Saturday, 18 March 2017

Mexico San Cristobal de las Casas, Hotel Casavieja

San Cristobal de las Casas ©Solange Hando

In the highlands of Mexico south of the Yucatan peninsula, San Cristobal de las Casas is an attractive prosperous town with an impressive cathedral, stylish colonial buildings and quiet lanes, such as this one, where character hotels are tucked away behind traditional colourful façades.



Casavieja, Cool Arcade in Inner Courtyard ©Solange Hando

One would never guess what hides beyond the plain entrance of Casavieja, the 18th century building converted into a boutique hotel with rooms to suit a range of budgets. Character aside, the hotel top attraction is its central location in a quiet lane, just five minutes walk from the cathedral and downtown pedestrian area.



Standard Room in Casavieja ©Solange Hando

Guests can choose from 4 suites and 36 rooms furnished in colonial style with a few artefacts from the Chiapas region. Room size and facilities range from basic to luxurious according to price. 
Accommodation is on two levels around the inner courtyard. Heaters are provided in the rooms and free coffee is available in the lobby.



Quiet Corner in Casavieja ©Solange Hando

Brightened up with flowers and plants, reading areas and cosy corners are scattered around the building so guests can relax, meet friends and enjoy quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
It's a little haven and even conference guests appreciate the peace.




Cool escape in the Courtyard, Casavieja ©Solange Hando

The courtyard is definitely a bonus filled with flowers and greenery, decorative features and convivial seating in the shade. Warm colours befit the traditional character of the hotel.
The Casavieja has a well-stocked wine cellar and two restaurants serving Spanish and Chiapas specialities.



Casavieja, Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico ©Solange Hando





Saturday, 4 March 2017

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas, Cathedral ©Solange Hando

In the central highlands of southern Mexico, this stunning cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas draws locals and visitors alike from morning to night. With its warm colours and slender minaret-like turrets, it's the most striking legacy of colonial times in the ancient capital of the Chiapas state.



Weaving in Chiapas State ©Solange Hando

But alongside the Catholic faith, the indigenous culture is alive and well and the tourist market outside Santo Domingo's church is a great place to bargain for local craft. Chiapas is known for hand-made textiles -head for the villages to see weavers at work-, amber and jade but you will also find the usual assortment of tourist trinkets from hats and gloves to dolls or water bottles.



Southern Mexico Central Highlands ©Solange Hando

At 2,200 metres, Cristobal de las Casas nestles in a valley framed by pine-covered hills where streams,waterfalls and springs babble in fragrant greenery. Up in the mountains indigenous communities often live in isolation, following their own set of rules and even laws. 
Chiapas may be part of Mexico but as proved by its turbulent past and frequent unrest, the descendants of the Maya are their own boss and do not appreciate any kind of interference.


Market Day in San Juan Chamula ©Solange Hando

Up in the hills, roughly 10 km from San Critobal de las Casas,  the weekly market of San Juan Chamula attracts a fair number of visitors keen to enjoy the bright local colour and have a look in the unique temple-church. There, families who gather to pray sit around candles on a floor covered in pine needles; no pews or chairs, only indigenous gods and Catholic saints jostling side by side along the aisles.

As long as you are prepared to respect the rules, it is well worth a visit. No photos in the church or market except from one specific spot on the square. Don't try it on, you will be caught, shamed in public and unless your guide has untold patience and connections, you can say goodbye to your camera. Same applies to most of the of nearby villages.


Colonial Style, San Cristobal de las Casas ©Solange Hando

Back in town, the atmosphere is far more relaxed as you wander past elegant villas and cool arcades or head down the pedestrian street with its enticing restaurants and café-terrace, its food vendors and balloon sellers, giggling children and Maya women who do not shy away as long as you're prepared to bargain and buy.
On the town square, elders and weary-eyed tourists doze under the trees while the hypnotic notes of a traditional xylophone -played by three pairs of hands- drift in the evening air.



  San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile in the back lanes just minutes away, lovely character hotels hide among the colourful local dwellings which line the paved alleyways, heading straight as arrows towards the wooded highlands. 
Cristobal may be a city these days but it is still called 'the most magical village' and in the fresh mountain air, it truly feels like it.










Saturday, 18 February 2017

French Château in the Ardennes, Review Domaine du Faucon

Château Domaine du Faucon in French Ardennes ©Solange Hando

Ever dreamt of staying in a French château? Try this one in northern France, dating back originally  to the 14th century and now a four star hotel with gourmet restaurant and stable facilities.
You will find it in rural surroundings near the village of Donchéry, not far from Charleville-Mézières and just an hour from the illustrious wine cellars of Champagne.


