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Playa del Carmen

4.30.17
- THE MAYAN RIVIERA


My first trip to the Yucatan Peninsula was more than 35 years ago. Fresh out of college, with my first real boyfriend, we spent a week at Club Med Cancun, Stumbling on a whole new world of freedom and adventure, we met a couple of lesbian physicians, who took us snorkeling after lunch one day, all of us sans brassieres. But, I digress.

We took an excursion to a wonderful Mayan ruin site, on the beach in Tulum, approximately 1 hour south of Cancun. With the turquoise waters of the Caribbean as backdrop, dozens of “buildings” and temples all encased in a limestone-walled city made for a magical experience. We were too young to appreciate it, as we climbed atop the steps of the Temple of the Wind God, a stunning structure, which is the focal point of the site. There were few tourists around; we had time to snap pictures inside and around these ancient structuress.

These days, things have changed. Playa del Carmen exists today, where nothing stood 35 years ago. Playa, as the locals call her, was merely a pier with a few boats to Cozumel, shacks and tents of support businesses and souvenir shops clustered about. Today, it is a bustling resort, inhabited by sun worshippers form all over the world. It is just as easy to exchange euros as dollars. Starbucks has 7 stores in this region, Walmart, Home Depot, Cartier and Sephora are all here. But I am getting ahead. Focus Julie, focus.

Let’s start this journey with my arrival in Cancun, smack dab in the middle of Spring Break, 2017. And no, I did not arrive by cruise ship.

Rather than stay in the hotel zone for a single, stopover night before pushing on to me destination deep in the Mayan Riviera, I decided to try the “local” scene, in city centro, Cancun. It was easy to find a hotel bargain in the downtown section, and I certainly did at $40 a night. It was gritty, without any of the amenities reserved for the touristas that fill the resort hotels here. It was even a bit intimidating. But, it was clean, with wifi, and close to 2 gay bars that exist in the city. And I was headed out!

I got on my device and quickly learned one of the clubs, 11:11 Club was only open on the weekend. So it was to be Laser Fun Club, and the crowd was a late one. Yippeeee!

Personally, there is nothing better than getting out in a new town the very night you arrive, I enjoy hitting the streets early, hanging with the local crowd, learning about things up close and personal. But given that the place didn’t even open until 10pm, I did all I could to wait until 11:30 to step out. Uber is alive and well in Mexico, and a ridiculously cheap $2 ride took me to the place.

Alas, even at 11:30, I was the only patron there. But there were a number of staff, including 3 waiters, 2 doormen, 3 busboys, 2 bartenders, a dj and a manager, I got the feeling things might just pick up. The bar was small, with a stage and dance floor, as well as a fantastic smoking patio, in the front, where I could monitor the arrivals.

Laser Fun Club is a drag bar, with big shows, and by 1 am, some 10 drag queens, along with their entourages (make-up, costume, fluffer, mother, boyfriend?), filed into the club. By now there were some other patrons, and I met a man from Brisbane, on his way back home to Australia, after touring Cuba for 2 weeks. He was back in City Centro after having an amazing time at 11:11 Club at the beginning of his trip.

Before too much longer, the lip-synching had begun, and the bar was roaring. The 5 or 6 tequila shots I had been sipping, conspired with the couple of beer chasers I forced down, to bring me to that requisite Mexican vacay moment, OLE! I was having a ball. Bar staff hustled plates of chips, queso and pico, along with other foods brought by guests in a sort of pot luck celebration to celebrate someone’s birthday, or maybe the fact it was Wednesday. It mattered little, and was charming, and festive, and great fun.

Thursday morning came too fast, and by noon I was in a car heading south to Playa. Both Uber and the taxis have the same rates to travel the 1 hour south-about $35.00. There is only one road that cuts through the jungle that flows down to the coast. Along the way we passed grand entrances to the more than 40 resorts that now line the path from Cancun down to Playa.

These are the kind of resorts where once there, you do not leave.

Humongous properties these are, each with private roads down to the coast, and no doubt, heavenly private beaches for the fanciful enjoyment of their guests. How a travel destination can support this many resorts is beyond me, but here they were, and none looking to be struggling.

