oh, the places you should go...
The seventh continent. One of my absolute favorite places on this planet. I never imagined that I'd make make the trek down to this pristine and exquisite desert (yes, Antarctica is technically a desert!), but let me tell you- it is life changing. Surrounded by penguins, whales, seals, and pretty much nothing else, my journey with Polar Latitudes in February-March 2019 was unlike any other.
My voyage began with a flight from New York to Buenos Aires, where I'd spent a night before proceeding on to the southern most point of Argentina in Ushuaia. I recommend spending a few days exploring Buenos Aires and Ushuaia (and Patagonia, if you really have the time) as part of the journey. Argentina is just exquisite, and nothing beats watching dancers tango along the streets! From Ushuaia, I'd boarded Hebridean Sky, Polar Latitudes' premier small ship vessel, to embark upon my 15 day expedition crossing the Antarctic Circle.
While Hebridean Sky is indeed a boat, I wouldn't describe the experience or mode of transportation as a "cruise," and I mean this in the best possible sense. I was accommodated in a Promenade Suite cabin located on Deck 4, and it was lofty! The room was generously spacious, featuring two large windows, an oversized walk-in closet, queen-sized bed, sofa, vanity desk with drawers, television console with tons of storage and a mini fridge, and a beautifully appointed bathroom. Awaiting me upon arrival was my prized Polar Latitudes Antarctica Expedition jacket made by Helly Hansen that I would wear throughout the journey and beyond, as well some token items for keeps (logo mug, aluminum water bottle, post cards, etc.), and a pair of loaner boots required for landings on the continent. I made myself right at home from the start, and the housekeeping team ensured I was always fully stocked with everything I needed. The food aboard ship... absolutely delicious. Multi-course menus spoiled my tummy with delights for every meal. I may have been at the bottom of the earth, hundreds of miles from civilization, but this was a world class experience in every respect.
Sailing to Antarctica means you must cross the Drake Passage, one of the most turbulent bodies of water in the world, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it; it is not for the faint of heart. Our first day at sea, I found myself a little queasy, although adapted rather quickly (having seasickness aids and some crackers to nibble on helps!). I recall asking a crew member if this was considered "Drake Shake" as opposed to "Drake Lake," the calm conditions you can only hope for. They laughed and said, "No, this is most definitely Drake Lake... as good as it gets!" and that sure taught me a lesson. Fortunately, once you're past the Drake, it's smooth sailing from there, and seasickness is a figment of the past... until it's time to cross it again for the trek back to Ushuaia. If I'm being perfectly honest though, crossing the Drake comes as a rite of passage; it makes you feel like you really had to earn reaching the majestic place that is Antarctica. I really wouldn't have spared that experience with my fellow passengers and crew, many of whom I still hold close to my heart today. There's something about taking this journey with a group of like-minded travelers that brings you closer together. If there is one thing that is predictable about Antarctica, it's that it is completely unpredictable, and I felt so fortunate to be guided by the best of the best. With a team comprised of expedition leaders, a historian, geologist, marine biologist, ornithologist, medical doctor, photography coach, and more, whether from the cozy set-up aboard ship, or zipping about the zodiac boats for a landing, I gained soo much insight into this unbelievable place.
So, I did do something a little crazy during my time in Antarctica. Yes, that's me above, taking the polar plunge. The water temperature was .1 centigrade, just a touch above freezing level. About forty of us passengers took the plunge, and you know what- I have zero regrets. Don't get me wrong- it was bloody freezing. When I hit the water, I tried to utter less than ladylike words to convey just how cold it was, but my body must've gone into a temporary shock, because I'd lost the ability to speak for about ten seconds. It was all good though- waiting for us on board were warm towels and glasses of vodka to bring us back to life! Beach music played in the background, the crew cheered for our brave (if not totally daft) souls, and it was a fun time had by all. The funny thing is, once I was out of the water, the air suddenly felt much warmer, and I was in no rush to head back inside. After sharing laughs and pictures with my newest friends, I did eventually head in for a nice hot shower, followed by a BBQ lunch feast from the upper deck.
I can't say enough about my journey in Antarctica, but for now, I'll refer you to my article in the 2020 edition of Sophisticated Weddings, if you'd like to read more about it. I'll just leave off by saying that there is no place in the planet like Antarctica. This one is a gift for the soul.
Prior to October 2019, there were two surprising facts about me. The first, I'd not yet been to South Africa (but was dying to!), and had never utilized a travel agent or advisor. I feel funny using the term "travel agent"... in my mind, this summons a vision of a small office in a strip mall, detailed with stock photo travel posters plastered to the walls, and desks attended by operators typing on oversized and outdated desktop computers. In the millennial age of internet bookings and travel discussion forums, it was easy to think this industry would quickly fall by the wayside. Perhaps it's the imagery surrounding the idea of the "travel agent" that did, or the very term itself. Either way, after making my way across six continents, I got schooled a bit.
