Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Maxi Dresses and Margaritas to Red Wine and Christmas Music

We got home last night. I'd typed a whole post from the hotel room yesterday morning but it got lost somewhere in the ether between Playa del Carmen and Fort Worth. So instead of typing with my feet up and mimosa in hand on the pool patio while the kids all take one last swim and James returns from a sunrise swim in the ocean with a group of Mexican masters swimmers (he always finds his tribe), I'm typing it at my kitchen table wearing all my fleece and drinking my favorite hot tea. It's not a terrible trade- I can't wait to start decorating the house for Christmas later today, but living the all-inclusive life in paradise was certainly lovely while it lasted.

When we last left off, we were in bed early (well, four of us were; I'm a night owl in all locations) to catch a 7:40 a.m. bus for our offsite excursion to Xcaret. Every Paradisus resort employee we spoke to about excursions all said "Oh go to Xcaret. You'll love it." And they were exactly right.

A 200 acre "eco-theme park," it has miles of underground rivers and caves, stunningly beautiful landscapes, Mayan ruins, tons animal sanctuaries and exhibits, aquariums, a thriving sea turtle farm, a bunch of restaurants, and also, just for something extra, a gorgeous expanse of beach with natural ocean pools and great snorkeling. It's insane. It's absolute touristy, but it gets its tourism naturally- the underground rivers, the beach, the pools, the ruins- they were all there. Xcaret just made a bunch of well manicured paths to connect everything, added a slightly incomprehensible map, and several successful animal breeding programs.

And, like the best of tourism, what they've added is actually helpful. Like, when you go to swim the underground rivers, you lock your belongings in a locker and then take your towels and shoes (and a change of clothes, if you knew what you were doing as we did not) and place them in a waterproof bag that they lock up, and then they give you the key and transport the bag to the end of the river, so when you exit at the other end of the park you can dry off and warm up! You also get fins and a life jacket and before you know if, you've walked to the beautiful pool with a river through a ravine and you know this is going to be amazing.

Unfortunately the day we arrived was chilly- in the 60's in the morning, and then it started pouring rain when we arrived. I put on a good face, but honestly, I was thinking of how lovely it would be to be sitting on my dry pool patio with a pot of tea. I hate cold water and all I could think was how cold the river was going to be and how miserable it was going to be to get in - and then how miserable it would be to get out. But since it was already pouring, we figured we might as well get wet on purpose and off to the rivers we went.

And so we did. And it was amazing.

Truly so. And because it was so chilly outside, the water felt almost warm.

It was like being in the Ozarks of Mexico, but all the caves are full of water and you swim through them instead of hike. Long stretches are almost completely pitch black and then you pop out to another lush, green, waterfall-filled oasis before swimming through another cave again.

There are openings in the roofs of the caves and warm natural springs that feed the rivers in surprising and very welcome hot spots throughout.

The kids loved it. It's so easy to forget Cora just turned 3- she's so brave and up for anything. She cheerfully held on to James's back like a little baby turtle and seemed to genuinely love every minute.

Later in the day when we asked the kids if they wanted to do another river, they jumped at the chance, and we got take another stunning tour through the underwater limestone caves and lush rivers banks. It's an extraordinary place, even without anything else.

But there is more. We swam in ocean pools, enjoyed a delicious Mexican buffet, and held a bright red macaw, among so much more.

The sea turtle farm tanks were a favorite - huge and elegant giant sea turtles swam through rivers that ran along the paths. The green sea turtles are in tanks by age, including 40-day old hatchlings and teenagers (in turtle years anyway) soon to be returned to the sea.

There were stingrays, a wonderful aquarium, and even a jellyfish tank- which, though I've been stung a number of times, I find so beautiful in their otherworldliness.

After our second swim, when we'd changed back into our still-damp clothes, it really started pouring. We were across the park and figured we might as well keep going since the first bus didn't come until 4:30 and it was only 2. We were quickly soaked to the bone, but despite it all, when we climbed onto the bus at 4:30 p.m., 8 hours after arriving at the park, after swimming more than a mile of river and walking many miles more without a stroller, umbrella, or nearly enough clothes, Cora announced "I do this again TOMORROW." The kids are such troopers and so very fun to travel with. We take them totally for granted, but we also take them on pretty fantastic trips because of it, so I think we're even.

