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“All-Inclusive” is a term that too often conjures images of never-ending cheap booze, buffet lines that lead off into the sunset, and hoards of drunk spring breakers. People think of Cancun, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic. Places often billed as “too dangerous” for young independent travelers, places that cater to the patent non-traveler.

Occidental Grand Papagayo

A View of the Occidental Grand Papagayo

As an independent traveler, I had always overlooked all-inclusive resorts in favor of private rentals, small hotels, scrimping and saving and always looking for the most unique accommodations for the least amount of money. I have quickly perused websites like Apple Vacations and whimsically thought about endless buffets and bar tabs, but my experience with Occidental was the first time I took the plunge.

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The Grounds at the Grand Papagayo

One of my oldest friends decided on a destination wedding, and an all-inclusive option in Costa Rica seemed like the easiest solution to the ever-growing complications of modern American weddings. The wedding itself at the Occidental Grand Papagayo was wonderfully simple: the resort took care of the setting and set up, a fitting display of tropical flowers and flowing whites and purples, an ample champagne toast, a marimba band and delicious buffet dinner near the pool. The guests enjoyed bottomless, tropically-colored drinks and excellent service during the reception and ceremony. The resort provided anything we could need for the festivities.

Ahhh, l'amore, Tico style!

The Carver-Bonomini Wedding

The hotel itself has a comfortable, open-air lobby on top of the hill above the bay that catches the ocean breezes as they drift inland. The views are stunning, and the grounds are immaculately kept. You can chill out with wildlife — iguanas, coatimundi, capuchin and howler monkeys — from anywhere on the property; we even heard reports from some in our party that they had some early morning visitors on their patios and porches. As many reviews indicate, however, the guest rooms are tired and need some updating. In the tropical heat and humidity, it can be hard to keep the mildew, soft woods and crumbling corners at bay. The Royal Club rooms are definitely nicer and provide better views of the surrounding bay, and with some of the extra perks, it’s definitely worth the extra money. But the dark bathrooms and peeling paint in the regular rooms are really only an issue if you plan to spend time in your room, and let’s be honest: why? There are patios on each room with comfortable Adirondack-style chairs, ample porch space at and around the bar and swimming pool, a beautiful, Pacific beach that’s as private as you can get in Costa Rica, and a whole slew of excursions you can take advantage of (try heading down to the beach to find Johnny D. for better deals and more personal service). With so much to do, there’s no need to spend time fretting about the little things that don’t work in your room.

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Sunset at the Beach at Grand Papagayo

This all-inclusive resort also manages to skirt the Playboy stereotype, providing a calmer, more adult atmosphere. You won’t find all-night ragers or rooms full of drunken college kids. You’re more likely to find a friendly, late-night water volleyball game than 20-somethings doing shots. There is a disco, but it’s generally quite quiet. Mostly, guests mull around the romantic lobby sipping on cocktails (slip the bartender an extra couple of bucks for better drinks), talking and playing board games.

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Dancing in the Lobby

Food at the buffets is fine; many who have stayed at all-inclusive resorts said that it was pretty on par with other hotels. Meals include ample fresh fruits — perfect for days spent outside in the sweltering heat and humidity — as well as gallo pinto, American favorites and fresh seafood. The make-your-own Bloody Marys at breakfast are worth getting up for. There are also two a la carte restuarants at the resort. L’Oriental is an Asian fusion eatery, where the dishes are extremely flavorful but not very spicy-hot. The Italian is right next door and offers typical Italian fare, a step up from the buffet. In both restaurants, the romantic ambiance in the small spaces is a nice change from the buffet and snack bar, and the service is relaxed but attentive. Many people complained about the slow pace, but we found it to be delightfully unhurried. Our drinks were quietly refilled without asking, and finished dishes were swept away immediately. The pauses between courses were, we found, the perfect times to digest, sip our wine and talk. One of the great criticisms of the resort, however, is that both restaurants require reservations — made day of — and guests can only reserve one dinner for every three or four nights stayed (though we did hear of people finagling an extra reservation).

Occidental Grand Papagayo

Iguana!

