Howard Hian

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As a travel writer, I’m often questioned about my dream vacation. My answer is a “poker getaway.” I’d follow my personal yellow brick road in the direction of a casino or card room to play in Hold ‘Em and/or Omaha tournaments across the country. My odyssey would begin in my hometown, San Diego, at the four diamond Pala Casino Spa Resort. Heading north, I’d hit the Commerce and Bicycle card rooms in the LA area, on the way to Bay 101 in San Jose.  These three venues host major events that are frequented by poker’s elite players. I would skip Las Vegas’ 120 casinos and continue my journey to Reno, NV, my new favorite resort/poker destination (see More on Gaming below).  I’m familiar with the friendly, well run poker room at the four diamond Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, so I would enjoy returning to sit in on their daily tournament. They also host World Poker Tour events. 

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My wanderings now turn east toward Montana to solve a mystery. I have to find out why almost half of the 400 licensed card rooms in the US are located there. By way of comparison, California has less than 100.

The daydream continues as I reach my place of birth, St. Louis, MO, featuring riverboat gaming.  I will stay longer to visit family, friends, eat Imo’s thin crust pizza and, of course, play poker.  What could be better?

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Wrapping up my fantasy tour in New York City, I’d search out an illegal “underground” game, as portrayed in the movie Rounders, to test my skills.  It will be a short stay in The Big Apple, because I much prefer tournament settings (a fixed dollar buy-in limits potential losses).  

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And, with that, my cross country fantasy road trip is complete.  Did I win? On this imaginary tour, I would bet the answer is yes. 

More on Gaming: 

Travel Reno, an up-to-date travel app, is now available in the iTunes store.  You will discover where to stay, what to do, festivals and events, the arts, outdoor adventure, sports, shopping, live entertainment, restaurants and bars and, of course, gaming. There is a bonus…an Omaha poker tutorial. It provides step-by-step instructions how to play, statistics, poker terminology, betting strategies, video links, and suggestions on how to become a winner at the fastest growing game of poker (and the second most played around the world). 

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Card rooms differ from casino poker rooms because they offer only card games; a casino also has slots and other table games, e.g., roulette, craps, etc. 

Worldwide casino count:  Africa, almost 200; Asia, over 250; Caribbean, 150; Central and South America, over 500; Europe, over 2,500; North America including Canada, Mexico and the US; over 2,000; and Oceania, almost 600.

Dollar-wise, gambling translates to big business.  Estimates are for a $70 billion dollar year in 2015 in the USA.

 

 

There are times when a travel story meshes perfectly with a favorite pastime.  So it was, on a recent trip to Reno, Nevada, the “Biggest Little City in the World.” The visit included stays at the Atlantis, Peppermill, Eldorado and Grand Sierra Resorts; all four star, full service properties.  Best of all, I played in each poker room’s daily no-limit hold ‘em tournament.

My first scheduled game was at the Atlantis. The poker room manager is Keith Dames, a poker aficionado who also writes a gaming column. The setting is comfortable, with table-side dining and a self-service soup and beverage bar.  I managed a 7th place finish and headed to the Manhattan Deli to celebrate with a giant sandwich that was equal to anything served in NYC.  I finished the afternoon with a relaxing massage at their fabulous award winning spa.  Later, I dined at the Atlantis Steakhouse, which was recently voted the Best Overall Steakhouse in the Reno-Tahoe area. 

 

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The next day I was off to the Peppermill for breakfast at Biscotti’s, then the noon tournament. The poker room has been rated one of the “Top 25 in the USA” by Poker Digest.  Mike Nelson runs the show. There is a self-service soup and beverage bar for players. I had another final table finish (7th).  Mike had an interesting comment: “The outcome of a hand is not indicative of how you played.”  One can play well and still lose. That evening, the Four Diamond Bimini Steakhouse lived up to its reputation; great drinks and top quality beef.  

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On the move again, I had breakfast at the Eldorado’s classic diner, Millies24. The poker room is managed by Margie Heintz who began her poker odyssey in Montana.  Margie holds a special place in gambling history as the first woman dealer at the WSOP.  She was inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame in 2011.  I played in the tournament and moved up a notch, finishing 6th. The Eldorado buffet offers extensive food and salad choices, but the BBQ station and gelato bar were my favorites.  Later that evening, I enjoyed “Madame Houdini” in the showroom. 

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Morning at the Grand Sierra Resort began with breakfast in the Grand Cafe, followed by a rejuvenating massage at their tranquil spa. Fed and relaxed, I headed to the tournament, where the affable circuit ring winner Charles Williams manages the poker room. There, I had my best finish of the week – 4th.  Lunch was at the Cantina; super margaritas and table-side guacamole rule here.  Evening found me dining at the iconic Charlie Palmer restaurant, followed by cocktails and music at LEX, GSR’s high energy nightclub. Over $50 million has been spent remodeling the resort and it shows.

