Travel

Being an East Coast girl, I have spent my fair share of time in the resorts of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There’s nothing quite like the crystal clear blue water of Cancun and Cozumel and the festive party lifestyle. But I was ready to explore a different part of Mexico, its western coastal area of Jalisco, namely a romantic resort in Puerto Vallarta. Here are some of my recommendations for the perfect Puerto Vallarta Mexico getaway!

We arrived to what might be the most welcoming experience ever as we were greeted with a glass of champagne, a pillow menu to select our choice of comfort, followed by a quick, but decadent 10-minute neck and shoulder massage. Read more about Puerto Vallarta’s Luxury All-Inclusive Resort: Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel & Romantic Getaway.

Western Mexico is a bit more authentic, and especially Puerto Vallarta as it was not built as a resort destination. The people, the food, the places. They’re all real world Mexico. Read Why Puerto Vallarta is Mexico’s Most Authentic Destination and what to do at the most romantic resort in Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta certainly has a touch of romance, but balanced with plenty of adventure activities. Read about our Empty Nest Adventures: Puerto Vallarta.

How to choose from New Orleans hotels

New Orleans is one of those iconic U.S. cities that I forget to put on my to do list. I’ve only been a handful of times but there’s always something new to discover in this city of classic cocktails and cajun cuisine. On my last trip there, I discovered two incredibly fabulous historic New Orleans hotels that you really should check out. And if you’re looking for a diversion from traditional Orleans-style food, you’ll want to hear about three chefs and their restaurants who are really redefining the dining scene. I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but it’s certainly on my bucket list especially after I toured the Mardi Gras Museum and learned all about those magnificent floats. 

If you’re headed to New Orleans anytime soon, here are some of my recommended favorites, including two pretty awesome New Orleans hotels!

Check out the newly renovated Pontchartrain hotel, recently named to ’s list of the best hotels in their 30th annual Readers’ Choice Awards: NOLA’s Pontchartrain Hotel is a Perfect Spot to Stay During Mardis Gras

You’ll love the elegant furnishings and historic charm of the Henry Howard Hotel: Southern Hospitality Abound at NOLA’s Henry Howard Hotel

When it comes time for some unique cuisine, check out these Three Chefs Who are Disrupting New Orleans’ Food Scene.

One attraction that should not be missed is the Mardi Gras Museum where you can learn How Mardi Gras Floats Come to Life.

If you’d really like to experience a unique side of New Orleans, get in touch with Bespoke Experiences, a locally-based tour company that offers a more personal view of the city with unique and one-on-one experiences. 

weekend trip to Whidbey Island

Now that the kids are out of the house, my husband and I are always looking for easy weekend escapes and romantic getaways where we can totally unplug and relax. I haven’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, save for a quick trip to Seattle, so we decided to take a weekend trip to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

Getting there is a bit of an adventure unto itself, taking a shuttle from the Seattle airport to the ferry. But as soon as I stepped onto the ferry, I knew this place was going to be something special. It’s true what they say that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, especially given the views on the ferry to Whidbey Island. Having grown up on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, I had not seen such amazing water and island views in decades.

So here’s the perfect itinerary for a weekend trip to Whidbey Island.

Day 1:

If your weekend trip to Whidbey Island is a romantic getaway, stay at the Inn at Langley. From the moment you open the door to your room, the only way I can describe it is “breathtaking”. This quaint island inn offers rooms and suites with 180-degree views of the Saratoga Passage and the Cascade Mountains. Rooms are exceptionally spacious and all offer a large outdoor balcony, a jetted tub with a water view and a cozy wood-burning fireplace. Enjoy your jetted tub and wood-burning fireplace. For me, it’s often the little extra thought and extra perks that properties offer guests that win me over. The Inn at Langley certainly knows those perks from a bathscape that includes a candle (with matches) and bath salts to the large array of free snacks and drinks. 

Day 2:

Breakfast

Before you head out for the day of your romantic getaway, enjoy one of the best breakfasts that you’ll find quite memorable. An upscale buffet breakfast is served in the open kitchen and includes local delicacies like fruit tarts and veggie-filled quiches. Trust me, you don’t want to miss the breakfast. Chef Matt Costello has been at the Inn for 14 years and is now a business partner and owner. The terrace outside the restaurant is a beautiful English garden, with a plethora of fresh herbs, tended by his wife.

