For years visitors to Mexico have thought of the Riviera Maya as a place dominated by sprawling, all-inclusive, midmarket resorts that accommodated thousands of sun-worshipping, hard-drinking guests. And they were right. Unlike Cancún, its neighbor 45 minutes to the north, the heart of this 85-mile strip of Caribbean coastline—situated on the Yucatán Peninsula and bordering the world’s second-longest coral reef—wasn’t quite spring break central, but it wasn’t Tulum either, the pristine beach town located toward the Riviera’s southern end and known for its Mayan ruins.
In the last two years, however, smaller, ultraluxe establishments started arriving, providing chic alternatives to the megaresorts. At Mayakoba, a 1,600-acre expanse of jungle, lagoons, and downy white-sand beaches, a Fairmont hotel and a Greg Norman–designed 18-hole PGA golf course opened in 2006, and in March a Banyan Tree will join, with a Viceroy property not far behind.
I’ve come specifically for Mayakoba’s year-old Rosewood hotel and, more to the point, its ten-month-old spa, Sense. The 128-suite resort—from the company behind Los Cabos’s Las Ventanas al Paraiso and New York’s Carlyle—sits amid mangroves, ferns, and palms on the banks of pristine limestone canals fed by underground rivers and springs. And Sense is on its own island, its 12 treatment pavilions arranged around a cenote, or spring-fed pool, and the cavernous locker rooms fitted out with saunas, steam baths, and rainfall showers. The island’s eight two-story suites, done in local cream-colored marble and dark-stained sapote wood, have private treatment rooms. But their real distinguishing feature is the window walls that cant out over the canals, giving spectacular views.
Sense aspires to pamper as expertly as any retreat in Asia, its great advantage for Americans the easy accessibility. And like Sense’s Eastern counterparts, it too takes advantage of its surroundings, adapting the traditional therapeutic rituals of the area’s Mayan people, especially their use of the Yucatán’s ubiquitous and diverse vegetation.
“Mexico has loads to work with,” says Emma Darby, Sense’s director, who arrived here after spending more than a decade running spas around the world, most recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain. “The spirituality, the gods, the rituals, the sensual elements, the use of healing herbs—you don’t have that everywhere.”
Such local traditions date back to the ancient Maya, who lived in Central America from 1500 B.C. and created one of the most sophisticated civilizations on the planet. They continued to thrive in the Yucatán until the 16th century. Today some two million still live between eastern Mexico and Guatemala. And they know what they’re doing when it comes to using the natural world to heal themselves. “When people have been working with plants for three thousand years, they have all sorts of uses for them,” says Scott Atran, who has studied the Maya extensively and is the director of research in anthropology at Paris’s National Center for Scientific Research. Cortisone-based plants are used in infusions to treat stress and sexual impotence. Mahogany bark fights foot fungi, and tropical cedar bark is a weapon against malaria. A community’s ahmen, or medicine man, would prescribe these herbs, and as healing practices were entirely wrapped up in religious rituals and spirituality, he also led prayers and chants to rid the body of impurities.
With this in mind Darby has, since her arrival in July, focused attention on the local, taking inspiration from the Mayan pantheon, and she’s integrated herbs like rosemary and eucalyptus; fruits like papaya and lime; and vegetables like chaya, a sort of Mexican spinach (all this while still managing to use products from Carita, a sought-after European brand).
Take the Mayakoba Ancient massage, for example, which Darby adapted from a technique she was taught by local Maya. It begins with the burning of incense—dried resin from the copal tree, which has a smoky, piney scent—and meditation. Two therapists then perform the synchronized treatment, using strokes meant to mimic the movements of snakes, jaguars, and eagles. Or the Mayakoba Complete body therapy, with local chocolate used first in an herbal body scrub and then in a soothing warm mask. Or the Detox Enzyme wrap, which starts with a refreshing papaya and pineapple exfoliating scrub.
In the temazcal, a kind of domed sweat lodge made of unbaked roughly cut gray-clay bricks, volcanic rocks heated over burning wood raise the temperature inside to 104 degrees, and herbed water is poured over the rocks to create fragrant steam. The Maya used these domes as sacred places of purification or symbolic rebirth. Here, the hour-long experience, guided by a temazcalero and conducted completely in the dark, might encourage guests to reconnect with past lives, face fears, or simply sweat out a host of more earthly toxins, including whatever they may have sampled from the resort’s wine list.
And, yes, there is a wine list here—and even organic cocktails on the menu at Itzamná, the spa café—because this hotel is no Canyon Ranch or Chiva-Som. The spa is just one part of a comprehensive resort where pleasure is paramount.
