Spring break has come and gone, but as anyone who no longer knows the bliss of enjoying a mandatory week’s vacation can second, the need boiling up in most of us to escape cold weather and the demands of our office inbox continues to rise with no signs of ceasing.
Mexico’s Caribbean coastline beckons, taunting office drones with turquoise waters, mysterious ruins, days and nights free of scheduling — R&R to the nth degree.
And what’s the easiest fix when it comes to the unrelenting yearning for a southern getaway? A packaged holiday.
Should your suspicion of all-inclusive vacation packages outweigh your desire to get off the grid and soak in some much needed vitamin D, trust the advice of a former all-inclusive-phob: the pros wipe out the cons.
True, you do get a bracelet upon arrival, but after day one, you start to forget that you may not be wearing an elite black band that allows you the privilege of cocktail hour in the air-conditioned VIP Lounge, and quickly embrace the fact that you don’t need canapés and scotch when you and your orange bracelet have a wet bar serving up michilatas (a beer-based Mexican mixed drink) — the salt rim is meal enough. Aside from that, mingling is less than usual (just don’t make eye contact with the aqua fit instructor/recruiter), and the buffets always have a lot of fresh salad and fruit options, as well as some sort of grilled fish, if you’re not a fan of kids’ menu type fare i.e. pizza, burgers, cheesy pasta.
True, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll spot some lobster-red keener holding his own cooler mug, telling the bartender in broken Spanish how much he loves him and his native country, or sit beside a couple who spends the entirety of their dinner taking pictures and nursing a single margarita, but at the end of the day: you’re in Mexico. And once there, surrounded by enigmatic historical artifacts and multiple natural wonders, you come to realize that there’s no steadfast rule keeping you to any kind of standardized all-inclusive agenda; you can, after all, leave the property to explore sights and local fare, just as you would if you booked a regular hotel. If anything, just having the option of falling into the “typical” guests’ patterns makes for a more leisurely holiday: it’s hard to imagine how handy 24-hour room service is until you have it, or how much you don’t mind waiting in line at the breakfast buffet if it means someone will make you an omelette every morning accompanied by a judgment-free serving of the hair of the dog that inclusively bit you the night before.
Bottom line: for the traveller looking for a no-fuss vacation experience, someone on a tight budget, or just someone looking to satisfy their wanderlust with a breezy trip that doesn’t expel the possibility for more trips later in the year, there’s no rule that states an all-inclusive holiday to Mexico is for people who mark their birthday with a celebratory vomit at the stoke of midnight, and/or plan “date nights” at Montana’s.
Trust this guide and find your way to a grown up, TGIF-free, all-inclusive visit to Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Where to Stay:
For the prosecco sipper: Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Hotel & Spa, Akumal
Like the Mayan temples that inspire its robust design, Akumal’s Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Hotel & Spa is immediately striking. A massive edifice rising from the flat terrain off Highway 307, the resort’s sprawling grounds encompass 3 hotels totalling just shy of a 1000 rooms, 10 restaurants, a theatre, a club, and 3,000 feet of private beach adjacent to the world’s second-largest coral reef, best explored by way of the nearby Laguna Yal-Ku. It’s no wonder golf cars are kept on hand to transport guests around this 5-star resort.
Driving from the lobby through the labyrinth of asymmetrical stone colonnades to our room, my boyfriend and I joke that we feel as if we’re in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. After all, Lucas’ architecture does mimic the typology of Mayan temples.
Luckily our room is located near the property’s largest pool, 1 of 2 at the hotel, so no golf car service needed. From the vantage point of the swim-up bar, situated in the middle of the pool, it feels like the surface area it covers measures larger than the average track course. Like everything at this hotel: it’s grand, and by grand, I mean massive.
Our Junior Suite is fairly basic, but does the trick. We may not have had the luxury of a pillowtop mattress or soft, breathable 400-thread-count sheets, but we didn’t plan on spending much time in the room anyway, what with ruins and sacred cenotes, literally on the property. I’ve also since decided that extravagant bedding is overrated; bring a 100% pima cotton T-shirt and shorts by Alternative Apparel to sleep in, and you’ll be more than fine.
