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Cancun & Playa del Carmen
The Mexican Mayan Riviera
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Cancun Area Map
New York, NY - The Mexican Mayan Riviera is, in short, a public relation dream of a name. One might think, when mulling over sexy, glitzy, romantic, star power, of the French or Italian Riviera, but here, in Mexico, is a formidable challenger that is all about the sand, sun and swimming as well as the necessary fourth "s," sex. First and foremost, let?s get the geography lesson out of the way; Quintana Roo is a state in Southeastern Mexico on the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula with a population of 1,135,000 million. The Caribbean Sea is to the east and the nation of Belize is to the south. If the name Quintana Roo is not familiar, look at some of the cities contained within the state; Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel enhanced further by the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Ichpaatan, Xcaret and world famous Chichen Itza.

In the late 1960?s the Mexican government built the city of Cancun from a small fishing village to attract more American tourists to the area. Recent figures showed over 4 million visitors annually despite a brief hiatus brought on October 23rd 2005 by a Category 5 hurricane named Wilma, which made landfall on the island of Cozumel. It then at stationery over the area for several days with winds as high as 125 MPH. Not conducive for vacationing.

For five days in May of 2007 I traveled to Cancun and Playa del Carmen to see how the area had responded. Most of the hotels were remodeled and reopened within a year and new construction was everywhere. The hotel zone in Cancun (28,000 rooms- the largest number in Mexico) has condos and resorts on every inch of space facing the Caribbean, plus over 2,000 stores waiting for the Kamikaze shoppers from the States. On the island side is Laguna Nichupte with marinas, restaurants, shopping malls, two golf courses (there are 8 in the Cancun area, plus 5 more under construction) and a few islands. There is only one road so you can?t get lost if you opt to drive rather than hailing a cab or getting in you daily Constitutional to and from. Southbound heads to the airport, which is the second busiest in Mexico, after Mexico City where Continental, Delta, American, Jet Blue, ATA, US Airway, Northwest and Aero Mexico all fly in from New York City.

Cancun from boat
Water view of the Hotel Zone in Cancun.
The Hotel Zone spans approximately 16 miles with northbound heading to downtown. The "Party Zone" is half-way between the Hotel Zone and downtown and it is filled with nightclubs and discos. You can opt for a taxi from your hotel but the buses cost only 55 cents and seem to run every minute. Considering the exchange rate and having seen too many movies about Mexico and buses, I would suggest, and urge, a cab. Pick a time and he will pick you up as well. There are several smaller flea markets and large shopping malls within a mile of the Hotel Zone but everyone seems to carry the same things with similar prices which means you select the closest one and go to it.

Visualize, if you will, the condos & hotels of Miami Beach or San Juan, picture-perfect weather, and skipping the peak of the hurricane season, which is September into November. That done, you are on your way. You can book tours to the Mayan ruins, enjoy fantastic golf, swimming with the dolphins, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and more on your own or by contacting a group such as Best Day Tours, accommodating, pleasant and not pricey. They were there upon arrival at the airport, took me to my hotel, and brought me to Aqua World where I spent an hour on the Yellow Submarine (viewing coral and fish underwater) along Palancar Reef, the 2nd largest coral reef in the world. They also drove me to my hotel in Playa del Carmen in less than an hour; arranged a tour there and returned me to the Cancun airport for my flight home. I found them very reliable and, coincidentally, the company is owned by the same people who own the Real Resorts, where I stayed so, yes, they were especially helpful.

Royal Playa del Carmen Pool
Royal Playa del Carmen Pool
Fernando Garcia Zalvidea started Best Day Tours in 1984 and, in 1989, bought an old hotel that was the beginning of what is, today, his personal fortune and empire. As luck, and some planning, would have it, I chose to stay at The Royal in Cancun (opened in February 2007) and then The Royal in Playa del Carmen (opened October 2005). Both are absolutely deluxe resorts...all suite, all adult and all inclusive and just about "all everything." If you are thinking family, the Royal properties do not accept children under 16, while the Gran Caribe & Gran Porto both allow children of any age. What was particularly noticeable was that, in my personal estimate, about half The Royal guests seemed to be honeymooners or young couples while the other half were what would loosely be termed "senior citizens." Not ready for the home by any stretch of the imagination but certainly in the over 50 category.

