By Logan Hawkes
When Spanish explorers of the 16th Century landed on the remote shores of the Yucatan Peninsula the last thing on their minds was to build a first class resort for tourists. There was far too much worry over conquest, religious conversion and the never-ending search for wealth and fame to be concerned about tourism.
But times have changed, and when the Spanish construction firm OHL purchased a track of coastal jungle land near Playa Del Carmen back in the 80's, they launched an idea that, unlike their historic predecessors, the conquering conquistadors, would combine Old World and New World concepts into a plan that would result in one of the premiere ecological luxury resorts in the World.
It's been called the "Venice of Mexico", a comprehensive luxury development project known as Mayakoba, a 600-acre mega-tourist facility that, when complete, will include no less than five international hotels, a pair of golf courses, world class spas and a comprehensive lagoon and canal system that will connect visitors to various attractions, including a mile stretch of pristine, white Caribbean beach and clear backwater snorkeling lagoons and jungle trails for hiking and exploring the rich ecology of the region.
One of the things, in fact, that make this planned resort a little different than other world class luxury facilities is the importance of environmental impact being exercised by the developer, corporate sponsors and the Mexican government. From the onset, all parties involved understood that such a comprehensive facility would add to the already heavy tourist traffic load placed on an area extremely sensitive to environmental change.
But rather than allowing environmental concerns to hamper the creative design process, developers used the issue to enhance their offerings. The result, though still in the development stage, is a unique luxury environment that limits hotel construction to two stories in height, mostly below the jungle canopy, and uses the extensive water canal system as the primary mover of people between hotels, attractions, restaurants, and recreational facilities.
Not only does this minimize motorized traffic across the property but it adds a unique attraction in itself as electric gondolas are utilized to ferry guests from the various facilities tastefully spread out across the 600-acre property. Guests are immersed in a rich eco system full of tropical birds, tropical fish and other wildlife and get a real taste of the Maya world as it looked to the first Spanish explorers to reach these shores 500 years ago.
Just forty miles to the north the Cancun hotel zone looms into the crystal blue sky like glass soldiers on display. There you can find Super Malls, loud and colorful discotheques, and plenty of crowded beaches complete with jet skis, parasails, windsurfers, catamarans and tour boats.
But Mayakoba stands in contrast, combining luxury amenities with all the benefits of an eco resort. Certainly there is modern development, but the result of careful planning and environmental concern is transforming into a partnership between development and ecology that may well pave the way for a new concept in resort planning for the future.
The idea of building hotel facilities inland instead of directly on the beach front was an obstacle planners had to hurdle before the project could become a reality. Would the buying public accept a tropical beach resort that didn't have a beach presence? The unique design settled upon was one that provided the best of two worlds, offering both beach front beauty and access, and jungle ecology in one careful master planned community.
The first world class hotel facility to open in the new project is the Fairmont Mayakoba, a 401 room resort property including 34 suites, located in a traditional low-rise hotel building and clustered throughout the property in 90 two-story Casitas with two to four rooms each. Categories range from generous Casita rooms to signature lagoon views and exclusive beach front Villas. While you want to indulge on your vacation, getting there doesn't have to wipe out your budget, cheap tickets to the Yucatan can always be found.
Other hotel properties of the development include:
Laguna Kai, run by Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, plans to receive its first guests next year. It will have 120 waterfront rooms, with private docks and gardens, plunge-pools and outdoor showers. The spa is on an island. Gourmet treats will be imported from New York's famous Dean and Deluca.
The latest entry from Singapore-based Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts is scheduled to open in 2007, bringing its Asian influence to the Caribbean. All 120 villas will have private pools, outdoor baths and meditation areas. Its Saffron restaurant will be on pontoons in a lagoon. A gallery promoting local artisans will sell silver, pottery and other crafts.
The Viceroy Mayakoba, from the Los Angeles-based Kor Hotel Group, is also forecasting a 2007 opening, with 110 villas: 70 overlooking lagoons and the golf course, and 40 on the coast.
The Fairmont is off to a good start in setting the pace for high-caliber offerings at Mayakoba. Dining outlets include a Mexican and international cuisine restaurant in the main building, Brisas del Mar, an elegant Oceanside restaurant with a high palapa roof and terrace seating for 50, a casual all-day pool grill, and a sunrise-to-sunset market cafe. Afternoon tea and coffee service, tropical cocktails and seasonal live music are offered in the lobby bar; a swim-up pool bar and 24-hour In-Room Dining are also available.
To satisfy the golfer in you, try the new El Camaleón Golf Course at the Mayakoba resort, Greg Norman’s latest masterwork. The 7,000-yard layout is unique - not just to Mexico but to the entire world of golf. The course bends through three distinct landscapes - mangrove jungles, limestone canals and stunning, oceanfront stretches of sand. El Camaleón incorporates a cenote, a massive underground cavern, into the heart of the opening fairway.
The handsome, Mayan influenced clubhouse that rises above the 18th green features a fine dining room with stunning views over the course. The adjoining practice facility and driving range are of international caliber. With Mayakoba’s unique system of lagoons, golfers will be able to step out of their rooms and into a boat, which will ferry them directly to the first tee. El Camaleón Golf Course is managed by the Fairmont. Other golf courses are planned for the resort and still in the design and development stage.
Others facilities still in the development stage include a comprehensive spa system stretching across the resort property. The natural refinement, simplicity and beauty of the Riviera Maya find an echo in the planned spas of Mayakoba. Once fully functional, there’s an unequaled palette of choice here, with New World and Old World treatments offered in unique, serene settings such as an island spa that centers on a cenote. With five different spas at five hotels, you can actually spa-hop – sampling traditional Asian techniques one day, moving on to a Mayan-inspired Tropical Rain Massage the next, followed by water-based reflexology, yoga or algae baths the next. At Mayakoba, the world of renewal is as near as the front porch of your villa.
Once complete, this luxury property may well represent the largest and most comprehensive example of the marriage of luxury and ecology in the resort development community.
But will travelers support the concept?
OHL and its partners seem to think so. While it goes against the regional tradition of building towering resorts on the beach front south of Cancun, the genuine attempt to preserve the environment and still provide a five star facility for discerning travelers may be the boost the region needs to slow down the damaging high-tech developments that are slowly but surely taking their toll on the local ecology. It may be the perfect partnership sought by both locals wanting to restrict development, and investors wanting to continue the tourist buildup of the region.
For our money, it's well worth investigating yourself.