Maarten | On 08, Dec 2013
First assignment: Cancun
This is a long read. It’s a detailed, personal and idiosyncratic report of a trip to Cancun to write a story for The Toronto Star. If you just want the good stuff, read the Star article.
After writing freelance tech articles for The Star for many years, a few weeks ago my editor was asked if I would write a “Sun Destinations” piece about Cancun. Of course. The trip was sponsored entirely by Paradisus Cancun. I’ll try to be subjective.
Cancun’s long wide sandy beach and turquoise waters are an ideal spot to enjoy warm and sunny days while it’s cold in Canada. It’s my third trip in as many years. We’re typically confined to travelling during the March School Break, an expensive and crowded time to leave Toronto. It’s not as busy in November.
For us, Mexico is easy to get to, relatively inexpensive and offers a wide range of experiences. You may wonder if Mexico is safe, in my experience it certainly is. But read my colleague Paul Marshman’s longer report.
To summarize this trip: Whatever draws you to Cancun, there is more to discover. And if you have eaten well in the past, you can eat even better. All-inclusives aren’t all the same and they’re not what they used to be.
It’s the first time that I’m emerging from an airport and looking for a sign with my name. When I find the driver he whisks me off to the Paradisus Cancun, where several staff members greet me, handing me water and escorting me to the Royal Service check-in. I’m introduced to more people than I can keep track of.
I’m handed another refreshing beverage, a chic wooden charm wristband is applied, I’m introduced to my butler Juan, and given a cell phone to contact him. Juan takes me to my room, explains the features and offers to unpack my suitcase. I decline. He offers to reserve a bali bed by the pool tomorrow, but sadly I’m already committed. I’m only here for two days – then off to Paradisus Playa del Carmen.
My meals are already reserved. I’m failing Juan – I’m a terrible butlee(?), I just don’t know how to be butled(?). The concept is pleasant, but I’m not sure it’s me.
Five Hotels in One
It’s a great room, with a balcony view of the ocean. It’s on a lower floor, which means a larger room in this pyramid where rooms get progressively smaller as you go up, except of course for the Presidential Suite on the top floor. Wait, this is a suite – there’s the living room with another longer and nicer balcony diagonally facing the ocean and the resort’s pool complex. Then, there’s a third room – a second bathroom with shower and two sinks. It’s really more like a complex of my own.
The fridge is well-stocked and Juan promises to keep it refreshed, or to swap out beverages I don’t like for ones I do. All inclusives may have limitations, but there are none here. In addition to the Mugler toiletry products, the bathroom has cotton buds, razor, shave cream, toothbrush and toothpaste – these are not the usual amenities. I can’t imagine what the sign that offers to provide anything you might have forgotten would refer to. Styptic pencil? Eyeliner?
I snack on the fruit that’s been provided to welcome me, self unpack and change out of my airplane clothes into resort-ware. While changing, I sip a Nespresso coffee from the machine in the room. Nice!
Jorge, the resort’s community manager, takes me on a tour of the huge five-pyramid complex that comprises five different hotels, a total of 800 rooms. I could go into detail, but it’s all on their web site. There’s one for regular guests, one for adults only, a luxury adults-only (The Royal Service area that I’m in), a luxury family resort (with a concierge instead of a butler) and the timeshare.
Not the all-inclusive I expected
I’m not a fan of all-inclusives, primarily for meals – lineups at repetitive buffets filled with carbs but short on fruits and vegetables. And then, I don’t really drink very much. This is an all-inclusive, but for people like me who don’t like all-inclusives. When I think all-inclusive I think limitations. Not here, in addition to my self-serve fridge, the Royal Service lounge area has a self-serve bar with premium label brands and a variety of tasty snacks.
Although there is one restaurant that offers a buffet (Naos), the rest are a-la-carte. I won’t be here long enough to try them all, but judging from the setting and the menus, I’d be happy to sample any of them. And bars galore – I’m afraid I don’t drink enough to take advantage in my few days here. There’s a spa with a gym – there are spin and yoga classes available. There’s a pink-coloured little spa for girls.
The pool complex is huge, from the Royal Service area at one end to the Family Concierge at the other. The beachfront is equally long. Lots of loungers and bali beds.
The hotel’s interiors are filled with hanging greenery from the balconies. It feels like we’re in a rain forest. The Royal Service lounge area in the atrium of the Royal Service Pyramid is built over ponds with large koi. The main pyramid’s multi-level atrium is filled with restaurants and bars set in gardens and ponds. There’s a “pagoda” which houses Bana – an Asian fusion restaurant that promises both western and eastern-style sushi. It all appears well maintained, appealing and inviting.
