Bon Appétit in Provence

For too many years on various trips to the south of France and parts of Italy, we were frustrated by seeing the tempting food in the markets and having no place to cook. Not to mention in France, the wonderful boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, charcuteries, poissoneries, and pâstisseries. We remedied that by staying in vacation rentals and Airbnb’s with well supplied kitchens. But this time in the south of France, we decided to up the ante and take a cooking class. What could be more fun? Fall’s bounty in the markets, picking up some tips from a local expert, and topped off by eating a great lunch we had made.

So Peter did some research and found a Irish woman, Petra Carter, who runs a small cooking school, Le Pistou, in Uzes near where we were staying for ten days. A former B&B owner and a sixteen year resident of France, she was a wealth of local knowledge. She taught a variety of classes. Foods of the south of France for tourists, and Lebanese or Indian for the locals in the winter months! Apparently, the locals get enough of Provençal food at home and in the restaurants and are desperately looking for some variety.

Our group of four arrived promptly at 9:30am, and we met the four other students—a couple from Canada, a woman from Australia, and a woman from Alaska. Petra acted more as a hostess at a dinner party than a teacher or task master. She carefully introduced each of us to the others, and to her assistant, and generally chatted us up. Lots of laughter. Introductions complete, we put on the aprons and took our seats along a long stone counter.

First on the cooking agenda was a twisted tart of sun dried tomatoes and fennel seed. The French do have the best pastry in the stores’ refrigerator cases. Nothing like the tubes of Pillsbury dough we see at home or the frozen rectangles of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry. The array of choices in France is inspiring — all butter, whole wheat, gluten-free, low-fat or whatever. One variety is appropriate for pizza crusts, another for a sweet tart and some are more like puff pastry. I was familiar with the options from our previous trip to Provence and had made an open face tart our first night in Uzes with some creamy goat cheese and zucchini. Petra’s version was something else, using an all butter round puff pastry. One student spread the topping of sun dried tomatoes blended with a bit of olive oil and bit of minced garlic on the bottom crust that sat on a piece of parchment paper. Then, after laying the top round in place, our instructor carefully sliced the tart and showed us a technique for twisting it to create a fancy shape—like a sun with radiating rays. No surprise—the French name: Tart du Soliel. Given the quality of the pastry in France, we were told home cooks often make a variation on a tart for a light meal or with a sweet filling for dessert. All in all, a pretty easy and impressive dish once you know the techniques. Of course, the challenge at home will be getting the pastry.

With one appetizer in the oven, the vegetables for our lunch were next. A pile of unblemished, fat fennel bulbs. Bright red peppers with some slight scarring from the summer winds. A bowl of big red tomatoes, the kind we can only get from our own gardens or in the farmers’ markets. She demonstrated the technique for cutting each. Fennel bulb in thin wedges, being careful to keep a good bit of the core in each wedge to keep it intact. Cutting the red peppers through the stem but leaving it in place so the pepper won’t collapse during roasting. Tomatoes cut and seeded, as Petra didn’t want too much liquid in the final dish. And then she turned to vegetables over to us to replicate her example.

As we chopped away, Petra gave us a history lesson on the cuisine of southern France. Not surprisingly, it was largely dictated by the warm weather crops that grew well here— tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, olives. (Many would say more Italian than French.) Not much butter or cream or rich sauces we associated with the French high cuisine. The big meal of the day was lunch. Without ovens in their homes, women cooked the family meal in the ovens of the boulangerie after the bread for the day was done. (And the men, our host noted, usually sat around drinking Pastis, the anise flavored liquor of the region). So the backbone of Provençal meals was slow cooked and oven roasted foods. Salads only arrived with the tourist onslaught.

The fennel wedges were tossed in a single layer into a sauté pan with a good drizzle of olive oil to brown. No salt. A little pepper. And then arranged in a circular pattern in a shallow baking dish. Topped with a bit of fennel seed and more olive oil and popped into the oven, to be garnished with bits of fresh fennel fronds when it came out. The halves of peppers were placed in a deeper dish. The tomatoes was tossed with olive oil, capers, some pepper, Herbes de Provençe, and spooned into each pepper. Then a teaspoon (or a bit more) of home made red wine vinegar was added to each pepper. And it, too, went into the same oven with the fennel.

