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Trip Reports / Cancun TR: 2 Days at the New Andaz Mayakoba
« on: February 10, 2017, 05:47:59 PM »
Andaz Hotel, Playa Del Carmen
February 5 Ė 8, 2017
American Airlines: 24k Amex Points for 2 people in coach
Car Rental: Budget Rent-A-Car, $5 per day (+ tax, fees, and mandatory insurance).

Travel and Accommodations
Flight: On February 5th, we flew from Miami International Airport To Cancun International Airport. We purchased the tickets with Amex Platinum points, and got 50% of the points credited back with Amex Platinumís Pay-With-Points policy. In total, we paid 24,000 points for two adults in coach and the flight took 1.5 hours.

Cancun Airport: Before landing, the stewardesses gave us two pieces of paper to fill out: An immigration form and a customs form. When we landed, an airline attendant checked our immigration forms on the bridge way between the plane and terminal. He handed the forms back to us and we headed to Passport Control. We arrived at around 9:00pm and the lines moved quickly. The whole process took less than 10 minutes. I imagine the process takes longer during busier seasons or times. After Passport Control, we headed to Baggage Claim and Customs. Mexican Customs randomly selects travellers for further screening. They ask each party to push a button that either triggers a red light or green light. A green light means you can continue without further screening and red light means the opposite. Thankfully, we were not selected.

Right after exiting customs youíll see booths with agents from every traditional car rental company. Again, there were no lines and the process moved quickly. The agent asked us for our reservation information and then walked us to a passenger pickup van that took us to the actual car rental location. The shuttle was waiting for us when we got outside and we had the van to ourselves. The car rental headquarters was only a short 3-minutes away.

We used Priceline for our car booking. We ended up reserving a Full-Size car (VW Jetta) from Budget at $5 per day. The total price came out to $97 for three days when factoring in taxes, fees, and insurance. Third Party Liability Insurance is mandatory in Mexico, but we use our Chase Sapphire insurance for Collision Insurance (CDW). I do not have any status with Budget, so we did not get any upgrade. In any event, there didnít appear to be any nicer cars on the lot. From the car rental location, we drove straight to our hotel. We used Waze to get from the airport to our hotel, and throughout our trip. The driving with Waze could not have been easier. I would even caution against following the highway signs without using Waze. We found the highway signs to be somewhat confusing and misleading.

Hotel: We stayed at the Andaz Hotel in Playa del Carmen. The hotel is located about 30 minutes away from the airport in the Mayakoba section of Playa del Carmen. Itís about 45 minutes south of Cancunís Hotel Zone. Mayakoba is a sub-zone of Playa del Carmen that consists of four hotels: Andaz, Faimont, Banyan Tree and Rosewood. All of the hotels in Mayakoba are situated near the ocean and around a man-made lagoon that extends for about 12 miles (see attached map). The concept of all four hotels is very different that most. Rather than having one central building with guest room, the hotels in Mayakoba are made up of a series of smaller buildings spread throughout their properties with approximately 2-6 rooms each. Some of the hotels also have some stand-alone suites with direct access to the lagoon. Ours did not. Walking paths and golf-cart roads enable you to easily move around and between the properties.

Using C+P and a DSU, we paid 10k points + $125 (+tax) for each night. For the level of service and we received luxuriousness of the hotel, we found the price to be a great value. The hotel opened in December 2016, and is brand new. I expect the price to increase as the hotel becomes more widely recognized. You can see the room for yourself in the video (edit: can't post, but happy to email if you want) and pictures below. Also note, the suites only come with king-size beds. They hotel does not have any double bed suites, but can turn the couch into a comfortable second bed if youíd like.

The hotel grounds are divided into two areas: Lagoon and Beach. The Lagoon area is larger, and closer to the main entrance, whereas the Beach area is smaller and farther away. I donít think there is a difference between the rooms in either part of the hotel, save the view. In the Lagoon side, rooms overlook the hotelís lagoon. On the Beach side Ė you guessed it Ė rooms overlook the beach. But some rooms on the beach side also overlook the lagoon. The hotel also has two pools and four restaurants that are divided evenly between the Lagoon and Beach sides of the hotel. Cocina Milagria, which is where breakfast was served, is located next to the Lagoon areaís pool.

(Hotel Driveway)


(Lobby Area)


(Entrance to Suite)


(Living Room)


(Bedroom)


(Bedroom Seating Area)


(Main Porch)


(Jacuzzi)


(Lagoon View)




(Free Minibar With Kosher Options)














(Cool Looking Bathroom Amenity)


(Partial View of Lagoon Side Pool)


(Mayakoba Map. Andaz at top-left)


Kosher Breakfast: We booked our room with a Hyatt Diamond account, and as a result were entitled to free breakfast. I did not expect the hotel to have any kosher options, and so I called up before my trip to explore my options. I expected the hotel would offer to order food from a local Chabad/Restaurant as many Hyatt hotels do nationwide. They did not. They offered me the regular breakfast, to store my own food in the hotel fridge, or to meet with the chef when I arrived. I wanted to speak with the chef before arriving, but the hotel refused to put me in touch directly.  We obviously didnít want to bring our own food as that would have been both complicated and annoying. In the end, the Hotel agreed to order food for us from the Chabad in Playa del Carmen. The menu they provided, however, did not really have any breakfast options It was all meat, chicken and fish. So on our first morning, we woke up early and went to meet with the chef.

I cannot say enough good things about the chef. His name is George (pronounced: hore-hey), and his service was beyond compare. More importantly, his understanding of kashrut surprised me. It turns out he already had a separate set of kosher pans and utensils set aside and wrapped in saran wrap from a prior kosher-keeping guest. He also offered to bring me into the kitchen to turn on the fire. Not knowing who that prior guest was or how the utensils since his/her stay, however, I explained that I could not use them. The chef generously offered to bring a brand new set of pans and utensils for us, which I found to be exceedingly generous of him. 

