Know before you go: Tabacon Hot Springs Resort & Spa

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To many travelers, Costa Rica’s Tabacon Hot Springs Resort & Spa may seems like an expensive and out-of-reach vacation choice, but this popular thermal springs luxury resort can be accessible to most with a little common budget travel sense.

Tabacon is located at the base of Arenal Volcano near La Fortuna de San Carlos. Geothermal hot springs in the local area have made it extremely popular for tourists. Although there are several places to experience the hot springs, Tabacon — with its beautiful gardens, iconic waterfalls, natural wading pools and romantic private grottos — remains on the bucket list of many travelers. Here are some items to consider if you plan to visit this beautiful resort and attraction:

Opt for an overnight stay at one of the nearby resorts. If the nightly rates at Tabacon are out of your budget, if you’re visiting during a peak season, or if the only room available is one of the $1200 honeymoon suites: don’t despair. You can stay at a nearby resort such as the Arenal Lodge and still purchase a day pass for Tabacon. And unless you’re planning to stay a few nights and book several spa treatments, I’d recommend this option. For example, consider buying a day pass for a morning of soaking and strolling in the hot springs followed by a leisurely lunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for $70. Or you could get a pass for the entire day — from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a meal for $60. There are other meal/day pass package combinations available, and I would recommend having at least one meal at the resort, just to top off the experience.

Relax in the lobby bar. Okay, so you’ve decided to stay one or more nights at Tabacon, and maybe your bus or taxi has dropped you off before your room is ready. Know that you can explore the resort or simply relax in the lobby bar. This is a great place to catch up on some U.S. sporting events, or grab an appetizer while you wait for your room.

Explore the resort. Start out by walking Tabacon’s paths weaving through throughout the property. After getting settled in your suite, obtain a map and take some time to inspect the gardens. Take some dusk or nighttime photos of the spectacular plants and tropical flowers. Visit El Palenque Bar for happy hour at the far reaches of the grounds. Get to know your way around the resort before you spend the next day soaking in pools and being showered by warm waterfalls. You can learn at which water features you will want to spend most of your time.

Wear water shoes or at least flip-flops with some decent tread. Tabacon River rocks and stepping stones can be extremely slippery. Because this tropical paradise gets an average of 137 inches of rain and the springs supply a constant mist over the earth, almost every walkway seems constantly wet. Exercise extra caution when stepping into the deeper pools — and use care when negotiating a seat under the waterfalls — that water pressure is very high. Also, know that water temperatures vary. Some pools are a cool 77 degrees, while others are a steamy 102 degrees.

Schedule your spa treatment early. If you don’t reserve a massage or other spa treatment before you arrive, you may miss out. Consider making a reservation when you reserve your room — or at least a week before you arrive. These time slots will book up early — obviously even more so, during peak seasons such as late fall, winter and early spring.

Learn practical photography tips about shooting in high moisture areas. In an effort to save my new Canon from the moisture, I made the mistake of buying a single use, disposable, waterproof camera for my stay at Tabacon. Unfortunately, my prints — those taken while enjoying the pools and waterfalls — came out extremely grainy when I had them developed. I can’t say what exactly caused that, but I understand now there are much better ways to capture Tabacon experiences on film. I’ve heard this will help: Store the camera in an airtight plastic bag until it can brought outside and adjusted to the current temperature and humidity. Online searches will produce even more suggestions for photography in humid, moist, misty or foggy conditions. And just in case your photos didn’t turn out the best, you can always download some from the resort website.

Watch the volcano. You may not see much action, since Arenal’s activity level has decreased considerably since 2010. We visited in 2007, so we were fortunate to see Arenal still shooting up smoke and ash. And In the evening from our patio, we could distinguish a few strings of lava rolling down the mountain. Although volcanic activity has decreased, you may be fortunate to catch a rare display!

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More photos of Costa Rica can be viewed here.

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10 things to love about Bahamas’ Atlantis Resort

A recipe for the best family vacation starts with a gorgeous beach on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. Add a water park, marine habitat, casino, spa, movie theater, concert venue, designer shops and world class dining and voilà: you have Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.

Seeing an email alert this week from the resort about its spring travel deals reminded me of our vacation stay there. Although our vacation was during the fall, Atlantis during any season is pure paradise. (See blog post from 2012.) Spring may is often considered the ideal time to visit, and current discount deals make this popular Bahamas resort on Paradise Island even more attractive. Add to the mix an airfare credit of up to $300 and you may find yourself booking a flight for your family to Nassau today! Here are a few of our favorite things we love about Atlantis:

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1. Swimming pools resemble landscape architecture works of art.

