Sunday, February 8, 2009

All inclusive, you say?

I had never eaten a meal outside of the United States prior to my trip to Puerto Vallarta.

I expected the resort to have a lot of American fare in the mix, and it tried, but each meal was a reminder that yeah, you really are in Mexico.

The milk, what little I drank of it, tasted different somehow. The lunch buffet pizza was unlike anything I had eaten anywhere else. (It might have been decent if it didn't appear, and taste, like it had been sitting in the warmer for hours.) And their nacho chips weren't the light, crispy Tostitos I love so much. Their nacho chips were thicker, and for me, less appealing. The chicken nuggets: not white meat, that's for sure.

And forget about shredded cheese on the salad bar. A heaping pile of cheddar was nowhere to be found.

The resort had a breakfast and lunch buffet each day, and while there were subtle changes in the lunch menu, it was basically the same. There's a variety of entrees, but after three or four days the novelty of their buffet wears off.

Dinner featured a buffet that was decent, and where we had dinner the first two nights there. For dinner there are three other dinner options. There's a Japanese restaurant, a steakhouse and a gourmet restaurant that features some seafood and other dishes. The trick to these specialty dining options is that you have to have a reservation, and if you want one for that evening, you'd better be down in the resort lobby by 8 a.m. to register for that night's meal, otherwise you'll be shut out. We were, however, able to book our dinners a day in advance.

Since we arrived on Wednesday afternoon, the reservation table was done for the day. Neither my brother nor I got up early enough Thursday to secure a specialty dinner that night, but we did book dinner for Friday evening, at the Japanese restaurant.

My brother is more of a connoisseur than I am, and he's been to a fancy Japanese restaurant before. He thought the resort's Japanese restaurant would be similar, featuring food prepared on a grill that several people sit around. No such luck, it was a buffet-style restaurant. It was good, but a bit of a disappointment, especially for my brother, who places a higher value than I do in ordering off a menu. Buffets are often a bit of a disappointment, I find, so I would have been happy to have one entree prepared fresh for me on Friday evening, but no such luck.

Saturday night we ate at the steakhouse, which featured a variety of entrees for dinner, and in this case it wasn't served buffet style. There were appetizers and desserts served as part of the meal. It was decent, and the closest we came to a traditional restaurant experience. (You choose your entree, but everything else comes standard with the meal, there's no choosing your soup or dessert.)

Being all inclusive, our drinks were complimentary 24 hours a day. Alcoholic or otherwise, it's all part of the package. They resort uses a lot of rail booze, but there was some notable liquors available. The beer was pretty much Corona, on tap. The only bottles of beer were those in our room, which had a refrigerator with a few 1.5-litre bottles of water, several sodas and Coronas.

There was also a shot dispenser on the wall with four types of alcohol, including tequila, of course. (Jose Cuervo, I think.) I drank several beers over four days, and all you had to do was call to get more sent to the room when you needed it, although everything was delivered warm.

Although all inclusive, the resort had virtually no food available outside of its meal times. The only food to be had late at night was in the sports bar, the only 24-hour bar on the property. There were microwave burgers, nacho chips with unheated cheese and perhaps one or two other options. None of it sounded appealing, and reviews I read prior to the trip suggested it wasn't.

My brother stayed at an all-inclusive resort on his honeymoon and said that he could get real food 24 hours a day, with a limited room service menu. I never found myself craving a meal at midnight, which was a good thing, because Riu Vallarta isn't interested in feeding you at that time of night. There wasn't anywhere close where you could get a late night burrito.

The reviews I read varied on the grading of the food. Some people made it sound as if it was barely edible. Others thought it was the greatest dining experience they'd ever had. I'd say it was somewhere in between. My brother is certain he got food poisoning toward the end of our trip. I avoided such a fate.

I also read that a number of people would eat meals in Puerto Vallarta, and that they had spectacular meals for a relative bargain compared to U.S. restaurants. I suggested the option on Thursday night, but my budget-conscious brother wasn't too high on the idea, which was fine with me. Eating at an "authentic" restaurant wasn't that high of a priority for me. And had we opted to do so, we probably would have ended up eating at the Hard Rock Cafe in Puerto Vallarta.

The all-inclusive concept is nice. My brother said he was on a cruise where he had to shell out cash for every drink, which adds up in a hurry. I'm glad I didn't have to pay for every mug of Diet Pepsi I'd get in the morning or mixed drink in the afternoon.

