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Articles, featured, travel, weddings

Oceanside wellness: A bliss-filled Caribbean adventure on the Riviera Maya

The second longest coral barrier reef in the world stretches from Roatan, Honduras, to Cancún, Mexico. In the lush tropical jungle of Cancún, a host of activities await travelers, from the adventurous set, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, ruins exploring, swimming in cenotes (sinkholes) and sailing to the honeymooners seeking respite from months of charting seats, writing vows, interviewing vendors and managing the full-time job of planning a wedding.


Cancún is situated on the Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. As vacation destinations go, Cancún is relatively new on the scene. Up until about 30 years ago, it was a dense jungle. Underneath, water runs freely from the river to the peninsula to the Caribbean Sea. An easy drive from Cancún is the sanctuary of Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a luxury resort attached to a heralded brand of international hotel chains known for its superior service.

Duck breast with chipotle, tequila and honey at
John Gray Restaurant in Playa del Carmen

Everything that goes on behind the gates of the Banyan Tree Mayakoba caters to the guest. It’s a honeymoon destination all on its own. Though there’s plenty of exploring to be done off property—from visiting ruins of ancient cities like Tulum and Cobá, and exploring eco parks with knowledgeable guides to shopping and dining out in Playa del Carmen at notable restaurants such as John Gray—there’s so much to keep you occupied and satisfied at the resort. It all depends on the type of honeymoon you want to have.


Guests stay in private villas at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba. Every villa is outfitted with its own small pools, in-ground hot tubs, a hammock and a view of the water, whether it’s the canal or the Caribbean Sea. The villas are discreetly built into the carefully conserved landscape, which preserves four ecosystems in balance—the mangroves, dunes, low forests and coral reefs. To get around the property, guests can call for a golf cart pick-up or rent a bicycle from the front desk for $10 a day. Without a doubt, rent bikes for you and your new spouse. The resort’s property extends all the way to the Caribbean Sea. When you hop on your bike, you can cycle by mangroves, along canals, wind your way through the resort’s award-winning golf course, spot lizards sunning their dry bodies in the Mexican warmth and arrive at the sugary white sand and turquoise waters.

Sands, Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s ocean-front restaurant

Here, the resort’s al fresco beach restaurant caters to refined palates with fresh sea food, authentic Mexican dishes and light fare. The bright white building is U-shaped and spills into an inviting pool with swim-up bar, leading to the ocean. Bartenders service at any lounge chair, so go on and relax.

A myriad of dining experiences abound at Banyan Tree Mayakoba with trained chefs at all the restaurants, from the elaborate breakfast smorgasbord laden with food from around the world to the aforementioned beach club to the upscale Asian-inspired Thai restaurant situated over the peaceful canals.

Because the resort is built around canals, the spiritual sense of moving water is quite calming. Boat operators are stationed around the property to taxi you back and forth from the beach to the main building. To better understand the eco-system, charter the taxi with a nature guide to tour the canals. Mangrove boat tours run three times a week, and provide a special opportunity to spot wildlife, from blue herons, gray herons, snowy egrets, crocodiles to great blue herons, the biggest in North America. There are 13 kilometers of artificial canals on property, but natural water from the sea flows throughout.


There’s no shortage of romance at Banyan Tree Mayakoba, and the staff is generous with its pampering for all couples, straight or gay. To customize your love-themed visit, the property created an Experience Department, staffed with a romance and events manager and a romance coordinator. Options range from in-villa dining, where a chef privately prepares a lavish barbecue by your pool for you, to assisting you in planning your wedding ceremony at the resort. The expansive property boasts ample rooms for any size reception, as well as its own florist and catering staff. But the allure of marrying here is having an authentic Mayan ceremony, performed by a real shaman, who doesn’t discriminate against same-sex couples. Tied together through a spiritual ceremony celebrating the bonds of nature and each other, marrying in the Mayan tradition is a rare experience. Couples can arrange it all through the Experience Department, even ordering custom traditional Mayan wedding attire. The ceremony is available in your villa (for up to 10 guests) or surfside, and includes local floral decorations, Mayan musicians and a traditional performance during the ceremony .Packages starting at $2,200 include all of the aforementioned with an in-villa wedding, plus one 90 minute massage session for two at the award-winning spa and a dinner for two at Saffron, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, which includes one bottle of wine.


Though most resorts can boast a spa, Banyan Tree Mayakoba has the market on the serenity with its exclusive Rainforest experience, involving an intense pampering session through seven stations which titillate all the senses, from showers replicating tropical waters with a rainbow of lights and a medley of sounds to an avocado body mask to an invigorating body scrub of papaya to a plunge into the warm bubbling indoor vitality pool. Finish it off with an authentic Thai massage from a limber table-climbing therapist, and collapse on each other in your villa until you’ve got enough energy to hop on the water taxi to take in more of the Caribbean Sea.

The temperature is a comfortable 80 degrees year-round. For a beach wedding at sunset, April is ideal. September is the rainiest month. Hurricane season runs from June through November.

Fly into Cancún International Airport. Banyan Tree Mayakoba is an easy 45-minute drive. Arrange transportation through the resort.

All activities referenced can be arranged through the resort.

Villa rentals start at $565 a night.

Banyan Tree Mayakoba
Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juárez Km. 298
77710 Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Tel. +52 984 877 3688

John Gray’s Downtown
Av. Xpuhil, SM 19 Mz 2, Lt 24. , Cancun
Tel. 998.883.98.00

Photos: duck dish courtesy of John Gray; all others courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba


Editor’s note: This article was first published on Jan. 30, 2012 on


Articles, featured, writing

How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.