About Megan McDonough
Megan Eileen McDonough is writer, blogger and social media specialist based in New York City. She also runs Bohemian Trails, a lifestyle blog designed for the savvy and stylish traveler. Bohemian Trails aims to feature must-see places around the world, covering everything from revamped neighborhoods and vibrant street art to innovative tech hubs and everything in between. Her cultural escapades have taken her to Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Megan is also a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City. She contributes to various online and print publications in the travel and fashion industries and is an international correspondent for both Jetsetter and Northstar Travel Media.
Latest Posts by Megan McDonough
Medellín is one of Latin America’s most progressive and innovative cities so, of course, I wanted to be in the heart of the action. The Charlee Hotel definitely has an appealing location but just the icing on the cake. As a fairly low-key traveler, it was refreshing to find a hotel that had all my criterion for a perfect stay: central location, easy access to culture, eco-friendly and boutique in size. The Charlee blends into the city so well that I actually thought we had pulled up to posh restaurant when we first arrived. Surrounded by art galleries, quirky bars and luxe design studios, I was in my happy place for sure.
As if that wasn’t enough, I learned that the Charlee is both rooted in the arts and dedicated to eco-friendly initiatives. The hotel commissioned local street artists to paint murals in both the garage and in the stairwells so if you arrive sans car like I did, make sure to take the stairs! Considering how high-end the property is, I was pleasantly surprised how well graffiti and avant-garde art is integrated into the overall design. Pay close attention to the artwork on the various floors, too, as these exhibits feature both established and up-and-coming talent.
Okay, on to the rooms! As a 5-star boutique hotel, the real beauty is in the details. There are 42-rooms in total, all of which have private terraces (see above and below).Rooms are spacious, with sleek design accents and pops of vibrant color set against a classic white palette. If you’ve ever been to Medellín, you know that the parties are pretty epic so it can get loud at night. Personally, I didn’t find the noise to be an issue; on the contrary, I enjoyed sitting on my terrace with a glass of wine and feeling the energy of the city below. That said, come bedtime, make sure to slide the terrace door shut for some shut eye.
I’m usually one to hit the ground running when I’m exploring a new city but I managed to strike a good balance at The Charlee. Breakfast (along with lunch and dinner) at Lucia Restaurant was always a treat…sometimes literally! And, since the hotel is right in the thick of Medellín’s hip fashion and arts scene, it was easy to spend an hour or two wandering and then take a breather back in my room. While I opted to dine at nearby restaurants, I also quite enjoyed Envy rooftop lounge (pictured below). Sure, drinks are steeper than what you’d find a few blocks away, but the views make it worth every peso. Oh, and you can go swimming!
For the Charlee, Medellín is just the beginning. The company is not stopping there; instead, they’re getting (dare I say) a little ambitious in a big way. Currently slated for openings in the next few years are hotels in Cartagena, Galapagos Islands, Prado Tolima, Cali, Carpurganá, Barranquilla, Quito, the Amazon, Pearl Islands, Lima, Bogota and Alto de las Palmas. Having experienced the Charlee once, I have no doubt that these properties will be equally as stunning as the flagship hotel in Medellín.
Speaking of new openings, our group had the chance to visit the soon-to-open Guatapé, aka Pueblo de Zócalos. It’s about a two-hour drive from Medellín (slightly less coming from the airport) and yet it feels worlds away from the bustling city center. I arrived at night so I didn’t get the full impression until the next morning, when I literally woke to floor to ceiling walls that overlooked the Antioquia’s green hills and fresh water lakes. Right now, only the guest houses are in working order but the hotel rooms are well on their way.
Here’s the skinny. The Charlee Guatapé (opening summer 2016) will boast 116 rooms, tqo tennis courts, one multifunctional convention hall, a spa, gym, and pool. Praia restaurant and beach club will anchor the property’s social offerings along with a pier and a unique aquatic center. Pictured below is a preview of what is to come. Similar to the Charlee’s Medellín location, the highlight of the property will be the surrounding nature, with dining options, the gym and other amenities featuring views of the lake and distant mountains.
Curious about Guatapé? You should be! In all honesty, I knew nothing about the countryside outside of Medellín but now that I’ve seen the adorable town of Guatapé, I’ll never forget this Colombian gem. While our stay here was short, we made the most of the time we did have. I definitely recommend a trip to El Peñon de Guatapé, a 650 foot high rock with over 600 stairs that can be scaled to the top. It looks daunting from the bottom but there’s no rush to reach the top. In fact, it took me a good 30 minutes because I was taking so many photos.
We also took a boat tour of the Viejo Peñol, a town which was submerged by the creation of a reservoir. I suppose this is “old news” for local Colombians but I found this fascinating. Blame it on my wild imagination and my love of make-believe, but I started day-dreaming about scuba-diving below and uncovering an ancient city. Of course, I’d need to get scuba certified first.
My mind is still reeling from my recent trip to Colombia – so much creativity and so much color. If you didn’t get a chance to check out my Fashion Guide to Medellín, I highly recommend giving it a glance. There are so many talented local designers that are shaping the city into a fashion capital and the same can be said about the local artists that call Medellín home.