The entire resort is decidedly un-rushed, and laying around enjoying the pool or the beach or the sun or your tropical drink seems to be the order of every day. The staff is extremely friendly and concerned that you have a good time there, despite some of the resort’s other shortcomings. Throwing in a little bit of Spanish, whatever you know, helps a lot, and though some of the employees are not native Spanish speakers, some don’t speak any English at all. Some appliances, notably light fixtures and air conditioners, are old and worn and could probably use replacing, but the staff answers complaints as quickly and quietly as they can. They tend not to refill your mini-fridge, but you can always head to the bar and get some drinks to go (or order in-room dining if you’ve upgraded to the Royal Club).

Occidental Grand Papagayo

View of the Bay from one part of the Resort

If you’re looking for an uncomplicated, worry-free vacation, the Occidental Grand Papagayo — starting at $230 a night, all-inclusive — offers a great deal (check out other resorts in the area, which start at around $230 per person, per night). This might be the perfect place to get to know your friends, your partner, or yourself just a little better. Don’t expect dance parties or drama; leave the spring breakers at home. What you can find here is calmness, a retreat from loud noises and constant action, something a little slower than you’re used to.

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Cheeky Magpie-Jay

Oh, and watch out for the magpie-jays, who will happily relieve you of your nachos, mojitos, or bathing suit top, the cheeky devils.

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And the sun sets on our first day on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica…

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

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Guanacaste Sunset

Is there anything more perfect than a sunset of tangerines and yellows, a fresh tropical drink and a relaxed, Tico-style meal on the beach?

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Day 177 / 06.26.11

… what is there to say when…

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… after a day that has managed to disappoint you, even though you’re on vacation…

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… and you wander away from your campsite, fighting tears of frustration…

Stormy Sunset III

… and you hit the edge of a lake and look up

… and all you see is this…

Stormy Sunset IV

… and it just leaves you breathless?

Stormy Sunset V

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Every woman has a story, they say, of adventure and intrigue.
Independence Hall
This is the tale of one woman who had not only one such story, but she lived these stories every day.
Martini
Her favorite time of year was Mardi Gras; she wouldn’t consider it complete without at least one stabbing. It builds character, it’s part of the parade, she would say.
Outside the City Tavern
She took her drinking as seriously as she took life, enjoying every salty-sweet drop and swirling the last bits with a tangy green olive or licking the salt from the rim.
Eternal Flame
She had the best of vices: drinking, smoking, swearing, dancing, men in uniform.
Over the Bridge
And she was sincere and honest and never left anything for tomorrow knowing that for her, having no tomorrow was more real than it was to anybody else.
Outside Ben Franklin's Tomb
She never let anyone tell her what to do, and when she was told that death was imminent, she went on vacation to Italy. By herself.
Downtown Philly
Because that was who she was. She wasn’t going to let something trivial like cancer get in the way of her life. And she never did.

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This is a story of a table on the beach, a table at Zamas.
View from Our Dinner Table
There was a bottle of wine between us…
Finca La Colonia
… and a candle.
By Candlelight
And we looked out on to the beach, an ebb and a flow.
View from Dinner
This is a story of four feet in the sand, little toes making little divots, leaving little tracks.
Zamas Sunset
And we sat and we laughed and we ate…
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… and we watched the sun go down on our last night in Tulum.

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The restaurant has no walls. Palms trees and candles open up to a sand floor, an open-air bar, a series of handmade wooden tables topped with tamales and margaritas. Lights were low, to conserve electricity, casting a crimson glow on faces and through glasses of rum. There is laughter and chatter in dozens of languages in hundreds of voices that all said the same thing: we are alive. We are here. We are happy.
Salsa on the Beach
The aromas of spices and meat and hops are distilled by salt water and the smell of tropics. When a breeze picks up, it flutters light white curtains in make-believe windows and curls strands of hair around damp necks, providing welcome respite from the Caribbean heat.

