Three perfect days for Dad on the Riviera Maya
By Tracy Barnett, Roads Less Traveled blog
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Quintana Roo – A light breeze moves in the jungle beyond our patio at the Grand Velas resort; birds call to each other with liquid notes, and my mother reads her Bible beside me as my father sleeps.
We’re winding to the close of our action-packed itinerary – maybe too action-packed, I reflect, but as Dad would say, “We had ‘er to do.”
Unforgettable moments flip through the slideshow of my memory: my father’s boyish grin lighting up in spite of himself as he stood, lifejacket up around his ears, the dolphin leaning in and kissing his cheek. Shaking his head in disbelief as our two waiters explained the special six-course meal that the famous French chef at Piaf, Michele Mustiere, had prepared for him, taking into account all of the complicated restrictions of his diet. Seeing him lying back on a canopied lounge on the beach, soaking up the sun and the attentions of an efficient and watchful staff.
My factory-worker dad, father of nine and grandfather of a houseful of rambunctious little ones, had never come close to such luxury. He hadn’t even known that it existed. A shadetree mechanic and consummate fixer of broken things, I found him examining the cooling system in our suite and chatting up the shuttle drivers and motorcycle salesmen we would meet along the way.
Recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-induced cancer with a grim prognosis, he had decided to work with a naturopathic doctor to boost his immune system in an attempt to beat back the cancer. One strategy was a radical change in diet; my meat-and-potatoes Dad was a sudden vegan. Another, according to all that we had read, was to keep living to the fullest, doing things that brought him joy.
“I’m not afraid to die,” he told me not long after his diagnosis. “But as long as I’m here, I’m going to live.”
I wanted to support him in that vow on every level. I had long dreamed of bringing my parents to Mexico, my adopted second country, to share with them a bit of the culture that I had come to love. Now I knew there was no time to waste. I persuaded them to get their passports, and in December, we escaped the dreary Midwest winter for nine precious days on the Yucatan Penninsula.
“Just when you think it can’t get any better… it does,” he mused as we wound our way down the thatch-roofed passageway through the jungle, one beautiful vista opening after another; here a garden with a small waterfall, there a cenote filled with clear spring water. Everything had been developed in this resort with an eye toward protecting the fragile seaside ecosystem; Grand Velas has won numerous awards for its environmental stewardship, and it’s evident as we look around us – especially as we walked along the picture-perfect beach and saw the long expanses of green that extended between Grand Velas and neighboring resorts. An environment all the more appealing for my forest-dwelling folks.
There were moments not made for Kodak on this trip, to be sure. The rental car agency that charged us twice the price for insurance what we’d paid for the online vehicle rental; the frantic hour spent looking for them when I lost them to Merida’s chaotic traffic; the unpleasant surprise when Dad reached out to grab a tree in the jungle walk at Xel Ha – and pulled his hand away to find it crawling with biting ants; his long silences as I drove, catching a farway look in his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Penny for your thoughts,” I’d say.
“Watch out, you’re about to hit that speed bump,” he’d respond.
Moments like these I ached to know what was on his mind – and more importantly, that he was really on the mend, that the diet and all the supplements and naturopathic treatments were doing the trick, that his low energy was due to his healing process and not his decline.
This was not for us to know, as he gently reminded me time and again. “It’s all in the Lord’s hands,” he would say.
I would take a deep breath and nod.
The first five days of our trip we’d spent on a road trip to Merida, where we stayed three days in the picturesque colonial city and two days at an atmospheric and picturesque restored hacienda, Hacienda Petac. (Read my story, "Hacienda Petac: A little piece of Eden," here). Friday we drove back to Cancun, touring Chichen Itza and a bit of the colonial city of Valladolid along the way. We spent the night at the JW Marriott in the Zona Hotelera, watching the moon rise over the crashing waves from a beachfront balcony. The hotel is not far from the airport and well situated for immediate gratification, with an enormous infinity pool facing the ocean, a broad expanse of beach and 360-degree views of the breathtaking turquoise waters and powdery sands of Cancun.
