Viva La Ziva: Turning Silver Into Gold

Two or three years ago I visited a particular resort in Los Cabos, Mexico that I liked a great deal.  A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to that same property for another stay.  I was excited by the prospect for two reasons:

1)  I fully enjoyed the location, facilities and experience on my first visit.

2)  I discovered that this property had changed ownership and was now owned and managed by the Playa group and operated as the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos.  After all the buzz, I was very keen to experience the new Hyatt all-inclusive concept for myself.

Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos

Not a bad way to be greeted upon arrival. They all seem so pleased to see me!

In my previous post, I presented lots of background information about the exciting new Hyatt Zilara and Ziva brands.  I encourage you to take a moment and read that post.  (Just be sure to tether yourself to this post.  I don’t fancy floating through cyberspace in an unflattering, bulbous space suit searching for you.)  If you are wondering about the title of this blog post, the explanation is simple.  The property was pure silver before but through a miracle of alchemy that only the Hyatt folks in white lab coats could pull off, it is now solid gold!  As proof, consider the fact that the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos was awarded Triple AAA’s 2014 Four-Diamond designation this past March.

In that prior post, I talked about the “evolution of all-inclusive” and listed a few specific amenities such as the butler service, unlimited pillow menu, Tequila sommelier and romance concierge.  Let’s spend the remainder of our time together considering a few more marks of distinction.

Service From The Heart

Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos saluteI will grant you I am not necessarily the brightest porch light on the street but I admit I was a bit confused when I first noticed that the staff were constantly smiling at me while placing a hand over their hearts.  I quickly ruled out a strange contagion  of cardiac ailments . . . unless these were the most affable and chipper heart attack victims I have ever met.  As it turns out, this is their unique and very endearing salute to their guests.  It is meant to convey that their service comes not from duty but from the heart.   And you know what, it so clearly does!  I’ll let the dour cynics roll their eyes and call it hokey if they care to provided they leave me alone to bask in the radiant warmth of the staff’s genuine hospitality.

Beyond Gourmet

Let’s be honest.  Buffet and gourmet are not normally used in the same sentence by true Hyatt Ziva Dining Optionsgourmands.  Leave it to Hyatt to shatter even that common misconception.  The Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos can claim not one but two gourmet buffet restaurants:  one features international cuisine and the other Mexican.   However, if your patrician upbringing produces involuntary quivers at the term “buffet”, not to worry.  There are five specialty  à la carte Restaurants, including Bon Vivant (French classical), Lotus (Teppanyaki-style cooking with a Sushi bar) and Coral (outdoor grilled seafood).  I wouldn’t worry about a precipitous weight loss during your vacation.

Spontaneous Moments

When I was a guest at the Hyatt Ziva, I was privileged to meet . . . and even spend a little quality golf course time with . . . Francisco Silva, the General Manager.   As will be true of every generalHyatt Ziva Los Cabos manager as each new property opens, he had just been challenged to create a unique “spontaneous moment” for his guests.  This is intended to be some unexpected amenity rendered to the guest at no charge.  Francisco had a couple of ideas he was mulling over but he said if he told me he would have to kill me.   OK, not really but these general managers are very competitive.  They take tremendous pride in their profession and especially in assembling a staff from top to bottom that reflects their values.  After spending some quality time with Francisco, it is easy to see why the service at his resort is so exemplary.

Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos exteriorAs I sit here and stare at the picture above (you must click on it for the full effect), I picture myself at just this time of day, sitting on one of the floating conversation / fire pits in the foreground, sipping an Argentinian Malbec all the while letting a gentle ocean breeze waft over me.  Since I am exhausted from penning yet another literary masterpiece anyway, I have decided to go reheat my coffee and come back and gaze at the full screen version of this picture for the next several minutes until a zen like serenity envelopes me.

I know!  Let’s both make this picture our new desktop!

Hyatt All-Inclusive Resorts: Evolution or Revolution?

Playa Hotels and ResortsAre you familiar with Playa Hotels And Resorts?  Probably not so much. Have you ever heard of Hyatt Hotels?  With the possible exception of a few frost-bitten souls living on Deception Island, Antarctica, most would say, “Yes, indeed.”    “And what does one have to do with the other?”, I hear you asking.  I hope you were asking because if you were just clearing your throat, this is going to be a very short blog post!

*Playa Hotels And Resorts harbors the lofty goal of becoming “the leading international resort and leisure company in the all-inclusive resort segment .”  If that were my personal goal (instead of trying to avoid homelessness and/or deportation), I would be looking around for some strong coattails to ride.   You might say Playa hit the lotto!  Just a little less than one year ago, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels Corporation announced a considerable investment (considerable as in $325 million dollars) with the goal of acquiring and developing new all-inclusive resorts under the iconic Hyatt brand.  You can read all about it here.

I was recently privileged to hear Kevin Froemming, Playa’s Executive Vice President and CMO, artfully present the concept that undergirds all their efforts.  It is summed up in their tag line, “The Evolution of All-Inclusive”.   After I unveil some of the pillars resting on this solid foundation, I will leave it to you to decide whether this is gradual evolution or more akin to radical revolution.

ROMANCE CONCIERGE

Couple Massage at Hyatt Zilara CancunI will begin with my personal favorite.  I don’t think any of you guys out there will have any trouble identifying with this.  You are on vacation celebrating some special occasion:  honeymoon, anniversary, joint release from state prison . . . something.  You want this trip to be burned into her memory like a cattle brand on a yearling calf’s backside.  (My personal lack of romance expertise shows up even in my crass analogies!)

