Three Perfect Days: Sydney
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Sydney

By The Hub team

Sydney got off to a rough start. The city, named after the British baron who authorized the establishment of a penal colony here in 1788, was inhabited mostly by convicts in its early days—a fact that's still the subject of many Australian jokes. Even so, there was no doubting the splendor of its surroundings.

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Upon entering Sydney Cove, Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, called it "the finest harbour in all the world," and whether you're looking down on the sailboat-dotted bights from the top of Harbour Bridge or gliding across the water on a ferry, you'd be hard-pressed to argue. You'll also find a city that has blossomed into a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural metropolis, home to 4 million of the world's most open-minded and friendly—not to mention good-looking—people. The novelist Howard Jacobson once wrote that Sydney "flaunted its beauty, so can it be all my fault that i fell for it?" After just one glance, you'll do the same.

Story by Justin Goldman | Photography by Tim Frawley | Hemispheres, March 2018

Day 1

Harbor views from the top of the bridge and the inside of the opera house

The Sydney Harbour Bridge climbs to a peak of 440 feet above the glistening water, but for the adventurous souls who dare to scale one of the world's tallest steel arch bridges—known affectionately to Sydneysiders as The Coathanger—the scary part comes much earlier.

The Sydney Opera House and climbers on the Harbour BridgeThe Sydney Opera House and climbers on the Harbour Bridge

Truth be told, I'm a wreck the entire morning leading up to my scheduled climb. I have to give myself a pep talk before I crawl out of bed at my city center hotel, the QT Sydney, and the tension rises as I sit through breakfast at The Grounds of the City, an Art Deco–inspired restaurant around the corner on bustling George Street, across from the stately Queen Victoria Building. I'm too full of butterflies to be hungry, but I'll need fuel for the climb, so I wolf down a king crab omelet and a flat white (an Aussie latte). I briefly toy with the idea of ordering a nerve-steeling cocktail but decide it might not be a good idea.

Artist Michael Johansson's Past Forward lobby installation at the QT Sydney

It turns out I'm right, because BridgeClimb breathalyzes all of its clients before each ascent. I soon find out why. The first part of the climb is actually a tottering trek across a narrow catwalk, 160 feet above the shore. "It's a bit daunting, but it's not that hard," says my charming climb leader, Amanda. She also notes that an Irish worker fell from this height during construction in the 1920s. He survived, breaking just three ribs, but even clipped to a steel safety cable, I am far from comforted.

Once our group has made it across the catwalk, things get less terrifying. We climb four ladders, then trudge up the bridge's gentle arch. The three-and-a-half-hour climb involves 1,390 steps, and I'm glad I had that omelet by the time I reach the top. I'm also thankful that I faced my fears, because the view is astonishing. Early morning clouds have given way to bright sun, and the view stretches from the top of Hornby Lighthouse at the harbor entrance all the way out to Olympic Park (site of the 2000 Games), 10 miles to the west. The sailboat-inspired Sydney Opera House, a sight so surreal yet so familiar, is behind me. Skyscrapers sprout to the north and south. Eight lanes of morning traffic crawl along the roadway below. It's enough to make me want to do that "king of the world!" thing from Titanic. I can neither confirm nor deny that Amanda snapped a photo of me doing just that.

I could stay up here forever, but there's another party coming up, so down we go. The bridge lands in Sydney's oldest neighborhood, the Rocks. Here, I meet a Tours by Locals guide named Lyndal, who tells me the area's sobriquet dates from the arrival of the British, who settled where they found fresh water flowing into the harbor. "They sailed right into what we now call Circular Quay," says Lyndal, a playful former flight attendant, "and on arrival, Captain Phillip said, 'Military: take the stream. Convicts: to the rocks.'"

"The view makes me want to do that 'king of the world!' thing from Titanic."

From here, Lyndal leads me past the 1841 Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, home to Australia's oldest brewpub, and on to the Big Dig, an excavation site where archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of more than 30 homes and shops dating from the settlement's early days. Some of the artifacts recovered here have amusing stories, such as the porcelain fragments found in Cribbs Lane, discarded by the scorned mistress of a 19th-century philanderer. As Lyndal tells it: "She crashed all her china down the well."

