virtuoso travel

Costa Rica - Pura Vida (Part I). Arenal Area.

Costa Rica is the ultimate destination for active travelers, families and those seeking to soak in a bit of Costa Rica’s famed “Pura Vida” (“pure life”).

Costa Ricans live in the purest sense of the word – Costa Rica’s electricity is produced almost entirely using renewable energy; most of the food is locally and organically sourced; and 25% of the country's land has been set aside and turned into protective parks and reserves.

Costa Rica family vacation

Our family of five, with the addition of one Grammie, recently spent time in Costa Rica. We split our time between La Fortuna, near the Arenal Volcano, and in the Guanacaste region on the Pacific coast. Although, I am sad our time in Costa Rica is over, I am so happy to share our experience.

La Fortuna and the Arenal area

Primarily rainforest, the Arenal Volcano National Park is home to a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. Creatures you may see include sloths, white-faced capuchin and howler monkeys, coati, poison dart frogs and snakes, including the infamous fer-de-lance, pit vipers, parrot snake and boa constrictor.

An “off the grid” destination, there is much to see and do in the Arenal rainforest: hiking, fishing, rafting, hot springs, zip lining, rappelling down waterfalls, and wildlife viewing (to name just a few of the available adventures!) – as well as visiting the friendly town of La Fortuna.

After a long day of adventuring, you can retire to your resort and relax in the hot spring pools while toucans frolic above you and iguanas try to steal the fruit from your drink! 

Where to Stay in Costa Rica: 3 Options

1. The Springs Resort and Spa   

The Springs Resort in Costa Rica

The Springs Resort and Spa is an experience within itself. Located at a higher elevation than the other hotels and surrounded by exquisite tropical gardens and waterfalls, The Springs Resort and Spa offers one of the most luxurious experiences in the area.

The resort is impressively designed and offers stunning views of the volcano. The 28 hot and cold springs are spread throughout a forested expanse with several small pools perfect for those seeking privacy. There is also a small slide that kids love!

If you tire of the springs, you can take the complimentary shuttle to Club Rio – located a mile down the hillside – for fishing, tubing, kayaking, biking and climbing adventures. You can also visit the wildlife sanctuary for close-up encounters with sloths, monkeys and wild cats!

Who? Families (although I don’t recommend it for kids younger than 3); couples; multi-generational trips; adventure seekers.

Pro tip: Request a table close to the window for phenomenal views while dining at Las Ventantas, the resort’s signature restaurant. 

2. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort

Tabacon Grand Spa in Costa Rica

Arguably the most famous hot springs complex in Costa Rica, Tabacon boasts some of the best dining in the region at Los Tucanes and a spa that easily joins the ranks of Leading Spas of the World.

Guests love the sweeping rainforest views from the resort’s 103 eco-friendly guest rooms and suites, which feature handcrafted furnishings made by local artists.

Tabacon is set on 350 hectares of rainforest about 20 minutes outside of La Fortuna. The thermal springs flow uninterrupted through the local rainforest offering the perfect opportunity for relaxation and rejuvenation. Closest to the volcano where water temperatures are hottest, you’ll find an adults-only ‘secret garden’ that features six natural pools, cocoon-shaped hanging cabanas and a full bar.

Fun Fact:  A favorite resort for the celeb set, Will Smith stayed at Tabacon while filming his bomb of a movie “After Earth”.  While a guest, he participated in Tabacon’s now famous “Plant a Tree” program.

Pro Tip: Tabacon is a new member of Virtuoso! So by booking through Amanda Watkins Travel, you will unlock all kinds of extra goodies!

Who? Weddings, honeymooners, couples, adventure travelers who also want great food and a phenomenal spa; wellness seekers; mutligenerational trips.

3. Arenal Springs Resort and Spa

Arenal Springs Resort in Costa Rica

An ideal location for exploring the Arenal Volcano region, Arenal Springs Resort and Spa offers more moderately priced accommodations than either Tabacon or The Springs. But don’t think you are skimping on your experience by stayed at Arenal Springs Resort. This highly rated eco-resort delivers incredible views, lush tropical gardens and private hot springs exclusive for their guests. The swim-up sushi bar is a great place to park after a long day of adventuring.

The bungalow style rooms offer comfort and privacy and the showers give the illusion of being outdoors.

Walking paths take advantage of the scenery, crossing the stream with small bridges. Eventually, the trail leads to the open-air Yoga Deck, where complimentary morning classes are offered several days per week.

