Stylish Desert Stays

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The W Scottsdale WET lounge at night.

A stay at any W hotel is always unique. Each is themed to its location, this one being the desert of course.

A wonderful scent of vanilla greets you when entering the lobby of the W Scottsdale, which is only a block from the heart of Old Town. To the left is a circle of petrified tree trunks that were fished out of an Indonesian lake (petrified wood is protected in Arizona), while the Living Room lounge area and bar, with cowhide covered chairs and leather sofas, invite visitors to kick back and stay awhile. The mix of rustic with the chic modernism, which the W hotels are known for, blend well at the W Scottsdale.  The hotel’s WOW suites,  decorated in bright colors with hip furnishings, reminiscent of the sixties, are popular with sports and movie celebs, who book these suites for special celebrations.

While it might be too hot in the summer to lie in the sun, the W Scottsdale’s WET pool offers lounges, cabanas and even a sand area that are very comfortable in the winter and early spring. At night, the area turns into an outdoor nightclub, with a DJ, and blue and pink lighting.

The Wheels driveway entrance to the W Scottsdale. The swimming pool can be seen through the portholes centered among the gold poles.

There’s a great energy and vibe in the W’s Living Room, where eclectic local bands perform live Thursday through Saturday nights. Two members from Vinyl Station, a Phoenix-based indie group, performed while I was there. Sporting Amish-style beards, while playing bass and guitar, they were quite good, singing cover tunes from the Beatles to Green Day, sometimes better than the originals, as well as their own tunes. Here’s a link to their Facebook page where you can check out some of their music.

Plush bedding, and colorful modern decor are highlights of the Wonderful Rooms at the Scottsdale, Arizona

Sublime Scottsdale

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One of the few experiences of Arizona I’ve had was as a six-year-old living in a dust-bowl suburb of Phoenix for a year before my mother decided windstorms and lightening were better experienced in the concrete suburbs of Los Angeles.

So when I received an invite to Scottsdale, Arizona, I didn’t get too excited. Those hot and dusty days as a child obscured Arizona as a vacation destination from my mind. But, I thought to myself, “It can’t be too hot in January.” And, a stay at a W hotel certainly would make the experience much nicer.

Scottsdale is only a 20-minute drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and, as I found to my pleasure, it is a thriving cultural, culinary and sports center (the MLB Salt River Fields at Talking Stick is near Scottsdale, with an 11,000-square-foot stadium and 12  full-size training fields), with Sonoran desert beauty that entices hikers, balloonists and general lovers of the outdoors.

Following is part one of the highlights of my Scottsdale vacation.

Stylish Desert Stays

The 1,540 square foot Extreme WOW suite at the W Scottsdale

A stay at any W hotel is always unique. Each is themed to its location, this one being the desert of course. A wonderful scent of vanilla greets you when entering the lobby of the W Scottsdale, which is only a block from the heart of Old Town. To the left is a circle of petrified tree trunks that were fished out of an Indonesian lake (petrified wood is protected in Arizona), while the Living Room lounge area and bar, with cowhide covered chairs and leather sofas, invite visitors to kick back and stay awhile. The mix of rustic with the chic modernism, which the W hotels are known for, blend well at the W Scottsdale.  The hotel’s WOW suites,  decorated in bright colors with hip furnishings, reminiscent of the sixties, are popular with sports and movie celebs, who book these suites for special celebrations.

While it might be too hot in the summer to lie in the sun, the W Scottsdale’s WET pool offers lounges, cabanas and even a sand area that are very comfortable in the winter and early spring. At night, the area turns into an outdoor nightclub, with a DJ, and blue and pink lighting.

Blissful Beauty

The Bliss Spa check-in.

The Bliss Spas that are in all W hotels are spare affairs, with baby blue-and-white themed check-in, lounge, and treatment rooms, with a “no-frills, get-down-to-business” attitude. That business is enjoying top-notch treatments. I had a “blissage 49,” a 49-minute massage that’s designed for those who need to “get in and out” but be relaxed. Unlike typical spa and massage places that are either silent or offer meditative ambient music, Bliss Spas offers rhythm and blues tunes, and instead of fruit and vegetable sticks—brownies, cheese and crackers. All that’s missing is the wine.

