Hidden Gems

This Desert Hotel Smells Like Sweet Lavender Dreams

At Albuquerque's Los Poblanos Historic Inn you can sleep amongst the blooms. And eat them, if you want.

Photo by Sergio Salvador
Photo by Sergio Salvador
Photo by Sergio Salvador

Think of lavender and your mind may wander to pungent fields in hills off the Mediterranean, the Middle East, or India, vast swaths of land flush annually with purple blooms perfuming not just the air but everyone who comes in contact.

But there’s no need to travel overseas to immerse yourself in this multifunctional blossom, used in everything from scented body products to medicinal purposes as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, sleep aid, and plague-repellant-or the fleas that carried the plague, anyway. (It might even help you in love. Lore says it was the secret weapon used by Cleopatra to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.)

No, a similar scent sensation could be experienced much closer to home. Like, say, in the fields of Sequim, Washington-the “lavender capital of the US,” with its Lavender Trail of farms and gift shops and an annual festival (July 15-17). Or Sage Creations Organic Farms in Palisade, Colorado, where every summer you can pick your own fresh bundles, impressing your friends (or more likely, your mom). At Lavender Hill Farm in Boyne City, Michigan you can take a guided tour and practice yoga in the fields. And at the eminent Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico you can actually sleep amongst the purple buds, in one of their luxury agriculturally-inspired Field Rooms. We would guess very, very soundly, just in time for National Fragrance Day this March 21.

Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam

Turns out that while it’s not native to the region, the drought-tolerant lavender plant thrives in a desert landscape, not needing much in the way of hydration. One good watering of the farm can last a month. Los Poblanos plants Grosso lavender, a French hybrid with dark blue spikes and gray green foliage that makes honey bees weak in the knees and yields the highest percentage of essential oil.

It’s used to make multiple products, all sold in the farm shop, including soaps, candles, hair oil, and lavender salt (both the bath kind and the edible kind). Book a treatment at Hacienda Spa, opened in July of 2021, and be spoiled with products using farm-grown botanicals. And definitely pick up their famous salve, the first product and still their best-selling, originally made by founder and owner Penny Rembe on her stovetop to soothe rough farm-working hands. It’s still hand-poured today. “It’s really been one of those products that’s phenomenal for everything,” says Brandilyn Fagan, director of sales. “The kitchen team uses it for burns. You can put it on bug bites. There’s just a million things it can be used for.”

Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam

A hotel rooted in Southwest history-and animals

Ancestral Pueblo Indians-those of the historic revolt of 1680 that overthrew Spanish rule for 12 years-once inhabited the land where Los Poblanos now sits. It’s named as an homage: Original settlers were thought to be from the Puebla, Mexico, its citizens, “Poblanos.”

In the 1930s the property was purchased by politician power-couple Albert Simms and his wife, Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms. While developing the land, the couple implemented and preserved much of what we see on the property today: the looming grain silos, now stenciled “Los Poblanos 1934” and the barn that would eventually become the restaurant Campo, and the farm shop. In a previous life, the property was a dairy farm that would become Creamland Dairies, supplying Albuquerque with much of its milk and laying the foundation for the dairy industry in New Mexico. The land to the Sandia mountains was dotted with purebred Guernsey and Holstein cows-the finest in the Southwest, they say.

Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam
Photo by Douglas Merriam

Today, you’ll see a few four-legged friends roaming the property, in a nod to its livestock past: a couple of sheep, and alpacas used to practice regenerative agriculture. “By walking around on the soil, their feet and their hooves stir up the soil, they loosen up the top, when it rains and it snows it allows the water to sink in at a better rate than it would have than if the soil were hard-packed,” explains Wes Brittenham, director of horticulture. The sheep’s wool has been given to local fiber artists, with plans to create their own textiles on the Los Poblanos property. The alpacas also act as roaming fertilizers, and occasionally, weed wackers. “Originally they were brought in because they eat bindweed, a weed that grows out in the fields, but not lavender,” says Brittenham. “They don’t eat enough to make a difference, but they’re sweet.”

There are chickens and free range guinea hens that provide natural pest control. And two picky peacocks that do as they please. “They stroll around and they’re kind of friendly,” says Brittenham. “This is breeding and display season so they march around and just look beautiful. They like to eat our bread and pastry. But it has to be fresh, not stale.”

Photo by Sergio Salvador
Photo by Sergio Salvador
Photo by Sergio Salvador

A conscientious crop that you can help harvest

Today’s historic inn-now the property’s Meem Rooms & Suiteswas envisioned in 1932, when Ruth Simms commissioned noted New Mexican architect John Gaw Meem to renovate the dairy farm’s ranch house to use as their home, in the Territorial Revival Style: an earthy, more formal take on the Spanish Pueblo Revival style. Meem also designed the La Quinta Cultural Center on the property, with a ballroom, parquet walnut floors, decorative Spanish tile and massive fireplaces. The now-rentable space was used for political and community events and art shows and was also home to the first swimming pool in Albuquerque-still there today-and elegant rose gardens designed by pioneering female landscape architect Rose Greely.

