Puttin’ on the Ritz? Worth the splurge!

Puttin’ on the Ritz? Worth the splurge!

When Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1927, the name “Ritz” was already well known―and no one doubted that it meant living in a grand style. It’s now almost a century later, and it still evokes that same meaning for travellers around the world.

Today, the Ritz Carlton Hotel chain―with its long and storied history―is owned by Marriott and, as far as the discerning travellers are concerned, is the feather in Marriott’s cap. We’re long-time Marriott loyalty members (with the status to prove it). We’ve stayed at just about every level of Marriott’s, from a Fairfield Inn in Flagstaff, Arizona at one end of the spectrum to J W Marriott’s, W’s, Renaissance’s, and too many Autograph collection hotels to even mention all over the world. We have just returned from our fourth Ritz Carlton adventure.

Until now, the Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing took the top prize for us as far as service, ambience and overall experience were concerned. (Why we were in a Four Seasons and not a Marriott property is a long story―but a good one!) We’d even stayed in three previous Ritz Carlton’s recently―Fort Lauderdale and Naples, Florida and Half Moon Bay in California, and none of them topped The Four Seasons. Now, one had.

Two days in the Ritz Carlton in Montréal, and we can never go back to the Chȃteau Champlain, where we always stay when we’re there―and since Montréal is a mere five-hour drive from our front door, it’s a place we go more than many others. The Ritz is expensive. That has to be said upfront. But the question is: do you get value for your money? Yes, you do.

Ritz Carlton properties are always well-kept, and their staff―their ladies and gentlemen as they are called―are well-trained in the art of making individual guests feel as if they are the most important people in the hotel. They do this by learning your name, offering to help, continuing a conversation with you as they walk you to your elevator and punching in the button for you. They do this by fine details: water in your valet-parked car when you pick it up to continue your trip (although to be fair, they did that in California, but in Montreal, it seems like they forgot. Tut-tut.) Or then there is the tiny, perfect spray bottle of lavender aromatherapy left on your p pillow during turn-down the evening of your second night (Montreal). Yes, they do have turn-down, a service that seems to have all but disappeared in the hotel industry. Perhaps it’s not essential, but when they add details, the experience always makes you smile.

The rooms are beautiful, although not always spacious. That depends on location. Our recent room in Montréal was delightfully spacious, and the bathroom was to die for, with no detail overlooked. Everything from the heated towel rack to the high-tech toilet to the bath and shower amenities―everything was divine. And it was so spacious!

The restaurants at the Ritz Carlton in Montréal are beautiful. The main restaurant is a Daniel Boulud outpost (we love Café Boulud here in Toronto. It’s at the Four Seasons, which is a ten-minute walk from our door). The food was terrific, and the service was equally lovely. They do know how to pick staff, even in these days of hotel and restaurant angst following the pandemic.

The other dining venue is one of the most well-appointed bars we’ve seen. It’s stunning. It’s more of a bar, although we ate dinner there on the second evening. The service was a bit spottier, but to be fair, the server was personable if a bit inexperienced. He did flub up a few times, and his boss, who was sitting at the bar, probably should have stepped in. Nevertheless, we had fun.

There is little doubt in our minds that the Ritz Carlton makes travelling a bit more pleasant these days. And for us, it’s worth the splurge. If you go, just remember this: there may be no going back!

Take a few moments to tour the Montréal hotel with us.

Chartering a Private Catamaran in St. Lucia: One perfect day in the Caribbean

Chartering a Private Catamaran in St. Lucia: One perfect day in the Caribbean

It’s not quite post-COVID yet, but life is short, and we just had to get away. After spending a week in Barbados and chartering a plane to get us from there to St. Lucia, we found ourselves at The BodyHoliday, chilling at a spa and wellness centre for a week. But what about all that water beckoning us? As far as we’re concerned, there is nothing better than a day spent on the water, exploring the coast of a Caribbean Island (or even the shore of the Mediterranean, for that matter!). So, we investigated our options.

The BodyHoliday offers a department they call “Special Experiences.” Their objective is to help you build special events and experiences that make for unforgettable vacation moments. And, of course, that means different things to different people. We visited the special experiences staff, and they booked us our private sail. (Of course, there is a price to be paid for such experiences, and at this point in our lives, we’re willing to pay it!)

Once we had the charter booked―a 42-foot catamaran and two crew members―the resort staff also booked taxis for us to get to Rodney Bay Marina and back and then asked if we’d like to have them pack a lunch. Who could refuse that?