A question about her favorite olive oil led to an impromptu tasting. She brought out four bottles. Poured a bit of each in small bowls and asked us to taste. The flavors ranged from light and subtle to peppery or vegetal. And prices ranged from 7€ to 15€. Her advice? Buy to best you can for cooking (be a bit extravagant) and a little better for finishing. And the olive oil tasting led to an olive tasting and a lecture about those canned black olives that kids put on the end of the fingers. They may be forever banished from our house after Petra explained how they are made — picked unripened & very green, pitted, bathed in lye and soaked in rusty water! Yes, rusty water, to turn them black. Delightful, heh!? No more black olives on my pizzas!

And of course there was a cheese dish — in fact, three. Midway through our cooking, out came some cheese Petra had made. One was a simple spread of strained yogurt to which she had added pink peppercorns and cardamon. She had a second variation with cumin and coriander. Both served on slices of baguettes. She showed us her collection of vintage molds for the cheese (which set us out on a mission to find one to take home) but confessed to generally just using wire mesh strainers. As we munched away and sipped champagne, she demonstrated how to marinate aged goat cheese rounds in olive oil and spices. And she told us that the best and cheapest containers come from Ikea, no less.

The final cheese dish was only slightly more complicated—a round of Camembert (a cow cheese from the north of France—the local cheese is either sheep or goat) placed in its original wooden round box with the lid used underneath for more support. She cautioned us to make only shallow slices in the top of the cheese before turning the task over to one of us. Her intention had been to top the cheese with a liqueur, hazelnuts and honey but then remembered one of us was allergic to nuts. No problem! The recipe was altered. A splash of kirsch, sprinkle some barberries, a bit of honey and fennel seeds on top and bake that little treasure in its wooden box. Word of warning. For this recipe only use the wooden rounds that have staples in them; glued ones will fall apart.

All three of the cheese recipes were more about a technique which you could vary either the herbs, the spices, add nuts or honey and just enjoy.

The surprise of the day was the dessert — an olive oil chocolate mousse. Yes, olive oil. Dairy free and absolutely silky. The technique was similar to a standard mousse. Separating eggs, carefully adding the yolks to melted chocolate and the olive oil, whipping the whites and folding them into the chocolate. In a twist on flavoring the chocolate with a bit of vanilla or a liqueur, she had us grate a tonka seed (reputedly a hallucinogen in larger quantities) into the mixture. Subtle and delicious. Spooned into tiny demitasse cups.

And meal was rounded out by flambéd prawns and grilled razor clams with garlic crumbs. We were each given a handful of prawns and told to remove both veins. Petra fussed about the quality of the shellfish, not sure it was as fresh as she would have preferred. She showed us how to loosen the long narrow razor clam from its shell and open the shell up so it could be filled with bread crumbs tossed with garlic and olive oil. While the clams went under the broiler, she quickly sautéed the prawns and then taught one of the least experienced cooks how to flambé using Pastis. Frankly after tasting the prawns, her concerns about their freshness was unfounded, and it was the best use of Pastis ever! Only a subtle licorice flavor permeated the prawns.

And after all the food was prepared, laid out on a buffet, the plates were filled and wine glasses topped off, we sat around the table for more than an hour and half, eating, sharing travel and food stories, learning more about the politics and real estate of Uzes. We left with cheek kisses all around almost six hours after we started.

By the way, Petra made sure we did the cheek kisses the right way, but also cautioned us, hugging in France between friends is just not done. All the kissy-kissy stuff is fine, but bodies should never touch. Good to know.

Ah, la belle France.

None for the Road: wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Sometime it is best to leave the driving to someone else. And probably a day centered around tasting the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of those occasions. So we hired a guide we found online (after doing our due diligence of reading reviews, studying the website and cross checking on other sites) for a day, roughly seven hours, including a lunch break.

There was a time when we would have eschewed hiring a guide, figuring a good map (or navigation system) and a good guide book were enough. Then a friend and fellow traveler bought us a food tour as a present when we were in Aix-in-Provence. A couple hours with an American expat convinced us there was more to see than we were aware or that guidebooks could provide. And since then we have hired guides for a specific purpose at different points in different trips. And always it was been a good value.

