November 17, 2003

A Desperate Plea for Travel...

A Desperate Plea for Travel Tips: OK, before I get into the vulgar business below, I would like to stress that in nearly seven years of marriage, my wife and I have never taken a "vacation" -- defined as traveling somewhere together, for duty-free leisure -- lasting longer than three days. We either haven't had the money or the time. So, as I beg for travel information below, please do not consider us to be the New Decadents or anything ...

OK, we want to go to a Caribbeanish island, for a week, the day after Thanksgiving. Here's the problem -- there's too many of them, and we've never been there (except for Cuba), and we can't figure out what to do. We want a cheapo version of a Corona commercial, basically, some kind of loosely packaged whatsit, with hopefully enough interesting history/civilization to keep us from going totally loco. Are there places we should avoid? What's the difference between a Bahama and a Virgin? Will the Bermuda Triangle steal our souls? Why am I so stupid..... These are some of the questions.

Posted by at November 17, 2003 05:11 PM
Comments

The week after Thanksgiving I will be on a Carribean Island off the coast of Belize called Caye Caulker. I'm renting a house on the beach, right there on the sand, for 50 bucks a night.

I've never been there before, but it looks extremely nice. Best snorkeling and diving in the world, 85 degrees with a breeze.

Come on down and I'll buy you dinner and a Mojito.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 17, 2003 05:25 PM

One suggestion: not an island, but on the Caribbean... Playa del Carmen, about a half hour south of Cancun. From there you can motor south another half hour or so to Tulum--Mayan ruins on the beach (say no more.) Good lobster and good Tequila, natch, on the sand. Great R & R but interesting at the same time. Plenty of good snorkeling and scuba if you're into it.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at November 17, 2003 05:49 PM

The only island I've been to in that area is Barbados, about 15 years ago. Nice place, back then. If it were up to me, I'd take a cruise; for young people like yourself and the missus, they're a blast.

Posted by: Steve Smith at November 17, 2003 05:58 PM

Totten y Simon have some good ideas. I'm partial to the Costa Maya, which is about three hours by car from Cancun. It is cheap, somewhat primitive, you eat the Bounty of the Sea cooked simply & smart.

The cayes of Belize are very nice. But Belize itself is a hellhole, and you at least have to fly to Belize City (the "capital") and switch to a puddle jumper before you get to one of the nice cayes. Also, Belize isn't really a Latino country (until you're way inland, by the Guat. border) and was literally settled by pirates, who still seem to run the place along with shady time-share dealers who fled Tucson when the Law got close. This isn't important, except for eating. Food can be quite horrible, and you won't get a good taco 'til you drive to the Mexican border towns up north.

Here's a stupid story I wrote for some travel mag a couple years back ... it is so poorly edited and chopped that I'm unable to read it again, but there might be something useful somewhere in the mess. Click this bitch.

As for your Bahamas & Virgins & such, I've been to most of the "known" islands and it is rarely such a great idea. It is easy to get bored, even with abundant booze. If you like exploring weird cities and finding interesting cheap restaurants and such, go to Puerto Rico. Really. San Juan is crazy. (I know how Emmanuelle gets when she is isolated from the urban world.)

Anyway, if you go to the Costa Maya you can probably take the Mexican airline to Chetumal, the state capital there. It is a fun little town, and then you drive maybe two hours to the Caribbean. It is damned purty and there's lots of interesting little towns and Mayan ruins and whatnot, plus all manner of bizarre land & sea animals.

Steve's advice -- take a cruise -- might not be bad advice if you want an island sampler. I've been on a few of these things. One was really great (smaller ship, all filled up with my wife's co-workers and young hipsters from a Mexico City company of some kind), and we had fun on St. Thomas (kayaking through some nature preserve, the usual drinking and swimming) and had some free time in San Juan. The second cruise wasn't so good. There was a hurricane (normal this time of year) and some of the stops were canceled and the crowd was about 80 years old, on average. Still fun but it took a lot of avoiding the crap.

Go poke around Expedia or Travelocity and you'll find something good & cheap. Call if you want details.

Posted by: Ken Layne at November 17, 2003 06:23 PM

Charter a boat, then sail around the Carribbean until you die of alcohol poisoning. That's what I intend to do when I retire, except I plan on purchasing my conveyance in to the next world instead of chartering it.

Barring that, I'd go to Tahiti or Fiji. The Rim of Fire is so nice this time of year.

Posted by: Paul at November 17, 2003 06:36 PM

I see Roger L. Simon has beaten me to it, but let me second Playa del Carmen (and that coast of Mexico generally) as the thinking man's Caribbean, the best combination of a real place with its own culture plus whatever degree of gringo sophistication/luxury/amenities you want and nice, gentle turquoise water. (My experience, albeit limited, gibes with the comment that the islands tend to get boring after a day or two. Mexico doesn't.)

