Saturday, September 7, 2013

Puerto Vallarta Trip Report - August 30th - September 6th, 2013

I (48) last visited Puerto Vallarta in June 2004 with my son (we stayed at the Grand Marival in Nuevo Vallarta that trip).  This time I went with a good friend (37) from work.  We knew it was rainy HOT & HUMID season there but we just wanted to get away and enjoy a 5-star resort.  Quite honestly, as time inched closer, I was really uncomfortable with the hot and humid thoughts that continually occupied my mind.  I swore after last visit, I would NEVER return in summer, but never say never, right?

Anyway, after much research and a cancellation here & there we booked the Hard Rock Vallarta.   A kind Trip Advisor forum contributor gave me his 25% Hard Rock member discount with a referral and finally everything got booked the second week of July.  We booked a Deluxe Gold room with two double beds.  Also included is $1500 worth of "Resort Credits" you can use.  You just pay 16% tax on the price of whatever activity you choose.  For example, the tax on a 50 minute massage priced at $130 Resort Credits was $20.80 USD.  Of course we tipped 20% additionally based on the $130 and found it a great offer.  Some things had better value than others...

I only like All-Inclusive vacations when I don't care about leaving the resort.  This was one of those occasions.  So, I didn't mind staying in Nuevo this time like I did last trip (I felt trapped).  I had no interest other than R&R, good drinks and food and hopefully a comfy bed in a nice room.  I was happy to learn the new Grand Odyssey Casino was open across from the hotel too.

Pic from Hard Rock Hotel website

Friday, August 30th:

It was an early 3:00am start today and I didn't like that we had to stop in Edmonton first for about an hour with our departing flight.  I was really unhappy with that detail.  Our flight left at 7:00am.  We arrived to Puerto Vallarta at 4:30pm local time which was two hours ahead.

We made our way past the timeshare mob and got outside to where our transport was to pick us up.  Our member referral included pick up and drop off at the airport.  Surprisingly the weather was not as bad I was expecting and it wasn't overly humid!  A very pleasant surprise.  We found our driver and we made our way to the hotel.

Check in was easy with an introduction to Marco who was our vacation planner.  We agreed to meet him tomorrow and we were given room 4017.  They tell you at check in you can borrow guitars and an amp and there is a channel that teaches you to play.  All part of the "Rock Star" experience.  The bellhop escorted us to our room with our luggage.

At first, it was surprising how BIG the double Jacuzzi tub actually is!  It took up a big chunk of the room. It also later turned into a clothes rack, like exercise equipment does at home...

The beds were comfy

The t.v. was not very Rock Star-ish but it did its job

View from our French Balcony

The all important mini-bar!

We had a drink, unpacked a little and made our way to dinner. We originally were going to have Mexican food at "Frida" but they were putting on the "Romantica Dinner" (a pay dinner you can use Resort Credits for).  So we stopped for a Special Coffee first.  Below is Carlos making my Mexican coffee.

We then made our way to the Brazilian Steakhouse called "Ipanema".  

We had a great waiter named Rodolfo.  He looked after us well.  We ordered a bottle of champagne.  We received Dubois and it was not bad to drink at all (we did get tired of it and quit drinking it a couple of days later).  You start at the salad bar and then flip your coaster to the picture of the Sword to start the meat delivery.

I only took one picture unfortunately (tired with a capital T at this point and starving!) but this chicken leg was my fave part of dinner.  We never even made it further than chicken, turkey and sausages before we flipped the coaster over to stop service.  So I planned to make a return visit so I could try some beef.  I really liked the asparagus wrapped in bacon bundles that were at the salad bar.  They also bring a gravy boat of Chimichurri sauce and Habanero "Hot" sauce.  Rodolfo explained the sauce as an equivalent to Chinese "Thai" as it was very spicy.  Both were very good.  He also brought us a couple of different types of shooters for dessert.

