The husband-to-be and I have started throwing around some ideas, the result has been the rapid conclusion that deep in the middle of the worst winter NY has ever had is probably not the most neutral time to plan a honeymoon. As in, all we want to do right now is go to places that look like this:
The Phoenix Resort, Ambergris Caye, Belize by A.J. Baxter
Koh Tansay, Cambodia by Jason Tabarias
Tahaa, Tahiti by Kat Kellner
Or even someplace I’ve been before. Tamarindo, Costa Rica by Scott Johnson
Tulum, Mexico by Scott Johnson
Tamarindo was muy caliente. Physically. I thought I just couldn’t hack it in CR’s Pacific Northwest/Guanacaste region. Then a local told us no, this isn’t normal, it’s awful. So I decided to amuse myself by looking at the weather report. The day we arrived in Tamarindo it was 98 degrees F, with a humidity of 100%.
I kid you not.
Our hotel, Capitan Suizo was decidedly more rustic than Arenal’s Hotel Mountain Paradise, which attempted to be sort of plush even if it didn’t quite succeed. Capitan Suizo’s no fuss European sensibility dictated the decor (and lack of TV). I was prepared for this, but in that weather? I just wanted to feel pampered.
"Ants" and mosquitoes do not = pampered. The "ants" that flooded our room about 2 hours after checking in, were later revealed by our helpful travel agent to be termites, err, "exploding" during the annual termite "explosion". The staff were really great about coming right over with a can of Off, and spraying away, but you can only call them so many times in one evening before taking things into your own hands—or flip flop, as the case may be. AND, as there were LESS termites outdoors than in our room, it might’ve been nice to sit on the patio, but that’s where the mosquitoes came in. Mosquitoes had not yet been an issue on our trip (possibly due to my rampant use of 100% DEET—one week of DEET won’t kill me, but Dengue fever might…), but they really flourished in the 100% humidity.
The lesson learned? May in CR is the rainy season. If the rain doesn’t bother you (it didn’t last longer than a few hours at a time until our last day), the termites and mosquitoes and humidity will. (For us other stressors included the boy’s camera battery charger breaking, and him leaving his debit card in an ATM and not noticing for a day. Banks in CR, much like the States, are not open on Sundays… I promise he’s usually [more] together.)
I learned something else on our Costa Rica adventure. If you don’t look at traveling as an adventure, if you lose sight of the "disasters make the best stories" mentality, if you forget to laugh—you have a shitty time. It wasn’t all bad. We had fun. I could see this as it was happening but sometimes…it’s just so hot.
Though it nearly broke my budding love of Costa Rica, we survived. The heat broke, we enjoyed a nice day by the pool and exploring the beach, a great dinner (Dragonfly Grill – fun menu, beautiful, secluded and relaxed), and less termites.
And again, monkeys running rampant are cool on paper, but surprisingly normal sitting on your patio. I was more enchanted by the cats—especially the one that hung out with us on a late night walk on the beach (chasing bats up a tree!) and then tried to come in and sleep in our room. And the squirrels! Now they I wanted to take home with me.
After Tamarindo came a quick detour to our potential wedding venue. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but I will say it = pampered. The few hours we spent there were HEAVENLY.
For more deets on Capitan Suizo—which was a cute place—it totally reminded me of the kind of place my mom would’ve taken me as a kid, and I would have died of happiness with the animals, and great stuff and places to run around, and the our Tamarindo experience, find me on TripAdvisor.
About ten years ago, when I was a wee lass, I went to Australia and New Zealand. It was terribly exotic, and yet I realized that everywhere looks a lot like somewhere else. Cities are cities, deserts are deserts, seasides are seasides, and as my globe-trotting mother’s dear friend "Aunt" Ruthie was known to say: "You’ve seen one church/pyramid/wonderoftheworld, you’ve see them all." Wise woman.
And yet somehow, Costa Rica was different. Yes, it was one part Spanish-speaking Hawaii, one part run down Caribbean island, and one part monotonous scenery a la Pennsylvania, but it reminded me of so many places, it became uniquely itself. (And we only visited 2 destinations in our short week there.)
