A journey through the Yucatan’s White City

January 1, 2008 by  
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By Jaime Riley
Beyond the spring break hotspots of Cancún, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen lies one of Mexico’s hidden secrets: Mérida. This historic city abounds with economic opportunity, historical landmarks and delicious regional cuisine. It is a fantastic destination for travelers looking to experience a true taste of Mexico.

Mérida, Yucatán’s capital city, offers a wealth of historical sites, many preserved over four centuries. It is also experiencing an influx of urban development, solidifying the city’s position as a significant site of commerce and cultural growth. Located on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mérida’s international airport and large network of highways serve as a gateway to the rest of Mexico and Central America.

History lesson
Known as the White City for its light-colored buildings and exceptionally clean streets, Mérida was once the ancient Mayan city of T’Ho. In 1542, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo conquered the city and ordered the construction of urban building. Since that time, the city has embraced its colonial architecture and works to preserve the historical buildings that reflect its Mayan roots and European influences.

Exploring Mérida’s historical monuments is an entire trip in itself. The city’s historic district houses the public square established in 1542, the municipal palace built in 1836, the home constructed for Montejo, the Ateneo de Yucatán Museum of Contemporary Art, the City Museum and the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. Take a stroll through historical downtown’s Santa Lucia Park on Thursday nights to experience the Yucatán Serenade, an open-air concert featuring talented troupes of dancers dressed in traditional costumes. It’s mesmerizing to watch the dancers balance trays of drinks on their heads while dancing with their partners — it’s definitely the highlight of the performance.

Lodge in luxury
Mérida’s most prestigious hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes has impressed guests with its elegant atmosphere and top-notch service since it opened in 2006. Converted from a breathtaking 19th century mansion, the hotel reflects the city’s significant historical background with conventional Yucatán architectural design that features large archways and columns.

The cornerstone of the city’s hotel district, Villa Mercedes is a popular destination for business executives from around the world. In addition to housing nine meeting rooms, the hotel offers banquet rooms accommodating up to 350 people. When business is finished guests can order a cocktail at the El Consulado Bar and take a dip in the pool; the nearest beach is approximately two hours away. The hotel’s Frutas y Flores restaurant serves international cuisine as well as traditional Yucatecan specialties such as pollo pibil (chicken roasted in banana leaves) and lime soup.

Adventure-seeking
A trip to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon is an eye-opening opportunity for any traveler looking to get a glimpse into the past. This historic plantation grew henequen, a plant with hardy fibers used to make rope. Even though many henequen products have been replaced by those made of synthetic fibers, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon serves as a tribute to the product that dominated the Yucatán’s economy in the 1920s.

Visitors can take a tour of the plantation and learn about the production of henequen products. From the intricate process of cutting cactus leaves to riding on mule-drawn carts used to transport the leaves to machine houses, guests experience authentic plantation lifestyle. Workers dress in traditional white shirts and large-brimmed hats. The atmosphere transports you into another time and gives a glimpse into how workers spent their days in the henequen fields.

Another Meridian adventure is a swim in one of the Yucatán’s natural wonders, a cenote. Visiting a cenote is much like going to the lake, except these bodies of water are in underground caverns. The water in cenotes is crystal clear; it is also freezing cold. A swim can be refreshing after a long day trekking through the henequen fields.

Mexico’s White City is not a party destination with beaches, frozen margaritas and American tourists on every corner. It is a haven of authentic Yucatán culture: world-renown museums, incredible architecture, natural wonders and ancient ruins. Mérida is a true taste of old Mexico.

Essentials:
Mérida Economic Development Department, Tourism Office, www.merida.gob.mx
Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes, Mérida, www.intercontinental.com/merida

Reading: It’s not just for summer anymore

January 1, 2008 by  
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Meeting authors brings their stories to life

The summer months are always jammed with great titles to read and events to attend at the book store. But what happens in the fall and winter? Recreational reading is enhanced by the Inprint Brown Reading Series, which extends into the spring. The forum provides readers with the opportunity to meet authors of award-winning books and hear first-hand stories that became finished products. These authors include National Book Award and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship winners.

The Inprint Brown Reading Series works with the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, the Alley Theatre and Brazos Bookstore to put these great writers on the Houston stage. Tickets range from $5 to $20 and the writers usually sign books afterward.

Inprint’s 27th year continues when South Asian author Vikram Chandra and Cuban fiction writer Mayra Montero make their presentations in Houston Jan. 21.

Montero is the author of nine novels, including her most recent, “Dancing to ‘Almendra’: A Novel,” set in Cuba in 1957.

Chandra, a graduate of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, received rave reviews for his first novel, “Red Earth and Pouring Rain,” and his story collection, “Love and Longing in Bombay.” His newest novel, “Sacred Games,” is an epic detective novel with multiple characters and subplots set in Mumbai. Feb. 17 features Dave Eggers and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Eggers, a fiction writer, is the founder of independent publisher McSweeney’s, and is author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” He will be reading from his latest novel, “What is the What.”

Nigerian novelist Adichie is the author of “Purple Hibiscus.” Her latest work, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” is set in 1960s Nigeria when the short-lived state of Biafra tried to create an independent republic.

On March 31, meet Alice McDermott, author of “After This: A Novel” and National Book Award-winning “Charming Billy.”

MacArthur Genius-winning poet and former poet laureate, Robert Haas, and Iranian-born graphic novelist, Mariane Satrapi, are scheduled to speak April 21. Satrapi’s first book, “Persepolis,” is being turned into a feature film.

More information on the authors, their books and a schedule is available at

www.inprinthouston.org.

Bikram Yoga

January 1, 2008 by  
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One student’s sweaty journey to Zen

Several styles of yoga have gained popularity in our health-conscious society, but few are as intense and strenuous as Bikram yoga.

Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, founder of the Yoga College of India and Bikram yoga, has practiced yoga since the age of four. After suffering a severe knee injury from weight lifting, Choudhury retired from the sport and began practicing yoga professionally. Six months later, Choudhury, with the help of his nationally-renown teacher, Bishnu Ghosh, came to realize that yoga can cure chronic physical ailments. Bikram decided to teach his curative methods of yoga to other enthusiasts, and thus, Bikram yoga began.

The Basics
Bikram yoga is conducted in a heated 105 degree room with 40 percent humidity. Twenty-six poses are performed, and two breathing exercises begin and end the 90-minute session. Each pose is a challenge based on one’s personal abilities. The heat is designed to relax muscles while warming the body’s core. It makes stretching easier while ridding the body of toxins, pain and stress. Bikram yoga is designed to restore health to all systems of the body. As strength and flexibility increase, stress is reduced which revitalizes the mind. A student must attend a second session within 24 hours for the body to experience the full benefits of Bikram yoga. When I heard about this unique form of exercise, I decided to embark on a yoga journey to heal lower back pain.