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Closing Thoughts:  I’ve only skimmed the surface of what these resorts have to offer.  There’s a huge range of casino action, restaurants, bars, clubs, convention/meeting space and leisure time activities. Regarding the tournaments – four final tables in four days – an amateur’s dream.  After my experiences, I decided that these resorts deserved the title, Four Aces in Reno.  For complete information about the Four Aces in Reno, logon to www.PokerResortsReno.com

 

 

A Short History of Laughlin, Nevada

 

 
The Southern California “drive market” is the number one tourist magnet for Las Vegas. Planning a road-trip there? For a surprising treat, Turn East at Barstow and head to Laughlin instead. It’s on the Colorado River only 90 miles south of Las Vegas. Don Laughlin’s dream began in 1964 as an alternate gambling destination. Over the years nine casinos have been built but it still retains its laid-back, casual atmosphere. It has grown up, though, in terms of activities, events, water sports and, especially, food. Interestingly, Laughlin is one of the top five RV destinations in the US.

Sleep Well: The Tropicana Express Hotel & Casino is located in the middle of town. It offers spacious, recently renovated, quiet rooms with flat screen TVs and free Wi-Fi in public areas. There are seven restaurants, a pool and, of course, a casino. Logon to www.tropicanax.com for reservations and promotions.
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Good Eats & Drinks: The old saying is “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” If true, here are two doozies for creative menus and huge portions; the Colorado Belle’s Loading Dock and Bumbleberry Flats in the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall (purchase a jar of their bumbleberry jam). Trust me, you will want to skip lunch. Cocktail time overlooking the Colorado River at the Aquarius Casino Resort’s Cove Bar Lounge is a treat; sophisticated ambience, excellent drinks and creative small plates. For fun times, a super Happy Hour and raucous live music, head to the Tropicana’s Caboose Lounge (no cover, no minimum). Both the Riverside Resort’s Gourmet Room and The Steakhouse at the Tropicana are outstanding; fine dining at its best. The Steakhouse has been voted the “Best Steakhouse” in Laughlin 12 years in a row.

Travel Notes/Out & About: For a relaxing mini-getaway, drive to Laughlin Ranch, www.laughlinranch.com, for a round of golf, a massage in their beautiful spa and lunch in the Grill. The USS Riverside’s boat tour features an interesting narration of the history of the Colorado River and the region, plus an up-close view of the picturesque Davis Dam.
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Plan a visit around the schedule of big-time entertainers at the new, multi-million dollar Laughlin Event Center. For information go to www.laughlineventcenter.com. The Outlet Center, www.laughlinoutletcenter.com, has over 50 stores and a nine screen cinema. In town, stroll along Riverwalk, which meanders behind most of the casinos along the Colorado River.Take scenic hike: head to the Pedestrian Bridge to the North Reach Trail, Bridge Trailhead and/or the Riverwalk Exploration Trail. They will lead to fishing spots, a day-use park and an up-close look at Davis Dam. The go to place for all Laughlin information is www.visitlaughlin.com.

A recent trip involved “kicking the tires” at the newly opened RIU Playa Blanca in Panama. One vacation souvenir I always shop for is headwear. So, what could be more appropriate than adding an iconic Panama hat to my wardrobe? Another reason to own one – this is the Panama Canal’s centennial celebration.

It had been 20 years since my last visit to Panama City. At that time, it was an unremarkable third world capitol; grimy and run down. Landing at the sleek Tocumen International Airport in Panama City was my first hint that a lot had changed. I was further amazed as my shuttle to the beachfront RIU Playa Blanca whizzed past glittering skyscrapers lighting up the picturesque harbor. Arrival at the resort was welcoming and efficient; always appreciated after a long travel day. The stylish, comfortable room provided a quiet, restful night.

The Panama Canal is an essential sightseeing stop. I was able to stand near the lip of “the Big Ditch” at the Miraflore Lock (where there is also a visitors center). By chance, a tanker and a sailboat were both in the lock. Our guide estimated that the sailboat paid $800 and the tanker $300,000 for the transit; cruise ships pay up to $500,000.
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Next on the schedule was a day-trip to Valle de Anton. This quaint village is located on the floor of a collapsed volcano crater. Its mild climate, trails and artisan markets make it an ideal tourist destination. A highlight was a hike through the rain forest to the Chorro El Macho waterfall. The area is also one of Panama’s premier birding spots and home to the Blue Morpho (one of the largest butterflies in the world) and the endangered Golden Frog.
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Our tour stopped at the Tuscan inspired La Casa de Lourdes, a bed and breakfast, with a world-class restaurant. The setting is memorable, featuring lush gardens and mountain views. Sound asleep at the RIU that evening, I was awakened as my bed gently rocked and rolled to a 6.8 earthquake located off the coast 80 miles away. I called the hotel operator for confirmation and laughed when I discovered that we were both from California and perhaps the only two who realized what had happened.