Chef Matt also serves dinner at the Inn three nights a week. The menu? Whatever was fresh in the garden that day. The restaurant seats just 24 people as Chef wants to create an intimate dinner party atmosphere, so you’ll want to make reservations for the three hour feast. The cost is $160 per person but well worth it.

Be sure to check out the Inn’s special packages for some great experiences and rates.

Spa

Treat yourself to a treatment at the Inn’s spa before you head off for a day of wine and spirits tastings. The spa (currently under renovation) hails itself as a “healing sanctuary where the forest meets the sea.” Many of the treatments are inspired by the water using ingredients like mud, seaweed, and Himalayan Salt Crystals. Two of the spa’s signature packages include:

  • The Saratoga Passage – Let us transport you away from the stress and cares of your day to the “healing waters” of our signature treatment. This ultimate Sea Flora experience launches from the shore with a Renewing Seaweed Body scrub (dry room only), continues to flow on with a 60-minute Relaxation massage with Sea Flora’s Sea Silk Body Massage Oil Blend, and brings you to your final destination cocooned and resting in a Nourishing Alaria wrap. Great for those with sensitive skin or who prefer aroma-free. You’ll be glad you made the journey! 150 minutes – $385
  • Ila Chakra Wellbeing – As exquisite as it is holistic, this bespoke treatment – tailored to the needs of each individual – works on the muscles, lymph and nervous system as a whole. Based around seven blends of chakra-balancing essential oils, each unique ritual involves deep relaxation of the nervous system, sensuous lymphatic drainage, subtle healing of the chakras and the pouring of warm oil over the third eye to restore and relax every sense. Ends with a scalp massage. 120 minutes – $325

Wine and Spirits Tastings

Spoiled Dog Winery is a small family-owned winery named for the owners’ Australian Shepherds, Sami and Brix (I’m guessing most winery dogs are spoiled). They make handcrafted wines using their estate grown Pinot Noir grapes and produce a number of award-winning wines using grapes sourced from around the state. Be sure to check the website for tasting times and special winemaker dinners.

Whidbey Island Winery is the oldest winery on the island. The owners have planted grape varietals from the cooler parts of Europe that mirror the climate of Whidbey Island. They also produce plenty of reds using grapes sourced from around the state.

You’ll want to visit Whidbey Island Distillery just so you can say you watched whiskey being made in a bunker. This is a true family-run business. Owner Steve Heising grew up in Saudi Arabia and watched his dad distill his own spirits. He wanted to run a business with his own two sons so he designed and built his own stills and today, runs the distillery with his wife and sons.  They produce rye whiskey and liqueurs using local berries – blackberry, boysenberry, loganberry and raspberry. Their blackberry liqueur is among the highest rated in the world and was awarded the prestigious Platinum Medal (98 points) by the Beverage Testing Institute.

Dinner

For an authentic rustic meal, plan an evening at Orchard Kitchen, where dinner is served by a husband and wife team, in a true family style manner. Arrive early so you can stroll through the onsite garden where virtually all of the restaurant’s meals originate. Dinner is only served on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and reservations are a must. 

Our menu included:

  • Salad of Ebb Tide beets with blue cheese, grilled sweet onion and baby arugula paired with 2016 Patsch Zweigelt Rose from Austria
  • Crispy skin Wild Columbia River King Salmon with Scarlet runner & sweet corn succotash paired with 2014 Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais
  • Braised beef tortellini and roasted eggplant caviar with fresh pomodoro sauce and basil pesto paired with 2014 Le Sang des Cailloux “Doucinello” from France
  • Ebb Tide strawberries and crispy meringues with creme Fraiche ice cream and Florentine cookies paired with 2015 Santa Julia Late Harvest Torrentes from Argentina.

Orchard Kitchen also offers cooking classes.

Day 3:

Explore the farms

There are miles and miles of rich farmland perfect for exploring on a weekend trip to Whidbey Island.

Glendale Shepherd Farm is home to 60 milking sheep that are a mixture of European East Friesian and Lacaune dairy breeds, crossed with a variety of North American breeds. Glendale, under the helm of Stan and Lynn Swanson, uses only the finest quality non-GMO hays and natural grains to supplement the goats’ diets, resulting in a rich, sweet, Grade A milk free from antibiotics, additives and preservatives. The Island Brebis, Glendale’s flagship cheese and 2014 Good Food Award winner, is a whole sheep’s milk tomme that is aged from 6 months to 1 year.