In Paris we not only tasted the baguettes, fromage and pátê, but learned the etiquette of these specialties and where to find some of the best in a city that sometimes considers tourists fair game. It was a no brainer to hire a guide to kayak through the Sian Ka’an Biospere in Yucatán; it was the only way to see the area. When we didn’t rent a car in Cape Town, South Africa, our options to tour the region was a big tour bus or a guide. Not a difficult choice at all.

We told our guide Alain we wanted to focus in on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and maybe a winery specializing in rosé, if time allowed. In the summer some of the wineries are open to tourists, but we were tasting in the fall when some of the smaller wineries shut down so all hands could focus on the harvest. Having a bilingual guide also meant we had a translator when the wine maker’s English was limited. And perhaps most importantly, we could taste wine without worrying about driving; we left the driving to Alain!

Alain picked us up at our temporary home and off we went to visit three different wineries — a large operation that fits your mental image of a French winery, a smaller winery that had recently been acquired by E. Guigal and then a real “mom and pop” operation. At each stop we were largely the only ones there — we saw only two or three other visitors all day, and a couple of very cute dogs.

Our first stop was a small winery that offered both white and red Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We really enjoyed the Viognier, and that was the first — but not the last — bottle we bought to enjoy over the next week.

The second winery, the largest, grew all of the thirteen grapes that may be included in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend. Before tasting we walked among the barrels and learned a bit about some of the older machinery that years ago was pulled from vineyards to vineyard to bottle the wine.

We were able to walk among the vineyards in front, just a few acres which produced one of the bottles we bought. The pickers were just finishing for the day. Our guide told us most of the pickers in this region are Spaniards who come to France for the higher wage (9€ an hour) while still retaining their health care and social security benefits which are universal through the EU. The inferior grapes (which looked fine to our untrained eyes) were left on the ground as only the best grapes made it into the baskets. The vines were picked clean and had been pruned earlier in the year to produce a smaller quantity of higher quality grapes.

Our final stop was the most modest winery, Tavel, specializing in rosé. The motif was a woodcock, a local game bird that the founder of the winery had enjoyed hunting. Now too elderly to be actively engaged, the operation of the winery had been left to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter after his son had passed away. And it was quite good, definitely better than their other wines.

Part of the challenge of wine tasting in this part of France is the tradition of lunch being the major meal of the day. And since most of the wineries would be closed from noon to 2:00 or 2:30, we had to pause in midday to do the same. Our guide asked what kind of lunch we wanted and delivered us to a lovely place in the shadow of the Avignon’s Popes’ summer castle. After all, the region derived its name from being the Summer home of the Pope!

Between winery stops, Alain gave us a bit of history of the region, recommended other villages to visit that were not typically on the tourist route and provider some insider tips on the area. Although I think he might have been a bit surprised at how taken we were at the first winery with the resident dog.

Earlier in our trip we had met a young couple from Manhattan who were driving themselves and tasting wines along the way. They had booked most of their visits in advance and were on a tight time schedule. They probably tasted far more wines than we did, but maybe they missed much of the French experience of savoring the good things in life.

Budget Business class?

Who doesn’t want to sleep on those long overnight flights to Europe? As we’ve gotten older and more spoilt, we’ve tried with mixed results to use miles to get to Europe in comfort. And it seemed to be getting harder to reclaim those miles for international trips. So we jumped at the chance to buy a business class ticket on La Compagnie.

La Compagnie advertises itself as a “boutique” airlines. In their terms “boutique” means small (70 passengers total), great service (one flight attendant for every ten rows), but not all of the amenities of a big, swanky outfit. The airline has been operating for a few years, mainly a Newark to Paris flight. We heard a Newark to London flight had been abandoned, but that a new flight to Nice was just starting up. For about $1200 each we booked two tickets in mid-September, 2019.

The 11:30 pm departure wasn’t a problem and meant we could have flown in to Newark the day of our departure. Instead we opted for a weekend in NYC, got a late checkout from the hotel, had quick bite to eat in the theater district, saw Broadway matinee performance, 6:30 dinner reservation, picked up bags at hotel and took Lyft to the Newark Airport ($75). Got to the airport around 9:30 pm. The airline said we could have checked in as early as 9:00 but that we had to be checked in 50 minutes before the flight.

