As I lay wrapped in a chrysalis of gold mineral cream and a swaddle of warm towels, letting vanilla-jasmine aromatherapy and soft spirit-music fill my senses, my otherwise-idle mind drifted to thoughts of the hereafter: If this is Mayan heaven, bring on the apocalypse we missed in 2012, and beam me up.
That is, if heaven means round-the-clock relaxation in a stunningly beautiful, natural setting.
If heaven is a place where the only decision is whether to shower indoors or out, and the only stress is whether to let the butler unpack or to do it yourself.
Where every desire is fulfilled before you desire it (Cheesecake bite while sunning on the beach? Yes, please!) and every need is met before you need it (Wake-up call at 7 a.m. in case I miss the one at 6:45? Yes, please!).
If heaven means being completely comfortable with being completely comfortable.
For three days last winter, I blissed out in a little piece of heaven on earth at Rosewood Mayakoba resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Part of the Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels & Resorts group, the opulent resort hugs an arc of ivory-sand beach just north of Playa del Carmen on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. Since it opened in 2008, the Rosewood Mayakoba has been consistently ranked among the top resorts around the world, racking up a dizzying coterie of prestigious awards and distinctions: AAA Five Diamond Rating; Conde Nast Traveler’s “Gold List”; Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Award”; Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence.”
It’s one of three hotels nestled in a 1,600-acre enclave connected by waterways and called Mayakoba (“village of water”), including a Fairmont and a Banyan Tree. A fourth, the Hyatt Andaz, is scheduled to open in 2016.
At the heart of Rosewood Mayakoba is a dogged commitment to ecology, but at its soul, it’s a tranquil, soothing retreat where the lavish details are sublimely understated and where there is such a focus on service and creating unforgettable, ethereal experiences that visitors can’t help but feel they’ve died and gone to …. well, read for yourself.
“What is this, 1997?” someone asked as I searched for February flights to Cancun. True, the famously touristy cities of the Riviera Maya — Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Cancun — are less known as destinations for North Texas luxury lovers and serenity seekers as they are for cruise ship excursions, spring break revelry and romantic beach-side weddings far less expensive than those in, say, Bora Bora.
In fact, it was a family friend’s Valentine’s-week wedding at an all-inclusive resort that brought me to the area. After we’d overdosed on post-wedding nachos and frozen fruity cocktails, my traveling companion — my youngest brother, Jon — and I scooted down the beach and extended our Mexican vacation at the Rosewood Mayakoba. In store would be an entirely different experience, one that took place in a seemingly private bubble of natural beauty and serenity.
Mayakoba started as an eco-tourism project developed by Spain-based OHL Group in the mid-1990s. A research team of 50 biologists, engineers, architects and environmental consultants helped formulate a plan for a sustainable tourist resort that would connect the ocean to the jungle using a maze of waterways.
It has worked. About 150 acres of thick mangrove forests have grown to more than 10 feet tall (providing a vital hurricane buffer for the enclave), and the variety of wildlife species living in the area has increased from 49 to more than 200. In 2011, Mayakoba earned a World Tourism Organization Ulysses Award for sustainable and responsible tourism development, as well as a Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Standard-Setter Award.
But, forget the eco-speak. The place is absolutely breathtaking. With its wide lagoons and narrow canals that meander from the jungle to the sea, Mayakoba has earned the nickname “the Venice of Mexico.”
Golf fans know its El Camaleón Golf Course as the home of the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, which, in 2007, became the first PGA Tour event outside the United States or Canada. (This year, the tournament is Nov. 10-16.) The Greg Norman-designed course stretches across three distinct landscapes — beach, jungle and canals — and is considered among many pros to be one of the most stunning in the world.
Professionals and novices alike visit the state-of-the-art Jim McLean Golf School at Mayakoba year-round to improve their game.
When the luxury SUV finished winding its way through the jungle drive, we were greeted by hotel staff in the open-air lobby of a dramatic two-story building with a cantilevered roof. Our hosts escorted us down a winding, glass-enclosed staircase to a deck on the edge of the turquoise lagoon. We boarded an old-fashioned teakwood riverboat called a lancha that would take us to our casita. Another smiling attendant handed us fresh mojitos atop white cloth napkins monogrammed with our initials, along with a plate of tropical fruit to nibble on during the boat ride.
We ferried along the sparkling lagoon, beside the lush mangrove forests, and got our first look and feel for the resort. (And our first chance to watch for “Sophie,” the most popular of the area’s crocodiles.)
We glided past some of the property’s 130 villas. Most range from 800 square feet to more than 3,000 square feet and come with plunge pools, rooftop sundecks, outdoor garden showers and indoor-outdoor living and dining areas. All the suites face either the beach or a lagoon; some “spa suites” have private treatment rooms. A recent $1.5 million renovation added 18 adjoining, duplexlike villas that allow larger parties plenty of space.