We arrived at the Rodney Bay Marina, home to an impressive array of watercraft. When we approached the Southern Breeze, our transportation for the day, a crew member welcomed us and said, “Just the two of you?” When we said yes, he smiled broadly. An easy day, perhaps?

We set off from the marina and headed south along the west coast of St. Lucia past what is now Sandals LaToc where we spent our honeymoon thirty-five years ago (it was Cunard LaToc back then!) toward the pride of their natural environment. Les Deux Pitons are impressive volcanic peaks in the Soufriere area of the island―Petit Piton (small piton) and Gros Piton (large piton). They are at almost the southwest tip of the island, and it took us two hours under sail and with the engine running to get there.

Along the way back, we sailed into the lovely little Marigot Bay, famous for being the filming location for the tropical bits of the 1967 film Dr. Doolittle starring Rex Harrison. Now, there’s even a restaurant right on the water’s edge called Doolittle’s. It’s on our list to visit the next time we’re in St. Lucia―and there will be a next time!

A few minutes on the water…

Chartering a Plane: What a way to go!

Chartering a Plane: What a way to go!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to charter a small plane and fly off to somewhere wonderful with just you (and maybe one other person) and the pilot? Maybe you’ve been a bit like us and had this itch to have this experience at least once. And maybe you’re a bit like Art, who had a desire not only to charter a plane but also to fly into a particular airport. That airport is on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. How, you might ask, did he figure out he wanted to do this?

 Anyone who has been following along with us on our discerning travel experience for some years will know that we have taken more than a few cruises. And you’ll also know that we’ve spent a few weeks cruising in the Caribbean, visiting many islands more than once. One island that’s often on cruise itineraries is the lovely St. Lucia, with its lush vegetation and its famous “Deux Pitons,” those iconic volcanic peaks. (We’ll show them to you in our next post when we charter a 42-foot catamaran in St. Lucia.) When you cruise past this island, you see these natural aspects of the island, but if you’re really astute, you’ll also see a runway―a runway at a small airport tucked between the hills.

This runway is at the airport near the capital Castries and is called the George F. L. Charles Airport (SLU). It’s the small airport that caters only to the inter-island carriers. Most international visitors arrive at Hewanorra International Airport (UVF), located on the southeast corner of the island, a good hour and a half drive from most of the nicest resorts. On our recent Caribbean adventure, we wanted to fly into SLU.

We began this holiday in Barbados, so all we needed was a flight from Bridgetown, Barbados, to Castries, St. Lucia, a 45-minute flight on a turbo-prop. But, of course, this trip was two years into the COVID pandemic. That meant that we would have to have negative COVID tests before we could receive a travel authorization for St. Lucia. So, we made a plan.

Art began researching private charters in the Caribbean and came up with a few reasonable possibilities. The fly in the ointment was that we weren’t prepared to pay the (large) fee upfront without knowing if we’d get that travel authorization. So, we made a contingency plan and asked our travel agent to book us a fully refundable ticket on InterCaribbean Airways on one of their 30-seaters so that we would at least have a way to get from Barbados to St. Lucia if our private charter didn’t work out.

One of the airline charter companies (Latitude Air Charters) was still able to provide a plane two days before when we finally received that travel authorization from St. Lucia, so we booked, paid in full, and cancelled our commercial flight. One can quite nicely justify such an extravagance, though, in the world of COVID―just imagine how much safer we would be on a private plane? Anyway, we booked it and were off.

As part of the booking, Art requested that his contact arrange a car to pick us up in Barbados to take us to the airport and another to meet in Castries. It was seamless.

As we neared the airport in Bridgetown, our driver called ahead so that there would be an agent right there to check us into our flight when we arrived two minutes later. It was 10:30 in the morning, and the airport was deserted. We knew that the international flights wouldn’t start arriving until some time after noon, and we would be long gone by then.

We checked in at the Mustique Airways counter and headed to security. Of course, we were the only passengers clearing security, so that wasn’t an issue.

After security, we entered the departure lounge, where we were to wait for the same person who had checked us in to arrive on the tarmac with a vehicle to drive us to our plane. What a feeling to be the only passengers there!

Before we knew it, we were at the plane, and the agent was putting our luggage in the small hold while the pilot did his final inspection. Then we were off.

There’s something special about this kind of personal adventure―something special about checking one very magical experience off our bucket list. As we took in everything―leaving the beaches of one island behind, crossing the Caribbean Sea and watching a new set of beaches edge into view―we knew how lucky we were.