The problem is, you don’t have the foggiest clue where to start.  Here’s what you do.  You tell her you are going down to the gym for a workout.  Strike that.  She will never buy that.  Tell her you are going to a tequila swilling contest in the cigar lounge.  That should do the trick.  Now here’s the sneaky part.  You are really going to the appointment you have set with the “romance concierge”.  An hour later (two hours if you stop by the bar just to become convincingly tipsy) you will be swaggering back to your room, romance agenda tucked safely in the back pocket, hair flowing like Fabio on the cover of some trashy novel.

Tequila Sommeliers

Speaking of Tequila, have you noticed that there are more varieties of tequila in Mexico Tequila Sommeliersthan visible stars in Andromeda.   Unless you want to share my humiliating experience of standing frozen in indecision before a wall of tequila for an embarrassing length of time, I suggest you avail yourself of this service.  And should you find yourself in Jamaica (more about that momentarily), you will be offered the services of a rum sommelier.  I once considered becoming a box wine sommelier but couldn’t find a hoity-toity French school for that.

Beach Butlers

    Beach ButlerLuggage Butler

I don’t know how many personal butlers you have at your beck and call but speaking for myself, it is a very low and and very round number.  And, even if I did, it would probably not be a beach butler seeing as I don’t own any beach property either.  (Life can be so very cruel, don’t you agree?)   All the more reason to be excited by the prospect of having your whims catered to by, not just a Beach Butler, but a Pool Butler, a Luggage Butler, a Family Butler and a Suite Butler.   I know what you are thinking.  You figure I am delusional after being generously over-served by my Tequila Sommelier.  Nope, I am stone cold sober and for once (circle your calendar) dead right about something!  Hyatt all-inclusives have more butlers than Mickey Rooney had wives!

Unlimited Pillow Menu

OK, I’m running out of time and there is more I want to share so I will let this little item pass Unlimited Pillow Menuwith the observation that I am obviously a Neanderthal slug devoid of any trace of refinement.  I wouldn’t have a clue how to order a pillow.  When you get beyond white, soft and rectangular, I am pretty much clueless.  I will leave this item to the more cultivated and genteel among you.

Hyatt Zilara and Hyatt Ziva

The Hyatt all-inclusives, for now at least, will fall into one of these two categories.  The first Zilara, the Hyatt Zilara Cancun is to be found, not exactly shockingly, in Cancun and is the former THE ROYAL, Cancun.  It made my top five list in my post Crème de Cancun: The Top Five Resorts.  The first Ziva is the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos.  I will let you decipher where it is located.  Here is the distinction between the two:  The Hyatt Zilara resorts will be adults only and Hyatt Ziva resorts will be family properties.

ALERT:  My next post will share details of my recent stay at the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos!

Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall JamaicaI will conclude this post with an exciting announcement!  The former Ritz-Carlton Golf And Spa Resort in Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica was sold to Playa Hotels And Resorts in September, 2013.  It will open after a multi-million dollar renovation in November, 2014 as the first combined Hyatt Zilara / Hyatt Ziva, Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica.  This development deserves a blog post all its own which, should I linger a little longer, it will have.  Be watching for that post soon! (Also Hyatt Ziva Cancun and Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta are opening in late 2014.)

*  Not to wander too far off into the weeds but Playa Hotels And Resorts, in addition to the Hyatt branded and Playa managed hotels we have been talking about, also has its own Playa branded and managed hotels and other branded and managed hotels as well.  That will have to keep for another time but if you simply can’t wait,  you can read about their entire portfolio here.

100 Points Of Tripe

In June of 2013, I wrote a post called, “What Do You Get A Blog For Its First Birthday?”.  In the same spirit of shameless self-congratulations (proving I haven’t matured in the intervening year), here is a short interlude from our regular programing to celebrate both my second blog birthday and my one hundredth post!   If that doesn’t rank right up there with the signing of the Magna Charta and the Normandy invasion on D-Day for historical significance, I can’t imagine what would.

Dancing hot dogIf you are one of the tiny minority who have not studiously perused every post I have ever written, here are a couple of ways for you to purge your shame and cleanse your conscience.  Trust me, this will constitute some serious penance!  You can go to the “What Did I Miss?” page along the top for a list of all 100 posts or, conversely, you can scan the right rail for a list of categories.  Then by simply reading all one hundred at one sitting, you will be automatically inducted into the Travel By Terry “Hall Of Masochists” of which I am currently the only member.  At this point, the meetings are short, lonely and, as you might expect, painful.  I would love some company.

Wordpress badgesIf you think I am being a little too hard on myself calling this post 100 Points of Tripe, as I pointed out in a previous post, hot dogs (of which I am a fan) are largely tripe and quite tasty!  I take it for granted that you are chomping at the Frankfurter to join the celebration and so I have provided a means for you to do so.  Simply register your opinion in the poll below.

As I enter my terrible twos, I encourage you to come back soon for another tasty . . .  if not necessarily nutritious . . . offering.   With any luck at all you will be entertained, educated and enticed which, coincidentally, happen to be the three pillars of this humble blog.

Cruising The Caribbean . . . Mediterranean Style (Parte Seconda)

Since our discreet little assignation a few days ago, I must confess I have been off flirting with another destination in Mexico.  You needn’t be jealous!  I assure you that it was completely innocent . . .  platonic even.   Therefore, assuming after a couple of tequilla tasting events in Los Cabos (blog post to follow) I can still reconstruct where we left off, let’s take up the narrative from that point.

