Back to School: A Morning at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy

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While guests at Thailand’s Banyan Tree Phuket lounge by their villas’ private plunge pools, watch the sunset at Bang Tao Beach, and bliss out at the spa, some serious schooling goes down a few hundred feet away at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy. Spa therapists at Banyan Tree’s 42 resorts worldwide must complete 350 hours of Spa Academy training: anatomy, theory, and customer service classes; how-to lessons on making body scrubs and herbal sachets; and hands-on workshops to learn how to masterfully perform every single treatment on the Banyan Tree Spa menu.

On a recent trip to Thailand, I traded vacation for vocation for a few hours and spent a morning as a Banyan Tree therapist in training. I shadowed therapists as they prepped the spa’s treatment rooms – 20 pavilions cocooned in lush tropical gardens – for the day’s services. (The spa opens at 10am, but therapists are already at work by eight.) In a small lab room, a few women mashed a green apple body scrub in a mortar, while others worked to set up each room, using a 44-point checklist as their guide.

Afterward, I headed over to the Spa Academy (housed in a nondescript building adjacent to the resort), where I donned the spa’s signature purple linens for a lesson in Thai massage. The art is one of the first practices therapists learn at the Spa Academy, and anyone who’s received this ancient, centuries-old treatment can attest to the skill and pressure required by those who administer it. Strength training for the hands and fingers is no joke, I learned, as I winced while counting to ten and squeezing my hand-gripper tool together as tightly as possible. Students perform these exercises daily, and work with their classmates for months in a workshop-style setting, perfecting their massage techniques.

Thai massage at the Banyan Tree Phuket.

The experience left me way more appreciative of the 90-minute treatment I received the day before. I laid on the massage table, my face tucked into the cradle, looking down at a bowl of lotus flowers on the ground. I know now that those were strategically placed there just to make me feel more relaxed. And while my therapist soothed my long-haul weary muscles with warm herbal sachets, I hadn’t thought about the hours of classroom time that went into learning exactly where to place those compresses on my body’s meridians and energy lines for optimal relief. Banyan Tree spas have earned their share of accolades over the years. Therapists create five-star experiences for guests who likely don’t realize the hours that go into their relaxation – but that’s exactly the point.

Images courtesy of Banyan Tree Phuket. 

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Fall in Love in Paris: La Vie en Rose

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY EVAN UPCHURCH

After living in Paris for more than four years, I had stopped seeing it as the City of Love and had begun seeing it as ‘Paris, the city where I live’ (not to mention the monotony of daily life).

That is, until my boyfriend, in from Mexico City, visited me for three weeks. As I tried to show him the best Paris has to offer, I was reminded why Paris truly is the city to be in love, and why I fell in love with Paris in the first place.

Whether you’re coupled up or wandering solo, I can personally recommend these activities to feel the love in Paris.

Strolling on La Coulée Verte.

Culinary Highlights:

It’s no secret that Paris has countless options for delicious, unforgettable dining experiences. Here are two restaurants where you can’t go wrong.

For  a laid-back and intimate vibe, make a reservation at Les Papilles (“taste buds� in French). Located in the Latin Quarter only minutes away from Luxembourg Gardens, this restaurant prides itself on serving sophisticated cuisine with no pretensions. The chef prepares one market-fresh menu for dinner, with hearty dishes such as squash soup and slow-cooked lamb, and changes daily. (The restaurant is also open for lunch.)Don’t miss out on their selection of French wines, such as Petrus, Beaujolais, and Languedoc.  I like it on the weekend when the restaurant is completely full, adding to the convivial, cozy ambiance.

If you want something a bit more celebration-worthy, book a table at La Scène, the one-Michelin-starred restaurant at Prince de Galles, a Luxury Collection hotel. Inspired by southern French cuisine, chef Stéphanie Le Quellec, a past winner of France’s ‘Top Chef,’ succeeds at making gourmet cuisine approachable. She uses exceptional products –  even the bread and butter is memorable – and one of the highlights of the experience is to see her at work with her team in the open kitchen, separated from the dining area by merely a marble counter. Feeling curious? Entrust your evening to the chef and choose the ‘Yeux Fermés’ (Closed Eyes) menu. Also, ask the sommeliers for your wine pairings – you won’t regret it, and might even discover a new favorite wine.

