From miserable New York in March to blissful, sunny Cancun. Click on any purple text to see pictures. More pix coming when I get them from Geoff.
Day Zero: Middletown to JFK
We live far enough from the major NYC area airports that, if we have a morning flight, our trip actually begins the day before. We typically stay at a hotel with airport shuttle service, thus ensuring that we won't get stuck in traffic and miss our flight (we've been late to everything from craft fairs to Dr. Benstock gigs because of blasted traffic, particularly on the bridges). On this particular day I had several heart attacks, because we got the snowstorm from hell and JetBlue (our airline) cancelled everything in the northeast. I understood that it was so they could have service back up and running the next day, but in my beleaguered, SAD-addled mind all I could see was our desperately needed vacation going up in smoke. The only time I've ever been more desperate to get out of Dodge was when we hit the road for Graceland. We finally made it to the Days Inn at JFK after a harrowing cab ride to the Middletown train station in the snow and a rush hour A train ride to JFK with all of our luggage and half the population of New York. In the hotel room I downed two beers while repeatedly pestering Paul to call JetBlue to get the latest updates (I was way too strung out to talk to them), while surfing between bits of 9 to Five, Walk the Line, Curb Your Enthusiasm (which featured a plot about lost plane tickets) and Singles on the tube. I think I slept about two hours the entire night.
Day One: JFK to Cancun!
Neither of us was sleeping too well, so we managed to catch the 5:30 AM shuttle to the airport. I think it's safe to say we were the first passengers to check in for our flight! To say I was relieved to learn it was still scheduled would be a major understatement. About a third of their flights were still cancelled. We grabbed some breakfast and played musical gates, since they kept changing gates for all their flights. After a delay of about 45 minutes, which was incredibly good--Kristy and Geoff's flight was delayed about five hours--we took off and left the mess in New York behind!
The Cancun airport was a very different experience when we started going there in 1999 than it is now. It used to be this third world nightmare, with no air conditioning and no delineated lines for getting through immigration. Since many flights arrive simultaneously, that meant thousands of bodies pushing and shoving en masse to reach the front of the line. We saw many folks come very nearly to blows and lots more on the verge of passing out from the heat. The process took hours. What a difference a few years makes. They overhauled the terminal, added AC and a velvet rope, and now getting through immigration and customs is an easy and speedy process. Apparently some folks haven't gotten the message, though: these two fifty-something women from Lake Forest, IL (I peeked at one's luggage tag) decided to cut into the front of the line and my heart was warmed by the fact that a customs inspector busted one of them for having a sandwich she hadn't declared on her form and searched her bags. As Nelson would say on The Simpsons, "Ha ha!"
Another Cancun arrival ritual is getting to your ground transportation while approximately 1000 guys try to grab your bags and lead you to their company's van or bus (and sell you a time share). Geoff had booked our ground transportation through Thomas More Travel, a venerable Cancun company with which the others dare not mess. I simply held our voucher with the Thomas More logo peeking out and the vultures backed right off! We met some nice folks in our van and, oddly, it turned out we were the Cancun old-timers in the group, since this was our sixth trip down. We gave some restaurant recommendations and wished everyone well.
It was weird to arrive at VCI (Club Internacional de Cancun, but it's abbreviated VCI) and not have Kristy and Geoff either with us or already there, but they were still at Logan Airport. We were way ahead of check-in time and figured we'd just check our luggage and head out in search of lunch, but they let us check in, anyway. We changed and made our way down to Restaurant La Palapa, which is under a giant open-air palapa and faces out to the beach, the Gulf and, in the distance, Isla Mujures, my favorite view in Cancun. After some tacos and beers we were ready to hit the pool (and, no, we didn't wait any hour before swimming!). After a swim and some poolside reading time I started to get a little concerned about Kristy and Geoff, so we headed up to the lobby, hoping to maybe get online and check the status of their flight and pick up some beer from La Tienda, the handy store, figuring they'd need it when they finally arrived. We were extremely relieved to see them at the front desk and told them we were on our way to pick up beer, which proved to be a popular idea. You should hear the story of what they went through. Never fly USAir, that's all I'll say on the subject. They changed and we went to Captain's Cove for dinner, which is on the lagoon. There have been times in the past when we've eaten there that we've seen crocodiles, which the waiters attract by throwing food down for them. It's like dinner theater. This time, though, it was really windy, so the plastic sides were down and we didn't venture to the edge of the deck.
