Three Perfect Days: Barcelona
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Barcelona

By The Hub team , October 11, 2016

Story by Boyd Farrow | Photography by Salva López | Hemispheres October 2016

Spain's El Gordo may be the world's biggest national lottery, but Barcelona residents have already hit the jackpot. The capital city of Catalonia, a semiautonomous region in the country's northeast, has a culture—and language—all its own. It has extraordinary architecture (from the medieval clutter of the Barri Gòtic to the Modernist apparitions of Antoni Gaudí), a lively arts scene, some of the world's most inventive cuisine (22 Michelin-starred restaurants), as well as a perfect climate and more than three miles of sand for its beautiful people to strut their stuff on. All this is hardly a secret: Nearly 25 years after the 1992 Olympics propelled Barcelona into the global spotlight, its 1.6 million residents are vastly outnumbered by the people who come to visit. Many leave their hearts in the city—and many simply decide to stay.

Day 1 graphic

In which Boyd gets a glimpse of a Gaudí dreamscape, climbs a mountain to look at modern art, and peruses the world's greatest collection of fresh produce

It's midmorning at Caelum, a cryptlike cafe in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) where the cakes are made by nuns. I am contemplating a cup of “Blessed Chocolate"—thick as asphalt and almost as dark—when my companion, Lynette Kucsma, whispers: “Try one of these." From her bag she produces a handful of chocolate cookies shaped like spoons, and we cackle like hens.

Half an hour ago, I watched Lynette make these cookies using a 3-D printer created by the tech startup she co-founded, Natural Machines. The company headquarters are surrounded by a 14th-century cathedral, a 15th-century palace, and the remnants of a Roman wall. In this city, the ancient and the cutting-edge collide like giddy toddlers.

Indeed, much of Barcelona seems like a playpen for surrealists and mad scientists—a Terry Gilliam fantasy brought to life. I woke this morning in the Neoclassical Majestic Hotel, a century-old five-star property on the shopping avenue Passeig de Gràcia. From the balcony of my suite, I looked out at fairytale turrets, pillars of bone, and a roof that resembles an iridescent armadillo.

Lynette Kucsma, Tech entrepreneurLynette Kucsma, Tech entrepreneur

Lynette Kucsma, Tech entrepreneur

This turns out to be Casa Batlló, designed by visionary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, the man who, more than any other, manifests the spirit of Barcelona. Later, having demolished the Modernist breakfast buffet tower I made out of Manchego cheese and Ibérico ham, I cross the road for a closer look. Built in the early 20th century as a private residence, Casa Batlló is more dream sequence than domicile: ceilings swirl, walls convulse, windows bulge. The roof terrace has multicolored mushroom-shaped chimney pots. You can only imagine Gaudí's meetings with the client, textile titan Josep Batlló: “Hey, Joe, how about skylights shaped like tortoise shells?"

Passeig de Gràcia is situated in Eixample, Barcelona's commercial hub. It extends from Gràcia, a former village in the north, to Plaça Catalunya, the huge, teeming square where the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) meshes with the 19th-century grid. After a half-dozen or so tactile sales pitches, I am tempted to buy a selfie stick from a hawker to beat my way through the other hawkers.

South of here is Barcelona's most famous street, La Rambla, a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard that nuzzles the Barri Gòtic and runs all the way to the port. Near the waterfront is the Monument a Colom, a 195-foot iron column with Christopher Columbus on top, pointing out to sea. This is said to be the exact spot that the explorer returned to after discovering the New World. If he'd turn around, he'd have a great view of what is often called Barcelona's “emotional hub."

“I wouldn't go as far as to call it smugness, but people here know how lucky they are—the weather, the food, the mountains, the sea. Let's just say they are proud, but with justification." —Lynette Kucsma

As for me, I'm mainly seeing the backs of people's heads and the tops of kiosks. Barcelona attracts 9 million visitors a year, and this morning most of them are shuffling in front of me. At one point I find myself jostling before the ornate Font de Canaletes—built in the 19th century over an ancient watering hole—around which people, even today, congregate to refill their Evian bottles.

Barcelona's real treasures tend to be above eye level: the multipronged street lamps, the licorice balustrades of the townhouses, the Rococo flourishes of the 18th-century Palau de la Virreina, and the Baroque stylings of the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, which was Europe's largest theater when it opened in 1847. The Liceu's woes eclipse any tragedy it has staged: A fire in 1861 destroyed everything but its facade, and three decades later the auditorium was re-destroyed by anarchists. Another rebuild was needed following a blaze in 1994.

Feeling a little overheated myself, I duck down a side street, then weave my way through the Roman ruins to find Lynette and her sci-fi snacks. “Barcelona is great for startups," she says as we wander the Barri Gòtic, stopping to take in the deliriously latticed bridge on the much-photographed Carrer del Bisbe. “Where else can you get cheap office space in a place like this?"

