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Cancun Mexico: Mayan Riviera Dining Review

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Shrimp CocktailMexico’s tourism business is still recovering from the swine flu scare and is now being hit again by reports of drug-fueled violence.  

The good news is with the number of visitors not yet back to pre-scare levels, travelers can still find great experiences at reasonable rates.  

David Latt investigates both upscale and down-home culinary experiences in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera.

Easily accessible from the U.S., the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula has white sand beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles.

Empty Chaise Lounges at Cancun’s Royal Hideaway Located far away from the U.S.-Mexican border, the area has largely escaped the drug-related violence that has dominated media headlines. With mild weather between December and May, the peninsula is an attractive destination for tourists who want a taste of Mexico and a good dose of sun and fun.

The Mexican government has been doing its part to lure travelers back to the area. For instance, at the Cancun airport, the government has launched a Tax Back program. If you’re shopping at designer stories, you’ll pay a VAT (Value Added Tax). Bring your receipts to the airport and you’ll be reimbursed for the tax if you spent $90 – $225. For details go to www.taxback.com.mx.

Don’t miss Peter’s recent radio show from Cancun.

While travel to the area is increasing, there are discounts as high as 30 percent on hotel rates. Resorts compete for customers with offers of free massages, romantic dinners, golfing, snorkeling, and sailing. Wine-paired meals at chef’s tables, increasingly popular in U.S. restaurants, are also being offered at more upscale resorts.

Beach at the Royal Hideaway, Cancun, MexicoClose to the airport, Cancun and Cozumel are popular destinations, although some travelers complain that the area has become over-developed. An alternative is to stay an hour and a half south in Playa del Carmen. Still relatively small, the town has a sleepy fishing village feeling, albeit one with a gated community of luxury resorts and a Walmart nearby.

After weeks of bad weather at home, I happily spent a long weekend at the five-star, adults-only, all-inclusive, Royal Hideaway Playacar, which offers all the creature comforts at all-inclusive rates. Food and beverages are included in the price, with the only exceptions being the specialty wine list and the chef’s table experience, which is an additional $150-175 per person (the rate is negotiable, especially for returning guests and in some cases, is waived).

Don’t miss the Beach Vacations section for more ideas.

During the day, Spices serves a breakfast buffet with a view of the Caribbean. At lunch Spices and the pool side, open air restaurant, The Deck, have Mexican-themed menus.

Chef’s Table at Las VentanasIn the evening, the resort’s culinary skills are on full display. The Japanese food at Azia is very good, especially the fresh-tasting sushi. The space used by The Deck during the day undergoes a transformation at night, reappearing as the elegant Grill, serving a Mediterranean menu. Among the many dishes on the menu, the grilled octopus salad with potatoes and parsley is authentically prepared, appropriately so, since the award-winning Executive Chef, Raul Vaquerizo, is Spanish.

Tastings are also available at the upscale Las Ventanas and at the new chef’s table. The wine-paired meals are worthy of fine restaurants in Paris, London, New York, or Madrid.

Find more experiences in our Culinary Travel section.

Chef’s Table at Las Ventanas - DessertAn appetizer of scallops with mole and coconut foam shared the plate with a delicate piece of grilled foie gras and a velvety creamed corn soup. A single ravioli with braised lamb inside luxuriated in a pool of tomato essence.

When it came time for dessert at Las Ventanas, we were treated to a plate of cheeses paired with fruit: Camembert/strawberries, goat cheese/grapes and almonds, aged Parmesan/kiwi, and blue cheese/green apple and honey. But that wasn’t all. There was a serving of home made ice creams, sherbets, and macarons.

Extravagance is the name of the game at the chef’s table. Ginger ice cream encapsulated in a crispy tempura casing sat in a sweet green tea creme, topped with a black sesame crisp. The piece de resistance, however, was a sculpture made of chocolates, marshmallows, honey lollipops, and gummies made of passion fruit and vanilla.

To learn more about the chef’s table, check out this video from Peter’s YouTube channel.

DISCOVERING LOCAL TREATS

Infinity pool at Cancun’s Royal HideawayOne fact to understand about the Mayan Riviera is that the area was largely undeveloped before the Mexican government turned Cancun into a tourist destination. Before that there were only a few, scattered fishing villages that stretched south to Tulum.

The peninsula is still experiencing growing pains. Demands on the electrical grid can cause resorts to cut back on air conditioning and brown-outs are not unknown.

Since the area is devoted almost entirely to tourism, there are very few local farms. Which means the produce, tropical fruit, and even the seafood served at the hotels and in the restaurants is likely to come from other parts of Mexico, the United States, or as far away as Japan.

Get more ideas in our Mexico & Central America travel section.

Culturally, with the exception of the local Mayans, everyone else is from somewhere else in Mexico.

Artesanias de ChiapasThat means if you want to immerse yourself in indigenous culture, you are better off visiting other areas in Mexico. If you want to experience the richness of Mexican cuisine, you’ll be happier in Mexico City, Veracruz, or even Los Angeles.

You can track down local treats, if you look carefully enough.

By accident we stumbled across Juana Marcela Perez Hernandez’ Artesanias de Chiapas (Calle 10 entre avenidas 1 y 5), a small store—more of an open-air stall, really—packed with handmade artifacts from her home state of Chiapas.

She sells purses, articles of clothing, wallets, and wall hangings, but what caught our eye was the army of hand woven animals and people that spilled onto the side walk.

You can haggle over price, but Juana sticks to her guns and in this case you pay for what you get. I love the three figures I brought home.

Also check out Spring Break for Grown-Ups: Cancun & Riviera Maya, Mexico

Taco cart fish taco with pickled onionsOn the corner of Fifth Avenue and Benito Juarez, a block from the beach, you’ll find half a dozen taco carts serving freshly made tortillas filled with aromatic meats like pork steamed in banana leaves, marinated chicken, and fried fish with pickled onions.

Here you’ll line up with locals who know that there is no better way to start the day than standing next to a taco cart, balancing a hot-off-the-grill taco in one hand and an ice-cold drink in the other.

Because walking around makes you hungry, you might also want to stop at one of the many bars and open air restaurants along Fifth Avenue or Avenue Juarez.

Get more ideas with our Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Cancun, Mexico.

El Sarape GrillAt El Sarape Grill (Ave. Juarez and 20th Street), you can enjoy a Mexican beer and snack on a shrimp cocktail served with crackers or feast on platters of grilled meats with bowls of refried beans and guacamole.

If you want to drink like a native, ask for a Michelada, a Chelada, an Ojo Rojo, or, if you’re brave enough, a Vampire. They all start with a light beer like Sol, but like a geometric progression, they quickly multiple the flavors by adding lime juice, beef stock, tomato juice, and vodka.

While there are plenty of sweets to tempt you, the best in my opinion are the ice cream bars called paletas.

Paletas en Mexico Made with fresh fruit or vegetables, they are distant cousins to the American popsicle. Some are made with milk, others just with fruit, sugar, and water. They are all delicious. You may not find a cucumber or avocado paleta to your taste, but you’ll certainly enjoy one made from fresh coconut, vanilla, strawberry, pineapple, or watermelon. To really understand the meaning of sweet-heat, have a paleta made with mango and chili pepper.

Walking around town, casual is the way to go. Wear flip flops, shorts and T-shirts wherever you want. Although the brief rain showers make carrying a light-weight raincoat or small umbrella a good idea, the locals just take cover in a doorway and wait for the rain to stop. At night, there are plenty of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue where you can eat, stop to listen to music, have a drink, and hang out with friends.

By David Latt for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit David on the Web at MenWhoLiketoCook.com.

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