White sun-washed sand stretches for miles, against a backdrop of brilliant aquamarine ocean. You might think this is the Caribbean, but the Gulf Coast shore of Florida has some incredibly beautiful beaches that can give Caribbean ones a run for their money.
One of the most fun and relaxing Gulf Coast Florida getaways is Marco Island. This six-by-four mile island is the largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, stretching south from Naples through the Everglades and to the Florida Keys. Situated along the white sand beach is the island’s premier resort, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort. This large, full service resort has everything from amazing pools, the beach, top-notch dining, a full wedding and event location, private golf course and spa. The Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort is the place to come for romantic getaways, family vacations, friend get-togethers or a special event. It’s one of those places that has something for everyone, and enough variety that you may never feel the need to leave! Guest Rooms There is space for everyone in the resort’s 726 guest rooms including 63 suites. Most have private terraces with amazing ocean and/or pool views, and the décor is inspired by South Pacific style. Plush, sink-into-them beds, spacious bathrooms and state-of-the-art technology make relaxing in the rooms a pleasure. Suites treat guests to an exceptional experience, offering awe-inspiring Gulf Coast views in a luxurious tropical oasis. Junior Suites range from 800-2080 square feet, and Presidential Suites are 1800-3000 square feet of sanctuaries in the sky, bathed in natural light. The Presidential Suites were fully renovated in 2013. Onsite Facilities The pools are pretty amazing here. There are two, and both are outdoor, large and heated. In particular, the Tiki Fantasy pool is a wonderland for kids, with a grotto, splash zones and a water slide. A poolside bar with basic food offerings such as burgers and sandwiches at both pools makes hanging out for hours enjoyable, and there seem to be plenty of lounge chairs even at peak times. Towels are provided at the poolside cabanas. Speaking of kids, the Tiki Tribe is the Marco Island Marriott’s supervised children’s program, available for ages five to 12. The fee is $70 per day. For golf aficionados, look no further than the Rookery at Marco, an award-winning private golf course just a 15-minute drive from the Marriott (which offers a complimentary shuttle). Designed to embrace the native surroundings of Naples, the prestigious course offers a driving range and putting green, clubhouse and restaurant, lessons and rentals, and a Kids Golf-4-Free program. The course is set to undergo a $4 million dollar renovation soon. On the beach just in front of the resort, a host of activities are available (most at an extra fee) including volleyball, tennis, sailing, kayaking, jet-skiing and boating. The Spa at Marco Island Marriott offers a relaxing environment with a Balinese style, with a full menu of treatments available. There are also plunge pools, therapy baths, a steam room and fitness classes here. The spa is adults-only, so if you tire of too much commotion at the outdoor pools you can always buy a $35 day pass and enjoy the spa facilities. Other facilities include:
A video arcade is sure to make the kids happy and keep them entertained
A small but reasonably equipped fitness center
Full service business center
The lobby is home to many boutiques, stores, a coffee shop, and beauty shop.
Dining As you would expect with a resort of this size, there are a lot of options that range from poolside casual to upscale gourmet. The informal Tropiks offers a sumptuous, expansive breakfast buffet ($26). 400 Pazzis is casual, serving pizza and paninis for lunch and dinner. Tiki Bar & Grill is light fare set poolside, open at lunch and dinner. Also open for lunch and dinner, Quinn’s on the Beach specializes in Caribbean dishes and inventive tropical cocktails; a tradition is to watch the sunset here and toast it with a Green Flash drink. A highlight of my dinner at Quinn’s was the fire dancing that occurred just outside on the beach, and easily viewable from most tables in the restaurant. Korals just off the lobby provides a place to grab some sushi and a drink in a very nice, lounge-like atmosphere. For me, the sushi was a bit hit-and-miss; but some other dishes – such as the lobster rigatoni – were amazing. Kurrents is the most upscale restaurant at the Marriott, with prime steak entrees and seafood dishes such as a Chilean Sea Bass. At the golf club, you will find the Rookery Grill and Hammock Bay Grill serving casual breakfast and lunch. Area/Nearby Attractions One of the perhaps most surprising facts about Marco Island is that it contains one of the largest prehistoric