Thursday, July 22, 2010

The land of few rules - Italy, May 2010

We’ve rented vacation houses around the world. They have many commonalities in terms of the processes involved: security deposit, cleaning fee, which towels can be used at the pool, whether pets are allowed, etc… etc.. Returning to Tuscany after 5 years away, our first rental was just outside the small town of Colle di Val D’Elsa, at the Residenza Antica Canonica. While we unfortunately did not have the address of the house - but had instead the address of the restaurant run by the owner of the house - we eventually did find the restaurant (in a pedestrian area of Colle Val D’Elsa which made our Nav system fairly useless), which led to the owner and a promise to guide us to the house, as soon as he had finished with an important business lunch. Having just landed that morning in Bologna, we were immensely relieved to have solved the house-location-problem, and more than happy to settle in for a late lunch in the delightful garden area of the restaurant. Several plates of pasta later, we followed his black Mercedes out of town and along twisting roads through fields of green wheat with splashes of red poppies.

Once we pulled into the property gates and parked in the road of cypress trees, the owner proudly showed us around the beautifully restored 12th century manor. None of the commonly applied processes surfaced – I waited to hear things about which towels to use where, or when the shared pool closed, or how the security deposit would be charged … and none of it came up. Instead we discussed local wines, frescos in Siena, and the soon to be released IPad. In addition to a stately home in a beautiful location, we were treated to perfectly charming owner, who seemed prepared to behave as if we were his long-lost guests from the United States rather than commercially contracted renters. Long live ‘la bella figura’ and the exquisite politeness and charm of Italians. In the end we paid neither a cleaning fee nor a security deposit, and we (as we always do) treated his home with the same care we would have had it been our own.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

January 2010: The Westin Kierland Villas, Scottsdale AZ

A sister's reunion to celebrate a birthday was the official reason we found ourselves in Scottsdale, but am not sure too much justification is required to trade-in the frozen east coast for a few days of sun and relaxation in Arizona. I had gone to graduate school in AZ a long time ago, and always referred to the 'snowbirds' with a fair amount of disdain, but finding myself a snowbird felt pretty good, and the soft shifting light of the desert is a wonderful alternative to Florida for a winter get-away.

Mayan Riviera, Mexico December 11 - 16, 2009

Grand Mayan Resort, Grupo Mayan, Quintana Roo

Early in December, we took advantage of the lull in the travel industry between Thanksgiving and Christmas to dash off to the Mayan Riviera for a few days of sorely needed sun and rest. We flew Jet Blue from NY to Cancun, and got a good deal on the price. We also paid the extra $30 to upgrade the seats to an exit row, which I highly recommend. Not only did we get a roomier exit row than I have experienced on larger carriers (e.g. Delta, United), but we also got to pre-board. Because my husband and I had booked a window and an aisle, we were also fortunate enough that nobody wanted to pay the extra $30 to sit in a middle seat between us, so we had one of the few empty seats on the plane between us for a little extra space.

Landing in Cancun, we picked up our rental car, and drove the easy 35 minutes down the main Carretera to the Grand Mayan - part of the Grupo Mayan consortium. The check-in area for the Grand Mayan was finally finished, after needing to build it a second time after it unfortunately burned to the ground after a year of construction. The new Mayan Sanctuary, is a great addition. The Grand Mayan now has its own swim-up bar (previously Grand Mayan guests shared the swim-up bars in the main pool area with the Mayan Palace guests), and there is a filtered sunlight pool with great plantings and bird song.

Checking in at the new Grand Mayan lobby (which we have witnessed under construction for the past two years since the first time it burned to the ground when it was almost completed) they give us a suite on the 3rd floor of Building 10. These are the newer buildings, with the golf course on one side and the jungle on the other. For the past three times we’ve been here, we have somehow always ended up on the 3rd floor of Building 1. The buildings are massive, with stark modern lines, and huge palapa roofs, which they light dramatically at night to chase away the darkness of the surrounding jungle. Building 10 we query? Surely there must be something closer. It’s a good 15 minute walk to just the main area of the pools and the beach is even further. Sorry, the sweet girl behind the computer tells us – we have no room in any of the closer buildings. We know this can’t be true, but we let it go for the moment since it is 4 pm and we are weary from travel and hungry, not having eaten since our 9 am breakfast snack at the Jet Blue terminal. There’s a peaceful quality to this building – far from the main hue and cry of the central area of the resort. The Mexican jungle, low scrappy trees that can handle the heat and the long dry spells, is just the other side of a chain link fence. It is an odd site – the manicured lawn, pathways and plantings on one side –the jungle pushing against the fence on the other. Dark birds of large wingspan float by occasionally, drifting across the top of the trees. From our 3rd floor balcony we look out across the jungle to the neighboring resort in the distance. We can only see the rooftops – oddly dramatic in contrast to their surroundings, some with spires and cupolas in imitation of the grand buildings of Europe.

