Sunday, June 19, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 1: Chichen Itza, Wonders of the Kukulkan Pyramid and My First Cenote

Fiji was an amazing, bucketlist trip that set off our adventure travel bug - and last summer, I was excited and grateful to go off on another, this time in Mexico!

With two of us arriving early morning and fellow dive & dine enthusiast friends gourmetpigs and @jennybawel in the afternoon, the early birds decided to tour the ancient Mayan capital and UNESCO World Heritage site, Chichen Itza.

After a redeye from LA - we had just enough time to drop our bags at the hotel before the tour shuttle pulled up.

After an educational 3.5 hour ride (downside of guided tours: time spent rounding up guests from hotels; upside: knowledgeable guide: did you know "Cancun" was derived from Mayan words for 'pot of snakes' or 'nest of snakes'?), we arrived at Chichen Itza which translates to "at the mouth of the Iza well".

From ~550 AD-800 AD, Chichen Itza served mainly as a ceremonial center for Mayan civilization. Around 987 AD, two people, likely the same person, were believed to have brought Toltec beliefs and practices to the region: Kukulkan (Kukul means “feathered” and kan means “serpent”) and Quetzalcoatl (also meaning feathered serpent, but an Aztec god of wind and learning): including the practice of human sacrifice.

The iconic El Castillo or Kukulkan pyramid, a temple to celebrate the deity, was of course the first sight we visited, and it is rich with symbolism.  There are 4 sides to the pyramid with 91 steps each, representing the four seasons and days in the season, plus one extra step at the very top to total 365 calendar days per year. 

Not only is the pyramid imdued with meaning, it is an incredible meeting of poetic artistry with brilliance in math and sciences - especially in its ingenious design to interact with the sun at specific times of year: equinoxes and solstices.  On equinoxes the length of day and night are equal, while on solstices we have the shortest daylight and longest darkness of the year.  The location of El Castillo, the direction the pyramid is facing, and the steps and platforms on each side, interacts with the sun at different times of year so that light and shadow play off the pyramid (e,g. during solstices exactly half the pyramid is in light or shadow; just before fall equinox the sun seems to 'snake' down the side with nine triangles in the evening to hit the snake heads at its base) - which Mayans were believed to have used to plan harvests / plantings, wedding and burials.  Guess how many days between these events?  91, except for the summer solstice and fall equinox - which is separated by 92 days. Yes, this matches the number of steps on the pyramid to total 365.

We didn't get to witness the chiaroscuro during our visit, but all the more reason to come back again (for those interested, equinox dates are March 21 & Sept 22, and solstice dates are usually around June 21 & Dec 22 but this year it's tomorrow June 20). 

With the featured serpent god, sculpted snake heads were incorporated into the rich architectural detail throughout the site. 
We also toured the platform of eagles and jaguars (symbolizing warriors tasked with bringing humans to sacrifice to the gods), ancient Great Ball Court, and the plaza of a Thousand Columns (which stood the test of thousands of years apparently only to end up in service of modern music videos).

But to geek out some more on the architecture.  The quetzal bird, with males sporting resplendent tail features up to a meter long, is not only considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world, in ancient times it held special significance for Mayans and Aztecss - and was associated with feathered serpent king Kukulkan.

So it was, our guide pointed out, that a pyramid built in tribute to Kukulkan would incorporate this acoustic feature: stand on the West or North sides of the pyramid, facing the bottom of the steps, and clap: sound waves will travel up the limestone steps as if the steps were percussion strings, to echo through the empty chamber at the top to create a sound that mimics the call of the rare bird quetzal. (The only reason why this doesn't work on the south and east sides now is because of damage / missing blocks.)  An amazing architectural feat in any day, but especially astounding that Mayans were able to build with such precision in ancient times.

After our time at the pyramid and surrounding grounds was up, we took a short ride, 2.5km away to my first ever cenote.

Cenotes are sink holes, where the limestone roof over a body of water collapses - the ground water below is pristine and gorgeous surrounded by lush greenery rimmed openings. There are many of these in the Yucatan pennisula and they even form a vast underground system.  Mayans believed them to be 'sacred wells' (direct translation of name) which are portals through which they can communicate with the gods.

We planned to scuba dive through fresh water and salt water cenotes once our entire group arrives.  But, the one we visited our first day, Cenote Ik Kil was a nice intro to an all-access cenote that was easy for families to get to: it was even set up with a restaurant directly above.

After a buffet lunch (included in price of tour, but offerings to be honest are pretty basic, this is definitely not destination dining, but more of a utilitarian approach to service tourists - though the surroundings are beautiful.  If you are particular about your food I would bring your own snacks and water)

Fueled up on food, we were given an hour and a half of free time to enjoy the cenote.  I was glad Viator had given us advance notice to bring our swimsuits and our own towels - we changed quickly in the modern restrooms, and made our way down several flights of limestone steps to the swimming hole (note, bring dive shoes with tread if you can, as the steps are rough, wet and slippery pretty much all of the time).