Each area of the resort has a distinctive fragrance. Jorge says there’s a sensorial architect who’s in charge of the hotel’s scents and looks. There are different looks and scents for the day and the evening. I’m very pleasantly whelmed.
I’ve also noted that the various restaurants have dress codes from Pure Freedom (beach wear with shoes and coverup), Chill Casual (T-shirts, jeans, shoes required), Resort Casual (Like Chill but no “shirts with logo”), Elegant (long sleeved shirts and closed shoes – no shorts, jeans, sneakers or T-shirt with logo) and Elegant Resort (Resort but with a collared shirt). I note that the only location requiring Elegant Resort is the Red Lounge. It’s a little confusing, and I suspect that the dress code is mostly left to discretion.
From Gran Melia to Paradisus
Jorge introduces me to Conrad, the hotel’s managing director. Conrad explains that the hotel has been part of the Melia hotel chain since it was built 20 years ago. It was re-branded from Gran Melia to Paradisus last year. As a seventeen-year veteran in the hospitality industry, he’s leading the hotel’s transformation to adapt to the changing needs of travellers, who he says are increasingly more sophisticated with more discerning tastes. (I think of course, he’s talking about me.)
The rebrand and accompanying service changes are making the hotel more modern and more youthful. As a result, he says that service levels have increased and there’s more attention to small details that build to a complete experience. There’s a daily meeting to review customer feedback, both from survey forms and Tripadvisor.
Mexican Dinner at Mole
I settle on Mole – the Mexican restaurant – for dinner. I change into Resort Casual and head down. It’s a large space, but broken up into smaller rooms with appropriate décor. I’m enjoying the view of the pools and beach when my waiter Joel brings the margarita sampler – kiwi, hibiscus and traditional lime. I decide I like all three.
As I sample, the bartender brings over the margarita cart to whip up some more samples – the margarita macho (very spicy, with a huge Serrano pepper) and the petrolio (with Maggi Jugo sauce – not my favourite). There was a third, which came in two glasses, one with tequila, one with sangria and I wrote “margarita recho means striped” which makes no sense now. I may have oversampled.
I’ve been snacking on tortilla chips and a tasty selection of salsas. The habanera salsa is my favourite. I start to understand the margarita’s role to cleanse and calm the palate. I have a whole new appreciation of tequila, salt and lime. I’m ready to order dinner.
I’m looking for something light and accept Joel’s suggestions for appetizer and main. I choose a Chilean wine from the iPad wine list. Joel brings a Yucatan style ceviche, prepared with coriander, lemon and salt. As I savour the fresh flavours of the shrimp and the fish, I wonder if I’ve ever really had ceviche before – clearly, this is what it should taste like. The ceviche is accompanied by quesadillas made with pumpkin and zucchini flour. I honestly would never have ordered these, but they’re unexpectedly light and flavourful.
The main, shrimp sautéed in a tequila and orange sauce that accents rather than overpowers, is delectable. The accompanying vegetables, especially the mini corn, are particularly yummy with sweet dairy and vanilla flavours or maybe there’s something else I’m not identifying properly.
For dessert the waiter brings a red fruit compote in a sugar waffle dish with sweet chilaquiles and goat cheese ice cream. Afterwards Joel and Carol (the hostess) bring a selection of Mexican sweets.
Conrad is right about the attention to detail – from the presentation to the service, the setting, the décor – this is an experience that’s far from all-inclusive or chain dining. From my experience, it’s not much different from several excellent Mexican restaurants I’ve been to in Cancun, but if it is, it’s better.
Back in the room, I realize that I’ve been slow to discover the safe’s powerplug. Perfect for charging your tech valuables while you’re out, and great attention to detail. I’m in my pajamas and asleep in seconds.
Breakfast and Biking
The next day I’m up early for a bike tour. Juan and Jorge have arranged for a room service breakfast that arrives at the appointed time and is exactly what I need to get my day started. Fruit, yogurt, granola and orange juice. I shower and dry off with a towel that seems old and scratchy – if it was at my home, I’d replace it.
Cancun’s Mayan Museum
I shower when I return and realize that I’ve scraped my leg on the ride. I contemplate calling Juan, but realize that if I go to the Royal Service concierge desk myself I can pick up a beverage and a snack on my way past the bar. I show the wound to Natalie at the desk and she quickly finds someone to tend to my leg with antiseptic. We agree that a bandage is not needed, but just in case I’m given a couple.
I finish my beverage and it’s off to Cancun’s new Mayan Museum – a short walk from the Paradisus.