From out of nowhere, we arrived in a cluster of residential buildings and commercial properties. This was Playa Del Carmen.

From the freeway, we turned towards the coast, and the big box stores turned to restaurants and adorable shops. Cobblestone streets now were inhabited by delectable-looking restaurants, and inviting watering holes. A sense of excitement pulsed through my body, as I suddenly wanted to leap out of the car and explore each and every venue on foot.

In minutes we stopped in front of a whimsical hotel, with original architectural features, lush landscaping and a beckoning shingle-LA TORTUGA HOTEL. This was no Hampton Inn, and yes Dorothy, we were no longer in Kansas!


The room was spacious, with lots of detail-inlaid tile; a portal window to the hallway; exposed hardwood beams; and a private balcony nestled in the jungle that was the pool area of the hotel. It wasn’t so much a pool, as a river that meandered about the courtyard, in and around rooms, the lobby bar, and the delicious oseteria attached to the wonderful space.

From La Tortuga, I ventured out to discover Playa. My first mission was to get to the beach, and it was 3 short blocks away. This part of the Caribbean is know for the color of the water, a mix of vibrant turquoise, along with various shades of blue and even green. It was, and is stunning.

One block up from the water is a sort of malecon, the most famous of which stretches 5 miles in Havana, Cuba. Part boardwalk, part outdoor mall and swap meet, Avenida 5 Norte stretches some 50 blocks, probably 3 miles, lined with shops, restaurants, bars and all the entertainment one could consume.

Massage, yes it is here. And cheap. You want small fish to eat the callouses from your feet? Okay, it is here. You want to eat fish-lots of it, and fresh here. Slushy, mardi gras drinks by the dozens, of course. Tequilas, no kidding. McDonalds, yes. Starbucks, duh.

Okay, paradise is not perfect. But, for many gringos, nothing cures a tequila hangover faster than a Big Mac and fries. And while the locals decried the fact that there were 7 Starbucks over these 50 or so blocks, there is something quite settling when you are away from home, to have that moment when you exit exotica and step into the world of American corporate branding, quality control and comfort, if only for a moment. Plus, the wifi is pretty dependable, and still free!

The existence of commercial America amidst this natural wonderland didn’t unnerve me, even as I strolled by Hurley, and Quicksilver, and RVCA. It is a beach town, after all. And, there were enough local vendors and artisans to make the experience unique, and frankly, purely enjoyable.

Avenida 5 Norte took on a whole new life at night. The bars and restaurants are packed, and go later into the early hours of the morning, some open ‘til 5. There are mariachis and live bands; big screen television broadcasting into open air lounges; break dancing crews entertain up and down the boardwalk; street vendors display wears on blankets, as if the voluminous gift stores aren’t selection enough for shoppers.

On one night I decided to turn in early. I awoke at 4am to find my cell phone was not charging. No cell phone, no good, so I hit the streets. Loud music filled the air as I stepped out of the door of my hotel. Indeed there were several clubs on my street that were raging at this hour. Food options abounded-there was pizza, burgers, quesadillas, of course tacos, in a number of open and thriving establishments. The kicker, I found a phone charger at an all night convenience store, for about $4, and by 5 am I was back in my room, charging my lifeline, and with a full stomach no less.

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast, included with your room at La Tortuga. “The Italian Breakfast” consisted of fresh fruit and yogurt, granola, toast, and a perfectly foamed cappuccino.

Moving on, my second hotel was not in Playa Del Carmen, but north of the city by a couple of miles. The Viceroy, Mayan Riviera, is nestled in the jungle, with its own private beach. Now before I go on, I must advise that Playa is the kind of destination that is best enjoyed with a group of friends, or better yet, with that special someone.

There are a couple of gay bars in the city itself, but the locals just don’t seem to get out, and the scene is way too late to ever get a buzz going with tourists. Perhaps this is but another casualty of the phone applications, or maybe that the town is so gay friendly and there are so many enchanting spots to drink and carouse, there just isn’t the gay singles nightlife, that exists in Puerta Vallarta, for example.

So, I arrived at the Viceroy, a compound of romantic bungalows tucked into the thicket of vegetation the runs up to the turquoise shoreline along the peninsula. My room was like a dream.