After bringing the new dishes, we went down to the lagoon together with the chef to toivel them. (note: I later found out from my LOR that I didnít need to toivel the keilim because they didnít belong to us. But obviously you should rely on your own LOR in all of these matters.). The chef seemed genuinely interested in learning about the laws of kashrut, and continuously asked probing questions to make sure he properly met our needs. Poor guy is in for a surprise though when ever kosher-keeping guests starts explaining their own leniencies or stringencies with regards to kashrut. Itís probably a disaster waiting to happen. Nevertheless, I was blown away and very appreciative. 

The chef personally made omelets for both my wife and me each morning. He had all of the usually available vegetables as well as kosher cheese (Oneg brand with a chof k!).  In addition, the hotel had a waffle maker and OU-D batter mix. Unfortunately, the hotel did not have any kosher syrup or other toppings for the waffles, so they were not all that great. We also really enjoyed the fresh squeezed orange juice, kosher cereal options, and the freshly cut up fruit. All in all, the breakfast was a really nice addition to our trip.

(Restaurant Omelette Station)


(Cool Way To Serve Fresh Honey)


(Kosher Waffles)


For my wifeís birthday, my parents wanted to surprise her with a complimentary massage. The hotel was kind enough to leave a card in the room for her when we arrived notifying her of her free massage. The language barrier made it a bit difficult to explain over the phone what I wanted them to write, so I was happy with the card they left. I explained to my wife that the massage was from my parents and not me.

(Spa Birthday Card)


ACTIVITIES
Day 1: Breakfast at Hotel, Chichen Itza, Cenote, Luxus, Drinks at Hotel
Day 2: Massage, Breakfast at Hotel, Boat Tour, Biking, Snorkeling, Menfis, Cirque du Soleil
Day 3: Breakfast and head to airport

DAY 1
Chichen Itza: On our first full day, we went to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. The Mayans were the ancestral inhabitants of Mexico, and Chichen Itza was the site of one of their capital cities. The site includes the famous Pyramid where Mayans practiced human sacrifices to their gods, their ďbasketball courtĒ where Mayans played to the death, and other interesting archeological ruins (likely with additional mortal significance).

(Chichen Itza Pyramid)




(Ball Court)


From our hotel to Chichen Itza is approximately a two-hour drive. The drive is mostly 100 miles along one long highway with little-to-no civilization along the way. The drive itself was exceedingly boring, but the opportunity to bribe a police officer along the way was great. Okay, Iíll assume you want details. The speed limit along most of the drive was 110kph (68mph), which I found to be too slow. After 45 minutes on the desolate two-lane highway, I figured I was in the clear to start speeding. I mean which idiot would drive an hour out into the middle of nowhere just to pull over some speeding tourists, right? So I started driving at about 145kph (90mph). Turns out I was wrong, and the idiot all along was me. And because I was going so far above the speed limit, I really didnít think there was any way I would get out of a ticket.

When the officer came to our window, he asked for my license and rental documents but didnít really speak English. He seemed friendly enough overall though. I tried to explain that I just arrived and thought I was following. Not a great defense, admittedly, but it was the best I could come up with under the circumstances. The officer kindly said that he was sorry but would have to give me a ticket as he didnít want to hurt the economy. Thinking that was my cue, I did what Dan did and asked if I could pay the ticket now. The officer said no. Rather than continue pleading in my broken Spanish, I took out my phone and started conversing with the officer using Google Translate. He asked were we were going and what brought us to Mexico. The conversation was very friendly, and I kept on looking for opportunities to get out of the ticket. Finally, I asked if he would let me off with a warning. He begrudgingly agree, but said I would have to show gratitude. I went back to my car, slipped a $20 into my passport and handed it to. I then wrote into Google Translate that I would use cruise control for the rest of my drive. He slipped the $20 into his pocket, and wished me an enjoyable trip. I kind of wonder how little I could have given and still gotten out of the ticket, but wasnít willing to try and find out. We still had a long drive ahead of us, and $20 was not a bad price to pay to avoid a ticket.

About an hour before arriving at Chichen Itza, we reached a checkpoint and were told to pull over. An official-looking person whom I believed worked at the Chichen Itza historical site came over to our car. He told us that we had to buy tickets there or wait in a 2 hour line once we arrived at the park. I was skeptical of his claim, but didnít want to drive an hour to find out he was right and not be able to return. Also, his price was pretty reasonable, and we did not do enough research beforehand to know whether he was telling the truth. In the end, the tickets we bought from him included the park entrance fee and parking for a total of $40 (800 Pesos) for two people. We later found out that had we bought tickets and paid for parking directly at the park we would have saved about $5 per person. Another downside of buying tickets at that checkpoint was that you have to enter the park through a different entrance that adds 30 minutes onto your already-long drive. In addition, the only tour guide options at that entrance are more expensive than the tour guide options at the regular entrance. We ended up paying about $47 (955 Pesos) for a tour guide as apposed to the $25 (508 Pesos) we could have paid at the main entrance.

(Map of Chichen Itza. Note the extra drive along yellow road)


The tour guide we got, however, was excellent and I would not recommend seeing the ruins without one. She spoke a close-to-perfect English, and was very knowledgeable about Mayan culture and history. She also had a degree in tour guiding (thatís not what its called, but you get the point), which the cheaper tour guides might not have. The tour itself took 2.5 hours hours. We spend the whole time walking around the grounds and were in the sun for large parts of it. Because of how hot it was, I advise you to plan accordingly. Dress appropriately, bring water, and wear comfortable shoes. The roads are also all dirt, so you will get dusty.