Sweating it Out
As I arrive at the Yoga College of India, I notice both males and females of various ages and body types here to participate. Many students have the same exasperated look; either excitement or dread awaits us inside. With towels in one hand and yoga mats in the other, we head to experience Bikram’s Therapeutic Hatha/Raja yoga. Before entering the classroom, I watch as students from the session that has just ended walk out the door with sweat dripping from every inch of their partially dressed bodies. They guzzle water as if they are on the verge of severe dehydration and move in an exhausted trance-like state. Noticing my apprehension, the instructor approaches my tensed body and places a hand on my shoulder to calm my nerves. He wishes me good luck and gives me some advice, “Do not be a superstar — don’t try to push your body beyond its capacity, and whatever you do, do not leave the room.”

By this point, I am nervous and my heart is racing. The instructor grabs my hand and leads me to the door. As it slowly opens, the heat immediately engulfs me. The room is packed with 30 or 40 people who are deep in relaxation mode. They do not care about the heat; I do. The heat and the humidity are stifling. The session is difficult beyond belief; uncomfortable to the point of insanity. Sweat drips from every part of my body, and within 10 minutes, I am totally drenched. It feels so unnatural and I have to convince myself to stay in the room throughout the entire 90-minute session. The instructor’s advice echoes in my head and I try not to be a “superstar” when the heat becomes almost unbearable. I concentrate on the progression of steps and remind myself that when a pose is too difficult to perform, just attempting it is benefiting my body. Finally, the first session came to a merciful end.

Staying the Course
After two sessions, I hated Bikram yoga. It was exhausting and made my body feel like mush. However, I convinced myself to finish the 10 sessions I had purchased. Over time, I noticed improvement. I felt rejuvenated; my body stretched and lengthened and I actually felt compelled to stand up straight. I appreciated how the progress came naturally. I even started to become acclimated to the heat. Finally, at some point, it became relaxing instead of stifling which made a huge difference in how I felt. I stopped hating the class and began to appreciate how far I could push my body. Soon, my mind was at ease and eventually the pain in my lower back dissolved. As I walked out the door of my last session, saturated in sweat and tears, I felt powerful.

Start Your Journey to Zen
What makes Bikram yoga difficult is the heat. During your first sessions, you may have feelings of nausea and dizziness while trying to complete the 26 different poses. The instructors will explain how to perform each pose. They are cautious about overexertion as they encourage you to work every muscle, tendon, joint, ligament, internal organ, and gland in your body. The classes are filled with students of all levels, beginner to advanced, so don’t feel compelled to keep up with classmates. Just focus on yourself, pushing your body a little further. Soon, just like me, you will be focused on positive accomplishments and enjoying many benefits of Bikram yoga.

Crash Course

January 1, 2008 by  
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Fast fads are not always the smart way to lose weight

Here it is, the New Year. Resolutions have been made and some have already been broken. Every year, it seems one of the top resolutions is losing weight. The holiday season has ended and you ate a little bit more than you should have. In October it was candy, in November it was turkey and December was just a little bit of everything.

Rest assured, you are not alone. Most of us have trouble fitting into our jeans. Now, we have extra pounds we need to cram into our denim. We know how the pounds got there. Now we have to figure out how to lose them.

Crash dieting is a quick fix-me-upper. The wide-range of popular diets can account for that. Some guarantee weight loss, so why not? However, a pressing problem that people seem to overlook in these fad diets is that the weight may fall off, but it will not stay off.

World Class Fads
Some diet plans come in the form of pre-packaged meals while others tout fast results with little to no effort — even losing weight while you sleep. Then again, some weight-loss formulas come in the form of a little pill you see advertised during “Judge Judy” or a 3 a.m. infomercial. All promote easy, if not somewhat dangerous, methods of dropping those unwanted pounds.

After discovering heart illnesses and problems associated with the once-popular Atkins diet, dieters have replaced it with the newer and flashier South Beach Diet. The plan is simply divided into three phases. Phase one — lean meats, low glycemic foods and no carbohydrates; Phase two — gradually reintroduce some of the restricted foods; and Phase three — a healthy, balanced diet. Dieters can expect to lose anywhere from eight to 13 pounds during the first two weeks (phase one) and one to two pounds each of the following weeks until they reach their desired weight (phase two). The last phase is the trickiest; it’s a lifetime commitment to healthy eating. If the dieter slips and begins gaining weight, go back to phase one to get back on track.

One of the more popular diets is the cabbage-soup diet. The key to this diet is the delicious, never-ending supply of cabbage soup — whenever you crave it. Each day is broken into categories. For instance, day one consists of fruits and cabbage soup. Day two is all vegetables, with the exception of the soup. Have as many bowls as you want — hope you like cabbage soup!

Money talks
Being paid millions of dollars to lose 20 pounds in two weeks was enough incentive for pop diva Beyonce Knowles. Dubbed as the “Beyonce Diet,” Stanley Burroughs actually created the Lemonade Diet, or Master Cleanse, more than 50 years ago. This liquid diet consists of lemon juice, real maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water. This concoction is the only thing you may consume for the 10- to 40-day period, depending on how long you can stomach it.

During the 1960s, supermodel Twiggy ruled over the fashion scene. Staying slim was challenging until she embraced the grapefruit diet. Promising 10 pounds of weight loss in 12 days, this diet is hard to ignore. The grapefruit acts as a stimulant in the fat-burning process. Breakfast, lunch and dinner consist of half a grapefruit — or eight ounces of unsweetened grapefruit juice — along with a strict intake of eggs, vegetables, meats and one cup of skim milk as a bedtime snack.

To indulge or not to indulge
The most appealing diet of all time is the pasta-popcorn-chocolate diet. What more could you ask for? This diet recognizes the inadequacy of complete abstinence, allowing you to semi-indulge in your favorites. It consists of pasta, salads, vegetables, fruit, unsalted/unbuttered popcorn and chocolate. The diet doesn’t specify its duration or expected weight loss, only restricted foods. That’s never been a good sign.

It’s up to you
Whichever diet is chosen, the most important tools the dieter has are will power, determination and conscience. They are the ones choosing to lose weight, they are the ones that must select a plan and see it through until goals are met.

Houston Texans’ dietician Roberta Anding says, “It didn’t take 15 minutes to gain that weight and it won’t take 15 minutes to lose it either.”

“We want to blame everyone for our weight issues, but it isn’t everyone that’s responsible.”

As hard as it is to take the blame, dieters have to learn and relearn how to control portions and build a healthy plate, Anding advises. She also stresses the importance of working out with healthy eating.

“People prioritize running home to catch “Grey’s Anatomy,” but you never hear people running to their exercise bike,” says Anding.

When it comes to making the choice to lose weight, dieters should consult their doctor about a healthy weight loss plan that includes foods and proper portions, exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits. The road to weight loss goals may not be easy, but the results can have a lifetime of benefits.