My Royal Junior Suite, like 80% of the 285 The Royal in Cancun rooms, faced the Caribbean and had a double Jacuzzi tub so make sure you ask for one. If and when you get to The Royal in Playa del Carmen, with its 459 junior suites,ask for one facing the pool area - nice view, very nice. Unlike most hotels around the world, the rum, vodka, tequila, soft drinks and snacks in the mini-bar are included. Believe me, I asked about that many times, just to be sure I was given the proper information. Further, and much to my liking, as it will be to yours, three gourmet meals with vintage house wines and all services charges and taxes are included so confirm that when making your reservations.

Royal Cancun
View from the author's room at the Royal Cancun.
The fitness center, sauna, Jacuzzis and steam room in the Spa are also part of the all-inclusive, as are theme nights, live shows and non-motorized water sports. So, while you want to call to make plans right now, as seems inevitable and practical, read on for a bit more and then go for it.

If you want a Mayan inspired spa treatment or wines from their 127 selection wine & champagne list there is, indeed, an extra charge. Still, this presents one of the better all-inclusive vacations you will ever experience and, as with all good things, there is an inevitable and expected limit. Additionally, in the 5-Star categories are the Gran Caribe Real in Cancun and the Gran Porto Real in Playa. After Hurricane Wilma, Fernando used part of his next door Grand Caribe Real land to build an all new The Royal in Cancun with The Gran property in Playa located directly across the street so it seems that there are enough tourists coming to Cancun to fill all the properties on a regular basis...deservedly so from what I experienced.

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  • Taking some time off from the all-inclusive aspect of my journey, I take some time to dine on the Gran Caribe property at Salute. The first Salute opened in Mexico City five years ago and then came another in Cancun, December 2006. I can easily encourage you to take the time to dine there and, in so doing, try their Mango Margarita to accompany an absolutely delightful repast from the menus. Back at the Royal you will be able to choose from Japanese, French-Mexican, the casual coffee shop, poolside restaurant or a 24-hour lounge with a pool table, table tennis, snacks, several TV?s and a selection of drinks for absolute relaxation.

    How much does all of this cost? Funny you should ask. Depending upon season, a Royal Junior Suite rack rate would be between $240 and $350 per person, all inclusive and be aware that there are all sorts of incentive pricing available so keep asking lots of questions.

    Xcaret Show
    Xcaret Show in Playa del Carmen
    Less than an hour south of Cancun you will discover the Mexican Mayan Riviera where Playa (del Carmen) was established by Europeans from Germany, Switzerland and, especially, Italy some time ago. The lifestyle is slower with beaches, surf, coral reefs, scuba, jet skiing, windsurfing and a pedestrian street named Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) with a mixture of shops, bars and restaurants. With a population of 60,000 there are fewer large hotels and the atmosphere is definitely more laid back. The island of Cozumel can be reached from the ferry dock in Playa in less than 45 minutes. That same 45 minutes will take you to Talum and Coha which reflect the Mayan period of 1200-1520AD and really must be seen to be appreciated. Great photo opps here. They draw over 2 million visitors a year (the most visited of Mexico?s archaeological sites) and were actually "rediscovered" in 1842 by archeologists. Hurricane Emily hit Playa in July 2005 and. while doing considerable damage. did not destroy the entire city, as was the case in Cancun. It is worth spending, as I did, an afternoon and/or evening at Xcaret, which is about 15 minutes from the hotel. For $60 you can get an all day pass or, for $43, just experience the two hour evening extravaganza (the history of Mexico with over 200 performers). I spent 3 hours walking through Mayan Village, along the jungle trail, through wildlife, underground rivers, through an Aquarium and several other shows. Bring your Nikes or Reeboks and do the same. It is worth and you can go snorkeling, scuba diving, or swim with dolphins but all of that has an extra charge attached to it.

    Different cities with varying attractions but you will be able to coordinate and visit both if you take a few moments to plan accordingly. I suggest that you do it.

    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to or email him at