Thanks to the insider knowledge I gained by being a guest at The Charlee Lifestyle Hotel, I learned that the street art scene is quite vibrant, even in comparison to other graffiti “capitals” throughout South America. In fact, the Charlee commissioned several artists to create graffiti-esque murals along the stairwell of the hotel and in their outdoor parking garage. There’s even a mural of a monkey on the building’s facade. Today’s post, however, is all about Comuna 13.
Comuna 13 might be one of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellín but it’s full of personality and spirit. A lot of the deterioration started during the reign of drug lord, Pablo Escobar, thus causing many people to head to the hills…literally. Overpopulation led to other problems like electricity outages, sewage leaks and the like. That, and the fact that Comuna 13 was at one point the most violent area in the city.
Fast-forward to today and the characteristically tough neighborhood has a much softer shell. Sure, it’s still gritty and a little dirty but it’s bursting with color and local flavor. There have been several developments in recent years, including a massive escalator that heads up the mountains. Having just lived in Hong Kong for six months, I felt right at home. The hills super steep (about the same as climbing 28 stories and a ), so I can only imagine how helpful this innovation is for the local community.
With a troubled history but a bright future, the murals reflect a bit of both. For the most part, though, our guide led us through more of the politically-charged murals. At first glance, it’s easy to get caught up in the vibrant colors or the cute animals being depicted, but once you remember the context for many of these pieces, the artwork comes to life in a whole new way.
While Comuna 13 still has somewhat of a bad reputation, street art is acting like an open door for travelers who might otherwise avoid the barrio entirely. Not only do the murals act as a history guide to the previous decades, but it speaks to the future generation. The local government has even recruited artists to paint murals throughout the neighborhood, much like artists are commissioned in other major cities across the globe. In return, artists are paid for their work and can continue spreading their visual message to the world.
I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed by the picture of me by the elephant and here’s why. As an avid street art fan, I (understandably) got overly excited with every new mural we passed. That, combined by my adoration for elephants, resulted in a smiley-face Megan posing with artwork she knew nothing about. That’s the thing about murals though; if you don’t know the story behind the art, you might not get the full picture.
Five minutes post-photo, I learned that the elephants are crying and that the whole mural reflects how the people felt after a gang shooting. They are even holding little handkerchiefs in their trunks. Upon hearing that, my face crinkled up in confusion. But then I took another look and yes, it all made sense. Having that insider insight forced me to open my eyes to the reality of a former time. Anyway, lesson learned. Next time I will listen first and pose for the camera second.
Now might be a good time to mention that our tour was led by an actual street artist. Here he is (above) posing next to his mural. PerroGraff is both a talented artist and the founder of graffitourc13 so, it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s talking about. More so, he’s truly passionate about the neighborhood’s past and excited about the future. I’m not just saying that; it was obvious. I’ll also add that I found him extremely humble and kind of “too cool for school” but in the best way possible.
When we arrived to his mural, he spoke for five minutes about other work before casually mentioning that this one was his…like it was no big deal. Except, YES, this is a big deal. I proceeded to humor him by snapping his photo. I’ve never been one to fan-girl over Hollywood celebrities but when it comes to fashion designers and street artists, I’m in awe. Case in point: the picture below! All in all, it was a very good day in the hood.
What’s your favorite city for street art? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with ext. 54 and The Charlee Hotels. All opinions are my own.
I was blown away by Medellín’s fashion scene and hopefully, you will be too after reading this style and glamour guide. During my stay at the ultra cool and eco-luxe Charlee Hotel, we trotted around town with one of Colombia’s top fashion influencers, Laura of Fashion Lessons. Since the Charlee is an upscale, boutique design hotel located in the heart of Medellín Colombia, it seemed fitting that we explore some of the independent designers who have helped shape the city into an emerging fashion capital.
Whether you’re shopping for a new wardrobe or simply scrounging around for one-of-a-kind souvenirs, here are 8 must-know Colombian brands that are dominating Medellín’s fashion scene.
For Special Occasion: Andrés Pajón
Let’s start with the ultra-luxe label of the bunch. The Andrés Pajón brand was established in 2008 by Pajón and Cartagena, two highly creative designers and fashion enthusiasts, and they’ve been making fashion dreams come true ever since. Pajón is definitely inspired by elegant glamour like the type of gowns you’d see at the Oscars. Their Spring/Summer collection pays tribute to Medellín, as seen in the bright garment colors and intricate flower patterns. Well-designed and expertly executed, one of his gowns is well-worth the splurge.
As gorgeous as his evening wear is, it’s his boutique that impressed me the most. Stepping into Andrés Pajón‘s two-story building (the boutique is on the ground floor and his office on the second) kind of made me feel like Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Leave it to me to throw in a Disney reference in there, right? While the streets of Medellín are magical in their own right, there’s something transformative about Pajón’s designs, and thus the entire space they occupy. Most customers make an appointment beforehand so that they get one-on-one fashion advice from Pajón and his team. After all, special occasions call for extra measures!
