Three Perfect Days: Guam
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Guam

By The Hub team , February 02, 2015

Story and photography by Jessica Peterson | Hemispheres, February 2015

With its pristine waters, diverse landscape, rich cultural heritage and burgeoning hospitality industry, this tiny tropical island is set to be the next big thing

Long known as a playground for Japanese tourists, the tropical island of Guam isn't short on Americans, either. A U.S. territory since 1898, it's home to a few far-flung military bases. That said, Guam is enchantingly quiet, encouragingly unspoiled. It's also very small—at about 30 miles long and 12 miles wide at its broadest, this peanut-shaped island has a resident population of around 161,000.

Guam's geography is impressively diverse, given the island's size. In the south, you'll find stands of bamboo and rolling hills; in the north, the beaches are often overshadowed by dramatic limestone cliffs. The southernmost of the Mariana island chain, Guam boasts pristine waters riddled with coral reefs, all of which teem with tropical fish. Culturally, the island has maintained its indigenous Chamorro traditions.

In recent years, Guam has involved itself in a process of renewal—its Spanish forts have been joined by fashion outlets, its ancient settlements by high-end hotels. While it has refused to be pigeonholed as Hawaii Jr., Guam is becoming an increasingly popular venue for scuba divers and bargain hunters, history buffs and even foodies. You could say, in fact, that this tiny island is on its way to becoming the next big thing in tropical getaways.

DAY ONE | You've invented a game while standing on your 19th-floor balcony at the Westin Resort, overlooking a broad horseshoe of coral-mottled water. You call the game “Island Bingo," and it involves checking off all the paradisiacal props within view: coconut palms, flawless sky, turquoise sea, white sand. Bingo!

Having realized you are still in your underwear (some views are best left unseen), you grab a robe and munch on pastel macarons and juicy strawberries while gazing at the travel brochure–worthy panorama before you. From here, it's a quick trip down in the elevator and a two-minute stroll to the beach before your toes are being tickled by the water of Tumon Bay.

Taking a break at Priest Pools HillTaking a break at Priest Pools Hill

Tumon Bay has Guam's most manicured strip of sand. Chain hotels and stained-glass wedding chapels skirt the beach, which is flanked by tropical jungle and rocky cliffs. Tumon is protected by a barrier reef—there are more than 1,000 species of tropical fish in the bay alone. You've brought a snorkel along, so you join a handful of seafaring oglers, drifting among hundreds of coral outcrops. An oriental sweetlips approaches, flapping its leopard-like tail and regarding you disapprovingly, followed by a startled-looking convict tang. You'd think they'd be used to us by now.

Back on the sand, a Chamorro man—one of the island's indigenous people—casts a circular net and hauls in a handful of tiny mañåhak, a seasonal catch that is eaten fried or pickled in salt and lemon juice. He's wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. He says, “Hafa Adai" (Chamorro for “hello," and a phrase you will hear with reliable frequency during your time here) and beckons you over to look at his catch, a mix of finger-length white and silver fish.

Your skin is starting to resemble that of a fiery squirrelfish, so you leave the beach and head for The Plaza Shopping Center, a two-story mall that houses an array of luxury fashion brands. You pass a trio of Japanese women in matching floral dresses, each sporting a pair of enormous Anna Sui sunglasses and giggling excitedly. Guam is duty-free, so you don't feel too bad picking up a hard-case wheelie from Rimowa. (Your old carry-on no longer qualifies as merely “broken in.")

All this money-saving has made you hungry. You head to the nearby Asia-meets-the-Marianas eatery Proa, a local favorite with big windows overlooking Ypao Beach. You start with a beggar's purse of big-eye ahi poke, a Hawaiian-style dish served with red rice, jicama, avocado and wasabi soy butter sauce. Next come soy-marinated short ribs with finadene, a local condiment made from vinegar, lemon, soy sauce and onions. You pop a red boonie pepper into your mouth and regret it. Easier to swallow is dessert: a creamy, brûléed purple cheesecake.

A Chamorrita dancer in traditional dressA Chamorrita dancer in traditional dress

Having rendered yourself unable to walk without the assistance of a crane, you decide to take a scenic drive along the road that hugs the southern curves of the island. Jungle-draped hills line the left side of the road, and an endless view of the Philippine Sea stretches away on your right.

Your first stop on the drive is the Latte of Freedom, the world's largest cup of milky coffee. OK, it's not that kind of latte—the word refers to an ancient pillar design, shaped like a mushroom with an inverted cap. The stones, thought by islanders to have mystical powers, now symbolize Chamorro culture, and this one, built in 2010, is the daddy of them all: 80 feet tall, with a viewing platform at the top.

There's an equally fine view from the Vietnam veterans memorial, I Memorias Para I Lalahi-ta: the angular hills, the Lego-like Umatac Bridge and Señora Nuestra de la Soledåd, a 19th-century Spanish fort that now lies mostly in ruins. You'd like to get a closer look at that.

