Three Perfect Days: Los Angeles
Story by: David A. Keeps | Photography by Joe Schmelzer | Hemispheres January 2014
Although it's known for its sunshine, celebrities and laid-back attitude, L.A. offers a lot more variety for anyone willing to do more than just scratch the surface. Then again, the sun, celebs and lazy days on the beach are pretty nice too.
Among its many nicknames—some descriptive, others dismissive—the one that best fits Los Angeles is the Dream Factory. It is here, after all, that fortunes were made in oil and gold, where lush citrus groves emerged from parched soil and where a handful of entrepreneurs built Hollywood, an enterprise whose prime currency is dreams.
Founded in 1781 (with the unsnappy name El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula), L.A. has emerged as one of the world's biggest and brightest urban centers—albeit one that isn't to everyone's taste. As local folkie Joni Mitchell lamented: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Others snipe at the city for its obsession with celebrity culture. These criticisms, however, tend to overlook the many facets that make L.A. what it is. While it's true that the city is best known for film and television, it has long been an incubator for go-getters of every conceivable kind, pumping out architecture and design, airplanes and spacecraft, surfwear and haute couture, computer components and contemporary art, and, of course, West Coast rap.
Meanwhile, in addition to its large Latino and African-American populations, L.A. has dozens of ethnic enclaves—Koreatown, Chinatown, Thai Town, Little Tokyo, an Iranian section known as Tehrangeles. On top of this you have the beach bums, the bohemians, the billionaires. And this diversity, in turn, is echoed in the range of food, entertainment and retail opportunities on offer. Like any city, Los Angeles has its failings, but being boring isn't one of them.
DAY ONE | In Los Angeles, waking up to discover that you're not Daniel Craig is harder than in most places. The disappointment, however, is mitigated when you open your eyes to a gorgeous Philippe Starck–designed suite in the city's SLS Hotel. By the time you emerge from that ultramodern bathtub, filled from a ceiling spout, you feel a little celebrity may have rubbed off on you. Later, passing through the hotel lobby, you put on your shades and pluck an apple from a tray mounted on the back of a life-size black plastic pig.
The first thing you're going to need to make your way in this city, you think as you munch on your stylishly acquired fruit, is a little perspective. The plan is to take an early morning drive to Griffith Park, then hike up Mount Hollywood, visiting the observatory immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause along the way. The introduction of words like “hike" and “up," however, makes you rethink your priorities. First, you'll need some real food.
You opt for Little Dom's, a grotto-like 1930s tavern where Jon Hamm gets his eggs—in a window booth with his name on it. You order wood-fired eggs and blueberry ricotta pancakes as sweetly appealing as the 1940s swing tunes coming from the sound system.
The posh-pink environs of the Hotel Bel-Air
Fortified, you head to the nearby Fern Dell playground and climb a steep, scrubby trail that's right out of a Spaghetti Western. At the top is the Griffith Observatory, a stately 1935 art deco edifice with domes that give it a Moorish air. Built to provide glimpses of the stars, the observatory also affords fine views of the Hollywood sign, the surrounding hills and the apparently endless sprawl of metropolitan L.A.
Given the city's role as a major player in the aerospace industry, it seems fitting that your third stop of the day is a huge, Area 51–style hangar at the California Science Center at Exposition Park, inside which you find the decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour. You've seen this craft countless times on television, but nothing can prepare you for the jolt you get from encountering it in person.
This sprawling cultural complex also incorporates the Natural History Museum, home to “Becoming Los Angeles," a handsomely staged exhibit tracing the city's evolution from Spanish territory to Mexican ranchland to entertainment mecca and tech center, with vitrines containing artifacts like the first car manufactured in L.A., Charlie Chaplin's tramp suit and a Hang Ten skateboard. Who says Los Angeles has no history?
From here, you head to where it all began, downtown, for lunch at Bar Amá, a fashionable new eatery on West 4th St. Snagging an industrial stool at the reclaimed wood bar, you are bedeviled by chef Josef Centeno's wily take on Tex-Mex classics. The chile shrimp ceviche is fiery and tangy, sweetened by a bed of pureed yam; the pork belly chicharrón swims in a bowl of poblano cream. “A house-made chocolate root beer?" the ponytailed barkeep suggests. Why not?
