Three Perfect Days: Chengdu
Story by Benjamin Carlson | Photography by Algirdas Bakas | Hemispheres, June 2014
Chengdu has always been known for its easy, some might say lazy, pace of life. Even its nicknames connote a life of leisure: Brocade City, Hibiscus City, Perfect City. Migrants from Beijing and Shanghai quip that the locals don't so much walk as mosey.
Even as an infusion of government investment has caused the city to blossom into an economic powerhouse, drawing Fortune 500 companies deep into the misty mountains of Sichuan, Chengdu has retained its reputation for prizing the finer things in life. People here may work as hard as their brethren in China's frenetic eastern and southern metropolises, but they also make time to while away an afternoon drinking tea, playing mah-jongg or dancing in a park.
Chengdu is best known, however, for its food: the mouth-numbing peppercorns, the blood-red Sichuan hotpot, the streetside “little eats." It's also the kind of place where you can spend the afternoon having your chi retooled at a luxury spa and attend an indie rock show before turning in.
Welcome to the New China.
DAY ONE | Dawn seeps through the shades of your 40th-floor suite at the Ritz-Carlton. Opening them with the push of a button, you gaze out at the city. Below lies Tianfu Square, the heart of the provincial capital. To the north, Chengdu's rambling suburbs vanish into the enveloping fog. You peer through a telescope and see shadowy masses on the horizon, where the basin of Chengdu's valley rises into low hills.
The Ritz-Carlton takes inspiration from Sichuan culture, with a new-money spin. In your room, you sip tea in a calfskin armchair below a three-legged Ding sculpture—an ancient symbol of power and unity. From here, you head for the hotel's sunlit Club Lounge. You'll be plunging headfirst into Chengdu's fiery cuisine today, so you keep breakfast light: muesli, dragon fruit and salmon. Seduced by the lounge's stunning downtown panorama, you linger longer than you intended.
Young monk Long Chen plays ping-pong in Wenshu Temple;
Down below, you hail a taxi to take you to Wenshu Monastery, one of Chengdu's most lovingly preserved places of worship. After a short ride past broad Tianfu Square, presided over by a giant Mao statue, you arrive at the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618–907) temple. Alongside day-trippers and worshippers, you pass through a gate into a maze-like garden that takes you to the major shrine, Manjushri bell tower, which is surrounded by bonsai trees and people snapping smartphone pics. You watch a woman in a pink fur jacket bow four times before a dragon-footed urn, the newly blossomed cherry trees ringing with birdsong.
From here, you enter an inner courtyard where two young monks in robes volley a ping-pong ball under the gaze of an elder. When one hits the ball wide, disturbing an adjacent game of badminton, the stern elder leaps up, takes the paddle and begins spiking the ball at his young charge.
Outside, down a dusty alley ringing with the music of a busker playing a Chinese violin, you dart into a noodle shop famous across Chengdu as the place to sample a local specialty: tian shui mian, or sky-water noodles. The name of the eatery, Dongzi Kouzhang Lao'er Liangfen, literally means “Hole Gaping Mouth Second Son's Bean-Starch Noodles." It's a truly local joint, known for the boisterous social quality the Chinese call “hot noise."
You line up behind several old ladies in caps and slacks who squabble over stools at the communal wooden tables. As you place your order, the server behind the counter smiles and says, “Eat slowly!"—an expression that roughly corresponds to “Bon appétit!" You guzzle a bowl of thick-cut noodles in sweet sauce and chili—one of a dozen specialties any taxi driver will rattle off when asked about his favorite local dishes. At 6 yuan ($1) it's a delectable and impossibly cheap treat.
Sky–water noodles at Dongzi Kouzhang Lao'er Liangfen
You consider a second helping, but think better of it and head down neighboring Jinma Street for some antiques shopping. Beyond stalls selling old paper money and silver coins, there's a wide lot on which traders have spread blankets littered with Buddhist prayer beads, Maoist posters, marble lions, jade bangles, erotic paintings and abacuses strung together with wire. A vendor quotes you 100 yuan for a vintage magazine and you shake your head no.
Next, you continue down Jinma, passing a traditional Chinese medicine shop where a cat swishes its tail next to baskets of gnarled ginseng roots. Next door, old-timers lounge in creaking bamboo chairs and chew sunflower seeds. You weave around a family's mah-jongg table and hail a cab back to the hotel, where you have a very important appointment to make.
How better to spend an afternoon in China's relaxation capital than by having your yin and yang recalibrated at a luxury spa? For an hour, you enjoy a tea-themed therapeutic massage that claims to do just this. Then you have your scalp kneaded amid the fragrance of burning moxa herbs. By now you are feeling very relaxed, very balanced, and also a bit hungry. So you freshen up, waft through the hotel's marble lobby, then take a 10-minute cab ride south to Yunmen Emerald Conceptual Restaurant.
A panda at the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Yunmen is known for serving imaginative cuisine, but it's no slouch in the décor department, either. You pass a magazine rack resembling a lamb and enter a private dining room, where a waiter brings Kobe beef with pulverized black truffle and a dish of salmon-papaya mousse accompanied by bubbling sour cream and dry ice. The food is tasty, but it's the presentation that wows you: a mango sliver arrives at your table in a hollow eggshell.
You end the evening at the Ritz-Carlton's Flair bar. From a perch on the 27th-floor terrace, you nibble seaweed-wrapped crackers and crispy red pepper. Your cocktail arrives: a concoction of chrysanthemum gin and hibiscus syrup garnished with an orchid. In the distance, the Sichuan TV tower—glowing blue, green and indigo in the misty Chengdu night—seems to be sending you a message: bed, bed, bed.
DAY TWO | No visit to Chengdu would be complete without pandas. To catch them, however, you need to rise early. Wakened by a call from your butler (heh), you take a brisk three-minute walk from the hotel to the Uno Mall, where you buy a large cup of joe and a warm blueberry muffin at the new Pacific Coffee—a popular Hong Kong chain reliable for the strength of its brew.
