I never traveled to Cancun. In fact, I never visited Mexico. Whenever I heard people talking about Cancun, I envisioned a small enclave by the water with honeymooning couples paying for lush, umbrella-laden drinks with beads at tiki bars on the beach. So when my future father-in-law and brother-in-law gave my then-future wife and me an all-expense paid week’s vacation at the hotel RIU Peninsula in Cancun, I did not really know what to expect. Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled and dying to get away. I hadn’t had a vacation in years. We have a true blended family: seven children of varying ages between us; three dogs who do not always get along; and a rabbit. I am not a drinker (two beers and I am buzzed – three and I am sick) so the prospect of drinking all day did not entice me. Neither were the much-hyped restaurants where you can eat all you want. (I ask for White Castle hamburgers every birthday – and someday I’ll get them.)
But the thought of laying on the beach or by the pool with absolutely nothing to do but relax with my wife was intoxicating! Visions of lazy days in the tropical sun danced in my head. Even when our direct flight was re-routed to Florida because of a sick passenger, my spirits were only slightly dampened. Catching sight of a rare glory rainbow (the plane’s reflection on a cloud surrounded by a rainbow) was a harbinger of all the good things to come.
When we landed in Mexico I was shocked to learn that the small enclave I had envisioned in my mind was actually a sprawling city along the coast with hotel after hotel, restaurant after restaurant, and souvenir shop after souvenir shop. There was even a McDonald’s!
The RIU Peninsula was billed as a five-star hotel. It was a large, beautiful structure with a square hole cut in the middle of it. It fronted the beach and, because we were honeymooners, they upgraded our room to an ocean side view with a hot tub! The view from our terrace (did I mention we had a terrace?) was breathtaking! I had been to the Caribbean several times, so I was somewhat used to the clear blue/green water. But the sprawling grounds of the hotel with multiple pools, the beach, parasailing on the horizon – it was just awesome.
We immediately jumped into our bathing suits and went to the beach and the pool.
Then I found out what the REAL Cancun was like. Not only was it a city, but it was a thriving tourist center with a gazillion things to do (most outside of our hotel which meant many pesos). There were ads for snorkeling, parasailing, scuba diving, day and night cruises, night clubs, swimming with the dolphins (a bucket list item of mine) and Mayan pyramids (I was fascinated by the 2012 end-of-the-world hype, but am thrilled the Mayans were wrong and happy the earth is still here). My visions of Margaritaville went out the window.
How could you not swim with the dolphins? It’s a bucket list item. What about the Mayan pyramids? How can you not see these ancient wonders? We had to immediately regroup and figure out an agenda based on desire, budget and time. We set a reasonable schedule. Hang by the pool and beach Tuesday; take a ferry to Isla de Mujeres Wednesday to see the turtle museum and swim with the dolphins; Thursday back at the hotel; Friday see the pyramids; Saturday we spent the last day at hotel and made a call to change our 4 a.m. flight out to a later one.
Our vacation became a whirlwind of activity – not that I am complaining. The turtle museum was great. You could even feed them by hand. While swimming with the dolphins was not jumping on Flipper’s dorsal fin and riding off into the sunset, it was an incredible experience. The fact that we paid $130 for a CD filled with pictures (who uses a CD anymore?) which did not work in my laptop was somewhat concerning. We spent a good chunk of time at the help desk tracking down another way to get to the photos before we left. Of course, my wife was not thrilled with the dolphin pictures. I failed to notice that her makeup had run down her face. (Sorry, my love. I had saltwater in my eyes.)
The pyramid trip, though all day, was definitely worth it. We stopped at a sink hole (and I had my first taste of flavored tequila). The pyramids were unbelievable. (How could the Mayans have built these structures so precisely without any tools? Were those E.T.’s tracks in the dirt?) Of course, the day we went was brutally hot, but at least it gave me a reason to get a new hat.
On the way to the pyramids we stopped at a Mayan village. There were Mayans liveried in authentic warrior garb. We were blessed by a real Shaman (Mayan priest). We bought black obsidian stones which are rumored to be, among other things, energy boosters with healing properties. (I am such a new-age devotee that I keep mine in my pocket and will only allow my wife to touch it for fear of diluting its magic.)
Yes, we did lounge by the pool. There were bingo games where I won a fanny pack which my wife won’t let me use. And, being the culture vulture that I am, we saw several shows at the hotel – an Il Divo night (not the real group) and a honeymoon show where couples did embarrassing stunts (thank goodness we got there late and could not be chosen). My favorite was an Elvis show – I am a BIG Elvis fan.
The night before we left, we went on a romantic dinner cruise followed by a walk on the beach and a stretch in a hammock. Such a Hollywood ending.
