|By Laurence Iliff, The Dallas Morning
NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 2, 2008 - RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico -- As the Caribbean resort of Cancun heads toward 40 years of wowing Americans with its turquoise waters and often-wild nightlife, the younger Riviera Maya just down the highway is barely coming of age. Its new, ultraluxurious resorts are comparable to anything in the world, their operators say, short of a private island and a personal staff. And at times, they feel that exclusive.
In the thick of the evolution is Dallas-based Rosewood hotels with its stunning lagoon-and-beach resort in the Mayakoba complex, set in the middle of a Mayan jungle. Freshwater lagoons at the resort meander to expansive beaches with sand so powdery white that is doesn't get hot even in the midday sun. Take a leisurely boat ride, or call for a private golf-cart taxi to get where you're going in a hurry.
The Rosewood, however, isn't alone.
There's something here for every sun worshipper, spa enthusiast and diehard athlete and for travelers looking to recharge, relax or reboot, be they book readers, movie lovers or lounge lizards.
The area's luxury lodgings range from the Asian-flavored Mandarin Oriental to the Mexican hacienda- inspired Maroma Orient-Express and the surprisingly reasonable Fairmont Mayakoba, which blends five-star, world-class hotel and spa service with good value.
The Mandarin opened its first Latin American property here in February, just after Rosewood's launch of its second Mexican hotel (after Las Ventanas in Los Cabos). The Asian chain Banyan Tree will open a resort within a year or so in the Mayakoba development, its first property in the Americas. The Fairmont opened in 2006.
The gathering of resorts is less chance than a new direction.
The Riviera Maya has long offered a more laid-back version of Cancun centered on the European-flavored Playa del Carmen, with its small shops, trendy restaurants and bohemian nightlife. But the vacation experience has been tied to the traditional model of boutique hotels or all-inclusive resort complexes with hundreds of rooms crunched together and lines of vacationers in the restaurants and bars during peak hours.
There have been individual superluxe hotels that developed a word-of-mouth clientele, but the big global players are just arriving.
Pablo Graf, general manager of Rosewood Mayakoba, said the emergence of the resorts followed the natural maturation of the Mexican Caribbean. That was accelerated by a changing world in which many Americans wanted top-of-the-line spas and exclusive resorts without having to travel to Asia or Europe, he said.
"Americans don't want to travel so far because of terrorism and all that, and Cancun is the second-busiest airport in Mexico," Mr. Graf said. "Cancun is a huge resort, but they never really had the ultradeluxe product."
Likewise, a greater number of Americans can afford a $500-per-night hotel, especially after getting an inexpensive direct flight to Cancun from Dallas, Chicago or New York. And the Riviera Maya, with its abundance of water, jungle, Caribbean beaches, Mayan ruins and culture, is about as exotic as anything the superluxe traveler can find overseas, he said.
Tony LeBlanc, director of sales for the 50 residences in the Banyan Tree development, said the Caribbean in general has come into its own as one of the hottest spots on the globe. And the Riviera Maya has the advantage of being in a hip and culturally significant area.
The Banyan Tree found in Mayakoba the right spot for its Americas debut, and the suites under construction promise spectacular views of the lagoon and the wide beach.
"People are looking for a unique experience," Mr. LeBlanc said. "They're looking for something they can talk about."
WHEN YOU GO:
The superluxe resorts of the Riviera Maya are grouped around the bohemian town of Playa del Carmen, with its famous Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) pedestrian walkway of shops and restaurants. Visitors fly into Cancun. The drive to the Riviera Maya is a half-hour. Ground transport is available.
-- Rosewood Mayakoba, 1-888-767-3966; www.rosewoodmayakoba.com.
-- Maroma Orient-Express, 1-866-454-9351; www.maromahotel.com.
-- Mandarin Oriental, 1-866-526-6567; www.mandarinoriental.com.
-- Fairmont Mayakoba, 1-800-257-7544; www.fairmont.com.
-- Riviera Maya tourism: www.rivieramaya.com.
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