Oye Como Va

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Hola, amigos! Que Tal? Acabo de volver a partir una semana hermosa de las vacaciones en Mexico. (Translation: Hi Friends! What's up? I just returned from a beautiful week of vacation in Mexico.)

Spent the past 6 days in the Riviera Maya at the gorgeous, all-inclusive, Aventura Spa Palace and Resort. It was my first such experience, and as much as I enjoyed going on a cruise, I must admit that staying at a luxurious resort like the Aventura completely blows away any cruise. It was unbelievable.

This is going to be a lengthy entry, with tons of photos, so please click on the link to continue reading (and to see all of the photos).

A little back story first. After the bank was closed and it became evident that we'd all be out of work by the end of February 2009, a group of us decided to plan a "cleansing vacation;" to get away from all of the hustle and bustle, unwind, and return to the USA with a refreshed attitude and outlook.

We spent several weeks trying to find the best destination, and eventually settled on the idea of going to Mexico and staying at an all-inclusive resort. We didn't want to mix/mingle with the "Spring Breakers," so we looked for places that catered to adults and were nice enough that you weren't going to be stuck dealing with 2,000 of your best buddies from the local fraternity.

We found about 10 places that fit the bill, and after consulting with a local travel agent, chose the Aventura. The agent told us that the Aventura was her personal favorite location - the food was going to be great, the atmosphere unbeatable, and the experience unforgettable. So, trip was purchased, and the countdown timer started. If I recall correctly, the timer started at around 145 days... March 4th seemed so far away.

Well, time flew by. Some of us were released early from our obligations with the FDIC. And to no one's surprise, the FDIC ran late with the closing process and February 28 would not be the last day for the remaining bank staff... nope. But our dates were firm, so we'd have to make due. The folks that were still stuck at the refugee camp would have to return from paradise and re-enter that hellish place.

And so, on March 4, our group met at the airport and we were off to the Riviera Maya in beautiful Quintana Roo, Mexico. For those not familiar, Q-Roo is home to Cancun; it's just a bit north of Belize, on the eastern coast of Mexico. Here's a map for reference:

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Sorry for the spanish - I'm still stuck in that mode... I want to say "Gracias" and "Si" and "Buenas Dias" to everyone. It's crazy that the spanish came back to me so easily - I was there a week and felt pretty comfortable conversing with folks. It helps that everyone at the resort knew enough english that they could help translate certain words and phrases whenever I'd get stuck.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The map seems to match pretty well with what we saw from the airplane - peninsula, beaches, and miles of clear, beautiful oceans.

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We landed at the Cancun airport, which was beautiful and far more nice than any airport I've ever been to in the USA, passed through customs, and hit the road to our hotel. The travel agent arranged for the Lomas Travel Group to pick us up and transport us to the Aventura. The transfer process was completely painless - the driver met us at the luggage area, showed us to a large Mercedes van, gave us some Cervezas (beers), and we were off. The road to the hotel was flawless - as good as any interstate in the USA, and the ride took about 1.5 hours.

A quick comment about the "violence" and "military issues" in Mexico - we saw none of either. There were police posted at various speed check points along the route, and yes, they had guns, but never once did I feel unsafe or scared or even the least bit threatened. From what we heard via our driver, the issues are primarily with border towns, where gangs are able to "control" an area. The Cancun area has enough police presence and general organization to keep most problems under control. So, to anyone who's heard horror stories about going to Mexico, no worries - the popular areas appear to be completely safe and friendly.

While waiting at one of the many stoplights that dot the highway that runs through the Riviera Maya, we spotted a rather interesting truck...

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Turns out that "Bimbo" is a brand of bread - not unlike Wonder Bread. We had a good chuckle, regardless. As mentioned, the ride was painless and quick, and before we knew it, we were at our destination.