After morning swims in both pool and off the club's beach, where Paul and I did a little snorkeling (not much to see that day--one fish and a lot of sea grass), we headed into downtown Cancun for lunch at Gory Tacos and a little shopping in the markets. I love Gory Tacos. It's this slightly run down little hole in the wall with good, inexpensive food and black and white photos on the walls from classic Mexican films. There were also some residual decorations up from both Christmas and Valentine's Day. I had enchiladas and they were featuring two-for-one Victoria beers, so naturally we each had two.
Some of the markets were slowly closing up for siesta while we shopped around, but Kristy and Geoff managed to score a dress for a young friend of theirs. We found one market that was almost all stalls with shoes and was very crowded. We now know where the locals shop for shoes! That market also featured a stall that was an optometrist! Call me bourgeois, but I find the idea of getting my eye care from a stall in an open air market slightly unsettling. I wonder if they take insurance?
After a return to the club on the city bus and another leisurely swim in the pool we dressed and slowly made our way to Carlos & Charlie's for dinner. We dropped into Plaza la Fiesta and started scouting out our week's purchases. Plaza la Fiesta has everything, from home decor to clothing to booze. We didn't buy anything then, but we cut quite a swath there later in the week! After that we wandered over to Forum by the Sea, which I hear was largely demolished by Hurricane Wilma (like a lot of Cancun), but was looking all shiny and new. While Kristy shopped for silver jewelry (one of her major Cancun activities) Paul and I found a store with lots of Mexican wrestling masks. Alas, I couldn't convince him to buy one.
Carlos & Charlie's is a chain in Mexico, owned by the same folks responsible for Senor Frog's, although it's not quite as frenetic. It IS loud, though, and most of our conversations there feature me yelling "WHAT?" a lot. This was one of several places we heard the song "YMCA" during the week, along with this vile number featuring lyrics that go "Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" Shudder! We spaved money by ordering this big, cylindrical beer keg, which sat on our table and allowed each of us to have two plus beers for less than the price of one large beer apiece. You can't argue with those economics!
The villas at VCI all feature kitchens, but on previous trips we've pretty much only used the refrigerator and microwave oven. This time Paul made us two big breakfasts, which were both yummy and allowed us to use up leftovers, particularly later in the week, when we had leftover steak in our eggs. We also ended up with a bag of groceries we hadn't expected, thanks to some friends of Geoff's family, who'd been there the previous week and had seen his last name on the computer and thought his parents were there. They left all kinds of oddball stuff, including an unopened bottle of vodka and a bottle of Scotch about two-thirds full. I made Greyhounds for breakfast using the vodka (thanks, folks!).
After our big breakfast we headed down to the beach and read, swam and generally took it easy, ordering a quesadilla and some chips and guacamole when we got hungry. It's funny: Cancun is largely like everything I hear about cruise ships. Eat, drink, swim, repeat. Not that I'm complaining. Those are three of my favorite activities! I am a born swimmer, as is Paul. I'm constantly amazed that we (and Kristy and Geoff) seem to be the only people over the age of ten willing to get our hair wet in the pool or ocean. I can't imagine going to the tropics and not spending a lot of time underwater.
For years we'd been meaning to hit the Lobby Bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which features live music and we finally made it there on this particular evening. We got there on the early side, so it was a lone piano player. I was glad we'd dressed up, because it was very elegant. Our waitress was extremely attentive. No sooner would we finish a drink or would the three-tiered snack tray get low than she'd be there to bring us another. I had a Gin Fizz, a Mojito and a Pink Lady, all very yummy. Kristy got the fancy special margarita, which was excellent, and Paul had a martini, which was made with Bombay Sapphire gin. I will definitely go back.
We'd chosen this particular night for the Ritz-Carlton because it was close to Puerto Madero, where we were having dinner. It's an Argentinean steak and seafood house on the lagoon and when you walk in you're greeted by cases with large hunks of raw meat and wine. They serve these pillow-like puffy potatoes which come family style in a basket, which we always get. Kristy, Paul and I shared a bottle of Argentinean malbec wine and I had shrimp Puerto, which was beyond yummy. Paul and I shared a flan for dessert and I felt like I might have to be rolled out of there, since I was so full.
