Friday, August 8, 2014

Birchbox: Efficient Sampling or Wasteful?

Nearly a year ago, a good friend gifted me an annual subscription to Birchbox, a monthly beauty sampling service that delivers a mini-collection of girlish goods to my doorstep. (I've got fabulous friends, I know.)

In case you haven't noticed, the subscription-box craze has taken over. Clever companies lure in consumers with first-one-free deals and after a quickie survey, they'll sort through their gift closet and send shoppers a customized sampling each month.

Typically, my boxes include sample-sizes of body goops (lotions and sunscreens), facial cleansers (scrubs and soaps), fragrances (perfect for me to tote while traveling) and the occasional nail polish or lip color. Sometimes they hit the mark, other times it feels like a major let down. In the top photo, you can see what treats were delivered for August. A gritty, green face scrub that I liked at first use, perfume, hand moisturizer, BB cream and a fat little lip lube in a magenta-ish hue that I was sure I’d never, ever wear.

And, well, here’s the interesting part. Before bed, I smoothed on the Laqa & Co. lip lube and to my surprise, loved it. The next day, I wore it into work and who knows, maybe I’ll pick up a full-size stick if I continue to dig the pop of purple. That’s the beauty of a beauty box – it slowly and slyly opens you up to new products that you may have never come across on your own.

Now, I don’t know that Birchbox is worth it's $110 annual pricetag, but… Tell me, have you tried – and do you love – subscription services like Birchbox or their eco-friendly counterparts like Graze (healthy snacks; I’ve tried this one too), Conscious Box (green goods), or Umba Box (handcrafted gifts; which I’ve also been gifted in the past)?

And, more importantly, do you find them to be a slippery slope into gimmicky consumerism - or an efficient way to sample products custom chosen for you, rather than leave or not use a full-sized product that you may not love?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Snapshot: Soaking Up the #Summer Days

Winter in Michigan is no joke, which is why it's completely necessary to soak up every sweet summer day that arrives. Later this month, I'll be sharing details of one of the state's northernmost gems - the Inn at Bay Harbor. Here's a peek at a not-so-far away pier that was begging for a bit of Instagram love.

Itty Bitty Eco: Unexpected Tom's Toiletries

It's the little things... and this unexpected eco toiletry at the Apple Tree Inn in Bay Harbor, Mich. made my smile tonight. Of course, I had already packed my own Tom's toothpaste, but don't think for a second that I didn't stuff this mini into my makeup case, too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hotel Review: Virginia's Salamander Resort & Spa

The open-to-guests stables at Salamander Resort

Let me start with this: Yoga on Horseback.

I stared at the Fitness Class calendar on the dark wood desk in my guestroom, somewhat perplexed and somewhat intrigued. I wish that I could have woken at the crack of dawn to partake in the course ($150 per person; 30 minutes) - if only to describe the certain hilarity of my horseback skills - but instead, I achieved zen with an extra hour of sleep.

Part resort, part spa, and part equestrian center, the new Salamander Resort & Spa is a stately escape tucked in the outskirt of Middleburg, Virginia that's registered to become one of the country's first LEED certified "resorts." Just a half-an-hour drive from Dulles International Airport, the resort, situated on 340 acres, begins at the end of a long, winding driveway a short distance (or long walk) from the historic downtown.

I'm nursing a cocktail when I ask the bartender how the property, just now celebrating its first anniversary, came to be. He tells me that cable channel BET co-founder, Sheila Johnson, is the brains behind the resort. Then, a fellow traveler - a local guy - pipes in to share that construction of the 168-room resort caused a bit of a controversy in the sleepy town. It's at that moment that the lack of property signage, and the fact that I began to suspect my taxi driver was abducting me, all made sense. Strolling down Main Street, you'd never know that a luxury wellness center is welcoming nationwide guests just a few blocks away. The sedated property is quiet in just the way you'd hope it to be, whether you're a weary traveler or a third-generation Middleburg-an? -er? -ler?

Either way, once you step inside the resort and minutes later, settle into your guestroom, you'll forget everything except for the clawfoot soaking tub that's whispering your name. A spacious bathroom, adorned with soft robes, is steps from a plush multi-purpose space, including a comfortable bed, convenient sectional sofa, table and chairs, desk, and in my case, a fireplace. A heavy glass door (that cannot be propped open, one of my only gripes), leads to a small balcony with two chairs. My guess is that these quick to close doors are a solution to the area's many buzzing flies, which seem to show up - a bit irritatingly - in and outside of the resort.

The space is dreamy. And you haven't even gotten to the spa yet, which boasts treatments like the Rider's Relief massage, as well as several chic relaxation areas and a beckoning outdoor infinity pool.

Miles of biking, hiking and horseriding trails ripple across the foothills of the Blue Ride Mountains, making the resort an ideal escape for city dwellers that simply want some peace, quiet and luxury.