We continue past the Susannah Place Museum, a preserved set of squat brick rowhouses built in 1844, and conclude the tour at First Impressions, a three-sided sandstone sculpture that depicts the convicts, soldiers, and settlers who originally came here. "I always thought I'd go home to Queensland," Lyndal says, surely echoing the thoughts of some of those early immigrants, "but this city has just seduced me."

For lunch, I head into nearby Barangaroo, a harborside neighborhood of towering real estate developments (a massive casino is on the way) and green space. I take a waterfront seat at Cirrus, a new restaurant from Brent Savage, who has been a Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide (Australia's equivalent to the Michelin guide). The focus here is on sustainable, local seafood, and I fill up on New South Wales oysters, scallop sashimi, swordfish crudo, and fantastic grilled marron (a crustacean somewhere between a lobster and a crayfish in size).

Fighting through a seafood coma, I walk a couple of blocks north to the Barangaroo Reserve. Here, I meet Tim Gray, an Aboriginal Visitors Services guide who's taking me even farther back into Sydney's history with a culture tour dedicated to the area's original inhabitants. Australia's relationship with its indigenous people is fraught, to say the least, but the reserve—named after a female Aboriginal leader whom Gray refers to as "our first freedom fighter"—was created both to honor them and to educate the present-day populace about their lives. Gray leads me along a reconstructed sandstone coastline. On our left, waves lap against the rocks; on our right rises a terraced hillside thick with greenery (the park is home to 83 native species of trees and shrubs).

"We chose native plants to show how the Aboriginal people lived, utilizing plants for food, shelter, and medicine," Gray says. "You can still use them today. The whole of Sydney, with all these plants, is a big pharmaceutical warehouse." He plucks a Port Jackson fig off a tree and hands it to me. Tasty!

"I lean on a rail to watch white-sailed catamarans skim across the water."

Next to the water, Gray points out a large block of sandstone bearing an inscription that looks like the number 101—a recreated Aboriginal carving. Holding his iPad over the stone, he shows me an interactive video of a tribal elder doing the carving. We climb a small hill, schoolchildren rolling in the opposite direction, and stop at a stand of trees, where Gray crushes leaves together to create a paste that kangaroo hunters used to cover their scent. Finally, he breaks out two different kinds of boomerang and explains how they were used for hunting. Do I want to throw one of them? Yes. Do I ask? No.

I thank Gray for the tour and make the short walk back through the Rocks to Circular Quay. The tourist-packed promenade here, which feels a bit like Barcelona's La Rambla without the seediness, takes me along the wharf, where the city's ferry boats decamp for the distant reaches of the harbor, and then around to the opera house, where I stop and lean on a rail to watch white-sailed catamarans skim across the water.

The reconstructed sandstone shoreline at the Barangaroo ReserveThe reconstructed sandstone shoreline at the Barangaroo Reserve

For dinner, I only have to climb the steps of the opera house. Bennelong, named after an 18th-century Aboriginal leader (Barangaroo's husband, actually), may have the most beautiful dining room in the world. I sit at a sloping glass window, beneath a vaulted wooden ceiling that makes me feel as if I'm Jonah and I've just been swallowed by the whale. Outside, the sun sinks behind the bridge and the city lights up, but chef Peter Gilmore's contemporary Australian cuisine refuses to be upstaged by the view. I have Fraser Island spanner crab in a crème-fraîche emulsion, paired with a New South Wales chardonnay; a whole roasted John Dory served on the bone with a Victoria gamay; and for dessert, a sour cherry jam lamington (a play on a traditional Australian cake).

Now that I've had some wine to wet my whistle, I'm ready for a real drink. I walk past the offices, shops, and pubs on George Street before ducking down an unassuming alley and into an unmarked doorway. Down the stairs I enter the Baxter Inn, Sydney's premier whiskey bar; the bottles behind the bar are stacked so high that the white-aproned bartenders need ladders to fill their orders. The list leans toward Scotch, but I can't totally shake my American predilections, so I have a Weller 12-year, a wheated bourbon that can be hard to find even in Kentucky.