OK . . . it is all coming back into focus.  We were midway through our discussion of “hardware” and about to transition to “software”.  If you are picturing toggle bolts and Firefox browsers, you probably should go back and read Parte Uno.   In my previous post, I mentioned spending obscene amounts of time in a dark corner of La Cantina Di Bacco being caressed by an impertinent Cabernet from the hills of Tuscany.  But the Divina offers any number of respites such as La Caramella, L’Angolo Dell’Oggetto, Il Gioiello and Caffe’ Italia.  Is the “Mediterranean Style” thing beginning to click for you?  Caribbean mystique meets European chic!  Did I mention that Sophia Loren is the godmother of their fleet?

MSC Cruise Spa And FitnessIf you are like me and an aficionado of spa treatments (the full body massage being my personal treatment of choice), you will certainly enjoy the MSC Aurea Spa and Fitness area.  I do take umbrage at their unauthorized use of my likeness in the picture above.  Oh well, as one of the “Don’t hate me because I am beautiful” crowd, I suppose one should remain sanguine about such things.  Can you really blame them?

SOFTWARE

The time has come to move from facilities to features.  One feature I place a premium on is a great itinerary.  Try these on for size.  If you like the western Caribbean, Divina calls at Falmouth, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico and Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas.   If the eastern Caribbean floats your boat, try Philipsburg, St. Maartan; San Juan, Puerto Rico and again Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas.   There are additional itineraries with other fascinating ports of call called Caribbean Enchantment, Caribbean Wonders and Southern Caribbean.  For details about every itinerary, there is an online brochure which is available here.  And if you fall in love with Divina and can’t bear the thought of separation, you can follow her to the Med next summer!

MSC Divina ItinerariesI would be more than remiss if I did not devote a few words to the MSC Yacht Club or, as they like to style it, your Sanctuary At Sea.  The best way to describe this experience is to imagine you are traveling as the special guest of Gianluigi Aponte himself, the owner of MSC Group, who invites you to partake of his own inner sanctum far away from the maddening crowds.  You would expect that a man of his eminence would have his own private lounge, bar and pool, naturally.

Lounge on MSC Yacht Club  MSC Yacht Club bar

What else would you expect to be at your and Signor Aponte’s beck and call?  An exclusive butler and a private concierge desk, of course.  When you check in at the terminal, you would expect to skip long lines and to be discretely guided to a lounge where you would meet your butlerMSC Yacht Club butler who would escort you to your cabin.  You would no doubt anticipate gourmet dining in a private dining room.  It would almost be a given that each afternoon you would be invited to an English high tea where you and the Signor would converse about matters of international import.  What was not resolved in the afternoon session could be resumed over champagne and canapés before dinner!

Sadly, we can’t all be lifelong bosom buddies with “Luigi” as he starting asking me to call him after I saved his life for the second time.  Not to worry!  Everything I have described and more can be yours if you simply remember to book the Yacht Club on your next MSC cruise.  What’s more, it will not require a king’s ransom.  I was quite shocked to learn that the differential is much closer to a serf’s ransom, and a pretty scruffy serf at that.  This, without a doubt, is one of the greatest values on the high seas.

The Past Is Prologue

Here is some information you should know about MSC, the fastest growing cruise line in the world, before we wind up this little tête-à-tête.   In 2003, MSC sailed 127,000 passengers.  In 2014 an estimated 1,680,000 will live the MSC experience.  In that same period, they have gone from four ships to twelve and 5,000 berths to 39,000.

But even more interesting than where they have been is where they are going.  They are currently building two ships at STX France (2017 & 2019) and two more at Fincantieri (2017 & 2018).  Click here to go to the press release section of their website.  Read the 5/22/2014 news release and you will find they are not just building new ships.  They are building **NEW** ships in the most dramatic and revolutionary sense.  They will be “futuristic ships with groundbreaking designs.”   I witnessed a recent slide presentation of the new builds and even a jaded seafarer like me was knocked off my peg leg.  Fortunately the parrot was uninjured.

As I see it, you have two choices at this point.  You can dream the dream or you can live it.  As we like to say, “Lend us your dreams and we will repay you with memories!”

Cruising The Caribbean . . . Mediterranean Style

Rick Sasso is a man with a vision.  Perhaps it would be more precise to say the vision belongs to the Italian founder, owner and president of MSC Group, Gianluigi Aponte. This amazing family from Sorrento owns one of the largest cargo shipping businesses in the world. Their vision is to draw upon three hundred years of family sailingRick Sasso expertise to bring a new Mediterranean style of cruising to the US market, starting for now with the Caribbean.

So let’s say instead, Rick Sasso is a man with a mission. His mission, which he chose to accept in April of 2004, is to transform that amorphous, if grandiose, vision into a living, breathing reality. You have to admire the sheer audacity of the challenge. The US travel industry is just now crawling out of one of the deepest Rick Sasso, President of MSC Cruisestroughs anyone can remember. There are a number of well established cruise lines with instant brand recognition that have been plying the Caribbean Seas for more than a decade.

It takes two things to attempt this sort of breathtaking challenge: boat loads of money (literally, in this case) and the courage, cunning and quickness of a cat burglar. The Italian patriarch is presumably providing the cash and Rick the cojones.  If you are privileged to hear him present his strategy in person, as I was  a couple of weeks back, you will likely come away convinced that Rick will find a way to fulfill his mission. MSC DivinaTwo weeks ago, the Travel Leaders advisory board on which I serve conducted our most recent meeting in Miami at the JW Marriott Marquis to be continued on board the MSC Divina. We were special guests on a 36 hour cruise to Nassau before the ship headed to Brazil for the World Cup.

