Three Perfect Days: Maui
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Maui

By The Hub team , February 06, 2017

This year marks 70 years of service to Hawaii and to celebrate we are increasing service on 11 routes connecting the continental U.S. and Hawaii, offering our customers more flights between the mainland and the Hawaiian Islands than any other carrier. Beginning December 20, we will increase service from our hubs in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Hawaii. We will continue operating our daily nonstop service to Honolulu from all of our seven domestic hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., plus Guam and Tokyo.

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Story by Jade Bremner | Photography by Marco Argüello | Hemispheres, February 2017

Nothing can really prepare you for your first look at the West Maui Mountains. Jurassic Park may have been filmed on Oahu and Kauai, but it's not hard to imagine a pterodactyl soaring above this range's steep, pleated hillsides, or a diplodocus munching on the dense jungle trees in the distance. There are also hidden beaches, brimming coral reefs, volcanic rock formations, and virgin forests. But Hawaii's second-largest island has more to offer than natural beauty: There are hippies, aspiring chefs, and one of the best surf scenes in the world, too.

Maui also has a rich spiritual and social history. The old town of Lahaina was once the political capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and the island itself, riddled with sacred sites, is named after the demigod who, according to myth, formed the Hawaiian archipelago, and who is said to have caught the sun to slow it down. Once you've seen a sunset here, that's a feat you'll believe to be true.

Day 1 image graphic

In which Jade goes downhill fast, meets a big wave lover, and learns who caught her dinner at Mama's Fish House

When you think of hotels in Maui, you think one word: beach. For my first night here, I've gone against the grain, opting instead for a mountainside suite at Relais & Châteaux's Hotel Wailea. I wake up amid coral and limestone walls, oak flooring, tribal-patterned furnishings, and Hawaiian ohia woodwork, all of which gives me the impression I fell asleep outside. The actual outside, as viewed from my private balcony, is even prettier: tropical gardens and the ostentatiously blue ocean beyond.This morning, I'm heading for the hills with guide Mark Werner-Gillium, who works for local tour company Maui Downhill. Wearing wind pants and Oakley sunglasses, he pulls up in a van to take me to the base of Haleakala ("House of the Sun") Volcano, the island's highest peak. After an hour or so of lurching left and right on squiggly roads, Werner-Gillium points the van upward. At 10,000 feet, we pass through the clouds and emerge into a desolate, freezing lunar landscape.Looking around, it's easy to see why Haleakala has spiritual significance—Hawaiian legend holds that the summit was home to the grandmother of demigod Māui—and odd to think that only an hour away, back on Earth, people are browning themselves on the beach. Before I can ponder this more fully, Werner-Gillium jumps onto his bike and instructs me to follow. His company, after all, is not called Maui Downhill for nothing.

Maui CoastlineMaui coastline

Nanoseconds later, I'm on a bike, pushing 20 mph on the steep mountainside. My hands are alabaster from gripping the handlebars, my jacket cracks in the wind, and my view of the lavender fields whipping past is largely obscured by the Darth Vader–style biker's helmet I've been given "for safety." "Follow me like a bull!" hollers Werner-Gillium cryptically, followed by "Breathe it all in!" He's referring to the fragrance of pine and eucalyptus that engulfs us as we enter a thick forest. It is indeed a wonderful aroma, but I can't help feeling that "Try not to hit a tree!" would have been more useful advice.Half an hour later, having safely reached the base of the mountain, Werner-Gillium offers to take me to Kama Hele Café, a colorful food truck in the village of Haliimaile that's his favorite breakfast spot. (It better be: His wife, Andrea, is the chef.) Beneath a canopy of small umbrellas next to a pineapple plantation, we dig into island-style French toast made with sweet Hawaiian bread, candied walnuts, and maple syrup. "That's the fastest I've gone on that stretch," says Werner-Gillium, who's still glowing from the ride. "That road can be pretty gnarly."There's more gnarliness ahead, as star surfer Kai Lenny has invited me to his home just outside the former farming settlement of Paia, on the island's north shore. I arrive 15 minutes later at the designer beach house, where Lenny greets me in the surfer uniform—board shorts and a T-shirt. Sitting on the patio we talk about—what else?—surfing.