Family affair: Selma and Lois DeBakey

January 1, 2008 by  
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Sisters’ work comes to light through brother’s innovations

by Fran Fawcett-Peterson

It is not every day that a new discipline is carved out, and certainly not one as vital to humanity as the one established by sisters Selma and Lois DeBakey. Their life’s work, biomedical communication, has had a remarkable impact on the way medical information is communicated, not only within the medical community, but also between physicians and their patients. Because the public can now easily understand the language of medicine, it is easier to manage health care.

Selma and Lois DeBakey are immensely private. These diminutive Southern women are the undisputed grand dames of American medical literature. Both are tenured professors of Scientific Communications at Baylor College of Medicine. Having served on editorial boards and panels for the American Heritage Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the National Library of Medicine, the sisters have helped set the standards for scientific papers and journal submissions. They are the editors and authors of several medical textbooks and scientific journal articles.

Family ties
The DeBakey sisters’ second career is their brother. They are devoted to the famed Houston super surgeon, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine, says, “Mike has always been their top priority.”

Many great leaders in the medical world expressed a degree of envy about the sisters’ devotion to their brother. Long-time family friend, Dr. Philip A. Salem, director of cancer research at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, describes Lois and Selma as Dr. DeBakey’s “angels.” “Never in history has such a great man had two sisters who supported and helped him as much as these two. They are a part of his legend,” he says.

The DeBakeys are children of immigrant Lebanese Christians who settled in Lake Charles, La. They credit their parents and the school system in their small town for their success. They read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before graduating from high school and had a solid understanding of Latin, the root of the language of medicine.

Michael, the eldest of six children, and brother Ernest attended Tulane University and became surgeons. Selma earned her Bachelor’s degree with honors in languages from Sophie Newcomb College. Lois earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Newcomb and her Ph.D. from Tulane in literature, linguistics and biostatistics.

Deciphering medicine
Early in his medical career, Michael noticed the poor quality of scientific writing and encouraged his sisters to use their writing talents to improve medical communication.

While still in graduate school, Selma began helping Michael through researching, translating and abridging articles and manuscripts for publication. Selma and Lois continue that work to this day.

“In putting his ideas, inventions and creations into a language that people understand, they furthered his career and thus the legend of Dr. Michael DeBakey,” Dr. Salem says. Other prominent physicians describe the sisters as his “secret weapons.”

Their biomedical writing course at Tulane was the first curriculum-approved course in medical communications at a United States medical school. In addition to the Tulane courses, they were invited to present seminars at major international medical conferences. The courses became so popular that they had two- and three-year waiting lists for enrollment.

“Telling doctors how to use the English language can be almost a slap in the face,” Lois says. “But when you hear or read such statements as, ‘All of the seven patients who died never completely regained consciousness,’ you know help is needed.” To soften the blow, Lois and Selma commissioned Houston Post artist Dick Putney to write a series of humorous cartoons to fill their seminars with laughter.

Coming to Houston
It took some work on Michael’s part to convince the sisters to move to Houston, Lois says. To do so, he enlisted the help of major players in the Houston medical arena. “The heads of the major institutions of medicine in Houston asked us to move our work here, but, we were treated very well at Tulane,” she says.

But, for their brother and his work, the sisters made the move, arriving in time for momentous changes. In 1969, Baylor College of Medicine became an independent school. Michael DeBakey was appointed as the first president and continued his work as chairman of the department of surgery. With the complex dynamics of his life, he needed people he could trust.

“Deep down, you really depend on your siblings for the kind of support that is very subtle, but, nonetheless, is there,” DeBakey says. “You share your thoughts with them, even though you might not be able to share them with others. You don’t feel alone.”

Dr. Salem says they were invaluable to Michael: “They were his buffer, his filter and his propellers. His success is directly attributable to their devotion.”

Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College is co-author of “The Living Heart” book series with Michael DeBakey. “Lois and Selma were critical factors in his success and provided him with invaluable support every step of the way,” he says. “They are leaders in the field of academic medical writing and have received numerous awards in recognition of their accomplishments. They are true pioneers in this field.”

Lois’ book, The Scientific Journal: Editorial Policies and Practices: Guidelines for Editors, Reviewers and Authors, is considered the first definitive edition for medical journal editors. In her acknowledgement in Medicine: Preserving the Passion in the 21st Century, which she co-edited with Phil Manning, Lois writes, “My brother Michael directed my sister Selma and me into a truly exciting and fulfilling career. A man of vision, dedication and ingenuity, he recognized the need for instruction in medical writing, editing and speech, and he encouraged us to establish this new discipline. To Selma — my preceptor and alter ego — goes my unbounded gratitude, not only for her sage counsel …, but for her superb tutelage, unstinting support, and sororal devotion throughout my life.”

In his article, “Salute to the Professionals,” Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, may have expressed it best when he wrote: “…the disciples of Aesculapius have their own guides to better speaking and writing, and among them none compares to the DeBakey sisters.”

While Dr. Michael DeBakey casts a large shadow with his gigantic contributions to the field of medicine, Lois and Selma cast a shadow as well. Because of their innovative and meritorious contributions to medical and scientific communications, laypersons can understand the contributions of Michael and other doctors and scientists. Their work, while away from the spotlight, has opened the door of patient-doctor communication for years to come.

America’s Carribean

January 1, 2008 by  
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United States Virgin Islands

Whether you are taking your family for some fun in the sun or looking for that perfect romantic getaway, there is something for everyone in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Caribbean paradise consists of three islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John – each with its own character and charm.

This year, the U.S. Virgin Islands celebrates its 90th anniversary as a United States’ territory. Purchased from Denmark for $25 million, these islands give mainlanders some great advantages. First, a passport is not required to visit there. All of the residents are also American citizens, so languages and laws are familiar.

We flew into St. Thomas and were whisked away via ferry to the island of St. John. Our first night in this tropical paradise was enjoyed at the Westin Hotel. We grabbed our bags and walked to the Westin front desk, which is located in the airport terminal. You can check your bags and check into your hotel room without leaving the terminal. The Westin has a private ferry to take you on a 50-minute ride over beautiful blue water to a pier at its hotel. The grounds were impeccably manicured and iguanas were running freely across the lawn. As it turns out, one of the highlights of the day is the 3 p.m. feeding of the iguanas. It is not unusual for 40 to 50 iguanas to show up for their mid-afternoon snack.

After a short rest, it was time to check out the pool. The Westin boasts the largest pool in all the Virgin Islands. We stopped by the bar to have one of their signature drinks, called a Pain Killer. The refreshing frozen cocktail was great to sip while listening to the soothing sound of the pool’s waterfall. Around the pool are rentable, private cabanas. Each cabana comes with a television and refrigerator and is a great place to get out of the sun while enjoying the sights and sounds of the pool.

Later, it was time to head into town. The preferred method of travel on the islands is by safari — open-air taxis made from pick-up trucks that seat 10 to12 people. The paint jobs are all unique and the drivers take great pride in their vehicles. No trip to St. John would be complete without stopping by Woody’s Seafood Saloon for a drink and a dose of fun. Another great spot is Paradiso. Chef Paul Trujillo prepares a wonderful rack of lamb; the menu changes with the current fresh offerings from local vendors.