Cultural Experiences

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright came to Scottsdale in 1937, and, with his apprentices, built Taliesin West from the desert, using rocks and sand. At the time, he had placed rocks with petroglyphs in certain spots, a practice that is now illegal.

Wright established an apprenticeship at Taliesin West to explore his unique idea of “living architecture,” combing indoor and outdoor spaces. It now serves as the accredited Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. It was also his and his wife Olgivanna’s personal winter home until his death in 1959.

The exterior of Taliesin West, Photo Judith Bromley

The angled, low-roofed buildings cause one to slouch in order to enter the various quarters, and it’s hard to imagine living there in the winter as the only heat in those days came from fireplaces built into corners of the rooms. But the views are fantastic, although power lines eventually marred the wide-open southeastern landscape, causing Wright to orient his outdoor living and entertaining space to have a view of the mountains to the northwest instead.

Tours take you through restored versions of his home before his death (Olgivanna had made changes after he died), and to the unique Cabaret Theater, whose six-sided rock and concrete walls are specially angled to maximize the acoustic quality of sound.

Scottsdale, as many culturally like-minded cities, also has an ArtWalk every Thursday. This one, however, has taken place for more than 30 years. There are more than a 100 art galleries in Scottsdale. Luckily a free trolley is available to relieve your feet.

 Culinary Tour

A Taste of Old Town Scottsdale is one of the best ways to be introduced to a variety of restaurants and other food-oriented venues in an afternoon.

We started at the Rusty Spur Saloon on Main Street. The oldest bar around, the likes of John Wayne to Jennifer Aniston have gone through its doors, perhaps to partake of their famous burgers. Live music is played seven days and nights a week.

The outdoor dining area at AZ88, The Bar

Just across the road from Rusty’s is Az88 The Bar,in the same plaza as the Scottsdale Historical Museum and Center for the Arts. Accompanying

our Peach Bellini’s were Hell’s Fire Chips, homemade potato chips sprinkled in bleu cheese and hot sauce, and a fresh and tasty Shrimp Ceviche. A unique sculpture of a Christmas tree (it was the first week of January), made of paper clips, hung from the ceiling. The restaurant, which is light and airy, with comfortable modern décor, is known for its cocktails and artwork, sometimes made by employees of the restaurant.

The Outrageous Olive Oils and Vinegars shop, our next stop back on Main Street, lives up to its name. We tasted gourmet vinegar that comes in

Outrageous Olive Oils and Vinegars in Old Town Scottsdale offers unique flavored oils and vinegars.

flavors such as chocolate, espresso and raspberry, and olive oils infused with basil or blood orange. They were definitely unique and delicious. They ship their products, and are well worth the price at $16 for a 12-oz. bottle of flavored olive oil or vinegar (oliveoilaz.com).

Other stops on our tour took us to Su Vino Winery, where you can have personal wine bottling parties; Cowboy Ciao, home of the original Stetson Chopped Salad; and Lee’s Cream Liqueur, which offers deliciously creamy, liqueur-infused ice cream.

Sushi in the Desert

Sushi Roku is the W Scottsdale’s onsite restaurant, where the fish is fresh and the extravagantly prepared special dishes, created by Executive Chef Matt Zdeb, are simply delicious. The yellowtail sashimi with diced chiles appetizer was light, flavorful and had the right amount of spiciness. The filet Mignon-wrapped asparagus was also a winner, and the crispy Mahi Mahi Tacos were succulent.

Some think that the “Los Angeles import” is a bit too Hollywood (Ryan Seacrest and Tori Spelling are two investors of the restaurant; scenes from “Baseball Wives” have filmed there), and too “glam,” but I thought it had a great energy and vibe, which spilled over perfectly to the W’s Living Room, where eclectic local bands perform live Thursday through Saturday nights. Two members from Vinyl Station, a Phoenix-based indie group, performed while I was there. Sporting Amish-style beards, while playing bass and guitar, they were quite good, singing cover tunes from the Beatles to Green Day, sometimes better than the originals, as well as their own tunes. Here’s a link to their Facebook page where you can check out some of their music.