A Chinese dragon sign on a shop on La RamblaA Chinese dragon sign on a former umbrella shop on La Rambla

A Chinese dragon sign on a former umbrella shop on La Rambla

We zigzag on, past the looming cathedral, which teems with so many spires it looks like a polygraph test set in stone, and through cobbled Plaça Sant Jaume. In front of the grand Casa de la Ciutat, we look for a group of castellers, multistory human towers that are wildly popular here (presumably for selfies and jailbreaks), but it's too sticky today for such exertions, so we continue on to the adjacent Plaça de Sant Miquel, where we take in a 90-foot Antoni Llena sculpture that seems to have been built from the world's largest wire coat hangers.

From here, Lynette leads me to the iron and stained-glass entryway of La Boqueria, a monument to the region's passion for gastronomy. Inside, locals browse stalls selling glossy olives, bouncy mushrooms, Botoxed fruit, wriggling seafood, and heaving slabs of meat. I see a whorl of saffron worth more than my apartment. One stall sells nothing but eggs: white goose eggs, blue duck eggs, green emu eggs, and huge yellow ostrich eggs.

At Kiosko Universal, one of the market's bustling eateries, grilled squid and blistered Padrón peppers are thrown on a busy grill beneath a slightly alarming sculpture made from cutlery. Usually, out of a plateful of these small green peppers only a couple will be fiery, but for some reason, every one of mine goes up to 11. Eyes streaming, I discover the one thing not available at the market: water by the gallon.

A jamón vendor at La BoqueriaA jamón vendor at La Boqueria

A jamón vendor at La Boqueria

Four stops from the nearby Liceu metro station is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, a palace built on a hilltop for the 1929 International Exposition. Two escalators hidden in the topiary take you some of the way up, but there are still several hundred steps before you reach the museum's entrance. At the door, they are handing out oxygen masks. No, wait, they're just audio guides. The exhibits, however, are worth the climb. Among the big draws here are the Romanesque and Gothic works, but I linger over Joaquim Mir's vivid Modernist landscapes, then pause to covet a gorgeous Jujol cabinet. The most popular spot for selfies is in front of Miró's Mural per a IBM, 1978, which once brightened the entrance of the computer giant's local HQ. Now it is worth more than IBM.

Another quick metro ride takes me to Gràcia, which has retained its simple charms despite an influx of trendsetters. Rising 110 feet in Vila de Gràcia, the colorful main square, is a stone clock tower surrounded by boys showing off their soccer skills. I have a vermouth in the shade and watch for a bit.

I've been starving since the Renaissance (all those still-life bowls of quince at the museum), but nobody here seems to eat dinner until two in the morning. The concept of a proper night's sleep seems alien to Spaniards. Eventually, I arrive at Petit Comitè, on the -upmarket Pasaje de la Concepción. Here, Michelin-starred chef Nandu Jubany has created updated versions of a lengthy list of traditional Catalan dishes. I try most of them: l'Escala anchovies and pickled oysters with seaweed, baked monkfish with ham and fried garlic, suckling pig with apricot and pineapple. A vanilla brioche with flaming rum arrives, and while it may not have been meant for my table, it is delicious.

It's past midnight but still warm when I exit the restaurant. Although my bags have already been dispatched to my next hotel, I decide to try the Majestic's rooftop bar, where a DJ does his best to get the well-groomed clientele to throw shapes around the swimming pool. I've noticed that a popular cocktail in Barcelona is a localized version of the Aperol Spritz, in which the vivid orange Italian aperitif is served with ice, soda, and cava, and this seems a good time to try one. I sip the bittersweet drink and watch the Aperol-tinted street below, until I feel myself slumping into an unflattering shape, close to the water's edge.

Day 2 graphic

In which Boyd sleeps beside an ancient roman wall, impersonates a filmmaker at the Sagrada Família, and sparks a war of words between two designers

Many grand palaces were built along the Roman wall of Barcino, as the Catalan city was known in the Middle Ages. This morning, I wake up in The Mercer, a chichi hotel that has been fashioned out of one of them. Here, famed architect Rafael Moneo has created an extraordinary amalgam of materials and styles. Through the restaurant's glass floor, I can see the base of the first-century Roman wall, but right now I am distracted by a pastry that has rolled off my table and ended up splatted in the middle of the room. Luckily, there is an adorable moppet in a highchair at the next table. She can take the rap, I decide.

Soon I'm heading north to another Gaudí masterpiece, the Surrealist-Gothic Sagrada Família—which has been under construction since 1882 and won't be completed until 2026. One look at the vast church and you understand the delay. Comprising eight tapering 328-foot towers (there will be 18 when the project is finished), every inch oozing with detail, every detail an allusion, it looks like several hundred monumental structures rolled into one.

