by Marcia Simon, CTA
Fully vaccinated and ready to travel. The world is opening up and people are dusting off their traveling shoes... or flip flops as the case may be.
If you want a quick, inexpensive nonstop flight from NY - or Connecticut's Bradley International Airport - you can easily get to Cancun, the gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula. Riviera Maya is south of Cancun on the Caribbean Sea. This popular destination is lined with beachfront resorts, many all-inclusive, at various levels.
Taking the plunge back into travel mode, it's important to stay at a place you trust for COVID-safety standards, where you can get your mandated COVID-test onsite before returning to the United States, and where you can obviously enjoy great food, a huge pool with ample availability of loungers, an endless view of the sea and horizon, and a long list of optional daily activities that you can pursue or blow off depending on your state of mind.
Cancun has a reputation as Party Central, but it's not necessary to be part of that culture. Locations outside of the popular hotel zone are quieter, with options for everyone from understated luxury to multigenerational family fun.
I visited two properties, both part of the AM Resorts collection, on a recent trip to Puerto Morelos about a half hour south of Cancun. This is considered the northern tip of the Riviera Maya region.
A two-night stay at the luxury Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita (the pretty paradise) was the perfect transition from COVID-homebody to comfortable traveler.
The name Zoëtry is loosely translated to capture a philosophy centered around "the art of life." The Zoëtry brand, found in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and St. Martin, is about serenity and wellness. This 5-Diamond AAA-rated resort does a very good job at remaining unpretentious while delivering a high standard of client care and service. As an example, on the second day of the trip I misplaced my sunglasses. It happens. Asking if there was lost and found, Omar, who was at the lobby's front desk, made a call and happily reported that the glasses were secure and would be dropped off at the office in about 15 minutes. What a pleasant surprise to have butler service deliver the missing specs to my table while lazily sipping morning coffee and pondering the breakfast menu, which included fresh fruit, yogurt, "green juice" and traditional bacon and eggs, along with authentic Mexican dishes with local flavors.
A local artist uses natural pigments to paint colorful birds and scenes for interior spaces, while exterior surfaces are painted in reddish and gold hues, true to Mayan culture. Another way the resort shares the history of the area is through a one-hour spiritual Temazcal ceremony led by a healer. You'll also find daily yoga, alternating days of Tai Chi and sound meditation, with aqua exercise and stretching in the saltwater pool. The larger freshwater pool overlooks the ocean and guests get very attentive drink (and food) service. Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita has an onsite "marina" at the end of the dock that includes a catamaran and a dive boat for snorkeling, sightseeing and trips to the nearby reef.
Zoëtry is ideal for couples; children are welcome with families, but we didn't see many; solo travelers would also feel comfortable here.
Also in the AM Resorts collection is Now Sapphire, where I spent three nights and plenty of time in the pools. The main pool is close to the open air lounge and offers a swim-up bar and plenty of loungers both in and out of the water. There's also a quieter, and quite lovely, adult-only pool, with bar, for guests in the Preferred category of rooms.
The Now brand is well suited for multigenerational families, and there were plenty of grandparents with their adult kids and favorite little ones. There's a children's Explorers Club with a small water park and supervised outdoor, shaded activity center. It's also affordable for groups of friends, and certainly for couples. Now Sapphire and Now Jade, both in Riviera Maya, are in the process of transitioning to be Dreams resorts, which are also part of the AM Resorts collection. HOT TIP: Book a future trip at one of these Now resorts, and the price will be honored at the higher-priced Dreams. The transition should be complete this summer for Now/Dreams Jade, and October for Now/Dreams Sapphire.
Now is for people who want a livelier atmosphere, and has more than 400 rooms and suites; Zoëtry, with fewer than 100 suites, is for those who want serene reflection and a calming experience. These were two very different experiences.
One common thread is that both Zoëtry and Now are operating at limited capacity. Vaccines are not yet as readily available in Mexico since the vaccines are not produced inside the country. Although adults over 40 and all teachers and front line workers have been offered the vaccine, many of the younger hotel staff are not yet eligible as of this writing in June 2021. For this reason, it's a great sign of respect for visiting travelers to wear masks in accordance with signage prominently displayed for indoor spaces. The resorts both showed that they are very serious about safety, sanitizing, and keeping everyone healthy.