 

 

Spa, Gourmet Treats of Yountville

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The Bottega Bar in Yountville, Napa Valley

When heading to Northern California for fine wine, the busy town of Napa is the first place that comes to mind for a stay in the famous wine country of Napa Valley.

However, just a few miles north lies Yountville, a small, peaceful town that remains about the size it was when Mexico gave the land as a grant to George Calvert Yount about 130 years ago. The town, originally named Sebastopol but later changed to Yountville after its founder, is a sleepy, quiet place; perfect for a relaxing getaway to enjoy the finest of food and wine, galleries and shopping.

A stay during the fall at the Villagio Inn and Spa on the 23-acre Vintage Estates (which encompasses the Vintage Inn and the V Marketplace) resulted in a three-day getaway during which my companion and I left the town only once, for wine tasting at the nearby small, private winery.

Everything was practically at our fingertips, from dining and shopping, poolside relaxation and spa treats to walks through vineyards.

The Villagio Inn and Spa in Yountville, Napa Valley, is part of the 23-acre Vintage Estates.

It’s hard to leave the Mediterranean-style resort itself. Breakfast brings a sparkling wine buffet with everything from delicious pastries, fruit and made-to-order omelets. For lunch, a delicious endive and date salad, with Manchego in pear vinaigrette, accompanied by a beer (yes, I know, this is wine country, but there was plenty of that to imbibe later) was the perfect way to start an afternoon of exploring.

For complete relaxation, a visit to Spa Villagio is a must. Staff is extremely courteous and helpful. There are separate spa areas for men and women, with an outside whirlpool and lounging area with fireplaces, and inside, a sauna, steam room (with a unique and refreshing lemon juniper scent rather than the standard eucalyptus), lounging area with fireplace, Swiss showers and amenities such as samples of the Villagio’s signature lemon juniper body scrub to take into the shower. In fact, the spa offers the new Scrub Bar-you can choose your own mix of salts, sugars, oat or ground coffee, herbs and scented oils to create your own scrub, and then get a 20-minute body scrub from a therapist ($75, includes scrub to take home).

The twin whirlpool baths located on the rooftop of Spa Villagio offers a luxurious and private relaxing retreat for two.

The Spa Suites are the ultimate way to go for treatments alone, romantic couples or even a get-together with girlfriends. The private rooms have fireplaces, outdoor jetted soaking tubs, steam showers, wet bars, flat-screen televisions and private terraces. After a treatment (the Aromasoul Mediterranean Ritual that includes a body scrub with herbs blended with jojoba oil is a great stress reliever), a light spa lunch can be enjoyed in the room or on the terrace.

A walk through the Villagio’s vine-covered trellises leads to the shopping/dining gallery, V Marketplace 1870, which was originally a winery and distillery built by immigrant Gottleib Groezinger (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). Quaint shops, selling everything from clothing and house wares to jewelry and artwork, are located in the main building, as well as Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant.

Bottega offers the ultimate dining experience. It is a rustic and cozy establishment, with multiple fireplaces, a wine bar and private dining areas. Reservations are recommended, as on a Wednesday evening it was packed.

Bottega’s menu is described as “micro-regional Italian cuisine” and many of the ingredients such as the pastas, cured

Bottega restaurant in Yountville, Napa Valley offers fine dining in a casually elegant atmosphere.

meats, fresh cheeses and cured olives are made in house. Even the sparkling water is served from the restaurant’s own well. We feasted on such delights as the Polenta Under Glass, served with caramelized wild mushrooms and balsamic game sauce, and the Linguine with Porcini Mushroom Sugo and Parmesan, which is out of this world.

In fact, everything we tasted was fantastic, and our waiter Walt was super knowledgeable (as well as entertaining), describing each dish as well as our wines in detail. Dessert brought the Tiramisu and sponge cake gelato “cocoa puff” served with warm chocolate sauce, paired with Far Niente winery’s 2005 Dolce Late Harvest, a supremely delicious dessert wine.

After all that good food and wine, it was a good thing the Villagio is within walking distance.

For another rich dining experience, Hurley’s restaurant serves a variety of fare that includes roasted chicken, seafood and steak, as well as special menus on occasion. During our visit, we sampled a special game menu that included venison Carpaccio and wild boar. Again, this place was packed, so reservations might be a good idea.

