Sunday, January 27, 2013

Riviera Maya, Mexico (Sightseeing)

El Castillo at Chichen Itza.

We traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico in November 2012 for our destination wedding. Additionally, I traveled previously to Tulum, Mexico in December 2009 with friends. Over the course of my two visits, I have seen the following sights/participated in the following tours, which will be described in detail below:

Chichen Itza:
One of the most widely recognized and heavily visited archaeological sites in the world, the Mayan ruins of this World Heritage site, are famous for both their size and scope. The site includes numerous temples, alters, palaces, as well as the largest-known ball court in the Maya world. If you come to any part of the Rivera Maya and choose to do only one tour, make sure it's one that includes a visit to this amazing site.

On my first visit to Chichen Itza, I toured it on my own with my two friends. Although I found the ruins interesting, I felt at the time that it would have been even more interesting if we had a guided tour. As a result, for my next visit during the week of our destination wedding, we hired a company called Mayans' Explorers to take our group of 23 friends and family out to the ruins for a guided tour. Our tour guide, Gudelio and his assistant did an amazing job with such a huge group of people. He provided commentary and a history lesson on the Rivera Maya from our departure in Playa del Carmen along the several hour drive to Chichen Itza. Visiting the ruins with the in-depth knowledge that Gudelio provided made my second visit so much more interesting than my first one was. I would, without a doubt, recommend this tour company. In addition to taking us to Chichen Itza, they also took us to Ek Balam and a nearby cenote.

There are dozens of different ruins and things to see at Chichen Itza, which would take days to thoroughly see. I spent about three hours at the ruins during both of my visits and was able to see the main highlights including El Castillo (the famous temple), the Great Ball Court, Tzompantli (Wall of Skulls), the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars, the Sacred Cenote, the Platform of Venus, Temple of Warriors, the Group of a Thousand Columns, the Osario (Ossuary), and the El Caracol (the Observatory). After my two rushed visits, I would recommend putting aside four to five hours if you want to see nearly everything but still allow plenty enough time for breaks and a snack. Chichen Itza is incredibly spread out and you will be doing a lot of walking on your visit.

While at Chichen Itza, you will be bombarded with literally hundreds of vendors selling different items at tables spread throughout the site. Some of these items are tacky and cheap but there are a few diamonds in the rough including vendors that sell beautiful wood carvings or silver jewelry.

Be forewarned that it's very hot at Chichen Itza. Even though it was partly overcast out on my second visit the temperature was still in the 90s. Make sure to come prepared with lots of sunscreen and fluids. Unfortunately, my dad didn't follow my advice and got heat stroke while at the ruins, essentially ruining the rest of his day.
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Lower Temple of the Jaguar at the Great Ball Court with El Castillo in the background at Chichen Itza.

The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza. 
Temple of the Bearded Man at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza.
Temple of the Bearded Man at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tulum, Mexico (Lodging)

I spent six days visiting Tulum, Mexico in December of 2009 with two friends.

I selected Tulum as our base of operations for our time on the Rivera Maya for a few reasons: I was not interested in staying at one of the mega resorts in Cancun or Playa del Carmen and wanted a more small-town authentic Mexican feel. Although Playa del Carmen has plenty of smaller boutique-type hotels in its downtown area, it is overly touristy and not what I envisioned for this vacation. Additionally, I had heard amazing things about the beaches of Tulum, so I decided it would be our best choice.

Tulum, located about 90 minutes south of Cancun, has a much smaller choice of accommodations when compared to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Ideally, I would have preferred to have stayed in a small hotel directly on the beach but those were out of our price range. As a result, I decided to look at places within the town of Tulum. The best value for our money appeared to be Posada Luna del Sur, which also happened to be the highest rated place to stay in Tulum on Trip Advisor.

This small and intimate hotel is located in downtown Tulum close to many restaurants. The hotel includes breakfast each morning atop its beautiful rooftop lounge.

The rooms were clean, simple, and comfortable and the staff were kind, friendly, patient, and very informative. Really, what's not to like? This is definitely one of the most favorite places I've stayed at while traveling. Unless you are dead-set on having luxurious accommodations on a beachfront view while in Tulum, this is the place you should stay at!
Posada Luna del Sur in Tulum, Mexico
The sitting area of my room at Posada Luna del Sur in Tulum, Mexico.
Rooftop lounge at Posada Luna del Sur in Tulum, Mexico.
Rooftop lounge at Posada Luna del Sur in Tulum, Mexico.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Playa del Carmen, Mexico (Lodging)

The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

We traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico for ten days in November 2012 for our destination wedding. We were fortunate enough to have 40 of our closest friends and family members join us on our special day. I will have a separate blog entry that will discuss our wedding and will also have another entry that will highlight all of the sights we visited and tours we participated in while in the Riviera Maya.

