Riviera Maya: Mexican Vacay Only A Short Flight Away

By: Lisa McElroy

Hola from Mexico! My husband Steve had a few days off from work, so we decided to ditch the dismal Philadelphia winter weather and head to Riviera Maya, the gorgeous white sand beach area just south of Cancun. Just in time, too – the day before our USA 3000 flight whisked us away, Philly suffered (and I do mean suffered) a huge ice and snowstorm that prompted all of our friends to offer to carry our bags to Mexico for us.

THE TRIP DOWN
We were lucky enough to fly from Philly non-stop to Cancun on USA 3000, an airline that offers a great bargain when it comes to travel to Mexico. We were especially happy that our flight left first thing in the morning. We got to Cancun in time to shuttle to our hotel and hit the beach, margarita in hand, just after lunchtime. Seriously, even though a 7am flight meant leaving our house in the dark (and snow!) at about 4:45am, knowing that we wouldn’t lose out on a whole day of Mexican sunshine because we’d be traveling made for an upbeat start to our trip.

WHY RIVIERA MAYA?
Riviera Maya is a bit of a drive from Cancun. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to reach your resort, depending on where you’re going. But it’s also a great destination for beautiful beaches, jazz (especially in November, when the area hosts a world-famous jazz festival), Mayan ruins and ecological parks unlike any you’ll see anywhere else. What’s more, while Cancun is beautiful, it can also be a party haven for college kids and the city is still recovering from Hurricane Wilma, which stormed through the area a few years back damaging both beaches and resorts.

CATALONIA ROYAL TULUM
Our trip started with a night at the , a little over an hour from the airport. Right after we checked in, we headed to the gorgeous pool area, where frozen margaritas were flowing freely. Because this resort is all-inclusive and adults only, Steve was able to partake in as many as he wanted – and he did, while we lounged on the comfy beach beds and hit the hot tub. I got a Mayan massage in the elegant spa (the therapist was amazing and the pressure just right). Steve found the beach bed a tad too comfy – he fell asleep and didn’t wake up for hours. I ended up heading to dinner in the Mexican restaurant and chowing down on tamales without him. The nicest part? Wandering down the stone path that cuts through the resort and listening to the sound of silence – no kids here, no partiers, just peace and quiet. Heaven after the chaos of my two-kid, two-dog household! Steve finally showed up back at the room at around 9:30pm, looking sheepish. Hey, as long as he was having a good time, right?

The Catalonia Royal Tulum is undergoing an upgrade. As it recently transitioned from a family resort to an adults-only property, management is adding new king beds in all of the rooms, luxury bedding, new showerheads – the works. They’re right on point. While the resort boasted some of the friendliest staff we met in Mexico and some of the prettiest scenery, it will benefit from a slightly better water pressure and faster Wi-Fi. We’re excited to return and check it out when it’s done!

SECRETS MAROMA BEACH
From the Catalonia Royal Tulum, we headed north for a two-day stay at Secrets Maroma Beach, another adults-only resort. Right away, we were blown away by the landscaping, the beautiful white sand beach, the very large pools, and the two hot tubs. We arrived right around lunch and this time I was the one who overindulged: on the paella, juicy burgers and cheesy nachos that they cooked and served buffet style right by the pool.

After all that food, I needed a nap, so I headed back to the room while Steve read his novel on a beach chair. The room was probably the nicest we’d see on the whole trip: our four-poster bed was surrounded by silk curtains and we had both a Jacuzzi inside and a plunge pool right outside our door. The huge shower had tile that I wanted to replicate in my own boring white bathroom at home. And the in-room mini bar was free — great for those late night beer-with-American-Idol cravings. Best of all, because Secrets wants guests to enjoy their privacy, all of the rooms have pass-throughs for room service (included) and Do Not Disturb lights. You don’t have to find your robe to get your coffee or have housekeeping bang on the door unless you want them to.

DINNER AT PORTOFINO
After my nap, we headed to dinner at the Italian restaurant on property, Portofino. We both tried the steak – cooked perfectly – and the linguini carbonara. We passed on the wine list because it wasn’t included in the luxury-inclusive price, but we didn’t mind – I was afraid that I’d be too sleepy for a late-night walk on the beach, anyway. And it was worth it! The beach has been named one of the best in the world and to get to it from the restaurant area, you wind through the property, past reflecting pools and palm trees. Gorgeous and romantic.

