Three Perfect Days: Edinburgh
hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Edinburgh

By The Hub team , August 17, 2014

Story by Chris Wright | Photography by Rahel Weiss | Hemispheres, August 2014

The Scottish capital's long and sometimes troubled history, along with its dramatic physical environment, has given rise to one of the world's most glorious cities. But who knew it was so much fun?

“Edinburgh," wrote the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, “is a mad god's dream." The line says a lot about this city—its impossible clutter of architectural splendor, the dense concentration of beauty it represents.

This beauty is, at times, brooding and melancholy, reflecting the violent religious and political upheavals Edinburgh has endured throughout its history, along with the fires, the plagues and—less dramatically but more reliably—the inclement weather.

Indeed, the very effort to build an Athens on this craggy shoulder of Scotland, with the wind whipping in from the Firth of Forth and the hard volcanic rock below, seems the kind of thing a mad god might do. Mad or not, Edinburgh has always been a center of brilliance—of invention, art, literature and thought. Recently, this tradition has expressed itself in the city's food scene (it has five Michelin-starred restaurants, second only to London in the U.K.) and its renowned cultural events (the Fringe and International festivals happen in August).

As for the people—well, they can be as steely as you'd expect in this environment, imbued with amused cynicism and maintaining a tight grip on their sense of independence. That said, if you ask a local for directions, you could well spend the next 15 minutes engaged in casual conversation.

So, yes, Edinburgh is a sublimely beautiful city. The surprise is how warm and charming it can be, how open and energetic. How fun.

DAY ONE | Few places can do rain like Edinburgh. From the window of your room at The Balmoral Hotel, you look out at a sheer wall of medieval tenements, their edges blurred by hanging clouds, and beyond these the gorse-mottled bulk of Arthur's Seat. Anywhere else, a morning like this would seem drab and uninviting, but in this town it works.

That said, you're staying at the Balmoral. The hotel has been operating here for 112 years, and the indulgent, unfussy luxury it has perfected during that time is not easily abandoned, especially when it's raining outside. So you flop back onto the bed for a minute or two, taking stock of the room's mint-green walls, floral prints and ... you're gone.

Edinburgh Castle looming over the cityEdinburgh Castle looming over the city

You snap out of it and head downstairs, passing through the elegant Palm Court tearoom and into modish Hadrian's Brasserie for breakfast, where you opt to go the whole hog (literally): sausage, bacon, black pudding, etc. From here, you waddle out onto busy Princes Street, where you get your first taste of the architectural onslaught you'll face over the next few days. A left turn takes you west, into the medieval shambles of Old Town; a right leads to the orderly avenues of New Town, which was built in the 18th and 19th centuries, its neoclassical buildings and parks intended to serve as a relief from the teeming, chaotic warren to the south.

Together, the districts comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site, and both warrant first-stop status, but you opt to take a right, partly because New Town is where you'll be having lunch, but also because your pork-themed breakfast is making itself felt, and the area looks slightly less hilly.

You do a bit of window-shopping on George Street, then head one block south to Rose, which is narrower, a little rowdier and features a fiddler diddley-deeing below the orange bunting. You people-watch for a while, then pop into the Auld Hundred Pub for a sneaky pint of Deuchars IPA. After this, you continue through New Town's cobblestoned streets and geometric alleys, recharging your appetite for what promises to be a significant lunch.

The understated dining room at Restaurant Mark Greenaway belies the fanciful artistry of its food. Your eight-course meal includes a Scotch broth that's brought to the table bubbling up in a coffee percolator, and a deconstructed Eton mess, the elements of which are so precisely ordered that the dish amounts to a wisecrack. Thankfully, ingenuity doesn't come at the expense of taste—the crab cannelloni with smoked cauliflower custard is particularly good.

A doorman at The Balmoral HotelA doorman at The Balmoral Hotel

Your next stop is Edinburgh Castle, which has loomed over this city for nine centuries and which, you're pretty sure, is subject to a law stating that all visitors must include it on their itinerary. The sun makes an appearance, highlighting the city's cheerier side. You stroll through blossomy Princes Street Gardens, with a quick detour to look at the old masters in the Scottish National Gallery, before tackling the ascent of Castle Rock.

