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Roaming the Riviera Maya

It's easy to enjoy winning accommodations, scenic nature reserves, wondrous ruins and delectable cuisine without yardlong drinks.

November 08, 2009|Jennifer Olvera

RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO — Waiting to board, I saw passengers wearing socks with flip-flops. Someone asked, poker-faced, whether Mexico was a state in the U.S. When applause broke out upon landing, it was all I could do to disembark.

These are my fellow countrymen? I cringed, skulking to my (clearly marked) cab.

Ignoring the yardlong-drink contingent poses a challenge, but I had reasons to head south of the border, the primary one being to taste and smell foods that captivate me.

My launching pad for the next four days was the all-villa Banyan Tree Residences Mayakoba, which opened in March on the Yucatan Peninsula's Riviera Maya coastline. The vibe -- a mix of solitude and swank -- is a departure from Cancun's excess. Although it's 15 minutes from Cancun wannabe Playa del Carmen, it seems remote.

At the resort I appreciated the glossy -- OK, diva-worthy -- environs and its Mexico-meets-Far-East feel. It's part of the larger Mayakoba "village," a guarded, forested residential and hotel community. Mayakoba currently houses the relatively new Fairmont and Rosewood properties, and Viceroy is aiming for a spring 2010 rollout.

I'm not a golfer, so the 18-hole El Camaleon, a Greg Norman-designed championship course, was lost on me. Still, I had no intention of allowing dexterous limitations to keep me indoors. A visit to Riviera Maya allows for countless underwater and eco-adventures.

But first I had to take care of business. Key in hand, I checked out my room. I hopped in my hot tub and pool, set in a private courtyard; went up to the roomy terrace -- outfitted with one of two outdoor showers -- for a bird's-eye view; and lighted candles and incense to perfume my stay. I was given my own bike to pedal around the sprawling grounds and discovered interconnected bike paths between properties, meaning there was plenty of room to roam.

For $2, I hopped aboard a lancha, or covered boat, which meandered along Mayakoba's narrow mangrove-fringed canals. After fueling up on bracing, limey tuna ceviche and plump, tempura-battered fish tacos at Sands, a restaurant overlooking the Caribbean Sea, I headed for the water taxi in Playa del Carmen for a quick trip to Isla Cozumel.

I made my way to Parque Punta Sur, a national preserve on the island's southern tip, then rented a bike and checked out the scenery. Rugged, quiet dunes gave way to mangroves and marshes. After a pant-inducing climb to the top of its Faro de Celarain lighthouse -- now a matchbox-sized navigation museum -- I took in the killer views.

One day, I visited the 11th century ruins at Tulum, about an hour south of Playa del Carmen, but apparently not early enough because the place was packed with bikini-clad tourists by 9 a.m. The scene in the little nearby town of Tulum was more my speed. Laid-back with a surfer-chic vibe, the main drag is populated by a few hip boutiques where I riffled racks of patchwork skirts, white ruffled tops and intricately beaded jewelry before scoring scoops of sweet corn and lime ice cream from nearby La Flor de Michoacan. But instead of grabbing a bench in its cute courtyard, I made my way to La Flor de Tulum, an open-air market chock-full of juicy pineapples and mangoes, tamarinds and tongue-singeing peppers. Really, though, it was the colorful pinatas hanging in back that I found coolest of all.

Determined to beat the crowd the following morning, I booked a tour and left early for Coba. Less frenetic than Chichen Itza, these ancient Mayan pyramids are hidden in the jungle. At the entrance I rented a bike and made my way to Nohoch Muul, the 140-foot-tall pyramid with panoramic views from up top. After spending the rest of the day zip-lining and exploring a cenote at the nearby eco-park Tankah, I was ready to collapse.

Sore as could be, I had dinner at the Thai-inspired restaurant Saffron, perched on a dock along Mayakoba's mangrove-flanked canals. On the menu: an amuse bouche of sweet-savory, coconut-filled saffron bread, sprightly grilled beef salad and aromatic Panang curry with beef tenderloin and hearts of palm.

Surprised to find Banyan's spa still open when I returned, I booked a Thai herbal detox treatment -- a 180-minute ritual involving a turmeric-laced scrub, steam and salt pot massage ($380) -- for the following day.

As my sojourn began to wind down, I knew I couldn't avoid downtown Playa del Carmen and its throngs of bargain shoppers.

So I spent the remainder of my time wandering its streets, peering at creepy-cool milagros along El Corazon and scoring cheese-stuffed, battered jalapeno tacos from Senor Tacombi, a funky VW bus-turned-street-side-stand.

But the piece de resistance was dinner at John Gray's Place for foie gras soup and chipotle-glazed pan-roasted duck with sweet potato mash. Too bad I had to dodge tourists with yardlongs to get there.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY

From LAX, Mexicana and Alaska airlines offer nonstop service to Cancun. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $278.

TELEPHONES

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