The opposing figures of Emperor Napoléon and Empress Eugenie look down from the dining room of Villa Eugenie, today known as the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz.
Napoleon built the palace in 1858 as a summer home for his wife so she could be close to her native Spain. The arrival of European royalty to this sleepy coastal border town transformed it into a glamorous vacation destination for the moneyed elite.
Converted into a casino, and then a hotel, Hotel du Palais is a bastion of lavish consumption where luxury meets history, and where decorum is strictly adhered to as two young Americans ahead of me discovered when they asked to be seated for dinner.
“Non,” the hostess sniffed, denying them entry.
Going jeans and jacketless in the salle au manger is strictly forbidden in the presence of the emperor.
I manage to slide in with a navy Marchesa Notte gown.
Against the flickering glow of (albeit faux) candlelight, piano music fills the air with nostalgia. It feels like you’re traveling through time. I half expect the royal couple to come waltzing in at midnight.
Dinner arrives beneath a silver cloche.
After dinner it’s time to retreat to the room, many of which are named after the politicians, celebrities and royalty that once welcomed them. Our room, overlooking the Bay of Biscay, was next to the Winston Churchill room.
In the morning a sumptuous selection of breads, meats, regional fromage, patisseries, tarts, and fruits fill the breakfast table.
Then it’s time for some fun in the sun, a jumping board into a heated salt water pool awaits. A private walkway with showers and change rooms gives direct access to the Grande Plage, where rolling waves attract world class surfers from around the globe.
Taking a dip into the waters of the Atlantic is brisk, but refreshing, and a lazy walk along the craggy rocks of the Basque coast is romantic bliss.
When the clouds take over, it’s time to go to the indoor pool and jacuzzi.
I take advantage of the well appointed gym and hammam facilities to get re-energized and maximize relaxation. Everyday a new perfume fills the steam room with a refreshing scent, eucalyptus on Mondays, mint on Tuesdays.
At the intersection of the old world and new, this place strikes a luxurious balance.
Not that I am in the habit of noticing perfectly formed breasts, but Grethe from Norway had an exceptional set of baubles that were staring right at me. Sitting in the hot tub of the au naturel beach at Couples Sans Souci Ochos Rios, I try to look the other way or politely practice indifference whilst sitting across from the Norse goddess and her slightly erect husband. We talk about the weather and share travel tips. While it’s interesting to play the emperor has no clothes on the nude beach, not everyone here is an emperor. To be clear, people around here look like a cross sampling of your local Walmart, naked. I feel self-conscious and timidly wrap a towel around myself whilst walking about, though I confess, letting it all hang out here in the open and getting even tan lines is liberating.
I am by no means a nudist, but what am I doing here you ask? By accident, really. It was a last minute Thanksgiving weekend trip based on the least expensive flight to the Caribbean and the best-rated resort we could find on Trivago.
When we were told that there was an au naturel beach, my boyfriend thought that meant it was a wild coast untouched by man. He was wrong. The nude beach is dusted with pale golden sand, but unlike the resort’s main (clothed) beach, once you enter the water it becomes rocky. We entered the pool area, grabbed some drinks and headed for the jacuzzi. I don’t know whether being naked makes people friendly or people who are open to being naked are just friendly. Either way, people on this beach were really, really friendly. There was lots of small talk, and everything seemed normal, except for the occasional screaming of penis and the fact that we were all, umm… au naturel. A majority of the couples here are on the older side, in their 50s. My boyfriend got the distinct feeling that some of the couples were a little too friendly with each other. I google searched it and found that Couples resorts are popular among swingers. However, the behavior of folks around the resort was appropriate. The most public displays of affection I saw were kissing and we were never propositioned with anything scandalous.
In terms of value, Couples Sans Souci is great. It’s an adults-only all-inclusive with two beaches, three pools, three jacuzzi’s, three restaurants, complementary tours around Ocho Rios and water activities galore, including free snorkelling and scuba diving. The must-do tour is the day climb up Dunn’s River Falls.
The food is decent for an all-inclusive. Their formal restaurant Casanova serves the best food à la carte and requires reservations. Their beach side grill serves great Jamaican cuisine, including my personal favs jerk chicken and beef patties. On Fridays they have a social night where couples dine together outdoors under the stars.
The rooms are okay and the grounds are pretty.
They have a beautiful spa area where you can get a massage in an open air room that overlooks the ocean. We got a massage, scrub and manicure …he opted out of the manicure though 🙁
Service can be a bit lacking. Most of the staff are nice, but service is slow and sometimes pushy. The beach and pool areas often run out of towels. Our 7:30am breakfast-in-bed arrived at 8:30am and was missing some of the items I ordered. I left bracelets in my room that went missing. The bathroom amenities are very basic — if your hair is like mine and needs conditioner, bring some, because they do not have any!
