Cartagena, Colombia: A Gem on the Caribbean

You’re standing atop a hundreds of years old stone wall, looking out over waves of the Caribbean Sea crashing into the beach. The city is relaxed, cosmopolitan, and tropical. It is a foodie’s, and a history buff’s, paradise. Low key and luxurious. Very old and very new.

What it isn’t is a drug war zone, but that’s what people might think when you tell them you’re going to Cartagena, Colombia. Blame it on lingering news images from the 80s. While Colombia has rebounded generally, people in Cartagena told me their city was never quite like that.

I spent 5 fantastic days in mid July in Cartagena. It’s full name is Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena of the Indies, and that accounts for why I felt like I was right at home among the Caribbean people my West Indian family came from – because I was.  The city has a dual personality, split between an old town – La Ciudad Antigua – defined by 16th- century fortress walls and a new city, soaring up from a peninsula with highrise hotels and apartment buildings. Construction is booming on the peninsula, with several new hotels going up.

The night I arrived, a wedding party was being held on one of the galleons that are docked in the Las Ánimas Bay. Fireworks from the reception lit up the sky.

Fireworks over Cartagena

Fireworks over Cartagena

 

Cartagena is on the rise as a destination wedding location, but note that if you are not Colombian, your civil and legal marriage would have to take place in your home country. Still, Cartagena opens its doors to you – even the nearly 500-year-old Castillo San Felipe fort that overlooks the city is available as a venue for your special celebration.

Dancers, Castillo San Felipe fort

Dancers, Castillo San Felipe fort

 

Same sex marriage is legal in Colombia, so a same-sex couple should expect a welcoming environment for their wedding festivities. The Cartagena Chamber of Commerce will be launching a program to help couples plan weddings in their city in the coming months.

You and your party would certainly be well-fed. The food in Cartagena is delightful. Given its Caribbean location, I was on a mission to eat as much fried fish and ceviche as I could. I tried both at several restaurants. My favorite fried fish was served at Pizza & Pasta in the Old City. For the bargain price of around 11,000 pesos (about $6 USD), not only was I served an entrée of fried fish, rice, salad, and lentils, but the meal was preceded with a banana and a delicious bowl of ajiaco, a soup with beef, chicken, corn, and other veggies. I washed it all down with agua de panela, a light, refreshing, not too sweet drink made from sugar.

My favorite ceviche restaurant was the aptly named La Cevichería, also in the Old City. I tried a sampler of various flavors of ceviche, made of shrimp, fish, and octopus, as an appetizer, and had a wonderful paella for my entrée. La Cevichería, despite being nestled among high-end hotels, was incredibly inexpensive.

What else to do while in town? The Old City is the place for historical and cultural explorations. The Gold Museum showcased the intricate and beautiful jewelry of the ancient indigenous people of Colombia. Next to the Church of San Pedro Claver sits a museum dedicated to his memory, housed in the house where he lived and worked. San Pedro Claver was the patron saint of slaves, who fought a dedicated fight throughout his life for the rights of enslaved people. The Church has beautiful courtyards, an impressive collection of religious art, and – during my visit – was showcasing a collection of Afro-Haitian art. I took a private walking tour of the Church and the Old City, which I highly recommend, and learned about Cartagena’s history as a major port during the time of Spain’s conquest of the Americas.  The Old City is also host to public events such as concerts and festivals throughout the year.

 

Concert in front of San Pedro Claver Church

Concert in front of San Pedro Claver Church

 

Colombia is known for the quality of its emeralds and gold jewelry, so come prepared to shop, as well.

Far more beautiful than the city beaches are those in the Islas del Rosario off the coast. It takes about an hour to reach the islands by ferry from the Cartagena city pier, and a round trip visit package including lunch is easy to book from tour operators throughout the city. The water is clearer and the sand is softer than that of the beaches in the city, so a trip to the Islas del Rosario is a must during any trip to Cartagena.

