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No, he wasn’t a real genie but the way our personal concierge tried to anticipate our needs as he welcomed us into the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort in Playa del Carmen, made us feel like he was. The five diamond, all-inclusive resort, tucked into the powder white sand of the Mexican Caribbean felt like an opulent mirage.
As he opened the solid, dark wooden door to our spacious, 1100 square-foot room, he made every attempt to let us know he was at our complete disposal during the duration of our stay. He opened a leather-bound pillow menu and went through the options to produce our perfect night’s sleep. He pulled open the mini-bar, stocked with premium, full-sized bottles and snacks and reassured us that anything not in the room would be available anytime through room service.
Dressed in the garb of a contemporary Mayan home, our room ended at a patio filled with vibrations of the jungle, fat palm fronds and hanging vines. A stream quietly babbled a few feet from our lounge chairs. It was like a moat, protecting this Mayan themed fantasy from the real world for the next few days.
The Grand Velas Riviera Maya calls our rainforest-filled section of its resort the Zen Grand Experience. And no wonder. The 254 suites in this part of the resort are steps away from the SE’ Spa, which we discovered later in our visit, and three of the eight gourmet restaurants. The other two Experiences of the resort are the 195 suite ocean-view Ambassador Experience, close to the kid’s and teen’s clubs, and the Grand Class Experience, 90 oceanfront suites with terraces and private plunge pools.
Outside our door, tropical foliage filled every area between the walkways and polished, dark wood bridges, thick with thatch covering, connecting the clean structures of the resort. Ceramic white planters lined the halls, contemporary, thin trees poking out. Shallow pools, set into the lobby floor, presented mosaic art pieces and everywhere Mayan crafts served to remind guests of their indigenous world.
The Tequila Tasting
Nothing is spared to bring an authentic, luxurious experience crafted by this ancient civilization. Three of the foodie restaurants earned four and five diamonds from AAA. There are also seven bars striving to create unforgettable moments. The Piano Bar is the site of an Ancestral Beverage Tasting.
Our teacher, Brandon, patiently explained to our group how many types of alcohol are derived from the agave plant, how they are processed and how long they’re each stored. “There are 320 different agave plants,” he told our tasting group, “Tequila is made only from the blue agave.” Turns out, alcohol is super regulated in Mexico and this is an actual law. As we tasted our way through the history of the regional drinks, we learned tequila is produced in the Jalisco region, while Mezcal is from Oaxaca. Mezcal is the smoky tasting cousin of tequila. “It was made as a present to the gods by the Mayan people,” Brandon told us. The Espadin agave plant is commonly used to make the mezcal and the reason for that smoky flavor is because the plant is literally burned, first as a whole and then in pieces, before it’s ground up and added to water and yeast to ferment. Another, newer to the U.S. alcoholic beverage is called Raicilla. Raicilla also comes from the Jalisco region and was largely produced on the sly so farmers could avoid paying taxes on it to their Spanish conquerors, which is why it’s only recently become a thing in the U.S. It uses a variety of agave plants to produce. Raicilla is also burned like mezcal instead of steamed like tequila and, unlike mezcal, is usually distilled only one time so it retains more of the flavor of its region. Finally, there is Sotol from Chihuahua which doesn’t even come from agave though many think it does. It comes from the dasylirion plant and is a bit sweeter than the others. Tasters could also explore the differences between how long each beverage was aged: silver or joven is only zero to two months old, reposado is two months to a year while anejo is between one to three years old. I think our entire tasting group agreed that history and geography lessons through distilled spirits are a great way to learn.
This is a fun activity to do while the kids are being entertained in the (included!) kid’s or teen’s club where they can participate in snorkel and kayak tours and play beach games. Listen. They need a break from us too, so don’t sweat it. And hey, they’re being educated.
After your class, take a walk on the powder, white sand beach, framed by tentative touches of the azure ocean. If you really must, you can join your kids in the ocean (yes, I had to) or look for the drink mixologist, crafting his garden and cellar concoctions on a mobile cart around the pool.
Every dish we consumed, at every restaurant in the Grand Velas resort, was spectacular. Each could stand alone as a high-end restaurant out in the actual world, however, the presentation at Cocina de Autor felt more like an art show than a dinner.
Each of the eight courses presented exquisite plates with unusual and delightful textures and flavors. There was a complex arrangement of trout balls on crispy wafers over black rice. A dish called The Sea in Monochromatic Green showed off poblano peppers, green tomato and coriander. Seriously unusual and crafted by genius.
Everything came out slowly so conversation poured freely around the table with the accompanying wine.
The SE’ Spa
Just when you think it can’t get any better, you discover the spa. The award-winning SE’ Spa is 89,305 square-feet of jungle heaven. Surly created by your genie, the spa is a luxurious cross section of the outside rainforest. Its stone walls are panels of cliffs from which giant fans of fronds and flowers spring. Waterfalls provide a soothing soundtrack to immerse yourself into the relaxation experience.
Every 50 minute treatment starts with a complimentary eight-step Water Ceremony. Yes. You can spend much of a whole day here. Guests are taken through a ritual that involves clay masks in a steam room, a dry sauna with cucumber slices for your eyes, a polar room with a eucalyptus scented, damp facial towel and an infinity pool with corners full of bubbles and actual turbo jet stone beds.
After the ceremony, you can choose from a bounty of the best treatments gathered from around the world. I chose the Personalized Massage that started with my feet resting in barley and included hot stones but I could have had the Thai or Hindu Foot and Scalp Rub or the Lomi Lomi. My genie must have taught my masseur how to read my mind because my massage felt that personalized.
After you’ve reset the spark and collected precious memories with the products of it, you can send your parents off to enjoy the gift of this Mayan fantasy holiday through the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Grandparent’s Package. Their deal includes a daily spa credit and an Eco Tour but the offerings rotate frequently and are designed to meet each guest in the exact place where they happen to be in their lives. It’s like an all-inclusive program that includes your own genie.
There are many non-stop flights each day from LAX and some with one and two stops out of Hollywood Burbank Airport to Cancun Airport, which is 40 minutes from the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort.