Away for the Holidays
Locals know St. John as “Love City,” a nickname that suits the island in more ways than one; St. John is one of those places that you instinctively know you’ll love. Collectively, St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are celebrated for their beauty, culture, and serenity. I arrived at St. Thomas Airport late in the evening, just as a mild storm was passing on. With its rolling hills, spotted with homes, and backlit by occasional flashes of heat lightning, the island had an eerily magical feel to it. The night air was filled with insect noises, punctuated occasionally by the low rumble of distant thunder. Coming from the urban landscape of Chicago, I felt as if I had been transported into another world.
After a brief water taxi ride to St. John, I arrived at Kismet, the villa that would be my home for the next several days. Though I couldn’t see much in the darkness, I was completely stunned to see Kismet in the morning light. When I finally pulled myself out of the most comfortable bed in the world to step outside, I was in awe of the exquisite Moroccan-inspired architecture, highlighted by tropical foliage and a sparkling blue pool. The villa is so quiet and secluded that I felt like I was in my own private paradise. If St. John weren’t so beautiful and intriguing, I may have never left Kismet. Yet, after eating a decadent breakfast prepared by local catering firm Passion Fruit Chefs (which included the most delicious mango I have ever eaten), I set out to see more of the island.
Though Kismet had already won my “Best First Impression” award, I discovered a handful of equally exquisite villas across St. John. Bel Horizon, located on Upper Peter Bay, won my heart with its “farmhouse meets French villa” architecture and décor. Its enchanting rooms were painted with calming colors—including my favorite, a muddy blue—and featured balconies with spectacular views of the ocean. Another standout that will take your breath away is Eco Serendib, a one-of-a-kind villa that exudes eco-friendly luxury. Eco Serendib features a full-service spa, an epicurean theater-style kitchen where guests can participate in culinary demonstrations by professional chefs, and—my favorite—a garden for picking your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
If you’re looking for a larger all-inclusive St. John resort that still has a private, quiet setting, Caneel Bay is the perfect option. It may be a large resort, but the serenity and spaciousness of the area means that you can relax peacefully on one of its seven beaches without feeling crowded. In fact, I was so impressed by the privacy of the area that I was not surprised to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie once stayed at Caneel Bay. However, the best part of my experience there was not seeing Brad and Angie’s room (which was fairly awesome), it was the seaside cabana massage. Although the resort offers an indoor, air-conditioned option for massage, I highly recommend braving a little warm air to experience the cabana massage. There is nothing quite like hearing the sound of ocean waves lapping the shore as you slip into complete relaxation.
And a vacation is not a vacation until you have overindulged in delicious food. St. John has very impressive restaurants, including Asolare (Asian fusion dishes) and Fatty Crab (Malaysian-inspired cuisine). It’s also worth your time to take the short water taxi ride to St. Thomas and dine at Old Stone Farmhouse. Hands down, this was the best dining experience I had on my trip. The farmhouse features elegant tables and antiquated stone walls. For a truly memorable experience, opt to dine al fresco, as I did. With the flickering candles and starlit evening scene, I felt as if I had drifted 200 years into history; the menus are even sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal. The friendly staff will even invite you to the kitchen, where you can observe the preparation of a variety of delicious dishes. Although the vegetarian menu is tempting, this restaurant offers a meat lover’s dream: the freedom to mix and match succulent lamb, bison, filet mignon, elk, kangaroo (trust me, it’s good!), and more.
With all the rich food I was eating, I knew I had to find some activity on the island. And what activity could possibly be more important than shopping? A quick trip over to St. Thomas is your best bet for shopping options; I was most impressed with Yacht Haven Grande (YHG), which includes stores such as Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Coach, Gucci, and BCBG Max Azria. At the end of your shopping spree, you can eat dinner at one of YHG’s restaurants, such as W!kked (a hit with the locals) or Grand Cru (known for its delicious cocktails), while you watch the yachts come in and out of the harbor.
Speaking of yachts, I must say that a yacht ride is absolutely essential to the entire “Caribbean experience.” I looked forward to my group’s yacht ride with Magic Moments Luxury Excursion more than anything else on the trip, and I was not disappointed. The captain drove us to various scenic areas around St. John and stopped at the most beautiful points, where we were free to swim and snorkel. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch of deli meat sandwiches, fresh shrimp, and melt-in-your-mouth brownies on the yacht before moving on to our next stop. The best part was taking a nap in the sun on the front deck as the yacht skimmed quickly through the water; when I opened my eyes and gazed at the sapphire blue water and rolling green mountains flying past, I knew I was in paradise.
So, it was only natural that I wanted to take a piece of paradise home with me. The taste of the delicious mango I ate on my first morning in St. John was still emblazoned on my mind, so I swiped another mango from Kismet’s kitchen before heading to the airport. Unfortunately, my deep love for the mango did not trump U.S. Customs security regulations, and the mango was confiscated. Yet, I secretly hoped that the kind officer who took it would enjoy it for lunch, rather than throw it out. Although I was happy to be going home, I was sad to be leaving St. John behind. But as I boarded my flight, I thought to myself, “I’m coming back for that mango someday.”