Urban discovery followed as my home base moved to the cosmopolitan, five-star RIU Plaza in the financial district.

Panama City offers upscale shopping and fine dining, but for me it provided the opportunity to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of colonial Old Panama, Casco Viejo.
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Perfect for wandering, there are restaurants, bars, shops, galleries and open-air markets. Don’t miss the informal Fish Market (www.facebook.com/fish.market.panama) serving first-rate Panamanian specialties.
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My experiences at all RIU Hotels have been consistent; top-notch service and a quality product. Their new all-inclusive Playa Blanca Resort is a jewel. There are 573 guest rooms and suites, four restaurants, five bars, disco, fitness center, four pools, water-sport center and, of course, the beach.
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Plan on spending time in Panama City at their luxurious high-rise RIU Plaza. There are 644 beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites, 24 hour room service, three restaurants, lobby bar and sushi lounge, free wi-fi, pool and a wellness center. For all RIU destinations and reservations, go to www.riu.com.

Tourist friendly Panama provides 30 days emergency medical assistance free to visitors. And, there is a big immigration push to attract Americans and Canadians via tax incentives, etc. For information go to www.visitpanama.com.

Summing it up: RIU and Panama make an impressive pair. And, to top it off, a Panama hat has been added to my collection.

Safe travels and enjoy the journey…

Howard Hian, Travels-with-Hian.com

My love affair with New Orleans began when I was a student at Tulane University. Peel and eat shrimp, oysters on the half-shell, gumbo, beignets and muffaletta became standard fare. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Louis Prima and Fats Domino appeared nightly in French Quarter clubs. Food and music are the foundation of the Big Easy. It was heady stuff for an 18 year-old college freshman. In my opinion, there is no city in the world of its size that has better food or music. On this return trip (one of many), my goal was to intertwine dining experiences with sightseeing over a three day period.

After my wife and I arrived, we made a pilgrimage. “Breakfast at Brennan’s” features an ala carte or a three-course prix-fixe menu. The latter is my recommendation. We started with two of their specialty drinks, a Creole Bloody Mary and a New Orleans Gin Fizz. Baked apple with double cream was followed by hot French bread and their signature dish, Eggs Hussarde (poached eggs atop Holland rusks, Canadian bacon, topped with Hollandaise sauce). Save room! Banana’s Foster, a Brennan’s creation, is served for dessert. Once you’ve eaten here you understand why the place has been a favorite since 1946 (www.brennansneworleans.com).

A French Quarter self-guided walking tour, using a brochure provided free by the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, was our next agenda item. Wandering the French Quarter reminds you of the history of this special city; homes and commercial buildings from the 1800’s, the St. Louis Cathedral and, of course, Jackson Square (www.neworleanscvb.com).

Night brought us to Jon Besh’s Domenica Restaurant in the iconic Roosevelt Hotel. We started with torta fritta (fried pizza dough), followed by the chef’s selection of house-cured salami, imported cheeses, marinated olives and roasted vegetables. We shared a brick-oven baked pizza and lasagna Bolognese. Dessert was gelato topped with a shot of espresso. The relaxed atmosphere plus great food is a winning combination. Note: In January 2010, New Orleans CityBusiness magazine honored Chef Alon Shaya and Domenica as Culinary Connoisseurs’ Best Executive Chef and Best Casual Upscale Establishment of the Year. (www.domenicarestaurant.com).
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Since the goal was sightseeing between courses, we headed to Preservation Hall after dinner. This is home to the New Orleans Jazz Band, where the city’s top musicians jam seven nights a week. There are a few rows of benches and some pillows by the stage but, otherwise, it is standing room only in a funky, no-frills building originally built in 1817. It’s traditional jazz at its best. . (www.preservationhall.com)
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The following day, we went to the National World War II Museum. It features 3,500 oral and video histories from veterans and Home Front workers. Additionally, more than 100,000 artifacts are on display. The Solomon Victory Theater’s Beyond All Boundaries is shown on a 120-foot wide “immersive screen.” It’s a dramatic, high tech experience and a moving tribute to the bravery of the “Greatest Generation” who fought to secure freedom for America and the world. Note: Military in uniform and veterans get in free. (www.nationalww2museum.org)

