There are certain bragging rights that come with riding my beat-up used bike as I slalom between the trucks and taxis in New York City. Last July, however, I decided to exchange the exhaust of Manhattan’s avenues for the pristine air of the Rockies and my $200 Taiwanese ten-speed for a state-of-the-art Orbea road bike as I put my vacation in the hands of the “adventure concierges” at Aspen’s Little Nell.
As we dip our toes back into travel after a year of social distancing, it may feel hard to decide where to go and what to do first. Does a beach vacation sound most appealing or would you prefer an urban getaway focused on shopping, dining, and culture? Perhaps an escape to the country and days of waking to birdsong, dining on farm fresh meals, and exploring small towns is the trip you are dreaming of.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula makes the process of picking a destination easier, as you can choose from all three of these holiday options in one place. It also offers the convenience of flying into and out of Cancun, with flights from more than a dozen American hubs. After you land, you just have to decide whether to drive south, to the beaches along the Riviera Maya; west, to the lively and charming capital of the state of Yucatan, Mérida; or into the countryside, for a stay at a sprawling hacienda reborn as a luxury hotel.
Escape to the Seashore
With its dramatic Maya ruins sitting atop a bluff overlooking the Caribbean and its small resorts strung along the sea, it’s not surprising that Tulum has become a favorite of those travelers looking for beach time in the winter but who aren’t interested in the mega-resorts of Cancun.
The plus of Tulum’s emergence as a destination has been the opening of new hotels and restaurants that have transformed what was once a sleepy backpacker destination into a decidedly stylish one.
Getting There: From Cancun it’s a straight shot south on a well-maintained highway. If you are driving, expect the journey to take between 90 minutes to two hours. There are also buses and shuttles, though renting a vehicle will give you the freedom to explore some nearby sites like the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and the Maya ruins at Coba, a much larger complex than the one in Tulum.
Where to Stay: Olas Tulum is a small B&B that has a very Tulum-like boho-chic atmosphere and attitude. A plus is that it is to the south of most of Tulum’s hotels—you can enjoy the quiet of the location for naps on the sand in the afternoon but when cocktail hour comes around it’s a short walk to Tulum’s other bars and restaurants.
Don’t Miss: Make sure to have at least one meal at Hartwood Tulum which helped lead Tulum’s transition from modest beach town to jet-setter destination. Chefs and owners Eric Werner and Mya Henry opened the restaurant in 2010 and it has made its way on to many “best-restaurant” lists thanks to dishes featuring farm-fresh produce from the Yucatan and seafood straight from the Caribbean in simple preparations that let the ingredients shine.
Much of the Yucatan peninsula is dotted with haciendas that used to produce henequen (a fiber that is, in English, more commonly called sisal, after the port of Sisal where much of it was exported from). Sisal was essential to rope-making and huge fortunes were made growing the crop. The Mexican Revolution and, more importantly, the invention of nylon led to the bust of that boom though today many haciendas are enjoying second lives having been reborn as luxury hotels where you can spend days lounging by pools or visiting off-the-beaten path villages, convents, and Maya sites. You’ll fall asleep each night to the captivating sounds of the jungle wildlife at night.
Getting there: There are haciendas throughout the peninsula, though there tend to be more of them in the states of Yucatan and Campeche (on the northern and western sides of the peninsula—Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, runs along its eastern side). You’ll want to rent a car if you intend to spend your days exploring the backroads, but most haciendas will happily arrange for transfers to their properties if you intend to spend your days relaxing on the grounds.
Where to Stay: Chablé Yucatan is the most luxurious of the reborn haciendas, though most accommodations there are in newly built free-standing casitas while the historic buildings house common areas, lounges, and restaurants. Hacienda Petac is an appealing smaller hacienda that is rented exclusively to one group at a time and can accommodate up to 14 guests. Marriott’s Luxury Collection includes five beautifully restored haciendas.
Don’t Miss: The Maya sites of Chichen Itza and Coba are world-famous, and the crowds at them are evidence of that. An advantage of a stay at a hacienda, however, is that it’s easier to visit some of the less-popular Maya sites. Uxmal, which is just over an hour south of Mérida, is one of the most magical of them. It is built in the so-called Puuc style which is known for being more decorative than other Maya styles with intricate carved geometric patterns and designs.
