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Off the Brochure: Cancun & Riviera Maya, Mexico

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Cancun Mexico Riviera MayaWhen you think of the Riviera Maya, what springs to mind?

Cancun, according to most people. And, of course, with Cancun comes the image of hard-partying spring breakers.

But what may surprise you is that Cancun is putting aside the wet T-shirt contests in favor of re-inventing itself as a high-end destination.

The region’s emergence as a luxury destination is the result of its extensive reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Wilma, combined with a targeted marketing plan. And how it has evolved.

What was a sleepy fishing village 30 years ago is now home to almost half a million residents; the region’s tourism industry depends on the millions of visitors that stream through the newly renovated Cancun International Airport each year.

The J.W. Marriott exemplifies the new level of luxury one can expect in Mexico’s flagship resort. This AAA five diamond property really has to be seen to be believed. We’re talking spectacular ocean views, marble floors, and the hotel’s crown jewel, an award-winning 35,000-square-foot, Mayan-inspired luxury spa.

What is equally striking is the first-class service from the hotel’s associates. When traveling, most guests have only a passing conversation with the bellman, the concierge or the room service operator. In Cancun, the JW Marriott boasts a favorable working environment and extensive ongoing training—so not only does the hotel attract top-notch employees, they tend to stay on long term as part of the hotel family.

The hotel also maintains a comprehensive hurricane evacuation policy, and while evacuation plans were initiated during the threat from Hurricane Dean in late August, there was little cause for fear. The properties in the area were largely untouched during this year’s hurricane season.

Beyond the luxury hotel scene, you may find yourself coming face-to-face with drunken college kids, but there is escape. To avoid the Senor Frog’s/Hard Rock/Daddy’O’s/Pat O’Briens entertainment round-robin circuit, check out Yaxchilan Avenue downtown. This is where the locals hang out, with real mariachi music in an authentic Mexican Riviera neighborhood, packed with restaurants, pubs and nightspots. It’s Cancun done casual.

Mexico ghost carOne thing the brochures don’t tell you is just how good the local transportation system is here. The local bus carrier ADO is a comfortable and economical alternative to shuttles, taxis or rental cars. For example, a group shuttle to Playa del Carmen is $45 per person for four or more or $8 per person for the bus. The only difference between the two is that the public bus doesn’t offer door-to-door service.

Playa del Carmen lies some 30 miles south of Cancun. Its culture is a diverse mixture of traditional Mexican and European flavors. Originally established as a tourist destination by Italian hoteliers, this town has evolved into a pleasing mixture of busy shops, boutique hotels, and all-inclusive resorts. At the center of this bustling neo-village is its sugar-white beach and clear blue waters, while its economic heart is Avenida 5 lined with a wide variety of dining, shopping and lodging.

Hotels in Playa come in all price points, shapes and sizes. A real find is the charming Hotel Lunata located right on 5th Avenue at 10th Street. The 10-room Hotel Lunata offers a luxury feel at a moderate price, highlighted by a friendly professional staff, exquisite tile work throughout, and an amazing garden where you can enjoy your breakfast (included) or just relaxing in the heat of the afternoon.

Two fine dining spots to note: the Argentine-themed Ula Gula on 5th Avenue offers great seafood selections; La Palette, on 2nd Street near the beach, is a new bistro with a traditional French menu, offering everything from foie gras to ostrich!

If you’re seeking a more traditional dining experience, Yaxche on 8th Street serves up Mayan cuisine and El Fogon serves mainstream Mexican fare to locals and travelers who venture out of the commercial district to 30th Street. This is the place to go for an inexpensive meal, while the fine dining spots are priced more just slightly south of a comparable establishment in a U.S. city.

Scuba Diver Cancun MexicoThe island of Cozumel is known far and wide as offering world-class reef diving and is just an hour by ferry from Playa. Not so widely known are the unique diving experiences available right on the mainland. Unique to the Riviera Maya, cenotes are fresh-water springs where divers can access the network of underground rivers that percolate through the Yucatan peninsula; this allows divers to experience rock structures and fossils that are millions of years old with unlimited visibility. Cenote dives offer an amazing Discovery Channel experience accessible to all certified divers. Contact Tank-Ha Dive Center for ocean or cenote diving at www.tankha.com.

Playa del Carmen is also a great jumping off point to other destinations throughout the peninsula: the unspoiled beaches and ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum and Xel-Ha or the eco-Disney destination of Xcaret.

It’s a destination that can be experienced in one extended stay but is best savored over repeat visits. For more news and information on Playa del Carmen, visit www.playamayanews.com.

By John Saltnes for PeterGreenberg.com.

Looking for more great travel ideas that are off the brochure? They’re all in our Off the Brochure Series.

Want to learn more ways to get off the brochure in Mexico? Why not visit a Mexican cooking school? Check out Gourmet Traveling, North American Style.