The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya
Five all-inclusive resorts on Mexico's Caribbean coast.
Wisconsinites Peggy and Mike Block came last year for their 25th anniversary, loved the place--largely because it wasn't overwhelmed by kids--and came back this year with their daughters, Angela and Holly, who are in college. They paid $4,400 for five nights, including airfare and transfers. After they booked, the hotel's room rates went on sale and their agent refunded them $260.
The Blocks have fallen into an easy routine: Breakfast at 8 a.m., the beach at 9 a.m., lunch around noon, and on to the pool. "Then we have a few drinks," says Mike, offering me a beer. "Then eat, more drinks--we rarely see 11 p.m."
Like the people at all five resorts I visit, the Blocks can't say enough about the staff. "They do anything for you here," says Peggy, as hotel workers nearby rig up an outdoor movie screen to show a Packers vs. Vikings playoff game, much to the pleasure of not only the Blocks, but what feels like half of the state of Wisconsin hanging out in the bar. "If you've had a good time," Peggy explains, "why go someplace else?"
"We'll come back again," Mike agrees. "We feel comfortable here."
Iberostar Paraiso del Mar
Part of another vast complex, this one about 15 minutes north of Playa del Carmen, the Iberostar is similar to the Riu in structure, with four properties of varying levels sharing facilities. There's the Paraiso Maya, Paraiso Lindo, Paraiso Beach, and Paraiso del Mar, where I'm staying; altogether, the four resorts have room for up to 3,000 guests.
The first thing I notice is the water. Shallow manmade canals flow in and around del Mar's marble-floored, open-air lobby, wind along the walks, and vanish into the tropical foliage. As I walk past the main restaurant, a white egret flies through a space between the thatched roofs and plucks a fish from the canal.
Outside the lodge, peacocks wander among the ferns, further lending the place a jungly vibe that extends to the pools. While pools at the other resorts tend to be bright and open, the main ones at the Iberostar are built to look like lakes and are surrounded by greenery. (A warning to those wary of walking: The path from lobby to beach, while beautiful, is about a half mile. A shuttle runs sporadically.)
If you love shade, this is your place. There's no need to rise early to get a chair under a palapa, which is where I find an ophthalmologist and his wife and three daughters (all the girls sport fresh cornrows) from the Toronto suburbs. The McGillivrays paid $8,000 for seven days, airfare included, and two rooms at the higher-end Iberostar Paraiso Maya. They've walked over to check out the del Mar's pool. "We usually take a ski vacation," says the dad, Daniel, kicking back in his lounge chair. "But we thought we'd try something different this year. And there are really only two places that have guaranteed 30 degrees: Mexico and the D.R." (Celsius, of course.)
Every hour offers another activity: water volleyball, Ping-Pong, dance instruction, target shooting with pellet guns, windsurfing lessons, water aerobics. That doesn't even include the entertainment, which is particularly entertaining here. When they're not prepping for the nightly show--typically, popular Broadway routines or local dances--the workers are hamming it up. A pack of guys dressed up as Baywatch babes surround me on the way to my room, and, for some unknown reason, jab and jeer at me in Spanish. In one show, "Hollywood stars" (including Indiana Jones, Mary Poppins, Batman and Robin, and Superman, who leaps off the two-story beach bar into the pool) attempt to rescue a man dressed as Marilyn Monroe from a guy with a shark fin on his back.
While watching this spectacle, I meet Robert and Stephanie Skinner, two 30-something Brits. They've flown 11 hours from Manchester and plan to "totally relax and recharge." It's clearly working. When I ask how long they've been here, Robert honestly has no idea what day it is.
The Sunscape Tulum Riviera Maya has a lot going for it. For one, size--or lack of it. With only 232 rooms, the Sunscape is what you might call a boutique all-inclusive. Resembling an elegant hacienda, the main cluster of buildings is yellow stucco; the insides have polished wood and whirring fans. A large rectangular pool, tiled in navy blue, is just steps from the lodge and abuts the resort's private cenote (a limestone freshwater sinkhole, also open for swimming). But perhaps its coolest feature is its proximity to the famed Mayan city of Tulúm. The Sunscape is the southernmost resort before the coastline turns wild and winds in toward the ruins. From the horseshoe-shaped beach, which angles to the south and thus is sheltered from the Riviera's near-incessant eastern wind, you can see the faint outline of the main temples of Tulúm, hazy rectangles atop a wooded cliff.