A City Escape
Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan (and the largest city on the Yucatan peninsula) has emerged in recent years as one of the most exciting cities in Mexico. It has long been known for its laidback pace and impressive collection of historic buildings spanning the 16th to 19th centuries (within Mexico, only Mexico City has a larger historic district). Now the city can also boast about its lively dining and shopping scene, supported by both a growing expat community and travelers who have discovered Mérida’s appeals.
Getting There: Mérida is roughly 3.5 hours from Cancun on a toll road. The colonial town of Valladolid and the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza are appealing stops en route. (It is also possible to fly to Mérida directly.)
Where to Stay: Mérida has an abundance of rental properties in historic homes that have been lovingly restored and you will want to check out the options on AirBnB and VRBO. If you prefer a hotel, the recently opened Wayam has a cool, contemporary style and also one of Mérida’s best new restaurants, Cuna, which serves delicious updated takes on Yucatecan cooking.
Don’t Miss: Mérida is not only a state capital but a culinary one too. It’s a place to sample both street food like the simple tacos served at stands at the Santiago Market (a small neighborhood market that is less intimidating than the central one) to the innovative Mexican cuisine of Picheta which overlooks Mérida’s cathedral and central square.
—John Newton, Founder, Signal Custom Content. (John previously worked as an editor at AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel+Leisure and has written travel stories for many other publications and websites.)
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Block Island has an otherworldly air, forgotten by time and lost in the Atlantic. If Martha’s Vineyard is the summer resort of Democratic leaders and Nantucket a mecca of New England preppies, Block Island, which lies 12 miles south of the coast of Rhode Island and 14 miles off the eastern tip of Long Island, is decidedly more humble. It’s a nice respite from the tourist hoards one encounters on the other two islands.
Most of the island, all 10 square miles of it, is dotted with parks. Some 43 percent of the island has been protected from development, earning Block Island a spot on the Nature Conservancy’s list of the twelve “Last Great Places” in the western hemisphere. Most visitors come in the summer, when the gentle ocean breezes and plentiful sand lure urbanites wanting a quick break from the steam of the city. But the best time to go is during the shoulder season, which runs from Labor Day till Thanksgiving. During this time you’ll find quiet dunes, empty beaches and a near-desolate nature trail leading through scrubland to coastal bluffs. Expect to spend at least some days waiting out storms curled up fireside with a novel. When you emerge it will be to dramatic windswept dunes, often cloudy skies and a topography that feels more Scottish than Caribbean. The principal appeals of Block Island off-season, experienced by only a few of its annual visitors, are solitude and silence.
The compact size of the island and its relatively flat terrain also make it an ideal green vacation destination. Leave your car at home as the entire island can easily be explored on bike in an afternoon, from the Mohegan Bluffs on the southern coast with views of Montauk on clear days to Sachem Pond and the North Lighthouse at the island’s other end. And if you are staying at a hotel in Old Harbor, every dining option is only a short walk away.
Almost all of the hotels face the Old Harbor, constructed in the 1870s. (New Harbor, which sits on the island’s Great Salt Pond, is almost as old, having been built in 1895.) And prices drop dramatically as the days grow shorter. A room at the Hotel Manisses that is $220 a night in the height of summer can be had for only $75 in October. From November to April, all rooms at it and its sister property, the 1661 Inn include a lavish breakfast buffet in the rate. Double rooms at the harbor front National Hotel start at $199 in the summer, but only $99 in October.
Hotel Manisses at night. Photo by Eric Johnson (View 836)
You won’t find the same discounts when it comes to dining, however, side from some specials on fudge as candy stores prepare to shutter for the winter, but the island has a range of restaurants from upscale options such as the Spring House—especially popular for cocktails at sunset—to casual lobster shacks. One downside, however, of visiting off-season is that some restaurants, such as the Hotel Manisses’s, close before the end of October.
Getting around is cheaper, too. The Old Harbor Bike Shop doesn’t have special seasonal rates, but print out the coupons found at bnockislandtransportation.com for $10 off of moped rentals or $5 off of bicycle rentals.
Although Block Island is served by ferries from New London, Connecticut, and Montauk, New York, in the summer, after the end of September, the only way to reach the island is via the ferry from Port Judith in Rhode Island. If it’s a bit harder to get there, it just means it will be easy to find the peace and quiet you were searching for.
John Newton is a Brooklyn-based travel writer and a former editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure.
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