When I told my 17-year-old niece that I was heading to Cancún, I could hear her envy over the phone. With its wall-to-wall flashy resorts, giant shopping malls, and spring-break reputation—margarita-chugging contests, no ID required!—this white-sand strip that stretches into the Caribbean on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula is a teen dream.
I got my first look at Cancún in the seventies, not too long after the Mexican government fingered the area (reputedly an ancient Mayan holy site) for tourism development and started replacing the coconut palms with 18-story hotels. Like most visitors back then, I'd come to visit the nearby ruins of Tulum and Chichén Itzá. Cancún was still a funky outpost: I camped on a beach lit only by the stars, bought shrimp right off a fisherman's boat and grilled them over a driftwood fire. I was young; the Yucatán was exotic and romantic.
I returned this winter to find an entirely different Cancún, scrubbed clean of anything Mexican. The hotels and shops are international, the food isfamiliar, the lingua franca is English. Yet I understood the appeal: it's an easy, no-attitude place. Given Cancún's diverse clientele—U.S. families with hyperactive preschoolers, wealthy South American couples, alcohol-fueled frat boys—hotels here have more personalities than Sybil. And since that first visit, my taste in lodging has improved considerably. Wanting luxury and pampering, I chose three places known for doing that best.
One thing Cancún has always lacked is buzz. The fashion crowd wouldn't be caught dead here. But as my taxi pulled up to Aqua's all-glass façade, I felt as if I were arriving at the Mondrian back when it was the place to stay in L.A.Before the car came to a stop, I was surrounded by a bevy of bellhops in flowing white tunics. A blonde receptionist pressed her palms together in what she said was an ancient Mayan greeting. "Are you Mayan?" I asked. "Italian," she admitted.
A sizable resort (389 rooms) with a boutique-hotel aesthetic, Aqua opened in December on Cancún's last undeveloped beachfront plot, right in the center of the strip. The hotel's Modernist shell was built in 2000 for Sofitel, but the investors ran out of money. Then Fiesta Americana took over, bringing in crackerjack Mexico City-based residential designer Francisco Hanhausen. He seemed like a strange choice for a brand made famous by its mid-range, party-hearty resorts (including two others in Cancún), yet he pulled it off. Think SoHo crossed with South Beach.
Hanhausen shopped globally: Spanish marble, Peruvian wood, granite from Zimbabwe. He's big on comfort (there's a pillow menu in the room) and obsessive about details (artisanal soaps are made in nearby Chiapas). He's also witty: a row of Felliniesque white canopied beds is spread out along the beach, and the first-rate spa is covered in blue tiles, giving it a subaqueous feel.
Aqua's major coup was coaxing food-world superstar Michelle Bernstein to leave her post at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Miami. At MB, a dark-hued space with an open kitchen, she's given free rein to create dishes like seared scallops in an oxtail stew, crisp tofu with mushrooms, stir-fried grilled prawns, and green-papaya slaw as good as any I've had in Thailand. Not content with that feat alone, Aqua also brought in Patricia Quintana, one of Mexico's most celebrated chefs. Her restaurant, Siete, is named for the seven columns that run the length of the space and are tiled with Pop art portraits of famous citizens such as Diego Rivera and Carlos Santana.
Once Fiesta Americana irons out the expected kinks of a new property (a maddeningly slow elevator, clogged water pipes, a green staff), this place could single-handedly reinvent Cancún.
Km 12.5, Blvd. Kukulkán, Zona Hotelera; 800/343-7821 or 52-998/881-7600; www.fiestaamericana.com; doubles from $396.
I personally prefer flip-flops to shoes in the tropics; however, Ritz-Carlton's stubborn refusal to succumb to local ambience (or relax its dress codes) has always been part of the group's charm. When Ritz-Carlton Cancún opened 12 years ago—as one of the chain's first properties outside the United States—the Mexican owner, Enrique Molina, filled its public spaces with dark-wood credenzas and oil portraits of somebody's stern-faced European ancestors. Though the details may be Spanish—wrought iron railings, tiled roofs, stucco walls—the property feels like a grand family manse.
My room, with light tangerine walls and avocado trim, could have been my grandmother's parlor, sans the tchotchkes. I didn't really care, since I spent most of my waking (and napping) hours in a private Beach Villa. These newly built thatched-roof cabanas on the water's edge are worth the $75-and-up daily rental fee: I loved that my phone calls were transferred here.
Inside at the Club Grill, gentlemen were wearing jackets and carving up their prime rib. The food here and at Fantino, a Mediterranean restaurant with frescoed ceilings and silk-lined walls, was exceptional, though I was more content at El Café Mexicano, which satisfied my irrepressible urge to gaze out at palm trees while scarfing down chicken enchiladas. Likewise, ceviche seemed better paired with the pounding surf at the poolside Caribe Bar & Grill. Arriving at Caribe after bodysurfing one afternoon, I announced to the waiter that I was about to faint from hunger. Before my napkin even hit my lap, he reappeared with a huge bowl of fresh fruit. And on my last morning at the hotel, room service delivered my breakfast in less than the promised 15 minutes—but with bagels instead of bran muffins in the pastry basket. "No problem, sir," the server said, smiling. "I wasn't sure, so I prepared two baskets—the other is just outside the door." This scrupulous service is exactly what continues to draw an intensely loyal clientele.
36 Retorno del Rey, Zona Hotelera; 800/241-3333 or 52-998/881-0808; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $499.
JW MARRIOTT CANCÚN
A group of 350 loud Americans from the office-machinery industry checked in to the 448-roomJW Marriott the same afternoon I did. Winter pale, they were ready to party. Their welcome dinner, with sombreros on every table, took over the grounds. The next day, they commandeered the beach volleyball courts, packed the whirlpools, and wandered the halls with beer cans. I asked the front desk when they were leaving. "Tomorrow," I was told. "But they're being replaced by a bigger group."
The JW mixes 'n' matches opulence and soothing chain-hotel familiarity. My over-furnished room was generic luxury, but the corridor running the length of the ground floor was so glossy and imposing, a gaggle of awestruck guests commented that it looked "just like a museum."
In fact, JW went all out in its public spaces, expense- and imagination-wise. The pool area, separated from the hotel proper by a broad expanse of lawn and a series of man-made lagoons, felt remarkably underpopulated, even when I was sharing it with the conventioneers. At 35,000 square feet, the multilevel spa is the largest in Cancún. It was always deserted—except for the fitness center, where I took an amateurish yoga class from a woman who'd finished teaching kickboxing only moments before. She rolled out the yoga mats and, without pausing, launched into the downward-facing-dog position (or "dog facedown," as she called it). The spa itself was softly lit, if slightly corporate in feel (the relaxation room reminded me of a business center). The service was unbeatable: I was constantly trailed by a cheerful attendant bearing a glass of water. Everyone at the JW Marriott took this approach, and they remembered my name—from Gina at reception (who upgraded my room to one with a better view) to José (the doorman who gave me tips on local taquerías). They knew, and cared, that I was there. That alone would bring me back.
Km 14.5, Blvd. Kukulkán, Zona Hotelera; 800/223-6388 or 52-998/848-9600; www.jwmarriottcancunresort.com; doubles from $489.
ALAN BROWN is a contributing editor for T+L.
Best Rooms The $1,127-a-night Fuego Suites, which have Jacuzzis on wide verandas.
Smart Idea The "Your wish my wish" button on guest-room phones, to press for any request.
Tech Report Bargain-priced wireless Internet access card ($7 an hour). Once you sign up, you can use your laptop almost anywhere in the hotel.
Tsk-tsk The members-only VIP pool and bar, right next to the main pool area. We ordinary guests can look, but we can't touch.
Best Rooms The $659-a-night executive suites on the upper floors.
Smart Idea The Ritz-Carlton Club's ninth-floor adults-only Cobalt Lounge.
Tech Report A $35 daily charge to use the Wi-Fi Internet connection in your room and throughout the hotel. Ouch.
Tsk-tsk In every restaurant, music that is loud enough to thwart casual conversation.
Best Rooms The $639-a-night Caribbean Suites, high above the ocean.
Smart Idea The lobby snack shop, which sells everything from take-out cappuccino to Häagen-Dazs.
Tech Report Free Wi-Fi in the business center, so you can use your own laptop on one of its many sofas (in-room Wi-Fi is $20 and barely works).
Tsk-tsk The cigar bar in the main lobby lounge—the entire area reeks of smoke.