As Travel Ticks Up Again Post-Pandemic, Here’s Where to Go (and How to Get There Safely)
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The road to Castle Hot Springs is literally paved with pebbles, but for this hidden gem in the middle of Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s sprinkled with a little gold dust too.
Tucked into a stretch of dry, honey-hued landscape just an hour north of Phoenix, Castle Hot Springs has long attracted guests for its natural hot springs, inviting open air and discreet location — the upscale resort was reportedly a favorite of the Rockfellers and Vanderbilts, back in the day, and President Roosevelt stayed at the resort during the dedication of the Roosevelt Dam. But after two fires destroyed much of the property in the late Seventies and then again in 1996, Castle Hot Springs was essentially abandoned, until a local businessman and his wife came to the rescue. Acquired in 2014, the couple meticulously restored the resort to its early charm and was finally ready to re-introduce Castle Hot Springs to the world at the end of 2019, when the pandemic hit. Now, six months into 2021, Castle Hot Springs is ready for its closeup again, opening its gates to visitors once more.
The re-opening of Castle Hot Springs comes as more and more Americans begin to hit the road — and the air — for their first post-Covid trips. After more than a year in quarantine, travelers are eager to get out and explore again, though post-Covid travel doesn’t come without its own set of issues: is the destination safe? Do I need to be vaccinated? Will I have to wear a mask?
According to Tom Bartholomew, a luxury travel advisor at SmartFlyer, “Reviewing local travel and health restrictions is the first thing to address,” when planning a post-Covid trip. “When considering a visit to Europe for instance, what is the local testing protocol? The mask mandate? What will be open and in what capacity? How will these local policies impact your experience in the destination?” For Bartholomew, “It’s a balance of risk mitigation and opportunity seeking.”
Though the CDC has eased mask wearing mandates in the U.S., all major airlines are still requiring masks for travel. That means you’ll have to keep a mask on throughout the duration of a flight. Many international destinations may also require proof of vaccination for entry, along with imposing mask mandates at hotels and restaurants too.
Bartholomew says the uncertainty over international travel rules and regulations have seen more and more Americans choosing to travel domestically this year. “International travel restrictions have allowed travelers to discover and fall in love with the America that until now, has often been overlooked in favor of a long-haul [international] trip,” he says.
At Castle Hot Springs, General Manager Kevin Maguire says the staff at the resort has quickly pivoted to provide not just amenities and services to guests, but a sense of security as well. “The whole team works tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that the resort upholds all of the Covid protocols, to keep our guests and employees safe,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We are so proud of the team’s efforts and are blessed to have not experienced any workplace illness spread or virus clusters.”
Castle Hot Spring’s off-the-grid location, plethora of outdoor and open-air activities, and expansive 1100-acre size, makes the destination resort comfortably safe and spread out. On our visit there, we never saw more than three or four people in the resort’s natural hot springs at one time, and the variety of open walking and hiking trails made it easy to find some alone time too — if not also finding a little sun-soaked bliss. During our time at Castle Hot Springs, guests were encouraged to keep the same reservation time each night at dinner, in order to keep the restaurant — and its intimate patio — spaced out. Breakfast and lunch were more leisurely, but we never saw more than a handful of people gathering to eat at the same time. As for masks: all the wait staff, customer service attendants and groundskeepers sported masks for the entirety of our stay, though it was optional for guests (with no proof of vaccination necessary). No one forced you to mask up, but no one shamed you for keeping your face covered either.
With only 30 freestanding cabins on the property — this isn’t a cramped hotel hallway situation here — it’s been relatively easy for Castle Hot Springs to welcome guests back after the pandemic. And with its zen-like landscaping, myriad of health and wellness offerings (think daily yoga and meditation classes and a super serene outdoor spa), and yes, those natural mineral springs, it’s an easy place to relax and slowly find your “normal” again (recent reviews seem to corroborate our experience).
On our trip, we spent the mornings reading on our private patio or in our outdoor tub (you’re encouraged to unplug, and the WiFi password is literally “AreYouSureYouWantTo?”), then afternoons soaking in one of the three hot springs pools, whose warm waters stay between 85 to 106 degrees and are also used to heat the main resort pool. Additionally, water is piped to each room to fill the private soak tubs and is used on the Farm, the name of the barn-like building where meals are served.
Speaking of meals, almost all of the produce used in the restaurant comes from the property, and guests can take a farm tour to see where and how everything is grown. One minute I was plucking mini peppers from the garden; the next, it was charred and used to garnish a tequila cocktail to compliment my nightly five-course dinner. The food itself is fresh and inventive, and runs the gamut from seafood to steaks, to lighter fare as well (make sure to ask for the daily “wellness juice” too). Service is impeccable and everything flows as smoothly and gently as the hot springs running under us while we eat.
