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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fun in the Sun and Great Bargains South of Cancun in Playa del Carmen

To see more photographs of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, please go to the Travel Gallery I posted on the New York Daily News web site.

If you're tired of being rained on or snowed in and you're spending way too much time watching reruns of CSI, now's a good time to think about a vacation someplace sunny and warm.

With Spring Break coming up, if you're researching a Mexican vacation, you have a lot of choices.

Mexico is still recovering from the swine flu scare. As Peter Greenberg reported last year, the fears were overblown and smart travelers should get down to Mexico and take advantage of the great deals offered by resorts. The good news is that with the number of visitors not yet back to pre-scare levels, you can still find great bargains.

THE MAYAN RIVIERA

Easily accessible, the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula has white sand beaches that stretch for hundreds of miles. Located far away from the U.S.-Mexican border, the area has escaped the drug-related violence that has plagued some parts of Mexico. With mild weather between December and May, the peninsula is an attractive destination for tourists who want a taste of Mexico and a good dose of sun and fun.

The Mexican government has been doing its part to lure travelers back to the area. For instance, at the Cancun airport, the government has launched a Tax Back program. If you're shopping at designer stories, you'll pay a VAT (Value Added Tax). Bring your receipts to the airport and you'll be reimbursed for the tax if you spent between $90.00 - $225.00.

While travel to the area is increasing, you'll still find discounts as much as 30% on hotel rates. Resorts compete for customers with offers of free massages, romantic dinners, golfing, snorkeling, and sailing. Wine-paired meals at Chef's Tables, increasingly popular in U.S. restaurants, are also being offered at upscale resorts.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Close to the International Airport, Cancun and Cozumel are popular destinations, although some travelers complain that the area has become over-developed. An alternative is to stay an hour and a half south in Playa del Carmen.

Still relatively small, the town has a sleepy fishing village feeling, albeit one with a gated community of luxury resorts and a Walmart nearby.

In Playa del Carmen, it's easy to arrange for rentals and go scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and paragliding in the crystal clear turquoise water of the Caribbean. Although not officially sanctioned, some beaches nearby allow topless sunbathing. Whether you're fully clothed or not, you'll want to liberally apply sun block to avoid coming home with a lobster-tan.

After weeks of bad weather at home, I happily spent a long weekend at the Five Star, adult-only, all-inclusive, Royal Hideaway Playacar (1-800/999-9182). I appreciated the resort's creature comforts: a poolside bar and restaurant, an infinity pool that looked out over the newly restored white sand beach, 24- hour concierge service, and the basket of fresh fruit in my room that was replenished daily.

ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS

Many resorts in the area offer all-inclusive packages. Like being on a cruise, you won't have to check your wallet every time you look at a menu or think about ordering a cocktail.
A word of warning, though, it's best if you understand what is included in "all-inclusive".

Are there limits on food and beverage consumption? Is everything served in the restaurants included? Doing online research is advisable so you can hear what other travelers have to say about the quality of your resort's restaurants.

At the Royal Hideaway Playacar, all-inclusive means that everything is included. The only exceptions are the specialty wine list and eating at the Chef's Table.

During the day, Spices serves a breakfast buffet with a view of the Caribbean. At lunch Spices and the pool side, open air restaurant, The Deck, have Mexican-themed menus.

In the evening, the resort's culinary skills are on full display. The Japanese food at Azia is very good, especially the fresh-tasting sushi. The space used by the Deck during the day undergoes a Cinderella transformation at night, reappearing as the elegant Grill, serving a Mediterranean menu. Among the many dishes on the menu, the grilled octopus salad with potatoes and parsley is authentically prepared, appropriately so, since the award winning Executive Chef, Raul Vaquerizo, is Spanish.

During our stay we had tastings at the upscale Las Ventanas and the Chef's Table. The exquisitely prepared, wine paired meals are worthy of fine restaurants in Paris, London, New York, or Madrid. An appetizer of scallops with Mole and Coconut Foam shared the plate with a delicate piece of grilled Foie Gras and a velvety creamed Corn Soup. A single ravioli with braised lamb inside luxuriated in a pool of tomato essence.

When it came time for dessert at Las Ventanas, we were treated to a plate of cheeses paired with fruit: Camembert/Strawberries, Goat Cheese/Grapes and Almonds, Aged Parmesan/Kiwi, and Blue Cheese/Green Apple and Honey. But that wasn't all. There was a serving of home made ice creams, sherbets, and macaroons.

Extravagance is the name of the game at the Chef's Table. Ginger ice cream encapsulated in a crispy tempura casing sat in a sweet green tea creme, topped with a black sesame crisp. The piece de resistance, however, was a sculpture made of chocolates, marshmallows, honey lollipops, and gummies made of passion fruit and vanilla.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

With so many creature comforts at the resort, I was tempted to do nothing more strenuous than relax on a poolside chaise lounge and turn the pages of a good novel while sipping a Pina Colada. But I didn't come all this way just to see hotel grounds.