There are few places on earth that actually lure crowds with the promise of snow; Breckenridge, Colorado, is one of them. Breckenridge, fondly referred to as “Breck” by the locals, has long been a favorite destination for those looking to unwind in the natural beauty of the Colorado Mountains. Founded more than 200 years ago by travelers seeking their fortunes in gold and silver, Breckenridge has evolved into what many believe to be the “perfect mountain town.” Best known for its world-class ski slopes, the town also attracts those looking for luxurious shopping, fine dining, and unique entertainment. Last winter, I packed my bags and ski gear (with first-timer jitters, of course) and set out to see what the fuss was all about. What I found in Breckenridge was unrivaled charm, breathtaking surroundings, and the opportunity to enjoy the winter weather we often run from.
With daily non-stop flights to Denver from both O’Hare and Midway Airports, the slopes of Breckenridge are easily accessible for those of us here in Chicago. Once I arrived at the Denver Airport, I opted for the Colorado Mountain Express rather than rent a car for the two-hour drive to Breckenridge, which can be rather overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to winding roads and steep inclines.
The shuttle dropped me off in front of One Ski Hill Place, a RockResort that opened its doors last summer, bringing a new level of luxury to Breckenridge. The beautiful ski-in/ski-out resort sits at the bottom of Peak 8, with easy access to lifts, cross-country ski trails, and the BreckConnect Gondola, which whisks riders away to downtown Breckenridge in a matter of minutes. One Ski Hill Place offers a range of accommodations, from studios to four-bedroom luxurious condominiums. Each space boasts beautiful interiors, innovative green standards, and breathtaking views of the Continental Divide or the snow-covered slopes. The resort’s location is supreme and with a fine collection of family-friendly dining options and amenities, including a billiard room, private movie lounges, and a two-lane bowling alley aptly named “The Mine Shaft,” One Ski Hill Place is truly a cut above the rest.
Mornings are not often welcomed in my book, but after a good night’s sleep, I awoke to a breathtaking view of the snow-covered peaks, painted orange and pink by the rising sun. I was even a bit jealous of the people I saw making their way up to the peak, sans lift, but I figured I would save that for next time—perhaps after my first lesson. By the time I made it over to the lifts to meet my ski instructor, Doug from Breckenridge Ski & Ride School, the sun had come out, making for what was going to be a gorgeous day on the mountain.
Knowing that I had never skied before, Doug started me off on the bunny slopes. Thanks to his patience and experience working with skiers at all levels, I soon found myself taking on the intermediate runs with the “big guys,” along with a few youngsters who fearlessly cruised down the mountain behind their own patient instructors. I spent the rest of my afternoon on the intermediate lifts, much to the chagrin of the daredevils who planned to take on the Imperial Express SuperChair, which sweeps skiers 12,840 feet above sea level, making it the highest chairlift in North America.
After a beautiful day on the mountain, I headed over to One Ski Hill Place’s Aquatic and Rejuvenation Centers, an absolute must for après-ski relaxation. The Aquatic Center’s panoramic glass walls and ceiling allow you to enjoy the gorgeous view while taking a dip in the pools or hot tub. The Rejuvenation Center offers an array of massage and spa services, enabling you to unwind after a day on the mountain. I opted for the outdoor hot tub and watched my fellow skiers take to the slopes while the fire pit crackled beside me. That evening, I made my way into “Downtown Breck” and dined at Relish, a local haunt that boasts a warm atmosphere and a collection of savory Colorado-inspired dishes. After dinner, I walked around town and checked out the International Snow Sculpture Championships, held every January at the Riverwalk Center.
Photo by Ashleigh Martinez
While in Breckenridge, I also did something very few have the opportunity to do in a lifetime—“mushing” or dog sledding. A visit to Good Times Adventures is a must for those looking for a unique way to take in the beautiful Colorado scenery. The tour, which lasts a little over an hour, gives members of the group the opportunity to switch off between riding on a small passenger sleigh with the guide, sitting in the dogsled, and getting behind the “wheel” (if you may) to run the dogs. There are plenty of trails for all ages and comfort levels; our guide told us 4-year-olds have even taken to this exhilarating outdoor adventure. The quiet calm of the snow-covered forest was only ever interrupted by the laughter of us trying to master mushing while the dogs playfully jumped in nearby snow piles.
This year, Breckenridge Ski Resort will be celebrating its 50th year of bringing friends and family out of their winter burrows to enjoy the charming town and its magnificent peaks. Why not try something different with your family and embrace the winter weather, rather than escape it? With all it has to offer, One Ski Hill Place will not disappoint, and the town of Breckenridge is sure to be a favorite family retreat for years to come.