There are numerous types of lodging accommodations for visitors to pick from in and around Playa del Carmen. This includes dozens of all-inclusive resorts, hotels, motels, home and condo rentals, and small boutique hotels, just to name a few. While I tend to prefer to stay in vacation rentals or small hotels, since we were traveling with such a large group for our wedding we had to find a place that was big enough to accommodate everyone. Additionally, we knew many of our guests would appreciate the amenities that an all-inclusive resort would offer (all food and alcoholic beverages included, room service, pool, beach, non-motorized water sports, etc). We wanted to find the best overall value and quality that money could get for our guests in Playa del Carmen. We had a budget in our mindset of $2500-$3000 for a week long-stay per couple, hotel and airfare combined from Seattle. We ended up selecting Riu Palace Riviera Maya for a variety of reasons:
  • Shyawn had stayed at a Riu resort several years prior and was familiar and comfortable with the brand
  • The beach was incredibly gorgeous with numerous palm trees lining the beach
  • The pool area and grounds were beautiful
  • It was the nicest of all of the five Riu properties in Playa del Carmen
  • It had a picturesque set-up for wedding ceremonies (gazebo overlooking the beach)
  • It fit within our budget set above
  • And finally, it had very good reviews on Trip Advisor (over 2000 reviews averaging 4.5 stars)
Based on all of this information, we felt it was the best fit and best overall pick for our large group. The hotel has 400 guests rooms and is located in the Playacar neighborhood of Playa del Carmen, which is a 15-20 minute walking distance (or a five minute cab ride) to Playa del Carmen's famous Fifth Avenue. Our guests appreciated this location and nearly everyone ended up visiting Fifth Avenue since it was so close and convenient. 

I will divide the rest of this review into the following sections:
  • Check-in process/front desk 
  • The beach
  • The grounds and pool
  • The interior 
  • Hotel room
  • Restaurants

Check-in process/front desk:
Shyawn and I were the first ones to arrive at the resort of our group. Upon arrival, I was slightly disappointed with the hotel's exterior appearance from the entrance, especially when compared to the massive and extravagant hotels and resorts we had seen along our drive from the airport in Cancun down to Playa del Carmen. However, I am pretty picky about these sort of things so I let it go in stride.

The check-in process went fairly smooth. We arrived around noon, feeling very tired after our overnight flight. Unfortunately the room wasn't ready and when we inquired about an upgrade to a nicer room (our wedding package included an upgraded room, if one was available) we were told there was none available. We hoped that we would at least have a room facing the courtyard, which was more preferred from what I had read on Trip Advisor. Once we actually got to check into our room we discovered that we did not have a room facing the courtyard. Instead, it faced a garden and another hotel which actually ended up being okay for us. Unfortunately, the room had two double beds pushed together which was disappointing. Of course, I would have preferred one king bed but I didn't want to make a fuss. Later throughout the trip, I learned that several of our friends and family members got rooms overlooking the courtyard and/or rooms with a king bed. I suppose if I had complained to the front desk they would have changed our room but I didn't want to deal with the hassle of moving all of our luggage and items, so we stayed put. 

Because we got married at the resort, we dealt with the front desk staff more times than I can count over the course of our stay. Overall, I would say that they did a very good job of handling our guests. However, I was slightly disappointed when each day I would leave the out of town gift bags for our guests at the front desk, informing the staff of the name of the guests (which were written on the tag on the front of the bag) and yet only two couples actually received their bags upon check in.

The Beach:
Hands down, the beach is the shining star of this resort. The beach is wide and expansive, with the softest white sand and most beautiful turquoise colored water. Each time our friends and family arrived at the resort, we would take them down to the beach and everyone was mesmerized and blown away by its beauty. Nearly all of us hailed from the Pacific Northwest where white soft sand just doesn't exist. The resort has hundreds of loungers placed all along their portion of the beach and there are servers that will come to wherever you are on the beach to take drink orders. Additionally, the resort offers free rentals of non-motorized water sports (i.e. kayaks) that a few of our guests took advantage of. The waves here are minor, at least compared to the waves we are used to in the PNW which made swimming very easy and manageable. If the beach is the most important part of your vacation, then I would highly recommend the Riu Palace Riviera Maya simply for that reason alone.