Finally, it was back to the Westin to unwind at Chloe &Bernard’s, the hotel bar. It was there that I was surprised with the best chocolate martini I ever had. We asked our bartender why people come to St. John. She immediately replied, “You’re far enough away to feel like you’re on vacation, but close enough to feel like you’re home.”

After a couple of days in St. John, we took the ferry back to St. Thomas, which is like the New York City of the islands. There are two cruise terminals that support the many cruise ships. With travelers comes tourism and St. Thomas does not disappoint. There are hundreds of shops to satisfy every taste. We saw everything from handmade souvenirs costing less than $1 to $100,000 diamond rings.

One of the great attractions in St. Thomas is Coral World Ocean Park, which brings visitors up-close-and-personal to the beauty and magic of Caribbean marine life. We were able to touch a shark, hand-feed a stingray and watch newborn seahorses learn to swim. The highlight of the visit was crawling into a tank to swim with sea lions. This encounter was more than a swim; participants got to hold on to the sea lions and take a ride around the tank. The encounter ended with the sea lions jumping over our heads and outstretched arms.

The next day we decided to take a sea plane to St. Croix. A sea plane is the best way to travel between the islands. Since there are no security checks, you simply purchase your ticket at least 30 minutes before flight time and board the plane. It is fast and efficient. The engines purred as we skipped across the water, and soon we were off. The views of St. Thomas and the blue Caribbean water were spectacular from the low flying plane. One splash and we were down.

The first thing you notice about St. Croix is it’s a long way between everything. As we traveled to the hotel, we passed the famous “Beast,” the hill that challenges the most conditioned athletes in St. Croix’s Ironman Triathlon. We stayed at the Carambola Beach Resort, soon to be a Marriott Renaissance Resort. The open-air atmosphere of the hotel was wonderful.

On Friday nights the locals turn out for the Pirates’ Buffet, a celebration of Caribbean cooking and entertainment. Dancers on stilts called “mocko jumbies” wore beautiful costumes and gave high-energy performances to the sounds of steel drums and salsa beats.

We traveled across the island to the Divi Carina Bay, which offers a little something for everyone. The Divi is building a miniature golf course for the kids, the pool is inviting and they have a spa. Couples can enjoy side-by-side massages as they unwind from their hard day of relaxing. The Divi also operates the only casino in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Speaking of couples, the U.S. Virgin Islands is the place for weddings and honeymoons. Most hotels have wonderful pavilions on the grounds or the beach with beautiful settings. If you’re looking for that perfect honeymoon, you and your sweetie will love the serenity and romance that only a Caribbean beach can provide. But if the honeymoon is over and you already have kids, most hotels have special kids’ clubs with events and activities to keep your little ones enjoying their days while the adults can go out and find their own fun.

When it’s vacation time, remember the U.S. Virgin Islands. The weather is beautiful, everyone speaks English and no passports are required. For families or couples, it’s the place to be.

Punta Cana

January 1, 2008 by  
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A paradise nestled in paradise

If refreshing ocean breezes, peaceful white sand beaches and first-class accommodations are your dream for the perfect Caribbean excursion, then Punta Cana should be your next trip. Located on the Dominican Republic’s east coast, Punta Cana is home to some of the best beaches in the world.

For centuries, the Dominican Republic shores have been welcome sights for sailors, but tourists have recently discovered the magic of its warm, emerald waters and curvy coastlines. Disembark at Punta Cana’s airport and you’ll get an instant initiation into this unspoiled, laid-back lifestyle. Step off your plane the old fashioned way — down the stairs and into an open-aired terminal.

After a 25-minute shuttle ride, you arrive at the Paradisus Palma Real Resort. Stress quickly checks out as you check into your room. The resort’s concierge staff welcomes you along with cascading, cavernous views of the luxurious lobby and ocean.

The all-inclusive Paradisus Palma Real Resort boasts several five-star suites. If you desire a bit more pampering, upgrade to its signature “Royal Service,” where a butler is basically at your beck and call. Meals, drinks, dinner reservations and even a chamomile-scented pillow are at your command. Exclusive, adult-only pools and bars are also available.

The first thing you’ll notice about this resort is that it seems like there is more marble than in Vatican City. But, like a river’s journey to the sea, the marble walkways flow down through the lobby, past fountains, restaurants, shops and pools until depositing you onto the beach. Tranquil tropical gardens and water features gulp up whatever square inches are left.

After making your way to the suite, schedule a spa appointment as soon as you unpack. Even during the off-season, appointments are booked quickly. The Zen Garden’s open-air massage tables are highly recommended.

When night falls, the Paradisus pleases all party personalities. Catch a cultural fire-twirling act on the beach, eat at one of the trendy restaurants, dance to the latest cuts in the local club, cash in at the casino or simply take a starlit stroll on the beach with the one you love.

Lovers are always welcome at the Paradisus Resorts and so are their kids. This hotel property boasts a segregated section for families ensuring a G-rated experience. The family concierge staff goes out of its way to make sure the little ones feel welcomed by planning child-friendly activities throughout the day. This frees the parents to explore adult activities. At night, your little one’s bed will be turned down complete with a pint-sized robe and milk and cookies.

A small warning to parents: Punta Cana is a desired destination for European beachgoers. On the beaches you might see a few sunbathers who’ll forget to tighten their tops. Simply tell beach security and they’ll bring everything back to PG-13.

The Paradisus family has another property just down the road called the Paradisus Punta Cana, which is a bit older. It boasts similar accommodations and features an even more laid-back, lived-in atmosphere that only comes with years of established excellence.

Whether it’s sunbathing, sailing, scuba diving or boating, you’ll find lots of fun in the sun in Punta Cana. A beach lovers’ paradise, the Punta Cana Paradisus Resort experience is one that will be burned into your memory long after your tan has faded.

Essentials: www.paradisuspalmareal.travel

A journey through the Yucatan’s White City

January 1, 2008 by  
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Beyond the spring break hotspots of Cancún, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen lies one of Mexico’s hidden secrets: Mérida. This historic city abounds with economic opportunity, historical landmarks and delicious regional cuisine. It is a fantastic destination for travelers looking to experience a true taste of Mexico.

Mérida, Yucatán’s capital city, offers a wealth of historical sites, many preserved over four centuries. It is also experiencing an influx of urban development, solidifying the city’s position as a significant site of commerce and cultural growth. Located on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mérida’s international airport and large network of highways serve as a gateway to the rest of Mexico and Central America.

History lesson
Known as the White City for its light-colored buildings and exceptionally clean streets, Mérida was once the ancient Mayan city of T’Ho. In 1542, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo conquered the city and ordered the construction of urban building. Since that time, the city has embraced its colonial architecture and works to preserve the historical buildings that reflect its Mayan roots and European influences.