If luxury is what you prefer to be nose-deep in, than the Sirenis Grand Spa will not disappoint. A brief shuttle car ride away from the main property, the wellness centre is situated on roughly 30,000 square feet of land, tucked amidst tropical forests.
The spa’s elemental focus is apparent from its design alone. While similar to the hotel in its dramatic Mayan architectural features, its running waters and surrounding greenery infuse the space with a tranquility that no city spa could recreate, however impressive a living wall they may boast. Neither my boyfriend nor I being “couples massage” types, we — especially him — were not sure if a joint visit was exactly what we wanted, but all myths of take-home feather ticklers and uncomfortable mood music were dispelled upon beginning our treatment with the spa’s Water Circuit. Guided by the soft-spoken spa staff, we made out way through the various hydrotherapy “stations” (targeting calves, thighs, lower back, lumbar, and even the soles of your feet), before moving along to therapy rooms where steam, aroma, thermal power, and light (chromotherapy) awaited our relaxation.
By the time we found ourselves in one of the spa’s deluxe couple’s treatment rooms, encased in a bodywrap of cocoa, acerolla and pepper, the jelly-state of our body cancelled out any urge to poke fun of appreciating a good ol’ side-by-side Amazonian massage (the name refers to the Brazil nut used) and couples hydro-therapy, which saw us soaking in a huge tub together while warm jets of water target massaging problem areas. The room could be an inch under rose petals with Boys II Men playing in the background, and still no level of Hallmark romance could wake us from our repose.
World-class snorkelling, a sushi joint (remember the hotel is right on the Caribbean coast), a lazy river that draws you in like a vortex, an onsite discotheque (trust me, you want this), and a spa that has the the force of serenity to make even those who do the seated asana position with their eyes open (me) rethink dismissing the word “spiritual” from their lexicon, the Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Hotel & Spa isn’t the all-inclusive resort that encouraged your cousin Larry to get married with the dolphins; it’s the place where you will enjoy an affordable, stress-free, sun-drenched holiday without ever having to join an aquafit congo line.
For the pina colada lover: Sandos Playacar Beach Resort & Spa, Playa del Carmen
There are certain things that cruise ships and all-inclusive sun holidays call to mind for me. While having never been on the former, and this trip being my first experience of the latter, these ideas are all presumptions, based on some sort of collective memory steeped in pop culture and old Carnival Cruise Line commercials. That being said, all those images — the warm hacienda-style colour palette, the hand-holding couples cooing small children as they play in the sand and of course, the iconic swan towels displayed on the bed each night, were all to be found at Sandos Playacar Beach Resort & Spa.
A cheery beach village nestled in the residential complex of Playacar, the resort’s geography — a 5 minute drive to downtown Playa Del Carmen and its restaurant/bar-rimmed 5th Avenue strip — deems it the preferred choice amongst the demographic of guests who have either outgrown or want something slightly less party-driven than the Cancun haze, while not interested in an entirely “quiet” holiday.
The first of two hotels we called home while visiting the Riviera Maya, for us, Sandos was the perfect introductory experience to all-inclusive vacations. While almost exactly what we pictured when originally envisioning what a packaged trip to the Mexican Caribbean would be like, it was also different, in a good way. Yes, we did imagine that the resort’s 30 metre-length of white sand beach might be teeming with eager sun-seekers, translating into the impossible feat of snagging a pair of beach lounge chairs after noon, but we couldn’t have conceived the uncanny awe we’d feel when swimming past the 1000-year-old ruins of the Temple of Tulum. Basically, when it came down to the level of Mexican sun holiday cliche, the resort fulfilled the Goldilocks equation: it was just right.
Staking our claim on the beach became each day’s morning ritual. We became those people who put their towels and books on the loungers and then go for a leisurely 2 hour breakfast before actually using the chairs. Until we discovered the library pool.
During a visit to the hotel spa, we stumbled upon the resort’s best kept secret: an enclosed pool area complete with mini plunge pool, jacuzzi, and built-in aquatherapy. Well distanced from the pump-em-up music of the main pools, this gem was so wonderfully hushed, we coined it the “library pool.” If anyone’s voice were to raise louder than a pin drop, an audible sigh would be appropriate. We spent chunks of our afternoons dividing our time between lying out on the beach sipping chilled cervezas and mellowing out while submerged in one of the library pool’s aquatherapy loungers.