Did the Riu's all-inclusive offering make me want to come back, should I return to Puerto Vallarta? Nope, not really. It sounds like all inclusive has been done better elsewhere, and unless elsewhere is going to cost hundreds of dollars more, the Riu family of resorts is out of the equation. But it's going to be a long while before I'm in a position to book an all-inclusive vacation anywhere, unfortunately.

Schlock of love (unedited)

I'm not done reminiscing about Mexico, but this can't wait.

For the second time in less than 12 months I attended a concert by none other than that bastion of rock and roll excellence, Bret Michaels.

He's perhaps best known for fronting the rock band Poison. Poison managed to emerge from the glam rock era as one of the front runners of the genre. Like nearly every other band of that era, Poison died when glam rock was usurped by the grunge movement in the 90s. And like almost every band from the glam era -- often referred to as "hair bands" -- Poison decided life was a lot harder in the real world. So they reunited in 1999 to do a summer tour, headlining a package of hair bands. They did well enough that the package became an annual event. It beats working for a living, to be sure.

Poison wasn't my favorite hair band, but I did attend one of their headlining tours in their heyday, circa 1990 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. I attended that concert with Monica, but only because my buddy and I bought an extra pair of concert tickets from her for the show. It was that concert, however, that resulted in a friendship that has endured nearly two decades.

A few times since 1999 Monica and I have attended Poison concerts, ironically they've been in Mankato, Minn., Duluth, Minn., and Fond du Lac, Wis., but never in the Twin Cities. Monica has gone to many other Poison concerts during the past 10 years, thanks to her job in the airline industry. But when there's a show I can attend with her, I'm there. I'd never go by myself to one of their shows, but it's a good time, so if I can make it, I go, even though Monica and I aren't always together during concerts we attend.

We've also attend a few Bret Michaels solo shows during the past four years. I'm not sure how often he's toured without his Poison band mates, but I don't remember him doing much of it until a few years ago.

On Saturday night Monica and I attended a Bret Michaels solo show in Hinckley, Minn., the fourth time we've done so.

We went to two shows back in 2005, at the same bar in Andover, Minn., a northern Twin Cities suburb. For whatever reason he played at this bar twice in a span of about two months. It's a good size bar, but that's all it is, a bar. They probably packed several hundred into the building, but it was a far smaller crowd than at your typical Poison concert. Michaels played a few songs from his less-than-notable solo recordings, and threw in a couple of covers Poison hasn't recorded, but otherwise it was the equivalent of a Poison tribute band.

A funny thing happened between 2005 and the two concerts Monica and I attended in the past 10 months, Michaels became a celebrity.

Technically he has been a celebrity for two decades. Headlining arena tours, dating Pam Anderson and working with Charlie Sheen on a forgettable movie project is enough to earn your celebrity card. But 10 years ago this week, as rumors were perhaps just beginning to circulate that Poison would reunite after several years of inactivity, Michaels would have had a hard time getting arrested in Hollywood.

A series of summer tours helped remind the VH1 audience that Michaels was still alive, but it wasn't until the programming geniuses of said network decided that he should be the focal point of a "reality show" that Michaels became such a hot commodity.

I've never seen the show, primarily because I haven't had access to VH1 for about two years, but Michaels has managed to capture the imagination of the VH1 audience with his "Rock of Love" dating game. People have told me the wannabe groupies on the show are an incredible spectacle, and I don't doubt it. There's no shortage of women (or men) in this world who would gladly trade their dignity for a chance to make a living as a pointless public figure, whether it be for winning a contrived survival competition on CBS or for dating a middle-aged hair band singer with a majestic rug atop his head. (He'd never acknowledge it, but nobody could argue with a straight face that Michaels' mane is au naturale.)

After two attempts to find a woman who can accept Michaels' rock and roll lifestyle, VH1 contrived a third crack at eternal happiness by moving the show from a Hollywood mansion to a tour bus. At least that's how it has been explained to me. Again, I have to plead total ignorance.

Last April Monica and I saw Michaels' solo show at Myth Nightclub in Maplewood, Minn., a pretentious concert hall built in a former retail "warehouse." It's a nice venue for a show that will attract more than 1,000 people, and is certainly a far bigger venue than the Andover locale we had previously saw Michaels perform at twice. (A couple of years ago he performed at an even smaller bar in the south metro, and I couldn't attend. Monica intended to, but she was sick, and she was probably better off for it, as that place is a horrible concert venue.)

