BY KELSY CHAUVIN | Kicked back in a lounge chair on the shore of the Yucatán Peninsula, cocktail in hand as a Caribbean breeze fills the shade beneath my beach umbrella, I’m reminded that daydreams can come true.
Lately, I’ve been daydreaming a lot. Stress from life and work, from the election, and from winter’s crazy rollercoaster weather has led many of us to think about escaping to more soothing lands. Thank goodness for daydreams, inviting us to divert to a sunny beach literally any time.
But the beauty is that whisking off to a dreamy reality is within reach. And it’s worth a splurge to arrive at a tropical haven where worries are confined to decisions like pool versus beach, piña colada versus spritzer.
Mexico is particularly suitable for spending some pesos and showing love to our southern neighbors. Bonus: From New York City, direct flights to Cancún are barely four hours long. Plus roundtrip airfare can be had for just $300, or even less if you have frequent-flier miles to book with.
Cancún is the gateway to the strip of Gulf of Mexico coastal towns that make up Riviera Maya. The name encompasses a 92-mile-long region from Puerto Morelos (near the Cancún Airport) south to Punta Allen. But its most famous coastal cities are Playa del Carmen and Tulum, with resorts of all sizes tucked between them.
Playa del Carmen is the larger beachside destination, home to a downtown commercial area that’s bustling day and night. Its main drag is the pedestrian-only La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), with more than a mile’s worth of souvenir shops, restaurants, street performers, street vendors, tour agencies, pharmacies, and, of course, bars galore.
That includes one LGBTQ bar with the kind of name that wards off spring breakers: Club 69. It’s at the south end of the Avenida, down an alley near Sixth Street. And while it’s not exactly a glamorous place to sip a Corona (some may say it’s downright crusty) and has a nominal cover charge, it is at least a dedicated gay dive complete with a rainbow “69” sign and drag shows.
But La Quinta Avenida is long and offers lots of choices for sipping and dining. Among the best is Aldea Corazon (grupoazotea.com/aldea-corazon) near 14th Street, which looks like a small, open-air restaurant at first. Walk past the bar to find a huge, tiered, tree-covered dining area out back that’s a lovely retreat from street hubbub. The menu is short but interesting, serving tacos in handmade tortillas along with authentic soups and local dishes – plus excellent margaritas – at surprisingly inexpensive prices.
Travelers who want a dose of city with their tropical escape might consider booking with a reliable brand like the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort, or Thompson Playa del Carmen. They each offer their own brand of luxury; the former with on-site private beach access, the latter with a sexy rooftop pool and sea views.
Just north of Playa del Carmen is Mayakoba, a posh resort compound that stands out from others in Rivera Maya. The enclave is a development with four luxury resorts: Rosewood, Fairmont, Andaz, and Banyan Tree. They offer unique styles, dining options, and dedicated beach clubs with restaurants, and share access to a swanky golf course.
One of Mayakoba’s coolest features is the network of canals through a sprawling tropical jungle and mangrove reserve that’s home to dozens of colorful birds and a few monkeys. A low-wake electric boat takes guests either on daily nature tours or to the string of hotels and beach clubs.
There are bike and walking trails through the 1,600-acre complex, so you can self-propel or take a golf cart to pop between hotel pools and restaurants (and still charge to your own room), or browse the little shops and stalls at El Pueblito market. Just outside the market, descend into Mayakoba’s dark cenote — a cave created by collapsed limestone bedrock — where the silence is disturbed only by an occasional bat flying past.
Banyan Tree Mayakoba differs from the other hotels because of its Asian influences, reflected in the décor, conscientious service, breezy architecture, and dining options like Saffron, with its talented Thai chef. Asian hospitality is especially apparent in the spa, from the aromatherapy to massage techniques, plus the uber-soothing “Rainforest Trail” with eight different hydrothermal/ detoxifying therapy experiences.
The expansive Banyan Tree respects the region’s heritage as well, and hosts an evening-long outdoor dining experience called HAAB that lets guest see, hear about, and taste flavors from ancient Mayan civilizations — including a lot of different tequilas. (FYI, unlike other resorts around here, the Banyan Tree is not all-inclusive, so guests should budget for the separate dining and drink tickets.)
The real highlights are the Banyan Tree’s villas. Rather than traditional hotel rooms, guests get their own walled-off villa with a huge bedroom, a hammock porch, a detached living room, plus a small pool, hot tub, and shady patio all to themselves. They are lovely and luxurious, factors so critical to enjoying a deeply relaxing getaway.
The chance to indulge at a resort that’s so beautiful and leisurely is, after all, a big part of why we endure daily stressors — to escape them. It’s the mellow majesty of beachside vacations that deliver us from tension and equip us with all the best daydreaming material. And if nothing else, margaritas and vitamin D should do the trick.
Side Trips and Transport
The Tulum Mayan Ruins are less than an hour’s drive south of Mayakoba and are an enlightening cultural addition to a trip.
Reserve in advance for a guided tour (best to aim for a morning excursion to beat the heat), which guarantees entry given that the number of daily visitors is now limited. To and from Cancún Airport, consider booking a taxi or shuttle in advance through your hotel, and be prepared for sluggish traffic outside Cancún since the highway is under construction through at least 2017.