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Soak up the Sun on The Riviera Maya – A guide to Playa del Carmen

October 19th, 2010 No Comments

(published in The Houston Chronicle on March 10, 2010)

Before I elaborate on one of the most beautiful corners of Mexico, let me dispel three misconceptions. First: The only places to vacation in Mexico start with a “C” —– Cabo, Cancúun and Cozumel. If those have been your destinations, it’s no wonder you have fallen victim to the second fallacy: Mexico is onlysuitable only for college kids on spring break looking to drink themselves into a stupor.

Now, picture an expanse of fine white sand with rolling pale-blue waves under a clear sky. You’re sitting on a cushioned chasechaise with a mojito in hand and fresh ceviche on the way. The scenery sounds like the Caribbean, but you took only a two-hour flight to this slice of paradise on the Riviera Maya. The Europeans have been traveling more than five times the distance for years; where have you been?

Like most places in Mexico, the Riviera Maya offers tourist accommodations at every price point, but what makes the destination most appealing is the wealth of experiences available. Of course, you can seclude yourself in a beautiful all-inclusive resort and sip margaritas, but to truly enjoy the region, you need a local guide that outlines how to make the most of your vacation. As a visitor who went for a week and stayed for four months, let me offer recommendations of the region’s notable hotels, beautiful beaches, outdoor activities and dining choices.

Rest and relaxation

Taking a week to relax is an indulgence one can’t always afford, but with warm weather year-round, it’s worth it to carve out a full five days.

Most of the hotels on the Riviera Maya are all-inclusive, which is pretty pricey. For an intimate hotel, try Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita. It is recognized by Small Leading Hotels of the World and offers some of the only single-room beachfront accommodations. It has only 90 rooms, but its amenities and private beach are stellar. Expect to pay $700 or more per couple per night, all inclusive.

The true gem of the Riviera Maya is the sprawling Mayakoba property housing three small and unique resorts that use ecology and tranquility as their foundation. Upon arrival, you are escorted to your private suite on a boat down themangrove-lined canals filled with wildlife. The Fairmont, Rosewood and Banyan Tree then seek to satisfy weary city- dwellers in distinct ways. But all three offer the breathtaking indigenous environment that’s home to more than 300 species of animals and birds.

The Asian-Mexican fusion décor of The Banyan Tree is the most serene and unbelievably quiet. AsSince even a one-bedroom suite has a private plunge pool, a dock to the lagoon, and a patio for outdoor dining or spa treatments, there is no reason to leave your private residence. Make sure to take advantage of the resident romance manager who can accommodate any heart’s desire. Rates start at $820 per night.

The Mayakoba’s other two hotels are a little bigger yet also offer peace and privacy. The Rosewood (akin to Las Ventanas in Cabo) boasts a modern, trendy ambienceance; rates start at $700 per night.

With 300 suites, The Fairmont is the largest of the three and most amenable for families. Rates start at $259 a night.

Actual beachfront property is limited in Mayakoba due to the mangroves.

If you do not care for the resort experience, rest your head at a hotel in Playa del Carmen close to the restaurants and public beaches. The modern Mosquito Beach is üuber-chic and affordable; rates start at $185 per night. Other notable mentions are Hotel Deseo ($135 per night) and Hotel Basico ($144 per night) for the trendytwenty 20-something looking for a hip hangout and fun in the sun.

Food and drink


All ofthe resorts above have excellent dining options that anyone can enjoy. Saffron in tThe Banyan Tree is its signature Thai restaurant, but I fell in love with the sushi and tequila concept café in the Rosewood.

Or you can dine in Playa del Carmen and try a different cuisine every night. Fresh fish, such as grouper and snapper, and vegetables (especially avocados!) are the local favorites. But beware, you can get lured into a tourist trap with tacos that taste like plastic, so pay close attention to the suggestions below.

Upscale eateries include Wicky’s on the beach for steak and John Gray’s on a quaint alleyway for unforgettable escargot and other French dishes. Italian and Argentine grills are plentiful; opt for The Glass Bar and Sur, respectively.

If you’re looking for the trendy scene, grab a couch at Diablitos for pan-Asian or tasty tapas onat the rooftop restaurant called Azotea. Both offer a solid menu and crowd to ensure a fun night out.

The low-key local spots serve sensational fare. Fusion on the beach became my hangout for a Pacifico at sunset and the freshest fish entrees in town. The manager, Rotem, catches your filetfillet daily. Try Babe’s, and you might just decide that your new favorite Thai noodle bar is in Playa. From a simple spring roll to a variety of curries to fish atop mouth-watering Parmesan mash, everything on the menu is delicious.

Excursions

During the day, there are many ways to enjoy the beautiful weather.

You can pick your beach according to which has the best beach club. I have three favorites. Fusion has the best beach in town with good food and music. Cannibal Royal is more removed from the tourists; here you’ll find young trendsetters eating pizza and relaxing to tunes mixed by the house DJ. Xpu Ha, about 20 minutes awayfrom Playa, is the most scenic and quiet stretch of sand; it’s not luxurious by any means, but it’s a great place to spend the day relaxing and snorkeling.

For golfers, you couldn’t ask for a better experience than at Mayakoba, home of Mexico’s first PGA Tour event. In 18 holes, you’ll negotiate three different environments and be challenged like the pros. (Open daily to the public.)

For a spa option, try the Banyan Tree for a relaxing and healing experience. You can also venture into theirits Rainforest facility, nicknamed “the car wash,” for a total body cleansing. For a more budget-friendly experience, don’t be afraid to try a massage on a local beach.

If you want to take time to learn about Mayan culture, make a day trip to Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World determined by a global poll in 2007. Or you can drive to nearby Tulum to see the old Mayan seaport and climb the ruins at Cobá.

Other notable activities for your bucket list include: sky diving, kite surfing, snorkeling in the cenotes (caves in freshwater springs) and exploring the region’s water parks.

Nightlife

If you’re staying in Playa del Carmen, take an after-dinner stroll on Fifth Avenue, the quaint pedestrian way lined with boutiques and restaurants. You’ll find it to be Mexico’s version of a European esplanade. Shoppers should realize the only fabulous finds you might uncover are pieces of silver or exotic-skinned cowboy boots. But if you’re a bathing-suit fanatic like me, you should dedicate some time to browsebrowsing the selection of colorful separates at Zingara.

Around 11 p.m., the music gets louder and the club scene starts up on 12th Street. Again, there are plenty of venues to chosechoose from, but I onlyrecommend only the following: The Blue Parrot for the best dance party on the beach that every age can enjoy, and Fusion for salsa dancing.

What are you waiting for?

With this guide, a carry-on roller suitcase, and a nonstop flight, this getaway couldn’t be easier.

Despite my descriptions of luxury and indulgence, every venue listed is casual. Your wedges and loafers will be out of place, so in all seriousness, opt for Havaianas instead. Sundresses and khakis fit the bill even for fine dining. Cosmetic cases and jewelry roll-ups are just added weight, so leave them at home as well. Get back to basics and simply enjoy the good life.

Buen viaje!

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