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The resorts all have these grand entrances along the highway that are a good half-mile from the actual resort property. So, after winding through some jungle terrain (all paved, all with the obligatory speed bumps), we arrived at the hotel. The check-in process was painless; there were bell boys waiting to take your luggage. They offered a warm towel to wipe your face, and they had drinks waiting for us. We tipped everyone accordingly, said good bye to our bus driver, Francisco (he was awesome), and hopped on a golf cart to be whisked away to the rooms.

The property is huge - it takes up more than 1.25 miles of shoreline; to walk a lap around the entire outer perimeter of the property is just under 3 miles. So, the golf carts were a nice touch. Our rooms were centrally located, which was even better - we were never very far from any of the restaurants or activities. All of the rooms (there are more than 1200 rooms) have a jacuzzi, and most have a partial view of the ocean. My room was no different - jacuzzi: check.

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Ocean view: check.

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The "courtyard" was the largest of the property. All of the balconies had a hammock, table, and chairs. The rooms were stocked with fresh fruit, refrigerators full of complimentary beverages, and a fully complimentary wet bar that included a bunch of different types of alcohols. A quick call to the front desk confirmed it - everything was included in the cost of the room. No extra charges - not even for phone calls to the United States. Wow.

I hopped into the hammock and enjoyed an apple and "Coca Light" (Diet Coke).

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The sun was fast setting, so after a brief stint in the hammock, it was off to explore the property. We hit one of the many pool areas, and the view was stunning.

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The resort isn't technically "on the ocean," but with any effort at all, you could throw a peso and hit the ocean. You can see it in the distance, and you get all of the ocean benefits (breeze, view, sounds, smells) without the headaches (salty water and sand everywhere). To better illustrate the layout of the property, here's a map:

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As you can see, there are a ton of pools, coves, sunbathing areas, activity centers, restaurants, and shops. Despite being there 6 days, we never hit all of the restaurants - there were enough places that it simply wasn't possible to see/visit them all during our stay. We went to dinner that night and then turned-in early. The next morning, I went for a run and then took photos of the property. Here's a quick overview of the property highlights.

Here's the North Palace; it appeared to be the primary "hub" for the resort, as it was home to the check-in desk, the spa, the gym, several restaurants, boutiques, and gift shops. It's where we were dropped off upon arrival, and it's where we were picked-up for departure.

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You can't really see the building from the photo above, but trust me when I say it's massive. Here's a view of the main lobby area (from inside):

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And the view from the back of the building:

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And looking out from the North Palace:

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From the North Palace, I trekked it over to the South Palace. The South Palace appears to be slightly newer than the North Palace, and it's equally as huge. It's home to the disco (Club Andromeda), several restaurants, and all of the wedding chapels. Here's a view of the South Palace from the "front" road:

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And here's the inside of the South Palace:

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The decor was a little more modern, and I really liked the yellow color that they chose for the lobby. Here's a view of the South Palace from the back:

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And finally, a view from the South Palace out toward the pool/ocean area:

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Gorgeous, eh? It really was incredible. I continued to make my way south, until I reached the southern-most part of the beach. I knelt next to a few of the beach chairs and snapped this photo; to my right about 20 feet was the end of the property (and the start of another resort/time-share).

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I walked north a bit to this "cove" area:

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And turned around to see part of the South Palace (way in the back), along with Mundaca (a steakhouse restaurant (on right)).

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I kept working my way north and found this lovely little area, so I stopped for a minute and kicked back to relax.

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Just behind me was one of the larger pool areas:

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I hit the trail again, and after a bit was back to the central part of the property. Our group was staying in this area, in one of the buildings on the left, on the 3rd floor.

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From the central location I continued north and stumbled on an interesting pool area. This area had a medium-sized pool, but in the middle was a waterfall that had a "plunge pool" below it. It was surrounded in palm trees and looked comfy, so I kicked back for a few minutes and enjoyed the view:

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After sitting for a few minutes (and being greeted by staff members who asked if they could get me anything) I walked to the northern-most portion of the property, where I found this little garden:

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In the middle of the garden were these adobe "igloos" that were called "Temascals." The igloos are super heated, and you're supposed to go into them and sweat out all of the demons and toxins. I was already warm enough from my trek around the property, so I took a pass and kept on walking.

