Saturday, December 05, 2009

[Travel] Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of

Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of: [[update: Tulum photos and Delray Beach photos now available]]

Well, not actually sailing. More like staying at a floating resort hotel in the Caribbean. And Mexico in name only and for but a few hours. Still: my first cruise. I have always been marginally negative regarding cruises. My reasons were three fold: 1) I usually travel alone. Cruises, like most packaged travel, are designed for couples. There is a premium for the solo traveler and that makes me feel as though I am being punished. 2) They are more expensive than they advertise. I find the strategic nickel-and-diming in the travel industry to be tawdry, and cruises with their captive audience are prime examples. Not that they are rapacious, but the whole giving you a fixed price then nailing you for extras offends my hopelessly middle-class frugality. 3) You only get a few hours in port. Typically you dock in the early AM and embark in the early PM. If you pull into an interesting place, you have little chance to get a feel for it. You have no chance to look around and figure out what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't. So you end up taking a packaged excursion, or shopping in the chinchy portside shop and drinking in the tacky portside bars.

Having now been on a cruise I see other limitations. Obviously you won't be residing in any sort of luxury dwellings. The staterooms are nicely done but cramped (it's a boat after all) -- this ain't a suite at the Mandarin Oriental. The pools are small, and crowded. The spa facilities are small and limited. The all-inclusive eating is decent and the specialty restaurants (extra cost, of course) can be very good, but availability is a question. The bars are plentiful, but rather pedestrian in quality; I ordered an Old Fashioned and got bourbon awash in maraschino cherry juice. The larger point is that while they certainly have everything and some of it is good -- none of it is truly great. You will not get pampered like you would at Canyon Ranch. You will not eat like the Vegas Strip. You will not have Manhattan-level night-life. And you will not get any sort of genuine appreciation of a destination, unless you count the boat as a foreign country.

But then, that's kind of the point. You don't get anything great, but you do get everything. You don't have to worry losing your wallet, dealing with potentially surly natives, arranging safe transportation, Montezuma's revenge. The risk is basically eliminated. That's nice. Very nice. It's especially nice if you get two weeks vacation a year and, though you may miss out on the chance of truly great experience, it's more important to be assured not wasting your limited time off on a bad trip. It means it works well for frenetic families who aren't going to have a chance to fall into the local rhythms anyway and would prefer not to worry about constantly keeping the kids on a leash. It also works for older travelers who are less mobile and, not to put a fine point on it, more easily flustered. (On this cruise, folks in their 40s qualified as youthful.)

So, I am now OK with cruising as a concept. I would do it again. I would not, I think, do it alone. It's geared for groups of two or more, there is no denying that. And since I am not immobile or easily flustered, I think I could do better on my own. But in the company of others, as I was for this cruise, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Kicking off from Ft. Lauderdale (I will get to Ft. L shortly), this was, in cruise lingo, a four-day Western Caribbean cruise: Set sail from Ft. L Thursday night, Friday at sea, Saturday in port at Cozumel, Sunday at sea, disembark Monday AM back in Ft. L.

The days at sea were about what you'd expect. Roll out of bed. Snag some breakfast of the buffet, then down to the pool to read or swim or work on one's tan. A light lunch. An afternoon nap or, in my case, an extended session at the bar, the group I was with being essentially a pack of high functioning alcoholics. Dinner. Night caps. Back to bed with the balcony door open to sleep to the real life wave machine. One night was a formal night, and I was looking all James Bond in my formalwear. Good times. No pressure.

You are provided with a menu of what must be 50 options for planned shore excursions on port days. Based on internet research and my desire for photography opportunities I chose to take a trip to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, which also included some swimming time at a nearby private beach club. Much of this excursion was taken up with ancillary transportation. From the dock in Cozumel, take the ferry to Playa Del Carmen on the mainland (30 mins), then a bus ride to the ruins (40 mins). Along the way goods are hawked, naturally. Not hard sell in your face; polite, but pretty much constant. Folks will be pushing hats, sunglasses and trinkets pretty much everywhere. (In my case that was good because I needed a hat and sunglasses.) On the bus we were offered an opportunity to buy an official Mayan birth certificate for $20. At the entrance to the ruins the bathrooms are strategically located inside a jewelry shop where your group will be given a warm welcome and a pitch for a genuine Mayan pendant of some sort before being directed to the facilities. None of this is a bad experience because from what I could see, the folks doing the hawking were uniformly polite and friendly.

