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Synthwave San Francisco! Turbo Drive retrowave club, design Hotel Clift by Philippe Starck, Alexander’s Steakhouse.

dragon skirt, print all over me gentlethrills

Fire and brimstone… Talk about a warm welcome back to San Francisco!

I recently took a weekend trip to see some of my favorite ghouls. Since I’m currently all about retrowave music, this was also the perfect excuse to check out SF’s synthwave party scene. 

(I put together a “Kung Fury” outfit with this Dragon midi skirt from Print All Over Me, designed by gentlethrills. This dramatic fireplace is in the lobby of Clift Hotel, where I stayed.)

danger synthwave musician artist dj

San Francisco has long been a hub for subcultures: from the Beatniks to the hippies and onward. Right now, it’s the site of the longest-running and best synthwave party on the planet, Turbo Drive.

Keep reading for a firsthand report of the outrun fun, featuring a performance by French artist Danger (above!)

aurum jewelry iceland necklace, red beret

First, let me introduce you to my favorite new necklace — this minimal choker from Aurum by Guðbjörg. They’re an Icelandic jewelry designer, handcrafting every piece from silver from their workshop in Reykjavík.

My necklace is from the Aurum Asterias collection, which is inspired by the country’s unique, dark ocean waves. I love this design because it brings back fond memories of when I visited the black sand beaches of Iceland.

aurum by guðbjörg jewellery asterias choker necklace

As you know, I’m all about supporting independent designers that produce exquisite pieces. Aurum melds traditional craftsmanship with modern design, and prioritizes sustainability with fair-trade materials and environmentally friendly packaging.

For a special piece, I encourage you to view their collections that include rings, bracelets, earrings and other accessories.

See more from Aurum below:

ian schrager hotel clift san francisco

I had fun staying at San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, which was designed by Philippe Starck (one of my favorite modern furniture/interiors designers) and Ian Schrager (co-founder of the legendary NY nightclub Studio 54). 

Monkeying around is encouraged, in this hip hotel. Guests can sit on Starck’s Big Arm Chair and take photos… that is, if they can manage to clamor up there! (Images by Lauren Levitt).

clift hotel chair collection chairs

Clift Hotel San Francisco has a mind-bending lobby, featuring a collection of avantgarde chairs. There are seats designed by Ray and Charles Eames, a coffee table by Salvador Dali, and a surreal stool by Roberto Matta who was inspired by René Magritte. (Remember when I went to his surrealist museum in Belgium?).

clift hotel starck chairs

Clift San Francisco is part of Morgans Hotel Group, hence the eclectic, boutique luxury vibe of the space.

Philippe Starck bar hotel san francisco

We had cocktails in Clift’s historic Redwood Room; legend says it was carved from the wood of a single redwood tree. The bar has been restored by Starck, with an enormous etched glass bar and plasma TV screens that broadcast digital art.

(I’ll show you more from the hotel further down… but now, it’s time to party.)

san francisco goths, synthwave parties

Many of my friends and I are currently loving the neo-80s sounds of synthwave: think Stranger Things and John Carpenter. I’ve long wanted to attend Turbo Drive, the first and only San Francisco dance club dedicated to retrowave / outrun.

As the party describes it: “This is the soundtrack for carefree drives along the beach, Day-Glo legwarmer aerobics, sunsets over laser grids, outrunning the cops in a cyberpunk dystopia, falling in love with your first robot crush, and occasionally summoning the unholy forces from the depths with a keytar.”

turbo drive club night retrowave outrun

Turbo Drive takes place regularly in the space about DNA Lounge. I’m hanging with Meikee Magnetic in the DJ booth; he runs the party with Danny Delorean and Devon Dossett. (They also do other events around the city, including Bootie SF and Neon Black).

The club’s playlist is space-synth perfection. The DJs spin Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, Dance with the Dead, Com Truise, Gost, Robert Parker… the soundtrack of night-driving in space.

danger synthwave music live concert

Then, Danger took the stage! The French musician electrified the crowd with his glowing eyes, behind a mask reminiscent of Daft Punk or Aural Vampire’s Raveman.

Danger had tremendous energy throughout his set, never letting up on the pounding hyperdrive. He drew in a packed room, and by the end, everyone was headbanging hard to the retro-futuristic sounds of the 80s.

synthwave glowing masks bags fashion

Thanks to Meikee for inviting me to Turbo Drive. It was great to catch up with friends, and experience this intergalactic club scene. If you come to San Fran, hopefully you too can check one of their synthwave events. 

hotel clift san francisco design hotel

Here’s another look at my “Kung Fury” outfit of the day. I’m constantly wearing this 90s-style red beret by Mary Wyatt London.

My Dragon midi skirt is from Print All Over Me, which lets you print custom designs on 200 high-quality templates. You can also order designs by top artists; my skirt is by gentlethrills.