My parents spent a relaxed morning beachcombing and lounging on the Marriott's picturesque private beach before heading down to Grand Velas on the Riviera Maya — named by Conde Nast and AAA as one of the world’s finest hotels. We had saved the best for last.
Saturday afternoon we arrived at Grand Velas, driving over a moat and through a gateway in the vast expanse of white stone that walled off this exclusive compound. “Welcome home,” said the young man with the clipboard, and we crossed another blue waterway onto a narrow lane that wound through the jungle. We found our way to the elegant thatch-roofed lobby. Our car was whisked away and our personal butler, Aldo, saw us to our spacious picture-perfect Zen Suite, with a giant jacuzzi and French doors that opened out onto the room and a patio that opened out onto a water garden complete with bougainvillea and a lilac-colored water lily. Beyond the tiny garden extended the jungle; beyond that, the mangrove forest, and beyond that, the beach and the brilliant blue Caribbean.
All this beauty was hard to leave behind, but dinner at Frida’s, one of the resort’s seven award-winning restaurants, awaited; named for the iconic Frida Kahlo, whose portrait brightens up the entry with an earthy radiance, the decor, like the menu, presents Mexican traditions with a fresh and modern twist. A classically dressed Mexican singer and guitarist serenaded us with romantic ballads as we dined. To my delight, salmon al pastor was on the menu. How I’d longed to share one of my onetime Mexican favorites – tacos al pastor, with its succulent pork marinated in the juices of a pineapple and turned on a rotisserie in front of the fire. Now, since an occasional serving of fish was allowed in the second phase of his diet, I could share the essence of this typical taste treat with him. He loved it almost as much as I did.
Day Two began early with an hour’s drive south to Tulum, with its ancient pyramids on the coast. The stark white limestone stood out against the brilliant blue sky and the multihued turquoise and cerulean waters, and he pronounced the view worth the walk – a circuit that a year ago he could have breezed through before breakfast had become a rigorous workout, but one he completed with good cheer.
Dinner found us at the unforgettable Piaf, named for the tiny French singer with a voice that conquered hearts the world over. “Think of us, not as your waiters, but as your tour guides on this culinary adventure,” said Adolfo, one of two young men who meticulously attended us, as he handed Dad a damp cloth to wipe his hands before commencing a procession of works of culinary art, beginning with a salad of mixed lettuces and flower petals accompanied with a red wine sorbet and a quail egg.
The dishes were dismayingly tiny, to my Dad’s way of thinking, but I promised he would not go hungry. Six courses later, Chef Mustiere himself stood before us and explained the way he’d prepared our dessert himself – a strawberry savayón, a confection sweetened with port wine, alcohol evaporated off, and topped with a golden-brown merengue – all, apparently, on my Dad’s diet. Dad nodded his appreciation to the white-garbed gentleman – “It’s all just great,” he said, and posed sheepishly for a few photos.
“Can I ask for seconds?” he wanted to know. But the chef was already gone.
Monday was the exciting climax of our Riviera Maya adventure, with a dolphin swim scheduled at Xel-Ha, one of several nature-oriented theme parks along the coast. Irasema was our guide, taking us on a walk that led through the jungle and past all manner of means to entertain ourselves in the aquatic wonderland of the Yucatan: cenotes where you could dive in, enter a cave and emerge downstream on the shore of an inlet; ropes you could swing on like a modern-day Tarzan; a cliff you could dive off of into the deep blue waters below; and a “lazy river” that you could lie on an inner tube and wind your way through the park for nearly an hour.
Dad’s a country boy who grew up on the river, and just last summer, I’d have been struggling to keep up with him. But these days his circulation was not what it used to be, and he was afraid of catching a chill, so we walked along the path and wistfully watched others splashing joyfully along the way.
Nonetheless, come 1:30, we found ourselves lined up for the orientation with the dolphin trainer. “Prepare yourselves for the experience of a lifetime,” the excited young man advised us. Dad looked dubious and fiddled with his lifejacket. Mom looked tiny in her child-sized jacket. We lined up with the three young girls who were assigned to our group – Sophie, Zoey and Phoebe, aged from 7 to 11 – and followed our guide to the dock.
