Three Perfect Days: Taipei
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Taipei

By The Hub team , March 20, 2014

Story by Orion Ray-Jones | Photography by Shane McCauley | Hemispheres, March 2014

On an overcast day, clouds cling to the upper floors of Taipei 101, cloaking the soaring tower in the same watercolor fog that swirls around the nearby mountaintops. It's a fitting metaphor for a place that, despite being situated at the nexus of Chinese and Japanese civilizations, has historically been obscured behind a kind of veil.

Even now, despite its status as one of Asia's more robust economic “tigers," the capital city of Taiwan (or Ilha Formosa, “beautiful island," as it was dubbed by 16th-century Portuguese explorers) is not as frequently visited as other East Asian boomtowns. Indeed, it's common to wander through Taipei's most appealing districts and never hear a word of English, French or German.

This is not to say that Taipei is short of attractions. Exquisite Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples, along with Japanese colonial buildings, dot the modern cityscape. Nature lovers can retreat to nearby mountain trails, while history buffs will be dazzled by the wealth of Asian art and crafts in Taipei's many museums and antique shops. And, as the home of global food trends from pearl tea to soup dumplings, the city is a gourmand's delight.

The term “hidden gem" is overused, but in the case of Taipei it's entirely appropriate. A visit here is a process of continual, exhilarating discovery.

DAY ONE | It's no accident that until a few years ago Taipei was home to the world's tallest skyscraper. This is a place obsessed with its own skyline, and locals can spend hours gazing at the towers from the nearby mountains, or at the mountains from the city's towers. Appropriately, then, you awake to a picture window in a 30th-floor suite at the neon-emblazoned W Taipei, the city's effort to provide the last word on design hotels.

You take your time, watching the sun arc from the hip and expensive eastern district toward the old city in the west. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and espresso in the hotel's summery Kitchen Table restaurant, you head down to the lobby, pausing to puzzle over an interactive sculpture that mirrors your movement on a grid of hundreds of LEDs. From here, you take the short walk eastward to Elephant Mountain, where you intend to get the lay of the land.

Milling around in Shilin Night Market

It's a little after eight, but the red-walled Lingyun Temple at the mountain's base is already teeming with local hikers. Knowing an out-of-towner when they see one, they stop to ask where you're from, or whisk by with a breezy zao an! Many are much older than you but seem better equipped to tackle the stone stairs that climb toward the summit. You wheeze your way up, rejoining the beaming geriatrics beside a large moss-covered rock, which you scale to pose for a selfie, the pagoda-like Taipei 101 jutting up behind you.

The elevator at Taipei 101, you've been told, is the world's fastest, and you're in no mood to argue as you zoom upward to a soundtrack of spaced-out music and your own popping ears. Alighting from the disco-lift on the 89th floor, 37 disorienting seconds later, you cannot help but notice that it's gotten a little cloudy, mostly because the clouds are at eye level. Through the wisps, you can see Taipei in all its glory—the spinning Ferris wheel, the golden roofs, the lesser towers prickling their way towards the mountains. The effect is made more dramatic by the fact that this building isn't just the city's tallest; it's the tallest by a long shot.

It takes seconds to descend the skyscraper, but the wait for a lunch table at Din Tai Fung, in the basement mall, promises to be considerably longer. This spacious eatery is almost as famous for its lines as for its xiaolongbao, the soup dumplings that have earned the Taiwanese chain a Michelin star in Hong Kong and a “top-notch table" designation from The New York Times. The dumplings are a sublime combination of chewy and soupy, but it's the spicy wontons that steal the show. When Tom Cruise ate here, your waitress tells you, he was so taken with them he asked for a lesson from the chefs.

A five-minute cab ride takes you to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a neo-industrial complex on the grounds of an abandoned tobacco factory. Recently declared the 2016 World Design Capital, Taipei is a hotbed of bleeding-edge art and design, and the warehouses of Songshan are the place to see it. Particularly compelling is the Red Dot Design Museum, where all sorts of objects, from elephant-inspired fire extinguishers to twisted steel table lamps, are displayed in chrome-walled halls.

Visitors at Longshan Temple

Unlike some Asian capitals, where sidewalks are treated as an extra lane for scooter and bicycle traffic, Taipei is a pedestrian-friendly city. So you work up another appetite strolling along retail-heavy Zhongxiao Road, watching as the sky turns a dusky crimson and the ubiquitous neon bursts to life. As you near Zhongxiao Dunhua Station, you come across Ice Monster, the legendary shaved-ice eatery. Heck, you think, nothing wrong with a little light dessert before dinner, and head inside for an icy mango refreshment.

