The bang of fireworks sounded as though they were going off in our bedroom as my son and I bid farewell to Ferragosto 2017. My husband was already off to work at a nightclub in Ischia, Italy. There, tourists and natives alike would keep up the celebration until the wee hours of the morning. Dancing too close. Drinking too much. Celebrating just enough.
A Delicious Start to Ferragosto 2017
But before the holiday could be over, it had to begin. In Italy, the start of every celebration is all about the food. Tourists who visit the island for Ferragosto, Aug. 15, can expect the hotel to go all out. Restaurants are also keen on marking the occasion. My husband works for the 4-star Hotel Continental Mare, so he graciously took photos of the spread and scene for us. This way, you can see just how to launch a holiday that is a mix of secular and religious sentiment with just a touch of indulgence. Just look at that carved squash with sunflowers splashed across it.
Ah Salute! Cheers!
A flower of a watermelon graces the banquet table holding glasses waiting to be filled with refreshing drinks. I can only imagine the wine was flowing. But what strikes me most about the picture is what gets me every time in Ischia. That view of the sea and greenery all around combined with that ocean perfume transports your being. The divine beauty is intoxicating. There is nothing more to say.
One of the most delightful aspects of any Italian meal is antipasto. This precursor to the meal always offers lovely little surprises. Italians often call it “sfizioso.” It literally translates to “delicious,” but it’s more than that. The word refers to the food being more than delectable. It suggests it is addictive. Indeed, often antipasto can be like a drug – at least for me. And I can make an entire meal of it. I’m not a wine drinker, but I live among them. They all love to pair their vino with the littlest bites. Certainly, antipasto is the perfect way to kick off a party.
Ship as centerpiece is a fitting decoration on the island of Ischia. This table brought guests the treasures of the sea. Ischia is famous for its coniglio Ischitano, a rabbit dish that many a native family eats every Sunday. But it is an island, so the seafood is must-eat as well. These are the freshest clams, mussels, octopus, etc. you’ll ever eat. Seriously, I dream about the stuff when I’m not here. That’s not an exaggeration. Aaaah, now you want to sail away to Ischia. You with me?
NOTE FROM EDITOR: My husband works for Hotel Continental Mare, and he was working when he took the photos. I just want readers to know that this is not an objective review or anything close to that. This is merely an opportunity to see the preparation for the Ferragosto celebration and the beauty of the hotel’s view and its offerings. Not bad, eh?
Castello Aragonese is connected to the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, by bridge. In fact, the town around this medieval castle is called Ischia Ponte, which translates to Ischia Bridge. It is a stunner. You simply can’t take your eyes off the place. From afar, some will mistake it for a mere cliff. But it’s an actual castle carved into a cliff, and it’s full of history and stories to tell, if you just listen closely.
You can still visit the castle and walk through it to see what life inside may have been like for its various inhabitants. When you step inside, you’re entering another world. The hard rock facade, the ancient walls that whisper of the past, set the stage for the island outside its gates. Mainly built between the 14th and 17th century, the castle has ghosts as far as I am concerned. And every so often I get the urge to visit them. They are deliciously haunting.
The castle had served as fort, love shack, church, and prison. Historical figures, such as Vittoria Colonna, resided there. So did monks and nuns. In fact, you can still see the catacombs, frescoes, and altars of another time. And there’a Torture Museum featuring all sorts of devices that had been used to wear down humanity; I call it the dungeon. You can see ancient winemaking tools lying around. You can only imagine what went on here.
History swallows the island. And the juxtaposition of a monastery next to the Torture Museum next to a love shack is fitting for Ischia. After all, Ischia is everything and nothing at once. Most are swept away by the headiness of this place. The scent of the flowers growing in every nook of the castle is intoxicating. Then, there is the vision of tomatoes growing in one of the gardens. But the view of Ischia Ponte and the sea is enough to move you into a fantasy.
Of course, there’s no denying the beauty all around you. Pastel homes dot the lush hills nearby. Waves crash on the rocks agains the bridge. Often, you’ll find sunbathers perched on the rocks. Boats rock feet from the castle. A coffee bar at the feet of the bridge buzzes with tourists and natives alike; some say it’s the best espresso on the island. Every so often, newlyweds come to take their wedding photos out front. (My husband and I did.) You will feel invisible when the sun sets and sinks into the ocean, and you’re standing toward the top of the castle.