Check in was really really easy…no one else there at all. Not a person. Two staff to check us in And they directed us to the Art Lounge, a facility they share.

The Art Lounge is a little shabby if you are used to the ones the big international carriers have. The furniture definitely needs updating. The lounge is small but a major part is sectioned off for La Compagnie. We had our choice of seats, and plenty of room to spread out. The food options were decent — a couple hot dishes, cheese and crackers, basic booze options. Nothing to compare to the top of line lounges but more than adequate for an hour or two wait.

The lounge sits outside of security! But that’s not a problem since you get to use the priority line. Good thing, as the regular security line was immense. They announced in the lounge when it was time to go to the gate, about a half an hour before boarding. We went to the gate at about 10:20 which turned out to be way too early since we didn’t actually board until 11:10.

The international departures area in Newark is a total zoo—crowded beyond belief. The situation was complicated that evening because a Norwegian flight boarding next to us had been delayed and people were very cranky. And there was a British Airline flight delayed as well with people camped out on the floor.

However, the boarding was lightening fast. We were in the plane in what seemed like seconds and completed the boarding and closed the doors before I could put my things away. None of the usual people bumping into you as they they try to get by you. And before we were completely settled in our seats, the flight attendant came by with sparkling wine or juice.

The plane is great—-reasonably new, obviously modern, quite clean, very spacious. Much better aesthetically than the usual crowded business class sections on British or Air France. Seating is two and two. There are three sections with a lot of space between them. This flight was 2/3’s full so there were three flight attendants—one for every 15 passengers, all French, all very charming. There are three bathrooms, one in front, two in the middle, so you are never more 6 rows away. The entertainment system is definitely heads above other business class airlines. It is a very large, super light tablet that you can either have in front of you or slide out and set on your tray. Better noise cancelling headphones as well. The seats are a little smaller and perhaps a bit firmer than other business class seats, but still very nice. Not quite full flat beds, the seats reclined to about 175 degrees. A full size pillow and a very comfortable quilt made for a very pleasant, if short, night’s sleep. It was lights out with everyone fed just a bit more than an hour after takeoff.

The food options for our late dinner were a choice of salads — rare beef or a lobster — on a bed of greens with salad, a chocolate cake and a roll. And the drink choices were not as varied as the big airlines offer, but we were satisfied with our cognac. Breakfast options include an omelette or France toast with some very sweet, ripe fruit. And both meals were nicely presented.

Our arrival in Nice was as smooth as our departure. We whizzed through customs using the special lane for La Compagnie and elite class flyers (just had to present our boarding pass). There weren’t too many planes arriving when we did, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it could have been.

All in all, the experience was definitely worth the price. And we will be watching this airlines for future travel to Europe.

Hiking around Zion

We had been warned that the Zion National Park would be a zoo of people in the early summer months, but we our travel dates were hemmed in by the end school year and the beginning of the Fourth of July festivities. So we celebrated this year’s big birthdays — an eightieth, a seventieth and two fifties — over the last week in June. Warnings were well founded. Zion was a mob scene. And we discovered ways to escape the hordes.

We stayed an hour away in St. George and we arrived at the park later than we should have. By 9:00am the parking lot was nearly full and the line for the shuttles into the park were long. Very long. But the shuttle system is slick. Double buses run nonstop from the crack of dawn to sunset. No air conditioning, but good air flow, reasonably comfortable seats and a combination of taped recordings by naturalists or historians as well as the drivers commentary keep you informed about what you’re seeing.

The newsprint guide handed out at the entrance was great. It described the hikes in terms of ease but also with a stick figure falling to indicate the worst hikes for the acrophobes. As several in our group suffer from that fear, and given the age of our eldest, we opted for a moderate hike for our first effort, the Watchman Trail. It was one of the few trails accessible right from the parking lot, no shuttle needed.

A quick walk along the Virgin River and then we followed a clear trail from the river up the into the canyon. At mid-morning much of the early part of the west facing trail was in the shade, but as we climbed and traversed the switchbacks, the path became more exposed. They aren’t kidding when they say take lots of water. We all went through several liters each! But the view from the top, across the Virgin River valley to the red rock faced walls stunned all of us.