Cancun (and for that matter Cozumel) are hellholes, but convenient to fly to and immediately get the hell out of. Playa, on the other hand, is like a little bit of Santa Monica, a little bit of Margaritaville, and a lot of Mexico, and you can get even more luxe by staying in a snooty condo or resort, or even more hippie by staying in the more rustic fishing villages nearby and saving Playa for when you need a romantic dinner with the Ms. (Oddly, the best fine dining in town is Italian, not Mexican.)

I wrote a thing about my trip on Chowhound.com, it's mostly focused on food but gives some feel overall. Easily my favorite one-place vacation since Ireland a decade ago, we rented a condo with a pool and split our days between the busy (but friendly) beach and the private pool. Not cheap but nothing down there is, I thought it was fairly priced. I'd go back in a second.

http://www.chowhound.com/boards/intl/messages/18913.html

Posted by: Mike G at November 17, 2003 08:20 PM

Oh! And I forgot to mention-- Playa IS where they shoot the Corona commercials! No joke.

Posted by: Mike G at November 17, 2003 08:27 PM

Go to Venezuela. Margarita Island is very cool, and relatively unknown to US tourists. Of course, there is a little matter of a certain Castroite dictator there, if that's a problem.

Posted by: Greg at November 17, 2003 09:32 PM

Forget the Caribbean and go to the Philippines, where you will find millions of secluded white-sand beaches, picturesque rice terraces -- and the summer villas, stocked with scantily clad women, of a certain bright, twentysomething conservative-libertarian blogger! Forget the terrorists; that's just the product of liberal media bias!

(Speaking of scantily clad women, did ya see this NYT article on Denton? It manages to tie in Moneyball. Quite impressive.)

Sorry, Matt, but I've never been to that part of the world, so I can't help. I'd take Totten's offer, though, if I were you.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda at November 17, 2003 10:04 PM

I hope you feel nice and guilty. You could be sending poor children on this vacation, but _no_! mr. Selfish has to go himself. Sorry kids.

Anyway, they say Port-au Prince is lovely this time of year ....

(nb: above is meant to be humor)

Posted by: Michael Farris at November 17, 2003 10:21 PM

Matt, I spent three years in San Juan, on and off, ending a couple years agset of ruins you might check out are the ruins of uxmal (dunno if buses run there from the cancun bus terminal, i caught the bus from merida). . . uxmal was one of my two favorite sets of ruins in mexico (palenque in the mountains was my other). . .

13. sun tips - wear a wide-brimmed hat - baseball caps are worthless out there. . . and in addition to the regular parts of your face don't forget sunscreen on your nose, ears, under your chin, and the back of your neck. . . and *especially* don't forget to put sunscreen on your feet if you're wearing sandals - walking around on sunburned feet is one helluva cock-biting experience. . .

14. an awesome book that'll give you the mexico travel bug is "the people's guide to mexico" by carl franz. . . it's not a guidebook like lonely planet or let's go, it's more of, ummnn, a book full of travel tips regarding mexico - many of which are given in anecdotal form. .. a good read even if you're not planning on going to mexico. . . covers everything from "yummy things to eat" to "what to do if yummy things give you dysentery" to "how to bribe". . . it's the best practical-advice travel book i've ever read. . . they've got a website here:
http://www.peoplesguide.com/

15. did a quick google and found another site that kinda touches on most of the things in the cancun-tulum corridor:
http://www.cancun.com/adventure.html

16. fyi, buses in mexico are *not* like what the american tv and movies make 'em out to be. . . american greyhound buses are the equivalent of mexican 2nd class buses. . . 1st class buses are pretty fucking nice (a/c, occasional in-drive movies, soooper clean), and not much more expensive than their 2nd class brethren. . . executive class (aka first-class-plus) buses are fucking *luxurious*. . . the only reason i can think of as to why you may wanna avoid 2nd class buses is that they stop whenever people on the side of the road flag 'em down - which can happen every fucking 100 feet and can make your trip take twice as long. . . the chicken/goat buses are the 3rd class buses and i actually dig taking those buses quite a bit. . .

17. another place you might consider checking out is costa rica. . . very gringo friendly. . . has shit like beaches, volcanos, rainforests, monkeys, toucans, sloths, and other eco-tourist stuff like that. . . and it's not a huge country like mexico so it's all relatively accessible. . . everyone there was way friendly to me and it seemed super safe - costa rica was one of the few places in central america where i didn't have any nagging doubts about hitching. .. and speaking of hitching, when walking down roads by myself almost all the cars that passed me would slow down to see if i wanted a ride and the ones that didn't were normally the ones driven by tourists. . .