Of course there were some bumps. I lost my debit card the first night trying to get pesos out of the ATM (I was distracted and forgot to remove it, so the machine ate it). Then there was the previously mentioned snafu with the dolphin photos. And I did clog the toilet one night – not particularly romantic on one’s honeymoon. The hot tub worked, but it took forever to fill up and should I say it was cozy for the two of us? It was built for one. The television reception was poor with most of the channels in Spanish. (I know, what did I expect? We were in Mexico.) Being half Italian and having been to the Caribbean, I thought I was too macho for sunscreen – I paid big time. Yes, even I can say men are stupid.
Then there was the food – I am certainly no connoisseur of food (remember my affinity for White Castle). My wife is a gourmet cook and, unfortunately, a lot of it is wasted on my awfully dull palette. I thought the food was only okay. Very bland – so much so that even I blinked. Did I eat it anyway? Absolutely. It should be noted, though, that the restaurants that required reservations were generally the better ones as far as food was concerned.
All in all, it was a great trip and a much needed break. Would we go back? Who wouldn’t return to Paradise?
Vacation? What’s a vacation? Until last month, I hadn’t had one (a REAL one where you go away and leave your worries behind; enjoy food, drink, and scenery; have no kids and RELAX for at least a week) in WAAY longer than I care to admit (okay, in over two decades). But, knowing that, and knowing that finances were tight, Wayne and I were generously gifted by my brother, Rob, and my parents, Elaine and Joey, with a trip to Cancun for our honeymoon. An actual honeymoon! We’d planned to maybe take a few days at most, and not go anywhere really special, especially in view of the fact we have seven kids between us who all were currently in school AND because part of what we do is teach college where you can’t just hire a sub. You might wonder why an entire month after our return, I just now am writing about it? Well, that’s because my life is so damn insane, trying to fit anything in is a chore sometimes. Juggling and prioritizing is challenging at best with all that is always going on. I guess that explains why it also took me a full three days to actually RELAX on this trip…no joke.
Now, I have been on a plane in the last two decades – once, for a trip for my niece’s graduation several years ago; however, that was the only other time since my previous vacation. But no matter what, this was the first time on a plane with Wayne, and that was cool. I actually teared up when we took off – I just couldn’t believe it was happening. It was a long road to get to where we are and we were finally experiencing our “someday.” As luck (bad luck) would have it, there were glitches in the works though – so after an emergency medical landing for another passenger held us up an extra hour, we finally touched ground. Mexico was beneath us!
Arriving at the Riu Palace Peninsula, an all-inclusive 5-star resort in the heart of Cancun, was something of both a dream and a blur. We were bone-weary from wedding stress, work, and family life in general but to be away together was bliss. Blanketed in purples, blacks, and silvers, the lobby was contemporary and welcoming. Immediately you know you’ll want for nothing; there was a full liquor bar as well as an espresso/coffee bar right in the lobby, they both were overlooking the four expansive pools and the ocean beaches. Five themed restaurants and more bars flanked either side of the lobby including a sports bar which was open 24/7 for drinks and snacks. It had a fully-stocked refrigerator of sandwiches and salads, as well as self-service nachos and hot dogs. Eager to see our room, we passed the peso-spewing service charge-free ATM (how nice!) as we took one of the three elevators on our side of the hotel to the 14th floor.
Open-air halls led to our room which had a very comfortable king-sized bed and a Jacuzzi, all with the same contemporary feel as the lobby; plus the views from our balcony were breathtaking! The stocked refrigerator (water, soda, and beer) of course were included, as were the upturned bottles of tequila (yes, we were in Mexico!), vodka, brandy, and rum.
Our plan was to get the most out of this trip and to do so, despite all the things to do and see in Mexico, we set out a plan to toggle every other day with an adventure and then a relaxation day. On our relaxation days, we spent them lounging by the “activity” pool; water temps had to be in the mid- to high-80s which only was really refreshing when the sun went in, but glorious nonetheless. We participated in just a few of the activities (like Bingo, LOL) and otherwise we just watched and were entertained by the other guests doing water aerobics or polo. And although the beautiful beach bordering the pool area was filled with longue chairs, we didn’t hang out there – I guess we wanted to nix the sandy swim suits. Waiters walked around in both areas, ready to take drink orders (but they certainly were back quicker if you tipped well).
As for the food, our first meal left a bit to be desired and we learned quickly that the buffets were mostly to be avoided. There is something about visiting another country but being served food which only mildly “resembles” American fare that just doesn’t quite seem to work. With dozens upon dozens of choices, there was very little we found truly edible. That was true for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With buffets as the only option for breakfast we were a bit stuck; and like the essence of futility (doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result) I filled my plate each morning and after first picking at my food like a bird, I ended up eating only the bread.
We did discover that poolside lunches were enjoyable – they set up the grills each day and offered up burgers, hotdogs, chicken, steak, and pork, along with chips, and delectable guacamole and pico de gallo. We partook of it each day we hung out at the pool.