Standard Room in the Chàteau ©Solange Hando

Domaine du Faucon has a total of 30 rooms spread through the castle and annexes. In this stylish boutique hotel, every room boasts an individual colour scheme and design. 
In a secluded annex, the top floor honeymoon suite comes in warm orangy-peach shades with fine drapes over the bed and a luxurious bathroom.


Cosy Corner at the Domaine ©Solange Hando

The hotel does not have a lift but staff will help with luggage. It is beautifully warm in winter and much of the charms lies in the small convivial salons where friends can enjoy a pre-dinner drink by a glowing fire. There are marble fireplaces and plenty of artefacts to admire.
The château has a small fitness centre and spa, well-kept lawns and facilities for wedding receptions.



Ready for a Dinner Party ©Solange Hando

Besides relaxation, the domaine prides itself in its gastronomy which guests can enjoy over a leisurely dinner or a Sunday brunch.
Savoury or sweet, the cuisine is based on seasonal local products, prepared and presented with an original twist, such as beetroot gaspacho with apple and cream, game with lentils, local cheese, pastries and wines to match.


Parkland at Domaine du Faucon ©Solange Hando

The château is set in wooded parklands with walking trails and gurgling streams while nearer to the house you can play tennis and golf cross, a game imported from New-Zealand and played with an oval ball and a net.






Saturday, 4 February 2017

Mexico, Cancun and Yucatan Highlights

Caribbean Beach in Cancun, Mexico ©Solange Hando

Tucked in the north-east corner of the Yucatan peninsula, Cancun enjoys a privileged location, Caribbean Sea on one side. lagoon on the other, and between them a thin strip of land where luxury hotels line pristine white sands sprinkled with swaying palms.

There are no private beaches in Mexico but many hotels have secured private access to the beach, so if you want to mix with the locals, head downtown, browse casual stalls and gleaming stores and enjoy some true Mexican fare.



Chichen Itza near Cancun ©Solange Hando

If you're looking for just one day trip from Cancun and a bit of culture, this is it, the amazing Maya and Toltec site of Chichen Itza set inland, half-way between the east and west coasts. The Kukulcan pyramid (above) is the most impressive monument but dozens more are scattered around from game courts, temples and shrines to the sacred well where the 'lucky' Mayas were sacrificed.

There is much talk of high priests and gods, sacred jaguars and snakes but it's pretty safe to wander around and bargain for silver trinkets, Maya masks  or colourful hammocks. Stalls are kept to the main alleyway and although Chichen Itza is a hugely popular site, it is so extensive it rarely feels crowded.


Tulum South of Cancun ©Solange Hando

While Chichen Itza is undoubtedly the most impressive site, Tulum has the best of both worlds: beach and ancient ruins. An easy drive from Cancun along the east coast, you discover the final retreat of the Mayas and the Toltecs, their successors, as they fled internal wars.

There are ruins to explore, including a temple to the God of the Wind but be prepared to share the site with beach lovers, cruise ship visitors and oversized iguanas.


Seafront Restaurants in Campeche, Yucatan ©Solange Hando

The Yucatan has some lovely resorts beyond Cancun such as this one, Campeche, nestling in the Gulf of Mexico with broad beach and quiet coves, thatched restaurants and a 5km long promenade dotted here and there with striking works of modern art.

The town has an attractive historic centre with pristine streets festooned in wrought iron balconies, flower pots and cottages in pastel colours from sky blue and mint green to yellow or ochre red. There are musical fountains and stylish colonial buildings beautifully lit up after dark.


Pelicans on the West Coast ©Solange Hando

Pelicans are frequent visitors along the coast, fabulous to watch as they dive from great heights, as fast as arrows, vanish underwater then emerge triumphant before rejoining the flock. See them, hear them and feel the vibes as they swoop around inches from your head.

Inland, look out for coati, members of the raccoon family, highly inquisitive, greedy and never taking 'no' for an answer. Snakes are rarely seen, even though Cancun means 'snakes nest'. That was
long before the hotels laid their claims to the land.


Golden Sunset in Cancun ©Solange Hando

Sunset over the lagoon, sunrise over the sea, you can't beat the amazing Cancun sky.











Saturday, 21 January 2017

Images of Venice, Perfect Valentine, Romantic Year round

Iconic Venice ©Solange Hando

Here's the heart of Venice, looking across the water to St Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace and the free-standing bell tower.



Venice Rialto Bridge ©Solange Hando

Rebuilt in the late 16th century, Rialto is the oldest bridge over the Grand Canal with rows of covered shops leading up to the central portico. The original bridge was made of wood.



The Grand Canal in Venice ©Solange Hando

It's 3.8 km long and up to 90m wide, lined with 170 buildings ranging from the 13th to the 18th century. Tightly-packed colourful façades dip their toes in the water.



St Mark's Square ©Solange Hando

Made up of two connecting piazza, this is the best known square in town, leading down to the canal past some of the finest buildings, the basilica, campanile and the irresistible café-terrace basking in the sun.



