The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya
Five all-inclusive resorts on Mexico's Caribbean coast.
What you'll find in this story: Maya resorts, Mexico Caribbean beach vacations, honeymoon destinations, resort comparisons
After Cancún cemented its reputation as Spring Break Mecca, developers looked south to a seemingly endless expanse of powder-white beaches. Offshore was the largest reef in the Northern Hemisphere. Inland were ruins--more ancient sites than in all of Egypt. Slowly but surely, resorts popped up, first in the town of Playa del Carmen and then in smaller fishing villages. Tourism officials christened this 75-mile stretch the Riviera Maya, and today it's the fastest-growing area in all of Mexico. At last count, 372 hotels offered 23,512 rooms, most of them at grand all-inclusive complexes. With swim-up bars, kind prices, loads of activities, and almost perfectly reliable weather (fine, there's some wind), the only question is: How do you choose? Josh Dean went to find out--straight from the guests themselves.
Gala Beach Resort
With the help of some experts, I narrowed down a long list of the most popular four- and five-star resorts. First up was the Gala Beach Resort Playacar, 45 minutes south of the Cancún airport, and the southernmost resort in the lush gated community of Playacar, home to one of only two golf courses on the entire Riviera Maya. Guests stay in one of two 150-room "hotel" buildings fronting the ocean, or in the 16 inland buildings--each with 10 suites, a private pool, tropical foliage, and the ever-present sound track of spitting sprinklers that keep the Bermuda grass green.
Spread over a large swath of acreage, Gala feels quiet at first. Beyond the towering, thatched-roof reception lodge, a plaza leads past two à la carte restaurants, an open-air sports bar, and the main buffet restaurant, toward the water. And that's where the action starts. A team of attractive young workers cajole a healthy slice of the Western world--I hear English, German, French, and what might be Swedish--into group activities. I'm barely sipping my first beer when a toned, tanned blonde begins trolling past husbands in beach chairs, barking, "Volleyball! Anybody for volleyball?" Meanwhile, the pool (one of four) churns with kids playing water polo under the spastic leadership of a female "animator," the title many resorts give to employees in charge of activities (also known as animations).
And the adults who remain parked by the pool? They're ordering dos piña coladas, por favor. Two young couples from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, enjoy the last few hours of sun with a round of frozen cocktails and a game of hearts. They're part of a group of 37 Canadians who fled the cold via charter and have had a fabulous time, with one major exception: Fifteen of them caught Montezuma's revenge, a risk no matter where you stay in Mexico. "Other than that, it's the best vacation I've ever taken," says Kristin Harmel, 29.
Over at the bar, Carrie and Steve Wainwright, from Princeton Junction, N.J., wind down after a day at the beach. "We love Mexico because it's cheap," Carrie explains. With the help of a travel agent, they paid $1,500 for five nights, including airfare. A Canadian supermarket VP jumps into the conversation to share his thoughts. "The resort next door is five times bigger," he says. "It's nice, but you'll lose 10 pounds walking from the beach to your room."
The Wainwrights were partly drawn by an article they read touting the wealth of off-campus offerings in the Yucatán--Mayan ruins, ATVs, horseback riding. "So we planned to do all kinds of stuff," Carrie says, then laughs. "But mostly we just sit on the beach."
On the south end of Playa del Carmen, the Riu is an immense resort complex consisting of five properties: Riu Playacar, Riu Yucatán, Riu Tequila, Riu Lupita, and the luxe Riu Palace Mexico. It's a huge compound but not obnoxiously so, because the five resorts are somewhat self-contained. Guests can remain on the property they're staying at, or use the beaches, pools, restaurants, and bars at the other resorts. Actually, people staying at the fancy Palace have the run of the grounds, but those of us staying at the other resorts have to steer clear of the Palace. At check-in, the desk clerk takes out a map of the grounds and draws an X through the Palace, just to make the rules perfectly clear.
I'm staying at the Playacar, which has a French-Colonial feel, with wrought-iron railings and bar stools, pastel walls, tile roofs, and balconies. A deep, palm-dotted beach makes catching late-afternoon sun difficult, and a sea of topless French and Italian women jockey for position on the narrow stretch of sand that isn't shaded by palms. Unruly weather ate up a huge portion of the beach in late December, so now there's a mere 50 feet or so between the surf and the palms. The loss of open sand lends a South of France feel; most available space has been jam-packed with lounge chairs. There's no drink service, and the beach bar is a bit of a hike from my towel, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find the mojitos made fresh, mint and lime muddled before my eyes.