Sunday, June 28, 2009

This week: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

My Good Intentions Drowned at the Swim-Up Bar

When I travel, I want to have an adventure, see the beautiful and do the unexpected. So when my husband and I decided to go to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for our vacation, I imagined great travel experiences. Were they there? Absolutely. The town where “Night of the Iguana” was filmed had plenty to offer: jungle treks, cathedrals, shopping, water sports... Did I experience any of them? Nope.

DAY 1: Our first big vacation adventure was the Rhythms of the Night cruise. The boat, called Vallarta Adventure II, followed the coastline as we motored toward a small island where we were going to eat an authentic Mayan dinner and see a performance. From one side of the boat, the town of Puerto Vallarta wound up into the hills, on the other side a beautiful Pacific sunset. As we made our way, you could see the Malecon, or boardwalk, of downtown Puerto Vallarta and on the southern end was the spire of Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. I ran out of film before we even got out of the Banderas Bay.

After an hour, we arrived on a small island. The closest thing I could compare it to was a Hawaiian luau. Dancers dressed in native costumes acted out an ancient myth about how the gods gave man corn. Afterwards dinner was held on the beach. We had fish and chicken, steamed vegetables and a banana pudding for dessert. After dinner, my husband and I walked along the beach lit only by tiki torches. Soon we were herded back on the boat. We had barely left the dock when the captain announced over the loudspeaker it was “Partytime!” and the crew thrust Styrofoam cups of rum punch into our hands. The music was turned up, the lights turned off and we danced and drank the whole hour back to the Marina. Turned out many of the people on the boat were staying at our resort. We met Michael, a regional store manager, and Richard, a guy who had so much money he didn’t have to work, and the “Girls,” a group of 40-something recently single women on a girls-only vacation. We all agreed to meet at the resort pool the next day.

DAY 2: The day began late as we slept off a rum punch hangover. However, we still managed to stake our claim on some prime lounge chairs near the resort swim-up bar. After an hour of lying in the humid, Mexican sun, my husband and I got into the pool to cool off. We waded to the swim-up bar and who should be sitting there, but Michael from the booze cruise. He introduced us to bartender Senior Hector and offered us Pacificos. SEVEN HOURS LATER, we sauntered back up to our room desperate to shower off the chlorine and sweat. We were both loopy from the Pacificos, pruney from the pool and our backs were bright red from the UV rays that reflected off the water as we sat on the underwater bar stools. We had spent the entire afternoon talking to Michael, our new friend from Minnesota who was on his second week in Mexico, and two other travelers we had just met, Allen and Michelle, a brother and sister from California using their parents’ timeshare. After such a tough day we were too tired to go out to dinner. We just got a pizza at a place across the street.

DAY 3: After a good night sleep the next day began like the first only this time we managed to get up and to the pool early. No one was there and the swim-up bar had yet to open. Just then Michael rolled up in his wheelchair with Richard pushing him. (The day before the Rhythms cruise, Michael had tripped on the curb trying to hail a cab and severely twisted his ankle. He would spend his second week in Mexico on crutches.) Apparently Richard had cozied up to one of the “Girls” we met on the cruise and they were going sailing. So, once again it was just Michael and us followed shortly by Allen and Michelle. We debated whether we should order Pacificos or not, after all, it wasn’t noon yet. An eavesdropping voice a few lounge chairs down from us spoke up, “It’s noon somewhere in the world. Might as well start now…” With that settled, Michael ordered Pacificos.

I, however, was determined to avoid the evil swim-up bar. I walked along the beach and checked out the vendors who sell all kinds of things from hash pipes to jewelry to T-shirts. I photographed the rock dikes, which were covered with tiny colorful crabs. I even played beach volleyball with the resort activities staff. Finally, the heat got to me. I saw people sitting at the swim-up bar and I too drifted there by the end of the day. I ordered a margarita and was introduced to two nice young brothers from Wisconsin, who had taken a liking to Michelle, a couple from New Jersey who owned a construction company that did some of the clean up work from the World Trade Center site, and a family of five from England (whose youngest daughter took a liking to Michelle’s brother, Allen). Our new friend Michael said he knew all the best places to eat, drink and dance so we all agreed to go with him downtown for an evening of activities. Finally, something to do besides sit at this damn bar!

