Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Westin Lagunamar - Property

But we didn't pick the Westin Lagunamar to just stay indoors. The overall property is much more (and better) than the actual room, even if we were in a massive one bedroom suite.

The resort itself is quite spacious, with plenty of options for the handful of families staying there that week. They even had multiple grilling stations where guests could bring their own food to cook out and eat on the numerous picnic tables.

But no Cancun hotel review report would be complete without a few photos of their amazing beach. Unlike most beaches we've been to, the sand is always cool to the touch, even if it's 100 degrees outside.

In addition to an amazing Cancun beaches, we had 3 swimming pools. One massive one that could hold a thousand people with multiple tiers of 4 foot depth.

Another large but zero-entry pool on our side of the resort. While it was smaller, it was also bigger than most hotel pools we've been at and also had it's own swim up bar as you can see below.

And finally, as a part of the first big pool, there was a separated small kiddie pool, but I was too mature for that!

There was also a Westin Kid's Club where we could spend time with my parents for free or drop off kids ages 4+ for a fee. At the Kid's Club, you could play outdoors in the covered playground set, find the Westin pet bunny rabbit or find indoor activities for both kids and adults alike. Also next to the Kid's Club was a small mini-golf course!


They had some arts and crafts available for a small fee as well. I got to paint a wooden starfish for about 60 pesos ($4 USD).

Overall, we had a great time at the Westin Lagunamar. While we enjoyed having extra space, we thought we could also easily spend a week in the studio since they have a washer/dryer as well. My mother loved our trip so much that she wants to go back every other year.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Westin Lagunamar - Room

Hotel Details
Hotel: Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort
Dates: April 23-28, 2015
Rate Paid: 11,600 SPG points/night
Regular Cost: $298 per night
Upgrade: Ocean View 1 Bedroom 
Redemption: 2.6 cents/SPG pt

My parents and I were very excited to try out the Westin Lagunamar. As it recently moved up to a Category 5 property, the room cost us 12,000 points/night for a regular studio room. With the "5th Night Free" promotion, we only paid for 4 nights at 48,000 total SPG points, so it came out to just 9,600 points per night.

However, since we thought we'd enjoy a bit more space on this extended stay, we confirmed a 1 bedroom suite by paying an additional 10,000 SPG points for the 5 night stay, or about 58,000 SPG points total. While we thought this was a standard deal, we heard from other guests that they were unable to book the 1 bedroom on points when they called to ask. Guess we got lucky.

Because we were coming during shoulder season (after the big school spring break), the the cash price was only $298/night for the 1 bedroom suite (down from $400-500/night during peak season). At $298, the price was actually pretty close to our personal "breakeven" redemption price where we'd be indifferent using cash or SPG points. However, we were pretty "points rich" in Starpoints, so we thought we'd be better off saving $1,500 in cash to use for food and activities in Mexico.

Interestingly enough, there are 2 Westin hotel properties in Cancun. The Lagunamar one was a Vacation Ownership property and is much, much larger than the regular Westin.

As you can see in the map below, the Westin Lagunamar also has a much better location on the prime Cancun beach area, near all the action, where the other Westin is down towards the southern end of the hotel zone. Since we'd also be spending a night at the other Westin, we were looking forward to doing a comparison between the two properties.

Check In
We arrived around 3PM to the Lagunamar and went to their main building entrance. Unfortunately, there was no Gold/Platinum check in desk, so we had a bit of wait to get checked in. (Note: there's a separate check in area in the other building, but they don't have door staff to help you with luggage). We knew they were pretty strict on the 4PM check-in, so we weren't surprised to hear our room wasn't ready yet.

We then decided to check our luggage and head across the street to the high end Isla Shopping Mall complex to have a late lunch at "Tacos y Tequila."

We returned around 5PM and our room was ready. We were given room 1142 in the newer adjacent wing (on the right side of the map below).

That side had full access to the entire resort, but had a smaller zero entry pool that was perfect for toddlers like me. It was still massive pool, so we spent the majority of our time there instead of the massive pool where I couldn't reach the floor.

1 Bedroom Suite
Our room #1142 was in building 11 on the 4th floor (coincidentally, my favorite number). Since this was a vacation ownership property (and not a standard hotel), we had higher end finishes, a large (stocked) kitchen and a washer/dryer in the unit. The room also came with a dining table that seats 6 as well as a small couch and another television.

The bedroom was also spacious and had the same views as the livingroom. You could also open the panels into the bathroom where there was a jacuzzi bathtub which is PERFECT for kids like me. Whenever my father wanted to take me out of the outdoor swimming pool, he could tell me I'd be swimming in our room's hot tub and I was sold.

Our building #11 was the "center" unit in the U shape complex, so we had head on views of the pool and the ocean. However, the "best" views are in the upper ends of the U shape where you're closer to the beach. We couldn't complain though since we were getting the a wonderful room with a balcony for free using points.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Isla Mujeres - Zama Beach Club and the Turtle Farm

Pretty soon, after a morning of beach sun/fun, my family started getting hungry by 12PM and we decided to leave Playa Norte and head to the rest of the Isla Mujeres to find some lunch.

We packed up our stuff in the golf cart and made our way back through the town area to head towards the Turtle Farm where someone suggested a nice restaurant with a great view of the water.

The cool shade from the golf cart plus the breeze in our faces quickly put me to sleep. Given there's only really one road that goes around the island, we had an easy time navigating without the map using just the road signs (which had images of Turtle Farm and dolphins for the Dolphin Experience).