“It looks cold!” said Dad.
“It’s going to be an adventure!” said Mom.
Both of them were right.
Our dolphin was named for Hunahpu, one of the twin heroes whose stories were told in the ancient Mayan text the Popol Vuh. Like his namesake, a feisty soccer player, our Hunahpu was a playful fellow indeed, flirting and kissing and splashing and dancing in turn with each of us. As gentle as he seemed, we also had a glimpse of his strength when we formed a circle and he swam rapidly around and around us, surrounding us in a powerful wave that nearly knocked us over.
Dad’s tense face relaxed into a smile as the dolphin performed his antics, and he seemed to have all but forgotten the cold by the climax – the dolphin push. “No, no, no, I think that’s a little too much,” he said as I repeated to him the procedure outlined by the trainers. Two dolphins would place their noses at the base of each foot and push him rapidly through the water, eventually lifting him upright as if he were skiing.
“You love skiing, Dad – remember?” I cajoled him. “And this is easier – the dolphins do all the work!”
Finally, he consented. One of the girls and I went first to show him how it was done – and it was exhilarating to feel the two shiny noses planted on the soles of my feet, and my body lifting from the force of forward movement. I turned to see Dad preparing for his turn, hoping that I’d been right, and that it wouldn’t be too much for him.
I needn’t have worried. The same Dad who’d taught me to ski, coaxing me through my fear bit by bit to my legs from the cockpit of his beloved boat, took to the dolphin push like a champ, nearly rising to a full stand before taking the plunge. He emerged grinning from ear to ear.
“That was something,” he said.
But Dad is a man not given to idle talk, and I wasn’t sure if I’d hit the mark with all of this activity. Was he enjoying it all – or just humoring me? Would he have preferred to just lounge in our suite and surf the massive flat-screen TV?
It wasn’t until the day after we returned that I got my answer. I tuned in as I heard him relate the whole tale to his friends and brothers on the phone.
“You just had to see it to believe it,” he’d say. “…and there were these chefs…. and we had a butler… and they treat you like a king… and the dolphin kissed us, and we kissed the dolphins.”
“And me, an old boy from Iron County, Missouri. It was just more than I could have imagined.”
If you go
The JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, Blvd. in the Zona Hotelera is a good place to start. Just 11 miles from the airport and with a spectacular stretch of coastline, this AAA five-diamond resort has everything you need to put yourself in luxury vacation mode: Six restaurants, two bars and a market; a three-level, Mayan-inspired spa, an infinity pool and a spacious expanse of beach will help you unwind as you plan your next moves.
The Marriott can set you up with tours to Chichen Itza, Tulum, the Riviera Maya or anywhere else you want to go. But for maximum flexibility you can rent a car and head to Merida yourself - rent online at hotwire.com for cheaper rates. The four-hour drive is a peaceful one on a modern freeway that cuts through the jungle, or you can make a day of it and check out the colonial city of Valladolid and the ruins at Chichen Itza along the way.
In Merida, if you want to spend some time in an urban setting to get a feel for this beautiful colonial city, a good balance between luxury and economy is the Misión Merida, a lovely colonial-style, Mexican-owned establishment at the heart of the city.
Another option is to book a family or group at the Hacienda Petac, a meticulously restored hacienda just 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle and surrounded in the quietude of a tropical rainforest.
For the luxury of a lifetime in a resort that takes the environment seriously, plan to spend some time at the Grand Velas, five minutes from Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya. Set on over 80 acres of protected mangroves, jungle and natural spring water pools locally known as cenotes, Grand Velas offers more than 1,000 feet of carefully preserved white sand beach. Diverse luxury accommodation options include exotic garden suites that look out into the jungle, oceanview suites around the central infinity pool, and oceanfront suites with private plunge pools overlooking the spectacular blues of the Mexican Caribbean. Its eight five-diamond restaurants span the globe, and its 75,000-square-foot spa features a revolutionary hydrotherapy circuit and a menu of treatments inspired by the ancient healing practices of Mexico and distinct world cultures.