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Mexico's Temples of Style

When I first visited Mexico's Riviera Maya eight years ago, this 75-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline south of Cancun had neither its classy--not to mention marketable-- name nor its slick four-lane expressway. In those days, you took your life in your hands, dodging trucks on a two-lane, shoulderless road ominously nicknamed La Carretera de los Muertos (the Highway of the Dead!).

I remember, however, the joy of exploring the ruins at Tulum and Cobá--great cities built by the Maya, a highly advanced people accomplished in astronomy and arithmetic--and of impromptu swims at beaches with exotic names like Playa del Secreto. There, I found bronzed Europeans hanging out on pristine white sands. At night, those intrepid travelers slept in RV's, tents, and $10-a-night bamboo huts.

What a difference eight years can make. For better or for worse, developers have finally discovered what was one of the last great unspoiled coasts in the Caribbean, and are taking over beaches that once were backpacker and hippie havens. Now, massive neo-Spanish colonial gates guard a burgeoning number of all-inclusive resorts. But there's good news, too: in the past year, a handful of small, exclusive properties have also opened. They bring this neighboring riviera a fresh level of style and luxury, transforming it into one of the the most seductive destinations around.

Deseo Hotel + Lounge

Hoteliers Carlos Couturier and Moises Micha have become Mexico's answer to Ian Schrager. Their dazzling two-year-old Habita hotel--literally wrapped in frosted glass--ushered in a new era of cutting-edge chic in Mexico City. And the duo's latest project, Deseo, is helping turn the former fishing village of Playa del Carmen into the style capital of the Riviera Maya.

According to Couturier, Deseo could have been "just another hotel." In the spring of 2001, an entrepreneur was building a simple 15-room inn on Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue), Playa's buzzing main drag. The project was already well under way when the developer got a glimpse of Couturier and Micha's Mexico City creation and decided that Playa needed something along the same bold lines.

"We liked Playa," Couturier says, explaining why they were attracted to the project. "The town has a very young, liberated spirit." Couturier and Micha reimagined the half-built hotel, and brought on Mexican conceptual artist Silvia Gruner to create the pool. In a mere five months, Deseo was born.

With its dramatic stone entrance modeled after a Mayan temple and its floor-to-ceiling glass panels framed by spindly log balustrades--making it look like a giant Noguchi lamp at night--Deseo's exterior breaks architectural ground. The guest rooms are more predictable: standard-issue minimalist, with the usual flowing white curtains and stark bathroom fixtures. There are original touches, too, such as disappearing (slide-away) bedside tables, incense at turndown, and a wire clothesline strung along one bare white wall and hung with unexpected amenities: sun hat, boxer shorts, beach bag, flip-flops, bananas, and the room-service menu.

Deseo pushes the hipness envelope even further with its nonstop house music, specially mixed in Paris and piped into the rooms 24/7 (guests can turn it off). The same sounds fill the courtyard, a multi-decked affair with mattress-chaises set around a bar and Gruner's pool-installation--which glows purple after dark. Day and night, this outdoor "lounge" draws the young, the cool, and the beautiful. No one minds the noise, the posing, the constant fashion shoots. Indeed, that's why everybody's here. Avda. Quinta and Calle 12, Playa del Carmen; 52-984/879-3620; www.hoteldeseo.com; doubles from $118, including breakfast.

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