Friday, September 19, 2014

FRENCH POLYNESIA SEPT 2014: Moorea

MOOREA:
IT JUST KEEPS GETTING BETTER!
I've returned to my favorite Hilton Moorea for 4 nights.  Before I give you the updates, this is just a recap of the island of Moorea.

Moorea
To me, Moorea is my favorite island in French Polynesia for things to do, see and restaurants to enjoy.  Moorea is a 30 minture ferry ride or a 7 minute flight from Papeete.  It is a true island (opposed to a Motu or an Atoll) that is only 34 km around so it's really easy to navigate.

You want to go the market ... no problem there are choices from the small mom and pop places to larger Marches (french for markets) such as France's larger market, Champion Market.

How about trying water sports?  There are so many choices from canoes to paddle boarding, jet skiing and much more.

Diving and snorkeling ... got you covered!
A picture from my Daughter & Son-in-Law's
experience with Dr. Poole while on their honeymoon

Do you want to see dolphins and whales - ask for Dr. Poole's tours.

Spas here on Moorea are not the uber modern type found on Bora Bora but they are relaxing and have complete services.  Try a massage in your room at sunset - it's magical!  Both the Hilton Moorea and the Intercontinental Moorea have lovely spas offering full services.

Tahitian Black Pearls or Perles which is the french way of spelling.  There are so many pearl shops to choose from.  Iv'e been to them all on Moorea as i w was shopping for my set of pearls.  Each shop that I visited except for one offered me a referral commission when I told them that I was a Tahiti travel specialist.  The one shop that DID
Eva Pearles
NOT offer commission is where I purchased my own pearls.  Why?  Because the owner was honest and had wonderful quality pearls.  Simple.  That store was Eva Pearles and Eva, the owner is totally reputable and honest.  Eva also speaks perfect English because she studied in Wisconsin.  Eva took the time to explain the differences in pearls regarding their quality and their colors.  Take your time ... you will not feel rushed.  I promise, I won't get a referral fee and you will have a wonderful experience and hopefully ... bring home a memory of Moorea that will last you a lifetime.
Snack Mahana
Finally, (everyone's favorite topic) restaurants.There are quite a few to try.  Most are a mix of Polynesian cuisine mixed with French cuisine.  I have my favorites so ask for my preferred list but to give you an idea, here are two quite different recommendations:
Mahogany Restaurant
Best place for lunch with local flavor - Snack Mahana.  You MUST bring cash because they do not take credit cards.  We have their famous breaded mahi mahi in coconut milk and it was wonderful!
Best place for profiteroles - you know, the little puff pastries  with ice cream in the middle and yummy chocolate sauce over it - Mahogany Restaurant is the winner!


Now for the Hilton Moorea
The Hilton Moorea JUST GETS IT RIGHT AND KEEPS GETTING BETTER & BETTER!
Hilton Moorea
Here are some of the changes that I've seen and enjoyed:
Poisson Cru at the Roti Restaurant
Do you know the hotel now has an herb garden?!  I met the Head Chef, a lovely shy man from the Southwestern part of France - Chef Laurent.  The cuisine has improved 100%!!  
In addition to a wonderful breakfast and one of the best lunch venues (you must try their Poisson Cru which is the BEST that I have ever enjoyed on all of the islands), the hotel now offers a fun venue for Happy Hour with 2 for 1 drinks and special prices for their bar food.  There's a new Tapas Bar (love this spot - it's fun and the food is great) and a Crepes Bar.  Their dinner venue at Arii Vahine now is part of my recommended restaurant list.  Make sure to try the "Black Pearl" dessert to end your perfect meal at the Hilton Moorea.
Arii Vahine Restaurant

The Hilton Moorea's GM, Karine and I met for dinner last night.  What a dynamic insightful person.  The standards at the Hilton Moorea do not feel like a typical Hilton.  In fact, my husband mentioned to me that this is well beyond what people would except from any Hilton hotel or resort.

We discussed her wonderful staff.  Many of the staff members at the Hilton Moorea have been here for years and years.  The Polynesian people can be shy and keep in mind that English is not their first language.  You almost have to get past this to understand their genuine kindness and humor.  I really adore some oft eh staff and love to hear "welcome home" when I arrive. Say HI to Dinah, Norma, Crystal, Gaelle, Rose, Barbara and Francie for me.
Hilton Moorea
All of the rooms are carefully maintained and that is hard to accomplish in the islands because of the sun and the challenges with supply issues are quite daunting.  I love the changes with the bedding.  The sheets are comfortable and the bedspreads are (thankfully) a thing of the past.  The bath amenities from Peter Thomas Roth are an improvement.  My only suggestion is that the outdoor chaise lounges in the over the water bungalows need cushions.
Hilton Moorea

My final thoughts ... you will be in good hands when you choose Hilton Moorea.  It is a perfect introduction to what makes French Polynesia so unique.  You can spend 4-5 nights here and then try one of the other islands such as Taha'a and Bora Bora.


Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Thursday, September 11, 2014

FRENCH POLYNESIA SEPT 2014: Kia Ora - Rangiroa

FRENCH POLYNESIA

KIA ORA – RANGIROA


September 6-8, 2014
Kia Ora Resort Pool
We had a good flight from LAX to PPT.  It took 8 hours.  
The lines upon arrival were pretty bad.  Usually, it takes 20-30 minutes to get through passport control but this time, it was closer to 45 minutes.   
Air Tahiti Nui Economy


After picking up our luggage we had to go to the domestic terminal (to make our transfer).  In the past, I've always had a “Meet and Greet” service but this time I chose not to have it so I could see what that was like.  Normally, the “Meet and Greet” service would have had my boarding passes and know the people to skip the line so the process usually takes 5-10 minutes.  This process without their assistance took 45 minutes!  I now see the value of the “Meet and Greet” service!
Air Tahiti Nui Business


From Papeete to Rangiroa, the flight had to make 1 stop in Tikehau.  The total flight time was 1 hour 45 minutes.  All went well.  The plane has approximately 80 seats and is a turboprop airplane.  When we arrived in Rangiroa, we were greeted with a lei and after dealing with our luggage, we drove 5 minutes to the Kia Ora Resort.


The Kia Ora Resort is lovely.  We were greeted with a cool cloth and juice.  Our villa was ready for us which was a definite plus because we wanted to freshen up.  Kia Ora has 3 basic room types.  The beach bungalows, villas and over the water bungalows.  We were in the villas and I loved it!
Air Tahiti Nui Flight to Rangiroa


Three years ago, Kia Ora renovated their villas and they are quite nice.  The main take away is that the rooms have a private plunge pool and yard and when I say private ... it really is!  Some other resorts that I have visited have the plunge pool but the fence that surrounds you makes you feel claustrophobic but this villa construction does not feel that way.  It's open and comfortably large with lovely vegetation.  There is a covered area to enjoy a meal or simply enjoy a glass of wine and celebrate who are are with.
Pool


The beach bungalows have wonderful views and direct beach access.  I preferred the bungalows that were to the left of the pontoon.  The rooms need updating but if views and beach access are important to you, then this is a wonderful option.


The over water bungalows are also nice but for this property, I prefer the villas ... save the over the water bungalows for another island.


There is only one bar and one restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at Kia Ora.  The food was nice but if you are a foodie/wine person, lower your expectations and be prepared.  There is a restaurant option outside the property 2 minutes away but that's about it.
Kia Ora Resort Villa
I had a very frank conversation with Gerry, the GM of Kia Ora and learned quite a bit about the property and the challenges of being a resort on the outer islands.  There are only 3,000 people that reside on Rangiroa.  Everything needs to be flown in and that adds to the general cost of doing business.  Luckily for Kia Ora, Gerry REALLY cares.  He is such a hand's on GM and I respect his insight.  Great guy!
Kia Ora Resort Beach Bungalow

Rangiroa is not really an island with a mountain in the middle like Tahiti, Moorea or Bora Bora.  It is a reef on an atoll.  Looking at a map helps.  There is only a 6 mile stretch on this part of Rangiroa to visit.  My thoughts are if you really are into diving and snorkeling, Rangiroa and the 4 star, Kia Ora is worth a visit.  Le Taha'a on the motu just off the island of Taha'a is the most similar but is more expensive and a five star experience.

Kia Ora Resort Over the Water Bungalow Interior





Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mari Marks: NEW Location - Protravel Beverly Hills!

I HAVE A NEW OFFICE!!!  
I HAVE MOVED TO THE 
PROTRAVEL OFFICE IN BEVERLY HILLS



9171 Wilshire Blvd.
Suite 428
Beverly Hills, CA 90210


It's been awhile since I've written and I wanted to let you know my exciting news!!!  I have moved my office to our Protravel office in Beverly Hills, CA.  The best part is that my commute will be 5 minutes by car or a good 20 minute walk (BIG happy face)!