Taipei's shaved ice has been exported all over the world, but the city is an importer of tastes, too. The intimate eatery Flavors, where the chef and the cuisine are Swedish, is a worthy case in point. As you graze on “snapas"—an assortment of smoked and cured fish paired with flavored spirits—chef-owner Ola Ekdahl pops in and out of the oaken dining room to extol the virtues of his adopted city. “Taipei is a place you just fall in love with," he says, “and the people of Taiwan are the nicest in the world." You can't help feeling that you've stumbled into a family meal, and you leave full of aquavit and cheer, ready to tackle Taipei's spirited nightlife.

First, you'll have to find it. On a nearby street, you squint at a small neon bull's-eye, partly obscured by a hedge. You approach the sign hesitantly, opening the door to what you hope is MOD Public Bar and not someone's living room. Inside, a rowdy, good-looking crowd sips selections from a menu of more than 75 scotches and classic cocktails, mixed by an equally good-looking bar staff who, according to your newfound drinking buddy, are among the best in town. “They steal bartenders from all the fancy bars," he shouts above the din of indie rock, clinking glasses and raucous laughter.

An indeterminate amount of time later, you return to the W, only to encounter the lobby's Woobar, which is packed with grooving socialites. You're exhausted, but… hey, you're on vacation.

In the kitchen at Din Tai Fung

DAY TWO | You awake to a shard of sunlight and the after-effects of last night's fun, so it's with some effort that you pry yourself from your unfathomably comfortable bed and head out to sample a locally popular curative. “Fu Hang Dou Jiang!" your taxi driver shouts, accelerating westward, when you ask if he knows a good Taiwanese donut spot.

Located on the second floor of the other-wise unremarkable Huashan Market, the canteen your driver has recommended is known to attract lines that snake all the way around the block, filled with people eager to try the shao bing (stuffed roasted flatbread) and crullers before the gates shutter at 10 a.m. The wait is a small price to pay for a foot-long savory cruller, a spring onion omelet and hearty sesame bread, washed down with sweet, warm soy milk, all of which combine to help tame your still-boogieing belly.

On the west side of Taipei, the glitzy gives way to the holy. At the edge of Mengjia Park, near a group of monks collecting alms of rice, you stop to admire the most famous of the city's temples, the dragon-bedecked 18th-century masterpiece Longshan. You enter the courtyard, its air thick with the smoke of incense-filled cauldrons. Worshipers place offerings of fruit and flowers on long tables and whisper prayers to Bodhisattva Guanyin, or toss wooden blocks to the floor to aid in communication with the Buddha.

From here, it's a quick cab ride to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where a hushed crowd watches the hourly changing of the guard, with its synchronized spinning of bayonet-tipped rifles, overseen by a massive bronze sculpture of Chiang, the 20th-century Chinese exile who ruled Taiwan for two and a half decades. Surrounded by a gorgeous park, which is also home to the National Theater and National Concert Hall, the blue-tiled roof atop the white marble memorial rises to 250 feet, and you can't help feeling dwarfed as you descend the 89 steps, one for each year of Chiang's life.

A ceremony at Longshan Temple

Moving from culture to commerce, you walk eight blocks east to Yongkang Street. As you jostle through lines of folks waiting for deep-fried squid, beef noodles and cupcakes, you indulge in a spot of shopping. Soon, you're toting armfuls of gifts: hand-stitched slippers from the Pinmo Pure Store, a jigsaw puzzle from Pintoo, body products made from organic ginger (planted by ex-convicts recovering from drug addiction) at Ginger 800.

Succumbing to the inescapable smell of food, you stop at the southern end of Yongkang for a Taiwanese specialty served in a French brasserie. Bistro Le Pont's Gallic name and décor are belied by its table settings of wooden chopsticks and a menu dominated by goose. You order smoked goose and goose glass noodles with peanut powder and spring onion. The springy noodles have a chili kick and are topped with a smoked hard-boiled egg, possibly laid by a goose. Appetite sated, you're waved off by a Taiwanese waitress wishing you “bon voyage."

Not far away is the Flower and Jade Market, which stretches out within long buildings beneath a highway overpass. With bulging shopping bags, you stop to look at the rows of jewelry, carved animals and uncut gemstones, but are determined not to buy. You buy. Most expensively, you buy a pair of sea-green earrings—made from “real Burma jade." You drop this, and the rest of your plunder, off at the second hotel of your stay—the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza, whose simple sophistication serves as a nice counterpoint to the excess of the W.

For dinner, it's back to Taipei 101 Mall, where you'll be sampling modern French cooking at S.T.A.Y. This Asian outpost of three-Michelin-starred Parisian chef Yannick Alléno combines Euro sensibilities with regional flavors in dishes like foie gras with seaweed terrine and yuzu marmalade, and mushroom gnocchi fricassee in Shaoxing wine emulsion with white Alba truffle. But the grand finale is wholly French: an assortment of modern pastries paired with homemade sorbets.

