Monday, July 14, 2014

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Mexico's been on my top 10 list for about a decade, so I was extremely excited at booking this week away, last minute (though not on, which was a few hundred quid more per holiday than Teletext). However, I'd always imagined a back-packing exploration of the country ...culminating in a trip down the coast from Cancun via Mayan ruins, through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and finishing up in Colombia. One week at an all-inclusive resort is pretty much the opposite of what I'd envisaged.

It was still an adventure, though. My first experience of the Caribbean Sea! And as it's the reverse of what I'm used to, the all-inclusive aspect was slightly adventurous if only because it was my first time.

  • Being permanently warm enough at night in sea breeze, without a jumper. This is a first for me, and very relaxing.
  • The beach: Incredible! White, soft sand; crystal clear, warm, turquoise sea; hot sun; palm trees; beach bar selling frozen margaritas.
  • Cocktails on tap for 'free'
  • Miraculously never feeling hungover, and getting up early each day.
  • Mexican food, of course.

  • Feeling ripped off for anything that wasn't all-inclusive
  • Ridiculous booking system for hotel meals
  • Suspect the drinks were severely watered down (hence lack of hangovers). They didn't taste boozy. I'd get the barmen to top up cocktails straight from the bottle, they'd put loads in and the drinks would still not taste strong.
  • Not enough 'real' Mexico, which isn't surprising.

Food-wise, I enjoyed having guacamole and salsa with every breakfast, every lunch and most dinners. The breakfast buffets were excellent, and I usually had refried beans, quesadillas (chorizo or chicken), eggs, bacon, tropical fruit (including unbelievably wonderful mango), sausage, stewed pork and more, along with the guac and salsa. Every morning I woke up not being hungry, but still managed to polish off a whole plate of buffet.

Example of breakfast

Note best mango possible at the back

I had ceviche every lunchtime, usually unidentified white fish at the hotel. The best one I had was on the beach in Playa Del Carmen, at Tarraya restaurant. It was octopus so not raw, but really tasty. The pre-ceviche homemade nachos at Tarraya came with a great scotch bonnet and lime dressing which could blow your eyeballs out.

Nachos with scotch bonnet salsa at Tarraya

Octopus ceviche at Tarraya

The 'à la carte' hotel restaurants (as oppose to buffets) were generally canteen style environments, with no open windows or outside space and lots of air con. The food was good, but not very interesting. The insane booking system meant we only ate at them a couple of times. The dinner buffets were good but quite samey, especially after similar breakfast and lunch buffets. 

One night, we took a taxi to '5th Avenue' (i.e. the strip) to eat dinner with another couple. The street in question was crazily touristy and the fajitas were more expensive than in London. They charged us $6 each for a shot of basic tequila, and that was after some serious haggling! The food was good, but I was itching to go off piste and find a normal Mexican café. On the bus back to the airport, we passed tonnes of such places (plastic tables and chairs, hand-painted signs and menus, cheap) and I had a pang of regret that I hadn't pushed my companion harder to go to these types of places at least on a couple of evenings.

On our last evening we had tried to go back to Tarraya for grilled lobster, but it was closed by the time we got there, so we had an argument instead.

I had hoped to go on a trip to a Mayan pyramid in the jungle, but after an extortionately expensive and disappointing boat trip to Isla Mujeres we were put off any other pricey tourist trips. We didn't have enough time there to get to grips with public transport options for going it alone. 

One thing that I got fed up about to the point of responding angrily was the sales technique of every type of vendor (streets, shops, bars, beach), who ALL asked us our names, nationality and whether we were newlyweds (not ideal during the last evening argument). It's none of your business, and telling you won't make me want to buy your goods or services! I lost patience in the end and rudely stopped interacting at all.

So, now I've experienced a 'normal' luxury holiday. It was a fantastic break and I loved most of it. I would definitely like to go back to Mexico, but I will also definitely avoid all-inclusive holidays. A week was not enough.

Beeeaaaautiful beach, perfect sea

Hutong Rant Review

It’s difficult to get a table at The Shard’s Hutong restaurant, but I managed to get one for my partner’s birthday at 10:30pm (the only time available that evening), by booking three weeks in advance.

Jay Rayner had said that the food was good, but that the high price was really for the view and the ambience. I was OK with that because it would feel special for a birthday and ‘good’ was good enough. Sadly, it wasn't good, it was bad.