Feeling marginally less comatose, you take a taxi 40 minutes into the northern suburbs, home to some of the cutest animals on the planet. Though cab drivers here, as everywhere, make a habit of moaning about the traffic, Chengdu's expensively assembled infrastructure makes driving a breeze compared to the crushing congestion of cities like Beijing, and you arrive at your destination right on schedule.
Saturday tai chi practice in People's Park
With 80 percent of the world's 1,500 wild pandas living in Sichuan province's misty bamboo forests, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding has established itself as one of the leading institutions of its kind. You arrive to the sound of distant peacocks hooting “Hello! Hello!" A woman at the information desk points you down a winding path. “Hurry!" she says, and you're about to discover why.
You come to an enclosure, a grove of arcing bamboo plants containing four pandas, who are just about to dig into breakfast. One tubby little fella sits on his haunches plucking bamboo and quietly munching. A baby panda lolls on a tree branch, seemingly unable to control its limbs. As it squirms, a male visitor shouts, “What are you trying to do?" Another cub rests in the crook of a ficus bough like a furry loaf of bread. “I've never seen them so active!" coos a woman.
Walking on, you enter the red panda enclosure, where the raccoon-size animals roam freely, coming so close to one woman that she scampers away, yelping, “I'm scared!" You crouch down, staying very still as the diminutive but big-clawed creature struts past your leg.
Thoroughly content, you head back to town, where you'll be eating at the century-old lunch spot Chen Mapo Tofu. Taking a seat beneath hanging red lanterns amid a clatter of chopsticks, you order liang mian (cold noodles) and one of Chengdu's signature dishes, mapo tofu. As you order, a nearby local man gives you an approving thumbs-up. The tofu comes to the table sizzling in an iron pot, smelling of spring onions and earthy peppercorns, accompanied by a pile of crushed Sichuan chilis. You order an extra bowl of rice.
A vendor prepares sweet steamed cakes
Reeling happily from the fire in your belly, you make a beeline for the delightfully boisterous People's Park, where throngs of locals are engaged in various activities: running, stretching, kite flying and even synchronized waltzing. To your right, you marvel at the scene of elderly parents seeking mates for their adult children. Like an analog OkCupid, they hawk sheets of paper advertising the heights, weights, blood types and Zodiac signs of their unmarried sons and daughters.
You stop at the park's Heming Tea House, which has a nice view of a small lake, and order a glass of jasmine blossom tea with rock sugar and dates. On impulse, you wave down one of the numerous roving ear cleaners, who goes to work on your canals with long metal tongs and cotton swabs. As the cleaner probes, you decide this is perhaps an experience you need to endure just once.
It's time to brush up on your local history, which you'll be doing at the Wuhou Shrine—famous for its monuments dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (A.D. 220–280). At the end of a gingko-lined promenade, you are greeted by a statue of a benevolent-looking Liu Bei, an ancient king, and the master strategist Zhuge Liang, who holds a feather fan and has frighteningly long fingernails.
From here, you enter Jinli Ancient Street, a winding, tourist-heavy thoroughfare lined with stalls selling Chengdu snacks (skewered quails and, for real, fried rabbit heads). The aroma of the aptly named stinky tofu drives you down an alleyway crammed with bars and coffee shops. Here, you slip into the popular restaurant Se Xiang Wei Little Eats for that most local of local snacks—dan dan mian, or “street vendor's noodles." You get a bowl of thin springy noodles served with chili, pickled onions and savory ground pork—a favorite across China. Mindful of your next stop, you leave some room.
Zi Fei garden in the afternoon
Dinnertime brings you to a new wing of the historic Jinjiang Hotel, where the Michelin-starred chef Christophe Dufossé offers haute French cuisine to spice-numbed local palates at Jinyue. Inside, smooth waiters greet you with “Bonsoir" and you settle down to an extraordinary dinner of codfish, creamed pumpkin and pear tart encased in a caramel-colored chocolate shell.
After bidding the waiters “Bonne nuit," you return to the Ritz-Carlton and pause for a post-dinner whiskey at the Lobby Lounge. As a local singer warbles Ella Fitzgerald covers, you look over at the distant hills and imagine, for a moment, that at the top of every one is a sleeping panda. You drink up and head off to the second hotel of your stay, the new Diaoyutai Boutique Hotel, where you too are soon asleep.
DAY THREE | You wake up in a sumptuous suite to a glorious view over Kuanzhai Alley, Chengdu's most beautiful and atmospheric street. Outside is a landscape of clay-tiled roofs and upturned eaves. It looks like a scene from the time of the Qing dynasty, and in a way it is—though heavily renovated, Kuanzhai preserves the atmosphere of the 18th century.
Yesterday's rich, spicy food is still very much with you, so you skip a sit-down breakfast and knock back a chocolate croissant from the in-house bakery. Munching, you pass through the Diaoyutai's courtyard—a fusion of sleek French design and classical Chinese flourishes—and head outside to hail a cab to take you to your first stop of the day, located 30 minutes away in Tianfu New District.
Sichuan opera at Shu Yun Li Yuan
Opened last summer, the New Century Global Center is billed as the largest building in the world. Glistening and curvaceous, it looks as though it should be the largest building on Mars. So large is the mall, in fact, it takes you 15 minutes just to locate an entrance. Eventually you find one and are immediately confronted by a dizzying array of amenities: a skating rink, a water park, an IMAX theater and a faux beach with a 500-foot cinematic sky.
You ride up a 200-foot escalator, arriving at the top in time to see a poodle lifting its leg on one of the mall's artificial palm trees. You cross a plexiglass bridge, upon which a bunch of teens tell each other to “Go on! Fall!" Others cling to the handrail and shuffle their feet across the transparent floor. A macho middle-aged man stamps on the plastic to show off for his friends.
