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Secrets Huatulco

We were sitting on the patio of a restaurant in Chicago enjoying the first perfect day of Spring watching the people who were out in droves, finally dethawing from a punishing winter. Two girls rode a tandem bicycle, kids were climbing the trees, and women everywhere were pregnant (because winter). Somewhere else, someone was crapping into a paper bag and passing it around. Earlier that day we showed up at the airport on time, only to discover that our flight was rescheduled from 8AM, to 7AM. The airline said they sent out notifications. My travel agent said they never heard from the supplier. The supplier said they said they never heard from the airline. They had to schedule us on the next available flight which wasn’t until the next day, but of course without reimbursement for the non-refundable night at the resort we’d already paid for. Everyone points at everyone until I’m the bag holder sitting on a patio watching everyone enjoy their afternoon.

A few weeks earlier, I tweeted something that would probably surprise some people who know me.

Usually, I’m the guy rooting for the robots. I trust algorithms more than humans, but algorithms struggle with curation. This is why librarians aren’t extinct. We can shed a tear for Dewey and his obsolete decimal system, and any hard-knock can put books on a shelf. But the real value in librarians is in local expertise and specialization. Google is suitable for 99.9% of your queries. But when I have a really technical or specific problem, I always end up on a forum or IRC channel or among some other community of experts. And whenever someone comes up with a way to approximate the specialized knowledge of a community via automation and indexing, it isn’t long before Google is writing them a check and they are exchanging their desk chairs for exercise balls.

In my case I booked an agent (that doesn’t charge a fee), because I had specific questions about a resort I was familiar with that was bought by a different parent company and re-branded and completely redone, and I wanted more details about what all had changed. Specific knowledge from people on the inside, without having to slog through pages of trip advisor comments of people complaining about how they wanted a queen but got two doubles, etc.

Next time I will probably just book it myself. A travel agent may still be useful if your trip is complicated, or you have specific questions. But the model itself is broken. Worse than just introducing a middleman, in my case they introduced TWO layers of indirection – the airline who sells to the wholesaler who sells to the travel agency who sells to me. And none of them can be bothered to send me a text message when my flight time changes. Travel agencies aren’t dead, they just smell funny3)Frank Zappa originally said this in reference to jazz, and I like jazz. But jazz musicians are still mostly broke. .

Oh right, vacation. We went to Secrets Huatulco to celebrate a year of marriage. Huatulco is Pacific Mexico, pretty dang close to the equator (~15° N) which means hot. The view is what sold us. I mean…

view from sky bar

The resort sprawls along its own private coast, flanked by the rock formations, and built into the side of a foothill of the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains which means even the cheap seats have an ocean view.

All Secrets resorts are adult only. This makes a big difference.

All-inclusive is a trojan horse. Plenty of resorts are all-inclusive and we generally prefer traveling this way for resort vacations. It probably ends up being a wash anyway, but the psychology of not having to constantly reach for your wallet works. The problem though is that all-inclusive is more of a metric for quantity and implies nothing about what is actually being offered. Cheap buffets, watered-down drinks, etc – all included.

Secrets tries to separate themselves by calling it “Unlimited Luxury®”. It’s marketing speak, sure, but they are really trying. This particular resort had 5 restaurants and a buffet – an Italian, Mexican, Asian/Sushi, French, and Steakhouse. The service in these restaurants was on par with some of the nicer places we’ve been in Chicago, and in general the food was fantastic. The Secrets Resort we stayed at in the Mayan Riviera was trying a bit harder with some molecular gastronomy techniques – various foams were common, and this unfortunate chocolate reduction thing made its way onto far too many of our entrees. The dining experience here was a bit more vanilla, and I don’t mean that negatively. Though the restaurants share the same name across all resorts, the food varies in step with the sensibilities of the chefs.

Tipping for fun and profit. Your tips are already included in the price of your stay, but you should tip anyway. A dollar a drink, 5-10 dollars for a 2 hour 5 course meal is enough and is much appreciated, and in some cases they will show it. At the Mexican restaurant, I requested for the waiter to choose a Mezcal that would pair nicely with my entree. This turned into a tasting with Mezcals paired with various citrus fruits and spices and eventually “saltamontes” which I learned means grasshoppers. They were small and cured and fine, I guess. Not particularly gross, and the texture wasn’t offensive, but they were mostly just a transport vessel for salt. Whatever though, it was a memorable experience afforded by a rapport that was built up with the employees there.