While Couples doesn’t offer luxury on par with the Ritz or Viceroy, it’s still a very nice resort and great bang for your buck. I’d give it a solid four stars. But hey, maybe I’m being prissy. Trivago gives it five stars and customer satisfaction is 90%. Will Smith visited the resort a couple of weeks back to use the gym, and in its heyday it was visited by the likes of Usher, Whoopi Goldberg and Roger Moore.
The resort offers complementary shuttles to and from Montego Bay airport and Ocho Rios. We flew into Kingston at night and the resort quoted us an outrageous sum to drive us over. We opted to patron On Time Taxi, which offers reasonable rates and impeccable reliability. Our driver Sharon arrived at the airport at 2:30am in a marked car with my name written on a sign. She waited an hour for our delayed flight and long slog through customs. It’s a 2 to 2.5 hour drive no matter what Google tells you. We hired Sharon for our return journey and she arrived two hours early to drive us back to Kingston. In case you want to hire her, her direct number is +1 876-356-3930. She’s lovely.
There are three Ritz Reserves in the world, with plans to build another three in the future. Puerto Rico is the most convenient destination for couples seeking a quick weekend escape from the northeastern chill.
Each morning I open the doors of our king bedroom suite to hear the ocean in the early morning hours.
We’re conveniently situated on the ground floor, which allows us to walk straight onto the West beach and saunter off to breakfast at Mi Casa. This Ritz Reserve signature restaurant offers up an exquisitely elaborate table of fresh fruits, yoghurts, meats, cheeses, pastries and breads everyday.
After breakfast we head to the palm tree-lined beach and grab a set of private loungers outside our room, along with plenty of complementary towels, bottles of water on ice and suntan lotion for two.
The waters can get rough on Dorado Beach, but a manmade rock shelf keeps them at bay. The sand is soft and sienna but there are warnings of sea urchins. The resort provides snorkelling gear to explore the coral. We manage to spot plenty of angel fish and a lone barracuda.
Any stay at Dorado Beach should be paired with a visit to their in-house spa, Spa Botànico, which offers an irresistible menu of alluring temptations against a wildly beautiful backdrop to maximize relaxation. Among the options, a soothing massage in an open-air tree house on a gently swaying hammock.
Rich scents of lavender, lemongrass and local botanicals surround me as I enter the lobby of their luscious 5-acre spa, a prelude to all the flora and fauna my body will be soaking in within minutes. An attendant serves me tea and leads me to the dressing room. Before my spa services, she encourages me to take a steam, dip into the hot and cold pools, douse myself with buckets of hot and cold water, and rest in the relaxation room. I don’t need to be asked twice.
When it’s time for my appointment, my masseur leads me through fields of pineapple and into a sunlit massage room. Soft music envelops me as he pampers my body with jasmine and rosemary oils and maneuvers my muscle tissue and aching bones in ways that make me swoon. Definitely a highlight of this resort.
During the afternoons I may take a hotel bike out and explore some of the 1,400-acre Ritz Reserve property formerly owned by the Rockefeller family. The Rockefeller Nature Trail winds its way through a peaceful beach and tropical rain forest filled with exotic trees and creatures.
Beyond lies a gated community of homes, residences, a golf course, a water park, and a plantation.
But most of my afternoons were spent hanging out by one of the poolside cabanas and wading through the shallow waters.
The main pool features massaging water jets and a bed of bubbles, but to my surprise, no jacuzzis or hot pools!
Not to fear.
Each suite features a soaking tub where you can bathe in hot water while plugging in your iPhone to play music over the Bose-powered sound system. I spent every evening decorating the bath with perfumed salts and listening to smooth jazz. If bathing is not your thing, you can take a shower indoors or opt for the outdoor rain shower, which is particularly soothing when the coqui (small local frogs) chirp and make beautiful music at night.