The ruins themselves, despite being accessed through the tourista infrastructure, still give one the impression of an ancient oasis in the feral tropics. Just before the entrance a group of folks were staring into the trees. I joined them to see that a good-sized snake had managed to snag and half swallow a bird although the bird was still flapping a wing in a vain attempt at escape. Don't be fooled by the happy cerveza huts, my friend, you are in the jungle; burning sun, dripping sweat.

The ruins themselves are grand stone structures spread out over what I would guess to be about ten acres. They are the exactly the sorts of buildings you picture Mayan ruins to be. Pyramidal and ornately squared off in an almost art deco-ish manner. Inlay some colorful tiles and Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud. We only had about an hour in the ruins area proper and I was really not interested in the detailed history our guide was providing so I broke off or some independent photography. And man, did I get some great shots. Unlike other Mayan ruins in Mexico, Tulum is right on the seaside, perched on a cliff. This makes for some dramatic images of the ruins with the sea in back drop. An hour my not seem long, but that's all you really need; it's just not a large area to cover and in that span I think I took close to a hundred pictures.

Back on the bus for about 15 minutes south, passing all sorts of little beachside resorts, to a pretty decent private beach club where there is a thatched roof dining area, changing rooms, and lounge chairs in the sand. We all ate fresh but nondescript Mexican buffet food, chatted briefly, then hit the beach for a little over an hour.

The beach in Tulum is as beautiful as they come. The sand is the same soft powdery variety that you get on the Florida gulf coast. The water is exquisite Caribbean turquoise; not too warm, not too cool. I wasted no time in getting in the water and swam and bobbed about, completely losing track of time. Fortuitously I finally trudged back to shore about five minutes before we were scheduled to leave, or I might still be there to this day. I was in the water for well over an hour.

Now we reversed the journey through Playa Del Carmen, a place I wish I had had more time to explore as a potential future destination, back to Cozumel and onto the ship to set sail. Thus completing my first trip to Mexico. I could handle some time in Tulum, it seems fully chilled out. Still, as I mentioned above, I have no sense for anything beyond the beach.

The reversal continued aboard, setting sail in the early evening, then another day at sea, where I availed myself of the ship's spa. It was...meh. Then back in port at Ft. L for an early morning disembarkation.

We all bee-lined for the airport, but my flight wasn't until 7 PM, so I snagged a rental car with a plan to explore Ft. L. It seemed there is a decent sized art museum currently running a Norman Rockwell exhibition so I shot over to it and dropped some cash to park only to find the museum was closed on Mondays. Great. I hoofed it along the riverwalk for a while but, while parts of the city seem quite lovely, and they have a loud and ritzy beach area, I just didn't see anything the made me feel comfortable with the place. Maybe it was the busy city streets, or the awkward shadows cast by the tall downtown buildings, or the fact that you have to cross a busy four lane thoroughfare (A1A at its ugliest) to get to the beach. It's a disharmonius juxapositon of city development and beach resort town. After about an hour I decided Ft L wasn't for me.

So I headed north on A1A; a fascinating drive through the social strata. Beyond the big hotels, Ft. L is characterized by what I would guess are '70s era apartment/condos, and they are getting long in the tooth. But pretty much the instant you cross into Deerfield Beach and Boynton, things start to steadily and obviously move upscale. By the time you hit Boca Raton, you know you have arrived. Keep going far enough and you'll go over the top in Palm Beach.

North of Boca and south of Lake Worth and Palm Beach is the town of Delray Beach. It is about perfect. It's an upscale beach town that doesn't take itself too seriously. There is clearly an emphasis on the active life. Apart from a handful of open air cafes along A1A, the action centers along Atlantic Avenue for four or five blocks perpendicular to the shore. The usual shops and cafes and some interesting restaurants. Nice and laid back. And the Florida oceanside beach is the same as the one I still idealize from age 11. Delray Beach was the discovery of the trip and it goes on the list for my habitual Florida travels.

I could have spent a couple of days here, but I had to hightail it back to FLL and wing it home because I had for a quick turnaround before my next journey...