On day three, we woke up to perfect Mexican sunshine and headed to the breakfast buffet, where all of the action seemed to be. We loved the decor of the restaurant, The World Cafe, all mosaic tile and buffet stations surrounding the sunny room. I chose a Nutella, banana and strawberry crepe, fruit and cereal (I’d have this same breakfast the next day, too — it was that good), while Steve had a made-to-order omelet, waffles and about ten different kinds of homemade breakfast pastries. The coffee was the best we had in Mexico, so we sat for a while, while I read books on my brand new Kindle, the electronic book that allowed me to bring 12 novels with me for the weight and space of one.

XEL-HA
After breakfast, we decided to check out , one of the region’s famous eco-parks, which boasts natural rivers where visitors can snorkel, kayak or tube leisurely for up to two-thirds of a mile. The wildlife is incredible, from the fish and sea creatures in the water to the mangroves that grow overhead. Even though it meant that we didn’t lounge on the beach for a day, it was well worth a full day’s trip.

Even though our kids weren’t with us, we decided to . There are three options for dolphin encounters and we chose the cheapest, but even this one gave us plenty of with the aquatic mammals. All the kids in our group seemed to enjoy it an awful lot, cheering when the dolphin leaped over us and smiling for photos when the dolphins kissed their cheeks. Rates: about $99/person; not included in Xel-ha all-inclusive package.

Xel-ha is all-inclusive and we took advantage of the huge buffets of Mexican food that offered paella, chicken and tons of desserts. Tasty and filling, they hit the spot after our tubing adventure, which (surprisingly) required a lot of energy. $75/adult all-inclusive.

THE SECRETS SPA
After all of that activity at Xel-ha, we needed to relax, so we headed to the spa at Secrets for a couples massage. Steve wasn’t too sure about this at first – he’s a little squeamish about accidentally being tickled – but even he settled in nicely. We’d never had a couples massage before and I think we thought there’d be more interaction; essentially, we both just laid there in silence while the therapists pounded on us. But maybe we bonded psychically? Regardless, we left feeling like limp noodles and almost decided to skip our special dinner in the Bordeaux wine cellar.

DINNER IN THE WINE CELLAR
Thank goodness we didn’t head back to the room instead of having dinner, because the romantic dinner in the wine cellar was beyond amazing. Steve had a salad and scallops and I had pasta arrabiata: both great, but it was the atmosphere that made the experience. Just the two of us, surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine, a harpist playing softly in the background … you get the drift. Let’s just say that the uber-romantic dinner inspired us to return to the room afterwards …

HEADING TO ZOETRY
The next morning, we were up early, heading to Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya, a tiny boutique hotel with “endless privileges” (read: luxury inclusive) on a particularly gorgeous strip of beach. Here, we were lucky enough to have the Presidential Suite, which was almost bigger than our house at home and decorated in classic Mexican textiles and tile. We especially loved the bathrooms, tiled in beige marble and decorated with fresh flowers everywhere. Given that the resort includes absolutely everything you could ever want though, we didn’t ever use the kitchen or dining room in our suite.

When we headed out to explore the 14-acre property, Steve got really excited: the resort has several pet parrots perched on trees around the pool and Steve loves parrots. I have to say that I don’t share his enthusiasm and his favorite of the birds, Mackey, seemed to know it – she perched happily on Steve’s shoulder and cooed at him but pecked me when I tried to pet her. For days afterwards, Steve worked on an “adopt-a-parrot“ campaign. Nothing doing — the McElroy household is still a parrot-free zone.

The resort focuses on wellness and great food, so we decided to indulge in some of each. First, we ate cheese casserole, yummy melted cheese that you spread on tortillas at El Chiringuito, an outdoor grill that overlooked the pier and ocean. Then we suited up and headed to the hydrotherapy saltwater pool, where it was easier to float than in a regular pool — I guess all the salt makes you especially buoyant. Then we tried a shaman ritual in this little igloo-type smoke lodge that they have on property. The upside? We got really hot and sweated a lot. The downside? The whole ritual seemed to be about chanting while the shaman blew smoke around. After a coughing fit, we decided to ditch. Maybe we just weren’t spiritual enough?

After a dinner of scallops, steak and wine at the elegant La Canoa, we called home. Now, this is a feature we’ve never seen in a hotel before: free international phone calls. We managed to make our kids and friends jealous with tales of parrots, Mexican sunshine and shaman rituals. We left out the pecking and the smoke. Pretty much everyone offered to join us.

PLAYA MUJERES
The next day, we woke up to windy weather, but that didn’t stop Steve from heading out to golf. After all, he’d lugged those clubs all the way down to Mexico — he was going to use them, gosh darn it!

He headed to Playa Mujeres, a Greg Norman-designed course in Cancun. I indulged in the plunge pool outside our room and avoided parrots.

