuel, and supported by Stephen and Dashni were outstanding and made us feel so welcome.

We’ll no doubt be visiting more YTL Resorts and when we return to Pangkor Laut we’ve already got our sights on the famous Pavarotti Suite who understandably fell in love with the island!

The Bahía Del Duque, Costa Adeje, Tenerife – Luxury Guaranteed

Bahía del Duque is a Leading Hotel of the World (LHW) and it easily lives up to that status.

It is situated in the most exclusive end of Costa Adeje and is a laid out as a mock 19th century Spanish / Canarian village with direct access onto Playa Del Duque. The ‘village’ has five pools, streets, squares, church towers and stunning architecture filled with a mix of palms, dragon trees, flame trees, jacarandas, fruit trees and cactus.

Bahía del Duque is located on a large estate of approximately 100,000sqm. This project by renowned architect Andrés Piñeiro, recreates a Villa, with nineteen low-rise independent houses.

What makes Bahía del Duque stand out is that it really doesn’t feel like a large hotel, but more of a homely Spanish village all on its own and in some areas, has scenes straight out of a fairy tale.

Our check in was seamless, a little automated to be honest, but efficient and speedy – it did what it said on the tin as they say! The staff, in their traditional dress, were excellent throughout the hotel and across all departments – nothing was ever a problem and they put you at ease from the moment you arrived.

One of the very few criticisms we did have of the hotel was the reception area which was very hot; it would have been nice to have an air-conditioned area for guests to relax and ‘chill’. Perhaps something to think of in the future, especially for guests waiting to be picked up for their journey home.

We were in a Deluxe Seaview room, on a half board basis, and we managed to land one with a sun terrace and decent views of the sea through the ‘village’ rooftops.

Since our last stay in 2012 the rooms have undergone refurbishment and they have more of a modern feel about them than before.

A nice touch was the bottle of fizz chilling for our arrival – needless to say it disappeared very quickly along with the chocolate dipped strawberries.

Having the sun on our terrace from mid-afternoon meant we could retire to our room, enjoy a bite to eat from the room service menu and then relax with a large gin on the incredibly comfortable sun loungers.

Bahia del Duque stood out for us during our last trip for its gastronomic dining experience and this is what we came back for.  This is where Las Aguas stepped up to the plate – pun intended! Worth noting that across all restaurants (except Sensu Kazan) guests on half board could choose ‘inclusive’ dishes, but for some dishes there were supplements to pay.

Las Aguas is the flagship restaurant of Bahía del Duque. Located within the area of Las Villas, in a unique and exclusive setting, it was created by the interior designer Pascua Ortega. Las Aguas serves traditional Canarian cuisine using the most avant-garde techniques developed by its chef Braulio Simancas.

Fresh fish, local meats, market produce and the chef’s own market garden provided a menu full of flavours and textures. Las Aguas is one of our favourites restaurants, so on our first night we chose the 13-course tasting menu.

Celebrating traditional, Canarian tradition and culture it was simply outstanding. From start to finish the dishes were fresh, intense and exciting and the experience was very well priced. The entire evening felt special and exclusive with the most attentive staff we have had for a long time.  Overall Las Aguas provided a first class start to our stay and set the bar for others restaurants to follow.

A special mention for the dessert of white chocolate soup, passion fruit, mint and cardamom – this dessert is delicious and remains one of our firm favourites; highly recommended and worth visiting Lad Aguas for that alone!

We dined again here on our final evening and chose the traditional a la carte menu as the tasting menu on offer was the same as our earlier visit.  Although, another enjoyable evening, it didn’t quite live up to our first night and it would have been nice to have an alternative tasting menu or wider selection of a la carte dishes for guests visiting the restaurant more than once during their stay. That said, the larger portion of white chocolate soup went down a treat.

With a beautiful view over the Hotel’s swimming pool and central plaza La Brasserie offered us a refined menu by prestigious Belgian chef Pierre Résimont. Developed further by chef Yoseba Llarena local and seasonal products made up an impressive menu of Gallic cuisine. We kept it simple and started with a Beef carpaccio cooked at low temperature, with tuna froth and then shared a lovely and simple Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce on the side. Sometimes simplicity and quality food is all you need for a special evening.

We were excited by the new offering since our last visit. Sensu Kazan, a partner restaurant for Bahia Del Duque, offered a menu of Japanese haute cuisine dishes, a Sushi Bar and a Robatayaki Grill.