archaeological site in the Eastern United States, just south of the main island on Key Marco. Long before tourists arrived, the Calusa Indians established a highly developed society which left more than a thousand wooden artifacts discovered to date The area also features highways over large shell mounds over 40 feet high from the period of the Calusa Indians. The area is also a prime spot for frolicking dolphins and fascinating sea turtles. In fact, during the turtle nesting season the Marriott Resort imposes a light blackout ban at 9 pm; if your guest room lights are left on without your blackout drapes drawn, staff will go in and close them. The minimal lighting is to protect the nesting turtles and their eggs. Other local wildlife includes many species of birds, and Everglades National Park is very nearby, which makes a wonderful day excursion. Fishing and other water sports are top draws here, and if your tastes run more to shopping or sophisticated city life, spend a day or evening in nearby Naples. Good to Know At this time, there are no adult-only floors. During my stay, I was next door to a family with several loud children who woke up very early, and I could hear them clearly. Definitely a slight dent in my aura of relaxation. This was over Fourth of July weekend, a prime family time and outside summer, there are generally far fewer children at the resort. However, I would highly recommend that the Marriott implement a simple policy of guest room floors for families and separate ones for adults only. Internet in the guest rooms is not provided as a courtesy, which I believe should be standard in all hotels. Expect to pay $9.95 a day for it, or $16.95 daily if you want enhanced high-speed wi-fi access. All public areas of the hotel do provide complimentary wireless connection. The onsite parking fee is a reasonable $12 per day, or $22 for valet parking. Details: Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort 400 South Collier Boulevard Marco Island, FL 34145 Phone: (239) 394-2511 Rates: $189-525; Suites $759 and up
Fairfax is a 45-minute drive over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, if conditions are right. So avoid commute hour and you can be years away from the bustle of the city in no time. One of the few little towns in the Bay Area where you can still enjoy genuine hippy values, eat and shop at locally owned restaurants and quaint stores, and have a unique California experience. No high rise or franchises here. Just good old fashioned hospitality, peppered with a good dose of genuine concern for the environment, nature, new age philosophy and a rocking night life! You’ll find world class live music every any night of the week, and twice on Sundays! Fairfax is home to a variety of musicians, and hosts an eclectic range of original sounds. Check out and the bars; Peris’ and 19 Broadway as well as smaller venues hosting open mic and acoustic sets.
If you’re looking for some peace of mind, Spirit Rock Meditation Center is just 10 minutes away, with it’s beautiful new meditation hall, talks and residential retreats. You can drop in and hear world renowned Buddhist speakers every Monday night, from the founder Jack Kornfield, or one of the many Western Buddhist teachers, who put the concerns of every day into easily reachable perspectives of Buddhist meditation and philosophy. Or try one of the local yoga studios, Yoga Mountain or Sol Studios.
Natural beauty surrounds Fairfax, and there are easy and more challenging hiking trails through the rolling hills, where you can enjoy relative seclusion in a magical forest setting, traversing creeks and grasslands. Start at Deer Park or Cascade Drive. Fairfax is home to the Mountain Bike museum, and you’ll find mountain bikers of all ages, enjoying bike clubs and social rides, especially on weekends, where bikes tend to outnumber cars in this sleepy town.
Hungry? Fairfax is home to the first ever whole food store/ organic grocery store and restaurant combined. Inspired by the founder of the health food movement in California, back in 1969, Good Earth is still a thriving hub of the Fairfax Community, and you know the freshly prepared delicious salad and hot food bar is going to be all organic, sustainable, tastily prepared and suitable for any taste. Or if you prefer burgers, Thai, Mexican or Acai, just keep going up Broadway and you’ll find whatever you crave in one of the many locally owned and run restaurants. Cup of tea? Wu Wei Tea Temple serves up multiple blends of healing and delicious teas, thick hot chocolate and Golden Milk, all served in the atmosphere of a Turkish salon. And the Coffee Roastery roasts, grinds and serves its own unique coffee blends, right on the corner of the main street. Great people watching, and something for everyone in this little known gem of a town!
