Friday, May 24, 2013

Gran Bahia Principe Tulum - A Mexican Paradise in Akumal

I don't usually like to portray myself as a hypocrite, but sometimes I have to admit when I'm wrong. (Do you hear that, my loving husband? Ha ha!)

In a previous post about visiting the lovely country of Mexico, I berated people for never leaving their resorts and staying too attached to hotel life. However, after staying for a mere four days at the beautiful Gran Bahia Principe Tulum resort (and getting to visit its sister resorts of Coba and Akumal), I can actually see how some travelers and tourists could enjoy just lounging around the resort grounds for an entire vacation. That's not what I did, once again, but at least now I can see the appeal.

The beautiful blue pools of the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum resort

My husband and I ventured down to Mexico two weeks ago to celebrate the wedding of Joey's brother, Charlie, and his beautiful fiancee, Kristin.  There was a bus-load of family members there, but somehow, Joey and I ended up staying in a different sister resort than everyone else.  This was, in some ways, a bit of a treat because we were able to view our stay as a 'romantic adventure getaway' with just the two of us for large chunks of time.  Of course, there were the family dinners, meet-ups, and the gorgeous wedding, but Joey and I were also able to do some couples' explorations too, which I will write about in later posts.

Enjoying a nice dinner at one of the a-la-carte restaurants.

I want to actually focus on the resort in this post, because it totally blew my mind.  The Gran Bahia Principe resort complex is located in Akumal, Mexico, about an hour's drive from the Cancun airport.  There are three resorts in one, along with a couple of sister resorts located across the highway.  The Tulum and Akumal resorts both have beach access, and the Coba resort is set more into the jungle.  Trolley cars cruise around the resort every 10 minutes, taking you to wherever your heart desires.  It is a well set-up, smooth-sailing mini-community that looks like paradise.  The staff was friendly and helpful (although watch out for the time-share dudes that hang out in the lobbies - they are pretty pushy).

An example of the 'condo-style' hotel units at the Gran Bahia Principe.

The rooms were neat and tidy, and the maid left lovely towel art for us every morning.  Beach towels were provided, and the all-inclusive band meant free drinks and food literally whenever you wanted it, and pretty much wherever you wanted it.  There was free entertainment every night, a hacienda shopping center, entertainment alongside the pools (like the fantastic parrot show we got to see), and a dolphin-swim aquarium (not part of the all-inclusive package).

Yay! A towel unicorn!

The layout of the resort was interesting too.  Last time I visited Mexico, I stayed in a hotel that was basically one huge complex.  The Gran Bahia Principe Tulum, however, is more like a community of condos, with cute winding paths, Mary Poppins-esque lamp posts, and about a million laid-back, sun-basking iguanas every fifth step.  I loved just strolling around the little streets, jumping out of a trolley's way every now and then.

I tried to sneak up on a big iguana, but he had his eye on me!

One of my favorite parts of the resort was the beach and ocean - although perhaps not my skin's favorite part, as I am still peeling nearly two weeks later.  (I look like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, with a constant cloud of fluttering skin flakes whirling around me.  Gross, I know.  I just wanted you to have that visual so you can understand what my students have been dealing with since I got back!)

Another example of the beautiful pools at the Gran Bahia Principe.

The kind folks at the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum resort know their ocean tides and waves - they created large, black concrete 'rocks' which act as breakers to slow down the rushing waters of the sea, and create a calm and safe place for swimmers all day long.  Many people in the hotel reviews online hated the rocks, stating they were 'ugly', but I did not see it that way.  The rocks instead created a 'lagoon' type atmosphere between themselves and the shore, and we had the opportunity on our first day there to swim for hours with a fun, friendly school of fish (and I had the opportunity to test out my new GoPro Hero 3!!!)

Beach luxury at the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum resort.

My husband and I did leave the resort two of the four days we were in Mexico, so don't think I've gone and turned into a leisure lounger - exploring every nook and cranny is still my style of travel.  But if I was forced to spend a week just relaxing in the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum resort, I doubt I'd mind!  If you need to be further convinced of just how great this place was, check out my video below!

What's your favorite Mexican resort getaway?

Explore the Gran Bahia Principe with Down the Wrabbit Hole!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ride a Paddleboat down the Mighty Mississippi (And Other Things in New Orleans that Might be Overrated)

I love trip planning. Researching the highlights of a destination, contacting tour offices for tips and tricks, and discovering hidden jewels gives me a thrill. By the time I head out for my journey, I have a list of "things-to-see-and-do" about a mile long. And, usually to the dismay of my husband, I try to hit everything on my list (because I'm so darned excited about each and every item).

things to do in New Orleans, New Orleans Louisiana, NOLA
Visiting Jackson Square in New Orleans.

That being said, it is realistic to assume that not every 'highlight' or 'hidden jewel' will live up to its hype. I still value the experience of seeing or participating in every adventure, but really, some are better than others. During my recent trip to New Orleans, I had a few items on the list leave me with a deflated feeling, rather than an elated one. I want to share these stories with you now, and please, if you've visited one of these places and have a completely different memory, please compare yours with mine in the comments section!

1. Ride a Paddleboat down the Mighty Mississippi

When I visited New Orleans in 2008, one of the things that I didn't get to do was ride one of those cool riverboats down the Mississippi River. Parked at the dock beside the Riverwalk Mall and Convention Center was a giant paddleboat named the Creole Queen. My friends and I were dying to explore it and hopefully get to cruise down the muddy Mississippi for an afternoon, but it was not to be so.

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New Orleans' Riverboat "The Creole Queen"

So when I visited New Orleans last month for a technology convention, and found out that our main social was to be held on that same boat for a dinner cruise, I felt like fate was smiling down upon me! It was exactly what I had been dreaming of doing, and I was being given a wide-open door to walk right in! To make matters even more exciting, our dinner theme was a masquerade theme. My travel companions and I spent days searching high and low for perfect masks (and found them in the French Market on Decateur Street).

