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Old Apr 16, 10, 3:16 pm
Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Asheville, NC
Programs: Virtuoso, FSPP, STARS, MO FAN Club, PEN Club, Bellini Club, Dorchester Diamond Club, Travel Leaders
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Luxury hotels of the Riviera Maya

The Riviera Maya is located south of Cancun, Mexico and is a vacation destination that has been heavily developed in recent years. The area boasts the world’s second largest coral reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) and Mayan cultural sites including Chichén Itzá (whose pyramid is one of the seven wonders of the modern world) and Tulum (an ancient Mayan seaside city).

There are dozens of resorts that offer vacations at various price points. This report will focus on seven Virtuoso properties (plus Banyan Tree Mayakoba) that I inspected during my recent trip. I did not bother to visit Tides Riviera Maya based on an extremely negative experience one FT member reported last summer (and corroborated by a former sales manger who told me of their marked decline in quality), nor did I see the Ritz-Carlton Cancun.

We spent three nights at Rosewood Mayakoba and are in the midst of four nights at Maroma.


Maroma is a romantic resort on a beautiful, wide beach. The property’s original building was a Spanish style hacienda purchased by Orient-Express and developed into a small resort. With only 80 rooms set across 200 acres, Maroma has an authentic Mexican feel, and the property is lushly landscaped.

Maroma provides each guest with one complimentary snorkeling outing to the second largest coral reef in the world. Departing at 11 a.m., we were the only two guests on that boat the day. We spent 45 minutes in a section of the reef with lots of colorful tropical fish, and our guide pointed out some sea creatures we would otherwise have missed - a giant starfish, a Morey eel, and a sting ray.

We spent four nights in a second floor Ocean View room. After staying at Rosewood in a large suite, our room was small by comparison, but by the second night, we fully enjoyed the spacious room! A large balcony with sofa and two chairs overlooks the beach and pool. My only complaint with the room is that the bathroom provides only a single vanity. The shower was set in a large tiled bathtub; although I prefer separate step-in showers, this was perfectly acceptable.

Junior Suites (there are four on property) are larger than Ocean View rooms. This room category has everything I would want in a room —direct beach and ocean view; a large terrace from which to enjoy it (pictured above); and a large bathroom with dual vanities, step-in shower, and a tile soaking tub. The upgrade path goes from Jr. Suite to Master Suite and One Bedroom Suite, the latter being a remarkable room with a large patio overlooking the beach, a large sitting area, a circular bedroom, your own exercise room, a large bathroom, and a private plunge pool.

The entry level Garden Room was a bit small and dark as it faces the property’s lush landscaping. I would book the Ocean View category at a minimum, but the Junior Suite I was shown is what I would recommend for most guests.

Orient Express properties have the flavor of older, more traditional resorts, and Maroma is a good choice for guests seeking this kind of accommodations. Guests looking for contemporary rooms with flat screen TVs and all the latest amenities will be happier with other choices.


Esencia is located halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, about 1:15 hr. south of Cancun. Originally the summer estate of an Italian duchess (who still visits each summer for her birthday) — the main building was built 25 years ago. Esencia is a 50 acre secluded resort that opened four years ago with just 29 rooms set on a wide, sandy beach in a protected cove.

The resort’s entrance is discrete, in marked contrast to the huge gates fronting most Riviera Maya properties. Had our driver not known where it was, it would have been very easy to miss the white gravel driveway into Esencia.

We were shown two rooms, an Ocean Suite and a Garden Suite, whose layout reminds me of Amansara. The aesthetic is simple, elegant, but more starkly minimalist than many will prefer. Furniture in the bedrooms is arranged symmetrically with the King bed centered on the back wall, a step-down living room (in Suites) with a sofa centered in that space, glass doorways centered on the opposite wall opening onto a balcony with a view of the pool and the beach beyond.

As there are limited numbers of ocean view rooms and suites, getting upgraded from a Garden room or suite would be difficult. In my view, Esencia is all about the beach and pool, so I would recommend the oceanview room categories.

We enjoyed a wonderful light lunch by the pool and also visited Esencia’s unique spa. Built in a Mayan style, it uses organic herbs grown on property for the various treatments.


First, a word about the Mayakoba complex of resorts. This is a massive development of resorts owned by a single Spanish owner who contracted with four outside hotel management companies — Rosewood, Fairmont, Banyan Tree, and Viceroy — to design and run four resorts within the complex. The centerpiece of Mayakoba is an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Greg Norman; the course hosts the annual Mayakoba Classic, a PGA event.

