Some call it the Riviera Maya. Some call it the Mayan Riviera. We call it Mexico’s ultimate easy vacation—especially if you park your clan at one of these four resorts, each with its own inviting take on beach living

By Rachel Urquhart
January 28, 2011
Brown W. Cannon III the
| Credit: Brown W. Cannon III

A quick drive from Cancún, the Yucatán Peninsula’s eastern shore is home to spectacular beaches and the world’s second-longest coral reef. A hideout for hippies and honeymooners, it’s lately become a magnet for families, who’ve discovered the impressive waterfront resorts, plus snorkeling, eco-parks, and Mayan ruins all within reach. Local wonders—bath-towel origami creatures, a few of which are pictured on the following pages—also await; look for them right at the end of your hotel bed.

The Family Boutique

Perfect for... stylish clans who want a mellow retreat—and the option of a private chef. This one wins in the design and food categories.

When a hotel’s address is a dirt track off an unnamed highway, you know you’ve hit upon a true hideaway—the kind frequented by Mexican soccer stars and pop singers. Formerly a private estate (the Italian duchess who owns it is still occasionally in residence), Esencia, which opened last year, has 29 exquisitely spartan guest rooms and suites with all-white bed linens, white floors, and balconies, most of which look out over the sea. Families might be more comfortable colonizing one of the 10 garden suites, each with outdoor showers and private plunge pools, or the two two-bedroom cottages, which have kitchens (including chef services), media rooms, and their own full-size pools where kids can frolic when they’re not at the hotel’s family pool or on the blissfully empty beach.

Although many of the amenities are geared toward grown-ups—the new organic spa with massage tables by the sea, and Sal y Fuego, the area’s best restaurant (which serves Mayan-style steamed sea bass and tiny local bananas in spicy chocolate sauce under palm-roofed palapas hung with hammocks)—the resort has recently begun to cater to kids. The expanding roster of children’s activities, available on request, includes yoga sessions, cooking classes with the resident pastry chef, horseback riding, scuba instruction, and chocolate massages (using cacao bean oil); nannies are also available full-time. Plus there’s always the beach to comb for toenail shells and coral. And, in a pinch, the restaurant is ready with enough chocolate ice cream in homemade waffle bowls to quiet the most truculent toddler.

Hotel Esencia (doubles from $625, kids 2–12 $75 per night, two-bedroom cottages from $1,400, breakfast included.)

Supersize by the Beach

Perfect for... those torn between living it up in Orlando and getting a full dose of beach time. Grab a lounge chair, and watch your kids cut loose.

With carved snakes and stone disks the size of Humvees decorating its pyramidal lobby, Paraíso Maya is the most over-the-top of the four side-by-side hotels that make up the Iberostar Playa Paraíso complex. A vacation universe unto itself, this all-inclusive—with 434 rooms, three pools, five bars, five restaurants, kids’ club and playground, theater, spa, four tennis courts, golf course, and a mall—is all about staying put while having options. Tons of them. Tube down a river-like pool through mini mangrove forests. Join the basketball, water polo, or volleyball games in the sports pool. There’s ice cream every three steps, Ping-Pong tables every six—and posses of preteens in surfer trunks around every corner.

At the main pool, periodic siren blasts signal the start of a series of machine-generated waves that wash up onto a cement "beach," prompting sunburned guests to jog and jiggle over from all ends of the property. (If you like quiet, request a room away from the center of the storm.) Meanwhile, 200 yards down the path lies a stunning stretch of real beach—abuzz with Boogie Boarding, and, in the beauty tent, hair-braiding and temporary tattooing.

The resort’s Japanese, Mediterranean, and Tex-Mex restaurants all serve platters of unremarkable food. Subtlety clearly isn’t the point here; spectacle is. And no one knows that better than your own children, who will be starring in the Teatro Lindo’s nightly kids’ show, as long as they aren’t shy about dancing in front of a rowdy audience and a multilingual MC dressed in head-to-toe sequins—an apt ending to a day spent playing hard in an ersatz wonderland.

Iberostar Paraíso Maya Hotel (doubles from $702, kids 2–12 $105, 13–18 $322, all-inclusive.)

The Hip All-Inclusive

Perfect for...families in search of a high-service resort that offers plenty of kiddie perks. Few all-inclusives feel this swanky.

The Azul Beach Hotel has a grown-up vibe one doesn’t normally associate with all-inclusives, much less the kind of place your kids are wild about. But chances are your brood will love this 96-room resort right from check-in, when they’ll be greeted by the lobby’s giant fountain, filled with cobalt glass pebbles that the hotel staff playfully rearranges into starfish or boat shapes every morning.