A private courtyard, with a decent sized, kidney shaped pool immediately stood out, with an elevated deck, perfect for nude sunbathing, a shaded hammock, and even a king sized day bed completed the front yard amenities.

Beyond, an air-conditioned bungalow awaited, with plenty of large glass windows with views of the play space out front, and even a wonderland in the back, with tropical canopy and private outdoor shower. It was the place to have a romantic weekend, without a doubt!

The Viceroy has tremendous dining, whether al fresco out by the sea, or on the second floor balcony under a thatched roof with views of the water. There are themed nights, with special offerings from their fine chef. And if you go, don’t skip the tequila tasting, with perfect pairings of shrimp and octopus ceviche.

But the real thrill of staying at the Viceroy, among many, are the morning visitors that meander in from the jungle to mingle with the guests, and eat apples right from their hands! It is a little known fact that the jungles here are home to several species of monkeys. I always thought one had to venture down to Costa Rica to interact with these tree inhabitants. But, right here at the Viceroy, spider monkey feedings occur almost on a daily basis. How many places can boast that feature for guests?

My trip pushed onward, with the next stop Palm at Playa, back in the heart of the action in Playa Del Carmen. Let me say, if there is a gay hotel in this town, one that has the swagger, and the style to be known as “the gay hotel”, it would be Palm at Playa.

At first glance, it is your whitewashed, modern, garden style hotel, trickling water walls, Palm infested courtyard, vines draping the balconies. The rooms are spacious, with hammocks on the decks. But, get to the roof, actually, The Roof Club, and it is a whole other story!

Sweeping panoramic views of Playa and the gorgeous water await at The Roof, along with an infinity pool, with day beds, in the pool itself! There is a hammock hanging over the crystal clear water, which is cool enough to take your breath away, but a welcome relief in the heat of day here.

There is a spa on the roof, where one could arrange all sorts of pampering. Likewise, there is a restaurant, where once again, I had amazing ceviche. I am not a big fan, but the citrus cooked seafood in this town was winning me over big time. And, here, they had a wicked green sauce, deceptively parading as some kind of guacamole knockoff. But, beware, it is made with green habaneros, and it is crazy hot, and super good. Green habaneros, who knew?

The bar here is pumping from 9am, with nothing but the trendiest circuit party beats. And the music is loud. This is Mexico baby! Get here early to stake out your party position for the day. This is the pool to be at in Playa!

My last hotel in Playa was The Acanto, a boutique hotel just a block from the beach, and right in the heart of a vibrant stretch of the action. Each morning breakfast is served in the quaint courtyard, including fresh pineapple, mango and papaya, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, cereal and, of course, coffee. It’s more breakfast than I normally eat, to be sure.

Residence at the Acanto includes privileges at a state of the art, huge gymnasium just around the corner. But the real treat is the membership at The Kool Beach Club.. Just 4 blocks away, The Kool, as it is known, is adjacent to Mamitas Beach Club, which according to the guides online, is a gay beach. The thing is, the beach clubs take up so much of the beach area, that, unless you are a member of a beach club, you can barely find a snatch of sand to plant your flag. And, on my stay, there really wasn’t anything more, or less gay about Mamitas, than the rest of the beaches in the area,

So, an afternoon at The Kool, is, well, really quite cool. Hundreds of chairs line the turquoise blue waters, with a caste system of seating for those of you who like the VIP experience. There is a fantastic restaurant, pool, also with plenty of chairs, and a whole range of water activities the club can provide, including kayaking, sail boarding, paddle surfing, even parasailing. You gotta love a beach club!

Leaving Playa, I have but one more stop on this Mayan adventure-a trip across the Caribbean to Cozumel. From central Playa, four ferry companies make the 11 mile trip to the diver’s paradise just off the Playa coast. We were hosted by Utramar, the only operator with brightly colored blue and yellow boats, that you can see from miles away up and down the coast. With the comfort and speed of their newest ferry, we are there in 35 minutes.

Our destination on Cozumel is a romantic hideaway, some 20 minutes by car from the ferry dock. Secrets is one of those places where romance is launched, rekindled, or shattered. You know the place, all inclusive, private, the time of your life!