For the more lavish amongst you, you can actually take a helicopter ride to Chichen Itza from either Cancun or Playa. The ride can be as low as $750 for two people, which also includes park entrance fees and a tour guide. The benefits Ė aside from being a cool experience Ė include a really short commute, less crowds, and much better weather. Instead of driving for 2.5 hours, a helicopter takes about 40 minutes. Instead of walking in the heat of the day, your tour will take place at about 9am, when itís much cooler outside. And instead of sharing the grounds with hundreds of other tourists, youíll be sharing the grounds with far less.

Cenotes: At the end of our Chichen Itza tour, at about 3pm, we left the park to start heading to Cancun. On the way we stopped at two of the famous Mayan cenotes (pronounced: se-notay), Samula and Xkeken. Cenotes are essentially natural caves that served as fresh water-sources for the Mayans, who didnít otherwise have fresh water to drink. The cenotes are fed by underground rivers and rainwater and have amazingly clear blue water. They are beautiful to see. The particular cenotes we visited were both located right next to each other, about 35 minutes away from Chichen Itza and on the way back to Cancun. We paid about $5 per person to enter one of the cenotes, but you can pay $10 per person to enter both. Once you pay the entrance fee, you walk about 3 minutes to the cenote, and start climbing down a stairway to enter the cave. You do not have to climb or crawl at any point and youíll stay completely dry. Youíre allowed to swim in the cenote if you want to Ė many people do Ė but as refreshing as it looked we opted not to.







Luxus/Red Heifer Restaurant: From the Cenotes, we continued to Cancun to eat dinner at Luxus. Luxus is all the way at the Northern end of Cancunís Hotel Zone, and the drive from the cenotes took us about 2 hours. We called to make a reservation, but there were plenty of seats of when we arrived. During the busier seasons, however, you might need a reservation.

Before going to Luxus, a number of friends recommended the restaurant with high praise. We did not, however, find the restaurant to be all that great. The food was sub-par and a number of dishes that came out of the kitchen were cold when they arrived. The service was also sub-par in my opinion. The waiters were not knowledgeable about the food, and seemed to always suggest the most expensive food items when asked for a recommendation. In fact, when I rejected their first suggestion they went right on to recommend the second-to-most expensive item on the menu.

We started off ordering two soups. I had the artichoke cream soup, and my wife had the mushroom soup. The mushroom soup very watery and had little flavor. The artichoke soup on the other hand tasted quite good, but to the table at room temperature. We also ordered an empandas appetizer, which includes three empandas: one chicken, one beef, and one mushroom. These too came out to the table at room temperature and did not taste all that great. If I had to guess, they seemed like the frozen  variety you buy at the kosher store. We did not end up eating them. For our main course, I ordered the Chateaubriand and my wife ordered the chimichurri chicken. We also got a bottle of Shiloh Shor (2007) wine to enjoy with our meal. Both of our dishes were okay, but felt like things we could have easily made at home. We also found it weird that the meat came out on an otherwise empty plate and without anything side dishes. My wifeís vegetables also tasted like they were store-bought and defrosted. Overall, I would not recommend Luxus if not for the fact that itís the only real-food restaurant option in the area. To itís credit, however, the prices were very reasonable. The total bill for our food was $165 (3,353 Pesos).

(Artichoke Soup)


(Empanadas)


(Poorly Plated Meat)


(Unimpressive Chimichurri Chicken)


Hotel Drinks: From Luxus, we went back to our hotel to enjoy some drinks at the bar. The bartender was extremely gracious and happy to help us find some kosher options to drink. He ended up making Whiskey Sours with a few slight modifications for kashrut reasons. When we told him we were at the hotel to celebrate our honeymoon, he actually gave us the drinks for free. ☺ Even though it was nighttime, we also spent some time sitting by the beach and enjoying the calming waves, total quiet, and cool breeze.


DAY 2
Massage: My wife started the day with a 60-minutes massage at the hotel spa. The total cost (after a discount Iím not sure why we received) was $195. After the massage, the spa brings you out onto a private balcony overlooking the lagoon to relax. They also bring out some refreshing flavored water accompanied by some freshly cut up fruit. Before and after your treatment, the spa has additionally facilities you can use, like a sauna for example. If you want to use those facilities without getting any treatments you can pay about $5 per person per day to enter. After her massage, we met at the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

Boat Tour: After breakfast, we enjoyed the hotelís boat tour through the lagoon. The Boat is open to all hotel guests and seats about 8 Ė 10 people comfortably. It takes about an hour, and you get to see all kinds of wildlife. We saw various birds, turtles, fish and alligators. There is also a boa constrictor nearby, but itís rarely seen. For those that are interested, the hotel has kayaking options throughout the lagoon as well. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we really enjoyed the tour. It was both relaxing and interesting.

(Bridge Over Lagoon)


Biking: Next, we used the hotel bikes (they have about 20 cruisers) to ride through the Mayakoba nature trail. The trail is paved, and runs through the four hotels and surrounding grounds of Mayakoba. You donít see a lot of wildlife, but itís a pleasant ride, and a nice way to spend an hour. There is also a cenote along the route, but itís small and not nearly as impressive as the more touristy ones. We rode by the Fairmont golf course as well, and passed by an area set up for archery practice. We missed the cutoff for a lesson (7am-12pm), but would certainly have tried it out had we been able. I think a lesson costs $25 per person. 

(Archery)


Snorkeling: At about 1:45 pm, after returning our bikes, we drove to Cancun to go snorkeling. We booked a reservation at Cancun Jungle Tour Adventure and paid $55 per person. Aside from the snorkeling, whatís fun about the activity is that each couple gets their own boat for the day. We went with out to the reef with 4 other guest boats and one tour guide. You follow each other in a single-file line for about 40 minutes until you arrive in the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, you park your boats and are free to swim anywhere you want and check out the coral reefs and wildlife. Coming from Miami, the coral reef was not nearly as impressive as whatís available in the keys. The reef was small, and there was not a tremendous variety of fish to see. We did get to see an octopus, however, which was extremely cool. After 45 minutes in the water, you drive back the same way you came. We had a great time, and recommend the activity.

