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Tulum Uncovered: Beyond Mexico’s All-Inclusive Track

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For the seven of us traveling together, including a family of five, Casa Perla del Mar, a four-bedroom, Mediterranean-style home owned by a San Francisco Bay Area couple, seems a perfect alternative to multiple hotel rooms and a steady diet of restaurant meals. The apricot-colored villa looks stunning on the Internet and comes with glowing references on TripAdvisor.com, where it was named top vacation rental in Tulum for 2011.

In person, it’s even better. Two mirror-image floors, each with full kitchen and living quarters, offer separation and privacy for families or couples traveling together. To the side of the indigo-tiled pool are baskets brimming with of masks, snorkels, flippers, beach towels and umbrellas—everything one might need for a beachgoing day trip. Elaborate tile work throughout the house underscores the cheery Mexican décor, and beds are as comfortable as what you’d find in a five-star hotel (only, fitting, as owner Patricia Beaudoux works in the international hotel industry and knows what it takes to satisfy to high-end travelers.)

Casa Perla is loaded with amenities, but my favorite feature is something much more organic than Internet connections, microwave ovens and flat-screen TVs: 18 sets of sliding-glass doors (yes I counted) that open to fill the house with a sea breeze that is nothing short of narcotic. The turquoise Caribbean, just across the road and visible from the second story, swooshes serenity night and day.

The home’s location, near the end of a security-guarded road lined with American and Canadian-owned vacation homes, many of them quite grand, seemed remote a first blush. But it grew on me, and grew some more, and within 48 hours I was deeply appreciative of the quiet, the privacy, the freedom to rise early, pad over the terracotta-tiled floors to the kitchen, put the coffee on and prepare my favorite breakfast: a plate of papaya, banana and pineapple drizzled with lime juice, savored while sitting on a balcony watching bright tropical birds flit in the foreground of a jungle stretched like green carpet to the horizon.

Call me a spoiled American, but having a rental car is a convenience that, in this easy-to-navigate part of Mexico, I wouldn’t have wanted to be without. The house proves an ideal jumping-off point to all the region’s draws, from stunning turquoise waters for swimming and snorkeling to a world-class barrier reef for diving, Maya ruins for history, Maya villages for culture, “eco-parks” for the kids, boat trips through the biosphere preserve and more than a dozen cenotes—sinkholes and cave systems fed by underwater rivers—where, for admissions ranging anywhere from $2 to $80, you can swim or sign on for an adventure tour.

My companions and I have many Technicolor adventures, and as the week winds down, so do I. On my last, lazy afternoon, friends having departed, I return to the hotel zone for a grilled grouper lunch at Tita Tulum, one of the more modest lodging establishments on the beach. In the course of a long walk down the strand, I watch kite surfers launch, am tagged by a trio of friendly dogs and do a doubletake as I stroll past a Japanese photographer clicking away at his topless girlfriend, who is posing like a porn star in the surf.

Back in my lounge chair, I order a cold Corona, close my eyes and start plotting how to get another group of family and friends on board for a return.

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