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Cancun luxury? Iberostar Paraiso Maya your only world-class choice

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico - It's a name that invokes a sense of mystery, a hint of romance. It just sounds like one of those faraway idyllic dots on the map that only the really cool travelers know about.

Riviera Maya ...

It's a whisper in the wind, a song in your heart ... It's actually right down the road from Cancun, the beer-bong fun capital for those in their late teens and early 20s.

"Yes, the name Riviera Maya is used to distance the area a little from the spring break scene associated with Cancun," said Julio Viscontti, president of the Cancun Golf Association.

In other words, it's a marketing tool. Although Riviera Maya is about half an hour from the city limits of Cancun, it shares much of the same vibe. Well, most of it does.

For there is a sprawling Spanish resort, the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, that actually fulfills the image that the Riviera Maya name hopes to project. This 432-suite resort brings real luxury to an area known for hotels with beer-stained couches, sheets from the 1950s and room service meals that make your neighborhood IHOP loom like a Michelin Five Star honoree by comparison.

All these visions go tumbling down when you step into the wide-open lobby of Paraiso Maya. You're directed to a series of stone benches where you sit down as an attractive, college-aged girl handles the check-in paperwork. You're handed a wet towel to wipe away the grime of your trip in and battle the often-oppressive humidity.

It's like a first-class cabin experience at the check-in counter.

Your Paraiso Maya wristband is put on and just like that you have the run of a four-hotel Iberostar complex that sprawls across the beach and is connected by walkways and swimming pools. Paraiso Maya is an all-inclusive resort. So from the moment that wristband snaps on, you can eat and drink without reaching for a bill, a credit card or even a hotel slip.

It might be a good time to get that first drink, to help yourself settle into the languid Mexican lifestyle (and it's languid, no one is jumping to do anything in a Michigan minute let alone a New York one here) and gather up some strength for the exploring ahead. A short turn from the lobby, you'll find the perfect place for this decompressing tequila shot or margarita.

Here you drink inside the towering peak of a pyramid at a bar in the center of a vast, open room with a huge iron snake dangling down from ceiling, its tongue seemingly reaching for the Mexican beer. Someone asks the bartender if snakes are good luck in Mexico. He sort of smiles and shrugs.

You can try and make it into some significant sign if you must (Iberostar advertises it as link to Mayan culture). Bottom line: it's just a real cool setting to get your all-included drink on.

That pretty much sums up Paraiso Maya. This place comes about as close to authentic Cancun as Epcot Center does to giving you the feel of a true French village. It's pure fantasyland and not even very convincing fantasyland at that.

While Iberostar tries to make it seem more real by having vendors offer so-called street trinkets along the sides of its walkways, these guys are a very polite impression of the real street dealers you'll come across if you actually make it into one of the towns. Look Mom, street vendors for yuppies!

But you know what, who cares? Isn't fakeness, a little marketing hooey, what Riviera Maya is supposed to be about?

You come here because you've bought into the idea that you can get the beaches and carefree lifestyle of Cancun along with the high-end accommodations and fantastic courses of a luxury golf vacation. And Paraiso Maya offers by far the best shot of reaching this vision.

The clubhouse of a new P.B. Dye course that opened in June stands right across the street from the Paraiso Maya lobby. This Playa Paraiso Golf Club already looms as arguably the best course in the whole Cancun-Riviera Maya corridor. And the argument's not that long. Unless Greg Norman dazzles with his new course, the Dye could reign as the must-play of the area for a while.

Trying to make it a stand-alone golf getaway, Dye and the Iberostar planning people came up with the most impressive lighted practice range you're ever going to see. You can work on your swing here and actually track with absolute certainty where your shots are going, at least until the time all the other guests start heading to the on-site disco.

P.B. Dye is also designing a par-3 course where he plans to put in holes worthy of a full course for experienced golfers to play with their kids or beginner friends.

"You have everything right here already," Dye said. "All the other stuff outside of golf you'd ever want to do. I don't see why it wouldn't turn into a golf destination that can hold its own."

Dye is talking about the Riviera Maya-Cancun corridor in general. But you get the idea he almost never actually steps off the grounds of the Iberostar complex on his trips in. It tends to paint a very rosy picture indeed.

For the rooms at the Paraiso Maya are huge, especially length wise, with the bathroom seemingly another zip code away from the sunken-in living room area on the other end. Not coincidently, they are reminiscent of setups of luxury hotels in Spain, with a short step bringing you into the living room from the raised bed area.

There's a DVD player in every room and a mini-bar fridge that's part of the all-inclusive package.

Cruise ship payoff?

It's wandering the grounds that truly sets the tone for this experience though. For guests have the run of eight pools, 16 restaurants, 17 bars and a seemingly endless beach that runs the length of all four Iberostar hotels. This place is its own not-so-little world (expect to get lost a few times until you get the hang of it).