Unfortunately, my father forgot the name of the restaurant we were told about, so we just drove around until we found something that we liked - Zama Beach Club.

As you can see, the place was definitely a notch above a local roadside taco stand, but we wanted to indulge a little. It looked as if it were a part of a hotel, but it was actually a stand alone beach club with a restaurant/bar alongside a strip of white sand beach as well as two swimming pools and some spacious clean bathrooms for us to freshen up.

Surprisingly the food prices were not that crazy, though our frame of reference is Manhattan, so combined with the strong US dollar, our sense of value may be skewed a bit. Since Isla Mujeres is a fisherman's spot, my parents decided to go with seafood - seafood cocktail to start, beer battered shrimp tacos and octopus tacos. The octopus was the most fresh, delicious my parents have ever had. HIGHLY recommended.

Despite being a Korean-Uzbek-Russian child by birth, I was still American by culture, so I really wanted a burger - specifically I wanted a "hamburger with rice." Unfortunately, it came with french fries, but I didn't complain.

After lunch, it was closer to 2PM, so we decided to head over to the Tortugranja (Turtle Farm). Full disclosure, it was a TINY place (just really one room and a dock), but for a little kid, it was pretty fun and cost only 30 pesos/person ($2 USD). Note, if you paid in US dollars, it would cost you $3.

Now, candidly, if you're an environmentalist, I'm not entirely sure you'd approve of this local place. So you can skip the rest of the post if this isn't something you're interested in reading about.

We first went out on the dock to see a small dolphin swimming around in the pool. Others may say he was trapped in an underwater cage, but I try to be an optimist at age 3.

Then we went into the small main building with the turtles. To be fair, it looked more like a pet store than anything else with multiple turtle tanks in the center of a single room with visitors taking photos and feeding them small brown pellets of food.

Around the room, there were multiple fish tanks holding different types of fish, including huge spiny lobsters and seahorses. They also had another tank of starfish, hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs that you could hold in your hands.

 As you can see, even my mother was pretty excited to hold a sea turtle.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Isla Mujeres - Playa Norte

My father knew that it would be a long 5 days if we stayed in the resort for the entire stay. So on Sunday, we took a day trip to Isla Mujeres (a small island off the coast of Cancun).

Everything we heard about the island sounded amazing, from the calm shallow beaches of Playa Norte, to the Turtle Farm to the laid back atmosphere without the intense American-style commercialism of Cancun's Hotel Zone.

We purchased our ferry tickets in advance from our hotel concierge (trying to earn more Starpoints), but unfortunately, the ticketing could not be charged to the room. My parents were told to take any bus from in front of the Westin heading north to Playa Tortugas where we could catch the Ultramar ferry every hour on the hour (9AM-5PM).

After having an early breakfast, we caught the bus by 8:15AM and arrived at Playa Tortugas by 8:30AM, plenty of time to catch the first ferry at 9AM.

We got off the bus (which feels like a roller coaster speeding down the road) and walked through a very crowded parking lot so early in the morning. It seemed like Playa Tortuga was the beach for the local Mexican community given it was a bit away from the hotels. We found the UltraMar ticketing booth where we'd exchange our prepaid vouchers for actual tickets. Note: they accepted Visa credit cards.

They quote you in USD, but given the recent FX rates, we were better off being charged in Mexican pesos on our credit card and having our bank do the currency conversion, saving a few bucks.

The pier area is pretty crowded with small vendors selling selfie sticks, fedora hats and other Mexican souvenirs. They also had a few beach-side restaurants just before you stepped onto the pier.

And just in case you wanted one last drink before boarding the ferry, there was another bar at the end of the pier. Boarding started at 8:50AM and we were pulling away from the dock by 9:00AM sharp. The first ferry of the morning only had about 25 people so we had our pick of the seats. My father's been getting motion sickness pretty easily lately, so I took care of him for the 15 minute ride.

While still on board, one of the UltraMar staffers approached us about renting a golf cart. Isla Mujeres is such a small island that there are very few cars, but a lot of motorbikes and golf carts. We knew the prices were going to be 550 Mexican pesos (cash only) for the full day rental, so we went ahead and prepaid with an outfit called Gomar II and was given another voucher.

The other option would have been to just walk around and find another vendor on the street, but we thought an outfit that would partner with the ferry company had to be pretty reputable.

Gomar II ended up being just fine, but we understood why they pre-marketed you when we saw their inconvenient location tucked away on some back street.

After getting a bit lost and frustrated, my parents and I eventually found Gomar II using our "not drawn to scale" map that excluded some side streets. My father gave them his NY State ID as collateral (note: it was not a driver's license) and we were on our way.

We first made our way through the downtown area towards Playa Norte, the best beach on the island. We passed by several banks (ATMs) and convenience stores so you can definitely access cash (which you will need on Isla Mujeres) and stock up on water and snacks.

Since it was still 9:30AM, we were relatively early. After first driving down some ally that led to the western end of the beach, we didn't see any parking available, so we drove down a few blocks until we saw some other golf carts parked along the side of the road. Tip: Playa Norte is pretty long so keep driving down to avoid the tourist crowds who jump at the first opportunity to get onto the beach.

My mother and I went to down the path alongside a beach-front restaurant/bar where you could rent 2 lounge chairs and an umbrella for 150 pesos (~$10 USD). Pretty good deal and since we were early, we could pick the seats right by the water.

As you can see, the water was crystal clear and was shallow, a perfect beach for adorable kids like me and lazy fathers who don't swim well. This is where we spent the rest of our morning and about 500 pesos (in drinks).