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2. Some days you may feel like medieval royalty about to conquer an abandoned castle

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3. Colorful lily pads transform a frog pond into garden water features ‘fit for a prince’

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4. Warmer, calm cove waters and pristine beaches line the resort’s perimeter – perfect for wading

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5. Iconic sights such as the Royal Towers will prompt memories of popular spy-action movies

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6. Leisurely lunches at one of several outdoor poolside & patio eateries

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7. Views in every direction conjure images of the mythical ‘Lost City’

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8. Beautiful walkways and patios along the marina allow easy access to the casinos

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9. River rides can provide either a thrilling tubing adventure…

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…or a relaxing float trip — or both! That’s 10!

Visit the Atlantis Resort website for more information about Atlantis Resort and seasonal specials and discount deals.

We’d love to hear from our readers: What’s your favorite family beach resort? What are your spring break travel plans?

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Almost like home for the holiday: Hotel Christmas trees

Beautiful Christmas tree in the Westin Kierland Villas lobby

Beautiful Christmas tree in the Westin Kierland Villas lobby

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Tree at Barcelo Ixtapa hotel

Tree at Barcelo Ixtapa hotel

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When I saw the Christmas tree in the lobby of the Westin Kierland Villas this past weekend, I was reminded of images of trees from holiday stays at various resorts and hotels over the years. Many of these hotel lobby trees were elaborate, sparkling masterpieces of decoration. Others were homespun and simple — inclined to make one think of home. Some had local, cultural charms and appeal, to inspire a memory of your destination.

One memorable tree stood in the Eagle’s Nest Lounge at the Prescott Resort and Conference Center when we stayed there at Christmas time from 1998-2004. This spectacular tree rose at least two floors and it almost could be spotted from Gurley Street driving back from Courthouse Square. When there weren’t any company parties booked in the lounge, guests could sit and listen to holiday favorites played on the grand piano, relax and warm up in front of the stone fireplace and sip hot beverages laced with mint, chocolate and Baileys Irish Cream.

Another resort Christmas tree that comes to mind was the tall ‘tannenbaum” at the entrance to the atrium of the Barcelo Ixtapa, Mexico. The tree was a beacon to every room level and it echoed tidings and joy throughout the resort. January 6 (Epiphany) is observed in Mexico as Three Kings Day — as it is also celebrated in other parts of the world. While we were there, we feasted on Rosca de Reyes, the bread ring of the Three Kings. At the Barcelo, the huge ring of sweet pastry made a circumference around the entire Christmas tree.

Westin Ka'anapali Christmas tree

Westin Ka’anapali Christmas tree

On a recent Maui December vacation, the Christmas tree at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas seemed almost out of place among all the tropical plants, birds, sunshine and bikini-clad tourists. Still, it was very pleasant to recall how we would sit on the sunny terrace for breakfast, admiring the Christmas tree while dining on fresh pineapple, watching the toucans and flamingos and listening to the faint chime of Bing’s or Buffett’s version of “Mele Kalikimaka.”

But nothing anywhere among my hotel Christmas tree memories can compare to the story this week I watched on a NBC network news broadcast about a family spending their Christmas at a Holiday Inn in Hazlet, New Jersey, whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. They had no home, no spectacular Christmas tree and certainly no possibility of any Christmastime vacation. For them, there would be no lounging at a Maui hotel swimming pool, sipping cups of warm Irish cream in a cozy Prescott Arizona lobby or jetting off to an Ixtapa, Mexico beach resort. Instead they would nestle in a simple, but warm Holiday Inn two-bed room in undoubtedly cramped quarters. Rather than making resolutions they will be laying out hope for a better year in a stack of FEMA applications, insurance paperwork and housing relocation plans. And these are the fortunate. Consider the many displaced by Hurricane Sandy who don’t even have a Holiday Inn to return to each day.

Many of us who travel regularly can imagine that small round table near the front window of almost every typical motel room. That’s the place we take for granted: where we sprawl travel brochures, business papers or our laptop. It’s the place we unload the Chinese take-out or the Starbucks coffee. But for that one family on the news report affected by Hurricane Sandy, this would be the prime spot for their foot-high Christmas tree, with homemade decorations and makeshift lights. If there’s any image or memory of a hotel holiday tree best depicting Christmas — I’d say that would be it.

