January 27, 2016

The Best Luxury Resort Values in Hawaii

There are so many great resorts in Hawaii, how do you pick one? Hopefully this guide will help you find the best value for your money!

Oahu: The Modern Honolulu

A member of the Ritz Carlton hotel group, The Modern is cosmopolitan and chic, with a splash of Hawaiian whimsy.  It’s luxurious and intimate, yet has all the amenities one expects of a luxury hotel including spa, nightclub, and two pools.  The oceanfront location is close to great beaches, shopping, and restaurants.

If you book an ocean view room through a Ritz Carlton STARS agency, you are automatically upgraded to a Studio Suite if available, which has a king bed, sofa bed, and a private terrace.  And there are no resort fees, even high speed internet is included!
Modern rooms at The Modern Honolul
Insider Tip:  Several Daybed Experience Packages are offered which include unlimited use of a daybed for the entire day,a 3-5 course tasting menu, and wine or cocktails.  You can upgrade to add a 30 min couples massage.
Pearl Harbor
Kauai: St. Regis Princeville / Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa

Frankly, there are limited 5 star options on Kauai, so the rates don’t vary dramatically, and they offer the same Virtuoso amenities:  daily breakfast for two, amenity valued at $100, upgrade on arrival if available.  But they offer two different experiences.

The St Regis Princeville is perched on Hanalei Bay, boasting one of the most scenic views in the world, perfect for a romantic getaway.  The north shore is known for its spectacular unspoiled scenery, which is why many movies have been filmed here (and many celebrities have made it their second home).  It also offers some of the best adventure activities and snorkeling on the island.
Hanalei Bay
The Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa has a slight edge if traveling with young children, with its lagoon style pool and fun waterslide, plus they will guarantee connecting rooms in advance.  There is plenty of on-property entertainment, and a luau is offered twice a week.   It is not on a swimmable beach, but they have a sandy lagoon, and are only a few minutes from Poipu Beach.  The island’s south shore is a good location in the winter months, as the north shore beaches are not safe for swimming with the high surf. 

Grand Hyatt waterslide
The island is not that big, so no matter where you stay, it’s not a long drive to any activity or attraction

Insider Tip:  Take a snorkeling cruise to the Napali Coast in the morning, then drive up Waimea Canyon in the afternoon to get a birds’ eye view of the same coastline.
Napali Coast
Big Island: Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows

This low key resort on a beautiful white sand beach is a lesser known gem, but guests tend to return over and over because of the great service and authentic Hawaiian ambiance.  Rates are some of the best for a resort of this caliber, and Virtuoso clients are upgraded at time of booking if possible, making it an even better deal.  Daily breakfast and $100 resort credit are also included in the Virtuoso amenity package. The resort fee is also one of the most inclusive to be found.
One of the nicest Big Island beaches
They recently announced the Bungalow Inclusive Experience which includes accommodations in a 2 bedroom bungalow, private roundtrip airport transfers (or a rental car), daily $500 spa or golf credit, and 3 meals a day for up to six people!  The bungalows are 2,700 sq. ft. including two master bedrooms, wet bar and full kitchen, and a large private outdoor space with jacuzzi and heated swimming pool.
Snorkeling with turtles is always a highlight
Insider Tip: Baby turtles are raised in salt water ponds on the property.  If you visit during the Fourth of July holiday, you can watch them be released into the ocean.

Maui: The Fairmont Kea Lani

This is not only the best value on Maui, but possibly the best value in all of Hawaii.  Suites command premium rates at most resorts due to limited availability.  But every room at the Kea Lani is an 800 sq ft one-bedroom suite!  With huge bathrooms, entry foyer for stashing gear, queen size sofa sleeper, wet bar, and spacious lanai, they are perfect for families.  Larger groups or couples traveling together will appreciate the space and privacy of villas near the beach, which have a full kitchen, dining area, and private plunge pool.

Virtuoso guests receive complimentary daily breakfast, $100 spa credit, and upgrade on arrival if available.
Two level family pool with water slide
Insider Tip:  If you have young children, book one of the twelve poolside suites which is just steps from the family pool. 