Due to friends dropping by unexpectedly with birthday bubbles we were running quite late. I tried to call Hutong (number not on their website so found it on Google), but the answer machine was on some kind of faulty loop, so it wasn’t possible to get through. I emailed to explain that we were running 20 minutes late, would that be OK and if so to please hold the table for us.

I got there 25 minutes late and rushed in while my partner found somewhere to park. They didn’t know anything about my email but I was relieved when it didn’t seem to be a problem and they took me to a window table.

On the way to the table I was told the kitchen would be closing in four minutes and I would have to order for my guest. As soon as I sat down I was given a menu and the waitress stood next to me while I chose our dishes. I was reminded about the strict four minute deadline.

Seconds after giving the order, Birthday Boy arrived and wanted to change a dish but was told it was too late. “You’re very late, aren’t you?” a waitress commented.

The view is still there

Nevermind, we ordered champagne and shortly after it was poured, our first starter of 'Sichuan peppered cuttlefish with ma la chilli sauce’ arrived, and it was very good; well-spiced, tasty and tender. I thought it was a bit strange that our other starter didn’t arrive at the same time for this style of dining. Also, our second starter was ‘Thinly-cut pork belly with cucumber slices marinated in a chilli and garlic sauce’, but the cuttlefish arrived on a bed of cucumber, so it could have been cucumber overload.

But the pork never materialised. After ages of waiting, a waiter came with the dessert menu, asking us to order before he closed his dessert operation for the night. We asked him to check on the progress of the cold pork starter. Another long wait. Then our main arrived, followed by the dessert waiter. He explained that the pork had run out. We explained why it was annoying that no-one had told us and we hadn’t been asked whether we'd like to select something else. He didn’t get it, and rudely argued with us but our angry response to him blaming us for being late sent him scuttling to the manager.

Mains: The salt and pepper soft-shelled crab was horribly greasy and under-seasoned. I couldn’t taste any spices. The coating was completely soggy and oozed oil as I chewed. I’ve had better at my local Chinese. The pile of plain crabs were presented in the middle of a preposterous ring of decorative dried red peppers.

The marinated, braised and ‘crispy’ deep fried de-boned lamb ribs were tasty and well-seasoned but chewy and again very greasy. And not crispy. The egg-fried rice was nice.

The dessert waiter returned to mumble apologies and say we could have free desserts to make up for the mistake with our starter.

I gave Birthday Boy my dessert. The lychee ice-cream was nice. Nothing special but not actively bad. The mango rolls were actively bad; dry and tasteless with tiny mean cubes of mango inside the rubbery rolls that looked like they’d been drying out on a windowsill for a few hours.

All the waiting staff had disappeared. We waited and waited but no-one was around. I (half-) jokingly suggested doing a runner, as it seemed we had been abandoned and the evening had been so shoddy and infuriating that I wasn’t keen on paying for it. When I started wandering around to get attention someone eventually turned up and allowed us to pay. He asked how the dessert was. We told him. He smiled and nodded and didn’t care or register our diplomatic criticism of the mango rolls.

We could have enjoyed the view and continued our evening at the bar downstairs but by that time just wanted to get out of the building. Such a shame. A ruined birthday treat.

If I’m late for a booking (even having done everything I could to warn the venue), I do understand if I have to order quickly, but other than that the service and food should be the same as at any other time. It’s the same price. If you don’t have time to give customers the experience they’re paying for don’t let them in. If I’d known that I would be treated like a naughty child, had my order messed up, endured poor and unaccommodating service and received unacceptable food for a sky-high price, I would have gone elsewhere. I know it was late in the evening to find somewhere else, but a kebab would have been preferable.

UPDATE: When I tweeted my review to Hutong they responded to apologise and asked if I had contacted them before posting the review. I said that I had filled in a survey from the booking company with my contact details but no-one had been in touch, which made me feel they didn't care and resulted in the blog post. They investigated and found that the booking company had not been passing on all feedback (negative feedback). Huntong said they had used my experience to improve training and bollock the booking company, and offered me a bottle of Champagne at the venue. I appreciated the offer, very pleasant communications, explanations and investigation, but would feel uncomfortable drinking Champagne somewhere I'd complained about.