-Continued from Winter Break 2015 Trip Notes Part 1: Miami
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There are a plethora of warm weather destinations you can fly to from Miami on the cheap with British Airways Avios.
The decision on where to go was made easy thanks to having lifetime Fairmont Platinum status. The Fairmont Riviera Maya has been calling my name for some time now.
We flew from Miami nonstop to Cancun from Sunday morning through Thursday afternoon in the last week of January. We got 4.5K Avios awards for myself, my wife, and our 2 kids. That’s a total of 36K Avios (about 25K AMEX points during the 40% bonus that was going on then) for the 4 round-trip tickets that would have cost upwards of $1,500 otherwise, an incredible use of miles.
The flight was nearly full in both directions, but thanks to Main Cabin Extra seating, having 4 seats on a plane with a 3-3 configuration, and selecting aisle and window seats we were able to have an empty middle seat in both rows.
Sure, we didn’t need to book a seat for our 16 month old, but using 4.5K Avios seems like a no-brainer for her to have her own carseat confirmed on the plane from both a safety and comfort standpoint. The FAA strongly recommends that infants have a carseat on the plane, though they don’t require it as they feel that would cause more people to drive instead of fly.
In the end, we actually brought along one of my brothers on the trip so that Mimi and I would be able to have some alone time. When we booked his ticket there were no longer any 4.5K Avios coach awards for the outbound flight, but there were 9K Avios business class awards that are still an incredible bargain compared to a paid flight.
If you’re flying from NYC, Cancun is a good use of miles as well. It’s 20K BA Avios to fly round-trip nonstop on American from JFK. Or you can use 22K ANA miles (transferable from AMEX or Starwood) to fly round-trip nonstop on United from Newark.
Mexico uses a random light system to decide whether to X-Ray and check your baggage. You push a button and green means that you get to skip the X-Ray, while red means that everything you have needs to pass through the X-Ray. My brother got green, while we got the red.
It wasn’t a big deal as we had been warned not to bring any chicken or beef products, but we were nervous about all of the dairy products we had.
In the end they had no issue with any of the yogurts or hard cheeses that we had. They did however confiscate our cream cheese, though the cottage cheese was able to pass. Now if I’m looking at cream cheese and cottage cheese and deciding which looked more suspicious I’d have picked the cottage cheese, but I wasn’t about to argue over a single tub of cream cheese.
Cars in Cancun are ridiculously cheap. You’ll probably find cars for under $10/day. Be aware that those rates don’t include mandatory insurance. We rented a minivan from Alamo (slight discount by using the Costco corporate code) and I added the $12.95/day liability insurance when making the reservation online.
The cars on the lot are very old and beat up and everything seems to move in slow motion. Just be sure that you have them mark every scratch and nick on the car on the paper they give you. And take photographs of the car for good measure as well.
I had a printout of my confirmation to make sure that they didn’t try to raise the price of the car or insurance. I noticed that the estimated total was $100 more than I expected and called them out on it. Turns out they had tried to sell me the full tank of gas scam without asking me if I wanted that. After taking care of that the estimate matched my email confirmation.
Note that if you are staying in Cancun itself then you probably can make due without a car. There are buses that go up and down the hotel zone for dirt cheap.
Most definitely picture worthy:
There are several great hotel options in Cancun itself when using points.
-The Hyatt Zilara is an adults-only all-inclusive property that runs 25K Chase or Hyatt points per night. It has top-notch reviews.
-The Westin Lagunamar is an all-villa property and is currently a category 4 Starwood property. That means a studio is just 10K points per night and a 1 bedroom villa is just 11.5K points per night. On 03/10/15 it will climb to a category 5 property with rates starting at 12K points per night in low season and 16K points per night in high season, so book refundable stays before then if you can.
Cancun itself has 3 kosher food options.
1. Dag Dag, a homey restaurant run by a cute older couple serving up fish and pasta options. They’re only open for dinner.
