With Canadians ranking Mexico among their top three vacation spots, it’s possible those travelling there this winter will be attracted by the Mayan Riviera, one of the country’s more recent regions to blossom into a popular tourist destination.

Just a half hour drive south of Cancun, the Mayan Riviera stretches along 72 miles of Yucatan Peninsula coastline punctuated by a succession of white sand beaches lapped by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Compared to Cancun–a man-made oceanfront vacation mecca born in the 1970s–the Riviera is the newer kid on the block now giving the big city to the north a run for its money.

What has largely put this sun-blessed region on travellers’ radar screens is the development of a host of all-inclusive hotels and resorts sprinkled along the Riviera’s sand shoreline. I checked into one of them last winter–the five-star Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso–for a dose of Mexican sunshine. As an inveterate globe hopper, I’m not easily impressed but this particular property sets a new standard for all-inclusive resorts on the Mayan Riviera and elsewhere. Situated on the edge of the ocean and surrounded by manicured gardens and swaying palm trees, this adults-only hotel features a Greco-Roman design with plenty of marble, Old World statuary, huge chandeliers, fountains and grand staircases. If you didn’t know you were lodged in a Mexican resort you could easily envision yourself somewhere on the Mediterranean’s renowned French Riviera.

When all-inclusive holidays first emerged over 40 years ago, they pretty much translated into one-price, no-frills vacations but a newer inclusive brand demonstrated by Iberostar’s Grand Paraiso comes with plenty of frills. This hotel has all the bells and whistles including everything from four a la carte restaurants to three pools (one is salt water with a swim up bar), a spa, luxury suites and for people in romance mode, there are a dozen secluded “honeymoon villas“ with private pools. The hotel also boasts an on-property, 18-hole championship golf course carved out of ancient Mayan jungle and designed by Pete Dye, one of the big name architects in the world of golf.

Patrons of the Grand Paraiso also have access to the facilities and restaurants in four other Iberostar all-inclusive properties closely linked along the shoreline within easy walking distance of one another. These full reciprocal privileges are extended to Grand guests only and, of course, the tab to stay at the flagship resort is understandably higher. (Of the five linked Iberostars, the Grand is the only one exclusively catering to adults).

Beyond the hotels, the Mayan Riviera offers vacationers plenty to do and see. For instance, at a dollar fare each way, I took an hourly bus service from the Grand Paraiso for the 45 minute ride south to the beach town of Playa del Carmen. Once a simple fishing village, this authentic Mexican-flavoured community that locals simply call Playa, is now peppered with shops, restaurants, bars, open air cafes and nightclubs. Overall, the town that boasts one of the best beachfronts in the Caribbean exudes a somewhat carnival atmosphere where during the winter season its streets are packed with tourists from around the globe (many of them off cruise ships that dock south of the city) bargaining for souvenirs at a never-ending succession of outdoor stalls.

Playa is also the site of a regular ferry service to the Mexican island of Cozumel, where its reefs are known for some of the best diving in the world. With a dozen back-and-forth ferry crossings a day at a round-trip cost of about CDN$15, it’s easy to do a day excursion to Mexico’s largest island. On a smaller scale it boasts the same attractions as the mainland: shopping, dining, a water park, botanical gardens, beaches and the San Gervasio Maya ruins site.

Among other day-trip options, one of the must-visit attractions along the Riviera is Xcaret Park, an oceanfront tropical amusement complex so mammoth you need a map to find your way around. Just a short drive from the Grand Paraiso, this is a particularly family friendly centre whose attractions weave together Mexican culture with 30 fully interactive activities such as lazy river rides, a butterfly pavilion, turtle farm and a dolphin centre. There’s a jaguar island, a shark pool and throughout the day visitors are treated to cultural shows that feature pre-Hispanic dance and Mayan ceremonies. Xcaret is one of Mexico’s premier outdoor parks where an entire day is needed to fully explore it.

Even people uninterested in history should visit at least one of the Riviera region’s ancient Mayan ruins such as Tulum or Xel-Ha. More than 3,000 years ago, Mexico’s Mayan people were an advanced civilization that built magnificent cities, pyramids and temples and then, quite mysteriously, the culture disappeared and what happened to them (plague, famine, etc.) remains unsolved to this day. Although it’s by no means the biggest, Tulum is the most visited of the Maya ruins and although it lacks the grand pyramids of some other sites, its fortress setting overlooking the sea makes up for it. Tourists who want to explore a major site can make a day trip from the Riviera to the famous Chichen Itza ruins where giant pyramids have been restored and an adjoining museum displays artifacts unearthed there.

Travel Planner

For more information go online at www.iberostar.com or call 1-888-923-2722. See also www.visitmexico.com and www.xcaret.com.
The climate in the Yucatan Peninsula is sub-tropical and average annual temperatures are 25 degrees Celsius. The national currency is the Mexican peso but U.S. dollars are widely used and accepted. So are major credit cards.

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