Cancun

Cancun Hyatt Zilara Sunrise 2I love Cancun. It’s warm, sunny, the people are friendly and it’s a quick flight from Austin. Cancun has a reputation for being a spring break party town, but that really isn’t the case for most of the year. After Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to visit; the crowds are light, it’s the beginning of the dry season, and the weather is a perfect 82 degrees and sunny. I suppose you can go anywhere and party hard, but I’m more into going to sleep early, waking up early, and getting a light workout in before relaxing poolside with a drink in hand. After all, is there a more rewarding mimosa than a post workout mimosa? Of course there isn’t.

Cancun Hyatt Zilara SunriseThe coast of Cancun is lined with hotels that range from no frills, to all-inclusive to luxury resorts. If relaxing on the resort is your thing, Hyatt Zilara is an adults only all-inclusive with spectacular sunrises and food and drink options that are a notch above others I’ve been. They have a fun lobby band, with a lead singer with killer thighs turning out a mix of American classics and Mexican music to put you in the vacation mood. When she shakes her bootie, conga lines break out. If you are a fan of the Chase Sapphire credit card, like I am, you know that you can transfer your points on a 1:1 basis with their travel partners, which include Southwest and Hyatt. Save up some points, and this vacation can be practically free.

Chichen ItzaYou can’t go to Cancun without seeing some of the ancient Mayan towns. Chichen Itza is an amazing experience, with incredible architecture and history. If you take a tour, you will be provided transportation and a tour guide, but this proves to be a very long day. There are hours spent waiting around and sales opportunities for everything from tequila with your picture on it to Mexican knick-knacks. We wished we had taken the suggestion from one of our fellow pool goers to hire a taxi driver to take us personally, give us a tour and take us back to the hotel. It probably would have taken about half the time, and when on vacation, every precious hour counts.

 

 

Cancun beachFor me, a Caribbean vacation needs to be a mix of soaking in the sun and exploring all the city has to offer. That usually means opting out of an all-inclusive, because experiencing some of the local culture is what makes the best memories. After all, a lot of Caribbean beaches look very similar!  One stay at the Ritz Carlton, we enjoyed spectacular drinks and service, although pricier than other hotels in the area. There are tons of restaurant options in the hotel zone, La Habichuela was a standout, with great outdoor ambiance and great food.

Mar Bella Prawns

 

One of the best meals I’ve had in my life was at a seafood restaurant named Mar-Bella. This tiny restaurant, perched atop a convenience store in the port town of Puerto Juarez, was a true gem. There was no menu, just a board listing their fresh catch, ordered by the kilo and prepared to your liking. We raved for months about the grilled octopus salad and giant prawns. It is truly not to be missed.

Bottom line: no matter your travel style, Cancun’s sunny weather and beautiful beaches are reason enough for a visit.

Barcelona

Barcelona - La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is a beautiful city with amazing art history and a young fresh culture. There are so many things to see and do (and eat of course!).

The Cotton House hotel on Gran Vìà de les Corts Catalanes, is an upscale and modern hotel in the former headquarters of the Cotton Textile Foundation “Fundación Textil Algodonera”, a 19th-century style building, traditional in the city of Barcelona. In 2015, the building was refurbished to open the beautiful hotel while maintaining the original elements of the building. The marble and spiral staircases, ceiling, floor and wall embellishments have all been conserved in the beautiful new hotel. The hotel staff are friendly, helpful and there is an upscale lounge for breakfast or an evening cocktail.

The city’s art scene is heavily influenced by Gaudí, including La Sagrada Familia, an iconic church with three grand façades: Nativity, Passion and Glory. The Nativity façade bears the most Gaudí influence, and was completed prior to his death. The Passion façade is strikingly different to the Nativity façade, with tormented symbolical characters representing human sin, and was constructed by other architects with the plans left by Gaudí. The Glory façade, which is under construction, will be the largest façade and will represent the ascension to God. It is expected to be completed in 2026, marking the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The church’s building materials are a stunning collection of stones, tiles and colored stained glass windows.

