The Beach Snob’s Guide To Cancun

So you’re not the Cancun type. That’s no reason to pass up a cheap flight to its airport, a gateway to lots of anti-Cancun destinations. The area has more than 80 miles of white-sand Caribbean beaches, and only a few of those are confined to the cheesy place you’ve been avoiding.

I’m a certified beach snob, and Cancun-area sands are some of the best for the money and the time it takes to fly there from most parts of the United States. The scenery and beach quality rival Turks & Caicos, the most postcard Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen.

The trick is to look beyond Cancun’s strip to the broader area called the Mayan Riviera, and your options expand to include laid-back islands, secluded luxury resorts and yoga retreats that feel like they’re located at the end of the earth. Some destinations are 30 minutes from the airport, some two hours. You can be on the beach with a thatched-roof balcony and your own hammock for around $100 per night – and no Senor Frog’s for miles and miles.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Cancun type. The spas in the hotel zone are underrated, for one. But I like quieter places away from the crowds, and more placid waters than Cancun’s. If you do, too, it’s time to reconsider Cancun airfares. Snap up a deal and trust that you’ll find a place your speed; shoulder season in late April and May (and again in September, October and November) is a great time to go because you avoid high-season hotel rates and the scorching summer weather. Here are a few destinations you might not have heard of:

The Island Vibe: Isla Mujeres
A slice of real Mexico, this small island is the closest Cancun alternative to the airport. Located six miles off the coast of Cancun and reached by ferry (pictured at top), it’s anchored by a lively town that sits right on Playa Norte, a postcard soft-sand beach. The extended shallow water appeals to families with young kids. The most popular mode of transportation is a golf cart, and for such a compact place, there’s an remarkable number of restaurants and places to stay. I like Ixchel Beach Resort for a new condo (via VRBO.com), Playa la Media Luna for a tropical beachfront bargain and Casa el Pio for a cute, cheap, in-town option.

The Luxe Life: Playa Mujeres
Quietly, this upscale area has cropped up just north of Cancun, in the opposite direction of the Mayan Riviera development and therefore totally under the radar. It’s a secluded, almost untouched stretch of coastline (pictured below) with nothing else around, the kind of place where you won’t leave the hotel unless it’s on a boat to go fishing or snorkeling. The resorts are extremely posh and expensive – think marble showers the size of a car wash and in-room Jacuzzis with indoor and outdoor access, like those at Excellence Playa Mujeres.

The Soulful Escape: Tulum
This is the only place where I’ve ever picked up hitchhikers. Bumping along a dirt road lined with small, economical beach hotels south of the well-known Tulum ruins, we passed dozens of budget travelers walking to and from the highway, where they catch a bus to Cancun. We gave a lift to an older German couple with wheeled suitcases. Every year, they said, they fly to the area without hotel reservations and call around once they land.

Tulum is located at the far southern reaches of the Mayan Riviera, a good 90 minutes from Cancun and not far from the Belize border. The beaches here are some of the most pristine on the Yucatan. Traditionally an off-the-grid backpacker’s haven, it’s now attracting vacationers who like the good life but aren’t high maintenance. The New York Times called it the fashion in-crowd’s new Miami last year. There are dozens of small hotels in this area alone, including yoga retreats and chic eco-friendly casitas. Casa de los Olas gets high marks.


[Photo credits: from top, Megan Fernandez; 917Press, Scarlatti2004 and Mr. Theklan via Flickr]

Adventure Safari Brings Easy Way To Give Back

safari

Traveling almost anywhere around the world, we see people in need. Many struggle to survive in endangered areas or in a place where an earthquake, tsunami or another natural disaster has occurred. But those in need can be located at stops along our way in the Caribbean, South America, Europe or some other areas too. In the past, it has been hard not to feel the need to help, but often more difficult to know what we can do with the limited time and resources we bring when traveling. Then we found Pack For A Purpose (PFAP), a non-profit organization that lets us give back in a very meaningful way.

Eleven years ago, during their first trip to Africa, Scott and Rebecca Rothney learned that while they were each limited to 40 pounds of luggage on safari, their airline had an allowance of 100 pounds of checked luggage, plus a 40-pound carry-on.

To make a long story short, the Georgia couple asked themselves, with an attitude typical of their Southern hospitality, “Why not take advantage of that unused weight and bring along supplies that will fulfill some need?” They noted how it wouldn’t cost fliers anything to ship and that they could be doing some good. With this in mind, the two launched Pack For A Purpose.

“In making plans for a second trip, we looked into visiting a school near the lodge we would visit in Botswana,” says Rothney. “We contacted our safari company, Wilderness Safaris, to see if we could determine any specific needs of that school. Armed with that information, we were able to deliver 140 pounds (64 kg) of school supplies, including soccer balls, to the school.”

%Gallery-180487%Building on that experience but making it easy by asking travelers to pack just five pounds (2.27 kg) of various supplies, the idea was to involve everyone who wanted to add value to their trip by participating.

travelers give backTo make it even easier, the destinations travelers might visit are organized on the PFAP website by continent, then by country, resort, lodging or tour. Travelers who are considering a land vacation or going on a cruise that stops in Jamaica, for example, will find 18 different properties listed where supplies can be dropped off.

The idea worked. In the first three years of operation, PFAP has been instrumental in delivering over 17,000 pounds of supplies.

Making even more sense of the PFAP plan, Rothney said “We don’t look at it as ‘charity’. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ and showing our appreciation for the wonderful experience we have in these places we visit,” in a telephone interview with Gadling.

Think about that for a minute: can you spare five pounds worth of space in luggage?