Within the museum is another John Besh restaurant, The American Sector. It features an eclectic menu. From their “Snacks” column, we chose fried chicken gizzards (fabulous!), rabbit pate, shrimp cup with aoli sauce and smokey lamb ribs. This was followed by meatloaf, fried soft-shelled crabs served over cheesy jalapeno grits, and crab and sausage stew. Dessert drew us to the homemade Twinkies and warm apple turnovers with ice cream. It’s fun and kid-friendly; a perfect pairing with the museum. (www.nationalww2museum.org)

A shopping break took us to Riverwalk Marketplace. The mall features a half mile of local and national shops, dozens of restaurants and regularly scheduled special events. (www.riverwalkmarketplace.com)

Evening brought us to Besh Steakhouse in Harrah’s. Our starters included BBQ shrimp and sweet corn and crab bisque followed by locally grown heirloom tomato salad with onion vinaigrette. Then steaks – a roast ribeye with peppercorn sauce and filet of beef tenderloin. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, dessert was served including bread pudding with Irish whiskey ice cream and toffee sauce, plus a molten dark chocolate cake with brandied cherries and vanilla ice cream. Memorable feasting at a Besh restaurant is the default. (www.chefjohnbesh.com)

The following morning, found us at the daily jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, another New Orleans institution. Although it has the French Quarter’s largest outdoor courtyard, it retains a charming, romantic ambience. A trio played Dixieland jazz while we loaded and reloaded our plates from their buffet, featuring an array of soups, salads, eggs dishes, a carving station and local favorites (shrimp, crawfish and ribs). Their in-house baker turns out wonderful mini bagels, French bread, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread. The dessert table was laden with a variety of fresh fruit, cakes, pies, bread pudding and home-churned ice cream with praline or chocolate sauce. The experience can be described in one word: delightful. (www.courtoftwosisters.com)
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We strolled to the French Market. It includes historical monuments, public art, shops, performance venues, restaurants, cafes, flea and farmers markets and great shopping. Don’t miss Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop and be sure to sample freshly made Creole pralines. (www.auntsallys.com and www.frenchmarket.org)

Later, we walked to the Entergy IMAX® Theatre, part of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. We watched the dramatic movie Hurricane on the Bayou which shows the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands, the survival of the region and the ongoing post-Katrina drama. (www.auduboninstitute.org)

We dined at 923 Meson. It is a small, elegant but casual bistro located in a beautifully restored building. It features a diverse menu, excellent wine list, a half dozen specialty drinks and expert and attentive service. Combining Spanish, French and New Orleans influences it delivers an outstanding product. We split oysters on the half shell, seasonal greens, duck with papperadelle pasta and filet of beef. Don’t miss the owner’s mom’s coconut flan or the frozen chocolate mousse for dessert; both sublime. Just go! (www.meson923.com)
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It was time to return to our hotel, the newly renovated Omni Royal Crescent Hotel, in the central business district just two blocks from the French Quarter, to pack up and head home. Here’s a travel tip: sign up for Omni’s Select Guest program and immediately receive benefits including wi-fi, airline miles, bottled water, express check-in and check-out, newspaper, and turndown service to name a few. (www.omnihotels.com)

Safe travels, enjoy the journey and “Laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll)!

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As I entered the fabled Mecca of high stakes poker, Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, a few of the players in the poker lounge looked puzzled. They had never seen me on TV or playing in high stakes games around town. So, what was I doing there? The story begins earlier in the week when I attended the two-day World Poker Tour Boot Camp. I’ve played poker since I was an early teen and I’m convinced that gambling is in my DNA. My Mom and her sisters were serious card players; an uncle was a regular “guest of the casino” in Las Vegas, and my grandmother died at the poker table during her weekly game. When the prospect arose to attend the boot camp to write a story, I jumped at the opportunity.

Hold `em was the focus of the event, which was attended by over 70 people. Our instructors were Linda Johnson (the First Lady of Poker), Kenna James (lead coach) and Jan Fisher, as well as Nick Brancato and Rick Fuller, co-authors of the course. The content included theory, calculating pot odds and old-fashioned advice from the pros. Both days incorporated lectures, Q & A, betting strategies and playing time; all focused on winning, whether in a casino, online or at home games. The teachers were knowledgeable, and the workbook well written and easy to follow. The biggest challenge for me was to break old habits in order to execute newly learned skills.
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For my overnight stay, I split my time between the classy Bellagio, host hotel to many of the WPT tournaments, and its sister property, the exciting MGM Grand. Access to Bobby’s Room, where the minimum buy-in is $20,000, was one of the perks of being a writer. With the help of Scott Ghertner, PR guru for the parent company MGM-Mirage, I was able to interview Doug Dalton, who runs the poker operation at Bellagio. Doug was raised in Las Vegas (his mother was a showgirl) and is a well-known and highly respected member of the gambling community. Bobby’s Room was named as a tribute to Bobby Baldwin, the 1978 World Series of Poker Champion. On any given day, highly recognizable top players can be seen at one its two tables where some of the highest limit poker games in the world are hosted. While I was there, noted pro Eli Elezra walked in to say hello.
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Bobby’s Room, the Mecca of high stakes poker in Las Vegas.