(Personal Boats)


Menfis: After snorkeling, we went back to the hotel to quickly shower and change before heading to dinner. We decided instead to try out Menfis. Their menu is simple, and consists of various meat-sandwich paninis. I actually really like that kind of food and was pretty excited to try it out. Overall the food was good, not great. The service was not particularly fast, which was a bit surprising considering the type of food, but the price was excellent. For two schnitzel sandwiches and water we paid a total of  $15.
 
There are a few things to note, however. First, the store recently moved and the information on TripAdvisor is out of date. Their new address is on 1st Avenue between 12th and 14th street (sorry, I donít have a street number). They are tucked between a Stop Shop convenience store and a larger apartment building. It took us a few trips around the block to see them. Also, the restaurant only opens at 6:30pm but remains opened until 5:00am.
They were hard to find. Most importantly, the restaurant didnít have anything on their menu in stock. When we walked in, the woman behind the counter told us there were two options: Schnitzel on pita or schnitzel on bread. They had fresh tomatoes, pickles, and raw onions available as well as all of the other dips and sauces.

Because it took us so long to find the restaurant, we were running late to our show at Cirque du Soleil. So we took the food to go and ate in our car on the way.

(Restaurant)


(Available Topping Options)


(Official Menu)


(Attached Convenient Store)






Cirque du Soleil: We booked two show-only seats for the 9:15 showing of Cirque du Soliel. Compared to the prices in the U.S., the prices were a bargain at $80 per person. We were told to arrive 45 minutes before the show, but figured we didnít have to follow the advice. We arrived at 8:55, and parked our car and picked up our tickets before 9:05. When headed over to the show which was located in a separate building and showed the attendant our tickets. He told us that the pre-show dinner was starting at 9:15, but that the show would not start until 10:15. We were kind of disappointed that that wasnít made clear to us either online or in the confirmation email, but we didnít exactly have many options at that point other than to sit and wait. So we did. When the show started, we ordered some drinks and watched the show. We found the show itself to be interesting, but not riveting. We ended up leaving a few minutes early to get some sleep before our flight the next morning.

(Arena)




(Interior -- Every Seat Has a Great View)


(Panoramic Interior)


I hope you find this TR helpful as you plan your trip to Cancun. If you have any questions about our stay or Cancun generally, please feel free to PM.

2
Check out their launch at TechCrunch disrupt: http://techcrunch.com/2016/05/10/birch-finance-gets-your-credit-card-rewards-in-order/
Website: https://birchfinance.com/

Don't know much about the software, but it certainly LOOKS interesting.

3
Tech Talk / Kash
« on: September 02, 2015, 07:03:13 PM »
Anyone know anything about this company: http://www.withkash.com

They launched today, and seem to offer commission-free CC processing. MS anyone?

4
Deals/Deal Requests / HOT! Menís Salvatore Giordano Loafer for $325
« on: August 26, 2015, 12:42:01 PM »
Great daily deal price on Ferrragamo shoe: http://www.amuze.com/products/giordano-leather-loafers-brown#.Vd3rlWCFtUQ

This shoe usually sells for $595!

5
Deals/Deal Requests / [UA] Miami - Beijing, China. $684 r/t
« on: August 18, 2015, 02:04:48 PM »
Valid for travel on the outbound from October 1st Ė November 30th or January 29th, 2016 Ė March 7th, 2016 . Must purchase at least 3 days in advance of departure

http://www.theflightdeal.com/2015/08/18/united-684-miami-beijing-china-roundtrip-including-all-taxes/

6
@TheFlightDeal: AA - Sydney to Los Angeles for $561 USD return, inclusive of all taxes. Jan, 2016 - June, 2016. http://t.co/TtZJdE6wIf

8
Tech Talk / Amazon Dash Button For Prime Members
« on: March 31, 2015, 12:00:36 PM »
Have you guys seen Amazonís latest invention?
The Amazon Dash Button:


Great idea! What brand buttons will you sign up for?

9
My wife and I travelled to Africa on the Christmas Day, Etihad glitch fare. This trip report covers our travels to the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. We traveled for about a week, starting on Monday, March 9th and ending on Monday, March 16th. We met some DansDealers along the way who did some activities that we didnít do (Kruger, for example). I hope to be able to update this post at a later time with some of their notes. If you have any questions that were not answered in this long post, please feel free to PM me.

ABU DHABI/DUBAI
We left New York on Monday, March 9th on our flight to Abu Duabi. Abu Dhabi is one of the "provinces" in the United Arab Emirates. I think there are about seven provinces in total, with Dubai being another one. From Dubai, Abu Dhabi is only about a one-hour drive. We arrived in Abu Dhabi at approximately10:00am. It took us a while to clear customs, confirm our upgrade, check our luggage into airport storage, and daven. We didn't end up leaving the airport until about 1pm. Davening in Abu Dhabi Airport was really weird. I was lucky enough to find a secluded place to quickly put on tefilin, but of course two airport employees walked by in middle of my shmoneh esrei. I got a really strange look and had absolutely no kavana, but was otherwise fine.

Transportation. There are a few modes of transportation available in Abu Dhabi. They include: (1) car rental, (2) train (like a subway system), (3) Etihad Shuttle Bus, and (4) Etihad Chauffer service. The last two options are only available for those travelling on Etihad. We didnít use them, so I will not include any information about them in this post. You can check the rest of the forums to find all the information you need. I was told the train system is really good as well, but we didnít use that either so I cant really comment on it.