I paired it with shoes by Le Babe, a leather crop top by Erbert Chong, and faux fur jacket by Iron Fist.

boutique hotel suite san fran

San Francisco’s Hotel Clift is made for photo-shooting. Lauren and I got access to one of the mod suites, with high ceilings and a dining room with furniture designed by Philippe Starck.

luxury art hotel san francisco

Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. (As you can see, PAOM skirt is double-sided!)

The suite at Clift San Francisco is a study in sumptuous textures. Silk, leather, velvet, chrome and Venetian Murano glass.

le babe high heel shoes

The relaxed opulence fit with my embroidered high heel shoes by Le Babe. (More of their designs featured below:)

san francisco design hotel starck

One of my friends rented a Clift suite for a birthday party. This would also be a fabulous spot to ring in the New Year, as it’s centrally located in downtown San Fran.

latex black cat catwoman costume

Lauren’s black latex dress and cat mask matched the playful energy of the hotel. (On each level, you’ll find a big circular mirror and these reflective chairs).

lavender pastel purple staircase

Don’t miss out on the 16th floor, featuring this lavender spiral staircase and glass lights.

latex french maid black dress

At an art hotel like The Clift, adventure awaits… Shout-out to the staff for welcoming us here, and their kind comments on our various outfits!

alex streeter black angel heart ring

On our first night, I enjoyed a brilliant meal at Alexander’s Steakhouse with Dr John Skutlin, who was in town to speak at a University of San Francisco conference about tattoo culture in Asia. He says, “Alexander’s elegant and sophisticated interior and warm ambient lighting set the mood for an evening of gastronomic delights guided by their expert staff.” 

The restaurant is a traditional steak house, yet they innovate with fusion dishes and creative cocktails. My gin curry cocktail above is a perfect example; decorated with edible flowers, this Indian inspired drink is wonderfully refreshing.

(John and I are wearing rings by Alex Streeter, our favorite jewelry designer. The legendary silversmith created the Angel Heart Ring, which was memorialized in the movie starring Robert De Niro as Lucifer. This pentagram design comes in several variations; John’s ring has two silver devils on the side. I’m wearing Alex Streeter’s Ouroboros and Bone Claw rings.”)

hamachi shooter shots alexander steakhouse

John continues, “Of course, steak is the name of the game, but before our massive cuts of beef we were treated to hon Hamachi “shots” – a line of shotglasses each filled with avocado, serrano, cilantro, and of course raw yellowtail, all topped off with a splash of yuzu soy sauce for a refreshing aperitif.”

The server quipped that we could throw back a dozen of these and still want more… as you can see from my expression, he was correct! Other restaurants have copied this dish, but Alexander’s hamachi shots are the original ones.

san francisco steak house cocktails

“Might I say that I’m Old Fashioned?” Our server brought us an extensive wine and cocktail list to peruse.

John says, “The libations were almost too numerous to choose from, but the double rye Manhattan was perfectly balanced between the vermouth and the heavy dose of rye. Everyone knows about aging wine and whiskey, but cocktails can be mixed and then aged as well, allowing the ingredients to fuse together in subtle and surprising ways, as I found with the aged Rob Roy cocktail Alexander’s served up.”

alexander's steakhouse review san francisco

Alexander’s Steakhouse has a meticulously curated beef program, highlighting small farms from the US, Australia, and Japan. They are also one of the only restaurants in the US certified to serve authentic Kobe beef. 

In John’s words, “The star of the show was the steak. Wagyu Japanese beef has become a household name in the US, but here we found a menu with rare and intriguing selections, including Hokkaido privately farmed beef from cattle raised in below freezing temperatures, and extremely limited olive-fed beef from Shodoshima Island in Kagawa, Japan.”

wagyu kobe steak beef alexander's

Our server recommended the aged T-bone, which John is cutting into. The meat was tender and juicy, and at a perfect medium rare: total umami. We accompanied it with sides of wild mushrooms and mashed potatoes, all beautifully prepared and not too heavy.

At the bottom, you can see the Hidagyu from Gifu Prefecture that we sampled. John raves, “It was richly marbled, a hallmark of Wagyu beef, and practically melted in our mouths. The beef was served with what can only be described as a “flight” of twelve different salts from around the world, some smoky, some almost sweet. Each brought out a new dimension of flavor from the meat.”

bulgari serpenti metallic wrap bracelet

The staff impressed us with their knowledge, and treated us with little extras such as a splash of red wine to pair with the steaks. They also created special cocktails for us based on our favorite tastes — mine had yuzu in it, and was spot on!

(Closeup on my Alex Streeter ring and Bulgari Serpenti metallic bracelet.)

alex streeter pentagram ring

We ended with a warm, gooey souffle and lemon poppy cake. Fresh out of the oven and not overly sweet; exactly how I like my desserts.