Conch, octopus, and grouper, fished right off the coast, as well as less wholesome delights, like tequilas and chunky guacamole, are basics at the hotel’s four restaurants. And the three pools—one at the spa, one by the lobby, and another at the beach—are more for lounging and dipping than anything lap-related. The eight spa suites might be the ultimate accommodation, but the most popular bungalows are those built farthest from Sense and closest to the coast. (Mexican law allows only a fraction of a new hotel’s construction to sit on the water.) These 17 beachfront suites open directly onto the sand and the Caribbean beyond.
As much as the food, the rooms, and the spa, though, it’s the service here—achieved with a certain Mexican gusto and generosity—that impresses. Upon arrival, a charming little boat glides guests through the canals to their rooms for check-in; ever after, speedy golf carts chauffeur them around the property. We couldn’t leave our suite without returning to find a warm bubble bath drawn, clothes and newspapers refolded and neatly arranged, sunglasses poised on a nightstand, a tiny package of eyeglass cleanser tucked just in front of them. Nice.
Rates at Rosewood Mayakoba range from $790 to $8,500 in high season (late December to May). Spa suites run from $1,650 to $1,850, and treatments from $85 to $895 (888-7673-9663; www.rosewoodmayakoba.com).
The Best of the Riviera
Banyan Tree Mayakoba
When this 132-villa resort opens in March as the company’s first venture in the Western Hemisphere, its pagoda-inspired architecture, four international restaurants, and, most of all, 16-treatment-pavilion spa will officially bring a strong Eastern sensibility to the region. (Compared with the Riviera’s other spas, this one will incorporate less in the way of Mexican and Mayan elements.) The company has sent 15 Thai therapists, trained at its Phuket spa academy, to Mayakoba, where they will tutor locals in the classic Banyan Tree treatments and also treat guests themselves. The massages, facials, scrubs, and wraps pull from Thai, Indonesian, and Indian traditions, among others. The spa’s greatest innovation is the Rainforest Trail hydrothermal experience, which comprises eight hot and cold wet elements—rain-mist showers, an aromatic steam room, a Finnish sauna, and an ice fountain. Every suite on the property has a garden, a patio, and a large infinity pool (some even have an outdoor bathtub), and the rooms combine Mexican and Asian design motifs, like hand-painted ceramic sink basins and raw-silk wallcoverings, rather seamlessly. From $1,680 to $10,600; 800-591-0439; www.banyantreemayakoba.com.
Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya
The year-old Mandarin Oriental opened around the same timeas Rosewood, just north of Mayakoba and on a similarly narrow strip of land leading from the beach through mangroves and jungle. The two properties look and feel very different, however. The Mandarin Oriental gives off a certain chic Miami or Los Angeles vibe with the Eastern minimalism of its 128 coolly sleek—but comfortable—white stucco bungalows contrasting markedly with Rosewood’s warmer, more Mexican touches. Spa director Clive McNish joined the hotel after opening the spas at the Four Seasons hotels in Provence and Hampshire, England, and here he’s uncovered a variety of local and locally inspired treatments: herbal scrubs with plants selected for each client and picked from an on-site garden, and an abdominal massage technique called na lu’um, which aids in digestion and can ease back pain. Efren Flores, a Mayan shaman, leads the hour-long temazcal ritual here (don’t be alarmed by the puma pelt he wears), which involves chanting, deep breathing, and the shouting of personal affirmations such as “I am in control of my own destiny!” and “I take responsibility for my actions!” It may be a bit theatrical for some jaded urbanites but is no doubt cathartic for others. From $695 to $15,000; 800-526-6566; www.mandarinoriental.com.
Maroma Resort and Spa
Unlike newer hotels on the Riviera Maya, this 13-year-old 65-room Orient-Express resort opened before the government limited beachfront development, and the result is a complex that hugs the coast, with every room just a short walk to the surf. The Kinan spa here has some of the more traditional treatments in the area—among them a mud massage, and a purifying and detoxifying body scrub that uses corn, cucumber, and tamarind—and the look of the spa matches, with a soaring palapa lobby linedin stones carved with a stylized image of an animal. (Butterflies, the Mayan symbol of transformation, mark the central path.) The locker rooms are smaller and drabber than they are at more recently opened hotels—no capacious steam rooms and saunas—but the nine treatment suites are smartly appointed. The new spa director, Alejandro Leo, a Yucatecan who also consulted for Rosewood, arrived last June and debuts a new menu this month. There’s also a med spa offering Botox and other injectables and wellness services that combine spa treatments, nutritional counseling, and yoga or Pilates into programs lasting as long as 12 days. Although Nancy Aguilar, who leads the beachfront temazcal ceremony every afternoon at five, is quite maternal (“Remember, in here the past does not exist, the future is a mystery, and the present is a gift”), the ritual itself is no less hot and dark than it is elsewhere. From $545 to $2,550; 866-454-9351; www.maromahotel.com.