The master-planned community has three main “hubs” about a half-mile apart — the main one with the registration desk, lobby, concierge, bar, restaurants, boutique and pool; the Beach Club on the ocean; and the private Spa Island. Because the free-standing suites are spread out in “neighborhoods,” guests get from place to place by taking a ride on chauffeured golf carts, riding complimentary bikes or arriving by boat.
The thing that makes Rosewood Mayakoba so utterly unique in a sea of resorts in Riviera Maya is the level of privacy it offers. It’s quite possible to stay here and never step foot on the beach, visit a pool, see a car, walk through a lobby, or, if you choose, interact with a single soul outside of your own private villa. It’s no surprise, then, that celebrity fans reportedly include Sofia Vergara, Meg Ryan, the U2 guys and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Rosewood Mayakoba’s glittering crown jewel, Casa Laguna, opened last fall. The 9,500-square-foot, two-story villa (that comes with a $12,500 per night price tag) towers high above a lagoon with views of the sea, complete with three bedrooms, a chef’s kitchen, media room, 3,000 square feet of outdoor entertainment space and a dedicated staff of five.
We felt like rock stars as we tied onto our own suite’s private boat dock and were met by our personal butler. No request, he told us, would be too big or small, any time of day — from dinner reservations to extra pillows to adjusting the temperature of the private plunge pool on the deck. “It’s my pleasure,” he said, a phrase we’d hear often.
As our suitcases were delivered and taken by the butler to the walk-in closet, we uncovered indulgent touches in every nook and cranny of our suite: a telescope positioned by the window, a bowl of fresh fruit on a table, that day’s Dallas Morning News on the ottoman, a Nespresso coffee machine, custom Lady Primrose “Sea Mist” bath amenities. And our favorite: a full bottle of Herradura Reposado tequila, two shot glasses, a vessel of salt and freshly cut limes on an entry table — a standard treat in every room.
Our 980-square-foot Deluxe Overwater Suite appeared to be “floating” on the lagoon. From the sun deck in the back, we could see all the way through the living room, bedroom and large bathroom to the private courtyard with garden shower on the other end. Wooden lattice screens closed for extra privacy or opened to reveal floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the water. The aesthetic was sleek and neutral, yet warm and soothing. With views of the forest, it felt more like a stay at a lake house than one of the busiest beach destinations in the world.
We checked out bikes and pedaled to dinner that night, stopping to take photos of the stunning surroundings at sunset; verdant green trees and vibrant pink, purple and yellow tropical flowers lined every pathway. When the sun went down, hundreds of sculptural lamps, candles and fire torches lit up the resort, changing the look from demurely romantic to straight-up sexy.
We dined on the patio at the chic Agave Azul Sushi & Tequila Bar, where the “drink of choice” is a tasting-flight from its library of more than 100 tequilas. After a long dinner that included an amuse-bouche of tempura chile with ponzo sauce, sea bass-mango ceviche, sushi rolls, pad Thai and a divine coconut flan with strawberry “pearls,” we visited the resort’s Cultural Concierge.
Jon and I had thought that we might, at some point, leave the property to explore the rich historic, cultural and natural attractions in the area — the ancient Mayan ruins and pyramids of Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza, for example. Or to cave snorkel through the sacred underground rivers. Or to zipline through the jungle canopy. Alas, the allure of three days of total relaxation at this luxury resort kept us right there.
When we returned via golf cart to Suite 415, lights had been dimmed and bed pillows had been covered with cases embroidered with our initials. Soft music came from the TV speakers, and on the screen was a menu of the next day’s resort activities: extreme cardio, salsa dance-exercise class, an eco-tour boat ride, an artisanal Mexican beer tasting.
On my bed sat a bag of caramel candies and a traditional Mayan “worry doll” with the note, “Tell her your sorrow, put her under your pillow, sleep peacefully … On the next day, your sorrow would have gone away …” Next to the bed were slippers and a bottle of water.
I decided to draw a bubble bath in the deep soaking tub — which, shoot, I could have arranged for the butler to do while we were at dinner — while my brother caught up on Olympic action, using the excellent resort-wide free Wi-Fi. (A note: The suite was spacious enough for each of us to enjoy plenty of personal space and to sleep separately in the bedroom and living room.)
The next morning, the doorbell rang at 7:45 sharp and I boarded the waiting golf cart to take me for my spa treatment. The award-winning Rosewood Sense Spa sits on its own island designed around a cenote, or sacred water well of the ancient Mayans. It offers a range of curated treatments for mind and body, many incorporating Mayan techniques and local ingredients.
With my flute of aloe vera-mineral water, I was led down a jungle path to a private treatment cottage where I was to receive a 2 1/2-hour Mayan Equinox Ritual designed “to relieve stress and prepare oneself for a new beginning,” the spa menu said.
Before we entered, my therapist, Laura, told me to close my eyes and stretch my arms out. She brushed the air before me with burning frankincense and blessed me the same way Mayan warriors were saluted before going into battle, she explained. Following a ritualistic foot bath, Laura exfoliated my entire body with a scrub that contained jade, then rubbed me down with gold and silver mineral creams, wrapped me up in a cocoon, and gave me a luxurious 90-minute full body massage.