For Statement Jewelry – Innata
My next few fashion finds are all thanks to Makeno, a neighborhood boutique mere blocks from the Charlee. The store is kind of like a one-stop-shop for local Medellín and Colombian designers. The large space is located on the second floor of a building, which might be tricky if you don’t know where you’re going BUT it does add a layer of intrigue. Once inside, the space is divided into numerous sections, each nook and cranny featuring a different artisan. While that might sound a little chaotic, it’s not. Every designer has his or her own space where their wares are showcased and the staff does a great job at arranging products in a way that makes sense collectively.
OK, so *Innata! I’m a fan of birthstones, feathers and anything colorful I can get my hands on so naturally, Innate stood out. The label specialize in all things jewelry, as you might guess from the photo below. We’re talking necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings and even piercings. Ever since reading Peter Pan, I’ve had a fascination with wolves (you need to read it to understand) and Innata has several pieces depicting wolves, each carving more detailed than the next. As with many of the designers I discovered while in Medellín, Innata products are traditional yet modern.
* = sold at MAKENO.
Photo credit: Facebook/innatatesoros
For Tribal/Chic Jewelry: MAKUA
By far my favorite label on this list is *MAKUA. I mean…can you blame me? Just look at these pieces! Bringing together ancestral techniques of indigenous communities with contemporary design, MAKUA is my style dream come true. They’ve worked with two different communities from Colombia: the Embera Chami (known for their embroideries with crystal beads) and the Kuna, who specialize in “Mola” (a colorful textile costume and art). I had already fallen in love at first sight with MAKUA but learning about their ties with these communities sealed the deal. I’m obsessed!
Every two years, they design a jewelry and accessories collection using the techniques of the communities. As you might guess, employing members of the Embera Chami and Kuna creates a huge economical opportunity for their communities. Personally, after learning how this eco-friendly line focuses on sustainable fashion, I had no trouble doubling back to Makeno and purchasing another bracelet. If you aren’t in Medellín, you can still shop for styles online and filter by Embera and Kuna community creations. I also found their prices quite reasonable. Most pieces are under $100, with a large bulk of them hovering at around $50 US.
For Swimwear: Entreaguas
Another Colombian brand giving back is Entreaguas, a label founded by fashion designer, Natalia Botero. *Entreaguas focuses on swimwear and beachwear, with each piece handcrafted by talented local artisans. I quickly saw the appeal in their swimsuits and even tried on one of their beach dresses. It was February and while Medellín’s weather was warm, I hand’t yet transitioned to summer yet in my mind. Still, I liked everything I saw. The brand is definitely going for the millennial-type who are laid-back, lead a natural lifestyle.
Natalie is involved in the entire design process and employs artisans to weave, dye, tie up and assemble the fabric into her signature style. In fact, she even started the Entreaguas Foundation to support these artisans maintain their basic needs, as several of them have physical limitations and/or Down syndrome. Others are mothers supporting their families and young people who are reintegrating into sociality. As a traveler, I’ve become more conscious about where my clothes come from, so learning how Natalie is bettering the lives of the artisan community really struck a chord with me.
Photo credit: Facebook/EntreaguasBeachwear
For Festival Gear: Oropendola
I’m going to take a break from MAKENO for a moment…don’t worry, more to come! The first stop on our Medellín style tour with Laura of Fashion Lessons was indoor decor mecca, The Blue House. In a nutshell, this is THE place in Medellín to furnish your apartment, whether that literally means your entire home or dining room place settings. Having recently moved to San Francisco, I suddenly felt a sting of regret that I hadn’t discovered this interior design gem earlier. Anyway, now I know! The space is laid-out to resemble an gallery; one where you can actually touch the artwork and at any given time, there’s a mix of Colombian designers along with a few international brands.
It was here in The Blue House that I discovered Oropendola, a brand specializing in handwoven pieces that incorporate ancestral techniques with contemporary design. While they sell jewelry as well, it was a festival-esque necklace that ultimately caught my eye. Carolina Vélez is the designer behind the brand and it turns out we have two things in common. We’re both travelers AND perfectionists For me, splurging on an Opopendola necklace seemed the perfect souvenir…although, I ended up using that excuse a lot. Seriously though, her pieces are basically wearable art and a statement necklace like I’ve never seen.
Photo credit: Facebook/Oropendola
For Travel Totes: Tigre de Salon
I’m always on the hunt for a fabulous but functional backpack and I finally found one in Medellín…after I had purchased one a month prior. Oh well! Tigre de Salon uses high-quality materials to make beautiful yet simple bags and backpacks. Natural leather is the main material they work with and there are no dyes used during the design process. Because of this, you might see light scratches, marks or textures that show its history. All items are made by hand, one by one, in Colombia. I’m loving their “Visions of Flight” collection, which is inspired by people like me with their heads in the clouds…aka dreamers!
