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 Islands Information

Place: Cancun, Mexico
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of  and is delighted to have as our guest freelance writer and editor, Zora O'Neill. Zora has authored and edited several travel guidebooks and presently has a new one out, Cancun & Cozumel Directions, published by Rough Guides.

Good day Zora and thank you for agreeing to participate in our interview.


Zora, could you tell us a little about yourself and when did you passion for travel writing begin? What do you consider your first "break" as a travel writer?

What has kept you going?


I've always been a traveler, taking off on every school and work break, but I got started in travel writing in a very roundabout way--in 2000, I'd quit my job as an editor at a technology magazine and was casting about for freelance work.

Travel writing sounded good, but I had no idea how to get into it--I just started bombarding magazine editors with cold pitches, to no avail. Only about a year later did a friend forward a job posting for a new series Moon Handbooks was doing, its Moon Metro series. I applied, and was assigned the hotels section for the new NYC guide--which was fascinating, because I've never set foot in a hotel in New York, because I live here. And I got to visit neighbourhoods I'd never really been in before.

When I finished that job, I had enough credibility with Moon to propose an Amsterdam guide for the same series, and I did that in 2002. Then that gave me some credibility when I approached an editor at Rough Guides for an informational interview--I didn't think anything would come of that, but about four months later, he called and asked if I could work on Mexico for RG. Now I split my time between Rough Guides and Moon and have been very busy for the past year and a half.


How do you come up with ideas for what you write? What methods do you use to flesh out your idea to determine if it's salable?


I spent a lot of time pitching stories to magazines and always being told, "Oh, you're so on our wavelength--we just assigned that last month." For me, it's too exhausting to keep up with magazine trends--which are pretty arbitrary anyway--and cultivate relationships with editors, who are always moving on just as you've got in their good graces.

So writing guidebooks is a godsend--I do work hard to get the newest information, talking with PR people about what's opening in a given area I'm working on, but I know what I'm writing has a little bit longer shelf life and will ultimately help more people.

Very occasionally, I'll come across something on a research trip that I think will work for a magazine, and I pitch it--and I go only for very niche magazines that happen to have travel sections, such as Brides, say, rather than broad travel books like Travel & Leisure.


I understand, as I previously mentioned, that you are coming out with a new book on Cancun. Could you tell our readers where is Cancun? Zora:

Cancun is on the northeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, which is the far eastern bit of Mexico that sticks out into the Caribbean.

Cancun itself is really two parts: the beach, which is a barrier island that's about 25 kilometres long and lined with hotels, and the downtown area just over the bridge from the beach on the mainland.

Cancun is a little odd because it's so new--the first roads were laid down in the early 1970s. So the downtown area doesn't have any big "sights" or colonial buildings, but it's very pleasant, with a lot of parks and good things to eat.

The beaches are incredibly beautiful--Cancun was the first tourist development, really the first development of any kind, on Mexico's Caribbean coast, and the government built it here because the beaches are so amazing.

There's even a little variety in the beaches: the barrier island is shaped like the number 7, and the beaches on the top, or north, side face a bay, so the water is very calm and good for swimming. On the long side of the 7, which faces straight out to the Caribbean, the waves are bigger, and you can body-surf a bit.

The beach area, which is called the zona hotelera, or hotel zone, is what everyone thinks of when you say Cancun: huge clubs, malls, resorts, a party every night. But it's actually a bit more than that--when you first arrive, it looks very segregated: tourists on the beach, locals on the mainland. But the more you look around, the more you see the local hangouts in the hotel zone--the tiny grilled-fish stands, and the places to hang your hammock along the lagoon, the cool salsa club that's packed with Mexicans. Overall, it's a really interesting modern city that just happens to have this absolutely stunning beachfront.


Could you describe eight of the most unique romantic and/or wedding venues in Cancun and any other areas of Mexico, and why do you believe they are romantic?


Because of the reputation of the spring-break party crowd, a lot of people don't consider Cancun as a romantic getaway, but that's changing. In the 1990s, several very impressive international luxury chains opened hotels here--the Ritz-Carlton, Le Parker Meridien, a fancier Marriott. This year, Fiesta Americana, a Mexican chain, opened a hotel called Aqua, which is really modern and cool.

All of these hotels, because they're very dedicated to service and luxury and style, would make great places to spend a honeymoon, and they're all equipped to host weddings as well.