If you are unfamiliar with MSC Cruises, no need to berate yourself.   To be honest,  you share this rather embarrassing nescience with most of my counterparts in the travel industry, including me (Or, as they say in Italy, “me”.  I’m also quite the linguist!).  When this meeting was first announced, I was quite pleased because: 1) any sort of travel short of visiting Pyongyang beats the daylights out of performing actual work and 2) here was a great opportunity to fill in another hole in the sizable swiss cheese which is my cerebral cortex.

MiamiAs a quick aside, I took this picture of Miami just before we pulled away from the dock.  I airbrushed the clouds in for effect.  Nice touch, don’t you think?

Getting back to business, I am going to share with you a quick overview of the MSC Divina under two rubrics: hardware and software: I am selecting this approach because we professional travel snobs foolishly imagine that we can impress you, the travel consumer, by sprinkling esoteric travel terms through our writing like peanut butter chips on a double scoop sundae.

HARDWARE

By the term hardware, I mean the ship itself.  (For why I didn’t just say ship, see paragraph above.)  This is certainly one of MSC’s major points of differentiation.  There is an old saw that says, since you won’t be spending all that much time in your cabin, getting an outside balcony is not that important.  I don’t really subscribe to that theory.  For one thing, if you get a nice cabin, you probably will spend more time there.  Sitting out on the balcony for a morning cup of coffee or indulging in some late night star-gazing is a great way to start the mellowing out process.  It’s your vacation.  Live a little!

MSC Divina  Balcony cabin on MSC Divina

When you do venture out of your cabin, you want a cruise ship that offers variegated and interesting public areas to explore.  The Divina has those in spades.  My personal favorite haunt was La Cantina Di Bacco on deck seven.   Late afternoon, when you need a little relaxation, I recommend you stopMSC Dvina wine bar by, order a glass of vino and nibble on these little delicacies!   If you can still remember what you found so annoying last week at work, you’re obviously making the amateur’s mistake of stopping after one glass.

Speaking of being annoyed, I am on a roll here and once again I find myself banging up against my self-imposed limitation on loquaciousness.  I have barely touched upon hardware and we haven’t even gotten to software, firmware, dinnerware, or underwear (oops, sorry, that slipped in from another post.)

Come back soon and who knows what other mysteries I may unravel.   In the meantime, take three short minutes and watch this moving video (it really is heart tugging) which captures the essence of the cruise line quite beautifully.  You will see how these Masters of the Sea have infused the Caribbean experience with a Mediterranean flair.

Next time, I will take you by the hand (tell me you don’t have sweaty palms) and lead you to glorious new destinations, both inside the ship and without.  Feel free to bring along a few friends.   Just remind them to bring their passports!

JW Marriott Marquis: Miami Nice (2)

In my previous post, I expressed the belief that every great trip includes both a memorable habitation and a remarkable destination.  Having paid Miami its due, or more precisely having submitted a modest down payment, my attention now turns to my Miami lodgings.

The hallmark of a great brand is consistency.  Having stayed at several JW Marriotts in the past, for this trip I packed, along with my country club casual clothes (the stated dress code for my subsequent cruise which will be the subject of my next post), some pretty high expectations.  The JW’s in Orlando, Ko Olina and Cancun all know how to set the bar very high.  Not so high I couldn’t reach my Captain Morgan and Coke, thank goodness, but high nonetheless.

Somehow I knew this was going to be a great couple of days when I stumbled into the hotel at almost midnight bleary eyed and punch drunk after a long-delayed connecting flight.  I asked at check in if there happened to be a Wells Fargo ATM nearby where I might obtain company for the lonesome George Washington crumpled up in the corner of my wallet.  The desk clerk pointed me down the hall and after walking fifty feet or so, this is what I saw next to the ATM.

Concord Coach 746/8

You know you are off to a great start when you desperately need an ATM and your hotel shares a building with your bank!

The next clue that I was obviously being rewarded for living such an exceptionally clean life (watch out for that bolt of lightning!) was this view when I entered my room.  When youJW Marriott Marquis Miami feel like you have been rode hard and put away wet as we are wont to say in Texas, trust me, this is precisely what you are hoping to see!  I am not ashamed to say I may have kissed the pillows and caressed the covers just a tad before crashing and burning like some seven year old’s first model airplane.

The next morning . . . at least I think it was still technically morning . . . I tore open the shutters and threw up the sash (must have been the airplane food from the night before) and what to my wondering eyes should appear but this gorgeous view from one of JW Marriott Marquismy two corner windows.  I’m telling you, this clean living thing pays huge dividends.  You really should try it. The grey skies did nothing to lessen the euphoria that I was now feeling.  Life is good at the JW Marriott!

In my previous post, I alluded to a couple of grueling workouts in the Met2 Fitness Center, grueling being a relative term of course.  Watching the pleasure craft and cigar boats meander down the canal does help to take your mind off your burning thighs and quivering buttocks (not the most attractive visual I readily admit).