2. Red Heifer/Kosher Luxus serving Mexican food.
3. Chabad of Cancun, which doesn’t have a restaurant, but offers $10 delivery service to any hotel in Cancun. It’s run by the very competent Rabbi Mendel Druk who is always quick to respond to tourist questions via email, Rabbi@jewishcancun.com
Kosher food can also be found at Costco, WalMart, and Sam’s Club.
There are 4 more kosher options in Playa, an hour south of Cancun, as well as a kosher option on the island of Cozumel.
Note that many restaurants and activities don’t accept credit cards. You can use your ATM card to withdraw pesos or you can pay in dollars. Note that some places will charge a steep exchange fee should you want to pay in dollars.
We decided to stop for lunch at Red Heifer, whose unique Mexican menu looked intriguing.
Alas just a kilometer before the restaurant several cars, including the one I was driving, were pulled over simultaneously for speeding. There goes my theory about not getting a ticket when following another speeder. They had several cops on motorcycles come after all of us.
Apparently we were all going 80 KPH in a 70 zone, a whopping 6 MPH over the speed limit.
Now where I come from you wait in the car when pulled over, but in fluent English I was asked to step out of the vehicle and hand over my license and registration. The cop starts berating “all of you American tourists who don’t respect Mexican road laws.” I asked to be let go with a warning and he laughed and started writing up a ticket.
He asked where we were staying and I answered near Playa del Carmen. He said, that’s a shame. You’re going to have to drive all the way back to Cancun to pay the fine tomorrow in order to get back your license. With nothing to lose I asked if I could pay for the ticket on the spot. A big grin came to to his face and he asked how much I want to pay to take of things between us. I offered $20, he countered with $40. I had a $20 in my wallet and went back to the car to ask Mimi for a $5. I told him I had $25 and I got my license back without a ticket. In retrospect I’d have offered $10 and countered with $15 or $20. Definitely don’t keep more than $25 in your wallet when driving. That was my “I’m not in Kansas anymore” experience. ¡Bienvenidos a México!
We arrived at Red Heifer/Kosher Luxus at 2:15pm and the place was locked and pitch black. We knocked on the door for a minute and started to leave when they came and opened the doors.
There is indoor and outdoor seating:
For starters bread and dips are served. The bread was pretty airy and not very satisfying while the dips were completely devoid of flavor. That probably should have been a sign of what was to come. While I was looking forward to unique Mexican flavors, nothing here really provided that.
The beef filler Tacos Red Heifer are completely dry and flavorless. What’s worse is that the guacamole tasted and looked just like the gross vat of the bland stuff from Costco. How can a Mexican restaurant not take more pride in something that basic? The salsa was no better in covering up the taco’s deficiencies.
Empanadas were not much better than the tacos:
Sopecitos, made with shredded chicken, were decent. Nothing I’d order again, but these were edible:
Rafi got shnitzel. The breading used was not very good, not crunchy and not flavorful:
Tortilla soup was incredibly spicy. Of all the dishes we had this was the best though, with the flavors I was hoping to try in a Mexican restaurant:
Lime soup on the other hand was a little strange. Just imagine a chicken soup, but with heavy lime flavor:
Salmon Ravioli was loaded with the fishiest salmon any of us had ever tried. The pasta itself was good, but the overwhelmingly powerful salmon made the dish hard to bear:
The Red Heifer Fajitas is a large plate of grilled chicken, meat, and vegetables. It’s a solid dish, though the toppings of salsa, refried beans, and guacamole are all disappointments.
Heifer grill offers a selection of subpar meats:
The only dessert that was available was a brownie with ice cream, which was by far the best dish we had there. If they had only warmed up the brownie it would have been excellent:
After lunch we drove an hour south to the Fairmont Mayakoba.