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Three Kings Bread: Rosca de Reyes at the Barcelo Ixtpapa, Mexico

Three Kings Bread: Rosca de Reyes at the Barcelo Ixtpapa, Mexico

Create your own travel memories

Re-create vacation memories with sensory reminders (Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis)Not all vacation memories come in the form of photo snapshots. Not all souvenirs are found in gift shops. You can establish your own souvenirs of your vacation or weekend getaway by re-creating and re-stimulating the senses.

I just returned from a weekend escape at the Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, California. It was an all-too-quick, but wonderful little getaway – a change of scenery, simply to relax and recharge. I didn’t book any expensive spa treatments and I didn’t take out my frustrations on a golf ball. But I wanted to remember those relaxing “ah” moments. Through my travels, I have found the best way to do that is to bring back little sensory mementos.

Even maps and brochures can bring back vacation feelings

Sight. Obviously all the photos, videos, brochures, postcards will bring back those great vacation feelings immediately. Just upload all the images to your computer and push play. The brochures, maps and cards you picked up at the concierge desk will fill in the blanks if you want to refresh details about your visit. Even my hotel site map from my weekend will bring back some pleasant thoughts of our gorgeous morning walks along the gardens, golf course fairways, tennis courts, spa and playground. Another ideas: Get creative. Remember the way your towels were arranged or folded in your hotel room? You can do the same in your guest bath at home. Like a gallery print from the lobby? You can undoubtedly find one very similar online for your home. Sometimes just simply arranging your seashells in a clear vase or desk lamp pedestal will send you back to your getaway.

Sound. This is a good memory jogger. Most people will remember old songs then recall the accompanying circumstances and situations linked to those songs. On our first night of our Rancho Mirage weekend getaway, we heard a really nice Fireside Lounge performer, Michael Keeth. His music put us into one of those “please-suspend-this-moment-in-time” mind frames. We were perfectly content to listen to the acoustic guitar music while sipping our drinks. We didn’t want to leave. But we were able to get one his CDs. Now we have musical reminders of that wonderful evening.

Candles, soap, lotions are perfect souvenirs

Smell. So many fragrant plants and flowers surround the gardens and golf course at the Westin Mission Hills. Sometime I may want to re-capture that same fantastic aroma to recall a garden walk or morning breeze on the balcony. So I’ll do a little research: identify the origins of those scents and purchase them to enjoy later. Taking home the complimentary hotel hand and body lotions will produce a similar, less dramatic reaction. The same fragrances will remind me of an extra long vacation shower or a bubble bath soak. I like Westin’s fresh White Tea Aloe bath and body collection, so I’ll use it during the hectic work week. The fragrance alone will send me back to my October getaway weekend at the Mission Hills. Other suggestions: buy a candle, sachet, spray or diffuser oil from your spa resort to put in your office. What a great instant de-stressor!

Taste. Ever have such a fantastic dinner — you just had to have the recipe? Just make a simple inquiry. Many chefs will share their most requested dishes, and many bartenders will be happy share their signature drinks. Or if you like experimenting in the kitchen, just try to re-create the dish at home. Investigate possibilities of bringing back or shipping regional delicacies. Check resort websites for posted recipes or online booksellers for cookbooks. It would be nice idea to again share that special honeymoon vacation dinner on your anniversary.

Find resort bedding in online catalogs

Touch. No, I’m not recommending packing up hotel towels or bathrobes. But an increasing number of lodging brands offer linens, bathrobes and other merchandise to guests through a “home collection” catalog or website. Westin, Marriott and Hilton all do. Then you can order that big thirsty bath sheet or snuggly duvet cover for your own home.

Going forward, I’m going to strive to be creative about ways to bring home vacation memories — no more wasting money on cheesy key chains, refrigerator magnets or shot glasses!

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Don’t miss Costa Rica’s La Paz Waterfall Gardens

No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Even if your only stop in Costa Rica were to be this wonderful combination resort and sight-seeing attraction, you would have seen much of what this Central American country is famous for: beautiful butterflies, amazing hummingbirds, colorful snakes and frogs, lush tropical gardens surrounded by spectacular rivers and waterfalls. All of this flora and fauna is set in a magnificent hillside cluster with fishing lake and boutique spa resort. But the Costa Rica ‘to-do’ list wouldn’t be finished without volcano and coffee plantation tours, forest canopy zip-lining and river rafting. Guests at the adjacent Peace Lodge can arrange nearby day tours to these areas as well. La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge are centrally located between Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose and other iconic Costa Rican tourism highlights: Arenal Volcano and hot springs resorts near Fortuna. It’s an ideal location for those considering a vacation in Costa Rica.