I'll say this- in customizing my itinerary for my journey to South Africa with Alluring Africa, a US-based team of luxury travel experts specific to destinations in Africa, I got schooled a bit. I wouldn't exactly call them agents or operators... they're more like African travel dream curators. I believe they like to be referred to as Private Travel Designers. Whatever you want to call it, concentrating on one continent and one continent only- Africa- they are masters of their profession. They know the best of the best-- what's worth seeing, experience, and exactly how to do it right. Why haven't I been doing it this way all along?
In working with Alluring Africa, I felt seen and heard. They listened to what I was hoping to experience and achieve in my journey, and planned accordingly with precision. Now, I've been on many trips in my lifetime, and have seen many itineraries, but never in my life have I seen it done like this. It's like they tapped into my most organized travel goals, and wrapped it in a pretty, seamless package. A few days prior to my departure for Johannesburg, a beautifully personalized 5x7" companion spiral bound itinerary and travel handbook arrived in the post. Inside there was every detail about my journey laid out for me (down to the minutes it would take to transfer between activities), in addition to A-Z info about traveling in Africa, answering any and every question I could possibly have about anything, ever. Yet still, upon its arrival, I shared an in-depth call with my amazing contact and team member at Alluring Africa, so we could address anything on my mind, and I could gain invaluable insights that would allow me to enjoy this trip to the absolute fullest.
Following a comfortable flight from NYC to Johannesburg with South African Airways, I had a seamless transition to Port Elizabeth en route to my first safari accommodations at Shamwari Eagles Crag Private Game Reserve. Alluring Africa had arranged for contacts on the ground too quickly move me through immigration and customs, so all I had to do was enjoy myself in the wild. The moment I pulled up to Shamwari, a family of elephants crossed the road, and I instantly knew this was going to be an unforgettable excursion. While I'd been on safari before in Uganda, the next three days were absolutely eye opening. On a massive private reserve, in the most exquisite horizon I could dream up, I'd had encounters with elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, lions, zebras, rhinos (including the rarely spotted black rhino!), and so much more. The dedicated and knowledgable rangers made the experience one-of-a-kind, and quite simply- I never wanted it to end. Morning and evening game drives afforded me incredible photographic opportunities on a game vehicle thoughtfully equipped with blankets, water, and anything else I could need to keep me cozy in my bewitched state of awe. The accommodations were as luxury as it gets... in a private lodge bigger than my apartment. An absolute paradise offering utmost privacy and romance, fully equipped with a plush oversized bed, tranquil living room area, enviable bath and vanity space, and my very own outdoor terrace with a dipping pool. The food, wine, spa, hospitality... absolutely top notch. Imagine the most perfect luxury safari experience you can dream up, and that's Shamwari. I know Kruger National Park is the largest of its kind in South Africa, and probably the most popular for tourists, but the Eastern Cape is truly a gem. Another unexpected perk? The region is completely malaria-free, and if you've known me for five seconds, you know I cannot stand those pesky illness ridden mosquitos.
Three days in the wild, I won't say I was quite ready to leave, but I was eager to get another taste of South Africa among the winelands. Off to Cape Town, I explored this wondrous city before making my way to Cape Winelands of Franschooek. Two nights at La Clé des Montagnes, and I was immediately immersed in the tranquility and beauty of this spectacular region that is home to some oof the world's finest wines. Essentially with a fully staffed villa to call my own, this distinctive and dreamy estate on the vineyards is as picturesque as it is delectable. After indulging myself in local wine tastings, artfully prepared cuisine prepared by renowned chefs, and just the perfect amount of downtime to absorb the elements that surrounded me, I'd come to the executive decision that this is where I would like to retire to someday. The beauty at La Clé was matched only by its comfort and hospitality. It's like the team has made it their personal mission to capture one's best self by spoiling them rotten.
On to Delaire Graff, my only regret is that I didn't have more time to spend here. And by more time, I mean I want to live at Delaire Graff. If the Graff name strikes a chord of familiarity, it is probably because of its prominent name in the diamond world, and let me tell you- this place is a most precious gem. Located in the beautiful setting of Stellenbosch, Delaire Graff is like a Bob Ross painting come to life. Located on its own mount of vineyards, producing their very own distinguished wine, it is home to Indochine (a culinary destination in its own right), and quite possibly the most impressive accommodations I have ever been fortunate enough to experience. My lodge was stylish, modern, and a work of art at every turn. If it gives you any indication of the type of lodging they do here... I had a smart toilet, you guys. Upon arrival, I was soon swept away by the discovery and luxury of the grounds, and pampered with artisan delights, a massive fragrant bouquet, and spectacular bubbly.