Guests at any of the Mayakoba resorts have charge privileges at all of the others, so that you can take advantage of those hotels’ restaurants, spa facilities, and shops. Each hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service that will take you to the other resorts upon request. However, all share a common weakness — only 10% of the complex is beachfront, meaning that most guests are staying at least half a mile from the beach. Although the resorts provide golf carts that constantly run to and from the beach, I don’t understand the attraction of going to a tropical beach destination, not being able to see the ocean from your room, and being a 15-minute walk (or more) from the beach under the hot tropical sun.

This being said, here are my impressions of the resorts that I inspected.


We spent three nights in a Deluxe Overwater Lagoon Suite, an extremely spacious 1 BR Suite. To the right of the entry area is the bedroom and a large bathroom beyond it. To the left of the entrance is a large living room that opens onto an outdoor deck equipped with two chairs, a lounger, and small plunge pool. The suite has two flat screen TVs, and the large bathroom has two separate vanities, a large soaking tub, step-in shower, and a separate outdoor shower. (All rooms at the Rosewood have dual vanities and separate tub and step-in shower).

I was impressed with the level of service during my stay. If you leave your eyeglasses or sunglasses on a table in the room, housekeeping will place a packet with an eyeglass cleaning towelette by them. I once left the paperback book I was reading on the sofa, and housekeeping inserted a bookmark at the open page. Complimentary snorkeling excursions are offered, and complimentary bottled water was also provided everywhere upon request.

The Deluxe Lagoon Suite is a spacious and more economical option. Though smaller in terms of square footage (it is an Executive Suite rather than a full 1 BR Suite), it is quite spacious with a very good room layout. Additionally, there is a lounge area with private plunge pool on the roof of the suite.

This being said, my recommendation is to book a room by the beach. The Beachfront Suite (with the same guestroom configuration as the lead-in Lagoon Room) is an attractive guestroom from which you can step right onto the beach. Across the cart path from the Beachfront Suites are the Beachside Lagoon View Suites (ground floor) and Beachside Ocean View Suites (second floor). These room categories have floorplans similar to the Deluxe Lagoon Suites (executive suites).

The food was excellent at the Rosewood, with a creative breakfast menu and buffet that is complimentary with Virtuoso bookings. We also enjoyed the casual Mexican dining options for lunch and dinner at the Beach Club; you can have a good and economical meal by ordering three tapas per person.


Visually stunning (but not Virtuoso), Banyan Tree Mayakoba brings an Asian aesthetic to Mexico’s Riviera Maya. That is both its best feature (for some) and its worst (for others). The architecture of the resort and interior design of the rooms do not offer much of a local touch.

The suites are stunning. Lead-in Garden Pool Villas have a large pool (35.5 sqm) in the suite’s private courtyard and a large bedroom with a large bath. There is also an outdoor sitting area in the suite’s courtyard.

Courtyard Pool Villas are larger with wider swimming pools (41 sqm) and a separate living room on the other side of the courtyard

Above all, this resort stresses privacy. Each of the 132 suites provides a private pool (not a tiny plunge pool but a pool large enough to swim laps in). Bear in mind that square footage numbers provided by Banyan Tree include the area of the outdoor courtyard in addition to interior space.

We had dinner at Tamarind, one of Banyan Tree’s restaurants, and were somewhat disappointed. Food was a bit bland, my fish was slightly overcooked, and I felt that my dinner was not worth the prices charged.


A large resort, the Fairmont Mayakoba is a property worth considering for families with children. The large central swimming pool has a water slide (kids only, no adults!), and the resort offers three hours of complimentary Kids Club activities per child per day.

Lead-in Fairmont Rooms are a comfortable 480 square feet with a lot of livable space. These are located in the “hotel” part of the resort, near the lobby and convention facilities, and are best suited for convention groups.

Deluxe Casitas (506 sq. ft) are located in the central area of the property, around the pools, and offer a jungle view; upgraded Signature Rooms are identical in layout with a canal view. Rooms have amenities and a look-and-feel typical of Fairmont hotel rooms, although all bathrooms do offer dual vanities and separate tub and step-in shower.

For a real WOW, consider one of two Presidential Suites with a Master Bedroom connecting to a double-double room. The living room has a perfect view of the beach, and the Master Bedroom looks out onto a patio with the fetching view of a hammock framing the beach beyond.


The Mandarin Oriental is another new resort, just north of the Mayakoba complex. The property has 128 rooms stretching between the lobby and the beach (a distance of one mile — golf carts are continually available to shuttle guests to and from the beach.

