Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Years in Playa del Carmen

Our families couldn’t understand why we booked a “sun” trip to Mexico when there’s plenty of sunshine in California, so my father asked. Truth is, we used United miles for our air tickets and it was fairly affordable to add Cancun into the itinerary, so we thought why not as we’ve always wanted to visit the Mayan Riviera, plus we needed a proper beach holiday.

We spent the first few days relaxing on the stunning, if busy, beaches of Playa del Carmen; strolling up and down the pedestrianized 5th Avenue; and eating our weight in guacamole and fresh fish cerviche.  After ringing in the new year on the beach with a live concert by DJ Armin Van Burren, we were eager to go diving around the famous Mesoamerican coral reef.

We booked a 3 day package with Scuba Playa (Calle 10, between 1st and 5th Avenue) which included  2 dives around Playa; 2 dives in Cozumel (excluding ferry tickets); and 2 cenote dives. We had perfect diving conditions in Playa, but we were unlucky with the weather enroute to Cozumel, making the boat ride out to the island a very unpleasant one. I wouldn’t recommend staying in Cozumel unless you are a diving enthusiast. I thought the island was drab and lacking the cool vibe of Playa del Carmen. That said however, we did see a few nurse sharks swimming around and that was quite cool!

Cenote diving (natural sinkholes found on the Yucatan) however is very different, and is not for the faint-hearted as you’re basically underground following a circular path with a flashlight. There was one point when the fresh and salt water mixed together making the water blurry, quite scary! It definitely wasn’t my cup of tea. Interesting enough to see the natural limestone formation, but we prefer tropical reef diving of no more than 18 metres.  We wanted to do another day of diving around Playa but the weather wouldn’t cut us a break as the Yucatan got the tail-end of the Polar Vortex storm.

 We did manage to visit ChichenItza, the magnificent Mayan pyramid built in in the pre-Colombian era, as a day trip which was about 2.5 hour drive on a lonesome Mexican highway. The city itself was larger than expected covering at least 5 square kilometres, and the monuments itself were incredibly well-preserved. It’s very possible to spend the entire day at Chichenitza but do bring a hat and plenty of water as it can be sweltering hot. Visiting the last of the seven wonders of the world have been high on our list for some time, and glad we finally made a trip to see it, despite having a flat tire on our way back.

Thanks to United, which we vowed never to fly with them again, our outbound flight to Newark was cancelled because of the “weather.” I don’t think so, because there were multiple flights flying to Newark and JFK, including other United flights! After arguing with the United counter for over two hours, the earliest flight we could get on was three days later. Yes I know there could be worst places to get stuck, but for next few days in Mexico, it was wet, rainy, and cold. So much for a sun vacation eh? Should have listened to my father and stayed in California… At least we had two seasons of Sons of Anarchy to remind us of sunny California and  keep us entertained whilst being stuck in rainy Mexico.

A few of my favorite restaurants in Playa del Carmen:
  • Restaurant Il Baretto - 5th & 26th -- Italian food and pizza
  • Aguas Chiles -- 5th & Constituyenes and 1st -- low-key restaurant specialising in cerviche and all things seafood. Local favourite.
  • El Fogon -- 30th & Constituyenes -- taqueria style Mexican specialising in grills and meats. Local favourite -- a bit of walk.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Home for the Holidays

There’s no place like home for the holidays. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 2.5 years since we last visited California in July 2011. Naturally we had a busy agenda given the holiday season, dividing our time equally between San Francisco and our hometowns of Tracy and Sacramento. My sister, BiL, and 18 month old niece also flew in from Hong Kong so we had ourselves a  family Christmas at our parents’ new house in Elk Grove. 

If you can believe, it’s been over five years since my family have been under the same roof; the last time was when Keenan and I got married in 2008. It’s the downside of having two daughters living abroad, but it’s also a good excuse to get together in different parts of the world, be it California, Europe, or Asia.

We made the most of our 12 day trip --  spending time with our extended family; squeezing in coffee/lunch/happy hour/dinner dates with friends; drinking amazing Californian wines and craft beers; and enjoying all the natural beauty the San Francisco Bay has to offer. It was also unseasonably warm in northern California with plenty of sunny blue skies that we found ourselves wearing shorts and T-shirt in the middle of December. The perks of Californian living!

The food and restaurants in San Francisco is among the best in the world. Although we didn’t make it to the latest “it” restaurants, we visited some old haunts and neighbourhood gems, including the beloved Pizzaiolo Restaurant in up-and-coming Temescal in Oakland; Lers Ros Thai in TenderNob for some authentic Thai Food; Universal CafĂ© in the Mission; and Barbacco, a buzzy Italian restaurant in the Financial District, all in the company of great friends.

Back in the good ol’ suburbia, we made frequent trips to Trader Joes and Target (oh, how I miss you both) and celebrated Keenan’s birthday with an extended family dinner at a local Indian restaurant.

It was a great trip home, a much needed trip to keep our wanderlust souls grounded. We  feel truly blessed to call London and the San Francisco Bay area home, both places are special in their own ways.  After living in London for half a decade, we’re starting to miss California and ponder whether a move back Stateside is in the cards in the next 3 to 5 years? We’ll see…