Gillian Birch - Travel Writer
 Gillian Birch - Travel Writer

Miami Social Affairs magazine article published under the title "Costa Rica"

A Lover's Paradise"
Costa Rica is for Lovers
By Gillian Birch
Costa Rica has been penciled into surfers’ little black books for years. Retirees know all the pros and cons of retiring to this green Central American destination. But the Four Seasons Hotel is catering to a different clientele. Costa Rica is for lovers. Couples seeking a hushed get-away from city babble; lovers looking for top-notch service in luxurious surroundings; honeymooners wanting a special and memorable vacation should all check out the Four Seasons Resort at Peninsula Papagayo.
The Four Seasons is more a sanctuary than a hotel; an oasis in the midst of this green and beautiful country. For many years, five star accommodation was marked by crystal and marble. Now it is all about good service, fine cuisine, simple natural furnishings and stunning views of nature.
Costa Rica lives up to its name meaning ‘rich coast’. The palm-fringed golden beaches, the lush tropical rainforest on the volcanic mountain slopes and the unparalleled flora and fauna put Costa Rica firmly on the eco-tourist’s map. Wisely, the government invested in the formation of several National Parks to protect its unique inheritance. It also invested in education, healthcare and a good infrastructure, so exploring this small country is safe and easy. The locals are friendly, laid-back and smiling, welcoming you to this beautiful paradise.
The climate in Costa Rica is consistently warm year-round with daily highs in the 80s. From November through May the dry conditions lead to the ‘gold season’ as trees turn beautiful hues of gold and brown. The ‘green season’ from June to October has tropical showers in the afternoon when the lush vegetation thrives once again. For that special Valentine vacation, February in Costa Rica is the perfect choice, with guaranteed sunshine and low humidity.
Costa Rica is just a short direct flight from Miami and other select cities, so the vacation begins as soon as you touch down in the small international airport at Liberia. Book private transportation to the hotel, and within forty-five minutes you are sipping a welcome beverage from your own private balcony.
The guest rooms at the Four Seasons have all their signature trademarks and attention to detail. Beautifully furnished in dark indigenous woods and muted colors, each spacious guest room leads out to a private terrace or verandah. Every view is different yet stunning as you breathe in the freshest air. The spacious bathrooms are tastefully finished in marble and include a deep soaking tub and a separate shower.
For that special romantic break, be decadent and book a sumptuous suite. The private dining area is perfect for a romantic evening-long meal, or view the brightest stars from the infinity-edge plunge pool. Turn the lights down low and allow the entertainment system to add to the ambience, or just listen to the quiet hum of the rainforest inhabitants.
Enjoy all the amenities on offer at the Four Seasons Resort, from the shoe shine and one-hour pressing service to the twice daily housekeeping service. Down pillows and soft robes are standard, along with up-to-the-minute communications.
The three pools are surrounded by comfortable chaises-longues with deep mattresses. There is something very calming about palm trees reflected in the blue water. Relax and dream awhile.
The breakfast buffet is served under the palm trees, and al fresco lunch is also available poolside, along with cocktails, fruit juices and iced water. The Caracol Steakhouse, with its Sydney Opera House inspired roofline looks out over the immaculate Arnold Palmer designed championship golf course. The indigenous Spa offers many treatments using local ingredients from nature, including a mineral-rich rainforest mud treatment.
The multilingual concierge is able to organize a host of trips to see more of this ecological paradise. Still on a romantic getaway theme, ignore the usual kayaking, windsurfing and snorkeling and float gently down the Corobici River on a raft. The calm waters take you effortlessly through beautiful scenery inhabited by egrets, herons, motmots, monkeys, iguanas and lizards.
Still on a water theme, visit La Chorrera waterfall on horseback and take a refreshing dip in the sparkling waters. Hummingbirds and exotic birdlife are everywhere, and the stunning bright yellow, red and blue curved beaks of the toucans are quite amazing to see.
Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park has two miles of walking trails leading to the steaming sulphur which rises from the bubbling mud. Enjoy a spa with a difference at Borinquen, and wallow in the natural hot thermal springs created by the volcanic activity beneath.