We visited on our third night and although the food was excellent, fresh and authentic, we would have to say they really missed a trick in creating an atmosphere, capturing our senses and making it a memorable evening. Other than Sushi Bars, we haven’t eaten in many Japanese restaurants and it would have been nice to have been guided through what seemed to be an impressive menu.  Thankfully, the trusty Iphone was on hand to offer suitable translations. If they can get the customer engagement / experience right and to the same standards as the main hotel Sensu Kazan will become a worthy addition to the gourmet offering at the hotel. Not being part of the half board basis, they could perhaps consider the price point, as being very similar to Las Aguas, it certainly didn’t offer the same value for money.

Another new restaurant since our last visit, Sea, which means fire in Euskera (the Basque language), offered another gastronomic experience.

With expert chefs hard at work in an open kitchen they worked their magic with smoky aromas helping us on a journey into Basque cuisine.

We also dined in La Trattoria, which serves Italian cuisine, La Hacienda a mexican and Alisios Market Food.  All of them provided different atmospheres and options depending on your preferences each evening and importantly impressive menus and choices.

A buffet breakfast is served in El Bernegal restaurant with an excellent selection of cold, hot dishes and Nespresso coffee. When we chose to eat in the morning, led to a very different experience with the ‘family’ side of the resort clearing showing through during busier peak times. We ate here every morning just after 10am and it was very nice, but we did miss having the option of the more relaxing a la carte breakfast experience we have enjoyed at other hotels recently. A la carte breakfasts were available for guests staying in Casas Ducales and Las Villas accommodation, but that’s another level of luxury, sadly out of our price range!

El Bernegal offers themed buffets and show cooking in the evening where you could taste the best international cuisine.  We tried here one evening as we were dining early and were pleasantly surprised with the quality and presentation of dishes. Buffets tends to be more functional than a real dining experience and are not our preferred option however El Bernegal certainly provided a quality option for those guests with young children, or those perhaps looking for a less formal experience.

The Thalassotherapy circuit / spa is well worth a visit where a two-metre waterfall invites to enjoy hydromassage jets, bubble beds and the therapeutic benefits of sea water which is apparently taken directly from the Atlantic Ocean. We spent an entire day here during our second week and had one of our most relaxing experiences for a long time. This area is complemented by a hammam, saunas, a cold water pool and an outdoor solarium with shaded relaxation areas. The cold water pool certainly isn’t for the faint hearted!

This was our third time at Bahia Del Duque and our first since venturing into the food and travel world. This resort covers all the bases in terms of what we look for in a break, relaxation, luxury and a gourmet / gastronomic experience up there with the best!

The Bahia Del Duque, at this time of year anyway (August), didn’t give us the full couple’s experience we’ve enjoyed in the past, but it will also be a special place for us as it was probably the hotel that got us hooked on luxury and gourmet travel. No doubt we will be back in the future!

Seven ‘Secrets’ – Secrets Capri, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Our last trip to Mexico was back in 2007 and a lot has changed since then including what we look for and enjoy on our trips.

In recent years, most of our trips to the Caribbean have been to Sandals Resorts in the early part of the year. Trying a new resort group, in November also, made us a little apprehensive.

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We needn’t have worried. Secrets Capri in the Mayan Riviera was outstanding and is currently sitting high up on our most relaxing and enjoyable trips ever. Without taking anything away from Sandals Group, who have and will continue to give us some amazing trips, Secrets Capri certainly matches them for standards and quality.

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We stayed in a Preferred Club Deluxe Ocean View room (on the northern / eastern side of the resort). The room was very spacious and exactly what you would expect from a five-star resort of this type. The in room ‘edible delights’ waiting for you when you returned at the end of the evening were a pleasant surprise and highly recommended.

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Here are our seven ‘secrets’ to look out for.

#1, The overriding plus point from this resort is that their employees are outstanding. They are very attentive, friendly and nothing is ever a problem. Service is so good we genuinely had to tip one of them to stop bringing us cocktails and champagne one day!

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#2, The Cactus Club, which overlooks the Caribbean, has it all – it is great for breakfast, lunches and a romantic drink at end of the evening. We would recommend trying for a table adjacent to the beach and you will have one of the most relaxing breakfasts you will ever have had. 2016-11-16-10-01-20

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For lunch we would highly recommend the vast ceviche selection and the ‘fish fingers’ aka golden battered grouper fish.  Simply amazing, ditch the fries, and ask for two portions of fish fingers!