During our conversation, Doug reflected on the changes in poker from seven card stud, the game of choice until the mid-1990’s, to the current popularity of Hold `em. The phenomenal growth of poker was fueled by the invention of the “pocket” or “hole card” camera by Henry Orenstein. His creation allowed poker to become a worldwide spectator sport. As a result, TV networks now broadcast games regularly, professional and home-game players have multiplied exponentially, the number of tournaments has exploded, poker books have become best sellers, and millions of dollars are bet online weekly.

The Internet has made it possible to play hundreds of more games in online sessions than in a live setting. What has evolved is a new generation of players, including our instructor Nick Brancato who, in a few short years, has played more hands of poker than the legendary Doyle Brunson has over his entire career. As we were finishing our conversation, I asked Doug for poker advice. He smiled and said “Never sit at a table where five guys are wearing hats; it’s going to be a very tough game.” So noted.

 
IF YOU GO
Once you’ve stayed at the Bellagio, it is easy to understand how it has earned a AAA Five Diamond rating for eight consecutive years. Where else can one find a conservatory and botanical garden in the lobby? Or, an 8.5 acre lake featuring over 1,200 dancing fountains? Their Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts exhibits work by some of the world’s most influential and renowned artists. The resort features luxurious rooms, a spa, fitness center, shops, access to championship golf, Cirque du Soleil, nightclubs, lounges and bars plus five pools. For dining, don’t miss Sensi or Yellowtail. Go online, www.bellagio.com, for specials or call 1-888-987-6667 for reservations.

The high energy MGM Grand has earned the AAA Four Diamond Award for the past two years, quite a feat for a hotel with over 5,000 rooms. There is a spa, shopping arcade, five pools spread over 6+ acres, nightclubs, bars and lounges and a live lion exhibit. It features a Cirque du Soleil show along with the Crazy Horse Paris Review, as well as over 15 restaurants. Don’t miss Fiamma Trattoria’s seasonal tasting menu. Also worth mentioning is that the MGM Grand is a stop on the monorail system connecting the Strip to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Look for packages online at www.mgmgrand.com or call 1-877-880-0880.
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These placards go on the poker table to remind the players of the game they are playing (Bobby’s Room)

Transportation opportunities abound in town. Here are a few that saved me time and money: I took a shuttle to the Convention Center from the airport ($6); the monorail to the MGM Grand ($5); and the Deuce Bus to the WPT Boot Camp in downtown Las Vegas from the Bellagio ($7 roundtrip). Of course, taxis and limos are also available. Find out more through the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority online at www.visitlasvegas.com or call 1-877-VISIT LV (847-4858).
If you want to further develop your poker game, the WPT Boot Camp is the place for you. For information, look online at www.wptbootcamp.com or call 1-866-978-2668. Note that there are both cash game and tournament camps. You will “graduate” a better player!
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Located on the east coast of Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula, on the shore of the Caribbean Sea, lies the Riviera Maya. Here are my top reasons for vacationing there: History and Culture. Dating back to 2500 BCE, the Mayans lived in the rainforest and on the seashore. They were skilled mathematicians, artists, architects and astronomers. They created calendars, kept written hieroglyphic records and were the first in the Western Hemisphere to develop zero as a mathematical concept.
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Archeology and Adventure. The region is dotted with the ruins of magnificent Mayan palaces, temples and observatories. We visited both Coba and Tulum. Coba, although only 70 square kilometers in size, is surprisingly 97% unexplored. Here one finds several sacred temple/pyramids and a stone court where the Mayans played their national sport, a deadly ballgame (the loser was sacrificed) called Pitz. We climbed Nohoch Mul, the second largest pyramid in the Americas. Measuring 42 meters high with 120 steep steps, it offers a sensational view from the top. Tulum is a walled city built on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean that served as a port linking land and sea traders throughout the region.
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Swim, Snorkel and Dive. Approximately 25% of the Mexican Caribbean is designated as an ecological reserve. Offshore, the great Maya coral reef that extends from Cancun through Riviera Maya to Honduras is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is a diving and snorkeling paradise. Collapsed limestone craters create sinkholes, known as cenotes that lead to an extensive system of underground fresh water rivers found throughout theYucatan Peninsula. The Mayans considered cenotes to be the sacred entrance to the underworld, inhabited by fantastical monsters and beings. Swimming, snorkeling and diving in them is an extraordinary experience. Yal-Ku is a natural lagoon that empties into the Caribbean. It is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch and long swims around the rock formations rising from its depths. It is not a well-known spot, but worth the visit.