I ended up wishing I had joined Steve, even though I’m a lousy golfer. According to his report over dinner, the condition of the course was immaculate. Tees, fairways and greens were pristine. The course layout is challenging but fair for the mid- to high-handicapper (but he could not speak for how better players would find it). Fairways are wide and the rough is forgiving, but the course has hazards aplenty to make you pay for a bad shot. The greens were manageable — large and easy to hit, not too fast and with just enough break to keep it interesting, but not so much that three-putting was the norm. The scenery was attractive but he wished that there were a great ocean view before he got to the 12th or 13th hole. The water views were beautiful, just too brief.

DREAMS TULUM
For our last two days in Riviera Maya, we headed south again to Tulum and Dreams Tulum, a luxury family resort right on the beach. Even though we didn’t have our kids with us, we could tell the minute that we checked in that Dreams Tulum was a kid and family paradise. Kids were splashing in the pools and playing water volleyball, so we headed to the quiet pool for a day of rest – me with my Kindle, Steve with his sports scores. Then we wandered the property and were wowed by the colonial-style architecture, the outdoor patios and the beach, which boasted two miles of white sand with comfy lounge chairs, umbrellas, sailing, snorkeling . . . the list goes on.

Dreams is billed as a luxury-inclusive resort, which means that you can have as much top-shelf liquor, do as many water sports and participate in as many activities as you’d like, like the mock American Idol competition they had on our first night (try as I might, I couldn’t get Steve to sing me a love song in front of hundreds of people) and movies on the beach. At 431 rooms, this was probably the biggest resort we visited but it still felt intimate, probably because the rooms are divided into pods.

Our first night, we tried to have a romantic dinner on the beach, but our plans were foiled by the high winds. No worries — the chefs repositioned us on the patio overlooking the ocean, where we had some of the best lobster I’ve had in the Caribbean, as well as a gorgeous salad.

The next day, we woke up to sprinkling rain and wind, but that was fine with us. We slept super-late, ordered room service for breakfast, then headed to the Seaside Grill for juicy burgers and fries. The waiter tried to fool us by saying that a beer was $5, but when we went to pay him (confused — wasn’t Dreams all-inclusive?), he laughed and told us it was all part of the price — and fun. After lunch, Steve decided to go back to sleep — again — and I seriously indulged at the spa with a scrub, a massage, a facial and a mani-pedi. When I emerged, the sun was out and Steve was convinced that a rainy, sleepy day was all part of a relaxing Mexican vacation.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN
Wherever you stay, don’t miss the charming town of Playa del Carmen. On our last night in Mexico, we had a great dinner at Ajua, right on the main drag in the center of it all. Steve loved his steak, my fajitas rocked and the live music got even my klutzy husband out on the dance floor. The waiters bring your drinks balanced on their heads.

On the same drag, you’ll find many shops where you can buy reasonably priced Mexican pottery (I bought four large, hand-painted platters for about $60 USD), jewelry (check out the gorgeous silver and lapis), and souvenirs (we bought Mexican dolls to take home for about $10 USD).

TIPS FOR A VACATION TO THE MAYAN RIVIERA
Rent a car. Even though we did fine with hotel shuttles and taxis, the costs added up – especially for Steve’s golf adventure. We wished we had rented a car, particularly because the Riviera Maya lies along one major road and pretty much anyone (even me, and I’m directionally impaired) can find her way around. Playa del Carmen is about 45 minutes from the Cancun airport and many hotels and parks are further; you’ll want flexibility to explore the area.

Drink bottled water. We stuck with bottled water for the entire trip and had no digestive issues at all.

Bring lots of sunscreen. You’ll need high-octane formulas – the sun is that direct. Also, we had our sunscreen confiscated at the eco-parks because they only allow the biodegradable type – you’ll want to bring that from home. Steve got nicely sunburned when he decided to risk the sun on the rivers.

Take an off-road jeep expedition. Tours like the one offered by  take you seriously off road — huge bumps and all — to swim in cenotes (underground caves where you can swim with the bats), kayak in a reef system, and eat lunch in an authentic Mexican village. It’s about $110 per adult.

Peek into ancient civilizations. Although we didn’t make it there this trip, this area of Mexico is full of Mayan ruins — Tulum and Chichen Itza, to name a few.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. She is Associate Professor of Law at Philadelphia’s Drexel University College of Law. Lisa is the author of nine children’s books and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, Golf Vacations, and Family Travel Network. She is also the Satellite Sisters, Esq. for the Satellite Sisters, a nationally-syndicated radio show. 

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