Close Encounters

Volcanoes. Labor strikes. Soaring fares. The once-friendly skies sure seem a lot less genial these days.

Volcanoes. Labor strikes. Soaring fares. The once-friendly skies sure seem a lot less genial these days.

Not to discredit some of my favorite air carriers, many of which offer excellent service and a whole bunch of perks for my travels abroad, but lately it’s just not so breezy booking a plane ticket and nervously hoping you’ll divert a delay, price hike or looming ash cloud. Fortunately we Californians, though distant from our friends in Europe, Asia and Africa, have a wealth of stunning getaways at our fingertips, both stateside and with our neighbors. I hear the word “staycation” floating around quite a bit, a practical solution for recession-conscious travelers looking for amusements closer to home. While I certainly see the value in this, for the important reasons of time, resources and convenience, my idea of a quick getaway is perhaps a little more sexy than, say, a weekend at Disneyland. Here are three incredible properties, all within three hours by car or plane, which should go to the top of your travel itinerary.

No. 1

Cash out: A spa escape in Abu Dhabi
Check out: Amangiri, Canyon Point Utah

Nestled against the sculpted canyons and plateaus of Utah’s southwest corner, near the Four Corners and the Escalante National Monument, Amangiri (meaning “peaceful mountain”) beacons like a lone oasis in a vast and breathtaking landscape. The effect is absolutely stunning. It comes as no surprise that the much-lauded Aman Resort Group’s newest property is already garnering a number of media awards, from design recognition to overall excellence.

Design is certainly a key element to the flow of Amangiri, where neutral walls and appropriate proportions blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings. And despite the grand backdrop, the resort is surprisingly intimate. A central pavilion acts as a hub, housing the dining room and cellar in addition to other communal environment. Perhaps the most popular of these is the main swimming pool, awash with loungers and desert minimalism.

Two accommodation wings spring from this centerpiece, boasting 34 suites with desert views and some with private pools and terraces. The signature Aman spa is an indoor/outdoor adventure in total relaxation. A series of pavilions invite you to indulge in unique treatments, from misty offerings of the water pavilion to the meditative journey within the flotation pavilion.

Though you may find it difficult to pry yourself from the pleasures of the resort, you are encouraged to take advantage of the region’s natural treasures — by boat, by rock, by canoe, you name it. Hot air ballooning over the mesa? Yes, please. Visit

No. 2

Cash out: A villa rental in the Italian countryside
Check out: The Grand Del Mar, San Diego

Time spent at the Grand Del Mar is not unlike a visit to an affluent friend’s glorious villa in the heart of Tuscany. Doesn’t everyone have one of those? (I can dream.) And while the two-year-old resort is grand, expanding well beyond a 249-room centerpiece building to include an expansive golf course, private villas, a five-star restaurant and more, you do feel like a special guest at some marvelous Mediterranean estate, even if the freeway is hidden out of view less than a mile away. Much of this can be accredited to the thoughtful design, inspired by the indelible creations of 1920s architect Addison Mizner. This integration of structure, décor and landscape also boasts a rich combination of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Moroccan influences. From the minute you pull up to the driveway rotunda, prepare yourself to be fully transported into old-world elegance mixed with new-world luxury.

The spa is a 21,000-square-foot facility with gorgeous club-style locker rooms and wonderful wet rooms. I can only speak for the one treatment I enjoyed, but from what I hear, they are all amazing. Aptly named the Renaissance, this mixture of mineral mud, Swiss shower and relaxing massage aimed to revive my senses. Mission accomplished. I also recommend one (or three) of the resort’s outdoor activities. From the high-tech services at the golf club, which enjoys a magnificent Tom Fazio-designed course, to a canyon walk with a passionate naturalist guide, to tennis lessons with a pro, there are plenty of reasons to take advantage of the entire property.

Addison, the signature restaurant on the property, is also one of the premier dining experiences in San Diego, and California for that matter. Executive Chef William Bradley served us an impeccable four-course meal, each plate competing for the title of “most delicious.” The food was creative, beautifully plated, often witty and, best of all, absolutely scrumptious. Jesse Rodriquez, the wine director, also poured some fabulous bottles, from crisp bubbly to complex reds and everything in between. The elegant ambiance and staff were likewise highlights of the evening, both a glowing standard throughout this exceptional resort. Visit the

No. 3

Cash out: An island retreat in Maldives
Check out: The St. Regis Punta Mita

Hidden away in a private, gated community about 50 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta International Airport along the beautiful Riviera Nayarit, the St. Regis Punta Mita enchants from sparkling beginning to bittersweet end.

At arrival, guest are immediately greeted by an exceptionally warm staff and treated to a sunset champagne ceremony, where a saber is used to slice off the top of the bottle. A dynamic start, and we had yet to even see our room — which turned out to be a spacious, tile-floored, private villa with a bathroom the size of some hotel rooms, including a tub and both indoor and outdoor showers. Our butler, a great fella by name of Joachim, gave us the rundown of the resort and took care of every little detail during our stay, including my favorite — a morning wake-up call accompanied by tea, coffee and Madeleine cookies.

The Raméde Spa, exclusive to St. Regis, takes full advantage of the warm climate with an indoor/outdoor design. Amenities and treatments abound, including a personalized custom massage option. Additionally, there are two pools, beach access, tennis club, golf courses, an exercise room and much more.

The resort offers three dining locations, from the Mexican-influenced Las Marietas where we enjoyed breakfast every morning, to the California-inspired Sea Breeze, to the formal Carolinas. Or you can order in like we did and experience a romantic dinner in the private setting of your own patio. Recommended. Visit


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