Four Perfect Days in Puerto Vallarta

By David Dickstein  |  2018-11-20

Puerto Vallarta’s 3 million international visitors who arrive by air annually aren’t teased like the 300,000 who come by ship and don’t get to stay the night or longer. Cruises are great, but when passengers are given a measly 6 or 7 hours to explore a port as easy to love as this friendly, safe and beachy jewel south of the border, sail away is like pulling the Mexican rug out from under them.

If only cruise passengers had more time. Well, that’s what a next vacation is for. So, for them and others who have never truly explored this Conde Nast Traveler “Best Cities in the World” winner, do we have four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta for you.

Day 1

            Your airport shuttle has taken you to the Grand Miramar, where you happily trade the hustle and bustle of downtown for tranquil luxury in the exclusive Conchas Chinas neighborhood. The hilltop location of your accommodations requires using the shuttle service to and from the beach and town, but any inconvenience is forgotten with every stunning view of Banderas Bay from your suite and the property’s understatedly elegant restaurants and bars.

            The six or seven hours in the air from Sacramento have you hungry, and wanting to start your Mexican getaway right, only eating among the locals will do. The street food from all those taco stands downtown smells great, but there’s apprehension over American health laws not being enforced because, well, you’re in Mexico. Good thing you booked “The Street – An Evening Taco Adventure Tour” with Vallarta Food Tours. A street-wise English-speaking guide takes you and a small group by foot and public bus to a handful of stands you can trust. All vendors must have a permit at least six years old to participate, and they need to demonstrate a unique flair for curbside cooking. At the first stop, a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Joe Jack’s Fish Shack in the Romantic Zone, you’re enticed with a red snapper taco that goes well with avocado and habanero salsa. It’s amazing, and just before the heat travels to the back of your throat, you wash it down with a shot of mezcalini, a refreshing cocktail best described as a cross between a margarita and a mojito. Other than a stop at Vallarta Chocolate Factory for a quick sample, the rest of your 3 1/2-hour tour is strictly street food. By the end of your eighth tasting of another full-sized taco, this one birria, or goat, you find yourself stuffed like a pinata for Las Posadas. $50; nightly except Wednesdays.

            Before calling it a noche, you head up to the Grand Miramar’s ultra-chic rooftop lounge, The Gin Joint, the highest point on beautiful Banderas Bay. The epic view from your comfy couch, lit by candle and moon, is the perfect outdoor setting to enjoy a signature tamarind margarita or passion fruit gin martini.

Day 2

            Still full from the downtown delicacies of the night before, not to mention the midnight tapas you somehow made room for at the rooftop bar, you’re fine skipping breakfast for morning snacks aboard your catamaran en route to Las Caletas, a private beach paradise on the south shore of Banderas Bay. Besides, you’ll be chowing down plenty once there as a seafood paella cooking demonstration, guacamole and pico de gallo cooking lesson and incredible buffet await, along with full-service hosted bars. A wide variety of activities also are included in your 6 1/2-hour “Las Caletas Beach Hideaway” with Vallarta Adventures. Stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, snorkel gear, hiking trails, animal encounters, clay modeling and an adventure cove lure you away from a perfectly positioned lounge chair. Up-charge options range from marine life encounters to flyboarding. The blowing of a conch shell beckons you to the dock, but the 12-mile sail back home is fun, too, thanks an open bar and hilarious show by the crew. $139; daily.

            After a refresh and some down time at the hotel, you take a cab to Playa Los Muertos for appetizers and dinner at two great finds minutes and worlds apart. Seated under a namesake shelter at La Palapa, you’re delighted by the bar menu and starters of coconut shrimp, lobster and shrimp taquitos and seared scallops influenced by Mexican, French and Asian elements. Calling La Palapa the Mama’s Fish House of Puerto Vallarta would not be insulting to the restaurant considered by many as the best on Maui. Very similar décor and vibe shared by both, although La Palapa is easily half the price and, established in 1959, is 14 years older. Not even a year old is where you’ve made dinner reservations. Your walk of a single block has you at Medregal. The positive buzz around this hip eatery is justified in large part to chef Fernando Sanchez’s innovative menu that puts a twist on traditional Jalisco cuisine. The mahi mahi served in a banana leaf and topped with yellow mole sauce is a winner, as is the cochinita pabil, a traditional Mexican recipe headlined by shredded pork marinated in orange juice.

            Not quite ready to pack it in, you head to the Malecon, a mile-long shoreline promenade that hugs downtown. By night it’s one big party. You check out the clubs that befit your style, working off Medregal’s killer guanabana pie you had for dessert with some hot moves on the bar’s lively terrace. A taxi takes you back to your hotel, where you mentally dance yourself to sleep doing the cha cha, cumbia, merengue, salsa and samba – all to perfection, of course.      

Day 3

            This is your day to relax at the hotel and beach, so enjoy! Just remember to be ready in time for your big night. Yeah, another one. But tonight you’re wearing the finest threads you brought.

            A twilight stroll along the Malecon is a lovely way to ease into your special dinner. And what a meal it’s going to be. Café des Artistes, 27 years young, is one of Mexico’s most revered and gorgeous restaurants. Storm-free evenings beg for a table in the lush, romantically lit garden, but with showers in the forecast, you’re seated in a cozy room inside. Glass raindrops hang from the ceiling – sophisticated, yet whimsical and anything but pretentious. You’re living large, about to experience chef-founder Thierry Blouet’s six-course tasting menu with wine. Fresh mahi mahi and watermelon tartar leads to roasted eggplant au miso. Salmon scallops in green mole transition to suckling lamb. Then come the cheese tasting and piece de la resistance, the OMG-worthy chocolate spiral with coffee panna cotta, cardamom ice cream and fresh cream. The numbing effect of the perfectly paired wines helps at check time, and how nice that Monsieur Blouet stops by to personally thank you.

            You return to your hotel fat, happy and exhausted.

