Tag Archives: Caribbean Sea

An All-Inclusive Week At Cancun’s El Dorado Royal

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Day 1: Every time I land in another country, something feels different.  I had this feeling when I first landed at the airport in Cancun, despite the fact that much of my surroundings were remarkably similar to what I experience at home.  As is the case at many U.S. airports, the airport signs are written in both English and Spanish, with the English words on top.  Even the mix of people didn’t feel too terribly different from many places around Colorado where I live. It was the little differences I observed; some different looking buildings, speed limits in kilometers per hour, and the driver of the van that took us to the resort from the airport trying to sell us Coronas (or Mexican water, as he said) that made me feel as if I had actually traveled to a place that is different than the place where I live and the places where I spend most of my time.

We arrived at the resort in the middle of the afternoon.  A resort this size takes a little bit of time to become acquainted with, as it has multiple sections, with different types of travelers having different types of experiences, a whole bunch of pools, and a ton of restaurants.  One of the great things about being at an all inclusive resort is the fact that, once guests arrive at the resort, everything, particularly food and drink, is taken care of.  This is good because I arrived hungry.  It would be the last time I would really experience hunger for the duration of the week.

Day 2: Like most Americans, a majority of my travel involves an itinerary of some sorts.  This makes the transition from what is referred to as the “real world” to the world of that particular voyage seamless.  The normal day-to-day concerns, work, schedules, responsibilities, etc. are replaced by the schedule- the itinerary of the trip.  Today I have meetings at 9,10, and 11, and a document that needs to be finalized by the end of the day transitions smoothly to tonight we are staying at this hotel, they have a continental breakfast, than we’re gonna get to this attraction by 10:30-ish.

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On this vacation, there was no itinerary; at least not at first.  There was just enjoying the weather, enjoying the beach, the pool, the activities, and a week off of not just work but many other sources of stress, such as chores, social situations, etc.  This often leads to a gradual process of letting go.  Over the course of roughly 36 hours these concerns gradually slip out of the mind, to be replaced, miraculously, with nothing!  I bet there are some people that do not even know what that feels like anymore.

Day 3: I decided I wanted to go the full day without taking any pictures.  Now that the process of disconnecting from the “real world” was complete, it was a good time to live in the moment, and, not think about anything else, not even what I would write in this blog!  It was on this day that two of the things that typically happen during longer resort trips happened.

First, I actually started to settle into a quazi-routine. El Dorado Royale offers a lot of activities, activities I more or less took advantage of.  At 8 A.M., there was yoga on the pier.  9 A.M. Spanish lessons.  11:00 volleyball.  12:00 Aqua-aerobics.

Since guests do not need to cary around money, ID, and such at an all-inclusive resort, these resorts can offer amenities such as swim up bars.  We found ourselves, after the noon Aqua-aerobics, swimming up to the bar to have some drinks in the pool.  And since I was typically eating breakfast a bit later (10 A.M.), an hour or so of drinks would then be followed by lunch, and then the day’s afternoon activities, which varied a bit more day-to-day.

Day 3 was also when I began to make vacation friends; other tourists who had also managed to disconnect from their “real world” concerns, and had been drinking and enjoying themselves in the pool.

The resort has a lot of great restaurants, but their signature restaurant is one called Fuentes. This restaurant is a dinner show, with a famous chef that demonstrates how each course is cooked while serving the food.  The dinner and cooking demonstration lasted two and a half hours.  Each course featured food from a different region of Mexico.  It was not just a meal, but also lessons about both geography and cooking technique.

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Every evening at El Dorado Royale, there is a show.  It typically starts at around 9:45 and lasts about an hour.  This is followed by dancing.  I found the meal/cooking demonstration exhausting!  I ended up electing to skip the dancing, calling it a night earlier than I typically do.

Day 4: A strange thing started happening on the fourth day.  Each day, I got drunker than the last.  On this day, after noon Aqua-aerobics, I took multiple shots at the swim up bar, and then took part in tequila tasting.  Yet, my hangovers were not getting any worse.  In fact, they were getting easier.  It was like I was hitting some sort of groove, which also involved the consumption of alcohol.

Also, having taken advantage of the 9:00 Spanish lessons, and through some conversation with the resort’s staff, whose company I truly enjoyed this week, I was suddenly getting back into the groove speaking Spanish.  Those that do not know Spanish could easily get by at this resort, as nearly all of the staff speaks English.  But, the lessons ended up being a great opportunity to speak Spanish with some native speakers and recover some lost knowledge.  By the end of the 4th day, I was instinctively starting to blurt out phrases such as “querimos jugar al volleyball por la playa ayer, per due demaciado ventido”.

