Buenas tardes from Mexico. I'm down here checking out a brand new luxury all-inclusive hotel. So if you're into good food and interested in seeing the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum, then you will definitely want to come on this trip. We left off last week from the exclusive island resort of Sunset Key in Key West, Florida (here's the link). From there I flew to Fort Lauderdale, spent a couple of days with my sister and niece and nephew before flying back to L.A. on American Airlines. In Los Angeles, I hung out with my dad and his wife Nancy, who were escaping the cold northeast temperatures. Some of the highlights from their visit included going to the Santa Anita race track and stopping off in China Town for some delicious and inexpensive dim sum at Empress Pavilion.
Los Angeles to Cancún on Alaska Airlines
I was invited to check out Karisma Hotel's newest resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico. Since I had just been to Cancún (here's the story), I wasn't sure if I should go or send one of our writers. But when I read the press release and saw how plush and innovative the place was, I decided I had to see it for myself. On top of that, it was just a mile away from the Tulum ruins which I regretted not seeing the last time I was in the area. To get to Tulum, I flew to Cancún on Alaska Airlines. What's cool about Alaska Airlines is that you can check-in online even for international flights and because I wasn't checking any bags, I breezed through LAX and security, taking the hassle out of going to the airport. (TIP: Be sure to check-in with the gate agent before boarding so they can see your passport and clear you in their computer system.) The flight to Cancún was only four hours and 15 minutes. I traveled on a 737-900 series plane and the first-class service was impressive. The flight attendants were attentive and friendly. After takeoff they served a hot, tasty (and fattening) chicken sandwich and handed each passenger a Digi Player loaded with an assortment of movies, TV and music entertainment channels. For economy passengers, these Digi Players are available to rent for either $10 or $15 (depending on how long the flight is). If you don't have a laptop or a book to read, they help to make the time "fly" by.
Cancún to Tulum
My cool seatmate was grateful that I told him to fill out the bottom part of the Mexican customs form that everyone seems to leave blank. There will be a Mexican official checking this the second you step into the airport; if it's not filled out, they will make you step to the side and complete it before allowing you to proceed to immigration. This will cost you valuable beach time. For those getting picked up by a hotel shuttle service, just keep walking. Ignore the screaming salespeople behind the Tours Information or Travel Advisors booths. And if you don't need help with baggage, just say no gracias in stride to the army of blue-shirted porters. The resort had made arrangements with Lomas Travel to drive me the 80 miles south (one hour and forty-five minutes) to Tulum.
These days, you don't need to change U.S. money into pesos as long as you're staying in Cancún or the surrounding tourist areas. Almost all stores accept US dollars, but some give change in pesos. The last two times I visited Cancún, I didn't bother to change my money and you don't need to either, unless you're taking the bus or going into real Mexico (off the beaten tourist path). FYI: 1 USD = 11.14 pesos.
I stayed at the brand-spanking-new AZUL Blue Hotel + Spa. It opened in late December, 2006 and I loved their stress-free concept, which starts even before you arrive. About a week before my trip, I was emailed a pre-arrival questionnaire asking all the basic information they'd need to speed up check-in and more. When I arrived, all I needed to do was hand my butler (yes, butler -- more on him in a minute) my credit card. The questionnaire didn't stop there; as I scrolled down, it became more and more interesting. For starters, the hotel offers to arrange your ground transportation to and from the airport; choices are a Lincoln Navigator, stretch limo or helicopter. Then it asks if you're allergic to any type of food or if you're celebrating a special occasion and would like a certain song played. Very thoughtful, eh? Then there's the pillow, scented oil and natural handmade soap menu. Gotta love that. It keeps getting better; you're then asked what type of music you want pre-loaded onto your iPod (yes, all rooms come with an iPod). And get this: If I wanted, my butler was available to assist with unpacking and ironing my clothes. Now that's what I'm talking about. I hate to iron. Note: They iron 2 pieces per guest for free, then there's a fee.