Day 4

Other than breakfast at the hotel, this morning’s feast is for the eyes, not the stomach. Today you’re taking a self-guided art walk of the city’s famous al fresco bronze sculptures that line the Malecon. You hardly recognize the paved boardwalk from last night. Fun seekers and loud techno music have been replaced by tip-seeking street musicians, talented artists and annoying vendors all hoping to score some of your American dollars. Perusing the ornate sculptures, you eavesdrop on an English-speaking tour group that’s learning about each work, the most popular also the first ever installed: Rafael Zamarripa’s “Caballero del Mar,” or “The Seahorse.” After some nasty stares from the paying guests, you walk up Calle Allende for three blocks when a gallery specializing in ancestral contemporary art catches your eye. Within Colectika are works from regional artists, many hailing from remote villages in the Sierra Madre Mountains who express old traditions in a whole new light. Canadian ex-pat Kevin Simpson, who also owns the nearby Peyote People Gallery, is full of great stories. You want to hear the one about his friendship with the mountain woman who inspired the grandma character in the animated feature “Coco,” but cocoa is next on your packed itinerary.

            At the Choco Museum Puerto Vallarta, anyone can be a confectioner. Five different workshops are offered at an awesome-smelling downtown location that opened in June 2017. You chose the most popular, a two-hour experience called “Bean to Bar.” After a horticulture and history lesson, you and your fellow bakers roast and grind cocoa beans to prepare three chocolate drinks, none of which delight your American sweet tooth. Also unremarkable are the dark chocolates you got to take with you – too bitter is that batch. At least you had fun pouring the pre-blended mixture into molds and adding your own toppings before the cooling stage. $34; three times daily.

For your last night in PV, dinner is at the best-reviewed new restaurant in the Marina Zone. Refreshed from some down time at the hotel, you take a half-hour taxi ride to Tintoque, a year-old gem from chef Joel Ornelas. You and your waiter chose right, going with the heirloom tomatoes appetizer with pesto ice cream; shared main entrees of strained tamale with shrimp caritas in adobo sauce, Baja California-caught escolar drizzled with smoked pineapple puree, and pasilla-crusted beef steak; and for dessert, it’s cheesecake and chocolate cake. Pure heaven.

You head back to your hotel to pack for the next morning’s flight home, looking on your calendar to find time for another four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta.

If You Go ….

Puerto Vallarta Official Tourist Guide – visitpuertovallarta.com

Grand Miramar Hotel & Spa – grandmiramar.com

Vallarta Food Tours – vallartafoodtours.com

Vallarta Adventures – vallarta-adventures.com

Café des Artistes – cafedesartistes.com

Tintoque – tintoque.mx

La Palapa – lapalapapv.com

Cacao Museum – chocomuseo.com

Luxury Cruise Brings Value to Pricey Paradise

Story and photos by David Dickstein  |  2018-09-27

Relaxation Bora Bora style.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - Read the guidebooks, talk to honeymooners, listen to the star of “The Bachelorette” from season six – they’ll all tell you that French Polynesia is the quintessential romantic paradise.

And, for them, how can it not be when the glowing travel writers are enjoying press rates or straight-out comps while they’re on assignment, or the newlyweds are paying with their cashed wedding checks, or spouse-seeking Ali Fedotowsky is getting ABC-TV to pick up all the bills?

For the rest of us, including this ethical travel writer, spending two grand a night for a five-star, bucket-list overwater bungalow, $40 at a quality restaurant for an appetizer (repeat, appetizer) and $24 for a ham and cheese sandwich and $20 for a glass of unremarkable wine at a four-star hotel’s lobby bar is neither romantic nor paradise.

So, when French Polynesia is described as a lover’s utopia, better take it with a few grains of sea salt. That is, unless the salt comes from one of three exquisite dining rooms aboard the M/S Paul Gauguin, a Tahitian treat if there ever was one.

The 332-guest Paul Gauguin, which makes up the entire fleet of Seattle-based Paul Gauguin Cruises, prides itself on being designed specifically for the South Pacific; the ship’s 17-foot draft makes it ideal for French Polynesia’s shallow ports of call.

Being all-inclusive brings sanity to the insane cost of vacationing in the land of exquisite natural beauty, emerald waters and dreamy sunsets. The cruise line doesn’t broadcast the money-saving factor, no doubt because the parent company is also the largest luxury hotel operator in the region. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, after all, especially when those bites at breakfast time cost $50 at the sister InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa, the most popular pre-cruise hotel.

For those of us with French Polynesia on our bucket list – exotic Bora Bora, in particular – Paul Gauguin is nautical nirvana. Its plusses are compounded in a side-by-side comparison with its closest tourism competitor, a Hawaiian cruise aboard NCL’s Pride of America. Doubling the price of the cruise and airfare, and flying another 2 1/2 hours from L.A. aboard wonderful Air Tahiti Nui gets you 5-star luxury over 3-star mediocrity, a balcony cabin over one with a just a window, only 331 fellow passengers instead of 2,185, a 1:1.5 crew-to-guest ratio over 1:2.5, unlimited drinks (adulty, too) over just coffee, tea and water, and tips and specialty restaurants included instead of being assessed $14 per day per person for gratuities and $25-$50 in upcharges just to eat a decent dinner. There’s also the gloat factor; tell a friend you’re going to Hawaii, and you get “that’s great.” Say French Polynesia, and the reaction is more like, “Oh, wow! I’m so jealous! Awesome!”

Speaking of awesome, nearly every aspect of a recent 7-day “Society Islands and Tahiti Iti” sail was, and appropriately so. Paul Gauguin is a “luxury” category cruise line, as opposed to “mass market” (e.g., Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean) or “premium” (e.g., Celebrity, Princess, Disney). Luxury cruises tend to offer smaller ships, more interesting ports, better service, higher quality food and more inclusions. Check, check, check, check and check. Another plus: Blatant upselling seems to be taboo on Paul Gauguin Cruises – not a single sales pitch was heard all week.

All of Paul Gauguin’s 7-day itineraries sail out and in of Papeete, Tahiti, with most making calls in must-see Bora Bora and Moorea. The route of “Society Islands and Tahiti Iti” cruises tacks on visits to the islands of Huahine and Taha’a, and the port of Vairao on the southwest coast of Tahiti. Overnighting in Bora Bora and Papeete slows down the speed port-dating aspect of an itinerary with no sea days.

