The Riviera Maya is famous for its all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels, many fine restaurants and a barrier reef that is the second longest in the world.
I had worked non-stop, without a break or vacation for nearly five years. Enough already — this girl needed to recharge her batteries! I longed to sink into my daydreams, sip one of those cocktails with the silly umbrellas and dig my toes dug into white sand on a beautiful beach.
I was thinking yes to turquoise waters, fabulous food, spa pampering — and no to urban chaos, traffic, noisy kids and dressing for success. I wanted a casual setting, but with flair and elegance. My solution was to choose an all-inclusive resort, not too many travel hours from Los Angeles, but still, a world away. Letting Google offer suggestions, I selected the El Dorado Royale Spa Resort and Hotel on the Caribbean Riviera Maya, near Cancun and decided to embark on a solo vacation.
All-inclusive meant no currency exchange, no car rental and no schedules. A long 4-day weekend would take me to paradise, while not crimping my workload or my budget. The fact that the El Dorado also included 24-hour room service, Jacuzzis in every suite, open-air rain showers and world-class gourmet restaurants clinched the deal. When I saw that Conde Nast Traveler listed it as one of the top 100 hotels in the world, it was the lime in the tequila.
Things have changed!
Arriving at the Cancun airport was a shock in more ways than one. I had flown there years ago on my way to nearby Playa del Carmen, back in the days when that town was just being discovered as a sleepy bohemian destination.
At that time, the Cancun airport was little more than a pre-fab building, airless and chaotic. Now, in its place, was a modern airport with full food court and gigantic duty-free shopping zone. The drive to the hotel passed through a honky-tonk array of auto body shops, taco shops promising the “best” tacos, billboards and minivans on a thoroughfare that also was unrecognizable from the two-lane pothole-ridden road I had driven on years ago.
Soon, the scenery opened up into tangled jungle with vines growing on trees. New housing tracts were sprinkled along the roadside, their arched entrances showing the determination of the builders who conquered relentless tropical vegetation. I knew we were near the ocean, but where was it?
You know you have arrived…
We turned off onto a private road leading to the resort and suddenly, we were there. I barely had a moment to glance at the immense lobby of the white palace-like entrance to the El Dorado Royal. Friendly hands helped with the bags, handed me a champagne cocktail, checked my name on a clipboard and whisked me off in a golf cart to my suite, in the newer La Casitas Royale area of the resort.
As we rode the ten minutes or so to my suite, passing strolling guests and other golf carts along the meandering paths, I got a sense of the immense size of this place. It has 639 suites, but since the suites are scattered over hundreds of gorgeously landscaped acres and are limited to two-story buildings nestled around the 12 swimming pools and salt-water pool, the overall feeling is very intimate and private — perfect for a solo vacation.
Each group of casitas has its own private concierge and we stopped at mine. The concierge gave me a personal welcome and we walked the few steps to my upstairs ocean-view suite. Waiting in the luxurious and spacious suite was an enormous white-canopied bed, strewn with rose petals and festooned with towels cleverly twisted and sculpted into two embracing swans.
The dining room table had a giant bowl of tropical fruit and the private spa, with sweeping windows overlooking the ocean below, had a bottle of champagne and aromatic candles. Glancing regretfully at that scenario — didn’t seem quite fitting for my singular mood — I heard the doorbell ring. I answered the door to find a smiling Casitas staff member offering me an exquisite tray of hand-crafted, sculpted chocolates. What a welcome!
All I could hear from my room was the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seabirds over the enclosed patio. Peace. Quiet. Luxury. Pampering. Just what the doctor ordered!
There are a number of interesting historical, cultural and archeological sites on the Riviera Maya. I had visited the ancient Mayan city of Tulum last time I was here. Playa del Carmen is nearby, with shops, craft markets and other attractions. The resort offers shuttles, private tours and bike tours to the natural and archeological wonders nearby. But this time I just needed to look inward — and out at the Caribbean horizon. Lots of long walks and time to literally smell the flowers — that is what I wanted. No side trips for me.
The first night I wanted to go for Caribbean cuisine, so I chose Jo Jo’s restaurant. I could have grabbed one of the golf carts, but the balmy evening was perfect for a stroll along the curving pathways to the center of the compound. Jo Jo’s is on the beach under a high pitched thatched roof, lit by the golden glow of lanterns and an immense salt water aquarium, with a bustling open kitchen.
