On a beautiful stretch of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Kingdom’s editor is reminded of how beautiful life can be.
When Carlos Fuentes wrote that “what the United States does best is to understand itself, what it does worst is understand others,” the novelist and former diplomat likely gave a nod toward his home in Mexico. Under a legacy of misconceptions, misperceptions and, more recently, fear, our approach to our southern neighbor has often been shaped by stereotypes that are more political caricatures than cultural identities, and it’s our loss. The real Mexico is a vast, rich, sensuous and intelligent place where wild landscapes surround metropolitan expressions, where much of the modern history of our country began, and where it is still being written today. One could spend a lifetime getting to know Mexico, and Mayakoba is a beautiful introduction.
On its own, the luxury development may not be any more accurate a picture of Mexico than one of the towns along the Texas border. But perhaps it is here, undistracted, in an environment distilled down to the country’s best of everything, that a certain kind of person might come to be introduced to the wonders that Mexico offers. As an ambassador, Mayakoba excels.
Less than an hour south of the blazing lights, thumping clubs and sunburned tourists in Cancún, Mayakoba rests quietly on a beach along the Riviera Maya. The closest town is Playa del Carmen, simply “Playa” to the locals, and the iconic Maya ruins at Tulum are just beyond that. The development covers nearly 1,600 acres and holds three hotel properties: the Fairmont, the Banyan Tree, and the Rosewood. All are lovely, with the latter two achieving “exquisite.” Beach clubs, tennis courts, spas, swimming pools and the other amenities one would expect at any good resort are here, with respective examples tailored in design and purpose to each property’s personality. The adults-only pool at Rosewood is chic and quiet; Banyan Tree’s signature restaurant is elegantly romantic; Fairmont’s children’s areas are playfully tropical; and so on. As well considered as all of it is, the environment itself cannot be underestimated in terms of setting the stage for excellence, and here, in part at least, we have the developer to thank.
Mid- and late-20th century global coastal development often consisted of putting tall buildings close to the water, right on the beach when possible. This involved dramatic changes to the land and considerable environmental impacts. In contrast, Spain’s Grupo OHL decided to plan Mayakoba around what was already there. They carefully built the development into the wetlands and rainforest that sit between the beach and the mainland, and the effect is simply stunning.
All construction was planned and carried out with the supervision of pertinent scientists, and a team of biologists still maintains the waterways and landscape today.
The setting affects you instantly. After check-in, guests board an elegant launch and are taken on a slow journey through the resort’s clear, cold canals, past anhingas drying their wings in the sun, crocodiles resting deep in the mangroves and the rest of the forest’s 300 species of plants and more than 200 species of animals. The trip, which takes only a few minutes, puts you in the moment. Under a big sky, on hyaline water reflecting shadows in green and black, the morning’s trip to the airport and all attendant stresses disappear. By the time the launch turns the corner into a quiet lagoon and your suite comes into view, you really have arrived.
I stayed at the Rosewood, where there’s a relaxed Mid-Century Modern vibe to the accommodations and just enough cutting-edge amenities to convey management’s commitment to the urban jet-set—without isolating you from what’s happening outside. Deep seating, warm lighting and a color palette that’s more Hemingway than Hawaiian set the scene, which is scored by the pulse of the jungle outside.
At twilight, from the deck of the suite, sitting with your feet in a private plunge pool or relaxing on a lounger with a glass of complimentary top-shelf tequila in hand, you’re part of the living world: amidst a chorus of tropical birds with the sound of waves not far away, light humidity resting on your skin, it’s the essence of coastal Mexico. Should you wish to shut out the sounds and escape to the quiet cool of your room, large glass sliding doors do the trick—and let you keep the view. When the day ends, options for relaxation include a deep, candlelit soaking tub or a luxe shower, both set against walls of glass that look out to a high-walled private garden with a shower under the stars. The large, comfortable bed was a welcome sight, while the pillowcase monogrammed with my initials was a true surprise (and later, a nice takeaway gift). All of that, plus several large televisions, round-the-clock butler service, a sizeable walk-in closet and an array of other touches almost too numerous to mention, made a compelling argument for not leaving the suite. But then, of course, that would be missing the point.
During my first visit to Mayakoba’s El Camaleón Golf Club, a deer stepped onto the course a moment after I did, looked around for a moment, then disappeared back through the green wall of jungle. That moment says quite a bit about the course, which is one of the most beautiful (and best-maintained) I’ve ever seen.