My final stop was at the Chef's herb garden. The facility grows its own herbs for seasoning - this was a batch of chives and thyme:

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Just to the north of the spice garden were the horse stables, but the horses were all out and about, so I didn't bother to take a picture. My final stop was the "obstacle course" that included a huge rock climbing wall:

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As I mentioned earlier, the North Palace featured a gym and a spa, and I took advantage of both. In addition to running every morning (there's nothing like a 4-5 mile run at 7:30am in paradise), I did a few "spinning" classes. The spin facility was nice - the bikes were a little older, but they worked well, and the instructors did a great job with the classes. Each class was 50 minutes long, and was quite a workout. Here's a shot of the spin room:

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And on Sunday, it was time to treat the 'ole bod to a little luxury, so it was up to the spa for a hydrotherapy session and a massage. It was glorious, especially because the spa was so beautiful. The spa was split into two segments - the women's side and the men's side. Here's the lobby area for the men's side of the spa:

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Keep in mind this lobby was located on the second floor of North Palace... it wasn't a stand alone building - nope, this was inside of the North Palace. Once inside, I was greeted and given a key to a locker. The locker had a robe, a towel, and these "massage" slippers. With my stuff packed, it was into the aroma therapy sauna, where I spent a glorious 10 minutes sweating and baking. I'm not sure what has changed within me, but I really enjoy being warm, and the sauna was just what the doctor ordered.

After my time was up in the sauna, it was over to a cold shower for a quick rinse. Apparently the cold water shocks your vascular system and is key to the whole hydrotherapy deal. Cold, but rinsed, it was into the aroma therapy vapor room. It's like a steam room, but the steam is scented with eucalyptus and menthol. 10 minutes later, and it was into a "Swedish Shower." The shower has jets that oscillate from your feet up to your head, and you spend some time sitting in it, and some time standing in it.

After the shower, I was led to a series of large hot tubs (like 15 feet by 15 feet). I spent five minutes in a 97F tub, five minutes in a 100F tub, and then had to take a quick walk through a cold (60F) plunge tub. Talk about a shocker. After that, it was time for a glass of tea, and some relaxation in the "foot soaking pool." Then it was off to 80 minutes with a massage therapist who worked the kinks out of my legs, arms, and back. Nice!

The time passed much too quickly, and it was back to reality. And speaking of reality, the property has some interesting critters to contend with - namely feral cats, wild birds, and lots of iguanas. The property supports a spay/neuter program for the feral cats - it live traps them, and then sterilizes them prior to releasing them back into their natural habitat (around the resort). Apparently there is a nearby cave that the cats live in; they stay there during the day and then come out to hunt at night. We saw this little guy outside of the steakhouse on our first night:

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We saw these guys outside of the Italian restaurant; the orange guy was friendly but the black and white kitty was a bit skittish. We couldn't coax him over near us.

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It was great that the property takes responsibility to help out the cats and birds; I wish everyone was so caring and responsible. Here are a few dogs that appeared to be homeless - we saw them while out and about. :-(

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And as I mentioned, there were plenty of iguanas, and they weren't too afraid of folks - this little guy was about 3-5 feet from us as we sat out near the pool:

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They even spotted a "croc" in the water:

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That was me, in the pool, doing a crocodile impression... The pools weren't that warm - none of us spent much time in them, because they were pretty chilly. They probably warm up quickly in the summer months, but with it being early March they needed more time to soak up the warm sunlight. I believe that photo was taken during my only time in any of the pools.

Ok... we've covered a lot, so it's time to talk food. The food was fantastic - it wasn't your typical "buffet" chow - it was top quality stuff that was packed full of flavor, quality, and presented with flair.

We had steaks, Italian food, Mexican food, American food, Greek food, Sushi, and wonderful breakfasts. Here are some of the highlights:

Italian food night -

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That's a shrimp pasta with homemade noodles and a light marinara sauce. It was absolutely delicious.