You may be thinking “What about Lanai?”  Well, you really don’t have much choice there, but what a choice it is!  The Four Seasons Manele Bay is re-opening on Feb 1 after a renovation, and they are celebrating with a 4th night free offer and guaranteed upgrade at time of booking (through April 30), exclusive to clients of Four Seasons Preferred Partner agencies. Four Seasons resorts are always a great value, because they include so much in the rates, such as internet, snorkeling gear, and the Kids For All Seasons program.
Four Seasons Lanai beach

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January 16, 2016

Private Guides - Your Best Travel Investment

On our trip to Italy this summer, I tried out several companies we use for private tours.  My expectations were exceeded, and our experience was so much better than if we had done it alone.

Vatican Museums - The crowds were so overwhelming, I could not imagine visiting without a private guide.  She was able to pull us aside as dozens of large tour groups filed by with headsets on, and then show us something interesting (even for the kids) that everyone else was missing.  
Couldn't even see the pictures when the hall was filled with tour groups
While many people just popped their heads in the papal apartments, we were learning how different Raphael and Michelangelo were both in artistic style and personality. Before entering the Sistine Chapel, we relaxed in the beautiful courtyard as our guided explained what to look for when we got inside.
Prepping for the Sistine Chapel
Pompeii - We took a day trip to Naples from Rome, and I previously wrote about our experience hiring a private driver.  Before we headed off for our drive along the Amalfi coast, he dropped us off for a 2 hour tour of Pompeii with a guide. I had heard it was huge but had no idea until I saw it for myself.  It literally is a city, with block after block of streets that all look alike, and minimal signage. 

The streets go on and on and on...
Most guests take a self-guided tour with headsets, which can run out on the busiest days.  Our guide, who also led school field trips, expertly led us around the site so we could understand what life was like for residents. Often other visitors nearby leaned in to listen, as the stories she told were not found on any signs.
Learning about the "McDonalds" of Pompeii
Tuscany - We explored with our own car most of the time, but one day we had the luxury of a private driver.  Finally my husband and I both got to relax and enjoy the scenery rather than focus on a map and scan for road signs.  
Wouldn't you rather enjoy this view while someone else drives?
We visited a honey farm, a cheese farm, and a winery where we had a wonderful lunch prepared by the owner.  He also took us to the hilltop village of Montalcino so we could see the fort.  He dropped us off outside the castle so we could enjoy the scenery rather than waste time in the car looking for parking.

This Brunello wine came home with us.
Say cheese!
One day we drove ourselves to Volterra, where we met another guide who grew up there.  She showed us around the ancient Etruscan village, and took us to the shop of an alabaster artisan I had met in San Francisco, when his replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was put on display.
If this looks familiar you may have seen it in a Twilight movie,
this is the home of the Volturi
A master in alabaster
Florence - We day tripped by train from our resort, so our time was limited.  The guide we hired for a city orientation tour met us at the train station, and she took a few minutes to get a feel for how we’d like to spend our time. Since we had seen enough churches and museums, she took us to the food market, which we would have never discovered on our own. 
Before the lunch rush.

Then she led us on a tour of the city, guiding us through side streets so we avoided the worst of the crowds.  She pointed out where Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo once stayed, and told the back story on funny signs we saw everywhere. 

Hunting for these signs amused the kids.
We planned to visit the Accademia on our own, so she had done us the favor of reserving our tickets in advance.   She ended our tour at the will call window (which was practically impossible to find unless pointed out), made sure we got in the right line (there were 3 very long ones), and recommended a nearby cafe for lunch.
The original David
When you hire a private guide, you will save time, you will learn more, your kids will have fewer melt downs, and overall you will have a better experience.  Whenever we’ve visited a town or museum on our own, we found ourselves wandering a bit aimlessly. (And in the summer heat, efficiency is key, you want to make every step count!) 

Wish we had a guide at the Colosseum, very few signs here
If you have a special interest in art, history, food, etc., then you’ll really appreciate having a guide who is an expert in that field, rather than taking a generic city tour where the guide is reciting a memorized spiel.

Beautiful Florence, one day is not enough!
You don’t have to hire a guide everywhere you go.  But consider investing some of your travel dollars in locations where a private guide will make the difference between a good vacation, and a great vacation.
Water taxi to the Venice airport, another worthwhile splurge