Edinburgh Castle is actually many castles, a hodgepodge of castles, a collaborative effort among a succession of regimes. The views up here are stunning, but it's the cloak-and-dagger stories that grip you—like the 15th-century “Black Dinner," at which a bull's head was served on a plate, a clear signal that things would not end with a cheese platter (bloody death ensued). At one point, moving along a passageway, you hear children's voices behind a heavy door. You rattle the latch and groan, eliciting a scream and the scuffling of little feet. Heh.

By the time you leave the castle, the blood is thudding in your feet. You zigzag down to Grassmarket and The Last Drop pub, so named for the gallows that once stood outside. The ghosts of the executed, you are told, are likely to be standing beside you at the bar. “Buy 'em a drink!" slurs an old guy propped in the corner, smiling craggily.

Dinner is at the nearby Timberyard, a fashionable whitewashed eatery known for dishing up fresh local ingredients with a twist. Your meal includes oysters in buttermilk, raw venison with burnt oak oil, duck (heart, neck, breast) and a chocolate concoction served with spiced breadcrumbs. The food is delightful, and it gives you the spike of energy needed for your last stop of the night.

Weaponry at Edinburgh CastleWeaponry at Edinburgh Castle

The Devil's Advocate, tucked away in an Old Town alleyway, is not an easy place to find in the dark. It's worth looking for, though. The bar has one of the city's more impressive whisky selections—more so given that its manager, Jack, is only 21 years old. You try a selection ranging from classics like Glendronach sherry cask to a rare peated BenRiach. “This," Jack says, raising his glass, “is a beautiful whisky."

It is a beautiful whisky. It's also a beautiful night. And it's a beautiful walk back to your beautiful hotel, your beautiful hotel room bathroom (which features a large, beautiful photograph of Sean Connery) and your exceptionally beautiful bed. Hic.

DAY TWO | You're feeling a bit ragged this morning when you set out to conquer the day. First, you pause to look up at the hotel, its Scottish baronial clock tower shadowing the train terminal (the clock set two minutes fast to fool tardy travelers), before strolling along Princes toward the enormous Scott Monument, whose jagged spires and buttresses call to mind a steampunk spaceship. From here, your eyes wander to the tumbling rooftops across the park.

Old Town appears to be growing out of the volcanic rock below. Its buildings—some 12 stories high, some much smaller—rise and fall with the undulations, creating, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, an “alternation of height and depth." And everywhere you look there's a gargoyle, a column, a cupola, an oriel, a turret, a gable, a spire. As you gaze at the spectacle, a scruffy guy sidles up, presumably to ask for change. Instead, he says, “Building upon building upon building." Then he asks you for change.

The crab cannelloni at Restaurant Mark Greenaway

You're having breakfast nearby, at The Pantry. You decide on the foraged East Lothian mushrooms on toast, with pancetta and a poached egg, washed down with a cup of good coffee, all of which revive you greatly. A short cab ride takes you back to the Balmoral, where an aromatherapy massage in the hotel's lush spa completes your recovery.

Walking down the Royal Mile, Old Town's main strip, your eye is drawn to an inscription above an alleyway: “Heave awa' chaps, I'm no' dead yet!" Later, you hear the story of a building that collapsed in this spot in the 1860s, killing dozens, and of the boy who emerged from the rubble days after they'd stopped hoping for survivors, uttering that defiant phrase.

Not far from here, you find your guide from Mercat Tours, who's taking you on a “Ghostly Underground" tour (see sidebar, page 72). “Edinburgh is a city of culture," he says. “It is also a city of foul weather and fouler villains." With this, he leads you into the Blair Street Underground Vaults, a sprawl of dank 18th-century chambers that once housed the dregs of Edinburgh society. Today, this “ulcer of criminality and sin" is said to be haunted by tortured spirits. You don't see any, but it's fun looking.

You pause for lunch at Blackfriars, a blink-and-you'd-miss-it eatery off the Royal Mile. The décor is minimal and the food is similarly stripped down. You have cured sea trout with apple and fennel, followed by a heaping bowl of cider-cooked mussels in a cream sauce, served with fries and washed down with a pint of Williams Scottish lager. Perfect.