Mayakoba is a purpose built resort area. In order to enter Mayakoba they need to verify that you are staying in one of the resorts. The lush grounds are stunning and there are currently 3 hotels operating there, the Fairmont, Banyan Tree, and Rosewood. Hyatt Andaz Mayakoba will open in 2016.
The Banyan Tree and the Rosewood have better reputations that the Fairmont, in fact every Banyan Tree room has its own private pool. But the Fairmont was free for us, and free is hard to beat 😀
The Achilles heal of the entire area is that there is relatively little beachfront compared to the expansive land the resorts are built on.
We used free nights and suite upgrade certificates to get 2 signature casita suites with a view of one of the rivers that traverses Mayakoba. 2 suites comprise 1 villa. Each villa has an upstairs suite and a downstairs suite.
The upstairs suites are a bit of a pain with a stroller, but you should definitely request one anyway. The downstairs villas are dark and have a musky smell to them. They also don’t have a real balcony with a view like the upstairs villas. On the advice of the hotel staff we left our stroller at the bottom of the staircase, and sure enough nothing happened to it during our stay.
There are also beachfront villas, but they wanted $600/night to upgrade to those. I passed.
The Fairmont is so vast that it operates a fleet of golf carts to shuttle people to their rooms, to the pools, and the beach. It’s a good 10 minute drive to get to the beach.
My beef with the golf carts is that they drive down the same path that pedestrians walk on. And they drive fast. There were several times when we had a close call during our stay when walking down that path. At night the situation is even worse. The paths are poorly lit, but those carts keep on zooming by. It’s actually quite unsettling.
The hotel charged a $15 per adult per day resort fee. That has actually gone up to $20 per adult per day. It does include a good amount of amenities though including valet parking, WiFi, boat tours, kayak rentals, catamaran tours, and tennis courts.
It’s important to reserve the boat and catamaran tours in advance as they are booked solid within 48 hours of the tours.
The villa itself is pretty awesome.
View from the balcony:
For dinner that night we had BBQ burgers that we ordered to go from Red Heifer. Edible, but not much more. A sauce would have been nice:
The pools near the casitas are massive and stunning. Alas they were also freezing cold throughout the stay. Everyone seemed to be complaining about the water temperature, but nothing was done about it.
The kiddie pool was nicely heated though and there was a very large hot tub that people tended to congregate inside of.
Another DDF member was actually at the Fairmont last week and said the water temperature in all the pools was fine, so hopefully it’s an issue that has been fixed.
The slide was for “kids only.” Never saw anyone actually using it due to the cool water temperature.
At the far end of the pools is an adults-only infinity pool overlooking the river:
The hotel provides free bottles of water in your room, a must because you don’t even want to brush your teeth with Mexican tap water. However, there is no water to be had in the pool area as you would find at other resorts of this caliber. Wasn’t a big deal as we just brought the water bottles from the room to the pool, just something I was surprised about.
In all, the service at the Fairmont is a mixed bag. Some employees do go above and beyond, but don’t expect real 5 star service here.
The hotel charges for many things that other hotels provide for free.
The room has a minibar fridge, but an extra fridge runs a whopping $25 per day.
Microwaves are also $25 per day. If you want to the hotel to reheat 4 meals delivered from Chabad that will set you back some $75 per meal. A “deal” that I passed on.
On Tuesday, they started doing construction along the pathway to our room. There was no water to shower with or wash our hands during the day in the room and even when it came back on the water was brown.
No heads up was given and it took a full day for the water to go back to normal. We showered in the spa instead. And had to walk the long way around as the path to our room would be blocked off for the remainder of the stay.
In general the phone lines to reach an operator had long hold times. It wasn’t unusual to have 5-10 minute waits on hold and the phones in the room didn’t have a speakerphone option. The worst time to have no operator available was as we were checking out, more on that later.
Luckily it’s a beautiful resort, that is the main redeeming factor here, along with the spa.
Mayakoba is located just minutes away from Playa del Carmen.