Without a doubt the highlight of my stay was dinner at db Bistro Moderne.  I know some of you read these posts to benefit from my mistakes, though they be rare as hen’s teeth, so here is a bit of sage advice.  Some of my companions in the picture below ordered the steak and braised short ribs.  Being from Texas and a little persnickety about my beef, I ordered the Scottish salmon which was quite succulent.  Yet, I had to sit there the entire meal and listen to every last person who ordered the beef moaning and sighing like some 19 year old coed in a college production of “When Harry Met Sally” about the short ribs being the best they had ever experienced.  I swear, I thought they were all going to lean back and light up cigarettes afterwards.  Now I have to worry, until my next trip at least, that I missed out on the “better than sex” ribs of a lifetime.

DSC01753In summary, here is a Terry Tidbit you can take right to the adjacent Wells Fargo bank.  If you have a trip planned for Miami, let us book you into the JW Marriott Marquis, try the breakfast croissant at The Newsstand, have a light lunch at The Cheese Course and, for goodness sake, save lots of room for the braised ribs at db Bistro Moderne.  If you do those four things, you will be the one at the corner table audibly moaning and sighing!

JW Marriott Marquis: Miami Nice (1)

As someone who has been privileged to experience way more than my fair share of nice trips, I think I can say without any fear of contraception (as the British comedian Benny Hill used to say), every great trip at a bare minimum contains these two components: a memorable habitation and a remarkable destination.

My most recent Travel Leaders advisory board trip to Miami did not disappoint in either regard.  As you will soon discover, I have chosen to reverse the order below.  I do this for no more defensible reason than the fact that my fragile psyche needs reassurance periodically that, though I may not control the course of world history or even my own piddling destiny for that matter, I at least rule my humble blog like a deranged South American dictator.

MIAMI

Bayside Marketplace MiamiMiami is one of the most fascinating cities in the US. For one thing it is a cosmopolitan melting pot where, frankly, a snippet of overheard street conversation in English is the exception rather than the rule. It may not rival the arrival halls of Dubai International or London Heathrow for diversity but it runs a close second.

Another of my favorite things about Miami is that you can take a short walk from your hotel, as I did one morning, and you will encounter all manner of fascinating small eateries. (Disclosure: I am a foodie only in the broad sense that I consume excessive quantities of anything remotely edible.) I walked out of the JW Marriott Marquis heading in the general direction of Bayside Marketplace and in a matter of just a few minutes, I found the following three fascinating eateries: The Newsstand CafeCLOS Bistro & Café and The Cheese Course.

The Newsstand Cafe is small but offers a nice selection.  I was there on a quest for a tasty breakfast that would not require another mortgage on the old home place.  While I was The Newsstand in Miamistudying the menu, a nice young lady suggested an egg, cheese and ham croissant.  I even had my choice of several varieties of cheese.  I went with the one I figured had to be good . . . the gouda.   (If you are going to follow this blog you better be able to withstand a few groans.)

The next spot I encountered was CLOS Bistro & Café.  It was only a two-minute walk from The Newsstand.  I know, I know.  What the heck was I doing walking into a French bistro two minutes after breakfast.  I can only refer you to my foodie disclosureClos Bistro Miami above.  After all, what is breakfast without a little dessert, right?  Anyway, I waddled in and immediately confronted the display of delectable dainties you see in the picture to the right.

I exercised what I consider remarkable restraint and ordered only one small (OK, smallish) pastry and no wine whatsoever.  Of course, it was still 9:30 in the morning but I nevertheless feel I deserve a little credit.

I have saved the best of my little sidewalk cafe trifecta until last.  I walked all over the Bayside area snapping pictures and drinking in the atmosphere.  See, it’s not all about eating.  I then returned to the JW Marriott Marquis and worked out for a solid hour on three different aerobic machines.  Surely that sufficed to offset at least the pastry.  However, the problem was that all that exercise only served to reignite my appetite.  (I eat to work out, I work out to eat and so flows the cycle of my life.)

For lunch I chose The Cheese Course, of course!  Not only am I an expert in all things travel related but I also am clairvoyant.  I know exactly what you are wondering right now.  What kind of cheeses are those?

The Cheese Course MiamiThe soft cheese on the left is Epoisses created by monks and named for their village in Burgundy.  Apparently, it takes a village to make good cheese.  It is described as “having a barnyard aroma (really), a blond interior and brimming with meaty, creamy richness.”  The firmer cheese on the right is Midnight Moon from Holland, made with goat’s cheese and in their own words possesses “prominent caramel notes”.    As an aside, do you know the only cheese that is made backwards?  Edam!

You get to select from more than two dozen accompaniments so I selected, quite brilliantly if accidentally, the fig spread.  Delicious!  As you might guess, I spent a most pleasant hour on the terrace with a light breeze wafting over me and savoring every last bite.

JW MARRIOTT MARQUIS

Goodness, once again time has flown by under the seductive charm of my effortless prose.  Not to worry.  I will simply go to my title, insert a discrete little (1) and make this post a two-parter.  Click this link for JW Marriott Marquis: Miami Nice (2) where I sing (not literally, thank God) the high praises of one of Miami’s finest hotels.  I feel comfortable promising that the next post will rise to the same exacting standard I have set here!

 

OK, NOW It’s Funny

James Thurber, the noted author and celebrated wit once said, ““Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”  If he wasn’t thinking of travel when he penned thoseJames Thurber words, he should have been.

The intrepid traveler is akin to a playwright who painstakingly crafts the perfect dialogue only to have his script handed over to a troupe of actors at the local improv comedy club.

Weeks before you travel, you begin to meticulously plan every detail of your trip.  Yet, it is virtually guaranteed that you will cram too many activities into way too short a span of time with “emotional chaos” being the inevitable outcome.  You will hardly have begun your trip when reality (such an ugly word) will materialize like an uninvited former girlfriend at your wedding nuptials.