Indeed, Secrets is a sprawling, adults only resort, with spacious rooms, some with swim up features, as the pools meander among the lodging.

There is a private beach, with dock from which you can contract any number of sea excursions. The water sports that don’t require a motor are free, and there is a activities counter right on the sand for snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, and the like. They can also hook you up with more advanced adventures like diving, deep sea fishing, parasailing, and more.

There are activities all day long here, like water aerobics, pool volleyball, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, life size chess by the pool, zumba, yoga, rifle shooting, and water sliding. It’s like summer love camp, for adults.

Did I mention the eating and drinking-all included? So, in addition to 24-hour room service, there are 5 restaurants on the property. One specializes in seafood; there is a French restaurant, an American continental cuisine; a burger and fries lunch spot; and, the coup de gras, a buffet place, where for breakfast lunch and dinner you can eat all you want. Help, save me!!

The buffet restaurant has the most incredible bloody mary bar, just to bridge you through until the swim up pool bars open, and you, my friend, are off and running. By the way, there even is a coffee house, for when you awaken at 3 in the morning, and need that little bite of pastry and a double cappuccino, to get a base going for your next day of hedonism, Insane!

I gained 10 pounds here in 3 days. Wow.

So, the incredible beaches, and the first class hotels are reason enough to visit the Mayan Riviera. Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cozumel all offer an amazing time.

But this peninsula has so much more to offer than fun in the sun and sand. The Yucatan is a mecca of eco-tourism, from scuba and snorkeling-the Meso-American reef is the second largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef-to sport fishing and ruin trekking.


Did you know one of the 7 wonders of the world, as determined by UNESCO, exists here? Chichen Itza is a sprawling ancient Mayan city, with meticulously maintained ruins. It is so packed with wonder and awe, one could easily spend an entire day here.

The Mayans were pioneers in a number of sciences, two of them-architecture and astronomy-are on full display here. Along with being the creators of our calendar, the site is a rich display of an ancient civilization that was way ahead of their time in mapping their existence on this planet.

Being a basketball junkie, I was most impressed with the sport court. The largest one is most impressive, with amazing sound engineering, and carved panels that tell the unbelievable story of two teams competing to put a ball through a ring high up on the stone walls.


The team that does so is the winner of the competition, and the reward for this feat, a beheading of the winning team’s captain, as an honor sacrifice to the gods. Yikes! These guys were serious.

There are zip-line adventures, jeep tours, and wonderful natural phenomena known as cenotes. The ground here is mostly limestone, and so when it rains, which it does frequently, the water seeps through the stone, forming pools and underground rivers.

There are many openings, or sinkholes in the limestone surface, which reveal amazing sunken swimming holes known as cenotes. The water is crystal clear, chillingly refreshing, and the experience is fantastic.

There are big “Disney” style resorts that take advantage of these natural wonders, and package them in a user-friendly way, if that is your thing. Places like Xel-ha and Xcaret are natural aquariums, with underground rivers, and loads of tropical fish and wildlife, all bundled together in a theme park experience. They even offer all-inclusive pricing, for that all you can eat and drink, while you “nature out” experience.

But the real adventure is to head into the jungle with a guided tour and experience the Riviera Maya, au natural. As you drive through the trees, you will notice rope bridges across the top of the highway every mile or so. These are for the spider and howler monkeys that make these jungles their homes. There are also tunnels under the roadways to allow for non-climbers, a variety of mammals to cross traffic safely.

At Tulum we spotted a coatmundi, a sort of racoonish fellow, with a very inquisitive nature. There were Yucatan Woodpeckers at Il Kil Cenote, along with numerous brightly colored birds. We saw Yellow Throated Warblers and Golden Finches, but there are also Toucans that reside here, for the lucky adventurer. Flamingoes are native here as well, and if you have ever seen a string of the pink beasts flying in single file, it is a bucket list item, let me tell you.

Iguanas are everywhere. Sixty-six species of Tarantula Spiders exist here. And the largest land mammal in these forests-the tapir, which grows to 80 pounds, calls the Maya home. There are pumas, and ocelots, though rarely seen. On my trip, a jaguar was killed by a car near Tulum. This really is the jungle!