Exploring Mérida’s historical monuments is an entire trip in itself. The city’s historic district houses the public square established in 1542, the municipal palace built in 1836, the home constructed for Montejo, the Ateneo de Yucatán Museum of Contemporary Art, the City Museum and the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. Take a stroll through historical downtown’s Santa Lucia Park on Thursday nights to experience the Yucatán Serenade, an open-air concert featuring talented troupes of dancers dressed in traditional costumes. It’s mesmerizing to watch the dancers balance trays of drinks on their heads while dancing with their partners — it’s definitely the highlight of the performance.

Lodge in luxury
Mérida’s most prestigious hotel, the Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes has impressed guests with its elegant atmosphere and top-notch service since it opened in 2006. Converted from a breathtaking 19th century mansion, the hotel reflects the city’s significant historical background with conventional Yucatán architectural design that features large archways and columns.

The cornerstone of the city’s hotel district, Villa Mercedes is a popular destination for business executives from around the world. In addition to housing nine meeting rooms, the hotel offers banquet rooms accommodating up to 350 people. When business is finished guests can order a cocktail at the El Consulado Bar and take a dip in the pool; the nearest beach is approximately two hours away. The hotel’s Frutas y Flores restaurant serves international cuisine as well as traditional Yucatecan specialties such as pollo pibil (chicken roasted in banana leaves) and lime soup.

Adventure-seeking
A trip to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon is an eye-opening opportunity for any traveler looking to get a glimpse into the past. This historic plantation grew henequen, a plant with hardy fibers used to make rope. Even though many henequen products have been replaced by those made of synthetic fibers, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon serves as a tribute to the product that dominated the Yucatán’s economy in the 1920s.

Visitors can take a tour of the plantation and learn about the production of henequen products. From the intricate process of cutting cactus leaves to riding on mule-drawn carts used to transport the leaves to machine houses, guests experience authentic plantation lifestyle. Workers dress in traditional white shirts and large-brimmed hats. The atmosphere transports you into another time and gives a glimpse into how workers spent their days in the henequen fields.

Another Meridian adventure is a swim in one of the Yucatán’s natural wonders, a cenote. Visiting a cenote is much like going to the lake, except these bodies of water are in underground caverns. The water in cenotes is crystal clear; it is also freezing cold. A swim can be refreshing after a long day trekking through the henequen fields.

Mexico’s White City is not a party destination with beaches, frozen margaritas and American tourists on every corner. It is a haven of authentic Yucatán culture: world-renown museums, incredible architecture, natural wonders and ancient ruins. Mérida is a true taste of old Mexico.

Essentials:
Mérida Economic Development Department, Tourism Office, www.merida.gob.mx
Presidente InterContinental Hotel Villa Mercedes, Mérida, www.intercontinental.com/merida

Field Trip

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

History lessons come to life at area museums

For students, the new year signifies the end of their holiday break and the beginning of a new semester. Getting kids back into their school routine can be difficult; but not as difficult as getting them excited about their schoolwork. A trip to the museum is a sure way to jump-start a child’s mind and restore their spirits.

English Class
For a novel experience straight from Moby Dick, visit the Texas Seaport Museum. The museum’s main feature, the Elissa, is a 205-foot, three-masted tall ship built in Scotland in 1877. Elissa’s 19 sails cover more than one-quarter of an acre in surface area. She is not a replica but a fully-functional survivor of her era. While you’re there, take a nautical sight-seeing excursion aboard the Seagull II, a 50-foot twin-engine motor vessel. You can also search the Galveston immigration database for a list of more than 130,000 immigrants that entered the country through the seaport from 1846 to 1948.

409-763-1877 Location: Pier 21, No. 8
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $8, Students $6,
Ages six and under are free
Website: www.tsm-elissa.org

Science Class
In the 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton proposed three laws of motion that are cornerstones of the science of flight. Centuries later, the Wright brothers made their historic flight and changed the way we thought about travel, space and even battle. During World War II a vast array of technology was employed, particularly in aerial combat planes, such as the Spitfire Mark I, P-47 Thunderbolt, F-44 Corsair and F-6F Hellcat. The Lone Star Flight Museum showcases more than 40 historic aircraft from this time period, expertly preserved and in pristine flying condition. These planes regularly take flight in air shows at Scholes Field and annually at Ellington Field during Wings Over Houston. Children’s excitement will soar as they explore some of the most intriguing aircraft produced for combat.

409-740-7722
Location: 2002 Terminal Drive
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $8, children and seniors $5
Website: www.lsfm.org,
www.wingsoverhouston.com

History Class
At the Civil War Museum, children can learn there are things worth fighting over other than the television remote. The small, one-room museum houses various items from the Civil War-era, including uniforms, weapons, cannon balls and Confederate money that led to one of the greatest inflationary periods in the South.

281-528-9911
Location: 200 Noble St., Ste. 6
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Free

Health Class
Tired of telling the kids to wash their hands? Take them on a stroll through the oversized human body exhibit at the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science. They will learn how germs infect the body and, maybe, they’ll think twice before wiping their nose with the back of their hand. The museum has 61 interactive video and audio kiosks about human anatomy and health, and presents several traveling exhibits throughout the year such as Genome: The Secret of How Life Works, opening Feb. 2, and Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body, arriving this summer. You may want to save the DNA exhibit until after you’ve had “the talk” or you might be having it on the way home from the museum.

713-521-1515
Location: 1515 Hermann Drive
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $6, seniors and children 3-17 $5, children 2 and under are free; Thursday from 2 p.m.-7 p.m. is Family Free Day
Website: www.mhms.org

YTACkling Cancer

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Young Texans band together for a common cause

Inspired by his father’s ordeal with a cancerous tumor in 2000, Stuart Bernstein was adamant about reaching out to those who helped him during the hardest six months of his life. Learning that his father’s cancer was in remission, he wanted to do more than just write a check and volunteer on Sundays.

With 43 other volunteers, he founded Young Texans Against Cancer — one of the most distinctive cancer organizations in the Houston area. This is one of the few charities offering young professionals a true hands-on opportunity to raise money for important cancer-related causes. YTAC generates and directs funds to organizations for cancer research and assistance.

Independence
When YTAC was founded, there were no local charity organizations operated completely by young people in the cancer field. Larger charities assist patients and their families, but have limited choices as to where funds are directed. Bernstein relishes the lack of a larger entity overseeing YTAC’s operations, and any one member can influence where the money is distributed.

“When I began to search for an outlet to be [involved] in the fight against cancer, I explored several options, but none seemed to offer the kind of involvement I was looking for,” Bernstein says. “There are hundreds of groups and organizations that benefit cancer [research], but I found very few that harness the energy and desire of young people who want to do more.”

YTAC’s Charity Selection Committee, which any member may join, researches cancer-related causes and local charities supporting them. Once they accumulate information about an organization, they vote on how much money to give a proposed charity.