In the “OK, NOW it’s funny” category, here are a couple of random episodes from my personal group escorting history.  Neither was remotely amusing at the time.

GYPSY HIJINKS

Picture yourself responsible for one hundred or so choir directors, each more tightly strung than Charlie Daniels’ fiddle.  You are traveling through a tiny Romanian hamlet on two large motorcoaches weaving your way between ox carts, sheep and milling pedestrians.  This was my unfortunate fate a few years back.

Village in Romania

I had a local tour guide on the first coach and I was sitting in the front right seat of the second coach trailing by a couple of hundred yards.  I noticed that the first coach had made an unscheduled stop in the middle of the road.  I could be pretty confident it was not a stop light because there wasn’t one for several hundred miles.

By the time our coach pulled up behind the first . . .  it had to be  less than sixty seconds. . . I could see a gaggle of gypsies gathered around the coach throwing rocks and screaming what I assume were time-worn, traditional obscenities at the occupants.  I can assure you that there are no chapters in the travel escort’s nifty little handbook for mollifying highly agitated gypsies.  It was only after disembarking from my coach that I noticed a young girl lying on the ground being attended to by other gypsies.   My heart sank with the realization that she might have been hit by the coach. (Let me hasten to add, she wasn’t!)

Only after a trip to the police station, a three-hour delay and no doubt a hefty “fine” paid by the tour company (don’t ask, don’t tell) were we again on our way.  The local guide and drivers assured me this was a common gypsy ruse. They have one of their younger members slap the side of the bus, fall to the ground and claim to have been hit all in the hope of extorting a few bucks from their hapless marks.  Welcome to Romania! (Notwithstanding this incident, a stunningly beautiful country.)

THE TOUR GUIDE’S WORST NIGHTMARE

 For several years I took groups to England and used the services of a rather large and established tour company.  At one point, two of the people I was working with left that company and formed their own concern.  They solicited me to follow them and, given that  I was satisfied with the service I had received, I did so.

London Gatwick AirportOur group arrived at London Gatwick airport ready to begin our grand adventure which we all would have gladly done had our coach driver shown up.  Take thirty or so otherwise quite amicable people, put them on an eight-hour overnight flight, trudge them through immigration and customs lines a mile long and then tell them their transportation is missing-in-action and you suddenly have a cast of extras for the next Frankenstein remake requiring angry villagers with torches and pitchforks.

The coach eventually arrived and we headed off to London for the first couple of days of sightseeing.  Fortunately, that portion passed without incident and the tattered sleeve of my Cotswolds villagecredibility if not mended, had at least been largely forgotten.  Off to the Cotswolds with a stop in Oxford.  Nothing like the bracing fresh air of the British countryside to put everyone in a congenial mood.  We pulled up in front of the hotel and I asked the passengers to wait on the bus momentarily while I gathered up room keys from the front desk.

Most of you will have guessed by now that there was a slight problem.  Not a living soul at the hotel, including the Irish Setter napping by the fireplace, would admit to having ever heard of me, my group or my fledgling inbound tour operator.  By some miracle for which I still burn candles and say Hail Marys (and I am not even Catholic), there was a hotel just down the road that had only opened that week that was largely empty.  Even though utter disaster was averted, faced with having that little chat I thought seriously about sneaking out the back of the hotel, catching a train to London, flying back home and buying a fly-fishing lodge in Newfoundland under an assumed name.

I should point out that this happened very early in my travel career and I have ever since only worked with carefully vetted and highly experienced destination management companies.

THE MORAL

The point of my little morality play, if there is one (my poor readers often search these posts in vain for one) is that time has a way of transforming temporary disasters into lifelong anecdotes.   I would not be retelling these incidents were it not for the fact that, in both cases, the trips turned out quite successfully in spite of the hiccups described.

As has been astutely observed, if nothing bad ever happened when you travel, you would have absolutely nothing to say at cocktail parties.  Travel misadventures are like noses, everyone has one.  Some are just funnier than others.  Especially with the passing of time!

 

Crème de Riviera Maya: The Top Five (or so) Resorts

No less a literary lion than Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .”  My detractors (may a pox be upon all your houses) would probably say I am a rare double qualifier under both the “foolish” and “little mind” categories.

In each of the first two posts of my now “wildly popular” (my term)  Crème de Mexico series, there were five resorts listed.  See Los Cabos and Cancun.  So, in the interest of being consistent if not imaginative (See Oscar Wilde quote . . .  what is it with these people and consistency anyway?), I have tried every way possible to shoehorn only five resorts into the Riviera Maya edition of this series.  Is it my fault that luxuriant crème seemingly flows through the Mayan Riviera like butter off a stack of blueberry pancakes?

So, without further ado, here is my personal list of the top five (roughly, give or take, more or less) resorts in the Riviera Maya.

El Dorado Casitas Royale

El Dorado Casitas Royale Exterior 2Those familiar with Condé Nast Traveler know that they have some very exacting standards.  El Dorado Casitas Royale by Karisma was voted one of their top 100 hotels in the world.  Those who know me, and even those who only catch a fleeting glance of my profile, know that I place a high premium on eating with a shared emphasis given to quantity and El Dorado Casitas Royale Saladquality.  This property had me for life when I discovered they offered a Gourmet Inclusive Experience.

You need to book at least a one week stay in order to sample all seven, count ‘em, seven all-inclusive, à la carte restaurants ranging from International, to contemporary Italian, to Pacific Rim to . . .  you get the idea.