With Michaels a reborn celebrity thanks to VH1 we saw a noticeably larger crowd at his Myth concert than we had back in 2005. Portions of the concert were allegedly being filmed for the new VH1 tour bus edition of his show. While he played to a larger crowd at Myth, I know many folks in attendance were there thanks to comp tickets. A local band or two opened the show, and they had passwords for free admission to the show that they sent out to anyone on their e-mail list. Our friend Keri forwarded us the password. Since we hadn't purchased tickets in advance, we were able to go for free that night, and I'm glad we did. It was $35 at the door for the show, and Michaels played for all of one hour. I am quire sure we paid no more than $20 to see him in Andover, but when he became a celebrity bachelor, his show was able to command a higher price, evidently. (The venue typically sets the ticket price, and given it was the pretentious Myth Nightclub, it's not a surprise they were charging $35.)

Mr. Rock of Love is back on tour this winter, having toured with Poison last summer, and promoting a Poison tour with Def Leppard and Cheap Trick this summer. His show on Saturday night was at Grand Casino in Hinckley, halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

I'll spare the details, but it looked like there was no chance I was driving to Duluth for the show. Monica thought she was going several weeks ago, but she was wrong. Even when she was wrong, she considered going and staying the night in the hotel with Keri and her entourage from northern Minnesota. But then we found out Mr. Rock of Love had sold out his show in Hinckley, at $30 a ticket. I bet they had 2,000 seats in that showroom, and it sold out weeks ago.

So I entered an online contest from a Twin Cities radio station, just so I could win tickets for Monica to go and spend the night in Keri's hotel room. Sure enough I got a call three days before the show, telling me I won a pair of tickets. The problem: Monica was sure I wouldn't win tickets, so she made plans a few weeks ago for the entire day of the concert. I wasn't about to drive up there by myself, even if Keri had purchased tickets weeks ago. But then Monica called me Friday afternoon, telling me the weather canceled part of her plans for Saturday, and she was canceling the other part of her plans so we could go to the show.

And just like that, I was part of a group of 2,000 or so people, many of whom would never have attended Michaels' solo show three years ago if he wasn't a VH1 darling. The guy's solo career is hotter than ever because he allegedly wants to find love on a televised dating show. Amazing.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact a casino booked his show, but there was no opening act. The concert was scheduled to start at 8 p.m., and it started about 8:15. And like last spring at Myth, Michaels couldn't be bothered to work for much more than an hour. His band played for about an hour, departed the stage, only to return minutes later for one final song. The irony was he talked as if he was going to play for three hours. What a fraud.

Casinos tend to book a lot more country acts and golden oldies rather than hair bands. I question if Grand Casino has every booked an act like Michaels.

The concert had assigned seats, and they had chairs throughout the showroom. But there was little room in front of the stage for those who want Michaels to sweat on them, such as Monica and Keri's entourage. Casino security actually forced everyone to vacate the narrow area between the stage and front row chairs prior to the start of the concert. But as soon as the house lights went down, anyone who wanted to pack the front of the stage like sardines descended upon the stage area, which I knew would happen. I stayed several rows back in Keri's seats.

The casino had security, but it didn't seem that interested in prohibiting people from standing on their chairs, or doing much else that generally falls under the guise of event security. Most people didn't climb atop their chairs, but some would for a short while, until somebody behind them would yell at them to get down. I was sure I was going to see a couple of cat fights over such circumstances, but somehow that was averted. I'm surprised I didn't see plastic beer bottles thrown at those who were so inconsiderate.

The crowd featured quite the variety, from teens who were dragged there by their parents to women nearly old enough to be my mother. You had young skanks who'd make even gay guys drool, and women who weighed more than me, and I'm not exactly svelte in my old age. The world is an interesting place full of interesting people.

During Michaels' one-song encore a woman who looked nothing like a skank you'd see on Rock of Love climbed on stage to dance with him. He played along before security politely escorted her offstage. Not long after that several woman started climbing on stage, seemingly at Michaels' invitation. And most of them: not Rock of Love material either. It was so weird. Women were trying to grope him while he was finishing the last song, and some had their cameras on them, so they wanted to get pictures with him as he was trying to wrap up his performance. It was rather weird to watch, and not that pretty.

Monica and I had fun, and for the most part Keri's entourage enjoyed themselves. Keri's sister-in-law had her digital camera snatched amongst the mob in front of the stage, and that was quite the buzzkill.