These places are all very private-feeling, but if you really want to be out of the middle of Cancun craziness, the Westin is a great option--it's way down at the south end of the hotel zone, with hardly any development around it. The architecture is very modern and striking--Ricardo Legorreta, one of Mexico's most famous architects, designed it. There's a beautiful beach that curves around the front of the hotel, and--this is a huge bonus--there's a separate beach on the west side, on a small lagoon, so you can lie in the sun there until the late afternoon, which you can't do anywhere else on the east-facing beaches. The place is pretty huge, but the staff are old hands at organizing big events.

Outside of the hotels, there are quite a few other romantic spots:
  • Tragara is this great, funky, but not too loud lounge in the hotel zone, perfect for a sunset drink because of the amazing view over the lagoon.
  • The Maya ruins in the hotel zone, El Rey, are a beautiful secluded spot--you can wander all alone among the stones, and pack a picnic lunch.
  • And in downtown Cancun, on the mainland, Parque de las Palapas is a great place to go on weekend nights--Mexicans, especially Yucatecans, are very romantic, so everyone's sitting around in couples, chit-chatting, and there's usually some live music people are dancing to. If you're lucky, it will be a trova group, which plays these beautiful, dreamy love songs accompanied by various string instruments--much more romantic than your big-and-brassy mariachi ensemble. You can also hire a trova trio for a private serenade--they're usually hanging out on the park, or one street over, on Avenida Yaxchilan.
  • If you like this more casual feeling, you might also want to explore Isla Mujeres. This is a small island just off the coast from Cancun--the ferry ride takes about 20 minutes. It's definitely a touristy place, but it doesn't feel like Cancun at all, as most buildings are only two stories high, and all the wood buildings are painted bright candy colours.
  • I would recommend a hotel called Playa del Secreto, which is very small and done up entirely in white. It has this gorgeous outdoor living room setup, with a pool and a small, very private beach. The place is quite well priced, considering the style.
  • There's another really over-the-top splurgy place down on the southern end of the island--it's called Casa de Sueños--the sort of place where the bathrooms are as large as the bedrooms, and everything's very Zen-like and serene. They have a great spa too.
  • A big asset to having a wedding on Isla Mujeres is that there are a big range of hotels all within walking distance, so you could host the event at Playa del Secreto, say, and people could stay at Na-Balam, which has a few more formal hotel services, or at Casa Maya Zazil-Ha, which is quite a bit cheaper, depending on what your wedding guests needed or could afford. You can do this in Cancun too, to some degree, but it's not as convenient, because the less expensive hotels are all in the mainland downtown area, which is about a half-hour bus ride away from the center of the beach area. Oh, and the real asset to Isla Mujeres: there's a big beach on the northwestern point, so you can actually chill out with a margarita and watch the sun set over the water--which you can't do anywhere else on the east-facing Caribbean coast.
  • That's all great beach stuff, but I really want to mention another treat inland: haciendas. All over the Yucatán Peninsula, there are these gorgeous, huge old estates that were the centers of sugarcane and henequen (that's a kind of plant that produces rope fiber) plantations. In the past couple of decades, a lot of these places have been bought up and restored--they usually aren't flawlessly done up to look like new, but keep this certain air of grand ruin, but with all the modern comforts.
  • The best ones are five places that are run by Starwood, part of its Luxury Collection. When you see those magazine ads for the Yucatan, run by the Mexico Tourism Board, they're using photos of Starwood's Hacienda Temozón, which has these enormous grand swimming pools, huge palm trees, peacocks roaming around, you name it. Four of them are out in the boonies, but one is in the middle of the beautiful city of Campeche--that one's not quite as palatial, but it's great for people who prefer cities over rural settings. These places can be pricey, but if you arranged a weekend getaway to one of these places, your spouse or partner would adore you forever.
  • Haciendas are also great for small weddings, as you can take over the whole grounds and have the run of the place. And aside from the Starwood haciendas, there are a number of other ones that aren't drop-dead luxe, but very cool nonetheless:
  • For instance, Hacienda Chalante, near the gorgeous little town of Izamal, has fantastically decorated rooms, each for a different artist: the Frida room, the Goya room, and so on. The owner has a big horse stable, and even a llama. You feel very out in the country, but it's about a 20-minute drive to Izamal, which is beautiful and offers enough to keep guests entertained if they're there for a few days; you can also drive to Chichén Itzá easily.
  • Hacienda Petac, just outside of Mérida, is another good one--the owners typically rent out the whole place, and it comes with maid and chef service.
  • Also near Mérida, Hacienda Xcanatun has beautiful grounds and a really hip restaurant. I could go on and on, as each place is different, and new ones are being redone all the time--usually by expats, which can sometimes be a help for planning big events. The free magazine, Yucatan Today, usually has a good list of the ones near Mérida.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?


Definitely getting to see things--and being forced to do things--I wouldn't ordinarily do. When I travel on vacation, I'm the laziest person ever. I sit in cafes all day and tell myself I'm soaking up the atmosphere. When I'm working, I have to go to all the museums and everything. When I was working on the Amsterdam book, I finally went to the van Gogh Museum--even though I'd lived in Amsterdam many years before, and had just been too lazy to go.

And for my books, I can make my own schedule and take off for long stretches--and if I want to bring someone with me, I can. I flew my mom down to the Yucatán for about ten days, and she had a great time. My boyfriend came with me last summer (I'd forgotten to renew my driver's license, so he had to come down and drive me around!), and we went out to Punta Allen, which is this tiny village in the middle of a giant nature reserve on the Caribbean coast, and as we were taking this little boat across this glassy green bay, with the wind in our hair, and birds everywhere, I did actually say out loud, "Wow, I love my job!"


What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your guidebooks? How did you overcome these challenges?


Mostly, just time management and organization. You can't just go out and waltz around and write down the addresses of the places you think look cool. You have to do a lot of advance research, then make lists upon lists, and even make up a little map, so that you hit every place without backtracking or leaving anything out. Fortunately, I love this kind of thing, but it did take some perfecting, so that I had the right size notebooks and carried all the stuff I needed around with me, but not too much stuff. And I can over plan--when I went on my first trip to Mexico, I was doing an update, and I'd worked out this elaborate scheme involving file folders and Xeroxed pages of the old edition, and I just chucked it all and scribbled my notes in the margins of the old book--it worked out fine.

There's also the problem of reviewing all the restaurants--if you're traveling alone, it's pretty much impossible to eat everywhere you want to eat in the time you have. But I try--I have a drink and an appetizer one place, an entrée at another, and so on. I give up my free hotel breakfast so I can try other places. And if I have to choose, I always go try out the expensive and/or out-of-the-way places that have mixed reviews--because I figure it's much worse to make a trek or pay through the nose for a bad meal than to have a so-so hot dog from the vendor in front of your hotel. But then I often don't end up eating at the really excellent places that everyone agrees are fantastic. So I come home from my trips feeling so gross and overfed. I know people reading this will be thinking this is a petty complaint, but honestly, it's a drawback--and I really love food!

On a broader scale, there is the problem that I'm traveling all the time, which makes it hard to maintain a social life at home. "Sorry, I'll be out of town," is something I've had to say so many times. And when I signed several contracts at once last year, for work that would keep me busy and traveling for the next 18 months, I did think, This is a guarantee that I'll fall madly in love and not want to travel any more. Which is exactly what happened, but fortunately my boyfriend loves to travel too. And I can occasionally take him to these very romantic places, like the haciendas!


How have you used the Internet to boost your writing career?


I'm embarrassed to say I haven't used it that much yet. This is the first year I'll have books out with my own copyright, that I'm earning a royalty on, so there's more incentive for me to promote them--up till now, I was doing work-for-hire, so I relied on personal networking to get more jobs. But now I'm looking at expanding my blog, Roving Gastronome,

which has mainly been a way to keep friends and family apprised of my travels--into something more formal and business-y, so that there's more to it than stories about all the crazy people I meet when I travel&though I won't be getting rid of those.


What is next for Zora O'Neill and is there anything else you wish to add to our interview?


In the fall, I'll have another book coming out, the Rough Guide to the Yucatán, which also includes the Maya sites in Chiapas, and the Olmec stuff in Tabasco--as well as details on a lot of the haciendas that I mentioned before. That's due in November.

And I'm currently writing another book for Moon Handbooks, a guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos, which has been really fun because I grew up near Albuquerque--so now I'm going back to New Mexico as a tourist, which is a little bizarre but also makes me appreciate the place so much more. That guide is due out in spring 2006. By the time I'm done with all that, it'll probably be time to work on the next edition of Rough Guide to Mexico&so the cycle will start all over again. Hopefully I'll have some time to take a long proper vacation in the middle of it all--which will, incidentally, be a honeymoon.

Thanks very much, Norm--it's been fun to talk about my line of work, and I hope the Cancun tips work for some of your readers!