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My masquerade mask - it was a sweaty little thing!

On the night of the social, we lined up outside the Creole Queen, snapping photos of each other standing in front of our future mode of transportation. When we boarded, we were seated at tables and waited anxiously for the boat to take off down the river. Night fell while we dined on some delicious traditional Creole food. (Although, my one travel companion is glucose intolerant, and had specified that when we RSVP'd for the meal. Yet nothing on the menu was glucose-free, and so she basically ate a little plate of salad. Side rant: as a catering company, if you ask your clients to specify food allergies, you need to honor that when you make your menu.)

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The view from the upper deck, but it was too cold to linger.

Finally, the boat began to move! We rushed to the windows - and could see nothing. The dark harbors gave away little for pleasant views, although the city lights twinkled nicely. We went outside onto the cold, windy deck, which featured a nicer vista, but was so freezing you couldn't stay for long. Then we searched for a spot to watch the giant paddles revolving, but the room which had a clear view of the paddles was a private room (they let me in for about three minutes so I could glimpse the paddles turning and foaming up the river waters). Once we had explored these areas, there wasn't much else to do on the boat. It was still a neat experience, but overall, I had a "Meh" feeling about the night.

2. Hike around Audubon Park

Audubon Park was on my list for a "peaceful and pleasant" experience in New Orleans. No one else wanted to visit it with me, so I decided to go for a couple of hours the afternoon before our riverboat cruise, right after our last session was over at the convention. I knew I was cutting it tight time-wise, but Audubon Park was highly rated on all of the "Tour New Orleans" websites and I felt I had to check it out. I jumped on the St. Charles Trolley and began to chug along towards Audubon Park.

Now perhaps I shouldn't blame the park itself for my harrowing experience (it wasn't really harrowing - I'm just being dramatic now for the post's benefit!) The biggest issue was, at the time of my visit, the St. Charles Trolley line was being updated / renovated / restored, and a large section of it was torn up. To get around the construction, the lovely city of New Orleans had some extra buses scheduled to take riders from point A to point B via bus. You'd disembark the trolley, hop on the bus, ride down St. Charles to your destination, and at the canal had the option to get back on the trolley and continue on your merry little way. Audubon Park was somewhere in the middle of all this.

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A panoramic shot of Audubon Park.

I got to the park just fine. It took much longer than expected because we had to wait for the bus to arrive, but I got to the park with about half an hour to explore. Audubon Park was pretty, full of squirrels and birds, and about half the city seemed to be out running, walking their dogs, or doing photo-shoots (yes, there were lots and lots of photo-shoots for some reason). I enjoyed my momentary peace, but without a picnic or a companion to just sit and relax with, half an hour was more than enough time to wander about in a park. I headed back to the bus stop.

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Vibrant colors make Audubon Park a pretty place to picnic.

And waited. And waited. No bus stopped. Worried about the time, I decided to walk down the street, back in the direction of Canal Street, until I found others waiting for the bus. I walked, and walked. Other groups of tourists, looking slightly discombobulated, also shared in my concern - how the heck do we get back to the Quarter? I was a bit grumpy now, and was in that stubborn mind-set of, "Fine, I'll just walk ALL THE WAY back to Canal." However, I tried to stay positive as I walked, and mentally pep-rallied myself with lines such as, "See, now you get to walk around the Garden District and check out all the nice mansions!" It helped a little.

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Magical trees add to the beauty of Audubon Park.

Eventually, I had to walk all the way back to the point in the trolley line where the street car dropped off its passengers to catch the bus. Winded but grateful, I boarded the trolley, begged the driver to step on it as much as possible, and pulled out my iPod. I allowed myself some time to catch my breath, look out the window, listen to some tunes, and just enjoy the fact that I was no longer stranded and I'd only be a *little* late for the riverboat. It helped that an adorable child who thought he was a dog tried to stick his head out the window the entire ride back, much to his mother's frustration and my amusement. It's the small things that count!

So, I guess, all-in-all, I'd recommend Audubon Park for a picnic with a friend or loved one. It was really pretty. Just make sure you have all the time in the world, and a solid way of getting home!

3. Cafe du Monde

If you want to eat a famous New Orleans breakfast doughnut, or 'beignet', all the sites, books, and locals recommend Cafe du Monde on Decateur Street. I'm not sure why it has the 'best' beignets, but that's what people say.

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Cafe du Monde is okay if you like line-ups... Photo via

Getting one, on the other hand, is a pain.

The line-up each day was out the restaurant and down the street. We tried to stand in line one day, but it just wasn't moving. Seeing that we just wanted to try a beignet, we didn't think standing in line for three hours, only to discover we maybe didn't like it, was worth it. I'm not sure if Cafe du Monde is the best for those tasty pastries, but the line-up sure dissuaded us from trying.

Instead, we went four blocks over to Cafe Beignet, stood in line for much less time, and got our breakfast beignets to go. They were good, but after eating one, I know I wouldn't stand in line for three hours for one. The pastry was delicious, but I couldn't handle the mountains of powdered sugar.  Much too much!

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Beignets are tasty treats, but very sugary! Photo via

So those were my 'low-lights' of New Orleans. In the grand scheme of things, none of them were bad experiences or things I'd tell people to never try. The riverboat cruise was unique, the park quite pretty, and the beignets tasty as promised. For me, they were just experiences that were over-hyped, and perhaps I had been expecting too much. Has anyone else out there had a supposed 'highlight' let you down?

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Skip Cafe du Monde if its busy and hit up the Saint Louis cathedral instead!