Barcelona - Park Guell

Barcelona – Park Guell

Strolling around Park Güell is a must, another beautiful Gaudí creation. The two mile hike from the Cotton House was mostly uphill, but the views of Barcelona are beyond spectacular. The park was conceived by Güell and Gaudí, and was originally designed to be a grouping of artistic, high-quality homes. The idea never took off, and only a few homes were built, leaving a city landmark with beautiful architecture and views not to be missed.

 

 

 

Barcelona - Cook and Taste 2

Seafood Paella at Cook and Taste Barcelona

Taking a cooking class in Barcelona is a fun way to spend an afternoon, learning some traditional Catalan dishes and enjoying our delicious, fresh lunch while wine was flowing throughout the class. Cook and Taste is located in the Gothic quarter, down one of the many narrow streets, and starts with a walking tour to the Boquera Market, an open air market with fresh seasonal vegetables and seafood catches. After purchasing the ingredients for class, the cooking began! A four course meal was prepared, including a seafood paella and a beautiful custard dessert with a delightfully caramelized top. Complete with recipe cards to go, the taste of Barcelona can be recreated at home.

Dessert at Cook and Taste Barcelona

Dessert at Cook and Taste Barcelona

The restaurants in Barcelona are a treat, especially Bodega 1900, the Adrià brothers’ latest venture in Barcelona. In this small restaurant you will find house made vermouth and thoughtful tapas dishes highlighting some of the freshest seasonal fare. The menu changes daily, but the famous olives from El Bulli are a must, and their carpaccio was delightful. The seemingly simple tomato salad was anything but, highlighting the freshest grape tomatoes in existence drizzled with a rich, flavorful Spanish olive oil.

A trip to Barcelona isn’t complete without a walk to the beach, so stop at one of the many seafood restaurants on the strip near the beach, grab a beer from the concession, and find a place near the water to dip your toes into the Mediterranean and a little people watching.

Madrid

Beautiful coffee at Federal Café in Madrid

Beautiful coffee at Federal Café in Madrid

Madrid has topped the list of cities to visit for a long time. There is lots to see and do, so much history and eating in Madrid is a pleasure.

The coffee is fantastic in Madrid and Federal Café is a great stop if you are looking for some beautiful coffee and a light breakfast. In a city where brunch is hard to find, Federal Café offers a full menu of light breakfast and brunch fare and is packed by both locals and tourists.

 

 

Stop for a midday snack at Chocolateria San Gines for some freshly made churros with chocolate for dipping. Later in evening, take a stroll down Calle de Cava Baja, a cozy street lined with restaurants and bars. Casa Lucio is a must for some tapas, chorizo and, of course, Jamon Iberico de Bellota. Jamon Iberico de Bellota is a cured ham that comes from the noble black Iberico pigs that feed on acorns while roaming the Spanish countryside. After curing, the result is a fatty, salty, sweet cured ham that melts when it hits your mouth.

Churros at Chocolateria San Gines

Churros at Chocolateria San Gines

Calle de Cava Baja

Calle de Cava Baja

Jamon Iberico de Bellota

Jamon Iberico de Bellota

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Tapas and Taverns Tour, for numerous reasons. It’s a four hour tour of tasting Madrid’s best tapas, drinking wine, vermouth and beer. The mushrooms at Meson del Champinon, with garlic, lemon and chorizo are to die for and you will need a big hunk of bread to sweep up all the garlic from the Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) at La Casa del Abuelo. As you wander from tavern to tavern, you visit monuments, plazas, and historic buildings for some history of Madrid and to hear about some of the scandals from the royal palace. It was a great back drop to touring the royal palace and viewing the portraits of the royal family. There was that whole inbreeding snafu that resulted in some seriously ugly royals!

Mushrooms at Meson del Champinon

Mushrooms at Meson del Champinon

Chorizo at Casa Lucio

Chorizo at Casa Lucio

Spanish Royal Palace

Spanish Royal Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside of ancient Madrid, stroll around the Parque del Buen Retiro, one of the largest parks in Madrid, filled with magnificent sculptures, monuments and lakes before heading to the Prado museum. The Prado has one of the world’s largest collections of European art and is the largest collection of Spanish art in the world. Aside from the permanent displays, there are special exhibits that run anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Madrid is an energetic city, known for its history, vibrant culture, and of course, the food!