Friday, January 04, 2008

A Mexican Getaway

Happy Belated New Year! My apologies for the lack of recent posts. Between the post-holiday vacation recovery (funny, I always seem to need a vacation after a vacation) and the head cold that I've been fighting, I hadn't felt up for posting until today.

As I mentioned in my last post, Karen and I took off for a little winter getaway last week. Our destination: the Riviera Maya, just north of the Mexican town of Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean Sea. We started our vacation very early on Christmas Eve, dragging ourselves to the airport in the middle of the night for our 6am flight. Our journey would take us most of the day, with a short layover in Phoenix. We arrived at the Cancún airport in the late afternoon, found our luggage (after an annoyingly long wait), and met up with the car service that we booked to take us to the hotel. (I'd like to give props to our transfer service, Balam Caribbean Transfers. Not only are they cheaper than a taxi, they also take you to your destination in style; we rode in an Escalade on the way to the hotel and in a Mercedes E-Class on the way back to the airport. Plus, the drivers were very courteous and were right on schedule.)

Highway 307, the dusty road connecting the airport to the Riviera Maya, was completely unremarkable save for the ubiquitous billboards that interrupted our view of the surrounding forests and the occasional giant-sized speed bumps that brought traffic to a standstill. Finally, after 40 minutes, our driver slowed down, made a left turn, and drove up to the gate leading to our destination, the Secrets Capri Riviera Cancún resort. One of Trip Advisor's top-rated hotels in the area, the all-inclusive Secrets Capri would be our home for the next week.

As we arrived, we were greeted with a flute of champagne and a cool towel. After checking in, we headed up to our room, a third floor unit with a balcony overlooking the lush tropical forest that surrounded the hotel. Though we were tired from a long day of travel, we took a quick tour through the hotel, pool, and adjacent beach front (all beaches in Mexico are owned by the federal government) before we headed to dinner. Since it was Christmas Eve, the resort was hosting a special dinner in the Riviera, their general-purpose buffet restaurant. Both Karen and I were very pleasantly surprised with the dinner spread. We both started with a plate of appetizers which included crab legs, smoked swordfish, several different types of pâté, and an outrageously rich duck foie gras mousse.

The main dishes were somewhat typical of an American-style buffet: roast beef, turkey, grilled asparagus. A couple of highlights were the truffled mashed potatoes and the lobster-stuffed portobello mushrooms. For this special dinner, the restaurant prepared a large assortment of delectable treats for dessert.

Though it was the night before Christmas, the only snow to be found was on the gingerbread houses.

The next day, Christmas Day, we slept in, paying off the sleep debt that we incurred on the journey from the Bay Area to the Caribbean. Since we had dinner at the Riviera the previous night, we wanted to try one of the other four restaurants at the resort. We decided to have lunch at Oceana, the seafood restaurant overlooking the beach, where Karen dined on a pan-seared grouper filet, while I enjoyed the grilled Atlantic salmon. In addition to the Riviera and Oceana, the resort has three other restaurants: Portofino, an Italian restaurant; Himitsu, which features Pan-Asian cuisine; and the Seaside Grill. Over the course of our stay, we had the opportunity to sample the food at each of these restaurants.

After lunch, we headed out to the pool and spent the afternoon soaking in the warm rays of the sun lying out on the chaise chairs on the deck and floating on the foam mats in the pool. The figure-eight shaped pool was quite nice; it was actually separated into two different pools, one warm and one cool, so we could choose which one suited our particular preference. Hanging out by the pool would be our primary activity during our stay. As we lounged in the sun, we caught up on our reading list: during our trip, I finished up The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book that I started during my trip to Sweden, while Karen read Heat. While we read our books, we took full advantage of the all-inclusive package by making sure that we were supplied with a steady stream of cocktails. For me, the drink of this trip was the strawberry daiquiri. At first, Karen laughed at me for ordering these foo-foo drinks, but by the end of our trip, she was ordering them with me. Since it was Christmas Day, the resort had another special meal in store for us that evening, a Christmas dinner on the beach. That night, we dined under the stars, enjoying fare such as marinated flank steak, grilled chorizo, and paella, which was prepared just a few feet from our table in a giant paella pan.