Olga Menchén, Fashion designerOlga Menchén, Fashion designer (with Francesc Grau Tomàs, right)

Olga Menchén, Fashion designer (with Francesc Grau Tomàs, right)

As I enter, the woman at the desk mistakes me for a member of a TV crew and fast-tracks me to a Passion Tower. Seeing the line for the tiny elevator, I decide to roll with it. Then she hands me a 28-page contract, which I must sign on every page. “This is just to say you are liable for damage." Later, inching down the tower's 350 terrifying corkscrew steps, I'm convinced I'm going to slip and take down everyone ahead of me. I picture the faces of the network's lawyers when they're hit with the class-action lawsuit.

Love it or hate it, the Sagrada Família is a triumph of structural engineering and a brain-twister for scholars of ecclesiastical symbolism. But it also crowns the architect's career-spanning celebration of nature: every tile is a honey-comb, every column a tree, every staircase a shell. I crick my neck staring at the ceiling's frills and jags, the skylights of glowing green and gold, and suddenly wonder how they change the lightbulbs in here. Do they call in the castellers?

A short cab ride takes me to the Horta-Guinardó district and up to Gaudí's Park Güell, a 45-acre pleasure garden seemingly landscaped by Dr. Seuss. Teeming with gingerbread houses, kooky water features, and crazy tiled critters, the park is the legacy of Eusabi Güell, a 19th-century industrialist who commissioned Gaudí to build a residential estate on Muntanya Pelada (Bare Mountain). In 1922 the Güell family gifted it to the city, and today it is one of Barcelona's most popular destinations. Entrance is restricted to 400 visitors in each prebooked 30-minute slot. I am 10 minutes early, and the ticket collector glares at me. Inside, people are clustered around an Imperial staircase, which leads to the Roman-inspired Salon of the Hundred Columns, atop which is a large viewing terrace.

“People tend to think that Spain has a machismo culture, but Barcelona women are strong, powerful, and confident. There is always a sexiness about people who dress completely for themselves." —Olga Menchén

Here, I rest on a bench in the form of a sea serpent and enjoy panoramic views of the city. Salvador Dalí called this bench a precursor of Surrealism, but after a morning of wall-to-wall Gaudí, it's starting to look like run-of-the-mill garden furniture. All these cracked tiles, though, remind me that my unmoisturized head is flaying in the heat. If I sit here any longer, I too will become glazed.

After all the stimulation, I decide lunch should be simple, so I turn to London-born chef Alan Stewart, who is getting rave reviews for his year-old restaurant, La Esquina. Part Shoreditch pub, part Soho loft, the eatery bucks Spanish culinary trends by giving vegetables equal billing with meat. “The markets here sell the most fantastic vegetables, yet most places still serve a big chunk of meat with half a tomato," says Stewart, who came to Barcelona two years ago. The locals seem to have embraced his approach: By 2 p.m., the place is crammed. I get chilled cream of cucumber soup with crusty bread, and couscous with pomegranates and feta—but before leaving I discreetly wolf down a plate of robust pork sausages, ignoring the lentils.

Onward to El Born, the commercial heart of the medieval city, wedged between the wall and the port. The district, already brimming with galleries and funky shops, is now attracting droves of artisans. I can practically taste leather and single-bean chocolate in the air.

Barcelona's man-made beachBarcelona's man-made beach

Barcelona's man-made beach

Among the great Renaissance mansions of Carrer de Montcada is the cloistered Museu Picasso. Many early works from the Barcelona-trained artist are on display here, including an 1896 self-portrait in which he looks spookily like Prince. One of the pleasures of the museum is seeing how versatile Picasso was: Of all the artworks here, there is very little in the way of messed-up guitars or people with noses on the sides of their heads.

Around the corner from here is the Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar, considered the city's finest and most complete example of Catalan Gothic architecture, on account of its relatively prompt construction. Begun in 1329, this compact church was completed a mere 55 years later. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, the interior was burned out, but the soot-blackened vault only heightens the eerie beauty of the space.

At the nearby Super Super Bar, I meet Francesc Grau Tomàs and Olga Menchén, who own Menchén Tomàs, one of Barcelona's leading fashion labels. Francesc says that design startups are on the rise here, as talented youngsters move to the city. “It takes time for a new generation to learn old techniques, but it is exciting to see," he says. “Hopefully they won't all go off and work for Zara."

I ask if Barcelona is a well-dressed city, and Francesc says “yes" at the same time Olga says “no." They then argue in Spanish (or maybe Catalan?), as I silently sip my sangria, wondering if I've just ended their fruitful partnership. “It is stylish compared to other Spanish cities, certainly more than Madrid," Olga clarifies eventually. “But it is not London or Milan." Francesc risks adding: “The weather is far hotter here."

The bridge over the Barri Gòtic's Carrer del BisbeThe bridge over the Barri Gòtic's Carrer del Bisbe

The bridge over the Barri Gòtic's Carrer del Bisbe

“Let's go for a walk," I suggest tactfully. Weaving southwest toward the port, they agree that the city is undergoing a period of rapid gentrification, particularly around the patch north of the Passeig de Colom, the wide palm-lined avenue that separates the jumble of Born streets from the port. We stop for more sangria on the roof of The Serras, a Design Hotel that overlooks Port Vell, the marina created for the 1992 Summer Olympics. This fall an outpost of the Manhattan members-only club Soho House is opening in once-seedy Plaça del Duc de Medinaceli. Olga has been quietly reassessing. “The city is getting more stylish," she declares.