At Azul Beach, young guests spend their days at the kids’ club, romping in the seaside playground, and laying waste to piñatas. For the requisite souvenir photo, tiny green monkeys and giant macaws will perch on children’s shoulders, and an alarmingly large iguana will lie in their arms like a milk-drunk babe.

No request seems too difficult for mission control at the beach, housed in a pretty shack loaded with boogie boards and sand toys and staffed by attendants as amenable to making up a king-size lounge for you (shaded by palm fronds and diaphanous muslin screens) as they are to playing soccer with your 12-year-old.

The surprisingly generous array of eating options includes an Asian restaurant, an outdoor grill, and a main dining room with a schizoid spaghetti-to-ceviche menu that has an entire page of lobster dishes and a long, well-chosen wine list. Although tequila tastings and salsa lessons crop up weekly, you’ll probably be content to head back to your large, ocean-facing room, where you and your gang can wrap yourselves in matching terry robes. If you’ve nabbed a DVD and ordered a snack at the front desk, the hot popcorn will arrive just as The Incredibles starts to roll.

Azul Beach Hotel (doubles from $494, kids 2–12 $124, all-inclusive.)

Beach Budget Bingo

Perfect for...families for whom setting trumps service (or a lack thereof). The shoreline here is exceptional and popular with Mexicans and gringos alike.

Welcome to the few-frills vacation: fun, relaxing, and completely unpretentious. The accommodations—21 waterside rooms, 40 bungalows, five villas, and three condos—range from nouveau opulent (the Villa Taj Kumal) to motel-style hovels (certain of the bungalows). The beachfront hotel quarters, some with kitchenettes, present a pleasing middle ground.

The service ceases to exist after the nice boy from the reception desk bicycles in front of your car to show you where to park. And sleuthing for the best of a handful of restaurants in and around the resort involves asking someone who looks sunburned enough to have been in residence for a few days. But for in-room feasts, you’ll find everything you need at the nearby Super Chomak market just outside the hotel gates. As for the kids’ club, kindly local women lead young guests in beach games, boat rides, and pizza dinners—all for $6 an hour.

The bay itself—Akumal means "place of the turtles" in Mayan—is one of the loveliest on the coast. The water is clear and calm enough for even reluctant first-time snorkelers, and there’s plenty to see, including, from April through August, loggerhead and green sea turtles. They graze on the seagrass a mere four feet below the surface. Fishermen are always on hand to ferry you out in a glass-bottomed boat—so no one need miss the show. Meanwhile, the beach itself is filled with the very thing essential to any vacation with kids: other kids—digging, building castles, and generally having a swell time.

Hotel Club Akumal Caribe (doubles (including ones with kitchenettes) from $100.)

Three reasons to stray from your resort

ECO-PARKS The area’s two environmentally friendly water theme parks, Xcaret (adults: $56, children: $23)and Xel-Ha (Km 240, Carr. Chetumal-Puerto Juárez; 52-998/884-9422;; adults: $33, children: $23) are exceptionally great. Each has an outdoor "interactive" aquarium, so you can actually swim with parrot fish and manta rays in lagoons. You can also hike tropical trails, picnic under a palapa, and sack out in a hammock. In the late afternoon and evening, Xcaret, the more Disneyesque of the two, has dazzling shows—Mexican rodeos and reenactments of Meso-American Indian games, involving costumes, tribal music, even great balls of fire.

JUNGLE CAVES There’s fresh­water swimming (and snorkeling) in the Yucatán peninsula’s thousands of cenotes—limestone caverns that served as Mayan entrances to mysterious underground river systems. Take a guided excursion with Hidden Worlds (snorkeling tours from $25 for adults, children $20). Or, if you have young children in tow, keep an eye out for the smaller cenotes just off Highway 307, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. You’ll have the magical sense of being in a shallow cave—or a really cool swimming hole.

MAYAN SITES Just five minutes from the surfer town of Tulum, the Tulum Ruins (Km 128, Hwy. 307, Quintana Roo) are among the world’s most famous and best maintained Mayan structures. Their white stones, manicured lawns, and unusual position—not deep in the jungle like other sites, but on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean—also make them the most visually striking. Cap off your sightseeing with a swim and a nap on the beach.

Rachel Urquhart, a mother of two, has written for The New Yorker, Vogue, Allure, and the New York Times.

A wide range of beachside rental houses is available in the area, particularly on the southern end of the peninsula. Prices start at $1,650 per week for a villa that sleeps four. Go house hunting at these three sites: (widest range of locations and options); (a higher-end collection); and (if you want to plant your family on Akumal's exquisite beach).

Looking for more on things to do in Riviera Maya? Read T+L’s Travel Guide to the Mexican Riviera.