Today, you can stay at the castle as a hotel guest. If an overnight stay isn’t in the cards, you can also visit the museum. I’ve done both, and it’s always a true journey. But you don’t even have to enter the gate to take in the “bellezza.” It’s a must stop for tourists because few photo backdrops compare.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is the coolest concept for a resort, perhaps, in the history of family travel. In the middle of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., you’ll find giraffes, zebras, and ostriches in your hotel’s backyard. Maybe I’m exaggerating because some kids would argue in favor of Legoland’s life-size brick creations in the bedrooms. And there are those hotels with rooms underwater, overwater, on ice, and in trees that offer some pretty stiff competition, I’ll admit.
Still, I was moved every day of my stay at AKL, every time I saw a majestic zebra walk toward me as I sipped my morning tea or caught a glimpse of a giant giraffe nibbling on leaves as I inched toward the elevator to my room. Friends, who were traveling with me, paid the extra fee to have a room with a balcony with the animals in full view. They would roll over in bed and look out the window to see Mother Nature in all its glory. Now, that’s a vacation if you ask me.
And oh how the children delighted! They could not turn away from the lovely animals, the ones they’d seen in books, behind cages in traditional zoos, and in all those Disney movies that gave animals a voice and personality. This was their chance to observe them from a safe, yet short, distance. They looked at what they ate and listened to the experts walking the grounds educating visitors about their natural habitats, diets, and tendencies.
Beauty is everywhere. It does not only come from the sight of the animals but also the look of the environment, their habitat, which is made to be as close to what they’d find in nature as possible. There are about 200 animals in four savannas. The buildings are built to form circles to kind of fence in the animals as they do in Africa. The resort itself is divided into two parts – Jambo House and Kidani Village, which is newer and encompasses the Disney Vacation Club villas. Although I’ve spent significant time in both, I actually stayed at Kidani Village.
Pros and cons of the resort are easy to surmise. Obviously, the ambiance and theming are over the top. In fact, this might be the best themed of all the hotels, and many a blogger has made such an argument. Those who have lived in Africa often say that every detail is authentic. In fact, the works of African artists are on display throughout the resort, as are popular African sayings. In addition, African construction workers were brought in to make the thatched roofs in the tradition they do back home. The famous imagineer Joe Rohde led the design of this resort, and has told guests about the smallest of details including the animal trim that runs atop the wall in the lounge and how they are all facing in the same direction to make it look as though they are running toward the window looking out on the savanna. That’s dedication, folks.
I try not to get too hung up on rooms when I visit Disney because I hardly find time to chill in the hotel anyway. But the deluxe resorts, which include AKL, have pretty nice rooms. In the outside world, they would hardly qualify as luxurious, but they definitely are at Disney World. In the outside world, they wouldn’t cost as much either. However, we rented DVC points, which brings down the price significantly. In fact, it’s often the equivalent of the price of one of Disney’s moderate resorts. Otherwise, you have to pay full price for a deluxe resort stay, which can run up to around $500 per night or more.
One of the greatest pros to staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is the food. There are some exceptional restaurants on the grounds, including the signature dining experience at Jiko – The Cooking Place. Offering guests some genuine African flavors in a sophisticated atmosphere Jiko also has some of that Disney magic. Twin wood-burning ovens that look like African cooking pots are the centerpiece of the show kitchen. The lighting changes from warm shades of red, orange, and gold t o mimic the African sunset. Then, there’s the food. I traveled with my parents, who are not adventurous when it comes to eating. It’s Italian or bust. My father is more open than my mom. Anyway, I had my doubts. While this was not their favorite place, they found items to eat. And I am still dreaming about the steak with a red wine sauce and topped with macaroni and cheese. I’ll admit some of the spicier food wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed sampling it and just being in such a warm place made the advanced dining reservation (ADR) worth it. This one meal was the equivalent of 2 on the Deluxe Dining plan. If you pay out of pocket, it’s significantly more expensive. Wine lovers rejoice; Jiko offers the most South African wines in one place than anywhere outside of Africa.
For a less costly meal, AKL also offers the sit-in restaurant Sanaa, which serves “African food with an Indian flair,” according to the Disney Website. I never ate here, but this place also has a great vibe. The windows that run from top to bottom allow diners to watch the animals on the savanna as they eat. The Indian-style bread service gets rave reviews from foodie bloggers.