Standing at the bar, I realize how much I've been on my feet today, so I trudge back to the QT Sydney. As the elevator doors close, James Brown blares over the speaker: “I feel good!" I do, too, but not as good as I will after I hit the sack.

Day 2

Getting to the heart of Sydney's art scene

Sydneysiders have a different definition of "suburb" from the American one. The inner 'burbs here are less about white picket fences than about creativity and expression. They're also close: Chippendale, the up-and-coming neighborhood I'm off to this morning, is a 10-minute cab ride south of the QT Sydney.

"The space, the staff, the day—hell, this whole country—are so sunny."

On Kensington Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with sparkling new bars and restaurants, I come to the sunny, open-air Concrete Jungle Café. I'm greeted by a pair of tanned and tattooed Aussie chaps, who razz me about my Golden State Warriors hat but quickly bring me a Moroccan mint tea and a Blue Majik Smoothie Bowl (a blend of coconut water, yogurt, blue algae, pineapple, and banana topped with blueberries and granola). Eating like this, I can see why everyone around here is so fit.

The Blue Majik Smoothie Bowl at Concrete Jungle Caf\u00e9The Blue Majik Smoothie Bowl at Concrete Jungle Café

After breakfast, I stroll through Central Park, where vendors sell handicrafts—beach-towel sundresses seem especially Australian—and toddlers wet their feet in a staircase-like fountain. From here, I head down a tree-lined side street to the White Rabbit Gallery, a four-story space that houses on of the world's largest collections of contemporary Chinese art.

Lunch is around the corner at Ester, a contemporary Aussie restaurant (think California cuisine) that opened nearly five years ago and has since won pretty much every food award Sydney has to offer. "Oh, you've come a long way," my waitress says when she learns I'm American. "Let's get a drink in you." (Bless the Aussies.) The tasting menu takes me through fermented potato bread with trout roe and kefir cream, a mini-blood sausage sandwich, wood-fired cauliflower with mint and almond, hanger steak, and some other dishes that come out in such frantic succession I don't write them down. Radiohead and Joy Division play on the sound system, which seems odd given that the space, the blue-aproned staff, the day—hell, this whole country—are so sunny. insert pic after.

I need a walk after the gustation, so I head over to the gritty, LGBT-friendly suburb of Surry Hills. I pass record shops and coffee houses on Crown Street before making a couple of turns down a twisty residential alleyway to Brett Whiteley Studio. Whitely, one of Australia's great contemporary artists, opened a studio here in the 1980s, and it was preserved after his death from an overdose in 1992. The ground floor is scattered with his sculptures and paintings, including the Hieronymus Bosch—esque wall panel Alchemy and nudes that could have come from a twisted Modigliani. ("Apparently he really liked women, beer, and sharks," I overhear a fellow patron saying.) Upstairs is Whiteley's studio, complete with paint-spattered plywood floor and inspiration boards bearing images of Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, and Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground banana. I think I would have gotten along with this guy.

From here, it's a short cab ride to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on the edge of the Royal Botanic Garden. The building reminds me of a mullet: business in the front (with a Neoclassical portico), party in the back (a mish-mash of glassy modern extensions). The collection includes works by European masters such as Picasso and Bacon, as well as Asian and Australian artists. I'm particularly drawn to the large, dot-painted landscapes of the Aboriginal artist collective Papunya Tula.

Another cab takes me back to The Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale, where I'm having dinner at the acclaimed modern Australian restaurant Automata. Well-heeled Sydneysiders populate a communal table at the center of the room, which is lit by fixtures made from motorcycle parts. The five-course tasting menu includes delicate white asparagus in a miso sauce; garlicky prawns under a squid-ink-noodle blanket; smoked and grilled with turnip, daikon, and rhubarb; smoked lamb neck with charred eggplant; and a roasted grain parfait for dessert. The red rice sake that's paired with the last dish is so delicious that I chase down my server, a redheaded Michigan expat named Abby, to double-check I have it spelled right: It's a 2015 Ine Mankai from Kyoto's Mukai Shuzo brewery.