Beef empanada appetizer and divine chicken leg, sausage

After dinner and a freshen up in the room, we made our way to the Sun Bar which is below.

We drank lots (martinis for me) and met some people here for a wedding from Mississippi and a couple from Washington state.  I was three sheets to the wind so I retired for the evening.  My friend returned to the room about 2am after swimming in the closed pool with the Mississippi group.  What happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.  ;)

Saturday, August 31st:

We awoke but I was super tired still and couldn't get motivated to move.  My friend wanted to go to the pool so I wished her farewell and said I needed to move slowly.  She came back after a couple of hours and we ordered room service, we shared waffles, bacon and sausages and got a bottle of champagne with fresh squeezed orange juice.

Then we made our way to see the vacation planner to get all our activities done for the week.  We were also given a letter at check-in that entitled us to a "Romantica Dinner" and said happy anniversary on it I have no idea how that came about.  We were told to go book at Concierge so we did that. I told them we were not a couple, nor was it our anniversary but they said that was fine so I made reservations for it for this evening.  There was no charge to us for it.

When we got back to the room, this was delivered:

Must have been part of that romantic dinner package?  We drank it and the strawberries were good too.  My friend went back out to the pool and I had to have a nap.  My friend came back but she now needed a nap.  I couldn't wake her to go to dinner so I went by myself.

I walked to Zen restaurant and they asked where my husband was.  I told them he was drunk and passed out.  They said he was happy then.  :)  Dinner was a set course menu.  They even gave me the menu as a keepsake and it had a big picture of a heart made out of musical notes on the cover.  The first course below was Crustaceans Bisque:  Delightful deep sea cream soup made of shrimp, lobster and crab.  Served with exotic vegetables Thai Rolls.  (They added some chicken satay to this dish).

The next dish below is Oriental Sherbet:  Made with lychee and Galliano liquor.  This was the pallet cleanser.

Next course below is Beef and Shrimp Duet:  Grilled shrimp wrapped in a beef tenderloin blanket drizzled with oyster sauce next to a bed of vegetables and roasted potatoes.  (It was kinda, sorta that - NOT.  Teriyaki sauce served on rice with a sweet potato puree and beet puree with some crushed mango).

I passed on dessert.  The chef came over and introduced himself and asked if I was enjoying the meal.  I assured him I was and said I would return.  Then one of the waiters came over and asked how long I've been married.  I explained again about there not being an anniversary.  I enjoyed the dinner but was not blown away by it.  It was good, not great.  I tipped them well because service was excellent.

Then I decided to head over to the casino.  It was literally across the street.  I had to check in at the cashier and get a card.  You put funds on the card to play.  I put on 500 pesos.  There are lots of slots, not many tables.  One craps table, one roulette table and a couple of blackjack. That was pretty much it. There is also no liquor license yet either.  I played some slots and cashed out with 1002 pesos.  When I went to the cashier to collect, I only received 850 pesos back.  They told me it was tax on my winnings.  I'm not sure about that actually, that it was that much tax, but when I tried further for an explanation, no one spoke English anymore so I left.  I knew that I would not return...

The picture below is in the hotel lobby, and this is made out of instruments:

This picture below of Carlos Santana is made entirely out of 2800 record album covers.  It is very impressive to see!

I went and picked up my friend who was lying in bed thinking I had abandoned her.  We went to the Sun Bar and closed it down till 1am drinking aged Don Julio tequila (sipping tequila).  We partied in the room till about 3am and then went down for the count.

Sunday, September 1st:

We both slept in until our scheduled massages at noon.  We headed over to the Rock Spa.  I was a little worse for wear and tear!

We each had a 50 minute massage.  She had the relaxation one and I had aromatherapy.  That was all our credits entitled us to pretty much with the $300 cap on the spa treatments.  The 50 minute massages were $130 each.  They were great and needed.  We enjoyed it a lot.

Then we headed to the Market Buffet for lunch.  There was interesting and good items.  I particularly enjoyed the ceviche and shrimp cocktail pictured below.