One thing about those rose gardens though-they practically guzzled water. So when the next owners, Armin and Penny Rembe, bought the place in 1976, they sought to plant a crop that did the opposite, conserving water while preserving soil structure. Today, the camel-like lavender is harvested annually by hand, typically in the early morning hours of June through August. And the work isn’t limited to those getting paid to do it. Guests of Los Poblanos can chip in as much or as little time as they’d like. And on Fridays during the harvest season, the public can volunteer as well.

There are a few things you should know though. “You’re gonna be out there all day so you need to dress accordingly with comfortable shoes, maybe pants and a long-sleeve shirt. We tell people, just imagine you’re going hiking for a day,” says Brittenham. Pack a hat for the sun, and a bottle of water to drink. And, oh, there’s bees. “We have lots and lots of beehives, and when the lavender’s blooming it’s full of bees. So if you’re allergic to or afraid of bees, maybe helping us harvest is not a great idea.”

Photo Courtesy of Los Poblanos
Photo Courtesy of Los Poblanos
Photo Courtesy of Los Poblanos

An opportunity to taste the rainbow

Want to sample the lavender? No problem. Sip a milky lavender latte at Campo, the on-property restaurant, or try cocktails like a lavender margarita, a lavender grapefruit spritz, or the Lavender ‘99, made with sparkling wine.

Besides lavender, the farm works in tandem with the kitchen at Campo, growing crops that both would be useful for hungry stomachs and that also pay homage to the land’s ancestral roots.

“The farm has always been there-since the Native Americans were farming that and over a thousand years ago,” says Brittenham. “We even grow some of the indigenous crops that they were growing long before the Europeans came, and try to honor that history as well.” That includes a Native American three sisters garden of corn, squash, and beans, that work intricately in unison. “The corn grows up tall and uses up a lot of nitrogen from the soil, so you plant beans at the bottom which are nitrogen fixers. The squash planted around the base spreads out with the big leaves and helps shade the soil, so it saves water by preventing evaporation.”

Photo courtesy of Los Poblanos
Photo courtesy of Los Poblanos
Photo courtesy of Los Poblanos

Herbs grown-like thyme and sage-are used in Campo’s cocktails, but they’ll also grow things like African blue basil, and shiso, and experiment with bitters and whatever else they think of. “We’re always looking on the property at things growing: is it low water use, is it edible, is it distillable, is it food for native pollinators?” says Brittenham. “How many multiple uses can we get out of a plant? Water is precious in the desert, so if we’re going to be planting something and giving it more water it has to be multifunctional.”

Two tasting rooms are projected to open in July of 2023: one attached to a new Los Poblanos farm shop in Santa Fe and another attached to the existing shop in downtown Albuquerque. There they’ll be featuring New Mexican spirits, wines, and beers. And most importantly, what will be their newest product: gin, made with botanicals from the farm, both lavender and otherwise. Lead botanical distiller Jamie Lord recently attended Moonshine University in Kentucky (note to self: research Moonshine University in Kentucky) to learn the ins and outs of gin distillation for the new endeavor. So soon, you may be able to spray your room with lavender mist, light a lavender candle, slather yourself in lavender salve, or lotion, or oil, while sipping a lavender gin martini. Kind of like James Bond, if he were into self-care.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She wonders if Cleopatra was onto something. 

Hidden Gems

Get Refreshed on This Tranquil Florida Island

Come for the beaches, stay for the shrimp festivals and pirates.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Between Key West, Everglades National Park, Miami, and an adorable rodent named Mickey Mouse, Florida reigns as the quintessential summertime vacation destination. But amidst all the well-trod destinations, one comparatively quiet island on the state’s northernmost coast is an oceanic sleeper hit with all the “fun in the sun,” minus the hordes. In fact, Amelia Island is so far north-about 45 minutes north of Jacksonville-that it’s practically Georgia, with native flora that looks more Savannah than South Beach and with historic lore and nautical noshes to match.

Part of the same string of barrier islands that hug Georgia’s coast, Amelia Island is the first of that chain to cross the state line. Considering its geographic proximity, it’s no wonder that the 13-mile-long island is draped in Spanish moss and is refreshingly cooler than the rest of the sweltering state. It’s a place of Native American stories and swashbuckling history, of tortoises and gingerbread pirate ships, and of shrimp festivals and CBD-infused spa treatments. Amelia was populated for centuries by the Timucua people before Spanish explorers, pirates, and Civil War fortresses came barging in, and long before the island’s Fernandina Beach became a bastion of brick-lined sidewalks, Victorian buildings, fudge shops, and saloons.