While I mentioned the spa being a stand out at Dorado Beach, there is one other. The 10-course tasting menu at Mi Casa. Oh my god. Thank heaven for Spanish cuisine. Check out this menu:
Jamón Ibérico de bellota ‘Fermín’
Cured ham from the legendary, acorn-fed, black-footed Ibérico pigs of Spain with fresh tomato bread
Cono de queso cañarejal con lechoza
Cañarejal cheese and green papaya marmalade
Coquitos frescos ‘Ferran Adrià’
Coconut water and rum spheres with mint and lime
Croquetas de pollo
Traditional chicken and bechamel fritters
Bocadillo de lechón de Guavate con mojo de chayote y chicharrón volao
Steamed bun with Guavate-style pork belly and chayote mojo
Salpicón de cangrejo
Jumbo lump crabmeat with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, chayote mojo and brandy sauce
Ceviche de atún con coco y aguacate ‘Café Atlántico’
Tuna marinated in coconut dressing with jicama, cilantro and serrano peppers topped with crispy quinoa
Ensalada César organizada con aguacate y anchoas
Romaine salad, wrapped in jicama, with Parmesan cheese, avocado, anchovies and caesar dressing
Asopao de bogavante tradicional de Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican rice stew with Maine lobster, chayote and ‘alcaparrado,’ served with plantain chips
Carne guisada con funche de maíz, camarones y setas
Braised veal cheeks with shrimp, polenta and mushrooms
Flan con parcha
Spanish custard with Catalan cream and passion fruit
The waiter congratulated me on finishing everything. He said he usually taps out during Round 8. I may have a small frame, but I have a big appetite.
Bottom line, the Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton Reserve is a perfect weekend getaway to avoid the dreaded polar vortex. There are several direct flights to Puerto Rico that are inexpensive relative to the rest of the Caribbean and it’s only a 3.5-hr plane ride away from NYC.
“I got this!” I say, sitting in the co-pilot seat onboard Cape Air’s Cessna 402C, a 9-seater passenger plane. My pilot, Alejandro, laughs at me as I pretend to handle the steering wheel. Every now and then we dive through a cloud and our plane shivers like a leaf through the turbulence. It’s not for the faint of heart, but after every cloud, we arrive closer and closer to heaven, also known as the Caribbean island of Anguilla.
There are two ways to get to Anguilla, either by a small passenger plane service out of larger island hubs like Puerto Rico or by ferry from St. Maarten.
The farflung nature of Anguilla makes it secluded, more exclusive. It’s a haven for couples on honeymoon, celebrating anniversaries or just looking for a romantic getaway. Which brings me to where I’m headed, a romantic stay at the Viceroy Anguilla with my boyfriend.
Locals say the Viceroy is the best hotel resort on the island and it’s not difficult to see why. With a welcome drink in hand, I walk through the elegantly appointed lobby, across the carefully manicured walkways lined with palm trees and succulents, and into the Sunset Lounge, a gorgeous outdoor space with an infinity pool on a cliff that overlooks the Atlantic ocean. Many evenings were spent watching the sunset from here.
As I am led into our one bedroom suite, an intoxicating scent of laurel, lily and white cedar grabs my nose. On the living room table there is a plate of shredded coconut and madeleines. I munch away while admiring the decor, which features classic pieces by Kelly Wearstler.
But my favorite part of the suite by far is the heated plunge pool on the balcony. After a long day by the beach and the pool, it’s the perfect retreat that offers privacy at night and a stunning view of the moon and starlit ocean.
Situated on the north side of the island, we are told the waters are calmer than in the south. The coastline is decorated with limestone coves and coral reefs. Crystalline waters ebb and flow over powder white sand beaches that look the way you dreamed them to look. They’re definitely some of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
We did yoga in the morning.
A bike tour of the island.
And a snorkel tour, with complementary snorkelling equipment provided by the hotel. We stopped for lunch on a deserted island called, Sandy Island, for some delicious but over-priced lobster (they don’t tell you the prices on the menu for a reason).
There are local restaurants and hotels to explore and diversify your evening dinner plans, but we loved the convenience and quality of the Viceroy’s main restaurant, Cobà, and dined there every night.
The service was phenomenal. When heading out to one of the Viceroy’s two beach areas or three pools, an attendant immediately assisted us with towels, complementary sun tan lotion, and bottles of water in ice buckets.
Every few minutes an attendant would either ask if we needed something or briskly walk by to see how we were doing without being intrusive. I had the feeling that you could ask for anything and it would be granted. That feeling was tested when I needed to treat a sunburn. I asked for cream or aloe vera and within minutes I heard a knocking on the door.
A full plate of raw aloe vera from the actual plant was delivered. The superb service could be partially attributed to the fact that we arrived on the property four days after it had re-opened from a hurricane season hiatus. Rainy season begins in June and lasts until the end of November. We were concerned about the weather as the forecast predicted thunder showers nearly every day when we were going at the end of October. I’m glad we took a risk and went anyway because it turned out that the weather was perfect and when it did rain, it cleared out within 20 minutes. I’m told that this is typical in the eastern Caribbean at this time of year. It was heavenly. Not only was the weather gorgeous, but we got to take advantage of low season rates and a nearly empty resort.