Category Archives: International Travel

MapChick Maps: Don’t be a literal mapless traveler on Isla Mujeres!

I went on an unintentional hiatus with this blog right before taking two especially amazing tropical vacations in 2015, including one to the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres (literally “women island”). As a result, I’ve posted little to nothing about either trip, which is a shame as both were wonderful. They also took a lot of planning to make them so great – especially Isla Mujeres.  I couldn’t seem to find any good maps or travel guides to help me out – everything I found was either quite outdated, or was a small part of a much larger travel guide for the Yucatán Peninsula. I had started to just print off whatever decent-looking maps I found on tourism websites online. Then, days before we left, I stumbled across the MapChick set of maps/travel guides for Isla Mujeres. They sounded like exactly what I needed, and I liked that the company is run by a couple who travel frequently to the island, so I took a chance and rush ordered their 4-map set so it would get to us in time! And I am so, so glad I did this, because it made our trip a thousand times easier, and here’s why:

  1. These maps are beautifully illustrated and easy-to-read with clear, large print.
  2. Although the Isla Mujeres maps come in a “4 map set”, you actually get 8 maps divided among 4 brochures!
  3. Each map also functions as a full travel guide, as it has call-out boxes with tips, suggestions, insider info and warnings, and insight, along with showing you where everything is! There is even a suggested self-guided snorkeling tour around the “Secret Beach” which Eric and I tried out and really enjoyed. It added a great deal to our trip!
  4. The set includes a main map that helps you “get to know” the island, while the other maps cover specifics on hotels/rentals, downtown attractions, downtown restaurants, island restaurants, island attractions, and two different self-guided golf cart tours! The golf cart maps were the only ones we never used as we didn’t end up renting a golf cart. It never felt like we were carrying too many maps around as we were able to easily pick and choose the ones we’d like to use at any given moment. The main map also did a great job in getting us acclimated with the entire island.
  5. Considering all that you get and the effort that obviously went into making these, I found the price very reasonable.
  6. There had been a couple of updates since the map set I ordered went to press, so the MapChick team included a handy slip indicating those changes with my order. It was the same size as the folded maps so it was easy to bring along with me as a reminder. I found that to be a very helpful and thoughtful touch that I doubt you will encounter with larger companies.
  7. In addition, if you check the proper box when checking out, you’ll get a great two-sided map of the Cancun airport added to your order, for FREE! (I took this option and was very happy with it!)

If you’re looking for a great map and/or travel guide to Isla Mujeres, I don’t think you can do any better than MapChick. They also carry maps for other areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, and provide helpful information and a digital vacation planner and fish identification guide right on their website! It’s so much fun to browse around. Check it all out at the MapChick website right here.

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My Trips: 2014 and Beyond

Wow! The last time I wrote in this blog was in late 2014. I’m looking to get this thing fired up again, so here is a brief update.

2014:
I last posted in fall 2014 after having done quite a bit of business travel that year, including multiple trips to Austin and a lengthy stay in Albuquerque, among other places. I finally got to “visit” Detroit, albeit just through the airport! I will get to you someday soon, Motor City. In August 2014 I traveled to Edina, Minnesota, also for work. In June, I spent a long weekend with my husband Eric in Rehoboth Beach (Delaware) for leisure purposes. I’d been there a few times before and he agreed with me that the popular little beach town (and its surrounding environs) are well worth the visit. Also in June, we camped in Big Meadows (Shenandoah) with my family. September was our annual family beach trip to Murrells Inlet / Garden City, South Carolina.  In October I took a long weekend in a cabin at Shenandoah National Park with Eric at Big Meadows. And of course, that December we traveled home to spend Christmas with family.

2015:
I took one more business trip to Oakland, California (although I had to stay in Richmond/Berkeley … what a drive) and a great night visit to San Francisco, including the Chinatown area. I’d like to see more of that city.

Leisure-wise, in March we took a 10-day Eastern Caribbean cruise that left out of Miami – in the nick of time to avoid a snowstorm – and stopped at St. Kitts & Nevis, Martinique, Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), Antigua, and St. Thomas. We also fit in a visit to gorgeous St. John’s as well while we were on St. Thomas, and we did an excursion to the Everglades once in CONUS again.

