Rediscovering Riviera Maya

By Nathan Fong
    THE FIRST TIME I VISITED the Riviera Maya on the Mexican Caribbean coast was some 30 years ago, when Cancun was in its infancy as a town and Playa del Carmen was still an intimate fishing village. Located in the state of Quintana Roo on the eastern side of the limestone Yucatan Peninsula, this region has since become renowned for its stunning talcum beaches, warm azure waters and the spectacular Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the world's second longest) brimming with colourful sea life that attracts divers from all over the world, especially to the offshore islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
   This historic and ecologically rich region, filled with mangroves and ancient Mayan ruins, was made a federal tourism project in 1974 and has since become one of the world's most popular holiday destinations. Besides Yucatan's gorgeous beaches, its hinterland is renowned for lush low-lying tropical jungles that sit atop an intricate underground labyrinth of rivers and cenotes that intertwine for some 700 kilometers.
   Once a small tourist town, Cancun is now one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in Mexico, anchoring a burgeoning tourism sector along the coast. From the mecca of bustling resorts that line Cancun's sandy beach and large lagoon, a string of smaller and more intimate resort towns runs south towards Puerto Morales and Tulum. It's in these regions that newer upscale resorts are being developed alongside smaller boutique hotels and the luxury shops that line the quaint Avenida Quinta in Playa del Carmen.
   Once a small fishing town and the main ferry link to the coral reefs of Cozumel, Playa del Carmen has grown into another tourism centre on the Mayan Riviera, without losing its old charm and relaxed atmosphere. Just outside Playa del Carmen's city limits, beautifully designed and sustainably planned resorts have been developed amongst the mangroves, which protect their spacious and secluded beaches.
   One of the newest properties, Paradisus Resort (from the Spanish Melia Hotel Group), opened in November 2011. Although most of the Mayan Riviera resorts are allinclusive, the Paradisus Resort has set its standards well above the norm, offering 'luxclusive' comfort, service and cuisine. Set back from the beach among the mangroves, the resort is a stunning contemporary architectural showcase with flowing canals, swimming pools and lush tropical gardens surrounding modern minimalist low-rise buildings. Eye-catching custom works of art and sculptures are scattered throughout the property.
   The marble-floored guest rooms are spacious, with white furniture accented with silver and black, and large bathrooms fitted with soaker tubs and glass-enclosed showers. Many have large terraces overlooking the flowing swimming pools and some have double Jacuzzi tubs for intimate al fresco baths. Both the adults-only La Perla and family-oriented La Esmeralda sections of the resort also feature unique swim-up suites... walk onto your private terrace and jump right into the pool!
   While Yucatecan cuisine shares indigenous foods - corn, tomatoes, chiles and squash - with the rest of Mexico, in this tropical peninsula the native Mayans adopted Old World ingredients and adapted their cooking to create a distinct Yucatecan cuisine. Sour oranges introduced to the New World flavour the region's famed cochinita pibil (pulled pork marinated in spices and sour orange juice). A fragrant chicken soup (sopa de lima) is infused with limes. These traditional dishes are found everywhere on the coast, along with wonderful ceviches using the sea's bounty marinated and seasoned with the cornucopia of ingredients from the region. In addition, the new modern resorts are bringing in international cuisines.
   Paradisus features a wide assortment of a la carte restaurants, including an outpost from Michelin-starred Spanish chef Martin Berasategui, who opened his beautiful Passions Restaurant in the resort last December. This stunning vaulted restaurant, warmly designed in natural wood tones contrasted with large white chandeliers and faux bookshelves, features menus from his famed Relais & Chateaux restaurant, adapted to local ingredients.
   "It's been an education as well as a bit of a challenge, especially when you don't have all the ingredients that are available in Europe," says Paradisus Executive Chef Laurent Brouard. "We had to adapt as much as we could to what we can get locally." Local is good, especially when it comes to the Gulf's wonderful grouper, prawns and other seafood, not to mention the superb tropical produce. Other ingredients are sourced further afield, including oysters from the cooler Mexican Pacific coast and succulent micro sprouts from Mexico City.
   Just a short drive north on the coastal Highway 307, the gated community of Mayakoba houses two of the region's most spectacular hotel properties, The Fairmont Mayakoba and the Rosewood Mayakoba. These unique properties are set within four distinct ecosystems - sandy dunes, water canals and cenotes, tropical forests, and mangroves. Visiting the Fairmont Mayakoba some six years ago when it first opened, I was impressed that its sprawling grounds were designed with sensitivity to the environment, protecting the area's valuable mangroves, which play a crucial role in keeping the waters in the adjacent coral reefs clean. Entering the cavernous lobby, one has a sweeping view of the hotel's stunning location and beautiful property. Environmentally friendly golf carts whisk guests around the 47-acre retreat, which features 400 elegantly appointed guestrooms, including spectacular oceanfront suites and private casitas with lagoon or jungle views.
   Although the resort features six excellent restaurants, there are two that shine. El Puerto, an elegant restaurant with spectacular views overlooking the lagoon, features fresh sustainable seafood with contemporary Mexican and international flavours. Specialties range from grilled Sian Ka'an lobster, locally caught by a regional cooperative that uses sustainable fishing methods, to chipotle-glazed duck garnished with a Tequila demi-glace. The oceanfront restaurant Las Brisas, built in the traditional thatched palapa style with a stunning vaulted ceiling, sits at the edge of the briny rolling surf. From the elegant breakfast buffet and sublime lunchtime ceviches, to sunset cocktails and appetizers, this is one of the most beautiful locations to dine on the Mayan Riviera beachfront.
   The other most luxurious Mayakoba property, Rosewood Mayakoba, offers gorgeous contemporary casitas built around the lagoon and hidden discreetly along the beachfront. This private and intimate property is certainly one of the most beautiful and unique resorts I have ever visited. Entering through an unassuming porte cochere, I'm entranced by the stunning design of the inner sanctum, a postmodern symphony of glass, wood and concrete with spectacular water features flowing into a swimming pool surrounded by private bathing pavillions draped in white fabric.
   This luxury oasis has two wonderful restaurants. Casa del Lago, the signature Mediterranean restaurant, overlooks the tranquil waters of the main pool and emerald lagoon below, while Punta Bonita sits at the edge of the beachside infinity pool and offers classic regional Mexican cuisine.
   Although the resort restaurants offer excellent international and regional cuisines, the Mayan Riviera, like the rest of the country, is also known for its many holiday fiestas, from secular to religious, and the vast array of wonderful Mexican street foods that comes with them. There are classic taquerias with slow braised and aromatic shredded carnitas ready to fill fresh warm corn tortillas. Or fresh hot potato chips with local flavour, doused with hot spicy chile sauce and a liberal squeeze of lime juice. Or piquant grilled Mexican chorizos, much more flavourful than our North American hotdogs! For those with a lust for sweets, there are stalls filled with Mexican candies, from dulce de leche taffy wafers with peanuts to sour-sweet tamarind caramels and a rainbow of lollipops. For me, it's the hot and oily churros, the long, fried choux pastries, quickly dipped in sugar mixed with the local fragrant cinnamon (best eaten alongside a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, frothy and lightly spiked with cinnamon!).
   Centuries ago the indigenous Mayan people enjoyed the pleasure and beauty of this idyllic region and today it continues to be one of the world's most beautiful - and delicious - waterfront playgrounds.

Paradisus Playa del Carmen   Fairmont Mayakoba   Rosewood Mayakoba



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