In retrospect, after having dived through truly life changing cenotes that were more remote, beautiful and indeed spiritual, Cenote Ik Kil was not the best way to experience the natural phenomena - it was extremely crowded, and the water was actually quite deep and quite cold, so those like me who are actually not strong swimmers may have some hesitation.  However, it was included as part of the Viator tour, and great for larger groups and families where accommodations need to be made for different levels of mobility and interests.

Another few hours' ride back to hotel zone, and coming straight through from a redeye, we had absolutely maxed out our first day and fed quickly at the lovely ocean front Westin Resort & Spa before tapping out for the night.

With that wrapped our first culture, history and fun filled day in Cancun!  Stay tuned for a recap of Day 2.


Cancun, Mexico
USA Transfers
Shuttle from airport to hotel zone
Ph: (310) 909-8634 or local in Cancun: 914-0290

Chichen Itza
Kukulkan Pyramid, Yucatan Peninsula, in the Yucatan State; Mexico
Viator day tour from Cancun
Ph: 1 (866) 648-5873

Cenote y Restaurante Ik Kil

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400

Day 1 costs breakdown per person:
  • Shuttle from airport to hotel zone: $35 (total for up to 3 passengers, so individual cost for 2 of us came out to $17.50 + tip = $21 each)
  • Chichen Itza Kukulkan Pyramid with Viator tour: $69.99 + $15 tip
  • Cenote Ik Kil and restaurant buffet lunch: included with Viator tour, but bring cash for drinks which cost extra (USD accepted) $2.50
  • Westin Resort & Spa Cancun: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$108.49 USD per person 

(See my recaps for Days 2, 3 and 4 coming soon)

Friday, May 27, 2016

How To Be a Less Frazzled Traveler

Hours-long TSA lines, missed flights and delayed baggage have been the stuff of legend as of late.

Having recently encountered some missed connections / flights, some of my own doing, some not - I thought this would be a good time to share some of my learnings about minimizing risk and preparing for the unexpected when traveling.

1.  Take redeye flights whenever possible

Taking less popular times means you get to avoid traffic getting to the airport, and lines once you arrive.

You also save on one night's hotel while being able to arrive early in the day at your destination, which allows you to maximize your vacation.

A side benefit is also that you don't waste any precious PTO stuck in a plane cabin: if able, sleep on the plane and then you're ready to go sightseeing or anything else on your To Do list, as soon as you arrive at your destination.

2.  Invest in a known traveler program that lets you go through shorter security lines: TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear

Skip the longer lines for security by signing up for a program that essentially 'pre-clears' you to be a known traveler so you can go through 'express' lanes when going through airports.  There are various programs out there: take your pick from those that best suits your needs:
  • TSA PreCheck: if you plan to mainly travel within the U.S.
  • CLEAR: if you plan to travel a lot between participating cities in the U.S.and ID verification is your biggest pain point
  • Global Entry: if you plan to travel internationally as well as within the U.S.
Below is a quick table showing the differences and benefits of each:

3. Always keep a miniature personal care kit in your carry on 

Some people are fantastic at traveling light, and never need to check a bag in the first place. I'm more  prone to overpack in efforts to be prepared for every possible need - but this approach backfires if the airline loses, delays delivery or otherwise separates you from your luggage. And, you don't want to be forced to purchase overpriced staples at the airport / hotel gift shop, nor to have to cab out to a local store especially if the airline puts you in an airport hotel which typically doesn't have anything walking distance.

So, in your carry on, aside from the essentials like your phone, charger and earbuds :) always have a complete personal care kit including TSA friendly travel sized products so that you won't be left hanging should you be separated from your suitcase. Great items to include:
  • At least one spare pair of underwear!! 
  • Spare contacts / glasses (these are the hardest to replace while traveling!)
  • Facial cleanser & moisturizer (if hotel bar soap doesn't do it for you or you have skin sensitivities)
  • Shampoo & Conditioner (yes hotels provide this, but if you are particular about your products - E.g. no sulfates, then it's a good idea to bring along your own)]
  • Shave kit
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste (though hotels will usually provide spares on request) 

4. Invest in a "travel bungee" to keep bags in order

In the event of a rebooked flight, you may have to haul your carryon gear long distance through the terminal whether to reach another gate or to exit altogether for a forced overnight stay.

As a chronic overpacker, I've found this very affordable Travelon travel bungee ($15) to be an absolute lifesaver in keeping my roller bag and giant purse in tidy order (and so that I don't have to lug the purse on my shoulders at all).  This bungee is great for any Duty Free or other purchases you make while at the airport too, to just add on to your roller and keep hands free for passports, boarding passes, IDs etc.