A sneaky pint at The Last Drop pubA sneaky pint at The Last Drop pub

Outside, the weather has turned again—but that's okay; it'll give you a chance to test your theory about Edinburgh looking better when it's wet. You stroll the Mile for a bit, ducking into the gift shops and a pub or two, then cab it to the base of Calton Hill, which rises 338 feet and is topped by two 19th-century landmarks—the acropolis-like National Monument and the towering Nelson Monument. The hill also has fantastic views of the city, and you try to bear this in mind as you trudge up it. At the top, you get lucky: The clouds part and you catch a glimpse of Edinburgh in all its glory, the rain-soaked rooftops and streets reflecting the sun's rays. Then the torrent resumes and you trudge down the other side, where you hope to find 21212, Paul Kitching's Michelin-starred restaurant.

The first thing you think as you step inside is “Roof!" This amenity, though, is soon overwhelmed by the décor—butterfly carpets, a circular leather couch, a classical fresco, a plexiglass chandelier. The menu here changes weekly, and the descriptions don't always make it easy to decipher what's in store (listed ingredients include “exotics" and “icky sticky"). “Chef doesn't write out the menus," a waitress tells you. “He draws pictures."

Kitching likes to play with flavors and textures—you can go from crunchy to squishy to smoky to sweet in the space of a mouthful. One of your many courses, the lamb curry (no rice), has chorizo, cubes of savory custard, currants, haggis chutney and a bunch of other stuff you can't identify, topped with razor-thin phyllo. It's a memorable meal, rounded off with one of the best cheese plates you've ever had.

You're set to check into Prestonfield House—a storied hotel located two miles away—but there's time for one more stop: Sandy Bells, a tiny folk pub on the edges of Old Town. You work your way to the bar, where an old guy tells you a long anecdote that, partly due to a trio of geezers twanging nearby and partly due to the man's impenetrable accent, is lost on you. Still, you're glad for the company. “Grill gamoor!" your new friend says as you leave. “A braglargh toosh!"

Leafy StockbridgeLeafy Stockbridge

DAY THREE | James Thomson, the owner of Prestonfield House, is not known for his restrained approach to interior design. You wake up on a huge, silvery sleigh bed surrounded by riotous ornamentation—gilt mirrors, oil paintings, leopard-print carpets, zebra-print cushions. There's a candlestick shaped like a stork standing on the back of a tortoise with the head of a lion. There's also a nice-looking bottle of champagne, courtesy of the management.

Beyond your window is a cultivated garden patrolled by peacocks, and a field with longhorn cattle. After a soak in the deep tub, you go in search of breakfast. If anything, the design is even busier in the hotel public spaces: red walls, bronze stags, black roses, colonial statues, a couch made out of antlers. You take a window seat in Rhubarb, the hotel's restaurant, with Arthur's Seat so close you could touch it, and order poached duck eggs with Ayrshire gammon on a potato scone, a newspaper on your lap. That's your morning taken care of.

It's sunny again, so you decide to walk through Holyrood Park, skirting the yellow-green hillsides of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags and ending up at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where the Queen stays when she's in town (it was once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots). The palace, parts of which date back nine centuries, has so many rooms you lose count. The décor is only slightly less opulent than that of the hotel.

Now it's a quick walk to the Royal Mile, and then the National Museum of Scotland, the Romanesque Revival masterpiece that houses everything from dinosaur bones to 1960s kitchen appliances. The interior is dominated by a massive iron-and-glass atrium, and the curatorial style is wonderfully eccentric (an antelope skull beside a steam engine beside a suit of armor). You could spend an entire day exploring this place.

The neoclassical Scottish National Gallery holds an array of masterworksThe neoclassical Scottish National Gallery holds an array of masterworks

But, things to do: Not far from here, up toward the castle, is The Witchery, the madly sumptuous hotel and restaurant owned (surprise) by James Thomson. You take a seat in the mock-medieval dining room and order the wild pigeon followed by a dozen fresh, plump Argyll oysters. “Have another dozen!" says the waitress when you tell her how lovely they were.