The weather is as predictable as clockwork here. In the land of eternal summer, the only variation throughout the year seems to be how high into the eighties the daytime temperature reaches. It is hard to remember that it is December, with Christmas less than two weeks away. While far out to sea the winter storms rage, our only reminder of their existence is the strong wind blowing on the beach, and the morning clouds that make their way in from the sea, cross our path, and continue inland to the jungle. They laid these big buildings perpendicular to the sea, so their broad sturdy side would take the brunt of any hurricane or major storm. I can see the Caribbean and I can hear it - but all that reaches our patio is a gentle breeze that ripples the palm fronds and causes the tops of the trees in the jungle to dance occasionally. I contemplate a large grey heron standing sentinel at the top of a dead tree far out in the jungle. The tree is taller than the rest – easily twice as tall, and I wonder what type of tree it was, why it is so much taller than the others, and if this is what caused its demise in some way.

A call to the manager’s office had indeed produced a suite on the 3rd floor of building 1. However, in the end we decided to stay in our tranquil jungle facing unit, as the swap was complicated by the fact that there would be hours between moving out of this place and into the other, due to cleaning schedules and the need to turn over the rooms. Chalking up our refusal to move, on the heels of a request to do so, to crazy gringo-ness the manager good naturedly wishes us a pleasant stay at the Grupo Mayan. Our plans for our first full day in Mexico are simple, lunch and a swim up in Puerto Morelos and then a massage back at the resort. We are curious as to the effect of a recent NY Times article on Puerto Morelos, touting it as the last genuine fishing village on the Riviera Maya. (Do the reporters ever think about the outcomes of their articles?) Yet, not much has changed – we think we see more gringos than last time, but this could be coincidental, as could be the construction of a new restaurant on the plaza. Sitting outside at lunch with large margaritas in front us, facing the crystalline waters of the Caribbean and watching the fishing boats bob up and down as the gentle waves roll up onto shore, I ask Chun if he had to describe heaven, wouldn’t it sort of look just like this?

December 2009: Captain's Cove, St. Michaels MD

Locating what appeared to be the perfect house for our family reunion, we booked the Captain's Cove for week. The home is tastefully decorated and situated on a quiet road, less than a mile from the small town of St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. A wide lawn stretches down to the Miles River, where the owner's large sailboat/yatch is docked. One of the things that drew us to this house is the fact that there are multiple buildings: the main house, the pool house and a large barn, which has been converted to a game room on the upper level, and an indoor basketball court on the ground floor.
There is a lovely in-ground pool, which of course was not a factor for us at this time of year. The house has a wood burning fireplace - a definite plus! However there are a couple of things that were not clear from the description on the website, which I point out here.

The house is listed as a 4 bathroom house, which is true, however two of the bathrooms are in the pool house, and presumably because the pool house is not heated in the winter, the water is turned off to those bathrooms. Thus it is a 2 bathroom house, one of which is attached to the Master bedroom on the ground floor, and the other (tiny) bathroom is shared by the 4 bedrooms upstairs. The other thing to note about the house, which is also not apparent from the description, is that the 4th bedroom upstairs is attached to the Queen bedroom. This is fine if the kids in the 'junior twin' room go to bed first, but if they are teenagers who stay up until the wee hours of the morning, this requires them to walk through somebody's room who is sleeping.

The town is small and charming, and while we ate most of our meals in the spacious dining room at Captain's Cove, we did have excellent wood-fired pizza from Ava's . Since we were a large group, we tried most of the pizzas and they were all good - none stand out in my mind to recommend over the others. Of course we wanted to eat crab cakes at some point, but had few choices given the time of year. We had thought to try the Crab Claw restaurant, which was closed, so we ended up at the Town Dock. They have a fine crab cake - lots of crab and virtually no bread crumbs. You can have them fried or grilled, and while I normally prefer the cakes fried, in this case the crab was good enough that grilled was delicious. However, the salad they serve the cakes with is quite unexceptional - mostly iceberg lettuce.

We liked the coffee house right at the entrance to town (if coming from Easton) and while the expresso is rather bitter (the machiato is better) they have great seating areas - little nooks where a group can sit comfortably to warm up and rest weary feet. We enjoyed reading from the Elemental Encyclopedia of Birthdays - a book they keep around for their patrons' use. I definitely recommend a fun moment in this coffee house. Another nice place to go for a drink is the Inn at Perry Cabin. Not surprisingly, they were all decked out with their holiday decorations, and had beautiful Amaryllis bulbs, in addition to lights and a tree.