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#3, The restaurants on offer are genuinely good and two restaurants are venturing on fine dining. Portofino is first class and we had a few great evenings here, including our final night, where we had a special dining experience in our own private wine cellar.
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The oriental restaurant, Himitsu, was also great with excellent sushi on offer. The range and high quality of food from what you would expect at the usual beachfront place at Cactus Club, all the way up to their fine dining Italian restaurant Portofino is what all resorts should aspire to. Being able to choose from a variety of á la carte restaurants, a buffet and a café is great, but never having to worry about reservations was the real plus point. Perhaps worth saying that in our 10 nights dining (between 7pm and 8pm) we only ever had to wait on a table once and this was only for 10 minutes.

2016-11-19-10-26-02 2016-11-19-10-39-242016-11-19-10-39-00#4, It’s refreshing to visit a resort where there are more sunbeds than guests and there was absolutely no issue with finding one (even with a parasol) at any time of the day. The pool area is split into two with more ‘active’ guests at the southern / western side and the more relaxed / chilled out guests at the northern / eastern side.

2016-11-19-12-39-55Needless to say we spent a lot of time at the southern / eastern side.? It is worth pointing out that on some nights they set up for the night time entertainment late afternoon on this side and you are asked politely to move to another sunbed for the remainder of the afternoon.? Not a problem, if you know about it, so keep an eye on the evening entertainment plans and ask one of the team what’s happening as the shows are pretty good.

#5, We like to keep active, at least for some parts of the day, and managed to explore the grounds of the resort on most days. This included a walk out towards the main gate and spa complex. We would suggest doing it either early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low and you can benefit from a little shade from the trees that line the route. As you can see below we were lucky and managed to observe some of the locals going about their daily business.

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In the morning, before breakfast, we hit the gym and took part in cross fit sessions with Daniel the resorts personal trainer. We also managed to fit in daily walks along Mayakoba Beach towards Playa Del Carmen around 1 ½ hr round trip.

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All very worthwhile activities to help us work off those extra calories from the amazing food and drink on offer.

#6, For bloggers and twitter addicts like us an effective internet connection is essential and we would have to say the internet was pretty good – just be ready and prepared to switch to different routers depending on time of day and where you are in resort.

#7, Coco Café, is a real find, and asset for this resort. This place is open 24 hrs and offers coffee, pastries and snacks. Just what you need first thing in the morning, late at night or if you fancy a sneaky bite away from your other half!

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Finally, a big thank you to Monica Sierra who is doing a fantastic job as E-concierge and Social Media Co-ordinator and Javier Suarez, Division Manager who made our stay all the more special. Grissell, the poolside waitress, was also the most bubbly and engaging waitress we have ever been fortunate to have – top member of the team.

Overall, we had a fantastic luxurious time time at Secrets Capri and it will certainly be a place we will be visiting again soon.? We might try out a few of the other Secrets Resorts before then though so look out for our next blog.

Elba Palace Golf & Vital Hotel, Caleta de Fuste, Fuerteventura

This was our first trip to Fuerteventura and we were simply looking for a lazy, relaxing and chilled out week in nice surroundings along with good food.

The Elba Palace Golf & Vital 5-star boutique hotel offered this in abundance and at a great price. This couples’ hotel, with only 61 rooms over two floors, also didn’t leave you feeling like one of the masses as you perhaps do sometimes in larger hotels – there is something really unique about this place.

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A 20 min walk from the main commercial centre, the hotel is positioned at the top of an 18-hole golf course and is perfect for those (i.e. us two!) looking for peace and guaranteed year round sunshine, as well as for those interested in golf (i.e. not us two!).

The hotel has been designed with colonial dark wooden balconies surrounding an internal courtyard planted with palm trees and other plants native to the island.

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We arrived at the hotel around 9pm after a pretty rapid and efficient airport transit and private transfer. What an incredible welcome we received – we honestly felt we had an arrived at family member’s house. Director Pilar George and David could not have been more friendly, welcoming and attentive.? Check in was swift and was accompanied by a lovely glass of pink fizz. We received the usual orientation style information and then we were shown to our room.

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Director Pilar George really knows how to run a hotel, make guests feel special and help out when needed. Where else in the world, when reception gets a little busy, would you ever see a Director assist guests with their luggage. Elba Hotels really have a top leader there and I only hope they can keep her – until our next visit at least!

Our suite was stunning and the bottle of cava with freshly made petit fois chocolates was a nice touch. We had been allocated an upper floor south east facing suite overlooking the pool area; this would not normally have been our first choice, but it was perfect. At that time of year only a handful of rooms seem to receive the sun late afternoon and early evening – thankfully one of them was ours.