It was one of the most incredible vacations I’ve ever had. It was hard to imagine how anything could top that near-perfect cruise, but our visit to the island of Isla Mujeres, Mexico in August definitely also had us feeling heavenly. The little island charmed us from the start, and I don’t think we ate a bad or bland meal the entire time we were there. The highlight of the trip (and the whole reason I planned it) was swimming with a pod of whale sharks in the middle of the open sea. What an adventure! It more than made up for some mishaps we ran into just trying to get there from DC!

For family trips, we had a trip to Skyline (Shenandoah) for my dad’s 74th birthday in April, and Eric and I camped with Cat and Rob at Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Maryland in June. My parents met us up there for the day and we thought it was funny that we were in Scotland, Maryland while our aunt was in Scotland, UK! 🙂 In September we made our annual pilgrimage to the beach house on the “Hammock Coast” of South Carolina where some of us got to meet our sweet baby cousin, Allie, for the first time! Christmas in 2015 was spent with Eric’s family in Corpus Christi and that was a great trip. We also stayed a night in Richmond (VA) in July following a friend’s housewarming party. The drive back wasn’t THAT long, but we were tired and frankly, it was really just an excuse to relax in a hotel and order room service! 🙂

2016: 

This has been a busy year so far and somehow the months have flown by. Day trips have been the name of the game for the most part. I’m really hoping to go camping a time or two this summer, if not several. In July, we have a road trip planned that will last 11 days and show me 5 new states (6 if you count Illinois … I’ve been through both Chicago airports so many jillions of times that I feel strange saying I’ve never been to Illinois at this point! So I usually say I have been there but give a disclaimer). We’re going to start by driving to Chicago, spending a weekend there, then take off on Historic Route 66 (Mother Road dream trip!) and follow that as far as Oklahoma City, then drive to Dallas specifically to stay the night at the Joule hotel and swim in their crazy cantilevered pool. I’m sure we will enjoy lots of other things about Dallas besides that, but ever since I saw that pool I knew I would make a special visit there one day, and here I am. (Never been to Dallas except through the airport several times.) From there we will make our way home with stops in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Bristol (on the VA side). I have carefully planned everything and picked out certain sites, and at this point, I’m pretty smug about my ability to plan the perfect trip (at least for Eric and I). A road trip of this length and variation is a new one for my planning skills, though, so this is going to be a test to see how I did. I have picked out the sites we both will want to see and planned driving and rest times carefully so I think I am doing good. And, at least I’ve gotten all the hotel booking out of the way! Although this is largely “my” trip, Eric is definitely excited (especially when I told him about some of the very Eric-y things he can expect to visit along the way). At some time in the future, we’ll come back out and drive the rest of Route 66, at least from OKC to LA.

We’ll of course also have family trips this year to the beach, likely to Corpus Christi, and possibly Puerto Rico. And maybe we’ll have a good weekend jaunt or two. I really want to tick off the rest of my unseen states, so cruises to Alaska and Hawaii and random trips in 2017-18 are very strong possibilities! Our next big international trip is supposed to be Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile via Santiago. That one will be another dream come true.

Where you have been lately? Where would you like to go?

Scenes from the Sky

We frequent flyers (or flyers, period) who are window-seat lovers can all agree: There’s nothing like the view of the world from up high. How lucky we are to live in an age when a plane ticket is all that separates us from a bird’s eye view.