We were up early the next morning to catch a bus that Royal Resorts provides to take folks to see their newest property, the Royal Haciendas, located just outside Playa del Carmen. The ride took about an hour and, even though we've done it before, I like it because it gives us a chance to see a little of the country outside the resort area. The Royal Haciendas is still very much under construction, although the part that's done looks fabulous and part of it is already habitable. I love the bright brick red, mustard yellow and deep blue color scheme they chose. We were early for lunch with Catherine, a Royal Resorts salesperson Geoff and Kristy know pretty well by now and have done business with, so we took a cab into PdC and wandered and shopped for a little while. I found a store I loved, which was full of handcrafted Day of the Dead, loteria card and El Santo (the Mexican wrestler and film star) kitsch. I bought a Day of the Dead Elvis. Catherine treated us to a very nice lunch at the Royal Haciendas. There was tons of good food on the buffet and we needed the swim and tour of the villas we took after all we ate!
One thing about all the swimming we do down there is that, in spite of all the big meals we eat, we're hungry when the next meal rolls around. On this night we grabbed a cab and had dinner at Los Almendros, which is in downtown Cancun. I really like getting out of the Hotel Zone and into the downtown area. One could go a week seeing only vacationing tourists and the Mexicans who wait on them. If I wanted that I'd stay in the states. Los Almendros features authentic Mayan cuisine and there's a dish someone always gets (this time it was me), which I can't recall the name of, but it features ground turkey, peppers, a hard boiled egg and this really spicy sauce which looks for all the world like motor oil. It's got the same color and viscosity. It's really good, whether or not the presentation leaves something to be desired.
We skipped dessert at Los Almendros because Geoff had the brilliant idea to head over to Pericos afterward for drinks. I LOVE Pericos and its Mexican Revolution/Day of the Dead theme and was feeling kind of bad that it looked like we wouldn't be going there this time around. There are just too many places to eat down there and not enough meals to hit them all every year. However, the drinks idea was perfect. It's all about the atmosphere there, anyway. I had a banana daiquiri, then asked the bartender to make me "something blue" for the second round (yeah, I'd had a few). He basically brought me a blue pina colada. He called it a Blue Hawaiian, but I've made Blue Hawaiians and they just don't look like that. No matter, it was good and that's all that counts! The bar was pretty quiet by the time we got there and we got a lot of attention from him. He did some tricks for us, including a balancing act with three Pepsi bottles. He challenged Paul to try it and Paul actually did it! The bartender seemed pretty surprised by that! He also did one that involved straws, which he finally made work, but the real trick was getting those straws to not blow away, since the wind was coming in pretty steadily.
Often we spend a day at the Royal Sands while in Cancun. It's one of the Royal Resorts and there is a shuttle bus from VCI, so it's nice to head over and use their pool and facilities for a change of pace. The beach at VCI is on the Gulf side of Cancun and has very little in the way of surf, which makes it a good beach for snorkeling. The Sands is on the Caribbean Sea side and has surf that can be pretty severe. I went in for a little while. It was fun, but there was a pretty serious undertow, so I headed for the pool after getting bitch slapped a few times by the waves. We wiled away the day swimming and having burgers and beers poolside. And shopping! The Sands has a great boutique and Paul got an aloha shirt with tikis, surfboards and beach buggies on it and I got an orange and white blouse that could have been one of Annette Funicello's costumes in any of the "beach party" films. I also got a bracelet and Paul got a pinkie ring(!) of "exotic wood." The Sands is very sleek and glamorous, but I realized this time I prefer VCI and its retro beauty and charm.
Dinner on this evening was taken at La Destileria, which is both restaurant and tequila museum and can provide you with any tequila you could ever desire. Who knew there were so many? I ordered a margarita and when the waiter asked if I'd like it "grande" I said "Si!" Grande turned out to be approximately the size of a barrel. I swear, there were at least three margaritas in that gigantic glass, maybe more. I was already well into my margarita when the first of two mariachi bands arrived at the table. This is when the evening went from enjoyable to downright hilarious. They were taking requests, so Paul requested a song called "La Virgen de la Macarena," a traditional Spanish song, figuring we'd hear something that sounded like "The Lonely Bull." What they heard, and therefore played, was the good old "Macarena" we all know and probably wish we'd never hear again--all seemingly 87 verses. It was really loud and I couldn't make extended eye contact with anyone at the table because I would have completely lost it. I said to Paul, "I never thought I'd live to see the day you requested the 'Macarena.'" and he replied, "Neither did I."
