You don't roar up in a rented convertible to the Fairmont Mayakoba, the first of five luxury hotels to open at a new ecosensitive resort forty miles south of Cancún, Mexico. The 1,600-acre development, which will open April 1 after Hurricane Wilma–related delays, is closed to vehicular traffic. Guests get around on foot, on bicycles, in golf carts and, most enticingly, in small thatch-roofed boats called lanchas. These electric-powered vessels navigate an extensive system of jungle-fringed lagoons and canals—manmade channels filled with crystal-clear water that flows from subterranean aquifers through the site's porous limestone. So you arrive at the Fairmont Mayakoba (Mayan for "city on the water"), a beach house–style resort, in what looks like a floating tiki hut.
Welcome to the anti-Cancún, a place the ancient Mayans might almost recognize and appreciate. Instead of crowding the beach with high-rise hotels, the Madrid-based developers behind Mayakoba situated the resort well inland from a ridge of dunes and a mile-long white-sand beach. They also preserved a network of mangrove swamps that serves to purify runoff and prevent it from clogging the pristine coral reef that extends south to Belize and is the second largest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
At the center of Mayakoba is El Camaleón Golf Course, the latest of Greg Norman's "least-disturbance" designs and his first layout in Mexico. The 7,024-yard course features sinuous fairways that weave through jungle, forest and swampland, tracing the curve of the limestone-edged canals. Cenotes, or sinkholes, that occur naturally in the bedrock of the Riviera Maya also come into play, notably on the first hole, a sturdy par five with a watery maw in the heart of its fairway. Many of the tee shots are hit-or-miss affairs: El Camaleón changes quickly from short grass to impenetrable jungle (hence the name), while water looms at nearly every turn. Two of the holes play alongside rippled seaside dunes, but for the most part, the course, like the hotel, is set well back from the sea. In February 2007, the course will host the Mayakoba Classic, the PGA Tour's first official event to be held in Mexico.
Beyond golf, the Fairmont Mayakoba offers a swim-up bar, five restaurants—including the oceanfront Las Brisas—and a 20,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa featuring a couples "treetop" treatment room overlooking a mangrove forest. For more amusement, there's nearby Playa del Carmen, the once-sleepy fishing village now popular for its boutiques and lively open-air cafés set along a pedestrian thoroughfare.
The other hotels to come at Mayakoba include the Laguna Kai, a 120-room Rosewood Resort due to open in late 2006, followed by properties managed by Banyan Tree, Viceroy and La Casa Que Canta.
Carretera Federal Cancún, Playa del Carmen; 800-441-1414, fairmont.com.
STAYING ROOMS: from $309. SUITES: from $889.
PLAYING El Camaleón Golf Course. YARDAGE: 7,024. PAR: 72. ARCHITECT: Greg Norman. GREENS FEES: $126–$218.
ALSO Five restaurants; 20,000-square-foot spa; white-sand beach; snorkeling along world's second-largest coral reef.