Some of my very favorite things seen from 30,000 feet have included the following:

-The Grand Canyon
-The green, green grass of Ireland
-Seeing the shadow of the plane on the cloud carpet below (accompanied by a mini circle of rainbow)
-Seeing other planes whizzing by in the distance (or below you)
-The sun setting on one side of the sky, while the other side is already dark and studded with stars. How beautiful to see the night rushing in.
-Fall leaves changing at their peak – creating a fiery blaze of glorious bright color pops
-Snow covered mountains
-The endless lakes of Minnesota, studding the landscape as far as the eye can see
-Las Vegas rising up out of the desert
-Hoover Dam
-New York City – especially the Statue of Liberty!
-My own apartment building. I fly past it routinely!
-Looking down and seeing nothing but ocean below! (also one of my favorite things about looking out from the top deck of a ship!)
-The landing gear coming down from under the wing as we approach our destination. I have been fortunate enough to sit right behind this area on past flights and for me, it’s quite an interesting thing to watch.
-Looking for the bright blue specks (swimming pools) in people’s backyards (my favorite as a very young child)
-I’m sure there are plenty more I could mention, but my personal favorite … one of which I’ll never tire … is the gorgeous sight of the monuments of the metro DC area. Whether lit up at night or gleaming in full sunlight, seeing that beautiful white marble welcoming me home never, ever gets old. At times I feel like we are so close that I could reach out from my window and touch the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the top of the Pentagon. The gasps of pleasure and delight from first-time visitors to our area as they spy these sights are lots of fun too. City life can contribute to grumpy attitudes for many of us, so it’s refreshing to hear someone greeting DC with anticipation! And the icing on the cake, for me, on a return flight into my home airport is seeing the water of the Potomac so close underneath us that it’s almost a little bit frightening!

How about you?

228 Days to Go!

I just logged into my Norwegian Cruise Lines account to make a payment and saw the big 228 Days to Go! countdown clock! Woo hoo! I can’t wait till our “big” honeymoon. At this point we are planning on a “big” and a “little” honeymoon because without the little I’ll be going back to work the Monday after we get married. No thanks! So we’ll be headed off somewhere for a couple of nights, like a bed and breakfast or something relaxing so we can chill out and enjoy being married 🙂 I’ll take Monday off then hopefully work at home for the rest of the week. We’ll see how that works out. Then less than a week later we’ll be flying off to Miami! I hope we can take a trip to the Everglades before getting on the Norwegian Pearl for another 7-day Western Caribbean cruise. The Pearl is one of NCL’s Jewel class ships and is bigger and a bit fancier than the Spirit. We actually saw the Pearl anchored next to us when we were in Belize last year! This year we have a balcony cabin right at the back of the ship (aft) so we can hear the wake and get a gorgeous unblocked view from our room. (I don’t think the balcony’s all that big for sitting but we’ll probably be out there a fair amount too!) Last year we saw lots of sea life from the sundeck on the Spirit so I’m hoping we’ll get some great views of animals in the distance from our balcony, too. Also, the Pearl has a fabulous thermal spa with a big hot spa pool and heated ceramic loungers and drinks you can sip while you do nothing so one of the very first things we do after boarding will be purchasing spa passes! And our stops this year include:

*Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas (NCL’s private island), where we plan to hike over to the lighthouse and the old helicopter pad and see the ruins left over from the days when it was a U.S. military installation. Hopefully we will also have plenty of time for snorkeling.

*Grand Cayman – This British territory is supposed to have some great snorkeling as well, especially with a large stingray population. This one will require some research.

*Ocho Rios, Jamaica – I think hiking the water fall here is a must!

*Our last stop is a return to Cozumel, Mexico which we also visited last year and loved. Cozumel is GREAT especially the little neighborhoods on the inside. It’s a nice place to just walk around once you get past the touristy areas (not that those aren’t a lot of fun – they are!). We loved cooking with Josefina in her home last year but this year I think we’ll just head to Money Bar (or another private beach bar) and do lots of snorkeling. That’s one thing I wish we did a bit more of last year, snorkel (although we did do some in the incredible reefs off Roatan).

WE CAN’T WAIT!

Costa Maya, Mexico

One of the obviously great things about cruising is that you can (briefly) experience a number of cities all in one vacation. The first stop on my first cruise was the little port of Costa Maya, part of the tiny fishing village of Mahahual (also spelled Majahual) at the southern tip of Quintana Roo state, Mexico. We got up early that morning for breakfast on the upper decks and watched as we approached the shore and the Mexican Navy cleared the ship. As soon as we could, we disembarked in a fast-moving line and stepped out onto the long pier to port. Just like that, we were in Mexico!