If the Mayan warriors felt this relaxed, I thought, they would have put down their swords for a siesta.
After my treatment, I relaxed by an outdoor fountain, sipped hibiscus tea and nibbled a spoonful of honey-yogurt to rehydrate. I spent another hour luxuriating in the women’s spa area, soaking in the hot tub and dipping in the cold plunge pool and grabbing glasses of chilled horchata in between. Because I was the only guest there, a spa attendant gave me her undivided attention. She mixed one of three different scrubs — lavender, chamomile and peppermint — with coconut oil before I stepped into the steam room for detoxification.
When I emerged, there she was, with a towel, robe and bottle of water, and ready to start the rainshower for me.
Meanwhile, my brother was enjoying a much more active morning. He biked the Mayakoba Nature Trail, which snakes around the three hotels and offers close encounters with the lush flora and fauna. He visited bats in our resort’s cenote cave. And he took a bird-watching boat tour, guided by the resort’s resident biologist, through the canals of Mayakoba.
As we secured our bikes outside the Beach Club for an afternoon of sun and sand, a young woman named Carolina appeared out of nowhere and greeted us by name; she would be our butler for the day.
“Do you have dinner reservations?” she asked, thinking a meal-and-a-half ahead. We did not, so she scurried off to remedy that. She also, at my request, turned down the temperature of our suite’s plunge pool and assured me it would be perfect by the time I intended to use it that evening.
Lunch at the casual beachside Punta Bonita included shrimp salads, starfruit margaritas, green gazpacho with grapes, and churros with vanilla ice cream and dulce de leche for dessert.
We parked ourselves in a shady cabana by the infinity pool that offered sweeping views of the azure Caribbean Sea below. Fresh towels, an ice bucket with cold bottled water and a top-shelf Cadillac margarita were but a butler-request away. Meanwhile, servers offered cups of peach sorbet, chocolate-covered cheesecake bites, shots of raspberry mimosa and other goodies at nicely timed intervals.
In the mid-afternoon sweet spot between “we’re done with the sun” and “what should we do next?” we boarded a palapa-roofed lancha called the Mayakoba Connection for a guided tour along the waterways that connect all three resorts — past the golf course, along the Canadian-owned Fairmont and to the exotic, Thai-themed Banyan Tree hotel.
Back at our own lobby, we found ourselves lured in by a sign for tapas at the bar. A “Club Sandwich 21st Century” was a huge “three-part” sandwich spread across the plate and served with quail eggs on top. After splitting that, the accompanying french fries and a tasty “Rosewood Forest” cocktail (tequila, rosemary, lime juice, grapefruit juice, rosemary syrup), we had to call Carolina and push dinner reservations back an hour.
“Certainly. It’s my pleasure.”
We were grateful for that extra time because dinner at Casa del Lago, the resort’s elegant Italian fine-dining restaurant, deserved nothing less than an empty stomach. I went with the very “bold” choice (the server declared) of conchiglioni stuffed with king crab in a Pernod lobster-squid ink sauce. My brother ordered the less adventurous mini pizza with pine nuts and arugula. For dessert, we split a pastry that resembled an apple strudel before the chef sent out a plate of house-made truffles for an extra-sweet ending.
Then it was back to our villa, where housekeepers had replenished our bottled water supply, turned down the beds and left marzipan candies on the pillows. I spent the rest of the evening reading a book by candlelight in the plunge pool, which was now, as I’d been assured, at the perfect temperature for a nighttime dip.
On our third and final day, I got up early to enjoy a fresh mango and tiny Nespresso on the sun porch, listen to the symphony of sounds the birds were creating and watch an occasional duck dip below the water. I pointed the telescope toward the forest and looked for spider monkeys, watched birds fly out of trees and tried to spy golfers whose occasional “thwack” of percussion came from across the lagoon.
The buffet breakfast at the Casa del Lago offered an eye-popping spread of local fruits, yogurt cups, cereals, juices, charcuterie and breads — including the pastry they called “Cronuts Mayakoba” (a croissant-fried doughnut filled with mandarin orange cream topped with citrus glaze). Not quite enough? We could also order a healthy frozen drink from the smoothie menu or one of the many Mexican and international specialties from the hot menu. I couldn’t pass up the Mayakoba Omelette, filled with poached Caribbean lobster and smothered in lobster cream sauce.
One more Cadillac margarita and stroll on the beach, one last bike ride around the beautiful paths, and it was time to pack our bags (we politely declined the butler’s offer to do the packing for us).
With 30 minutes to spare before a golf cart ride back to reception, I plunged one more time into our pool and tried to channel the relaxation I’d felt for three days.
Back home, it would be cold. There’d be no more outdoor shower option. The nightly amuse-bouches would stop; the diet would have to resume. No one would leave a worry doll on my bed at night, or drive me around, drop me at my door and declare, “It’s my pleasure.”
I took one last look across the lagoon and thanked my lucky stars for my three days in Mexican heaven.