Photo credit: Facebook/tigredesalon
For Stylish Socks: Loopzu
When my husband asked me to buy him socks a week before jetting off to Colombia, I went above and beyond the call of duty. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it’s the wacky patters that first drew my eye, but I was easily hooked. I ended up buying him two pairs and I may or may not plan on stealing them from his drawer this week. *LOOPZU products are 100% Colombian manufactured by single mothers. Yes, single mothers! Designs range from classic patterns like stripes, polka-dots and camouflage, all with a modern twist. My personal favorite is the flamingo pair but alas, it wasn’t available that day.
Photo credit: Facebook/loopzu
For Pastel Pampering: TOY Nail Polish
For the final touch of glamour, I’d suggest *TOY Nail Polish…because, why not? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of nail polish (manicures, on the other hand, I adore) but that’s probably because I’m awful at maintaining them. That said, I took home a pack of four polishes and love the colors. The “Sweet Neutrals” collection include four polishes that are light enough for any occasion. Plus, I find that since they’re they’re soft tones, a coat or two can really compliment your outfit rather than demand attention. There are much bolder collections, too, like their “Red Smiles” and “Purple Tickles” collections.
Photo credit: Facebook/Toynailpolish
What’s your favorite city for fashion? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with ext. 54 and The Charlee Hotels. All opinions are my own.
It’s not everyday that you get to jet-set to the Caribbean, so why not make the most of it?! Aruba is a smart choice flight-wise, as there are many direct flights from New York City and other hubs. Oh, how I miss those direct east coast flights! Regardless of what time of year you visit, you’re sure to have a fabulous time. Aruba is nicknamed “One Happy Island” and my guess is that you’ll be one happy traveler while you’re there. Here are 5 ways to experience the stylish side of Aruba.
1) Follow the Flamingos
Before heading to the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino where I’d meet the rest of my group, I spent a night at the Renaissance. Also a Marriott property, the Renaissance is located right downtown where all the shops are located and accessible to a slew of local restaurants. Since my stay was a short one, I planned on taking full advantage of the hotel’s private island. Unlike the Aruba Marriott, where the beach is located right on property, the Renaissance owns an island that is about a 10 minute boat ride away. Shuttles are free for guests, of course, and they run every 15 minutes during operating hours.
Even though I was staying in the adults-only section of the hotel (as opposed to the more family-friendly side), I was definitely the only guest flying solo. How fitting that I’d meet some other fine-feathered friends! The Renaissance has two sections of their island: Flamingo Beach for adults and Iguana Beach for families. Words cannot express how excited I was to be enjoying my first sunset in Aruba with a gang of vibrant pink flamingos! They stroll through the beach like they own the place (I guess they kind of do?) and I made sure to spend my morning there, too. Maybe it’s just me but I felt instantly more stylish with my new crew around.
2) Take a SUP Yoga class
As mentioned in my earlier post, SUP Yoga class was a huge highlight of my Aruba getaway. I’ve been incorporating more time into my schedule to stay healthy, opting for Yoga classes and Pilates workouts at home in San Francisco, but attempting sun salutations on a Stand Up Paddle-Board took things to a whole new level. After all, travel is about stretching (pun intended)outside your comfort zone and reaching new heights.
The great thing about the class, taught by Island SUP, is that it’s truly suitable for all levels. In our group of five, we were all at different skill levels. On one end of the spectrum, we had someone with knee problems while another was a Yoga newby. On the flip side, we had a girl who could literally do headstands on her board, and did so during the duration of our class. Talk about #lifegoals! That said, nobody fell off their boards and we finished class with a feeling of accomplishment.
3) Order Brunch with a View
During my stay at the Aruba Marriott, I was spoiled silly but to be fair, so are all of their guests. My room was part of the Tradewinds Club, which is basically a hotel within a hotel. Some of the perks of upgrading to this level of service include a private check-in, a room on the 8th floor and complimentary food and drinks in the lounge throughout the day. If you think about the additional expenses you might have on a trip like this (for example, ordering a-la-carte items at a restaurant), it’s worth the splurge.
The Marriott pulled out all the stops for us, even inviting us to the Governor’s suite for a special brunch. Having lived in New York for 5+ years, I was beyond thrilled about bottomless mimosas. Even better, Chef Miguel was there to greet us and share a toast to the lovely view from the balcony. Even though our brunch was planned as a special treat for our group, the same food is served at the resort’s La Vista restaurant. You can’t go wrong with a little indulgence, especially when fresh smoothies, Eggs Benedict’s and chocolate croissants are involved. That’s a serious score.
4) Sport the Local Wares
While I didn’t have time to do any serious shopping in Aruba, I got a lot of ideas from walking along the beach. Our SUP Yoga instructor’s hat immediately caught my eye. It’s from a local company called Tangerine Aruba and they sell hats and other outdoor apparel with the #wethebeachpeople branded hashtag. All items are made right there on the island, so if you’re on the hunt for a cool souvenir or a gift for friends back home, I recommend checking this store out. I really wish I did!