It opened last year and is a striking white building, architected by Mexico’s Alberto Garcia Lascuráin. The complex has several halls on the ground level and several more on a second level, sheltering courtyards below. The grounds also contain the San Miguelito ruin, which closed before my guide Erika and I get to it. She describes it as a pleasant walk through a secluded forest – which is literally yards away from the beach in one direction and Boulevard Kukulkan, the main hotel zone road, in the other. The ruins are a minor attraction.
Before we go upstairs, I’m intrigued by a display of colourful catrinas – clothed skeletons – to honour the day of the dead at the beginning of November. They’re the work of schools and artists in the local community. A historian stops to chat about the origin and the practice of making these dolls. The varied styles of the catrinas display a wide range of approaches and an imaginative creativity that really captures my attention.
Upstairs, there are two large exhibit halls – one with Mayan artifacts from many regions, a second with artifacts from the local Quintana Roo area/state. The recently unearthed 10,000-year-old fossilized remains of “La Mujer de las Palmas” are displayed along with tools from the period.
Although not all displays are translated into English, it only takes a rudimentary understanding of Spanish to understand. If you’ve been disappointed after visiting one of the archaeological sites in the Yucatan, you’ll be impressed by the quality of these pieces.
I return to Paradisus in time for my appointment at the Yhi (pronounced chi) spa. In an uncharacteristic lapse, I’m given a robe that has seen better days. We go to a cabin in the middle of one of the pyramids. It’s dark, there’s running water, soothing music, and occasionally a child yells out somewhere in the distance. The masseuse’s hands are warm and relieve all the remaining muscular sensations in my shoulders from the bike ride. I wish for statis, but the universe continues to unfold as it should.
I return to my room to change for dinner and find that the towels have already been replaced from my shower. It’s impressive, but I did hang them up, following the instructions to be environmentally friendly. I mentally change my rating from 5 stars to 4.98.
Tempo by Martin Berasategui
Juan escorts me back to my room to change, and waits to take me to Tempo. This is the dining experience I’ve been waiting for. Chef Martin Berasategui has partnered with Melia/Paradisus and opened restaurants in several resorts. His restaurant in the Basque region of Spain has earned a Michelin three star rating. His location in Barcelona has two stars, in Tenerife one, making him Spain’s most Michelin-decorated chef.
This is the one restaurant that’s not part of the all-inclusive. And although hotel guests are given preference, it is open to those not staying at the Paradisus.
Joining me for dinner is Fred, the resort’s operations manager. After reviewing the a-la-carte menu, I opt for the seven-course tasting menu with accompanying wine pairing. Anticipation is high, as I’ve been doing my research on Berasategui and I like what I’ve read.
Fred asks for a dinner without mushrooms, which is noted and gracefully accommodated with alternate preparations and substitutes. There are three appetizers, two mains (fish and meat) and two desserts. I’m going to summarize: the plates set before me reveal new subtleties and new complexities in dishes that although not unfamiliar, I’ve never experienced like this. Fred and I are silent as we enjoy every bite.
There are two worth detailing – Tomato stuffed with baby squid with light leek soup and truffle oil, and the baked sea bass with broccoli and cauliflower puree, and a black squid ink rice chip. Both provide a revelation of contrasts and complements in taste and texture.
The wine pairings are suitable and enjoyable, but not outstanding.
The chef drops by and he tells me that he trained with Berasategui in Spain. While the menu is prepared with Berasategui, many day-to-day decisions are made when the availability and quality of fresh ingredients is known. Clearly, he’s not just following orders, but bringing his own expertise to the table. I appreciate that.
In the morning I’m off to the Paradisus Playa del Carmen, so I pack my suitcase myself, even though I know Juan would be happy to. I leaf through the English section of the hotel’s guidebook, which is full of amusing and confusing translations. In the section describing the golf course: “Do not worry about bringing your team, here you can rent it.” I guess that club has two meanings in Spanish just like in English.
I get up early to have a sunrise stroll along the beach – my favourite part of a trip to Cancun. It’s a wide, white sandy beach, that’s easily 20 kilometres long. Facing east, it’s the sunrise, not the sunset, that’s over the water. They’re usually pretty spectacular. It’s worth noting that WiFi is included, and works well throughout the hotel.
Conrad, Jorge and Sandra join me for breakfast at Naos. We could go to the buffet, but we order at the table. I tell Conrad about the translations, and both he and Sandra are mortified – by the time I check out they’re already working on fixing the problem.
Of course, you may wonder if a travel writer, especially one who’s dining with members of the hotel’s executive team gets better treatment than the average guest. Conrad, Jorge, Fred and other team members insist I’ve been treated the same as other Royal Guests. I verify this by chatting with other guests. Everyone is very impressed and completely satisfied with the experience.
Final rating: 4.97. I’m happy to return at the earliest convenience.