The newsprint guide said the famous Narrows hike was closed — much to our disappointment — too much winter snow meant too much water in the Narrows. But lesson learned. Double check with the rangers. Turns out the trail had just opened and while the river was high, it was passable as long as you were willing to get wet. So off we went.

Do not be deterred by your first impression. The “trail” to the river is handicapped accessible, paved and so crowded you have to walk single file. It feels more like a walk in a crowded city park than a wilderness experience. And at the river’s edge the mob of people walking along the trail congregated. Felt like a party. We hesitated. Did we really want to wade in our hiking boots? Next time we all agreed we would bring sturdy running shoes and swap out our hiking boots. You can rent waterproof walking shoes and a wooden hiking staff for $25, although we all agreed the wooden staff would offer a heck of a lot of resistance in the fast moving river.

Our hiking sticks had been superfluous on the path to the river; once we started wading over large and slippery boulders in ankle to knee high swiftly moving water, we all relied upon those poles to keep two points of contact with the bottom. Even so we made slow progress. Very slow. It took major effort than you might think. When the water became crotch deep, we turned around while many went on. Anyone doing this needs a dry bag for valuables. But the few hundred yards we waded through was worth every sore muscle the next day!

We did talk with those who hiked the Angels Landing Trail. Twenty seven or some such switchbacks and holding on to a chain as you scale a narrow path with nothing between you and hundreds of feet of air, plus the fact that there is often a waiting line to begin the hike was definitively not for us.

Like many popular sites, they are popular for a very good reason. Zion is gorgeous, breath taking and unique and well worth suffering the crowds

If the crowds of Zion get to you, try one of the state parks in the area. We spent one day hiking in the Snow Canyon State Park. An entirely different landscape than Zion. More desert and less green, but still eye popping with a whole lot fewer people. We took a quick walk up a slot canyon. And then spent several hours climbing upon petrified sand dunes.

And some amazing views

Snow Canyon is definitely worth a day, maybe two at the most. And while we ran into a handful of other hikers, we felt like we were far, far away from Zion’s mob scene.

More than a tropical rainstorm

It was just a little bit more than a year ago, April 2018, that the first pictures showed up on Facebook and in the media. Hanalei Town, Kauai, under water. After nearly a month of prolonged rain (we spent most of that month inside our vacation rental looking at the rain) the north end of Kauai experienced the single highest 24 hour rainfall total on record anywhere in the United States–49 inches. And the Hanalei River could not be contained.

We returned to Hanalei this March, 2019, nearly a year later. We have been coming to the north end of Kauai for over a decade and know the area very well. Much changed because of the 24 hour deluge a year ago.

Recovery is slow. Very, very slow. While the main commercial areas are up and doing their usual brisk business, damaged roads and homes are much slower to bounce back. And we have to imagine that the cost of flood repairs to restaurants and shops, plus the reduction in tourism for much of last spring was a huge financial hit for the business community and the people who work there.

The road leading north out of Hanalei Town has been closed to all traffic except for repair crews and residents. It is the last 7 miles before you reach the impenetrable, spectacular Napali Coast with some of the most beautiful coastline, beaches, and mountain views in the world—Bali Hai of South Pacific fame, the Tunnels snorkeling and scuba diving reef, the gorgeous Ke’e beach beach, and the beginning of the breathtaking Kalalau hiking trail. Residents can only travel in escorted caravans. Job one is not yet completed — repairing the old one lane bridges so they can support the equipment needed to repair the roads. The damage was compounded in an August storm and a year later that task is yet to be finished. Meanwhile, we heard rumors of a controversy about whether or not tourist traffic should even be allowed to return (3,000 plus cars a day made the trip to the end of the road before the disaster)–parking was always a nightmare at the Kalalau trailhead. Some have suggested shuttles from Hanalei Town instead. But change comes slowly in this corner of the world.

Repairs to the several homes undercut by the flooding on Hanalei Bay near the pier and Black Pot beach have become a tourist site. Nearly everyone walking down the beach stopped to watch the demolition work or take pictures of the repairs. We suspect the homeowners had always worried about water damage coming from the ocean during hurricanes or a tidal wave. Last spring it was the rain and river that got them when much of the valley flooded, creating a new, temporary river bed. The multi-million dollar homes in the path of that river were destroyed.