Don’t Miss. Playa del Carmen is the third largest city in Quintana Roo. Its center of activity is its very own Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida). The area is a pedestrian zone just off the beach that features restaurants, bars, shops and boutiques. It is a tourist haven, and its festive, lively atmosphere makes it a terrific place to walk and wander. Xel-Ha is a one-of-a-kind eco-friendly water park featuring beaches, lagoons, tropical birds and plants, dolphins, meandering trails plus wonderful restaurants and bars. Don’t miss snorkeling in the lagoon or tubing down the river through the mangroves.

Travel Tips

Money Matters. American dollars are accepted throughout Mexico; pack singles and small bills. ATMs are found throughout the area. Use your credit card and charge in pesos, not dollars (better exchange rate than at hotels and restaurants).

Safe & Sound. Bottled water is recommended. Look for a supermarket or convenience store where you can buy six-packs of water at a reasonable price (vs. at your hotel). Order sunscreen and anti-bug spray online from Mexitan, www.mexitan.com. Most nature parks require eco-friendly, biodegradable products and these fit the specifications. Hint: buy the convenient travel sizes for easy packing and to meet TSA rules for carry-on luggage.
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Rivera Maya’s website is www.rivieramaya.com. Their Visitors Bureau is very helpful. Tulum’s website is www.tulum.com. For something unique, visit at night when the grounds and buildings are lit up, creating a surreal experience. Xelha’s all-inclusive pricing includes entrance to the park, all meals and drinks, lockers and snorkeling equipment; plan on staying a full day. Go to www.xelha.com for more information.

We stayed at Las Villas Akumal, a quiet condo resort on the beach. It’s particularly comfortable if you are traveling with family or friends. Don’t miss the hamburgers or guacamole at their roof top restaurant. For rates, log onto www.lasvillasakumal.com.

Safe travels and enjoy the journey…

In November of 2008, my wife and I made our first visit to Mexico’s east coast state of Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Our destinations were Cancun and Puerto Morelos. Passing through immigration was speedy and efficient. When we reached our hotel, the oceanfront Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa, located in what is known as the Hotel Zone, we were greeted by the hospitable staff who served us mango sorbet and handed us cool washcloths; nice touches after a day of travel.
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We quickly settled into a daily routine. We slept in, had breakfast at Le Meridien and then spent a couple of hours on their spectacular beach or poolside. Later in the day, we headed out for sightseeing, exploring or shopping. Before turning in at night, we sat on the beach sipping Xtabentum, the liqueur of Yucatan, made of anise and fermented honey.

Our outings included a visit to the El Rey ruins, an important Mayan archeological site, easily accessible by public bus. One early evening, we took a “lobster cruise,” sailing on the calm waters of the Nichupté Lagoon. The romantic excursion featured a grilled lobster and steak dinner, live music, open bar and a spectacular sunset.

Selvatica Park provided us with an opportunity to experience the jungle. Our adventure included traversing the tree-top canopy via zipline for my wife, a hike in the jungle for me and then an all-purpose terrain vehicle ride to a cenote for a refreshing swim and, finally, back to the base for lunch. Cenotes are extraordinary geological formations. The Mayans considered them to be sacred and the entrance to the underworld, inhabited by fantastical monsters and beings. They are, in fact, collapsed limestone craters that create sinkholes leading to the extensive system of underground fresh water rivers found throughout the region.
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We carved out time to shop. According to many travel polls, shopping is the number one vacation activity. Cancun features a complete range of merchandise, from table tops within a traditional marketplace setting to modern centers featuring expensive brand names. Our two favorites were picturesque Plaza La Isla and Luxury Avenue’s high-end boutique mall.
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Cancun has a vibrant restaurant scene. We dined at three local favorites, Yache, Labna and La Habichuela. All serve interesting, well prepared and reasonably priced food. Their regional Mexican, Yucatan, Caribbean and Mayan cuisine will not disappoint.