The space shuttle Endeavour at Exposition Park
Gritty and grand, downtown L.A. is a great place for architecture junkies. From the restaurant, it's a short stroll to the Bradbury Building, the 19th-century glass-roofed office complex depicted in Blade Runner. With an atrium of lacework iron, it looks both antique and futuristic, an icon of the steampunk style. A block away is another engineering marvel: Angel's Flight, the 1901 298-foot funicular touted as the world's shortest railway. And then, of course, there is the wonderful silvered shambles of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. Despite the imposing otherworldliness of the building's exterior, it is a place of whimsy and repose: The interior has Douglas fir columns, and its elevated public garden has a rose-shaped fountain made from fragments of Delft vases and tiles. With its trumpet trees and slanted sunshine, the garden is the perfect place to read a book or simply stare into space for a while, as many of the business-suited visitors are doing right now.
Back at the hotel, you take a dip in the rooftop pool before heading out for dinner at RivaBella, a place with potted trees and cushioned iron furniture that offers alfresco dining for the pasta aficionado. You try three sinfully rich dishes: spinach pappardelle with lamb ragu, risotto with crab, and nidi di rondine, a pasta nest with prosciutto and parmesan cream—because, well, you are on vacation.
You're at the top of the Sunset Strip, within waddling distance of storied clubs like the Roxy and Whiskey a Go Go. You head instead to The Standard, Hollywood, where the hotel's doorman ushers you into Giorgio's, a dauntingly dark party with a mirror ball, police flashers and a smoke machine at the club mmhmmm. DJ Adam XII, who has spun for the Obamas, is pumping '70s disco for a studiedly chic crowd. “It's every age and style, from the sublime to the surreal," Giorgio impresario Bryan Rabin yells above the din. “And yes," he adds, pointing to the crowded dance floor. “That is Queen Latifah."
DAY TWO | Today you're doing Holly-wood. First, though, you cab it to the Farmers Market, a noisy, fragrant carnival of candy counters, souvenir shops and food stands, including the Lotería Grill, where you plow through a plate of huevos divorciados (“divorced eggs") smothered with green and red salsas, with smoky black beans on the side. Next, you experience L.A. in all its consumerist glory at The Grove, the adjacent mall, which is styled in Main Street Disneyland fashion, complete with a trolley and a Vegasy fountain that spritzes to Sinatra tunes, before heading to the Chinese Theatre.
“The show starts at the sidewalk," the theater's founder, Sid Grauman, used to say, referring to the forecourt of his famous cinema, which is dotted with the handprints of movie stars. True to the showman's words, the street outside is clogged with costumed characters (think Superman, Marilyn Monroe and SpongeBob) offering photo ops for tips. After passing beneath a towering dragon bas-relief, you are met by Levi Tinker, the cinema's director of tours. He leads you past bronze incense burners and movie costumes into the enormous, velvety auditorium. “The first Star Wars played here for 62 weeks," he says authoritatively. “There was so much traffic, the carpet had to be replaced."
Executive Chef Govind Armstrong and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Costanza at Willie Jane
Outside, following the trail of inlaid stars along Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, you resist the overtures of the bustling tour guides, making your way past neon-lit taverns, trendy nightclubs and down to Sunset and the indie record mecca Amoeba Music before you spot a sign for Dearly Departed Tours. “We spotlight the Hollywood history of death and scandal," says founder Scott Michaels. How could you resist? (See “Horrible Histories," page 86).
For lunch, you head to Cooks County, in the heart of the design district on Beverly Boulevard. The décor here tends toward exposed beams and basic furniture, but the farmers market menu is anything but austere. You start with a creamy chicken liver crostini with crunchy frisée and mouth-puckering cornichons. Next, it's an L.A. classic, the Cobb salad. Invented in Hollywood nearly 80 years ago, it is pretty much perfected here, with the addition of crunchy green beans and zesty red wine vinaigrette.