Tulum used to be a destination for backpackers, but the hotels have now gone upscale. When I pulled into AZUL Blue's compound, I knew it was going to be nice because even their neon blue signs looked chic. Upon arrival, the doorman was waiting for me with a cold towel and a glass of hibiscus and strawberry iced tea. He took my bags and introduced me to "my butler" who gave me a quick tour of the resort. It was dark, but it looked fabulous and wasn't overwhelming. There are 96 luxurious suites in six, two-storey villas. Each villa has a butler who is stationed behind a desk in the quad area. Their duties are to cover each villa's 16 suites. The rooms are huge, with high ceilings and have a double-size hydro-massage tub on either the inside or the outside of your room (Note: these tubs take a while to fill up so plan accordingly). The iPod was docked below the widescreen plasma satellite television (and a DVD player with movies to choose) and playing the music I had chosen the week before. The bedding was first-class (of course), and the sheets were 100% Italian cotton. The marble bathroom had heated floors and my new favorite coconut scented soap was waiting patiently for me to rub all over my naked body Â? which I did and took the remainder home. There was a basket of fruit near the desk (the rooms have free wireless internet) and a stocked mini-bar which is free for all guests to deplete at no additional charge. You gotta love that. That's because AZUL Blue is an all-inclusive resort. Is it just me or is there something about a free mini-bar that really turns you on? For me, it's because normally, I never even open them up for fear of being charged just for browsing the overpriced goodies. But the moment it's free, I act as if I'm Puff Daddy. Cocktail, anyone?
Dining & Drinking
While at dinner, my butler ironed my two pieces of clothing. He did a fine job and though tipping is not expected and maybe not even allowed, I did anyway. The food at the hotel restaurants is what surprised me the most. For one, I was expecting some greasy Mexican tacos (which I love and was actually a little bummed they didn't serve, although my stomach and Buddha belly were happy.) At an all-inclusive, you typically can't expect more than average food because that's usually what you get. But that's not the case here. I guess that's why the AZUL Blue's brochure describes it as gourmet-inclusive. A brie and peach quesadilla, anyone?
There are three main restaurants at the resort, all with open kitchens because Heiner Gellenberg, the German executive chef, who frequently walks around talking to guests, says they have nothing to hide. He even wants to put a camera in the kitchen and have it displayed on plasma TVs around the restaurant so guests can learn how to prepare their meals. The main restaurant is called Globe (open for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and serves a mix of local and global ingredients. I had breakfast there every morning and always contemplated whether I should be healthy and opt for the muesli with fruit or go with the omelet, pecan pancakes, crepes, waffles, French toast stuffed with cream cheese and pink bananas or the Chilaquiles (fried tortilla chips tossed in a green tomato and poblano pepper sauce). What do you think I chose? Just look at my belly. Better yet, don't.
The open-air thatched roof restaurant out by the pool is called The View (open for lunch and dinner). It serves sandwiches, crispy pizzas from a wood-burning oven and a whole slew of ceviches. They ranged from Panamanian Mahi Mahi Ceviche cooked with lime juice, pink onions, celery and habanero chili to Jamaican Chicken Ceviche marinated with soy and coconut with red chili and spices. I even took Heiner's class to learn how to make these myself.
Who would've thunk that in an isolated Mexican coastal resort that you could get authentic -- looking and tasting -- Asian cuisine? YUZU Restaurant (open just for dinner) serves Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Heck, they even have a sushi bar and sake parlor. For pre-dinner drinks, I was shooting sake bombs and mojito sakes, trying to figure out what country I was in. With all the travel I've been doing, dining at Yuzu really messed with my brain because my body was telling me I was in Mexico but my eyes were screaming Japan. And that was before I walked into the Tinto Lounge where they had tequila tastings.
There a four bars and lounges. This includes Tinto Lounge which not only offers wine and tequila tastings, but has daily live piano and music performances. There's a swim-up bar and once a week they bring in salsa dancers for a fiesta night. All the guests I spoke to were impressed with AZUL Blue's selection of top-shelf alcohol. However, they did say that the house wines weren't always the best.
For those who want something over-the-top, the resort has a sous chef named Jonatan Gomez Luna who trained under Chef FerrÃ¡n AdriÃ¡ of the famed El Bulli restaurant in Spain (it's one of the most famous restaurants in the world). Jonatan and Heiner can prepare a nine-plate creative dinner that includes liquid ravioli, peanut butter lobster tail, and a test tube concoction called Flavors of Tulum; one of those flavors was coconut sunscreen. Dessert smelled and tasted like Carolina Herrera perfume (it was supposed to). It reminded me of the five-hour creative dinner I had in Torino at Combal.Zero (Here's the link to that story).
Mayan Language: The natives down here not only speak Spanish but Mayan. The only Mayan I learned was "Dios botik" -- thank you.
