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Mexico's Temples of Style

Maroma Resort & Spa

Mexican architect José Luis Moreno is a Riviera Maya pioneer. Back in 1976, when he was one of many architects involved in the creation of Cancœn, he purchased a coconut plantation some 30 miles to the south on a magnificent bay accessible only from the sea. In 1980 he cut a road through the jungle and built a small house for himself and his future wife, Sally Shaw. "We had a Blue Lagoon adventure," Moreno says of their early years in the remote paradise. Once they started inviting friends for weekends, the couple soon found themselves the most popular hosts in the Yucatán. To accommodate an ever-growing number of houseguests, they kept adding rooms to their compound--white Moorish-Mayan cottages set in lush tropical gardens--unwittingly creating the beginnings of a small resort. In 1995, after a few more years of work (and urging from friends), they officially opened Maroma to the public.

Popular with low-profile celebrities, CEO's, and politicos seeking seclusion, Maroma counts Tony Blair and Prince William among its fans and once stood unrivaled as the sole upscale resort on the Riviera Maya. But with the recent arrival of other, similar properties, the 57-room Maroma has faced serious competition. Which is why, in March, Moreno sold 75 percent of his operation to Orient-Express Hotels.

"We don't want to make Maroma bigger," he explains. "Only better." On the drawing board: six villa suites, a large fitness facility overlooking the sea, and a spa with massage rooms on the beach. Best of all, he will not have to sell off any part of his 600 surrounding acres. This means that with the exception of one small hotel that recently opened down the beach, Maroma will have no neighbors for the foreseeable future on what is one of the world's loveliest bays.

Maroma also has a major asset in the charm of its staff. From the women who scatter bougainvillea blossoms on your bed at turndown to the waiters who prepare guacamole by your table on the seaside dining terrace, these people aim, in Moreno's words, "to show you our hearts, not just our beaches."

The food at Maroma is another reason for its reputation. The delightfully earthy, unfussy warm-weather fare includes grilled fish, fresh pastas, chunky salsas, and a well-edited selection of authentic Yucatecan dishes: lime soup with chicken, char-grilled marinated fish, pork baked in banana leaves. Maroma's breakfast buffet is legendary: a feast of tropical fruits, fresh juices, pastries, pancakes, avocado omelettes--and that's only a fraction of it.

At the end of the day, there's little not to like at Maroma, though one might call the guest rooms--with their Mexican rugs, ceramic lamps, stuccoed niches, aromatherapy candles, and art books--a bit busy. Also, the entire place could use a visit from the fabric police to rethink the tired tapestry coverings on much of the furniture. But these drawbacks, which will undoubtedly be addressed by Orient-Express, pale beside the beauty of Maroma's setting and the warmth of its staff. Km 51, Hwy. 307; 866/454-9351 or 52-998/872-8200; www.orient-expresshotels.com; doubles from $225, including breakfast.

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