For our first dinner we chose the Italian restaurant. While it did not require reservations, it did have a sit-down menu as well as expansive appetizer and dessert bars. To our dismay, the entire experience was disappointing. Wayne can eat almost anything, especially if it is slathered in red sauce and served over pasta, but even he was less than jazzed by their lame and very salty attempt at Osso Bucco (he did clean his plate, though!) I, on the other hand, picked again and left hungry.
The following nights we got smart – if we ate at the hotel, we made sure to go to the restaurants which required reservations. That was code for the GOOD meals. Our first was at a steakhouse. There were no limits to the amount of food one could order so we ended up gluttonous (possibly because we were hungry from our previous meals!) and created our own surf and turf, ordering steaks AND lobster tails. From start to finish, this meal was delicious and the service was attentive. Another night, when we hadn’t made an advance reservation, Wayne schmoozed the maître d’ at a completely booked restaurant who sent us to the more exclusive restaurant at the Villas – the adult-only and more exclusive area. Our meal there was OUT OF THIS WORLD. A lobster soup to-die-for and filet mignon which melted in your mouth…fabulous service and an experience which was just overall incredible.
After our meals there always were entertainment opportunities in the sprawling lounge area. We caught a couples’ game show, an Il Divo cover band, and an Elvis impersonator. Wayne, a huge Elvis fan, enjoyed the latter immensely as did I. The performer was so spot-on (truly Vegas style) that Wayne still can’t let it sink in that he was Mexican!
Beyond the Riu Palace Peninsula, Cancun has quite a bit to offer. Twice we took public buses to the main drag where we perused local goods at the flea markets while doing our best to avoid the incessant and persistent hounding by the vendors. Haggling was a must and we brought back some great jewelry, T-shirts, and other trinkets for ourselves and the family.
We also took a short ferry ride to spend a day at Isla Mujeres where we toured the small island by golf cart. There we visited a sea turtle farm and saw turtles at all stages of development while drinking coconut milk out of split, fresh coconuts. We then dove into the clearest of blue waters just over a rocky ledge; and finally we swam with the dolphins (something we happily got to cross off our collective bucket list!) There were huge iguanas roaming about the island and we took a few photo opps while enticing them with bananas.
Another day we took a tour bus to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. We stopped first for a traditional meal at a Mayan village where we also purchased obsidian healing stones and carvings, were blessed by a shaman, and took photos with Mayans in traditional warrior garb. The next stop was at a tequila museum where we tasted many different flavored tequilas and where some visitors swam in a cenote (or sinkhole) which is reportedly very cleansing, and something like taking a dip in the fountain of youth. The site of the ruins were next and unfortunately uncomfortably hot – there was no real shade and it was exceptionally humid. The tour guide at the site was difficult to understand and Wayne insisted he’d just read the facts later on Wikipedia (LOL); we were disappointed not to have been able to climb the ruins and Wayne even attempted to pick off a piece of stone to take home as a souvenir but was unable to do so! Determined vendors flanked the entire park and in some ways detracted from the richness of the Mayan history, but many did have some great wares to sell. This trip ended with a stop at a Mexican town where we saw a local church and nabbed churros in a park across the street.
Our other big source of entertainment while in Cancun was at a nightclub called Coco Bongo. It was practically an all-night affair and rivaled the shows of Vegas and Cirque de Soleil – but that event deserves its own review!
With the all-inclusive meals, we did not venture out often to other restaurants, but one notable one was La Habichuela. Not only was the dinner amazing, but the atmosphere was sumptuous and the service was among the best I’ve had anywhere. Eating here was like being pampered to the nth degree and a great way to experience the best Mexico has to offer. I would go back to Cancun just to eat there again!
Additionally, on our last night we took a Columbus dinner cruise. This was romantic, relaxing, and a great way to top off our trip. The food only was fair, but it didn’t detract from the incredible views, the live sax player, and the ocean breezes. We even had the pleasure of seeing the ripples from a dolphin who dove right beside us as we sailed off into the sunset.
All in all, Cancun and the Riu Palace Peninsula were incredible. While there was a learning curve, especially with regard to the dining experiences, it is a place I would recommend highly. In our observation, while it also is family-friendly (many patrons had children of varying ages), this didn’t detract from adult enjoyment. There is plenty to do for everyone from sightseeing, to active adventures, to shopping, dining, and the like. And there were plenty of things we didn’t do, in order to keep our “self-imposed” allotment of down time; in the future if we return, we’d likely engage in water sports such as snorkeling, scuba diving, or jet skiing. We would also go to Xel-Ha Park and zipline or take a jungle tour.
On a final note, thank you Mom, Dad, and Rob! (Did I mention Rob and his girlfriend, Brenda, joined us? They were incredible guides but gave us our space, too!)