Playa del Carmen & the Tucan/Quetzal Resort

Normally I hate all-inclusive resorts. As an independent traveller, I will suffer through inconvenience in the name of authenticity. But sometimes I just want to park my ass on a beach in the general vicinity of an interesting town while sipping a tasty beverage, and this trip delivered.

I got to use some of my finest-quality, high-octane mumbly spanish, ate some dubious tacos, and snorkelled in some flooded caves. Not bad at all.

So without further ado, here’s my commentary on the Iberostar Tucan / Quetzal resort and its nearby town, Playa del Carmen. I don’t know why they bother to pretend these are two resorts, when they are clearly one, and more or less interchangeable.


The hotel is twelve years old and in good condition. Our rooms were tidy and modern, and not done up in the tacky faux-colonial style seen all over tourist Mexico.  There is a “mayan” wall décor and an acceptable bathroom (large shower) a bit short on shelf space.

The lobbies are pleasant and enjoyable, with a “mayan” style, again not overbearing.

The hotel is structured as several 3-storey buildings, with 12 suites to each floor. The construction is solid concrete and sound isolation is very good.

The buildings are on either side of a completely bonkers jungle that forms the center 50% of the property. Monkeys, various wild and tamed birds, and strange tail-less squirrel/rabbit things are running all over. I am quite sure that this is the most interesting resort in PDC for its natural elements.  There are few pictures of this part of the resort because they don’t look like anything except a dense, wild jungle. Which it kind of is: There was some kind of monkey border dispute outside our balcony every morning at sunrise.

The pool is very large, not heavily used, and has a hideaway swim-up bar.

Food & drink:

Very satisfying, with a good variance from meal to meal. Their cold soups/gazpacho and hamburgers were especially good. There are effectively two buffets (one at beach, one at the services/entertainment area) and five sit-down restaurants which provide marginally better food and an excuse to buy pricy wine. Why you would go to Mexico for a Japanese meal is beyond me. We enjoyed the Mexican restaurant, which I am stunned didn’t offer a mole-based dish, and the Italian restaurant to a lesser degree.

There are bars scattered all over. The alcohols on offer are all acceptable, and the lobby offers better drinks and some recognizable labels including Don Julio tequila and nice cuban rum. The sweet/punch drinks were too sweet for my tastes but the ladies enjoyed them. Order a caipirinha and hold on to your hat.

And hey, the in-room minibar and room service are free.


This resort is the 2nd-last along the resort strip in the private Playacar enclave.  It is a 45-minute walk and 10-minute cab ride to town.

Playa del Carmen, the erstwhile fishing village, will encourage you to spend as much money as you have in your wallet. The shops along 5th avenue are all extreme rip-offs, with aggressive people out front trying to encourage you to go in. You can get slightly better deals by finding places going out of business (which happens all the time) or walking along any of the streets perpendicular to 5th ave.

The Playacar development is completely safe.  There are goons at the perimeter.  The worst annoyances inside the goon perimeter were the resort-employed people offering inauthentic Cuban cigars and spa services that cost more than the best venues in Toronto.

In town, there’s intense-looking police walking around with bulletproof vests and submachine guns. That’s kind of how the cops roll in Mexico.

The beach is very nice, white fine ground-shell beach with well-built palapas and a bored life guard. The entire beach for all resorts was swept away by a hurricane a few years ago, and this sand was dredged up near Cozumel. It doesn’t burn your feet.


The “Star Friends” entertainment crew are enthusiastic, and they manage to put together a good range of stuff to do. My favourite was the 3:30 beach volleyball.

The beaten-up catamarans provided good, free, fun. I miss my Hobie 18.

I am not the sort of person to watch entertainment shows at resorts, but my friends reported it was entertaining, deliberately corny, and the house band was talented.

There is a disco, which a waste of time.. Go to town for your party.

Our friends with children were able to leave the kids at a kids’ club, where they were fed and entertained throughout the day.


Mexicans in general are gregarious people. The men like to ham it up a bit, often making jokes even when nobody’s looking. Perhaps the hotel also cracks the whip a bit. Any which way, the service here was very good. Never bored, never resentful. These people deserve your tips.