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Filet with baby potatoes and a veggie garnish... yum.

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And cannoli for desert, along with a cappuccino. Que bella!


Lunches

I tried to eat a lighter lunch, because I typically had a decent sized breakfast and a fairly large dinner, so at lunch it was time to go easy. I usually had a salad and a piece of pizza or something like that... here was a typical lunch meal:

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As you can see, there's a salad, a slice of chicken pizza, and a few treats. Those little donuts were fantastic - I could've easily had a few dozen with each meal, but I never had more than two. Oh, they were so good...

On the second-to-last night, we hit the Mexcian restaurant, La Hacienda. After tipping our waiter ahead of time with a $20, we got top notch service and attention - our table was the only one in the entire restaurant that was visited by the restaurant manager and the head chef. They wanted to make sure our meal was good; it's amazing what a $20 tip will do in Mexico. :-)

The waiter brought us drinks with a twist... margaritas with a kick.

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Then he made us guacamole at the table. I'm not a fan of guacamole, but this stuff was absolutely unreal. We watched him mash the avocado, add in the chiles, the onion, and lime juice, and mix it all together. He topped it with a little parmesan cheese and then served it with another "spot made" goodie - pico de gallo. If there's one thing I'll miss more than anything else, it's this stuff - it was incredible.

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We then had a "Mexican salad" - I'm not sure what was in this thing, but it looked cool. I didn't try it, but I'm told it was tasty.

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Instead of the Mexican salad, I ordered a stuffed tomato. It was a tomato that had been carved and filled with various types of ceviche (seafood cooked in lime juice). It looked a little something like this:

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For my main course, I had fish - Mahi Mahi to be exact. The Mahi was seasoned with this bright red seasoning, and despite how the photo may look, the spice wasn't overpowering, nor was any of it greasy. The fish was extremely moist, and I think the liquid from the fish carried the spices across the plate. It was absolutely delicious - I wish I knew what they used as a spice because I'd buy it by the pallet.

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For desert, it was Tres Leches cake - yum!

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And as a special treat, our waiter made Mayan Coffee. The coffee was ok, but how it's made is extremely cool (and a little unsafe). The waiter has two silver carafes that he pre-heats over a flame. He then adds two types of liquor - not sure what they are, and then heats them until they flame. He then pours the flaming liquors "waterfall style" from one carafe to the other, and finishes by pouring the flaming liquid into pre-heated, sugar-rimmed glasses.

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To the warm liquid, in goes a scoop of ice cream, some coffee, and some foamed milk. It's tasty and really cool to see it "in action."


Mornings included breakfast from one of a handful of restaurants. There was everything and anything you could imagine for breakfast food, but I kept things pretty tame - some eggs, a few pieces of bacon, some fruit, and some yogurt. Yep, that's right - yogurt. I love the stuff, especially the "light" version. The full version tastes too thick to me.

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In addition to these staples, you could also get waffles (which I did), pancakes, french toast, or omelettes (made-to-order). We discovered a trick after the first few days... avoid the "main" breakfast location (which happened to be the Chinese restaurant) and find the "roaming" breakfast location. The food seemed to be a little better at the roaming location, and there was never any wait for waffles, or any of the other made-to-order items.

And speaking of the Chinese restaurant, we swung through there on our last night for some sushi:

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And of course, another round of Mayan Coffee, as made by our waiter, Luis.

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Enough with the food. We did more than just sit around the pool and eat... not much more, but we did get away from the property on a few occasions. On our second day, we took a cab to Playacar for some shopping on 5th Avenue. Along the way, we saw some rather suspicious behavior:

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That's three gentlemen with a slim-jim, trying to gain entry into a vehicle that's parked in front of a bank... while a police officer stands and watches... hmmm. After witnessing that odd situation, the cab driver dropped us at 5th Avenue, and it was time for some mingling, browsing, and shopping. I figured about $10 would be plenty of money to take with me - this isn't the 5th Avenue you're imagining.