The park at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The fusion of East and West takes on a different hue at China Pa, a red-and-black jazz lounge filled with smoke and a hint of salaciousness. You snag one of the plush couches near the stage and watch the couples whispering in the discreet balcony while a wispy chanteuse cycles through standards in English, French and Chinese. The spell is broken only by the attentions of the drippingly friendly staff, eager to ensure that your tray of snacks is never empty.

Your 1920s Shanghai fantasy at an end—not to mention your reserves of energy—you grab a handful of sesame-encrusted chilies and point a cab in the direction of the Shangri-La, where you promptly fall into a deep, contented coma.

DAY THREE | Though it is an island unto itself, Taiwan takes pride in its dual Chinese and Japanese heritages. You can see this demonstrated in the sleek, understated design of the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza, which employs elements of both cultures—a red lantern here, a delicate screen there—and in its renowned Chinese and Japanese restaurants.

After watching the sunrise from the rooftop hot tub, you head up to the Shilin District in Taipei's northern quarter to explore one of the world's great collections of Chinese arts and crafts. With nearly 700,000 pieces spanning 8,000 years, it's tough to do the National Palace Museum in one visit—you could spend a week in the main hall alone. Along with the Neolithic ceramics, jade sculptures and traditional calligraphy, there's an area devoted to new media, which includes a huge “animated painting"—a screen that brings a classical landscape to life via the magic of digital technology.

Fifty years of Japanese rule left Taiwan with a taste for raw seafood, so for lunch, you go for sushi at Addiction Aquatic Development. At the entrance of this popular eatery is a fish market with a score of large, open-top aquariums full of the creatures about to be served in the complex's five eating areas. You grab a seat on the third floor, then start grinding your own wasabi from a large root, which gives a kick to the beautifully fresh sashimi, raw oysters and nigiri piled before you. The restaurant boasts an enviable collection of French wines and sakes, but you opt for a ginseng–goji berry tea, which your waiter suggests for its healing powers.

Sushi prep at Addiction Aquatic Development

A short subway ride takes you to the Beitou District, a resort area notable for the kinds of bathhouses favored by the Japanese. You stop at Villa 32, known for having some of the swankiest hot springs in town, and complete a circuit of the eight indoor and outdoor baths, each a different temperature. On the way out, you pause to lay hands on a chunk of hokutolite, a white radioactive rock that an employee says is the world's second largest and can heal any number of ailments. When he produces a Geiger counter to demonstrate the rock's potency, it's time to leave.

Aglow (as it were), you head higher up Beitou's mountains to the Grand View Resort, a brand new five-star hotel designed by Taipei 101 architect C.Y. Lee. The angular property takes inspiration from the surrounding greenery, its walls and floors a mixture of cedar, bamboo and pine, along with earthy marble and Guanyin rock. After a meditative moment on your private balcony, you head down for an oolong tea on the deck, which seemingly hovers above Danfeng Mountain and the buildings in the valley below.

Time is getting on, so you take the subway a few stops to Shilin Night Market and your final gastronomic adventure. The market's many forking alleys are chock-a-block with carnival games and clothing shops blasting K-pop, but that's not what people come for. Taipei's night markets are where most of the city's big culinary trends start, and Shilin is the biggest and trendiest of the lot.

Everywhere you look, exotic foods are being fried, barbecued, skewered or scooped into plastic bags. Many stalls sell potato snacks—roasted spuds, fried spirals covered in curry, wedges boiled in syrup. You get spicy sweet-potato balls, followed by a platter of the notorious stinky tofu. By the time the fermented cubes of soybean paste are deep-fried, smeared in hot sauce, soy sauce and scallions and topped with pickled cabbage, only a hint of stink remains, and you happily gobble the street treat. Courage stoked, you head to a stand selling “frog eggs" and are quietly relieved to discover the lime drink you're given is filled with gooey rice tapioca rather than actual spawn.

On the way back to the Grand View, you resist the temptation to hit the noisy, neon-lit bars, heading instead to your rooftop deck, where a spring-fed hot tub awaits. You lean back with a glass of warm plum wine and gaze up at the sparkling sky, the mountain air swirling around you, the rustling leaves combining with the hum of distant traffic. If you crane your neck, you can see down to the flickering lights of Taipei—a once-hidden city that, happily, seems to have found itself.

Orion Ray-Jones is a writer who lives in hotels around the globe. He took a hiatus from his vegetarian diet to report this story, and has since decided that geese are a vegetable.

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This article was written by Orion Ray from Rhapsody Magazine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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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