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By: Ondine Cohane

Just over a decade ago, the mayor of Solidaridad, Mexico, suggested a sexy-sounding new nickname for his municipality. The idea stuck and now the particularly scenic stretch of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is known as the
Mayan Riviera or Riviera Maya. Starting with the high-rises of Cancún, sweeping through buzzing Playa del Carmen, and ending 40 miles later at the beach huts of Tulum, the Riviera Maya encompasses megaresorts and chic hideaways, indulgent spas, and some of the world’s best diving spots. Its white-sand beaches and turquoise Caribbean waters add up to an ideal quick getaway – especially if one considers the numerous nonstop flights to Cancún airport from the U.S. These days the region is as popular as ever.    


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So after all the growth and change in the area, how does one pick a place to vacation? By now sophisticated travelers know to skip the mammoth all-inclusives filled with rowdy spring breakers. Those places are easy to spot – and avoid. But beyond the obvious, it can be difficult to discern the truly spectacular from the purely passable in the vast portfolio of hotels lining the coast.


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Consider this article a personal cheat sheet. The calculations are straightforward: We selected the three choicest areas of the Riviera Maya – Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and greater Mayakoba – and for each one, we offer three first-rate hotel picks. Because the simplicity of planning is only the first of many draws when it comes to vacationing in this region. Plus, start visualizing your Mexico vacation with our Mayan Riviera slideshow.

Tulum

Tulum has been riding its bohemian-chic reputation for more than a decade, and for the most part all the traits that initially made it so beloved by fashion editors and yoga aficionados (white-sand beaches, a low-key vibe) still remain. Yes, there’s been development, along with an influx of French, Italian, and Latin American coolhunters. But fortunately a lot of the new additions, while not exactly rustic, hew to the original simple-is-better model.

Opened a few years ago by Karla Gutierrez, Casa Violeta (www.casavioletatulum.com) typifies Tulum’s barefoot-chic attitude with its excellent restaurant and seven simple palapa-style cabanas. The best unit is Jasmin, with its water views and private terrace. Nearby, the new La Zebra (www.lazebratulum.com) offers similar vistas and a fine on-site eatery; especially tasty are the breakfasts with fresh smoothies and huevos rancheros. Avoid the rooms on the jungle side, however, as they can become quite hot and draw mosquitoes. This recommendation applies to all hotels in Tulum.

Looking for a spot with more modern conveniences? Maya Tulum (www.rrresorts.com/maya_tulum) has a destination spa and guests are provided with complimentary yoga classes. The drawbacks are that its beach is rockier than the stretches further south, and some might find the crunchy vibe a bit much.

While in the area, visitors can take a break from the beach to explore some of the Mayan ruins that first put this region on the map: Tulum, the site that the whole area is named after, looms impressively over the ocean from a clifftop, while Coba hides in the jungle and feels more undiscovered. Rent a bike to explore buildings overgrown with tropical plant life. For a memorable meal, make a pilgrimage to the Italian restaurant at the hotel Posada Margherita (www.posadamargherita.com). The opinionated and heavily inked owner, Alessandro Carozzino, brings his take on fresh fish and pasta dishes from Italy to the Mexican seaside along with the inside scoop on Tulum’s goings-on. Arrive early, as this atmospheric, no-reservations eatery fills up fast. Those looking to bring home a unique gift should stop by the shop at Coqui Coqui (www.coquicoquispa.com), a boutique hotel on the beach run by Argentinean model Nicolas Malleville and his girlfriend Francesca Bonato. The on-site shop, which is overseen by Nicolas’s sister, Coni, carries locally made perfumes and handcrafted straw hats.

Playa del Carmen

Once a sleepy fishing village with dusty roads, Playa del Carmen has become the Mayan Riviera’s answer to South Beach. It’s the perfect spot for travelers seeking some nightlife along with the beach. Playa del Carmen’s main draw, though, is the boutique hotel scene that has sprung up there over the last few years.

Rafael Micha, one of the founders of the Habita group behind hotels like Mexico City’s fashionable Condesa DF, among others, understood Playa del Carmen’s need for stylish retreats that wouldn’t break the bank. A few years ago he launched the Hotel Basico (www.hotelbasico.com), which is now the town’s best value option. With an ingenious design – repurposed water tanks are used as plunge pools and strips of recycled rubber serve as curtains – this trendy daytime meeting place turns into a hot spot after dark. El Patio, the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, is modeled after a typical taco street stand but is more stylish, which explains the preponderance of hipsters who congregate from breakfast hours to dinnertime for the excellent tacos and low-key scene.

Meanwhile the Deseo (www.hoteldeseo.com), another Micha brainchild, is Basico’s grown-up sibling, with bigger rooms; comfy, plush beds; and a courtyard swimming pool (a rarity in Playa). Book a suite – starting from about $250 per night, it’s one of the town’s best deals. But pack earplugs because the property overlooks a street lined with clubs, and its lounge is extremely popular, especially on the weekends. And be forewarned that neither Deseo nor Basico allows children.

Nor does Mosquito Blue (www.mosquitoblue.com), which is close to the beach and provides amenities like two pools and a nice shaded area with couches. Best of all, guests can access the sand via sister property Mosquito Beach, where days can be spent lounging on a complimentary beach bed. Basico and Deseo, on the other hand, lie several blocks from the ocean and neither has a beach club.

While the town is full of restaurants and bars, one of the best options is Negrosal (www.negrosal.com), which morphs from elegant restaurant (don’t miss the duck tacos) to happening club as the night progresses. The wine list is impressive, and the bordello-like mirrors make Negrosal a great place for people-watching. For those more interested in observing nature, the coral reefs off this region’s coast form an excellent diving spot: Cousteau types should head to the well-run Akumal Dive Center (www.akumaldivecenter.com), which can arrange adventurous snorkeling and scuba diving trips.

Greater Mayakoba

Like Mayan Riviera, the name Mayakoba is a relatively recent addition to the Yucatán’s lexicon. Dreamed up by developers, it refers to a sub-community of three resorts (the Banyan Tree, Fairmont, and Rosewood) located roughly midway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen. From the Cancún airport, the drive takes about 30 minutes. While Tulum and Playa del Carmen grew up around towns, the Mayakoba-area resorts are new communities unto themselves, complete with beaches, restaurants, and golf courses. Once they check in, many guests are content to stay put for the rest of their vacation.

Although these new options include some of Mexico’s – and the region’s – most expensive hotels, some are truly worth the splurge. And bargain hunters, especially those willing to visit at times other than prime holiday weeks, can usually find solid offers (like a three-night stay for the price of two nights).

The Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya (www.mandarinoriental.com/rivieramaya), which opened in 2008, is not part of the Mayakoba development but lies nearby. Of the area’s new arrivals, the Mandarin is arguably the most stylish. The 36-acre destination resort manages to feel intimate and secluded even with 128 rooms. The beach and palafito (stilt-supported) units present the best options. Each comes with a terrace, a garden, or a small private pool and is located just a short stroll from the beach and main pool area, which harbors an excellent restaurant. The Mayan-inspired spa is a resort centerpiece – one should take a whole day to enjoy it.

Close by, the Banyan Tree Mayakoba (www.banyantree.com/mayakoba), which opened last fall, has large freestanding villas with private pools, hot tubs, loungers, and hammocks. The level of service there is truly outstanding and incorporates frequent thoughtful touches: Guests may borrow bikes free of charge to explore the grounds, and the toiletries in the opulent bathrooms include organic bug spray.

Less pricey is the Fairmont Mayakoba (www.fairmont.com/mayakoba). Uneven service keeps it from reaching the level of quality of its neighbors, but if one can get a room close to the beach, a stay is still quite worthwhile.

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