Day 5: This day began to feel like the apex of the trip.  By the middle of the day I had made a good number of vacation friends, I was given two different nicknames by the other guests at the resort; “Denver” after where I am from (as it is hard to remember a lot of names), and “Maya Riviera”, after a rainbow colored drink that the resort offers.  It is a very sweet beverage, but I still managed to drink a ton of them.  In fact, one of my favorite things to do was to bring this drink under this fountain in the center of the pool, and drink it feeling as if I could not be doing anything more tropical at that particular moment.

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I also got accustomed to some of the other specifics about taking this kind of worry free vacation.  One which tragically took too long for me to adjust to is the proper application of sun screen.  Unfortunately, I got quite burnt over the course of this trip.

The other is something I wish I could do more of in normal daily life.  In most situations, when eating at restaurants, it is most cost effective to order one item.  Without such concern, most meals involved multiple items of food.  Additionally, the portion sizes at El Dorado Royale are such that it is typically possible to eat 4 or 5 course meals.  The resort has two Italian restaurants.  Traditional Italian meals involve an antipasto (appetizer), a soup, a primo (first, which usually involves pasta or risotto), and a secondi (second, usually a pice of meat of some kind).  Here, there was absolutely no reason not to order one of each.

At the end of the evening, though, I got slowed down again, this time by heart burn.  Apparently, there is a limit, as well, it had been quite some time since I had drank five days in a row, and I do not plan on becoming a “functioning alcoholic”.

Day 6: The previous early night made it easy to wake up in time to watch the sun rise over the ocean.  As someone who lives in a land locked city, this is something I try to do, if possible (last time it wasn’t), any time I am on the East Coast.

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The early start changed my routine up a little, but this turned out to be another fabulous day of activities, both in the pool and by the beach (beach volleyball).  I even amazed myself with my confidence levels.  Mexico has a warm place in my heart for this reason.  When I was younger, I had a very poor self image, and low confidence levels.  Then I got a part time job working at a restaurant, where most of the staff was (still is) Mexican.  I achieved my first real boost in confidence at the age of 16 when I was welcomed and appreciated by that community.  I thought about that experience, as once again in Mexico, I was feeling welcomed and appreciated, by the other guests as well as the resort’s staff.

But, I knew the “real world” would find a way to make a comeback.  At the start of this trip, I made a conscious decision to take a true holiday and stay away from reading about, taking about, or thinking about two things; work and current events.  Those were the two things that had been most likely to cause me angst over the past few months, and my mind needed a holiday from that way more than my body needed any kind of rest.  However, I did start to become curious when I saw a newspaper that reported that the president-elect had selected a treasury secretary.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant, even though I was wanting to not think at all about that stuff.

It’s also all but inevitable that something will happen over the course of a trip like this that will trigger a concern from “normal life”.  After all, these concerns do not go away, they are just temporarily out of one’s thoughts, and if something triggers it, the mind will come to the realization that there’s concerns will have to be addressed upon return.  This is more likely to happen to closer one gets to the end of their vacation.  Luckily for me, this was just a brief moment in a week that otherwise felt amazing!

Day 7: Sometimes it can be a real challenge to enjoy the last day of a trip.  Everything I am doing, I have been enjoying all week, and know it is the last time.  We all know it’s best not to think about this, but, it is inevitable. It ended up being the perfect day for a side excursion.

El Dorado Royale offers a lot of side excursions, for an extra charge. These include activities as simple as jet skiing to the more involved (and more expensive) voyage to the Mayan Ruins.  This is what is not part of the all-inclusive aspect of the resort.  It doesn’t cost any extra money to play volleyball, go to the batting cages, or take part in one of the many other activities, but it does cost for excursions like deep sea fishing, or swimming with the dolphins.

It’s possible to have a great week without doing any of these extra cash, but we finally decided to go parasailing, on the last day, which is one of the quickest excursions available.  With this excursion, we kind of got a two-for-one, as it both started and ended with a short ride on a jet ski to get to the boat.

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The activity ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.  It is surprisingly easy.  Some would see how high in the air para sailors gets done be intimidated by the activity.  I honestly expected to have to use a bit more energy holding on to the rope that attaches me to the sail.  But, it is actually quite safe, and is possible to let go of the ropes and just enjoy the ride.  It was a particularly spectacular view of the coast from several hundred feet in the air.