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The suite, with a good size wooden balcony, was very spacious with a separate lounge area and large fully tiled bathroom area. A nice touch was the hydro massage shower and luxury bath along with the usual complementary gown, slippers, tea and coffee facilities and 2 x LED TV. ? The room also had a safe for use, mini bar and free Wi Fi.

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One of the real plus points at the Elba Palace is that you can dine whenever you want. There’s no need to book and no difficulty in getting a table in the tranquil outdoor courtyard style restaurant appropriately named St Andrews – after the home of golf. You simply turn up, sit down, order wine, choose food, relax and enjoy.

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St Andrews is an a la Carte restaurant with indoor and outdoor courtyard dining areas. It offers a romantic setting, dining under the palm trees and stars, and listening to a pianist or live music (on most nights). We dined here each night and had some really nice food. Main courses were good and the dessert buffet was fantastic – there is simply no chance of only choosing one!

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One thing management should perhaps consider is to have background music playing in the background before and after the live singers as it creates more of an atmosphere for guests to enjoy. All in all, we had seven very tranquil, relaxing and enjoyable dining experiences in pleasant surroundings topped off with Hotel Elba’s trade make friendly, attentive and extremely courteous staff.

Breakfast was served in Café Hoyo 19 which also served a wide range of dishes throughout the day including Tapas, Snacks and fresh salads.

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Breakfast was what you would expect from a buffet style set up with nice freshly brewed coffee and pastries to finish. We managed to bag a table each day on the outdoor terrace which was a nice way to start the day. Service was a little slow during our last few days, but we got the impression that they were maybe a little low on staff numbers. It wasn’t a problem though as it just meant we had longer time to enjoy our coffee accompanied by one (or two) of their amazing freshly made custard filled donuts.

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Perhaps worth noting that Elba Palace isn’t your usual type of 5 star hotel in terms of food and drink prices. Although more expensive than establishments in nearby Caleta De Fuste prices are very reasonable and you can enjoy them at the hotel in much more luxurious surroundings. Would be nice to see the suite mini-bar prices come down a little though, but you can’t have everything.

We only ventured out a few times to Caleta de Fuste, which is only a 20 min walk away, but with nice food and lovely surroundings we didn’t feel the need to leave the Elba Palace much as it was such good value. We’re also going to reserve judgement on Caleta De Fuste until our next visit – there is some major beach reconstruction work underway (August 2016) which certainly had an impact on our first impressions.

Although smaller than the usual hotels we stay at, the pool area was spacious and was very relaxing and tranquil. We never had a problem securing one of the comfortable cushioned wooden sunbeds with parasols and there were always a couple of balinese beds available if you wanted to give them a go later in the day. Pool service was available and the fresh fruit served early afternoon was again a nice touch.

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The Wi-Fi was a little temperamental around the pool, but it was nice to have a little digital detox time when it was down!

The hotel has plenty of other facilities including a relaxation area with jacuzzi, sauna and steam bath. Massage cabins, gym and padel tennis court. We also had free access to the seawater circuit at the nearby Sheraton Thalasso Spa and a personal trainer offering a daily sports program including Yoga, Tai Chi, Fitness, Aquagym and Pilates. We would love to say we tried all of these, but we never managed given we were only there for a week – perhaps next time though!

Would like to give a special mention to Laura who served us on our first few days – she was simply first class and always had a big smile – sadly she seemed to be on leave for the remainder of our stay, but the other staff stepped up to the mark in her absence. A mention is also due to Chapin from guest services / reception.  This young gentleman always had a smile on his face throughout our stay and he was always there to help and assist us whenever we had a question or needed assistance.  Our nearby city of Glasgow has a saying that ‘People make Glasgow’ – this is equally true at the Elba Palace where it is clear that the staff make the hotel what it is.

We don’t normally do seven day breaks as we never feel it is long enough for us to relax and switch off.  The Elba Palace though has changed that – from the very first day we were totally chilled and in the relaxed zone.  This feeling was down to the fantastic welcome we received, the outstanding customer service and supremely calming and tranquil ambience this hotel offers.

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We had such a great time that within 2 days of returning we booked again for a 10 day break in March next year. We also have a funny feeling this hotel will be on our radar for many future visits too.

Sandals Ochi – Life with a butler and a bat phone!

When you hear the term ‘ butler’, depending on your age, the first thing that springs to mind is probably Carson from Downton Abbey.  Butlers are not just for the rich and famous though – normal people like us can also have the privilege.

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We were quite nervous the first time we booked a butler suite with Sandals.? What do these guys do? Are they with you all the time? Do you tip them daily? Are they standing at the end of the bed when you wake! Do you have a bell?