Your senses thoroughly assaulted, you leave the mall and head south for a stroll through the serene Tiexiang Temple Riverfront, a model of attractive urban development that contrasts with the concrete apartment blocks that surround it. On the riverfront, you find A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, the hub of Chengdu's thriving contemporary art scene, where you take in the stunning paintings of Qi Lan, one of which alludes to Cézanne's famous haystack obsession with a flurry of chaotic brushwork.
For lunch, you return to the Diaoyutai, whose KZ Restaurant and Grill has tables in a sunlit courtyard, where you settle down for a meal of excellent sushi. The Filipino chef whips up wasabi two ways—runny and thick—and adds dashes of numbing spice to the tuna roll. Warned in advance to save room, you sample the Sichuan beef and chili loaf, a crispy and pungent bread best eaten with the red chili spread.
A Thousand Plateaus Art Space
Next, you return to Kuanzhai—meaning “broad and narrow"—Alley for deeper exploration. Hearing the clang of a hammer, you pause to watch a silversmith beat a bracelet on the sidewalk. Cantilevered roofs and vine-covered brick walls form a backdrop for vendors selling silks, opera masks, feather fans, shadow puppets and Zodiac figurines of rats, rabbits and snakes.
From here, you head to Shu Yun Li Yuan, the city's oldest tea-house theater, to take in a Sichuan opera. A waitress guides you to your seat and takes your order: a cup of green bamboo tea. Onstage, a woman in red robes plucks a lute as mist shrouds the stage. True to 18th-century tradition, the show includes such features as a bearded clown, women with peacock headdresses, elaborate dance routines, stylized masks and lots of falsetto singing. The show is mesmerizing and confusing in equal parts, and you thoroughly enjoy it.
Afterward, you make the short walk to Zi Fei, a restaurant specializing in dishes that allude to Chinese sayings, folklore and symbols. You enter through a long corridor lined with Zodiac-themed statues, then sit down to a meal that starts with an actual tree branch adorned with flowers made of savory dough, accompanied by beef and green beans. The waitress explains the dish's symbolism, but you are too busy being bemused to take it in. The food, incidentally, is delicious.
Jinli Ancient Street at night
It's your last evening in Chengdu, and you decide to go out with a bang. To do this, you head for the city's popular entertainment district, Lan Kwai Fong. Here, you duck into a low-key bar thick with cigarette smoke called the Nuremberg Germany Brewery. Onstage, a dreadlocked bass player is joined by a head-banging female singer who proceeds to belt out a grungy cover of Maroon 5's “This Love." Using a combination of hand gestures and grins, a trio of locals invites you to share their watermelon and mango platter, which strikes you as both weirdly random and very sweet.
Leaving the bar, you walk along the Brocade River, the surface of which reflects sweeping searchlight beams of blue and white. This makes you think: The restless search for the good life that consumes much of China seems different here, less furious, as if you don't have to look so hard. Near the hotel, you stop and chat with a man who says he plans to make a journey through Southwest China but keeps putting the trip off until tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
“I like being stuck in Chengdu," he says.
Benjamin Carlson, a Beijing-based writer, categorically denies that he smuggled a baby panda home in his suitcase.
The day off: Washington D.C.
Story by Ellen Carpenter | Hemispheres, December 2018
Politics, finance, tech, no matter: Deals happen in D.C. at every hour. But if you find yourself on a business trip with a rare free day, consider yourself lucky: The city has never been cooler.
Wake up in your spacious room at the InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf, with floor-to-ceiling views of sailboats gliding down the Washington Channel, and forget for a moment that the craziness of Capitol Hill is just five miles away. Snap a photo of the waterfall chandelier in the lobby before popping next door for a delicious egg and bacon biscuit sandwich at Dolcezza, the first outpost of the D.C. mini-chain to offer a full breakfast menu.
Photo by Mark DeLong
Hop a cab to the National Portrait Gallery, where you can take a selfie with Barack Obama (well, Kehinde Wiley's depiction of the 44th president) before viewing an entire exhibit on the art of the selfie, Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today, which features works by James Amos Porter, Elaine de Kooning, and more. Afterward, muse on the concept of identity under the undulating glass ceiling in the gallery's stunning Kogod Courtyard.
Photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley
Take the Metro's Green Line up to U Street for a taste of Little Havana at Colada Shop. The small counter spot dispenses flaky empanadas, decadent Cubanos, and the café's namesake—four shots of espresso commingling with sweet Cuban crema. You know you want one.
Time to hit the National Mall and work off that caffeine injection. Every winter, the fountain at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden becomes an ice rink, where you can take in Alexander Calder's Cheval Rouge and Louise Bourgeois's Spider while practicing your triple lutz.
Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Cab over to the Kennedy Center for the free 6 p.m. show at Millennium Stage, offered every single night as part of the cultural hub's Performing Arts for Everyone initiative. Whether it's modern dance, West African blues, or experimental theater, it'll broaden your horizons.
Photo by Teresa Wood
Give in to your carb cravings at the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, a relaxed yet polished restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Toss back the complimentary shrub (tart!) and then dive into the red fife brioche (topped with chicken liver mousse, blueberry marmalade, and wood sorrel) and goat lasagna with tomato, anchovy, and salsa verde.
Catch a ride to Blagden Alley—a historic area that used to house the stables and workshops behind stately row houses—for a cocktail at Columbia Room, a lounge that has topped every best-of list imaginable. Score a seat in the leather- and mahogany-lined Spirits Library and order a Maryland, made with rye, applejack, and chartreuse. Then get another.
Photo by Karlin Villondo Photography
3 under the radar places to visit in December
With the end of the year approaching, it's time to utilize those unused vacation days. If you're not traveling for the holidays, take an excursion to one of these under-the-radar destinations. Treat your family to fun in the sun in Florida, kick back on an island in Mexico that takes relaxation seriously, or take advantage of the slow season at a popular Arizona national park.