As is the trend, both Zoëtry and Now Sapphire used their down time, when rooms were closed to tourists, to add plunge pools and first-floor swim-out suites to several accommodations. These, plus the beautiful, clean pools, made it very easy to forgive the fact that sargassum (a type of seaweed) still plagues much of Mexico's east coast during parts of the year. Believed to be caused by warming oceans and changing currents as a result of climate change, and fueled by landscape fertilizers that find their way into the ocean, this sargassum is now washing onto beaches at several Caribbean islands that never experienced it before. It's also making itself known in Florida. Hotels are doing all they can during sargassum months, but Mother Nature rules the sea.
Get out. Experience life. Travel more, stay safe, and see the world in a new light.
Marcia Simon, a Connecticut-based travel writer, is owner of Friendly Group Travel, specializing in trip planning throughout North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to email@example.com.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
A trip to the supermarket triggers anxiety, but looking at photos of Caribbean beaches and crystal clear blue waters makes me want to hop a plane and wiggle my toes under a pile of warm golden sand.
How safe is travel at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to soar? We're all tired of COVID; this is not the time to let down your guard. The question is whether or not it is possible to travel safely.
A lot depends on your personal situation, when you want to travel, and how important the trip is. Do you have a compromised immune system due to a medical condition or age? Are you the primary caregiver for a family member? Would you lose needed income if you were unable to work for a month due to illness or quarantine before you could get back to your job?
On the other hand, airlines, airports and hotels appear to be taking every precaution to maintain a clean, sterile, safe environment. And not just for travelers; they are equally concerned about the health of their employees.
Not all destinations provide the same level of protection. Many hotels have reduced occupancy limits, so expect fewer guests. Along with that, anticipate fewer dining choices at resorts known for numerous culinary experiences. Buffets are gone. Masks are required in all public spaces; guidelines vary at pools and on beaches. And assume that nighttime entertainment will be minimized, too. Don’t expect an early check in. It takes longer to sanitize rooms and deep-clean the areas. Most hotels are not cleaning rooms on a daily basis either, so you'll need to make your own bed and clean up after yourself from check-in to check-out, depending on the length of stay. Ask the hotel before you book what their policy is about room occupancy and cleaning.
Destinations outside the US approach entry requirements in different ways. Some mandate proof of a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of arrival. Some require proof of health insurance that covers you while in their country. Rules may change from the time you book your trip and the time you actually travel.
Insuring Your Safety
Aside from protection against lost luggage, accidents and trip interruptions, "Cancel For Any Reason" insurance is a no-brainer today, whether you're booking a trip for next month or two years from now. But not all policies are the same. Some allow you to cancel up to 24 hours before your trip with 100 percent cash refund. Many resorts now include cancellation insurance at no additional cost, giving you a credit for future travel rather than a clean refund. Some policies exclude medical care due to COVID, so make sure you understand the policy to assure you are actually purchasing what you think you are. Insuring your trip is probably more important now than ever before.
So, is it okay to travel?
The answer lies in diligence. If you expect to get away so you can escape the coronavirus, forget that thought. It's not possible now.
Are you willing to mask up and revise your expectations so you can feel a warm breeze on your back, and close your eyes on a lounger submerged in an infinity pool overlooking the most amazingly blue ocean you've ever seen in your life? Run on the beach? Enjoy a fine wine or ice cold beer with the sound of island music as the sun goes down? Would you be happy eating some meals, delivered by room service, on your oceanfront balcony instead of in a dining room?
Hunkering down at home to minimize the risk of leisure travel during a pandemic that can literally kill you makes perfect sense, at least until you've received the two-step vaccine in its entirety. And yet, many people are determined to go and are willing to take the risk if they have already experienced and recovered from COVID-19 and have been shown through testing to carry antibodies, which may offer protection to some degree to themselves if not to others. The waters of COVID are uncharted. Nobody knows anything with certainty.
For those who choose to travel by plane during the pandemic, follow these recommendations from Friendly Group Travel in Westbrook, Connecticut to maximize safety:
1. Choose nonstop flights to reduce exposure to people and surfaces at multiple locations.
2. Pay for an assigned seat and choose a window on the left side of the plane, away from the restroom area. Window seats generally expose you to less contact with other passengers. The left side of the plane usually disembarks more quickly than the right.
3. If at all possible, avoid a checked bag and go with carry-on only. Some airlines have tightened requirements for carry-on sizes to reduce the time passengers juggle carry-on luggage in and out of overhead bins. Confirm this beforehand so you can pack accordingly.