We ventured down to La Palapa for a big breakfast, because this was the day we were scheduled for the Jungle Tour, which involves you getting your own Wave Runner, a Jet Ski-like vessel (see picture above), and gunning it full throttle through both mangroves and open water to an anchorage area where you snorkel for a little while, then do the journey again in reverse. The Wave Runners were fun and very, um, interactive. It was a fairly breezy day and they wanted you to run your engine as fast as it would go, so we got very wet and took on a lot of water hitting waves and pounding over the white caps. I was glad I didn't lose a contact lens, since I kept taking water right in the face. It reminded me of both the speedboats in the opening credits of Miami Vice and of a James Bond chase scene. There was a little coral to see in the snorkeling area and lots of fish. The fish were everywhere and the young girls in our group started screaming when the fish came near them. This isn't the first time I've seen this reaction while snorkeling. What did they think they'd see? Anyway, I found out later the fish were all around us because the guide was chumming the water. Glad I didn't know that at the time or I would have been looking over my shoulder for sharks. Anyway, it was really fun and the pretty white fish didn't attack the screaming girls (although they would have been justified).
This was a very action-packed day for us. We had time for a swim after returning from snorkeling and before getting ready for dinner at La Habichuela, which is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, not just in Cancun. It's so pretty and the weather was perfect, so we sat in the garden, surrounded by trees with white Christmas lights and Mayan sculpture. It was magical. Kristy and I always get the same thing at La Habichuela: Caesar salad and shrimp in tequila sauce, both of which are prepared at your table. The shrimp involves pyrotechnics, as does the Mayan coffee Kristy ordered after dinner. The waiter who made the Caesar salad seemed to have a little trouble, because they make the dressing from scratch and he stirred and stirred and stirred, until a manager came over and gave him some help. It was all so good, though. Paul and I split a flan for dessert (I was on a big flan kick this week) and I had a Kahlua and he had a xtabentun, a Mayan liqueur which tastes like licorice.
After dinner we hit Hacienda Sisal. They have dinner shows there, but we've only ever been after dinner, because that's when they have live music and dancing. It was great on this visit because we were treated to the Rat Pack vocal stylings of Johnny Fortuna, who was billed as being direct from Vegas and I totally believe it. Paul thought he was channeling Tom Jones. He did Elvis, Frank, Dean and more and we got a lot of dancing in. I had a blast and we closed the place. I'd love it if the music is as good the next time we're there!
The day before we had to come home. It was very warm and sunny and we spent a lot of time swimming and sitting by the pool. It was wonderful. We eventually threw on some clothes and made our way to Chocko's & Tere for lunch, which has pretty much been in Cancun since Cancun was developed. Apparently they sustained a lot of damage because of Wilma, but they're open again, looking clean and new, and their menu hasn't changed. Paul and I shared chicken enchiladas and a seafood salad, which still had the suction cups on the bits of octopus. I'm really not squeamish, but I had to cut those off before eating it. It was a texture issue. This was our shopping day and we returned to Plaza la Fiesta and made our final choices: a blue glass mask which you can illuminate from behind with a candle, a brightly painted pink vase, chocolates for presents, postcards, etc. I also got some little sombreros from a store in Plaza Caracol for the corner of our kitchen that is quickly being given over to retro Mexi-kitsch.
After all that shopping we were ready for a drink, so we stopped at Cancun's only tiki bar, which is fairly new. It's called Lucky Monkey and the decor is great. Geoff took lots of pictures. It was mainly a REALLY LOUD party bar, although it was so early in the day that we were practically the only people there. The drinks were fairly uninspiring, but it was happy hour, so we unexpectedly got two of the drinks we ordered for our second round, so these huge drinks kept getting placed in front of us. They didn't all come out at the same time, though, so you never knew when someone was going to get a bucket sized drink. That was funny.
We made it back to VCI just after sunset and we took a moonlight swim. The VCI pool is so magical at night, all lit up, with the gardens surrounding it and the pool bar humming with activity, the smells of fried food wafting over from La Palapa. We weren't hungry after all those huge drinks, so dinner was sushi in the villa at about 11:00. Paul and I sat out on the balcony, which overlooks the pool, and he smoked one of the Cuban cigars he'd bought. We tried not to think about leaving the next morning.
Our van to the airport left at 9:00 AM, so after huevos rancheros at La Palapa and a quick last trip to the beach, we left for home. Sigh. The Mexico side of things was easy. We got through customs at JFK with no issues, but the journey to M-town was far from relaxing. We just barely made our train. However, there was a cab waiting in the train station, which was able to take us home. That never happens, so that was a surprising bit of good news. Even better, we pulled up to our house and found it both untampered with and largely snow free. YES! Got out of shoveling that mess!
We're grateful to Geoff and Kristy for inviting us to Cancun year after year. Winter hit us late this year, but it hit us hard. I was on my last nerve before we left and I came back refreshed and ready for spring!