The spa services are extremely overpriced. USD 175 for a massage!?

Fellow travellers:

Predominantly European, predominantly late 30’s into retirement. Some families, though the children were well-behaved. No lager louts. The most obnoxious visitors were from Manitoba.

Add-on tours: Sunwing offered a number of tours, overall interesting but very poor value.

Pro tips:

You can get a beach umbrella from the towel shack. The breakfast buffet can, in fact, make you an espresso but they will push coffee on you. You’ll get meaner drinks if you tip at the bar early in your trip. There is a man-made “reef” made out of concrete blocks about 500 meters down the coast, 100m off shore – go for a snorkel and find some fish.

Rent a car and drive around to the more relaxed Tulum beach to the south and the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve without fear – Mexico has completely normal driving conditions and habits.​ The onsite car rental is reasonable ($50/day). Watch out for one thing: flashing green lights are not “you can turn left” — they should be treated as a plain green, as they indicate an impending switch to yellow, then red.

Cruising on Holland America was pretty nice

I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, but I’ve done a fair bit of sailing. I went into this trip expecting to detest it, and I came away impressed albeit at a very steep price.

I’ve detailed elsewhere what a massive pain in the ass it is to deal with Holland America while buying a trip. They engage in tied selling (you must take a land tour if you want a certain grade of cabin) and extort considerable amounts from you if you want to guarantee a particular grade of cabin, or placement on the ship.

My advice to not get screwed like I did is to buy the cheapest cabin you can stand, and jump on the upgrade offers when they inevitably arrive. You’ll be spending most of your time out of your cabin.

Holland America is part of a giant cruise-ship conglomerate with over 100 ships, with perhaps over 150,000 revenue berths afloat. They market themselves to people with more disposable income than your average bear.

Fellow cruisers

Everyone is of a certain age and economic status – retired teachers, retired-at-48 businessmen, well-off Texans, etc.  There is nobody I feel I can relate to on sight, although the retired-at-48 businessman from Halifax seemed agreeable enough. A typical cruiser on the line would be 51 years old, from Texas with a nice job in the oil industry, overweight, with no kids travelling with them.  A significant portion are so overweight as to be unable to move with a reasonable degree of nimbleness.  There were a couple of wheelchair-bound individuals, an equal number of slightly surly teenagers, and absolutely nobody in their 20s or 30s. Half were retired, most early. In spirit, most were solidly middle-aged.

None of the travellers I met had any instincts for independent travel: they were amazed I would rent a bike in town, or rent a car and create my own tour. They were happy to be handled (and gouged) by the Holland America tour shepherds.

When I hear the broad American accent, I experience a horrible prejudice, certain that I am dealing with idiots. The people I met did a lot to dispel that, being naturally curious about travel – to Italy, to obscure corners of Africa, to Cuba, and aware of the US’s place in the world.  I set out hoping to pick a fight with a Sarah Palin supporter but didn’t find a single one.

The ship

Extremely well-maintained, with nice fixtures, and pleasant if uninspiring art.  They make a noticeable effort to fix burnt-out lightbulbs, clean routinely, and the staff are fanatical about wiping down work surfaces.  There is an extensive program to fight illness, with alcohol sanitizers just about everywhere.

Traditions and senior staff

Holland America cheerfully and unironically engages in a variety of naval traditions. All shipboard crew have ranks; one yeoman was summoned, by name and rank, to report for immigration processing.  On a maiden voyage, their ships are greeted by fire-boat salutes. The boat is organized and run according to typical naval traditions. The captain routinely seeks out guests of honour and treats them nicely. While perhaps a standard practice in the hospitality industry, Holland America manages to make this look unaffected and easy.  Midafternoon tea service, whether Dutch Royal, or Indonesian, or English, was a given.

One puzzling thing: the ship’s senior crew rotate off routinely and are noticeably distant. Captain Jack van Coevorden, who provided barometer readings and course details every mornings, was otherwise invisible and was replaced at the end of the voyage.  Bert van Mecklenbergh, the hotel manager, was on another ship last year, and has a clear talent for dancing, photography, and bitching about his guests to his colleagues while in the Crow’s Nest bar.  It’s too bad they were so invisible, because they clearly have the most interesting stories.