Unlike the palm tree-lined calamity of South Beach, the swarming theme parks of central Florida, the burnt rubber of Daytona Beach, or even the surprising New Orleans-y vibes of Pensacola, the serenity of Amelia Island, woven with trout-filled waterways and lined with luxury hotels, feels like a slice of Floridian life all its own.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Where to stay on Amelia Island

Rising like a castle on the sandy shores, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is the queen of the island. And like any regal queen, the property celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021 in style, with a thorough glow up. The crown jewel of Amelia Island glistens even more brightly these days, with refreshed balcony-equipped rooms, design touches and tones inspired by the surrounding natural landscape, and enough high-quality restaurants to cater a jubilee.

Steps from the beach, the property is the ultimate oceanfront oasis, equipped with Floridian essentials like an 18-hole golf course, a fully loaded spa with CBD-infused massages and their signature zero-gravity touch therapy in hand-woven hammocks, and heated pools with chic, shaded cabanas. Guests can embark on the resort naturalist program, taking a leisurely walking tour around the property to learn about the flora and fauna, including the rare chance to see both sand-digging gopher tortoises and marsh rabbits on the same dune, surely contemplating a footrace. With a big concentration on the culinary (more on that later), the hotel offers monthly “chef’s theater” cooking demonstrations, as well as “Hook, Line & Cruise” outings, where guests embark on fishing excursions, culminating with ceviche prepared by a chef back on the dock.

For something a bit more intimate, Amelia Island boasts quaint inns like Elizabeth Point Lodge, a Nantucket-style cottage B&B right on the beach. Their smattering of suites and guest rooms are equipped with four-poster beds, balconies, and a charming front porch lined with rocking chairs. Closer to downtown Fernandina Beach, Williams House is a B&B that oozes romance and charm, with two-course breakfasts each morning and 10 rooms scattered across three carriage houses and Antebellum mansions.

Timoti's Seafood Shak
Timoti’s Seafood Shak
Timoti’s Seafood Shak

Binge on shrimp and blackened fish tacos

Say what you will about Florida, but the state has good seafood-some of the best in the country, in fact. Amelia Island in particular is the kind of nautical nirvana where chefs go fishing early in the morning and then serve their catch at lunch, or even fillet it on the marina dock right before your eyes.

On the casual end of the spectrum, Timoti’s Seafood Shack in downtown Fernandina Beach is the kind of place that slings Spongebob-worthy crab patty burgers, fried oyster baskets, hush puppies, and blackened mahi tacos-and hangs signage that reads “No shoes, no shirt, no shrimp!”

Nestled under a bridge at a marina, Down Under has become a dockside institution all its own. Formerly a fish camp that sold bait to fishermen before being turned into a seafaring restaurant in 1982, it’s become an iconic stopover. Anglers looking to drop anchor at the dock hunker down on the huge deck for creamy crab dip, peel-and-eat shrimp, and grouper Monterey, broiled under a layer of molten Monterey Jack cheese and caramelized onions.

Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

On the higher end, seafood shines at the myriad restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton. Coast is the most locally inspired, offering an elevated take on Florida’s bounty. They source fish and seafood from local fishermen for dishes like shrimp Louie salads, garlic-buttery shrimp boules (basically a kind of shrimp chowder in a fresh bread bowl), and blackened flounder sandwiches, alongside pimento-filled arancini and fried green tomatoes slathered in gooey Burrata. Poolside Coquina takes a Latin approach, with bracingly fresh catch-of-the-day ceviche, spicy shrimp aguachile, and whole roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves and spritzed with lime.

Then there’s Salt, the ritziest of the restaurants at The Ritz, so named for its emphasis on infused sea salts. Expertly deployed by seasoned chef Okan Kizilbayir, the regal restaurant features ever-changing tasting menus inspired by both land and sea, served up in artful presentations with sauces poured table side and dainty scoops of ice cream gilded with edible gold. Whether a la carte or prix fixe, Kizilbayir’s menu changes constantly, from a squid ink paella with lobster soffrito to a schnitzel-looking blackened skate with a lustrous butternut escabeche broth. If you can snag a reservation, it’s all best enjoyed at the two-person chef’s table in a wine-filled room inside the kitchen.

For something more sugar than salt, hit up the aptly dubbed Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge. This cute and kitschy sweet shop is still stirring fudge, pralines, caramels, and other treats the old fashioned way. They churn the goods with long wooden paddles, then fold and flip the cooled concoction with so much gumption that there are fudge stains on the ceiling.

