Miamians certainly have their pick of beach holiday destinations. But as any traveler to the tropics will attest, the total package—gorgeous beaches, tasty cuisine, pristine nature and world-class archeological sites—well, that’s a tall order. The Riviera Maya stands out for this rare combination and, even sweeter for its Florida neighbors, the swath of sand and greenery that hugs the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula lies less than a two-hour flight away.
The Mayan calendar’s prediction of the world’s demise in December wasn’t the region’s only boon. A flurry of press about boho chic Tulum’s appeal to the fashion crowd recalls a sleepier South Beach in the ’90s. It’s no wonder tourism broke records in 2012, with nearly four million visitors and the highest hotel occupancy rate to date.
Far from peaking, the hospitality scene is just getting started. Next year, St. Regis and W Retreat will open at Kanai, a luxury hotel and residential development where Auberge and Park Hyatt are slated to follow by 2016. Not to be outdone, Mayakoba, whose Rosewood, Fairmont and Banyan properties draw the pampered likes of Sofia Vergara, who celebrated her 40th birthday and got engaged there recently, and golfers for its 36-hole course designed by Greg Norman and Lorena Ochoa, soon expands with the Hyatt’s edgier Andaz concept.
As opposed to most rum-soaked Caribbean vacations, wellness has become another major niche. An expat enclave for striking downward dogs and blending juices of fresh local produce, Tulum claims many eco luxe options to relax while working on mind and body. Earlier this year, Amansala Grande unveiled Amansala Chica, a smaller boutique hotel in the same hodgepodge organic decor next door. When they aren’t enrolled in its popular bikini boot camp, models and moguls alike find balance through Destination Detox, a five-day package serving a raw menu plan, and blissful services and activities like clay treatments and swims in nearby cenotes, natural limestone pools.
The in-town Gardenias Inn Tulum takes gastronomy to a grander level. Book a candle-lit table for rotating chefs’ intimate multi-course tastings prepared at the on-site fire pit with ingredients harvested from the organic garden and beehive. What the b & b lacks in waterfront, it makes up for with a trio of suites with elegant, ethnic furnishings and the best breakfast in town delivered daily to guests’ doors. The owners organize culinary itineraries to explore authentic markets, a service many chefs are happy to provide, as well as cooking for private dinner parties at residential rentals. The locals’ friendly nature means anything is a quick question away. Though more known for its pedestrian mall and noisy nightlife—think Lincoln Road’s Mexican cousin—Playa del Carmen is worth a stop for Maiz de Mar, helmed by chef Enrique Olvera. Opening this spring a few blocks from the beach, the eatery promises classic Mexican dishes elevated through avant-garde techniques and presentations, an internationally recognized specialty he perfected at Pujol in Mexico City. It joins the foodie circuit’s established hot spots like Casa Jaguar, a softly lit, rustic hideaway for sipping hibiscus-infused mescal cocktails, and Hartwood, where chef Eric Werner shows off his skills with a wood oven. Work up an appetite by strolling Tulum’s white beaches and main leafy lane, where makeshift stalls carry handcrafted wares and emerging designers. Bring the vibe back home with locally made tobacco candles and orange blossom perfume from Coqui Coqui hotel’s designer boutique.
All-inclusive resort types have their pick around Playa del Carmen. The latest luxury stays start with the renovated and re-branded Viceroy Riviera Maya, whose 41 villas come with private dipping pools and crochet hammocks for afternoon naps, the only alarm clock being a distant shriek from the surrounding jungle’s spider monkeys. The major makeover added a fitness center and beach grill dining to the already touted Wayak Spa, whose amenities range from salt air-kissed treatments atop the outdoor pier to a traditional Mayan temazcal sweat lodge.
Formerly a Mandarin Oriental, Blue Diamond Riviera Maya doesn’t welcome kiddies for its all-inclusive packages chock-full of fun. As just a quick sampling, guests at its 128 suites are invited for a complimentary scuba clinic, temazcal, and dive or snorkel tour, and every day starts with mimosas and breakfast in bed. Miami appears to have a new soul sister in this slice of paradise.