Kai Lenny, professional surferKai Lenny, professional surfer

"In the ocean-sports world, this is Hollywood," says Lenny, who grew up here, next to a town of cute rainbow-colored storefronts, and who has been surfing since he was 4 years old. His favorite break, located 20 minutes away, is known as Jaws, a "moving mountain" that can rise to 80 feet. Jaws is rideable only around five or six days a year, but when it's on, it makes the news. Kids play hooky from school, and extreme-sporty types fly in to watch it crash. "It feels like a world championship event," Lenny says.
We drive a few minutes to a blustery two-mile stretch of sand named Spreckelsville Beach, where Lenny's been training all week for the Stand Up World Series Finals (which he later goes on to win). He says going out onto the water attunes him to the world in a completely different way. "I become a lot more aware of what's going on around me. It forces me to use survival instincts in a society where you don't have to use any of them."The sun ripples the air, distorting the kitesurfers shredding the turquoise water. We walk for a while, then head for lunch at the legendary Mama's Fish House, a few minutes away, on Kuau Cove in Paia. Mama's is booked up for weeks, but all Lenny has to do is make a call. I'm presented with a sweet-smelling purple lei as I enter the restaurant, which has a fine view of the water.


"It's like going to church every time I go out on the water. I find my rhythm, my center, and realize what's important and what's not." —Kai Lenny

"Mama's is probably the best fish restaurant in the world," Lenny says. "Fishermen go out every day and then come straight to Mama's with their catch." (The menu matches each dish with the name of the man who caught it.) I order melt-in-your-mouth ceviche made with opakapaka fish (caught by Kalae Hickcox), Tahitian lime, chili, and kula persimmon. Next up is mahi-mahi stuffed with crab and baked in a macadamia-nut crust. Lenny insists I save room for the Kuau chocolate pie, which is a very good call. I say goodbye to Lenny and head south, from Paia to Kihei, a half-hour drive that takes me through the interior and past the only remaining sugar mill in Hawaii. There's a treacly smell in the air, and thick smoke drifts incongruously over a backdrop of lush mountains. I'm observing the prelude to a historical moment: Roughly 200 years after the introduction of sugarcane production here, the mill is only months from being shut down, leaving behind no trace other than the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, located in the old plantation manager's house. Behind the old mill, off a dirt track, is the sleepy sugarcane village of Puunene. The sparsely populated community is a kind of time capsule, a look at local life as it would have been 100 years ago. I visit the small Puunene Bookstore, which has been open for decades. After a rummage through dusty aisles stacked with hundreds of books that sell for a quarter apiece, I leave with a bargain: a rare 1970s guide to surfing .I stop for pizza and a neon-bright Endless Summer happy-hour cocktail at the low-key South Shore Tiki Lounge in Kihei, before catching another timeless local sight. In Maui, it is traditional at sundown to grab a drink, settle into a beach chair, and, joined by various dog walkers and waylaid commuters, witness one of nature's blockbuster shows. I pick a spot in Cove Beach Park and watch as pink brushstrokes appear on a blazing canvas, only just resisting the urge to applaud.

Day 2 image graphic

In which Jade stumbles across a clothing-optional drumming session, snorkels in a submerged crater, and samples sushi-style Spam

"Shark! Shark!"I've just arrived at Molokini, a snorkeling site in a crater, two and a half miles from the island's southern harbor. I woke up at dawn and, after a flavorful yogurt-filled papaya breakfast at the beachside Kihei Caffe, jumped aboard the Pride of Maui, captained by Jason Correll. What could possibly go wrong?" Don't worry, snorkelers never see sharks—they're always swimming behind you," Correll joked on the way here. Visibility in the warm waters around Maui is world-class, reaching up to 300 feet in the spot where we sit now, which accommodates 250-odd species of marine life. These include aggressive tiger sharks and unaggressive whitetip reef sharks. Right now, I'm hoping it's the latter."Shark!" I look behind me. Nothing but a few tropical fish. Then, 15 feet to my left, I spot a baby whitetip idly skimming the seabed. I bravely follow the sharkling for a bit, then turn my attention to other species, which are so bright and varied they make my head spin: Moorish idol fish, rainbow butterflyfish, pencil-thin trumpet fish, plump parrotfish. At a nearby spot named Coral Gardens, a two-foot Hawaiian green turtle surfaces, takes a big gulp of air, then dives to the security of a mini coral cave.