Mid-week rooms start at $295 per night. More details at

Now, a peek inside the Salamander Resort: 

Guestrooms were spacious and comfortable with the slightest equestrian theme

A soaking tub and separate shower makes this dual-sink bath perfect for two

Ignore my bulky luggage; here's a broad view of the room

A patio provides a perfect perch for sipping drinks as the sun sets

Bonfires and marshmallows; need I say more?

Equestrian themed ironwork on each balcony is the sort of touch you see throughout
Pick your passion...
The culinary garden is a short walk away, on the path toward the stables

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where Am I Now? Here's a Hint...

It's just a sneak peek, but the equestrian vibes on this bedding might provide a clue as to where I'm laying my head this week. Outside my balcony, I spy rolling Virginia hills and a luxe infinity pool.

I'll be sharing full details on this beautiful new resort within a week. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Modern Look at Maui (LEED)

Whose up for dining al fresco at this luxe Maui property?

When it comes to Hawaii, I admit that I'm partial to Maui. Ever since twisting along the hairpin turns of the Highway to Hana, I've dreamt of returning to that sleepy town and (finally) partaking in the morning yoga classes - beachside, of course.

It wasn't until I fell upon this beauty - the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort - that I began to broaden my Maui mindset. The hotel's city-chic architecture lets the landscape do the talking, and in that same vein, the property's LEED Silver certification makes clear the focus on eco friendliness.

I'd rattle off the impressive green features to you if I thought that it'd matter, but laying your eyes on these photos should do the trick. Well, that, and the 15 acres of sandy beachfront.

For full details on the nearly 300-room hotel (a part of Hyatt group), visit the property's environmental recap and click around the website.

The sleek hotel lobby gives off low-laying, minimalistic vibes

Guestrooms are decorated in clean lines using island materials

The property from a bird's eye angle

Snapshots: Icefield Parkway, Banff National Park

Two more photos (for now) from our recent Banff adventure. Here, near the end of our drive down the Icefield Parkway highway, we stopped for an ice truck adventure on one of the area's remaining glaciers. Part of Explore Rockies' "Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure," the experience was a tad pricey (and not nearly my favorite part of the trip), but if you've never been this close to a glacier before, it is pretty cool to see. And, in case you're wondering, the mammoth ice trucks are built to traverse the glaciers without damaging or destroying them.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Stuff of Dreams: Banff's Lake Louise

A glacial beauty: Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada
If a photo is worth a thousand words, I should just shut up now.

This photographic deliciousness is brought to you courtesy of the Canadian Rockies, where I recently returned from checking the top-box on my must-visit list.

For years, I’ve been lustily googling the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which is tucked in Alberta, Canada’s Banff National Park, in a twisted sort of tourism foreplay. I knew that someday I’d make my way to this decidedly rugged northern destination, but I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to arrive so soon.

As often happens with spontaneous travel plans, it took a life-altering, sinkhole of emotion to inspire this trip. It was a getaway in the truest sense – a plea to the universe to instill once more a sense of wonder and goodness in me – which it helped to do, incredibly.

If you’re looking to wander, if you’re looking to settle into a satiated state of awe, if you’re looking to realize your smallness, this is the place.

When to go:
Of Lake Louise’s roughly four million annual visitors, approximately half arrive within the months of July and August. The park will be busy, but the warm(er) temperatures and sun make the high season worth the expense and occasional crowds.

How to get there:
We flew into Calgary, Alberta, not realizing that it was the weekend of the iconic Calgary Stampede (holy cowboy boots), before renting a subcompact for the hour-and-a-half drive into Banff National Park.

Where to stay:
Because most of our trip was based at Lake Louise, we stayed at the only hotel on the water—the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We went fancy and booked Fairmont Gold rooms, located on the seventh floor, and completely enjoyed the complimentary breakfasts (banana-date smoothie, anyone?), happy hour hor du’evres and private concierge services. Having acknowledged that a stay at this hotel would be a pretty penny no matter what, we clearly decided to indulge. Our room, 757, had a partial view of the lake, a spacious space with king bed and an inviting bathroom with separate soaking tub and large shower.

Read about Fairmont Lake Louise's 5-Green-Key rating and green initiatives here.

(As a side note, we met a very helpful Banff local, Tanya, during our Minneapolis layover, who owns the Kicking Horse Hostel in nearby Golden. While our travels didn’t take us her way, I can recommend her accommodations as warm and hospitable if they’re anything like her personality. )

Where to eat:
Our first meal was a picnic lunch compiled at Lake Louise village’s Samson Mall (I use the term “mall” very loosely here) grocer. Rice crackers, cheese, fruit and wine was all that we needed.