In the end I was glad Monica and I were able to spend the evening together, something that appeared to be out of the question for several weeks, and even 48 hours prior to the concert. But I'm not paying to see that ass clown preen for the unwashed masses any time soon. (I'm sure he'd be devastated to learn of this.)

Should I be shocked that a 45-year-old goofball is eating up the attention he's getting 20 years after his band was an MTV darling? No, not at all. I'm sure it beats working for a living. Now if only the poor bastard could find true love. I'm sure he will, just as soon as the bloom is off the VH1 ratings rose.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Crazy games

I'm not sure if every resort has them, but I have a hunch many of them employ a sports and entertainment team like Riu Vallarta had.

There were a group of seven or eight people each day who seemed to be around the resort much of the day. At times they all wore uniform shirts signifying they were part of this obscure group of people. It was a predominantly male group, and none of the dudes were white guys. I'm not sure what countries they represented, but their names and/or accents made it clear they weren't Norweigan.

All of the dudes were relatively young and in good shape. They would lead activities and games from time to time. Late one morning I saw two of them leading some sort of water aerobics class in the pool. Well, it started out as water aerobics, but it ended up more like a foreplay session for a geriatric orgy. It was a bit creepy.

A couple of dudes seemed to handle all the emcee duties at the pool. They had a sound system set up so they could broadcast across the pool when promoting an upcoming activity or calling a bingo game. They'd usually do their announcements in both Spanish and English, although I swear 99 percent of the resort guests spoke English.

The dude who emceed most often had quite the accent, and it was damn hard to understand him at times. I don't know why that guy was the voice of the sports and entertainment team, but it should have been the Canadian chick.

Yep, there was a chick who was part of the team, and she's Canadian. The reason I know that is that I overheard some dude hitting on her the first afternoon we arrived at the resort. The team members eat lunch at the same buffet where everyone else does, and some dude really wanted to get to know her better.

She was cute, certainly, but somehow she was more than that, at least to the dudes who worked with her. A couple of those dudes were clearly gay, yet that didn't seem to make a difference, they were all enamored with her. Given that she was probably the only white woman on the entire resort staff, it's not surprising she drew as much attention as she did from every dude on staff. Irrelevant trivia: she was in good shape, but had meatier legs than most of the guys on the team, and her legs looked like they'd been attacked by a dozen bees.

I thought she was the only woman on the team, but on the last day another woman appeared. I'm not sure what nationality she was, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't Swedish.

On the final afternoon my brother went up to the room for a while to take a siesta, so I was lounging at the pool by myself. I was sitting in the pool near the sound system when one of the dudes started promoting a "crazy game" in minutes. The allure of the crazy game was a chance to win a massage from the resort spa.

One of the team members asked me if I wanted to play the crazy game. I didn't, but I didn't exactly say no. Not long after that he asked my name and signed me up. I wasn't thrilled.

As it turns out, only four guys wanted to play the crazy game, or were stupid enough to let themselves be recruited. The game: diving for chips.

A variety of poker chips in varying colors were thrown into the pool near the sound system. Each color was worth a different point value, from five to 50. The challenge was to pick up as many chips off the bottom of the pool as possible in 30 seconds, while wearing a lifejacket. I had no idea how easy or difficult it would be.

The first guy to play the crazy game managed about three or four chips, including one of the 50-point chips. His girlfriend was with him, and cheering for him. I think she really wanted the massage.

I went second. The emcee for the event asked where my wife was. Not wanting to look completely pathetic I gestured up toward the hotel. My life was pathetic enough, the last thing I needed was to acknowledge to the entire pool I was there with my brother.

During my 30 seconds diving to the bottom of the pool in about four feet of water I did pretty well. I surmised that part of the trick to diving down to the bottom of the pool was exhaling as I upended myself. Each time I did that I'd buy myself a few seconds to grab chips, and there were enough of them that each time I was able to grab one or two. I'd grab them with my right hand, primarily, and hold them in my left hand.

Each time I surfaced nobody could tell how many chips I was holding. And I'd quickly take a breath and dive back down. At the end of my 30 seconds I managed to grab several chips, including two 50 pointers. My total was near 200 points, more than 100 better than my predecessor. When I climbed out of the pool and opened my hand, revealing several chips, I heard the dude's girlfriend gasp. She knew I clobbered her boyfriend's total.

The two dudes after me did better than the first guy, but not as well as me. One dude came within 20 points of my total, but I won. I was leaving the next day, but I won the free massage, allegedly.

Being the winner, unfortunately, I had to dance like a jackass for 20 seconds as the emcee played some dance tune. To claim my prize, I had to attend the evening show in the showroom, where each day they call the winners of the various games up on stage. We got a certificate with our name on it, acknowledging we were a winner, and had to do a Rockettes-style dance with the team members.

I could have lived without the stupid dancing, both at the pool and on stage, but I'm the only one who will remember it. I enjoyed playing the crazy game, I must say. My competitive spirit was quickly unleashed when I realized it was a game I could excel at.

As for that free massage, I had a noon flight out of Puerto Vallarta the next day, so there was no chance to take advantage of it, although during my appearance on stage I never received anything that would suggest I was entitled to a free massage. So much for a happy ending to my vacation.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The rule of the pool

I have heard the story before, and it's true.

There are squatter's rights to the chairs at the pool of major resorts, and it's damn competitive.

Mexico was no exception.

There are plenty of chairs around the pool area, some get a lot of sun, some don't. But none are as valuable as those closest to the pool.

I noticed that there were plenty of towels spread all over the pool chairs each day, but not many people in them. That wasn't a shock, but on our third day I was up earlier than I had been on day 2, and when I was down near the pool I found that there were plenty of towels spread across lounge chairs, but hardly a soul to be found at the pool. Some people also left books, magazines, newspapers, flip flops or other personal items with a towel on their designated chair. Somehow by doing that you guarantee yourself right to that chair for as long as you want it that day, whether you're using it or not.

It's nice to be close to the pool, as you're closer to the bar, but my brother and I learned a couple of important things about being poolside. No matter how much sun you get at certain times of the day, the trees and other obstructions will limit the hours in which your chair gets direct sunlight. For some that's not a consideration, but if you want to soak up the sun, it can pose a problem.

And at our resort the ocean breeze didn't quite work its way through the pool deck, so it got hot in the sun. You'd think I was sitting in a sauna by how much I would sweat in the sun. Sure, I'd drink beverages to keep cool, but sweat would pour out of me in the sun.

But not at the beach. We could pull chairs toward the water and be free of all obstructions each afternoon, yet we'd never get that hot at the beach, there was always a nice breeze to keep us from overheating.

We spent some time poolside and on the beach, both have their benefits. But when you travel to an ocean-side resort, why would you want to spend all your time poolside, as if you're in Minnesota rather than Mexico? I don't get it, especially when you have to get up before 8 a.m. to stake your claim to one of those precious spots.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Surviving Mexico

I'm more than a week removed, and I have yet to reminisce about my trip to Mexico.

For the first time in my life I traveled south of the border. I never expected to be going to Mexico in 2009, but as luck would have it one Thursday afternoon last June I had a voice mail message from one of the local radio stations, telling me all my entering of contests to win concert tickets and other crap paid off big time. I won a trip for two to Puerto Vallarta from one of those radio stations that plays what it wants, allegedly.

The beneficiary of my good fortune? My brother, whose wife would have preferred that I just give the trip to them. Tough break, sister.

The trip included round trip airfare and four nights at Riu Vallarta, one of three Riu resorts along the beach. Riu operates resorts in many vacation destinations, evidently. Our Puerto Vallarta destination was an all-inclusive property.
We didn't really stay in Puerto Vallarta, we stayed north of the city, in an area that I think is called Riviera, Nayarit. Nayarit is the state, evidently, but I'm not sure that there's actually a city called Riviera. I guess I have some Mexican geography to study.

There are numerous resorts lining the beach in this area, and the access road to them has gated entries on both ends. The area also appears to have its own tourist police force assigned to the highly profitable land of well-to-do Americans.

I was glad my brother was able to go to Mexico with me, but this place is really for couples, primarily. It's not the type of place that draws lots of singles, I could tell. The two young skanks running around the first two days of my trip seemed to have drawn the same conclusion. They seemed like they couldn't get enough male attention, yet were disappointed most of the guys there were already spoken for.

All inclusive means you don't have to pay for food or drinks on the property, but that has its limitations, too. The food was decent, but it wasn't spectacular, and after the dinner hours, there's almost nothing to be had on the property, except for a few lousy offerings in sports bar. There weren't even vending machines to get potato chips or candy bars after hours. I think the gift shop had some of that, but there was no walking down the street to a convenience store at this place.

There will probably be no rhyme or reason to what I write about in the coming days, but I'm going to try to record memories of this trip each night until I've had enough. My trip was less than raucous, and far from scandalous, but I'm going to relive it nonetheless.