Playa is home to an official Chabad house run by Rabbi Mendel Goldberg that caters towards the American crowd and an unofficial Chabad house run by Rabbi Chaim Brod that is geared towards the Israeli tourists that flock to the city.
There are 4 kosher options for food in Playa.
1. The official Chabad of Playa shliach offers food delivery to all area hotels. You can reach Rabbi Goldberg, who is also quick with helpful information, at Rabbi@JewishPlaya.com
2. Hotel 770 has an Israeli restaurant under the hashgocha of Rabbi Brod
3. Menfis is an Israeli restaurant chain that has a branch in Playa. It’s under the hashgocha of Rabbi Brod and is open until the wee hours of the morning.
4. Rabbi Brod also has his own in-house restaurant open from breakfast through dinner. Rabbi Brod is a bit harder to get through to and there’s a bit of a language barrier if writing in English, but you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also order food from Chabad of Cancun as described above, though delivery is a bit pricey.
For lunch on Monday we went to Hotel 770, which also maintains a very convenient kosher supermarket. We parked at the nearby WalMart.
The food at Hotel770 was pretty good.
Hommous with ground beef, pita, Israeli salad, and pickles were a nice treat:
Grilled salmon was good, though the vegetables were outstanding:
Skip the unremarkable “kebobs:”
The shnitzel on the other hand was fried to perfection:
Afterwards on a whim we decided to drive an hour further south to Tulum, home of ancient Mayan ruins. Orthodox Jews will want to talk to their Rabbi before going to discuss potential halachic issues with visiting the ruins.
There are many other more impressive ruins than can be found in Tulum, but it’s easy to get to Tulum, and it’s set right on the water. Without kids we would’ve driven the extra distance to Coba, where you can actually climb into the ruins, but with kids you take what you can get!
When you pull onto the road for the Tulum ruins you’ll see lots of people offering to sell you pricey tours of the grounds. We passed on that and parked just before the car barrier. From that point it was a 10 minute walk to the ruins.
Tickets for the ruins are cash only, credit cards are not accepted.
We didn’t bring the stroller to the ruins, our Ergobaby proved useful here.
After spending about 90 minutes wandering around the ruins we drove back to the Fairmont.
We had dinner that night delivered from Chabad of Cancun.
The Sesame chicken and the Asian style sesame noodles was absolutely delicious, better than in most Chinese restaurants. The portions were all very large and we ate the leftovers for lunch the next day.
The pepper steak was very good as well:
Rafi was excited for this treat:
Spaghetti and meatballs in a delicious sauce, but I prefer my meatballs to be a bit smaller. The meat to sauce distribution level is all off otherwise 😉
Shnitzel was good as well, though not as good as at Hotel 770. Then again, not really fair to judge freshly fried shnitzel to a dish that’s been made earlier in the day.
On Tuesday we hung out at the resort.
Thanks to several Fairmont Platinum accounts we were able to have several massages at the Willow Stream Spa. The spa is excellent and is one of the highlights of the hotel.
We has yummy leftovers from Chabad of Cancun’s dinner that was delivered the previous night on the hotel grounds:
It’s a long hike to get from most of the rooms to the beach, but the pool by the beach was heated, a nice bonus compared to the pools closer to the rooms:
Crossing over a river to get to the beach:
Dinner on Tuesday night from delivered from Chabad of Playa.
They delivered shelf-stable milk and other goodies for Rafi:
Service is very good. A DDF’er who was at the Fairmont last week wrote that they were hungry late one night and they had food delivered to their room within the hour of emailing Chabad of Playa.
Shnitzel with delicious mashed potatoes loaded with caramelized onions:
For the most part the food was heimish. This is the sweet and sour chicken:
Spaghetti and meatballs:
We took advantage of having my brother there to babysit to go out at night to Cirque de Soleil, located 10 minutes north of Mayakoba:
Pictures aren’t allowed of the show itself, but it was an enjoyable night out. The show was 70 minutes long.
