Much about The Condado Plaza Hilton has been delivered with an ostensibly organic ease. From its location, as the only hotel overlooking the Condado Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean -— complete with ocean breezes, beautiful sunsets and striking water views to its proximity a mere five minutes from historic Old San Juan, prepare to set this destination atop of your list of ideal weekend jaunts and winding getaways.
On the drive in, I glanced over just in time to catch a glimpse of a couple paddle boarding through the lagoon … on the other side beach bums; I was already thinking about how I could extend my stay. It was a balmy 82-degree day in November … the norm. The climate is as close to perfect as it can get in San Juan, Puerto Rico, averaging 83 degrees in the winter and 85 degrees in the summer. I intended two and a half days of doing nothing but sunning and lounging, and maybe a poolside massage, but the stream of foot traffic around the 572-room, 4-star resort piqued my curiosity. There was an immediate change of plans because I was sure I’d regret not taking full advantage of this tropical weather once back at home. I had to at least walk a few blocks, and I imagine this was the response of every traveler arriving from a chilly winter elsewhere. As always on quick escapes, my expectations were simple — mostly revolving around food, scenery and quality relaxation; All relaxation is not equal. As for where to begin here, other travelers in the entryway of Condado Plaza gave me a hint: first, lighter fabrics.
In my room, I always open the patio door while in a tropical locale. The sound of crashing waves signifies the beginning of everything. And so often, I’m tempted to settle into whatever space I have overlooking the water to soak up the setting and allow the salty air to wash off the residue of getting there. The right view — in this case lushly achieved inside as well as outdoors — can do that. But this time I resisted and hit the city’s streets — wandering briefly, mostly for the absorption of place as I was saving my exploration of the historic district for an early morning walking tour the next day. You do need to be on foot to get a more intimate exposure to the city. Condado is central to popular sites like San Juan Cathedral, San Juan Gate, Castillo de San Cristobal and La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina.
A short time later, back on property, the lobby was a magnet in the vibrant and modern entrance to the hotel; being here was altering all of my plans. The sleek design of the hotel makes it the ideal urban retreat for business or leisure travel, with cosmopolitan sophistication that compliments San Juan’s colonial tradition. Open and airy is the theme awash in white, oranges and reds. At any given time of the day, you may have to hover to claim a seat or you could post up in the centrally stationed 360-degree Moon Bar for drinks at noon and beyond. Food-wise, Pikayo, the flagship of acclaimed Puerto Rican Chef Wilo Benet, is a San Juan institution that has been enticing diners for over two decades. Featuring Wilo’s Nu + Global Mix, Pikayo’s menu is a combination of new and classic dishes from Puerto Rico and around the world. However, sushi at Eight Noodle Bar, Condado’s most popular Asian restaurant, my first night on property ruined me for all other options. But, among the five restaurants and Starbucks, there is something for every palate.
Like other guests, I canvassed the property, entertaining myself between one of the hotel’s four outdoor pools – one with saltwater and three with fresh, and on the secluded beach where snorkeling gear could be rented. The was also the option of a game of tennis on the resort’s outdoor court as well as laying back in the whirlpool spa overlooking the ocean. I did, in fact, book a massage on look-out point that fittingly capped the entire experience of The Condado Plaza Hilton. Why leave?
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KwaZulu-Natal — known as "the garden province" of South Africa — was established in 1994, when the Zulu Bantustan territory of KwaZulu and Natal Province were merged. There are few places better for your feet to touch the soil of the Motherland for the first time than the southernmost tip of the continent. Home to the Zulu monarchy and one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, KwaZulu-Natal stretches from Port Edward in the south to the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique to the north. Its western part is marked by the beautiful and dramatic Drakensberg mountain range, and its coastline is dotted with small towns, many of which serve as seasonal leisure hubs.
It was July, winter in the region, when South African Airways delivered me into Johannesburg and from there to Durban — the largest city of the province and major center of tourism because of its warm subtropical climate and what is widely considered some of the best beaches in the world.
My first destination — the Oyster Box, an upscale colonial-style hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean just minutes from Bronze Beach. Old world charm with modern sensibilities, the 86-room hotel feels proper. An intermingling of genteel clientele and hipsters populated the go-to beach resort noted for its cull of meat and vegetarian curry dishes. And yet, one feature after another shuffles into prime focus as a magnet, from Dolphin-watching on the Ocean Terrace and Oyster Bar to its award-winning spa featuring Turkish Hammam and sensation shower, and fine dining in The Grill Room.