Another brand I’d recommend is Aruba Aloe. They sell everything from Aloe-infused bath gels to lotions, including travel-sized kits. As someone with very fair Irish skin, the sun is both my friend and foe. Having Aloe at hand is essential. Plus, it’s native to the island and a good way to support the local economy. Right now, their products are sold at 16 different retail stores on Aruba, including the Marriott Ocean Club’s shop, located beside the main Aruba Marriott property. Don’t wait until a bad sunburn; swing by their shop upon arrival!
5) Appreciate the view
Ok, I didn’t take this picture but this is the view I had from my room. The Aruba Marriott property is very large, with the majority of rooms facing the main pool (not pictured) while some rooms face the adult pool, featured below. I really enjoyed this view because the adult pool was rarely crowded, even though we were visiting at the beginning of high season. Plus, I had a perfect view of the sunset over the ocean.
Despite my slight fear of heights, I’ll never turn down a seaside view. During my free time, I found myself gravitating toward the balcony, whether it was to answer emails or snap photos of the grounds. I liked that the sun glistened during the day until the stars took over at night. If traveling with your special someone, the balcony is the perfect place to open a bottle of Brut and toast to your new surroundings. Bubbly makes everything more stylish.
What’s your favorite Caribbean island (or island in general)? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with Diamond PR and the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. All opinions are my own.
There are certain destinations that truly “live up” to their hype and Aruba is definitely among them. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I met on the island who return year after year. A special place for so many people, it didn’t take long to understand the island’s mass appeal. During my four days on Aruba, I made the most of my time while not outdoing myself (it happens).
Whatever brings you to Aruba, whether the warm weather or the turquoise ocean waves, here are 5 soft-adventure activities for the wellness-minded traveler.
1) Snorkel in Clear Blue Waters
Aruba is a snorkel and scuba destination so this is a “must” activity in my opinion. As stunning as the turquoise water is, the vibrant fish below the surface are even more colorful. During our four-hour cruise with De Palms Tours, we stopped at three different snorkel sites: Catalina Bay, Arashi Reef, and the site of the World War II wreck aka the Antilla. This wasn’t my first time snorkeling but I felt the same rush of excitement I always do whenever I’m about to dive into the ocean. I still think I’m part-mermaid! That, plus, this was my first time snorkeling with my very first GoPro. More coverage coming soon.
2) Find your Balance at SUP Yoga
While I was fairly good about sticking to my morning Kriya practice during our time in Hong Kong, I had become a sloth when it came to exercise. So, when we moved to San Francisco, I made it my mission to up my fitness game. For the past few months, I’ve been taking regular Pilates and Barre classes but nothing quite prepared me for SUP (Stand Up Paddle Board) Yoga. It’s something I’ve been eager to try for awhile now and the calm, clear waters of Aruba proved the perfect place.
Even more impressive than doing a sun salutation on a stand-up paddle-board, is making meaningful connections. After our class, I learned more about the woman behind the board. Rachel Brathen not only used her social influence to co-found Island SUP with Olivia Rothschild, but found a creative way to give back. Both ladies also co-founded 109 World and through this initiative, they’re making a real difference in the lives of so many people, from organizing volunteer trips for children to helping with various charities. To me, that summed up the true benefits of practicing Yoga. It can lead to your becoming a more beautiful person, inside and out.
3) Learn Aruba’s Version of Tennis
You might be surprised (as I was), that Aruba has their own form of tennis. From a glance, it mostly looks the same. There are racquets and a net BUT beyond that, it’s a whole new ballgame (literally)! In a nutshell, Aruba’s signature sport of beach tennis is a mix of three worlds: tennis, volleyball, and badminton. Scoring is also similar to tennis, with milestones like 15 – 30 – 40 and no-ad at deuce.
During our class, I didn’t simply learn a new sport; I learned about myself, too. My mind flashed back to high school softball practices and all of a sudden, I was hitting the ball like nobody’s business. I realized how much I miss organized sports and the positive feelings I get from working with a team. I also remembered that I’m actually fairly athletic, or at the very least, competitive. That said, it took a bit of practice for me to ignore my tennis muscle-memory and practice shorter, swifter movements that are required for Aruba’s version.
If you happen to visit in November and love sports, you’re in luck. Aruba hosts multiple beach tennis tournaments and every year in November, the island host’s the Aruba Beach Tennis Open, which attracts professionals and amateurs from all over the world.
4) Splurge on a Spa Treatment
After a rigorous tennis lesson (I kid), I pampered myself with a massage at the Marriott’s Aruba Ocean Club’s Mandara Spa. If you recall how obsessed I was with my element-themed treatment in Macau, you’ll understand my enthusiasm here, too. As soon I entered the spa lounge, I felt at ease and kind of like I had been there before. I hadn’t, of course, but the interior design is decorated in Balinese style.
In fact, the Mandara experience is inspired by Bali and the island’s tradition of healing. The treatments offered today honor both those therapies that have been passed down from generation to generation, along with European methods and the natural elements. Even upon arrival, guests are invited to sample four different scents and choose one for their signature massage. If you’re indecisive like me, you can ask your massage therapist for a suggestion based on your skin type and muscle ailments.