Insider tip: Book a wine tasting in the hotel’s cellar before dinner with the director of La Scène and head sommelier, Cédric Maupoint. After passing through the hotel’s �back of the house� to get to the wine cellar, you will taste two to three exceptional wines accompanied by gourmet snacks, such as foie gras and charcuterie (ax. $140 per person, only available on Tuesday evenings).

Museum culture:

Impressionism, to me, is whimsical and romantic. From Renoir to Monet, the great painters of the nineteenth-century movement transport viewers to plein air dream-like settings. Two of my favorite collections await at Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, which sit across the Seine from each other, about a 15-minute walk apart.

Inside the Musée d’Orsay.

Take a stroll in the Tuileries Garden and find the Musée de l’Orangerie, located at the garden’s edge near the Place de la Concorde. The small museum houses two powerfulpermanent collections: Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and the Jean Walter & Paul Guillaume collection. Water Lilies, considered to be the museum’s highlight, consists of eight compositions displayed in two all-white oval rooms with natural light spilling in from the roof.

Next, walk over to the Left Bank to the Musée d’Orsay, an impressive and grandiose setting. A former train station built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, the building can be considered the museum’s first masterpiece and is home to the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist chefs-d’oeuvre, which seduces with enchanting color palettes and brushstrokes.

Insider tip: For both museums, book a private guide through your advisor to get a more in-depth experience. If you prefer to go it alone, buy the audio guide at the museum; you don’t have to use it for each painting, but for the paintings that captivate you the most, it’s a helpful tool to understand the context.

Outdoorsy fun:

Paris, like any big city, can start to feel crowded and stressful, but a stroll or a picnic in a park allows you to reconnect with nature without leaving the city limits. Parisian parks and gardens vary in style and size, but most are well-maintained.

Parc Monceau, in the eighth arrondissement, is surrounded by lavish private residences and exudes elegance and quaint charm, from its landscape design to the fashionable locals walking its paths. You’ll find a pond surrounded by fake Roman ruins, statutes of great French figures such as Guy de Maupassant and Frederic Chopin, shaded walkways, and sloping lawns ideal for picnics and lounging.

A beautiful day on the Coulée Verte René-Dumont.

A lesser-known option is the Coulée Verte René-Dumont, also called Promenade Plantée. The starting point of this repurposed former commuter railway(like a ‘Parisian High Line’) is located behind the Opera Bastille. You don’t have to walk its entire three-mile length, but get lost amidst fragrant rose bushes, colorful flower patches, towering bamboo, and stunning Parisian buildings on a sunny day.

Insider tip: If you plan on picnicing, take advantage of Paris’ wonderful specialty shops for cheese, wine, baguette, charcuterie, and pastries. Check out my article about Paris neighborhoods for suggestions or ask your concierge for more.

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Space Tourism is Getting Closer

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VSS Unity during a glide flight in January.

Power Up

Virgin Galactic lit up the skies above California’s Mojave Desert after 8 AM this morning, April 5, with spacecraft VSS Unity’s first rocket-powered flight. After climbing to roughly 46,500 feet, Unity detached from mother ship Eve, at which point pilots Mark Sucky and Dave MacKay fired its rocket motor for 30 seconds, accelerating to Mach 1.87 and reaching an altitude of 84,271 feet. On descent, the pilots successfully tested the six-passenger spaceship’s “featheredâ€� reentry configuration, in which the tail assembly rotates upward to create drag and stability (modeled after badminton shuttlecocks’ slow descent), before gliding back to Mojave Air and Space Port.