Stern to Bow Wow Factor

With so much going for the Paul Gauguin, getting there really is half the fun. It starts with the people. Having sailed on 21 previous cruises, this sea-legged traveler has interacted with his share of phony and lazy employees. Not here. Of the 217-member crew encountered, each was as genuine as the Tahitian pearls on display (for free!) at the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Papeete. From affable Capt. Toni Mirkovic down, every Paul Gauguin badge wearer is ready to serve – think Nordstrom employees of old. The entire crew act as hosts, but that role is officially taken on by a troupe of Tahitian ambassadors and entertainers named Les Gauguins (men) and Les Gauguines (women). When they’re not leading interactive onboard activities involving Polynesian arts, crafts and music, they’re entertaining guests with traditional songs and dances.

Accommodations-wise, cabins on the Paul Gauguin aren’t that different from those found on megaships with 10 times the number of passengers. One distinction is free rein of a mini-fridge stocked daily with beer, sodas and waters – something verboten with beverage packages on other ships.

Food-wise, like the paintings by its namesake, the dishes coming out of the Paul Gauguin’s two specialty restaurants are masterful works of art. By day, La Veranda and Le Grill serve up sumptuous breakfasts and lunches, then are transformed at night to reservations-only, no-fee venues for gourmet dining inside or al fresco. Michelin-starred Parisian chef Jean-Pierre Vigato helms La Veranda’s menu, his onboard proteges doing delicious justice with lobster lasagna, braised veal, heart of beef tenderloin with beef tartare, roast halibut and guilt-worthy desserts. Polynesian specialties grace the menu at the more casual, poolside Le Grill. At L’Etoile, the ship’s main dining room, nightly selections may include moonfish caught in local waters and arguably the best beef Wellington on the high seas.

Let the megaships have their full-production shows and comedy clubs – entertainment aboard the Paul Gauguin is charmingly modest and indigenous. Local acts get tendered in to share Polynesian culture through music and dance in the 314-seat Grand Salon. Also on the weekly program are performances by Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, specialty acts, a crew talent show, enrichment lectures and itinerary-relevant movies ranging from the Polynesia-set animated feature “Moana” to a documentary on Monsieur Gauguin, the Parisian artist who got his groove back while in self-imposed exile in the French colony.

Island Adventures

Asterisks to Paul Gauguin cruises being all-inclusive include spa treatments, premium alcohol and organized scuba dives. Shore excursions are also extra, but this is a rare cruise that doesn’t require spending additional money to satisfy your sense of adventure. For the more shipshape, snorkeling gear, paddleboards, kayaks and other watersports equipment are supplied at the ship’s retractable marina in back. At most ports, after the short tender, free shuttles can take guests into town for light shopping and people watching. One day is already set thanks to a hosted barbeque on the cruise line’s private island, or motu in Tahitian speak. This section of Taha’a is palm tree-shaded paradise with enough loungers for everyone, open bars (one floating), quality spread featuring five different kinds of perfectly grilled meats, snorkeling and other aquatic fun in calm, translucent, sea cucumber-infested waters, and all the while being serenaded by the beautiful and buff Gauguines and Gauguins.

If you want to spend on shore excursions and haven’t pre-booked, the cruise line makes it easy at the desk on Deck 4 or interactive TV system in each cabin. In Huahine, choices include ATV, 4x4 and WaveRunner adventures, and the falsely named “Huahine Nui Safari Expedition” ($95). You’re driven to an archaeological site, ancient and restored fish traps, a spot where blue-eyed eels congregate, a vanilla farm and, by outrigger canoe, a black pearl farm with a store, of course. It’s just neither a safari nor an expedition. The “Highlights of Tahiti Iti” ($95) excursion takes vanloads to a lookout, a famous surf spot and a water garden that’s actually on the nui (large) side of Tahiti. Clearly, there’s not enough highlights on the iti (small) side. Two solid recommendations for Bora Bora and Moorea are the “Day at the Beach” ($144 and $130, respectively). Each has you spending 6-7 hours at a gorgeous InterContinental beach resort, where poolside luxury and an included lunch await. A visit to either property, seeing waters of indescribable shades of blue, will substantiate why French Polynesia attracts celebrities, business elite and political magnates.

A pre-cruise pick is a half-day circle island tour of Tahiti. For around $50 a person, Marama Tours whisks guests in an air-conditioned van to a waterfall, a water garden (yes, the same), a fern grotto, a blowhole (when in season) and a couple of lookout points. What’s nice about this tour is by making a full circle around the largest side of the economic, cultural and political center of French Polynesia, one sees the extremes between posh and pauper as presented by a safe and knowledgeable local. Being exposed to how the 30 percent of impoverished Tahitians live and the country’s reliance on funding from mother France is educational and humbling, and can’t help but make one appreciate the next seven or so days aboard one of the world’s most luxurious ships.

If You Go ….

Paul Gauguin Cruises – www.pgcruises.com

Marama Tours – www.maramatours.com

InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa – www.tahiti.intercontinental.com

Air Tahiti Nui – www.airtahitihui.com

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Hong Kong: An Easier Way to Do Exciting China

By David Dickstein  |  2018-05-08

Kowloon’s waterfront offers a dramatic view of Hong Kong’s famous skyline across Victoria Harbour. Photo by David Dickstein

If the thought of vacationing in China causes some anxiety with all the political, economic, humanitarian and cybersecurity friction going on, not to mention the language barrier and intimidation of a culture so different, consider Hong Kong as a happy alternative.

The world’s most visited city effortlessly blends East and West, and like unique sights, sounds and smells, English is omnipresent. Over 150 years of British rule will do that to a place.

Those who’ve been there know how much there is to love about Hong Kong. The shopping, the food, the nightlife, the ancient religious temples in the shadow of some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, the large expat population that reduces trepidation for less adventurous Westerners – this autonomous territory of China is exciting, yet manageable.

Because Hong Kong is separate from mainland China, there’s the other plus of not needing a tourist visa. But, as sure as the five-starred red flag flies from government buildings, this is China. The asterisk to that statement comes from the fact that Hong Kong has its own currency, passport, laws, Olympic team and anthem.