Back in Cape Town, I had the opportunity to explore what was certain to be a highlight of my trip at Ellerman House. Everyone I had spoken to from New York to South Africa oohed and aahed this place, indicating I was in for a real treat. This uber-sophisticated, exclusive, and celebrated boutique hotel with unparalleled views of the coast is easily mistakably for a fine art gallery. Being a guest at Ellerman House affords one the enviable opportunity to explore its private art collection, rivaling a trip to any famous art museum I've ever been to (and being a New Yorker, that's saying a lot). The setting of the hotel is quaint yet upper crust, befitting of a proper holiday for the royal family.
My final destination in South Africa was at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge located at Kruger National Park, concluding my trip with another prized safari in total style. Upon my arrival to Skukuza Airport, which fronts more like a luxury tiki lodge in the wild than the actual airport that it is, my ranger had indicated that the property will sneak up on us, and I had no idea what that meant. He was right though; Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge is like this magical place that James Bond would hide out. It has all the luxury and splendors one could ever want, and it appears virtually out of thin air. Having recently undergone a massive renovation, my lodge was absolutely unreal in every sense, beautifully appointed with unique fixtures and amenities, and surrounded by wildlife. At times, families of warthogs roamed about the property, and I stared out to them with anticipation, wondering if they too would enjoy my dipping pool the way I had. Given the vast population of leopards on the grounds, it wasn't long before I'd have my first sighting. A very different terrain and perspective from Shamwari on the Eastern Cape, but every bit as beautiful, it would be impossible to decide which is better. It's one of those places where experiencing both is an absolute must. Once again, the South Africans got together and conspired to plump me up with their incredible cuisine... it's safe to say I ate like kings and queens (I say both, because that's how much I ate).
There is just too much to share about my absolutely incredible time in South Africa- the highlights cannot possibly do it justice! For a more comprehensive capture of this journey, be sure to check out the 2020 Sophisticated Weddings. I am absolutely certain you'll be ringing Alluring Africa to design this once in a lifetime experience in no time!
48 hours in Havana and what a whirlwind! So much to explore, see, and do. There is really no place like Cuba; for ages, it has been the forbidden fruit for American travelers. Even today, many Americans don't realize that it is even possible go there. Is it a little complicated? Sure, I suppose, technically, but not in the way you'd think. Planning a trip to Cuba on your own is really out of the question, but after my experience with Cultural Cuba, a luxury travel management company specific to planning travel and experiences in Cuba (in a nutshell, this doesn't even begin to touch on what they actually do), I can say that there is no other way to go.
There are some technical requirements that a US tourist must adhere by in their travels to Cuba, most commonly under the category of "Support of the Cuban People," but you wouldn't even realize it, because the experiences that await are so enriching and colorful, it's really the only way to go. I've been all over the Caribbean, and never have I been to a place so uniquely its own in the best possible way. It's amazing to think such a place exists just ninety miles south of the US coastline. With several daily flights servicing direct flights from the New York area to Havana, it's a quick trip down, but you will feel worlds away.
First and foremost, you'll need your camera (or at least a very good lens on your mobile phone), because taking pictures of the Cuban landscape is addictive. Bright vintage cars bring a sense that you're in another period of time, and the surrounding architecture is diverse and Instagram worthy to the fullest. From there, the local flavors, arts, talent, cigars, and rum... absolutely unrivaled.
But back to Cultural Cuba for a second. They make the complicated nature of the political relationship between the United States and Cuba almost, dare I say, fortuitous, in the sense that they simplify the planning of getting there, but it is their expertise, first rate team on the ground, and strong relations that extend exclusive experiences that would otherwise be impossible to attain without them. From acquiring tourist visas, making reservations at the best hotels and hottest restaurants and clubs, and arranging interactive visits with local talent, nobody does it better.
What makes designing a trip to Cuba on your own so challenging? I'm not going to sugarcoat it. For starters, American credit and debit cards are useless in Cuba. They. Will. Not. Work. Cash only in Cuba, my friends. Curiously, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, many luxury hotels (arguably the best there is) appear on the US restricted list, meaning you cannot legally book a room there as an American, and even if you somehow managed to, how do you suppose you'll pay for it? With a suitcase filled with cash? Don't forget, you must declare any amount in excess of $5,000 that you bring with you. Enter Cultural Cuba: you may legally benefit from their loopholes, prepaying for your accommodations and experiences safely with a credit card on the mainland, to a US-based company. That alone makes the transaction a more comfortable one, and all you're left to worry about is how much cash you should bring for souvenirs, incidentals, and you know, those prized Cuban cigars (and no, you don't have to worry about smuggling them-- it's legal to bring some home for private consumption!).