 

The milestone event was Virgin Galactic’s first powered flight of its spacecraft since the loss of its VSS Enterprise in October of 2014 and marks the start of the final phase of test flights. The company is currently preparing to move to its home base at Spaceport America outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, with the aim of becoming the first commercial spaceline to fly passengers into suborbital space.

 

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Things We Love: Ashford Castle Monopoly

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How’s this for a long-lasting hotel souvenir? Guests (or fans) of Ashford Castle, located an hour from Galway on the west coast of Ireland, can take home the new Ashford Castle Monopoly board.

Photo by Chris Plavidal.

Just like the original game, which was first created in the early 1900s, players can land in jail or bankruptcy. But instead of Boardwalk and Park Place, you can spend your game cash on the Kennedy Suite or the Reagan Presidential Suite at Ashford Castle. Various landing posts on the board include the Cinema, the Prince of Wales Bar, the wine cellar, or Ireland’s First School of Falconry. At Ashford Castle, guests have the chance to meet, hug, and play with the hotel’s ambassador Irish Wolfhounds every day. And in the game, the pieces include these beloved dogs.

Purchase Ashford Castle Monopoly at Mrs. Tea’s Boutique & Bakery at the hotel, or online, complete with a festive green and gold box, complementing the colors of Ashford Castle.

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This Year’s Travel Dreams Tournament Champion Is …

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Three weeks, four head-to-head rounds of competition, and thousands of votes later, this year’s Virtuoso Travel Dreams Tournament champion is …

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu topped the Swiss Alps, Greece, and Tuscany on its path to Travel Dreams glory, and it edged out New Zealand in the final round for the title. Peru‘s most-visited site – the fifteenth-century Incan citadel – is a worthy champion, with its towering green peaks and stunning mazes of plazas, palaces, terraces, and temples. Whether you choose to train it or trek it to this mystic city, Machu Picchu definitely deserves its dream trip status.

Take a look at the complete Virtuoso Travel Dreams Tournament bracket below to see how all 16 destinations in this year’s competition fared. We hope you enjoyed casting your votes in our first ever bracket-style, dream destination face-off. We loved seeing you share your favorites on social media, be it Hawaii, Mexico, Bora-Bora, and beyond. Let us know in the comments below – did your favorite win?

 

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Where to Eat (and Drink) in Rome: 9 Favorites

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While booking a last-minute trip to Rome, restaurant reservations took priority over ruins, although I wanted to see those, too. My fiancée and I were recouping after a family funeral – pasta and wine is a healing tonic, and I wanted bowls of cacio e pepe to work some kind of soul-curing magic.

Turns out, they did.

There’s no shortage of Rome food experts – Katie Parla, Elizabeth Minchilli, and Rachel Roddy come to mind – not to mention my friends, travel advisors, and journalists.  This kind of “where to eat and drink” research is one of the anticipatory pleasures of planning a trip.

I wanted a mix of classic Rome, within walking distance from our home base near the Piazza del Popolo, plus a few farther-flung dining spots. And I wanted to allow for serendipity to take over: If we spied an osteria down an inviting alley with ivy climbing its bricks, we could cancel our plans and drop in.

There were a few disappointments, but more often memorable dining and drinking moments in the Eternal City. Luckily, we averaged 24,000 steps per day to balance everything out.

Bombolini alla Crema and Gran Caffé at Sant’Eustachio

You’re not going to find bad coffee in Rome. Open since 1938, this beloved spot is touristy (note the mugs, bags, and other branded souvenirs for sale), yet we returned almost daily for espresso and the addictive, single-bite bombolini alla crema. These sweet Italian doughnuts filled with a bit of cream pair wonderfully with a gran caffé, their version of an espresso – with steamed milk, if preferred. If you don’t take your coffee sweetened, make sure to say so before they dump sugar in. You can sit outside at one of the tables, but the price of your order will double. Do as the locals – and throngs of tourists – do and sidle up to the coffee bar.

A gran caffé and bombolino alla crema at Sant’Eustachio.

