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.