Be forewarned: I took hundreds of photos of the beach and had a difficult time narrowing it down to the many you will see below.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Shyawn walking along the beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The beach at Riu Palace Riviera Maya in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Washington DC (Dining)

We ate at the following restaurants over the course of our week-long stay in Washington DC during September 2012, which will be detailed below:

  • Marcels
  • Obelisk
  • Rasika
  • Zaytina
  • Old Ebbitt Grill
  • Fogo de Chao
  • BRABO Tasting Room
  • Tabard Inn
  • Busboys and Poets
  • Sprinkles Cupcakes
  • Baked and Wired
  • Fast Gourmet
  • Ben's Chili Bowl
  • Paul Maison
  • Le Pain Quotidien
  • Food Section at the Newseum
  • Mitsitam Cafe

Washington DC has a plethora of French restaurants to choose from, many of which are highly rated including Marcel's, Michel Richard Citronelle, Bistrot du Coin, and Brasserie Beck, just to name a few. Since we didn't want to have a repeat of the same cuisine during our trip, I had to pick just one. Out of all of the restaurant's menus I perused, Marcel's intrigued and interested me the most. Additionally, it was the highest rated French restaurant on Yelp at the time of our visit so I figured it would be a good choice.

Marcel's offers their guests an a la carte menu as well as a 4, 5, 6, or 7 course tasting menu. If your reservation occurs prior to 6:30 you'll be able to take advantage of the 4 course tasting menu for a slightly discounted price.

Be aware that Marcel's is a fancy place; a jacket is required for men. It would be the perfect place to go for a very special occasion or simply a wonderful choice for those looking for superb and high quality French food.

Shyawn and I selected the 4 course tasting menu, each picking a different dish from each of the selected courses. Prior to our dishes arriving, however, we were brought out an amuse bouche. Unfortunately, I did not write down the name of the amuse bouche but was it was delicious and refreshing.
Amuse bouche at Marcel's.

We were also served various types of incredibly delicious bread throughout the meal along with a trio of butter spreads.
Trio of butter spreads at Marcel's.
Amazing bread at Marcel's.

For our first course, Shyawn selected the Filet of Rainbow Trout, Baby Spinach, Yukon Gold Potato Puree, Lemon Caper Butter while I went with the Pan Seared Diver Scallop, Braised Pork Belly, Sweet Corn and Scallion Beurre Blanc. The potato puree from Shyawn's dish was absolutely incredible; it was one of the highlights of the entire meal for me. My scallops were quite tasty and much to my surprise the sweet corn and scallion beurre blanc complimented the scallops wonderfully.
Filet of Rainbow Trout at Marcel's.
Pan Seared Diver Scallops at Marcel's.
Pan Seared Diver Scallops at Marcel's.

For our next course Shyawn ordered the Hawaiian "Onaga" Snapper, Spring Onion and Snap Pea Risotto, Ginger Seasame Pea Tendrils while I went with the Icelandic Cod, Hearts of Palm, Summer Squash, Garlic Potato Puree, Osetra Caviar Beurre Blanc. Both dishes were incredible and by this point of the meal I knew I had made a wise decision by dining at Marcel's.
Hawaiian "Onaga" Snapper at Marcel's.
Icelandic Cod at Marcel's.

For our third course Shyawn's choice was the Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads, Fricasse of Maiitake, Anaheim Chili, Red Onion while I went the traditional route and went with Marcel's Classic Boudin Blanc, Celery Root Puree, Pearl Onions, Truffle Maidera Sauce. I had never tried sweetbreads before, and certainly not veal ones, but I was quite surprised with how delicious his dish was. The boudin blanc was good, but probably what I would consider the weakest/least memorable dish of dinner. It wasn't bad, just not outstanding.
Sauteed Veal Sweetbreads at Marcel's.
Classic Boudin Blanc at Marcel's.

And finally, for our fourth course Shyawn selected the Martin's Ranch Angus Beef Tenderloin, Wild Mushrooms, Potato Puree with Truffle Essence, Red Wine Sauce. I chose the Braised Beef Short Rib, Baby Carrot, Sunburst Squash, Red Wine Sauce. Shyawn's potato puree was once again, absolutely amazing. My short rib was incredibly moist and delicious, literally falling apart with just a soft prodding from my fork. I felt that the dish could have been even more strong had it been served with a starch to soak up the delicious sauce that accompanied it instead of the vegetables.
Martin's Ranch Angus Beef Tenderloin at Marcel's.
Braised Beef Short Rib at Marcel's.
Braised Beef Short Rib at Marcel's.

Lastly, after our four course were served we were brought out a small assortment of dessert goodies which we were nearly too full to finish. I have no idea how some people go for all seven courses!
Assortment of dessert goodies at Marcel's.
Assortment of dessert goodies at Marcel's.

Overall, we had an absolutely incredible meal at Marcel's. It was definitely the dining highlight of our week long stay in Washington DC and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone, especially to my fellow French-loving foodies!