Gondolas at rest ©Solange Hando

However busy the city may be, there is no shortage of gondolas to explore the lagoon, from humble to luxurious crafts with plush cushions, Persian rugs and singing gondolier.



View from the Top of the Bell Tower ©Solange Hando

You can't beat the top of the bell tower for the most romantic view of Venice, red roofs, domes, canals and just a few of over 100 islands which make up the archipelago.



Venice Historical Regatta ©Solange Hando

Spring brings a joyful carnival and alluring masks, autumn brings the colourful Historical Regatta  with its dazzling pageant followed by the traditional race on the Grand Canal.











Saturday, 7 January 2017

Antigua Guatemala

La Antigua Guatemala ©Solange Hando

Here's a bird's eye view of Antigua from the hill of Santa Cruz, up 133 steps if your tuk-tuk can't make it to the top. In the highlands of Guatemala, Antigua is a convenient stop on the way to Tikal  or Lake Atitlan.
This colourful city is framed by three volcanoes approaching 4,000 metres.The massive Water Volcano (above) has not caused any disasters in modern times but Acatenango, the highest, erupted in 1972. Most awesome however is the Fire Volcano which frequently puffs out gases and fumes from the top and side vent. Its last eruption was in 2012.



Mr Choc, Come in and Taste ©Solange Hando

Love chocolate? Guatemala is the place, and especially Antigua with wonderful hand-crafted chocolates made from local beans and sold along the lanes and in the coffee shops. Delicious!
For a healthy treat, try fresh tropical fruit with lashings of yogurt or a scrumptious salad topped with a succulent over-sized avocado.



Colourful Maya Textiles ©Solange Hando

Shopping is pretty good in Antigua. Top of the range are the brightly-coloured Maya textiles found in the central market alongside other items, mugs, dolls, pots and more. It's a great place to wander around and try your bargaining skills, feeling safer than you would do in Guatemala City, the modern capital not so far away. 



Santa Catalina Archway, Antigua ©Solange Hando

Beautifully restored after successive earthquakes and eruptions, this former capital truly deserves its place on the Unesco list.Colourful houses, flower-draped balconies, pristine lanes and a flurry of elegant buildings in Spanish-Baroque style sprinkled with colonial churches.




Puzzled Resident, Antigua Guatemala©Solange Hando

With a population of just 50,0000, Antigua Guatemala has a few surprises in store besides its listed buildings. Relax under the trees on the central square, pop into the jade museum and see 25 shades of green and the recently discovered 'lavender' jade, watch weavers at work in the grounds of Santo Domingo and stare back at a red macaw in a tropical garden.



Local Transport in Antigua Guatemala ©Solange Hando

Then try the local transport, as pictured above, or the more eye-catching tourist version with a purple roof, unless you prefer the ubiquitous tuk-tuk but when the school bus rattles down the lane, don't expect a lift, just make do with waving to the kids.



Springtime in Antigua Guatemala ©Solange Hando








Saturday, 17 December 2016

Mexico, Palenque, Nututun Hotel by the Chacamax River

Nututun Hotel, Palenque ©Solange Hando

On the edge of the jungle, Nututun claims a quiet riverside location, just a five minute drive from Palenque, one of the great archaeological sites in Mexico. After a hot day exploring the Maya ruins, the Nututun pool complete with jacuzzi is sure to be a welcome sight.

History aside, Nututun is just an hour away from the beautiful Agua Azul  waterfalls, one of the most scenic spots in the Mexican state of Chiapas.



Reception Area, Nututun ©Solange Hando


The thatched open-sided reception doubles up as lounge area close to the river, with accommodation on one side and on the other, the Don Manuel restaurant with balcony overlooking the water.
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Besides the swimming pool and bar, Nututun amenities include a spa for beauty treatments, massage, wrap and Aztec sauna. There's also a gift shop and camping area.


Lush Garden, Nututun near Palenque ©Solange Hando

Hotel accommodation is in bungalows and low rise buildings scattered in spacious grounds among palms, hedges and lawns.
It's only a few steps to the river where guests can kayak or swim. There, away from it all, little disturbs the peace but the occasional call of howler monkeys or crickets after dark.




Twin Room at the Nututun ©Solange Hando

The Nututun hotel has 74 rooms from standard (up to 4 guests) to suites, furnished in traditional style with warm bedding and cool walls. Rooms are comfortable and spacious with all modern amenities, including telephone and TV, while suites also have a minibar, large shower room and bath tub.
Rooms have garden or pool view, some with private terrace. Free WiFi is available in public areas.




Dawn on the Chacamax River ©Solange Hando

At breakfast time, early  guests can watch the sun rise all pink and gold over the water as myriad tropical birds welcome the new day.