Glendale also offers a farm stay camping site that is available to book through Hipcamp. There’s also a newly refurbished studio apartment that is available through Airbnb.

Eckholm Farm is a small, family-owned bee farm near Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Bruce Eckholm was a software executive who gave it all up for a more relaxed lifestyle and embarked on a deep education in beekeeping. He has multiple hives spread throughout the Reserve giving the bees diverse nectar sources. Bruce takes samples from each of the hives and sends them off for pollen analysis which identifies the different floral composition of each honey. Each jar of honey lists the varietals of the nectars, much like a wine label.

3Sisters Farm is a fifth generation working beef farm, now run by the three great great granddaughters (sisters) of the original farmer in 1910. Jennifer, Jessica and Roshel (the 3 sisters) all graduated from college with differing degrees and came home to run, and expand, the farms. Today, 600-acre farm, produces grassfed beef, pork, lamb, chicken and eggs. They raise all of their own non-GMO feed. The 3Sisters Market, a short drive from the farm, is a great place to pick up local artisan goods.

Relax

After a busy day spent visiting the farms, enjoy a bottle of wine on your deck at the Inn at Langley. In the evening, be sure to enjoy the whirlpool tub in your room with a full view of the Puget Sound.

Getting there:

Fly into Sea-Tac and then take the Whidbey SeaTac Shuttle to the ferry. Visit this link for more details on getting there.

An Elkhart Lake vacation is so peaceful

Whether you’re empty nesters celebrating your newfound freedom or someone just looking for a great destination where you can plug and while away the afternoons together, I may have found the Holy Grail in an Elkhart Lake vacation. As we drove past vast, wide open spaces on the one hour drive from Milwaukee airport, I could literally feel my shoulders drop and my breaths lengthen. Within minutes of arriving on the lakefront, I knew this place was going to be special.

As I stood at the water’s edge taking in the scattered lakefront homes and stillness of the environment, I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of Dirty Dancing, the old school family summer vacation destination. I knew my Elkhart Lake vacation was going to be memorable. There was nothing but silence, save for the lone fisherman in his canoe and a paddleboarder exploring a nearby cove. I mean, where can you go these days where and find such solitude? The lake has only 970 full-time residents so it’s not unusual to find yourself alone on the waterfront, especially during off-peak seasons.

First, let me tell you a little bit about the history of Elkhart Lake. The Native Americans who first settled in the region, and named the lake for its shape resembling an elk, believed that the water had curative powers. German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff and his wife, Paulina, moved to the lake for its healing powers and in 1886, opened the Osthoff Resort where for decades, it survived as a gambling haven and a Prohibition-era hideaway for gangsters. Don’t you just love places that have such history?! In the 1950s, the resort changed hands and became a theatre arts camp for children of wealthy Midwest families, where its arts influence is still prevalent today. In fact, a few of the business owners I met along the way attended the theater arts camp as children and have such an affinity to Elkhart Lake, that they returned and built businesses. Many of the resort’s summer vacationers are also adults who spent time at the camp as children.

The Osthoff Resort, despite its luxury amenities and AAA Four Diamond status, really felt more like a cozy retreat and proved to be the perfect place to leave my cell phone behind as I headed out to explore the lake. It’s the best place to stay on your Elkhart Lake vacation.

Spa – The Aspira Spa at the Osthoff Resort offers treatments that are reflective of the history of the area, many incorporating Native American practices and ingredients. They’re all designed to encourage living in the present moment and heighten your spirituality. There’s a Yin Yang massage, chakra balancing massage, and the one I opted for, the “Mind, Body & Spirit Alignment”. It’s described as a “mix of intuitive massage, Reiki, reflexology and craniosacral techniques that balance the body’s energy centers.” It was simply amazing! And there’s a beautiful meditation space in the center of the spa where you and your spouse and contemplate your empty nest time together.

Golf – I started playing golf about 20 years before my husband took up the sport, but I quit playing when the bambinos came along because what Mom can take off five hours to play golf? So one of our goals as empty nesters is to start playing golf together, something we’ve only done a handful of times in our 28 years of marriage. Fortunately, Elkhart Lake has a great golf course for duffers and pros alike.  Quit Qui Oc is a 27 hole course run by Todd and Rachel Montaba. The course had been in Rachel’s family for decades and the couple has turned it into a beautiful place to spend the day. And they’re both golf pros who offer instruction for those of use feeling a bit rusty.