Reaching out
Each of the 44 founding members of YTAC share a common bond in that cancer has touched their lives in a personal way. Their efforts have provided funds to a number of Houston-area charities. That success has led to YTAC extending their reach across the state, with their second chapter established in Austin. “The Austin chapter has done a phenomenal job of establishing YTAC throughout Central Texas through membership drives, a golf tournament and a blood drive at the state capital,” says Bernstein. “The immediate success of our second chapter has encouraged us to consider Dallas in the near future.”

Bernstein says additional expansion will come soon. “Expanding is hard. After the newness wears off, you have to sustain and grow. A statewide network of chapters that allow all young Texans to get involved in the fight against cancer is our ultimate goal,” says Bernstein.

Through the organization’s success in the Bayou City, Bernstein is confident that YTAC can have a positive effect in other Texas cities.

“Although YTAC began in Houston, the organization has been set up to grow across the state into other Texas cities. The success of the Houston chapter will serve as the model for all future chapters,” he says. “This is such a great opportunity for us to work together. Through social and volunteer activities, YTAC members interact with each other and the community.”

Donations are given to a number of different charitable organizations including the Periwinkle Foundation, The Rose, Planet Cancer, Texas Children’s Hospital Family Emergency Fund, Sunshine Kids and His Grace Foundation, which was awarded $27,500 during YTAC’s fifth annual donation ceremony last year.

YTAC shows no signs of slowing down. The organization has scheduled activities including movie nights for guests of the Ronald McDonald House, book drives at local hospitals and a golf tournament sponsored by Academy Sports and Outdoors. Proceeds from last year’s tournament benefited the Uterine Cancer Research Program at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

With more than 700 members and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised thus far, the YTAC organization is enthusiastic about expanding their services and outreach across the state.

On the web:
www.ytac.org

Family Affair

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Sisters’ work comes to light through brother’s innovations

It is not every day that a new discipline is carved out, and certainly not one as vital to humanity as the one established by sisters Selma and Lois DeBakey. Their life’s work, biomedical communication, has had a remarkable impact on the way medical information is communicated, not only within the medical community, but also between physicians and their patients. Because the public can now easily understand the language of medicine, it is easier to manage health care.

Selma and Lois DeBakey are immensely private. These diminutive Southern women are the undisputed grand dames of American medical literature. Both are tenured professors of Scientific Communications at Baylor College of Medicine. Having served on editorial boards and panels for the American Heritage Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the National Library of Medicine, the sisters have helped set the standards for scientific papers and journal submissions. They are the editors and authors of several medical textbooks and scientific journal articles.

Family ties
The DeBakey sisters’ second career is their brother. They are devoted to the famed Houston super surgeon, Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine, says, “Mike has always been their top priority.”

Many great leaders in the medical world expressed a degree of envy about the sisters’ devotion to their brother. Long-time family friend, Dr. Philip A. Salem, director of cancer research at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, describes Lois and Selma as Dr. DeBakey’s “angels.” “Never in history has such a great man had two sisters who supported and helped him as much as these two. They are a part of his legend,” he says.

The DeBakeys are children of immigrant Lebanese Christians who settled in Lake Charles, La. They credit their parents and the school system in their small town for their success. They read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before graduating from high school and had a solid understanding of Latin, the root of the language of medicine.

Michael, the eldest of six children, and brother Ernest attended Tulane University and became surgeons. Selma earned her Bachelor’s degree with honors in languages from Sophie Newcomb College. Lois earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Newcomb and her Ph.D. from Tulane in literature, linguistics and biostatistics.

Deciphering medicine
Early in his medical career, Michael noticed the poor quality of scientific writing and encouraged his sisters to use their writing talents to improve medical communication.

While still in graduate school, Selma began helping Michael through researching, translating and abridging articles and manuscripts for publication. Selma and Lois continue that work to this day.

“In putting his ideas, inventions and creations into a language that people understand, they furthered his career and thus the legend of Dr. Michael DeBakey,” Dr. Salem says. Other prominent physicians describe the sisters as his “secret weapons.”

Their biomedical writing course at Tulane was the first curriculum-approved course in medical communications at a United States medical school. In addition to the Tulane courses, they were invited to present seminars at major international medical conferences. The courses became so popular that they had two- and three-year waiting lists for enrollment.

“Telling doctors how to use the English language can be almost a slap in the face,” Lois says. “But when you hear or read such statements as, ‘All of the seven patients who died never completely regained consciousness,’ you know help is needed.” To soften the blow, Lois and Selma commissioned Houston Post artist Dick Putney to write a series of humorous cartoons to fill their seminars with laughter.

Coming to Houston
It took some work on Michael’s part to convince the sisters to move to Houston, Lois says. To do so, he enlisted the help of major players in the Houston medical arena. “The heads of the major institutions of medicine in Houston asked us to move our work here, but, we were treated very well at Tulane,” she says.

But, for their brother and his work, the sisters made the move, arriving in time for momentous changes. In 1969, Baylor College of Medicine became an independent school. Michael DeBakey was appointed as the first president and continued his work as chairman of the department of surgery. With the complex dynamics of his life, he needed people he could trust.

“Deep down, you really depend on your siblings for the kind of support that is very subtle, but, nonetheless, is there,” DeBakey says. “You share your thoughts with them, even though you might not be able to share them with others. You don’t feel alone.”

Dr. Salem says they were invaluable to Michael: “They were his buffer, his filter and his propellers. His success is directly attributable to their devotion.”

Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College is co-author of “The Living Heart” book series with Michael DeBakey. “Lois and Selma were critical factors in his success and provided him with invaluable support every step of the way,” he says. “They are leaders in the field of academic medical writing and have received numerous awards in recognition of their accomplishments. They are true pioneers in this field.”

Lois’ book, The Scientific Journal: Editorial Policies and Practices: Guidelines for Editors, Reviewers and Authors, is considered the first definitive edition for medical journal editors. In her acknowledgement in Medicine: Preserving the Passion in the 21st Century, which she co-edited with Phil Manning, Lois writes, “My brother Michael directed my sister Selma and me into a truly exciting and fulfilling career. A man of vision, dedication and ingenuity, he recognized the need for instruction in medical writing, editing and speech, and he encouraged us to establish this new discipline. To Selma — my preceptor and alter ego — goes my unbounded gratitude, not only for her sage counsel …, but for her superb tutelage, unstinting support, and sororal devotion throughout my life.”

In his article, “Salute to the Professionals,” Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, may have expressed it best when he wrote: “…the disciples of Aesculapius have their own guides to better speaking and writing, and among them none compares to the DeBakey sisters.”

While Dr. Michael DeBakey casts a large shadow with his gigantic contributions to the field of medicine, Lois and Selma cast a shadow as well. Because of their innovative and meritorious contributions to medical and scientific communications, laypersons can understand the contributions of Michael and other doctors and scientists. Their work, while away from the spotlight, has opened the door of patient-doctor communication for years to come.