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There she is, in all of her glory. And believe it or not, I took this in the "good" section - tried to make it look a little more attractive (you owe me one, Playacar department of tourism). In actuality, it wasn't a bad area - it was quite nice. Plenty of shade trees, cobblestone streets, charming buildings, and more shops than you could shake a stick at. One of the folks we were with was interested in buying some cigars, so he made it his mission to get the best possible deal on his purchase. Here he is haggling with one of the shop owners:

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They eventually came to an agreement on price, and we were back on our way. Part of the deal included a large sombrero, which he wore for the rest of the day.

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In addition to visiting 5th Avenue, we took a snorkeling tour/excursion. It was included with our vacation package, so there was no harm in giving it a try. I wasn't terribly impressed with the outing - they took a group of us (about 25 people) to a coral reef, gave us some ill-fitting masks and snorkels, and dumped us in the ocean for about 20 minutes. It was quite windy, so the waters were choppy, and the coral reef was largely dead - no wonder, because the people treated it like garbage. The "guides" never once told anyone to avoid touching the coral, so everyone in the group was touching the coral, standing on it, and basically wrecking it. What a shame.

The snorkeling experience was completely opposite of what we experienced while on the cruise; when we went snorkeling in the Caymans, our guides wouldn't let us use sunscreen while swimming, and we were warned several times to avoid touching the coral. They (the Cayman group) seemed much more responsible than this group.

After the snorkeling, it was back to the beach for a few hours of "downtime." They fed us lunch and gave us a few cervezas, which was a nice touch, but I was still a little upset about the coral situation.

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At least the weather was gorgeous - it was about 80F, sunny, and there was a solid breeze to help keep things cool. After a while, I stopped stewing about the coral and was able to kick back and relax.

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I'm getting pretty good with those one-armed self-portrait shots... :-)

Before long, it was time for lunch, and the guides led our group to a covered hut. Lunch consisted of a modest buffet that included fresh fish, a beef dish, a chicken dish, and the requisite fixings to make nachos. There was also entertainment - two gentlemen walked around serenading the tables Mariachi style. They had a lazy sound to them - it was pretty entertaining (mind you, I didn't use the word "good").

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The excursion came to an end, and it was back to the resort. After an hour on the bus, the group was dropped at the North Palace, where we decided to stop at the North Palace lounge area for a quick drink. While sitting at the lounge, we made friends with Jorge - the bartender, and he quickly turned out to be one of the best people we would meet. Jorge was extremely friendly, funny, and personable - he made good conversation, shared a ton of information, and treated us to a bunch of unique beverages - ones that most folks wouldn't ever have the opportunity to sample.

Here's Jorge as he unveils some margaritas:

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He used something called "Tres Generaciones Anejo Tequila" in them, and while I'm not normally much of a tequila fan, these were some good margaritas. If you're ever in the area, ask Jorge to make you one - but caution: it'll spoil you for any future margaritas... they won't taste anywhere near as good as these do/did.

While sitting at the lounge, I noticed a group of people to my right. And I noticed that one of the gentlemen in the group was wearing a "Middleton" t-shirt. I sat up and asked if they were from Wisconsin, and yep - sure enough, they were. We traded pleasantries, told them to take care of Jorge, snapped a picture and left. Here's the group from my 'ole stompin' grounds:

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What a small world... you fly 1500 miles to Mexico only to see people from your old hometown.

With a busy day firmly behind me, it was time for some relaxation - that hot tub was calling my name, so I plopped myself in and took a little soak. Ahhhh. The sliding glass door was open, the ocean breeze was wafting into the room, the tub was at the perfect temperature, and Spiderman was on TV - it doesn't get much better than that. :-)

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Oh, one last word about Jorge and tipping at a resort like the Aventura Spa Palace. People - if you decide to go on one of these vacations, be sure to TIP and TIP well. Yes, the resort claims that everything is included, and that there's no need to tip, but, I have a feeling that most of the employees there make well under $10/day, and they work their butts off. A well placed tip will do wonders for you.