Alma del Pacifico, on one of Costa Rica's most beautiful stretches of beach, exudes an auto of luxury and privacy in a completely relaxed setting without pretension. The small boutique property of 20 suites reflects Costa Rica’s colorful culture, with spacious villas in a post-modern Californian style and lush tropical gardens right on an incredible stretch of oceanfront. The hotel has created a spot that works for both families and couples on a romantic getaway, with a rejuvenating spa and above-average restaurant. When the sun starts to sink, go for a stroll along the wide glassy sands, order a mojito from the bar and watch the spectacular sunset.
Each of the 20 guest villas is uniquely designed, in the distinctive bold style of architect and former owner Sherrill Broudy: a dynamic open-plan space, flooded with light, with slabs of rich colour. A high curving wooden ceiling echoes the sea and creates a soothing airy feeling, as does the private, walled terrace of each room. The walls are adorned in Sherrill's wife Charlene’s unique paintings and rugs in saturated colours, reflecting her love of the natural tropical world. The effect is warm and welcoming and very individual: the antithesis of bland hotel rooms! There are 5 grades of villa, starting with Garden Bungalow, which although lovely, don't have sea views. We'd definitely recommend splashing out on one of the beachfront options for that instant uplifting feeling in the morning, and lounging on your private terrace in the late afternoon. Of these, Beachfront Bungalows are the smallest, though these are already huge and include 28 feet of beachfront. Beachfront Villas are even larger and the Deluxe Beachfront Villas feature a private plunge pool on their terraces. As well as the comfortable kingsize beds (or 2 doubles) each room has a long generous couch that is also a daybed, a desk space and books and magazines to peruse. Lighting is excellent and candles are provided, too - both for atmosphere, and in case of power cuts! All rooms are superbly equipped with all kinds of thoughtful details, from fresh fruit and flowers when you arrive to complimentary snacks, coffee and soft drinks in the minibar. Bathrooms are particularly generous (most with 2 sinks); we loved the wonderful wide curved shower area in Sherrill Broudy’s signature style, with hand-mosaiced tiles and views to a private garden. There’s air-conditioning as well as fans and blinds, bathrobes, hairdryers, umbrellas, torches for walking around the gardens at night, iPod docking stations, good wardrobe space, and a safe big enough for a laptop. Best of all? Your view of the ocean from your private patio - a good outdoor space, with perfect views onto the surf. Here there are 2 recliners and a table, outside lights and a blind to shut out early morning light should you require it.
New to Alma del Pacifico are three larger vacation rental options, located one-and-a-half miles from the main property and perfect for families or large groups. Casa Mono Loco and Casa Mirador are both set on the ridge line with breathtaking ocean and rainforest views; they each have three bedrooms and three baths, gourmet kitchen and private infinity pools. There are also several three bedroom luxury condos, with two master suites, expansive verandahs, exotic teak floors and gourmet kitchens. Guests of the vacation rentals have full access to all hotel facilities; a car is highly recommended, or guests would feel quite stranded.
The open-air, thatched roof Pavilion Restaurant offers great views of the ocean surf crashing to shore. Generous space between tables ensures that each group feels private, and there are sweet flower arrangements throughout. A continental breakfast is included in the tariff, including freshly squeezed juice, coffee or tea, a platter of seasonal fruit, and choice of breakfast breads with butter and preserves. Other menu options (at an extra charge) include omelets, pancakes, a nice selection of a la carte items, and a Tico-style local breakfast with gallo pinto, fried plantains and tortillas. The Lunch and Dinner menus offer international and Costa Rican cuisine, with an emphasis on local and healthy ingredients that makes use of sustainable seafood and produce. Many of the fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown in the colourful gardens on-site. There’s a good selection of sandwiches, salads, pizza and pasta, hot dishes and cold options - the salads are particularly recommended. Snacks (bocas) can be eaten all day: the guacamole is excellent.
Alma del Pacifico offers the perfect setting to be as active as you want, or simply relax and do nothing. Options for activities include:
Go swimming: there are 2 pools set in lovely gardens - a lap pool (not for children) and a semi-circular pool (where children are welcome), both maintained with an ionised system so very little chlorine is needed. There's a Jacuzzi too - open all hours
Head to the beach. It's blissfully private as there are so few hotels around, but you’re warned quite seriously to swim ONLY when the tide is coming in. Tide tables are provided in each room but it's generally quite rough
Go surfing right out in front of the hotel – the hotel can set up surf lessons with a photographer!