On to the fun stuff. When I'd arrived in Havana with an intimate and awesome group of journalists, our first stop was at a Head-Start Pre-School for disadvantaged students. This immediately appealed to my own interests, although I realize it's not everyone's first inclination for a holiday. While Cultural Cuba customizes itineraries to the interests of their clients, I found this to be a worthy visit for any tourist, as it's an incredible place with adorable children, and the mission just warms the heart. From there, we got down to serious business: getting behind the bar and indulging in an authentic mojito mixology lesson paired with tasty delights at San Juan, one of Cultural Cuba's off-the-beaten-path discoveries that stands like a hidden gem and local favorite in Old Havana. Before checking in to La Reserva, a beautifully renovated historic estate in the heart of the embassy district of Vedado, we'd stopped in at Amos Photography Studio, spending quality one-on-one time with its talented founders, Ramses Batista and Alex Castro (yes, that Castro- Alex is Fidel's son). Exploring their art and learning about their commitment to the community through education was a highlight of the experience. While I was there, I had gotten some much needed direction in my never-ending pursuit of sourcing the right digital SLR camera for my travels.
You ever go somewhere, anywhere else in the world, and feel like you stand out as a foreigner? Havana seems to be missing that element (another thing seemingly missing: mosquitos... how did they do that??). While we must've clearly stuck out as out-of-towners while roaming about the Cuban Art Factory, a trendy multi-faceted venue featuring art installations, live music in multiple areas, pop-up fashion stalls, performance art, indie cinemas, bars, lounges, and more, we distinctly got the impression that no one noticed us as non-locals. Havana has this bizarre sense of safety that as a New Yorker, I'm not accustomed to. I don't think I've ever visited a place so absent of crime, and I must say, while I was skeptical at first, it's among the refreshing charms of Cuba. Dinner at Paladar Tierra, a restaurant at the Cuban Art Factory, was another example of the VIP experience you get with Cultural Cuba. Its eclectic menu and top notch mojitos are not too be missed. The venue as a whole is something I imagine that would be a huge hit in hipster Brooklyn, while at the same time delivering a sense of cool only found in Cuba.
Day two in Havana was one for walking around and snapping pictures, discovering the town's beautiful structures, fascinating history, and partaking in a couple of street delicacies (namely an artfully prepared pina colada served in a pineapple, or hot and fresh churros made right before my eyes... best fifty cents I've ever spent, by the way). Our guided walking tour was fun and relaxed, with plenty of souvenir stalls to pop into between the plazas. Havana is filled with such a zest and celebration for art, it's difficult not to admire it immensely.
Lunch at 5 Sentidos was absolutely brilliant on both the eyes and tummy, but the real highlight of the afternoon was over at the famous Havana Club Rum Museum. Cultural Cuba had arranged for a private rum and cigar tasting, not commonly offered to tourists, where we enjoyed Cohibas and a comprehensive tutorial on the pleasures of Cuba's finest. Let me tell you, we smoked those cigars to the very end! We enjoyed ourselves so much, we didn't in fact make it to our private one-on-one salsa dancing lesson, and while I would have loved that, I wouldn't have traded my take at the Havana Club for anything-- we had the best time!
Checking in to Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski was a breeze, and after a quick wardrobe change for the evening, we'd enjoyed canapés and you guessed it- mojitos- at the cigar lounge before riding off into the sunset for Cultural Cuba's exclusive convertible ride and photoshoot. Natasha, Cultural Cuba's on-ground professional photographer captured the magic and essence of our collective joy amid Havana's carefree vibe. I think I speak for all of us when I say it was a priceless experience, just before we took off for La Guarida, one of the trendiest and most sought after restaurants in the area. It can take weeks of planning to get a reservation here, and I can say with certainty that it is not overrated. After a sumptuous meal there, we headed up to the roof for a private mini-concert by the William Trobejo Jazz Trio, which was unlike anything I'd ever seen or heard. The immense talent in Havana alone is absolutely mind-blowing. Following the performance, we kicked back in the private VIP cigar lounge for fine rum, cigars, and conversation. In summation, it was the absolute perfect evening. It's hard to believe how much we fit in just two days, but truthfully I could have done with more time there-- the experiences that await are positively endless!
Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect from Cuba beyond its famous rum and cigars prior to my departure, but it was beyond my wildest dreams! By far one of the most unique places I've ever seen, it certainly stands apart from its Caribbean community. I am so grateful to have seen it thorough the eyes and expertise of Cultural Cuba; their passion for delivering the extraordinary expands the mind and heart in ways I couldn't have imagined. To read more about this amazing place, check out my article in the 2020 Sophisticated Weddings, and while you're at it, get ready to pack your bags (but be sure to save some room in your luggage-- you best bring home a taste of Cuba for sure!).