I ask Abby where I should go for an after-dinner drink. She looks at the snap-button Western shirt I'm wearing and replies, "You'll fit in at the Shady Pines Saloon." Like the Baxter Inn, the Shady Pines is tucked in an alley, behind an unmarked door, down a flight of stairs (the two bars started Sydney's "small bar" speakeasy trend). Inside, a raucous honky-tonk blues band plays for some shirtless tattooed guys under strings of Christmas lights and an insane—I mean completely insane—taxidermy menagerie: bull, bear, mountain goat, fox skunk, vulture, moose, a cobra dangling from the moose's antlers. This must be what Australians think Nashville is like. I wish they were right, because the Shady Pines would be the best bar in Nashville.

Day 3

Bondi Beach Babylon

I've been in the country for two days now and still haven't felt white sand between my toes—an oversight that needs to be remedied posthaste. Fortunately, it's only a 20-minute cab ride east from the city center until I'm standing at the edge of Bondi Beach, one of the most famous oceanfronts in the world.

Sydney Harbor seen from aboveSydney Harbor seen from above

It's a thing that you're not supposed to go swimming on an empty stomach, right? No? Anyway, I opt for breakfast a couple of blocks up from the beach at Bills, a spacious restaurant filled with boho types tapping on laptops to the tune of Bill Withers's “Lovely Day." I grab a booth and tuck into a breakfast of poached eggs, gravlax, sourdough toast, tomatoes, and avocado, with a berry and coconut yogurt smoothie. The Aussies may be the only people in the world who like smoothies and avocados as much as I do.

Leaving Bills, I spot the endearingly named Gertrude & Alice Cafe Bookstore across the street, so I stop in and pick up a Peter Carey novel to read on the beach. Then I browse the shops on Hall Street and Campbell Parade for supplies, snagging some Billabong board shorts and Havaianas flip-flops at Surfection and a cheesy beach towel, printed with a kangaroo and a surfboard, at a beachside bodega.

No more delay: to the beach! I walk across the impossibly fine-grained sand, past the impossibly toned and tanned bodies (apparently we should all switch to the smoothie and avocado diet), to a spot where I can watch a Brazilian-style beach volleyball game (no hands!) on one side and kids in a surf school falling off waves on the other. The sky is flawless blue, the ideal backdrop for the prop plane doing barrel rolls over the beach. It's less ideal for my New York–in–winter complexion, though. Do they make SPF 5,000?

Apparently, getting sunburned can work up an appetite, so I walk to the southern end of the beach and Bondi Icebergs. Perched on a rock outcrop, Icebergs is home to both a year-round swim club with an oceanside pool and a special-occasion restaurant. I take a window seat in the upstairs bistro, where I watch hardy old men do laps in the pool and surfers catch waves in the sea while I snack on bluefin tuna crudo, followed by Spring Bay mussels in a white wine, tomato, chili, and saffron sauce. I'm feeling so summery that I finish it off with an Aperol spritz.

Refueled, I swap my Havaianas for sneakers and head off on the nearly 4-mile Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. The trail takes me past sandstone walls carved by the waves into undulating forms straight from Dalí's imagination; tide pools crusted with oyster shells; blufftop Waverley Cemetery, where gravestones overgrown with dandelions seem to reach out toward the sea; and Clovelly Bay, an inlet where divers take the plunge. I finish up with a dip at Coogee Beach. The swimmers here don't wade out into the cold water so much as hurl themselves against it, and I follow suit. Brrr!

Catching rays at Bondi BeachCatching rays at Bondi Beach

Once I've dried off—good thing I bought that kangaroo towel!—I cab to the QT Bondi a design-forward beach bum's paradise where I take a nice long nap and an even nicer long shower. Cleaned up, dressed up, and not too sunburned, I hail another taxi and head into Paddington, a hip neighborhood between Bondi and the city center. I'm having dinner at Saint Peter, an award-winning “gill-to-tail" restaurant that experiments with offal and dry-aging—essentially treating fish like meat. The space is narrow, the lighting dim, but the seafood is as bright as the Bondi sun: fresh rock oysters, 13-day-aged broadbill tartare, beautiful sardine fillets in olive oil with a hunk of crusty bread, grilled mahi mahi. I enjoy it all with another spritz, not wanting to let go of the summer feeling.