One of the best things about my experience is that you can have it, too. While the Mandara Spa Aruba is their first location in the Caribbean, the management company operates more than 60 spas in other luxury properties.
5) Sip and Swim
Okay, I might be exaggerating on this one! There is no exercise involved in lounging poolside unless you count trips to the swim-up bar. That said, you’re on vacation and pampering is part of the deal. The Aruba Marriott is easily the best of both worlds: there are pools, restaurants and bars at arm’s length and then there is the ocean a mere few feet away. Even though I travel for a living, I don’t always get to answer emails poolside with a daiquiri in hand. I can’t express how much I appreciate that. Sure, multiple guests stared at me like I was crazy for bringing my laptop to Aruba, let alone to the pool, but I didn’t care. I was in freelancer paradise.
Cocktail sipping aside, you there are plenty of less-lazy activities. I highly recommend signing up for a SUP Yoga class (see above) or signing up for a tennis class (also see above). Both activities are a stone’s throw away from the main Marriott Resort. There are also third-party rentals available for an added charge. A floating trampoline caught my eye immediately although I didn’t rent it. Next time!
©2013 Red Square, Inc.
What’s your favorite soft adventure activity? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with Diamond PR and the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. All opinions are my own.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been borderline obsessed with marine mammals but I certainly wasn’t unique in that sense; many children dream of becoming marine biologists when they grow up. In fact, for a good decade, I wanted nothing more than to work as a marine mammal trainer at SeaWorld. Oh, how times have changed! While my stance on animal captivity has taken a 360-degree turn, my love for ocean life hasn’t faltered.
So, this is where Plantation on Crystal River comes into play. Not only does the plantation operate as an upscale hotel, but they also have an on-site adventure center where guests can rent kayaks or, even better, take an interactive manatee tour where you can observe these animals in the wild. Here’s a rundown of their tour and other interesting developments happening in Citrus County relating to manatee preservation. More below!
Where is Crystal River and why is it so special?
In my opinion, Crystal River is Florida’s best kept secret. This small town in Citrus County, Florida is the natural home to thousands of West Indian manatees. In particular, The Three Sisters Springs, which is a network consisting of vents, sand boils and crystal clear water. The major draw is that the springs have 72 degree Fahrenheit water year-round, which becomes extra important to Manatees come winter. Since manatees are sensitive to cold water, they flock to Crystal River as a warm-water oasis. You can see these lovable creatures other all year round but anywhere from late November through early March is when most visitors plan their trips.
Crystal River’s history of manatees goes way back but in recent years, the population has grown considerably. The total number of manatees in Florida went up from 6,063 to 6,250 over the past year. A survey on January 12, 2016 found 758 in Kings Bay & Crystal River and 1042 in Kings Bay and the Homosassa River. That was a new record for the area and, consistent with past years, constitutes one-sixth of Florida’s total manatee population. The record for manatees sheltering in the Three Sisters Springs complex at one time was 528.
Image via Citrus County
Is this safe for the manatees?
The first thing you should know is people in Crystal River are very, VERY serious about protecting the local manatees. This is something the county is really proud of, and rightfully so. In terms of legal matters, manatees are protected under two acts: the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Basically, this means that it’s technically illegal to feed, harass, hunt or hurt a manatee in any way. I also want to stress that while snorkelers can interact with the manatees if and only if one approaches them, there are several areas roped off as sanctuaries and not accessible to the public. A rope might not sound like a huge barrier but people are almost always fined if they dare to cross it.
Over the course of my trip, I was genuinely surprised by how much these laws are enforced, not only by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, but by regular citizens who call Crystal River home. Everyone, from volunteers monitoring tourist activity at Three Sisters Springs to the Plantation on Crystal River staff “gets” how serious it is to keep these animals safe. Of course, there are some that aren’t too keen on the whole manatee tourism boom, which I can respect. However, the manatee population continues to grow in Crystal River so something is obviously working! Education is key in keeping these animals safe and so far, that’s happening.
Image via Carol Grant/Visit Citrus
What is a tour like?
My tour departed right from Plantation on Crystal River’s adventure center bright and early. There are many companies that offer manatee tours but I recommend this particular tour for several reasons. Firstly, the guides are well-trained and truly passionate about their jobs. You might think that’s a given, but you’d be surprised. Secondly, their wetsuits are made of a higher quality material that promotes more buoyancy in the water. This was my first time slithering into a wetsuit so I really have nothing to compare it to but I did find it easy to stay near the surface of the water while wearing one.
On most days, there’s an early morning tour (about 7am) and an afternoon tour. Usually, it’s recommended to do the morning tour based on the water temperature and the tides. Before entering the boat, groups are required to watch a safety video about “passive observation.” While I feel like many of these rules (i.e. no kicking) should be common sense, I still appreciated the reminder. Then, during the boat ride to Kings Bay and the surrounding area, there’s a good amount of briefing about how to swim near a manatee, when not to swim over one (when they’re sleeping) and other little tidbits to make the experience a comfortable one for both the snorkeler and the manatee.