Get pampered! The spa has superb signature treatments classified under the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Chocolate and coffee scrubs, mud wraps, superb deep tissue massage. We loved the coconut/ginger body scrub.
Horseback riding is available in the hills behind the resort, and out on the beach - a local tour which is fine for novices.
Ziplining is a great adrenaline high, at Rainforest Adventures. Combining an open-air gondola ride up the mountain with a thrilling descent down 14 ziplines, the tour also includes a naturalist guide and walk through the serpentarium and garden.
Manuel Antonio National Park is just 45 minutes’ drive away. Here, rainforest fringes stunning beaches and coral reefs. The snorkelling is excellent and the forest is home to sloths, iguanas and the rare squirrel monkey. Reception staff will organise tours with reliable local operators to save you the hassle
The Isla de Damas estuary tour offers some interesting wildlife too - monkeys, crocodiles and birds in a fragile mangrove swamp ecosystem, seen by boat or by kayak. Make sure reception staff book your trip with experts Pablo or Henry, since other guides were less experienced
Diving, fishing, golf and white-water rafting are also popular activities in the area.
Details: Alma del Pacifico Playa Esterillos Este, Parrita, Puntarenas Central Pacific Coast, Costa Rica 888-960-ALMA / (506) 2778-7070
The Garden of Eden in Bocas del Toro is a hidden, pristine and very private getaway, that feels very remote in this archipelago of ten islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama - yet it is easily accessible. Only a few places around the world have been able to retain the particular atmosphere and authenticity of Bocas del Toro: seductive, primitive and unforgettable. It is a haven for snorkelers and divers, with crystal-clear impossibly turquoise waters and rainforest ecology; it's also one of the most multi-cultural places in Panama. In Bocas, you have the option of staying on the main island, Isla Colon - the site of the only real town, Bocas Town, and its selection of bars, restaurants and shops. Although Bocas del Toro has become quite popular with indie travelers in recent years, relatively low-key development has left an authenticity an unpolished vibe that is highly appealing to those looking to escape beach destinations full of mega-resorts.
Or, you can take a water taxi out to one of the other islands which are quieter and more secluded - some more than others. A 20 minute water taxi ride from Bocas Town will bring you to the Garden of Eden on Isla Solarte - a small three-room property that offers a true getaway-from-it-all in paradise. Technically, Garden of Eden is not even an actual part of Isla Solarte, but its own tiny island connected to Solarte by mangroves.
Stepping out of the boat onto the Garden of Eden dock, you will likely be met by Kip the owner and Zeus, the exuberant dog. The grounds are small but lush and gorgeous, with little paths that wind up to the rooms, dining area, pool, game room, and also down to a boat dock on the back side that is good for swimming and kayaking.
The three rooms are simple but comfortable, and offer private decks with that essential island item: hammocks. At Garden of Eden you can have all the remote downtime you want; but it's also relatively easy to make your way around the Bocas archipelago to do activities. Keep in mind that it's a 20-minute water taxi ride to Bocas Town if you want some shopping or nightlife, and you need to arrange for a ride ahead of time. You can also take boats to neighboring islands for beaches and other restaurants, or if you're up to a 30-45 minute kayak trip you can take the property kayaks across to Isla Bastimentos where there is a marina, restaurants and several beaches. Isla Bastimentos is also home to the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, Panama’s oldest marine park. Tours of all sorts are available for snorkeling, diving, fishing, jungle exploration and cultural experiences with indigenous villages.
And of course, just hanging at the peaceful Garden of Eden or swimming in the pool are laudable pastimes. The property is Adults Only, and with just three bungalows it's easy to rent the whole place with a few friends. The Garden of Eden offers quiet, upscale accommodations , free hi-speed internet access, and a full service bar and restaurant. Two cabanas are located adjacent to the pool, with queen size beds and a futon that can open to a full size bed; private bathroom with hot and cold rain water showers; and a veranda with a hammock and chairs to enjoy a fabulous panoramic view of the bay. The third room is a suite with both a king and a queen sized bed, private bathroom with hot and cold rain water shower, and a large deck with a hammock, lounge chairs and a ceiling fan.
Rates are $150-170 per night for two people, including continental breakfast.