Here is my updated information:
Email: mari.marks@protravelinc.com - stayed the same
Direct: 310-691-7323
Office: 310-271-9566 x 7323
Toll free: 800-301-3993 x 7323
E-fax: 866-741-2755 - stayed the same



TRAVEL NEWS & INFO.
There are end of the year specials on most of the cruise lines.

The BEST offer in Europe is at Chateau Saint Martin.  For anyone needing two rooms from today until the end of September, Chateau Saint Martin will give clients of Virtuoso agents an upgrade to their 2 Bedroom Villas (based on availability)!  I have already arranged this for a family of 4 and can't wait to help you too!

I also wanted you to know that Protravel was bought by Travel Leader's Group.  Our association with Travel Leaders now gives me access to 4 discount codes to help you with hotels that are outside of Virtuoso.  How can I help you?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bali Trip 2014: Borneo, Brunei & Some Ending Thoughts on this Trip

BORNEO, INDONESIA, 
BRUNEI 
& SOME ENDING THOUGHTS ON THIS TRIP
Did you know that Malaysia has 13 states?  Borneo is an island with 2 of those states.  There are just under 500,000 people in Borneo with 60% of those inhabitants religiously identified as Christians and 40% identified as Muslims in this Muslim country.
Malaysia is more modern and successful than Indonesia.  Our port, Kota Kinabalu (KK)
had malls, decent transportation and it was clean.  There were street markets with handicrafts.  Unfortunately, most of those handicrafts were factory made rather than made by locals.  The local handicrafts were poorly made so leave KK of your must do shopping list.
We met our guide and drove 90 minutes to Mount Kinabalu, also known as the “shy mountain” to visit Kinabalu Park.  Kinabalu Park is Malaysia's first World Heritage site.  It offers a variety of botanicals including 1,200 species of orchids.  It is a birding paradise with 325 species of birds.  After our visit, we had lunch at a local hotel and then were dropped off at one of KK's malls.  The mall was just like any mall USA so we left.
Brunei
Our next stop in our journey was a visit to Brunei.  Brunei shares the same land mass island as Borneo but that is where their connection ends.  Brunei, is so much more wealthy than Borneo.  Their roads are in good shape and their population is better educated.  Actually, their education is free as is their medical care and pensions.  What surprised me was how quiet their
Bandar Seri Begawan
main city of
Bandar Seri Begawan was.  No blaring music, no horns sounding – everything seemed controlled.  Because Brunei is a Muslim country, alcohol is prohibited.  Their traffic patterns are measured.  This is where the Sultan of Brunei rules and has absolute control.  He is one of the richest people in the world. 

Brunei is not tourism driven – they just don't need our tourist dollars.  This country is so wealthy due to its vast oil and gas reserves.  There isn't much to see here as a result.  All visitors visit Kampung Ayer which is their water villages.  These
Kampung Ayer
are a collection of 42 villages with 30,000 people living in homes built on stilts in the Brunei River.  The poorest looking house is surprisingly large and is likely to house modern household amenities.  The government is trying to move the inhabitants to land but the locals are resisting the move.

We drove past the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque which is considered to be the most beautiful mosque in South Asia.  It's huge dome made of gold, marble minarets and lagoon were quite dramatic.  As crazy as this seems, the Mosque is not the most opulent building in the city.  The Sultan's Palace, Istana Nurul Iman wins.  It has 1,788 rooms.  We also visited the Royal Regalia Gallery which is used as an introduction to the six centuries of Brunei Monarchy.  It houses a collection of Royal artifacts and gifts from all over the world along with a photo gallery of all the major players in the family.
Looking for something else to see?  Well, there are markets and malls but that's it.  Our full day tour ended after an early lunch.  Would I visit Brunei or suggest that you visit?  No, I really wouldn't. 

My Ending Thoughts of this Trip...

With this in mind, I can now say that after cruising over 35 times, unfortunately, this has been the least interesting itinerary that I've ever experienced.  Other cruise lines visit this place in the world but I just don't get it.  Out of a scale of 0-10, this itinerary is a 2 but that is only due to Bali.  Again, Central Java was interesting but the commute to Borobudur Temple doesn't warrant this being a port to stop at.  Central Java needs to be done independent of a cruise.

Our Crystal Cruise experience has been stellar and I want to mention that the ship experience has been at 9.5 out of 10.

Our cruise ends in Singapore.  If I find anything interesting, I'll blog about it.  If not, thank you for reading my blog for this vacation.  I am always available for answer your questions.