And then, we began to make our approach to that runway. On the approach, it seems as if the plane will land in the ocean, but of course, it didn’t.

See that runway??

And if you want to come along on that flight with us and experience that approach, just click below for the video. You won’t regret it!

A Tale of Two Resorts: One vacation, two experiences

A Tale of Two Resorts: One vacation, two experiences

There’s an old saying (very old―it dates from the sixteenth century) that we’re sure you’ve heard before: It’s an ill wind that blows no good, or as it was originally written: “An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good…” In some ways, we could say that about the last two years of seriously restricted travel because returning to travel has been a little like conjuring the excitement of doing something for the first time. Now that we’ve returned home from our winter sojourn in the Caribbean, we can tell you that we’ve been making up for lost time. As we told you in our last post, we had a three-part vacation. Let’s talk about the first two parts.

When the dust had settled on our cancelled Caribbean cruise and we put together our vacation, we decided we wanted to return to the islands, with the emphasis on the plural―islands. One would not be enough. Since both Caribbean stops were similar in that they were both low-rise, beachfront, adults-only properties, which included everything, it only seemed natural that we’d make comparisons. And we made lots. Let’s start this trip in Barbados.

We arrived at The House on the west coast of Barbados in mid-afternoon and were greeted by one of their onsite “ambassadors.” [For a few more details, we did introduce The House in our last post.] A thirty-four all-suite property, The House takes its name literally. We were led into the living room that opens to both the entrance and the beachfront to the rear. There is no reception desk, no concierge desk―only a living room furnished with comfortable couches and “ambassadors” who will attend to your wishes (when you can find one).

Our suite was exactly like the one we had when we were last here nine years ago, except we were on the ground floor this time. This location turned out to be excellent in that we could step out onto our lanai, then into the pool and onto the beach beyond. The suite is so pretty but the bathroom―let’s just say it was past its best-before date by some years.

The property is now all-inclusive, an amenity it didn’t offer nine years ago. Is this a good thing? Well, the food is not for foodies, but we enjoyed it. Last time around, we took advantage of the wonderful restaurants dotting the west coast of Barbados. We stayed on the property this time, eating all our meals in the living room/dining room and at Positano, the Italian restaurant attached to the property. This was actually a good thing, though, because the COVID restrictions are (were in February 2022) in full force. There were interesting (if limited) buffets on some evenings, à la carte offerings on others. The lunches were the best of all.

The property is quiet, populated with mostly older guests hailing from Britain. There may have been a few Americans―we didn’t hear any. And there was a smattering of Canadians. There are only thirty-four suites, though, so there weren’t many people at all.

If we are being honest (and making a comparison), the beach and pool deck services were a bit spotty. It depended on which staff member happened to be working that day. Some were wonderful―others not so much.

So, what do you do at a property like this one? It’s quiet, and that’s what we wanted, frankly. But we also walked a few kilometres north and visited the Limegrove Lifestyle Centre― a fancy-sounding name for a small mall with a few upscale retailers such as Cartier and Longchamp. Then there was a short run into Bridgetown.

Sadly, the capital does not appear to have weathered the tourist dearth over the past two years very well. We saw many shuttered shops and very few tourists at all. And everyone on the street was wearing a mask. So, it was a short stop, and we were back in a taxi and back to The House to enjoy the sound of the surf, a bit of relaxation and a really good glass of Mount Gay XO rum on the rocks. The House provided us with a QR code to book a COVID test that we’d need for our onward travel. A charming young doctor arrived at our suite on the last Saturday morning, completed our test and paperwork and then it was off to St. Lucia.

Getting to St. Lucia is a subject for a whole other day. Can you say privately chartered aircraft? Well, yes, we can (but that is for another post!). When we arrived in St. Lucia, we navigated the health requirements, which resulted in donning white bracelets reminiscent of hospital identity bracelets.

The bracelet

They signified to everyone that we were adequately vaccinated and negatively tested, and we had to wear them until we left the country. We hopped in the waiting transportation and headed off to The BodyHoliday for the next week.