The evening began at Fugoso’s restaurant. Michael knew the owner because he dined there whenever he was in Puerto Vallarta. A lovely, young waitress made guacamole from scratch at our table. Then Michael took us to a tiny bar called Kiosco and it was in the center of the Puerto Vallarta flea market. Luis, the bartender, knew Michael by name and took everyone’s drink order. I put him to the test and asked for a Colorado Bulldog. Not only did he know what that was (people in Colorado didn’t even know what it was), but he made the best Bulldog I had ever tasted. He whipped it in a blender and it had a smooth, creamy taste, like a tootsie roll shake. At ten o’clock Luis announced last call and closed down the tiny bar.

We went to Carlos O’Brien’s down the street. We drank and danced, but the place was unbelievably hot and kind of dumpy. We sat in small, uncomfortable wooden chairs around a wobbly wooden table. The sound system was fuzzy. Sure they had pretty tequila girls roaming around and male bartenders that danced on top of the bar with their shirts off, but something wasn’t right. Maybe it was that gift shop in the corner. However, that didn’t stop us from drinking a lot of Coronas.

DAY 4: We were supposed to take a Jeep jungle tour this morning. A taxi was to pick us up at 8:15 a.m. I woke up at 8:05 and asked my husband if he wanted to go.
“Good, me neither.”

Just like the previous day, we met everyone at the swim-up bar and ordered Pacificos from Senior Hector. However, I noticed something…our little group of five had turned into a group of 15. We spent the whole day trading stories, laughing and drinking. We now called Michael “the Cruise Director” and he made arrangements for all of us to dine at Pipi’s, a popular 17-year-old restaurant. We all met in the resort lobby and took a convoy of taxis downtown. When we got there, Pipi had a long table lined up for us. Richard and the “Girls” were going to join us later. Again Michael had picked a winner. My husband thought the menu looked awfully similar to Fugoso’s and began talking to Pipi. Turned out Pipi was the brother of the owner of Fugoso’s, which was the family name. He even pulled out his driver’s license to show us. Good food runs in the family. After dinner, all of us marched down to Kiosco. Luis wasn’t there because he had to study for a test. His friend, Ricardo, served us instead. I asked him for a Colorado Bulldog and he knew how to make it, but it wasn’t as good as Luis’. He didn’t use the blender.

At Kiosco’s 10 p.m. last call, the family from England and the couple from Jersey called it a night, but the rest of us went on to find some excitement. We walked along the Malecon and found the Zoo Bar. What attracted us most was the cool air conditioning blowing from the open doors and windows. Just as we were walking in, Richard and the “Girls” were coming the other way. Michelle and I were having a great time drinking and dancing, that was until one of the “Girls” ordered all of us a shot from the wandering shot girls. The drink was horrible. I assumed it was some kind of tequila with pulpy orange juice, but it could have been sugared turpentine for all I knew. While we took a drink of beer to get the taste out of our mouths, the shot girl talked to us in Spanish. She rubbed her thumb and fingers together.

“She wants payment,” Michelle yelled in my ear. We looked around for the “Girl” who ordered it. She was no where to be seen.

“How much?” I asked. The shot girl answered, but I couldn’t hear her.

“It’s 300 pesos,” Michelle yelled. Twenty-eight dollars???? For three shots???? Plus tip??? Pissed, Michelle and I dug into our pockets

DAY 5: We didn’t wake up until noon. My head pounded from that damn shot. I groggily found a lounge chair and slept off the hangover under the blazing sun. I slept until I heard Senior Hector shouting “Happy hour!” Four o’clock already? I looked for my husband and there he was with Michael at the swim-up bar. He looked over at me, smiled and waved. The swim-up bar had us in its clutches again, but things were different. Allen and Michelle had left for California that morning. The couple from Jersey left this afternoon. Michael was leaving Sunday. And Richard? He liked Puerto Vallarta so much he called a realtor.

As the sun set on another day at the swim-up bar, I reflected on my vacation in Puerto Vallarta. I realized you don’t have to trek through jungles or visit ancient cathedrals to have an experience. We spent time with some wonderful people. So what we never left the swim-up bar.
For more information: Mayan Palace, Puerto Vallarta (See comments for resort review)

Monday, June 22, 2009

This week: Vermont Wedding

My husband’s friend, Michael, moved back to his home state of Vermont from Colorado over a year ago. In that time, he met a girl and fell in love so my husband and I flew across the continent to witness their nuptials in the hill country of Southern Vermont. We had heard how magical Vermont was in the fall, but what would it be like for a June wedding?

Our arrival was greeted with rain, a steady hair-soaking rain. When we got out of the car at Michael’s parents house in northwest woods of Dummerston, there was no other sound, just the white noise of the rain hitting the trees. The leaves and bark glistened with it. While our own state was in middle of a drought and our front yard a lovely shade of brown, Vermont was bursting with green, the ground soupy under our feet.