One fact to understand about the Mayan Riviera is that the area was largely undeveloped before the Mexican government turned Cancun into a tourist destination. Before that there were only a few, scattered fishing villages that stretched south to Tulum.

The peninsula is still experiencing growing pains. Demands on the electrical grid can cause resorts to cut back on air conditioning and brown-outs are not unknown.

Since the area is devoted entirely to tourism, there are very few local farms. Which means the produce, tropical fruit, and even the seafood served at the hotels and in the restaurants is likely to come from other parts of Mexico, the United States, or as far away as Japan.

Culturally, with the exception of the local Mayans, everyone else is from somewhere else in Mexico. That means if you want to immerse yourself in indigenous culture, you are better off visiting other areas in Mexico. If you want to experience the richness of Mexican cuisine, you'll be happier in Mexico City, Veracruz, or even Los Angeles.

You can track down local treats, if you look carefully enough.

We stumbled across Juana Marcela Perez Hernandez' Artesanias de Chiapas (Calle 10 entre avenidas 1 y 5), a small store--more of an open air stall really--packed with handmade artifacts from her home state of Chiapas. She sells purses, articles of clothing, wallets, and wall hangings, but what caught our eye was the army of hand woven animals and people that spilled onto the side walk. You can haggle over price, but Juana sticks to her guns and in this case you pay for what you get. I love the three figures I brought home.

On the corner of Fifth Avenue and Benito Juarez, a block from the beach, you'll find half a dozen taco carts serving freshly made tortillas filled with aromatic meats like pork steamed in banana leaves, marinated chicken, and fried fish with pickled onions. Here you'll line up with locals who know that there is no better way to start the day than standing next to a taco cart, balancing a hot-off-the-grill taco in one hand and an ice cold drink in the other.

Because walking around makes you hungry, you might also want to stop at one of the many bars and open air restaurants along Fifth Avenue or Avenue Juarez. At El Sarape Grill (Ave. Juarez and 20th Street), you can enjoy a Mexican beer and snack on a shrimp cocktail served with crackers or feast on platters of grilled meats with bowls of refried beans and guacamole.

If you want to drink like a native, ask for a Michelada, a Chelada, an Ojo Rojo, or, if you're brave enough, a Vampire. They all start with a light beer like Sol, but like a geometric progression, they quickly multiple the flavors by adding lime juice, beef stock, tomato juice, and vodka.

While there are plenty of sweets to tempt you, the best in my opinion are the ice cream bars called paletas. Made with fresh fruit or vegetables, they are distant cousins to the American popsickle. Some are made with milk, others just with fruit, sugar, and water. They are all delicious. You may not find a cucumber or avocado paleta to your taste, but you'll certainly enjoy one made from fresh coconut, vanilla, strawberry, pineapple, or watermelon. To really understand the meaning of sweet-heat, have a paleta made with mango and chili pepper.

Walking around town, casual is the word of the day. Wear flip flops, shorts and t-shirts wherever you want. Although the brief rain showers make carrying a light-weight raincoat or small umbrella a good idea, the locals just take cover in a doorway and wait for the rain to stop. At night, there are plenty of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue where you can eat, stop to listen to music, have a drink, and hang out with friends.

ECO-PARKS AND ARCHEOLOGICAL SITES

Several eco-parks are within easy driving distance of Playa del Carmen. Xcaret Park appeals to kids and adults with an elaborate menu of water slides, artistic performances, and ecological displays that include a swim in an underground river and snorkeling in a lagoon. At Xcaret, contact with nature and Mexican culture is safely controlled as it is farther south at the smaller Xel-ha. While it's farther away, if you want a more authentic experience with the local flora, visit Sian Ka'an Biosphere.

If you are on the Mayan Riviera, a visit to an archaeological site is essential.

Tulum is closest to Playa del Carmen, about an hour and a half south. Even centuries later, the ancient city's outline is easy to see. Master mathematicians and astronomers, the Mayans laid out their temples and houses with precision. When you visit, join up with a tour group or hire a private guide to hear the history of this wonderful site. If you have the time, visit the much larger Mayan temple complex of Chichen Itza, three hours inland. In either case, bring a light-weight raincoat in case it rains.

To read other travel posts, please go to:

Rio in the Summer
The Houston Food Scene
Farmers' Markets
Chef Albert Roux's Newest Restaurant Opens in Texas
Saudi Arabia's Neighbor to the East, Doha, Qatar
Briefly in Seattle
A Photo Gallery of Rhode Island
How Rhode Island Has Changed
Rhode Island Travel Gallery, New York Daily News
Renting a Villa with Friends in Sonoma
Sparks, Nevada for the Nugget's Rib Cook-Off, 2009
Who Judges at a Rib Cook-Off? Me!

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