Rather than delve into politics and economics, let’s focus on the things that make Hong Kong so inviting to the foreign tourist. If you’re expecting a rundown of the must-sees, you’re reading the wrong article. Any travel piece on Hong Kong can cover the Big Five: the Peak for the mandatory photo of the skyscraper cluster with Victoria Harbour in the background, the giant sitting Buddha on Lantau Island, the Star Ferry harbor crossing to Kowloon, the street markets, and the Symphony of Lights (overrated).

Here’s the Not-So-Big Five and why both first-time and returning visitors to Hong Kong should consider doing things a few pages deeper into all those cookie-cutter guide books.

1. Say “neih hou” (Cantonese) or “ni hao” (Mandarin) to Mickey – English-language travel books and blogs like to compare Hong Kong Disneyland to Ocean Park Hong Kong. Opened in 1977, Ocean Park often gets the nod over its 13-year-old rival with the more scenic location, being three times larger, having a wider range of attractions and thrill rides, and for entertaining guests with shows starring not costumed characters, but live land and marine animals. Two categories in which Ocean Park is all wet, however, are food – ho-hum carnival-type fare versus Disneyland’s higher quality, wider ranging dining experiences – and, the deciding factor for me, what is known as “Disney Magic.” There’s something different about being at a Disney park – the hospitality, memory-making, cleanliness, positive attitude, and characters and stories beloved for generations. It’s like coming home whether you went as a child or not. HKD is the smallest of all Disney parks, but that doesn’t make a visit any less magical and unique. Its version of the Haunted Mansion is Mystic Manor, which whisks guests through the Victorian home of world traveler Lord Henry Mystic. The mansion comes alive after Henry’s mischievous pet monkey Albert opens a music box that unleashes mayhem and enchantment. Another HKD exclusive is the exciting year-old Iron Man Experience; imagine Stark Enterprises assuming sponsorship of Star Tours. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, HKD’s version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, has a section where riders go backwards. Just for fun, enter the “Cantonese” or “Mandarin” line at the Jungle Cruise to hear those tired, corny jokes in a different language. OK, so there’s no Matterhorn or Pirates of the Caribbean, but when was the last time you ate smoked duck legs and curry fish balls in Anaheim or Orlando?

2. Crash in Kowloon – Thanks to cheap taxis, the even cheaper Star Ferry and the affordable, easily navigable Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, your first choice of a hotel location needn’t be Hong Kong island. Consider staying across Victoria Harbour in more colorful and earthy Kowloon. If you do and money is no object, look into the Intercontinental or Peninsula, located adjacent to the waterfront and that iconic view of central Hong Kong’s skyline. Kowloon, like many big, old cities, has hotels with rates on both ends of the scale. The sweet spot for us in the middle is the Dorsett in the less tony Mongkok area. By observation, this contemporary-style, moderately priced 285-unit gem is Kowloon’s best-kept secret among Americans. The rooms are small, but modern and immaculate. Complimentary shuttle service takes guests on a loop to all the landmarks on this side of the harbor, and two MTR stations are within walking distance. Breakfast, Wi-Fi and an in-room loner cell phone are free and fantastic. The staff is super. Oh, did I mention the hotel is 100 percent smoke-free? That, as you’ll read next, is as rare as a Caucasian in Macau.

3. Behold “The Las Vegas of Asia” – The first observation my 22-year-old son and I made when stepping inside the world’s largest casino was that we were the only white people in the joint. Make that the entire Cotai Strip. Casino hopping from The Venetian Macau to The Parisian to Galaxy Macau, we stood out like MAGA hats in San Francisco. Not that we ever felt unsafe on that busy Friday night. OK, once – until we realized this dude was following us not because we walked away with a HK$1,770 jackpot (roughly US$225), but due to us being a novelty combination of white and American among tens of thousands of native Chinese. Something else quite strange was no one was boozing it up inside the casinos. The free beverages offered by cart-pushing servers weren’t beer, well drinks and cocktails, but tea, coffee and juice. We asked a casino security guard about this, and his response, a generalization about Chinese and liquor, might appear as racist to American readers, so we’ll move on. As for the games, blackjack and poker are barely played among the sea of tables for baccarat, sic bo, mahjong and pai gow. Slot machines have a USB port next to the buttons, and every player we saw was more focused on his or her smartphone than the spinning simulated reels. Locals, we were told, see gambling not as entertainment, but an investment. Hence, the people are eerily stoic. And get this: Smoking is banned on the main gambling, not that I’m complaining. Also unlike Vegas, getting there is by boat. Hour-long ferry rides between Macau and Hong Kong run throughout the day and night.

4. Splurge on custom threads – On the bucket list for many American men is to have a suit custom made in Hong Kong. Few get the chance to fulfill this wish. The serious-minded will undoubtedly search up Punjab House, Raja House and Sam’s. These are three of the most famous tailors, and with lofty prices to match. Here’s one that does fine work at a better price: Yuen’s Tailor in Central Hong Kong. Based on shelves and shelves of orders from around the world – kept in scrapbooks since the beginning – this two-man shop is distinguished among the distinguished, late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among them. The bespoke blazers, suit and shirts brothers Johnny and Bonny made for my son and me are the best-fitting we’ve ever worn. Starting out as apprentices in the 1960s, the brothers wear their dedication to the craft on their sleeves. Give the men a week and you’ll get the multiple fittings necessary to have things done right. They’re not cheap; my lightweight, full-canvas (no glue) suit was on the low end at a grand. But for this portly bloke to look slimmer thanks to the brothers’ wizardry with wool, the premium spent over off-the-rack is worth it. Says Johnny, “I have no fat clients.”

5. Browse on the street, buy in Shenzhen – Take it from a guy who just got back from his 10th trip to Hong Kong in 15 years, the street markets there aren’t what they used to be. Two of the most popular, the daytime Stanley Market on the South Coast and Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon, have gone down in size, selection and fun, and the merchants now seem to be either apathetic or downright testy if you bargain too much. The street markets are still worth checking out for first-timers, but if you’re planning to do real shopping, consider getting a Chinese visa weeks in advance so you can buck the guide books and head north a couple of hours to Shenzhen for bric-a-brac, electronics, shoes, clothes and luxury items of questionable origin. Your first purchase should be a cheap suitcase, which will no doubt be filled by day’s end. Take the MTR or the more relaxing ferry to any of a number of bustling shopping areas ready to test your patience and haggling skills.