We spent the evening meeting Michael and his bride, Melanie, and their families. With counters full of home cooking and coolers full of soda and beer, we met all the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins and renewed our friendship with Michael’s big black Great Dane, Boomer. Boomer had spent his puppyhood in Colorado wrestling with (or pounding on, depending on your point of view) my husband’s dog, Jasmine. We didn’t think it was possible, but Boomer had grown bigger and he even had a little gray fur on his chin. He recognized us immediately, bouncing around with delight and bruising everyone around him with his enthusiastic tail.

Late in the evening with the relatives gone, Michael, my husband and I had a chance to chat. For the two former roommates, there was a lot of catching up to do. During the conversation, Christian asked Michael where the wedding would be.

“It’s in the garden at my brother’s house just down the road. I have a map for you.”

“It’s outside, huh. Well, I hope it stops raining,” my husband said.

“It’s been raining nonstop for the last two weeks.”

“What are you gonna do if it doesn’t stop raining?”

Long pause. “We just don’t even talk about it anymore.”

The morning of the wedding, the first thing I noticed upon awakening was the sound, or lack of it. The rain had stopped. I looked out the window for proof it had indeed stopped, but the gray sky was a reminder that it could start again any minute. That morning we enjoyed Michael’s parents’ hospitality with a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes with syrup from their own maple trees. With the rain stopped, we were able to sit on their back deck and watch the hummingbird that buzzed around the feeder Mrs. Chamberlin had put in the yard. As we admired the ancient trees around house connected by syrup tubes, Mrs. Chamberlin told us about the rhododendron bush in her back yard. Michael’s father had helped take care of Rudyard Kipling’s Vermont estate of Naulakha over the years and after pruning some wayward plants, he brought a rhododendron bush home to his wife. She now proudly tells everyone who visits how she acquired the burgundy blossoms.

We promised Michael we’d help him decorate for the wedding so we headed out with his map after lunch. As we drove through the countryside, the dirt roads of Southern Vermont were starting to become familiar. We recognized the small, white church at the fork in the road from yesterday and the road to Michael’s brother’s place wasn’t far past the building marked “sugar shack” on Michael's map, so we knew we were headed in the right direction. Michael and his family humbly called the large wooden building where they processed maple sap into syrup the "sugar shack," but it was known to syrup connoisseurs throughout the country as Barefoot Farms.

Michael’s brother’s house was a large home in a clearing at the end of a long driveway. We could see the white reception tent as we pulled up to the house. Next to the tent was the rented smoker that Michael’s uncles would use to cook everyone’s dinner. All the men hovered around it like Tim the Toolman Taylor trying not to drool on themselves at the prospect of all that grilling. Inside the tent, the tables and chairs had been arranged along with a small dance floor set down. Next to the tent the chairs for the wedding guests were set in tidy rows. Despite their defiant exposure, rain still did not fall.

Christian and I were put to work placing Christmas lights on the small evergreens around the house. Melanie’s sister insisted we put them on just right with no bare spots. Then Christian helped Michael stock a large tub cooler with every kind of beverage from Coke to Champagne while I swept the dance floor. For our last duty we placed the centerpieces on the tables.

That evening the ceremony was held in front of a flowerbed, which served as the altar, with a row of flowering plants hanging from large metal hooks on each side. Beyond, facing east, were the rolling green hills of Vermont, which at some point on the horizon turned into New Hampshire, very different from the jagged, red rocks that served as the back drop for my own wedding. Above us the gray clouds grew whiter and whiter by the minute. As the guests arrived, patches of blue peeked between the clouds. By the time the minister arrived, the clouds had parted and blue sky finally prevailed. The crowning touch was the sun showing itself and making every color in the garden turn 10 times brighter. Everyone thanked the minister, but he insisted he had nothing to do with it. It was simply “God’s will,” he said.

With this spectacular backdrop, we watched the happy couple wed followed by a celebration under the tent. After sunset the Christmas lights we worked on so diligently sparkled around the grounds along with the stars in the sky. Twelve hours ago, I didn’t think there would be this beautiful day behind me. I am still in awe of how the Vermont sky relented just before Michael and Melanie exchanged their vows and feel so fortunate I was able to share it. Vermont is truly a magical place.

For more information: Dummerston, Vermont & Naulakha House

Thursday, June 11, 2009

This week: Jost van Dyke, BVI

Seconds after disembarking the ferry on Jost van Dyke, the excitement of getting our passports stamped wore off. Despite all the boats anchored in the bay, we saw no people…anywhere. During the ride, a ferry worker said there were only 200 permanent residents on this 4-square mile island. One hundred and ninety-nine to go after meeting the customs agent. With no other transportation than our feet we began to walk. It was ten in the morning and the ferry wouldn’t return until three that afternoon. What were we going to do all day?