We spent the last day of our trip frolicking in the beach, the pool, and then the beach again. Despite the awesome activities we never ended up using the kids' camp. The kids were too good and James too willing to freeze his arse off playing with them in the water.


warming back up

I helped by drinking mojitos and taking pictures from the dry patio or beach chair. Unless you're taking me through an extraordinary underground river, I've fully retired from swimming in cold water.

This was the deepest I went in and it was freezing.

The kids never seemed to mind one bit.

After our date night we picked up the kids early because we wanted to get dessert with them. When I got my little party animal, she rested her cheek on my shoulder and sighed. "Do you want to get dessert?" I asked. "No, I got night night now," she replied. So I got my gelato in a cone to go and back to the room we went. No one vacations harder than Cora.

On our last night, we took one more walk on the beach. I can't believe I'd never been to Mexico, having lived so close to it for so long. Playa del Carmen was just gorgeous and very chill and family friendly. The downtown was vibrant, but small, and we couldn't even see another resort from our own.

Our travels home went as smoothly as 10 hours of traveling can go. Our private shuttle was on time and efficient, both planes left on time, customs was pretty quick, and all our baggage made it to our final destination, but it was still a long day. As we pulled into our driveway about 7:30 p.m., Cora saw our house and cried out, "But where is my NEW house?!"

Poor thing, Fort Worth was a bit of a comedown after all the time on "her" beach and "her" pool. Other than occasionally asking about her big girl bike, she had fully adopted our hotel room as her own, stubbornly insisting all the way through packing the night before "but THIS is my house." And for a few days, it was a lovely one! But after sleeping in until 10:15 this morning and waking up surrounded by Christmas lights and Christmas books she forgot we had, her old house doesn't seem too bad.

King Kong MEX-CO!

That's where we are! Playa del Carmen, Mexico, south of Cancun to be exact. But Claire called Cancun, "King Kong" the whole time we were traveling on Sunday, and Cora joyfully announced to everyone that "We goin' to MEX-CO!" over and over again, while Landon just rolled his eyes at his sisters, pronounced everything perfectly, and asked 65,000 questions about the flora and fauna, so King Kong Mexco it became.

But we're here! The travel went really well. No bottles, diapers, strollers, or baby gear- each kid just brought a backpack, kindle, and some snacks and we were good to go. I feel like the whole world is our oyster.

We had to layover in Mexico City, where you go through customs and then loop back back in through security, but direct flights to Cancun were running $800/each and I got ours for $229/each, so times that difference by 5 and I didn't mind the stop so much. Each flight was exactly 2 hours and customs was very quick and efficient. We had a private shuttle to transfer us to the hotel (again, with 5 people it was $10 cheaper to get our own shuttle than pay per person on a group one- it's like we have our own tour group) and we arrived to the very beautiful lobby full of fountains and streams and koi and turtles about 10:00 p.m.

We're staying at the Paradisus Playa del Carmen- La Esmerelda. I picked this resort because it won Travel & Leisure's Top 5 Family Resorts of the Year last year and Tripadvisor backed up T&L's review. Then, while randomly price checking the idea of heading to Mexico for Thanksgiving last Christmas break (yep, 11 months ago; I do things early), I got such a ridiculously low price quote that, after checking to make sure it was refundable (yes!), and knowing my job rarely interferes with vacations, and James's pool would be closed and all three kids off school/daycare for the whole week of Thanksgiving, I pressed "book it" and have enjoyed knowing a beach vacation was ready and waiting for us ever since.

And now we're here! And it's spectacular.

We're normally not big resort people. We are completely anti-social vacationers; we hate crowds and you would have to literally threaten me with death to get me in an organized adult activity, but we figured with the kids' ages- old enough to enjoy all the activities but young enough not to be bored (and not yet quite old enough to go explore river rapids and jungles somewhere else), we should just go for it.

I've lived in Texas for 26 years and never been to Mexico, so it's a first for all of us and for a final, easy, end-of-year vacay, an all-inclusive fun-filled resort seemed just the thing.

And it's been fabulous. Just enough for everyone to do without feeling like an overrun cruise ship or the nagging feeling that we should be doing more than we are.

By far the best decision we (I) made was opting for the swim-up suite. I do a lot of research on our rooms when we vacation. I'm a terrible sleeper and room layout is vitally important to me. My two ironclad rules are (1) I sleep in the same bed as my husband and (2) I don't sleep in the same room with my children. Our room must be completely separate, with a closing door, and my room needs to be able to be pitch black. And despite some very unclear website descriptions, this one fits the bill!

