Flights of Fantasy | AspenTimes.com

Flights of Fantasy

Andy Stone
As night begins to fall, wherever you look, people at the Maroma are lighting candles.
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It’s snowing outside my window.The thermometer says it’s 26 degrees. The forecast says it’s going to snow some more. The calendar says it’s spring. My heart. my mind, my soul all say it’s time to flee.My boss says no.I’m trapped.

Sure, I know, by the time I’m done writing this, the skies may be blue and the thermometer may be rising. But we all know that it’s going to snow again. And again. And again. And for months to come, warm weather only means mud.Clearly, there’s only one thing to do: escape into fantasy – or, better yet, memory.Floating in my mind right now, in my time of desperate need, are memories of two enchanted spots, two heavens of warm weather, blue water and a complete absence of anything that even remotely smacks of snow.One is near enough, in both time and distance: the tropical coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – the palm trees, the jungle, the turquoise waters lapping on the white sands of the beach at the Hotel Maroma.

The other is more distant, but equally enchanted: Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the fierce blue waters, the rocky cliffs and the flowering arbors of the Hotel Santa Caterina.A tropical dreamThe Maroma is a dream born of a dream – at least, that’s their story and I, for one, am cheerfully buying it.According to that story, the dream of the Maroma began nearly 30 years ago, when Jose Luis Moreno, a Mexican architect living in Cancun, was flying south along the coast of the Yucatan and spotted a beautiful, remote bay, surrounded by deep jungle and a coconut plantation. The water was an extraordinary shade of turquoise, set against a perfect white sand beach.The architect bought that patch of jungle and stretch of beach. He settled there and, over the next 20 years – after surviving at least one destructive hurricane -built a small, perfect hotel: the Hotel Maroma.My wife and I spent almost a week there this winter, celebrating her birthday. It was one of those birthdays that ends in a “0” and my wife had declared that, much as she loves skiing, if she was going to step into a new decade, she was going to do it on a tropical beach, surrounded by palm trees.

Our trip from the Roaring Fork Valley to the Maroma was one of those terrible ones. Our flight out of Eagle was delayed by weather; we missed our connection in Denver and, in the end, we arrived at the Maroma nearly eight hours late, not in midafternoon, but at almost 10 o’clock at night.And that turned out to be absolutely perfect.The 58 rooms and suites at the Maroma are in a handful of buildings, scattered across 25 landscaped acres at the edge of the beach. They say that they light “a thousand candles” every night to light the paths that wind through the property. When we read that, we were certain they were exaggerating. But that night, when we arrived at last, we were quickly certain that “a thousand candles” was, if anything, an understatement.At the hotel’s front door, we were greeted by a beautiful young woman and a waiter, holding a tray with two of Maroma’s signature margaritas (the secret ingredient is a dash of anise). And then an electric cart carried us slowly through an intricate maze of cobblestone paths – lined with those countless flickering candles and blazing torches – through patches of jungle, past manicured lawns and beautiful illuminated pools, to our room.In the room – not too large, but simple and beautiful – the bed was strewn with rose petals. Shuttered French doors opened onto a small private patio. On the patio, we looked across a tiny lawn to palm trees gently waving in the night breeze. From the lawn, steps led down to the beach and we could hear the waves breaking gently on the sand.

Perfection.That prolonged moment – the first trip down the candlelit pathways, the petal-strewn bed, the palm trees and the sounds of the surf in the night – is one of the Maroma memories that I flee to now as the snow blows past my window.There are others, of course.The tray, with hot coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice that arrived, discreetly, every morning on the table on our patio – where we could wake up and linger, listening to the waves, before walking to the main building for breakfast.The meals – wonderful food and wonderful service. Breakfast and lunch on the restaurant’s terraces, stair-stepping down to the beach. Dinners inside, gazing out through sweeping windows at the palms and the flickering candles and the moonlight reflecting on the water.The long, quiet days sitting in chairs on the beach, watching my wife swim happily in the gentle bay as I ordered yet another margarita from the always obliging staff.

The warm welcome, the friendly service, the staff in the restaurant who always seemed to know our names, the feeling of being sheltered and cared for.My wife remembers the spa and the yoga class on the beach at sunset.I remember the lights – the thousand candles and torches that lined the paths, the lights below glass tiles in the walkways around the main building, the candles that flickered on the restaurant’s patio tables at night and, above all, the light of the full moon rising out of the ocean on our last night there, throwing a glittering path of gold across the ocean.And I remember feeling, “This is magic.”

If my memories of the Maroma have the bright, sharp clarity of something precious and new, my memories of the Santa Caterina have the burnished glow of something cherished, brought out time and again over the years.The hotel is built atop – and, indeed, built into – a rocky cliff tumbling down to the Tyrrhenian Sea, just outside the town of Amalfi. The views from virtually every room are astonishing: out across the ocean and down along the coast. If the Maroma sprawls across its acres, protected from the world by a dense jungle, the Santa Caterina sprawls down the cliff, protected by the sheer vertical drop. A meandering trail leads from the main building, down through arbors, heavy with bright bougainvillea and clusters of ripe lemons. The path leads through terraced gardens, past several suites in separate villas, down to the edge of the sea. (For those in more of a hurry – or less interested in exercise – an elevator drops directly from the main building to the sea.) The Santa Caterina does not have a true beach. The cliff dives straight into the sea, but at the water’s edge, there is a swimming pool, filled fresh each day with sea water, a deck with beach chairs, steps into the ocean itself … and a fine small health club and an excellent restaurant.Like the Maroma, the Santa Caterina is built on a dream – but here the dream goes back more than a hundred years, through four generations of the same family. It is a dream that began in 1880 and survived a landslide, on Christmas Eve 1904, that carried away the entire hotel and left the family to start again, on a new site, with just six rooms. It is a dream that still runs strong. “I have lived here all my life,” says Giuseppina Gargano Gambardella, the matriarch of the family, “but every day I stop and take just three seconds to see something new – and I always do. It could be the breeze in the gardens or the light on the sea.

“This is love,” she says, “a great love – never finished, always changing. This isn’t a hotel, it is a life.”And Giuseppina, her sister, Carmela, and her son, Crescenzo, share that dream with their guests.And it is that dream that floats now in my memory.I remember the views, of course. The rocky coast, the small towns climbing the hillsides, the ocean – by day, sparkling in the sunlight, the blue water both brilliant and dark, and by night, glittering in the moonlight, with the lights of the town rising above it.I remember our room – Room 28, if memory can be trusted – for its simple, relaxed beauty, for the view from the terrace, and because we were told that this was the room where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton stayed, some 40 years ago, when they fled the set of “Cleopatra” at the beginning of their love affair.

I remember walking through the Santa Caterina’s beautiful lobby and the surrounding public rooms and feeling deeply relaxed and at home.I remember, almost above all, the maître d’, “Pino” (short for Giuseppino), who played his role to perfection, and almost beyond. Dressed always in a tuxedo, he greeted us by name at every meal, helped us order, confided, “I have something special for you tonight” as he presented something superb that wasn’t on the menu. So lovingly solicitous was Pino that I found myself becoming jealous when I saw him being equally friendly to other diners.I remember my wife beaming as she dived into the sea, laughing as she burst up from below the waters.I remember dinner on the restaurant terrace, gazing at the moon, tangled in clouds as it moved across the night sky, disappearing for long moments and then gliding into view again, casting a million dancing lights across the surface of the sea.And I remember thinking, “This is magic.”Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times and is generally depressed when it snows on his birthday in June.


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