Alexander’s Steakhouse was a five-star experience, all around. The dishes, drinks, atmosphere and especially the service deserve the highest rating. For a special night out or celebration in San Francisco, I’d book a table at Alexander’s without hesitation.

designer chairs furniture clift hotel

More to come from San Francisco — including shopping at occult shops, and the Death Guild Goth party!

It was such a treat to reunite with friends that I met in Tokyo, over 10 years ago! I’m sure you recognize them from this blog over the years. Have you ever had a reunion like ours?

Casa de Campo Villas: Caribbean luxury vacation rentals! Catalina Island, Minitas beach, spa & resort activities.

casa de campo villas rentals

Coming at you… from my rock star villa in the Dominican Republic! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move in.

In my first post, I introduced you to the elegant Casa de Campo resort. We’ll kick things up yet another level: with a look at their tropical villas for rent, and activities including skeet shooting and horseback riding!

catalina island caribbean day trip

We’ll also bask in the white sand and waves of Minitas Beach and Catalina Island, aka paradise on Earth.

casa de campo la romana vacation rentals

Casa de Campo is in located in La Romana, which is considered the most exclusive and beautiful area in the country. Quite a few celebrities own mansions or vacation here regularly; perhaps you might recognize the names Drake, Beyonce, J-Lo, A-Rod, Jay-Z.

When you step into this backyard of dreams, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it’s obvious why this is an A-list destination.

jlo villa home dominican republic

Casa de Campo has multiple Oceanfront Villas available for rent. They each have bright bedrooms filled with modern decor, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.

The star of the show, however, is the long outdoor pool flanked by a luxurious gazebo. 

luxury cabana caribbean

I could laze in this open-air lounge all day, reading a sci-fi novel. The space is airy thanks to the peaked roof and ceiling fans.

CDC’s villas are decorated in muted Caribbean colors, which match the elegant natural surroundings. The wicker furniture is accentuated by local crafts and glasswork.

jawbreaker clothing london fashion

OOTD: I’m wearing a rose tank top by Jawbreaker London, sunglasses by House of Harlow, and black platform velvet sandals by Le Babe. (Shop more styles by Le Babe shoes with a click below:)

dominican republic oceanfront villa pool

Photographer Molly Weingart and I daydreamed about living here in style.

As villa guests, we’d have access to maid and butler services, and a culinary staff that prepares daily breakfast in the kitchen.

casa campo vacation rental homes

The most difficult decision you’d have to make is whether to dip into the swimming pool, the Caribbean sea…

dominican republic celebrity homes

Or the pod-like hot tub next to the bedroom patio.

casa campos villas for rent

We’d never get bored indoors, with these pop-modern rooms. The villas are equipped with a sauna, full gym, and private cinema with theater seating.

dominican republic luxury villa rental

“Scarface” vibes, in the central living room that is set up to entertain guests.

casa campo resort private villas

Molly and I loved the artistic details that make each villa unique. This handcrafted mahogany bench and rainbow canvas formed the perfect photo backdrop.

celebrity 5-star vacations caribbean

Casa de Campo makes the most of the Dominican Republic’s tropical beauty. They also offer Garden Villas for rent, with lush natural surroundings as well as a swimming pool.

famous people homes dominican

Although you’ll feel like a millionaire, the villa rentals are actually quite affordable compared to others in the area (especially when split among a group of friends). Many guests rent a villa for Christmas and New Year’s, hen getaways, or other occasions.

(If these photos make you keen to move in, there’s more info on Casa de Campo’s site.)

travel blogger dominican republic press trip

As guests of the resort, we had full access to “fun in the sun” activities — ranging from water sports to outdoor massages. Since Casa de Campo is a huge resort (at 7000 acres), we never ran out of options for activities, many of which are included in the package experience.

minitas beach boat rentals, kayaks

The Dominican Republic is known for its pristine beaches. One of the best is Playa Minitas, Casa de Campo’s private beach. We drove here in our personal golf cart, and found ourselves on a quiet stretch of soft white sand.

At Minitas Beach, guests can try activities like snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding or windsurfing in these gentle waves.

beach ocean minitas casa de campo

Molly and I couldn’t wait to wade into these clean, warm waters. This, right here, is my happy place.

secluded beaches dominican republic

I’ve visited beautiful beaches worldwide (Maldives, Bali, Maui), and Minitas Beach ranks among the best I’ve ever experienced. Unlike other places in the Dominican Republic, this is an uncrowded and meticulously maintained spot.

skeleton swimsuit goth swimwear

Casa de Campo offers free towel service at the entrance, and plenty of amenities including change rooms, several bars, and Minitas Beach Club restaurant (which we reviewed in this post).