A short trip south takes you to the Miracle Mile, a museum-heavy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. The smell of asphalt isn't from road repairs but from the bubbling La Brea Tar Pits, repository of Ice Age fossils. Standing sentry is Charlie Cox, who's been picking out tunes on the guitar, mandolin and banjo here since the mid-1970s. “I get requests for the Deliverance theme constantly," he says, “but it makes money, honey." You drop a dollar in his case.
Down the street, you switch from fossils to fossil fuel at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where some 150 historic cars—including Evita Peron's 1939 Packard—are parked in historic dioramas. “My favorite is the gold-plated DeLorean," says ticket-taker King Montero, whose own ride is a reliable 1996 Honda Accord. Next, at the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art, you pop into Ray's and Stark Bar, a modernist glass-box restaurant with its own water sommelier. You try the Berg, derived from 15,000-year-old glaciers and going for $20 a bottle. Refreshing indeed.
Santa Monica State Beach
It's almost check-in time at the Hotel Bel-Air, so you mosey through Beverly Hills, window-shopping at the designer boutiques on Rodeo Drive. Turning onto South Santa Monica Boulevard, you spot a line of well-heeled women at Sprinkles, the world's first automatic cupcake dispenser. You swipe your credit card and duly receive a cream cheese–frosted Red Velvet. Standing in line for another, you wonder if there's any kind of withdrawal limit on these things.
Approaching your pink stucco bungalow at the Bel-Air, a 1946 hideaway with its own swan lake, you smell jasmine and eucalyptus in the air. Your room has been stocked with the French macarons that, you are told, are favored by frequent guest Oprah Winfrey. The suite is enchanting and high-tech; you happily get your geek on, sitting out the rush-hour traffic and playing with the in-room iPad. The marble floors of the bathroom are heated (as is the seat of the commode), and your post-shower robe is the cuddliest you have ever worn. Only a pang of hunger can lure you from your cocoon.
For dinner, it's back to Hollywood and Chi Spacca, the latest eatery from the uber-foodie trio Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Nancy Silverton. “I believe in food that is glorious and generous," says chef Chad Colby, dropping a 60-ounce, $250 Florentine steak onto the grill. Beside you sits Giuseppe Mangano, an Italian restaurateur from Columbus, Ohio, with whom you share dishes: dry-rubbed lamb shoulder, a peppery prawn and testa frittata, charred cauliflower with a lemon anchovy bagna cauda. It is, as your newfound friend remarks with a theatrical flourish, “Delizioso!"
As you make your way outside, a passing pedestrian accidentally a-choos in your direction. It's Jesse Tyler Ferguson from the hit ABC show “Modern Family." “I'm sorry I sneezed all over you," he says.
DAY THREE | You haven't really done Los Angeles until you've had a day at the beach, but you can't be blamed for spending a little time with a latte on your private patio at the Bel-Air, which recently emerged from a two-year restoration looking so hip it's attracting a new generation of showbiz royalty. Christina Aguilera is camped out here while her house is being renovated, and that dapper young fellow walking toward the lobby in front of you is Usher. “Good morning," he says, gently busting you for staring. Then, for good measure, he dances down the hallway.
You're having breakfast at Farm Shop, located in an adorable cluster of rustic buildings called the Brentwood Country Mart, 15 minutes from the hotel on the way to the beach. Combining a gourmet grocery with a sit-down restaurant, it offers specialties that include pastrami and eggs with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and green tomato ketchup with a bacon cheddar scone on the side. Your savory tooth satisfied, you poke around the warren of shops until you stumble across Edelweiss Chocolates, whose chocolate-covered orange peel takes care of the sweet side.
View of the Hollywood sign from Bronson Avenue
Sunset Boulevard wends its way to the Pacific Coast Highway, which takes you north toward Malibu. About eight miles up, you pass a palm-shrouded Italian Renaissance mansion—Cher's beach house—and swoop down to Corral State Beach. You park on the side of the road like everyone else and join the surfers, swimmers and sunbathers on the sand. The air is brisk and the water bracing, even though you're only in it up to your shins. You walk down the beach a bit to see if Cher's home. She's not.