Also, exclusive to Protravel, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Crystal Cruises is offering a wonderful promotion until the end of the week!!


Please contact me if you would like information.  
I will be available from March 13th forward.

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bali Trip 2014: Makassar, Indonesia & Our Days @ Sea on Crystal Symphony

MAKASSAR, INDONESIA 
AND 
OUR DAYS AT SEA ON CRYSTAL SYMPHONY

I hope that you read my blogs to see what I like and don't like as well as to get insights into travel!  You are about to read about a port that I really disliked as well as a surprise to me.
Makassar, Indonesia

Makassar, Indonesia is a retched place on earth.  It is a port that Crystal Cruises should never stop at.  Makassar is the fourth largest city in Indonesia with over 1.3 million people.  It is as poverty stricken as our first port, Surabaya.  The only thing to experience here requires a ninety minute drive down terrible, littered roads to see a waterfall that was supposed to house hundreds of different butterflies.  We arrived to see a tiny waterfall, people selling mounted butterflies and a one room butterfly museum again with mounted butterflies.  The hundreds of different butterflies are no longer present near the waterfall because people have captured and killed them to be mounted and sold.  This is Makassar.
Batik textiles

Descriptions of Makassar said that the best Indonesian batik textiles would be found here but they were not.  Stores sold polyester copies and nothing else.  We were supposed to spend a full day touring Makassar and have lunch but after 4 hours we ended our journey early to escape back to the ship.  In retrospect, I would not recommend an itinerary that includes Indonesia.  Both Bali and Central Java are a must see in your lifetime but both should be seen on land as a pre or post cruise experience.

Wine Tasting on the Cruise
The next two days on the Crystal Harmony were “at sea” days.  Normally, I really don't care for back to back at sea days.  But here was my surprise ... I relaxed!!  The pace slowed down, I read my books.  I enjoyed getting to meet new friends.  Lunch was a simple salad outdoors with my favorite cocktail.  We enjoyed two wine tastings sponsored by Patz and Hall and SilverOak Wineries and had a chance to spend some time with Roo and Tim Duncan from Silver Oak.  Sometimes, I find it hard to just relax but I did for these past 2 days and really enjoyed myself.  

The service on Crystal is really what stands out.  They remember your name and what you like.  The staff makes eye contact and engages.  I had a wonderful experience that I would like to share with you.

St. Germain
I love a very simple drink made from mixing sparkling water, fresh ruby red grapefruit juice and a liqueur called St. Germain which is an elder flower liqueur.  After ordering it a few times and describing the recipe proportions, the waiter asked me what the drink was called.  I didn't know and he said that he would spend the next day or so coming up with a name.  An hour later, the same waiter returned with a piece of paper for me to look at.  The paper was titled "St. Marks" with the drink recipe listed.  He said that all of the bar staff would know the drink by name so I didn't have to describe it again.  How's that for engaging!

Tomorrow, we are off to Borneo, Malaysia followed by Brunei and Singapore.


Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BALI Trip 2014: Crystal Cruise UPDATE, Surabaya, Semarang (Borobudur) & Amanjiwo

CRYSTAL CRUISE UPDATE
SURABAYA
SEMARANG (BOROBUDUR) 
AMANJIWO

Crystal Symphony

Crystal Symphony Bedroom
We are now on the Crystal Symphony.  It's amazing how well the cruise is run.  All of the common areas are updated and spotless.  I love their new colors!  The staterooms have wonderful bathroom amenities (Aveda) and the bed linens are really comfortable.  Crystal now is offering a "pillow menu" which is helpful for those with allergies.

Crystal Symphony Bedroom
Our first stop was in Surabaya, Indonesia in Eastern Java.  The first impression was that almost all of the women were wearing Arabic scarves while the men were in t-shirts and shorts.  This differed dramatically from Bali because most of the Balinese people are Hindu.  The next impression was that this is a port that should be missed.  Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia.  It is such a poor city.  There were so many litter filled shanty towns with people hanging around doing nothing.  The only thing to see was a pretty museum 90 minutes from the port called Pendopo Agung Trowulan.  This is where the Majaphit Palace was and it housed artifacts but the artifacts were not dated so it really was pretty meaningless.  The best part of Surabaya was returning to the Crystal Cruise to leave.  Blunt but true.
Borobudur Temple