18. the islands off of honduras are another cool place to go, especially if you want to learn how to dive. . . a one-week scuba-certification course costs $100 but the key thing there is that the $100 not only gets you the course and certification but *also* includes lodging, food, and one or two free tanks of air as well as full use of the snorkeling equipment after the course ended. .. i know several people who went there, stayed for a month to become dive masters, and then wandered over to costa rica or various resorts like club med to get jobs as scuba instructors. . . another plus with honduras is that the pot was something like $10 per handful. . .

19. one key thing to note is that the cancun-tulum corridor and costa rica aren't exactly what i'd call "budget" travel. . . i mean, the further you get from cancun the cheaper it gets, costa rica prices are definitely cheaper than, say, paris, and you can always find budget deals if you look around, but they're still not the sweet deal you could score if you chose a place like el salvador. . .

shit, i can't believe i wrote that much in a comment that may or may not be read. . . if you don't mind i think i'll copy and paste this puppy into my own blog for today's post. . . :^)

Posted by: bloopy at November 18, 2003 06:13 AM

So a cool, foggy week in Arcata is out, eh? Too bad. The beaches are spectacular, and spectacularly unpopulated...

Posted by: Eric Neel at November 18, 2003 07:50 AM

Try a combination of Guadaloupe/Martenique (either) and Dominica. Good mix of French somewhat developed and off the beaten track english speaking islands. The Papillote Hotel in Dominiqua is back up in the forest near a big waterfall with a great low key bar.

Posted by: Dave at November 18, 2003 08:18 AM

To amplify a couple of bloopy's comments:

1. Yes, the main beach at Playa gets crowded, but you can "rent" a space from the bars/hotels along there in the am (what you're renting is the plastic chair or umbrella, not the beach which is not for sale, but people respect your spot). Or you can go anywhere else along the coast for miles in either direction and find seclusion. Me, I enjoyed staking out my spot early, then watching people and reading/splashing all day. I was also there slightly off season, though, it might get really packed at peak times. Again, if you want a less Santa Monica-like experience, it's no great distance away in any direction and Playa is still convenient for the things it offers (mainly, restaurants).

2. Xcaret was kind of fun with my little kids, not really worth it for grownups unless you really want to see bats or a dolphin show or float in an inner tube through a dark, not very natural, slightly mildewy cave.

3. We went to Cozumel for a morning and immediately wished we hadn't, one, because both kids puked on the ferry (and even I felt a little green), two because it's an unattractive combination of cement brutalist architecture of the 70s and spanking new duty free shops from all your least favorite international brands. I agree, only go there for the diving.

Posted by: Mike G at November 18, 2003 08:24 AM

Well, I will second whomever suggested Puerto Rico, but it really is not cheap. There's PLENTY of history and culture and places to visit, and there are a lot of "paradores" scattered across the island which are cheap (but not, say, Michael Totten's Caye Caulker cheap). There are big urbanized areas (San Juan) and secluded beaches (Culebra island). Also pretty cool, the island is actually made up mostly of mountains and there's plenty of paradores close to big waterfalls where you can bathe in and such, which is also fun.

Posted by: Javier at November 18, 2003 08:55 AM

I used to live in both Aruba and Mexico, so I can tell you:

1. If you're looking for cheap, don't go to Aruba. But Margarita is very nice.

2. I second the Playa del Carmen recommendation. Very nice place, great people, perfect beaches, and cheap. Just stay out of Cancun unless you feel like being in a Girls Gone Wild video.

Posted by: brett at November 18, 2003 01:30 PM

I must beg to differ with Ken's account of mainland Belize. There are crazy ruins and hidden waterfalls and more in the Cayo district -- and peaceful resorts like Windy Hill (http://www.windyhillresort.com/) from which to base your explorations. Not to mention that if you go to Belize, you can go from Caye Caulker -- a place where you can spend the whole time barefoot, sail, dive, eat conch and jerk chicken, get dropped off on a one-palm-tree island, just you and Manu and snorkels -- through the Cayo to the incredible Mayan ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala. Also, the best tacos I ever had were on Caye Caulker -- tacos of the freshest red snapper in tortillas cooked in coconut oil, with habanero salsa. Damn!

Posted by: Bonnie Bills at November 18, 2003 01:32 PM
pan>

I've never been to any of these damn places!

But they sure sound great.