If you want to taste wine without getting in a car, there’s the V Wine Cellar at V Marketplace, as well as others in town. However, a visit to Keever Vineyards is a nice excursion.

Bill and Olga Keever retired from careers in telecommunications and became “farmers.” As Olga said, “There’s more to life than bridge.”

Right now they produce about 1,500 cases of wine per year (and hope to boost it to 2,000 soon). Their first crop produced a cabernet that received a 93 from Wine Spectator magazine. The winery is truly a family-run affair-their son Jason is the cellar master and their daughter Ashley helps with tours. Olga was a wonderful host, and gave us a private and informative tour. Reservations are needed for tours.

The visit to the friendly Keever family is reflective of the Yountville experience and was a perfect way to end our stay in Napa Valley.

Ojai Delights

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The Gecko room porch looks out onto the grounds of the Emerald Iguana Inn in Ojai. Architect March Whitman used the 1900s river stone- and woodwork of the original buildings on the site as inspiration for the Art Nouveau inspired cottages. Image courtesy of Emerald Iguana Inn

Ojai Valley is a unique place for visitors and residents alike in that it offers distinct settings and activities, from the famed Ojai Music Festival to camping and fishing, to fine dining, wine tasting, and art gallery and spa hopping.

The Ojai Music festival, now in its sixth decade, happens next month, and it might be tough to find a place in town to stay near Libbey Bowl, where the main concerts take place, or anywhere in the “village” (as the local government describes itself) of 8,000 people, however, it’s worth a try to get a room at The Emerald Iguana Inn, which is a few blocks walk to the main part of town, and to Libbey Park. If booked, its sister lodging, The Blue Iguana, is off Highway 33, the main road into Ojai.
Ojai natives Marc and Julia Whitman bought the property that houses the Blue Iguana Inn about 13 years ago. They transformed a broken down motel into a rustic, stylish inn with a desert-like feel. The Emerald Iguana Inn was the second such venture for the couple that at first faced opposition from local residents, but the result is such a delight it is hard to imagine anyone opposing such an eye-pleasing establishment.Marc, an architect, designed both inns and Julia focused on the interiors. The feeling when arriving at the Emerald Iguana Inn, located in a cul-de-sac at the end of residential street, is that of a private retreat surrounded by lush foliage, flowers and a grove of California native oak and sycamore trees.
A multicolored, tiled “Emerald Iguana” fountain greets guests at one side of the gravel driveway. A medium sized pool is surrounded by an iron gate, and more plants, flowers and trees add a tropical feeling to the area. Breakfast of boiled eggs, an assortment of pastries, yogurt and fresh fruit, along with coffee or tea, and fresh orange juice is served daily, and in the evenings, guests can stop by the poolside office for wine and cheese. Both inns are beautifully appointed, with the Emerald furnished with items from Europe and Asia, and some rooms having wood- burning stove fireplaces, whirlpool or claw-foot bathtubs and private patios or balconies.

The focal point of the Emerald is the original “River Rock” house on the property that is nearly 100 years old, which Marc used with his unique style of architecture, featuring organic materials, and shapes and lines. Much of the artwork at both inns features Ojai artists, including that of Marc’s mother, Nancy Whitman.

Guests of either inn can be treated to private tours of the Taft Botanical Gardens, which is a must-see if one if visiting Ojai.

Situated on more than 20 acres, the gardens are renowned for their South African and Australian native plant collections. With the many unusual and colorful species of cacti, flowers and plants, it is an extraordinary experience to walk through the gardens; it feels as if you could encounter one of the fanciful characters from the story of Alice and Wonderland.

Dining in Ojai

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai.

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai. Founded more than 40 years ago by Alan Hooker, current owner David Skaggs (along with wife Edie) first got his start as a waiter there. Using herbs from its onsite garden, the gourmet dishes are fresh and delicious. The wine list is extensive with more than 650 selections, and the service is excellent. It’s as if you are dining amongst good friends or family members. The dining areas are set amongst lush foliage and one can take a walk through the gardens, where a stream wanders. If you dine there, the Grilled Diver Scallops are a must. Huge, tender U-1 0 scallops are grilled and served on lightly curried sweet corn sauce with oil infused with dry vermouth and basil, and shredded bok choy.