Lots of the restaurants had special off-menu items that they would surprise their favorite guests with. At the French restaurant (would you believe our favorite meal in Mexico was at a French Restaurant?), our waiter brought us snails that were maybe the best I’ve had.

Liquor before beer. Included in your stay of course is unlimited drinks. A handful of guests seemed to have a go at testing this, but in general it was a fairly tame bunch. Bartending was hit and miss. Some of them had trouble with much beyond the basic sugary blended mess of the day, but you could find a guy to make you a passable Negroni if you tried. I don’t know, I’m probably not the right guy to judge this. They have grey goose and Captain Morgan and 1800 and Patron and Modelo and whatever 4)Who are these people who get excited about vodka. I just can’t understand this. Their best scotch is Johnnie Red. All the stuff that people get excited for because they have their twenty-dollar all-you-can-drink “top shelf” wristband at the dingy bar down the street serving free tater-tots. I’m not saying I’m above it, but maybe just on some parallel plane that values iterations of a craft over sweet brandz bro. It isn’t barrel sludge by any means, but if you prefer interestingly crafted beverages it may not be your thing. Play around with cocktails.

Preferred Club is just ok. We paid to upgrade to the preferred club. The main benefit is the upgraded room. For us this meant we got a Jacuzzi on our porch. You could also choose a swim out porch pool. There were apparently other benefits, so I’m told. We got “expedited check-in”, but besides them taking us into a private lounge this didn’t feel any different. We had access to a private self-serve bar/lounge, but why? At that point it is just piling excess on excess, and they still couldn’t be bothered with a single malt. What else. We had upgraded toiletries apparently? One day they brought us a comically large breakfast in bed that we could eat about a quarter of and we were unhappy they did that knowing how much would be wasted.

Really, it ends up only being worth it if you care about the room upgrade. At some Secrets resorts, this is the difference between and ocean view and not. At this one where they all are ocean views, we would probably pass if we do it again. We used the porch jacuzzi 2 or 3 times, but it was oddly not that private and when it is 95 outside you pretty much don’t want to be in a hot tub anyway.

Don’t hold your breath for the diving. It really was unremarkable. Visibility was mostly poor, the water was green, wildlife was sparse, and the formations were largely rocks and not coral. We’ve been spoiled by some fantastic diving in the Gulf, and maybe this is just how it goes in the Pacific. It is always fun to get underwater,  but if we return we may skip the diving all together.

On the upside, it gave me a chance to play with some new toys. This was my first time diving with my new diving computer. The main benefit is being untethered from the dive master’s computer, but the charts are fun too. Upon uploading the data though, I immediately regretted not splurging on a computer that has integrated air. I’m a slave to the stats man.

As you can see from the charts, these were pretty shallow dives. The max depth I recorded was 71 feet. The deepest I’ve ever been is 110 feet, which is right at the edge of my certification. In general I usually prefer shallow dives anyway because 1) Life is more abundant 2)Colors are more saturated and 3) you go through air a lot slower. You can see #3 in action on the second chart – this was our shallowest dive and our longest, at 65 minutes underwater.

Huatulco Dive 1

 

Huatulco Dive 2

 

Huatulco Dive 3

 

This was also my first time diving with my GoPro. I bought a red filter to put over the lens. The idea here is that the deeper you dive, the more red light is filtered out. The red filter absorbs some of the blue spectrum, resulting in a more balanced color representation. It makes your shallow videos look silly though.

That spa tho. A year ago I tried to explain what bacon tasted like to a friend who has never had it. This is a surprisingly difficult exercise. Salt, and caramelized fat, and crispy pork. This sounds reasonable, good even. But really you just need to eat bacon to know how good bacon is. I won’t put too much effort into explaining this spa, because it is bacon. All treatments begin with an included, hour-long hydrotherapy session. At the previous Secrets spa we went to this was basically a free-for-all, but here it was a guided tour through saunas and steam rooms and showers and a battery of jets designed to blast specific muscles. Once our meat was sufficiently tenderized, they walked us upstairs to our massage room that was suspended over the ocean with a panoramic view of the nearby bluffs and waves. Bacon.