Isla Holbox, Mexico
For a leisurely vacation to relax on uncrowded beaches
Seeking a destination where you can unplug and sink your toes into the sand while surrounded by natural beauty? Isla Holbox is the spot. This laid-back island sits on the northwest tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It boasts spectacular beaches with endless turquoise ocean views.
What to do
Pack your flip-flops and beach reads for a seriously laid-back trip to Isla Holbox. Come here to sit on the beach (or in a hammock) while you kick back and relax as you've never relaxed before. Enjoy spectacular beaches without crowds.
Isla Holbox is small — just 26 miles long and one mile wide, with only 2,000 full-time residents. Bright colors and painted murals throughout the area evoke a bohemian vibe. Instead of cars, most people get around by golf cart or bike. (In fact, its taxi cabs are actually golf carts.) Isla Holbox won't give you the lively nightlife of popular tourist destinations like nearby Cancun, but there are plenty of beachside bars serving cocktails, food vendors and restaurants serving fresh Mexican fare.
Go on a wildlife excursion to spot whale sharks, crocodiles or flamingos. Head to the Yum-Balam Nature Reserve to see other exotic animals.
The closest airport is Cancun (CUN). From Cancun, head to Chiquila, where you can take the ferry to Isla Holbox.
St. Petersburg, Florida
A family-friendly beach destination for fun in the sun
With award-winning beaches offering 35 miles of sand along Tampa Bay, calm waters and plenty of sun, St. Petersburg is quickly gaining momentum as a warm-weather destination for families. Downtown is home to many shops, restaurants, bars and unique attractions, such as an impressive Salvador Dali museum.
What to do
St. Pete beaches are known for their calm, warm and shallow waters. Add 360 days of sunshine per year and an average temperature of 73 degrees, and it's surprising that this sunny beach city still flies under the radar. Keep it laid back by relaxing on the shore, or bump up the action by parasailing, windsurfing or kiteboarding.
After a day of R&R, head downtown to enjoy the lively St. Petersburg culture and nightlife. There are 35 local craft breweries to choose from and many seafood restaurants ranging from casual fare to upscale. The most extensive collection of Salvador Dali's artwork outside of Europe resides in The Dalí Museum. You can even meet a local celebrity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Winter the dolphin starred in the Dolphin Tale movies and is famous for her prosthetic tail.
United offers direct service to Tampa / St. Petersburg (TPA) from many U.S. cities.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
To have one of the most magnificent national parks (almost) to yourself
Though the weather is crisp and the temperature a few degrees chillier, the sun shines all month long at Grand Canyon National Park. Traveling here during the low season means fewer visitors will crowd your panoramic views of one of the world's largest canyons and most magnificent natural wonders.
What to do
From scenic drives to backcountry hiking, visiting in the winter makes for a more tranquil and peaceful adventure. The South Rim remains open all year round. The national park offers many trails to view the Colorado River snaking through snow-dusted temples and buttes. Try to catch at least one sunset or sunrise, and be sure to arrive with enough time to stake out a good vantage point. The visitors center and park website have recommendations for the best spots.
Ride the Grand Canyon Railway and travel back in time. A 64-mile stretch of railroad has been transporting passengers from the South Rim to the small town of Williams, Arizona, since 1901. The historic train has an observation dome car to catch the spectacular scenery and even has Wild West-themed entertainment aboard. Every evening in December, the Grand Canyon Railway transforms into the Polar Express and makes a stop at the North Pole where Santa boards the train to greet everyone.
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is the closest major international airport to the South Rim. United offers service to Phoenix (PHX) from multiple U.S. cities.
Evolving our brand design
The United brand is heading in a new direction as we evolve the colors and patterns we use. Where did these new colors come from, exactly? Check out the video below to learn about the research, logic and thoughtfulness that went into this evolution as we took inspiration from the spaces around us, the environments we work in, our heritage, the United globe and much more.
Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya
Story by Jordan Heller | Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock | Hemispheres, December 2018
There is some dispute as to how Playa del Carmen, the metropolitan heart of the Riviera Maya just 40 miles south of Cancún, got its name. Some say it's after Our Lady of Carmel, the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites. But the more compelling story is the one told by locals.
As legend has it, in the 1970s and '80s, when the area first became a destination, tourists traveling by boat from neighboring Cozumel would disembark in Playa—then known as Xaman-Ha—on their way to the ruins of Tulum. A local Maya woman named Carmen would happily invite these travelers into her modest home for a traditional meal of fresh-caught seafood. She may not have had any experience with immaculate conception, but when it comes to Playa, this Carmen is definitely a matron saint. Today, her spirit can be felt throughout the Riviera Maya, which also includes the village of Tulum, the ruins of Cobá, and a number of small Maya communities on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula where, if you're lucky, a woman not unlike Carmen will happily invite you into her home for a meal.
Exploring a Maya temple, befriending a butler and feasting on cochinita pibil
I eat grasshoppers for breakfast. No, this is not my way of saying I know how to handle a subordinate. I'm literally eating toasted grasshoppers sprinkled onto a dish of huevos rancheros with green tomatillo salsa, hoja santa, and goat cheese. I've just woken up at Playa del Carmen's Rosewood Mayakoba, which is perhaps the most luxurious resort I've ever stayed in (and I'm a travel writer). There's a private heated plunge pool outside my back door looking over a secluded lagoon, a spa Forbes rated one of the best in the world, and Tavo, my personal butler, who is at my beck and call through a Rosewood messaging app.
The sikil-p'aak tomato salad at La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen
A bottle of tequila and some toothpaste?
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Despite all this luxury, I'm eating bugs—albeit with a Bloody Mary at a beachside restaurant overlooking the Caribbean. The toasted grasshoppers are crunchy (like perfectly burnt popcorn), incredibly delicious, and an appropriately indigenous start to a morning in which I'll be exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization.
