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Mexico's Temples of Style

Ikal del Mar

Just 10 miles north of Playa del Carmen—and 45 miles south of the airport—Ikal del Mar ("poetry of the sea") is the perfect retreat for travelers who want to sample the Playa scene but sleep well-removed from it. Set in a thick jungle by the shore, the 29 thatched bohíos (bungalows) were made by Mayan carpenters in the traditional manner, then outfitted with all the amenities of a world-class hotel.

"We wanted to see if you could do something beautiful and not destroy the environment," says general manager Nicol‡s Dominguez. The architects planned to build within the jungle rather than bulldoze it into oblivion, and linked the bohíos by a series of walkways on which no motorized vehicles are permitted. All are self-contained units, comprising a large room with a mosquito-netted platform bed; a glamorous bathroom; and an outdoor shower in a back garden. And then there's your front patio, where you could practically take up residence, with its plunge pool, terry-covered chaises, free-form unpolished marble table, and handwoven hammock--especially pleasant in the early morning, when Ikal's large bird population is waking up.

Beyond the jungle-covered grounds lies Ikal's beach, which is impressive when admired from the resort's infinity pool or from the two-story bar and dining pavilion, but a bit too rocky for good swimming. (Wider, more swimmable stretches of sand are just a short walk away.) Off to one side of the beach stands an odd, igloo-shaped stone structure called a temazcal. A kind of Native American sauna, it's used in an ancient purification rite, involving prayers, chants, mantras, and massages, performed several times a week for small groups of guests. The temazcal ritual begins with a steam cleansing in Ikal's thatch-and-stone spa. Participants then head down to the beach, where they enter the fired-up igloo for a magical (some say consciousness-raising) interlude. Offering more than rejuvenation, the temazcal rite can be an intensely exhilarating cross-cultural experience.

Less successful at bridging cultures is Ikal's menu, which seems overly ambitious—a mishmash of Asian, Italian, and Mexican dishes that is slightly old-fashioned and overpriced (the $23 salmon fettuccine in chipotle sauce is a case in point). The best items are the simplest: the Saratoga french-fried potato appetizer, the New York steak au poivre, the Pernod lobster with mashed potatoes. But Ikal is young and has a lot going for it, including plenty of time for fine-tuning. Xcalacoco; 888/230-7330 or 52-984/877-3000; www.ikaldelmar.com; doubles from $375

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