And, from May to September, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel host whale sharks. Apparently they vacay here for the all-inclusive deals. It is relatively easy to swim with them, as there are numerous tours offering the once in a lifetime chance to swim, and be filmed, with these docile, giants. Are you kidding me?! How many bucket list items can one knock off(ha) here?

As a body-builder god, turned actor, turned has-been reality host and Trump punching bag once said, “ I will be back!”
Most definitely.

Hasta la vista baby!


 



Puerto Rico pride

6.23.15 - PUERTO RICAN RUMBLE (RUM BALL!!!!!)


REEL GAY TV is just back from filming pride in Puerto Rico, including the parade and festival in San Juan, as well as the Beachfest in Boqueron, Cabo Rojo. Look for the volume coming in September.

I don't know why I had never been to Puerto Rico in all my years of travel. After all, it is a tropical destination, tucked neatly into the beautiful Caribbean between the Virgin Islands to the east and Haiti/Dominican Republic to the west, and a United States territory at that. No passports, no translations, no dysentery, what's not to like? There aren't any malaria or dengue fever warnings emanating from PR. Hello, Hawaii!!!

So, with the help from Orbitz, and our carrier, Delta Airlines, we were off.

We chose pride season to visit, June 7th in San Juan, but we quickly learned pride in PR was much more than a parade and festival. Our first stop was the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, about 10 minutes from the airport, and sitting smack dab on the beach.

Marriott
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride

The place was buzzing, with 2 rum cocktails awaiting our arrival in the thriving lobby bar, casino beckoning as a backdrop; a water park for a pool; and the white sand and blue Atlantic as our backyard paradise. At night the lobby bar is blaring with some of the best local Latin bands you've ever heard. It's steps from the local gay beach, just in front of the Atlantic Hotel. The place is ideal.

The Marriott is located in Condado, the trendy district of bars, restaurants and shopping just out the front door. San Juan's gay nightlife is all situated in Condado, a comfortable walking distance away. And, the pride parade route charted right past the Marriott's grand
entrance. What a treat!

San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride
San Juan Pride


As parades go, San Juan Pride was a solid "B". The "A" grade is reserved for those cities who exhibit their pride at night (Hi, Houston), or with 10,000 entrants (Hello, Sydney), or with 500 floats (Never again, Toronto, though I adored it, once). Festive, with blaring rhythms, this parade meandered down Ashford, the main drag in Condado, past "family" out to view, past beach-goers pleasantly caught off guard, and workers gawking from kitchen
doors, snapping pictures like giddy teenage school girls. It was a party, as pride parades should be.

The moving fiesta snaked down the thin street, over bridges, past shoreline parks until it culminated in a hilly oceanfront space, Tercer Milenio Park, with a glorious view and plenty of room for the party to unfold. The event, contrary to what we were told, was quite well attended, with thousands of people partaking in food, drink, drag, dancing, and general sunbathing in nearly naked attire. Again, what's not to like?!?!


As for nightlife, Condado has a range of thumping options. In preferential order, the scene goes like this: everyone starts their evening at Tia Maria’s Liquor Store. Once a convenience store, this tiny but hopping space is the friendliest bar in town. Run by two lesbians who pour the strongest, and cheapest drinks you can imagine, this is the spot to get your even jump-started. And since no one goes out to the other places before midnight, spend your early hours here, getting sufficiently lubricated with the locals. It is a ball.

It is a short walk to La Placita, reminiscent of the street parties in Rio, a collection of bars and restaurants, all gay friendly, where the revelers spill out into an open courtyard in the middle of the madness, creating an enchanting environment that is a mixture of gay, straight, and fun fun fun. You can buy drinks from a stand here, and peruse the rambunctious crowd. In all of San Juan, there is very little resistance to carrying your drinks into the street, even from bar to bar, though it probably is not officially sanctioned. But certainly in this 4-square block space, the party is on, and it is mobile.

