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.

 

DIY vs. Don’t Even Try: Let’s Talk International Destination Weddings

 

There are no rules with a destination wedding.  Not today, not anymore.  Freedom and style, especially for international brides, trump conventional ‘rules.’  The way it was done before still holds some merit, the only difference is that now it’s connected to deeper cultural traditions, the merging of different backgrounds and a real respect for new multi-cultural traditions. That said, it is pretty important when jumping into an international meeting with real brides about destination wedding plans to really get to the heart of what a bride needs to know must be established. Recently speaking to real bride Faz Abdul Gaffa, who intends on having a ceremony in Singapore and also one in New Jersey, it was important to break the ice and give her sound advice that can help her make a decision she feels good about.
So, at 10:00am EST and 10:00pm Singapore time, Faz greeted me on our first Google+ Hangout session with a bright and open twinkle in her eye with that blazing question that every bride-to-be should ask herself and someone else: do I really need a wedding planner? The answer is YES, an overwhelming yes. With limited time for our first e-meet-and-greet, we had plenty of territory to cover. As Faz had already decided on a private yacht in the Singapore harbor overlooking its skyline as her first wedding location, we moved on to the save the date announcements. I suggested that these be sent out as soon as possible, 9-12 months are ideal. The formal invitation should be sent out anywhere from two to three months ahead of your wedding date. Let’s not forget to list your URL on your invite so guests can go online to your wedding site and find out information on places to stay, special rates, location maps, airport transport, etc. Ceremony locations and timelines of your multiple events should be listed among other guest information. As you can see during the second part of our conversation I literally had so much to squeeze in to ensure she knew all that happens during wedding planning that you may notice Google+ Hangouts simply stopped switching the camera between us both and just focused on my attempt to fill her in.  With weddings, there is simply so much to consider.  Imagine, if one 24 minutes Google+ Hangouts session seems to be a lot, what happens once the ball gets rolling with vendors, flowers, guests, accommodations, officiants, etc.
Faz has a vision of a stylish, intimate to medium sized wedding and is considering inviting the same wedding guests to travel to both international ceremony destinations.  I felt compelled to let her know that what actually sounds like one wedding, in this case, is actually two and that this is why getting those save the dates out the door sooner than later was very important. Multi event locations can become very costly and time consuming for your guest and can take a lot of planning on their side as well. We do admire her pazazz but from experience we know that planning has frustrated countless brides in the past. Brides should be free of this burden because the level of stress is literally the opposite of what our bride should feel on her wedding day splendor. It’s a conversation that marks the beginning of a trusting relationship.
To hear Faz tell the story of how she met her fiancé, John, at a Halloween party shows the joy she feels about her approaching nuptials and the love she has for her partner, but I find it’s pretty important for brides to understand that there is a craft to wedding and event planning. Our job is to incorporate your personalities, vision and dreams into your wedding and to take care of every detail, so you don’t have to. Whether it’s day of coordination, partial planning or full planning, for anyone planning a memorable event, let alone planning a wedding (or two!), we don’t only create for the sake of the host or bride and groom to look their best amongst their family and friends.  We become the creators so that couples can enjoy guests and the magic they envisioned. Though the decision making process at this stage can cause some anxiety, it’s not as black and white as many think.  For brides who are reconsidering planning their own event (in lieu of articles like this), who don’t have access to a gratuitous budget, we actually created Weddings in a Box package, an all inclusive must-have kit for those deciding to elope or who prefer to have an intimate ceremony with a special touch but without the ongoing details of a full scale wedding.  With this option brides can keep a close relationship with an upscale planner but from a consulting perspective.  Ahhh, the power of choice.
Faz is a young professional in love, who should be absolutely hassle free on her big days.  Directing her own multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-destination wedding when she’s never done it before is like refashioning the engine of a rare car without all of the parts.  With one year from her weddings, Faz will now have to decide if she will weather the DIY wedding planning storm or if she’ll consider other options.  She can pick up where we left off once she chooses a date. Well, two dates.