And so am I. A little later, in a crisp white linen shirt, I enter Paco Pérez's Michelin-starred Enoteca, at the seafront Hotel Arts, the sleek latticed skyscraper where I'm staying tonight. Behind my crisp white tablecloth in the all-white room, I all but disappear. I'm surprised no one screams at the sight of my levitating, crazy-tiled head. I order lobster with chanterelles, almonds, and zucchini, followed by “Sole and the Mediterranean Sea," which is tasty but not as comprehensive as it sounds. I'm also cajoled into getting the white chocolate soup with passion fruit, before a plate of intricate petit fours arrives, reminding me of Park Güell.

Later, exhausted and stuffed, I make my way up to my room on the 30th floor. I leave the blinds fully open and fall asleep gazing out at the twinkling harbor lights far below.

Day 3 graphic

In which Boyd meets a movie star, joins a Spanish square dance, and eats his way up the food chain

I am swimming alongside a fish. It's a whopper—170 feet or so from end to end—looming over the pool at the Hotel Arts. Created for the 1992 Olympics, Frank Gehry's latticed, gold-colored El Peix d'Or is now one of Barcelona's best-known landmarks.

The Catalan capital, famously, used to be a city with its back to the sea. Before the Olympic Games, this area was largely wasteland. The Port Olímpic marina was created from scratch, part of a $12 billion makeover that included shipping in enough sand to extend the city's beach at Barceloneta—the wedge-shaped district bordered by El Born, the sea, and the Port Vell site—to three miles.

Danielle Schleif, film producerDanielle Schleif, film producer

Danielle Schleif, film producer

Post-swim, I stroll along a boardwalk past rows of restaurants and shops selling seafood and souvenirs. It's all very orderly—what Cancún might look like if it were run by the Swiss—but it's remarkable that there even is a beach here, four short metro stops from Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona's bustling answer to Times Square.

I stop for a café con leche at Vai Moana, a “gourmet beach bar" on Bogatell beach, about half a mile from Port Olímpic. My server, Luciana, seems mildly surprised that I'm not ordering anything stronger. “The Spanish come late in the afternoon for drinks," she says. “Tourists are more likely to have a gin and tonic for breakfast." From here, Gehry's sculpture glistens like a huge carp bobbing along on the sea.

I take the metro from Ciutadella Vila Olímpica to the Passeig de Gràcia. I am having brunch at a curious place called L'Eggs. Owned by Paco Perez, the restaurant is a plush upmarket joint serving eclectic local fare. The ingredient that binds most things on the menu—often literally—is eggs. Everything looks good, but, inspired by my earlier exertions in the pool, I opt for restraint, ordering Andalusian-style baked eggs with baby cuttlefish and tartar sauce, followed by cubes of fried hake with a creamy miso mayonnaise. Then the wry German chef, Alexander Stelzer, foils me. “Try a crema catalana," he suggests, delivering a ramekin of rich orange-flavored custard with a caramelized crust. I can hear my belt straining with every spoonful.

“When you are making a film here, you're seen as preserving cultural identity, so there is a real familial feeling among the entire cast and crew. It starts to feel less about doing a job and more about lifestyle." —Danielle Schleif

I take a redemptive stroll toward the galleries and boutiques that have sprung up around the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, in the once seedy El Raval district. This modern, glass-fronted building is a nod to Le Corbusier in a city dominated by Gaudí. Inside, I pause before a five-pound note, and the face of Queen Elizabeth, upon which the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann has added a clown nose. It's part of an exhibition exploring punk's influence on visual culture—although for that you can simply look at the street art sprayed on every wall outside.

From here, I wander through another rough-and-ready district, Poble-sec, which is becoming a stomping ground for the creative classes and adventurous Airbnb-ers. In charming Plaça del Sortidor, children run around the fountain while old men chat quietly on the benches. I realize that people tend to talk in hushed tones in Barcelona. Maybe General Francisco Franco's rule, which lasted from the late 1930s to 1975, took its toll, or maybe it's because they always feel as if they're extras on a film set.

The Plaça Reial fountainThe Plaça Reial fountain

The Plaça Reial fountain

The metro from Poble-sec takes me to Liceu, on La Rambla, from which I make my way back through the Barri Gòtic. I stop for a mint tea at a brasserie in the magnificently porticoed Plaça Reial, with its palm trees and central fountain between two elaborate lampposts designed by you-know-who.

I'm heading for the beloved tapas joint Bar del Pla to meet film producer Danielle Schleif, a New Yorker married to a local man. I find her seated next to David Verdaguer, star of Danielle's steamy rom-com 10,000 Km. Over mojama (salt-cured tuna), suckling pig with tomatoes, and wine from the local grape Xarel•lo, the actor describes how he moved here from Girona 17 years ago, and how the city still fills him with delight.