Upon your arrival at the fort, a tattooed man with a large water buffalo in tow uses a machete to lop the end off a coconut, then offers it to you: “Drink!" You sip-walk up to the last remaining sentry post, its slit-like windows framing the misty beach below. This part of the island looks untouched by modern life, in stark contrast to the touristy haven of Tumon. You can't shake the feeling that you've traveled back in time.

Off-roading in Guam's red-dirt hills with Jungle Rules Adventure ToursOff-roading in Guam's red-dirt hills with Jungle Rules Adventure Tours

Next, you drive through the Spanish-style village of Inarajan for a dip in its crater-like pools, where seawater rises and falls with the tide. Tourists snorkel in the water and locals hold fiestas in beachside pavilions. Two young Chamorro boys dare each other to jump off a platform into the sea. A gentle rain has spritzed the beach with a fine mist, alleviating the 80-odd degree heat. It's perfect. But, again, your appetite is getting the better of you.

Dinner tonight is at Guam's only German restaurant, McKraut's, in the tongue-twisting village Malojloj (Muh-low-low). A red-faced bartender dressed (unironically, you feel) in a feathered hat and lederhosen serves up big glasses of beer to a raucous crowd. You order the sweet Detmolder Thusnelda, all the better to wash down your smoked brats, spätzle and sauerkraut. “Das ist gut!" you say to the bartender, who looks back at you as if you are a lunatic. By sunset, the place is roaring, so you order another beer, followed by a few more. Taxi!

DAY TWO | You start the day with a quick splash. Drifting among the flickering fish, you spot a Picasso triggerfish, a wedge-shaped critter that looks as if it's been rolling around on an artist's palette. The fish returns your gaze, initiating a staring competition that ends with the arrival of a blacktip reef shark. You've read that these things are “a hazard, rather than a danger," which isn't all that encouraging. But maybe the shark read something similar—it hightails it away before you do.

Breakfast today is a few miles away at Pika's Cafe, a low-key Chamorro eatery that brims with chatty locals. You order the O.O.G. (“Only on Guam"), a heaping plate of tinalan katne (smoked meat), eggs, steamed rice and spicy-tangy finadene. “Mangge!" says the woman who served you. “Delicious, yes?" Yes.

Rowers on Tumon Bay at sunsetRowers on Tumon Bay at sunset

Fortified, you meet up with Tony, a guide with Jungle Rules Adventure Tours. Your destination is the red-dirt hills of southwestern Guam, a swath of mostly uninhabited land. Your fellow passengers are a beef-fed Russian family. The only Russian words you know are “vodka" and “Putin"—so you decide to shut up and watch the countryside flash by.

Ill-advisedly, perhaps, Tony has agreed to let you have a go at driving. You wrestle with the steering wheel for an hour or so, juddering over undulating, otherworldly red hills. Perched on a hump in the shade of a single tree, you look out over the sea to the green splodge of Anae Island. Small boats bob about in the water. It's lovely, but you're itching to get back behind the wheel.

You head for even more rugged terrain, possibly going a little faster than you should. Tony promised you couldn't flip this vehicle, but you momentarily doubt his words as you soar over the rim of a massive red dune. One of your Russian passengers emits a flurry of what you assume are expletives.

As the white-knuckle tour reaches its conclusion, your passengers are visibly relieved. “USA amazing!" says the rotund guy who seemed to be swearing at you earlier, two thumbs up. Everyone is covered in a layer of red dirt, so you switch cars and head for Tanguisson Beach for a dip. The drive takes you along a precipitous and potholed road, which makes you pine for your SUV, or possibly a pair of sturdy hiking boots.

A local holds a coconut crab in Lina'la' ParkA local holds a coconut crab in Lina'la' Park

The beach more than makes up for whatever discomfort you endured along the way: Mushrooming coral plumes emerge from water the color of sea glass; huge cliffs rise at your back. It's also deserted, apart from a Micronesian woman in a floral skirt and a few kids splashing in the waves. You peel off your dirt-caked clothes and wade past the rocks into the surf.

Having cleaned up, you stroll the beach, wading into the water when the path disappears, to the even more picturesque Shark's Cove. You plop down on a lonely patch of sand and, despite the cove's name, slip on your snorkel and mask and reacquaint yourself with the island's psychedelic sea life.

Just before the sun sets, you drive to Two Lovers Point, a cantilevered platform atop a 400-foot cliff. Here, “long ago," two young Romeo-and-Juliet types are said to have tied their hair together and jumped to their deaths. It's not the most edifying story you've ever heard, but the views of the sea and the sharp cliffs are spectacular.

Your next stop is Tumon's tourist strip, home to the small but wildly popular Japanese restaurant Kai. Patrons are greeted loudly and served liberally from personalized shōchū bottles. Polaroid pictures of regulars adorn the walls. After some fried ginkgo nuts, you have a pink dragon roll, which is crunchy, salty and spicy, with sweet battered shrimp and tangy mayo drizzled on top. Yum. You autograph your shōchū bottle while the owner's wife snaps a photo and hangs it behind the bar.