For a casual, no hassle lunch try Antonio’s Mexican Cantina at the east end of the main strip of Ojai. Nick Moeller, a former Hollywood nightclub manager, and his wife decided that Ojai was the perfect place to raise their two children, and bought the place from the original owner five years ago. Basics such as cheese enchiladas and nachos will fill you up as you take in the sun in the outdoor patio.

Vesta Restaurant also offers outdoor dining behind the main avenue (the restaurant can be accessed off Ojai Avenue across from Libbey Bowl, or from the courtyard in the back). Tasty, fresh lemonade is the perfect accompaniment to their sweet potato, garlic or rosemary-salted fries (order the Three-Way and you can have a taste of all three.) A variety of salads, sandwiches and wraps is on the lunch menu, and the macaroni and cheese is very good. The restaurant has a full wine and beer list, as well as specialty drinks. Before or after dining, you can browse for home or culinary accessories in the front store.

Ojai is filled with a plethora of wine tasting opportunities. If you’re downtown and don’t want to go too far, try the Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room and Art Gallery, located a few doors down from Vesta.

You can get a Shangri-La Flight for $10, featuring organic and vegan wines, or the Chiefs Peak Flight for $15, which also features organic and vegan, and unfiltered wines. Their 2007 Cabernet Franc, which is unrefined, unfiltered and vegan, is a smooth red that sells for only $30 per bottle.

If you love the music and crowds, do visit Ojai during the festival; if not, an off-season visit in February or March is a perfect time to visit. The weather may be a little cooler, but the quiet and the beauty of Ojai Valley are worth it.

 

 

 

Information:

– Emerald Iguana Inn: 108 Pauline St. Ojai, 93023; 805.646.5277; www.iguanainnsofojai.com

– The Blue Iguana Inn: 11794 N. Ventura Ave. 805.646.5277; www.blueiguanainn.com

– The Ranch House: 500 S. Lomita; 805.646.2360; www.theranchhouse.com

– Vesta Restaurant: 242 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.646.2339; vestaojai.com

– Antonio’s Mexican Cantina: 106 S. Montgomery; 805.646.6353

– Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room: 208 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.640.1255; www.casabarranca.com

 

 

Paradise in the Desert (Palm Springs)

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“Welcome to Paradise,” said the manager.

This was in the midst of a “Twilight Zone” experience of trying to check in at the La Quinta Resort and Club in the desert, though, not due to the fault of the staff at the resort.

The La Quinta Resort and Club in Palm Springs

Gracious and accommodating they were, despite the fact my name could not be found on the reservations list, or anywhere else for that matter.

I waited as staff members flurried back and forth, trying to solve the mystery as to why my planned visit of one night at the famous hideaway resort and club, with some of the best golf courses in the world, was not listed anywhere. I was offered a refreshment, “A glass of wine, perhaps?” which seems to be the customary welcome to guests checking in. At first I said no thank you, and again no thank you after a second offer of a drink, though I did say, “I might need one soon,” when the staff did not recognize the name of a person I was told would be my contact at the resort. I finally did say yes when I was told the restaurant where I had dinner booked did not exist at the resort, or anywhere in the town of La Quinta.

As I sat in the rustic, yet plush, comfortable 85-year-old Santa Rosa Lounge, sipping my chardonnay, the manager at the time said even though there was no record of me at all at the hotel, I would be staying in a casita–with a private patio and spa.

I cannot say enough about how gracious the staff at La Quinta is. They are trained to make each and every guest feel as if they are the most important person they have visiting the club. And with absolute sincerity.

An employee on a gas-powered cart led me to parking near my casita, then to my room, where the bellboy showed me how to work the spa and the fireplace in the spacious room with a firm, king-sized bed. The bathroom itself had a “king-sized” bathtub, with a glass-enclosed shower next to it and a double-sink counter. It was 4:30 p.m. by the time I collapsed on the bed. As I contemplated the mystery of my Twilight Zone nonexistence (my stay was set up by a third party-I found out later I was mistakenly booked at a different hotel), I decided the best way to relax after a 3-and-a-half hour drive from Los Angeles (the drive normally takes 2-and-a-half hours max.), was to jump in the perfectly temperature-set spa with jets. So private is the patio and casita, I could have jettisoned my bathing suit-but, just in case, I kept in on.

