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.
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 Cancn'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. Cancn-Chetumal Hwy., Petenpich Bay; 800/327-0200 or 52-998/872-8300; www.paraisodelabonitaresort.com; doubles from $410.
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 Nicols 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
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 Cancn, 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.
Sites to be Seen
In addition to a stunning coastline, the Riviera Maya is home to impressive archaeological and natural wonders.
Tulum This extraordinary Mayan city 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen was built about 400 to 900 a.d. on a bluff above the Caribbean Sea. Its squat, fat-columned temples, many with their flat roofs still intact, give Tulum the look and feel of an ancient Minoan (rather than Mayan) town. Landscaped with boulder- and statue-studded lawns, deep-purple succulents, and small palms, Tulum is one of the world's most visited archaeological sites. Go early or late in the day to avoid crowds. And bring a bathing suit, as there's a small beach below.
Cobá The ancient metropolis of Cobá--42 miles off Highway 307, the Riviera Maya's main thoroughfare--is well worth the detour. The site remains largely unexcavated, but what has been unearthed is staggering: mammoth pyramids (including the tallest in the northern Yucatán), monolithic stelae, and ancient playing fields. Miles of jungle paths wind through the thick foliage and can be explored on foot (wear sturdy shoes) or by bike (rentals are available at the entrance). Stay for sunset, best viewed from atop the pyramids. The Mayan Encounter from Alltournative (52-984/873-2036; www.alltournative.com; $80 per person) combines a guided tour of Cobá with a half-day in a Mayan village.
Sian Ka'an Mayan for "where the sky was born," the 2,800-square-mile peninsula 56 miles south of Playa del Carmen has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations; as such, it's protected from most development. In its jungles are jaguars, pumas, ocelots, monkeys, and some 400 species of birds; the lagoons and bays are home to dolphins, giant sea turtles, rays, crocodiles, and super-sized starfish. Sian Ka'an is best seen on an organized day trip: Eco Colors (52-998/884-9580; www.ecotravelmexico.com; $95 per person) takes guests game spotting, bird-watching, and snorkeling.
Living it up in Playa del Carmen
Mexico's fastest-growing city has come a long way since the days when it was best known as the sailing-off point for the nearby island of Cozumel. With new cafés and bars opening all the time, keeping up can be difficult. Here, where to eat and drink now.
Da Gabi Avda. Quinta and Calle 12; 52-984/873-0048; dinner for two $30. A cool corner café for some of Playa's best Italian food: brick-oven pizzas, fresh pastas.
Buenos Aires Avda. Quinta and Calle 6; 52-984/804-0232; dinner for two $30. Excellent beef at great prices--planked filet mignon is $10.
La Casa del Agua Avda. Quinta and Calle 2; 52-984/803-0232; dinner for two $38. Trendy second-story restaurant-art gallery serving Mexican, European, and gringo food.
Pancho's Avda. Quinta and Calle 12; 52-984/873-2222; dinner for two $50. A movie-set Spanish colonial courtyard with a pool provides the ambience for modern Mexican cuisine. Superb fajitas.
Java Joe's Avda. Quinta and Calle 10; no phone; breakfast for two $10. An early-morning institution (opens at 6:30 a.m.). Known for its great coffee, sweet rolls, and bagels.
La Cueva del Chango Avda. 38; 52-984/873-1598; breakfast for two $12. An insider's find, set in a jungly garden on the northern outskirts of town. Especially popular for late breakfasts.
Ula Gula Avda. Quinta and Calle 10. A smart watering hole that's been going strong for years--despite competition from the Deseo Lounge, down the street.
Deseo Lounge Avda. Quinta and Calle 12. The pool patio of this happening hotel is Playa's grooviest cocktail stop. Blue Parrot On the beach at Calle 12. Beer and margaritas by the sea--open till 3 a.m.
Riviera Maya--The Way it Was
Although big changes are taking place, it's still possible to have a barefoot escape at these four hotels that provide a flashback to the old Riviera Maya.
Kailuum II Six miles north of Playa del Carmen, off Hwy. 307; 800/538-6802 or 303/674-9615, fax 303/674-8735; www.mexicoholiday.com; doubles from $80. No electricity means romantic candlelit evenings at this rustic little spot, known for its excellent swimming and snorkeling. Instead of rooms, there are 30 tents on the beach, with proper beds, porches, and maid service. The restaurant and bar palapa has a sand floor; showers and toilets are in separate buildings.
La Vita Bella Km 1.5, Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila; 52-984/877-8145; doubles from $80. Owned by Sylvia Gino, a laid-back Italian who fell in love with the area while on holiday several years ago, this funky hideaway fronts a lovely Tulum beach. Guests dine on fresh pasta and pizza at plastic tables in the sand--and stay in charming bungalows.
Maya Tulum Retreat & Resort Km 7, Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila; 888/515-4580 or 52-984/877-8638; www.mayatulum.com; doubles from $70. Yoga is a way of life at this getaway just south of Tulum, which also has some of the best massage therapists this side of Esalen. The 41 simple stone-and-thatch cabaas, most with private baths, line a white-sand beach. Though primarily vegetarian, the restaurant does serve fish and lobster.
Mosquito Blue Avda. Quinta and Calle 2; 52-984/873-1245, fax 52-984/873-1337; www.mosquitoblue.com; doubles from $110. Before Deseo, this was the place to stay in Playa: 46 pleasant rooms encircling a palmy courtyard and a pretty pool.