A throw-net fisherman at Tumon BayA throw-net fisherman at Tumon Bay

Happily pooped, you head to the second hotel of your stay, the Hilton Guam Resort & Spa, a modish Mediterranean resort at the opposite end of Tumon Bay. Tiki torches line the outdoor bar and surrounding pools. You can see Two Lovers Point from the infinity pool, where you sip a strawberry mojito. A cool breeze takes the edge off the humidity, so much so that your perma-frizz starts to unwind.

As relaxing as all this is, there's a fire dance show at the hotel's outdoor Tree Bar, which you feel you have to see. Nimble and deeply tanned youths swing flaming batons over their heads. The swirling fire, tropical heat and a cocktail or two have left you a bit woozy. You head upstairs and climb into bed, a steady drumbeat lulling you into a sleep that flickers with plunging lovers, Martian landscapes and grumpy little fish.

DAY THREE | You've booked an early Balinese-style massage at the hotel's Spa Ayualam, in an open-air cabana overlooking the bay. You disrobe and a petite woman gets to work on the knots caused by the previous day's adventure with the Russians. The combination of a gentle breeze, fragrant oil and the woman's expert fingers sends you to sleep.

Having been prodded awake by your masseuse, you shower and head down to the Hilton's Islander Terrace. The buffet bar heaves with both American breakfast food and dishes from the Far East. You fill your tray with miso soup, kimchi and oden, a stew of boiled eggs, daikon radishes and fishcakes in a dashi broth. It's wonderful.

Tourists at the pools in InarajanTourists at the pools in Inarajan

You're tempted to go back to the beach, but you have a very different kind of aquatic experience in store. You hop in your car and head south, following the signs to Fish Eye Marine Park, where you're booked for an activity they call Seawalker. It starts in a circular building at the end of a narrow pier, where you are fitted with a sort of spaceman's helmet. Like those old diving suits, your helmet has a constant stream of air pumped in so you can breathe. Next, you descend a ladder, which takes you about 20 feet under the surface of Piti Bay. Your guide walks you out to a feeding area and hands you a clump of fish food. Immediately, you are surrounded by a rabble of impossibly bright and chummy creatures. No funny looks here.

Next, after an appetite-honing kayak trip, you head for Tumon's Gun Beach, home to The Beach Bar & Grill. On the deck, blaring reggae provides an odd soundtrack to a view dominated by a large rusty gun (one of the island's many reminders of its World War II battles). You start with a Beach Sunset—rum, amaretto, orange, pineapple, banana liqueur, grenadine and, uh, more rum—followed by a Tinian Beach Burger, a mammoth patty topped with cheese and bacon. Lunch over, you slide into a padded beach chair, lower your sunglasses and (yep) fall asleep.

Just next door is Lina'la' Beach & Culture Park, the centerpiece of which is a reproduction of a traditional thatch-and-latte Chamorro village. A man with one cheek full of betelnut hunches over a flat stone, grinding noni leaf. He hands you a sample. “Mm!" you say, thinking “Ew!" A moment later, a muscular man with coarse black hair wearing only a red loincloth shimmies up a coconut tree, tilts his torso parallel to the ground, then slides down. “That looked painful," you say. “Well," he replies, smiling, “maybe a little."

The view of the poolThe view of the pool

As the sun sets, you drive south, to the capital city of Hagåtña, where you find Chamorro Village, Guam's largest indoor/outdoor market. Tables are piled with jewelry, paintings and straw baskets. The air is thick with the aroma of smoked meat. You head to Åsu Smokehouse and order a fiesta plate, which includes tender caramelized beef brisket, red rice and crisp cabbage slaw. Despite the large burger you tackled earlier, you eat it all.

From here, you find the only empty seat in the market's central pavilion. A band is playing a classic rock set that, oddly, involves a tuba and a ukulele. On the dance floor, a local woman is swaying her hips beside a man in a top hat lined with tinsel. She giggles as he twirls her around. You get the feeling these two are a staple here.

The narrow arteries of Hagåtña are filling with tourists sipping coconut milk from the shell. A grinning young man poses for a picture with a coconut crab that's about the size of a toddler. When they're not sipping and posing, the tourists are spending. It is tchotchke heaven here, an endless array of beads, baubles and wooden carvings. You are not immune. A stocky middle-age man dressed in a loincloth and holding a spear beckons you to his shop. You walk out with a clamshell pendant.

As you're readying yourself to leave, you spot a makeshift stage, upon which dancers with spears and grass skirts chant and sway to the furious beat of drums. Surrounded by chattering tourists, you cannot help but think of the island's knotted jungles, its mazy reefs and half-forgotten rituals. It strikes you now just how far away from home you are, and just how happy you are to be here.

Writer Jessica Peterson has called Guam home for five years, but her friends still ask her which “nesia" she lives on.


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.

Search flights

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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