(I’m wearing a skeleton swimsuit; similar one here).

dominican republic best private beach

We alternated between dips in the crystal-clear waters, and lounging on the comfortable chaises under the shade of palm trees.

la romana minitas beach ocean

There weren’t many tourists around, which let us feel as if were in our own Blue Lagoon.

sunset playa minitas dominican

If you stay until the sun sets, you’ll get this spectacular light show over the horizon. 

caribbean sea sunset

We watched the sunset, while sipping their famous piña coladas served in a fresh, local pineapple…

female travel blogger in ocean

I have to admit, I love being a “beach Goth” every so often!

boat ride to catalina island

Quite a few people recommended that we visit Catalina Island, and we were glad we took their advice. To get here, ask the Casa de Campo staff to help you make an advance booking for the catamaran ride. The boat departs from Minitas Beach and takes 25 minutes — and it’s a fast and furious ride that made us smile.

catalina island dominican republic

We disembarked onto six square miles of beach paradise. No photo filters needed: the turquoise hues and perfectly clear waters are exactly what you get in real life.

Catalina Island is part of the Parque Nacional del Este, which preserves the diverse ecosystem that includes sand-dunes, mangroves, and reefs.

quiet private island dominican

If you’re a snorkeler, take a short swim from the pier, and you’ll find calm waters teeming with sea life. 

Relaxing on Catalina Island turned out to be one of the best moments of our trip to the DR.

gym fitness center casa de campo

You may recall that we ate like queens at Casa de Campo, from sushi fusion to rustic Italian. To balance it out, we spent time in the fitness center, which has a large selection of weights and machines.

personal training la romana

Guests can also book a private training session, or visit the physiotherapy center. Molly did a functional class with David, and says: “I went to the workout tired, but left feeling energized. David did a great job of assessing my strength. When he realized that I could do more than he had originally intended to give me in the workout, he adjusted it workout accordingly — all with a smile. I even got to learn how to say some of the exercises in Spanish!”

pilates classes casa de campo

The resort also has regularly scheduled group fitness classes like Pilates, Zumba, Saco Box, Spinning, and aerobics. We woke up for the 8:30am Pilates class, and it was absolutely worth it. 

Molly’s reaction: “Liliam was such a magical teacher. I felt like she saw my heart, and then just made my abs work hard! One of the things that I really enjoyed about her (and David, and fitness at Casa de Campo in general) was that there was a focus on wellness, so progressing an injury to advanced athletic performance could be done in one class. She exemplified this completely, as she took the extra time to show us those stretching machines that released the back.”

spa at casa campo resort villas

The Spa was another place to rejuvenate both body and mind. Casa de Campo’s spa uses traditional techniques and local, organic ingredients in their menu of treatments.

Molly booked the Signature Ayurvedic massage. She says, “Alexandra, the woman who took care of me, touched me with such kindness and knowledge that the 90 minutes drifted by. I’ve been suffering from a pretty serious injury and she did a great job of handling the tension around the muscles to release some of the pain.”

la romana spa treatments

I agree with her words that “The staff at Casa de Campo was spectacular. That’s an understatement. They made you feel like you were at home with friends you just hadn’t met yet. From checking in with Victor, to the bartenders who recommended we go to Catalina Island, and servers who pushed me to speak more Spanish… everyone just wanted to make us more comfortable and help us explore.”

dominican republic horseback riding

The all-inclusive package includes horseback riding. I was excited to get on a horse for the first time in over a decade.

casa de campo horses riding lessons

The horses are extremely well-trained, and will never dart off or disobey commands. We explored the ranch’s lush pathways, by walk and trot.

shooting center casa de campo

I also got to try skeet shooting for the first time. The all-inclusive package includes 25 shots; it’s nice how CDC encourages guests to experience new sports and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise do on their own.

instructor skeet shooting

Our instructor was a kind, detail-oriented teacher who made us feel we were in safe hands. He patiently showed us how to use the two-barrel gun, which could hold two shots before requiring a re-load.

Skeet shooting means hitting clay targets that fly in the air. By pressing a button, he launched these disks from fixed stations, at a variety of angles and speeds.

shooting double barrel gun

I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at hitting clay pigeons. I credit this to my many hours of playing “Duck Hunt” on the original Nintendo console… the 1980s video game is remarkably good at mimicking the actual experience of skeet shooting!

girls posing with shotgun

Don’t mess with travel bloggers. They learn skills on the job.

(Molly is wearing these Bulgari Serpenti sunglasses, and my sunglasses are for sale on my Depop.)

skeet shooting clay pigeon lessons

I’ve shot rifles in indoor gun ranges before, and didn’t enjoy the experience much. However, an outdoor shooting center is a different story. Molly and I appreciated getting to know the history and skill of the sport, at one of the biggest centers in the Caribbean.

teeth of dog golf course casa campo

If you’re a golf fan, then you might already know of Casa de Campo. The resort has three of the best golf courses in the Caribbean, if not the world: Teeth of the Dog, Dye Four, and The Links. We saw groups of golf buddies renting a villa together, and swinging their clubs in this postcard-perfect setting.

dominican republic luxury beach vacation

A big heart for Casa de Campo — Molly and I couldn’t have had a better time in the Dominican Republic! Everything about the resort was as pristine as these waters, and the staff deserves a special mention for their kindness.