White whines, first-world problems, etc.: 

We asked for a queen but got two doubles. I’m sure we could have gotten this fixed, but we just never bothered.

So you are a city who apart from tourism, is known for their coffee production. So why would you not serve coffee from Hautulco in Huatulco? And while I’m on it, yes, they did have a café with a nice espresso machine, but the espresso and lattes were a major letdown.

Trust me, I’m annoying myself too. But sometimes when you pay for a fifth star you heighten your expectations a bit.

The poolside entertainment staff was great, but the evening performances were just a few steps above choreographed karaoke. This was in contrast to Secrets Maroma, where the shows were largely great. I also think that they cut some staff due to the resort being so quiet. Normally there is at a minimum a guy on the piano in the lounges during cocktail hour, but not this time.

And finally, getting to Huatulco is just a major pain. We had a layover in Mexico City, which probably isn’t for the faint of heart. There is only one flight into the small Huatulco airport each day so if you miss it you are out of luck (We missed it, and were out of luck). There isn’t a ton to complain about but if there is something that prevents us from returning, this is probably it.

 

1, 3. Frank Zappa originally said this in reference to jazz, and I like jazz. But jazz musicians are still mostly broke.
2. Who are these people who get excited about vodka. I just can't understand this
4. Who are these people who get excited about vodka. I just can’t understand this

2013

The math says 43%. That was Michigan’s chance, down one, of converting a two-point conversion to beat Ohio Sate who spent this season and last being undefeated by some combination of clubbing baby seal universities, being ineligible for post-season play because Tressel is a mentor and a saint but rules are hard and the truth is slippery, and raw talent. Kicking the field goal sends the game to overtime which in theory should give you a 50% chance of winning. The numbers lacked context though. Anyone watching knew the way the game was trending. Carlos Hyde couldn’t be stopped. Not by the girl he assaulted in the off-season, not by the Columbus Police Department, and certainly not by Michigan’s defense. Numbers are slippery too, and when you put them in context the result was the entire state of Michigan screaming at their TVs to roll the dice.

Honestly at this point, most Michigan fans were salivating at the thought of a 43% chance of being happy. Ever since the start of the second half of the NCAA championship basketball game, Michigan fandom consisted of new and more creative gut punches with increasing intensity. Lots of teams have down years, but Michigan managed it in a way that coupled disappointment with small indicators that things would get better. Hope. The hope is the worst part.

They gambled and they lost, and I was grumpy and everything was meaningless. Sports are dumb, except for when they are awesome, and your quality of life is certainly better if you don’t care about them at all, unless you do care about them while they are in the state of being awesome. My sister and brother-in-law came over for dinner after the game, but I was still a bit checked out. The told us that they were adopting from Ethiopia, and potentially domestically too. They are open to sibling groups, up to four years old. Perspective is useful.

Lots of things happened in 2013 and you can read on if you’d like, but here is the summary: I started more things than I finished. I learned things, but not to my satisfaction. There were plenty of disappointments and things that I wish were different or that I were better at. Those things don’t matter so much though. The biggest changes that occurred in 2013 have stacked the odds in my favor. The kid(s) that my sister and brother-in-law will adopt will bring far more than a 43% shot of happiness. I became married, which is also far in excess of 43%. My family is growing. I’m liking my odds for 2014.

In the grand tradition of being a month behind, it is time to review my life in 2013.

(more…)

Duck Prosciutto

This post is part of my ongoing charcuterie project. See my original writeup for further background.

Working with duck is another first for me. This shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been following along so far. Calling this prosciutto confused me though since I always thought that meant pork. The etymology however says that this means “before” (pro) + “remove the moisture” (exsuctus). This definition is more general, so I suppose I will accept that duck can be prosciutto too.

If you’ve been following along, I’m also sure you won’t have any trouble guessing the ingredients involved in making duck prosciutto: duck breast, and salt. This recipe actually gets a bit fancy and garnishes with a bit of freshly ground white pepper. Charcuterie is not complicated, except for when this is a lie and it gets really complicated later in this project. (more…)


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looking down
Looking Down

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view from sky bar
Secrets Huatulco

We were sitting on the patio of a restaurant in Chicago enjoying the first perfect day of Spring wa…

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Charcuterie

duck prosciutto
Duck Prosciutto

This post is part of my ongoing charcuterie project. See my original writeup for further backgroun…

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