For guests who prefer their entire experience to be of a library pool variety (separate from the kinetic buzz of the rest of the resort property), splurge for a Sandos Select Club package and hang exclusively with the resort’s over-21 crowd in the Riviera Section. Investing in this VIP bracelet gets you everything a grown up heart desires, including: a selection of 276 Junior Suites, a view of the 18-hole golf course, private pool club with wet bar and poolside waitstaff serving up premium liqueur and gourmet canapés, access to the 2 adults-only lounges and a private beach area, which does not require waking up early to score a chair, plus there are hammocks.
Early into our stay at the Sandos Playacar Beach Resort & Spa, we realized how stealthily an inclusive resort mentality creeps up on you. One minute you’re poking fun of some non-offensive, holiday-lov’n guy in a Tommy Bahama shirt feeding a lizard a piece of pineapple from his plate, the next minute you’re ordering any drink with an umbrella in it, wondering why there is a kid wearing the wrong coloured bracelet in the adults-only section, and hoping to yourself that the evening’s buffet will include grilled tilapia again, so that you can try it in a soft-shelled taco. It’s a bit like Das Experiment, except the hierarchy is in the coloured bracelets you get upon check-in.
Would we visit again? You bet one black Sandos Select Club bracelet we would.
For fine dining: La Casa Del Agua, Playa Del Carmen
When on vacation, the idle beach bum in me wants to skip the bother of dressing in anything other than a sundress and flip flops. I purposely don’t bring any footwear with the slightest incline to its heel to avoid the domino effect they have on the entire dressing process. Once heels are brought into the equation, the next thing you know you’re spending one hour primping just to have it all melt and flatten from the humidity. And then one day, while dressed in what could be a cabana girl’s all-white t-shirt and terry cloth short ensemble, you catch an irresistible scent wafting through the air from the dining room of an elegant restaurant, and all at once you regret your Keds.
The grand palace of Fifth Avenue’s vast hodgepodge of restaurants and shops, La Casa Del Agua is distinct in its splendour. A modern take on the traditional Mexican hacienda’s arcaded silhouette, the edifice of La Casa Del Agua, speaks to its menu, similarly a contemporary take on regional classics with the delectable oomph of a measured dollop of international fusion added to the mix.
It being before 4pm and us being…less then “dressed” for dinner, we stopped into La Casa Del Agua for appetizers.
Going heavy on the seafood isn’t difficult at this ocean-side restaurant, nor is it a bad idea. An array of appetizers acts as a meal in itself. The tuna and sea scallops ceviche with avocado and mango are the ideal palette opener for a delicious mussels meuniere dish, fragrant with butter, garlic, parsil and white wine, while crispy scallops in a light panko and herb crust served over champagne risotto were in themselves a New Year’s celebration. Each dish was delicate enough to suit the warm breeze drifting in and out of La Casa Del Agua’s elegant dining room.
Take it from someone who is haunted by missing out on the hand-made pork ravioli seasoned with achiote (a local Yucatan condiment) because of a dirty pair of sneakers, this place is worth the pinch of a pair of heels.
For local bites: El Tabano, Tulum
There aren’t many places in this world that you would find an outdoor restaurant powered by solar and decorated by what looks like Spanish Deadheads, but if any place were to be home to such a restaurant, the little seaside township of Tulum would be it. The sort of area where yoga retreats count amongst the major draw and Lonely Planet readers the major clientele, Tulum is an incense-burner’s vacation paradise.
Hearty carnivores when it comes to diet, after sampling El Tabano‘s fresh veg and seafood-dominant menu (meat is on the menu, but sparsely represented), I think we both would happily give up meat all together if it meant having their chef’s fresh local fare everyday.
