Beautiful beaches, fine dining and heritage sites abound along Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula. Or you could just take a step back from it all and find your zen…
Words by Victoria Purcell
Mexico has been on my must-visit list for a long time. Vast and diverse, you might choose the culture and chaos of Mexico City, outdoor adventures among the sprawling Sierra Madre Mountains, or the beautiful beaches and sparkling oceans of the Riviera Maya, which is where I headed.
The Riviera Maya
Located along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya stretches across 81 miles of coastline. It was an important religious and commercial centre for the ancient Mayans from 1000-1550BC, yet was only launched as a holiday haven in 1997, combining thousands of years of heritage with modern luxury resorts. As you drive along Route 307 from Cancun airport, you pass resort after resort, each hidden away behind huge, imposing gates. We stayed at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, which is so vast that it’s broken up into three parts – two on the beachfront (the adults-only Grand Class and the family-friendly Ambassador), plus the Zen Grand, surrounded by lush vegetation.
Find your zen
Where the beachfront resorts are all gleaming stone and grandeur, there’s a distinctly calmer, cooler, more Asian air to Zen Grand – all bamboo and thatched roofs. There’s also a superb 89,000 sq ft spa here, built on a beautiful cenote (a fresh water sinkhole – the Yucatan Peninsula has oodles of things, many of which you can take a dip in). Here you must try the Water Journey. Designed around the spa’s eight hydrotherapy facilities, a therapist will guide you through a series of saunas, steam rooms, experience showers and icy plunge pools, plus the opportunity to cover yourself in nutrient-rich clay. It’s the most extensive – and wonderful – hydrotherapy experience I’ve ever had, which is then followed up by a blissful full-body massage. The avant-garde treatments here are based on ancient Mayan healing practices that restore balance and harmony in body, mind and soul. This is where you’ll find your zen.
Hit the beach
The all-inclusive resort is chiefly designed for those who want to escape the rigours of life and truly relax. As well as a glorious beach just steps from the Grand Class accommodation, you can catch some sun on your private, ocean-facing terrace, complete with dangerously comfortable day bed and a plunge pool for cooling off. Alternatively, you can laze by one of two glorious infinity pools, the Grand Class pool is a little more grown up, complete with swim-up bar, or the much larger Ambassador pool, so impressively blended with the horizon that it’s hard to see where the pool ends and the sea begins. You can get some decent laps in here, should you have overindulged, and it’s likely that you will have, given the hotel has eight restaurants, serving pizza, sushi, gourmet French cuisine and more.
Award-winning international cuisine
Be sure to try the tasting menu at Cocina de Autor, which proudly boasts an American Automobile Association Five Diamond Award – a rare achievement in all-inclusive resorts – where little molecular delights of orange scallops, almond quail and tuna sashimi tease the palette. Xavier Pérez Stone, named Best Chef in Mexico in 2012, is among the talent in this kitchen. Also of note is the AAA Four Diamond-awarded Frida, which celebrates the legacy of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and serves up contemporary Mexican dishes inspired by the country’s culinary heritage. Fortunately there are plenty of calorie-burning options provided by the hotel, from yoga on the beach to bike tours, beach volleyball, water polo and a gym, where you can workout at leisure or sign up for a Pilates or abs class.
Discover Mayan Heritage
Abundant adventures lie in wait beyond the resort boundaries. Tulum hits the top of most people’s must-see lists – the only known Mayan city set on a cliff overlooking the sea, but it’s popularity means it gets very crowded, so head there early in the morning and avoid the group package tours (convenient and good value, but very much like a school trip). I much preferred Coba. This extensive site sprawls below the leafy canopy of a Mayan jungle and is teeming with wildlife. The best way to discover the various ruins is by bike or tricycle taxi. Head straight for the highest temple in the Riviera Maya region at the far-end of site, clamber up to the top and enjoy the spectacular views.
For family fun, head to Xel-Ha, the world’s largest natural aquarium. It’s set out like a theme park, complete with pesky jingly-jangly music, but there’s plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy, including zip-lining, scuba-diving, snorkelling, swimming with dolphins, jungle trails and bike riding. I skipped the thrills and spent a wonderful 40 minutes swimming among tropical fish in the lagoon.
But after all that heritage and underwater discovery, I longed for the sanctuary of the Grand Velas Riviera Maya – the beach, the sun, the friendly waiters offering cocktails… Scrap the to-do list, that blissful beach demands it.
Seven nights at the 5V Grand Velas Riviera Maya with Virgin Holidays, including flights from London Gatwick to Cancun, all-inclusive accommodation and transfers, starts at £2,279pp. (Prices based on two adults travelling and sharing a Zen Grand suite, departing 4 June 2015). To book see virginholidays.co.uk or call 0844 557 3859