Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Kid-Friendly Zones: Cancun, Mexico
Has time been a friend to Cancun, Mexico's pre-planned beach resort and most popular tourist destination? The answer is yes and no. The Cancun of today is far more built up than it was ten or twenty years ago. This means you'll get less of the real Mexico and more of the mega-resorts that could have you confusing this beach with, say, Miami Beach. Nature also stepped into the fray in the name of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The erosion caused by that storm decimated Cancun's beaches, compelling the Mexican government to dredge well into the Caribbean Sea in an effort to rebuild them. While the fine white sand is back, the beach front is much smaller than what it was and relatively narrow compared to other beach resorts in Mexico and the U.S. And then there's the question of price: remember when Mexico used to be a bargain? Not anymore! Those Coronas and ceviches cost a pretty penny these days, in many cases more than you'd pay for them back home. If it's any consolation, a Mexican vacation is still cheaper than a European getaway and the locals won't sneer at you behind your back.
So...do you go? If you're traveling with kids, the answer is yes. Why? Because kids are easy. For starters, Cancun is blessed with a magical landscape. Deep blue skies lord over the turquoise waters (truly, you have to see the water's color to believe it) while crystal-clear light makes everything look fresh. Under foot, the white sand is soft and speckled with an infinite number of seashells. The sun shines brightly and often (on a recent mid-summer visit, all day long for five days straight), the people are friendly and your hotel is bound to have an amazing swimming pool. Kids will wear a path between the pool and the beach and want for nothing more, leaving their parents to revel in this sympathetic setting. If this is your idea of a good time, by all means head straight to Cancun.
Where to stay In the land of mega-resorts, you'd be wise to choose not one, but two. It's an easy choice thanks to Marriott, which has built two lovely resorts right next door to each other, allowing guests to stay at one and use many of the services of the other. At the CasaMagna Marriott, a cream-colored, low-slung structure houses over 450 rooms that face the Caribbean Sea or Nichupte Lagoon, a body of water that positively glistens at sunset. Opt for one of the many suites, roomy enough for families and with an added measure of privacy for parents. Suites here are spare and elegant, all whitewashed walls and cool marble flooring; the palette calls in the warmth of the sun, with fabrics in shades of red, orange and gold. A living area with sofa bed and flat-screen TV is perfect for romping kids and a French door away from the master bedroom, where the utterly comfy king bed is the focal point. Balconies accompany each living space and make for the perfect morning wake-up experience.
Make the resort pool your next stop since this swim-in-the-round will prove irresistible to kids. Chaise lounges abound and food and drink service is available much of the day (mom and dad will surely partake of the swim-up-bar). Swimming along the hotel's stretch of beach front is not advised due to the many large and jagged rocks in the water. Instead, take a ten-minute walk north and jump in at the soft-sand waters fronting the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. Don't stay too long, though, since you might miss the twice-weekly poolside swimsuit show back at the CasaMagna. The show is fun for the entire family and moms, you will buy so have that credit card ready.
Another fun option for kids, especially those aged 4-12, is a chance to play chef in the “Kids Cocina.” Part of Marriott Kids, a half- or full-day immersion experience that includes indoor and outdoor activities, the poolside cooking class will have young ones whipping up guacamole and quesadillas that rivals those of their chef teachers (hint: a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime make everything better!). And the good eats don't end there. At Sasi Thai, inventive appetizers and perky curries complement the outdoor, thatched-roof setting (make sunset dinner reservations) and the mango crème brulee is something special. Next door at Mikado, choose from a teppan-yaki experience or creative sushi presentations; both restaurants offer numerous kids' selections. Across the way at Champions Sports Bar, the many mega-screens attempt to distract you from the juicy burger on your plate. Call it a tie. End the day to the live and lively beat in the Lobby Lounge and by all means, get out there and dance with your kids – you're in Mexico, after all.
Serene might be the best way to describe the J.W. Marriott, a tall and graceful tower that caters to executives traveling with family. Goodness knows that everyone is welcome at this business-branded property but it's helpful to know that the vibe is a bit more straight-laced. All rooms come with balcony and face the Sea and are done in tones of yellow, orange and green. Medium-toned woods and marble flooring keep things fresh and the bathrooms sport double sinks with separate bath and shower settings.