We’re pleased to say after three trips to Sandals butler suites, we now have all these answers and more. See here for more detail of what they could do for you depending on which resort you attend.

Having a butler sounds quite posh and upmarket and, do you know what, there’s no getting away from it, it kind of is.  If you want a completely luxurious ‘switch off’ vacation though a butler experience is exactly what you need. Hey, these guys are trained in accordance to the exacting standards of the Guild of Professional English Butlers. This Guild provides butlers and valets to nobility and celebrities worldwide and here they are looking after us for 11 days!

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Some people may have different views, but ours is that the Butlers at Sandals are there to provide a personalised service to ensures guests are looked after to the highest standard. We’ve been fortunate to have experienced butler suites on three occasions, once at St Lucia Grande and at Sandals Ochi, Jamaica twice. The most important point to remember is that the butlers are there to make your trip more enjoyable and hassle free. While they will tell you different we don’t think they are? there to wait on you 24/7 and should be treated with the same dignity and respect you would expect in return.

Quite simply, if you’re 12 ft from the pool bar then get of your sun lounger and get your own Mojito, don’t call these guys to do it for you.? That said, they will tell that’s exactly what they are there to do!

We prefer to build up a respectful and fun relationship with them. The hours these guys work, sometimes 12 a day, and the effort they put in is first class; build up a relationship with them and they will treat you like royalty. You also need to remember they are going home to their own families after they leave you and it could be a far cry from the luxury they are affording you.

Back to our trip, which has become our laziest of all trips – ever!  Moria and Shenae, our Sandals Ochi butlers this year, really helped us get into this zone very quickly.

2016-03-23 10.36.50These immaculately dressed ladies, with their amazing personalities and smiles, have only been working together for a short while, but have already built up a great relationship with each other and this works really well for their guests. They had received our completed ‘preferences’ before we had arrived and had set about getting everything in order for us – including Colin’s Drambui and our other drinks and restaurant preferences.

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What was even better is they got to know us pretty quickly and knew what we liked and when we liked it. We really felt as if we have known them for years. To be fair Moria was one of our butlers last year and we put in a request for her when we returned. The nice thing was that they were both normally nowhere to be seen, until you needed them and then they were only a short phone call away on the ‘bat phone’. They both did have a ‘bad’ habit though of turning up unprompted every now and again with platefuls of coconut shrimp, pastries and champagne – it would have been such a waste to turn them away!

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The ‘bat phone’ was our name for the mobile cell phone they gave us which provided a direct dial to them when you needed them. There’s something comforting to know that there’s a person there for you on the other end of the phone when you need them – even if only for more coconut shrimp.

Moria and Shenae worked split shifts generally from around 7am each morning to around 10pm each evening, although they covered for each other for an entire day each week to give them a day off. Throughout our stay it seemed they were looking after around five couples – all with competing needs and demands no doubt.  What struck us with Moria and Shenae was that they were both committed to what they did and in making their guests feel totally relaxed. We’re pleased to say they managed that no problem and Sandals should be proud to have them on their staff; nothing was ever a problem.

The ladies brought our breakfast to our terrace most mornings along with afternoon lunch, snacks and champagne – even when our stomachs were full to the max. They made making dinner reservations a breeze and picked us up each evening in their golf carts and escorted us to our dinner table where they arranged pre-dinner drinks and table wine. They got to know what we liked and even had it waiting for us when we didn’t know we wanted it.

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Before finishing for the night they would turn down our bed for us and ensure our rooms were ready for us returning, our fruit platter was in the fridge for the following morning and that we had plenty water (and other drinks!) for the next day.  Even more impressive was their ability to make vegetarian dinosaurs out of our towels – a talent not held by many.

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At the end of our stay and just before we left we showed them our appreciation for all their hard work. Sandals have a no tipping policy across their resorts, which we always have difficulty in following, but they do make an exception for butlers. Moria and Shenae definitely earned some personal recognition from us this time round and we would recommend them to anyone staying at Sandals Ochi.

So all in all was it worth paying extra for a butler suite – we think so yes. It may not be everyones cup of tea, but it works for us and certainly made this the most memorably relaxing break we have had in a long long time.

In answer to the earlier questions hopefully the above gives an idea of what these guys do and that you can still have plenty of spare time to yourself.  You can tip them daily but we chose to do it at the end of of the holiday which is much easier.  Whether they are standing at the end of the bed when you wake is entirely up to you.  Finally, there’s no need for a bell as you always have the bat phone.

Thanks again Moria and Shenae and all the best for the future.