While in Washington DC I wanted to make sure that we ate at least one really great Italian place. There were many places to choose from, but I ultimately ended up choosing Obelisk (located in Dupont Circle) based on its favorable Yelp reviews and also the fact that it was rated one of Washington DC's 100 very best restaurants by the Washingtonian.

Upon our arrival, we were both quite surprised to see how small and intimate the restaurant was. The restaurant was also dimly lit, making it quite difficult to take quality photographs of the dishes. Additionally, we found it a little odd that it was so quiet inside the space; there wasn't even soft music playing so it felt a bit awkward.

The handwritten menu changes daily and includes four courses for $75. However, in addition to the four courses there were various appetizers that were brought out prior, making the $75 price tag quite a good value. Be forewarned that the restaurant does not have a website and since the menu changes daily, you'll have to go in with an open mind. However, based on our experience and the many reviews we have read, you will leave full and happy!
Interior of Obelisk.

Immediately after sitting down, we were brought a small container of delicious olives to munch on.
Olives from Obelisk.

For drinks, Shyawn ordered an Italian beer called Morgana and I went with one of their cocktails called Trentino (vodka, moscato rosa, campari and lime). Shyawn said he enjoyed the beer very much and my cocktail was extremely good.
Morgana beer from Obelisk.
Trentino cocktail from Obelisk.

Next they brought us a bowl of assorted types of bread, all of which were very good.
Bread bowl at Obelisk.

After ordering our selections from the menu, the staff brought us an assortment of appetizers (antipasti) which are included with the tasting menu. My hands-down favorite of the five items was the buratta with salt, pepper, and olive oil. I had never tried buratta before, which is an Italian cheese whose outer shell is mozzarella while the inside contains a mixture of mozzarella and cream. This cheese was crazy good. I cannot describe in words how incredibly delicious it was. Like it was one of the top ten things I have ever eaten in my life good. I just kept repeating OMG OMG out loud in the restaurant. I made sure to scrape up every last speck of the creamy cheese and olive oil on this plate. Based on the number of times the buratta cheese was mentioned in the Yelp reviews, it seems as though this is one of the restaurants standard appetizers. Do NOT miss this decadent dish!
Buratta with salt, pepper and olive oil at Obelisk.

The second appetizer, tomato gelee was also excellent and paired wonderfully with the buratta cheese. I am not normally a huge fan of tomatoes but this dish was surprisingly delicious.
Tomato gelee from Obelisk.

We were also brought out two small deep fried risotto balls, which were tasty.
Risotto balls from Obelisk.

Unfortunately I don't recall the details of the fourth appetizer. I believe it might have been duck, but I just can't tell you for certain and unfortunately the appetizers were not listed within the menu. Either way, this dish wasn't a huge standout, but it wasn't bad either.

Our final appetizer was some sort of tuna with greens that were placed over a bed of delicious olive oil. This dish was also strong but by this point I was quite worried as we had already been brought five dishes and hadn't even started on our main menu dishes yet and I was beginning to feel full!
Tuna with greens and olive oil at Obelisk.

For our first main course (primi) Shyawn selected the Salt Cod Ravioli with Clams and I chose the Gnocchi with Pesto. Both dishes were very delicious.
Salt Cod Ravioli with Clams at Obelisk.
Gnocchi with Pesto at Obelisk.

For our second (secondi) course, Shyawn chose the Braised Duck Leg with Spinach and Farro while I went with the Pork Chop with Filet Green Beans, Pine Nuts, and Guanciale. My pork chop was incredibly moist with great flavor but the portion size was huge. I couldn't even eat half of it.
Braised Duck Leg with Spinach and Farro at Obelisk.
Pork Chop with Filet Beans, Pine Nuts, and Guanciale at Obelisk.

We were also brought out a cheese plate (Sorrano, Raschera, and Rocchetta with a Roasted Fig). Unfortunately, I wasn't able to eat much of the delicious as I was quite full by this point.
Cheese plate from Obelisk.

For dessert, we chose the Cantaloupe Tart with Buttermilk Ice Cream and the Hazelnut Cake with Caramel Whipped Cream and Peach. Of the two dishes, we preferred the Cantaloupe Tart, as the Hazelnut Cake was a bit dry and quite sweet, especially when paired with the Caramel Whipped Cream and Peach.
Cantaloupe Tart with Buttermilk Ice Cream at Obelisk. 
Hazelnut Cake with Caramel Whipped Cream and Peach.

And finally, we were brought an assortment of small sweets which we took just tiny nibbles of even though there were all very good.
Assortment of Small Sweets at Obelisk.

Overall, we were very pleased with our experience at Obelisk. I would return again in a heartbeat just for the buratta cheese alone: yes, it was THAT good. Next time I will remember to enter Obelisk with a completely empty stomach so that I can ensure I have enough room for the many dishes that will be served.

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