If You Go

Hong Kong Tourism Board – discoverhongkong.com

Hong Kong Disneyland – hongkongdisneyland.com

Dorsett Mongkok – mongkok.dorsetthotels.com

Yuen’s Tailor – yuenstailor.com

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Run South of the Border to Cabo

By David Dickstein  |  2018-02-06

El Farallon is considered the best restaurant in Cabo San Lucas. Photo by David Dickstein

Cancun and Cozumel have a cool factor stronger than the finest blue agave tequila. For us Sacramentans, however, getting to Mexico’s most popular hot spots means a 4,000-mile trek as the crow and a couple of planes fly.

On the other side of the country, south of our California border, is a comparable vacation destination that’s half the distance and number of flights. In fact, Aeromexico, United, Delta and American can get you from here to there in about six hours.

Located on the tip of the 800-mile long Baja California Peninsula, with the Sea of Cortez on one shore and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Cabo and its alluring coast have all the ingredients for a jalapeno-hot holiday in the Mexican Riviera.

Where to Stay

Love the gorgeous Hacienda-style grounds, walkable proximity to the exciting marina district and enticing schedule of family entertainment, imaginative kids club activities and adult-exclusive experiences. But what’s really to adore about the 386-unit Playa Grande Resort is its pristine sandy beach. Not a vendor in sight! Muchas gracias, Mother Nature.

Due to very strong currents, undertow and waves on that side of the Pacific, swimming is prohibitado along Solmar Beach and neighboring Pedregal Beach. True, the absence of annoying hawkers does come at the price of not taking a dip when enjoying the rays. On the flipside, the price of your accommodations desirably comes at a lower price. Oceanview one-bedroom deluxe suites start at under $200 a night, a value stretched by myriad activities throughout Playa Grande’s eight well-manicured acres.

For adults by day there’s aquaerobics, bracelet making, pool or beach volleyball, Zumba and bartending classes, for starters. From the “Things I Couldn’t Do in School Department,” consider taking a Spanish lesson while tossing back a cold Corona with lime at the pool bar. For a nominal fee, the daily children’s program keeps kids 5 through 12 busy with activities that include treasure hunts, face painting, arts and crafts, and pool fun.

If heading downtown for dinner and entertainment doesn’t float your boat one particular night, then saunter toward the shore for “Fiesta Mexicana” on Mondays and a happening beach party on Wednesdays. Both feature an expansive buffet, live entertainment and a fiery grand finale, as in fireworks or a fire-dancing show. Cost is $44 per person or $35 if purchased at least a day in advance. Other nights feature special dinners at the property’s various fine restaurants.

Meal plans starting at under $100 can transform your stay as something closer to all-inclusive, which is the norm at several top Cabo resorts. Being given the option is welcome for guests wanting to spread their wanderlusting wings.

Where to Play

If you desire a swimmable beach and don’t mind shoeing off pests peddling “silver” jewelry, “Cuban” cigars and “handcrafted” Mexican folk art, a short cab ride or long walk away is resort- and cantina-lined Medano Beach. By water taxi is the more secluded Lover’s Beach near the famous stone arch Los Arcos.

Nearly every watersport enjoyed by Cabo visitors begins and ends at Medano. Parasailing, Jet Skiing, snorkeling, whale watching and glass bottom boat tours are as easy to book there as ordering a tequila shot. The overrun of operators is a problem, actually, as the uninformed and gullible can be taken for a ride – and not a happy one.

Helping minimize confusion and the risks of overpaying and, worse, putting yourself in an unsafe situation, is Cabo San Lucas Tours. Partnerships with legitimate, competition-driven operators benefit customers with lower prices, convenience and, when necessary, problem solving. Case in point: Aries Water Sports put us on the wrong water taxi for a Wave Runner experience. Their error cost us an entire afternoon, though an open-water transfer from the wabbly water taxi to the rocking parasailing boat, and then back again 30 seconds after the blunder was discovered, was the stuff of Hollywood stunt men. Still, being subjected to this bonus adventure was unacceptable. Making a long, multilingual story short, Cabo San Lucas Tours handled the issue, refunding our prepaid Wave Runner rentals and booking us for the next day at Aries’ expense.

Cabo San Lucas Tours also got our business for an awesome Migrano Desert and Beach off-road adventure with Amigos Tours. The 1 1/2-hour journey over mountain, desert and beach terrain is a blast and highly recommended thanks to Amigos’ well-maintained Polaris RZR vehicles and cool, yet professional guides.

If you want to be one with the world’s largest fish, Cabo Adventures offers a full-day tour consisting of a 2-hour drive north to the seaside city of La Paz, from which a boat takes thrill-seekers to where whale sharks of roughly 30 feet long feed on massive amounts of plankton and other small organisms, but not humans. Snorkeling inches away from these gentle giants is magical and memorable. Cabo San Lucas Tours made booking this life-changing experience inexpensive and easy, and took care of our shuttle vans to and from the airport and hotel, too.

Where to Eat

El Farallon is Spanish for “the sea cliff,” and while that’s a fine name for the restaurant based on its dramatic coastal setting, also applicable would be “La Perfeccion” because every aspect of this gastronomic gem is perfect. Superbly prepared food and drinks, professional and attentive service, and a location so spectacular it’s on every YouTube video featuring the world’s most scenic restaurants, El Farallon is a standout among hotel restaurants – and what a hotel, the five-star Resort at Pedregal. Ordering is off chalkboard menus in fish market style with what’s been caught by local fisherman displayed on mounds of ice. Parrot fish and totoaba were standouts one evening, as was everything coming out of Executive Chef Gustavo Pinet’s kitchen. Not toasting to the good life with at least one of 15 labels poured at the Champagne Terrace is sacrilegious for those able to imbibe.