If these photos are convincing you to fly off to this beach, check out more info on CDC’s website.

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How to spend a 24 hour stopover in Panama City! Sortis Hotel & Manabi restaurant, Casco Viejo historic district.

sortis hotel swimming pool panama

Say yes to travel. Always!

When I realized I could do a free 24-hour stopover in Panama City, I immediately chose that flight. Even though I only had a brief time in Panama’s capital, I got a nice taste of the culture, food, architecture… and it’s something I’ll never regret.

panama city flowers balcony

I had to fly through Panama, on my route between Dominican Republic and Cuba. I realized I could book a flight with a long connection time / stop-over, which allowed at least 24 hours to get out and explore. It didn’t cost extra, and it was a better option than hanging around the airport for over 6 hours… so why not?

If you can choose to do a 24 hour layover in Panama City, you should go for it. The timing was enough for me to get the lay of the land, see some sights (like Casco Viejo and the waterfront), and enjoy Panamanian food. Read on to see how I spent a day in the city of the Canal…

But first, a quick announcement. I’m back in San Francisco in early March with friends! We’ll be hitting up the synthwave party Turbo Drive (with a performance by retrowave artist Danger), as well as the infamous Goth night Death Guild. If you’re in SF, come out and dance with us.

(Above, wearing jewelry by my favorite Alex Streeter: Mars Star stud earrings, and Ouroboros creatures ring.)

panama city downtown buildings

And now, back to my Central American stopover story.

Some cities are better for layovers than others. Panama City turned out to be a great one — because Tocumen International Airport is only a 30 minute drive from downtown Panama City.

lobby sortis hotel casino spa

If you have limited time in a destination, I recommend booking a hotel that is centrally located. I stayed at Sortis Hotel, Casino and Spa since it was right in the bank district, and near the waterfront and famous sites. The staff arranged private car to pick me up from airport Arrivals, which helped me to save time and keep my trip as seamless as possible.

Sortis Hotel address: Calle 56 y 57 Este, Panamá, Panama

autograph collection hotels panama sortis

Sortis Hotel’s hip decor matched my pastel-Gothic vibe. They’re part of the boutique design hotels collective, Autograph Collection, meaning you can expect luxurious, modern accommodations and service.

sortis hotel rooms suites

I arrived in the evening, so I was glad to spend time under the waterfall shower and then curl up for bed. Sortis’ rooms are large and decorated in urban chic, with giant windows that let you wake up to the famous skyscrapers of Panama.

Outfit details: My velvet shoes are Le Babe, my t-shirt is Akade Wear by New Retro Wave, and my skirt is Print All Over Me by Coucou Suzette.

rooftop swimming pool panama city

The next day, I woke up early for the included breakfast buffet, and so that I could have as much time as possible to see Panama City before my flight in the early evening.

I got a wonderful introduction to Panama City on the rooftop of Sortis Hotel. They have a panoramic terrace, and a swimming pool with a cute white duck in it!

hotel rooftop bar view panama downtown

I looked out at the iconic cityscape, marked with tall silver towers. Instantly loved the vibrant and energetic environment of Ciudad de Panamá.

Perhaps you might be surprised to see so many skyscrapers here. Beginning in the early 2000s, Panama City had a construction boom that resulted in dozens of futuristic high-rises. 

luxury boutique design hotel panama city

Panama City has become a major financial, tech and business center –– but it still has that laid-back, warm Central American vibe. Sortis’ inviting swimming pool, with towers and palm trees in the background, captures this mix perfectly.

champagne bar sortis hotel casino spa

Unlike other parts of Central America, there’s also a high-end element to Panama City. I’m hanging in the lobby’s Veuve Cliquot champagne lounge. Sortis Hotel also adjoins a shopping center, and is near the new Soho Mall for luxury designer brands.

manabi restaurant panama city new retro wave shirt

If you only have a twenty-four hour stopover, be sure to take the time to try the local cuisine. On my first night, I ate dinner at Manabi Restaurant and Rum Lounge, which specializes in Panamanian dishes. 

(My New Retro Wave shirt is Akade Wear, designers of synthwave / outrun / retrowave fashion.)

hip restaurants panama city

The cozy Manabi Restaurant was decorated with local crafts, and warm wooden furniture. They have an impressive selection of Panamanian rum… but alcohol wasn’t being served because it was Martyr’s Day! (Every year, the city commemorates the 1964 riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone.)

panama city Panamanian Latin American restaurant

Nonetheless, I got to enjoy a tropical fruit smoothie with fresh fish ceviche, and Manabi’s hearty seafood dish. I tend to order local fish wherever I go; this time, I got to taste “corvina” (a saltwater fish from the coastal waters of Central and South America) for the first time. I ended with the house-made creme brulee with blueberries — brilliant.