From La Placita make your way to S/X, a hybrid of a strip club and dirty darkroom bar. It is like nothing you've ever done before (unless you've been to Berlin.) The bar is inhabited with a half dozen or so "dancers" who engage you if you show any interest. (They engage even if you're not interested, but it's easy enough to send them on their way.) Friendly and frisky, the dancers are not like the high pressure, 'come to the backroom with me' dancers of other strip joints. They flirt and tempt right there in the bar space, with a couple of veiled couch rooms available at the rear if one wanted to get a bit more intimate. It's fun, not creepy, and a harmless, sexy romp.

But the real fun is outside where a smoking patio disappears into a dark space where Puerto Rican dreams come true. Nuff said. Again, more fun than sleazy, and a change of pace from the attitude dance clubs that we are all too used to.

Speaking of dance clubs, just around the corner are Scandulo, VIP and Circo, the latter, sort of a collecting bin, open until 6am, where everyone ends up by the end of the night. This is a high end dance spot. All the best guys and girls are here, as well as all the rest you have been chasing or running from all night. The dance floor is through some easy to miss doors, off the smoking patio, and it is an entirely mirrored room, making it look like there
are thousands of people in there, especially after hours of partying, and a jump-start at Tia Maria’s. It is great fun and not to be missed!

Not content with parades, and bars, and beach, and dancing, we thought we would check out nearby Vieques Island, part of a group of islands sometimes referred to as The Spanish Virgin Islands. Vieques Air Link got us there in an exhilarating ride in a 6-seater plane that was akin to flying a Volkswagen Bug for the 30-minute flight. It was fantastic, kind of like flying in the cockpit, with tremendous views of the coast, and the string of islands, and the
landing as we floated down onto Vieques.

Vieques Air Link

Once a US Navy bombing range and testing ground, Vieques is now a national wildlife refuge, with amazing beaches, snorkeling, sailing, and a authentic island in the stream feel unlike any other island I have experienced. Horses roam free here, and there hardly seems to be a tourist around. It is idyllic.

Casa de Amistad

Our home away from home here was the Casa de Amistad Guesthouse, gay owned and operated by Owen and Dan in Isabel II, the one main town on the island. Owen greeted us, and gave us the royal treatment, sitting us down to go over our itinerary, offering us full use of the gourmet kitchen, beach towels, coolers, sunscreen, snorkeling equipment, and any other needs we might have. It's like staying at your eccentric beach bum uncle’s
hideaway on a remote deserted island. And it was fantastic.

Two blocks down from Amistad we snagged a delicious lunch at Cafe Mamasongas, with a great view of the ocean and a family of iguanas living in the trees. Two blocks in the other direction is an authentic Italian place, Taverna, run by the team that does Spiritus Pizza in Provincetown. Talk about dancing in heaven, wow! After lunch, we boarded a rowboat, powered by Captain Judy, the coolest mom in the whole wide world, who runs Sea Vieques, a sail/snorkel tour that found us on a catamaran catching the gentle winds out to a reef with some of the best collection of corals I had ever seen. The tour is intimate, with 4 guests and Captain Judy's friendly crew of 2 guiding, entertaining, educating, and making for a truly wonderful experience.

Sea Vieques
Sea Vieques

When the sun goes down, a “must do” on Vieques is a bioluminescent tour. Several operators take kayakers out on a mangrove-lined bay where the water is 90 degrees, the sky sprinkles shooting stars, and the sea is filled with light emitting organisms that will blow your mind. Literally everywhere you touch, the water lights up, every movement emits shiny white light, so fish swimming by look like brilliant fireballs speeding through the water. You can put your hand in the water and lift up a fist full of light, watching in awe as the sparkles spill down your arm back into the water. If you saw Life of Pi, it's just like that,
but without the whale. It is breathtaking.

Mosquito Bay
Shark

The next morning we had a tremendous breakfast at Panaderia Viequense, which makes the best breakfast paninis you could imagine, before heading off to the refuge side of the island for a sailing/snorkeling tour with Little Boat Sailing. This time the catamaran was "little", barely room for 4 guests and our gear. We tacked out to a reef on the Caribbean side of the island where we snorkeled with turtles, barracuda, and even a 5-foot nurse shark. Our guide showed us another side of tropical snorkeling, along a mangrove bank, which was truly a unique experience. The mangrove trees, with their maze-like root systems, are the nurseries of the reef. Nearly every species of wildlife, including birds, utilize the mangroves to raise and protect their young. So, nestled among the roots were big schools of
adolescent fish, and larger predators, hanging around slyly, waiting for them to venture out. It was enlightening, and amazing!