The Cancun portion of our trip ended too quickly and we were off to Puerto Morelos and the Ceiba Del Mar Beach & Spa Resort. It is named after the mystical ceiba tree, which plays a big role in Mayan mythology. This magical tree was believed to connect the land with the sky. After we arrived at the resort, my wife and I had a “couples massage” in their spa, followed by cocktails at the roof-top Sushi Lounge and then dinner in the resort’s open air dining room, Xtabay.
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On another evening, we had a memorable supper at their Arrecife Grill & Lounge, overlooking the Caribbean. Our days were filled with reading, lounging, walking on the beach, swimming and enjoying the lushly landscaped surroundings. The languid atmosphere, setting and top notch service makes this a very special place. Ceiba del Mar is the “find” all seasoned travelers search for. It was a wonderful companion to our outstanding stay in Cancun at Le Meridien Resort & Spa. They are resorts that complement each other, one in the big city and the other a small intimate getaway, with their own personalities but in sync when it comes to pampering guests.

 

 

Hotel Hopping.

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In November of 2008, in the Best Resorts in the World/Mexico category, Le Meridien Cancun was ranked #11 by Conde Nast readers. The grounds, pool area and beach are magnificent and, with only 213 rooms, you won’t get lost. Their Spa del Mar and state-of-the-art fitness center features steam and saunas, Swiss showers, a waterfall whirlpool and 14 treatment rooms. The breakfast buffet at the hotel features a daily exotic, non-alcoholic juice “eye-opener.” Hot entrees plus ever-changing side dishes, assorted breads, fresh fruit, cheese trays, freshly squeezed juice and home made pastries and jams completes the menu. We found the staff at Le Meridien well trained, knowledgeable and friendly. Another nice touch: it’s a non-smoking hotel and has earned green certification. Check rates and availability online at www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien. There are three restaurants at the resort.

Ceiba del Mar Beach & Spa Resort was ranked #14 in the Conde Nast poll mentioned earlier. Additionally, in their January 2009 Gold List, it was ranked #1 in rooms and #1 in service, with perfect 100% scores from the readers. Mayan and Mexican influences abound in the design and décor of the 88 rooms and suites. All accommodations have ocean views and are spread throughout seven low-rise buildings, all near the beach and the two outdoor swimming pools. The restaurants serve traditional and creative Mexican cuisine with a Mediterranean influence. The resort also features nice guest touches like a library, complimentary computer use, on-site dive shop, twice daily room make up, 24-hour room service and a concierge. We particularly liked their daily beach BBQ with grilled chicken, hamburgers and pork chops, plus freshly made guacamole and side dishes. I recommend their Full American Plan (FAP) which includes all meals as well as snacks and an open bar. Check online for package specials at www.ceibadelmar.com.

There are over 150 hotels, ranging from budget to five star, in Cancun. If you have time, “hotel hopping” can be a fun, inexpensive way to sightsee. We stopped at Starwood’s Westin Resort to look around and ended up in their Heavenly Spa for a massage. It was a wonderful treat. We also had an outstanding lunch at the Mitachi Seaside Grill at the Hilton Golf & Spa Resort.

Food Fun. There are approximately 400 restaurants in Cancun. Here are my recommendations: the Lobster Dinner Cruise, on the galleon Columbus, departs from Marina Aquatours located in the Hotel Zone (www.thelobsterdinner.com). La Habichuela and Labna are sister restaurants, located in the heart of downtown Cancun. Labna focuses on Yucatan specialties and regionalized Mexican dishes in a casual atmosphere. The award winning La Habichuela restaurant showcases Caribbean seafood and Mexican specialties. Dine in their marvelous sculpture garden filled with native plants and trees and don’t miss their Mayan coffee with dessert (www.lahabichuela.com). Yache, in Playa del Carmen, recently won an award as the best restaurant in Mexico, specializing in regional cuisine. Their outdoor garden features fountains and frescos that pay homage to the Mayan civilization (www.mayacuisine.com).

Transportation Tips. Taxis tend to be expensive, but public buses to/from/within the Hotel Zone run often and are cheap. One can wave down a bus anytime and they will pick you up, even if you’re not at a bus stop. Additionally, the Green Line offers inexpensive transportation to/from the Cancun International Airport into town.

Money Matters. American dollars are accepted throughout Mexico. Take lots of singles and small bills. Use your credit card and charge in pesos not dollars (better exchange rate than at hotels and/or restaurants). ATMs abound around town. If you have leftover pesos at the end of your vacation, don’t worry. The Cancun airport has an abundance of shops, restaurants and other opportunities to spend them.

Safe & Sound. Bottled water is recommended. There are many convenience stores where you can buy six-packs of water at a reasonable price (vs. at a hotel). A good spot to refill them is in the hotel’s fitness center or the spa. Order sunscreen and anti-bug spray online from Mexitan, www.mexitan.com. They are a must for tropical vacationing because most nature parks require eco-friendly, biodegradable products. Buy the convenient travel sizes for easy packing and to meet TSA requirements for carry-on luggage.