Costa Rica is known for its colorful butterflies and a trip to the Butterfly Farm is a peaceful way to enjoy the local wildlife. There are more species of butterfly in tiny Costa Rica than in the whole of Africa. Butterflies as big as your hand flutter from plant to plant displaying the detailed hand-painted wings that creation has bestowed upon them. It is a colorful and magical way to spend a quiet afternoon.
Closer to Liberia is Monteverde Forest Reserve. This is a bird-watcher’s paradise, and home to the elusive Resplendent Quetzal. Sky Walk is a series of suspension bridges through the jungle canopy. Look down on some of the 2000 plants and 100 species of mammal which call Monteverde ‘home’.
After your activities, enjoy lunch or sit outside a local café and enjoy the delicious taste of coffee, locally grown and freshly ground. These are the simple pleasures of life.
Finally, returning to your luxury haven, relax on one of the two golden sandy beaches of the Four Seasons Resort. A serene 3 ½ hour sunset cruise is a lovely way to end the day. Board the Goombay Catamaran right on the beach and sail serenely around the Gulf of Papagayo. The cruise is an ideal way to enjoy a refreshing breeze whilst looking for Pacific wildlife.
This wonderful full-service resort will not disappoint. From breakfast on your terrace to a full wedding service, the Four Seasons Resort can provide the ultimate romantic Valentine’s break, and who knows, maybe even wedding bells in the future.
Geneva Times magazine article published under the title " A Private Kasbah in Morocco"
A Private Kasbah in Morocco
By Gillian Birch
Only a short distance separates Spain from Morocco, yet the contrast between the two continents is immense. Markets become souks, castles are citadels, guitars become zithers, rice becomes couscous, and Earl Grey is traded for mint tea. In Morocco men wear djellabahs, and flat-topped fez hats with a tassel; footwear is strange pointed leather slippers. Donkeys and camels are suddenly commonplace and everywhere there is the babble of strange tongues calling, instructing or greeting.
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit North Africa, when the temperatures are warmer than Europe, although there is often a strong breeze. September to December is very pleasant; the summer heat has dissipated leaving wrap-around warmth that relaxes and embalms your whole body. There are wonderful beaches at Essaouira, or visit the awe-inspiring High Atlas Mountains further inland.
Morocco is mysterious, strange, exotic and different with its nomadic history and religious influences. Curiosity to explore somewhere completely different leads you here. It fills your senses with the aromatic fragrance of spices and jasmine. Everywhere there are strange sounds; of donkeys pulling creaking carts; the haunting wail of the call to prayer; the cacophony of voices calling your attention to their wares. “Come see my carpets, lady! Finest in Morocco!” It is a step back in time, yet Europe was never so vibrant and exotic, so mysterious or so intense.
Visiting this strange and distant country can sometimes be a little daunting. What will we eat? Will it be clean? Will my room be comfortable? Will I be safe? Rest assured there are many wonderful hotels here who accommodate guests every day of the year.
Kasbah Tamadot
One of the newest and best resorts is Kasbah Tamadot. Its famous owner, Sir Richard Branson, was persuaded by his mother to buy and renovate this ancient Kasbah. Now containing just 18 individually designed and decorated rooms and suites, this Hotel incorporates all the culture and characteristics of North Africa, furnished with antiques from Morocco, India and the Far East. There are also 6 Berber tented suites each with its own plunge pool. Complimentary Moroccan slippers are also supplied for each guest, which is a nice touch.
This luxury Hotel features magnificent architecture in Moorish style, with crenellated walls and amazing terracotta tiled courtyards. Bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms are typically Moroccan, just more deluxe. There are arched doorways, ornate ceilings, and heavy curtains framing every view. The floors are laid with colourful local rugs, and the king-size beds often have ornately carved headboards. The outdoor pool is in a cloistered courtyard, finished with beautiful mosaics and tiles.
Each room at the Kasbah Tamadot has its own private outdoor space. It may be a terrace or balcony looking out onto the mountains or gardens which are full of colour. Roses and lavender line the garden paths and bougainvillea and jasmine cascade over the ancient walls, assaulting your senses with bright colour and fragrance.