We walked from the dock to the beach of Great Harbour awed by the row of mature palm trees lining the water. Behind them were small houses whose painted signs showed they were businesses. None were open. The only significant structure, the Methodist Church, looked delicious as a cake with its butter yellow walls and red frosted trim. Standing silently next to the island’s above-ground graveyard, it was beautiful yet disconcerting. We felt alone until an old Ford truck lumbered past. We waved at the occupants as reggae sounds floated in the air. Out in the bay, a motorized dingy buzzed toward a distant dock.

We followed the music toward a large structure. Upon spotting the hammock between two palm trees we realized we walked into Foxy’s Bar. And it was serving breakfast! We grabbed a table that had an old Caribbean map decoupaged to it. The wood columns that supported the roof were hidden by thousands of business cards. The ceiling was a bit naughtier with thongs and bras hanging from rafters. Apparently, Foxy’s got more exciting after sunset, long after we would be gone. Several tables over, four older gentlemen with British accents ordered Heinekens. A family of a mom holding a baby, two boys and a dad walking down the dock waved at the gentlemen. They joined the old men and more Heinekens were ordered. The two boys, one stark naked, splashed along the shore. As we ate Foxy’s French toast, a woman’s loud cackle came from a nearby building. Behind us, some people opened a squeaky gate that, according to the sign on it, led to a hotel on top of the hill. The island was finally waking up.

After breakfast, we spotted what must have been the only taxi. “How much to the Soggy Dollar?”

“For both, ten dollars,” she said. She drove us up and over the switchbacks to White Bay and the entrance of the Sandcastle Resort – “Home of the Soggy Dollar Bar.” But tables were empty with no bartender in sight.

Intrigued by a trail that disappeared up a rocky outcropping, we started climbing. The view of White Bay from above overflowed with boats; small, large, with sails and without. A cruise ship was anchored at the farthest reaches of the cove. The water shined teal near the shore, tourmaline in the bay and darkened to sapphire out at sea. Somehow it made the boats even whiter, like bleached teeth bobbing in the surf. Below us, black rocks were polished to onyx by the waves. When the waves crashed against them the sound of the receding water pulling down the rocks was like a giant pachinko machine filled with hundreds of pinballs.

At the opposite end of White Bay, a man organized some swim fins and goggles on the rocks. Finally, somewhere to rent snorkel gear. We inquired about the price and the man, who introduced himself as Wayne, said he didn’t know because it was not his business, but his brother’s. He was only helping until his brother returned from an errand.

“How about twenty dollars each for two hours?” We offered.


As we tried on masks, Wayne told us he was afraid the snorkeling would not be good because a storm the week before had brought huge waves crashing into the bay. The rocks we just walked over were not there last week. “Nature happened,” he shrugged.

When we swam to the reef, we saw what Wayne meant. The normally colorful reef was dusted with sand. Every few feet, there were glimpses of gold and purple and the sand hadn’t kept the fish away. However, snorkeling proved difficult in the still rough water and I found myself winded with constantly fogging mask. My husband’s mask had started to leak so we gave the gear back to Wayne after just one hour.

We headed back to the Soggy Dollar for some liquid comfort and discovered the place that was empty earlier was now packed. We had to wait in line to order. Each table held groups of well-acquainted people, talking and laughing. Where did all these people come from? The cruise ship? The Sandcastle? The 200 residents?

By a tree some people played a game that was new to us. A small metal ring attached to a long string was tied to a tree branch. A metal hook hung on the tree’s trunk. The goal was to swing the ring and catch it on the hook. While I finished my drink, my husband played. Several minutes and many attempts later, he hooked it. Arms raised in triumph, he returned to the applause of nearby drinkers. A young girl who was watching him took a turn. We guessed she was a local’s daughter because she had been standing by the kitchen door and waitresses patted her head. She hooked it on her third try. Show off.

Our ride back to Great Harbour was in a VW mini-van, which we shared with the driver’s son and a local woman. The driver asked us how we like Jost. We said it was beautiful. He then told us the road we were on was built just three years ago and was the only paved road on the island.
“That’s the ferry!” the woman suddenly exclaimed. Sure enough, it was motoring into the bay and several people already stood around the dock. Stunned and disappointed we wondered, where had the time gone?
For more information: Foxy's Bar & Soggy Dollar