About Marc Wilson:

Marc Wilson is the Guest Lifestyle Editor of World Bride Magazine, a 2013 Big Apple Award nominee and the Founder and Creative Director of Weddings by MWD Lifestyles.  Marc’s company, MWD Lifestyles (formerly Marc Wilson Design), is a full scale wedding, event design, production and planning company with destination partnerships and capabilities and has grown to be the name in the decor and events, weddings and destination industry it is today.  Marc’s fifteen years within the events industry has resulted in national and international recognition and, to date, MWD Lifestyles has worked with Rolex, Hugo Boss, Martha Stewart Weddings and MGM Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  Marc’s work has been published in Grace Ormond Wedding Style, Design Bureau, New York Weddings, Manhattan, Essence, Weddings by Design, The Knot, Brides and Town&Country. FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest.

Own A Piece Of America: Rancho Santa Fe

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Destination weddings involve more than just picking a location, sending out invites, and hoping everyone who r.s.v.p.’d shows up.  It requires complete and thoughtful planning.

While planning your nuptials locally, your  concerns may be a bit more simple, perhaps because your vendors are easily accessible to you.  Your primary focus will most likely be choosing a venue that will accommodate your sense of style, your budget, and your guest count.  You may go so far as to take into consideration driving accommodations to and from the location, as well as parking on the grounds.

Local vendors may prove to be more accessible for meetings, making you feel more at ease with your choice of doing business with them.

There is a big contrast when your wedding is not being held locally. What makes you feel more secure about the services you are going to receive?

You are completely at the mercy of management, internet reviews, and writers (such as magazines, like ours), hoping for an honest review about the experience at an establishment.

Thus the reason why we at WBM take it very seriously when we seek out venues, vendors, hotels, restaurants, caterers, florists, photographers and everything else that encompasses your big day.  We realize that what we put in writing will affect one of the most important moments of your life.

As one of our favorite states in America, California continues to maintain a warm spot in our hearts.  It is the state where the sun kisses your skin daily and the views are magnificent from one region to the next. On this trip, we decided to visit Rancho Santa Fe. This beautiful region totally impressed us with its rich history and Mexican-inspired architecture, which remains a part of its current lifestyle.

 

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Our wedding location of choice would be Rancho Valencia a Relais & Châteaux property, right in the heart of this town. The view, before you even get to the grounds, proves to be breathtaking. You will realize, during the scenic ride to the property, that you have left all your cares and stress back at the airport!

The grounds are perfectly manicured, and the top-class service begins as soon as you hit the parking lot, complete with valet parking. The front desk is stationed through the courtyard of this brilliant piece of architecture that was built with the intent of complimenting  the Mediterranean-inspired grounds. Thirty million dollars was invested to assure that your stay proved to be nothing but the best.  This five-star resort makes promises that it has every intentions of keeping.

After checking into our three-bedroom suite with its private Jacuzzi, full kitchen, bathroom in each room, and a chef-like kitchen, a patio that clearly makes you feel at home, I knew that nothing would go wrong.  After dropping our bags in our suite, we walked the grounds to get familiar with our surroundings.

The property is fully equipped with a full-service spa, fitness center, yoga space, swimming pool, tennis court and walking trail, which will bring you total peace. As if that wasn’t enough, the private areas for weddings are only one step short of perfection. You have a choice of having your wedding in the outdoor space on the property, or for a larger group, the ballroom space, which is more than suitable for the absolutely pickiest client.

This piece of paradise is not only fit for a queen, but his royal highness will be more than pleased with the private room that will enchant him and his groomsmen. From The Pony Room, The Wine Room, to the Veladora, nothing about this space will disappoint you.

 

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On top of that, the food is absolutely divine.  As you know, we are sticklers for customer service, and the Rancho Valencia food and beverage team did not disappoint us in that area. We were more than pleased with our treatment, the menu, and the list of options for all our dining needs.