If you enjoy nightlife, the bars and nightclubs are located in Getsemaní, an older area of town located right next to the walled city. Whether you enjoy spending late nights dancing and drinking or not, make the time to catch a Chiva party bus. For 30,000-40,000 pesos ($15-$20 USD), you will be treated to a live band playing rumba music, a tour of greatest hits, tour of city monuments (which look all that much more intriguing in the moonlight), and unlimited mixed drinks. The liquor served is what is called the national rum, but unlike other rums it is made with anise and has a distinctive flavor. Most chivas get going around 8pm, and will take you to a nightclub if that’s your thing at around 11:00pm – or return you to your hotel if it’s not.

In fact, it was from my seat on a chiva that I witnessed the wedding that punctuated the night sky with fireworks.

Cartagena was high on my bucket list of places to see.  But I found that it wasn’t just a place to check off my list and then move on.  I cannot wait for my next trip to this beautiful city.

 

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Reykjavik, Iceland – Honeymoon Experience Of a Lifetime

Close your eyes, imagine a place as green as Ireland, with the most dramatic water falls like Iguazu or Niagara.  Think of the most beautiful sheep of England, simple beaches and a volcanic landscape like no other, with peaks and valleys.  Open your eyes and you will be in Iceland.

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There are so many interesting and a vast variety of things that make Iceland such a wonderful experience that I don’t know where to begin, but I shall try.  This past June while visiting the breathtaking country, the sun apparently did set but it never became dark.  One glorious evening, we were casually strolling, exploring the hot spots of the region, and we stopped at one of the local restaurant and ran into a bar at 12:00am; we couldn’t conceive that it was still daylight outside nor that it could possibly be that late.

Two of the most alluring things about Iceland are Reykjavik (pronounced rey-ka-vik) as a city and the beauty of nature all around you in Iceland. Reykjavik is the capital and a harbour city which boasts the most spectacular views, but although being a city, it provides you the comfort of a small town. Reykjavik is a city of 32,000 inhabitants. Everything from fine dining to fish skewers to Thai food is available. While we had consistently good dining experiences, the main surprise was the cost. While their main exports are wool and lamb,  almost everything else is imported, hence the incredible cost of everything there. Be forewarned, prepare yourself for an expensive but worthwhile trip!

The natural environment will blow your mind. It is an active volcanic island comprised of sand, lava fields, mountains and glaciers. The most alluring part of Iceland has to be the landscape. The natural beauty is astounding from the terrain of volcanic moss to the hot and cold thermal waters that are hard to describe but beats any jacuzzi you’ve ever sat in.

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The famous Geysers, which derive from the Icelandic verb to gush, eruptions can happen infrequently depending on the geyser but will often gush boiling water metres high in the air.

One of the strangest experience is walking on the moss-like greenery that has grown over the volcanic rock and feels like stepping on broccoli but with a sinking effect. The juxtaposed views of green landscapes and ice capped mountains is exhilarating.

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The country has made a significant recovery since its meltdown in 2008 – no pun intended. There is evidence of this when you see the number of tourists, fine dining restaurants and a booming clubbing and bar scene that was fraught with people queuing to get into the various venues.

Reykjavik has just hosted the world’s most unique music festival, Summer Solstice which reigned over Reykjavik, for the first time from June 20-22, 2014. What made it different? The sun did not set over the three days and there was straight sunlight for 72 hours. The festival attracted over 10,000 people to their Icelandic shores to listen to the likes of Massive Attack, Banks, School Boy Q, Disclosure, Múm and close to 150 other artists.

The Reykjavik fashion scene is cool, trendy and stylish all wrapped up in one. Along the main road Laugavegur there is plenty of shopping for those of us who cannot resist.

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One of my favourite stores, Kiosk, is also located on the main street, Laugavegur in the heart of Reykjavik. This store is a co-op collective with creations of 9 Icelandic designers, all who take turns to work the counter and sell their designs.  Their gorgeous clothes and accessories range from silk to organza to quirky prints. Pop in, you are bound to meet one! Kiosk, Laugavegur 65, www.kioskreykjavik.com. There are many fabulous designers, too many to name but one that made a distinct impression is Eggert, http://www.furrier.is/photo-anders-engstrom/, a furrier with edgy designs, colours and stunning outerwear.

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Fine dining exists here just as it does in most major cities.
Mar Restaurant, http://www.marrestaurant.is/, is located not far from the waterfront and serves a great seafood soup, delicious fish and good lamb.

Nauthóll, http://nautholl.is/, has the most idyllic view of the beach, cool but relaxing décor and the best gin and tonics I’ve had in sometime with a little pepper added for garnish! The food is straight from the farm to the table. Healthy but sophisticated. Be sure to order any of the salads and the fish is pretty amazing too. It’s a little outside of the city centre but well worth the ride.

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Thursdays are American vintage car day where you will see bikers dressed like hells angels and cars from “back in the days” that will peak your interest. Let’s not forget their piece de resistance, the largest church in Reykjavik, the Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja. The design, is said to have been built to resemble lava.

Grill Markt, http://www.grillmarkadurinn.is/, presents a décor that is both cozy and welcoming, a beautiful bar downstairs along with cozy booths around the back and nice size tables for groups. You could have mistaken the ambiance for any trendy New York restaurant even playing some rap songs from the 90s. But the menu was the most adventurous with Whale, Reindeer and Lobster mini burgers. Puffin is eaten here as well but it seemed to be out of season therefore not on the menu. The grilled red fish was firm and yet full of flavour.

If you are non-European and more specifically non-Scandinavian, you will be inclined to find the costs of everything outrageous. That being said, this is an experience you are unlikely to experience anywhere else and worth every penny or in this case every króna.

Photos courtesy of Aimee Sealfon and Michelle Lowe

Destination Dominican Republic

They say that mamajuana is an aphrodisiac. A traditional drink of the Dominican Republic, made of rum, red wine, honey, and herbs and spices, it is a very potent drink. It is served one shot at a time. They also say it will cure whatever ails you. They say you have not experienced the Dominican Republic until you’ve had mamajuana.

So visit Puerto Plata and take a shot. Puerto Plata is a very old city, founded in the 1500s. It is the home of one of the country’s greatest heroes, Gregorio Luperon, and reminders of its history mingle everywhere with its future as a burgeoning tourism destination in the country. Travelers are increasingly attracted to Puerto Plata for its tropical location and inexpensive accommodations. You can book beachfront all-inclusive resort for 5 days, which can go for less than $400 total during the low season (May-August).

Many of the resorts in the area have some sort of timeshare setup, and the staff may pointedly court you for membership. Feel free to decline the sales pitch up front unless you are truly interested; it will not affect the quality of your stay.

Be prepared to tip frequently, beginning when you land at the airport. There will be a band playing merengue at your gate, with a tip basket set up in front of them. Porters will aggressively try to carry your luggage for you. If you don’t want them to do so, don’t hesitate to say so. If you allow them to do so, they will expect a tip. US dollars are accepted widely and may be more convenient for tipping purposes than Dominican pesos, which come in much larger denominations.

Your resort may be all-inclusive, but by all means venture away from it. Book an excursion, or ask guest services for recommendations for places to go. They can also help you arrange transportation.

I took a cable car ride up the mountain that towers over the city, Pico Isabel de Torres. Do this activity early on a clear day, so that you can enjoy the view of the city and sea sprawling far below you. Atop the mountain, there is a statue of Christ the Redeemer, a smaller replica of the one that towers over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

 

View from Mount Isabel

View from Mount Isabel

 

The Brugal factory, where one of the most recognized brands of Dominican rum is manufactured, is worth a visit. In the shop, you can sample – and buy – all sorts of rum. I bought 2 large bottles of dark rum to bring home. Two is the limit that you can bring into the airport from outside, but you can purchase additional rum in the airport’s duty free shop.

 

Brugal Rum Factory

Brugal Rum Factory

 

I also enjoyed a stop at the Camilo Brugal Art Gallery to view the work of local artists. The gallery is located near the city’s main plaza, very close to the Cathedral.

Dama Morena by Jorge Severino

Dama Morena by Jorge Severino at Camilo Brugal Art Gallery

On my last night in Puerto Plata, some fellow travelers and I decided to venture out for dinner. At home in New York City, I work in a vibrant Dominican community and regularly enjoy eating Dominican food. My fellow travelers and I ended up at a nearby restaurant called El Secreto, where I savored the best mofongo – mashed green plantains – and fried chicken that I’ve ever tasted. It was tender and flavorful and the perfect way to cap off the visit.

Puerto Plata’s tourism industry is not yet as developed as that of Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic’s top tourist destination, but that is to the advantage of the traveler who seeks an excellent deal. The beach, the mountain, and the sun are all there waiting for you. As is the mamajuana.

Location Location Location – The Carlyle Is All That Jazz

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The Carlyle Hotel in New York City has to be one of the most historically fashionable hotels to date. Besides having a history of housing some of history’s most influential people, it has also been known to be one of New York’s jazziest nightspots. Some of our favorite iconic performers have walked these grounds and performed in the night club, including Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, Bobby Short, and most recently, iconic bassist, Ron Carter  (accompanied by world famous guitarist, Russell Malone).

My first experience with The Carlyle was some 10 years ago, visiting the late Eartha Kitt before her performance. Her brilliantly decorated and perfectly maintained in-house apartment was astounding. From the doorman who greets you at curbside to the elevator operators, ALL of the staff lavish you with the white glove treatment. Literally. Frequent there enough and you will notice that they will know your name. Which, to me, speaks volumes.

The rooms and suites are some of the lushest environments you will want to call your home, whether it is for the night, the week, or you tie the knot. Your guests will be enchanted by the impeccable service they will receive. The comfort of their beds and the exquisite dining, be it an in-house restaurant or room service, will not leave them disappointed.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to host an event at The Carlyle, and we have to say that everything was first class and polished to perfection! We are sticklers for great customer care. We value the treatment of our readers, thus the reason why we are very hands-on with every business and service we recommend in writing. If it is not inspected and experienced by one of our writers, it won’t be written about. No exceptions.

 

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So, with great pleasure, we present The Carlyle Hotel as a location to consider for your wedding reception and honeymoon stay.  You will not be disappointed.

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The intimacy that the event space provides makes it worth every dime. When you’ve waited your entire life for this moment of love, the magic you want to create with your new mate should begin in the same fashion you want it to be for the rest of your relationship: With style and elegance. What better way to send that message to each other and share it with your loved ones than at The Carlyle?

Make no mistake, this is not a cheap date. It will cost you, like anything of value which is meant to be cherished. So, when planning your wedding or honeymoon, you will need to evaluate what is more important to you in the grand scheme of things.

But I think you can appreciate that some experiences in life are just worth having and checking-off from your to-do list.

 

Reasons Why

The three most important things for a person looking to plan any event are (1) location, (2) location, and (3) LOCATION! Why is that so important when planning your wedding? It will not only become a factor in your wedding plans, it will also set the tone for the kind of wedding your guests can expect, even before they arrive.

Location will determine how your guests will arrive. They will need to plan ahead based on where they live.

Location will determine the parking situation for your guests. They will need to plan for whether parking is available on-site or off-site, and the cost involved.

Location will set the tone for your guests and the kind of wedding you are having. That includes the dress code, theme, and the ambiance that the space provides.

These are some things you should take into consideration when planning your nuptials. So, for your jazz lovers and history lovers, The Carlyle just might be the piece of history you have always wanted to have for your wedding day!

 

 

To Pietrasanta with love . . .

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is plenty of beauty to fall in love with at the Albergo Pietrasanta Hotel.
Or while you are there, simply fall in love all over again with that special someone.

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Although, it was a grand seventh century palazzo (palace), the property is not ostentatious in its appearance. In fact, if you are not careful, its simple yet elegant façade and glass entrance could be easily mistaken for one of the many stylish art galleries that are dotted along the medieval streets of Pietrasanta.

 

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Each sleeping room is more beautiful than the next and with more fabulous space than the next depending the room type or suite. All are to die for, especially if you are travelling from other parts of Europe. Not only do they offer luxury amenities, but, every detail is thought of from the beautiful soft furnishings right down to a shaver with shaving cream! The period furniture is elegant and all the rooms have wonderful natural light. If you are lucky, you may have a room over looking the romantic courtyard.