I should note here that even though I visited Crystal River during prime manatee season (the winter months) and in the morning, I didn’t see a ton of manatees. This, by no means, took away from my trip but I also want to keep one’s expectations in check. Crystal River is a natural environment and these are wild animals, so it’s impossible to predict anything. For this reason and due to poor visibility, some of these photos are not ones I took myself.
Do I have to get in the water?
If you’re on the fence about taking a manatee tour, there are a few things to know ahead of time. It’s not a pre-requisite to get in the water. There was a nice family from Germany on my tour who treated it as a boat ride. That’s always an option. If you decide to give snorkeling a try, remember that you can always enter the water with a noodle for added buoyancy. The most important thing is to practice “passive observation.” We weren’t even flippers because splashing is discouraged, as it can easily frighten the manatees away. I’d suggest either sticking close to your guide or float near the boat’s ladder. Even if you don’t snorkel, you’ll still see lots from the boat.
Not much of a swimmer? No problem! There are plenty of other ways to learn about manatees without getting wet. The Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has six resident manatees in their care that are not able to survive in the wild. Visitors can swing by to see manatees, along with more than 200 other animals native to Florida, year-round. There’s also an educational program offered daily.
I also recommend going to Three Sisters Springs and walking along the trail that overlooks the sanctuary. It’s relatively new, well-maintained and ideal for picture-taking. When I stopped by, there were about twenty of so manatees gliding quietly through the super clear spring water. During certain parts of the days when the manatees venture outside the spring in search of food, kayakers and snorkelers can enter the spring. Otherwise, they’ll need to stay outside the sanctuary rope.
Image via Carol Grant/Visit Citrus
What will you learn?
Having now swam with manatees in Crystal River, I can say with sincerity that I’m still no expert. BUT, I did learn quite a few fun facts about these amazing creatures. One that surprised me had to do with their body weight. I assumed that manatees had a considerable amount of blubber but they actually don’t. This is likely why they are so sensitive to cold water and love the warm springs so much. Manatees also have a finger-like skeleton underneath their flippers, kind of like us. Adults weigh between 900 and 1200 in the wild and a lot more in captivity. Oh, and they’re vegetarian! On a normal day, they can eat anywhere between 10-15% of their body weight.
Another interesting thing about manatees is that they don’t have any real predators. In fact, their biggest predators are boats. Speaking of which, there’s now a speed limit in place for any boats sailing through Kings Bay and Crystal River and it’s strictly enforced. I saw a few manatees with some pretty rough-looking scars from previous boat accidents so I’m really happy by this new law. Another threat is the loss of habitat and Crystal River is already working on a solution for that. Right now, they are growing eelgrass in hopes of feeding the growing manatee population. Assuming that pilot program goes well, there’s lots more where that came from!
Image via Plantation on Crystal River
What’s your favorite animal? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with Hayworth PR, Plantation on Crystal River and Citrus County. All opinions are my own.
Ever since learning about Crystal River Florida early last year, it’s been on the top of my travel list. Crystal River, the gem of Florida’s beautiful Nature Coast, is about a two hour drive from Tampa/St. Petersburg and they are situated around the magnificent Kings Bay, Florida Waterway which means it’s a great spot for boating, diving, swimming, fishing as well as a variety of Manatee and Eco-Tours.
While my main focus for coming to Citrus County was to interact with manatees in a safe and natural environment, that ended up being only one facet of my trip. Plantation on Crystal River proved the perfect home away from home. It had all the conveniences of the modern traveler and yet, it wasn’t over-the-top luxurious. Even though I rented a car, most of my activities took place on property, which made things extra convenient. Whether you’re in town for business or pleasure, you can (and should) treat yourself.
1) Make time for wellness
This might seem like a no brainer but you’d be surprised how many people (myself included) fully anticipate disconnecting from technology and taking it easy but who fail miserably. We live busy lives and it’s not exactly easy to forget out check lists and neglect our work emails for a weekend away. Since I was here to work, I tried my best to find a balance between doing what needed to be done and carving out alone time. Plantation on Crystal River is designed for soft adventure and wellness and it really feels worlds apart from other hotels in the area. Take advantage of the property’s isolated, natural environment by walking through the grounds or taking a boat ride.
2) Find a focus for your trip
Since Crystal River is such an ecological destination, many travelers come here to reconnect with nature and maybe even learn a thing or two about how to live a more sustainable life. For me, my focus was getting some up close and personal time with the manatees who live here year-round. Therefore, several of my activities revolved around these lovable creatures. That said, there are plenty of other ways to experience this Florida town. From fishing and boating excursions to an impressive golf course and a rejuvenating spa, there’s something for everybody here. Depending on when you visit, it’s a good idea to book some or all of your activities in advance for a stress-free trip.