Then it was pool time, finally... I was feeling pretty rough still but the water felt great!  We found a nice little alcove that had no people around and it was nice to just float and enjoy.  I mentioned to my friend that I didn't like all the big "man boobs" that seemed to be roaming out and about that day and she howled.  ;)

They have a pizza oven at poolside.  It was pretty good and you can get whatever toppings you want on it, custom made to order.

Dinner tonight was at the Italian restaurant called Ciao.  It is open air over looking the beach and it was hot.  Almost uncomfortably so but we made it through.

We both started with Beef Carpaccio and Tomato Soup (pics didn't turn out).  Both were good. We also used Resort Credits to upgrade our wine and got a bottle of Ravenswood Zin which I really like.  (The tax on the wine ended up costing $23.20 USD which is a bit of a rip off in my opinion but I expect it in Mexico resorts so wasn't surprised by any means).  Below is my Osso Bucco.  It was really good.

Below is my friend's tuna entree.  It was breaded but rare inside.  I can't remember the name, nor she either....  I have no idea what makes this dish Italian either but she said she really enjoyed it...

After dinner, of course we ended back up in the Sun Bar.  My friend retired early, while I closed the place down with Washington State.  We sat outside in the rain, on the patio long after the bar closed and made our way back to our rooms about 3am.

They and I both called room service for Champagne and eats.  I had some yummy chicken quesadillas (ummm, yes anything would have tasted good at that point) and went to sleep around 4-ish...

Monday, September 2nd:

I lifted my head cautiously from the pillow, but all was OK.  I was thinking these "Party Smart" pill things were actually working for me because I felt like I didn't even drink last night this morning...

However, my friend was hurting severely and I decided to leave her in peace while I went for breakfast.  We had our Dolphin Swim today at 1:10pm.  I was concerned she would not make it.

She did and we left the resort and walked to Vallarta Adventures about 1:30.  It was a hot, but short walk from the resort and then we boarded a boat (below) to get there.

Once there we were told we had about 15 minutes and were treated to viewing iguanas (eating lettuce) and got to meet a beautiful tiger monkey (eating a grape).

They also brought a sea lion to meet us too.  We were not allowed to take pictures once he arrived where they wanted him.  But they did have us pose with him and he gave us kisses.  The kiss felt like a french kiss with a fish in his mouth, he went for my ear!  He was a fishy kind of way...

The dolphin swim was next and was great.  They don't allow any personal pictures but they take a LOT of them while you're in the water.  We bought a couple (our dolphin kisses) after (two pictures = about $440 pesos) and felt very happy with the experience.  I would highly recommend it.  Our photo guy accidentally printed our photos instead of doing the CD as we asked for, so he gave us them for free, so that was nice.

I tripped in my flip flops coming up the stairs from the photo shop and landed in the most inelegant fashion ever (probably karma laughing at me for joking about man boobs)!  I had minor scrapes and cuts on many parts of my body - ankle, knees, elbow).  It was just embarrassing...and I knew it was going to hurt was an awful fall (THUD)...

We walked back and stopped at Paradise Mall for some shopping.  I bought some Tequila from the Tequila Factory and pondered how I was going to get it home without paying overweight luggage fees.  I was exactly at the luggage weight limit coming over (a reason I don't like charter flights because they are stricter)...

We were back at the resort about 5pm and we had the "Chef Dinner" reserved for 7pm.  It cost $350 in Resort Credits!  At this moment I don't want to think about the 16% tax cost we will have to pay.  Seriously, the dinner in the restaurants are just as good without a paying a premium like this, however, it was a nice experience anyway, I suppose...

I discovered while showering as I was getting ready for dinner that I severely sunburned my shoulders and back.  My friend rubbed some aloe gel on for me which sort of helped, but not really...

Then off to dinner we went.  There were two long tables set up like a horseshoe looking onto a stage.  There was a duet of singers brought in to play for us while eating and between courses.  My fave waiter Rodolfo was there so I was happy about that and he treated us well again.