Down below, the lagoon-style pool is arguably the resorts' best feature. Opening onto an infinity pool, the cool blue waters meander under assorted foot bridges and past a couple of hot tubs, ending in a placid children's pool. The pool deck is considerably more spacious than its sister property, providing a greater level of comfort for lounging parents. A dive pool with artificial reef is the ideal place for kids to get that diving certification while a separate freshwater pool with swim-up bar is an oasis for grown-ups seeking kid-free solitude. Again, as with the CasaMagna, the beach here is not suited for swimming but fine for strolling or relaxing and in even closer proximity to the aforementioned Ritz-Carlton.
Back upstairs, the Spa at the J.W. Marriott is a 35,000 square foot enchantment that takes the essence of the Mayan culture and weaves it into sinful spa treatments. Young girls can partake of manicures, pedicures and facials and even sign on to be a “Mayan Princess for a Day” with a bit of all three and a hairdo to match. Club 91 is the hotel's executive level floor with five meal presentations a day, wi-fi and myriad perks. Meals not enjoyed here can be savored at one of the resorts' three restaurants, all family-friendly and sure to please. At Beach Walk, the casual oceanfront setting invites swimsuits and belies the artistry and skill of the dishes. Simply Seafood offers a dazzling prime rib and seafood buffet every night of the week (a must while at either resort) while Gustino compels you to dress up and savor fine Italian cuisine. Afternoon tea is served in the lobby and segues to cocktails and live music at night. By the time the kids fall asleep, you'll be left to wonder if it was all a dream – your days here are that sweet. For reservations and additional information, visit marriott.com or call (800) 900-8800.
An Eco-Friendly Adventure The Yucatan peninsula is home to a number of ecologically-sensitive parks, places where you can swim, play and enjoy nature absent the area's many man-made intrusions. Tops on your list should be Xel-Ha (Mayan for “the place where the water is born”), an amalgam of free-form jungle and flowing lagoons bisected by a languid river rife for family fun. Sign up for the all-day inclusive package that begins with a visit to the ruins at Tulum, an oceanfront playground for Mayans of centuries past. The graceful limestone temples speak to the Mayan fascination with astronomy and mathematics, seeing as how many of them harbor sight lines to the planets in alignment with the seasons.
By midday, you're at Xel-Ha, where you'll start off with the Mexican buffet at La Cocina del Pueblo, a mouth-watering array of dishes that will leave you in a state of bliss (the cochinita Pibil and pescado Tikin-Xic are local delicacies not to be missed). Unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are also part of the mix. Follow your meal with an amble around the property, pausing to admire prancing dolphins and more sedate manatees. You'll pass Hammock Island, a children's playground and a spa but your real destination is the bicycle station for a short ride to the top of the river (a mini-train is also available) where friendly attendants will set you up with snorkel gear and life vests for a leisurely float down the river. Ogle the many reefs and fish along the way; even young children will get the hang of things immediately, leaving parents to wonder how their kids grew up so darn fast. You can choose to ride an inner tube instead but the river is far more enjoyable in snorkel and fins. Adding to the ease of the overall experience is a river delivery system that allows you to package up sandals, hats, cameras and other personal belongings in water-tight containers at the top and pick them up once you've arrived down river. While Xel-Ha is filled with enchantments too numerous to mention, the snorkeling experience alone makes the trip well worth the price of admission. Detailed information on packages and pricing can be found at xel-ha.com.
What else? A visit to the Coral Negro Flea Market along Blvd. Kukulkan in the heart of Cancun's Hotel Zone will have you feeling like the most important person in town. Eager vendors vie for your attention (and money) and their wares are surprisingly appealing. All that haggling make you hungry? Grab a meal across the street at the Hacienda El Mortero, where the colorful dining room is filled with mariachi music and the Mexican specialties are sure to please...If it's not too hot out, consider taking the ferry from Playa Tortugas to Isla Mujeres. The 30-minute ride deposits you on a sliver of an island far removed from the Cancun scene. Enjoy just-caught fish at one of the many beach front shacks, then rent a bicycle for the short ride to Garrafon Park at the opposite end of the island. Pack a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of water and sunscreen for the excursion...Aquatic adventurers may want to parasail or jet ski and there are numerous vendors set up along Cancun's beaches for this very reason...AquaWorld is a large outfitter that can arrange everything from scuba diving to deep-sea fishing and swimming with dolphins. Find them at aquaworld.com.mx or poolside at the Marriott hotels...Traveling with your own sunscreen, mosquito repellent, aloe vera and/or calamine lotion is advisable since the quality, availability and pricing of these products in Cancun leaves much to be desired.
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.