Both my wife Kelly and my brother Tim spent time in Belize, both inland and on the cayes (?). Sounds more like Bonnie's description than crazy Ken Layne's - bear in mind, Ken's vision may be clouded by his flight from the law or filthy criminals of one sort or another, or both.

One thing for sure about inland, the bugs can be brutal. My brother's tales of the islands off Belize are very much reminiscent of Bonnie's. If you do the Belize island thing, and are into fishing, you can experience some of the most extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime quality fly fishing. A friend caught 40 or more bonefish, among other magnificent fish, in one afternoon wading in water up to his chest. His 14-year-old Belizean guide advised him "not to play the fish too long, because it attracts the sharks." Yikes! Not what you want to hear when the boat that dropped you in the water is a disappearing speck on the horizon, and you're up to your waist with no real land in site. But he said it was one of the best experiences of his life.

That place in Mexico sounds pretty damn good, too. I guess you're one lucky bastard, with such choices! Whatever you do, let Manu be the final arbiter. She's far more likely to make a good choice, based on sound background info.

I assume you'll be posting via satellite from wherever you end up???

max

Posted by: max at November 18, 2003 02:05 PM

I would second the good thoughts about Playa-- it's gorgeous. We honeymooned in Cozumel (the trick to the ferry is staying above board) and it was lovely, but only because we found refuge at El Presidente InterContinental.

We were originally to stay at this place called Zamas in Tulum, but it proved to be a bit too rustic for our needs (it was just like that Expedia commercial with the mosquito net). The margaritas kicked ass, though, so you might check out their restaurant.

All in all, the Mayan Riviera is amazing and cheap. Just avoid the timeshare freaks...

Posted by: Shiloh at November 18, 2003 04:12 PM

i gotta ask. . . when you say "one palm tree island" do you mean like those little ultra-mn>

Matt,
there's only one place to go, and that's the British virgin Islands. While the Yucatan Peninsula is really neat, I bicycled it in the 80's, nothing compares to BVI for a less than 30 day vacation, except Bora Bora, but that's, of course, a long way from Caribbean.
http://www.bviwelcome.com/
Mike Daley

Posted by: Mike Daley at November 18, 2003 06:03 PM

I see everybody else loves Playa del Carmen too. I was afraid to recommend because I hadn't been there for nine years. Went with Sheryl literally after our third date. I said let's go to Playa del CArmen. She said okay and we've been together ever since. Can't be that bad. BTW, looks like we're headed for Prague in early Dec. Talk soon.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at November 18, 2003 06:41 PM

I heartily concur with Roger L. Simon et al., Playa del Carmen is unique. I recommend the Blue Parrot, it's a center for the local night life and mostly a hangout for Canadians and Europeans -- it might be a bit too rustic for your average American tourist and the beach is *cough* not for children. If you stay there, do avoid the "rustic beachfront palapas," they're small and cramped. The rest of their accommodations are fine though. The best bang for the buck are their kitchenettes, which are a bit back from the beach and sheltered from the wind (blowing in off the Caribbean it can be brutal).

Don't miss Tolum (it's only lame if you don't enjoy seeing some of the oldest standing structures in the western hemisphere and it is gorgeous), swim in the cenotes at Xel Ha with all the tropical fish, and be sure to take a ferry ride over to Cozumel to see the ugly Americans (the contrast with Playa is an anthropological experience), but don't drink too many margaritas the night before you take the ferry (and take a tip from the Captains of the old sailing ships, sit in the back of the boat)!

Posted by: Swen Swenson at November 18, 2003 08:08 PM

Oh yeah... Sad to say, but in Playa del C. you'll get better service and better prices if you don't dress and act like an American.

Posted by: Swen Swenson at November 18, 2003 08:22 PM

OK, for what it's worth, being a Brit and fairly far away, I've only ever been to the Caribbean once. Took a package holiday to the Domincan Republic at Christmas laast year. Was maybe a tad TOO organised but the overall cost/expenses were cheap, cheap! Also, was very interesting to be in the Caribbean in a country where the first language was Spanish. And the wife, brother-in-law and his girlfriend and I did get all bold, hired a guide and taxi and set off on our own from the gated hotel resort and wandered around Puerto Plata on our own. Encountered only friendly natives. Also enjoyed horseback riding through sugarcane and mango fields as sunset approached. Seem to recall you can get cheap package deals from the States, too. I'd go back in a shot but would maybe make my own hotel/travel arrangements, as you can go pretty stir-crazy in the resort hotels that are mainly for US and European tourists. And anyway, if you get to feeling really adventurous you can try hopping over the border into Haiti! Have a nice trip wherever you end up!

Posted by: Scott at November 19, 2003 02:26 AM

Yo! Apologies! In that last post that should have read, of course, Dominican Republic. Ta!