Butterfly feeding time at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Hummingbird taking a rare rest break

Aviary birds are perfect close-up 'models'

Colorful ox cart ready for passengers

Favorite photo opportunity along 'Trail of Falls'

Restaurants, lodge rooms -- even restrooms have the feel of the tropics

These photos don’t really do justice for this wonderful Costa Rica park, wildlife refuge and hotel. Find more descriptions and a photo gallery on the website.

US Airways flies from Phoenix to San Jose International Airport daily. Best times to visit are November through April. This is the high season, so expect rates to be higher.

Sedona, Arizona – April 2011

Sedona is a popular getaway destination for many living in Arizona. Residents of Phoenix, Flagstaff and even Tucson are drawn to Sedona for its magnetizing beauty even if they don’t buy into the “harmonic convergence” vortex theories. (I’m not going to attempt to explain it. You have Google; look it up.)

We travel to Sedona for a number of more mundane reasons:

1) Close proximity to the Phoenix metro area (only takes about 2 hours)

2) Wide range of lodging and dining experiences because of the heavy volume of tourists

3) Extensive options for outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, camping, backpacking

4) Numerous opportunities for art, music and film fairs and festivals

5) Historical sites

6) Wine tasting in the Verde Valley

Here are some photos of our last trip to Sedona in April. We spent a week there, hiking, shopping, wine tasting, dining, sightseeing and relaxing. This time was very much like previous trips, except we were traveling with Molly, our border collie. And from our point of view, she has lot more energy than those vortices.

Starting out on the Marg

View from Marg

Red rocks from Marg

When we visit Sedona, we always try to take a different trail, or explore a different area. Marg’s Draw Trail is easily reached from the “Y” — just a short 2.5 mile walk up Schnebly Road. It’s almost an urban trail running path — with plenty of neighborhood residents using this as their morning or evening workout. Don’t be discouraged; this is a wonderful trail with excellent views of many rock formations as it weaves beyond the reach of the subdivisions.

Fly fishing on Oak Creek

Spires of sandstone from the Marg

For seven nights, Los Abrigados Resort & Spa would be our lodging. We found it comfortable, but a little cramped. But we spent most of our time on the patio, watching the wind sculptures, soaking in the hot tub and snacking on Verde Valley wine and cheese.

Some Los Abrigados room patios include hot tubs

Our dog, Molly really enjoyed being next to Oak Creek, where she could watch the ducks and meet some of the other guests.

Creek frontage of Los Abrigados

Water feature along Oak Creek at Los Abrigados

No trip to Sedona should be without a side trip to some of the Verde Valley wineries and there are several, but we stopped at three — Page Springs, Javelina Leap and Oak Creek.

Oak Creek Vineyards

Large roses around the vines

Oak Creek, a bottle of Arizona wine and a bistro cheese and meat basket makes perfect lunch

One of the sights I would highly recommend is Montezuma Well. Everyone goes to “Montezuma’s Castle,” but few take the extra half hour to see his “Well.” Believe me, it’s worth the time. And it’s more than just a “hole in the ground.” It’s a set of cliff dwelling ruins and an easy and beautiful path to a natural irrigation system, still in use by local farmers. We just happened upon the back entrance to Montezuma Well when we were attempting a trip to the West Clear Creek trailhead. (Our low profile passenger car would not reach that destination without a severe beating.)

Ruins above the water at Montezuma Well

Students learn about the irrigation outlet of Montezuma Well

Path to the

Another trail we explored on this trip to Sedona was the Boynton Canyon Trail. We always felt slighted on each of weekends to Sedona, not having the time to fit this one into a short two-day trip, but we finally got our chance to walk the popular “vortex” trail in northwest Sedona.

We thought it was a good idea to get an early start on the trail, for reasons including afternoon temps in the upper 80s, parking availability and the chance of heavy hiker volumes. Boynton Canyon is a scenic mixture of red rocks, manzanita thickets, ponderosa pine stands and soaring cliffs housing ruins of prehistoric cultures. The approximate six-mile round trip is an easy, leisurely walk which will take about 3 hours.

Boynton Canyon Trail winds along parts of the Enchantment Resort

Along the Boynton Canyon Trail

View of Boynton Canyon from the end of trail

Every time we go back to Sedona, whether it’s for a weekend or a week, we never get bored with the views, trails, dining experiences or resort stays. We’ll always be back.

One of the few dining patios that allow dogs is Ken's Creekside

 

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