Wine tasting If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know that wine is a central part of my life and travels. And even this tiny hamlet in rural Wisconsin can not escape my need for a wine adventure. Vintage is owned and run by Jaclyn Stuart, a sommelier who caters to the locals and vacationers with a selection of 250+ handpicked wines from around the world. If you’re in need of a gourmet gift, this is the place with a selection of Wisconsin cheeses, gourmet chocolates, olive oils and vinegars bottled in-house, and other artisanal trinkets.

Cooking is such a great couple’s activity so spend a day at the Osthoff Resort culinary school L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School. Under the direction of the resort’s Chef Benjamin Sommerfeldt, you can prepare an elegant multi-course meal together and learn a few new culinary skills along the way. Many of the ingredients come straight from the resort’s garden so be sure to take a little side tour.

A special note: If you’re in Elkhart Lake during the holidays, there’s a European-style Christmas market at the Osthoff. When we lived in Milan, one of my favorite winter excursions was driving up to the Christkindlesmarkts in Germany. If you can’t get to Germany, this is as close as you’ll get!

Every time I’m headed off to a new destination overseas, I get a ton of questions from people, “Is it safe?”, “Aren’t you worried about terrorism?”, “Where do you find safe travel tips?”  You won’t see me, willingly, traveling to Afghanistan anytime soon, and despite incidents which have appeared to target tourist areas of major European cities, my sense of wanderlust will not be stifled.

My husband was an FBI Agent for 26 years and his experiences, which took him to truly dangerous destinations, has helped shape how we travel using some safe travel tips. Also, living in Italy in the age of gypsies and pickpockets taught me a lot. For the record, yes, I was pickpocketed, but unsuccessfully I might add. My expensive Milanese manicure came in handy because I chose to use my long nails to dig them deep into the gypsy’s arm, like an eagle’s talons, as I caught her arm in my purse – all while holding my two young children with the other hand. 

So I recently asked my recently retired FBI Agent husband for some really simple, common sense safe travel tips to share, especially in light of some of the recent news stories. These may seem too pedestrian and too simplex, but believe me, I’ve had friends fall victim to crime for NOT following these common sense rules.

1. Put the phone away. I recently read a story of a college town where students are being robbed by the dozens late at night walking home from the bars. And in virtually every case, it was because the victim was busy texting, looking down, not aware of his/her surroundings. This same practice is what makes travelers so vulnerable to crimes – whether they’re personal crimes or location-based crimes. Whether you’re standing to board a train, waiting in line to purchase a train ticket, or waiting at the airport between flights, put the phone away and pay attention to what’s going on around you, especially in crowded locations. Being present and able to make a split second reaction could save your life.  

2. Don’t be too friendly. My husband has warned my kids of this for years. If someone you don’t know approached you on the street to make chitchat, there’s a good chance they’re trying to divert your attention, scam you, or size you up. This happens even in the best of places, but quite often in tourist destinations. When we lived in Italy, a friend who was visiting was approached by a woman who appeared in distress and lost and as my friend pulled out a map to help her, an accomplice was taking her video camera out of the bag she set down to open the map. It’s okay to be cordial, but be aware that in many destinations, criminals prey on tourists with a single goal of distracting you. If I’m the least bit suspicious, I say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” and quickly put distance between us. 

3. Have a meeting place. One of my biggest fears when traveling is that one of my kids or a traveling companion will not get through the train doors before they close and we’ll be separated. Despite my kids now being young adults, I still have this nightmare. Even in U.S. cities! So whenever you’re traveling with other individuals, even one, have a rendezvous point for each stop on your itinerary.  Crowded museums, busy tourist-filled sidewalks and even stopping to use the restroom are opportunities to get separated from your friends or family. So always have a meeting place whether it’s a coffee shop next door to the attraction or your hotel lobby. We used to carry those old-fashioned walkie talkies (remember those?) so that we could split up while touring. Inevitably, the batteries in one device would die and we’d spend countless hours wandering around looking for the other person. Leave nothing to chance. Build in meeting places to your daily itinerary.

4. Leave it in your room. Despite what you read in the guidebooks, do not carry travel documents or your passport with you when walking around. I had not one, but two, friends visiting us in Italy lose their passport while sightseeing. Believe me, spending the remainder of your vacation at the Embassy is not how you want to end your trip. And in today’s world, getting a quick replacement passport is virtually impossible. What my husband does recommend, is that you make a copy of any important documents, such as your passport, and take that with you. Or snap a photo of it on your smart phone, just in case you need it for identification (although in 30 years of traveling abroad I’ve never been asked for my passport except when checking into hotels).   