“I take a window seat at Bondi Icebergs and watch hardy old men do laps in the pool while surfers catch waves in the sea."

After dinner, I feel like a stroll, but I don't make it far. Just a couple of blocks away is The Wine Library, perhaps the city's best wine bar. I pull up a barstool and flip through the tome-like menu before asking the bartender, Andy, for help. He immediately pours me a glass from the bottle of French chenin blanc in his hand. As I take a sip, I notice a familiar song on the radio. “'Waterfalls'?" I ask. Andy shrugs and smiles. “We decided to make it '90s R&B night." It's like they knew I was coming.

And that's the thing, I think, as I taste my way through the list. We may be all the way at the end of the world here, in a sun-kissed, intoxicating fantasyland, but the people make it feel like home. As if on cue, Andy offers me a shot of Fernet, a dram favored by many bartenders in my hometown, San Francisco. “The last Chinese emperor endorsed Fernet," he tells me. “He said if you drink it, you'll live forever, and it'll make you a god." He raises his glass: “So here's to long life and becoming a god."

I'll drink to that.

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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."

IK Lab

“I certainly wouldn't want that on my conscience," I agree.

After emerging from a cenote (a natural sinkhole where groundwater is exposed to the sky), I offer an adiós to Viadero and make my way to Tulum's Route 15—the narrow street that cuts through the jungle, parallel to the shore, and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and “eco-chic" (their word, not mine) hotels. Twenty years ago, this strip wasn't much, but now there's not a speck of beachfront that isn't occupied by an Instagram-ready boutique property. (The number of rope swings is astounding.) In recent years, Route 15 has played host to Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Gina Rodriguez, Reese Witherspoon, and, after today, me. I'm staying at Sanará, a stylish wellness hotel that attracts young and hip sunworshippers from around the world who like partying and yoga in equal measure.

A shop on Tulum's Route 15

I check into my beachside room (furnished with my very own yoga mat and dream catcher), flop down on the bed, and open up the “Wellness Menu." On offer are a Pudzyah Mayan Healing that “transforms pain to love at the cellular level … It harmonizes your DNA by applying fractal geometry energy"; a Multivibrational Massage and Chakra Balancing; and a Solar Plexus Healer. I opt for the complimentary “Sound Bath" of light yoga and didgeridoo before balancing out my chakras with a burger, a beer, and some fresh ceviche at Clan Destino.

This laid-back spot is all about the ambience: a wooden deck with chandeliers hanging from the jungle canopy and a cenote smack dab in the middle of the club, should you need refreshing after one too many cervezas. The bar offers a free shot of mezcal for those who take a turn on the karaoke mic (“Suspicious Minds" for me, thank you very much); after accepting my applause and draining my shot, I turn the glass over on the bar and take the plunge.

Day 3

Floating down a canal, swimming in the Caribbean, and eating gelato on the beach

A cabana at Mía

At The Real Coconut, Sanará's beachside restaurant, I dig into a light breakfast of coffee and avocado toast (piled high like Nohoch Mul with a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes). It's a deliciously healthy start to a morning that's going to include traipsing through the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve and swimming in Laguna Chunyaxché.

At Sian Ka'an—a protected area of tropical forest, marshes, and lagoons about a 40-minute drive from my hotel—I follow my guide, Joaquin Balam of Community Tours, down the narrow boardwalk of Sendero Muyil, which cuts through a forest of zapote and ficus trees. I'm told there are jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys about, as well as some 330 species of birds.

“Are those the howler monkeys?" I ask of a muted rumbling in the distance.

"We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling."

“Oh no," says Balam. “When you hear them, you'll know it."

The closest we get to this array of wildlife, however, is some jaguar claw marks on a ficus tree. By the looks of the marks, I'm happy that we're strolling alone.

Baby back ribs at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club

At the end of the path, we reach the sandy shoreline of Laguna Chunyaxché, a bright body of water that reflects both the green wetlands and the blue sky above. We cross the lagoon by boat, to a shoreline of mangroves and seagrass, and step onto a dock at the entrance to a canal.

“Take your life vest off and wear it like this," Balam says, putting his legs through the arm holes of the vest, as if it were a diaper.

“If you say so."