Who? Families (all ages of kids), multi-generational travelers, groups, adventure seekers


The skinny on Costa Rica's Arenal Springs Area

  • Upon your drive (by rental car or private transfer) up to Arenal, take a pit stop at Macadamia’s for amazing views, delicious limonada and a snack/meal.
  • Arenal is in the rainforest. Bring ponchos and be prepared to embrace the rain if it comes!
  • If not staying there, buy a day pass to The Springs and visit their animal sanctuary and take advantage of their many hot springs. The day pass includes one meal – lunch or dinner in their main restaurant. For spa seekers, you can also purchase a day pass to Tabacon.
  • Venture into La Fortuna for dinner at one of the local restaurants and finish ice cream for POPS.

Contact us with any questions about your next Costa Rica vacation!

Book Hotels Online with Virtuoso

Becoming a VIP Virtuoso Traveler Just Got Even Easier! 

Psssttt . . . this is for you my dear DIY’ers

Book your own hotel stay through Virtuoso and enjoy all of the same VIP perks as an Amanda Watkins Travel client. Just sign in and identify Amanda Watkins as your advisor. Once you book, we get an automatic alert, and we follow-up with your hotel as part of our usual VIP hotel booking process to make sure your stay is as enjoyable as possible! 

As my clients know, by simply booking a hotel or resort through Amanda Watkins Travel, you automatically become a VIP guest. In addition, you are also often treated to special perks and amenities such as free breakfast, spa credits and/or complimentary upgrades.

While I love booking hotels for my clients, I know how appealing it is to spend an evening sitting on the sofa, with your computer in your lap, a glass of wine by your side, perusing hotels and resorts (perhaps with This Is Us on in the background).

So listen up all of you travelers who love researching hotels on your own! Through the new Virtuoso online booking tool, you have the ability to research and compare hotels and then, with the click of a few buttons, book your own hotel stay. BUT WAIT FOR IT ... you still get VIP status and all of the fabulous amenities as if I booked the hotel on your behalf. 

Book your own hotel with Virtuoso

Below are a few examples of the amenities you can enjoy by using the Virtuoso hotel booking tool:  

  • Daily breakfast for two
  • Resort credit
  • Complimentary spa service
  • Upgrade upon arrival
  • Early check in/late check out
  • Free Wifi

How to get started with Virtuoso Online Booking

Step 1: Create an account and sign in

Access your personalized Virtuoso booking site here. In the top right-hand corner, either create an account (quick and easy) or sign in. A pop-up will appear, where you’ll choose me as your advisor.

How to book online with Virtuoso
 

Step 2: Book online

If you know what hotel you are interested in, click on Hotels at the top of the webpage and enter your dates and preferences. If you’re wanting to explore more options, click on Destinations and select your country of choice.

After you confirm your hotel booking, I’ll be notified (I’ll probably also be sitting on my sofa with a glass of wine perusing hotels). I will follow up with the hotel, per my usual VIP process. And just like that, your hotel experience will be enriched and enhanced by booking your Virtuoso stay through Amanda Watkins Travel.


Longer Travel Experiences

The self-booking travel system is a handy tool for short hotel stays. For longer trips with multiple destinations, reach out to me directly so that I can help you with all the little details that make a HUGE difference in your travel experience.

I hope you enjoy the new online booking tool and I look forward to seeing your Virtuoso reservation in my inbox. 


Ready to book your getaway?

 

Colombia Part 1: Cartagena

My husband and I had two of our sons at sleep-away camp and our daughter at camp Grammie, so we decided to take off and go somewhere we have never been: Colombia. Boasting beaches on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, as well as the stunning Andes mountain region and the legendary Amazon rainforest, Colombia is proud to be the second most biodiverse country in the world. And booming cosmopolitan cities like Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena can impress anyone with their magnificent views, innovative architecture, rich culture, and exceptional restaurants. In short, Colombia is a fascinating destination to explore. Keep reading to learn more about where to stay, eat, and explore in Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia

We started our trip in Cartagena - just a short 2.5 hour flight from Miami. Located on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena was founded in 1553 and served as a major port city. Dripping with history (fantastical and true stories of pirates and Sir Francis Drake terrorizing the city), the walled Old Town boasts cobblestone streets and beautiful examples of colonial, republican and modern architecture. Within the walls, you can spend hours wandering through the town. Whether your interests are shopping, history, culture or cuisine, Cartagena will meet all of your needs. Cartagena is such a colorful city – it literally VIBRATES with energy.