Casita is the diminutive form of house in Spanish, thus little house, which is exactly what you get with this property.  You need to spend a little time on this page to discover all that this term means.  For example, I discovered I have some hitherto unknown and apparently long suppressed exhibitionist tendencies because I loved the roofless outdoor showers.  Having said that, the paparazzi trying to scale the walls for a photo were annoying.  I was especially insulted that they all felt compelled to bring telescopic lenses!

El Dorado Casitas Royale Swim Up SuitesTrust me when I tell you, you need to book early (with yours truly, of course) and secure a swim up casita.  From your water-mirror balcony you can step directly into your pool which is connected to a lazy river leading directly to the swim-up bar.   I know, it sounds just awful, doesn’t it, especially to you folks in the northern parts of the US who have endured such a brutal winter.  I have two pieces of sage advice for you:  book your stay at El Dorado Casitas Royale and move to Texas right after you return!  Check out this video.

Secrets Maroma Beach

Secrets - Swim Up RoomRegular drinkers of my unique blend of kool-aid will know that I am a monster fan of Secrets Resorts.  In fact, I have written so many posts about the chain that they have earned their own category on my blog, quite astutely called Secrets Resorts.  One of the things I like best about Secrets is that while the service, cuisine and surroundings unfailingly adhere to the same high standard, they couldn’t be more unique in personality.

This particular property is blessed by being on the most pristine and famous beach in Mexico, Maroma Beach.  While all the spas in the Secrets chain are by Pevonia, I think this property has one of the most amazing facilities I have every seen.  You simply must take a moment and view the gorgeous pictures on the spa section of their site here.

Pevonia Spa at Secrets MaromaThis resort is the epitome  of romance.  Are you looking for the perfect place for your wedding, honeymoon or anniversary?  Consider you quest over.   Whether your story is just beginning or you are writing anotherSecrets Maroma - Weddings 3 chapter, it would be difficult to find a better setting for your personal romance novel.  As an added bonus, If your story line requires a jilted former lover,  a goofy yet loveable best friend, an annoying hanger-on or even a deranged stalker, I can fulfill any of those roles with equal aplomb for the most modest of fees.  Just have your people contact my people.

 Grand Velas Rivera Maya

Grand Velas Riviera Maya exterior flowersAs a marketer, I  am a sucker for a great tag line but only if the product or service rises to the level of the implicit promise.  Beyond All Inclusive, Beyond All Compare.  Now that has a nice lilt to it.  Do you like a nice ocean view room?  This property has 300 ocean view suites.  Do you prefer to languor in a well-appointed spa?   Grand Velas Riviera Maya has the most highly awarded spa in Mexico.  Does the term all-inclusive seem incongruous with the finest cuisine.  This resort can claim Cocina de Autor, the first restaurant of any all-inclusive resort to receive the AAA Five Diamond Award for restaurants.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya suiteAre you beginning the get the picture?  This resort really does have features that are beyond compare.  This property brings the term regal to mind.   Maybe it is the Butler Concierge that is provided for every guest.  Also, Chef Xavi Perez’s Cocina de Autor, mentioned above is only one of five gourmet restaurants, among them Chef Karl Gulotta’s Piaf Restaurant and Chef Ricardo De La Vega’s Frida Restaurant.

Grand Velas Riviera Maya is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.  I was once named one of the Leading Sycophants of the World but at the time I was trying to finagle a free stay a deluxe resort so that hardly counts.

Royal Hideaway Playacar

Royal Hideaway Restaurant EveningThis resort is another Leading Hotel of the World property.  It is relatively small with only 200 rooms and is situated on 13 lush acres with one of the most stunning beaches in the Mayan Riviera.  If you appreciate classic Mexican colonial style, you will love every minute you spend here.

If you are up to the challenge of taking dining to another level (speaking personally, I was born ready), check out the Chef’s Table Experience, a gourmet tasting of more than 12 courses suitably paired with the best wines, naturally.

Royal Hideaway PlayacarIf your last limbo contest and beach volleyball game are but a distant and faint memory, I suspect you are going to fit right in.  This resort is all-inclusive but also all adults.  You won’t find any adorable (to their parents at least) little rug rats running to and fro disturbing  your carefully cultivated state of absolute zen.  You will be left alone to ponder life’s deep existential mysteries.  If a mutually acceptable solution to the Israeli / Palestine dispute is ever found, my bet is it will be by somebody sitting poolside at the Royal Hideaway sipping mindlessly on a Piña Colada.

Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso

Iberostar Grand hallwayIf ever there was a resort that was aptly named, it is the Iberostar Grand.  I have been privileged to stay there on several occasions and I have never ceased to marvel at the grand scheme of this palatial resort.  All you have to do is gaze at this hallway.  It looks like the entrance to a palace of the Sultan of Brunei, for goodness sakes.

If you are looking for romantic accommodations, check out the picture below.  All the rooms are spectacular with bathrooms larger than most starter homes.  Just beware of “hydration hesitation” where you find yourself mentally frozen in the middle of the bathroom wearing nothing but a perplexed look trying to decide between a soothing jacuzzi bath and a bracing rain shower.  It can happen.

Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso honeymoon gardenBeing an avid golfer, I love the fact that you can be whisked away from the front entrance by a chariot . . . OK, it may have been a golf cart . . . and 60 seconds later you are checking in at the pro shop at the Iberostar Playa Paraiso Golf Club.  Ask us about packages that include golf!