Posted by: Scott at November 19, 2003 02:30 AM

A BIG THANKS to everybody who dropped by here with suggestions. That's so sweet to have taken the time to leave ideas. Playa Del Carmen looks both close enough and just gorgeous. Browsing deals on the Net... Merci merci

Posted by: Emmanuelle at November 19, 2003 04:18 PM

Wow, you people totally rule. A few days ago, I'd never heard of Playa del Carmen; a few minutes ago, I just made reservations for six nights at the Blue Parrot. Now we're just scoping cheap Cancun flights. They seem to have some kind of high-speed Internet buddy there ... and while the entire purpose of this trip is to avoid things like computers (and skip Emmanuelle's cell-phone across the placid turqouise water), we might type a line or two saying something like "Swen Swenson rocks!!!"

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 19, 2003 04:34 PM

Welch, talk to Michelle Danner; she's scuba-dived all over Mexico, the Caribbean (and the world) and so she's been to all of those cool tropical places. I've only been to Bermuda on a cruise; very beautiful, would have liked to have stayed longer to explore the historical sites. My other chief recommendation is to make a decision about a place based on what you like to do- if you want to swim, dive, then certain places are better for that. If you're just interesed in drinking on a beach, then others are good. Me, if there ain't interesting history involved, I'm not interested. Finally, if you take a cruise, remember, they are NOT all alike. On the cruise I took, there were about 50 people under 50 out of a boat of about 200, whereas other ships are just big booze cruise meat markets. So do some homework; there are websites that review cruise itineraries and ships. If you book a cruise within 30 days of sailing, they can be VERY cheap; the cruise I went on to Bermuda was a 16-day trans-Atlantic cruise that cost $800/person. And that included transportation, lodging and food. Not bad.

Posted by: Chris Ziegler-McPherson at November 20, 2003 09:20 AM

Good deal, enjoy it and the only thing I will add to previous comments is, really, don't be afraid of the street food, there's some damn tasty stuff and freshly cooked food is as safe as it is here (so too the stands you'll see selling cups of pineapple, mango, coconut and other fruits with skins or shells to be removed). Actually, the Yucatan is even supposed to have the best tap water in Mexico; although I usually took the precaution of bottled water I wasn't totally fanatical about it and nothing ever got me, in fact if anything fresh Mexican food left my tummy feeling better than my usual semi-crappy American diet. Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the streets west of Av. 10 or so at lunchtime and trying whatever little stands you find, it's a cross-cultural experience on many levels which most visitors (who stick to Av. 5 and the beach) won't have.

Posted by: Mike G at November 20, 2003 01:41 PM
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ers (and skip Emmanuelle's cell-phone across the placid turqouise water), we might type a line or two saying something like "Swen Swenson rocks!!!"

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 19, 2003 04:34 PM

Welch, talk to Michelle Danner; she's scuba-dived all over Mexico, the Caribbean (and the world) and so she's been to all of those cool tropical places. I've only been to Bermuda on a cruise; very beautiful, would have liked to have stayed longer to explore the historical sites. My other chief recommendation is to make a decision about a place based on what you like to do- if you want to swim, dive, then certain places are better for that. If you're just interesed in drinking on a beach, then others are good. Me, if there ain't interesting history involved, I'm not interested. Finally, if you take a cruise, remember, they are NOT all alike. On the cruise I took, there were about 50 people under 50 out of a boat of about 200, whereas other ships are just big booze cruise meat markets. So do some homework; there are websites that review cruise itineraries and ships. If you book a cruise within 30 days of sailing, they can be VERY cheap; the cruise I went on to Bermuda was a 16-day trans-Atlantic cruise that cost $800/person. And that included transportation, lodging and food. Not bad.

Posted by: Chris Ziegler-McPherson at November 20, 2003 09:20 AM

Good deal, enjoy it and the only thing I will add to previous comments is, really, don't be afraid of the street food, there's some damn tasty stuff and freshly cooked food is as safe as it is here (so too the stands you'll see selling cups of pineapple, mango, coconut and other fruits with skins or shells to be removed). Actually, the Yucatan is even supposed to have the best tap water in Mexico; although I usually took the precaution of bottled water I wasn't totally fanatical about it and nothing ever got me, in fact if anything fresh Mexican food left my tummy feeling better than my usual semi-crappy American diet. Anyway, I highly recommend checking out the streets west of Av. 10 or so at lunchtime and trying whatever little stands you find, it's a cross-cultural experience on many levels which most visitors (who stick to Av. 5 and the beach) won't have.

Posted by: Mike G at November 20, 2003 01:41 PM
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