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Friday File: Caribbean Calling In Winter

In case the resident weather systems haven’t prompted you to look south — or anywhere — for a break from mid-winter, this is a good time to drool over some of the luscious, hot, picturesque, sandy, enticing places you can visit when you take a Caribbean cruise. And if that doesn’t tempt you to book one…well, maybe you’re just content to stay home and shovel!

Before departureIs there a more photographic rock formation than at Cabo San Lucas?

St. MaartenIt seems everybody has a boat in the popular port of St. Maarten

TulumGazing at the Gulf of Mexico from the Maya ruins of Tulum, Mexico

Cayman IslandsA watering hole called Paradise in the Grand Cayman Islands

Mahogany BayPrivacy is available at beautiful Mahogany Bay in Roatan, Honduras

CozumelThis pretty part of Cozumel is worth taking a drive to the north shore

In the news…

• Norwegian Edge: 2-year, $400-million refurbishing program for 9 ships
• Holland America’s new brand campaign called ‘Savour The Journey’
• Sea trials complete for Holland America’s new 2,650-passenger Koningsdam

Today at portsandbows.comRefurbishing the Carnival Inspiration

Holland America Maasdam
7 nights
April 19, 2016
Fort Lauderdale (return): Half Moon Cay, Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman, Cozumel
Inside: $549
Cost per day: $78

Riviera Maya’s El Cid — Especial!

PUERTO MORELOS, Mexico — It has been a long time since we’d been cruising on land…

Cruising on land?

The closest thing you’ll find to a cruise without the water under the room in which you’re sleeping is at an all-inclusive resort, and there are likely more of them than there are Resort-5cruise ships. We hadn’t been at one for almost 30 years, not for any particular reason, but when Family Reunion Time came along this year the decision-makers settled on an all-inclusive.

That was to become El Cid.

There are six El Cid resorts in Mexico — four in Mazatlan, one in Cozumel and this one, in a sleepy little town called Puerto Morelos, which is halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen along the Maya Riviera. The name comes not from a movie now 44 years old, but from the legendary Spanish hero of the 11th century, El Cid, who is still revered today.

JulioIt was founded by the late Julio Berdegue Aznar, who grew up in Madrid and became a political refugee in Mexico during the Spanish Civil War, Highly educated, he developed the business that his two sons operate. At this El Cid, the operations manager is Ricardo Bustamante Altamirano (Ricardo for short), a bundle of energy who is as proud of the company’s heritage as he is of the Puerto Morelos resort.

Ricardo-1“It is one hundred per cent Mexican,” he says. “What distinguishes us is the service, also the quality of food and drinks. We don’t buy the cheapest food and we don’t buy the cheapest liquor. The company always treats employees with a lot of respect. When you do, the Riviera Maya is like a gold mine.”

Ricardo spent a year in the cruise business, as a bar waiter on Royal Caribbean’s old Sovereign of the Seas. His resort reflects a cruise ship in its cleanliness, its service and its “mass-market” food.

One employee we encountered said the reason he worked at El Cid is that it’s booked “90 per cent of the year” while others in this area are more seasonal.

Booked means filling 428 rooms, a number that will grow to 700 in two years, and there will be another main building.

It’s easy to see why.

In a week at El Cid, the two seniors only left twice, walking 30 minutes on country roads to Puerto Morelos. That wasn’t the plan. It was the reality. This all-inclusive — perhaps like others — has a large pool bubbling with activity most of the time, sit-down restaurants, programs for kids who need to be supervised by non-parents, a beach with more water things-to-do and food 24/7. What impressed us was that after a week, we wanted to stay.

There are 12 in our family and we pretty much covered the gamut of things to do. Kayaking (included) was over at the beach. Snorkeling ($20 each, from a Puerto Morelos vendor) meant going out to the world’s second-biggest coral reef. Maya ruins (also not included) was more than an hour’s drive to Coba, and well-worth the trip. The zoo — CrocodileCrococun — was a short cab ride and in-zoo guides are mandatory, if for no other reason than for protection from crocodiles, 33 of them, that are just off the path you’re walking.

This was spring break, so the place was buzzing with families, but it didn’t feel crowded. Not unlike being on a cruise ship like Oasis of the Seas and feeling there was plenty of room for its 6,000 passengers. Just like on cruise ships, somebody is cleaning all the time, and not just in the front rooms, where you could eat off the floors. Ricardo took us on a behind-the-scenes tour that was revealing in the degree to which employees go in the clean department. 

The main pool (there is also an infinity pool) was exceptional. This is not a lap pool, it’s a fun pool. With small children and at least a couple of non-swimming adults in our family, it Infinity Pool 2was perfect. There is plenty of space and, yes, loungers draped with “reserve” towels that nobody ever seems to use.