Pack For A Purpose
points out that five pounds translates to:

  • 400 Pencils, or
  • 5 deflated soccer balls with an inflation device, or
  • A stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff and 500 bandages.

All are much-needed supplies at a variety of locations around the world.

Check this video with Rebecca Rothney explaining what Pack For A Purpose is all about:



[Images - Pack For A Purpose]

Stricken Cruise Ship Passengers Make Most Of Bad Situation

cruise shipLife on board stricken cruise ship Carnival Triumph is far from the travel brochure promise of sandy beaches and warm Caribbean nights. As the ship is being towed to shore after an engine room fire knocked out the ship’s propulsion, passengers have had quite a different experience than what they bargained for. Still, experienced travelers know that not everything goes as planned and making the best of a bad situation often depends on how we choose to react when bad things happen along the way.

“I do want to commend our guests on board the Carnival Triumph … for doing a great job dealing with a difficult situation. I happen to believe that is the nature of the Carnival guests who happen to be very optimistic people (who) enjoy life,” said Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill at a press conference held Tuesday night at Carnival’s Miami headquarters.

Operating with limited services (although the bars are open and drinks are free), 102,000-ton Carnival Triumph is expected to arrive in Mobile, Alabama, on Thursday. Once there, the ship’s passengers will be disembarked quickly, given hot food and a night in one of 1,500 hotel rooms being held by the cruise line. That will no doubt be a welcome change to cold sandwiches and showers along with hot, unventilated cabins.

While reports from passengers on board via Twitter and Facebook vary from describing the situation as a “cruise from hell” to a more positive “we’ll sure remember this one,” odds are everyone will be happy when the sailing is over.”Generally speaking, the mood on board is good under the circumstances and most guests are making the most of it,” Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told Travel Pulse.

On Friday, 20 charter flights will take passengers back to Houston where arrangements have been made to get them back home. Those on the ship right now will receive a full refund of what they paid for the cruise along with any non-refundable travel services and a complimentary cruise in the future.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board have launched an investigation into the incident.

Here is that press conference from Carnival’s Miami headquarters last night.



[Photo Credit- U.S. Coast Guard]

Low-Cost Travel Insurance For Adventure Travelers

travel insuranceStart talking about anything even remotely related to the topic of travel insurance and odds are the conversation will be short. This is not something that travelers dream about, plan for or share with their social networks. No one we know of has a scrapbook of insurance mementos picked up along the way or has written a song about it. To many travelers, travel protection is an annoying, unnecessary expense. Still, have a situation while traveling where we need it, and all of the sudden the cost seems a trivial matter.

In the past, Gadling has reported on the difference between travel insurance, which covers monetary damages, and travel protection, which provides immediate support and assistance in an emergency. We explained how insurance that covers medical evaluation could help avoid a $100,000 airfare too. Our friends at airfarewatchdog have a nifty chart explaining the difference between three major players in the travel assistance game, OnCall International, Medjet Assist and AirMed.

Traveling to any place on the planet to hike, climb, ski or scuba dive? These plans have you covered.

Any of those companies will transport travelers from anywhere in the world back to a hospital or medical facility of their choice. Prices run between $55 and $115 per person for a short-term plan and annual plans are available for those who travel extensively.

But what if travels take you camping, biking or skiing somewhere around North America, on a cruise to the Caribbean, Bermuda or Mexico? For you, there may be similar coverage at a fraction of the cost.Another company, SkyMed, covers just the USA, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas with short-term plans as low as $9 per day.

Important to adventure travelers, SkyMed uses mostly medically equipped and staffed jets, and other fixed-wing aircraft appropriate for the type of airport or landing strip available. Should the situation call for a helicopter, they have those too.

I learned about travel protection about this time last year, avoiding a $2500 cruise ship medical center bill by having similar protection with an annual TravelGuard policy.

In the video below, a hiker in Wyoming with a broken ankle sits waiting for help to come.

We do not want you to be in this situation.


[Photo credit - Flickr user slworking2]

Haiti Bills Itself As The Next Caribbean Vacation Hotspot

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is launching an ambitious campaign to market the country as a vacation hotspot. Unlike other islands in the region, which draw huge numbers of leisure travelers seeking sun and surf, Haiti is largely overlooked by tourists.

The country is one of the poorest in the Western hemisphere with around 80 percent of its people living in extreme poverty. It was thrown under the spotlight three years ago when an earthquake measuring 7.0 shook the country to its core. The event was a devastating blow to a country already rife with political problems, corruption and natural disasters.

Haiti’s minister of tourism, Stephanie Villedrouin, told NPR that tourism could help locals rebuild their lives and boost the country’s economy.”These revenues for our economy will help us eradicate poverty, and take out people [earthquake victims] from the tents. That’s the message. Don’t just send money through a wire or through an NGO for us. Come and experience Haiti because we have so much to showcase.”

Some of the attraction on offer for visitors are a National Museum, a rum distillery, traditional art, voodoo ceremonies and, of course, miles of Caribbean beach.

Despite that, the country faces a lot of challenges when it comes to marketing itself as a vacation destination. Streets are overflowing with trash and sewage, medical facilities are few and far between, and travelers face a high risk of crime. The US State Department has even issued a travel warning for the country.

As a result, few tourists to Haiti ever leave the fenced-off beach resort built by a cruise company on the island’s north. Getting travelers to step out of the bubble and into the rest of the country will require a massive expansion of the country’s tourism infrastructure. The government hopes to do that by investing in new hotels, airports and a school to train workers in the hospitality industry.

Listen to the full story here:




[Photo credit: Flickr user MichelleWalz]