Information & Ideas. Approximately 25% of the Mexican Caribbean is designated as an ecological reserve. The offshore coral reef that runs from Cancun to Honduras is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef. It is a diver’s/snorkeler’s dream. A Selvatica Park, www.selvatica.com.mx, soft adventure canopy tour is a worthwhile excursion. Transportation to/from your hotel is included in the price. Consider the Cancun Visitors Bureau, www.cancun.travel, as your primary source for information, travel tips and advice on both Cancun and Puerto Morelos. The crystal blue Mexican Caribbean and sunny weather make the area a choice vacation spot.

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Gunkhole is a nautical term loosely defined as “to wander, discovering whatever is around the next bend or just over the horizon.” My wife and I enjoyed a splendid week of gunkholing aboard CruiseWest’s Spirit of Endeavor on their Pacific Northwest Coastal Escape departing from Seattle. The ship carries only 102 passengers and its small size allows it into coves and inlets for an up-close look at the scenery.

Navigating U.S. and Canadian waters, our journey took us to Vancouver, Desolation Sound, Nanaimo, StateVictoria, Friday Harbor, the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands and Port Townsend. Departing from Seattle in the late afternoon, we headed west through the famous Hiram Chittenden Locks toward Puget Sound and then turned north, en route to our first port, Vancouver.
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Hiram Chittendam Locks

The following morning, we passed under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which was completed in 1938. The Guinness family (think beer) built it to connect their land purchase on Burrad Inlet to Vancouver. Once the ship had docked, our chartered bus took us to the spectacular thousand-acre Stanley Park for sightseeing and then to Granville Island, featuring a Public Market with water-view restaurants and over 100 stalls filled with local fresh produce, meat, poultry and fish, baked goods and arts and crafts. Our last stop was at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, one of the highest footbridges in the world, stretching 450 feet over and 230 feet above the Capilano River. Walking across is not for those with a fear of heights.
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Capilano Suspension Bridge

When we reached the poorly named Desolation Sound, we experienced gunkholing at its finest. What could Captain George Vancouver have been thinking? This fjord-like region, with over 60 miles of breathtaking coastline, is the largest marine park in British Columbia, dotted with picturesque islands, inlets, bays, and coves. It was here that the advantage of a small ship was obvious. From the deck, we touched rock formations, were splashed by waterfalls and took close-up photos of the flora and fauna.
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The Spirit of Endeavor

Upon arrival at Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, we were welcomed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and then took a guided walking tour of this historic town, the third oldest city in British Columbia. We climbed the Bastion, built in 1853 by the Hudson Bay Company. Wandering and discovering on our own, we stumbled upon a casino. On my first pull of the slot machine, we won $22.50. We left immediately!

Sailing into Victoria put us on the same course that ships have followed for hundreds of years. In 1778, an impressive list of sailors first discovered and claimed Victoria for England: Captain James Cook was accompanied by George Vancouver and William Bly (of Mutiny On the Bounty fame).
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The Historic Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C. from the Bridge of the Spirit of Endeavor

An outing to Butchart Gardens while in Victoria is a must. In 1904, Jenny Butchart turned this abandoned limestone quarry into an extravagant 55-acre garden estate. Yearly, over one million visitors enjoy this one-of-a-kind homage to the whims of the very rich.
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Butchart Gardens

The next day, we cruised Puget Sound off the north coast of Washington. More than 450 islands, split into two groups, make up the archipelago known as the San Juan Islands in the U.S. and the Gulf Islands in Canada. Eventually, we tied up at scenic Friday Harbor and leisurely strolled around this tourist-friendly waterfront community with its shops showcasing local artists.
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Friday Harbor in Washington San Juan Islands

Port Townsend, named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver after the Marquis of Townshend, was the last stop on our trip. We joined our fellow passengers on an escorted walk along the waterfront of this charming seaport, noted for its vast number of preserved Victorian homes and buildings. Today it boasts a vibrant arts community.
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Victorian Home in Port Townsend, Washington

Finally, we arrived in Seattle; our eight day gunkholing adventure with CruiseWest over. It was great fun and we had experienced firsthand the thrill of wandering, discovering whatever was around the next bend or just over the horizon.
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Here are four reasons to sail on CruiseWest:

 

1. Interesting itineraries, informative lectures and knowledgeable expedition leaders.

2. Relaxed, casual atmosphere with an attentive, friendly staff.

3CityTours, airport transfers and gratuities included in the price of the cruise; only alcohol is extra.

4. Good food with emphasis on local cuisine, freshly baked bread and pastries; dietary needs or special requests gladly accommodated.