See Rates for Castle Hot Springs here
And if you’re still unsure about being out and about again (albeit in a stunning, world-class resort), Castle Hot Springs says its team of food, fitness and wellness professionals can offer custom itineraries for your trip. “They act like they actually like working here!” a guest exclaimed to me while waiting for her golf cart ride back to her cabin one night. “I’ve never been to a place where everyone is so happy.”
Over in California, hotels are welcoming guests who are starting their post-Covid travels locally, with small weekend getaways and staycations. As one of the jewels of the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, the Pendry Hotel is almost back to full capacity, with a bustling bar and restaurant scene (five places to eat and drink, to be exact), and a rooftop pool that is always the center of the action. But the Montage International hotel has also introduced its “Peace of Mind” commitment, to help ease fears of guests traveling for the first time out of the pandemic.
Among the hotel health and safety protocols: enhanced sanitization and deep cleaning in all areas, including the use of electrostatic sprayers, UV wands and devices, and particulate level air filtration systems. Guests here have complimentary access to ONE MEDICAL, to reach healthcare providers for virtual care in case something comes up while they’re away from home. During our stay, every room had complimentary hand sanitizer and facial coverings provided in a chic little pouch, and room service deliveries (tip: ask for the cocktail making kit!) were all done either contactless, or with (white) gloved service. Another nice touch: the ability to pre-order a snack menu in lieu of an honor bar, means your room will be custom-stocked with what you requested rather than having random food and drinks lying around that you won’t touch or eat.
See Rates for Pendry Hotel here
San Diego itself is bustling and back to normal; if you want a night out on the town, both the Gaslamp and Little Italy were packed shoulder-to-shoulder at the bars, and on the street when we were there (worth noting: we wore masks, but most people did not). Wanting to escape the crowds to not shock our system back into the swing of things, we ventured to quieter neighborhoods of San Diego for the weekend: the hip North Park for coffee at Holsem and bone marrow pho at the Vietnamese restaurant, Shank & Bone; visiting galleries and snapping pics at Balboa Park; shopping and sampling international fare at Liberty Station; and a family-style dinner among (new) family and friends at the Russian-Georgian restaurant, Pomegranate, in the Boulevard. If you want that suddenly-strange balance of “life as we knew it” with the option to still social distance, San Diego is a great place to start riding that fine line.
And then there’s New York, where the densely-populated boroughs made it difficult to find any respite — or space — during the pandemic. Fortunately, a number of luxe staycation options have opened up for locals, while out-of-towners are once again making the city a road trip (or plane trip) destination.
Ian Schrager’s PUBLIC Hotel is one of the jewels in New York’s storied hotel scene, and the PUBLIC just reopened to guests again post-Covid. For the past year, Schrager says his team has “re-imagined and re-thought all amenities and offerings at PUBLIC,” to make them more accessible, versatile and safe.
Among the new additions: the option to minimize any physical interactions if you’re still easing back into well, physical interactions. PUBLIC’s new app will let you check-in, check-out and make requests over live chat or web chat. You can also receive a mobile key to your phone, that will let you unlock your room without having to carry around a key card (many hotels are offering mobile keys these days).
More and more hotels are also mixing indoor and outdoor spaces like the PUBLIC, creating not only better flow and movement, but also giving guests options to mix and mingle, or find their own private nook to relax. If it’s your first time out in a while, start with an afternoon coffee in one of the comfy seats in the PUBLIC lobby, before working up some post-Covid courage to hang out at the always-busting bar for a sunset sip.
Schrager’s team has also reimagined their lobby area as “a destination for office-less and desk-less creatives,” who will now have a place to work if they’re not yet heading back to an office, or a traditional 9-to-5. Whether you choose to chit-chat with others is up to you. As the PUBLIC puts it in a release, “it’s a socialize ‘on demand’ concept.”
See Rates for PUBLIC Hotel here
There’s one final consideration: how to get to your destination. Bartholomew says road trips have really taken off since the first 2020 lockdown, and demand continues to grow. “We are seeing this trend continue through 2021 with the ability of many to work remotely, allowing for a longer, slower-paced road trip or domestic stay. Families are also trending this way where they can have a sense of control while we wait on clear guidelines for traveling internationally with kids,” he says.