We arrived at The BodyHoliday long before standard check-in time, so we had to stow our belongings in well-appointed lockers. Then we headed off to the beach and lunch. When the time came for us to get into our suite, it wasn’t ready. We waited and waited. At first, patiently, then after an hour and a half, not so patiently. Finally, a concierge staff member told us the truth―the reason we couldn’t access our room was that the previous guest (who was supposed to check out at noon) still hadn’t left at four p.m. It’s hard to believe that anyone could be that obnoxious, but there are those around. To make up for our wait, the executive housekeeper asked us if there was anything we wanted. Usually, in those situations, the answer is not really, but we did have something in mind this time. We asked for a bottle of a very high-end St. Lucian rum we’d wanted to sample. A bottle of the not so high-end version arrived that same day, and a bottle of Forgotten Cask arrived the next day. Bliss on a balcony overlooking the beach!

Then, there was a lovely surprise. The first evening we arrived back in our room after dinner, the room was serviced and there was a tea tray with tiny biscuits. That chamomile tea helped us to drift right off. Every evening thereafter, another tea tray magically arrived with a different herbal concoction every evening. such a nice touch!

What about the resort, and how does it compare to The House. First, it’s larger. It’s not a high-rise, but it does have over two hundred rooms and suites, and it sits on a thirty-acre property which is so much larger than The House. Both are adults-only, but the guest demographic at The BodyHoliday skewed much younger. We expected that since this vacation can be a very active one with so many extras included.

One of the extras that we enjoyed daily was the included spa treatments. Each day you’re a guest here, you can have one of an extensive series of spa treatments, from massages to facials. We availed ourselves of the gamut. It’s possible to book these in advance, but we had a few issues with glitches in the online booking system and said to hell with it and left it up to them. When we arrived, we were each provided with a personalized schedule of daily treatments. We just had to get ourselves up the many steps leading up to the Wellness Centre to partake. It is worth noting that this may not be the spot for you if you have mobility issues. The property will provide an alternative lift up the hill, but the property itself isn’t really friendly to those who can’t walk a lot. There are lots of stairs and no elevators.

Unlike The House, one of the highlights was the food. As a rule, we’re not buffet-lovers, but the buffet at the main restaurant was quiet and extremely well-provisioned. As you can imagine, since this is a wellness holiday, there is an emphasis on healthy food. Every dish on offer had a small placard beside it indicating its content. For people who have chosen to restrict their diets in one way or another, it would have been heaven. Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free etc.―they were all available. We don’t go for that kind of restriction, so we just enjoyed sampling many new dishes. The stand-out lunch was the Indian buffet.

The property has one onsite special restaurant they call Windows. A couple of times a week, they turn the buffet areas of the main restaurant into a special, reservation-only space that is advertised as something special. When a server asks Patty to reuse her fork―not once, but twice―there is nothing fine dining about it. Reusing cutlery? Not unless we’re at a low-end diner. It didn’t live up to its hype, and we’d definitely give it a miss the next time.

Then there was the spa. The Wellness Centre on the top of the hill above the beach and restaurant area was all we hoped it would be. It was beautiful, quiet, meditative and Zen-like and offered some of the most enjoyable treatments. We also consulted with the onsite Ayurvedic doctor, and that was worth the extra money we spent, if only for its entertainment value.

Then there were other activities on offer. In fact, there were so many that they had to give us a booklet when we checked in. Yoga and Pilates classes. Meditation classes. Scuba diving lessons and dives. Snorkelling. Hobie craft sailing. Paddleboarding. Windsurfing. Tennis lessons. Golf lessons. Aquacise classes (those were very popular in their activities pool which was separate from their pool for leisure swimming and sun-bathing). And the list goes on. It was exhausting just reading it. But the good news was you could select to do as much or as little as you like. We enjoyed exploring the walking trails on the property and relaxing to the sounds of the ocean waves in Cariblue Bay, the little bay that The BodyHoliday has all to itself.

When it was time to leave, the concierge made us an appointment with their onsite nurse, who did our COVID tests and paperwork so we could move on to the third destination on our multi-layered vacation.

So, how did these two Caribbean, adults-only, low-rise, all-inclusive properties compare in the end? Well, there you have the similarities: location in the Caribbean, guests restricted to adults, no high rises and everything included. Everything else was different.

Despite our penchant for smaller resorts (we suppose that by most people’s standards, The BodyHoliday was small, The House minuscule), we preferred The BodyHoliday and would return in a nanosecond. But you do need to book an oceanfront room―not an oceanview. The oceanview rooms are much higher up the hill, away from the sounds of the surf. But, of course, they’re cheaper!

We have a great story to tell about our trip between islands. Stay tuned!

If you have a few minutes and would like to see what these two resorts are all about, here are the two video tours we made for you.

Our return to The House in Barbados
Our first visit to The BodyHoliday