On the Caribbean coast of Mexico, along the Yucatán Peninsula, just south of Cancún.
The beaches are endless, the water is an absurd shade of aquamarine, and the local cuisine leaves most Caribbean cuisine in the dust.
Cancún’s international airport receives flights from around the globe, even setting arrival records in 2011, while the highway that runs from the airport is modern and easily navigable.
The area’s big chain hotels are a bit off-putting, yet their presence ensures that the beaches are well maintained all along the coast.
If you can forgive Cancún its Spring Break ways and look past the behemoth all-inclusive properties that line the Carretera Cancún Tulum, you can see Mexico’s Riviera Maya for what it is: a remarkably convenient slice of coastal paradise. It’s got brochure-worthy beaches, flavor-packed cuisine, and a direct line to the Mayans’ spiritual culture. After all, some of the more impressive ruins are smack on the beach, while spas embrace local customs like temazcal, a volcanic steam/mud treatment which is said to produce life-altering mental states.
There’s some risk, of course, of being overwhelmed by the machinery of mass tourism. But the key to reaping the Riviera’s benefits is fastening on a thick set of blinders and ignoring everything but the significant natural splendor, from the endless white sand beaches — all beaches in Mexico are public — to the inland jungle ecosystems and barrier reefs. Give yourself a leg up by staying somewhere small and tucked away; the intimate approach allows the scenery to dominate, and the slow pace is perfectly suited for relaxation. Just thirty miles south of Cancún’s debauchery, nestled amid thick palm trees facing a serene reef-protected beach, sits Maroma Resort, whose whitewashed, curvaceous casitas, adorned with exposed beams, intricate tile work and colorful Mexican textiles, practically beg you to loosen your load. Anything more than a bathing suit would be too confining during the day, while in the evening hours the all-pervasive candlelight and the private-dining terrace make for a dinner to remember.
A little farther down the coast, squeezed between the sprawling resorts of Mayakoba and some gargantuan big-chain properties, sit two needles in the proverbial haystack, the Viceroy Riviera Maya and the neighboring La Reve Hotel & Spa. With 41 modernized villas tucked discreetly beneath heavy palm fronds, the Viceroy is the larger and the plusher of the two. Its lush landscaping invites pleasant birdsong, worry-free outdoor showering, perhaps even shameless skinny-dipping in the individual plunge pools. The overall feeling is one of cozy seclusion, despite a slightly imposing concrete-walled entrance and a late-partying neighbor. La Reve, on the other hand, is flat-faced with ocean-front balconies and a handful of beachside bungalows, while the elevated pool takes center stage with a small tiled bar and a row of lounge chairs, encouraging a breezy informality among guests. Don’t miss the crocheted hammock, strung between two palms on the beach.
Meanwhile the most revered hideaway along the stretch between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Esencia, comes with a regal pedigree. The former private home of a European duchess, augmented with a handful of freestanding bungalows adorned with fine linens and plunge pools and assigned personal butlers, the compound-like resort feels nearly as exclusive as it once literally was — though for all its elegance there’s a casual edge to the atmosphere, which keeps it feeling just unbuttoned enough. James Taylor wasn’t kidding: “Way down here, you need a reason to move.”