With all the free food, it's a good thing that AZUL Blue has an excellent fitness room and studio which offers daily yoga, pilates, martial arts and spinning classes. Mountain bikes are also available to cruise around and explore the surrounding area which is famous for its Cenotes. Cenotes are a freshwater-filled limestone sinkhole with caverns to explore and are ideal to snorkel and dive in. If you prefer salt water, the resort can arrange for you to go out to the sea to dive or deep sea fish. For those who want something more relaxing, then mosey on down to the 10,000 square foot spa for a treatment. I tried the Sacred Stone Massage (50-75 min./$118-$177), in which they use hand-carved obsidian stones that were used in ancient Mayan rituals and then placed on my body to burn my arse, I mean, decrease tension and restore health. Seriously, these stones were so ridiculously HOT that the masseuse had to wrap them in a cloth and they were still burning. However, after the first 20 minutes, when she began massaging my kinks, it felt good -- real good. Oh yeah -- out back there's a Temazcal, which you can learn all about from the time I went into one of these dark, hot, claustrophobic sweat-houses that cleanse the body, in Cabo San Lucas.
The resort has a beautiful, but if you ask me, too-cold pool. The best part about it (besides the incredible vistas) are the pool butlers who constantly circle, taking cocktail orders or bringing refreshing drinks, cold towels, snacks and treats. A short, slippery walk away are four hot tubs with different temperatures -- the one set at 104F makes up for the chilly pool. As you can see from the pictures, the Mexican Caribbean water is a gorgeous, turquoise blue and a huge bummer is that the resort doesn't have a beach where you can enjoy it. However, they do have access to one a few miles away and there are lounge chairs, a couple of cabanas and swings along the rocky coast to tease you.
It would almost be a crime to stay at AZUL Blue and not visit the ancient Tulum ruins, which are located just five minutes down the road. The resort even offers trips there with their guide or can arrange a separate trip for you. If you visit on your own, the entrance fee is 45 pesos ($4 USD). What makes Tulum special is that it's the only Mayan structure built atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and the world's second largest coral reef. It was built around 465 BC in the Classic period of Mayan culture and was originally named Zama (meaning dawn). It was renamed Tulum (meaning wall) at the beginning of the twentieth century since it's a walled city and considered an important commercial and navigational port for the Mayas. Below the ruins is a popular sandy beach with huge iguanas sunning and hiding in the rock wall. TIP: Don't go to Tulum on Sundays. It's the one day of the week they don't charge an entrance fee and it's packed.
Naturally, because I visited a month after they opened, there were going to be aspects of the resort that need improvement. Here are my four biggest concerns: the marble floors (especially by the pool) are really slippery -- someone could get seriously injured. The room doors are not sound-proofed, so you can hear people talking in the quad area which is a bit annoying. There's no beach to swim at and lastly, the wait staff needs some more training. Practically all new hotels have this problem and in this case, I think part of the problem was the language barrier. However, the good news is that they're all very friendly which makes up for their lack of knowledge.
The resort is beautiful. The staff are friendly and the butlers address you by your name and genuinely care about your wellbeing. I wasn't feeling well one day -- too much ceviche - and they offered to bring a doctor and/or chicken soup to my room. I thought that was very cool. From my pictures and video (below), you can tell that I really enjoyed my trip here and would recommend it to anyone looking to experience a luxury all-inclusive and wanting to relax and indulge on good food, drinks and spa treatments. Of course, this is not the real Mexico. It's a safe haven built for those who don't want to have to worry about anything (crime, contaminated water/food, etc.) However, I don't recommend this resort for families; there are no programs set up for kids and there's nothing for them to do. AZUL Blue should really be an adults-only resort.
What it Costs
I met a lot of well-traveled guests who have been all over the world and have stayed in some of the best hotels.
I asked them all if they would come back here again and they all said "no".
But that's because they don't visit the same place twice -- I like that philosophy.
However, when I asked if they would recommend AZUL Blue to a friend, they all said "yes".
And that's a great sign. Booking AZUL Blue through their parent company Karisma Hotels will cost you the most.
Their prices range from $774-$1,254 USD, per night, per couple.
That's not cheap but remember: that includes everything and they occasionally have specials. If you book through a tour operator you can get
a much better deal. I met a nice Canadian couple from Vancouver who stayed at AZUL Blue for a week for $2,400 USD each and that
included air, transfers and taxes. Now that's a deal -- maybe even a steal.
Azul Blue Website.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Karisma Hotels.
John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.johnnyjet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 850 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, CNBC and MSNBC), and has published the book, You Are Here Traveling With JohnnyJet.com.
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