Our second port was Semarang in Central Java.  BTW: Java and Bali are both islands in Indonesia.  While Surabaya was a city of absolute poverty, it seemed as though Semarang was more developed.  People were at work.  There was less litter and more industry.  The homes seemed more established and less shanty town.  The challenge of Semarang is that there was one highlight to visit and it was located three (yes, three) hours away.  There is only one road to access Borobudur Temple in each direction and it actually took three and a half hours to return.  The countryside is quite pretty.  It has hills, rice paddies and volcanic mountains – some with steam coming from them.
Amanjiwo

The Borobudor Temple is a UNESCO site.  It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.   Have you ever heard of it?  I had not!  Borobudur Temple was discovered in 1814.  It was hidden by volcanic ash for over 800 years.  The stone relief panels, 504 stone Buddha statues and bells are stunning and definitely worth visiting.  If you have an interest, I would suggest visiting Central Java by land rather than spend the horrible three plus hours in each direction getting to the Temple from the port.
Amanjiwo Bedroom
From the top of Borobudur Temple, you can see Amanjiwo, the fourth Aman property that I visited.  We were with dear friends and wanted to treat them to an amazing lunch while I was able to do a site visit of Amanjiwo.  Amanjiwo means “peaceful soul” and rests 15 minutes from the Temple in the Central Java countryside.  It is breathtaking!  From the entrance, you can visually see Borobudur Temple.  From the moment you enter the open air reception, you relax.  All of the surfaces seem golden.  I loved the gold painted Hindu mural in the dining room as we enjoyed our lunch.  Amanjiwo offers a Western menu and a separate Indonesian menu.

Amanjiwo
There are 36 villas on property.  The size of each villa is the same.  The difference between the villas are that some have views of Borobudur Temple and half of the villas have beautiful pools.  I loved the use of Javanese art around the property and learned from Mark, the GM at Amanjiwo that this part of Central Java was an artist paradise.  Amanjiwo can arrange for private appointments with various artist studios located around the valley.  All villas offer the Aman bathroom with dual sinks, closets and an outdoor soaking tub.  Did I mention the use of the beautiful Javanese textiles?  The food is locally sourced and Amanjiwo is proud to work with the local farmers.  Everyday, you can watch local Javanese girls being taught local dances.  I also learned that tours could be arranged by car, bicycle, atop elephants or on horseback!  This amazing resort is serenity on steroids and a wonderfully romantic place in the world to discover.
Crystal Symphony

We have four more ports to visit during our cruise.  Tomorrow, we visit Makassar, Indonesia, followed by Borneo, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.  
Thank you for taking the time to visit this part of the world with me!
Crystal Symphony Buffet

Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

BALI TRIP 2014: Amanusa - Nusa Dua, Bali

AMANUSA – NUSA DUA, BALI

The final Aman property that we stayed at is in Nusa Dua which is on the Bukit Peninsula 20 minutes from Denpasar Airport and approximately 1 hour from Ubud where Amandari is.  Amanusa means “peaceful isle” and it is located in the Nusa Dua enclave which also has the Bali Golf and Country Club, a brand new St. Regis Resort and a few other resorts.
Amanusa Entry

Amanusa was built 22 years ago.  There are 35 villas, some with private pools.  The views overlooking the Indian Ocean are spectacular as is the property.  When we arrived, I noticed the giant teak sculpture in the entrance area with the Hindu poem, the Ramayana carved into the teak.  It is spectacular!  

The resort offers it's own private beach club.  The water is clear and the sand is soft – what a great way to relax!  There are 9 private bales and the staff is always checking in to see if you want/need anything.  Light meals and drinks are readily available.  The pool on property is absolutely beautiful and serene.  Everywhere you look, you will find carved stone or amazing woodwork.  The bedrooms are quite large and the bathrooms are a big WOW with an outdoor shower, separate indoor shower, soaking tub and dual sinks.
Bedroom

There are two restaurants on property specializing in Asian and Italian cuisine.  The setting in both locations is beautiful and relaxing.  The resort also has a wonderful spa, beautifully stocked boutique, bar and library.

Two areas close to Nusa Dua are Jimbaran and Simanyak both within 30 minutes of the resort.  Simanyak is the larger of the two with more shopping and night life.  The resort staff will help you make arrangements to visit both and help with suggestions for preferred stores and restaurants.
Enjoying the Cabana

You could easily stay 3-4 nights here to help relax and rejuvenate or longer if you are a golfer.  I can understand why people adore Aman properties.  It's the more for more theory.  Yes, your visit will be expensive but if you value service, hotel rooms that offer the most wonderful amenities and a sense of place, Aman is the answer to any “cookie cutter" hotel experience.

The World is Our Playground!

Mari