casco viejo walking tour

The next day, I was ready to see Panama City. Uber is quite cheap here, so I booked an UberX ride to Casco Viejo (Old Town).

frank gehry rainbow building biomuseo

Casco Viejo is located on the waterfront, and has spectacular viewpoints and walkways. Across the water, I spotted the rainbow colored Biomuseo (Museum of Bio-Diversity) designed by Frank Gehry. (If I had an extra day in Panama City, I’d certainly go there.)

panama city locks

30 minutes away, you can visit Miraflores Locks, one of the transit points of the Panama Canal. There’s a history museum about the 77 km (48 mile) waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Visitors can also go to an observation deck to see vessels pass through the Panama Canal.

panama city skyline waterfront

Panama is also known for its long seawalls, which are made for strolling. I looked out at Amador Causeway, the second longest boardwalk in the city and site of museums and restaurants.

casco viejo historic panama

I had a limited amount of time so I stuck to Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. This settlement was founded in 1673 after the previous one had been destroyed. Since then, it has survived many natural disasters and attacks by pirates, including the scurvy Captain Henry Morgan. 

Plaza Bolivar yellow church panama

I passed by the yellow facades of Plaza Bolivar (with a statue of Simon Bolivar in front), and cute sidewalk cafes.

panama city colonial buildings

It’s easy to see why Casco Viejo is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old town has beautiful parks, and the classic buildings carries traces of its past (a mix of Spanish, French and American colonial architecture.)

casco viejo archaeology ruins

This Panama City neighborhood is also home to the archaeological ruins of the church and convent of Santo Domingo. The structures were built by Dominican Friars shortly after the founding of Casco Viejo, but burnt down in 1756 and were never restored.

modern hipster panama city art

I enjoyed seeing the contrast between these historic sites and glitzy, modern Panama (such as this light installation at Sortis Hotel.)

corkscrew building panama city f&f tower

My favorite futuristic building was the F&F Tower, an office building not far from the hotel. I did my best to imitate the twisting green glass and reinforced concrete.

spiral twisting skyscraper panama city

The corkscrew spiral building stands out in the skyline of Panama City.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself for you to experience something new, I say “do it.” You’ll never regret seeing a new destination, and who knows when you might get the chance again.

panama city 5 star hotel sortis

Gracias Sortis Hotel for taking care of me during my layover. My Panama stopover was short but sweet, and makes me keen to come back to do more.

PS: See everyone soon in San Francisco! Follow along @lacarmina Instagram and Facebook to see the fun first-hand.

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Havana, Cuba local travel guide! Luxury casa particular Prado Colonial & Hostal del Angel review, Cuban cooking lessons.

cuba havana travel blogger malecon

Let’s do the time warp again… from Havana, Cuba!

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been curious about this Caribbean country where time seems to stand still. While on a job in the Dominican Republic, I took the opportunity to hop over to “La Habana” for a few days.

How to enter Cuba: As a Canadian, I merely had to fill out a “visa on arrival” and pay $20 US cash. If you have a US passport, the process is more complicated and changes constantly… be sure to check the current Cuban visa requirements here. Or you can “secretly” fly in from another country (Canada, Mexico, Panama, etc), as Americans have in the past.

Hostal del Angel havana cuba

Where should you stay in Havana? If you’re looking for a local, authentic experience, there’s only one answer: in a casa particular like Prado Colonial!

As you likely know, Cuba has been a communist country since Fidel Castro overthrew military dictator Batista in 1959. As a result, all the hotels and resorts are at least partly owned / run by the government.

However, since 1997, the state has allowed locals to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. These “casas particulares” are independent, family-run bed and breakfasts. There’s no better way for travelers to support Cubans, and learn first-hand about their culture — while staying in a friendly, homey environment.

havana classic casa particular balcony

I love boutique, design accommodations, which is why Prado Colonial caught my eye. This is a group of three B&Bs, run by a family and located within walking distance of each other, in Old Havana.

My friend Asta and I stayed in their Hostal del Angel, which is a vintage-lover’s dream. The stained glass windows and chandeliers scatter rainbows over neoclassical floor tiles… And the French doors open to a balcony view of Old Havana!

Outfit of the Day: I went for a futuristic 1950s look. My hooded mesh top is Cyberdog, my dark floral skirt is from Hong Kong, and I’m wearing these exact John Lennon brand sunglasses.

old havana casa particular hotels

I looked out at this view of Plazuela de Santo Ángel, a cheerful plaza by the yellow church of Santo Angel Custodio. This spot inspired Cuban author Cirilo Villaverde to write his famous novel “Cecilia Valdés,” so there’s a statue of both of them here.

Address of Hostal del Angel: Cuarteles 118, La Habana Vieja, Cuba

la habana luxury design casa particular

“Casa particular” means “private house,” and “hostal” is the Spanish word for a family-run b & b. Don’t mistake it for “hostel” (dorm-style living) — we had private rooms with their own bathrooms, and common areas fit for a queen. 