The surrounding jagged, rocky Santa Rosa Mountains, which were outlined by a deep, cornflower blue sky, could be seen from my little corner of paradise. And when dark falls, the stars fill the sky.

Walter H. Morgan, who came to the desert in 1921 for health reasons, built the La Quinta Resort and Club, originally called the La Quinta Hotel. It was a self-contained, secluded hideaway for celebrities, high-profile politicos and society leaders-a place where the rich and famous could romp and relax away from prying eyes. It is located about 20 miles past Palm Springs, off the I-10.

So many famous people have stayed here it would be impossible to say who was the most noted guest. On the literary (and showbiz) side-Frank Capra stayed in one of the original 20 casitas. It is said he penned “It Happened One Night” in Casita No. 136 (named San Anselmo). The original desk he used sits in the casita, with a copy of the Academy Award-winning script for guests to peruse. Apparently, he became superstitious about his stay in the desert and returned year after year to pen other equally regarded classics such as “You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among others.

All the rooms and suites (now numbering 640) at the resort and club are decorated with old world, Spanish hacienda-style furniture.

On the other spectrum of famous guests-one casita is named the Eisenhower Villa. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to visit friends at La Quinta while he was still in office, and played golf here. The first golf course in the Coachella Valley was built at La Quinta-a 9-hole course designed by golfer Norman Beth, at the cost of $50,000. Greens fees were $1, open to the public.

The idea of pampering guests with massage treatments started in 1946 when John Balaban, a Chicagoan who bought it from hotelier Arnold S. Kirkeby, hired Marvin Guziewicz. For 39 years, Guziewicz treated guests to “massages in the sun.”

Now the resort and club offers a sybaritic array of spa treatments ranging from “celestial” showers and mustard baths to whole packages that include massage, facials, baths or showers and a choice of a variety of “body wraps.”

A stroll through the various sections of the 45-acre grounds takes you through the courtyards of other casitas, past pools

There are 25 pools on the grounds of La Quinta named after famous guest, such as Dietrich and Garbo.

(there are 25 on the grounds named after famous guests-Dietrich and Garbo were near my casita) and gurgling fountains. It is an extremely romantic place, however, families were seen at dinner and even at the health club, which was all right by me. There are so many activities here to keep everyone busy that I would consider bringing my children for a visit.

Most romantic to me was the setting of the Plaza and the Plaza Bar, which is elevated above a courtyard filled with sections of flowering gardens and fountains, and surrounded by shops. A musical group called The Inka Kings played indigenous, melodic tunes, while guests either dined or just partook of beverages outdoors. The weather was perfect-in the mid- to high-70s in the day (in early February)-although a bit colder at night.

I dined at the Adobe Grill, where I had a divine appetizer as a main course-a tamale pie made with layers of corn meal, sour cream, sauce and cheese.

At 11 a.m., despite the fact several hundred guests were to check in and out that Sunday, I was taken on a tour of the Mountain golf course, one of five at the resort. I do not play golf, but the beauty of this course astounded me. The contrast between the green lushness of the course and the desert rocky mountains it abuts is amazing.

The 16th Hole is my favorite. After riding up a narrow path, you have to get out of your cart and walk up a set of stone

Mountain Course at La Quinta Resort - La Quinta, CA

stairs to the 16th tee. It gives a spectacular, complete view of the rest of the course, including the Dunes course and beyond.

Later, I visited the Hacienda Grande in the northeast section of the resort where my casita is located, which is a suite with living and dining rooms, and with its own private pool in addition to a spa. He said actor Joe Pesci always angles to get this corner to himself.

And, after all the kindness of the staff at La Quinta, I was even allowed a late check-out of 2 p.m., which gave me time to indulge in another dip in the spa, swim in the Dietrich pool, and to luxuriate in the sun.

Ahhh yes, paradise it is.