After traveling inland to the village of Cobá, I trade my rental car for a “Maya taxi." It's the Yucatán version of a rickshaw—a padded bench fashioned atop the front wheel of a bicycle with a beach umbrella protecting me from the rain. My driver, Gustino, is transporting me through a mile of jungle and more than a millennium back in time, to the Late Classic (AD 550–830) Maya ruin of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The dirt path bustles with all manner of tourists riding Maya taxis, pedaling rented beach cruisers, or walking, excitedly talking about the sites of this ancient city in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and who knows what else.
As Gustino struggles to pedal through a particularly rough patch of mud, I ask him what nationality of tourist is the hardest to transport.
The Ixmoja pyramid at Cobá
“The Germans," he says. “It's not that they're overweight. They're just a very sturdy people. Americans are preferred: very easygoing and friendly people. Everybody wants an American fare."
When we arrive at Nohoch Mul, the panoply of tourists is suddenly speaking the same language: speechless. At 138 feet tall, the sheer scale of this temple is rivaled only by the gleaming hotels going up on the coast. But out here in the Cobá jungle, after I break the canopy and reach Nohoch Mul's summit, it's nothing but green as far as the eye can see, under which is apparently some 30 square miles of ancient city, most of it still obscured by the jungle. I'm told that just 5 percent of Cobá has been excavated since the project started in the 1970s.
"Today, if you come early in the morning, you find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."
“And what did they do with this little platform?" I ask Diego Viadero, my knowledgeable Tours by Locals guide, who's been schooling me on all manner of Maya history.
“Ah, yes," he says. “That's where the rulers would offer sacrifices to the gods, in hopes that they could avoid a collapse of the city."
“You mean like in the movie Apocalypto, where they chopped off the heads?" I ask.
“Just like in Apocalypto," says Viadero, doing his best to hold back an eye-roll. “Today, if you come early in the morning, you'll find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."
“Do you think it's enough?" I ask, making the comparison to the more (ahem) substantial offerings of yore. Let the eye-rolling commence.
The Rosewood Mayakoba's Sense Spa
Next, Viadero takes me to Nojoch Keej, which is Mayan for El Venado Grande, which is Spanish for “The Big Deer." It's a sanctuary for endangered animals run by a Maya man named Manuel Poot Dzib out of his back yard in the village of Nuevo Durango. Poot Dzib started the sanctuary in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the habitats of many local animals. He now looks after bees (which produce honey that's said to have healing qualities), white-tail deer, paca, curassow, and ocellated turkeys, which he aims to repopulate in areas that are protected from hunters. From the looks of these turkeys, I think ocellated must be Mayan for peacock. They're vibrant, multicolored, and beautiful to look at.
"Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my cocktail to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon."
Poot Dzib asks us to stay for lunch, which is great, because I'm starving. “We're having cochinita pibil—es muy delicioso," he adds, giving off some of that Carmen spirit.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that cochinita pibil is not Spanish for ocellated turkey. It's achiote-marinated pork that's been cooking with banana leaf in a hole in the ground in Poot Dzib's front yard since 8 this morning.
“They normally only do this for the Day of the Dead or other special occasions," Viadero says as we watch Poot Dzib remove the dirt and corrugated metal covering his subterranean oven.
A home-cooked meal, Maya-style
“We used to cover it with banana leaf instead of metal, but that's a much harder and longer process," says Poot Dzib. “This is more modern."
Modern? I'm not so sure, but I grant Poot Dzib that it's certainly an update. In any event, when put on a handmade tortilla with pickled onions and habanero, this cochinita pibil is definitely mouthwatering.
I say “Taakulak k'iin" (“See ya later" in Mayan) to Poot Dzib and his ocellated turkeys and head back to the Rosewood, where Tavo the butler awaits with that bottle of tequila, plus some fresh lime juice and agave nectar for mixers.
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my drink to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon. Just one cocktail, however, as I'm hopping onto my complimentary beach cruiser (every guest gets one) to take a spin around the property, where geckos, iguanas, and even a tarantula skitter into the mangroves as I come rolling down the jungle path.
Appetite sufficiently worked up, I'm off to the Rosewood's La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, where executive chef Juan Pablo Loza serves a communal dinner of Maya-inspired dishes with a contemporary touch. Seated at a long wooden table with 17 other guests, I ask the chef what he's learned from the local Maya villages, which he visits often to pick up cooking techniques.
“My top lesson from the Maya is less about food than it is about perspective," he says, before recounting a delicious meal he had with one family. “The woman who cooked for me had referred to her neighbor as poor. I found it an odd comment, because the assumption in a Maya village is that nobody is exactly rich. 'Why do you say your neighbor is poor?' I asked. She said because she has no family and no garden. If you don't have a garden, you can't get food from it, and if you don't have a family you have nobody to share it with. For them, having a family and a connection to nature is what it means to be rich."
“And now you have this beautiful garden," I say, pointing to his planters of lemongrass.
“And a family, too," he replies. “Including a daughter named Maya."
And then we feast. There's grilled octopus with black recado and burnt lime vinaigrette, zarandeado-style lobster, roasted plantains, and a k'úum salad of squash, arugula, orange, oregano, and ocosingo cheese, finished off with fresh fruits in guava honey and lemongrass.
Tavo, I'm stuffed! Turn out the light and have a pot of coffee waiting for me in the morning, please.
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic
In the small village square outside Tulum National Park, the Voladores de Papantla are performing their ancient fertility ritual, or rain ceremony—named an “intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. Five men in traditional bright red pants and flowing white blouses with multicolored adornments sit atop a 90-foot pole. The man in the center taps an adagio beat on a simple drum and blows a gentle bird-like tune on a wooden flute while the other four men tie ropes around their waists. When the musician ups the tempo to allegretto, the other two men fall backward, like scuba divers dropping into water, and slowly descend upside down in a merry-go-round fashion, the spinning top ceding rope like a reel feeding line to a fish. It's absolutely beautiful.