As you enter the lounge area, ahead lies in a glass atrium the dining room. The first thing that meets the eye is a beautifully landscaped garden cleverly designed to connect with the unobtrusive converted stables the other side of a peaceful and quiet space. They even have a small gym, off the garden, a great place to stretch or warm up before your exercise. Inside the atrium dining room, the menu is ever pleasing to the eye and to your stomach, along with the beautifully chilled prosecco served daily.

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The Albergo Pietrasanta Hotel is in a small town known for it’s art and it’s attraction of celebrities and famous artists such as Fernando Botero and Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar Winning Director for Gravity).

Another unknown celebrity, Barbara Pardini is the jewel of the property, and the General Manager.  She brings a certain “je ne sais quoi” to the hotel. Which embodies all of the beautiful things that you will experience upon your visit. Specifically, the unique and niche one of a kind experiences that only she can provide for you to experience as a guest at Albergo Pietrasanta. She offers this and more in order to enhance your stay at this exquisite venue. Her wonderful and warm aura is so inviting, you can’t imagine anything that she organizes for you not exceeding expectations – but they do!

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A few of the trips she organised were; a trip to Carrerra, notable for the white or blue-grey marble quarried there which is the same marble, quarried hundreds of years ago for some of the Michelangelo’s statues.  It’s a sight to behold and driving up the marble mountain in a 4x 4 is not for the faint of heart! Or a private tour of the great opera composer, Giacomo Puccini’s home – now a museum, or a concert at the  open-air opera house dedicated to his work situated on the Massaciuccoli Lake – bellismo!

These are just a few of the one of kind experiences available.

A day trip to Portofino, Cinque Terre, the beaches of Versailia, or the exclusive shops in Forte dei Marmi can all be arranged as a guest at Albergo Pietrasanta. Closer to home in Pietrasanta, don’t miss the Mexican Sculptor, Gustavo Aceves’ exhibition LAPIDARIUM, located in the main Piazza.

Coming from the UK where customer service can often be questionable, there is nothing else to ask other than, “why can’t it be like this everywhere?” The discreet staff is at your service for everything and anything and more than willing to help you with every whim or query. The hotel is neither small nor large rather it could be likened to a fine private home. What is impressive is the extensive art collection consisting over 61 pieces of mostly first editions, throughout the hotel.  What’s not to love? Art is a consistent theme through out the hotel and the town. If you are as passionate about art as I am, you will believe you have reached Nirvana!

If you want an experience that money can’t buy or a romantic wedding, a honeymoon or an artistic getaway off the beaten track, contact Barbara Pardini by email: bpardini@albergopietrasanta.com or Tel.: 00390584793727 and quote WBN-AP for a great rate.

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Perhaps, you will find here – all you need is love!

Choosing Your Wedding Paradise- 10 Reasons to Think of The Cayman Islands

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The wedding is over and you both said I do.  The last of all the vendors are paid, your TSA friendly bags have been packed and you are honeymoon ready.

So why should you choose the Cayman Islands?

Located in the western portion of the Caribbean Sea, the British territories are made up of three islands: Grand CaymanCayman Brac and Little Cayman. The population is approximately 56,000 thousand people, a mix of African-European descendants. The area is said to have about 120 nationalities, with English the primary language.

The islands are governed by the Queen of England, with an appointment every four years. The people on the island depend totally depend on tourism from the ships, hotels and visitors to support the economy. George Town, once a swamp territory, has quickly become a destination playground for the well-to-do.  Not known for party scene, the capital represents relaxing and pleasure for those looking for peace away from fast city life.

While visiting the main island, we had the pleasure of being taken around by one of the locals, Miss Babeth Shelley, our fiery Jamaican entrepreneur who filled us in on what’s what on the islands.

 From politics to beaches and to news we got an ear full.  We heard the back story of how the town of Hell received its name and saw it up close up and personal.

