RUNNER UP: BEST GOURMET GETAWAY – MR & MRS SMITH HOTELS 2017
Every year sea turtles come ashore on Xpu-Ha to make their nests – and you'll want to join them, if only for Hotel Esencia. This blissful boutique resort is set on the Mayan Riviera's most beautiful beach and its luxurious main building, the whitewashed three-storey Casa Grande, was built to satisfy the whims of a wealthy duchess and her guests. Today, it stands surrounded by a 30-acre estate, with a collection of luxury suites and villas, all with a private terrace that overlooks either the jungle or the sea. Seamless service, miles of beach, expertly mixed cocktails, a spa and only the turtles to pip to the post. Oh, and did we mention the clifftop Mayan ruins of Tulum are just half an hour away?
First-class organic spa
30-minute massage treatment for two
In the know
Also need to know:
Pups under 10lbs are welcome, for US$75 a night. Food bowls and beds will be provided for diminutive doggiesFancy a nip of something local? You'll find a sample of small-batch Casa Dragones tequila in your room.
Leave your pool shoes at home: you'll find a pair of Havaianas sandals in your room. Bikinis are a must; a swimsuit is probably more practical if you want to try snorkelling or scuba diving.
Informal and relaxed; a little dressier in the evening, if you feel like it.
Mr and Mrs Smith reviews
Spotting Uma Thurman on the verandah of the villa helped validate our decision to visit Esencia at the outset. We were still pale new arrivals at that point. Only a short time earlier, a hotel taxi had picked us up from the Cancun airport and driven us a quick hour south toward the resort, turning down a two-lane road off the highway toward the water. Upon entry, a ‘butler’ assigned to us made quick work of signing the paperwork before guiding us on the tour of the grounds – the manicured green lawns of the Esencia estate, dotted with palm trees, which until recently served as the private vacation home of an Italian duchess. I quickly entered into fantasies of owning our own such family compound.
‘Maybe we should see our room before we buy the place,’ my sensible Mr Smith cheerfully suggested. But first: midday cocktail hour by the pool.
I rarely drink hard liquor, but we were in Mexico after all, and Mr Smith assured me it would be impolite not to at least test the local tequila. We sat under a hot sun overlooking the sparkling blue ocean and were served two, and then two more, of the most exquisite margaritas, salted. Guacamole and fried chips kept arriving unbidden. As two well-behaved children splashed adorably – but not too loudly – in the water in front of us, we decided that we had made an excellent choice.
And then Uma emerged, ruddy and fresh from a facial. Exchanging knowing glances, we simultaneously cited, in whispers, our favorite celebrity magazine feature – ‘Stars! They’re just like us!’ in US Weekly, which publishes photos of stars engaged in mundane activities such as drinking lattes at Starbucks – and decided that in fact we were just like stars. Mr Smith rummaged around for the camera to document our immense success in life.
Before the silliness could continue, our usher appeared to tell us our room was ready. We stumbled across the lawn to a white stucco villa a short distance away, and were led into a sprawling suite.
Sobriety set in. This was our dream loft, not a resort hotel room. Up a short flight of stairs, the heavy wooden door opened up onto a split-level room decorated sparsely, all in white, with a large sitting area leading out onto a patio with an ocean view. On the upper level, a large bed sat in front of a flat-screen television (done tastefully modern, not gameboy style), with a nano iPod plugged into the surround-sound system. A Spanish music medley, downloaded by the hotel, played at the just-right romantic level. Before collapsing onto the bed, we inspected further: On each level was a bathroom, one featuring a standing, wood-paneled shower, the other with a walk-in closet and a large bath. Our fridge was full of (complimentary) local beer, juice and water.
‘Could you live here now?’ I teased. As we would repeatedly discover over the next two days, the beauty of Esencia was the mandate to do absolutely nothing other than wander a few feet to the next station of luxury – perhaps stopping to admire a small iguana on the way to the bar, or lazing in our private hammock, or staring blankly at the ocean before heading off to a massage. Although we had been duly informed at check-in about the available activities, including private scuba lessons and daily morning yoga lessons, nothing in the atmosphere (or the room brochure) urged excessive exertion. Even upon being shown the wi-fi equipped common room overlooking the pool, we were urged by a member of the hotel staff: ‘Please don’t do too much work.’