On a path cutting through the mangroves and almond trees on the way to the park entrance, a guide shares a mnemonic device that will be helpful should I run into any venomous coral snakes: “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack." I assume I'm a Jack.
"The water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly out of the cave floor."
Thankfully, there are no snakes to be seen in the ancient Maya city of Tulum, an open patch of manicured lawns and stone ruins protected by walls to the north, west, and south, and an ocean reef to the east. Or so it was protected until around 1500, when the Spanish came ashore. This beachside community, established circa 1200, was populated by a few hundred of Tulum's elite (and the sea turtles that still come ashore to lay their eggs), with thousands of people living outside the walls. It wasn't until the 20th century, when archaeologists began studying the region's various Maya sites, that we began to understand how advanced their civilization was—especially in the area of astronomy. As I walk the city's white gravel paths, I can imagine a well-heeled society covered in jade and obsidian jewelry enjoying the same ocean breeze and studying the same night sky. One glance at the view, and it's clear the Maya knew something about real estate. This plot right here, with a lighthouse perched on the cliff, would go for a boatload of jade and obsidian.
Maya ruins at Tulum
After fortifying my stomach with a few al pastor tacos (don't forget the guacamole) at Tropi Tacos in Tulum Pueblo, I meet back up with Diego Viadero for a drive out to Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System), one of the world's largest underground cave systems, a 164-mile maze of freshwater flowing through subterranean limestone. This afternoon, we're exploring just one mile of the system. The rain-conjuring Voladores de Papantla must be in top form lately; the water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly (less than 10 centimeters every 1,000 years) out of the cave floor and reaching up toward stalactites hanging like icicles from the cave ceiling. It's like the setting of a science fiction movie, so otherworldly I try to prolong my stay by floating as slowly as the calcium deposits are forming in front of me.
“Be careful," says Viadero, as I get a little too close to a stalagmite that's been a million years in the making. “You wouldn't want to break it."
“I certainly wouldn't want that on my conscience," I agree.
After emerging from a cenote (a natural sinkhole where groundwater is exposed to the sky), I offer an adiós to Viadero and make my way to Tulum's Route 15—the narrow street that cuts through the jungle, parallel to the shore, and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and “eco-chic" (their word, not mine) hotels. Twenty years ago, this strip wasn't much, but now there's not a speck of beachfront that isn't occupied by an Instagram-ready boutique property. (The number of rope swings is astounding.) In recent years, Route 15 has played host to Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Gina Rodriguez, Reese Witherspoon, and, after today, me. I'm staying at Sanará, a stylish wellness hotel that attracts young and hip sunworshippers from around the world who like partying and yoga in equal measure.
A shop on Tulum's Route 15
I check into my beachside room (furnished with my very own yoga mat and dream catcher), flop down on the bed, and open up the “Wellness Menu." On offer are a Pudzyah Mayan Healing that “transforms pain to love at the cellular level … It harmonizes your DNA by applying fractal geometry energy"; a Multivibrational Massage and Chakra Balancing; and a Solar Plexus Healer. I opt for the complimentary “Sound Bath" of light yoga and didgeridoo before balancing out my chakras with a burger, a beer, and some fresh ceviche at Clan Destino.
This laid-back spot is all about the ambience: a wooden deck with chandeliers hanging from the jungle canopy and a cenote smack dab in the middle of the club, should you need refreshing after one too many cervezas. The bar offers a free shot of mezcal for those who take a turn on the karaoke mic (“Suspicious Minds" for me, thank you very much); after accepting my applause and draining my shot, I turn the glass over on the bar and take the plunge.
Floating down a canal, swimming in the Caribbean, and eating gelato on the beach
A cabana at Mía
At The Real Coconut, Sanará's beachside restaurant, I dig into a light breakfast of coffee and avocado toast (piled high like Nohoch Mul with a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes). It's a deliciously healthy start to a morning that's going to include traipsing through the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve and swimming in Laguna Chunyaxché.
At Sian Ka'an—a protected area of tropical forest, marshes, and lagoons about a 40-minute drive from my hotel—I follow my guide, Joaquin Balam of Community Tours, down the narrow boardwalk of Sendero Muyil, which cuts through a forest of zapote and ficus trees. I'm told there are jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys about, as well as some 330 species of birds.
“Are those the howler monkeys?" I ask of a muted rumbling in the distance.
"We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling."
“Oh no," says Balam. “When you hear them, you'll know it."
The closest we get to this array of wildlife, however, is some jaguar claw marks on a ficus tree. By the looks of the marks, I'm happy that we're strolling alone.
Baby back ribs at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club
At the end of the path, we reach the sandy shoreline of Laguna Chunyaxché, a bright body of water that reflects both the green wetlands and the blue sky above. We cross the lagoon by boat, to a shoreline of mangroves and seagrass, and step onto a dock at the entrance to a canal.
“Take your life vest off and wear it like this," Balam says, putting his legs through the arm holes of the vest, as if it were a diaper.
“If you say so."
Balam jumps into the canal and I follow, and I immediately understand the Baby Huey getup. We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling as our seemingly weightless bodies travel down the canal. Cue the opening horns of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back on Route 15, I stop in at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club for baby back ribs rubbed with chili and tamarind, washed down with a glass of Château Gloria St Julien Bordeaux from the restaurant's wine cave—the biggest collection of fine wines in Tulum. It's as decadent as the beachgoers lazing in the sun not far from my table.
Head still swimming in that lovely Château Gloria, I decide to take the rest of my body for a little dip. The Caribbean is bathwater warm and crystal clear—in other words, perfect. I walk out for what seems like half a mile, and the water still only comes up to my waist.