Balam jumps into the canal and I follow, and I immediately understand the Baby Huey getup. We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling as our seemingly weightless bodies travel down the canal. Cue the opening horns of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back on Route 15, I stop in at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club for baby back ribs rubbed with chili and tamarind, washed down with a glass of Château Gloria St Julien Bordeaux from the restaurant's wine cave—the biggest collection of fine wines in Tulum. It's as decadent as the beachgoers lazing in the sun not far from my table.

Head still swimming in that lovely Château Gloria, I decide to take the rest of my body for a little dip. The Caribbean is bathwater warm and crystal clear—in other words, perfect. I walk out for what seems like half a mile, and the water still only comes up to my waist.

Gelato at Origami

Refreshed and sun-dried, I'm ready to trade in the historical and ecological sights of the last few days for the fashion runway of Route 15. The women wear bikinis and sarongs, the men wear linen shorts and loafers, and everybody wears designer shades, brimmed hats made of straw, and suntans of golden bronze. Origami, a beautifully designed gelato shop, is the perfect place to have a seat and watch the catwalk. I have a Ferrero Rocher and crunch on the hazelnuts drenched in icy chocolate and cream while the fashion models play street chicken with Vespas and the delivery trucks distributing tanks of fresh water to the five-star eateries

If Route 15 is for the well-heeled, then Calle Centauro Sur is for the flip-flop set. It's a strip in the center of town, about two miles inland from the beach, where the more casual tourists and locals congregate. Call it the Brooklyn to Route 15's Manhattan. At Batey—a hip, open-air bar and music venue decorated with paintings of Miles Davis and the Beatles—I take a sidewalk seat and listen to a Mexican Elvis impersonator singing Simple Minds' “Don't You (Forget About Me)." As I sip on a Don Julio Reposado, a patchouli-scented parade of 5 o'clock shadows and hot pink hair dye ambles by.

“Are you going dancing tonight?" a young man in a tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and tattered Chuck Taylors asks a friend sitting at the table next to me.

The bar at Mur Mur, in Tulum

“Are you?"

“I'm dressed and ready to go."

Back on Route 15, the revelers are stepping out as if their outfits are going to be scrutinized by bouncers holding clipboards and manning red velvet ropes. Thankfully, no such velvet ropes exist as I enter Rosa Negra for an indulgent meal of burrata, besugo sashimi with black salt and citrus, soft-shell crab tacos, and Pescadores—a fine craft beer made right here in Riviera Maya.

The food is as comely as the patrons, who are bopping their well-coiffed heads to a drum-and-bass DJ. But before I have a chance to pass judgment on an ambience that may appear a touch too buttoned-up, a live conga player steps in front of the DJ.

A rat-a-tat tat, bop ba-da ba-bop, dup du-duh dup du-dup!

The congas add a touch of that Carmen spirit—their organic vibrations reminding me that despite all the Manolo Blahniks and slinky black dresses, my T-shirt and flip-flops are welcome at the party. I shimmy my shoulders, take a swig of my Pescadores, and nod to the beat as I dig into my tacos.

A rat-a-tat tat, ba dop ba-da ba-dop, dup du-buh dup bu-dup!

Search flights

For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey

By The Hub team , November 30, 2018

Our CEO, Oscar Munoz, sat down with Texas Inc. to discuss our turnaround strategy, stating it's a journey. Read the full interview here featured on the Houston Chronicle.

Ankit Gupta honored with Crain's 40 under 40 recognition

By Matt Adams , November 29, 2018

Network Planning and Scheduling VP Ankit Gupta can talk airline business for hours without losing steam. Just don't ask him to talk about himself; that's when he clams up. You'd think after being named to this year's prestigious Crain's Chicago Business "40 Under 40" list he'd be a little more inclined to wax poetic about his life and career, but no such luck.

Read more about why editors selected Ankit by visiting the Crain's website here. The full list of this year's honorees can be found here. The 40 Under 40 issue hits newsstands on December 3.

Security and technology in the air

By United Airlines

Podcast produced in partnership with CSIS

This week on the Smart Women, Smart Power Podcast, Beverly Kirk is joined by Linda Jojo, Executive Vice President for Technology and Chief Digital Officer at United Airlines for a conversation on the transformation of technology in the airline industry and more on security in the digital age.