Thus implored, we headed to dinner our first night at the early hour of 7 pm – something of a tactical mistake, as we found ourselves surrounded by young families with children in high chairs. Still, a tasting from the extensive wine list and ceviche menu quickly put the family atmosphere at some remove. The next night, at a much later hour, the dimly lit dining area had a more exclusive feel. And yet the open seating encouraged interaction among the guests. One couple from San Francisco, having heard us say that we had previously been to the the Tides Riviera Maya resort down the road, did not hesitate to introduce themselves and ask for a comparison, which led to a spontaneous, alcohol-fueled forum on destination weddings that kept us laughing well after we had left.
By day, we did what we do best, examining every feature of the spa and taking advantage of as many services as we could justify spending money on. Set apart in its own bungalow (though with a full complement of modern amenities), the spa welcomed us even when we did not have appointments set, to use both the steam room (with a rosemary aroma) and the outdoor plunge pools. My best moment came when Claudia, a wiry Mexican woman with tattoos, led me to a private room for a massage, where for 80 glorious minutes she stretched and kneaded muscles I had never known. Afterward, she sat me down in a low wooden chair surrounded by candles to serve me fresh fruit and sweet tea. When I inquired about sitting in the jacuzzi, a therapist led me to a private, heated outdoor pool, where I sat and read, sans swimming suit, for more than an hour.
‘I am so happy and relaxed, I just can’t believe it,’ we overheard a lithe blonde woman at the next table on the patio (not Uma) say later on our final afternoon, before she tumbled onto the lawn with her Mr Smith for a round of tickling. We watched with the satisfaction of those who knew what she was talking about.
Carretera Cancún Tulum, Pedio Rústico Xpu-Ha Lote 18, Quintana Roo, Riviera Maya, Quintana Roo, 7771
54.7 mi / 88.2 km from city centre
- Valet parking
- Aerobics instruction
- Internet services
- On-Site parking
- Complimentary in-room coffee or tea
- Room service
- Onsite laundry
The casual poolside restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and small plates throughout the day in a relaxed shaded pavilion. Start your day with filling chilaquiles, nibble on grilled fish tacos for lunch and pop by for ceviche after a day at the beach. Open for dinner, the Garden Restaurant is set in an open-air palapa with views of the manicured gardens; the space deftly balances rustic beach chic (thatched roof and dark wooden floors) with the elegance of a fine-dining room (moody candlelight and white linen-dressed tables). The menu is inspired by regional cuisines with a Mediterranean accent and an emphasis on fresh local produce, herbs and vegetables grown in the estate’s gardens and seafood. Don't miss the red snapper marinated in Mayan achiote sauce. Fusing Peruvian and Japanese flavours with the best ingredients of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, chef Dimitris Katrivesis' menu at Mistura includes lots of creative dishes like confit duck leg with watermelon, hoisin sauce, cashews, thai basil and cilantro, and charcoal-grilled chicken skewers flavoured with oregano and cumin Peruvian sauce – all to be enjoyed with panoramic ocean vistas.
For lunch, go for a beachside table with a sea view; for dinner, one of the tables overlooking the cenote, an underground freshwater pool that's romantically illuminated by night.
The Pool Restaurant serves meals from 7am to 4pm and dinner from 7pm to 11pm; the Garden Restaurant serves dinner from 7pm to 11pm. Mistura is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Round the clock: hot food is available until 11pm; after the kitchen closes, cold snacks are still available.
Refresh with a cold-pressed juice after a spa session from the made-to-order juice bar. Sip drinks in the chill-out lounge in the main house, by the pool or on the beach up till 11pm. Try one of the tequila-based creations spiced with home-grown herbs and chilis.
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