Friday, May 22, 2009

Il Dolce Far Niente

Il Dolce Far Niente
Have you ever heard this phrase? It's a lovely idea with an even lovelier name. Il Dolce Far Niente is a phrase, idea and all around life philosophy that the Italians cooked up which means(and I'm paraphrasing here), "the sweetness of doing nothing". Even in the hustling, bustling metropolis that is Rome it's obvious that this idea is embraced by many. Most 30-something men still live at home with their parents and the men that are out there on their own and making a living are sure to give themselves ample time to "do nothing" throughout the day. You see an awful lot of locals just, well, sitting and staring with a cup of coffee or cigarette in hand. And I find this ironic. Visitors to Rome, or any part of Italy for that matter, are hard pressed to enjoy Il Dolce Far Niente(unless they're renting a villa in the countryside for a month). I mean, yes, we did have 3 hour dinners(pic above) where we downed litres of delicious house wine and ate course after course of delightful and scrumptious morsels while watching the world go by, but then it was back to hitting the streets because we're in freaking Rome and there's just too much to see!! The Forum, The Colosseum, The Pantheon, The Vatican. Oh, and eat! The list of meats and cheeses... wines and desserts... pastas and breads that I had to check off my culinary list left no time to waste. Then there's the day trips to the sleepy villages. We had to see Anzio and swim in the Mediterranean. We had to experience the small towns on the outskirts of Rome. And it was worth it. It was worth every second of somewhat hectic at times sightseeing. And I wouldn't have changed a thing. But I certainly didn't find my own Il Dolce Far Niente there.
Surprisingly......I found it in Mexico.

I thank my lucky stars the my husband likes to travel as much(almost) as I do. We love immersing ourselves in new cultures. We love traveling to far off places. We love walking a whole city, just trying to look like locals. But we also love sitting on a beach and having someone bring us drinks. I mean, come on, who doesn't. So once a year we take our Il Dolce Far Niente inspired trip. This year it was to The Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The deals right now for Mexico are unheard of. And no. We didn't come back with swine flu. We just came back with a smile on our faces and a fading tan.

The Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico... In my opinion it's a frugal traveler's dream vacation destination, and a foolish traveler's invitation to get ripped off. I've been on both sides of that story. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to the all too well known Cancun. An overpopulated strip of beautiful resorts, cheesy theme restaurants and overpriced everything. Then just down the road(and I do mean THE road...there's pretty much just that one along the coast) there is a little town called Playa Del Carmen. I suppose you can call it "Cancun in training". It's an old fishing village that has become a resort town. But the best thing to me was that it didn't seem to lose it's charm in the process. And finally there is Cozumel. Just a short(and cheap) 45min ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen you'll find the island of Cozumel. All three are different, good and bad in their own right. What are you looking for in a vacation?

Il Dolce Far Niente?... and lots of it?
The all-inclusive hotels on the strip somewhere between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen are right for you. These resorts have it all...honestly, everything you need is in one place...and you only have to open your wallet once. Some have room service and beach/poolside waiters... some have their own scuba dive instructors, boats and equipment. They pretty much all have nightly entertainment(casino night, disco night, mariachi bands, etc.), more booze than anyone should have access to, great pools with swim-up bars, a variety of dining options and a variety of daily activities(everything from kayaks to catamarans or bike riding to ping pong)...all included in the price. We sat on the beach for hours...periodically taking a dip in the ocean...while a server walked a quarter mile back and forth in the sand to bring us drinks. We floated around the pool(huge pool) for hours not ever having to get out to get a drink since there were two swim-up bars. One morning the idea of getting dressed for breakfast proved too challenging so we ordered a delightful one through room service. Hmmm, we have two hours between now and dinner shall we go to the sports bar and play some pool or cards? Or shall we ride some bikes across the campus? Maybe we'll sit in he hammocks and drink our cocktails. No, lets pick up where we left off on our week long ping-pong game. This is the kind of doing nothing I can do a lot of nothing...a little nothing...or the true nothing...sleep by the pool all day long.(this was our last trip...we stayed here at the Valentin was rated 5 star, but I'll give it 4...all rooms were suites...there was classy, if not stuffy, dining options but the food was good...this(pic left) was a sea bass, all of the fish I had there was cooked to perfection, the sides on the other hand left a lot to be desired...but if we didn't like a meal at one restaurant we could just mosey on over to was all service and beach service included...lots of activities...and it was off the beaten path and not in Cancun "proper")