The Port of Costa Maya

Costa Maya is a little port. Its main centerpiece is a large pool with a swim-up bar and adjacent mock beach with lounge chairs and trees. All around the perimeter are shops selling every touristy trinket you can imagine. Entering one of these stores means an employee will eagerly follow you around telling about the “best prices” he has to offer. Go back outside and you’ll find stores with more practical items as well as deeply discounted gold and gemstone shops. Drugstores sell all kinds of medicines – Viagra, allergy meds, statins, you name it – found only through prescription in the U.S., here for anyone to buy and at massive discounts. The port has been rebuilt after the village was decimated by Hurricane Dean in 2007, but other signs of devastation remain and can be seen everywhere outside of the confines of the port.

The beach at Costa Maya looked rocky with darker sand and random palapas here and there, as well as remains of those in place prior to the hurricane. Little pools are in place as highly inadequate housing for the poor captive dolphins available for swimming excursions.

The Mexican government is very keen on keeping the area secure from drug violence and cartels that reign elsewhere and have deeply affected tourism for many other parts of the country. It is common for vehicles to be stopped at checkpoints entering and exiting the region by the Mexican military and searches conducted. We saw one such search ourselves as we returned to port following our excursion, and troops holding enormous machine guns guarded the exterior of the port. I actually felt safer seeing this. With that said, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly high-crime area of Quintana Roo, but use your common sense as you would with any tourist destination.

The Road to Chacchoben

A big draw of this area for cruise ship visitors and tourists is the proximity to multiple Mayan ruins, and the Costa Maya port even features a giant replica pyramid fountain. After much hemming and hawing I decided on Chacchoben as the ruins we’d visit and we booked a tour with The Native Choice tour company. I am so glad we did. We walked past the main area of the port to a tour bus area and rode comfortably into Mahahual to the Native Choice offices, where we paid cash for the tour and piled into a van with several other Norwegian Spirit cruisers. The ride out to Chacchoben was roughly an hour long. We were given bottled water and our tour guide, a really nice older gentleman (whose name completely escapes me!) who’s native to this area, routinely turned around in the passenger seat to point things out and give us information. The area we drove through was very rural, though it’s hard for me to tell if that’s its general nature or simply that what’s there was demolished by the hurricane. We saw many remains of buildings off the road and very little other vehicle traffic. The only semblance of a traffic jam was a necessary stop to allow a cowboy to finish herding his longhorn cattle across the road. “Look everyone, a real Mexican cowboy!” said our good-humored guide, twisting around in his seat with eyebrows raised.

We passed a fruit stand where the van stopped and our guide purchased two bags of fresh pineapple for the group; one bag plain and one sprinkled with chili powder. I ate the chili variety and was in heaven with the juicy, melt-in-your-mouth fruit and slight spike of heat. Nearby, young schoolgirls in uniform skipped down a dirt road, books in hand.

On Sacred Ground

Finally we came to the entrance to the ruins, not far from Chetumal, the state capital. There was a small souvenir and snack shop at the entrance to the jungle trail. After taking a bathroom and refreshment break, we started onto the dirt path to the temples. It was very hot but there were many trees to provide shade. I was thankful for my sneakers, capri workout pants and wide-brimmed floppy hat. In no time at all, we reached the first of the restored Mayan temples, which we’d already seen towering above the trees. It was magnificent to see up close. It was adjacent to another ruin that hadn’t been unearthed yet, but you could see the bricks spilling out of it.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. He gave us all kinds of history, lore, trivia, you name it. He was obviously well-versed in the history, culture, and flora and fauna of the surrounding jungles. (We did not meet with any jungle animals save a couple of small jumping spiders.) Listening to our guide speak was fascinating. He also had no problem leaving us time to look around each ruin on our own, and offered to take pictures for multiple people. There were many things to see. We couldn’t climb all the way up most of the temples, but some had a mid-way point marked by a white string at which we could stop and pose for the photos. Following our lengthy tour, we hiked back to the entry point where we were given time for a rest stop and any purchases, and then it was back in the van and off down the road for lunch and a refreshing swim!