Boma – Flavors of Africa, which offers a casual buffet at breakfast and dinner, is a fan favorite. Again, the African theming will blow you away down to the elephant statues, dark wood tones, and look of the buffet. I’ve heard great things about the dinner, but I have never eaten it. I’ve been to the breakfast buffet three times. Two out of the three times I had one of the best meals ever. The first time was in December 2009, and it was packed with people, service was poor, and the buffet was completely picked over when we got there. The last two times have been divine. The M&M pancakes are a big hit. The waffles feature the Lion King instead of being Mickey shaped, which was a novelty my son appreciated. African dishes, including 0ak-grilled asparagus and tomatoes, are mild enough to attract even picky eaters. The French toast bread pudding is the stuff of legend. Finally, there’s always The Mara, the on-site quick-service restaurant, too keep you refreshed and satisfied. It’s famous for its zebra dome and other themed cupcakes.
If the animals and the food are not enough, there are lots of activities at the hotel. As to be expected with Disney, there are outdoor movies, campfires, and some chances for the kids to do arts and crafts. But you can also meet people from Africa, who will share their own story and regale you with the continent’s history. There are experts on hand to help you better understand the animals, who live there. Sometimes, they have free cookie decorating for kids. Guests can get closer to the animals by paying for the Wanyama Safari (in a truck) and Dinner at Jiko. It is listed on the Website as being more than $60 per adult. There is another Night Safari at the hotel for an additional fee, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about that one. There are people who have taken it and say you can’t see the animals, so it’s not worth it. With Animal Kingdom itself offering night safaris now, I’m not sure if this is still an option anyway.
In the end, I loved Animal Kingdom Lodge, and I’d be happy to go there again. Of course, I’d only go if I could pay the fee for renting DVC points because it’s far too expensive – animals or not – any other way. For the right price, I’d highly recommend this beautiful place because it’s more than a hotel. It’s an unforgettable experience for adults and kids alike.
Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort is the crown jewel of accommodations at the Mouse’s House. (See below for more photos.) Some would argue that the honor really goes to the more sophisticated Grand Floridian or the Contemporary with the monorail moving right through it. But the Polynesian is not as stuffy as GF, nor is it as modern as the Contemporary. It’s the perfect balance of luxury and whimsy. It reeks of nostalgia, and it’s just plain pretty. That’s probably why it’s always called to me, but it always seemed too expensive to justify.
Until February 2016, I had only ever stayed at the resort once – for a weekend that I gave as a wedding gift to my husband in 2008. Frankly, if it weren’t for the discount of my relatives (who worked at the resort at the time), I never would have been able to afford it. Disney is expensive. Really expensive. And the Polynesian is among its costliest accommodations. (There are different categories of hotel, with the most affordable being value resorts, and the most expensive being deluxe resorts or villas, which are the most expensive.) Polynesian is a deluxe resort.
Without any promotions, the cheapest rooms are upward of $600 per night. In the last few years, the Polynesian has added longhouses (those are the complexes where the rooms are) that are part of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). These are known as villas. If you’re not a DVC member, you can still make reservations directly with Disney for one of these rooms, some of which have kitchens and multiple bedrooms and bathrooms. The Deluxe Standard room is actually $456 per night for the first week in December at this moment, which is not a bad price considering how much money it costs for rooms in the rest of the resort. The bungalows – those fancy villas on the water – cost between $2,100 and $2,900 per night.
Right about now, you’re thinking, “Hey, crazy lady, I can never afford this. How could you?” Well, that’s a good question. I actually rented DVC points from the DVC Rental Store (which I will tell you about in a future post). For now, you should know that it’s a viable option and it’s significantly cheaper than going directly through Disney.
Why did I waste so much space in this review writing about cost? Well, I want you to know that I believe a stay at the Polynesian (if it fits in your budget via renting points) is well worth it. Here’s why:
Location, location, location – The Polynesian is on the monorail line, which means getting to Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and any of the Magic Kingdom resorts is super easy. When you have little ones or you make lots of dining reservations at the hot spots in that zone, this ease makes all the difference. It means having a more relaxed vacation. Whenever we stay at non-monorail resorts, which I’ve done many times and will probably do again, I have a great time but I feel like I need another vacation a week later after all that running around. While many people want pool views or castle views, I was perfectly fine to have a view of the parking lot because it meant I paid less for my room and was conveniently located within walking distance of the Ticket and Transportation Center, the hub for getting to Magic Kingdom, EPCOT or the resorts. (If you get the monorail outside the upstairs lobby of the Polynesian, you will have to transfer at the TTC to get to your ultimate destination.) We literally would roll out of bed, get dressed, walk to TTC and get wherever we wanted to go. And we could come back for a break during the day or before dinner whenever we wanted. We took Disney buses to Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, all of which were on time and comfortable.