The sea outside was choppy with a strong wind blowing, so I was happy the curtains tempered the breeze. My shrimp ceviche was delicious and I followed it with spinach salad with rum-sugar cane vinaigrette, conch soup and more giant shrimp with guajillo pepper, garlic and Cuban tostones (pan-fried plantains). Dessert was a trio of pan cotta, almond, coconut and star anise.
I headed back to my suite, happy for the walk to work-off the pan cotta and… just happy. I could feel the tension and pressures melt away under the safe, lovely and intimate feel of the resort. No schedules, no obligations — total luxury.
After a great night’s sleep I woke, ready for breakfast. The Cocotal restaurant, one of the many eating establishments at this all-inclusive resort, was a good, long, invigorating walk (if you forgo the friendly shuttles or the bikes available for guests). Along the way, I met one of the exotic residents — a large and placid iguana. I also got a better chance to see the lovely gardens, stretching over 450 acres and 1.5 miles of private beach.
Cocotal has a truly impressive breakfast buffet. Let’s give it a quick rundown and see if it makes you hungry. Tropical fruit, Bloody Marys, Margaritas, omelet bar, fresh squeezed fruit juices (including watermelon), meusli and oatmeal, hot chocolate, fresh berries, sausages, eggs, bacon, pancakes, waffles, cold cuts, smoked salmon with the fixings, gourmet cheeses, bagels, rolls, home baked Danish and petite fours, liquid chocolate for dipping giant strawberries and bananas. It was hard to be “good” when faced with this formidable feast!
Since the sea gods were acting up — too choppy to swim and red warning flags on the beach — I went for a long walk along an almost deserted white-sand shoreline, lingering from time to time to admire the crashing waves from the comfort of a canopied beach bed. Servers passed by discretely, with coolers of soft drinks and water, books, ice cream, towels and sun lotion — or the offer to fetch a special tropical cocktail from the nearby bar. With nothing but the sound of the waves and the passing seabirds, I could feel the regeneration of my spirit and body, and my heartbeat slowed to synch with the rhythm of the sea.
For lunch, I headed to the nearby Kampai restaurant, with its Asian fusion cuisine. This became my favorite food destination at the resort. The octopus ceviche, watercress mango salad and seared Yellow Fin tuna with sweet chili was addictive and I was definitely hooked after tasting the ginger flan.
After a refreshing nap, I went to visit the spa. I wanted to schedule one of their famous beachfront Sky Massages, but I also wanted to get in a mini-workout at the gym. Their gym has state of the art machines and a trainer on staff, the spa has hot and cold mineral pools and a full hair, makeup and mani/pedi staff. Some of the more exotic offerings in the spa are a full-body chocolate massage (boggles the mind), hot stone massage, Thai massage, strawberry, agave, mango and grapefruit body wraps and various intriguing types of facials.
One thing that was a rare species at this resort: single people. Although I detected a few groups of guy friends, mother and daughter teams and a couple of women friends traveling together, I felt a bit isolated being a single traveler in a perfect place for romance. That’s why I was very happy to meet Angela and Marc, a lovely couple from the U.K. We were seated next to each other at the elegant d’Italia restaurant that night. I had planned to avoid this restaurant because after living in Italy for 12 years and being an Italian food connoisseur, I am a self-confessed snob.
But the food and the company were outstanding. Both seasoned world travelers, Angela and Marc were curious, interesting and funny as hell. We ended up talking U.S. politics, life and even discussed dating rituals. We then headed to the Martini Bar to continue the discussion. We continued our non-stop discussion on the long walk back to the Casitas. Traveling on your own is great — it leaves the door open for meeting new friends.
Heaven on the beach…
I was very much looking forward to my sundown Sky massage on my last night. I changed into white spa robe and slippers and met my masseur, Carlos, in the spa lobby. When I signed up for the massage, I was asked how “hard” I wanted the pressure — like ordering a steak — I said, “Medium hard.”
We strolled the short distance to the beach, where the open-air cabanas stood on sturdy wooden post stilts, protected from the brisk breezes and passersby by translucent linen privacy curtains that still allowed a vista of the sea virtually at our feet. The immaculate massage table was ready, draped with white linen, warm terry cloth towels and warm oils.
What can I say? I think that if there is a heaven, Sky massages must be de rigueur there — or I’m not going! And I really wanted to pack Carlos in my suitcase for life on earth. The gentle and firm pressure and skillful touch melted any residual stress from my urban life. After a rain shower with chocolate shampoo, I felt relaxed, invigorated and ready for my return to reality the next day. This massage completed the purpose of my solo vacation — to recharge my batteries and be ready, alert and willing to face any and all challenges at home.
Copyright © Marva Marrow/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.