Aside from lounging in our resort air conditioned room, pool side bar, full service restaurant, beach side water activities include kayaking, jet skiing, sailing we also enjoyed good old fashion snoozing on the hammock by the sea. The property is on the 18 hole golf course club ran by the Ritz Carlton if your looking to relax or work on your swing, while tanning in the heat of the sun.

So if you seek a honeymoon hot spot, the Cayman Islands may just be the cure the doctor ordered for your winter blues for those who endured this last torturous season.

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Seven Mile Beach

 

Here are our top 10 reasons to go:

1.  Based on your origins of travel and preferred airlines, there is a flight everyday. Many of them are from Miami, which is just over an hour away, and many airlines also fly direct.

2. There are over 120 nationalities on the island. English is their primary language because it is a British colony.


3.  They accept foreign currency if you don’t have time to exchange your money.  

4.  Access to hotels range from luxury 7-star hotels to affordable resorts that are all-inclusive and family friendly for every wallet size.

5.  The food is magnificent.  Fresh fish from this island makes for healthy eating.

6.  The beaches, specifically Seven Miles Beach, is rated number four in the world.

7. If you’re a golfer, the courses are groomed just right for your next game.

8.  If you enjoy water activities, you have your choices of snorkeling, surfing, diving and swimming with dolphins.

9.  Night clubs and DJs are plentiful from the traditional restaurant and bar scene to a more planned list of seasonal activities (check your calendar or the tourism board).

10. The beaches are perfect for laying in the sun with a drink and do nothing.

As a bonus to your list of of things to do, Cayman Island Fashion Week for all you fashionistas courtesy of  Guavaberry Marketing-Cindy Rosan-Jones and Terry Donovan. www.caymanislandsfashionweek.com

 

For more information visit: Websites: www.caymanislands.ky | www.caymankind.com www.divecayman.ky

All images are courtesy of Victor Amos.

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Holiday Inn Resort Grand Cayman

Seven Mile Beach

Seven Mile Beach

Top TSA-Friendly Hair Products that will help you arrive to your honeymoon destination tress free

No matter where your honeymoon or summer plans may take you, travel can wreak havoc on your regular hair regimen. My mother always said big things come in small packages. That would definitely apply to all the portable mini hair products brands are offering to all you travel beauties out there. Even with the current carry on restrictions, you can stock up on the latest and greatest without hindering your hair routine or adding extra weight to your luggage. Check out some of my favorite travel-friendly buys below.

 COAST TO COAST CURLS Don’t worry about your luscious locks going lifeless while on vacation! Ouidad’s Love Your Curls Kit provides everything you need with the Clear & Gentle Shampoo, Balancing Rinse Conditioner, Climate Control Gel, Botanical Boost Spray Conditioner, and Deep Treatment Conditioner. they are perfect for carry  on luggage and weekend rendezvous. $37 ouidad.com

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BLOW DRY ON THE GO This kit makes packing easier than ever before, with 100% air compliant, space- savers. Whether your look is beach waves or city straight, the blowpro JetBlow KitTM has you covered with Beach Blow Texturizing Mist, Blow Up Thickening Mist, and Heat Is On Protective Daily Primer. Glam on-the-go has never been easier. $18; at blowpro.com

JetBlow Mini Kit

BIG HAIR EVERYWHERE Unbelievable volume, firm holding, fast drying and ultra shining. The Big Sexy Hair Spray and Play Volumizing Hairspray will keep you looking cool, even at your hottest. $6 ulta.com Big_SprayPlay_MINI

NO WATER NECESSARY Ditch the water and say goodbye to oil and buildup with blowpro Faux Dry. This residue free transclucent dry shampoo lifts hair, gives a just washed look, and provides manageability to re-style. $20; at blowpro.com

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DON’T FADE AWAY Protect and clean all at once while traveling in style with Oribe’s Beautiful Color Travel Set. Made specifically for color-treated hair. This kit includes 6 elegant shampoo and conditioner packets and 1 shampoo and masque for a little extra love and care. $19.50 oribe.com and Bergdorf Goodman beautiful-color-travel-set-box-large

 

Beauty Contributor and Expert: Sonia Castleberry

http://www.bridesbysoniacastleberry.com |www.soniacastleberry.com