“People here know how to enjoy life," he says. “They don't work insanely hard and then have a big blowout at weekends. They have perfected moderation. People live well every day. They appreciate everything—the food, the weather, the beauty of the place."

“You never leave your apartment," Danielle teases him.

“I come here all the time," he says, hugging the sommelier as she passes. He gestures at the muddle of alleys around us, which is more than an open-air museum, he says: It is a real, living community, inhabited by “princes and thieves." I think he means that the neighborhood is diverse.

The Gothic Basílica de Santa Maria del MarThe Gothic Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar

The Gothic Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar

Danielle and I have a table booked for dinner uptown, so we decide on a leisurely walk, which takes us past the cathedral. On the steps, a brass band is playing, and the plaza is filled with locals dancing the sardana. The routine involves circles of people joining hands and raising them as they move with small, precise steps, around and around. As others join, and the circle gets too large, it splits into another one, until the entire square is a mass of slowly spinning bodies. “The sardana is a powerful symbol of Catalan unity and pride," Danielle says. “Although," she adds in a stage whisper, “it's hard to believe that such an attractive people have a dance that is this unsexy."

We are heading for BistrEau, run by the Michelin-starred “Chef of the Sea," Ángel León, at the Mandarin Oriental. Sitting beneath a metal lattice that filters light, there's a sense that we are underwater. We opt for the ominous-sounding Discovery Menu, and the waiter asks if I have any allergies. I've noticed they serve plankton here. “We'll see," I mumble.

It turns out that I can eat plankton (and cockles in seawater jelly, squid-ink risotto, sea snails, and even raw shrimp), so I'll be fine when it turns out to be the next superfood. “My husband would love it here," Danielle says. “I'm sure there are some things here that even he hasn't tried." I smile, discreetly trying to dislodge a barnacle from the roof of my mouth.

After eating our way through the first few links of the food chain, we head for the Caribbean Club, a wood-paneled rum bar midway down a narrow back lane in a 12th-century building in El Raval. The joint is so small there are only four stools; two are occupied by heavily tattooed women, and we perch awkwardly on the other two. My cocktail seems to contain only alcohol, and I am suddenly grateful there is nowhere for me to fall—I can prop myself against the bar, the wall, or an extra from Orange Is the New Black.

When we stumble out of the bar, around 3 a.m., the grittily beautiful streets are full of young people laughing and talking. No one appears particularly drunk or bedraggled. It just seems nobody wants to go home. As David Verdaguer said, people here have nailed the art of enjoying themselves.

Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow attempted to follow the Spanish dining schedule, but had to give it up when he started having dinner for breakfast.

If you go

Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your Barcelona getaway.

The day off: Washington D.C.

By The Hub team

Story by Ellen Carpenter | Hemispheres, December 2018

Politics, finance, tech, no matter: Deals happen in D.C. at every hour. But if you find yourself on a business trip with a rare free day, consider yourself lucky: The city has never been cooler.

9 a.m.

Wake up in your spacious room at the InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf, with floor-to-ceiling views of sailboats gliding down the Washington Channel, and forget for a moment that the craziness of Capitol Hill is just five miles away. Snap a photo of the waterfall chandelier in the lobby before popping next door for a delicious egg and bacon biscuit sandwich at Dolcezza, the first outpost of the D.C. mini-chain to offer a full breakfast menu.

Photo by Mark DeLong

10 a.m.

Hop a cab to the National Portrait Gallery, where you can take a selfie with Barack Obama (well, Kehinde Wiley's depiction of the 44th president) before viewing an entire exhibit on the art of the selfie, Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today, which features works by James Amos Porter, Elaine de Kooning, and more. Afterward, muse on the concept of identity under the undulating glass ceiling in the gallery's stunning Kogod Courtyard.

Photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley

1 p.m.

Take the Metro's Green Line up to U Street for a taste of Little Havana at Colada Shop. The small counter spot dispenses flaky empanadas, decadent Cubanos, and the café's namesake—four shots of espresso commingling with sweet Cuban crema. You know you want one.

3 p.m.

Time to hit the National Mall and work off that caffeine injection. Every winter, the fountain at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden becomes an ice rink, where you can take in Alexander Calder's Cheval Rouge and Louise Bourgeois's Spider while practicing your triple lutz.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

5 p.m.

Cab over to the Kennedy Center for the free 6 p.m. show at Millennium Stage, offered every single night as part of the cultural hub's Performing Arts for Everyone initiative. Whether it's modern dance, West African blues, or experimental theater, it'll broaden your horizons.

Photo by Teresa Wood

7:30 p.m.

Give in to your carb cravings at the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, a relaxed yet polished restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Toss back the complimentary shrub (tart!) and then dive into the red fife brioche (topped with chicken liver mousse, blueberry marmalade, and wood sorrel) and goat lasagna with tomato, anchovy, and salsa verde.