If you decide not to drive in, Porsche has partnered with Rancho Valencia to provide you luxury at your fingertips. Why Porsche?  Why not?  Porsche is the how you spell luxury. The location calls for it, why not go all out and enjoy the toys that come along with it during your stay. The history of the brand is enchanting enough to enjoy it at the very least during your wedding or honeymoon stay and not feel guilty.

In addition to the already listed amenities, Rancho Valencia has a list of preferred vendors that will make sure your day is as perfect as you imagined it. And if after your day is completed and you just can’t imagine not being able to enjoy all of these amenities again, you are offered the opportunity to own a piece of paradise.

 

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“Along with what may be the world’s most perfect climate, owners at Rancho Valencia enjoy a refined and quiet sensibility—the glamour of old Hollywood, the thrill of Del Mar racing, the simple pleasure of a picnic at the beach.  It’s an inviting place where families come together, friends are made and life is cherished.”

 

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May your quest for the right destination be filled with joy and great excitement.   For us at WBM we will continue to journey across the globe to find you some of the worlds greatest Hidden Treasures.

Getting Away From It All in Dazhai Village, China

When we say that we want to “get away from it all,” how much of that do we truly mean? Sure, most of us are able to do without simple conveniences like our cars or televisions for a few days, but what about truly escaping? Forgoing our cell phones, computers, and even the convenience of paved roads, all in the name of “getting away?” I never thought that I was one of those people. I have never had a desire to unplug. Now, this could possibly be due to the generation I come from; I was born during the rise of the computer. I’ve never known a life without a computer or mobile device, so I’ve never felt overwhelmed by them, or felt a need to get away from them. For me, they are simply matters in the facts of life. Luckily for me, I inadvertently put myself in a situation that would change my perspective on what it means to unplug. When I put a visit to the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces of the Dazhai Village in Southeastern China on my agenda, I had no clue what I was in for, and boy do I thank myself for it.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

My journey starts in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong. I had an extremely ambitious plan for getting my English-only speaking self from Hong Kong, across the Chinese border to Shenzhen, then on a flight to Guilin, followed by a bus ride to Guilin’s very distant train station, onto another bus to the Longsheng rice fields, ending with an hour-long hike up a mountain to my accommodations in Dazhai… all in less than 12 hours. Sometimes, ambition born of ignorance can make for the most incredible experiences. I didn’t know it at the time, but embarking on a trip like this, all in one day, not knowing a word of any Chinese language, was really a fool’s errand. I, however, was blissfully unaware, and more importantly, unafraid, so I pressed on. 

My journey started with an hour-long bus ride, from the city-center of Hong Kong, to the border crossing city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. I’d purchased a ticket upon a bus that would drive me to the border, have me disembark for immigration, then re-embark once I’d cleared immigration, and carry me on to the airport. Once I’d made my way to the airport in Shenzhen, it was a short, one hour and twenty minute flight to my hub-city of Guilin. While I was able to traverse this leg of my trip with relative ease, once I stepped off the airplane in Guilin, I became acutely aware of the adventure I had set myself on.

One thing that is unique about traveling to Guilin, which is different from my travels to other places in the world, is the lack of English. Signage baring a familiar alphabet was scarce, and the usage of a familiar word was as almost completely absent. Even with my Chinese phrase book in hand, the simple task of finding the correct bus to the train station was tumultuous. After several rounds of Pictionary with the myriad of bus drivers waiting outside of the airport, I was able to find someone who could understand my scribblings of a Thomas the Tank Engine-esq friendly-faced train, and I was set on my way.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