5. Store airline and hotel loyalty phone and member andnumbers in your phone before you travel

In case of delayed or cancelled flights, you are likely to be waiting in a long line at customer care (ironically named because most of the time it feels like they don't) - you'll want to feel like you're doing something to find alternatives and more in control of next steps.  Contacting airline call centers directly is a good idea (both the one you were traveling with, in hopes of waived / reduced fees, and other airlines if getting on with your travel is more important to you than costs) - but internet connections at airports are often the most questionable at the time when you most need it, so instead of wasting time trying to look up phone numbers when you're battling possibly hundreds of other passengers to secure alternative solutions, have the numbers pre-stored in your phone so you can get right on with hopefully productive conversations.

Having your frequent flyer number handy as well would help to identify you as a loyal customer in hopes that they will provide a bit better service (yes, ever the optimist).

I also like to have my hotel loyalty phone and membership numbers handy for those times when you're forced to stay overnight - the central call center can both help you locate the closest and best options to fit your needs, as well as check your points status to see if you are eligible to redeem for the stay vs. paying out of pocket.

Best of luck in your travels and have a great Memorial Day weekend everyone!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hamasaku: One Who Creates Food from the Sea: Smorgasbarachirashi and Uni Udon Carbonara Extraordinaire

Sushi lovers on the Westside have plenty of great options, many of them on or near Sawtelle Japantown.  So when I first heard about Hamasaku a few years back, that it was owned by Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, and a 'celebrity hotspot' complete with rolls named after stars who frequent the place - it immediately became associated in my mind with 'probably overpriced', and 'probably packed with trendy over-sauced rolls with playful names'.

But one visit to the secluded, surprisingly serene spot in the back corner of a strip mall on Santa Monica, and I became a fan in spite of that all. 

The heavy rustic double doors shield the bustle of two of the busiest thoroughfares in LA (the mall is located by Santa Monica and Sepulveda) away from a peaceful, bright, airy space inside.

Though the menu is indeed full of specialty rolls, yes, one even named Rick Castle, after Nathan Fillion's character on the namesake TV series - they are actually good quality, clean and tasty, and prices are affordable.  Sashimi dishes are gorgeously plated.

But the thing that really sealed the deal for me: they also offer elegant, inventive takes on Japanese dishes, raw and cooked - that are some of the most creative and beautiful I've seen and tasted.

Let's start with the visual smorgasbord that is Bara Chirashi ($34) - served at lunch only, this is Hamasaku's beautiful take on the classic chirashi, where cuts of fish and other seafood are 'scattered' (the literal meaning of the word chirashi) with veggies and egg over a bowl of sushi grade rice.

And it's not all looks - there are treasures to be found with every bite from sea urchin to briny bursts of salmon roe, to yellow tail, snapper, bits of tamago (egg omelette) and other deliciousness.

The portion may not look gigantic, but an average sized person would definitely leave satiated without ordering anything else for lunch.

Then there is the unique dish I dream of and now crave on the weekly: Uni Udon Carbonara ($20) udon, uni, butter, shallots, shiso, seaweed, lime zest, egg white.  Definitely a contender for Best Drama of the year in terms of presentation - waves of sea foam like egg whites awash over a half sea urchin shell, crested by two orange tongues of uni for powerful contrast.

I love the skillful balance of levity and decadence here: the airy egg white counters the substantive bites of fresh, springy udon noodles in rich, creamy yet somehow still light and clean tasting carbonara sauce below. 

Definitely one of my new favorite uni dishes in LA, and one that I wish would be served not only at dinner (as I would happily feast on this three meals a day if I could).

As mentioned earlier, Hamasaku's specialty rolls are not ones that sushi lovers would find unpalatable: the Asylum roll ($25) for example, with toro, lobster, avocado, asparagus, cilantro aioli was fresh, only lightly sauced and delicious.  Is it the best sushi roll I've had in the area?  Not by a long shot - I would head to Kiriko down the street if looking for high grade rolls - but I would say Hamasaku exceeded expectations, and is a good option for client or group meals, where you need the whole experience package of upscale ambience, good variety of options for people who may have different levels of preference for level of raw / austerity in their sushi.

And speaking of variety, Hamasaku also offers charcoal grilled skewers at affordable prices: I'm a fan of the Duck breast robata yaki ($4) with yuzu kosho, and they also have everything from chicken to salmon skewers. 

Many Japanese restaurants focus more on the savory, so that when it comes time for dessert you are often faced with standard mochi  or ice cream or some combination thereof. 

I love that Hamasaku offers a delicious Green Tea Budino, that is so smooth and flavorful, I would count it amongst the reasons to return to Hamasaku soon.

One other thing of note, they do have counter seating, and I appreciate that the staff are very solo diner friendly, as someone often in need of places to have dinner while waiting for rush hour traffic to die down.  And you never know who you're going to meet the next seat over, and I don't just mean celebs: on my last visit, I met an awesome UCLA doctorate professor who often dines there solo as well, and had an enlightening conversation about chemistry and diet.

All in all, a great spot for power lunching, and solo dining. Despite the stars.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 



11043 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ph: 310.479.7636
Parking: valet, in attached strip mall open air parking

Look for reservations, and points, at OpenTable

Hamasaku Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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