A quick drive from Cancún, the Yucatán Peninsula’s eastern shore is home to spectacular beaches and the world’s second-longest coral reef. A hideout for hippies and honeymooners, it’s lately become a magnet for families, who’ve discovered the impressive waterfront resorts, plus snorkeling, eco-parks, and Mayan ruins all within reach. Local wonders—bath-towel origami creatures, a few of which are pictured on the following pages—also await; look for them right at the end of your hotel bed.
The Family Boutique
Perfect for... stylish clans who want a mellow retreat—and the option of a private chef. This one wins in the design and food categories.
When a hotel’s address is a dirt track off an unnamed highway, you know you’ve hit upon a true hideaway—the kind frequented by Mexican soccer stars and pop singers. Formerly a private estate (the Italian duchess who owns it is still occasionally in residence), Esencia, which opened last year, has 29 exquisitely spartan guest rooms and suites with all-white bed linens, white floors, and balconies, most of which look out over the sea. Families might be more comfortable colonizing one of the 10 garden suites, each with outdoor showers and private plunge pools, or the two two-bedroom cottages, which have kitchens (including chef services), media rooms, and their own full-size pools where kids can frolic when they’re not at the hotel’s family pool or on the blissfully empty beach.
Although many of the amenities are geared toward grown-ups—the new organic spa with massage tables by the sea, and Sal y Fuego, the area’s best restaurant (which serves Mayan-style steamed sea bass and tiny local bananas in spicy chocolate sauce under palm-roofed palapas hung with hammocks)—the resort has recently begun to cater to kids. The expanding roster of children’s activities, available on request, includes yoga sessions, cooking classes with the resident pastry chef, horseback riding, scuba instruction, and chocolate massages (using cacao bean oil); nannies are also available full-time. Plus there’s always the beach to comb for toenail shells and coral. And, in a pinch, the restaurant is ready with enough chocolate ice cream in homemade waffle bowls to quiet the most truculent toddler.
Hotel Esencia (doubles from $625, kids 2–12 $75 per night, two-bedroom cottages from $1,400, breakfast included.)
Supersize by the Beach
IBEROSTAR PARAÍSO MAYA HOTEL
Perfect for... those torn between living it up in Orlando and getting a full dose of beach time. Grab a lounge chair, and watch your kids cut loose.
With carved snakes and stone disks the size of Humvees decorating its pyramidal lobby, Paraíso Maya is the most over-the-top of the four side-by-side hotels that make up the Iberostar Playa Paraíso complex. A vacation universe unto itself, this all-inclusive—with 434 rooms, three pools, five bars, five restaurants, kids’ club and playground, theater, spa, four tennis courts, golf course, and a mall—is all about staying put while having options. Tons of them. Tube down a river-like pool through mini mangrove forests. Join the basketball, water polo, or volleyball games in the sports pool. There’s ice cream every three steps, Ping-Pong tables every six—and posses of preteens in surfer trunks around every corner.
At the main pool, periodic siren blasts signal the start of a series of machine-generated waves that wash up onto a cement "beach," prompting sunburned guests to jog and jiggle over from all ends of the property. (If you like quiet, request a room away from the center of the storm.) Meanwhile, 200 yards down the path lies a stunning stretch of real beach—abuzz with Boogie Boarding, and, in the beauty tent, hair-braiding and temporary tattooing.
The resort’s Japanese, Mediterranean, and Tex-Mex restaurants all serve platters of unremarkable food. Subtlety clearly isn’t the point here; spectacle is. And no one knows that better than your own children, who will be starring in the Teatro Lindo’s nightly kids’ show, as long as they aren’t shy about dancing in front of a rowdy audience and a multilingual MC dressed in head-to-toe sequins—an apt ending to a day spent playing hard in an ersatz wonderland.
Iberostar Paraíso Maya Hotel (doubles from $702, kids 2–12 $105, 13–18 $322, all-inclusive.)
The Hip All-Inclusive
AZUL BEACH HOTEL
Perfect for...families in search of a high-service resort that offers plenty of kiddie perks. Few all-inclusives feel this swanky.
The Azul Beach Hotel has a grown-up vibe one doesn’t normally associate with all-inclusives, much less the kind of place your kids are wild about. But chances are your brood will love this 96-room resort right from check-in, when they’ll be greeted by the lobby’s giant fountain, filled with cobalt glass pebbles that the hotel staff playfully rearranges into starfish or boat shapes every morning.