James and I have our own room that connects to the bathroom. Our room and the bathroom also each connect to the main room with kitchenette, pull out queen sofa bed, and crib. Both the main room and our bedroom open out to the swim-up patio, so at night we can completely close off the kids and still have full access to the patio and bathroom. When your kids go to bed at 8 p.m. and you do not, this is perfect. I'm sitting outside on the patio with my feet up right now while James swims laps. It's lovely.

But the "swim-up" is the best part of the suite. Our patio has steps right down the pool, with our own little lounge chair and tables built in the water, so that means we never have to pack up anything to get to the pool. No getting up early to reserve cabanas or chairs. No forgetting something back in the room. We just wake up, lounge on the patio, and watch the kids jump in and play in the water.

Our room is very central which has been awesome with our kids' ages - we can see them on the pirate ship and slides, the blow-up octopus slide, the swim-up bar, and basically everything else without moving from our patio or lounge chair, and Cora can nap without affecting anything else we're doing. It's like we brought our own private villa to a big resort. And the patio has a giant jacuzzi where I live with my mojitos and cucumber margaritas.

The water is the pools is pretty cold (freezing, really, I have yet to put much more than a toe in because it makes my jacuzzi jealous), but the kids are LOVING it. They're never been to a resort like this, so they're still freaking out over the slides and pools and swim-up bars with unlimited strawberry mango smoothies. Someday we'll take them to Disney World and their heads will explode.

Cora is just as intrepid. She dives right in the water every morning and goes down every slide and swims every minute the big kids do. She is having the best time, even if she still thinks fruit is gross and turns her nose up at all the smoothie offers.

There's a kids' camp that starts at age 1 (big kids ages 5+ are in their own club) and it runs until 10 p.m. each day. A lot of resorts start at age 5 so the younger age range was part of why I picked this one, but though the camp is really nice and full of toys and the activity schedule is amazing, we've actually only used it once so far so James and I could go out to dinner last night. I love that it's there, but we like having the kids with us and the swim-up room makes it so easy that even with Cora's naps we haven't really wanted to take them back. But they had a blast last night - there was bracelet making, a dinner buffet, and a dance party (for Cora's age they fed the turtles in the lobby ponds, ate dinner, and then had a mini dance party of their own), so they've been asking to go back. I'm sure we'll oblige them before we go.

We've also spent a lot of time on the beach. A bunch of protected mangrove trees block the view from the hotel to the beach, but it's a quick walk over a bridge to get on the sand and the pool is so fun and pretty we haven't minded the bit of forced separation.

Cora, after rejecting sand the whole time we were in Jamaica, has now decided it is her FAVORITE and wants to play in it for hours. Sort of like her dramatic love story with cake.

"Mama, I LOVE our beach and our I LOVE our NEW house!" she has exclaimed over and over again.

Today we took a short walk down the beach to find the cenote our concierge told us about. It's a freshwater spring that bubbles up from the ground creating a little pool that winds its way into the ocean. And sure enough, a few minutes of walking in the surf and we came across the most beautiful, clear, totally salt-free swimming hole.

It was gorgeous and perfect and Cora's favorite thing so far. "Mama I LOVE this!" she exclaimed.

We even made time for a little swim lesson.

You'd never know, but the ocean is just in front of us, separated by a few yards of sand. So beautiful, and so quiet.

We'll be back.

After a room service lunch on the patio, that I had to drag the kids out of the water to eat, we decided to head into town. Playa del Carmen is pretty small and by all my research and review-reading, quite safe, so we took a taxi a few blocks down 5th Avenue to do some strolling and shopping. It was pretty and bustling and good fun.

The kids were fascinated by all the shops and REALLY fascinated by the idea of a changing price (after we barely got them to grasp the concept of two currencies). Landon got a personalized name bracelet that started out at $15 but he paid $5 because he kept walking away (we told each kid they could have $5 to spend, so for every item over $5 he just cheerfully said "I can't" and walked off), and he was more fascinated by the price difference than the bracelet itself, though it is a very nice souvenir.

Cora picked out a fine pair of maracas. Purple and pink, obviously, she shook them non-stop for the whole 45-minute stroll and still has $3 remaining.

Claire bought a little woven wallet. James and I bought the taxi rides. Everyone's items were very them and very packable and everyone is very happy.

We finished off with more swimming, the best meal we've had so far, and an early bedtime because we head out early for our snorkel and cave swimming excursion tomorrow!