Our first stop was La Fortuna de San Carlos at the base of Volcan Arenal. It was reached by a beautiful and challenging three hour drive through the mountains. The pic above was taken when our driver (I didn’t say it was us being challenged…) stopped halfway at one of those restaurant/rest stop/gift shop type places that’s an oasis in the midst of nothing but hillside farms. As we enjoyed our first Costa Rican cerveza (because this was vacation…), we watched weather roll in unnerving quickly, and soon were happily driving along in our first Costa Rican monsoon. This was followed by unhappily napping along, as we struggled to stay awake, and not miss a single grazing pony. This did not so much happen, but I woke up in time for a first glance at the faraway volcano. It had promptly disappeared again by the time we got to the town of La Fortuna.
The "elusive" volcano proved to be a running joke for the 3 days we spent near Arenal, as it was consistently visible despite our constantly being told that we were lucky to see it. I know this must actually be true, and not local lure, because of the number of people on Trip Advisor who spoke of entire weeks spent in Arenal without seeing it. Yes, it was clearest in the morning, and in the afternoon after a rain, but the clouds moved so quickly it was always being covered and uncovered.
We stayed at Hotel Mountain Paradise a few minutes outside of town, and it was a beautiful boutique-y place. (Search DiscerningDilettante on TripAdvisor to read my opinions on the hotel itself.) The rooms are little casitas facing the volcano, and the grounds are amazing. The flowers and the birds there alone made the entire trip. Next time I might upgrade to the Arenal Nayara down the road, or downgrade to the Observatory Lodge or the Treehouse, but this was a great middle ground for a first trip.
Our first evening was spent at Eco Termales, which it was lovely. It’s not large, but it’s peaceful (even when it got more crowded as the nite went on), and the drinks and food were some of the best we had in CR–simple, well-prepared fresh ingredients that weren’t trying too hard. And I know I would have been disappointed to go to Tabacon in the evening and wonder what it actually looked like! Even at Eco T, I really longed to see what birds and animals were making all the noise in the trees. When at Eco Termales, I recommend the smallest, hottest pool with the waterfall and misters, a mango daiquiri, and having dinner early—most people chose to eat right before leaving, and so we had nearly the whole place to ourselves for the last hour.
Our second day featured a visit to the Arenal Hanging Bridges with our awesome guide Javier. Our trip to the Hanging Bridges taught me that there is a such thing as too much Trip Advisor, as I knew what Javier was going to tell us before he said it. This made my visit to the rain/cloud forest kind of anticlimactic. But the bridges and scenery were beautiful, and not nearly as scary as I’d imagined. And the fact that we saw almost no wildlife made me feel less guilty about all the times we go birdwatching at home and see nothing. I mean, if Costa Rica can disappoint then obviously NY can.
We spent our third day at Cano Negro wildlife refuge, with Javier again, and we saw some neat things, but to be honest it felt very Nature Sighting 101 on the Jungle Boat Cruise. Animals you think are going to wow your face off, are not necessarily all that exciting once in a tree 30 feet away doing their thing. [See Ruthie’s Law above.] Sadly, I’m guessing I could be on safari in Kenya and be like, yea that zebra is just like the zebras I saw [insert zoo/wildlife preserve] when I was 6.
Sightings included some caimans, lots of howler and white-faced monkeys, tons of egrets and herons, kingfishers, lizards, and more cormorants that I could really stand. Several of the other couples on the tour (we were lucky to have a small group of about 10), had been to Madagascar, etc. and were still excited about birds we literally have in our backyard! Birding, I thusly determined, is all relative–I should confess to acting terribly jaded and disappointed until we saw an Amazon Kingfisher, the cutest little green bird that I fell in love with at the San Diego Zoo’s aviary.
I was sad to leave Arenal, (the blow was softened by a hilarious driver who played hip hop and pop mash up videos that kept us entertained for close to 2 hours en route to Tamarindo)–I simultaneously knew that we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do there, and was amazed by how content I was to just sit on the porch or in the pool and watch the birds and clouds roll over the volcano, and wish we could stay another week…
If you love details like I do, you can read them all over at TripAdvisor.
Back in April the boy and I had a wedding to attend in Charlotte, NC, and he and some friends relented to my quest to visit Biltmore Estate.
Biltmore was another stop in a life-long obsession with the Vanderbilts, among other Gilded Age celebrities. Although it’s the largest privately owned home in the US, I was surprised to find it isn’t like the Hudson Valley, Newport, or Gold Coast mansions. It’s a home. Some rooms are spectacular, some rooms are, *gasp*, “normal” (for the early 1900s), and there are a lot of them! In its day as a private privately owned home, it was probably more like a supersized B&B. Such is why the Inn on Biltmore Estate is such a great concept.
Our night’s stay at the Inn was a delicious splurge. I basically wished that I was still 9 years old, playing pretend that I was a special guest of the Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia. But being a grown up there was almost as good: the service was exceptional (hello upgraded room!), the rooms were lush, the grounds fabulous, and it was just so calming. I’m a New Yorker–I don’t know how to relax, and yet, there surrounded by aging Southerners taking a weekend away to read the paper on a terrace in the mountains, I was…unwinding.
After we checked into the Inn the four of us headed the short (downhill) walk to the winery buildings for dinner. It was too late for most of the shops and wine tasting, but we were able to grab a yummy meal at the pub, and then explore the farmyard and kitchen garden. The sun setting over the mountains was a beautiful sight, best enjoyed frolicking among vegetables and [penned] sheep.There were even fireworks! (That, admittedly, the welcome letter in our room announced were “practice fireworks.”)
The only snafu in our blissful 24 hours occurred when we went down to the pool/hot tub after dinner. The boy and I were just beginning to relax in the romantic and deserted hot tub when we noticed that the underwater light was out and someone had placed it, still wired, onto the deck beside the hot tub. We were debating exactly how hazardous this was, when a hotel worker came out to take a look at it. He told us it needed a repair (obviously), and he’d have to shut down the pool area for the night. Sure it was a massive letdown, but he was so apologetic, and what else could you do. I consoled myself with the spa tab in our upgraded room instead.
We got up early for a walk around the grounds with some complimentary (and delicious) coffee. It’s amazing how easy it is to get up at 7am when it’s not for work. We went by the pool area, and I was very impressed to find everything repaired and reopened.
After checking out, we headed over to the house and grounds. Yes, it is such a Disneyfied experience, from the parking lot shuttles to the “ride” (I mean, walking tour) photos that you can purchase upon exiting. But, like Disney, it’s all very orderly , clean, and well-organized, with reasonably-priced, tempting gift shops (and outrageously priced foods). And you’re more likely to get stuck behind seniors than screaming 3-year-olds.
The house is…um…extensive. And I can hardly comprehend how there’s more to be seen behind the 50+ rooms on the basic self-guided tour. If we’d had more time, I was really lusting to do the rooftop/balcony tour. Nooks, crannies, stairwells and amazing views? Yes, please! If there’s a tower to be climbed, I’m all for it. And I think the boy would’ve enjoyed close-ups of gargoyles, even if he had to grapple with his fear of heights.
The gardens are picturesque in the most art history use of the term. I’m not a Frederick Law Olmstead fan (he also designed Central Park), but there were some pretty views and had we not been EXHAUSTED by the 2.5 hour walk through the house, it would’ve been fun to explore everything at a more leisurely pace. The (expensive) horseback rides or bike rentals are probably lots of fun and a great way to see the grounds.
But we had to get on the road, with a not-so-quick lunch detour and a very “scenic” scenic highway standing between us and seeing my friend open for Lupe Fiasco back in Charlotte. SPOILER ALERT: We did NOT make it in time.
Before you read any further you should know that I’m a compulsive over-planner.
When I was a small child there were always charts involved regarding wardrobe choices, lodgings, attractions, etc. And ever since Excel has entered the world, that level of “organization” (I say tomato, you say tomato), can be taken to blissfully masochistic levels.
Therefore, had I know that the Riviera Maya was a region just begging to be spread sheeted I would never have bought our flights. And not as part of a package (because I became overwhelmed with all-inclusive options almost immediately and could not decide on a resort in the 3 hours before our JetBlue vouchers expired at 11:59pm August 4th).
Did I mention I’m also a procrastinator?
The ultimate irony didn’t strike until 3 weeks later when we finally (mostly) committed to a resort that was…Valentin Imperial Maya–my original choice during those frenzied hours on JetBlue.com. So maybe now I’ve learned to listen to my instincts and not untold hours of TripAdvisor-review-reading? Hardly. At any rate, one spreadsheet of 30 all-inclusive resorts later, I had a shortlist. The honorable mentions were:
VIM was stunning and I really can’t complain. Except to say that we weren’t there long enough. After playing Mexican roulette at customs (Scott lost and had all the shit–that’s right, because he was carrying both our bags–searched), we were picked up immediately. Thank you CancunTransfers–way to be completely on top of things, even when we rescheduled our return trip at the last minute!