Once I arrived at the Guilin train station, I was set in the center of a parking lot, and pushed into a sea of unfamiliarity. This juncture was different from the last, however. While at the airport I found people running away from me, here I found people pouncing on me! “Longsheng! American!” Hands pointing exuberantly at pictures of rice terraces and happy tourists soon came to encroach upon my bubble of confusion; all baring different prices and different destinations within the rice terraces. I was overwhelmed,  so I escaped to a phone booth where I could be alone with my thoughts, and more importantly, my notes. Luckily, I’d been archiving weeks and weeks of research into my Evernote app, and was prudent enough to print them before leaving Hong Kong. I knew that I needed to get on a bus to Longsheng, and I knew how much I should pay, but how was I to communicate this to the drivers? I took a deep breath and decided that I was going to make this situation work. But before I could even cross the sidewalk back into the parking lot, I heard something familiar! “Excuse me sir. Sir! Are you headed to the rice terraces?” I had never wanted to so hug a stranger like I did in that very moment. They were a group of French tourists headed the same place that I was, and they noticed my obvious disorientation and bewilderment, and invited me along. After some haggling with a driver, we crammed our 11 bodies into a 10-passenger van, and set course for the rice terraces.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you whether the drive from Guilin took us 1 hour, or 10 hours, but I can tell you that it was exhausting. After being mentally drained, dropped in a vastly unfamiliar place, and crammed into a glorified rickshaw, I was just happy to be in-motion. Nothing else mattered. I closed my eyes and awoke to a paradise so majestic, I could have mistaken it for a multi-billion dollar set from a movie. Waking up in the valley of hand-carved rice patties was unlike anything I had ever seen, and it immediately put my journey into perspective. It felt like I was standing at the end of Earth, a place untouched by time; surely my journey, for all of its difficulties, had been worth it.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

I began my ascent to the Dazhai Village with an interesting encounter. As I’m rolling my suitcase up the path, a little old lady comes running after me, grabbing my bag! It was not an unexpected experience, but it still caught me off-guard. In my research, I’d found that locals make their entire economy from tourists, and one of their industries happens to be portering your luggage up the mountain for you. Equipped with straw-and-leather baskets strapped to their backs, these women (who could not have been any younger than 50) hike with the agility of a teenager up the mountain with your belongings. At first, being a healthy, grown man, I felt a bit silly relinquishing my bag; but after 10 minutes of climbing a narrow, stone-paved path up a mountain, it all made sense. 

After meandering through a string of small villages for almost 30 minutes, I finally came to a river crossing that sat in the shadow of the Dazhai Village. I was 15 minutes way from reaching the destination I had dreamt about for months. I gathered my breath, collected my thoughts, and made the final climb to what would be my home for the next three days.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

There are no hotels in the Dazhai Village, so I had arranged my hostel online in advance. For a mere $11.00 USD per day, I would have my own room, comprised of only a memory-foam mattress, a small bathroom, an air conditioner, and an incredible view! What more could I ask for? I settled into my private room and began the process of decompressing. Just having made it to such a remote place was a huge boost for my ego. It is amazing how enduring strife can make overcoming that much sweeter. I lay down, closed my eyes, and drifted away for the night.

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | www.VictorAmos.com

copyright 2013 Victor Amos | http://www.VictorAmos.com

There is no fancy lap pool here, no breakfast buffet, and no list of tours and excursions to go on. No, this place is quite possibly the most opposite you can get of that. This is where you come to do nothing. Visitors fill their days with hiking the area, reading, and engaging with other travelers. Each morning, I would head downstairs to the common area, where I would sit, order everything on the left side of the menu, and have conversation with other visitors for hours on end. We would then fill our afternoon by hiking to the smaller villages and lookout points situated on the almost endless bounty of terraces. It is the definition of “being with nature.” Aside from sending a few pictures to my friends and family using the horrendous (and extremely governmentally-restricted) internet connection, I never once thought about my trappings of modern culture in America. I did not care about the time, or the weather, or the score from the game, or any of that. I was living in the moment.

Journeying to, and staying in the Dazhai Village is an experience that draws an oxymoron from you when trying to relay your feelings. It was like I did everything and nothing at all. I mean, how can one go through an experience like this and not be changed on some level? In my adult life, there have been few experiences that have challenged me like this trip has, but it has shaped how I view myself, how I deal with and overcome adversity, and how getting away from convenience can make one a better person.

