At Azul Beach, young guests spend their days at the kids’ club, romping in the seaside playground, and laying waste to piñatas. For the requisite souvenir photo, tiny green monkeys and giant macaws will perch on children’s shoulders, and an alarmingly large iguana will lie in their arms like a milk-drunk babe.
No request seems too difficult for mission control at the beach, housed in a pretty shack loaded with boogie boards and sand toys and staffed by attendants as amenable to making up a king-size lounge for you (shaded by palm fronds and diaphanous muslin screens) as they are to playing soccer with your 12-year-old.
The surprisingly generous array of eating options includes an Asian restaurant, an outdoor grill, and a main dining room with a schizoid spaghetti-to-ceviche menu that has an entire page of lobster dishes and a long, well-chosen wine list. Although tequila tastings and salsa lessons crop up weekly, you’ll probably be content to head back to your large, ocean-facing room, where you and your gang can wrap yourselves in matching terry robes. If you’ve nabbed a DVD and ordered a snack at the front desk, the hot popcorn will arrive just as The Incredibles starts to roll.
Azul Beach Hotel (doubles from $494, kids 2–12 $124, all-inclusive.)
Beach Budget Bingo
HOTEL CLUB AKUMAL CARIBE
Perfect for...families for whom setting trumps service (or a lack thereof). The shoreline here is exceptional and popular with Mexicans and gringos alike.
Welcome to the few-frills vacation: fun, relaxing, and completely unpretentious. The accommodations—21 waterside rooms, 40 bungalows, five villas, and three condos—range from nouveau opulent (the Villa Taj Kumal) to motel-style hovels (certain of the bungalows). The beachfront hotel quarters, some with kitchenettes, present a pleasing middle ground.
The service ceases to exist after the nice boy from the reception desk bicycles in front of your car to show you where to park. And sleuthing for the best of a handful of restaurants in and around the resort involves asking someone who looks sunburned enough to have been in residence for a few days. But for in-room feasts, you’ll find everything you need at the nearby Super Chomak market just outside the hotel gates. As for the kids’ club, kindly local women lead young guests in beach games, boat rides, and pizza dinners—all for $6 an hour.
The bay itself—Akumal means "place of the turtles" in Mayan—is one of the loveliest on the coast. The water is clear and calm enough for even reluctant first-time snorkelers, and there’s plenty to see, including, from April through August, loggerhead and green sea turtles. They graze on the seagrass a mere four feet below the surface. Fishermen are always on hand to ferry you out in a glass-bottomed boat—so no one need miss the show. Meanwhile, the beach itself is filled with the very thing essential to any vacation with kids: other kids—digging, building castles, and generally having a swell time.
Hotel Club Akumal Caribe (doubles (including ones with kitchenettes) from $100.)
Three reasons to stray from your resort
ECO-PARKS The area’s two environmentally friendly water theme parks, Xcaret (adults: $56, children: $23)and Xel-Ha (Km 240, Carr. Chetumal-Puerto Juárez; 52-998/884-9422; xel-ha.com; adults: $33, children: $23) are exceptionally great. Each has an outdoor "interactive" aquarium, so you can actually swim with parrot fish and manta rays in lagoons. You can also hike tropical trails, picnic under a palapa, and sack out in a hammock. In the late afternoon and evening, Xcaret, the more Disneyesque of the two, has dazzling shows—Mexican rodeos and reenactments of Meso-American Indian games, involving costumes, tribal music, even great balls of fire.
JUNGLE CAVES There’s freshwater swimming (and snorkeling) in the Yucatán peninsula’s thousands of cenotes—limestone caverns that served as Mayan entrances to mysterious underground river systems. Take a guided excursion with Hidden Worlds (snorkeling tours from $25 for adults, children $20). Or, if you have young children in tow, keep an eye out for the smaller cenotes just off Highway 307, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. You’ll have the magical sense of being in a shallow cave—or a really cool swimming hole.
MAYAN SITES Just five minutes from the surfer town of Tulum, the Tulum Ruins (Km 128, Hwy. 307, Quintana Roo) are among the world’s most famous and best maintained Mayan structures. Their white stones, manicured lawns, and unusual position—not deep in the jungle like other sites, but on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean—also make them the most visually striking. Cap off your sightseeing with a swim and a nap on the beach.
Rachel Urquhart, a mother of two, has written for The New Yorker, Vogue, Allure, and the New York Times.