4. Use private ground transportation from the airport to your hotel (some hotels include this now at no additional cost) rather than a shared shuttle.
5. Get "Cancel for Any Reason" (CFAR) insurance at the time you book your trip. Your circumstances may change, or you may become less comfortable about travel as the date gets closer.
6. Check your hotel's policies on occupancy limits, how and how often they clean guest rooms, how long they wait to fill a room between guests and whether room service charges are waived if you decide to eat in your room.
7. This is not a time to look for bargain hotels. Prioritize comfort and safety. Many of the larger hotel chains have trusted safety protocols and sanitation standards you can find on their websites.
NOTE - It is perfectly safe to start planning your next trip now. Get ideas, start dreaming, and enjoy your time at home being an armchair traveler preparing your next adventure.
Marcia Simon is a Connecticut-based travel writer and a travel advisor. Connect by email firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
If you’ve never been to Key West, you’ve got to go at least once. If you were there several years ago, telling yourself you want to return, be aware – it has changed.
Like many over-touristed areas, the Florida Keys have lost some of their laid back, off the grid groove. Many of the hotels and resorts that sustained major damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017 have rebuilt with a more durable, more modern, more expensive style. During peak season that lasts until Easter, the traffic from Key Largo to Key West is nonstop. There’s one way in and one way out.
And yet with the changes that come with time and a growing population, the rhythm of island life is still intoxicating – especially when you take time to chat with the locals, rediscovering the state of mind that brings Northerners down here for four or five months at a time as they begin to explore their retirement options. While Jimmy Buffet’s Parrothead following packs the upscale Margaritaville resort in Old Town Key West, some laid back snowbirds use their own network to secure off-the-radar seasonal rentals that come with burnt orange sunsets over the water while pelicans dive for fresh fish and thick doormats help to shake off the last grains of beach sand from between your toes.
Getting to Key West by plane is easier now with more airlines adding flights. The ride from Key West airport into Old Town is short, Uber and Lyft are both active, and the large hotel chains on North and South Roosevelt Avenues provide free shuttle service. There are paid shuttles from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports to Key West, with stops at some of the most popular keys along the way – Largo, Islamorada, Marathon among them.
Choosing to drive the Overseas Highway across the 113-mile string of coral and limestone islands (and crossing 42 bridges along the way), we spent two nights at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina. This area is known for deep sea and sport fishing (grouper, mahi mahi, snapper and more) or just a dose of chill time before tackling the crazy Key West scene. Still renovating after 2017‘s Hurricane Irma, one building of guest rooms is under reconstruction (as of February 2019), and the oceanfront bar/restaurant that was literally blown away in the storm is being rebuilt. Meanwhile the Tiki Bar is hopping with decent casual food and creative island drinks, including Ke Ke coladas and key lime pie martinis using Ke Ke Key Lime Pie Cream Liqueur. Yum. Within walking distance is Theater of the Sea, an all-ages day trip, where you can learn about marine life and swim with dolphins, sea lions and stingrays.
People who choose to live in Islamorada prefer their small community to the busy streets of Key Largo and Key West on either end of this island chain. You need a car to get around to the shops and restaurants. For beachfront lunch or dinner, try Lazy Days, known for fresh fried fish and seafood and their well-loved key lime butter sauce. The happy hour is a local favorite with half price drinks, 50 cent buffalo wings and conch fritters, and three-for-a-dollar peel-and-eat shrimp. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar is another popular dinner spot, known more for its fantastic sunset views than the quality of food. It’s fun – and very crowded so arrive early to find a parking space.
Between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key is the famous Seven Mile Bridge, connecting the middle and lower keys. It’s a bucket list drive that humbles any soul. Marathon on Grassy Key is home to the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit educational and rescue center open to the public and providing in-water interaction with the marine mammals.
Key West hot spots
Having been to Key West about 20 years ago, the first thing we did after parking the car and getting settled into our hotel was take a walk down Duval Street, lined with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Music starts up around noon and keeps going all day and night. Sloppy Joe’s still seems to be the hot spot for the beer-and-loud music-crowd. Apparently lots of people like that, or maybe it’s the craft beers and bar food. Nearby, Irish Kevin’s Bar offers much of the same, as does Hog’s Breath Saloon.