Day One: Tour Cartagena 

I used one of my trusted partner companies in Colombia to help us get the most out of our time there. Our first day, we went on an architectural and history tour with a locally-renowned historian to orient ourselves with the city. He really brought the city alive for us and he knew everything. We were completely unable to stump him with any of our questions. We learned fascinating stories about the Spanish colonization, Inquisition era, and pirate sieges that influenced Cartagena’s history. Also, by doing this tour on the first day, it was a great way to orient ourselves to the city.

Day Two: Explore Getsemani

On our second day we met with a leading expert in all things Cartagena to sample the Cartagena’s street food – which was AMAZING. I am still dreaming about the arepas de queso and papas rellenas we sampled. Our guide also took us outside the walled city to explore the street art in Getsemani. This neighborhood was once a no-go due to drugs and crime, but it has evolved into the cultural epicenter of Cartagena. Internationally renowned for its street art, you can wander the streets and see the history of Cartagena and spirit of its people on the crumbling stucco walls of once majestic Spanish Colonial buildings.

Day Three: Islas del Rosario

On our final day in Cartagena, we hopped on a boat to explore the Islas del Rosario, located 50-minutes from Cartagena. These 30 islands are blessed with white-sand beaches, clear blue waters, magnificent coral reefs, and abundant marine life. We stopped at a couple of the small boutique hotels located in the islands for cocktails, swimming and lunch.

As a special treat, we had a gin tasting where we got to actually MAKE our own gin. Our expert mixologist taught us how gin is processed and learned how to recognized its numerous characteristics. So fun!!

Sleep & Eat & Explore

In between all of that…we wandered the streets and plazas browsing the stores, art galleries and listening to the street music. And we ate truly delicious meals. Colombians love their soups and ceviche and we had much of both. Some of the finest restaurants in South America in Colombia. Carmen has to be my favorite! From first bite to last ... delicious.

While there are several lovely places to stay in Cartagena, we opted to stay at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. Housed in a seventeenth century convent, the hotel has all of the modern comforts of a five-star resort but the crypts, confessionals and Botero sculptures make you feel as if you are in on a secret. 

Cartagena captured my heart. And I know it will capture your heat. Grab your significant other, your family or a group of friends – you need to check this place out. Trust me.


Who should go to Cartagena

Anyone who loves history, art,  culture and great food. If you like Charleston and New Orleans…you will LOVE Cartagena.

Where to stay

Sofital Legend Santa Clara

Originally built as a convent in 1621, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena is a legendary landmark in the heart of Cartagena's walled city.

Amanda Watkins Travel offers free breakfast, a $100 food and beverage credit, and free wifi for clients.

Casa San Augustin

This small, 30 room hotel Casa San Augustin is a gem. The L-shaped pool passing through an aqueduct cut out is a stunning entry to the hotel.

Amanda Watkins Travel offers free breakfast, a $100 food and beverage credit, and free wifi for clients.

Where to eat

El Boliche Cebicheria

Chef Oscar Colmenares became a true master of ceviches after spending years in the kitchens of Michelin-star chefs— Gaston Acurio, Rafael Osterling, and Martin Berastegui.

Carmen

This top-notch restaurant specializes in mixing contemporary cuisine with traditional Caribbean recipes, prepared with the freshest local ingredients. We loved it so much we ate their twice!

La Cocina de Pepina

This pink-and-orange-walled, six-table dining room restaurant, is a well kept secret in the city which specializes in serving lunch only. Try their mote de queso!

Amanda Watkins Travel specializes in luxury and adventure travel. Our affiliations ensure VIP treatment and amenities on any trip - including local weekend getaways. Plan your trip.

Turks and Caicos: Providenciales

Amanda Watkins Travel specializes in beach destinations is here to help make your dream vacation a reality. Visit us here to learn more about Amanda Watkins Travel or click here to get started!

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Are the Turks and Caicos calling your name? If so, then you are in the right place. Amanda Watkins Travel knows all of the best spots and can even get you lots of fun “extras” at all of the top resorts.

If you are looking for sun, soft white sand, impossibly blue water and delicious food, then the island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos perfectly fits the bill. 

The island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos has long been one of my most favorite places for a beach vacation. It is wonderful for couples, families, girl/guy trips, everyone! I first vacationed there 15 years ago when few people had heard of it and there were just a few resorts. That has certainly changed. Now you can find many wonderful fine dining options, a Thai restaurant that is worth the return trip alone, great shopping, and really fun snorkeling/boating excursions. 

The Turks and Caicos Islands consist of 40 islands and cays, eight of which are inhabited. The islands are located 550 miles southeast of Miami, Florida, just below the Bahamas chain and just to the east of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti.) The island of Providenciales (“Provo”) is the island where most all resorts are located.