After a postcard-quality half-hour drive down the coast to Venice, you're hungry again. You pull up at Sunny Spot, which has the air of a Jamaican seafood shack, complete with floral oilcloth on the stools and reggae on the sound system. There's shrimp and jerk chicken on the menu, but chef Roy Choi, famed for his fusion street-food restaurants, also offers a Two-Fisted Cheeseburger made with cheddar, arugula and tomato jam on a brioche bun. Yes, you do want yucca fries with that.
Ten minutes away, off Santa Monica's Main Street, you meet Barb Wittels, co-owner of the electric bike tour outfit Pedal … or Not. Barb, who wears the company colors of purple and green right down to her nail polish, leads you to a well-traveled path, where you join a steady stream of runners, skaters, strollers and Segway riders. “Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson lived here," she says as you ride by an oceanfront apartment, the first of many celebrity homes you'll pass today. You stop at one of them, the Annenberg Community Beach House, built by William Randolph Hearst for his mistress, Marion Davies, and for 10 bucks take a dip where the newspaper magnate did.
A few blocks inland, Barb pauses to explain the origins of the famed Venice Canals: In the early 1900s, developer Abbot Kinney excavated swamplands with the intention of creating 16 miles of waterways lined with bungalows and boats. “But the area declined; by the end of the 1960s Venice was all hippies and artists saying 'Come and share my love shack, baby.'" Today, there are only six canals remaining, but at least Abbot Kinney got the city's hippest street named after him.
Cabaret at Beacher's Madhouse
After turning in your bike, you explore Abbot Kinney Boulevard on foot, pausing occasionally to poke around in the various homeware stores and indie boutiques. All around you are men wearing horn-rimmed glasses and tanned women with shaggy dogs. “Venice was the stomping ground of artists like Jack Kerouac and Dennis Hopper, and the neighborhood embraces creativity," says William Adler, owner of Will Leather Goods, who started out selling belts on the boardwalk 30 years ago. “Everyone I know, from Florence to Tokyo, comes to Abbot Kinney," he adds. “It's better than the Champs-Élysées."
Dinner tonight is on a brick patio at the nearby soul food spot Willie Jane, where you enjoy, with equal relish, some Southern blues and the greens (grown in a garden next door) that accompany your sweet tea–brined pork chop. For dessert, you have a Crispy, Chewy Golden Raisin Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich with mascarpone filling, washed down with a strong cup of coffee. You'll need it: It's your last night in town and you want to go out with a bang. That means Hollywood. Your destination is Beacher's Madhouse, a crazy cabaret in a bordello-style basement theater at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Soon, you're surrounded by guys with skinny jeans and starter scruff and girls in miniskirts with color-coordinated phones, all grinding to a thumping mash-up of pop and hip-hop.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur, but it includes—you're fairly sure—dancing pandas, nimble hula-hoopers and little people lip-synching to Eminem. Taking bottle service to a new level, the club employs diminutive waiters who deliver the prime bubbly by flying in on wires through a burst of confetti. “When you've got a glow-in-the-dark champagne bottle," emcee Pete Giovine hollers from the stage, “you're making all the right life choices."
David A. Keeps is an L.A.-based writer who, despite considerable Hollywood savvy, has to restrain himself from gawking at celebrities.
Around the web
The day off: Washington D.C.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Evolving our brand design
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.
Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya
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.
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.
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 pibil—es 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.
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.
Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic
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."
“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.
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
“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!
For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey
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
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.
Security and technology in the air
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
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
The feedback from customers and employees was clear: we needed to improve our boarding process. As part of our ongoing efforts to put customers at the center of everything we do, we identified boarding as an opportunity to improve the airport experience. We tested a variety of different boarding processes on thousands of flights across multiple airports. Best practices emerged from each test, and combined, they now form what we are calling "Better Boarding".
Better Boarding consists of three key improvements
Less time in line:
By reducing the number of boarding lanes, there is more space for customers to enjoy the gate areas, many of which have been completely remodeled with more comfortable seating and in some airports, the ability to have food and drinks from within the airport delivered directly to the gate area. Over the years, we have invested millions of dollars in our terminals, and now with less time spent standing in line, customers will have more time to dine, shop, relax, work or enjoy a United Club℠.