In addition to a number of local contests and community events, it hosts the Mayakoba Golf Classic, currently the only PGA Tour event in Mexico (but certainly the first of many, with the new PGA Tour Latinoamérica now underway). The Greg Norman design isn’t necessarily for beginners, though anyone will have a good time hitting ’round the spectacular layout, which runs through the mangrove forests and jungle, over limestone canals and eventually along the ocean. The opening hole includes a fantastic bit of local topography, a “cenote,” which is a large sinkhole with exposed limestone walls. Cenotes dot the Mexican landscape and have long been held as both sacred places and recreational swimming holes. As for El Camaleón’s, it’s fair to say that any hazard that has a name (and into which one could rappel) should be avoided. Known as “Devil’s Mouth,” measuring 30 yards by 20 yards, quite deep, and reportedly containing stalactites, bats, and moss, it makes the worst bunker on Scotland’s Old Course seem positively Lilliputian.
The course isn’t all bite, though. Numbers 7 and 15 play right to the edge of the Caribbean, just steps from the sand, and are truly the stuff of which golfing dreams are made. Likewise, the canals running alongside most of the rest of the course provide cool distraction (if not some frustration) and are a great place to spot any number of the tropical birds that call El Camaléon home. James Batt, Mayakoba’s charismatic VP of operations and an avid birder, can tell you about most of the area’s winged residents. An enthusiastic (and excellent) photographer, he’s even produced a book, “Birds of Mayakoba,” which is available in the gift shop as yet more evidence of why the course (and the area) is a certified Audubon Sanctuary.
Back on course, the on-site Jim McLean Golf School is tremendous, offering state-of-the-art JC Video Swing Analysis along with an unbelievable level of personalized instruction. Information from the lessons can be downloaded to your mobile device and carried on course for a mid-round reminder. Likewise, instructors are available via email for follow-up questions and information. That, along with the 350-yard double-sided tee, short game facility and 40-yard wide putting green, makes the school the finest practice facility in Mexico.
After a dip in the sea or in one of Mayakoba’s fine pools, a round or two of golf, a trip to one of the excellent spas or a bit of sightseeing, the issue of sustenance will inevitably arise. Here again, Mayakoba does not disappoint. I tried several of the restaurants, from poolside fare to a couple of the fine dining options, and found that every meal was as perfectly prepared as it was suited to its table. Rosewood’s main restaurant, Casa del Lago, is set just off the lobby and covers the whole day’s dining. A relaxed atmosphere makes for a carefree breakfast or lunch, while evening sees the restaurant transformed into an elegant venue. The menu appropriately features local seafood along with fine dining staples, and the chef’s inspired treatments add just enough Latin flavor to remind you that you’re abroad. A starter of Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Brie Cheese and Iberico Ham nicely precedes Braised Ox Tail in Carnaroli Rice with Pasilla Pepper and Sauteed Green Beans or Olive Oil Confit of Black Cod with Ajoarriero Peppers, Roasted Onions and Lobster Demi Glazed Potatoes. Similarly brilliant sweets like the Xocolatl—a steamed chocolate sponge with blue corn crumble, Mexican spicy chocolate, creamy ganache, white chocolate flan and homemade cocoa ice cream—will send you to dreamland with a smile on your face.
At Rosewood’s Agave Azul Tequila Library, I enjoyed Chilli Pepper Lobster empanadas and an education in the wonders of the agave, while the Fairmont’s La Laguna restaurant provided a delightfully fresh lunch one afternoon—not surprising considering that it, like all of the restaurants at Mayakoba, is committed to a responsible menu. That means sourcing local and organic produce when possible, and offering sustainable seafood choices.
My final evening was spent at the Banyan Tree’s signature (and understated) Saffron restaurant, which offers top-tier Thai dishes and a perfect setting for romance or reflection. Dinner with a friend started on one of the venue’s three over-water decks. The sun was just down, and the jungle’s voice was shifting from day into night, insects, frogs and birds changing their songs as the trees shifted in the shadows. As it happens, the wind was bringing the sort of storm that those unfamiliar with the tropics would describe as “intense,” though in fact it was quite average, and characteristically short. We moved inside just as the rain began in earnest, and enjoyed our food with conversation about the beauty of the place, the fullness of the moon over the Caribbean and the way the resort so effectively pushes the rest of the world away. The rain stopped just as we finished dessert, and in the clean still that followed we lit paper lanterns and watched them float away, glowing soft and gold against the spent sky over Mayakoba. Among the wishes we’d scribbled onto bits of paper that rose with them, certainly, was the hope of return.
Visit Mayakoba.com to find out more about this sublime part of Mexico.