The best National Parks to visit all year round

By Bob Cooper

National parks can be a refuge from the noise and hectic pace of everyday urban and suburban life — America's special places in nature. But during the summer peak season, they can be as busy as cities. Smart travelers visit between November and March when most parks are less crowded and accommodation choices are discounted. These national parks are especially worthwhile to visit and they're all close enough to major airports to make a three-day weekend getaway possible.

Yosemite, California

Fall and winter visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to autumn leaves in the fall, snow-capped granite landmarks in the winter and replenished waterfalls in the spring. Tent camping can be cold, but hotel rooms in and around Yosemite Valley are widely available and Yosemite's historic lodge, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee), hosts two big events in November and December: the Grand Grape Celebration and the Bracebridge Dinner (a recreation of Christmas in Olde England). Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Everglades, Florida

Many summer vacationers are among the one million annual visitors to Everglades National Park, but the best time to come is in late-autumn or winter. Southern Florida's temperatures are milder, it's far less humid, hurricane season is over and summer flooding of the prairies has receded — letting you see more fish and reptiles. You can also see more birds in the winter via airboat tours through the Everglades, America's largest tropical wilderness. Not to mention this “river of grass" is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and a wetland of International Importance. Airport: Miami International Airport.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Another world lives beneath Kentucky in the world's largest network of caves known as Mammoth Cave National Park. You will walk beneath massive crystallized formations inside the caverns and may spot one of the eight species of bats that thrive in this environment. The caves are about 54 degrees inside year-round, as if regulated by a thermostat, so they are protected from the hot humid summers and freezing winter nights above them, making them a perfect place to visit any time of the year. Visitors to this southern Kentucky park will also benefit from this climatic predictability while taking any of eight cave tours. While cave tours should be at the top of your list of things to do here, this park also offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, kayaking and more. Airport: Louisville International Airport.

Haleakala, Hawaii

Your visit to Haleakala National Park may include a number of experiences, but witnessing the sunrise or sunsets are a must. Many visitors wake up early to drive to the Summit Visitor Center to view one of the best sunrises. But make sure to plan accordingly because the National Park Service now requires a reservation for vehicles to view the sunrise from the Summit District. Other activities on the 10,023-foot mountain include hiking one of the nine trails, guided horseback rides and bike rentals post-hike to coast most of the way down. An added bonus: Humpback whale watching season stretches from December to March in Maui. Airport: Kahului Airport.

Saguaro, Arizona

Saguaro, a type of giant cacti, serve many functions for desert wildlife — but they don't cast much shade. That's why winter is the best time to hike among them where they populate hillsides by the thousands in Saguaro National Park. The park is split in two, straddling the western and eastern boundaries of Tucson, with 165 miles of hiking trails. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a museum, zoo and botanical garden, is a must-see attraction on the edge of Saguaro NP West. Airport: Tucson International Airport.

Joshua Tree, California

The namesake of Joshua Tree National Park is an odd-looking tree that fits in well with the weirdly wonderful rock formations adored by photographers in this high desert park. Located between Palm Springs and the L.A. area, the park encompasses two major deserts and a mountain range, offering a profoundly contrasting appearance due to the two varying ecosystems. This park can be explored by car or by foot on one of the 27 hiking trails. A bonus to visiting in the winter is the desert wildflower blooms between February and April. Airport: Palm Springs International Airport.

Biscayne, Florida

Famous lighthouse at Key Biscayne, Miami

Most of Biscayne National Park is on water, not land, so the best way to see its coral reefs (among the world's largest) and the abundance of marine life (highlighted by manatees and sea turtles) is by renting a boat or taking a boat tour. Several marinas are found at the park's edges where you can do just that, as well as rent snorkeling or diving equipment for a closer look underwater, where you'll discover diverse and colorful aquatic life and multiple shipwrecks. Kayaking and fishing in Miami-Dade County are also popular. Airport: Miami International Airport.

If you go

United Airlines flies to airports within a two-hour drive of all of these national parks. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your accommodations. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your national park getaway.

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