When the polluted air of Bangkok became so gun-metal gray that no sunbeams could shoot though, the government closed schools and offices, and my family and I decided to escape to blue skies. Competing with everyone else in the city, we booked Phuket in a rush.
While mainly searching for something not seedy—devoid of professional women and their older clients—I checked out resorts from:
a high-end European chain—E
a high-end American chain—A
a well-known American chain—M
Here are the questions I should have asked:
1. Where is the beach?
A cursory glance at beach photos to determine the most serene and inspirational setting was not enough. Why? Because even the best hotels will mislead you.
The European venue—Resort E—not only has the best photo, but also has “Beach Hotel” in its name. Yet, to reach the beach you have to leave the resort property, walk through a one-block shopping area, walk through a one-block construction zone, cross a busy road and finally arrive at a crowded public beach with rental chairs. Moral of the story: Notice what the reviews omit. When reviewers rave about the pool but not the beach, ask why. Also, trust ads only where the hotel and beach appear in the same photo.
2. How do you access the beach?
Ads for the American venue—Resort A—featured a lovely pristine beach.
However, the resort runs uphill, and our room was at the very top. Fortunately, golf carts made on-demand trips to the beach. Lucked out.
Unlike a few years ago in Cabo, where, unfortunately, the hillside was too rugged to accommodate vehicles, making beach access difficult. We only went once.
Resort M photos show the perfect white sandy beach against blue-green water. Yet this is what we found:
“What is going on?” I asked the manager.
“The tide is out,” he said.
“When will it be in?”
“Mid-February if we’re lucky. Otherwise, March.”
We only made one hike out to the water’s edge, stopping at sand bars along the way.
The same thing happened to us in Bali, where we rose early, rushed to the beach, and found mud flats. There, however, the tide arrives in the afternoon.
Moral of the story: pay attention to nuances in the reviews. When a reviewer writes, “the water is shallow for a long way,” read between the lines.
3. How many pools are there?
Resort E only had one medium-sized pool, which felt small and crowded because no one went to the far-away public beach.
Resort A had three pools, which dispersed the population—and the kids.
Resort M had a main pool and two lazy-river type extensions.
4. Who wrote the reviews?
Sometimes resorts cater to a certain group of people, particularly with its menu. At resort E, we found the food inedible. And in a short while, we realized that we were the only non-Russians tourists around. All of those five-star reviews with “Excellent hotel” and “great food,” were written by people with a different palate than ours.
Resort A caters to the Chinese tourist and offers every possible type of rice and noodle, which we also love, so their outstanding reviews worked for us.
Vacationers at Resort M came from everywhere, a mixed bag. We loved the American breakfast. I’m sure others loved the lunch and dinner. Resorts can’t please everyone every time.
NB: Since Resort E is part of a very exclusive chain, we showed them the photos that misled us, and they kindly refunded our money within an hour of our arrival.
For any resort, study the reviews carefully. Don’t just skim the catchy titles and the numbers. A 9/10 for one family, might actually be a 5/10 for yours.
Lately I have been curious about international borders, so I am doing my due diligence to learn as much as possible.
Last year, I visited Nogales, Arizona to see the border wall, and my heart sank. I was used to the concrete Berlin Wall. The Nogales wall has steel slats, which remind me of prison.
I understand the need for a barrier. Nogales is a highly populated international border and must facilitate legal immigration. Yet, when I asked the locals about attempts to breach the wall, they laughed and said, “Lots of tunnels.” As a matter of fact, officials have found three new tunnels in the last month.
Outside of town in the desert, the wall is less offensive.
Since high school, my attitude toward walls has been influenced by art, starting with Frost’s “The Mending Wall.” Frost never believed his line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He was being ironic. And he would be astounded to know that people still think that building a wall to avoid problems is a good idea.
Nadine Gordimer’s great writings of South Africa show white families isolating themselves behind walls instead of addressing the problems of apartheid. When their walls don’t work, they add more levels and then razor wire. The wall gets higher, but the problems never go away.
Trust me. I, too, have lived behind walls, ones with jagged broken beer bottles cemented on top, and I still got robbed.
In the eighties I worked in Germany and loved the Check Point Charlie Museum with exhibits on how people breached the Berlin Wall. Today that wall is all but gone. What remains is a place for art:
And a place to advertise exhibits about walls:
“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.” These Pink Floyd lyrics strike out against “errant governments” or “people with power over you.” I used this song as an introduction when I directed Us and Them, a play adaption of Over the Wall. At the time, I worked in the Middle East during Israel’s efforts to extend its walls.
Before Christmas, my husband and I drove along the border between New Mexico and Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande. Luckily we arrived the week before the government shutdown.
Big Bend is spectacular.
And the stars at night truly are big and bright; the prairie sky is amazingly high. Never seen nights like these.
On the other hand, the Rio is not that grand and was partially dry as we hiked by.
Mexicans in the little village across the gap whittle walking sticks to sell to tourists. They lay out their wares in Big Bend Park in the morning and trust the Americans to leave money that they can collect in the evening.
To prohibit that little enterprise, the USG wants to wall off the park. They will either build along the river or around the outside of the park. Both options have park officials concerned. The first idea would block the natural migration route for black bears. The second option would discourage visitors. Big Bend is already one of the least visited National Parks. How will business be if hikers have to pass through a wall to get in and out?
Here is another area along the Rio Grande. It is so steep I don’t know how they’ll get a wall in there.
Building a continuous wall along our southern border seems like an impossible task. Where will it stand? How much will it really cost?
Now living in Scottsdale, it’s time for us to learn about the Southwest, so we hopped in the car and drove to West Texas to watch the Lone Star State celebrate Christmas.
After passing through the pass at El Paso, our first stop was Fredericksburg, a small city founded by German immigrants, where we found authentic German food and ambience, along with some great shopping.
On the way to Austin, we stopped by the Texas White House in Stonewall and by Johnson City, where LBJ grew up.
Everyone has heard about the Austin music scene. We stayed at a Hilton property near Sixth Street and strolled down the street at night listening to all the live music.
We dropped into Esther’s Follies, named in honor of Esther Williams—don’t know why. The Political Christmas show was quite entertaining with actors, singers, and a magician, all funny and talented.
The unique–Austin-original—thing about the show is that the stage opens to the street, and sometimes passers-by get roped into one of the acts. Boy, those pedestrians sure know how to flip the state bird.
The buildings, the Alamo, and the River Walk Boats celebrate in Christmas colors.
Big Bend National Park
Outside Big Bend, we went tipi glamping (glamour camping) in Terlingua, a small town known for its Ghost town (more hype than it’s worth). We found the town deeper into Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) than into Christmas.
Circling Back North
Driving north along the Rio Grande we entered Langtry and passed what I thought was a tourist trap. “Judge Roy Bean,” I said. “He wasn’t real.” But then I saw the sign “Free Entrance.” So we stopped. Yes, Judge Roy Bean was real and so was his admiration for Lilly Langtry. But the most real thing was the Texas hospitality by the site attendants who invited us to their Christmas party.
I was surprised to learn that in 1854 Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War. He helped establish Fort Davis to protect Texans from the Apache.
Silver City, New Mexico
While visiting the Gila Cliffs National Park, stay in Silver City, especially on an Art Walk night.
This was our first trip to Texas. What a pleasant surprise to find so much creativity and diversity in landscapes and people.