Holland America lays claim to the high ground when it comes to cruising food. For the most part they delivered, with interesting and varied menus, capable presentation, good ingredients, and very uneven technique (dry meats, overcooked seafood, oversteamed vegetables). They offer complimentary room service. Every menu provides at least one vegetarian option, and though they have demonstrated competence with eggplant, though they neglected veggie-protein needs such as lentils or tofu.   Their drinks are mixed by hand, well-done and usually stiff.

Staff and service

I’m not the sort of person who demands a high level of service out of anyone, but their predominantly Indonesian (Java, mostly) and Filipino crew were well-trained, genuinely cheerful, and bulldog-tenacious when faced with a problem whose resolution would make a customer happier. At one point we left my mother’s cane in a restaurant, and the busboy believed another guest’s claim to know who it belonged to.  When I turned a moment later, he realized his error and immediately abandoned his duties during a busy dinner service to lead me on a half-hour tear around the ship looking for it.  When I suggested we borrow one from the medical center, he made it happen.

Music and entertainment

The shipboard singers and dancers were singularly talented – most with Broadway experience and an obvious enthusiasm for the corny show-tune material.

The orchestra, over 10 performers typically scattered around the ship’s bars at night, may have been competent, but are hamstrung by their bland, middle-of-the-road list of approved tunes.  At one point, the string section went off on a bright, east-coast style  fiddle-driven tear, and for a brief moment there was life. Then it was gone.  They need to put their synthesizer player into a wood chipper and let that drummer rock out.

There was a talent show for the crew that clearly showed the hand of corporate interference. The crew clearly have talents but the creative direction of the performance was insincere.

The nightlife was absolutely pathetic. If you are the sort of person who, at 10:30pm with sunlight still visible through the windows and no urge to sleep, thinks to visit the bar and see what’s up, be prepared to be one of the four barflies present.


I overpaid to get a guaranteed veranda deck.


The boat typically docked around 6am, with excursions starting between 7 and 8am. The sun comes up at 4:45am and set sometime around 11pm. It was rough, but part of the scenery.

Alaska Travelogue

I am fairly sure that my family will drag me behind a pickup truck when they find out my Mom went on a white-water rafting trip, so I better get this travelogue posted.

The first post will discuss the Holland America line and cruising in general. Later, I will discuss the various towns we visited on our itinerary.

The itinerary: fly to Vancouver; travel on the Holland America ship ms Statendam to Seward, Alaska via Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, and College Fjord; bus to Anchorage; train to Fairbanks via Denali Park; fly back to Toronto, after spending 3 days in Vancouver.

Cruising on Holland America Line is a huge pain in the ass

I’m trying to put together a cruise for my mother and I. She’s 80, and not the most athletic, and this is kind of a special treat, so I’m trying to arrange a nice room with an easy itinerary.

I’ve chosen to cruise on Holland America Line because that is the line my parents took to come to Canada – I think in 1953?

The cruise route we’re doing is a one-way northbound out of Vancouver, going up to Anchorage, Alaska.

If you want a room with a balcony for your mother to sit on, it turns out that Holland America refuses to just give you what you want, and forces you to take decisions you’re not interested in.

You can:

  1. Veranda rooms are only available to people who choose to take a cruise tour, that is a cruise followed by a tour. If you want to do an independent car rental to go look at the things you’re interested in, forget it – Holland America wants to drag you all over the state on a tour bus.
  2. If you don’t want to do that, you could take a non-veranda room, and put your name on a waiting list, and pay for an upgrade if a room becomes available. Then you are not forced to take the tour.

At some point before the cruise departs the rooms are taken off of this crappy forced-choice arrangement and you can just get a room with an open-air view.

This set of forced choices doesn’t end there. To cruise, you have to fly, and if you want to fly on flights Holland America arranges for you, you won’t find out which airline, and which schedule, you’re going to be on. So you might get a respectable Air Canada/Westjet flight in the afternoon, or a 2am redeye on a cramped Air Transat.

What do you suppose the chance is I’ll take my mother to an airport at 3am? And how happy would I be giving Air Transat my money, something I resolve to never do after they fucked me in Paris? Screw you, Holland America.