The next day, we grabbed a quick buffet breakfast at the Riviera. The fare was fairly typical of an American style breakfast - omelets to order, pancakes, sausages, and bacon. After finishing breakfast, we spent the bulk of the day once again reading poolside. After a day in the sun, we went back to our room to clean up and get ready for our evening massages. As a special gift to the guests, the spa was offering half-price treatments that day, so we jumped at the opportunity and booked a couple's "Under the Stars" massage session. We received our treatments after sunset on a raised wooden platform in one corner of the resort right on the beach. The idea of a massage under the stars was quite romantic, though it did get a bit chilly with the wind gusting off of the water. After our massages, we headed off for dinner at Oceana, where we both ordered their version of Surf and Turf, beef tenderloin with grilled shrimp. While Karen was content with the shrimp, I asked if I could substitute lobster, which was offered in another entrée, for the shrimp. Our waiter said that it wasn't a problem. However, instead of substituting the shrimp, he brought me both entrées! I guess that with the all-inclusive package, you can practically get as much of anything off the menu as you desire. The lobster turned out to be spiny lobster instead of American lobster, but I wasn't going to complain too much about that.

The next day, we decided to mix up our activities a bit. Since we were in the Mayan region, we wanted to check out some of the ruins in the area. One of the most famous coastal ruins is Tulum. We woke up early and caught the bus for the hour-long ride to the ruins. Unlike the more famous Chichen Itza, Tulum is considerably more compact, so our tour would only take a couple of hours. The first part of the tour was led by a local Maya guide, who gave us a very entertaining lecture on the history of the ruins and surrounding area.

The last half of our visit was unstructured time, so we took the opportunity to wander around the site and snapped many photos of the ruins, including the main temple where the high priests performed human sacrifices to the gods.

The ruins run right up to a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Below the cliffs is a beach that was packed with visitors who walked down the wooden staircase to enjoy a dip in the warm ocean waters. Before Karen took a quick dip at the beach, we got a few photos that captured the spectacular view of the azure waters of the Caribbean.

After returning to the the resort, we grabbed a quick lunch at Riviera before we headed out to our usual spot next to the pool. After another relaxing afternoon in the sun, we decided to try a new restaurant for dinner and checked out the Seaside Grill. Located in the same building as Oceana, this restaurant featured a meat-centric menu. Karen ordered the grilled pork chop, while I selected the ribeye steak. The "ribeye" turned out to be a strip steak cut, which was fine with me, but it was a touch on the fatty side, especially with the large pat of compound butter which topped the steak.

Unfortunately, the next morning I woke up with a bit of a stomach bug. Luckily for me, it was not a full blown case of Montezuma's revenge, but it lingered with me on and off throughout the rest of the trip. It wasn't too serious and didn't prevent me from doing anything during the trip, but it was definitely a nuisance. As a result, I only ate a light meal at the Riviera before we grabbed a taxi and headed into Playa del Carmen to check out the town. Since our cabbie dropped us off near the beach, we decided to check that out first. The beach in Playa del Carmen was crowded, quite a bit more than the one at the Secrets Capri, which made me appreciate the relative space that we enjoyed back at the resort. Despite the crowds, Karen and I enjoyed a nice, long walk on the soft, white sands of the beach before finding an open spot to settle down. We both took a quick dip in the ocean water, which was very refreshing on this warm day.

While the all-inclusive package was nice (we certainly enjoyed our share of cocktails), it also discouraged us from checking out the local food - we definitely weren't going to get refunds for the meals that we didn't eat at the resort. However, since we were already in town, we thought that it would be nice to sample some of the local cuisine, even though we had already paid for the food back at the resort. We hung out at the beach until the sun was low on the horizon before heading into the central district in town which is centered around 5th Avenue. As we walked down 5th Avenue, we were surprised at how touristy it was - it was very reminiscent of Fisherman's Wharf. As we neared the south end of the street, Karen remembered that there was a Maya restaurant nearby. Heading down a side street, Karen quickly found the restaurant, Yaxche Maya Cuisine. Finally, we had an opportunity to sample some local food! As it turned out, we weren't all that hungry, but as we had eaten lightly that day, we decided to get two dishes. We selected the boxito, small shrimp tacos with a burnt blackened pepper sauce, and an order of cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatán pork dish wrapped and cooked in banana leaves and served with red onions and a side of beans. The cochinita was delicious.