The Nakalele BlowholeThe Nakalele Blowhole

Back in Kihei, I meet chef Travis Morrin at his Three's Bar & Grill, which serves Pacific Rim, Hawaiian, and Southwestern cuisine. I start with a platter of hurricane fries—Morrin's take on the local custom of eating popcorn with Japanese furikake rice seasoning. Hawaiian poké is known the world over, but Morrin is interested in more obscure local food customs, many of which stem from immigrant communities. "You go to any good local place, and it's not a specific style of cuisine," he says. "It's a culmination of a melting pot of cultures over generations."To demonstrate, Morrin invites me to climb (literally) into his menacing monster truck. Our destination is a nearby gas station, where we pick up a $2 Spam musubi (Spam and rice wrapped in nori seaweed). The cheap, long-lasting processed meat became popular here during World War II and was later adapted by the Japanese community into this handheld snack. In the giant vehicle, I unwrap the musubi and bite into it. The Spam, flavored with teriyaki, is warm, rubbery, salty—and weirdly delicious. For dessert, we have traditional shave ice from Ululani's, a roadside hole-in-the-wall with picnic tables. "It's a great business model; someone actually found a way of selling frozen water," Morrin says as we join a line 10 people deep. I go for a No Ka Oi ("the best"), a tooth-tingling mixture of coconut, mango, and passion fruit.

Zach Sato, Chef de Cuisine, The Restaurant at Hotel WaileaZach Sato, Chef de Cuisine, The Restaurant at Hotel Wailea

As we eat our ice, Morrin lets me in on another local secret: Sunday sunset at Little Beach in Wailea. "Every Sunday is different, depending on who shows up," he says. "It could be the best night of your life." Intrigued, I order an Uber. My driver smiles when I tell her where I'm headed, which strikes me as odd. Wailea is mainly known for its luxury resorts, but a 20-minute drive takes you to an entirely different place. Sheltered by a rocky outcrop, Little Beach is one of those hidden patches of sand that you dream about. Across the water, you can see the island of Kahoolawe and Molokini crater, where I met that turtle earlier. Over the years, this spot has attracted hippies and sundry art types, and as I walk along the sandy path I hear the faint sound of bongos. A man with dreadlocks and a tie-dye T-shirt wanders past; another has a CND-sign necklace. Moments later, I spot a dozen or so people with various percussion instruments, none of them wearing any clothes.

"Grown here, not flown here. It's important to serve food relative to where you are." —Zach Sato

As the sun goes down, the tempo picks up, and the revelers clap, whoop, and dance. "Would you like a go?" asks a woman brandishing a Hula-Hoop. I have a twirl or two, but give up when I realize my movements could be mistaken for a seizure. As darkness descends, a man lights a fire stick and twists it in time with the beat. As much as I'd love to carry on with the clothing-optional percussionists, I've got a reservation at the considerably more sedate Restaurant at Hotel Wailea. Once I'm seated, I meet chef de cuisine Zach Sato, a rising star whose motto is "grown here, not flown here" and who readily admits to coveting a Michelin star. "It's possible," he says. "We're doing some really cool stuff." His European-style menu places an emphasis on local produce, with small area farms and orchards among his suppliers. "It's important to serve food relative to where you are," he says. I order the Tamimi Farms tomatoes with burrata, pickled shallot, and kale oil to start, followed by prime tenderloin circled with pomme puree, corn, and sea bean salsa verde. Both are delicious. Back in my suite, I sit on the balcony and look out onto the tiki-lit garden. Everything is silent, save for some strangely melodic crickets. I'm not sure if it's bongos or the tune from Jaws looping in my head, but I'm smiling as I drift off to sleep.

Day 3 image graphic

In which Jade gets a pterodactyl's-eye view of west Maui, meets penguins, and learns how the stars can lead the way to paradise

"Shark!" I mean, "Helicopter!" The chopper rattles and clatters as we swoop over a bright green canyon in West Maui. Below us, waterfalls tumble down cliffs; before us, rain spatters the windscreen. "I love this weather," says Air Maui pilot Dylan Dacus, who likens flying a helicopter to "riding a motorcycle in the sky." He looks at my expression and smiles. "Feel free to use the Aloha [sick] bags!" We head north, flying over the coastal Kahekili Highway, one of Maui's most spectacular and perilous drives, and then the Nakalele Blowhole, which, obligingly, spouts as we pass. We cut west and cross the Pailolo Channel to Molokai, "the Friendly Island," skirting the Kalaupapa Cliffs—the tallest sea cliffs in the world at 3,300 feet. There's an eerie feeling about this beautiful place. The peninsula was once a leper colony where at least 8,000 Hawaiians were exiled (and legally declared dead) between 1866 and 1969. Some remained, and today Molokai is home to around 8,000 residents.