The sand floor eases into an open beach, hammocks strung across palm trees and rustic chaise lounges sinking into the sand. A man in white linen reclines on a couch, stretched along side a dark woman in a luxuriously tight yellow dress. They share a bottle of wine, balancing glasses between thumbs and forefingers, sharing the secrets of a look and a touch.
Salsa on the Beach
Beyond the reach of the restaurant smells and sounds, the ocean laps at the feet of dancers, dipping and twirling to the sounds of a salsa band propped just above the sand. Staccato trumpets and slow, sultry bongos. Voices low and passionate, songs of love and lust and nights spent dancing in the Caribbean night. The moon is almost full, an undulating reflection from each wave that slipped ashore. Small toes leave small divots in the sand as revelers revive old romances and begin new ones amidst the din of the sea and the pulse of the Latin rhythms.

After a dinner of fresh, handmade pasta and mojitos at Posada Margherita, arguably one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever been to (and not just because it sits on the beach and is decorated in a distinctly southern-Italian-countryside fashion), we headed to La Zebra for their weekly Sunday night of salsa dancing on the beach as the moon rose to begin its journey across the sky.

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“Are you two newlyweds?” We were asked time and time again.
Where Our Feet Have Been
At what point did we STOP being newlywed? Frolicking in the sun and sand and sea air. Splashing around like teenagers in love, childish and no-holds-barred. It doesn’t feel possible that it’s been almost a year or that somehow somewhere we may not be “newly married” anymore…
In the Waves
Bikinis and bare skin, exposed in the sun, weeding out feelings of responsibility and normal.
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In a place where nothing is the same as what we have always known, it’s easy to remember who we are.
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It drives home the point that “newlywed” is simply a state of mind. A state of mind that, while we sip our beers and tan our skins and revel in Mexico, we have mastered.
Wyoming Pale...

After a morning in the heat and humidity of the Tulum ruins, we escaped the afternoon with cocktails and spicy-but-not-hot (though I asked) Thai food at Mezzanine, a chic hotel that specializes in lounge music, margaritas and fancy dress.

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… this could be your view:
Beach at the Tulum Ruins

Beach at the Ruins

Well, minus the honky Yankees…

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Well, unless you like honky Yankees, in which case you’re royalty, so you can have any many as you want!

At Tulum

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The description said “concrete floor,” but we never figured out who they were kidding. Our lovely little cabana #8 was right on the beach, and to call the floor anything but sand was quite the exaggeration. In fact, everything was sand. The floor, the bed linens, the bed, our clothes, our hair. It was everywhere and everything. Without real walls, it was impossible to keep it out. But we didn’t mind. We came to Tulum for the sand, and if that meant living it in… well, we were OK with that.
# 8
Arguably over-priced, Cabanas Copal has one of the best locations along the Tulum Beach strip – fairly private, very quiet, with moderately-priced Coronas for us beach-bum types. But the place is tired, exhausted even, with rusty plumbing, wiry beds, and no electricity.
Our Cabana by Night
But for those of us with an adventurous sense of romance, the candlelight was unbeatable, the sound of the sea through the non-existent walls soothing, the constant breeze through the palm-frond roof cooling, and the creak of the old pipes atmospheric.
Our Cabana by Night
Showers are unnecessary when you live on the ocean, anyway.
Another View from our Cabana
If you aren’t in a hurry and looking for some peace and quiet, check out the awesome specials from Cabanas Copal and it’s sisters Zahra and Azulik; the reduced prices make it completely worth it!
Our Cabana by Night

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On the recommendation of the lady who directed us to our bicycles, we returned to La Llorona for a night of Flamenco dancing from a local troupe. We found a table near the front, under a loft decadently decorated in the style of a Moroccan salon.  The lights were low and crimson, with the occasional car or bicycle light breaking the warmth of the ambiance. We ordered enchiladas—his with green chili and mine with mole, both flavorful and spicy—and beers and settled in.

The man in the back with the guitar, his eyes shaded with a straw Panama hat, hummed along with each strum, and the woman next to him used an old apple crate to provide the pulse of the music.
Flamenco
And they circled around, the sprightly dancers…
Flamenco
swirling skirts and stomping heels.
Flamenco
Claps of hands and flicks of wrists kept time, each passionate step outlining a sad story of longing and unfulfilled desire.
Flamenco
The dances of Flamenco tell stories of yearning and love and adventure and tragedy,
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each step made with absolute precision
Flamenco
each sensual movement an expression of duende…
Flamenco
soul.

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