Little Boat Sailing
shark

From Vieques, we just had to hop over to St. Thomas, so courtesy of Cape Air we were off on another white knuckler, 8-seater flight. Woohoo! Part of the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is like the jewelry island in the Caribbean. Cartier, Rolex, Tiffanys all have showrooms in the quaint shopping village on the picturesque bay lining Veterans Drive. If you're looking for a romantic getaway to propose to that special someone, and buy that once in a lifetime diamond, at a discount with no sales tax, then St. Thomas is the place.

Cape Air
St Thomas
St Thomas
St Thomas

We, on the other hand, were still into adventure touring. So, Virgin Islands Ecotours was our destination. Again, a small tour, with three kayaks of two passengers each, and a knowledgeable guide who took us paddling through a mangrove bay; snorkeling with baby sharks and spotted sea snakes; and, hiking with an army of hermit crabs with a ravenous appetite for Kit Kat bars. If on St. Thomas, check them out! Our lodging on this beautiful island was a grand old guest house, just up the hill from the shopping village, aptly called The Crystal Palace. The house opens up into large stately rooms, living, dining, sitting, all leading to a deck with a stunning view of the harbor. We spent our first evening having a beer(the first drink at Crystal is on the house) and drinking in the amazing view as the sunset gave way to twinkling lights amidst a cool Caribbean breeze. In the morning we picked mangos from one of several trees loaded with fruit, on the property. Priceless.

The Crystal Palace
St Thomas
St Thomas


But back to PR we went, as Beachfest, the "better half" of Puerto Rico pride beckoned for the weekend. It seems all of Puerto Rico's gay and lesbian community books accommodations on the west coast of the island in Cabo Rojo for a festival on the beach that gets going Thursday and goes through Monday. Talk about a party! But before we could get our heads around that, we had new digs to check out in San Juan. If you are a fan of the "Housewives" you might recall NENE and the gals stay in Puerto Rico. It was at a boutique hotel where the girls couldn't refrain from the usual screaming slapfest, and yes, we had to stay there! The Olive Hotel is a toney little boutique hotel, run by a newly married couple who inhabited the place with a bevy of beautiful pieces so unlike your standard hotel fare, you'd think you were staying at Ari Onassis' private villa. The pictures on the walls are all shots from the owners Mediterranean wedding and the apparent year they spent on their honeymoon. Who lives this way????? I hate these people! But I love their hotel.

The Olive Hotel


Friday morning we met a charming young lady, Caroline, who works for Spoon Food Tours which hosts a fabulous tour of Old San Juan, its postcard pastel architecture, and some wonderful restaurant operators who fed us coffee, pastries and rum to die for. We had some of the best fish tacos I've ever imbibed, and a thoroughly informative and enjoyable time.

Columbus
PR street


But the time had come for our trip to Boqueron! Saturday, on a spectacular palm-lined beach, the bears of the region convened for a day of sun and fun in the sand. When we arrived the waters were filled with beefy, hirsute, drink-holding men, cackling just like a school of flamingos in the middle of a Serengeti watering hole. The sound was deafening. The entire beach, some 2 miles or so, was packed with gays and lesbians loaded down with umbrellas, coolers, boom boxes, volleyballs, paddle-boards, and skimpy swimwear. Talk about a party. As the sun set, everyone retired for a nap and a meal before re-emerging at a tiny village steps from the shore where djs and stages pumped out music and entertainment until the wee hours of the morning. The place was packed. Think Provincetown, with a Latin-American flair. It was unbelievable. Sunday saw a cute parade down the main drag, with another day of paradise on the beach. It was so different than the festival, which seemed like a year ago Sunday in San Juan, and the perfect finish to Pride Puerto Rico. If you've never been, you must go. But be sure to book your stay in Cabo Rojo early. The town was completely booked, and for good reason! Ole!

Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron
Boqueron

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