There are many beautiful resorts on Provo each unique in their own way. All but a few of the resorts on Provo consist of individual owned condo units - meaning the accommodations are more spacious than your would find at most resorts and are often appointed with kitchens and laundry facilities. This is really great when you are traveling family style. I stayed at two resorts and toured several more. It is so much fun thinking about which clients would be best suited for each resort!

While I could go on and on about all of the resorts and how they are different, I am just going to highlight the two I stayed this visit. Please contact me if you want more info on the two resorts discussed below or any of the other resorts in Provo. I will help you find your "perfect fit".


The Shore Club on Long Bay Beach

The Shore Club, the only resort located on Long Bay Beach, is the newest resort on the Island. The resort has 110 rooms and 38 suites. It offers so many flexible room configurations that I can’t imagine anyone not finding a suitable option. The rooms are beautifully appointed and evoke the Caribbean with blue and white hues. My favorite room is the Ocean View One-Bedroom with Study. It has a fully equipped kitchen, large dining area, comfortable living area, king master bedroom, luxury master bath with shower, soaking tub and double sinks, a study area with a sliding door and pull out sofa that is PERFECT for kids, a half-bath and washer/dryer. It is 1500 square feet of fabulousness.

There are three pools – one is adult only – so you can always find the perfect place to perch. The beach is lovely and the water is clear, calm and shallow. In fact, you can WALK three miles out without the water being over your head (assuming you are of average adult height). It's truly amazing!

Virtuoso amenities I can add:

  • Free breakfast for two (per room) daily

  • Free Wifi

  • $100 Resort Credit

  • Upgrade to next room category upon arrival, subject to availability


The Palms on Grace Bay

I was fortunate to also be able to stay at The Palms over on Grace Bay. Grace Bay is where you will find most of the resorts on the island. With 12 miles of wide beach and crystalline water, you may never find yourself by the pool!

The resorts white mansion exterior of cut limestone evokes the feeling of being on a colonial estate. With only 72 rooms and suites, you won’t feel like you are at a mega resort. But you will never lack for amenities, either. There is a delightful shopping promenade that has a darling market where you can grab wine and gourmet goods.  The Palms also boasts what may be the finest spa on the island with 25,000 square feet in which to pamper you to pieces. Parallel 23, the award winning fine dining option at The Palms, is absolutely delicious. I had the best grouper I have had in my entire life.

Virtuoso amenities I can add:

  • Free breakfast for two (per room) daily

  • Free Wifi

  • $100 Resort Credit

  • Upgrade to next room category upon arrival, subject to availability

 


The inside skinny and pro tips:

  • Try to make a dinner reservation (in advance) at the Coco Bistro.

  • Take a day cruise from Grace Bay to one of the unpopulated parts of the island to swim and snorkel.

  • Cabs are easily available but are quite expensive.

  • If you think about renting a car, be sure to know that they drive on the opposite side of the street as we do in America!


Amanda Watkins Travel specializes in luxury and adventure travel. Our affiliations ensure VIP treatment and amenities on any trip - including local weekend getaways. Plan your trip.

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— Jonathan L.

Why my Virtuoso affiliation is "kind of a big deal".

Virtuoso, Virtuoso, Virtuoso (best said it in the manner of the Brady Brunch refrain “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha”). If you are not familiar with Virtuoso, you are probably wondering why I keep mentioning it…over and over and over and over. Well, Virtuoso is only an exclusive network of the best travel professionals from around the world. Virtuoso represents the best of the best in travel, with a portfolio of nearly 2,000 preferred partners - top hotels, cruise lines, tour operators, and more.  

It is a total humble brag to say that, through my affiliation with Brownell Travel, I am a Virtuoso advisor. “That all sounds lovely, Amanda. But what does it mean for me, the client?” you ask. Great question. By using a Virtuoso advisor, you instantly become a VIP and are treated to a superior travel experience. Let's say you are staying at the Solage Calistoga in Napa Valley - and you totally should. Because of my relationship with Virtuoso, you can receive: a $100 resort credit which you can use at their award winning spa or Michelin-star restaurant; a Mudslide spa treatment; a bottle of house Napa Cabernet wine; and a departure gift. Not too shabby, eh?

Virtuoso advisors are able to provide you with everything from enhanced hotel stays, with valuable added services, access to highly sought after special events, "after hours" viewings at private museums, to a tour tailored to fit your personal desires. This means that YOU can have a personally customized and totally unique travel experience. 

You can find my Virtuoso Profile here. Contact Amanda Watkins Travel to start planning your exclusive “Virtuoso” travel arrangements today.