Due to the sunburn and travel, my body is exhausted.  My mind is neither exhausted nor refreshed.  But, my spirit is refreshed in a way it has not felt in quite some time.  The question now is, how to bring that spirit with me back home and keep it as long as I can.

Saint John; Virgin Islands

Saint John Island is one of the most remote places within the United States.  A part of the United States Virgin Islands territory, it’s year-round population is a meager 4200 people.  It can only be accessed via ferry or boat.  For mainlanders, Saint John can be accessed by a 20 minute ferry ride, after a half hour cab ride from the airport on nearby Saint Thomas.  The flying time to Saint Thomas is listed as roughly three hours from the nearest major airport in the mainland; Miami, Florida.  Therefore, the minimum travel time for any mainlander is four hours.  For most, the journey is much longer.

I spent my time on Saint John primarily in two places; Cruz Bay, which is the main population center on the island, and Caneel Bay, a resort about ten minutes farther up the coast of the island.

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Cruz Bay is where the ferry from Saint Thomas first arrives.  It is the first place any visitor to this island sees.  It is Saint John’s front door, it’s first impression.  And it doesn’t disappoint.  The ocean here is as stunning and picturesque as anywhere I could possibly imagine.  In fact, even at some of the best kept lakes in the United States, I have never seen water this magically blue.

Upon arrival to Cruz Bay on the ferry, one immediately sees a plethora of tourist accommodations.  To the left is the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center.  In front are the beaches, boats and restaurants.

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A tourist that walks up the road straight in front of them (road names are not obvious here) will encounter a road lined with bars and restaurants that obviously cater to those not from the Islands.  Walking along this street in the evening, rather than traditional Caribbean music, one will hear the likes of Jimmy Buffet, modern American pop, and a surprising amount of Country-Western music.  And, a vast majority of the proprietors and patrons of any of these restaurants are obviously tourists or those who moved here from the mainland to work tourism related jobs.

Most of the residents of this island are black (or Afro-Caribbean).  Although this did not really surprise me, I still wonder how this came to be, as I had never really been taught about the history of the Caribbean Islands beyond the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent voyages to the “New World” that the news of this voyage inspired.

However, when I look around me, and take a couple of trips to less touristy parts of the Island, where one can see a better representation of how those native to Saint John live, I can’t help but have the present rather than the past on my mind.

How do the lives of those that live here year round differ from our own?

How do they feel about being a part of the United States?  And, more specifically, how do they feel about their status as a U.S. territory (and not a state)?  We commonly hear about issues regarding Puerto Rico’s similar status, and the razor thin margin between those who support and those who oppose statehood.  But, we never really hear much about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ status and how it impacts the people here.

Most importantly, how do they feel about us, and our presence here?  Do they debate the economic impact of tourism vs. the cultural disruption that it causes?  Do they ponder the fact that within the mainland part of the U.S., we have places like Catalina, Key West and South Padre, places where many of us could theoretically get a similar experience without invading their island?

Ultimately, are they fighting for their identities, their culture, or are they enjoying the economic benefit of our presence, as well as their association with the United States of America?   When we think of the Caribbean, we often think of pop icons, including Bob Marley, but also more recent pop icons from the region, such as Daddy Yankee and Sean Kingston.  The music produced by these artists take us to the pristine tropical oceans of the Caribbean, if nowhere else but in our minds.

However, it is these pop icons that appear to represent the dichotomy of the possible responses that seem plausible given the current situation of those that live in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Marley, from his lyrics, considered himself part of a struggle for the culture and identity of himself and his people.  But modern pop stars like Kingston appear to be simply enjoying the economic benefit of their stardom, much of which comes from the U.S. and the western world that Marley rallies against.

Although there is a lot more to any one person’s life that what we witness through the media, Kingston and Co. do appear to be thoroughly enjoying their lives.

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After multiple nights of partying, I lay exhausted on Scott Beach, the finest beach on Caneel Bay resort.  I watch the boaters and snorkelers go by.  Some even tell me that it was here, in the clear waters of the Caribbean, that they had one of the best snorkeling experiences of their lives.  They did so by being willing to visit a place a little bit out of the way, a place where the people, the culture, and the way of life are different than their own.

That is when it occurred to me that the world is full of people who are different from me.  The world is full of people who look different, act different, have different customs, beliefs, values, and different ways of understanding the world.  We can either learn to live with different types of people, and try to relate to them as best as we can, or we can accept the limitations that go along with confining ourselves to people with sufficient similarities to ourselves.