Also recommended:

  • Maria Corona – Try the signature mole chicken or the Molcajete Trilogy with flank steak, chicken breast and shrimp sautéed with green, yellow and red bell peppers, cactus leaves, regional cheese and baby onions)
  • La Golondrina – Begin as you must, but end with the bananas flambe and Mexican coffee, both made tableside with pomp and circumstance.
  • Mi Casa – A favorite is the signature El Chile en Nogada, a traditional dish of roasted and peeled chile poblano stuffed with meats, seeds and dried fruits.
  • Gordo Lele – Owner-cook-singer Javier Ramos will fill your stomach, eyes, ears and heart with the cheapest eats and most sincere live entertainment in town. His $1.30 chicken tacos and $2.39 carne asada tortas are only outdone by his stylings of Beatles and Elvis tunes.

If you go:

  • Playa Grande Resort – playagranderesort.com
  • Cabo San Lucas Tours – cabosanlucastours.net
  • El Farallon – theresortatpedregal.com/diningsite/elfarallon
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Key West: A Breath of Fresh American Air

By David Dickstein  |  2017-11-08

Key West Aquarium is home to 100 species of marine life. Photo by David Dickstein

With growing concern over cruise passenger safety in certain foreign Caribbean ports, Key West is a breath of fresh American air. No unlicensed cab drivers or tour guides screaming for your attention as you leave the port, no violence associated with drug cartels, and no concerns over drinking the water. And one more plus for U.S. citizens: no passport required.

So, while Key West has the makings of a Yankee doodle dandy cruise port, don’t for an All-American minute think it drips with mom, baseball and apple pie. In this southernmost corner of the continental United States, a mere 90 miles from Cuba, it’s more like Ernest Hemingway, sport fishing and key lime pie.

The aspirational phrase of “One Human Family” is Key West’s official motto, but if the community needs a temporary slogan to capture its inclusive and stalwart spirit post-Irma, it should be “Open for Everyone’s Business.” The port welcomed cruise ships only two weeks after the devastating Category 4 hurricane at its historic 130 mph winds pummeled the Florida Keys. Fortunately for the tourist destination, Key West fared better many of its neighbors as landfall on Sept. 10 was 20 miles to the east. Structural damage was minimal, but the colorful city of 23,000 full-time residents still dealt with the loss of electricity and access to clean water. Not that Key West doesn’t have experience making do already; located closer to Havana than Miami, and with just one road connecting it to the mainland, being independent and plucky comes with the tropical territory.

So is being laidback. Visitors wanting a taste of that Key West lifestyle will find it easier than one of the countless “gypsy chickens” that freely strut around town. And while Key West doesn’t judge those who vacation in the slow lane, the beauty of this town is it also appeals to tourists looking for more to do than just nibble on sponge cake and watch the sun bake, to borrow from Jimmy Buffett’s signature song, “Margaritaville,” partially written here. For the in-betweeners, here’s some recommendations:

  • Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum – Never mind that Debbie Downer types discount the American novelist’s Key West years as among his weakest and least productive – Mr. Hemingway’s pristinely maintained home of roughly 10 years is still a must-see. An hour-long guided tour ($14 adults) pays respect to the Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner’s storied life as a Floridian, from the works he penned here, including “To Have and Have Not,” to his six-toed cats, some with descendants that still roam the grounds in hopes of purring on the laps of feline-loving visitors.
  • Helicopter tours are often the most expensive shore excursions on the list, but Air Adventures makes the thrill affordable with rides starting at $69. Visitors coming by land or sea take to the air to spot dolphins, stingrays, sea turtles and other marine life.
  • Harry S Truman Little White House – Odds are that Donald Trump will eventually pick Florida for his presidential library, but until then, Truman’s winter White House remains as the Sunshine State’s only presidential museum. The 33rd commander in chief spent 175 days of his term here, mostly on doctor’s orders to be in a warm climate. Originally built in 1890 on what was a naval station, the house was converted from an officer’s quarters to a single-family dwelling in 1911. One year later William Taft became the first president to visit, and since then four others have signed the guestbook in addition to Truman. Tours run several times daily.
  • Key West Aquarium – Key West’s first tourist attraction is humble with just over 100 specials of fish, turtles and birds, and its most popular spots are a touch tank and wherever there are feedings. The Monterey Bay Aquarium it’s not, so don’t think you need to spend the day there or $50 for an adult ticket. Here, we’re talking an hour or two and $14. Yep, old school … of fish.
  • Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory – Lepidopterophobics and ornithophobics beware, but for everyone else, seeing 60 butterfly species and 20 exotic bird species flutter around a glass-enclosed habitat should be highly enjoyable and relaxing. The attraction ($12 adults) doubles as a climate-controlled botanical garden with cascading waterfalls. An art gallery and learning center add to the experience.
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium – Disproving the myth that if you’ve seen one Odditorium you’ve seen them all, the Key West attraction ($17 adults) has at least two things the other 30-plus don’t: a shrunken human torso and a typewriter once owned by Hemingway. There’s plenty more that’s cool and amazing as spread across 10,000 square feet and two floors on touristy Duval Street. If the taxidermized two-headed animals and vampire-killing kit don’t excite you, the hour or two of air-conditioning will.

A fun and relatively easy way to get to these and other points of interest is the Old Town Trolley ($31 adults). Pick it up at any of 12 stops, then hop off and hop on as you wish or stay on to get the full 90-minute tour. Stop 11 takes you to the butterflies and the most obligatory and falsely advertised picture spot in town: the giant concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S. The true point is on a private island 10 miles farther south, but let’s not share that spoiler with those waiting in line for the ultimate Key West selfie.

Adding in the array of watersports on or in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, not to mention restaurants, bars and stores with more character than a Hemingway novel, Key West has plenty to offer the day-tripping cruiser, the week-long vacationer, or whatever duration of stay your little, wanderlustful heart desires.

Check it out at: Florida Keys Tourism Council: fla-keys.com

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Specialty Dining on Celebrity Cruises: Worth it?