The Palace Saloon
The Palace Saloon
The Palace Saloon

Drink with buccaneers and ghosts

Indoor-outdoor bars with live music are a popular pastime on the island, exemplified by local cornerstones like Green Turtle Tavern. The huge bar looks like a lowcountry cabin, or like a real life version of True Blood‘s Merlotte’s. But instead of vampires and bottled blood, it’s country bands and reggae musicians with a side of frozen strawberry margaritas.

Just around the corner, Palace Saloon peddles a different kind of kitsch-the type that involves boozy punch and ghost stories. Established in 1903, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Florida, even discreetly making sales through Prohibition. In its earliest heyday, this rustic watering hole was a veritable Cheers for thirsty ship captains. Nowadays, it’s a preserved-in-time relic outfitted with a dusty jukebox, mosaic-tile floors, and an ornate wood bar that looks like something out of Hill House-which makes sense, considering the saloon may or may not be haunted by the booze-loving ghost of a former bartender. The drink of choice? The deceptively boozy Pirate’s Punch, made with banana liqueur, triple sec, white rum, Amaretto, grenadine, orange juice, and pineapple juice.

Back at the encompassing Ritz-Carlton, The Lobby Bar, despite its modest name, wows with meticulous mixology. Their roster includes old fashioneds smoked in an elaborate glass box that looks like an A+ science project, alongside jaw-dropping sushi platters large enough to satiate a great white.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Lounge on beaches full of history

In addition to aforementioned ocean-to-table fishing excursions, Amelia Island is teeming with outdoor recreation for the naval historian, the paddle boarder, and everyone in between. Naturally, beach-going is a primary pastime here, with 13 miles of sandy shoreline and more than 40 public access points with free parking. (Pro tip: If you have a Florida license plate, you’re allowed to drive your vehicle right onto the beach in select areas, for optimal sunrise vibes.)

The island’s beaches are divvied into three main sections: the Main Beach, Central Amelia Island, and American Beach. The former is nicknamed the “family zone” for its beachfront restaurants, mini golf, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. Whereas Central Amelia Island has more recreational options, like paddle board rentals, kayaking, and walking and biking trails through marshy Egans Creek Greenway. Then there’s American Beach, a parcel of shoreline set aside in 1935 by the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company to combat the state’s segregation laws. Over the years, it served as an oceanic getaway for famed sunbathers like Ray Charles and James Brown, and today it’s a stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail.

On the very northern tip of Amelia Island, Fort Clinch State Park is a mashup of nature and ironclad Civil War lore. Nestled along the St. Mary’s River that separates Florida from Georgia, and lined with rows of olden cannons, sits a brick fortress that was initially constructed in 1847 to defend the US against foreign invaders, a la the War of 1812. Following the start of the Civil War, the fort began under Confederate control until Union troops took over in 1862. Today, visitors can explore the fort’s various labyrinthine rooms or branch out and hike along oak-lined trails throughout the 1,400-acre park.

Amelia Island
Amelia Island
Amelia Island

Party like a pirate

As evidenced by the kitschy taverns, fudge-flinging candy shops, and the omnipresence of wooden pirate statues scattered throughout Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island isn’t shy about getting eccentric. Indeed, it’s prime territory for some of the quirkiest fetes in Florida, like the wildly popular Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. A celebration of one of the island’s most popular provisions (as seen on every restaurant menu in the vicinity), the festival is like Lollapalooza for shellfish. Celebrations are comprised of parades, art shows, artisan vendors, elaborately decorated shrimp boats, pirate-themed costume contests, and the Miss Shrimp Festival Pageant. Held annually in late-April and/or early-May, it’s not uncommon to see giant shrimp floats roving through downtown Fernandina Beach and dogs trotting by in shrimp costumes, past a sea of food vendors slinging all manner of shrimpy specialties.

Speaking of pirates, their swashbuckling lore inspires another seasonal pastime here on the island. The deep waters at Port Fernandina were once an easy retreat for pirate ships, and therefore used to be a haven for the likes of Blackbeard and Luis Aury. The island is now a haven for another kind of pirate ship-one made of gingerbread. The S.S. Amelia is an annual holiday tradition at The Ritz-Carlton, where a giant gingerbread pirate ship drops anchor in the lobby for the season, complete with cookie cannons, a candy-filled treasure chest, masts and sails, and of course, a pirate captain who is technically edible.

Other happenings include the annual Right Whale Festival, held every November as an altruistic celebration of the whale that comes to northeast Florida to give birth. The family-friendly event is designed to raise awareness for the endangered species, offering edutainment elements alongside food trucks, live music, and ocean-themed activities for kids.

Then, come new year, you won’t be surprised to learn that instead of a ball drop, Amelia Island hosts a shrimp drop in downtown Fernandina Beach. A giant bedazzled shrimp is lowered at the stroke of midnight, beckoning a whole new year of fishing, ceviche-eating, and gingerbread piracy.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

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