I don’t understand the people who talk about Riviera Maya hotels in terms of not being close enough to the airport. I get not wanting to spend hours of your long weekend in a van, and probably would’ve regretted staying all the way in Tulum at some point or another, but VIM was like a sneeze away from the airport. I know don’t understand how people stay in Cancun proper without feeling like they’re at an airport hotel.
The driveway from Highway 1 (the Yucatan, much like Canada, really has one road) up to VIM’s “motor” entrance was endless, and I could practically smell the ocean in my excitement (enough research and map-looking-at and it’s like having internal compass). I entertained all sorts of daydreams about borrowing bicycles and riding along the driveway bird watching. Very ambitious, I would later learn.
The entire place looked just like all the pictures in the best way possible. Complete with champagne. I got off to a responsible start by not finishing it in one gulp. Our swim up suite bred a level of laziness even I have never reached before. (Thank god we never ordered room service, because I seriously think if we had gone down that road, it would have been all over.)
The bed was comfy (so much for the hard Mexican beds rumor), the bathroom fairly luxe (though being spoiled I would’ve liked some tv in the sightlines of my spa tub), and the living area pretty useless, except for widening the distance between everything else and our pool access. (I did watch a movie and nap on the couch once to make it have purpose).
Being able to walk outside and jump in the pool was literally a lifelong dream I didn’t even realize had never been realized. I mean, what little girl doesn’t want a pool? Especially during hot LI summers when every single one of her neighbors does? Pools to me, are quite literally the point of going on vacation. But I never really experienced what life would be like to truly have one in your backyard. It would be awesome.
The beach was fairly awesome too. Mexico’s no Hawaii, but it was in serious contention with the Bahamas and rest of the Caribbean, and definitely surpassing California and Australia. And the best part—not a soul to bother you, no one selling anything! Beaches in Mexico are public, so it is surprising, and impressive that there was none of that. The VIM beach seemed to cater to every possibility, with plenty of quiet areas away from the volleyball, water sports, etc. The whole resort was very diverse in terms of people of different activity levels finding something for them.
Our first morning there, I decided to take a yoga class. I was thinking, resort yoga class, that’ll be easy. Oh hahaha, tell that to “Eduardo” the sexy Mexican yogi a la pretty much every movie that’s ever featured vacation yoga. Hardest class I’ve ever taken–almost as rough as our 12 hour snorkeling extravaganza with Edventure Tours.
The food on average was good to great. Not bad at all considering what we paid, and there really is something incredibly relaxing about not having to think about how much what you’re putting in your mouth costs. After our Edventure day, we ate at Ginger, which was our favorite of the restaurants, I could have had a buffet full of their desserts, which sadly was not offered in buffet form. (For more food-related details, check out my review on Trip Advisor.)
After loads of Mexican food warnings, and the solid advice to do daily shots of Pepto, my delicate stomach was probably more affected by the possibility of getting sick than what I was actually eating. We ate all kinds of fruits and veggies (yes, I had salsa!) and drank the filtered(!) water, and for the most part were fine. In fact, there were several nights where I ate and drank such bizarre combinations of things (mudslides and sushi anyone?) that I‘m amazed I survived. (And the not fine could easily have been the antibiotics I’d taken a couple earlier that had, you guessed it, intestinal unpleasantness as a side effect.) I would advise to add some probiotics to the pepto routine and to keep taking both for a week after returning home.
We went in September which was hot, but bearable—you’re in or near the water most of the day anyway, and luckily for us it only rained briefly in Tulum and the morning we were leaving. Or maybe it rained other mornings and I just slept through them, haha.
From someone who’s been there.
Don’t leave home without :
1) pepto, sunscreen and bug spray
2) a pool float – it’s worth the few bucks to not have to worry about whether or not they’ll be any around
3) singles!! – the staff is great, and it’s so much easier to tip when you don’t have to track down the cash
4) more than one swim suit – today’s is not going to dry in time for tomorrow in all that humidity
What to do if you’re…
1) Feeling lazy. Book a swim-up suite – you’ll never have to worry about finding a lounger poolside when it’s right outside the room.
2) Feeling adventurous. Try Edventure tours. It really was the best day of our vacation.
3) Feeling thirsty. Find swim-up pool bartender David and ask him for his signature
mango, tequila, and milk concoction. Nothing short of amazing.