In practice, we all implore somewhat of a combination of the two strategies; accepting some differences but trying to stay away from others.  However, there are some that believe that in an increasingly connected world, the future belongs to those that can bridge the gap between different cultures.  I am not sure if I inherently believe that the ability to bridge cultural gaps is a prerequisite for success in the 21st Century, as many people have built fortunes designing products that largely cater to one segment of society.  However, when I watch people enjoy Saint John Island, and watch videos by Kingston and other similar artists, I see firsthand the benefits of being able to relate to those with different backgrounds and ways than my own.

Sort of Leaving the Country

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I never had any specific plans to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.  I had always been aware of their existence, and their Puerto Rico like murky status as part of the United States.  And, every time I saw images like this one, showing the magnificently clear water of the Caribbean, the plethora of activities that are available, and the obviously phenomenal weather, it had always seemed like a magnificent place to go.  However, for some reason, I just never made any specific plans to make a trip here.  Maybe it was the knowledge that it would be a fairly expensive trip that kept me away.  But, more likely, it was the plethora of other pursuits, other destinations, and other activities that are constantly circulating around my head.

This is why, when it comes to travel as well as general life activities, it is sometimes best to follow the lead of others.  If I were to only take part in the activities that I had personally selected to be a part of, and only gone to the places I had decided on my own I wished to go, I would have missed out on hundreds of great experiences over the past couple of decades.  I would never have learned activities like water skiing, or camping.  I would have never discovered some of my favorite foods, like chicken wings, or Thai food.  And, I would have never attended some interesting events, like rodeos, plays, and some interesting comedy shows.  I would essentially be a completely different person than who I am today.

Following the lead of others, I was brought to the Virgin Islands to attend a destination wedding.  After nearly an entire day of travel, I arrived at a destination that is not quite American, yet not quite foreign.

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The U.S. Virgin Islands is considered a part of the United States.  All of the signs read in English.  There is no talk of any foreign currency.  And, more than half of St. John Island is a part of a U.S. National Park.  Yet, there are some major differences between how things work and operate in the U.S. Virgin Islands vs. the mainland.  The first, most glaring difference that greets any tourist when they arrive on either of the Islands is the fact that cars drive on the left side of the road.  For some reason, I figured this would be the case in the British Virgin Islands, but not the U.S. islands, as we drive on the right in our country.

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Other major differences that become obvious right away include the taxis, which are sized and shaped quite differently than anywhere in the U.S., even tropical places like California or Florida.  As opposed to basically being cars for hire, taxis here are high profile vans with several rows of seating, built to accommodate roughly a dozen people if need be.  Their fare structure is also different.  Most rides are a flat, destination dependent, per person fee, regardless of the size of the party.  In the mainland, fees are mostly destination dependent, with the cost difference between transporting a single passenger, and several passengers differing by only a couple of dollars.

Also, a large majority of the streets here lack sidewalks, or any other type of pedestrian accommodation.  Walking around Saint John Island, I mainly had to figure out a way to maneuver around structures, both natural and man-made, and live with the traffic being so close to me.

Walking in close proximity to vehicles driving on the opposite side of the road that one is accustomed to, along with significantly different mannerisms, and the extremely thick accents of the natives, would be enough to make an extremely sheltered person freaked out.  For me, I felt only partially outside of my comfort zone.  It was really unclassifiable.  It was as if I was walking some kind of fine line, or living on the “edge”, as people used to say.  I was neither completely out of my element, nor reverting to the familiar.  I was neither “outside the box”, nor “inside the box”.  Maybe I was on the top of the box?

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Fittingly, my new activity for the weekend was snorkeling in the Caribbean.  Like my experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands as a whole, this activity took me part of the way out of my comfort zone, but not completely.  I have swam, water skied, and jet skied before.  I have plenty of experience with water activities.  The main challenge snorkeling presented to me, as a first timer, was mastering the breathing.  I’d say it was also mastering the use of the flippers, but I most certainly did not master those.  I still moved around quite inefficiently.  However, once I was able to overcome my high elevation instincts to try to breath through my nose, and open my mouth wider to take in more oxygen while engaging in physical activity, I was able to breathe properly, and truly enjoy the activity.

It is said that the Caribbean is one of the best places to snorkel due to it’s clarity.  I was able to see some coral reefs, and moving fish.  Those the dove deeper down, either by scuba diving, or holding their breath, were able to see some turtles, a lobster, and view the coral much more closely.  Although I chose not to go too far down, I still saw underneath the Ocean for the first time ever, and was glad that I went part of the way outside my comfort zone, in both visiting the Virgin Islands, and snorkeling in the Caribbean.