The pink sky atop of crisp, white wave crests crashing below hotel balconies make this the obvious retreat while away to Durban. But, my overnight at The Oyster Box was a mere introduction to the beauty and wonder of South Africa. Bright and early on day two, I was off to the village of St. Lucia and a river cruise down the estuary for views of hippos, water birds, and the Nile crocodiles. Seeing animals, unrestrained in their natural habitat is an encounter best experienced first-hand. The guide bid us farewell with a warning to beware of wandering hippos at night. It was duly noted.
On my way out of St. Lucia, I was invited to visit one of the area’s Zulu villages, Khula, and was welcomed into the modest one-room hut of a grandmother who was the sole guardian of her eight grandchildren. She was fast at work making placemats by hand from discarded potato chip bags and reeds she’d collected. The income from her sales had been sustaining her family since she lost her husband a few years ago. Though she spoke only Zulu, the impact of our brief encounter sufficed.
My few hours in Khula felt like what I came to Africa to experience, though what had drawn me to the continent, was the lure of Safari. It was the perfect primer for two solid days of planned game drives in open wildlife vehicles at Hluhluwe and Mkhuze Game reserves. Hoping to glimpse the Big Five -- African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros and possibly a cheetah is an energy I’d always imagined to be nothing short of magnificent; I wasn’t wrong. And it wasn’t long into the first excursion before our guide spotted rhinoceros, giraffes and elephants.
Hluhluwe, with its rolling hills and open Savannah grasslands remains an incredibly scenic reserve as it is the oldest proclaimed game reserve in Africa and world renowned for its conservation of black and white rhino; in fact, the largest population of white rhinos in the world. Wide open terrain, Mkhuze is situated in Northern Zululand, a nearly 100,000-acre game reserve distinguished for its birding possibilities. This utopia with loop roads, hides and panoramic views, and thick dense bush, grasslands and pans gives you the feeling of being in the true Africa of yesterday. A collection of accommodation styled huts within the reserve where you can quietly observe unsuspecting white and black rhino, leopard, elephant, giraffe, nyala, wildebeest, hyenas and cheetah make for an extraordinarily up-close safari experience.
Days four and five were spent at the foot of Zululand’s Ghost Mountain in the namesake Ghost Mountain Inn. The intimate and chicly rustic 50-room hotel is ideal for being situated to explore the array of coastal and wildlife reserves. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate its scenic splendor for guided walks and boat cruises accompanied by rangers. A connection with the land in Africa was something I’d always imagined would leave a lasting impression on me. Each stop through KwaZulu-Natal was a complete elevation of that expectation.
Around me, the mountains rose up like a great coliseum of vibrant hues as I was headed next to Drakensberg to explore authentic bushman rock art. uKhahlamba Park in the Drakensberg Mountains boasts the greatest concentration of San Bushman rock art in South Africa, much of it in remote, supremely beautiful surroundings with paintings of animals like the revered eland antelope, human figures and therianthropes (a metamorphosis from human to animal) representing an otherwise lost culture. All of the Drakensberg paintings are on cave sandstone, a rock custom built for the purpose. It erodes in a way that produces weatherproof overhangs so the artist can work on the sandstone which is porous causing the paint applied to sink in and “grip.” The scenes depicted with pigmenting from blood, rock or soil rich in ferric oxide (rust), charcoal, melted fat, beeswax and heat from fire for color variation are dynamic and the features distinct.
Fordoun Hotel & Spa - Set on a former dairy farm, this quaint, refined hotel is just miles from the town of Nottingham Road and 33.6 km from Karkloof Nature Reserve. Skye Bistro is its fine dining restaurant set in the heart of the exquisite KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. From beautiful log burning fires in the winter evenings to watching the sunset from the veranda over the rolling lawns of Fordoun, Skye Bistro is the perfect place to have a relaxing sumptuous meal. Its light café style lunches capture the leisure of a bygone era.
Fairmont Zimbali Resort, situated inside the exclusive Zimbali Coastal Estate, is a tranquil retreat offering the utmost in stylish comfort and unrivalled service. Located 30 minutes from Durban, this beachfront North Coast hotel provides easy access to the province’s attractions. From King Shaka International Airport, the Fairmont Zimbali Resort is easily accessible.
Drakensberg Helicopter Flip - see parts of this spectacular world heritage site few others have seen amongst the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg mountains or the magnificent countryside of the Northern KwaZulu-Natal.