You can grab an ice cream at a shop in the rock wall above the largest of the pools, get a massage at one of many poolside stands, take a tango lesson, learn to windsurf.

It's like being on a gigantic cruise ship, only you're on land and can get off whenever you like. Not that many guests seem to do this.

'I've been here a week and haven't been to town once," Sarah Medley of England, laughed sheepishly.

It's easy to get lost in fantasyland. Experienced luxury travel can find a few quibbles with Paraiso Maya: the sheets aren't as plush as at the best hotels elsewhere (though fantastic for Cancun), your room's not always ready on check in, waiting for a cab can turn into a Homer's tale, there are no ATMs in the whole complex.

Yet none of this takes away from the fact this is a whole other level in Cancun-Riviera Maya accommodations. Spending some time at the Moon Palace - the resort that is supposed to be the closest in luxury setting - shows a gap as wide as that between Sears and Neiman Marcus.

Iberostar Paraiso Maya is the IT for the reality of Riviera Maya's romantic name push.

Something that those in the know recognize. Going into town as a Paraiso Maya guest you'll find the street vendors shouting out, "Iberostar Paraiso Maya!" at you from straight across the street. You wonder how they know at first, until you realize it's the wristband.

These guys recognize money with an eagle's eye. Suddenly, the prices for their wares are rising.

You're marked as a Paraiso Maya guest after all. They know why you're here.

Travel tip

Every wing of the hotel has its own concierge on the first floor by the stairs. You get reservations for the better restaurants in the resort complex here. These restaurants are part of your all-inclusive charge, but you need to make sure the concierge gets you in the door.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Playa Paraiso Golf

    Elliot DeBear wrote on: Mar 3, 2009

    Just played the Iberostar Playa Paraiso course on the Maya Riviera, about 30 minutes south of Cancun. The course was designed by P.B. Dye, finished in 2005 and is a beauty. It is one of the newer tracks lining the area between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. The course features a lot of undulating greens, some that are almost crazy but fun for a resort track. Like other P.B. courses, this one is packed with bunkers, curved fairways and hollows in front of the majority of greens. The par 5 14th is one of the best at 485 yards featuring a steep hard dogleg. The course is carved out of the jungle and looks like Dye moved a lot of dirt. The course plays 6,683 from the tips with a 72.4/136 slope rating. A round including cart with snacks and drinks including beer runs $180 in the morning and $130 at twilight that starts at 1PM. Compared to some of the other tracks like El Cameleon at $259 a round, this is definitely worth playing.


  • Paraiso Maya Terrible Management

    Anthony Hicks wrote on: Dec 27, 2008

    Charged $250 for 800# phone calls. Average food at best. If like fine food go somewhere else. Bend over for extra fees. $25/day internet. The shows they put on are not broadway. They are the beach staff and they suck! My local high school talent is better. We got a $3000 vacation for $6500. Beach and pools are awesome but for $6500 you can do MUCH MUCH MUCH better. It is 3 star service at best. 5 star beach. GOOD LUCK


  • Pariso Maya-Iberstar

    Diane wrote on: Jul 6, 2008

    We just got back from our 7 day trip. I was a little disappointed. The service was fantastic. The accommodations beautiful. The food not so good. We made reservations and tried several different restaurants and all were consistently terrible. The quality of food was more like cruise ship food--beautiful presentation, but quality poor. There were several times when items listed on the menu were not available. The grill by the beach served hot dogs and hamburgers. I'm not sure about the hot dogs, but it wasn't beef. The hamburger tasted like a soybean burger. The guacamole was excellent! The bed was hard. Snorkel--not so good. If you paid for the snorkel trip--much better. All paid activities were great except for the fishing--too rough waters and very little fish! You couldn't keep the fish you caught! The layout was very confusing. It took about a day to figure out how to get around. We got lost seveal times.


  • Maya paradaise

    Bob wrote on: Dec 26, 2007

    This resort far exceeded my expectations. From dining to entertainment to service, my wife and I were treated like kings. Beautiful beaches, pools and landscape made our stay unforgettable. The Star Friends people(Daniel & Ivan) made the entertainment experience 5 star. Iwould highly recommend this destination for honeymoons, anniversaries and family vacations.


      • RE: Maya paradaise

        christina wrote on: Mar 11, 2008

        Hi my family is planning a trip in June and we are torn between the Pariso Maya and the Pariso Lindo. Please let me know which hotel you thought was the nicer of the two.Thank you.


  • my stay at the Paraiso Maya

    A G wrote on: Jun 7, 2007

    This is a fantastic review. My husband and I spent a week at this resort for our honeymoon in 2005. It was a dream vacation with great staff, service, dining and amenities. I would highly recommend the Iberostar Paraiso Maya.
    One thing that stands out in my memory is that the staff came in to clean our room one day. We stepped out onto our balcony and when we came back in, we were surprised to discover they had prepared a bubble bath with flower petals in it. Great service like that would make me go back in a heartbeat.


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