2008 The year that could be

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

A great person will die, someone will be elected to an office and rain will fall on Houston in 2008. Yes, once again, it’s time for us soothsayers to make our predictions, which will be 100 percent accurate with a 99 percent margin of error. Clip and save to compare at the end of the year. Now I shall say the sooth.

January
All the Presidential candidates come to Houston seeking primary votes and money. Well, mostly money. “I’d like to spend some of my campaign funds here,” Hillary Clinton explains, “but why bother? Everyone knows I could blow a billion until hell freezes over, and I still couldn’t take Texas.”

Due to the increasing price of newsprint, The Houston Chronicle drops all its remaining comics and TV schedules, but notes, “They can still be read at the Downtown Public Library between noon and 1 p.m. on Thursdays by appointment.”

Katrina evacuees are ordered to move out of their government-supplied dwellings and cancel newspapers, cable TV and room service.

February
Roger Clemens says he may return to the Astros, but only if he is admitted as the 51st state.

The Texas Department of Obscene Insurance Fees approves a 40 percent increase in rates for Harris County homeowners. A commissioner explains: “Someday there might be a claim.”

The Houston Independent School District proudly announces: “Our TAKS scores done gone up real much.”

Jeff Skilling asks for “a shorter sentence.” The judge obliges and changes the sentence from, “You are guilty of all charges,” to “Guilty.”

Seeking funds for his presidential race, Ron Paul confidently predicts, “When it comes to raising campaign donations, I’ll stomp Dennis Kucinich.”

March
The new-and-expanded Katy Freeway is officially renamed the John Culberson Memorial Screw-Up.

NOAA predicts 13 “major” hurricanes will hit the Texas coast, causing Gov. Rick Perry to announce a new evacuation plan for Houston: “At the first sign of an approaching storm, everyone should run for their lives.”

April
At a Houston fundraiser, Rudy Giuliani notes not only is he a partner in the Houston law firm of Bracewell, Giuliani &9/11, but “I was born in the Heights, graduated from San Jac High and UH, all on 9/11s. And I’ve always been a Houston Oilers fan, especially after they beat the Red Sox, 9-11.”

NASA announces that it will give breathalyzer tests to all astronauts prior to lift-off, to which the astronauts reply, “You think we’d go up in that death trap sober?”

Katrina evacuees are again ordered to move out of their government-supplied dwellings, and cancel everything — or at least disguise their satellite dishes.

The Houston Texans’ first-round draft choice is Doak Walker. “All our research shows he’s a great football player,” Coach Gary Kubiak explains.

May
Texas holds its presidential primary and no one wins. What’s more, no one cares.

The Houston Police Department’s crime lab discovers that dead people stay that way. Also, the lab technicians have great hope for using DNA, although one technician asks, “How do you spell that?”

Hurricane Claude slams into the Texas Gulf Coast. FEMA announces, “Help is on the way.” Word is delivered by semaphore.

During sweeps weeks, Houston’s TV stations check with their owners in Washington (KPRC), Los Angeles (KTRK), Dallas (KHOU) and Mars (KRIV), and determine that Houstonians don’t really care for serious news about Houston.

June
Photos taken by cameras set up at an intersection to spot red-light runners are used to convict a gang of bank robbers in a shoot-out with a SWAT team. Lawyers appeal the convictions on grounds the cameras were a violation of privacy.

Government agents demand Katrina evacuees move out of their government-supplied dwellings — or least don’t use the pool during happy hour.

July
Due to the increasing price of newsprint, the Hou Chron drops its sports and business sections, but points out “We will still do a year-end wrap-up.”

Houston proudly announces the town has lost its title as the nation’s fattest city, so HOV lanes will no longer allow one motorist per car, even if they take up the back seat.

A caravan of 455 FEMA trucks, loaded with relief supplies (ski clothes) for victims of Hurricane Claude, arrives in Tampa.

Chris Bell announces he will run for something — anything.

August
It will be hot, but everybody who’s anybody is in Aspen partying and playing golf, leaving behind only their employees, domestic staff and cat burglars.

September
After the Rice Owls win an upset football game, joyful fans tear down that wall.

A Houston TV station’s 10 p.m. newscast shocks viewers by leading with something other than a murder report.

Texas State Sen. Dan Patrick sues Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, demanding sainthood.

A caravan of two trucks loaded with relief supplies for victims of Hurricane Claude finally arrives in Houston. Unfortunately, the ice has melted.

GOP Presidential nominee John McCain, in Houston for a joint fundraiser, says, “I’d like to spend some of my campaign money here, but I could blow a billion dollars until hell freezes over, and Texas will go Republican. So why bother?”

October
A new three-year 345-page study of local air pollution, paid for by the Greater Houston Partnership, determines that “the problem of Houston’s air pollution — if there is a problem — can easily be solved by voluntary compliance of nervous Nellys and limp-wristed tree-huggers and a tad of pixie dust.” The study recommends further study.

Due to the increasing price of newsprint, the Hou Chron drops all vowels, “Ths r hrd dys fr nwspprs,” th pblshr xplns.

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs announces she is running against Chris Bell — for anything.

November
Metro’s yet-unannounced expansion plans are questioned after it becomes known that the authority has placed an order for 32 ox carts.

HISD orders new geography textbooks after learning that No Man is an island.

The Houston Dynamos win in a shootout over Whirlwind-45 nil-nil in 13 overtimes, whatever the hell that means.

Tom DeLay claims “a vast left-wing conspiracy” is behind the latest accusations of armed robbery, kidnapping and arson. When confronted with photos of him committing the crimes, five eyewitnesses and his own confession, DeLay blames the “liberal media.”

December
The Houston Texans and the Houston Live Stock Show &Rodeo block plans to turn the rusting Astrodome into a viable hotel, shopping center and amusement park, asking, “What’s Houston ever done for us?”

Owners of Hotel ZaZa change the name back to the Warwick. “Everyone thought we were one of the Gabor sisters,” an executive says.

When asked if he opposes making Houston a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants, Mayor Bill While replies, “Sí.”

President-elect Dennis Kucinich declares that global warming must have ended, because hell froze over.

Punta Cana A paradise nestled in paradise

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

If refreshing ocean breezes, peaceful white sand beaches and first-class accommodations are your dream for the perfect Caribbean excursion, then Punta Cana should be your next trip. Located on the Dominican Republic’s east coast, Punta Cana is home to some of the best beaches in the world.

For centuries, the Dominican Republic shores have been welcome sights for sailors, but tourists have recently discovered the magic of its warm, emerald waters and curvy coastlines. Disembark at Punta Cana’s airport and you’ll get an instant initiation into this unspoiled, laid-back lifestyle. Step off your plane the old fashioned way — down the stairs and into an open-aired terminal.

After a 25-minute shuttle ride, you arrive at the Paradisus Palma Real Resort. Stress quickly checks out as you check into your room. The resort’s concierge staff welcomes you along with cascading, cavernous views of the luxurious lobby and ocean.