When we first entered Hostal del Ángel, we were greeted by Ali, the lady who lives here and takes care of guests. The next morning, we met Marina, the manager for all three properties (you can glimpse her in the mirror!). She’s warm and radiant, and puts her heart into helping guests feel at home.

havana cuban family run hotel b and b

Marina is fluent in English, and takes care of everything including restaurant recommendations, reservations, and taxi hires. She’s always happy to answer questions and help guests make their most of their visit.

All of the Prado Colonial casas feel like family homes, with walls of portraits. We enjoyed feeling as if were in the care of Christian, Kenia and their two daughters, who own these places. The family spends most of the year in Germany, so they rent out these accommodations to travelers while they are away.

breakfast hostel angel havana cuba

Asta and I looked forward to waking up each morning for the tasty breakfast. We sat down to a huge spread of fresh tropical fruit and juice, Cuban coffee (which is delicious!), cheese and cold cuts, homemade marmalades, and eggs made to order.

prado colonial casa particular

Some casa particulars can be on the sparse side. This is not the case at Hostal del Ángel: just look at our luxurious suite, dressed in Imperial and Louis XV style furniture and mirrors! The two adjoining rooms are separated by French doors, and we had our own large bathroom.

luxurious hotel havana cuba

All of their rooms have air conditioning, a safe, plenty of towels and other amenities. In Cuba, you must purchase a WiFi card in order to access the Internet (as this is not a regular service) — but I actually enjoyed being “off the grid” for my stay.

local family stay cuban b&b

We couldn’t have picked a better home base. All of the Prado Colonial bed and breakfasts are in Old Havana, near major sights like the Museum of the Revolution. The interiors are classic Cuban, the ladies provide outstanding service… and yet, their room prices start at only 85 CUC (US $85) a night.

havana top bed and breakfast rooms

Asta and I loved the cultural immersion of a casa particular. We encourage you to support Cuban families and their independent businesses, by staying in one.

(You can also help out by bringing donation items to Cuba, such as USB sticks, stockings, school supplies, beauty products and other small gifts that are difficult for locals to get. I brought bags of items, and let the staff distribute them.)

havana boutique hotels hostal angel

You can make a reservation at any of the three Prado Colonial hotels here, or send an email to booking@pradocolonial.com — I can assure you that you’ll be in great hands with this family.

cuban streetwear cuba street style

Marina gave us tour of the neighborhood, and pointed out her favorite cafes. Old Havana is in the heart of the action; just step out the door, and there are a million sights to see.

Around the corner from our casa particular, we ran into this Cuban boy band doing a photoshoot. They invited me to join in — why not!

casa particular prado colonial

Marina manages all the family’s hotels, which are within a few minutes walk of each other — so we also stopped by Casa Prado Colonial. No wonder these are the best casa particulars in Old Havana; check out this rooftop view!

old havana vintage local hotel

Prado Colonial also has a classic Cuban vibe. The interiors make you feel as if you’ve entered a past era (but everything is spotlessly maintained).

Address: Prado 110, Ground Floor, between Genio and Refugio. Havana Vieja. Ciudad de La Habana. ZIP: 10100. Cuba.

casa prado colonial bedroom

Unlike cookie-cutter hotels, each of Prado Colonial’s rooms has a unique decor and personality. It’s hard to “feel blue” when you’re surrounded by Art Deco furniture and floral paintings! (My backpack is Spiral UK, similar to this one.)

We’ll later meet Marina for dinner and a cooking lesson, at the third property. But for now, it’s time to explore Havana.

havana cuba fashion blogger style

First stop: the Malecón, which is only a short walk away from PradoColonial. This is Havana’s iconic seawall and roadway, which stretches for 8 km (5 miles) along the waterfront.

cuba malecon musicians, seawall

With a cool breeze and view like this, it’s easy to understand why the Malecon is a favorite spot to for locals to hang out. You’ll see groups of friends playing music, having snacks, fishing, or simply enjoying the view of the water.

havana classic cars, malecon

Havana’s rich history (from colonial days to Communism and the embargo) is especially visible the old quarters of the city. Even in the 21st century, the laid-back Caribbean culture has a 1950s / 1960s vibe.

cuban red vintage car

You’ll find classic cars zooming around the city. The US has banned car exports to Cuba since 1955, which is why all these “coches Americanos” are from the James Dean era.