The stage

The Duet

Our host and the Chef

The host and chef prepared all the courses on stage before they were served to us.  We were started with a "house drink".  It was pretty much a pina colada with Blue Curaçao on the bottom.

The first course was called Tropical Duo (below):  Crispy coconut shrimp served on mini pineapple & cantaloupe, served with mint foam and a pina colada gel.  This was very good and paired with a Spanish Chardonnay.

Next course below is Watermelon Steak and Creamy Goat Cheese:  Grilled heart of watermelon marinated in herbs, served with creamy goat cheese and dried olives, with red fruit and Sherry vinaigrette.  This was also very good (very small) and was served with a Spanish Fruity wine.

Next course below was Cup of Espresso:  Wild mushroom espresso served with a light vanilla cloud.  This was both of ours fave course of the evening and wished it was a little larger as it was served in a little espresso cup.

Main course below is Surf & Turf:  Mini Angus beef served with mashed potatoes, vegetables, mixed sprouts and dark chocolate sauce with red wine, sided with fish fillet, mango chutney and roasted pistachios.  This was my least favourite course of the evening.  I didn't even eat the steak as I found it tasted like liver.  The fish was dry and hard but the chocolate sauce was very, very good.  I liked that a lot.  This was paired with a Spanish Cab Sav.  I had hoped the main course would have had lobster since we paid for this meal so I was a little disappointed at this point.

Dessert and final course below was Fruit Flambe:  Flambeed fruits served with mango ice cream.  I only had a bite but my friend said hers was very good.

And that wrapped up the dinner.  We tipped Rodolfo well again and went on our way.  I was still hungry as I really only had a couple of bites, so I got my friend to walk to the Mexican restaurant Frida with me and I ordered a couple of appetizers and we had a glass of champagne.

We had some Guacamole and Duck Confit Sopes which were delicious.  I was good and full after that.

Duck Confit Sopes

We headed to the Sun Bar as usual.  I actually walked into the glass door while watching someone outside the bar and cracked my head and knee on the glass.  Ouchie!!!  Security came to see how drunk I was, but the sad thing is, I wasn't!  (It probably wouldn't have hurt so much if I was).  I only stayed for a couple of drinks and Washington State were tired and hungry too.  We spent time laughing about how drunk and goofy we all were the night before.  My friend came home about 2am and we called it a night.

Tuesday, September 3rd:

Well today it was my turn to be sick.  I woke up and was really not feeling well.  I ended up taking Gravol & Imodium to finally settle me down.  We didn't leave the room and ordered room service.  We finally got ready and showered around 5 pm.  We were heading to see Rhythms of the Night.  This is not included in the Resort Credits but you can book it through the vacation planners.  It was $99 USD each.

We had to take a cab which was $35 pesos.  We sat and had a drink while we waited (you pay for it) and then it was time to board the boat.

This was our host

Arrival to the Island, it's a jungle out there

The above pics are being greeted and looking out over the Ocean

Dinner was first.  It is a buffet set up but in small sections so it is not long lines or over crowded.  The food was fine and they provide an open bar and wine.

Being entertained while dining

Then we walked back to be seated for the show.  There is no photography allowed once the show starts.  It started with  pre show that was funny and amusing.

The show was very good, very good performances but it is very hot out there in the jungle.  I found it uncomfortable and I did receive a few bites while there.  The show ended and everyone filed back to their boats.  Then it was back to the hotel and we arrived about midnight.  I went to bed as I was tired and put in for a 7:30am wake up call.  Below is the last thing I saw every night  before I made my way to the room.

Wednesday, September 4th:

We had to be in the lobby at 8:50am today as it was our "City Tour" today.  This was used with $35 each in Resort Credits (Tax cost us $11.20 USD each).  I got up before our wake up call and showered and got ready.  I had time to go get breakfast even though I didn't eat much.  I don't find breakfast appetizing at the best of times.  I brought my friend some fruit and a danish and we were in the lobby on time.