Snorkelers at Molokini CraterSnorkelers at Molokini Crater

After a thrilling landing at Kahului Heliport, I go in search of food. One of last night's drummers insisted that I try a food truck next to Kahului Harbor, home of "the best shrimp in the world." I'm not convinced as I pull onto the dirt shoulder, next to a plain white truck emblazoned with "Geste Shrimp." The menu is simple—hot dogs or shrimp in four flavors: Hawaiian scampi, lemon pepper, hot and spicy, and spicy pineapple. My hot and spicy shrimp arrive on a Styrofoam tray, alongside crab salad and a scoop of rice. "Word of advice: don't eat them in your car," says a man in line. He's right—it's a messy process—so I sit by the waterside and eat. The world's best shrimp? I don't know, but it's got to be up there. My next stop is the front desk at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, on Kaanapali Beach, at the island's northwestern tip. The lobby is so big it could be an airport terminal. There are palm trees growing in the center of the atrium, plus a pool with African black-footed penguins in it. I wander through the hotel's enchanting grounds, past a flamingo lake, waterfalls, and a hot pool filled with Champagne-sipping guests. It's all very inviting, but tonight I'm set for a different kind of uplifting experience. In the lobby, I meet Faafetai Tialino. "Aloha! Aloha!" he says, resplendent in an elaborately patterned shirt. For 30 years, Tialino has been part of the traditional luau dance-and-dinner outfit Drums of the Pacific. When he was younger, he did the show's finale, the dangerous fire knife dance. "I would look out to the crowd, and people would be hiding behind their hands," he says of his old routine. "If I ever got burned, I knew the audience got their money's worth." Now he plays drums.

Faafetai Tialino in traditional luau dance-and-dinner outfit

While a luau could be seen as one of the more touristy things to do on Maui, it does offer a glimpse into Polynesian culture and cuisine. As Tialino leads me to my communal table, a smiling woman offers me a pink lei. Over the next three hours, I watch dances from the Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, and Maori cultures. My meal consists of poi, starchy taro root paste; lomi lomi salmon, cured raw fish mixed in a salsa; and kalua pig, a whole hog baked in the ground for hours. "Family is very important to Polynesians," Tialino tells me as the evening winds down. "The luau is when the family gets together. It's a celebration of life." I wander off into the dark. Maui is a never-ending vision of beauty, but you should look up every now and then. Situated so close to the equator, the island is one of the best places on Earth for stargazing—you can see 80 of the 88 constellations from here. Consequently, the Hyatt has a Director of Astronomy, Edward Mahoney, who has promised to take me on a Tour of the Stars. We meet in the lobby, then take the elevator nine flights up to the very dark roof. Good thing I'm a trusting person.

"A lot of people measure themselves with money and success, but in Polynesia, and especially here in Hawaii, family and how you treat each other is very important." —Faafetai Tialino, fire dancer, Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa

We stop at a terrace stocked with various pieces of astronomical equipment, including a 14-inch reflector telescope. "When I was 7 years old, Sputnik, the very first satellite, was launched, and that's when my treehouse became an observatory," Mahoney says. "I've been in love with the sky ever since." We admire Saturn's rings, and then the orange glowing orb of Mars, millions of miles away. "It would be fascinating to go to Mars to check out the tunnels," he says with a small sigh. "I think that's where we'll find life—in lava tubes under the ground."As we move from star to planet, planet to star, Mahoney tells me of the Polynesians who first navigated their way to Hawaii centuries ago. "They used straw mats, into which they wove pieces of coral representing the islands," he says. "Then they'd have another straw mat representing the stars. They would pull one mat over the other and tell the young sailors which stars go over which island." I search the sky in silence, thinking of mats and coral and the people who patched these things together, and how strangely simple finding paradise turned out to be.

Lonely Planet author and former Time Out editor Jade Bremner now has a lifelong association between large waves, small sharks, and loosey-goosey bongo players.

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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