By David Dickstein  |  2017-09-22

Celebrity Equinox, shown docked in Costa Maya, Mexico, features several specialty dining options. Photo by David Dickstein

You paid for your meals when you booked your cruise, yet the upselling of specialty dining packages literally begins the minute you set foot on the ship. Regulars aboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and NCL ships have come to expect being hounded early and often – that’s mainstream-category cruising for you. But et tu premium cruise lines?

For much of my recent seven-day Western Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox, it was virtually impossible to avoid a kiosk manned by a waiter/salesperson who by pushing a dining package is basically admitting that the food choices included in your fare are inferior. How aggressive is the hawking of food and drink packages on Celebrity these days? Swear to Poseidon, a crew member was even targeting passengers walking down the stairs during the mandatory muster drill – a first for this now-21-time cruiser.

So, here’s the 64,000-calorie question: “Are Celebrity’s specialty restaurants worth the additional money?”

If you asked me after my 10-day Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity’s Solstice-class Reflection, I’d say probably not, and that’s not a slight on the specialty restaurants. Ninety-eight percent of what was served in the main dining room, buffet, Blu (a restaurant exclusive to AquaClass guests) and Luminae (for suite dwellers) was fantastic. The “free” food being so outstanding on Reflection made dining at one of the ship’s six specialty dining venues a nice-to-do.

Upgrading lunches and dinners was often a must-do aboard the Equinox, however. If it wasn’t the coconut-crusted ham and banana-stuffed chicken breast in the Chicken Chiquita tasting rubbery in the Silhouette dining room, it was barbecue sauce overpowered with either A-1 or Worcestershire sauce in the Oceanview Café buffet. At Blu, the lobster tail was overly salty, twice, and flavorless was the plantain soup. Admittedly, these all are “first-world problems.” But when you’re paying more for premium-class cruising, one shouldn’t have to return or pass on five dishes by Day 3.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Like a culinary lifesaver thrown in the direction of cruisers with discerning tastes and standards, it was Murano to the rescue. The guarantee of an incredible 5-star dining experience is worth the $50 per person cover charge. A contemporary twist on French cuisine is served in an atmosphere of unpretentious elegance. Starters include a warm goat cheese soufflé, Wellington-style diver scallops and a Maine lobster bisque that wisely puts the dissolvable dollop of cognac cream on the side. Entrees prepared tableside, always a special treat, include the Dover sole Veronique (who says deboning fish is a lost art?), chateaubriand with béarnaise and cabernet sauce (so good we had it for an encore visit) and the signature Murano lobster, a cognac-flambéed tail with fresh basil, applewood smoked bacon and a Dijon cream that, because I’m not a mustard fan, was substituted with tomato sauce for our return. Save room for the Grand Marnier soufflé and the Les VI Etoiles du Murano, a selection of six distinctive desserts served in shot glasses. Ships with Murano: Eclipse, Equinox, Reflection, Silhouette and Solstice.

Tuscan Grille is an Italian steakhouse that capitalizes on its far bow location with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that line the back of the restaurant. A modern rustic décor enhances a menu featuring 100 percent galley-made pastas, artisanal salumi and cheeses, butcher-cut meats and an extensive Italian wine list. Recommendations: (starters) crispy calamari rings, super-tender beef carpaccio and a gorgeous antipasti board; (entrees) pappardelle with ragu-braised short rib, a European seabass called branzino and the ribeye steak. So large are the portions at Tuscan Grille that we were actually thankful the tiramisu was bland and undeserved of a second bite. Ships with Tuscan Grille ($45 cover charge): Constellation, Eclipse, Equinox, Infinity, Millennium, Reflection, Silhouette, Solstice and Summit.

Sorely missed on our most recent Celebrity cruise was the most unique specialty restaurant in the fleet. Qsine serves up a whimsical “dining journey” that begins with ordering from iPads and ends with picking your own chocolate-covered strawberry from a field of grass strapped to your “tour guide” (don’t call them servers). In between are the shareable courses of tasty tapas you selected, but the order in which they are served is out of your hands. If you order nothing else, get the sushi lollipops dusted with Nacho Cheese Doritos, pulled pork spring rolls (served upright in wire springs), and M’s Favorites, a sample of Mediterranean dishes that comes in an open-air case with 12 compartments. Ships with Qsine ($45 cover charge): Eclipse, Infinity, Millennium, Reflection, Silhouette and Summit.

The space occupied by Qsine on Reflection is home to Silk Harvest on Equinox. The calming qualities of soft Asian décor and matching instrumental music plus a Zen-like staff made this a wise first-night choice for dinner after dealing with unpleasant port workers and a handful of rude Celebrity crew members. Food-wise, Silk Harvest scores with its siracha-drizzled rock shrimp tempura – crispy and zingy – and perfect cream cheese wontons. The rest of our order didn’t go as well. When paying extra, the pad thai shouldn’t be mushy, the chicken satay boring and the orange chicken just plain blech. Ships with Silk Harvest ($35 per person): Equinox and Solstice.

The dining packages peddled ad nauseum do save you money. On week-long cruises, a three-meal package runs $109 and the seven-night “Ultimate Package” costs $199. Depending on the ship, other specialty restaurants on Celebrity can include the open-air Lawn Club Grill ($45) where you can be the grill master; The Porch ($25) for fresh seafood; and Sushi on Five (a la carte prices) that serves up the best rolls and sashimi this side of luxury-category cruising.

If You Go

Celebrity Cruises: 800-647-2251, www.celebrity.com.

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Best Mediterranean Cruise Ports

By David Dickstein  |  2017-03-02

Tsambika Beach has the right amount of people and services in Rhodes. 
--Photo by David Dickstein

(Third of three parts)

Picking out just 10 favorite Mediterranean ports is like choosing only a pound of chocolates at See’s Candies. They’re all so marvelous, orange cream and Marseilles excluded.

We’ve covered Rome, Athens, Naples, Barcelona, Florence and Santorini, in that order, and now it’s time to round things out. So, without further ado, here’s Nos. 6-10 as discovered during back-to-back 10-day Mediterranean cruises aboard the resplendent Celebrity Reflection and remarkable Carnival Vista.

