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There are great South Florida resorts and beach experiences, but it’s an altogether different experience at the all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya near Cancun.
The tone is set when you pull off the highway after a half-hour drive from the airport. Like a mirage, there’s a sandy beach with a lagoon in front of 39-foot-high white walls. Pass through the security gate in the middle and there’s a mile-long journey through the resort’s 206 acres, filled with jungle and mangroves, before you hit the resort on the Caribbean shore. Any stress you have moves into the rearview mirror.
There’s no need to get out your purse and billfold after you arrive. The rates at the five-diamond AAA resort, which start at $478 a person based on double occupancy, include à la carte meals at its four- and five-diamond specialty restaurants, expansive luxury suites, high-speed internet, premium-branded beverages, 24-hour in-suite service, the fitness centers, taxes and gratuity.
The resort’s style is a mix of high modern design, with enough marble to empty a quarry, and native Mexican traditions, such as thatched roofs and artful designs that use smooth black Mexican beach rocks. Grand Velas also has resorts near Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.
The Ambassador side of the oceanfront resort caters to families while our tour group stayed in the Grand Class, where children are not allowed in the pool area. Another portion of the resort’s 539 rooms are in the Zen area, which is cloistered off the entry road and features the expansive Se Spa, a wedding planning center, the tropically inspired Koi Bar and a conference center. Don’t miss the boardwalks that offer beautiful views of cenotes, which are a prettier version of Florida’s sinkholes. An informative eco tour explains the flora and fauna.
The Grand Class, with its 1,100-square-foot rooms, totally lived up to its name. The expansive bedroom and living room had a large-screen Samsung TV that swiveled on a stand above the mini-bar to face the couch or the bed. However, you’ll quickly lose attention when you see the wall of glass doors that lead to a private balcony overlooking the shimmering blue waters of the Caribbean. You’ll see it’s time to dip your toes in the balcony’s plunge pool or relax on one on the thickly cushioned recliners. Celebrate your arrival with the bottle of mezcal brewed specifically for Grand Velas, the chilled white wine and beer in the refrigerator or the bottle of red on the shelf next to the wine glasses. With 24-hour room service, you could fully hibernate in the room and use the high-speed internet to post on social media.
If you want to cool off after warming up on the balcony, there’s a sleek glass shower and a large whirlpool bath in the bathroom, which is separated from the bedroom by beautiful sliding wood panels.
However, upon my arrival, it was lunchtime and The Bistro restaurant was beckoning on the first floor. I pulled on the bronze iguana-replica door handles and entered a multilevel dining and bar area with great views of the pool area and ocean. I enjoyed the attentive service—almost too much—since there was always another margarita on the way.
The Bistro had a great mix of continental and modern Mexican cuisine. Artisinal bread with rosemary and regular butter quickly arrived along with homemade potato chips. I ordered the roasted corn and crab flan soup. The delightful dish arrived at the table with a whole crab claw and scoop of crab flan, and then the waiter poured a creamy rich broth into the bowl. Our party tried lion’s paw scallops and jumbo shrimp for lunch. Both were perfectly cooked, a consistency we found throughout our stay. The artful presentation of our lunch was just a hint of what was to come when we visited the foodie heaven’s other restaurants.
After lunch, it was time to work off the calories, although we didn’t make use of the resort’s impressive gym. We marveled at the beautiful infinity-edge pool on the Grand Class side and walked past a large thatched roof bar that had seats in the water. Paradise.
Walking down a boardwalk, we admired the immaculately kept grounds, which included bright pink bougainvillea and beautiful vines in the sand with mauve flowers. As an avid tropical gardener, I can say that Grand Velas’ grounds are among the best examples of tropical landscaping I’ve seen.The Ambassador side of the resort had multiple expansive pools and plenty of shady cabana areas. There was an abundance of servers going to and from the beach chairs with beverages and food. Fish tacos, anyone?
We strolled to the circular shaped Azul restaurant, which has a soaring timber and thatched roof and a sweeping view of the ocean. Azul serves a lavish buffet, starting at breakfast, with an array of cuisines.After a nap, we took a more formal tour of the resort, including the karaoke room, Kid’s Club and Teen Club areas. The Kid’s Club has activities from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., if parents want to have some quality time away from the children. For adults, there are group yoga and Zumba classes. There is an abundance of marine activities, including kayaking, kiteboarding and flyboarding.
Dinner was at Frida’s, which is named after the renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I started with a tasty gordita topped with a crispy pork rind with octopus with a salsa that included dark beer and chile ash. The Grand Velas restaurants consistently take ordinary fare and give it a tasty twist that reflects the local ingredients. My ribeye had a red pipian mole sauce with mesquite-smoked potatoes. (Pipian is a puréed sauce that can include pumpkin and sesame seeds.) I was intrigued to learn about Mexican wine when I was served a 2015 Llano Colorado Cabernet Sauvignon from Mexico’s Baja region. It was delightfully smooth with a medium body.
We enjoyed the Zen ambience of the Asian and Mayan inspired Chaka restaurant one evening, but the highlight restaurant of our trip was Cocina de Autors. It is the first restaurant in an all-inclusive resort to receive AAA five-diamond honors. Chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso combined their Basque heritage with Mexican influences. Our group had a dozen dishes, which were each explained in detail. There were interesting twists, such as crispy trout skin, in one dish and trout sashimi in another. The braised quail with an almond sauce was a delight. The grouper was covered by poblano chili mojo over a corn and a coriander puree with a pour of cactus juice around it. One of the highlights of my visit was a visit to the nearly 40,000-square-foot Grand Velas Se Spa, which is divided into male and female sides. My experience started with hourlong water therapies, including a steam room, an ice room, a dry sauna, a sauna where you rub clay on your skin and showers that quickly alternate between warm and cold water. At the end, you wade through a long trough of ice-cold water and then a trough of warm water. I made several loops. Then, it’s into a large infinity pool that has hydrotherapy jets coming out of the walls and my favorite—a curvaceous recliner with air bubbles.
There is a big array of massage and beauty treatments at the spa, but I wanted a local experience and chose the face and body massage with organic Xtabentún flower honey and a Mayan Chaká tree bath elixir. The massage started with an incredibly centering, spiritual experience that included putting my feet in a bowl of husks before the therapist wrapped them in warm, moist cloths. While lying on the massage table, I could smell the honey infused into the massage oil. There was a whirlpool bath in the room to rinse off the oil and allow clients to experience the elixir. I can’t remember a time when I felt so relaxed.
Overall, Grand Velas lived up to its five-diamond reputation and I look forward to returning for a longer stay. ♦
Birds’ Eye View
Grand Velas likes to create unique experiences for guests, so we drove to Cancun and boarded the Ma View, a 25-foot Sea Ray for a three-hour journey to Isla Contoy, also known as the Isle of Birds. Getting there takes careful planning since there is a limit on how many people can arrive. Bring a metal bottle for water since plastic bottles aren’t allowed. Sunscreen is discouraged to protect the reefs. The island is a migratory birding paradise, and we marveled at the seemingly nonstop line of frigates soaring along the rocky cliff of the island. The beach was beautiful, but we had to keep watch on a small crocodile that meandered outside the swimming buoys.
Grand Velas worked with LivingDreamsMexico.com to create the exclusive trip and we were served an outstanding lunch of freshly prepared lobster and seafood skewers. Living Dreams is rated 5 stars on Trip Advisor, and our guide was exceedingly informative.
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