Gelato at Origami
Refreshed and sun-dried, I'm ready to trade in the historical and ecological sights of the last few days for the fashion runway of Route 15. The women wear bikinis and sarongs, the men wear linen shorts and loafers, and everybody wears designer shades, brimmed hats made of straw, and suntans of golden bronze. Origami, a beautifully designed gelato shop, is the perfect place to have a seat and watch the catwalk. I have a Ferrero Rocher and crunch on the hazelnuts drenched in icy chocolate and cream while the fashion models play street chicken with Vespas and the delivery trucks distributing tanks of fresh water to the five-star eateries
If Route 15 is for the well-heeled, then Calle Centauro Sur is for the flip-flop set. It's a strip in the center of town, about two miles inland from the beach, where the more casual tourists and locals congregate. Call it the Brooklyn to Route 15's Manhattan. At Batey—a hip, open-air bar and music venue decorated with paintings of Miles Davis and the Beatles—I take a sidewalk seat and listen to a Mexican Elvis impersonator singing Simple Minds' “Don't You (Forget About Me)." As I sip on a Don Julio Reposado, a patchouli-scented parade of 5 o'clock shadows and hot pink hair dye ambles by.
“Are you going dancing tonight?" a young man in a tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and tattered Chuck Taylors asks a friend sitting at the table next to me.
The bar at Mur Mur, in Tulum
“I'm dressed and ready to go."
Back on Route 15, the revelers are stepping out as if their outfits are going to be scrutinized by bouncers holding clipboards and manning red velvet ropes. Thankfully, no such velvet ropes exist as I enter Rosa Negra for an indulgent meal of burrata, besugo sashimi with black salt and citrus, soft-shell crab tacos, and Pescadores—a fine craft beer made right here in Riviera Maya.
The food is as comely as the patrons, who are bopping their well-coiffed heads to a drum-and-bass DJ. But before I have a chance to pass judgment on an ambience that may appear a touch too buttoned-up, a live conga player steps in front of the DJ.
A rat-a-tat tat, bop ba-da ba-bop, dup du-duh dup du-dup!
The congas add a touch of that Carmen spirit—their organic vibrations reminding me that despite all the Manolo Blahniks and slinky black dresses, my T-shirt and flip-flops are welcome at the party. I shimmy my shoulders, take a swig of my Pescadores, and nod to the beat as I dig into my tacos.
A rat-a-tat tat, ba dop ba-da ba-dop, dup du-buh dup bu-dup!
For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey
Our CEO, Oscar Munoz, sat down with Texas Inc. to discuss our turnaround strategy, stating it's a journey. Read the full interview here featured on the Houston Chronicle.
Ankit Gupta honored with Crain's 40 under 40 recognition
Network Planning and Scheduling VP Ankit Gupta can talk airline business for hours without losing steam. Just don't ask him to talk about himself; that's when he clams up. You'd think after being named to this year's prestigious Crain's Chicago Business "40 Under 40" list he'd be a little more inclined to wax poetic about his life and career, but no such luck.
Security and technology in the air
This week on the Smart Women, Smart Power Podcast, Beverly Kirk is joined by Linda Jojo, Executive Vice President for Technology and Chief Digital Officer at United Airlines for a conversation on the transformation of technology in the airline industry and more on security in the digital age.
The best National Parks to visit all year round
National parks can be a refuge from the noise and hectic pace of everyday urban and suburban life — America's special places in nature. But during the summer peak season, they can be as busy as cities. Smart travelers visit between November and March when most parks are less crowded and accommodation choices are discounted. These national parks are especially worthwhile to visit and they're all close enough to major airports to make a three-day weekend getaway possible.
Fall and winter visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to autumn leaves in the fall, snow-capped granite landmarks in the winter and replenished waterfalls in the spring. Tent camping can be cold, but hotel rooms in and around Yosemite Valley are widely available and Yosemite's historic lodge, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee), hosts two big events in November and December: the Grand Grape Celebration and the Bracebridge Dinner (a recreation of Christmas in Olde England). Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
Many summer vacationers are among the one million annual visitors to Everglades National Park, but the best time to come is in late-autumn or winter. Southern Florida's temperatures are milder, it's far less humid, hurricane season is over and summer flooding of the prairies has receded — letting you see more fish and reptiles. You can also see more birds in the winter via airboat tours through the Everglades, America's largest tropical wilderness. Not to mention this “river of grass" is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and a wetland of International Importance. Airport: Miami International Airport.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Another world lives beneath Kentucky in the world's largest network of caves known as Mammoth Cave National Park. You will walk beneath massive crystallized formations inside the caverns and may spot one of the eight species of bats that thrive in this environment. The caves are about 54 degrees inside year-round, as if regulated by a thermostat, so they are protected from the hot humid summers and freezing winter nights above them, making them a perfect place to visit any time of the year. Visitors to this southern Kentucky park will also benefit from this climatic predictability while taking any of eight cave tours. While cave tours should be at the top of your list of things to do here, this park also offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, kayaking and more. Airport: Louisville International Airport.
Your visit to Haleakala National Park may include a number of experiences, but witnessing the sunrise or sunsets are a must. Many visitors wake up early to drive to the Summit Visitor Center to view one of the best sunrises. But make sure to plan accordingly because the National Park Service now requires a reservation for vehicles to view the sunrise from the Summit District. Other activities on the 10,023-foot mountain include hiking one of the nine trails, guided horseback rides and bike rentals post-hike to coast most of the way down. An added bonus: Humpback whale watching season stretches from December to March in Maui. Airport: Kahului Airport.
Saguaro, a type of giant cacti, serve many functions for desert wildlife — but they don't cast much shade. That's why winter is the best time to hike among them where they populate hillsides by the thousands in Saguaro National Park. The park is split in two, straddling the western and eastern boundaries of Tucson, with 165 miles of hiking trails. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a museum, zoo and botanical garden, is a must-see attraction on the edge of Saguaro NP West. Airport: Tucson International Airport.