(Photos by Asta Mail and La Carmina)

havana cuba fashion blogger outfits

Havana’s colonial architecture is a mix of Moorish and Spanish styles, along with influences from the French, Italians and Greeks. The bright hot rods match the pastel buildings, with swirling iron rails and ornamented arches.

cuban man smoking pipe

Cuba is also known for its cigars. I’m not a fan, but this fellow seemed to enjoy puffing on his pipe.

alien art weird bizarre havana

We came across local street art by Yulier Rodriguez. He paints ghostly, alien-like faces on dilapidated buildings throughout Havana.

goth skull cuba graffiti

Leave it to me to find a skull wherever I go.

havana cuba street art tour murals

Yulier’s murals tend to be social commentaries on life in Cuba. (In the next post, we’ll show you more art at Callejon de Hamel, the Afro-Cuban santeria community.)

havana school children uniforms kids

Havana is a city made for walking. It’s nice to see “slices of life,” such as children in uniform heading to school. (Cuba’s health care and education are excellent for all residents, regardless of their income.)

cuban cooking school lessons

Now that we worked up an appetite, it was time for our Cuban cooking lesson at Habana 101 (the third hotel), which any guest can request. Marina greeted us dressed all in white, with fabulous heels!

We learned how to make ropas viejas, one of Cuba’s most beloved nation dishes. The term means “old rags,” which describes the look of the shredded beef and seasoned vegetables.

Habana 101 vieja hotel

We started on the roof terrace, and took in the sunset over Old Havana. Marina prepared us one of her famous mojitos, with fresh mint and a touch of honey. She also let us try the anise flavored Mulata De Cuba liqueur in a cocktail.

havana cooking lesson chef

I try to take cooking lessons wherever I go, as it’s one of the best ways to learn about local food. Marina and the ladies were the perfect teachers. (I’m wearing the “Grillmeister” apron that belongs to home-owner Christian.)

habana 101 hotel review

The ladies had prepped all the ingredients — slow-cooked flank, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and spices. Time to head into the kitchen and learn how to make several flavorful Cuban dishes.

cuban food fried taro chips

We satiated our hunger by snacking on freshly fried taro root chips. I was tempted to eat the whole plate!

Marina showed us how to use a rice cooker to prepare rice and beans, with lots of diced vegetables and spices. We wound up with a healthy, gluten-free and inexpensive meal that I could eat every day.

fried bananas cuba

Talk about cute food: the staff put together a salad that spelled out Hab 101!

We learned how to make various Cuban staples, including fried green and yellow bananas. 

Hostal Habana 101 reviews

I’m so glad we decided to stay in a casa particular. We got to learn about daily life in Cuba from locals, while preparing one of the best meals I’ve had this year.

(Find more about Prado Colonial here.)

guava cheese dessert

For dessert: guava simmered with a bit of sugar, and topped with German cheese. Who knew this combination could be so good.

authentic cuban local dinner

We all sat down together for this incredible meal — I ate until I was stuffed!

Many people told me that when they visited Cuba, they found the food was bland and unseasoned. This was not at all the case for me — every meal was delicious, even from random cafes. I’m not sure if we got lucky or the cuisine has improved. Regardless, you can’t go wrong with a home-cooked meal at your casa particular.

la guarida havana building

On another night, we dined at La Guarida, one of the most famous and highly rated restaurants in Havana.

In 1993, Cuba released a groundbreaking LGBT film called “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Much of the story takes place in this elegant location. In homage, La Guarida showcases some of the original props, and named its signature dessert after the movie.

La Guarida restaurant address: 418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba.

outdoor dining havana cuba balcony

La Guarida is a “paladar,” or privately owned Cuban restaurant. Similar to casas particulares, these restaurants are run by locals rather than the state. Paladars tend to have beautiful, intimate settings (just check out this balcony!) and amazing food.

la guarida havana food menu

At La Guarida, the “new Cuban” cuisine lives up to the open-air atmosphere. Our server presented us with Cuban rum cocktails, and a special corn soup and “sushi” roll appetizer.  Then, we feasted on braised beef cheek, and medallions of filet mignon served three ways (peppercorn, Béarnaise, and a chocolate and blue cheese — surprisingly, the best one).

rooftop bar havana bars

Don’t miss out on the rooftop bar. Walk up a winding staircase in what looks like a pneumatic tube, and you’ll end up on this ornate floor.

clubbing havana nightlife

From the top of La Guarida, you can look out at the lights of central Havana, and the blue Malecon in the distance.

fine dining best restaurant havana cuba

Once again, we felt transported back in time, to the days of grand colonial mansions.

La Guarida lives up to its hype as one of Havana’s top restaurants. Be sure to order the smoked marlin tacos, and delicate snapper ceviche that melts in your mouth.

la guarida restaurant review cuba

I recommend that you make an advance online reservation from the La Guarida website, as tables fill out quickly. Both locals and visitors choose this spot for a dinner to remember.

cuban boys, street fashion

Did this intro to Havana make you smile? If you have any questions about traveling here, you’re welcome to leave a comment.

I hope you’ll support locals and stay at one of Prado Colonial’s casa particulars; you can learn more and make a booking through the family’s website.

strange alternative havana cuba

My trip to Cuba felt a little like visiting another planet — which is what I love best about travel. I think this ET mural sums up the inspiration I found on every street in Old Havana.

Stay tuned for another post to come… about our joyride in a cherry red vintage convertible! 

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