After a traditional margarita to welcome myself back to Key West at a quieter outdoor spot with a street-facing bar for excellent people watching, it was time to head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset ritual and street performers. Take off your Fitbit. This is a great place to unwind with a digital detox. If you walk around to take in everything Old Town has to offer, you’ll get all your steps in – and more.
The next morning started early with a walk to one of Key West’s most photographed locations –the Southernmost Point of the Continental United States. Tourists line up for selfies and photos. Especially early in the day, people were considerate of allowing others to get the classic shot that everyone wants, and took turns taking photos for each other.
Key West cuisine
Great food choices are plentiful in Key West; to assure a spot at your favorite restaurant, reservations are advised. Lots of places serve fish tacos, fish and chips, shrimp, wings, burgers and predictable selections of every kind. Key island specialties include conch fritters and chowder, grouper, smoked fish dip (often grouper, but can be wahoo, mahi mahi or any other smoked fish) that looks like a scoop of tuna salad surrounded by chips or crackers.
For something special, take the short ferry ride over to Latitudes on Sunset Key for breakfast, lunch or dinner – with a sunset to remember. Blue Heaven is a casual and funky outdoor spot known for breakfast, brunch and desserts as well as attentive lunch and dinner specials. For the ultimate dessert experience – try Better Than Sex, an adult-themed dessert-only restaurant, that serves wine in glasses dipped in soft chocolate and decadent desserts such as The Morning After (a grilled sandwich with Danish brie, dark Belgian chocolate dusted with cinnamon sugar. A strawberry champagne “soup” sits on the plate for dipping) or Man Flowers (a chocolate stout cake with tart dark chocolate frosting, chocolate stout ganache, Irish cream ice cream and salted caramel). You can also get shots and beer – all with soft chocolate or caramel clinging to the glass.
Key West is one of those towns that enjoys a good female-impersonator show. There are two on Duval Street. The less expensive show at Aqua is somewhat loud and raunchy, while the more upscale cabaret show sells out nightly at LaTeDa hotel and restaurant on the quiet end of Duval. LaTeDa also has a lovely piano bar for a mellow end to a full day in the sun.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
This is a must-see for cat ladies. The Hemingway house is home to more than 50 cats, most believed to be descendants of Snow White, Hemingway’s first polydactyl (six-toed) cat. All the felines are meticulously cared for around the clock – and not a hint of cat smell anywhere! If you hear someone calling out for Humphrey Bogart or Audrey Hepburn while touring the grounds, it’s because Hemingway’s cats have always been named for famous people. In fact, The Hemingway House is now licensed as a zoo as well as a National Historic Literary Landmark, paying homage to Hemingway’s 10 years of writing from Key West and being influenced by its attitude and characters.
Ernest Hemingway’s earliest writing career was as a wartime journalist before penning novels, a few of which were turned into movies. Among these are The Old Man and the Sea, for which Hemingway was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, and Farewell to Arms. Depression plagued the Hemingway family, claiming the life of Ernest as well as his famous granddaughter, supermodel Margaux. Today, Margaux’s sister Mariel Hemingway dedicates her life to raising awareness about mental health, depression and suicide that has taken several members of the Hemingway family.
Eco-friendly sun protection for every activity
Key West officials voted in early 2019 to ban the sale of sunscreens containing ingredients that are believed to be harmful to coral reefs and the ecosystems they support. The law banning oxybenzone and octinoxate, goes into effect January 1, 2021. Environmental researchers say these two ingredients accumulate in the water from swimmers and wastewater discharge, and can damage or kill coral reefs through bleaching and harming the corals’ DNA.
The Florida Keys make up the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem, and is home to thousands of species of marine life, attracting divers and snorkelers from around the world.
The Florida Keys sun is strong even in morning; the trade winds can be strong at night. Whether you’re into bicycling, walking, kayaking, sailing, deep sea fishing, music, food or brew pubs, the Florida Keys are ready to feed your passion with year-round warm weather. There are so many places to stay in the Keys – from small B&Bs to historic inns, owner-operated boutique hotels and large chains. It’s best to book early to get what you want. It’s still a small area and bargain rates sell out quickly. To plan your Florida Keys vacation, call 860-399-0191 or email email@example.com.
Marcia Simon, APR, CTA, is an IATA-accredited travel advisor, a PRSA-accredited public relations practitioner and principal/owner of friendlygrouptravel.com. Connect through facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.