On Wednesday we took a free scenic boat tour of Mayakoba. Our guide, Alberto, was awesome. He started off by asking about our last name and noting how unusual it was. That I get all the time. But then he went on to ask if it meant 1,000 in Hebrew. Which left me flabbergasted. I get asked by Jewish people all the time what is the meaning of my last name, and here was a non-Jewish boat driver in Cancun that knew it right off the bat. Turns out he was a self-described hipped back in the day and ran off to a kibbutz in Israel where he picked up a very respectable Hebrew.
Passing under the resort’s numerous bridges:
Villas along the river:
You’ll see lots of wildlife throughout the tour:
Cruising by a gator:
For lunch on Wednesday we drove to Playa and ate at Menfis. Menfis is like Subway, only they have much better sauces and they toast the sandwiches in a panini maker which makes them nice and crunchy.
Everything that Subway should be:
The Riviera Maya is famous for its cenotes. There are hundreds of caves with stunning water that you can snorkel and swim in with the fish.
After dropping off Mimi and the kids at the hotel after lunch, my brother and I tried to make it to Kantun-Chi, but the ticketing office was already closed.
We settled for Cenote Azul, which isn’t actually an underground cave network like the most impressive looking cenotes. It wasn’t much to see:
Of course there’s a ton of other activities to do in the Riviera Maya aside from the cenotes. Swimming with dolphins, jet-skiing, zip-lining, snuba, etc. You can also hop on a fairy over to Cozumel or other offshore islands. But with little children those weren’t high on our agenda.
After putting the kids to bed on Wednesday night Mimi and I drove up to Cancun to eat at Dag Dag.
Dag Dag had been closed for several months for “renovations.” Now I’m not sure what was renovated, but it’s a homey little restaurant that’s run by a somewhat older couple. The husband is a jokester from the UK and his wife is from Mexico City, and somehow they came to running a fish restaurant in Cancun.
Let’s just say that eating here is an experience.
The walls are covered with photos of past diners holding a massive frozen fish:
As we came just after the reopening they had a very limited menu:
The menu looks a lot larger now, but with just 3 dishes we ordered them all. Pasta with marinara and cheese is a dish not dissimilar from what I might make at home, but the pasta was well seasoned and the sauce quite tasty.
My wife and I are both cautious fish eaters, so we ordered Tilapia, but the husband explained that the Talapia was frozen whereas the grouper had just been caught that day. So we ordered the fish and chips with the grouper and the Veracruz with Tilapia.
Then he took me over to the fish tank and told me to pick out which fish we wanted. OK, he totally had me going with that one 😀
The french fries were decent, but the fried grouper was delicious.
I didn’t care for the Veracruz style Tilapia, but that has more to do with the fact that I’m not much of a capers and olives person.
Despite several massages, I still had expiring dining and beverage credit, so I brought these bad boys back home with me. Lifetime Platinum for the win 😀
At checkout we waited 20 minutes on hold to get help with our bags for the long way from the upstairs villa to the front of the hotel. Eventually we gave up and went to the front desk to request help retrieving our luggage from the room. It would be another 30 minutes before our bags came, meaning that I had to speed to the airport and just hope no cop pulled me over. Luckily we made it without having to bribe anyone.
Cancun airport actually has parking spots right in front of the terminal and we were able to check everything in while parked there. I dropped everyone off that way and returned the car myself. Alamo did a thorough walk-around and once again took their time, but the document clearly showed that the entire van was scratched up, so there wasn’t much else they could claim was damaged 😉
In the airport I picked up some Kahlua on sale at duty-free (kosher in Mexico, but not in the US) and got to chat for a few minutes with a fellow DDF member who recognized me. And then it was back to Miami for Shabbos with my grandparents before heading back to Cleveland, just on time for the coldest February on record since at least 1871, when temperatures started being recorded. Time to start planning the next place our miles will take us 😀