Returning to the hotel after an afternoon and a meal in Playa del Carmen, we debated whether or not we should have dinner. We decided to wait until later to see if we were hungry or not. Around 10pm, we were both starting to get hungry again so we went to grab a quick bite at Portofino. We started with some of the lighter appetizers: Karen ordered the melon with serrano ham and I ordered the carpaccio of tuna, salmon, and mahi-mahi (pictured below). Both starters were delicious and reasonably light. For the main course, we ordered the veal agnolotti and the linguini with pesto. Both dishes were also pretty tasty.

I think that Portofino was my favorite restaurant at the resort. We made a return visit a couple of days later, where we enjoyed the veal saltimbocca (pictured below) and the rack of lamb. All of these dishes were also very good.

Saturday was a big adventure day for us as we headed to Xcaret, an archaeological and ecological resort park just south of Playa del Carmen. We were both very excited as we had signed up to swim with the dolphins while we were at the park. We had a great time playing with the dolphins, who were very well trained and quite playful, even though both of them were pregnant. One of the highlights of our hour with the dolphins was the footpush. We would have gotten some photos of us playing with the dolphins except that they were charging outrageous amounts for the pictures that they had taken - can you believe they were asking us to pay $59 for four digital photos on a CD? And that was the cheapest package! (Unfortunately, personal cameras were not allowed at the session.) After our session with the dolphins, we continued with the water activities by floating through some underground rivers. This was not nearly as fun as playing with the dolphins. Not only were the rivers quite crowded, there was not a whole lot to see in the dark caves through which the river flowed.

In the afternoon, we went around the park checking out the flora and fauna, which include jaguars, some giant sea turtles, a tapir, and a variety of fish in the aquarium. Our day at the park ended with a two hour performance at the very impressive Grand Tlachco outdoor theatre. The show included two historical ball games (including one that was like a fiery version of broomball), a ceremony dedicated to the Sun God, and a music show highlighting songs from the different regions and states of Mexico.

After we got back to the hotel after this long day in the park, we were both hungry and tired. Since we had one more restaurant at the resort to check out, we decided to have dinner at Himitsu. Billing its fare as Pan-Asian, the restaurant really features an amalgam of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cuisines. I have to say that we were a bit disappointed. While the sushi was decent (especially the hamachi, which was excellent), the rest of the food was rather ordinary. Though the presentation of the food was nice, the food was just not what we expected. For example, the dim sum appetizer that Karen ordered to start was deep fried and overcooked.

Sunday was out last full day at the resort before we headed home, so we decided to spend it relaxing. Unfortunately, it rained quite heavily that morning, so we were stuck inside until showers stopped in the early afternoon. We spent some time at the beach, relaxing on hammocks as we enjoyed our strawberry daiquiris.

Overall, this was a great vacation. I have to give major props to Karen, who did all of the work to put this vacation together for the two of us. (Thanks, sweetie!) We both had a lot of fun and I was very happy that Karen got a chance to get away from the cold weather that she dislikes and enjoy some time in the warm sun. Though we were reasonably happy with the accommodations and the fine service we received from the resort staff, we'd probably opt for a non-all-inclusive resort for our next beach vacation. Not only was it quite expensive, we felt that we also missed out on opportunities enjoy more of the local culture and cuisine. For Karen, this was a nice reminder of the people and culture of Mexico, and for me, it was a great introduction to our neighbor to the South.


Charlotte said...

Sounds like a wonderful holiday. Glad that you two had so much fun.

Jeremiah said...

Looks like your last-minute vacation was a success!

Still, as far as beach vacations go, I'm no fan. Usually too hot, and too much chance of sickness (vacations aren't meant to be spent in the bathrooom!). That said, after visiting Hawaii earlier this year, I might have to be more open minded.

Loren said...

Charlotte: Yes, it was quite enjoyable!

Jeremiah: Yeah, that's the way that I felt as well. However, between the Hawaii and Mexico trips, I've gotten pretty open minded about these beach vacations. I would definitely be open to going on another one, though perhaps we might want to mix it up a bit by going on a road trip or visiting a big city for our next big vacation.

eatingplum said...

I was just at Playa for a week too! How ironic. I did like how I stayed at a non-all inclusive and got to try lots of local places (including 50 cent al pastor tacos!).