Travel: Riviera Maya, Mexico

Until I went there, the Mexican coastal area between Cancun and Tulum meant only three things to me: honeymooners, free-flowing tequila, and party-till-you-drop crowds.

Called the Riviera Maya, you can, no doubt, find all of the above there, but you also can have an intimate resort experience in one of the finest climates on the planet. Blessed with remarkable natural beauty, a rich culinary heritage and weather we in St. Louis would kill for, this part of the Yucatan Peninsula was carved out of the jungle south of Cancun by developers about 35 years ago. They built resorts up and down the coast, realizing what a gold mine the area could be—just a short plane ride from Dallas, Miami and other U.S. cities.

In the span of three days there—when media were invited to a special culinary series at the upscale El Dorado Royale resort—it became clear very soon why this particular property appeals to well-heeled Americans (Brits and Aussies, too). Visibly absent were singles and children, since this is a couples resort with visitors ranging from, yes, newlyweds, to seniors (and if I had to guess, I’d say there were many more over-50s than under). About two hours from Dallas by plane, we encountered plenty of Texans, many of whom reported coming to this resort for years.

The first thing that bowls you over is the grounds: 450 acres of palm trees, thatched-roof casitas with swim-up patios, 14 palapa bars and 300 Bali beach beds facing the sea—more than enough needed for the 476 guest rooms. It’s an all-inclusive resort, although they prefer the term ‘gourmet inclusive experience,’ since El Dorado Royale’s particular focus is on food and wine. That’s how the culinary series started four years ago, in a program the first week of every month that brings together acclaimed chefs and experts from Jackson family wines for wine tastings, pairings and cooking demonstrations. The wines and spirits served on-premise, which are included in the $500 to $1,000 per night room rate, are in the premium category, with many of the wines bearing Jackson family nameplates (Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria, Matanzas Creek and many others).

Named one of the Top 100 Hotels & Resorts in the World by Condé Nast Traveler (and Most Romantic by Forbes), the resort contradicts notions of all-inclusive. It offers all-suite accommodations with jetted tubs and walkout patios, many with swim-up pools, outdoor verandas with table and chairs, and aguas del amor, (private outdoor showers). This place is meant for romance, at any age.

If you’re so inclined there are daily activities like yoga on the beach, Pilates, biking and target practice. And off-site activities abound for an extra fee—including snorkeling at nearby Cozumel, horseback riding on the beach, and visits to nearby Tulum. But with a setting this ideal, it can be hard to peel away from the white-sand beach and ever-available margaritas. There are free tequila tastings every day at 2:30 p.m., where you’ll learn that while a product can bear the tequila label with only 51 percent agave, the finer tequilas (like the ones at this tasting) are made of 100 percent agave and aged in bourbon barrels. (That explains the $80 a bottle price tag.)

With food being a big part of the El Dorado experience, I felt compelled to try it all—not possible in three days, but I certainly gave it my all, getting to six out of eight restaurants here. The hands-down favorite was La Isla, a charming openair spot wrapped around the main pool and shielded from the bustle by waterfalls and lush foliage. Each restaurant here has its own chef, and this one certainly shone, as did the service. I recommend the strawberry waffles for breakfast, served with warm compote and fresh berries, and the floating islands for dessert. Of course, this being a foodie resort, most restaurants also have a buffet bar of items to nibble on before your food comes—although they eschew the term ‘buffet’ in favor of ‘food display’ and emphasize that all meals are served to the table. If you prefer alone time, there is also 24-hour room service.

Do not miss the Gala Chef’s Dinner, if you happen to visit during one of those guest chef weeks. It’s a highlight, especially if you get someone as memorable as our visiting chef: Jason Dady of Austin, Texas, who was as entertaining as he was telegenic. Held in the Fuentes Culinary Theatre—a massive room with big-screen TVs so everyone could watch the cooking—Dady chopped, pureed and sautéed his way through the delicious meal, all the while teaching us how to reprise it at home.

Even with the $180 per couple upcharge, the room was packed. Dady’s five-course menu included local fisherman’s catch crudo, Yucatan-style pico de gallo salad, fish stew, New York strip fajitas and raspberry clafoutis, each course paired with a different Jackson family wine. Even though I was loathe to leave the lush confines of my newfound paradise, we were sent off to sample a meal at the nearby Azul Sensatori resort. Much like my general reticence about Riviera Maya, all reservations dissipated after tasting the very first bite at its elegant dining spot, Le Chique. The five-diamond (AAA) restaurant, helmed since its opening nine years ago by Chef Jonatan Gomez Luna, also was named Best of the Best and Best Tasting Menu by Travel & Leisure magazine.

Eating there was more experience than meal. Each ‘dish’ is carefully crafted as a single bite. The server instructs diners how it is meant to be eaten, usually by placing the entire item into the mouth in order to savor all the flavors together.

Chef Luna came to the table to explain his process: The courses are designed to utilize indigenous Mexican ingredients and culinary traditions that together represent the diverse states that compose Mexico. That means cricket dust, tequila, fish rind, mole, quail egg, aguachile, cocoa and many, many other elements. By about course eight, it was getting to be a real challenge to wrap my mind around the rationale for each new dish, however the accompanying wine pours made me feel less and less guilty about that.

I wouldn’t want readers to think this resort is only about vegging out on the beach and eating. There is also a pretty impressive spa, Naay (nah-i), that offers a range of services, including massage in a private palapa on the beach with nothing but a canvas wall between you and the Caribbean. Working with indigenous Mayan oils, the Kukulcan Massage lives up to its description as “the perfect combination for your relaxation.” Just be prepared to be roused from your trance after 80 minutes.

I need to point out the tremendous pride our servers, entertainers, drivers and everyone else with whom we came into contact expressed about their country. In fact, each song, dance and vaquero show—we were there during Cinco de Mayo—ended with, Viva Mexico! And we were asked repeatedly how we liked our vacation in Mexico. Fortunately, I could answer with complete honesty: Me gusta mucho.

If you go …
eat: Try as many of the resort’s restaurants as you can, including the award-winning D’Italia. An on-site hydroponic greenhouse cultivates quite a lot of the produce, an interesting fact that makes you appreciate the mircrogreens and sprouts even more. Don’t miss the Fuentes Culinary Theatre, where you can watch the chef work his magic; you may learn some tips to take home.

stay: Although the basic suites are acceptable, those in the newer section, El Dorado Casitas Royale, are much nicer. And be sure to check the site map when booking. The resort has various wedding canopies around the property where wedding ceremonies are performed (three to eight a day!), so things can get noisy if you’re near one of these.

play: The beach, lined with billowing Bali beads, is inviting for endless hours of relaxation. ‘Beach butlers’ come around and bring you drinks, towels, bottled water and more. The vistas looking out to sea, however, include a row of concrete bunkers that over time will sink naturally into the ocean floor and create a reef for sea life. For now, it takes some getting used to. In terms of activities, yoga on the beach is fun, and spa treatments (at an extra cost) are wonderful. Evening shows—usually around 10 p.m.—are entertaining (get to the open-air theater early or you may have to stand).

shop: There are a couple of gift shops on the grounds and several in the lobby area. Mostly they carry traditional Mexican pottery, T-shirts and some toiletry items. For excellent shopping, the Cancun airport has it all, including duty-free Mexican tequilas and chocolates.

Photos: Marc Weiner