Hotel de Russie’s Iced Coffee

My other coffee obsession turned out to be at our hotel. I returned several times to the Hotel de Russie’s take on iced coffee, served up in a wine glass at the see-and-be-seen Stravinskij Bar. (Sightseeing + Wine with Lunch = Need Caffeine Jolt!) Unsweetened on my request, it tasted faintly of sweet cocoa, a testament to the quality of the beans. Though it was ice cold, there wasn’t any ice in the glass. The secret? The bartender uses a cocktail shaker to create a frothy, smooth texture. It’s a version of what is known as a shakerato in Italy.

Cocktails at the bar come with quite the spread – mini fish sliders, salmon tartare, generous bowls of olives, breadsticks, and vegetable crudité. It truly became my happy place in Rome; we even skipped a restaurant reservation one night to spend several more hours people-watching and enjoying bar food and drinks.

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The cocktail spread at Hotel de Russie.

Gelato at Il Gelato di San Crispino

I love a basic cup of Italian stracciatella gelato as much as the next person, but I’ll remember the less typical, preservative-free flavors here the most. Try their popular, creamy eponymous ice cream with a strawberry-tree and honey sauce from Sardinia, or the fresh-walnut and dried-fig ice cream. Also of note: lemon sorbet made with Amalfi Coast lemons, and clementine sorbet with fruit grown in Sicily.

Cacio e Pepe at Flavio al Velavevodetto

You can’t leave Rome without ordering cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper) at least once. Flavio al Velavevodetto’s version was my favorite, even though I’ll never know how to say the restaurant’s name properly. Located in the working-class Testaccio neighborhood and built on the site of an ancient Roman dump (you can still see terracotta pots through one of the glass walls), the restaurant first appears small, until you notice how many rooms snake down to the bottom levels. It was filled almost entirely with locals the night we went. Here, you can also try another Roman classic: carciofi alla Romana, or braised Roman artichoke hearts.

cacio e pepe

Armando al Pantheon’s Lemon Pasta

lemon pasta Despite its location a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, this family-run trattoria has been a beloved local favorite since 1961. It’s cozy and wonderful and serves up the best of Roman staples such as cacio e pepe and spaghetti carbonara. But it was the spaghetti alla verde (pasta with lemon, arugula, and parmesan) that I’ll try to recreate at home. Also a stand-out: chargrilled lamb chops that fell off the bone.

Seafood at Osteria Gensola

Chances are you might see the day’s seafood shipment arrive as you’re browsing Osteria Gensola’s menu. Located in a less-trafficked area of Trastavere, this convivial, small neighborhood spot specializes in the freshest of fish, though they do have classic pasta dishes, too.

A Cornetto from La Buvette

Do as the Italians do, and order a cornetto with your espresso in the morning at La Buvette, a charming café on Via Vittoria.

A cornetto (Italian for “little horn�) and a croissant (French for “crescent�) are in the same family of breakfast pastries, but the former is less buttery and flaky than its French cousin, with more of a bread-like texture – you’ll feel slightly more virtuous eating one in the morning. La Buvette also has wonderful mini orange-scented olive oil cakes.

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Outdoor tables at La Buvette.

Panini at Duecento Gradi

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A sardine panini at Duocento Gradi.

What this spot lacks in ambiance – it has more of a grab-and-go, brightly lit feel – it more than makes up for in/with perfect panini, starting with the freshly made, crisp and chewy bread. I went with the sardines, mozzarella, and zucchini flower version as fuel before our incredible, in-depth Vatican tour with Context Travel. Don’t count on a table, but they turn over fast.

Wine (Any Wine) at L’Angolo Divino

This small and dim wine bar is what you hope to stumble upon in Rome, with bottle-lined walls, aperitivo snacks such as cheese and olives, and a friendly host, who will help you decide what to order as it fills up with Roman friends meeting for drinks. It’s just far enough away from the madness of Campo dei Fiori.

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L’Angolo Divino wine bar.

All photos by Annie Fitzsimmons.

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