My goodness how time flies when you are daydreaming about your next perfect vacation.  Rather than risk having your eyes glaze over or worse, having you slip into an irretrievable catatonic state, in the case of my last two resorts I am simply going to refer you to previously written literary gems found on this inimitable blog.

Blue Diamond

Blue Diamond ResortA Blue Diamond In A Silver Setting

Rosewood Mayakoba

One of the canals of Rosewood MayakobaSide Trip To The Sensational: A Remarkable Resort

The more punctilious among you may feel compelled to point out that there are seven resorts mentioned in this top five list.  You clearly were not paying attention to the clues strewn around this post like popcorn kernels after a Superbowl party.  I did try to give you a heads up.

Look on the positive side.  You are just going to have to live a little longer than you previously planned in order to experience every one of these gems.  Once you have, let me know which one is your favorite . . . if I am still around!

Namale Fiji . . . Where The Livin’ Is Easy

In Fiji, so they say, there are many paradises but only one utopia.  “They” in this particular case are the authors of the online brochure for Namale Resort & Spa.  You have to love the audacious confidence of that tag line.  If I execute my assignment properly, by the time you finish reading this post that claim will sound less like hyperbolic exaggeration and more like honest evaluation.

Sunset at Namale FijiOne of the chief frustrations of writing about some of the world’s most breathtaking hotels and resorts is that there is never time to give them their full due.  That is particularly true here.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s most famous sonnet is #43, admittedly better known as “How Do I Love Thee?”.  You recall that those opening words are followed by “Let Me Count The Ways.”

With that bit of literary inspiration, I offer my humble (or as close to humility as I ever get) version of “Namale, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  Let’s begin with a spectacular setting because absent that any resort is Deck at Namale Resort & Spaimmediately disqualified from a serious traveler’s short list.  Setting encompasses beauty and atmosphere of course but, if you are like me (heaven help you), you would likely add serenity as well.  This picture to the right suggests about as much separation from the maddening crowds as one can imagine.  If you are desperately seeking seclusion, this warm handshake between the emerald rainforest and the azure sea is the perfect rendezvous.

In addition to the setting, this resort is world-famous for its discriminating service.  I say discriminating because the true art of gracious service is unfailingly finding that thin line between a trifle neglectful and a tad too intrusive.  Try these numbers on for size:  the property hosts only 44 guests at any one time so that their needs may be anticipated and their wishes fulfilled by their staff of 140.  I suppose you could argue that the service pictured below is slightly over that line but I beg to differ.  After being a little over served, you have to get back to your villa somehow, right?

Scene from Namale FijiIn general, I have next to no use for the muddled opinions of the celebrity set with one exception:  I do value their seemingly natural instinct for sating their self-indulgence.  They say when driving through the mid-west, always choose a diner with lots of cars in the parking lot.  A corollary would be, when seeking a great resort, find out where the stars congregate.

So for what it’s worth, I am given to understand that the likes of NBA coach Pat Riley, actors Russell Crowe, Edward Norton (wasn’t he one of the characters with Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners?), Meg Ryan and Mike Myers, and musician and producer Quincy Jones have found their way here, as well as many more “A listers”.  Donna Karen, who I am told has some fleeting familiarity with fashion, has said, “Namale is an ultimate escape . . experience its bliss!”

Namale, how else do I love thee?  Ah, there is always your sumptuous dining.  As the aforementioned brochure explains, “Private three-course lunches and five-course Dinner at Namale Fijidinners can be enjoyed anywhere you like — be it the twinkling main bure, your private bure or villa, in a romantic, seaside cave, or on the beach at sunset.”

Decisions, decisions! I think tonight I want to have my five course gourmet dinner in this exact spot to the left!  Should the gentle ocean breeze grow a bit nippy, I have no doubt that another glass of vintage Cabernet will suffice to warm me from the inside out.  In case you are wondering, I am sadly not at Namale as I pen these words.  That was a momentary flight of literary, not to mention holiday, fantasy.  Dreammakers are allowed to dream too!

Namale, I love thy refined accommodations.  Since we are running short of time, I will refer you to the online brochure for an explanation of the room distinctions between Bures, Garden Tropical, Ocean Tropical, Villas, Bula House, etc.  I shall also let the picture below do the job of a thousand words which, yikes, according to my word calculator, we are rapidly approaching.  I must scurry on!

Honeymoon room at Natale FijiLast, but certainly not least is the exposure one gains to authentic Fijian culture.  Below is a picture of a troupe of tribal dancers telling a traditional story through age old movements.  I Namale danceknow. to the uninitiated, i.e., folks like me, it  looks a little like the Hokey Pokey but rest assured it is not.  (Speaking of which, as a quick nod to the philosophically inclined, what if the Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about? Hmmm.)

OK, I have managed to count down five ways I love the Namale Resort & Spa.  I have yet to mention the bowling alley and indoor golf (seriously), the incredible snorkeling, and the magnificent spa.  See why this is frustrating?

Namale bowling  Snorkling in Namale

I think we can all agree that it would be more than a little cruel to tantalize you with this exquisite haven of happiness without presenting a way to experience it for yourself.  As I check my back pocket, it just so happens . . . imagine that . . . I have a great offer from our partners at Travel2 for an all-inclusive 9 night stay.  Let’s leave the more mundane matters like price to a future conversation.  But if this post has whetted your appetite to know more about Namale Resort & Spa and how you too can experience its wonders, reach out to us through our website.  And if you are still not convinced, take a look at this video!