Food, glorious, food – Some of my favorite restaurants are at the Polynesian resort. Ohana, with its dumplings and wings and all you can eat salad and shrimp and beef, and that delicious bread pudding is a must do. Although I didn’t have a great experience at breakfast there, you do get to meet and share photo ops with Lillo & Stitch (more on that in another future post, so there’s lots to which you can look forward). Kona Cafe and its Tonga Toast and sushi are the stuff of legend. And, hello gorgeous, you can get the Dole Whip, which only available at the Polynesian and Magic Kingdom and nowhere else. That alone might be reason to stay here. The luau is awesome and includes a fire eater. Yes, a fire eater. No need to say more.
The pool is cool and so is the beach area. It’s in the shape of a volcano. If theming and kitsch are important to you, then the pool makes this place a winner. I’ve always loved the nearby beach area. Toward the end of our stay, we spent an afternoon playing in the sand and indulging in S’mores (at the fire pit). I imagine real Polynesia is way better, but this fantasy version is still a delight. There have been complaints that the pool area is crowded during the high season. I can’t comment on this but imagine it to be true because of the smaller size compared to other resorts. I have only been in the pool once, that first time I went to the Polynesian in 2008, and no one else was there because it was December, not exactly pool weather. This last time in February, it was too cold to bear the thought.
The room rocks. The deluxe standard room has a pull-out couch and queen bed. Plus, a small pull out bed, fit for a child. My son kept promising to sleep there, but he usually ended up in bed with us. We left the couch closed. But what we loved most about the room was the double bathroom. There was one room with a tub, sink, and toilet and another with a shower and sink. It made getting ready easy, and they were both simply beautiful. One downside was the water in the shower would always – I mean always – end up on the floor no matter where you moved the shower head. Small price to pay, especially since there was a seat in the shower. Heaven!
If it wasn’t for the price, I’d say everyone should just go to the Polynesian. Since it’s so expensive, I say you should try to make it a Disney bucket list item. If you get to go more than once, all the better. The best news is that you can go to visit the Polynesian for a few hours (not the pool but the resort) for free. Just hop on the monorail and go. You can grab a bite or just walk around and take it all in.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have a close relative who works for Walt Disney World, and she has helped me get discounts and entrance to the parks, but I paid in full to rent DVC rental points to stay at the Polynesian deluxe standard room and to get Deluxe Disney Dining privileges throughout this stay. And her position in no way influences my opinions or writing.
Castello Aragonese is a castle attached to the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy, that has been used as a fortress, prison, and love shack for royals. Today, it is a museum. Much to my surprise, part of the castle is also a hotel. (For pictures of the castle and its hotel, visit the “Night at Castello Aragonese” photo album.) My husband Antonio completely surprised me for our first wedding anniversary on Oct. 2, 2009, by bringing me to spend the night at Castello Aragonese. Even though my wedding dress from a year ago stood in my closet, I felt like quite the princess at the castle. We took in spectacular views of the town of Ischia Ponte from our window, including the most brilliant of moons, and we wandered the grounds. Then, we had a most delicious meal in the castle’s restaurant, which is open only to guests of the hotel. It was an unforgettable anniversary, and I can’t thank the hubby enough for his romantic gift. How did you celebrate your first wedding anniversary? Let us know in the comments below.
The main reason that I’m taking two flights to reach home in the United States on Friday after five months in Ischia, Italy is because on Oct. 1 Eurofly stopped its direct flights from Naples to New York. It’s the only airline that ever offers direct flights from Naples to New York. But Antonio and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary on Oct. 2, and I couldn’t go home before the big day, even if it would have made my life much easier. I’m thrilled, however, that I’m making this sacrifice, which includes a four-hour layover and an arrival time in New York that is past 9 p.m. ET, because my husband Antonio really made our first anniversary special.
Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that Antonio planned a big surprise for me. It all began with a late dinner the night before our anniversary. We went to L’ Incanto, a restaurant that is part of a new hotel on Ischia called Mirage. (To see photos, visit “Mirage and L’ Incanto” photo album.) Although neither one of us had ever been there, the restaurant delivered on romance and delicious food. As good Italians, we revolve our entire relationship around food, so this was perfect. Indeed, it was a night to remember — and the most delightful way to kick off our anniversary. There was one more surprise, which I’ll get to tomorrow. Stay tuned!