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.
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.
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.
July 13, 2005
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.
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