The all-inclusive Paradisus Palma Real Resort boasts several five-star suites. If you desire a bit more pampering, upgrade to its signature “Royal Service,” where a butler is basically at your beck and call. Meals, drinks, dinner reservations and even a chamomile-scented pillow are at your command. Exclusive, adult-only pools and bars are also available.

The first thing you’ll notice about this resort is that it seems like there is more marble than in Vatican City. But, like a river’s journey to the sea, the marble walkways flow down through the lobby, past fountains, restaurants, shops and pools until depositing you onto the beach. Tranquil tropical gardens and water features gulp up whatever square inches are left.

After making your way to the suite, schedule a spa appointment as soon as you unpack. Even during the off-season, appointments are booked quickly. The Zen Garden’s open-air massage tables are highly recommended.

When night falls, the Paradisus pleases all party personalities. Catch a cultural fire-twirling act on the beach, eat at one of the trendy restaurants, dance to the latest cuts in the local club, cash in at the casino or simply take a starlit stroll on the beach with the one you love.

Lovers are always welcome at the Paradisus Resorts and so are their kids. This hotel property boasts a segregated section for families ensuring a G-rated experience. The family concierge staff goes out of its way to make sure the little ones feel welcomed by planning child-friendly activities throughout the day. This frees the parents to explore adult activities. At night, your little one’s bed will be turned down complete with a pint-sized robe and milk and cookies.

A small warning to parents: Punta Cana is a desired destination for European beachgoers. On the beaches you might see a few sunbathers who’ll forget to tighten their tops. Simply tell beach security and they’ll bring everything back to PG-13.

The Paradisus family has another property just down the road called the Paradisus Punta Cana, which is a bit older. It boasts similar accommodations and features an even more laid-back, lived-in atmosphere that only comes with years of established excellence.

Whether it’s sunbathing, sailing, scuba diving or boating, you’ll find lots of fun in the sun in Punta Cana. A beach lovers’ paradise, the Punta Cana Paradisus Resort experience is one that will be burned into your memory long after your tan has faded.

Essentials: www.paradisuspalmareal.travel

United States Virgin Islands

January 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

America’s Carribean

Whether you are taking your family for some fun in the sun or looking for that perfect romantic getaway, there is something for everyone in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Caribbean paradise consists of three islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John – each with its own character and charm.

This year, the U.S. Virgin Islands celebrates its 90th anniversary as a United States’ territory. Purchased from Denmark for $25 million, these islands give mainlanders some great advantages. First, a passport is not required to visit there. All of the residents are also American citizens, so languages and laws are familiar.

We flew into St. Thomas and were whisked away via ferry to the island of St. John. Our first night in this tropical paradise was enjoyed at the Westin Hotel. We grabbed our bags and walked to the Westin front desk, which is located in the airport terminal. You can check your bags and check into your hotel room without leaving the terminal. The Westin has a private ferry to take you on a 50-minute ride over beautiful blue water to a pier at its hotel. The grounds were impeccably manicured and iguanas were running freely across the lawn. As it turns out, one of the highlights of the day is the 3 p.m. feeding of the iguanas. It is not unusual for 40 to 50 iguanas to show up for their mid-afternoon snack.

After a short rest, it was time to check out the pool. The Westin boasts the largest pool in all the Virgin Islands. We stopped by the bar to have one of their signature drinks, called a Pain Killer. The refreshing frozen cocktail was great to sip while listening to the soothing sound of the pool’s waterfall. Around the pool are rentable, private cabanas. Each cabana comes with a television and refrigerator and is a great place to get out of the sun while enjoying the sights and sounds of the pool.

Later, it was time to head into town. The preferred method of travel on the islands is by safari — open-air taxis made from pick-up trucks that seat 10 to12 people. The paint jobs are all unique and the drivers take great pride in their vehicles. No trip to St. John would be complete without stopping by Woody’s Seafood Saloon for a drink and a dose of fun. Another great spot is Paradiso. Chef Paul Trujillo prepares a wonderful rack of lamb; the menu changes with the current fresh offerings from local vendors.

Finally, it was back to the Westin to unwind at Chloe &Bernard’s, the hotel bar. It was there that I was surprised with the best chocolate martini I ever had. We asked our bartender why people come to St. John. She immediately replied, “You’re far enough away to feel like you’re on vacation, but close enough to feel like you’re home.”

After a couple of days in St. John, we took the ferry back to St. Thomas, which is like the New York City of the islands. There are two cruise terminals that support the many cruise ships. With travelers comes tourism and St. Thomas does not disappoint. There are hundreds of shops to satisfy every taste. We saw everything from handmade souvenirs costing less than $1 to $100,000 diamond rings.

One of the great attractions in St. Thomas is Coral World Ocean Park, which brings visitors up-close-and-personal to the beauty and magic of Caribbean marine life. We were able to touch a shark, hand-feed a stingray and watch newborn seahorses learn to swim. The highlight of the visit was crawling into a tank to swim with sea lions. This encounter was more than a swim; participants got to hold on to the sea lions and take a ride around the tank. The encounter ended with the sea lions jumping over our heads and outstretched arms.

The next day we decided to take a sea plane to St. Croix. A sea plane is the best way to travel between the islands. Since there are no security checks, you simply purchase your ticket at least 30 minutes before flight time and board the plane. It is fast and efficient. The engines purred as we skipped across the water, and soon we were off. The views of St. Thomas and the blue Caribbean water were spectacular from the low flying plane. One splash and we were down.

The first thing you notice about St. Croix is it’s a long way between everything. As we traveled to the hotel, we passed the famous “Beast,” the hill that challenges the most conditioned athletes in St. Croix’s Ironman Triathlon. We stayed at the Carambola Beach Resort, soon to be a Marriott Renaissance Resort. The open-air atmosphere of the hotel was wonderful.

On Friday nights the locals turn out for the Pirates’ Buffet, a celebration of Caribbean cooking and entertainment. Dancers on stilts called “mocko jumbies” wore beautiful costumes and gave high-energy performances to the sounds of steel drums and salsa beats.

We traveled across the island to the Divi Carina Bay, which offers a little something for everyone. The Divi is building a miniature golf course for the kids, the pool is inviting and they have a spa. Couples can enjoy side-by-side massages as they unwind from their hard day of relaxing. The Divi also operates the only casino in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Speaking of couples, the U.S. Virgin Islands is the place for weddings and honeymoons. Most hotels have wonderful pavilions on the grounds or the beach with beautiful settings. If you’re looking for that perfect honeymoon, you and your sweetie will love the serenity and romance that only a Caribbean beach can provide. But if the honeymoon is over and you already have kids, most hotels have special kids’ clubs with events and activities to keep your little ones enjoying their days while the adults can go out and find their own fun.

When it’s vacation time, remember the U.S. Virgin Islands. The weather is beautiful, everyone speaks English and no passports are required. For families or couples, it’s the place to be.