Case in point: the $20 that was slipped to our waiter netted the best service/food of anyone in the restaurant. And, the tips that we gave Jorge got us incredible drinks, experiences, stories, and service. It also immediately resolved a problem with the room - the refrigerators were stocked with too much "variety" despite previous requests to only have "Coca Light" and water in my refrigerator. After taking care of Jorge and mentioning the problem, the refrigerator was exactly as desired. It pays to show gratitude and appreciation for a job well done, and the dividends are great.

I'm not suggesting that you walk around and give everyone you see a tip. But give the bartenders $1 per round of drinks, even if it's just water that you're ordering. And when you find someone that you mesh well with, tip them a $5 here and there, and you'll be surprised at how much better you're treated. It really makes a difference.

Ok, I'll step down from the soapbox and get back to the vacation stories. Although, there's not a whole lot more to tell you about... most of the time was spent sitting near the pool, reading a book, enjoying the wonderful service and gorgeous weather. So, I'll just post a few last pictures:

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Me, by the pool. Notice I'm not in it... :-)


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The only cloudy day... I was able to get away with SPF15 rather than SPF55.

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Kicking back in the hammock, with my laptop and a Coca Light. I'd give anything to call that "my office."

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And in the blink of an eye, the vacation came to a close - that's why you see the frown. The trip was super relaxing and enjoyable; the only bad part was that it had to end. There were serious considerations given to becoming refugees and stowing away somewhere on the property for as long as possible... figured it would've been a good month before anyone noticed an extra visitor mingling about. But, against my better judgement, I packed the suitcase and hopped back onto the Lomas Travel bus for the ride back to the Cancun airport.

Inside the airport, we stopped at a "Bubba Gump Shrimp House" for some lunch. I'm sure they have these back in the States, but check out the prices:

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Thankfully those are prices in Pesos, which were trading at about a 14:1 conversion rate... so, divide those prices by 14, and you'll get the approximate cost in US dollars. Still a bit pricey for chain food, but when you're on vacation, that's to be expected.

Oh - I almost forgot... while walking through the airport shops, I couldn't help but laugh at this "promotion." It instantly reminded me of a classic failblog entry, so I snapped a picture and made it my own "fail."

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The flight from Cancun to Dallas took just over two hours. Filled out the obligatory customs paperwork, had a soda, and dreaded the thought of returning home.

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And with that, it was back to good 'ole XNA. I was not impressed to be home.

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And that was the trip, in a nutshell. To everyone that I went with - thank you for letting me join you on the trip, it was a great time, and the perfect way to "close out" the ANB experience. The trip did a great job of erasing any bad memories associated with the FDIC closure/experience, and it was just what the doctor ordered to help start the next chapter of life in the right direction. My only wish is that I had enough money to do this every year. :-)

Thanks also to Karen from Design Travel - she did a great job of recommending the location and a fantastic job of coordinating everything. And to everyone at Lomas and the Aventura - thank you for an unforgettable experience. I've never felt more welcomed and appreciated, and I've never had a trip where *everything* went so well. There was never once a single inconvenience nor was there any discomfort. I truly believe that the Aventura has to be one of the world's premiere destinations; if anyone is looking for a great vacation, do yourself a favor and head down to the Riviera Maya and visit the fine folks at the Aventura.

Even if the seagulls steal your food, it'll still be a great vacation. :-) Adios, amigos!!


Edit: Here's a link to some video of the two Mariachis from the beach excursion. It's only about 8 seconds - my compact camera, as much as I love it, has an annoying habit of switching itself to video mode at the most ridiculous times... I was trying to take a picture of the Mariachis, only to realize that my camera was capturing video instead. :-)

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1 Comments

Great recap and LOVED the pictures. I think the "croc" one is still one of my favorites. :)

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This page contains a single entry by Steve published on March 11, 2009 10:31 AM.

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