5. Stash cash. Yep, another one of those common sense tips that resonates with me. Primarily because it was one I did NOT follow and wreaked havoc on a trip. My 21-year-old son was backpacking through Thailand and lost his debit card the second day he arrived. With his 3am phone call home, I learned that 1) we forgot to set up his credit card to allow for ATM withdrawals and 2) my 24-hour/365 day bank had recently changed their hours, eliminating the 24-hour bit. He was checking into a hostel and needed to pay.  Fortunately, he was able to borrow money from a friend for the night. So always keep an emergency amount of cash, say $100, well hidden, but accessible under any circumstance.Yes, those undershirt travel portfolios or travel belts are corny, but would you rather look silly or find yourself huffing it the 80 blocks back to your hotel because you lost your credit card? And back pockets are not a safe place! This is when bras tend to come in handy.

6. Don’t look like a tourist. White socks with sandals and a camera bag? Let’s hope not – that’s not one of our safe travel tips. There’s more to looking like a tourist than how you dress. It’s how you conduct yourself. Where’s the most popular place to read a map? Believe it or not, it’s standing on a street corner. If that doesn’t have “I’m a tourist!” written all over it. Hopefully, you’ve planned out your route in advance but in case you get lost or need to refer to your map, by all means, step inside a bar or coffee shop and get your bearings. The same goes with using the map app on your phone. Standing in the train station looking puzzledly at schedules also screams “I’m a great target!”  If you do find yourself as a dazed and confused tourist, be discreet and refer back to the #1 tip here.

7.  Be an FBI Agent. Yep, you too can be an FBI Agent. One of the funnest, most stressful, most educational things I’ve done was attend a required course at the FBI Academy prior to moving overseas as a diplomat family. We spent an entire day learning when we were being watched or surveilled. It’s a skill I still use to this day. So when you’re traveling in an unknown destination, put on your pretend FBI badge and conduct surveillance. When you or your traveling companion are at an ATM or ticket counters, don’t both bunch up and stand together at the counter. One person should stay back and perform “a safety surveillance” on the other, ensuring that no one is watching the transaction.

Must-have travel accessories for long flights

There’s nothing worse than being on the road only to discover that you left one of your must-have travel accessories at home. From cell phones that die in the middle of an interview to being stuck on the tarmac with no headphones, as a travel writer, I’ve learned the hard way the best travel tools that I just can’t leave home without.

1.Extra charger
When I’m on a press trip, the days can be long. Hosts wants us to experience as much as we can each day. I’ll head out some mornings and not get back to my room until late at night. I’m taking pictures all day long and voice recording some interviews, so I can’t afford to have my phone’s battery die mid-day. One of my best travel tools is a small lipstick-sized charger which gets me through two full battery cycles.

2. Blanket scarf for plane
Hot flashes aside, I get chilly on planes, especially on long-haul flights at night. Mer-Sea & Co. recently won me over with this fabulous travel wrap, a must-have travel accessory for long flights. Unlike those icky airline-issued blankets, it’s cozy and stylish (and clean), and one of the best travel tools a gal can have. It’s also a great all around wrap that I can keep in my tote for chilly restaurants or breezy days.

3. Water bottle
Like journals, I’m a sucker for pretty water bottles. Personally, I like the Swell bottles because they keep beverages both hot and cold for an entire day. Whether it’s having hot tea on my long flight or cool water on my bedside, I’m never without my Swell.

4. Earplugs and eye mask
You know that “What’s the 1 thing you’d take to a deserted island?” question?  For me, the answer is always earplugs. I’m a light sleeper. And hotels can be very noisy. And bright, especially if I’m a few time zones behind.

5. Pocket
This might be my all-time favorite and one of  the best travel tools around. I spend a lot of time reading and doing research – on totally random stuff – so I save all of these article to Pocket, an app that lets you read things offline. I use my time on airplanes to catch up on reading.

6. iPhone camera accessories
I was on a recent press trip and discovered I’ve been SO out of touch with my iPhone camera! I’m always taking photos in low light – food, night shots, quick snaps from tour buses – so was thrilled to learn about these accessories from a fellow travel writer. First, a Universal Clip-On LED Light with 21 LEDs that brighten up low-light videos or pictures. There are also clip-on lenses including a wide angle, macro and fish eye lens, to turn your normal snaps into professional photographs.