At the Fairmont, we dined at the Fairview Restaurant, an upscale option with stunning windows overlooking the lake (think beef tenderloin, veal and duck) the more causal Lakeside Restaurant (tapas, cocktails and a lovely $89 seafood tower), as well as the Glacier Saloon (actually, we headed here for drinks). One evening, we picked up pre-made sandwiches and hummus at the 24-hour hotel deli.

Naturally, we purchased a few bottles on wine to bring along at a liquor store in Calgary before heading into the price-hiked Rockies.

What to do:
We were content to sit and stare at the lake, and that’s actually what we did for a large percentage of our trip. (With drink in hand, of course.) But equally stunning as Lake Louise was Moraine Lake, located off the same exit, where we canoed (cheaper - $40 without any stringent time watching – and far less crowded than at Lake Louise) and enjoyed our picnic lunch.

At Lake Louise, we also canoed ($45 per half hour and $55 per hour, with an additional hour’s fee if you returned five minutes late), but especially enjoyed hiking to the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse, which took roughly 2.5 hours to ascend to, and an hour and a half to descend from. At the teahouse, we relaxed with Banff Tea Co.’s “cherry festival” green tea, which you can purchase as Kyoto Cherry Blossom Festival Green Tea in the company’s Banff store, and warm biscuits. The no-electricity teahouse was bustling when we arrived, considering its location in, ahem, the middle of nowhere, but relaxing on their narrow patio tables was my favorite experience of the trip. (Thank goodness, they accept Visa and MasterCard.)

The Lake Louise gondola is an option for folks wanting a look at wildlife. We talked to several people that had spotted grizzlies on their visit. The gondola in Banff, an hour or so away, was better for scenic vistas.

On our last day, we drove Icefields Parkway, the highway toward Jasper National Park, which offered stunning views of glacier-tipped mountains and Caribbean-blue lakes. We paid $50 each to tour a glacier on an ice truck with tour company Explore Rockies, which may be worthwhile if you’ve never been atop a glacier before. (If you have, please realize that all glaciers look the same and save your money.)

Have you visited Lake Louise? If so, please share details on any other area lodging in the comments. 

Passing the city of Banff, inside Banff National Park

Canoeing Moraine Lake on our first day

iPhone snaps along the scenic drive, naturally

Waiting in line -  ahem - to canoe Lake Louise

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in the distance

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Turning Dusty Tech Gear into Green... Cash

There’s something about the long days of summer, with windows propped open and ceiling fan whirring, that leave me feeling a bit claustrophobic indoors. My solution, year after year, is to de-clutter like nobody’s business, one-upping my spring cleaning by filling bags of donated clothing, peddling my “like new” wares on eBay and recycling the massive stacks of deemed-indispensable magazines that have accumulated over the past 12 months.

Interestingly, my dusty Blackberry and iPod - long without subscription services and years from fully charged – continue to take up real estate in the depths of my desk. Meaning, while I’m playing auction photographer with my old Coach handbags, there’s cold, hard cash just chillin’ in the other room, requiring little more than a trek to the nearest ecoATM before it turns, Cinderella-style, into more stash for my travel fund. (Up to $260 per device, in fact.)

How likely is it that some outdated tech gear is being held hostage in your home? I’m going to guess pretty likely, since roughly 396 million devices are expected to be inactive or idle by the end of this year… with a devastatingly low 80 million making it to a recycling program.

If you haven’t yet, consider collecting your used tech gadgets for a quick buck today. Easier than digging spare change out of the couch cushions, this tactic may actually garner you a good return. And even better than the moolah, say some, is the fact that ecoATMs has kept 500,000 lbs of electronic devices – that’s three space shuttles worth – out of landfills.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pay-to-Plant at St. Regis' Princeville Property

Here's an interesting take on eco initiatives - pay-to-plant opportunities offered at St. Regis Princeville.

Not unlike the star-naming certificates peddled by astronomical societies in years past, which came at a hefty price, tourism companies are now offering the chance to plant a rare native canopy tree within Limahuli Garden's forest restoration preserve. The tree planting has a price tag of $100, but guests are gifted with a certificate to commemorate the special occasion.

Would you lay down a Benjamin to plant roots in Princeville? My personal preference would be to help plant trees in a restoration forest for free via a voluntourism project... or to purchase and plant a tree in my own backyard in honor of a memorable moment.

More info from St. Regis on the Limahuli Garden...
Over the past 100 years the Lower Preserve has seen a major decline in the population of native plants, primarily due to the introduction of feral cattle in the late 1800s. Ten years ago, in an effort to restore this area to a more natural state, Limahuli Garden began an aggressive plant restoration project, which garnered national recognition.The forests in the mountains above Hanalei contain some of the rarest plants and birds on the face of the earth and with the gift of green initiative The St. Regis Princeville Resort also furthers its commitment to protecting the precious biodiversity that exists on Kaua’i. The resort property is an ardent supporter of the work of Limahuli Garden and Preserve.
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