Victor Amos
Editor At Large

Destination Weddings: 101 Class Is in Session with Marc Wilson

 

Dashing down to meet destination partners in from the Mayan Riviera and then onto the Four Seasons before meeting about a wedding back at the House of MWD, leaves me little time for creative luxuries.  Even on days when the weather is perfect, time is of the essence.  So many details go into the planning and presentational meetings with our brides. From our studio trove of various style, size and colored vases, like the standard clear glass bowls or the elegant blown cylinders from Poland to wonderful mirrored glass cubes that sparkle, to even the colored glass in luster finishes. Our team pulls from in-house stock of party wares to reviewing style boards created just for our bride and groom to review.  On perfect days, I arrive to the House of MWD only to find I’m not satisfied with the color swatches and realize, I have to go all the way back down to the fabric district for swatches to my liking.  With beads of sweat and one eye on the clock, I snatch the swatches and dash up to greet the bride-to-be.

I’d liken this presentational meeting with our bride (and sometimes the mothers of the bride) and groom to a shopping spree, of sorts, down elegant Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It’s where we begin to talk about how the overall theme is interpreted for the event.  It should be a feast for your eyes and a tactile experience – which allows the bride to immerse herself in this experience.  Items usually tucked away in our display cases are now laid out on sample linens, to be picked up, sorted, discarded, coveted – now all a part of the decision making process.

Here’s some of what to expect at a planning meeting:

  • First – do your homework!  Pull photos of both your likes and dislikes from magazines, Pinterest, weddings blogs, etc.  Create your “look book” – keeping in mind sometimes what you don’t like is more important than knowing what you do…
  • Arrive with your questions in hand.  Your planner will have already given you a checklist to review – this will help streamline some of your concerns and needs.  Be forthright about any uncertainties related to selecting and styling your wedding.  Be willing to talk about the nagging or difficult issues that could become stumbling blocks later in the planning process, even if they seem small at the moment.  Once you actually identify them, fun begins.
  • Take notes during the meeting – and bring your calendar!  It will be imperative you and your planner stay on the same page throughout this process.  You’ll want to be sure those antique Moroccan vases arrive on schedule.
  • Be prepared to discuss your budget. The budget is a key element in the design process – providing direction and guidance for both you and your planner.
  • Anticipate change. Your favorite flower may not be in season on your wedding day.  Your “look book” color palate may clash with your venue. All of your co-workers respond YES to the RSVP.  Changes start with the first planning meeting.
  • Be ready to spend time at the meeting.  Once needed conversations are had about creative aspects and the overall design, it’s time to delve into the matter at hand – shopping!  This is literally a time to select as our team notes which items, textures, styles and shapes seem the most appealing to the bride.  Don’t be surprised to spend 2 or more hours.  In my case recently, 3 and a half hours later.  It was worth it because what the bride said she felt matched with how she looked: crystal clear.

We encourage every bride to be herself – everyone has their own sense of style, let us help you develop yours!  From our first conversation, we stress how the planning and design process is here to support the bride – and groom!  Don’t let weddings “over-exposure” keep your personal style from coming through.  Equally challenging will be all of the family and friend’s expectations for your special day.  Your planner is here to help and may often be the first line of defense.

So you’ve finished your first planning meeting… what’s next?  Expect to have some homework.  And remember, until you’re married to your husband, you’re married to your planner!

About Marc Wilson:

Marc Wilson is the Guest Lifestyle Editor of World Bride Magazine, a 2013 Big Apple Award nominee and the Founder and Creative Director of Weddings by MWD Lifestyles.  Marc’s company, MWD Lifestyles (formerly Marc Wilson Design), is a full scale wedding, event design, production and planning company with destination partnerships and capabilities and has grown to be the name in the decor and events, weddings and destination industry it is today.  Marc’s fifteen years within the events industry has resulted in national and international recognition and, to date, MWD Lifestyles has worked with Rolex, Hugo Boss, Martha Stewart Weddings and MGM Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  Marc’s work has been published in Grace Ormond Wedding Style, Design Bureau, New York Weddings, Manhattan, Essence, Weddings by Design, The Knot, Brides and Town&Country.

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.

Nautholl Restaurant Nauthall Outside Fish dish IMG_1518

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.