Driving to your destination limits the amount of people you’re exposed to, and could provide some flexibility, say, if you’re suddenly not feeling well or need to re-route. But gone are the days of picking up a cheap rental for your trip. We took a Jaguar F-TYPE R coupe on our road trip to San Diego, and when the I-5 started getting backed up, we zipped right out of the traffic jam and took coastal streets by the ocean to get to our hotel. A peppy, performance-driven sports car, the F-TYPE was compact enough to handle all the winding roads with ease, with super responsive handling, and Jaguar’s adaptive dynamics technology, which automatically adjusts the car’s suspension based on road conditions and driving style, helped to ensure a smoother, more comfortable ride. The bucket-style seats hugged our frame in all the right places, and the option for cooling seats was a welcome feature for summer road trips, when the long drives start to get a little sweaty. The trunk, while small, was enough to hold two carry-on-sized suitcases plus two small backpacks too.
On another trip, up the coast to Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez wine region, we took the 2021 Bentley Flying Spur V8. The luxury car company says usage of the Flying Spur has “shifted from chauffeur driven to driver driven” over the last few years, and that data, along with other considerations, was used to develop this latest iteration.
For a nearly $300,000 car, the Flying Spur was surprisingly unpretentious, creating a driving experience that was luxurious without being obnoxious. While some high-end cars are built with aggressive styling designed to turn heads, the Flying Spur is a refined and sophisticated vehicle that earns you knowing nods — if you know, you know.
That’s not to say the Flying Spur is lacking in aesthetics and performance — the model we tested had a whopping V8 engine that effortlessly took us from 0-60 in just over three seconds, not to mention incredibly tactile and responsive steering that handled both wide, winding roads and country lanes with ease. Everything is whisper-quiet (seriously, we barely heard any outside noise) — all the better to turn up the tunes on the custom Naim car audio system.
Subtle touches and details abound, like diamond-quilted leather seats, contrast color stitching and a handsome walnut veneer. The sweeping curves of the interior cabin match the sleek lines on the exterior and you can see careful attention paid to everything from the intuitive touchscreen control panel, to the plush mats under your feet.
As for road tripping: the Flying Spur has plenty of space to comfortably seat five people, though we went as a group of four and were able to really stretch out legs without any confinement. The panoramic glass “tilt and slide” sunroof made for beautiful sight lines as we took the car through the Malibu Canyons and up the California coast, and window blinds pulled up easily when the sun was too bright, or when we wanted to doze off and recline in the large, club-style seats (with multiple built-in massage modes). The back seats were just as nice as the front, with controls to adjust the climate, sound, seat position and massage settings for each backseat passenger as well. Even though we we road tripping rather than flying, it sure felt like a first-class cabin to us.
Of course, if you prefer to fly again, there are safe and accessible options for that too. We like using JSX which offers travelers the perks of flying private without the price tag. Think of it as a “semi-private” experience, with small jets for 30 passengers or less that fly to everywhere from Dallas to Vegas.
See Schedules and Rates for JSX here
Rather than dealing with long lines and large crowds at the airport, JSX has its own private terminals in each location, that let you skip the lines and hop on board in minutes. We arrived for a flight from LA to Phoenix just 30 minutes before boarding time and still had 25 minutes to spare. The JSX service team took our bags, checked our tickets and then escorted us to the waiting area, with comfy seats and couches spaced out for social distancing. There is no traditional security line either, meaning no shared TSA plastic bins or having to remove your shoes.
Because there are less than 30 passengers per flight, everything felt orderly and service felt personalized — no stressful airline staff or unruly passengers here. Because JSX uses its own terminal, there was no waiting to taxi on the runway either — within minutes of boarding we were up in the air.
JSX has continued to implement a number of Covid safety protocols even as the pandemic appears to be winding down. The airline says it’s using an advanced HEPA air circulation system that combines a significantly higher percentage of fresh versus recycled air, while creating mass flow balance. What that means: each section of the cabin has its own air induction and removal stream.
While the mask mandate is enforced, the spaced out seating plans mean you’re never seated next to more than one person at a time. If you prefer not to be seated next to anyone, the JSX flights to Texas have a 1×1 seating configuration, with no middle seats. Other flights use a 2×1 configuration with no middle seats.
As for the flight experience itself? Just as easy and enjoyable as the check-in experience, with free drinks, premium snacks and free wine and cocktails – no credit card needed.
JSX is an example of a company that has worked to adapt and cater to its customer base post-Covid, by offering an experience that is not only crowd-free, but hassle-free and stress-free as well. And as travel picks up again after a year of strict quarantine, that old adage about the journey being the destination has never felt more true. It’s not just about where you want to go, but how you want to get there; not just what you want to see, but how you want to feel. If our first couple of post-pandemic trips have taught us anything, it’s that people are longing to go out into the great big world again, but it’s also nice to start close to home, to give yourself a little time to ease back into travel, one big cautious step at a time.
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