The rooms are spacious, too, and all easily accessible from the pool. Room service is unbeatable. There are four restaurants to go with the buffet, all of them good but in hindsight we found the Mediterranean one, El Alcazar, the tastiest…perhaps in part because Luis and friendsof a delightful server named Luis. Presentation was exceptional. The buffet is…well, buffet food. When you’re dealing with hundreds of people and perhaps dozens of dietary restraints, there’s only so much you can do with the flavor of buffet servings — the “chefs” El Alcazarin charge of the ready-made hot dishes always seemed to be trying to do the work of two people.

And just like cruise ships, hot toast is a problem on shore, too.

The Riviera Maya El Cid is nine years old. Its opening was delayed by category 4 Hurricane Wilma. There was water in the rooms and the kitchen doors were blown off. Ricardo, a lifer in the hospitality business, spent three months working in Mazatlan until the new El Cid was ready. Another deadly storm — the tsunami that swept through the waters of Asia — was critical in El Cid’s growth.

“Ever since then,” says Ricardo, “all year long people come to the Riviera Maya instead of crossing the Pacific.”

Capacity is about 1,400 people, which happens at Christmas, and 80 per cent of the Resort-7customers are either Canadian or American. While the prices vary like cruises do, they’re generally in the same ballpark, per person.

We’ve been telling people how much this family enjoyed El Cid…and now we’ve just told thousands more.

Today at portsandbows.com: Godmother tunes up Anthem's christening

Diamond Princess
8 nights
June 6, 2015
Kobe (return): OkinawaHualienKaohsiungTaipei
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $99

Juan Great Way to See Tulum


TULUM, Mexico — Tulum is not out first rodeo. We'd seen "ruins" before this stop. It is our third rodeo, now that you ask, and all three ruins (Chacchoben and Altun Ha) have been in the Yucatan Peninsula and all have been left behind by the Maya. If nothing else, we're consistent. Friends are starting to wonder if we're going to buy into the end-of-the-world thing…from two months ago.

That's one misconception about the Mayas. They did not predict the world would end on December 21, 2012, only that it marked the end of their calendar (left). Nobody thought to mention that the calendar would start over again, but the marketing of December 21 took over, and everybody has to make a buck, right. 

Even if it is at the expense of the Maya.

Did you notice the "n" is missing? That's another misconception about these people of the past in North and Central America. They are Mayas, not Mayans. Tulum and places like it are Maya Ruins, not Mayan Ruins. It is the Maya language…and so on…and the source of this is Juan Manuel Trejo, who would be Maya except half of him is Spanish, and that makes him Mestizo, which is a nice way of saying a "mixed race."

"There is no 'n' in Maya," he says. "If it says Mayan, it is because of English."

After we left the Crown Princess in Cozumel, Juan was the tour guide in Tulum. In our two previous "rodeos" we never had a tour guide like him. He is absolutely passionate about everything Maya. He wears two necklaces, one bearing the name of his wife (Gloria) and the other of his daughter (Alexandra). Their names are imbedded on the necklaces in Maya.

Of course.

Juan is also a bright guy. He probably does this for other cruise lines, but Princess is lucky to have him doing Maya tours for passengers who get off the Crown Princess in Cozumel. The busload he educates and entertains on this day return to the ship shaking their heads at his knowledge, his turn of phrase and most importantly his passion for his past.

"I am 60 per cent Maya," he says. "I didn't really learn this until I went to school to be a tour guide, but when I learned it I realized that I already knew. I was taught by my father, and my grandmother, about the Maya."

What he knows (as much as anyone can KNOW something that virtually disappeared as a civilization 300 years ago) is that the Mayas were ahead of their time in writing, in astronomy and in developing a calendar…they just didn't have the foresight all those centuries ago to create one going beyond 2012.

"The greatest accomplishment of the Maya civilization is the writing," says Juan. "Of all the native Americans people, they were the only ones who knew how to read and write."

His explanation of the Maya calendar is fascinating. It's too long to explain here but after hearing it visitors can't get into a souvenir stop fast enough to buy something, anything, with the calendar on it (us included). Okay, so maybe Juan's a good salesman, too.

He refers to Tulum as the Notre Dame of the Maya, the San Pedro of the Maya or the Stonehedge of the Maya — all three analogies were invoked at various parts of Juan's tour. He is almost grateful to be doing what he does.

"Tourists go to Cancun," says Juan. "Travellers go to Tulum."

There was only one question Juan Manuel Trejo could not answer. There is no "n" in Maya, yet on the sleeve of his tour-guide shirt promoting what he does were these words:

"Mayan Ruins."

Royal Caribbean Majesty of the Seas
3 nights
May 31, 2013
Miami (return): Coco Cay, Nassau
Inside: $269
Cost per day: $89

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