Mosque. We opted to rent a car for the day instead. Upon leaving the airport, the first thing we did was drive to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The mosque was extremely grand, and was much like the one in Morrocco. It was very interesting, but we only spent about half an hour there. Apparently my wife was not tznius enough though because the mosque management made her put on an abaya. It's basically a burqa, but with a headscarf instead of a ski mask. It was extremely uncomfortable for us, but it was kind of hilarious at the same time. It seems they make most women wear them. I donít recall any charge to enter the mosque, but I think it would pay to take a tour if you can. Otherwise you might not know what you are looking at. We did not take a tour.

Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa/Burj al Arab. From the mosque, we drove to Dubai. We first drove to the Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa. The Burj al Arab is the famous Dubai hotel shaped like the sail of a ship. Itís the only seven star hotel in the world. We were not allowed in though because we did not have a reservation. It is possible to make a reservation without staying at the hotel, but we did not look into it. Our next stop was the Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world. I don't know what it houses exactly, but it seems like the main tenant is the Armani Hotel (of Giorgio Armani fame). My wife and I really wanted to go to the hotel's Atmosphere Bar, which is on one of the hotel's top floors. It's basically just a regular bar with a really high up view. Unfortunately, they would not let us in there either because I was wearing sneakers. The bar maintains a very strict business casual dress code, and my sneakers didn't conform. If you really want to go but are not properly dressed, you could technically go next door to the mall and purchase conforming clothing. We opted not to mainly because we were not terribly interested in the view. From what I found in my research, the view is mainly of desert land.

What's interesting about Dubai is that every man basically wears the full traditional Emirati garb. It includes a white robe, a red or white head "towel," and sandals of course. Many of the women wear burkas. Seeing them shopping at Channel and Gucci and driving Bentleys is quite a sight. 

In Dubai, we spent the bulk of our time at the Dubai Mall. I believe it's the biggest in the world, but I'm not quite sure. At the Mall, we first went to see the fountain show and aquarium. The fountain show takes place in a huge man-made lake between the Burj Khalifa and the Mall (they are right next to each other). The show takes place in fifteen-minute intervals starting every night at 6pm. It was quite cool, and we had a cool view from T.G.I. Fridaysí balcony. We had to purchase drinks in order to get access to the balcony, but the drinks were not expensive.

We then went to the mallís aquarium, which is a real sight to behold. It's about three stories tall, 150 feet wide, and about 50 feet deep. Inside, it has all kinds of fish, sharks, and stingrays. Scuba diving lessons are available inside of the tank as well, but it seems like itís a full-day activity.
 
After the Dubai Mall, we finished off our day at Dubaiís smaller mall. The one with its own indoor ski slope. We didn't actually go skiing, but the mall does offer equipment and clothing rentals for a reasonable fee. I guess that makes sense considering the average person in the desert probably doesnít have his or her own ski clothing. I think the total cost was somewhere in the range of $50. From there, we drove back to the airport to check in.

We were really glad we only spent a few hours in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. To be honest, had we spent any more time we would have been bored. There was not a whole lot to see or do there overall. Note: we did not go to the souk, which is supposed to be a big attraction. I think anything more than two days would be too overkill.

AUH AIRPORT/BUSINESS CLASS
Back at the airport for our flight to Joburg, we were luck enough to have access to Etihad's Business/First Lounge. We used about 36,000 Citi Thank You points per person to upgrade our seats to Etihadís lie-flat business class. Even though the point redemption was not cheap, we felt it necessary for this leg. We had been travelling for two days without a hotel room, and we planned to have a full day of activities once we landed in Africa. We did not upgrade the rest of our trip though, as it would have cost about 400k points total.

The Etihad lounge was one of the nicest weíve even been in. Aside from its beautiful dťcor and immense size, the food looked first class and smelled even better. None of the cooked food was kosher, but there were fresh fruits and vegetables as well as plenty of drinks and alcohol. After two days of traveling, though, the showers were a real highlight for us. But the best part by far was the complimentary 15-minute back massages. After hours on a plane, it was a pleasant surprise and really helped us relax. We also met some fellow Dans Dealers in the lounge. Considering we were strangers in a strange land, it was nice to see some fellow Jews. They actually weren't traveling business class, but they booked refundable full-fare business class tickets to get access to the lounge. Nice shtick.

VICTORIA FALLS (ZIMBABWE)
Our flight landed in Joburg at about 8:00am on Wednesday, March 11. As soon as we cleared customs we went outside to meet a kosher caterer, Jack Meyerovitz, who was dropping off frozen food for our time in Zimbabwe. (Africa@koshersafaris.co.za, 27-839653001). The South African Rand is really cheap right now, with an exchange rate of about 12:1. As a result, our food was really quite cheap. For four dinners, one lunch, two packages of jerky, a cooler, and airport delivery our food cost a total of only $100. The food was very generously portioned, and tasted quite good considering it was frozen. It was not gourmet, but we were very satisfied with it. I would recommend Jack to anyone on these forums. The other kosher food we considered was Totally Kosher. They charged significantly more for the same amount of food though (about $250), so we opted not to use them. As soon as we picked up our food, we went straight to our gate to catch our flight to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe). We checked in our food and thanks to American Express Platinum, we were able to make use of the Priority Pass lounge to sit down, eat and drink a little, and daven. Our food was still frozen when we landed.

Note: There are two cities near the Falls that tourists can stay at. Each city also has itís own airport. The first city is on the Zimbabwe side, and the second city is on the Zambian side. The town on the Zambian side is called Livingstone. The airport shares the same name. The second city is in Zimbabwe, and the airport is named Victoria Falls Airport. We opted for the city on the Zimbabwe side of the Falls though for two reasons. First, the Zimbabwe side is yellow fever free. That is really important, as entering South Africa from Zambia requires proof of yellow fever vaccinations. Second, the views of the Falls from the Zimbabwe side are far better than the Zambis side. In fact, I donít recommend making a trip to the Falls if you are going to see it from the Zambia side. I canít speak with regard to the dry season (though I suspect it would be just as bad), but during the wet season you will not be able to see anything from the Zambia side. The mist from the Falls are just too great to allow for clear views.

We landed in Zimbabwe at about 1:00pm, and that's when being in Africa really hit us in the face. The entire airport was one small building, with international arrivals/departures at one end of the room and domestic arrivals/departures at the other. The line for customs started from outside the building, and snaked its way inside. Once inside, you are in a 30x40 non-air conditioned room with wood walls and two desks with two customs agents seated behind them. Customs took over an hour because the two employees at each desk had to hand write about 75 visas for all of us. It was a very third-world experience. Once we cleared customs though, our hotel had a driver waiting for us. We drove to the hotel, which was about 15 minutes away. Transfers to and from the airport were included in our hotel price.

The Elephant Camp Hotel. The hotel we stayed at was simply amazing. It was called the Elephant Camp, and was more unique than any other hotel we've ever been in. I highly recommend it. When we first pulled into the hotelís main entrance, the entire hotel staff was waiting to greet us. They waived at us while we were in the car, and shook our hands and introduced themselves when we got out. It was a really nice touch and made us feel welcomed. In itís entirety, the hotel consisted of twelve residence tents, one "lobby" tent, and one management/gift shop tent. But don't let the term ďtentĒ fool you. This was a five star experience through and through. Each tent was very spacious, and contained hard floors and glass windows and doors. Apparently, each tent costs $25k to build without furnishings. Inside, the decor is very nice with a four-poster bed; a living room area with a couch and two chairs; a free mini bar (including alcohol); and a bathroom with a tub and an indoor and outdoor shower. Each tent also has its own porch and pool overlooking the Bush. In Africa, the bush is basically how they refer to wildness where all the wild animals roam. Though you can sometimes see animals from that porch, we did not.

The hotel price included all meals prepared by the in-house chef. The food was generously served and looked amazing, but we could obviously not partake for kashrut reasons. The hotel was extremely accommodating to our kosher needs though, and the chef always stopped by to make sure our frozen meals were properly prepared. The hotel was also willing to give us a lower rate for our booking because we were not partaking in any of their meal options. We ate our meals mostly on the lobbyís outdoor deck under the stars and candlelight. It was really quite relaxing and romantic. It was also nice that drinks were always free. Even though we barely partook we did not feel nickel and dimed at any point (which cannot be said for most St. Regis or Ritz Carlton hotels). I put a huge premium on that feeling.

Zambezi River Cruise. After our arrival, the hotel took us on a cruise down the Zambezi River. The Zambezi River is the river that feeds Victoria Falls. It also serves as the boundary between four countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Nairobi. The cruise was really nice. A big part of the cruise was the chef-cooked food and fully stocked bar, which we could not partake in. Nevertheless we enjoyed the main part of the cruise, which was seeing the animals coming to drink at the riverbed near sunset. We got to see a giraffe some hippos, and an impala. But the highlight was seeing a family of 15 elephants playing together in the water. We also got to watch the sun set on the horizon from our view on the boat. The cost of the cruise was included in our hotel booking, but we had to pay an approximately $10 park fee upon checking out of the hotel. 

Chobe Safari. At night there's nothing to really do in Zimbabwe. So when we got back to the hotel we just settled in and got some much-needed rest.  The next morning we woke up at about 6:00am for our day-trip to Botswana. In Botswana there is a national park called Chobe, where we booked a half-day safari game drive. When we arrived at the reservation, our driver pulled up in a modified jeep and we were lucky enough to have a private game drive. The cost of the safari was about $150/person.

A safari is truly a once in a lifetime experience. You appreciate God's creations in an entirely new way, and you begin to understand the complexity of natural ecosystems. Though I donít understand how people go on multiple-day safaris, it would be a mistake to go all the way to South Africa without doing at least one game drive. I could have probably tolerated up to two days, but time unfortunately did not permit it on this trip. Another amazing part of the experience is to watch the driver's spot animals in the bush. The animals blend in so well that it's often extremely difficult to spot them on your own. The drivers have extremely well trained eyesight though, and have the capacity to spot animals behind trees and rocks from over 1000 feet away though. It's truly mind-boggling. Hiring a guide was worth every penny. I donít know whether you can self-drive at Chobe, but I donít recommend doing so in any event. Our drive ended at about 1:00pm, at which time the driver dropped us off at the border where our hotel sent a driver to meet us.

Victoria Falls. From the border, our hotel driver took us straight to Victoria Falls. We viewed the Falls from the Zimbabwe side. The power, beauty, and sheer size of the Falls is not to be missed in my opinion. To give you an idea of what I mean, it's about 4 times the size of Niagara. Because of the way the Falls are formed, however, the views are much better than Niagara. Basically, there is a large, 100-foot wide canyon that stretches for probably just less than one mile. The Falls flow over one side of the canyon and can be viewed from across the way. Though many tour guides might suggest spending more time there, we spent about an hour and a half at the Falls. Make sure to take the raincoat they offer you though if you plan to visit the Falls during the wet season. You will most definitely get wet/soaked.

Elephants and Cheetah Encounter. After the Falls, our hotel driver took us to meet the hotel's elephants and cheetah. The experience was unforgettable. The hotel has their own elephants that they offer safari rides on. They charge about $150/person though, which was clearly a tourist trap. Being the cheap man that I am we opted to skip that. But we got to feed and interact with the elephants instead as part of our hotel package. It was very cool and we enjoyed every minute. Next, we got to meet the hotel's domesticated cheetah. It was terrifying and surreal, but we loved the entire experience. The Cheetah even licked me -- which was gross -- but I just let it do its thing for fear of getting eaten. Apparently cheetahs have no shame when a man's wife is around. Later that night, after another candlelight/starlight dinner, my wife and I went to the local casino. They did not have a poker room, but they did have blackjack, roulette, and slot machines. I donít think there was much else there. The entire place was empty when we arrived, but it filled up later in the night. We had a very nice time, considering we only lost $15.

JOHANNESBURG
On Friday, things started to take a turn for the worse. We were scheduled to leave Vic Falls in the morning and arrive in Cape Town (via Johannesburg) for Shabbos. We had a stopover that was cutting it a bit close, but we had no other flight option because flights in Africa are infrequent (unlike in America). Unfortunately, our flight out of Vic Falls was delayed by over an hour and a half. As a result, we missed our connection to Cape Town. Before we left Zimbabwe, an airline rep confirmed on us a later flight to Cape Town that would have still allowed us to arrive in time for Shabbos. When we landed in Joburg, though, we were told that the flight was purposely overbooked and that we could not get a seat on that later flight (backwards country!). I asked the airline if theyíd be willing to offer two customers $200 from me to go on a later flight. They were not willing to work with me. To make things work, they still charged me for the flight that they overbooked. I am fighting the charge on my credit for now. The entire experience was very frustrating. As a word of caution to future travelers, do not expect things in Africa to run as ďsmoothlyĒ as they do in America. Leave room for contingencies in all of your planning. That advice is especially important with regard to flights.

Anyway, long story short, we got stuck in Johannesburg for Shabbos. Thank God, my wifeís roommate from Seminary was from Johannesburg. When my wife told her we might be stuck, she got us in touch with her parents who graciously offered to host us. In truth, we had an amazing Shabbos and enjoyed every minute of our stay in Joburg. I donít know if I would recommend Joburg for a weekday stay, but Shabbos was lovely.  There are also tons of kosher food options. I hear Nandos is awesome, but we did not have time to try it out. The community was extremely hospitable and very orthodox. Keep that in mind if you plan on only bringing a polo shirt, sneakers, and slacks for Shabbos (oopsÖ.).

CAPE TOWN
Thankfully, we were able to take a 6:00am flight from Joburg to Cape Town on Sunday morning. The early flight allowed us to spend Sunday and Monday in Cape Town before heading back to the States on Monday night. Flights between Joburg and Cape Town were really cheap on South Africaís discount airline, Mango. Our flight cost a total of about $150 for two tickets. Kulula is another discount airline option.

We landed in Cape Town at about 9:00am on Sunday and the first thing we did was rent a car. In South Africa, like in England, drivers drive on the left side of the road. The experience was interesting to say the least. Not only was the steering wheel on the right side of the car, but EVERYTHING ELSE was switched as well. Comically, every time I tried to turn on my blinker I turned on the windshield wipers instead. Crossing the street was also surprisingly difficult as your instinct is to look one way before crossing when in Cape Town you really have to look the other way. But we survived.

Cape Royale Hotel. We checked into our hotel, The Cape Royale, at about 10:00am. Unfortunately, the options for hotels in the major point programs are very limited. The hotel was officially rated five-stars, but we got a pretty good deal on our room. We paid $770 for three nights in a one-bedroom suite, with breakfast included. Turns out you get what you pay for though. Amongst some of the other issues we experienced relating to customer service and poor management, there was a dirty coffee cup on the counter and dirty water in the electronic kettle. All's well that ends well though, and we got one night of our stay complimentary. That made me a very happy camper. When we checked in, the bell hop made a point of telling us that the American Soccer team recently stayed in the hotel as well. Upon further inquiry though, he revealed that the last time the team was in Cape Town was in 2010. The Devil is in the details, I guess. Overall, while the hotel was fine, the rooms and the service were nothing to write home about. If you can spring for it, I highly recommend staying the One & Only. It seemed like one of the only hotels in the area that was really 5-Star by American standards.

Kosher Food (Cafť Riteve). The first thing we did in Cape Town was get kosher food. We chose Cafť Riteve, which is located inside the Jewish Museum. Like the rest of the kosher food options in South Africa, the prices were great. The food was fresh and quite good as well. I ordered a personal pizza, while my wife ordered a salad. She also ordered a fresh fruit smoothie. I think our total was less than $20.
Opening Hours: Sunday Ė Thursday: 8:30am Ė 5pm; Friday: 8:30am Ė 3pm
88 Hatfield Street | Gardens | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 465 1594

Table Mountain. Because of our Friday flight mishap(s), we had to re-book a lot of the activities that we had already planned and pre-paid for. After checking into the hotel, we spent a considerable amount of time sorting those plans out. One of the main attractions we planned to see was Table Mountain. Table Mountain is basically a 1000-meter high mountain with a completely flat top. Once on top, you have the most magnificent views of the city of Cape Town, as well as it's beautiful beaches and coastlines.

Even though Cape Town was quite cloudy when we arrived, we were very lucky to have clear views once we reached the top of the mountain. It was truly breathtaking. For some reason, and I can't explain why, all the clouds in Cape Town (and there are many) gather around the mountain's top. That's true even when the rest of Cape Town's sky is extremely clear. The city has actually nicknamed those clouds the table cloth (get it?). Anyway, as a result, it's very hard to know when is a good time to go to the top of the mountain. We were very grateful we managed to get a clear view when we went. The cost to get to the top of the mountain was approximately $20 per cable-car ticket.

