by Jaime Lin Weinstein
Forget how warm the water is in the south of France or how white the sand is in Malaysia, when it comes to beach vacations, you don’t have to leave the continent for a luxurious getaway that promises sun. Mahekal Beach Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, offers a lavish vacation a quick plane ride from home.
Making TripAdvisor’s list of the top 10 most-searched destinations for summer travel across the web (and taking the prize for the cheapest one outside of the continental U.S.), as Playa del Carmen did last year, doesn’t mean this south-of-the-border beach town is littered with tourists or reminiscent of your average American budget-friendly family vacay. Though it may have strong “cultural” ties to vacations of the underage and overly-inebriated kind, there’s more to Mexico than the one that has long attracted young vacationers seduced by the infamous party scenes and franchised tourist bars like Senor Frogs. And if anywhere can change your perception of the country, it’s here on the Yucatan peninsula, a mere hour-and-a-half drive from the Cancún International Airport.
What was once a rest stop on the way to Cozumel, this former fishing town is now a destination in and of itself. Located on what’s known as the Riviera Maya, its coast lays claim to pristine, turquoise waters and the second longest barrier reef system in the world, making it ideal for offshore, underwater excursions. But back on land, if you’re a Southerner looking for an authentic Caribbean experience at a resort you can call your “home away from home,” no place compares to Mahekal Beach Resort. Maybe it’s because the fiber produced by the flowers of the Ceiba trees dotting the property looks like cotton. Or because the owner, Lamont Meek, is from Texas. Or even that Georgia-born country singer Jason Aldean married former American Idol contestant Brittany Kerr here last March.
(Fans may have gotten glimpses of the resort in Us Weekly when their wedding photos made the magazine’s cover story late that month.) It is because the resort — the first to open in the city over 30 years ago — is rooted in the ideals of tradition instilled by the original owners, a local Mexican family that built six thatched-roof palapas on the beach for backpackers to rent.
Today, after a multi-million dollar reimagination from Texas-based Circa Capital, Mahekal is home to over 100 bungalows with private hammocks and outdoor terraces just meters from the beach. But weaving through the lush vegetation and tropical gardens dotting the resort, you can feel the same bohemian vibe of its origins in the village-like environment it mimics. This includes being completely “unplugged.” There are no TVs, phones or radios in the guestrooms. Details like artisanal embroidered pillows complemented with native tropical hardwood furniture and ceramic turquoise sinks in the ocean front and jungle view rooms, and a romantic “moon shower” overlooking the sea on the terrace of the penthouse, each enhance the authenticity of the ambiance. Staff members even deliver room-service orders on vintage bicycles with woven rattan baskets.
Head to Restaurante La Cueva del Chango (Monkey Cave) for breakfast and try a traditional Mexican breakfast of huevos a la mexicana or chilaquiles in its open air, rustic environment.
Axiote, just off 5th Avenue, serves the best ceviche and guacamole — complete with fried grasshoppers, a Mexican delicacy. And order the agua de guayaba, a refreshing beverage made with guava and sugar.
Stay on property and grab lunch by the pool at Las Olas Restaurant and Bar or dine at Cocina, which serves up everything from steak with jalapeño chimmichurri and crisp yucca fries to fresh fish from the day’s catch in a bountiful buffet.
Quinta Avenida, Mexico’s “5th Avenue” is home to souvenir markets, local boutiques and American brand name stores that share the road with restaurants, bars, pharmacies and a host of other attractions — like streetside fish pedicures.
Try a ceramic painting class at Mahekal and have a beautiful piece of pottery fired and ready to take home, or purchase complete pieces made by local artisans.
Indulge in fresh, hand-rolled cigars, and snag a couple to take back home.
Take a day trip to Tulum, less than an hour from Playa, and explore the coastal Mayan ruins. The structures date back to the 13th century.
Enjoy a hand-pressed juice or specialty margaritas at Boli’s Bar, just off the main lobby, while you play a round of pool or ping-pong.
Relax with a massage on the beach from Mahekal’s Revive Spa, while the sounds of the ocean and the soothing Kinich products (100% organically intelligent and locally home-grown) revive your senses.
Mahekal Beach Resort
Calle 38 S/N, Zona Federal Maritima
77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico