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Mexico's Temples of Style

Paraiso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso

Possibly the most luxurious presence on the Riviera Maya, Paraiso de la Bonita is also the easiest hotel to reach--it's only 12 miles south of Cancœn's international airport. The forerunner in a new line of boutique hotels from the Inter-Continental group, Paraiso makes a dazzling first impression. This begins at the airport, where you are met with chilled towels and a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Navigator. Then you're taken to a prime stretch of beach so isolated it feels like a private island. You can't help being struck by the theatricality of the public areas--the columned pavilions, mosaicked walkways, reflecting pools, Mayan statues, Moroccan lanterns, Balinese sofas, and propeller ceiling fans. If you think you've stumbled upon some fabulous undiscovered Aman resort, you're not far off. Paraiso's general manager, Hector de Galard, who had much to do with the final design, spent four years with the Asian hotel group, first in Bora-Bora and then in Marrakesh, where he recently launched Amanjena.

For de Galard, the Riviera Maya is every bit as exotic as his last two posts. "This coast is special because you're entering the Mayan world," he says. "At the same time, we have the Caribbean and the second-longest coral reef in the world right in front of us. It's the perfect location for a luxurious yet ecological holiday."

Paraiso certainly delivers the luxury part of the equation. The 90 suites are enormous. Indeed, they are almost too big-- imposing rather than soothing. And with their marble floors, stuccoed arches, and silk curtains, not to mention all their perfectly positioned African baskets, Balinese bowls, and distressed Campaign chests, they are perhaps too "decorated." But no matter how you may feel about the look, eventually you succumb to the luxury--the Frette linens, the Bulgari toiletries, the private pools. Best of all are the bathrooms, delightfully over-the-top: twin glass-and-marble sinks and room-sized showers set in gardens. Some even have marble tubs as big as plunge pools.

The food at Paraiso is somewhat less extravagant. Rather than fuse Mexican with some currently trendy culinary tradition ("confusion food" is how de Galard puts it), the resort's French chef, Fabrice Guisset, concentrates on straightforward Mediterranean dishes, emphasizing caught- that-day seafood. Especially memorable are his mussels in a leek and saffron stew and his classic bisque de langosta. Although most of Guisset's creations are light, calorie counts are discreetly provided for guests watching their waistlines.

And that brings us to what is perhaps Paraiso's main attraction: its spa. No glorified fitness center with a couple of massage rooms, the Thalasso Center is a vast (22,000 square feet), highly professional facility that specializes in thalassotherapy, the famous French spa treatments using warm seawater. Inside the stone building, inspired by an ancient temple, are beige marble treatment and recovery rooms. The enormous outdoor hydrotherapy pool faces the sea and is equipped with powerful jets that untangle every muscle in your body. Choices are endless--from four-hand synchronized underwater massage to a dozen different facials. These can be booked individually or as part of a number of packages promising rejuvenation, weight loss, or a basic chill-out. But after a few days at Paraiso, you may not require any of the above. Cancœn-Chetumal Hwy., Petenpich Bay; 800/327-0200 or 52-998/872-8300; www.paraisodelabonitaresort.com; doubles from $410.

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