Simplified gate layout
Say goodbye to the five long lines we see today
Group 1 will board through the blue lane.
Group 2 will board through the green lane, followed by groups 3, 4, and 5.
Late arriving customers in Group 1 and 2 will use the blue lane.
Customers in groups 3, 4, and 5 always use the green lane.
We are providing customers with more information throughout the boarding process so that they feel more at ease, and more equipped with the latest information about their flight. Customers with the United app can receive a push notification once their flight starts boarding. Customers will only receive the notification if they've opted in for push notifications and have a mobile boarding pass in the app's wallet.
Be in the know about boarding
Customers will receive boarding notifications through the United app (if they've opted in for notifications).
Improved gate area digital signage to guide customers through boarding.
Balanced groups and better recognition:
United MileagePlus® Premier 1K® customers will now pre-board and United MileagePlus Premier Gold customers will be boarding in Group 1. For more information on our boarding groups, visit: https://www.united.com/web/en-us/content/travel/airport/boarding-process.aspx
Improved premier customer recognition
We're happy to make them happy
Improved premier recognition and better positioning of customers to create balanced boarding groups.
The new Better Boarding process is just one of the steps we are taking to improve the customer experience. We will continue to collect feedback from customers on ways we can further improve boarding and you may receive a post-travel survey to tell us more about your experience
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From players and personnel to thousands of pounds of equipment, it takes not only a game plan, but a team to get the San Francisco 49ers to their next game and back all within 24 hours. This process is a little thing in the airline business we call chartering. Learn more about how our Charter team gets professional sports teams to their away games and back on the newest episode of Big Metal Bird.
On March 8, 2018, we announced a new global relationship with Special Olympics, an organization we've partnered with for many years focusing on supporting the spirit of inclusion with our employees through local communities and through our Charity Miles Program. United's increased sponsorship includes support for major Special Olympics events, including the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago, site of the very first International Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968, and the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
In addition, United will engage with local Programs in our key markets around the world. Special Olympics embodies our shared purpose to connect people and unite the world. With more than 5 million athletes and 1 million coaches and volunteers in 172 countries, our employees and customers will join forces with Special Olympics to achieve our shared vision of inclusion. Together, we hope to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
Our relationship with Special Olympics represents a continued effort to break down barriers and further build on the organization's remarkable legacy by engaging our customers and employees around the world. Working together, we created new training that specifically reflects insights from Special Olympics, including training scenarios with real-life situations that individuals with intellectual disabilities face when traveling. By the end of 2018, more than 60,000 United frontline employees will have participated in the new training modules that reflect Special Olympics insights as United takes steps to deliver a world full of inclusion.
Check back this summer for coverage from Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago and 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
"Many years ago at an air show, I saw a T-shirt that said 'Chicks fly,'" said Orlando-based Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor and Chix Fix team coach Laura Spolar. "And I told my husband, 'Chicks can fly, but chicks can also fix!' A lot of people don't know that women are aircraft mechanics."
Laura didn't know it at the time, but that conversation would serve as the inspiration for the team name of our history-making, all-female team of technicians that competed in the
2018 Aerospace Maintenance Competition (AMC). Of 69 teams at this year's AMC, only three were made up entirely of women, and Chix Fix was the only one representing a commercial airline.
"It's so important for us to show young girls and women that this is a career option for them," said Airframe Overhaul and Repair Managing Director Bonnie Turner, the Chix Fix team captain.
Chix Fix is made up of technicians from five stations. As a group, they only practiced together three times before the competition, but they bonded instantly.
"I feel like I've known these women my whole career," said Denver-based Line Technician Janelle Bendt. "It's been a lot of fun getting to know them and learning from them."
"As a team we just communicate really well; we all respect each other," said San Francisco-based Base Technician Katrina Oyer. "The biggest thing I've taken away from this experience is confidence. Working with these ladies is an eye opener. We really can do anything."
Watch the video above to learn more about Chix Fix and their journey to the AMC.