The Lake of the Seven Colors (Bacalar Lagoon)

What a peaceful, quiet place for our tour to end. After a rickety and bouncy ride through windy dirt roads in the jungle, we arrived at a small, clean, new resort overlooking many sparkling shades of blue. This was the Lake of the Seven Colors, aptly named for its shimmering hues. Here we entered a restaurant where we found our lunch was ready for us. We also had our choice of two drinks as part of the tour. I ordered a margarita and a pina colada and both were delicious, yet weakly made. As I was looking to stay hydrated in the heat, I didn’t mind. The food was warming and incredible – warm tortillas, a pyramid of rice, refried beans with tortilla chips, sliced, cooked carrots, and a pile of shredded chicken. We ate our meal overlooking the water and feeling the breeze through the open window. We were joined by another couple about our age from Chicago, Sarah and Josh, whom we’d continue to run into and hang out with throughout the cruise.

Following our meal, we headed out to a cabana overlooking the water. Sarah and Josh chose to kayak while Eric and I dropped right into the lagoon, which had the temperature of bath water. The colors of the sky and sea matched as we floated around. We examined the lagoon’s rocky bottom for any sign of life, but only saw a few mucky plants waving among the limestone. After a while, we lay back on the chaise lounges of the cabana to dry off and relax. Our guide helped people into their kayaks, spoke with some children, and kept track of time for us. He wasn’t just a tour guide, he was a sweetheart!

The Village of Mahahual

After leaving Bacalar, our guide found we still had time available for a quick trip through Mahahual. Our driver took us all around the village where we saw much evidence of the hurricane’s devastation. The remains of buildings stood in huge empty wide fields with trash scattered about. Little shops were open here and there, with people busily working and greeting one another. We also passed the local school. The ocean gleamed in the distance. I saw a donkey ambling around. Eric was able to see inside one shop where a cat sat upright, both front paws on the counter, right next to the shopkeeper who held the same pose! (Which one is really running the store?)

I could not have been happier with our first day in Mexico. I highly recommend The Native Choice tours. Everyone we met was sweet, patient and accommodating. Our guide was excellent at keeping our group on track and on time. Our tour was called Chacchoben Extreme Tour, which includes the visit to the lagoon. There are also many other tours of this area available. I’d love to come back and take another!

Here are a few of the many pictures from this portion of our trip.

Waiting patiently for cattle to cross.

Here we are at the foot of one of the Chacchoben temples.

Our tableside view of the lagoon and tiny resort at Bacalar

Our delightful lunch!

If you go: Bring a beach towel, change of clothes, good walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, water shoes (such as Speedo) or Tevas for the rocky lagoon bottom, any extra water, camera (keeping in mind that the lagoon is rather foggy for underwater pictures), and cash (USD is fine) – for souvenirs as well as tips for your hard-working tour guide and driver!

“All we need is just a little patience”

I received word from NCL that they have cancelled a number of cruises to the Mediterranean region due to “continued political unrest”, which includes our planned 10-day stint on the Norwegian Jade. The cruise would have left from Rome and ventured to a couple of ports in Greece, a port in Turkey, and two wonderful days in Alexandria, Egypt. I had also planned to take an escorted private flight from Alexandria to Cairo/Luxor, which was something offered by NCL as part of a fabulous overnight tour. Now I’m left with three options and the first two involve transferring the booking to another cruise. The third? Do nothing and just have the deposit refunded. We plan to take the money back and see what we feel like doing with it in the future. On the one hand, I’m really excited to plan another vacation. On the other hand … booooo, I wanted my Mediterranean cruise! Now I can’t help but paw through numerous travel brochures looking for other exotic trips – a nicely discounted repositioning cruise that leaves from Dubai and ends up in Rome has really got me salivating – but I understand Eric’s viewpoint, to just wait and see. Maybe as we get closer, we can take the same trip either later on, or on a different cruise line. (We really can’t wait too much past February – the heat in Egypt will not be bearable.) I have all kinds of travel dreams, but some will probably have to wait till I am retired (hi, Antarctica!) much to my great consternation. I have the worst case of wanderlust, I swear. I try to be patient, but it’s hard.