It's time for a closer look at the Mile and its endless network of side streets and alleys. In The Writers' Museum, on Lady Stair's Close, you spot a sign advising people to mind the 11th step, which is an inch or so higher than the others. The step was made that way on purpose, explains the clerk, to trip up potential intruders, but today it mainly trips up visitors. “No respect for the tourism industry," he says, rolling his eyes.

West Bow/Victoria Street, an arcing row of pink and green and blue facades, has some quirky little shops selling everything from squirting flowers (Aha Ha Ha) to local art (The Red Door Gallery) to a Robert Louis Stevenson first edition (The Old Town Bookshop). It's a welcome change from the parade of kilts and hipflasks up on the Mile.

The dominant structure on the Mile is St. Giles' Cathedral, with its massive crown spire. The oldest part of the building is said to date back to the ninth century, but, like so much of this city, it has been tinkered with over time, and is now a pastiche of crypts, Gothic arches and brilliant stained glass. As you enter, you encounter a stone angel who appears to be on the verge of tears. It is an exquisitely beautiful place, but not a cheery one.

The Witchery offers fresh seafood in a mock-medieval settingThe Witchery offers fresh seafood in a mock-medieval setting

Your next stop is on the other end of the mood scale: The Lucky Liquor Co., in New Town. When you arrive, the bartenders are plating cupcakes and cookies—a surprise treat for their customers later on. The bar is known for its inventive cocktail list—you go for the Bloody Mary, in which the tomato sediment has been removed by a centrifuge. The resulting concoction, clear and served in a cocktail glass, is outrageously good. You order another.

Dinner tonight is at Aizle, a “neo-bistro" on the city's Southside. In a town enamored of envelope-pushing food, this place may take the envelope. The conceit is that, rather than a menu, you are given an ingredients list, with the words: “Expect to find some of these ingredients in tonight's dishes." Your list includes Orkney beef, apples, bee pollen, blood oranges and Clash Farm pork. Other than this, you have no idea.

As gimmicky as this seems, there is logic to it—the lack of a formal menu is meant to allow the chef to work with the freshest produce as it becomes available. And the food is hard to fault: beef tartare with beet, torched mackerel with leek, hogget (sheep meat) with bulgur. You leave the small restaurant pleasantly surprised.

You're tired, but not ready to bring Edinburgh to an end. So you make a final stop at the oddly Rococo music club The Voodoo Rooms, where you catch a set by former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. During one Neil Young–style solo, you close your eyes and feel a tap on your elbow. “Just making sure you're alive," says a smiling woman with pixie hair and a drink in either hand. You smile back and assure her that you are, yes, very much so.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is ashamed that he didn't hike to the top of Arthur's Seat, and is including that on a to-do list for when he goes back.

This article was from Rhapsody Magazine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

The day off: Washington D.C.

By The Hub team

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.

9 a.m.

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

10 a.m.

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

1 p.m.

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.

3 p.m.

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

5 p.m.

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

7:30 p.m.

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.

9:30 p.m.

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

By Betsy Mikel

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.

Getting there

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.

Getting there

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.

Getting there

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.

For details and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app. Don't forget to share your story on social media with the #MyUnitedJourney hashtag once you arrive.

Evolving our brand design

By The Hub team , December 05, 2018

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.

Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya

By The Hub team

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.

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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.

Day 1

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 pibiles 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.

Gracias, Tavo!

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.

Day 2

Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic

Gran Cenote

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."

IK Lab

“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.

Day 3

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

“Are you?"

“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!

Search flights

For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey

By The Hub team , November 30, 2018

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

By Matt Adams , November 29, 2018

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.

Read more about why editors selected Ankit by visiting the Crain's website here. The full list of this year's honorees can be found here. The 40 Under 40 issue hits newsstands on December 3.

Security and technology in the air

By United Airlines

Podcast produced in partnership with CSIS

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

By Bob Cooper

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.

Yosemite, California

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.

Everglades, Florida

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.

Haleakala, Hawaii

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, Arizona

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.

Biscayne, Florida

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.

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