The cuisine is of course first class, and can be enjoyed from outdoor tables facing the Atlas mountain range, or under the night sky full of bright stars.
Kasbah Tamadot is conveniently close to Marrakech for visits to the markets and restaurants, if you can pull yourself away from the wonderful Spa and serene indoor pool.
Shopping in Marrakech
Marrakech is centred on the huge Djemaa El-Fna, which is a gathering place for all sorts of entertainment. Locals and tourists alike gather around to see snake charmers, performing monkeys, acrobats making human pyramids and dancers cartwheeling to Arabian music. Look around and see the scribes doing business, making wills or legalizing documents. Souvenir sellers call out for your attention, and soothsayers approach with a smile. Watch the fire-swallowers, shoe shiners and healers plying their trades, and also watch your purse. Sometimes in the crowds, distracted by the entertainment, thieves are plying their trade too.
It is always best to be overcautious when visiting busy places as a tourist. Leave as many valuables as possible in your hotel safe. Secure your camera to you wrist, or hold it around your neck on a strap. Use a moneybelt or bum bag rather than a loose wallet or purse, which can easily be whisked away as you open it looking for change. The oldest trade in the world is deception, so be a little savvy as locals approach with their hands out. You may lose more than you intended to give them.
If you find the attention of the street vendors too harassing, it is best to attend the souks with a local guide. He will help you not to get lost in the labyrinth of tiny donkey-wide streets, and he will keep the enthusiastic vendors at bay.
Many of the insignificant doorways along the streets hide ‘Riads’. These are original Moroccan homes, which always include a peaceful courtyard garden. There are no windows in the mud or clay walls along the street; all the rooms look onto the interior gardens. These riads are often converted into hotels and restaurants, and provide excellent accommodation and respite from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.
Restaurants and Cafes
There are plenty of little outdoor cafes to sit and watch the world go by, and sip a local mint tea, which is delicious and refreshing. There are also some excellent restaurants in the city. ‘Yacout’ which means sapphire, is highly recommended. Behind the wooden doors, the 200 year-old house opens up to reveal carpets strewn with rose petals in welcome. The rooms have mosaic tiles, fireplaces and wall-hangings all lit by flickering candle light. Soft music from local instruments hangs on the air and enhances the exotic atmosphere.
Sink into the comfortable chairs and allow the feast to begin. Course after course is brought to your table; lightly spiced, delicious meats in creamy sauces; strange vegetables; tasty fried morsels and of course, the local couscous. Desserts are tiny and sweetened with honey. Sit back, replete, with a cup of hot tea and drink in the strange surroundings, the smells of good food and listen to the haunting music.
The Hotel La Mamounia is a jewel in the crown of Marrakech’s Hotels. Winston Churchill stayed here, and his oil paintings adorn the wall of his favourite suite. Even if you cannot afford to stay here, the arched and decorative entrance is a wonderful photo opportunity, or splash out on a meal in Le Marocain restaurant, reputedly the best in Morocco.
Things to See and Do in Morocco
Beyond the city there are many other wonderful experiences to enjoy. Balloon rides at dawn are a very quiet yet exhilarating ride over the plains.
A visit to the Sahara desert can also be arranged in Jeeps driving across the plains. You will see ruined fortresses, nomads with their herds, camel trains and oases. You can walk in the highest sand dunes, and experience the vastness of the Sahara.
The ever-present backdrop to Morocco is the High Atlas Mountains. Even in the heat of the summer, they retain their snow-capped peaks, such is their altitude. Treks are available with local Berber guides to explore the higher plateau at heights averaging 13,000 feet. Reasonably flat terrain is interspersed with uphill paths, but the majestic beauty from every step is quite breath-taking. Contact with local goat-herding nomads and shepherds are commonplace. Remote villages are visited, still untouched by modern times, and these glimpses of other lives can only enhance this wonderful expedition. You may even be lucky enough to see a local betrothing or wedding ceremony.

In short, Morocco is a short distance away, but it is a huge step into a different world of bazaars, mountains, ancient lifestyles and spicy foods. Pick up bargains in leather goods, carpets and spices, and take a little Arabian culture home with you.

 

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