9:30 p.m.

Catch a ride to Blagden Alley—a historic area that used to house the stables and workshops behind stately row houses—for a cocktail at Columbia Room, a lounge that has topped every best-of list imaginable. Score a seat in the leather- and mahogany-lined Spirits Library and order a Maryland, made with rye, applejack, and chartreuse. Then get another.

Photo by Karlin Villondo Photography

3 under the radar places to visit in December

By Betsy Mikel

With the end of the year approaching, it's time to utilize those unused vacation days. If you're not traveling for the holidays, take an excursion to one of these under-the-radar destinations. Treat your family to fun in the sun in Florida, kick back on an island in Mexico that takes relaxation seriously, or take advantage of the slow season at a popular Arizona national park.

Isla Holbox, Mexico

For a leisurely vacation to relax on uncrowded beaches

Seeking a destination where you can unplug and sink your toes into the sand while surrounded by natural beauty? Isla Holbox is the spot. This laid-back island sits on the northwest tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It boasts spectacular beaches with endless turquoise ocean views.

What to do

Pack your flip-flops and beach reads for a seriously laid-back trip to Isla Holbox. Come here to sit on the beach (or in a hammock) while you kick back and relax as you've never relaxed before. Enjoy spectacular beaches without crowds.

Isla Holbox is small — just 26 miles long and one mile wide, with only 2,000 full-time residents. Bright colors and painted murals throughout the area evoke a bohemian vibe. Instead of cars, most people get around by golf cart or bike. (In fact, its taxi cabs are actually golf carts.) Isla Holbox won't give you the lively nightlife of popular tourist destinations like nearby Cancun, but there are plenty of beachside bars serving cocktails, food vendors and restaurants serving fresh Mexican fare.

Go on a wildlife excursion to spot whale sharks, crocodiles or flamingos. Head to the Yum-Balam Nature Reserve to see other exotic animals.

Getting there

The closest airport is Cancun (CUN). From Cancun, head to Chiquila, where you can take the ferry to Isla Holbox.

St. Petersburg, Florida

A family-friendly beach destination for fun in the sun

With award-winning beaches offering 35 miles of sand along Tampa Bay, calm waters and plenty of sun, St. Petersburg is quickly gaining momentum as a warm-weather destination for families. Downtown is home to many shops, restaurants, bars and unique attractions, such as an impressive Salvador Dali museum.

What to do

St. Pete beaches are known for their calm, warm and shallow waters. Add 360 days of sunshine per year and an average temperature of 73 degrees, and it's surprising that this sunny beach city still flies under the radar. Keep it laid back by relaxing on the shore, or bump up the action by parasailing, windsurfing or kiteboarding.

After a day of R&R, head downtown to enjoy the lively St. Petersburg culture and nightlife. There are 35 local craft breweries to choose from and many seafood restaurants ranging from casual fare to upscale. The most extensive collection of Salvador Dali's artwork outside of Europe resides in The Dalí Museum. You can even meet a local celebrity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Winter the dolphin starred in the Dolphin Tale movies and is famous for her prosthetic tail.

Getting there

United offers direct service to Tampa / St. Petersburg (TPA) from many U.S. cities.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

To have one of the most magnificent national parks (almost) to yourself

Though the weather is crisp and the temperature a few degrees chillier, the sun shines all month long at Grand Canyon National Park. Traveling here during the low season means fewer visitors will crowd your panoramic views of one of the world's largest canyons and most magnificent natural wonders.

What to do

From scenic drives to backcountry hiking, visiting in the winter makes for a more tranquil and peaceful adventure. The South Rim remains open all year round. The national park offers many trails to view the Colorado River snaking through snow-dusted temples and buttes. Try to catch at least one sunset or sunrise, and be sure to arrive with enough time to stake out a good vantage point. The visitors center and park website have recommendations for the best spots.

Ride the Grand Canyon Railway and travel back in time. A 64-mile stretch of railroad has been transporting passengers from the South Rim to the small town of Williams, Arizona, since 1901. The historic train has an observation dome car to catch the spectacular scenery and even has Wild West-themed entertainment aboard. Every evening in December, the Grand Canyon Railway transforms into the Polar Express and makes a stop at the North Pole where Santa boards the train to greet everyone.

Getting there

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is the closest major international airport to the South Rim. United offers service to Phoenix (PHX) from multiple U.S. cities.

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

Evolving our brand design

By The Hub team , December 05, 2018

The United brand is heading in a new direction as we evolve the colors and patterns we use. Where did these new colors come from, exactly? Check out the video below to learn about the research, logic and thoughtfulness that went into this evolution as we took inspiration from the spaces around us, the environments we work in, our heritage, the United globe and much more.

Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya

By The Hub team

Story by Jordan Heller | Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock | Hemispheres, December 2018

There is some dispute as to how Playa del Carmen, the metropolitan heart of the Riviera Maya just 40 miles south of Cancún, got its name. Some say it's after Our Lady of Carmel, the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites. But the more compelling story is the one told by locals.

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As legend has it, in the 1970s and '80s, when the area first became a destination, tourists traveling by boat from neighboring Cozumel would disembark in Playa—then known as Xaman-Ha—on their way to the ruins of Tulum. A local Maya woman named Carmen would happily invite these travelers into her modest home for a traditional meal of fresh-caught seafood. She may not have had any experience with immaculate conception, but when it comes to Playa, this Carmen is definitely a matron saint. Today, her spirit can be felt throughout the Riviera Maya, which also includes the village of Tulum, the ruins of Cobá, and a number of small Maya communities on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula where, if you're lucky, a woman not unlike Carmen will happily invite you into her home for a meal.

Day 1

Exploring a Maya temple, befriending a butler and feasting on cochinita pibil

I eat grasshoppers for breakfast. No, this is not my way of saying I know how to handle a subordinate. I'm literally eating toasted grasshoppers sprinkled onto a dish of huevos rancheros with green tomatillo salsa, hoja santa, and goat cheese. I've just woken up at Playa del Carmen's Rosewood Mayakoba, which is perhaps the most luxurious resort I've ever stayed in (and I'm a travel writer). There's a private heated plunge pool outside my back door looking over a secluded lagoon, a spa Forbes rated one of the best in the world, and Tavo, my personal butler, who is at my beck and call through a Rosewood messaging app.

The sikil-p'aak tomato salad at La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen

A bottle of tequila and some toothpaste?

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Despite all this luxury, I'm eating bugs—albeit with a Bloody Mary at a beachside restaurant overlooking the Caribbean. The toasted grasshoppers are crunchy (like perfectly burnt popcorn), incredibly delicious, and an appropriately indigenous start to a morning in which I'll be exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization.

After traveling inland to the village of Cobá, I trade my rental car for a “Maya taxi." It's the Yucatán version of a rickshaw—a padded bench fashioned atop the front wheel of a bicycle with a beach umbrella protecting me from the rain. My driver, Gustino, is transporting me through a mile of jungle and more than a millennium back in time, to the Late Classic (AD 550–830) Maya ruin of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The dirt path bustles with all manner of tourists riding Maya taxis, pedaling rented beach cruisers, or walking, excitedly talking about the sites of this ancient city in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and who knows what else.

As Gustino struggles to pedal through a particularly rough patch of mud, I ask him what nationality of tourist is the hardest to transport.

The Ixmoja pyramid at Cobá

“The Germans," he says. “It's not that they're overweight. They're just a very sturdy people. Americans are preferred: very easygoing and friendly people. Everybody wants an American fare."

When we arrive at Nohoch Mul, the panoply of tourists is suddenly speaking the same language: speechless. At 138 feet tall, the sheer scale of this temple is rivaled only by the gleaming hotels going up on the coast. But out here in the Cobá jungle, after I break the canopy and reach Nohoch Mul's summit, it's nothing but green as far as the eye can see, under which is apparently some 30 square miles of ancient city, most of it still obscured by the jungle. I'm told that just 5 percent of Cobá has been excavated since the project started in the 1970s.

"Today, if you come early in the morning, you find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“And what did they do with this little platform?" I ask Diego Viadero, my knowledgeable Tours by Locals guide, who's been schooling me on all manner of Maya history.

“Ah, yes," he says. “That's where the rulers would offer sacrifices to the gods, in hopes that they could avoid a collapse of the city."

“You mean like in the movie Apocalypto, where they chopped off the heads?" I ask.

“Just like in Apocalypto," says Viadero, doing his best to hold back an eye-roll. “Today, if you come early in the morning, you'll find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“Do you think it's enough?" I ask, making the comparison to the more (ahem) substantial offerings of yore. Let the eye-rolling commence.

The Rosewood Mayakoba's Sense Spa

Next, Viadero takes me to Nojoch Keej, which is Mayan for El Venado Grande, which is Spanish for “The Big Deer." It's a sanctuary for endangered animals run by a Maya man named Manuel Poot Dzib out of his back yard in the village of Nuevo Durango. Poot Dzib started the sanctuary in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the habitats of many local animals. He now looks after bees (which produce honey that's said to have healing qualities), white-tail deer, paca, curassow, and ocellated turkeys, which he aims to repopulate in areas that are protected from hunters. From the looks of these turkeys, I think ocellated must be Mayan for peacock. They're vibrant, multicolored, and beautiful to look at.

"Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my cocktail to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon."

Poot Dzib asks us to stay for lunch, which is great, because I'm starving. “We're having cochinita pibiles muy delicioso," he adds, giving off some of that Carmen spirit.

I breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that cochinita pibil is not Spanish for ocellated turkey. It's achiote-marinated pork that's been cooking with banana leaf in a hole in the ground in Poot Dzib's front yard since 8 this morning.