It is hard to conceive how these homes will be rebuilt. Would insurance even be available? As we walked the beach at high tide, strong northerly winds pushed the waves up into the channel created by flood waters a year ago. And once more, the house was surrounded.

Weke Road to Black Pot, running parallel to the ocean remains closed south of the pavilion where much of the road was totally destroyed as this local newspaper photo shows from a year ago.

Repair efforts to homes along the road seem to be moving even more slowly than elsewhere. Signs warn that that water around these homes is still contaminated.

The waterfront homes familiar to many from the movie “The Descendents” seem just fine. George Clooney could still knock on the front door or jog down the beach in front of the homes as he did in the film.

The biggest impact to tourists (and locals seeking some beach time) is the lack of parking now that Black Pot beach is closed and the parking lot there is being rebuilt. Hanalei never had enough parking and now it is even worse.

Plus the beaches seem more crowded than ever. Is it because the beaches further west are inaccessible? And with less parking the sunbathing, surfing and swimming crowds pack the beach in front of the pavilion. Only a few hearty souls and surfing school students hike down to the pier.

Nonetheless, the three mile arc of the bay remains as beautiful as always. And walking the beach still can’t be beat. Despite the weather trauma, Hanalei Bay endures.

Cozumel with an Open Mind

Surprise, surprise! We were convinced that 15,000 cruise ship passengers a day descending on tiny Cozumel would make it a very un-Mexican, tourist trap. We were coming here for the fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, but didn’t expect much more. Yes, San Miguel de Cozumel (the only town on the island) does have its fair share of tacky souvenir shops, loud over-priced bars and restaurants playing American golden oldies, and street hustlers touting rental cars, scooters, jewelry, t-shirts, tequila tastings, and dirt bike tours. But walk five blocks from the town square and cruise ship docks, wait until 5 pm when the big boats start to depart, or spend a Sunday here when there are no cruise ships in port—you are in a different world. Mexican, local, real.

And despite our prejudices, mass tourism has its upsides. The cruise ship dollars make this island wealthier than most Mexican places we’ve visited—more opportunity for decent paying jobs, better infrastructure, less crime and poverty. And we benefitted as tourists too. We found a wide range of excellent, excellent restaurants—from the local, hole-in-the-wall taqueria to fancy seaside establishments with stunning views. Accommodations ranged from $18 a night rooms, backpacker hostels to all-inclusive resorts and beautiful villas on perfect beaches. There were three giant, modern supermarkets, but there were also mom and pop bodegas on every block and a large central market with stalls of fresh fish, live poultry and dozens small food stands.

But we did come for the drop dead gorgeous beaches and beautiful coral reefs that Cozumel is known for, and we weren’t disappointed.

You do need to know that the island has two very distinct sides. The eastern shore facing the Caribbean is wild, virtually uninhabited with only a couple of small hotels and restaurants. The surf is high, the winds strong, and the shore is rocky. Great for kitesurfing, or sunbathing if the wind isn’t too bad, terrible for swimming or snorkeling. The western side, facing the Yucatan, is usually calm with crystal clear waters, barrier reefs and many idyllic sand beaches. The shore is dotted with beach clubs, restaurants, hotels, a mega resort or two, but also public beaches and small coves. This is one of the few places we’ve been where swimming is good almost in the town center! Cozumel is heaven for swimming, snorkeling and diving.

In our search for underwater adventure we stuck to the western shore and were given this bit of advice: sandy beaches typically mean terrible snorkeling and diving—little to see and often poor visibility; rocky beaches mean clear water, lots of fish, and often great coral formations. There are many places to snorkel from the beach—some very close to the San Miguel itself—but the best snorkeling is definitely from a boat. The reefs are well off shore and it would be very dangerous to swim out to them. We booked a four hour tour for $65 per person with a guide that took us to three reefs—Columbia, Palancar, Cielo. It was money well spent. And a bonus: it was Sunday when there wasn’t a cruise ship in town—no other snorkelers in sight and only two others on our boat—a dad and his 15 year old son. We saw rays, barracuda, jacks, and spectacular schools of colorful tropical fish. The water was crystal clear, warm, and ranged from brilliant aqua to deep blue—travel brochure quality.