There was quite a lot of people on the tour and our guide below was great!  His name was Freddie.

We headed downtown Puerto Vallarta first for a half hour shopping trip.  It was mostly jewelry they were trying to sell us, Fire Opals.  Then it was off to the Malecon (Boardwalk) and the Church below where we also had a half hour to roam.  

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church

Then it was off South, through Mismaloya, then up the mountain to which Freddie called "Mexico without Make Up".  Our first stop was to look at two rock formations at the southern end of Los Muertos Beach.

The next stop was Rancho Verano Tequila.  They make organic Tequila  and so we got a tour and then a tasting.  It was very good and most people bought the Coffee Tequila afterwards, including my friend.  I knew I had no way to get it home...

Our host here was Julio (standing with Freddie) and this is a family run business.

Below is the Tequila tasting and Julio toasting with us.  It was a lot of fun and we had a warm glow on by the time we left to head to lunch.  You're welcome to have as many shots as you want and we did one with Freddie too.

We went across the street for lunch.  There was only a couple of choices on the menu so we both went for a beef skewer and three "Mummy Shrimp" - shrimp wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese.  It was expensive at $29 USD a plate.  Margaritas were $10 a piece also.  

The restaurant we ate at is the red one below and it offered us a view of another restaurant which is the picture underneath...  I have no idea what either one was called.

We shared our table with a father and daughter from Houston, Texas and enjoyed their company.  Our service was awful though.  We never got our chips and salsa until long after they received theirs, so we actually ended up sharing theirs.  When they dropped drinks off, they only dropped two and then messed the drink order up two more times.  Lastly, we were last to get our food delivered and everyone was already back on the bus waiting for us!

What was worse is that the food was not cooked when it finally arrived.  Very, very disappointing for a bill total of $90 USD!!  Below is my pictures of the Margarita (very good!) and the food (which probably would have been good if it wasn't raw).  Plantain, onions, peppers, bacon and beef were all raw.  Bacon on one of my mummy shrimp was raw too.  We weren't happy and we didn't eat more than a couple of bites, really.  We were the last ones back on the bus.

We slept all the way back to the Hard Rock and got back about 5pm.  We decided to go sit at the beach for awhile.  It was a great idea.  There was nice breeze and beautiful view and it was nice to just sit there and enjoy the sound of the waves of the ocean.  It was here we discovered a food menu too, that offered sushi among other things.  We never ended up ordering anything from it all week.

We stopped and got our coffee drink and visited the Sun Bar before dinner.  My fave bartender Ruben started making us shots.  The one below is the "Mexican Flag".

And then off to Zen for dinner we  went.  This is the Oriental restaurant. We ran into Texas and he told us to order the Tempura Shrimp which are not on the menu.  We ordered some hot Sake and a couple dishes.  They start you with the appy plate below of sushi, spring rolls and chicken satay.

My friend ordered Tuna Tartare and Salmon Sashimi below.  She said the tuna was surprisingly good though the salmon had no taste.  

They brought us the Shrimp Tempura next and these were very good albeit salty.  I ate them all though...

T|he next two dishes were a soup with some Shitake mushrooms and Seafood Crepes (curry taste).  Both were good and that was dinner.

And then back to the Sun Bar.  And the drinks never stopped coming.  We spent most of night talking to Marco, our vacation planner.  We closed the bar and then continued to party till about 4am...

Thursday, September 5th:

If I thought I felt bad the other day, this one topped them all.  I literally stayed in bed the entire day until about 5pm.  I found it was a good time to take a jacuzzi bath which I had been wanting to do all week.  My friend was reading at the beach all day.  She brought me some soup in the afternoon and it took me a couple of hours to finish it...not a good day at all!  I think my fave bartender was actually trying to kill me?

Filling the tub.  Surprisingly it did not take long at all.