3) Treat yourself to a spa day
Instead of packing my last day in Citrus County with soft adventure, I decided to take things easy and pamper myself a little. Luckily, I didn’t have to go far. The Plantation on Crystal River has an on-site spa called “Spa Blue,” which is part of the Aveda brand. Similar to other Aveda salons, the spa menu was rather extensive. In addition to their signature body treatments, you can also splurge on a facial, manicure, pedicure or get a new look at their hair salon. I opted for their Elemental Nature Massage based on Aveda’s “Elemental Nature” philosophy and aromas. While I’m hardly a spa expert, I was really impressed by the staff’s professionalism and skill level.
4) Kayak with the manatees
After my hour of relaxation, I decided to go for a little kayak ride through Crystal River. I had originally planned to kayak before my treatment but I woke up too late. Either way, the self-guided tour was challenging but not too strenuous. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on a kayak so it took a little adjusting but soon enough, I was on my way. I didn’t have too much luck spotting any manatees but I also didn’t paddle all the way to Three Sisters Spring where many of them are seen daily. Still, I really enjoyed being surrounded by nature. With maybe only a handful of other kayakers that day, I pretty much had the river to myself. Serene, indeed!
5) Chow down on local eats
Before arriving to Crystal River, I hadn’t thought too much about the local food scene but I was about to find out. I had a few meals at the Plantation’s on-site restaurant, West 82º Bar & Grill, (there’s also the 19th Hole Bar & Grill and the Tiki Bar). All entries are prepaid with fresh, natural ingredients whenever possible and naturally, many dishes include seafood. In terms of off-site dining, Seagrass Waterfront in Homossassa (part of Citrus County) boasts a great view, with indoor and outdoor seating. For something more upscale, Vintage on 5th is a must! I recommend ordering their Mac & Cheese (it’s tossed with goat cheese) and, of course, the Key Lime Pie.
What’s your favorite way to relax? Tell me in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with Hayworth PR, Plantation on Crystal River and Citrus County. All opinions are my own.
Making the move to the west coast meant many things: warmer year-round weather and easy access to Napa Valley and Sonoma County. When I lived in New York I really didn’t take advantage of nearby day trips and I didn’t want the same thing to be true of San Francisco. In the last year, I’ve made it to Napa three times and while I’m certainly no expert, I’ve rounded up a few tips that have helped me make the most of my getaway.
1) Get an early start (and enjoy the view)
I’m not advocating early morning day-drinking but I do recommend getting an early start, especially if you’re only there for a day. Many travelers opt for car rentals, since they offer more flexibility in terms of planning. For our last trip, my in-laws were in town so we decided to hire a driver for the day. They are from Argentina so obviously, none of us wanted to be the designated driver. I suggest taking the scenic route and stopping for photos at the viewpoint stop-off near the Golden Gate Bridge. You can also take a peek at the colorful floating houses in Sausalito.
2) Theme your trip (or set realistic goals)
There are over 400 wineries in Napa and Sonoma so visiting all of them is impossible. With so much variety, your jaunt through the country can suddenly become overwhelming, which is why setting realistic goals is so important. If you’re really into wines, it’s a good idea to express that to your travel partner so that you can narrow down your winery options. If, like me, you simply enjoy drinking wine in general, your itinerary can be more free-flow. Because of the type of weather conditions in Napa, many wineries grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay varieties. That said, there is a popular winery that specializes in Champagne-style sparkling, too.
3) Work with the weather
Northern California in winter is definitely warmer than it is on the east coast but that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows. The good thing about Napa is that many of the attractions (i.e. the wineries) are indoors. Sure, it would be nice to have a picnic outside in the vineyards but the weather may or may not permit that. Typically, there’s a lot of fog in the morning as your leave San Francisco but the deeper you drive into Napa and Sonoma, the more sunshine prevails. If you tend to get cold easily like I do, bring a sweater and maybe even a hat. During winter, bring an umbrella in case you suddenly get the urge to frolic through the vineyards.
4) Pace yourself
This is probably the #1 tip in my book. Why? Well, for one thing you’re drinking wine most of the day and wine tends to make people sleepy. On our most recent trip, I didn’t have time for breakfast so at our first tasting, I ate an entire pack of breadsticks. If you’re on a budget and/or are trying to cram a lot of wineries into one day, bring some snacks along for the ride. After two tastings, if you haven’t eaten anything, take a breather and get some food into your system. There are also some really nice restaurants in downtown Napa and, my personal favorite, St. Helena. Many wineries also have picnic tables for visitors, making for a pretty fantastic wine and cheese spread.
5) Have a good attitude
Remember when I said that Napa isn’t always sunshine and rainbows? Well, sometimes it is! Last month, despite some pretty ominous-looking rain clouds, we had a double rainbow chasing us on our journey. The only other time I’ve seen a double rainbow was in Dominica, so I was extremely grateful of our scenic backdrop. Like most things in life, it’s all about how you view a situation. Aside from our rainbow friend, it did rain a lot and the weather was not great. This is when having a good attitude comes in handy. In my opinion, a weekend in the vineyards is less about the picturesque views (although there are many of them) and more about the company you keep.
Have you visited a winery in Napa or elsewhere? Tell me in the comments below!