Mass, mediocre, cheapo all-inclusive resorts in Mexico are being replaced by elegant, gourmet, all you could want and more all-inclusive resorts. And yes, the Riviera Maya is still safe.
The trip was oriented to travel writers who cover wedding and honeymoon destinations and if I were in the market for one, these two resorts would definitely be on my list.
Playa del Carmen
My immersion into inclusive world began in Playa del Carmen, about an hour's drive from the Cancun airport. After passing resorts in the middle of nowhere, it was a relief to see the Royal was in the town of Playa del Carmen. Nothing I hate worse than traveling to another country and being isolated from what makes that destination special.
The town is new, one created by the resort phenomenon. In the Mayan era, it was where one went to get water and coconuts and to take a boat to Cozumel, an island dedicated to the goddess of fertility and one of the most important locales in the Mayan civilization. A dozen years ago there were 30 people living here, now there are 100,000 in the area. It still is where you catch a ferry to Cozumel to see where the cruise ships stop.
Tip: The town area is pretty flat but nothing is even; watch where you step and stop to gawk.
Speaking of weddings, the resort staged a Mayan wedding for our benefit and it was quite interesting, especially the costumed and body-painted dancers who participated along with a shaman. It began with a purification ceremony and ended on the beach, with homage given to mother earth, wind, fire and water throughout.
More traditional Western-style weddings usually take place in a gazebo on the beach, but couples can personalize their services with Christian and Mayan elements.
Warning: There are elevators that eliminate many of the stairs but unless you ask for a room near the lobby you will do a lot of walking. Nearer the lobby though means farther from the ocean.
A major port for the Mayans, Tulum - or Zama as it was known then - was a trading center for jade, malachite, lapis, red coral, tiger's eye, bird feathers and honey, according to Carlos, our guide. The Maya were one of the earliest civilizations of sky watchers and plotted the seasons with great accuracy. it dates from 550 BCE and hit its peak 300-900 AD. Like the Egyptians their buildings were brightly painted and deeply etched with bas-relief work.
Visitors are no longer allowed to enter the buildings or in many cases get near enough to get the full impact of the artistry that once adorned them. The "Castle" is the most impressive structure towering at cliff's edge and one you don't want to miss.
Warning: You will encounter lots of steps to reach it: 18 of varying heights up, 17 down if you take the short cut to the left. It's doable but pay attention and step carefully to avoid a fall.
If you want action, Cancun, where the Maya Riviera got its start, is the place to head. Developed in the '60s and '70s, it is a totally planned city. One that was looking a little on the shabby side by 2005. When hurricane Wilma battered the area for 36 hours in October, 2005, it necessitated massive urban renewal, especially for oceanfront properties. Thus began the transition from tacky and cheapo all inclusive to luxury and top shelf all inclusive.
The Royal Cancun has a great location on the ocean side of the strip that separates it from the bay. Close enough to the inner city to facilitate hitting a few night spots but far enough away to avoid the noise and busy-ness.
Tip: Fewer stairs within the complex, too.
Again, the food and variety of a la carte restaurants are first-rate. I particularly liked Asiana with its Teppenyaki table as well as regular dining and the delightful Maria Marie with its Mexican-French fusion fare.
Warning: The spa services here are excellent but comes with the inconvenience of stairs which you face in your robe and spa slippers; a definite safety hazard especially after a massage that leaves you limp.
Nightly entertainment is scheduled in the lobby but a night at Coco Bongo Club downtown will give you a LOT to talk about when you go home. It's pricey, the drinks and beer are watered and lousy but the entertainment and atmosphere is unforgettable. Think disco meets Cirque du Soleil with confetti shooting into the air.
Or the toot of a conch shell.