And then of all things, we had a "Tequila Tasting" booked at 7pm.  I tried to cancel but if you don't with twenty-four hours notice, they will still charge you the tax which was $30 USD in our case, so we went.

It was hosted by the sommelier and in a private room at Zen restaurant.  There were three Tequilas served.  Two are below and the third was 1800 Anejo that my picture didn't turn out of.  We learned that the Tequila you buy should have a CRT stamp (certification) and it should read "Tequila" as it can be false and it needs to be stamped with a registration number to be true.  I later checked out what I had bought and it was fine (not worried), but he said to always check that...

We then went to dinner at the Brazilian Steakhouse again.  I was craving that chicken leg, unfortunately I don't think it was on the menu that night.  Rodolfo got me one anyway, but it was no where near as good as the first night.

I went up to the room and my friend went to the Sun Bar...I caught up on the trip report and watched the opening N.F.L. game of Baltimore & Denver on Spanish ESPN.  

Friday, September 6th (a.k.a. Check Out):

I awoke about 8:30am and called the front desk to ask for a late check-out.  The resort was pretty sparse with people so I didn't imagine a problem.  Our ride to the airport was at 2:15pm.  However, he said it was a busy day and only could accommodate us till 1pm as someone was booked for our room.  He also said we would have to go switch room keys if we wanted to proceed.  I told him we'd be down in a while...

As I was getting ready, the phone rang and it was our transportation to the airport.  He said our flight was delayed until 1:50am!  He said they would pick us up at 10:30pm instead.  I went down to the front desk to see what they could do...They let us keep the room until 10:30 but said we would have to pay $120 USD for it.  So, really, nothing else we could do at this point.

The one ATM at the hotel had been out of service the whole time, it still was, so I went across the street to the bank and it's ATM was also out of service. So, I just decided to change and go to the pool.

It was hot today and sunny.  I lasted a couple of hours, went and had a yummy poolside beef taco too.

Then my friend came and found me and said her friend was driving over to pick us up and take us to Bucerias for lunch.  He works at another resort in Puerto Vallarta and that is how she met him on her previous trips.  He drove to Bucerias and took us to a place he said had good, cheap ceviche called El Payo.

Shrimp Ceviche $130 pesos

The vendors just poured through the doors here selling everything from the usual jewelry, music cd's, muffins & pies, wood carvings and even peanuts (below).  He sold some to the next table beside us.

I have a thing about creepy puppets, so I tipped this guy below $20 pesos so I could take his picture.


Her friend drove us back to the Hard Rock about 5pm.  We had another phone message from the transport company saying our flight was delayed another hour to a 3:00am departure and he wouldn't be picking us up till 11:30pm now.  We asked the front desk if they would accommodate that but they said no, check out would have to be 10:30 as already arranged.

So we went to the Sun Bar (Ruben continued making drinks to kill me), had dinner at Zen again and checked out on time.  Our bill for all the Resort Credit taxes and Late Check Out came to $260 USD each.  We probably tipped a couple of hundred each too throughout the week on top of that. Our ride showed on time and were checked in and waiting to board at 1am.  It was a LONG two hour wait as everything was closed!  SunWing gave us a $75 voucher.  Said a light on the wing needed replacement and had caused two days of flight troubles for all.  I will never use them again (long story that I'd rather not go into but booking with them was just not a good idea in the first place - twice now).

Arrived home at 5:30 am local time after a four and a half hour flight.  Customs was grumpy and I collapsed into bed about 7am after waking my son for a big hug.

In summary, we had a fantastic time.  The weather was nice and not nearly as humid as I had last visit.  We really loved the resort and service.  24 hour room service was great, especially since you could order bottles of wine and champagne.  The Top Shelf liquor was a bonus too.  After a week at an All-Inclusive, you almost need another week off to recover because it's a little bit of excess.  OK, it's a LOT of excess...Salud!

PS.  We transferred our Tequila to water bottles so made the weight clearance exactly for our luggage on the return home!

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