At the top of the mountain, my wife arranged for us to go abseiling. I don't know whether there is any difference, but I think abseiling is the same as repelling. Regardless, it was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. It was an absolute blast though. While gearing up and putting on our harnesses, the guides clipped a red bag the size and shape of a buoy to our belts. To ease our nerves, he told us that the small bag was a body bag. You know, just in case... I guess he thought it was funny.

The guides also failed to mention that the mountain face changes about halfway down. While the first part of the mountain allows you to descend while pushing your feet against the mountain, the latter half does not. Instead, the mountain face recesses about 30 feet leaving you hanging from a rope 900 meters from the ground. It was absolutely terrifying, and I've never in my life wanted more to have my two feet on the ground. When we finally reached the end of our activity, we were still more than halfway up the mountain. From there we enjoyed more breathtaking views. We still had to hike back up the mountain in order to catch the cable car down to our car. The hike was about 30 minutes long over small rocks and boulders. It was not an easy hike at all, but we enjoyed it very much. Abseiling costs about $60 - $65 per person. We felt it was well worth it.

Boulders Beach. From Table Mountain, we drove down to Boulders Beach with a quick pit stop at some local antique shops along the way in Simonís Town. The prices where quite good for Americans, much like in the rest of Africa. We actually bought a Springbuck skin carpet that is about the size of a small person for under $35. I don't know what we are going to do with it yet, but it was too cool and too cheap not to buy.

Boulders Beach is the spot near Cape Town where all of the country's African penguins live. The place has become pretty commercialized, but it offers the opportunity to get really close to wild penguins. To say the Penguins were adorable would be an understatement. We spent about an hour there, but could have easily stayed for longer. The scenery and the company were really captivating. I think we paid about $7 per person to get in. If you want a less commercialized experience, though, there is a separate beach area to the left of the tourist part where you can also see penguins, swim in the water, and catch some sun. There are not nearly as many penguins there, but it probably makes sense to stop by there once you are in the area.

From Boulders Beach we drove to Cape Point to catch the sunset. Cape Point is the southernmost point in the Southern Hemisphere. It's also where the Indian and Atlantic Ocean meet. It's also where Vasgo de Gama discovered Africa when he landed at the Cape of Good Hope. More importantly, it's supposed to beautiful. Unfortunately we arrived about five minutes after park closing and were not allowed in. It was pretty discouraging. We had an awesome day though, and we were luckily able to return the next day instead. Note, the national park closes at right about sunset. But they stop allowing cars in about an hour beforehand. The park times should be available online.

Kosher Food (Avrons). On our way home we stopped at Avron's place, which is Cape Town's kosher meat restaurants. We were famished when we arrived, and we were excited to eat there after hearing so much about it from others. The place sure lived up to its name. It was not fancy by any standards, but the food was very tasty. More importantly, the entire meal was about $40. We ordered an appetizer to start, I ordered a steak, and my wife ordered chicken. We also purchased dessert and tipped the waiter.
Opening Hours: Sun. Ė Thursday: 11am Ė 3pm; 5pm Ė 10pm; Friday: 11am Ė 2:30pm
19 Ė 33 Regent Road | Sea Point | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 439 7610

V & A Waterfront. Our next stop was the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. The waterfront, as it is called, is filled with shops, restaurants, bars, and of course boats. It was nice to walk through, but there really wasn't anything there for us to see or do. It was very touristy. We checked it off our list though. We then briefly went to check out the One & Only Hotel. It's has the name of one of the nicest hotels in the area, and certainly lived up to that name. Afterwards, we went to our hotel and passed out from exhaustion.

Cape Point. The next morning (Monday) we slept until about 7:30, and checked out of our hotel at 9:30. We then left for round 2 of Cape Point. The weather was overcast and rainy, so we didn't get the full views we had hoped for. Nevertheless, the trip to Cape Point was nice and we were glad we went. Because we travelled to Cape Point right after the forest fires, many of the surrounding activities were closed. So we did not get the full experience. We were more than satisfied with what we saw though.

Nathan Sawaya Lego Exhibit. When we returned, we briefly went back to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Unlike at nighttime, there were lots of local artists selling their wares. We got to see some really interesting African art and enjoyed walking around. We refrained from buying anything this time though. We also went to an amazing travelling Lego exhibit that happened to have been in Cape Town while we were there. The artists name is Nathan Sawaya (Google his work Ė It's quite cool). Even though my wife had seen his work in New York a while ago, we really enjoyed the exhibit. The artist was actually a former lawyer who didn't like sitting behind a computer all-day. He decided to change directions, and started building Lego instead. If you have the opportunity to see his exhibit next time it's in your city I highly recommend it.

Kosher Food (Coffee Time). To end our trip, we picked up some lunch at Coffee Time. Again, the prices were really good. In total, our bill was about $20 for a soup, two main dishes, and a desert. The restaurant is located in located in what looks like a house. The property has a fence and guard, and may not be apparently a restaurant from the street. The food was very fresh, and the service was very good as well. I didnít find the menu very appealing, but my wife loved it. Itís a great place for soups, salad, and tuna/egg sandwiches. From the restaurant we went straight to the airport.
Opening Hours: Monday Ė Thursday: 8am Ė 3:30pm; Friday: 8am Ė 3pm
20 Breda Street | Gardens | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 461 8414

A very special thank you goes out to my wife for shouldering the burden of planning most of this trip. None of this would have been possible without her.

10
Goods For Sale/Trade / Pesach ó Miami Rental Apt
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1.5 Bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment available for rent over Pesach. Apartment is newly renovated and located in Tower 41. Half bedroom features a compete separating wall (not an accordion wall). Hard tile floors with the exception of the master bedroom. Porch faces the pool and Indian Creek, and provides views of South Beach and Downtown. PM for more details.

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Up In The Air / Amex MR Transfer to Etihad
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Up In The Air / Centurion Lounge MIA
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On The Road / Free Hyatt Suite Upgrades
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