“They normally only do this for the Day of the Dead or other special occasions," Viadero says as we watch Poot Dzib remove the dirt and corrugated metal covering his subterranean oven.

A home-cooked meal, Maya-style

“We used to cover it with banana leaf instead of metal, but that's a much harder and longer process," says Poot Dzib. “This is more modern."

Modern? I'm not so sure, but I grant Poot Dzib that it's certainly an update. In any event, when put on a handmade tortilla with pickled onions and habanero, this cochinita pibil is definitely mouthwatering.

I say “Taakulak k'iin" (“See ya later" in Mayan) to Poot Dzib and his ocellated turkeys and head back to the Rosewood, where Tavo the butler awaits with that bottle of tequila, plus some fresh lime juice and agave nectar for mixers.

Gracias, Tavo!

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my drink to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon. Just one cocktail, however, as I'm hopping onto my complimentary beach cruiser (every guest gets one) to take a spin around the property, where geckos, iguanas, and even a tarantula skitter into the mangroves as I come rolling down the jungle path.

Appetite sufficiently worked up, I'm off to the Rosewood's La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, where executive chef Juan Pablo Loza serves a communal dinner of Maya-inspired dishes with a contemporary touch. Seated at a long wooden table with 17 other guests, I ask the chef what he's learned from the local Maya villages, which he visits often to pick up cooking techniques.

“My top lesson from the Maya is less about food than it is about perspective," he says, before recounting a delicious meal he had with one family. “The woman who cooked for me had referred to her neighbor as poor. I found it an odd comment, because the assumption in a Maya village is that nobody is exactly rich. 'Why do you say your neighbor is poor?' I asked. She said because she has no family and no garden. If you don't have a garden, you can't get food from it, and if you don't have a family you have nobody to share it with. For them, having a family and a connection to nature is what it means to be rich."

“And now you have this beautiful garden," I say, pointing to his planters of lemongrass.

“And a family, too," he replies. “Including a daughter named Maya."

And then we feast. There's grilled octopus with black recado and burnt lime vinaigrette, zarandeado-style lobster, roasted plantains, and a k'úum salad of squash, arugula, orange, oregano, and ocosingo cheese, finished off with fresh fruits in guava honey and lemongrass.

Tavo, I'm stuffed! Turn out the light and have a pot of coffee waiting for me in the morning, please.

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Day 2

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

Gran Cenote

In the small village square outside Tulum National Park, the Voladores de Papantla are performing their ancient fertility ritual, or rain ceremony—named an “intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. Five men in traditional bright red pants and flowing white blouses with multicolored adornments sit atop a 90-foot pole. The man in the center taps an adagio beat on a simple drum and blows a gentle bird-like tune on a wooden flute while the other four men tie ropes around their waists. When the musician ups the tempo to allegretto, the other two men fall backward, like scuba divers dropping into water, and slowly descend upside down in a merry-go-round fashion, the spinning top ceding rope like a reel feeding line to a fish. It's absolutely beautiful.

On a path cutting through the mangroves and almond trees on the way to the park entrance, a guide shares a mnemonic device that will be helpful should I run into any venomous coral snakes: “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack." I assume I'm a Jack.

"The water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly out of the cave floor."

Thankfully, there are no snakes to be seen in the ancient Maya city of Tulum, an open patch of manicured lawns and stone ruins protected by walls to the north, west, and south, and an ocean reef to the east. Or so it was protected until around 1500, when the Spanish came ashore. This beachside community, established circa 1200, was populated by a few hundred of Tulum's elite (and the sea turtles that still come ashore to lay their eggs), with thousands of people living outside the walls. It wasn't until the 20th century, when archaeologists began studying the region's various Maya sites, that we began to understand how advanced their civilization was—especially in the area of astronomy. As I walk the city's white gravel paths, I can imagine a well-heeled society covered in jade and obsidian jewelry enjoying the same ocean breeze and studying the same night sky. One glance at the view, and it's clear the Maya knew something about real estate. This plot right here, with a lighthouse perched on the cliff, would go for a boatload of jade and obsidian.

Maya ruins at Tulum

After fortifying my stomach with a few al pastor tacos (don't forget the guacamole) at Tropi Tacos in Tulum Pueblo, I meet back up with Diego Viadero for a drive out to Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System), one of the world's largest underground cave systems, a 164-mile maze of freshwater flowing through subterranean limestone. This afternoon, we're exploring just one mile of the system. The rain-conjuring Voladores de Papantla must be in top form lately; the water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly (less than 10 centimeters every 1,000 years) out of the cave floor and reaching up toward stalactites hanging like icicles from the cave ceiling. It's like the setting of a science fiction movie, so otherworldly I try to prolong my stay by floating as slowly as the calcium deposits are forming in front of me.

“Be careful," says Viadero, as I get a little too close to a stalagmite that's been a million years in the making. “You wouldn't want to break it."

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“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!

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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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