Il Dolce Far Niente... and a little adventure?
I'd say Cozumel is probably more up your alley. There are still plenty of large resorts to choose from on Cozumel(so you can still practice doing nothing), but it's a bit more "wild" and adventurous. You can rent scooters for an entire day for just $25USD/person(they also offer 4-person dune buggies and all sorts of Jeeps). You can also find some of the best and cheapest scuba diving all around the island. We bought our trip through a very large dive company(Aquaworld) because we could buy it while drunk and lounging around the pool at our resort AND because it offered full round-trip transportation, gear and lunch(and not the normal "scuba lunch" that consists of a cheese sandwich while still in your wetsuit on the boat...they took you to a local hole in the wall after the dive and let you chow down...yes please!). It was a bit pricey($135usd/person for a two tank dive) and didn't quite offer the personalized attention we've grown to love while diving with the smaller outfits(if you're ever diving is St. Lucia you MUST dive with Frogs, they are wonderful), but it was good. I was told by a few other divers that if you're staying on Cozumel and if you go to a smaller outfit, they can offer you two tank dives for as low as $50usd/person. Now that's a good deal. And the diving is wonderful! It's home to the second largest barrier reef in the world(actually called the Belize Barrier Reef because it stretches from Belize to the Yucatan Peninsula).

Il Dolce Far Niente...and a little Culture?
Then I'd say Playa Del Carmen is the right destination for you. The hotels are much smaller, but they're also located down the small streets and alleys that make up Playa Del Carmen. There are restaurants at every turn, local crafts for sale, little food carts everywhere selling plastic cups filled with local tropical fruits. It's got a more sleepy pace, but there is still quite a lively night life. The back streets and off the beaten path areas were filled with locals...and where there are locals there is local food. Also, Playa Del Carmen is located very close to a number of famous Mayan Ruin sites like Tulum as well as a number of of "eco-parks" like Xcaret. What's Xcaret?? I'll tell you.......

One of the big money makers in the area is the day-trip biz. Do you want to see Mayan ruins? Do you want to take a zip line through the "jungle"(p.s. the jungle that they're talking about is a dirt pit surrounded by brush)? Do you want to snorkel? Do you want to go shopping? Do you want to swim with dolphins? The list goes on and on. If you're looking for a great place to do almost all of these things for one price(and only one day away from enjoying your doing nothing) then go to Xcaret. We did.

Xcaret is what they call an eco-park. It has no rides, it has no pool and it's lined with dirt paths. BUT. It's got some other very nice things going for it. It was lovely. Pricey($90 USD/person). But lovely. It was kind of a one-stop-shop for tourists. It had some Mayan ruins(the ruins are behind our massive heads)....

It had traditional Mayan inspired shows like these flying guys...

It had a natural, underground river that you can snorkel through(this surprised the hell out of me...the water was crystal clear and at parts you could see down into these deep, cavernous holes under the was sort of like cave diving minus the scary parts)...It had turtles and turtle breeding grounds, dolphins, sharks, monkeys, jaguars, a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, a bat cave(literally a cave that you walked into filled with bats overhead), the list goes on. It had this beautiful coastline with spot after spot after spot of places to hop in and swim or snorkel...I'm not usually one to say that spending $90(we got the "package" deal and spend$130) per person on a day trip is a good idea, but this place is really worth seeing. And you can practically fit a dozen day trips into one day...easily. Now, I know I said that this was a tourist place, but I think there were as many(if not more) Mexicans there than non-Mexicans. And where you find locals you also find local food. There was a plethora of dining options in this place. They all said they featured some Mexican food but one said it featured ALL Mexican food. I believe our guide told us in broken English, "Not wanna-be Mexican...real Mexican". And it was. Look at this picture.....This plate alone has the following on it...clockwise from the top...lamb(probably sheep) tostada, chicharron, pickled jalapenos, fried pork belly, caso blanco empanada, "traditional" stewed pork, "traditional" rice, Vera Cruz style fish(white fish in capers, tomatoes, onions and spices I couldn't identify), pickled pork fat on flour tortilla(this was interesting...kind of like pork ceviche), chicken tamale, smoked pork rib tips(towards the middle)....and a tomato. I'm not sure why I though putting that lone tomato on my plate would help make me feel better about eating a half a pig ;) Oh...and the chicharron! My husband ate a chicharron(cracklings, pork rinds, all the same thing) the size of a car tire on the way out the door. The food here was amazing. Go in with an empty stomach, an open mind and no aversion to the "other" bits of the pig. Lately I've come to believe that if this poor pig died for us we should not let the less popular bits go to waste. Plus.....they taste friggin' amazing.

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