Our meals in Cozumel, particularly dinner, ranged from simple tacos at a locals’ hangout to fine dining in luxurious patio gardens or beautiful seaside palapas. The price for dinner with drinks for three was never more $20 each, and usually much less. And we had to be careful of snap judgements—a seaside restaurant around the corner from us that during the week seemed like a classic tourist trap filled with bus loads of gringos caused us to walk on by. On Sunday, when many places were closed for lunch, we stopped in desperation and discovered the place packed almost exclusively with locals and their children enjoying a meal after church. We now know why—the food was excellent and prices very good.

So Cozumel maybe Mexico’s number one cruise ship destination, but please don’t let that keep you away.

Tale of Two Ancient Cities: Coba and Tulum

For many people hopping on a bike is a frequent occurrence. For us, not so much. But the size of the Coba Archaeological Zone almost requires riding a two wheeler. You could walk it, but the distances between sights can be several kilometers. A third option are the pedicabs, but those pedicab drivers were almost as scary as the crazy taxi drivers in Tulum. So for the first time in probably 30 years, we climbed on bikes. Word to the wise: check out your bike rental. Many are in sad states of disrepair. Make sure to get one that fits.

We peddled madly, if a little unsteadily, along the gravel and hard-packed path for a well over a kilometer. Parts of the path follow roads more than a thousand years old. Our goal was to get to the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, Nohoch Mul, or the Big Mound in English, before the tour buses arrived and before the heat of the day. It is one of the only remaining pyramids you can still climb and we were told that will end this year.

Hard to imagine as you wander in and around Tulum that the Yucatán Peninsula was once home to millions of Mayans living in a collection of cities where the jungle now grows. Nearly two thousand years ago, Coba had been one of the largest cities and the center of trade with a network of roads going out for miles to all directions.

Our first sight of Nohoch Mul was intimidating. It was big. Tall. Steep. Almost immediately we realized two of us were wearing flops, not the best decision since we had hiking shoes back at our vacation condo.

But the crowds were still sparse and a thick rope had been attached to the pyramid to aid our ascent. We knew going up would be the easy part. Coming down, another matter. When we reached the top, a stranger high-fived us in celebration. We understood why.

From the top, you could see places where the tree tops sat higher, almost like they grew out of small hills. In reality, each bump was another temple or pyramid that had been absorbed by the jungle.

All three of us made it back down safely with no misadventures. We over heard a guide explain the technique — go down backwards as you would on a ladder or side step your way down, or use your bum. Do not, she said, walk down, facing straight ahead as you would handle most stairs. We followed her advice, often with using the heavy rope for safety.

Mission accomplished!

We stood for a while at the base, watching the hordes arrive, feeling smug that by 9:40 am we had completed our primary goal. Now we could take a more leisurely tour of ancient Coba.

The site includes two ball courts for a Mayan game vaguely like basketball. Without using hands or feet, but instead using your hips, the object of the game is to get a large rubber ball through the hoops on either side of the court.

Outside of the archaeological zone, we found four men actually playing the game on the school courtyard.

We read that when the Mayans played, it was for very serious stakes–human sacrifice of the team members. It wasn’t clear to historians whether it was the winners or losers who died.

Coba is also known for two other main structures. A rare round, cone shaped structure, Xaibe, which may have been a watchtower or served a grander purpose, an observatory. Archeologists are unsure.

And the second tallest structure, La Iglesias (the church), where archeologists discovered jade figurines, ceramic vase and even pearls.

In several places, signs next to stellaes gave us an idea of what the carvings looked like a thousand years ago. Even so, it was hard to appreciate the carving.

The Tulum Archaeological Site offers a very different experience. A walled city built on the edge of the Caribbean, with well groomed open spaces and a park-like feel. And it is substantially newer, only 800 or so years old.

Few archaeological sites anywhere can complete with the setting and the views.

Tulum is a happening place — highly commercialized and packed with tourists. There aren’t too many other archeological sites where you can go for a swim, buy lunch and a beer and take in some history. Even with the views, the degree of commercialization can be a little disconcerting.

A couple of warnings for would-be visitors. For either site, arrive early. Crowds can be overwhelming.

While there are plenty of places to buy water at Tulum, Coba is a little more rustic. Bring water, and insect repellant. And keep your eyes open for critters.