Sol Searching: Luxury and Adventure Await at Mexico's Riviera Maya and Cozumel

APRIL 16, 2015
Candyce H. Stapen
From atop the cliffside Castillo (castle), Tulum’s most important building, the crashing waves and the calls of the sea birds conjure visions of this once-vital Maya seaport. Tulum is one of the treasures of the Riviera Maya, a swath of about 85 miles along Mexico’s Caribbean coast that stretches from south of Puerto Morelos (some maps include Puerto Morelos) to Punta Allen, the gateway to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Other reasons to visit the Riviera Maya and Cozumel areas: snorkeling and diving the world’s second-largest barrier reef, swimming in underground rivers called cenotes, sunning on sandy beaches, and, especially if you have kids, visiting nearby eco-adventure parks. Our favorite place to stay: the top-rated Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort. 
Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico
Grand Velas Riviera Maya is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. Forget about small rooms, limited spas and recycled buffet food. The accommodations are called suites because they range between 1,184 and 1,378 square feet. That makes each one bigger than a typical one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. 
Perfect because we need something special to celebrate a milestone birthday. Because we invited extended family as our guests, we want luxury, good food, a soothing spa, plus the safety-net of a fixed price. Grand Velas Riviera Maya delivers all that and more.
Upon entering the resort’s grounds, we drive through acres of dense thickets, part of the property’s conservation of the natural landscape, until we reach the beachfront Ambassador section, one of the resort’s 3 “ambiances,” or room locations. We select the family-friendly, horseshoe-shaped Ambassador area because of its sweeping ocean view. The adults-only Grand Class, also beachfront, offers a quieter outdoor area and the largest rooms. The less expensive Zen Jungle Section, set amid tropical trees and mangrove thickets, is close to the Convention Center and far enough away from the water to require a shuttle ride.   


The author, wading through mangroves at Sian Ka'an.
Along with the location, we enjoy the resort’s feeling of expansiveness. It’s not just the 80-acre setting that affords breathing space. The outsized rooms, the 100-foot-high palapa (thatched roof) that tops the Ambassador’s open lobby, and its panoramic view of infinity pools that stretch to the sea add to sense of space and calm.
We shake off jet lag by going to the 76,000-square-foot spa to soak in the Riviera Maya Water Journey. The 7-element hydrotherapy circuit comes complimentary to all guests with spa appointments. We soak under waterfall sprays and loosen tight muscles with all manner of water jets. We inhale calming scents in the herbal steam room, slather medicinal clay on our skin in the mud room, rinse off in the multi-headed shower, and cool down in the ice room, where yes, we rub cold cubes on our skin. After that, thoroughly mellow, we could have gone back to our room, but the best was yet to be: a wrap and a massage by a well-trained therapist.
On another day after another pampering treatment, (did we say “special birthday?”) we simply order dinner delivered to our room. After all, room service is included in the price and none of Grand Velas’ several specialty restaurants costs extra.
The resort’s signature dining experience, Cocina de Autor, is the first restaurant at a luxury all-inclusive to be awarded Five Diamonds by AAA. Serving Spanish fare, the chefs’ inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. The molecular cuisine creates more than a few surprises during the meal. Items melt in our mouths, the tuna has a mint flavor, and mostly the mixtures taste good. Only one of us would have preferred what he called “a straight-forward meal.”
Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant, prove to be our favorites. While not flawless, the food at Grand Velas is very good. We still remember the veal ossobuco at Frida, the Mexican restaurant. At Sen Lin, we especially like the crab tempura and order extra helpings of udon noodles with seafood, but we find the Chilean sea bass just okay. At all the restaurants, the arrival of the wine cart is the only reminder that we are at an all-inclusive. The waiters pour a limited selection of reasonably good house wines for free, but premium wines cost extra.
A supervised children’s program operates for ages 4 to 12 and, seasonally, the hotel offers a teen activities. Staff engage teens in snorkeling, kayaking, pedal boats, waterpolo, and other activities.
Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the beach stretches for 1,000-feet, a few times the resort ran out of shade umbrellas. The swimming area, created by a breakwater, is relatively small. Everything else is so nice, including the beach staff who keep restocking us with cool drinks, strawberry ices, and nacho snacks, that we, a family of swimmers, could overlook the limited locale for swimming.
One day while lunching at Azul at an outdoor table, we happily watch the surf and enjoy the fresh lobster tacos. As our relative comments “life is really good.”
Grand Velas delivers many such moments.    

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