Rooms in each category (Cenote, Ribera, Selva, Laguna, Palafito, and Beachfront) come in Deluxe and Premier varieties. First floor rooms are larger and are generally designated as Premier ... except for the Palafito Room category where the second floor rooms offer a partial ocean view and a rooftop pool with an even better ocean view. Rooms are large and attractively decorated in a contemporary Asian-Mexican fusion style. Bathrooms are also large with double vanities and step-in rain showers in addition to tubs. Some rooms come with outdoor soaking tubs.

Typical of Mandarin Oriental properties, the resort boasts a wonderful spa with a “renewal pool” heated to 89 degrees (which looked really appealing!)


Just south of the Mayakoba complex, Grand Velas was admitted into Virtuoso in February, 2010. An all-inclusive resort, this is a large property with 481 rooms organized into three major classifications — Master Suites, Ambassador Suites, and Grand Class Suites.

Master Suites (1184 sq. ft) are in the wing of the hotel that houses the convention facilities, quite a distance from the beach. Rooms are large Junior Suite-type accommodations with a substantial living area. Bathrooms have dual vanities and step-in showers. There are wooden louvered doors between the soaking tub and the bedroom that can be opened.

Ambassador Suites (1270 sq. ft. - noticeably wider rooms) are by the beach and have a lighter interior scheme. Located in the four-story building that circles the pool, each suite overlooks the beach with an ocean view. This will be the best option for families with young children.

Grand Suites (1377 sq. ft.) are “beach front,” although guests in rooms on floors 2-4 cannot step out onto the beach. Management thinks of this as a small “hotel within the hotel” — just 87 rooms — offering separate check-in. Plunge pools are provided on all four levels. Children under 13 are not permitted in this room category. These suites offer huge bathrooms and Molton Brown amenities.

Virtuoso upgrades apply only within categories (i.e., from suites without plunge pools to suites with plunge pools). You cannot upgrade from Master to Ambassador, or from Ambassador to Grand.

I’m not sure what to think of this property. It’s too large to convey the feeling of a luxury resort, and I have no feedback on their ability to offer guest services. An all-inclusive resort, all meals, the Kids Club, and beverages (including wine and beer but no premium wines and liquors) are included in one price. You’re basically on a cruise on land, with meal options provided throughout the day, including in the evening at the resort’s “signature restaurants” at which reservations are recommended. (I did see the food at a cafeteria-style restaurant open in the mid-afternoon when I visited - a selections of sushi, desserts, pasta dishes, and - among other meat dishes - some beef tenderloins sitting in a hot tray ... they had to be over-done).


Royal Hideway is located in Playa del Carmen in the middle of the action. You can easily walk or take a taxi into town to shop. Their business is divided fairly evenly between leisure, group, and destination weddings. There are 192 standard guest rooms, 6 junior suites, and 2 presidential suites.

Frankly, I would not recommend this resort for most leisure travelers. As the minimum age is 13, it’s not a place to take the kids, and with most guests being comprised of groups, conventions, and weddings, it doesn’t strike me as a resort for a couple’s romantic getaway. While the guest rooms are attractive enough, they don’t say “beach vacation” to me.

An all-inclusive resort, everything is included except premium wines. Meals are served at one of nine restaurants where you order à la carte (reservations are necessary for dinner), and room service is available 24 hours a day. Although described as “gourmet dining options,” I am somewhat dubious about the claim - based on my observations while being walked through a restaurant where guests were having lunch (I could smell one patron’s fish dish from a distance of several feet - and it seemed oily looking).


Where would I would stay if I came back to the Riviera Maya? There is no clear “winner” among this group of eight resorts. To me, the epitome of the ideal tropical resort is Four Seasons Hualalai — a smaller resort right by the beach, up-to-date accommodations, a sense of local flavor, and excellent dining options. To my mind, nothing on the Riviera Maya realizes this ideal in all respects. But this is what comes closest (in my own, subjective opinion — I don’t claim that my answer is the “right” one).

1. Maroma Resort, in a Junior Suite or higher, offers a great beach, beautiful ocean views, and rooms with the feel of Mexico. Food not as good as at Rosewood.

2. Rosewood Mayakoba in a Beachfront Suite offers it all, albeit at a price. Great room, good beach and excellent food. Loses points because the distance between the beach and the front of the resort where the main restaurant and spa is located.

3. Esencia in an Ocean View room or suite offers a great beach and excellent food in a very intimate setting. Some will not like its minimalist styling.

Last edited by DavidO; Apr 16, 10 at 3:40 pm Reason: corrected typos
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