Joshua Tree, California
The namesake of Joshua Tree National Park is an odd-looking tree that fits in well with the weirdly wonderful rock formations adored by photographers in this high desert park. Located between Palm Springs and the L.A. area, the park encompasses two major deserts and a mountain range, offering a profoundly contrasting appearance due to the two varying ecosystems. This park can be explored by car or by foot on one of the 27 hiking trails. A bonus to visiting in the winter is the desert wildflower blooms between February and April. Airport: Palm Springs International Airport.
Famous lighthouse at Key Biscayne, Miami
Most of Biscayne National Park is on water, not land, so the best way to see its coral reefs (among the world's largest) and the abundance of marine life (highlighted by manatees and sea turtles) is by renting a boat or taking a boat tour. Several marinas are found at the park's edges where you can do just that, as well as rent snorkeling or diving equipment for a closer look underwater, where you'll discover diverse and colorful aquatic life and multiple shipwrecks. Kayaking and fishing in Miami-Dade County are also popular. Airport: Miami International Airport.
If you go
United Airlines flies to airports within a two-hour drive of all of these national parks. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your accommodations. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your national park getaway.
The feedback from customers and employees was clear: we needed to improve our boarding process. As part of our ongoing efforts to put customers at the center of everything we do, we identified boarding as an opportunity to improve the airport experience. We tested a variety of different boarding processes on thousands of flights across multiple airports. Best practices emerged from each test, and combined, they now form what we are calling "Better Boarding".
Better Boarding consists of three key improvements
Less time in line:
By reducing the number of boarding lanes, there is more space for customers to enjoy the gate areas, many of which have been completely remodeled with more comfortable seating and in some airports, the ability to have food and drinks from within the airport delivered directly to the gate area. Over the years, we have invested millions of dollars in our terminals, and now with less time spent standing in line, customers will have more time to dine, shop, relax, work or enjoy a United Club℠.
Simplified gate layout
Say goodbye to the five long lines we see today
Group 1 will board through the blue lane.
Group 2 will board through the green lane, followed by groups 3, 4, and 5.
Late arriving customers in Group 1 and 2 will use the blue lane.
Customers in groups 3, 4, and 5 always use the green lane.
We are providing customers with more information throughout the boarding process so that they feel more at ease, and more equipped with the latest information about their flight. Customers with the United app can receive a push notification once their flight starts boarding. Customers will only receive the notification if they've opted in for push notifications and have a mobile boarding pass in the app's wallet.
Be in the know about boarding
Customers will receive boarding notifications through the United app (if they've opted in for notifications).
Improved gate area digital signage to guide customers through boarding.
Balanced groups and better recognition:
United MileagePlus® Premier 1K® customers will now pre-board and United MileagePlus Premier Gold customers will be boarding in Group 1. For more information on our boarding groups, visit: https://www.united.com/web/en-us/content/travel/airport/boarding-process.aspx
Improved premier customer recognition
We're happy to make them happy
Improved premier recognition and better positioning of customers to create balanced boarding groups.
The new Better Boarding process is just one of the steps we are taking to improve the customer experience. We will continue to collect feedback from customers on ways we can further improve boarding and you may receive a post-travel survey to tell us more about your experience
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From players and personnel to thousands of pounds of equipment, it takes not only a game plan, but a team to get the San Francisco 49ers to their next game and back all within 24 hours. This process is a little thing in the airline business we call chartering. Learn more about how our Charter team gets professional sports teams to their away games and back on the newest episode of Big Metal Bird.
On March 8, 2018, we announced a new global relationship with Special Olympics, an organization we've partnered with for many years focusing on supporting the spirit of inclusion with our employees through local communities and through our Charity Miles Program. United's increased sponsorship includes support for major Special Olympics events, including the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago, site of the very first International Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968, and the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
In addition, United will engage with local Programs in our key markets around the world. Special Olympics embodies our shared purpose to connect people and unite the world. With more than 5 million athletes and 1 million coaches and volunteers in 172 countries, our employees and customers will join forces with Special Olympics to achieve our shared vision of inclusion. Together, we hope to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
Our relationship with Special Olympics represents a continued effort to break down barriers and further build on the organization's remarkable legacy by engaging our customers and employees around the world. Working together, we created new training that specifically reflects insights from Special Olympics, including training scenarios with real-life situations that individuals with intellectual disabilities face when traveling. By the end of 2018, more than 60,000 United frontline employees will have participated in the new training modules that reflect Special Olympics insights as United takes steps to deliver a world full of inclusion.
Check back this summer for coverage from Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago and 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
"Many years ago at an air show, I saw a T-shirt that said 'Chicks fly,'" said Orlando-based Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor and Chix Fix team coach Laura Spolar. "And I told my husband, 'Chicks can fly, but chicks can also fix!' A lot of people don't know that women are aircraft mechanics."
Laura didn't know it at the time, but that conversation would serve as the inspiration for the team name of our history-making, all-female team of technicians that competed in the
2018 Aerospace Maintenance Competition (AMC). Of 69 teams at this year's AMC, only three were made up entirely of women, and Chix Fix was the only one representing a commercial airline.
"It's so important for us to show young girls and women that this is a career option for them," said Airframe Overhaul and Repair Managing Director Bonnie Turner, the Chix Fix team captain.
Chix Fix is made up of technicians from five stations. As a group, they only practiced together three times before the competition, but they bonded instantly.
"I feel like I've known these women my whole career," said Denver-based Line Technician Janelle Bendt. "It's been a lot of fun getting to know them and learning from them."
"As a team we just communicate really well; we all respect each other," said San Francisco-based Base Technician Katrina Oyer. "The biggest thing I've taken away from this experience is confidence. Working with these ladies is an eye opener. We really can do anything."
Watch the video above to learn more about Chix Fix and their journey to the AMC.