#7: Rhodes

What does the Grecian port of Rhodes have in common with Disneyland? Walk off the ship or through the turnstile and in 5 minutes you can enter a castle-like fortress where fun, food and souvenirs await. Just don’t expect to see Mickey Mouse in Rhodes – hungry feral cats abound within the 2 1/2 miles of 40-foot-thick medieval walls. Look passed the cafes serving pizza and spas where “doctor fish” nibble on the dead skin of tourists’ feet, and Rhodes’ Old Town resembles a bona fide Turkish bazaar – and for good reason: Turkey is just 11 miles away and bound by 300 years of influence.

Exploring Old Town can easily be done on your own and minutes off the boat, but getting to the second-most visited attraction in Rhodes – the beautiful, yet tourist-jammed ancient city of Lindos – requires ample time and wheels since the 35-mile trek each way takes about 45 minutes, longer during peak season that runs April through September. Crowds will also have you deciding whether the Acropolis, site of a temple to the goddess Athena, is worth hiking up a narrow and sometimes thronged and treacherous path. Donkeys can carry you up in exchange for 5 euros and your PETA membership card.

Rhodes is known for its collection of stunning beaches and shapely sun worshippers, so if taking a dip in hot Greece sounds good, avoid built-up Faliraki Beach if you have the time to go farther south to a less-congested shore. Located halfway between the ship and Lindos is Tsambika Beach, which has just enough tavernas serving grub and grog, free Wi-Fi, and lounge chairs, umbrellas and aquatic equipment for rent. The southern end is more serene and where nudists laugh in the face of melanoma.

If visiting Tsambika Beach, Lindos and Old Town sounds like a perfect day, which it was on my return trip there, do it in that order so you’re among the first ones at the ocean, and book a private driver before leaving home. Highly recommended is Taxi Rhodes, which charged 180 euros for 6 hours that began at 9 a.m. sharp dockside and ended with a sas efcharistó and antio – thank you and goodbye – just outside Old Town where we took it from there. Manolis Kiaourtzis couldn’t have been a better and more intuitive driver, guide and representative of this top Mediterranean port.

#8: Kusadasi

One could easily spend the entire day within walking distance of the ship in Kusadasi, Turkey. The port’s vibrant and secure shopping center and adjacent retailers are chockablock with such local specialties as carpets, silk pashmina and ceramics. If you’re ever tempted to skip a pre-paid lunch on the ship, this is the place. It’s hard to beat hospitable Guverte Restaurant for seafood (try the grouper), coffee (Turkish, of course) and Facebook-worthy photos of your floating hotel from across the marina.

But let’s talk Turkey: Cruise ships don’t call on Kusadasi because of what’s in and around the port. The emphasis here is Ephesus. Once home to philosophers, gladiators and rulers, the ancient city is rich in ruinous architecture and history, and a fleet of buses parked on the other side of the gangway can take you there in 30 minutes. Nearly every shore excursion offered through the cruise lines includes a visit to what’s considered one of the world’s most magnificent and best-preserved archaeological sites. There’s usually a no-frills 3 1/2-hour-long tour to appease your inner Clark Griswold (think Grand Canyon), and a few with durations of over 8 hours for those wishing to immerse themselves in the Greek Dark Ages to Late Middle Ages of 10th century BC to 15th century AD. Longer tours often include a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary, where the blessed mother of Jesus is reputed to have spent her final years of life. The less devout and gullible will likely deem this add-on a tourist trap. Cynics also may be turned off to the obligatory carpet demonstration that’s usually tacked onto a ship-booked tour. But don’t make a dash for the exit too quickly; learning about traditional hand-made rugs is actually pretty cool if you ignore the high-pressure sales tactics. If nothing else, enjoy the free apple tea.

#9: Mykonos

A dearth of shore excursion options is actually part of the allure of this Greek island, a destination Lonely Planet keenly observed as one that “flaunts its sizzling St. Tropez-meets-Ibiza style and party-hard reputation.” Any nightlife will have begun long after it’s anchors aweigh for you since larger cruise ships are gone by sundown, but a hip vibe permeates even in daytime, as does traditional Greek charm.

Tours of ancient Delos, birthplace of the god Apollo, and shuttles to wonderful beaches get some takers, but most visitors who get off the boat hoof it to Old Town to stroll the narrow streets that lead to boutiques, museums, cafes, pastry shops, churches and a few surprises. Many get flat-out lost thanks to a centuries-old defense scheme designed to thwart would-be invaders. The town is plotted as a maze, and a total whitewash of its buildings plus a street system that would delight Sarah Winchester make navigation challenging even for tourists with GPS. Not to worry – the Aegean Sea or a friendly local will stop you from going too astray.

#10: Crete

First impressions of Crete being a loser port are understandable, especially if judging by high Mediterranean standards. Heck, even the cruise lines’ list of shore excursions is mediocre for a place where Hercules once roamed. To this point, the “Best of Crete” tour is highlighted by a visit to the Palace of Knossos that disappoints for being overly restored and lacking in original antiquities. But give the home to Europe’s earliest civilization a chance, because the ho-hum-sounding tours give you a rare, stress-free opportunity to assimilate with the locals.

There’s no easier, cheaper or quicker way to do that than taking the hop-on hop-off open-top busses of Heraklion Sightseeing Tours. For just 20 euros (15 if you buy online in advance or cut a deal with the ticket seller), you’re taken on a loop around Crete’s capital and Greece’s fourth-largest city. Any of the 11 stops is a starting and ending point, technically, but the official one is just off the ship. After quick stops by a medieval fortress and a small, but decent aquarium, consider getting off to truly soak up indigenous culture and color. Pop in a grocery store, where the most unusual items are often in the produce and meat sections. Check out the butcher’s skinned rabbit destined for a Greek stew called stifado. Like dinner, if you’re not in a hopping mood simply stay on the bus and enjoy the multilingual recorded narration uninterrupted; you’ll be back to the ship in an hour.

If You Go

Carnival Cruises, www.carnival.com

Celebrity Cruises, www.celebritycruises.com

Taxi Rhodes, www.taxi-rhodes.com

Heraklion Sightseeing Tour, www.her-openbus.gr

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