On a separate note about the cruise, I noticed NCL did NOT cancel cruises to that same region that take place this fall. So, I suspect the real reason for the cancellations is that since people have become more skittish about traveling to Egypt, the staterooms NCL would expect to have booked by now on the Jade remain empty. It’s really too bad. The travel advisory to Egypt has been lifted by the Department of State, and when it was in place, NCL simply docked at Istanbul instead.

I hit the gym last night and tore up that elliptical. I was mad about something earlier so it was good to release that energy … also good because I slipped and ordered two Domino’s pizzas Monday, and then ate a McDonald’s value meal on the way to the office today. I was in a rush and disobeyed my trainer’s instructions for my diet. Groaaaaan. One of the funny things about this whole gym deal is it’s pushing me to finally join the 21st century and buy an iPod. I’m thinking I’ll get a little Shuffle and then dressing it in these Mix Monsters cases. Currently I just read a fitness magazine or watch something on TV while I use the elliptical. The other funny thing is that I’m considering going to the gym in the early morning rather than in the evening after work. That way I can spend more time with Eric, who goes to bed around 9:30 or 10 PM now!

Looking forward to the weekend …

Baby’s First Cruise

I have never been on an overnight cruise, but I’m about to try one out this coming March-April. Eric and I will be on a Western Caribbean 7-day cruise on the Norwegian Spirit. This was kind of a rough year financially, so I’m proud that we saved up the money to do this. I’m not very good at saving, so now I feel inspired to save for other things I/we want – namely, a home down payment that we hope to put to good use in 5 (or more) years. If we dig this cruise, we just may become one of “those couples” that cruises every single year! After all, there are some rather inexpensive ones out there. Some leave right from our local port of Baltimore, and others are simple weekend cruises that will allow you a chance to “get away from it all” without taking any leave or spending too much.

Here are our ports for this cruise:

Origin: New Orleans

Gimme gimme gimme that New Orleans soul. I haven’t been there since my first stay of little over a week (June 2007) when I added it to my list of cities that will never leave my heart! The food and drink are to die for and there’s no shortage of things to do and see. Just thinkin’ about some jambalaya and a mojito at Pat O’Brien’s makes my mouth water. I can’t wait to introduce Eric to all of this. We plan to stay the night before we leave port so that we have some time to enjoy ourselves. If you’re looking for a great city to spend a long weekend in, or even just a weekend, get thee to the Crescent City!

Costa Maya, Mexico

Everything I’ve read indicates this is a smaller port, in Quintana Roo state. There are many Mayan ruins to explore here. We have an excursion to the Chacchoben Mayan ruins with The Native Choice.

Belize City

Here we have a cave tubing excursion planned with cave-tubing.com which came highly recommended by many experienced travelers on the Cruise Critic boards.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan is the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands. Often touted as an excellent spot for snorkeling and scuba diving, it is home to Barefoot Divers which offers shallow water beginners’ lessons. I would love to learn to scuba – my sister is an accomplished certified diver – and so would Eric, so we are considering booking lessons with them. We may choose to learn scuba in Cozumel instead.

Cozumel, Mexico

This is one city that I’d heard much about over the years and is famous for many things. We are considering a day trip to Xcaret, an ecological park, or a catamaran tour out into the ocean where we can snorkel and just relax on the beach before heading back toward the U.S. Scuba diving beginner lessons are cheaper here, but only go to 25 feet.

One thing I haven’t considered is whether or not I need to get pesos, etc. out at the airport, or if most of the businesses in these touristy ports will take USD. Another question I’ll need to answer is whether or not one can access public beaches at these ports should we feel like swimming following our non-beach excursions. As you can see, I’m completely ignorant when it comes to cruises, but doing the research is a lot of fun.

Have you been to any of these ports or even on this same cruise? Do you have any tips for a first-time cruiser like me?