Indigenous ingredients including Chaya (a shrub native to the Yucatán Peninsula) and the catch of the day are the simple pop in each creation out of El Tabano’s homey open-concept kitchen. Stand-outs include grouper ceviche con mango; a chaya and bean salad savoury enough to convert a Texas cowboy to vegetarianism; and a sizable fillet of grouper grilled and dressed with a subtle pumpkin seed sauce. It being just after noon, and we combating a sun hangover from earlier on in the day, we stuck to the quenching chaya water, but did notice (and since long for) an impressive wine list that included local labels including rarities like Mexican nebbiolo, typically grown exclusively in Italy.
If food is what you love, than El Tabano is a destination to build a trip on.
For Outdoor Enthusiasts: Aktun-chen Natural Park, Playa Del Carmen
Okay, so, yes, this place is actually called The Indiana Jones Aktun-chen Natural Park, but don’t let the name deter you from visiting. Far from a theme park, this place doesn’t even have a gift shop to boast of, let alone men dressed up like the park’s namesake, touring around the property shaking hands with the kiddies.
A tourist attraction without being mired in “authentic” Mexican kitsch, the majestic cenote and awe-inspiring cave are the main draw here. Aged 5 million years, the latter’s stalactites (calcium-based icicle-like formations hanging from the roof of a cave) lead you through a spectacular 600 metres of geological wonderment. The end of your journey brings you to the park’s cenote. Believed to be inhabited by the souls of ancient Mayan ancestors, the crystal clear waters in this natural sinkhole are ethereal in character, pure in a way that makes ocean water feel soiled and heavy.
While park goers are invited to visit the onsite wildlife zoo and/or zip line though its forest of tropical plants and flowers, non-theme park enthusiasts, will be happiest staying underground, exploring ancient natural wonders unique to the region.
For History Buffs: Tulum Archeological Site, Tulum
It needs to be clarified that however questionable it may be to name a natural wonder after a fictional film character, the essence of those movies is irrefutably pure entertainment — the ultimate combination of historic intrigue and action. Keeping that in mind, the Tulum Archeological Site is a journey’s end of Indiana Jones proportion.
Rising from the cliff top above the Caribbean Sea, this compact archeological site is mammoth in its historical relevance, as our guide, Froylan, shares. Amongst the best preserved coastal Maya sites, this pre-Columbian walled city’s legacy as one of the last of its kind erected and inhabited by the Mayans has tourists in the area flocking to its site.
No amount of crowds would be enough to warrant skipping this one; swimming in the sea below the ruins alone is enough to put up with twice the pack size you’ll find there. Awe is inevitable. Just listening to Froylan explain, in his Yoda-like voice, how the Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for studying and predicting the movements of the sun, has changed how we appraise the most basic of modern technology. The smooth movement of our watch has never seemed quite as impressive.
For the social butterfly: Fusion Bar & Grill, Playa Del Carmen
Sitting on the beach front, Fusion Bar & Grill is the local-preferred spot to bury your toes in the sand while catching a live performance ranging from song to dance.
While most tiki bar-type places tend to lean towards the cheesy coconut shell decor side, this basic sandy waterhole is essentially the Caribbean Coast’s answer to the local pub, with the added bonus of a live fire act every now and then — more hippie than vegas.
Go for the local selection of draft beer here, best paired with baby shrimp tacos. Then sit back and enjoy the company of new friends; the vibrant atmosphere and close quarters make for plenty of cheery cross-table chatter.
For Mr & Mrs. Need-A-Drink-But-Feeling-Antisocial: Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Tulum
Home to some of the best fish tacos in the region (who knew a garnish of white cabbage could taste so good), located on the southeast road towards the beach off highway 307, this intimate little grill is worth the cab fare to get away from the crowds.
The vibe here is energetic, heightened by the live band and busy dance floor, but even at its busiest, Mateo’s never verges on club land. With the delicious wafts of the fish being grilled near the entrance filling the room, the irresistible scent keeps the focus of this bar and grill on the grill and not the bar.
Choose one of the tucked-away benches at the back of the bar, perfectly positioned to watch revellers cheering on the band, while relishing some savoury freshly grilled fish tacos, also available baja style: fried in beer batter and served with chipole and mango salsa.For more information contact www.RivieraMaya.com Special Thanks to US Airways and United Airlines