Dispatch: Playa’s Five-Star Gems in Playa del Carmen
Photos by Michael Isenbek
Gran Caribe in Cancun had revealed her treasures, and now it’s off to Playa del Carmen to explore The Royal and Gran Porto, two of Playa Hotels & Resorts’ five-star Mexican properties.
It was a swift and steady hour-long tour bus ride on a highway that runs roughly southwest along the contour of the Yucatan Peninsula’s outer tip. Elaborate entranceways to big resorts lined the road, but there were also flashes of non-tourist everyday Mexico. I wonder whom I might vote for in the upcoming Gobernador election? It must be soon, as billboard after billboard featuring the candidates lines the thoroughfare.
Exiting the highway, Playa del Carmen began to unfold. In contrast to the resort dominance in the Cancun area, there is a central, bustling town here, one that I would get to know better after settling in. Soon enough, we had arrived at The Royal and checked in.
I found myself searching for a way to describe the massive lobby, and “palatial” is the only word that fits. This is a five-star, all-suite accommodation, after all. A series of elaborate stain-glass domes lead to a central area surrounded by restaurants, stores and offices — and acres of polished stone floors. While Gran Caribe has a Mediterranean design, The Royal (along with Gran Porto) has classic hacienda architecture.
The grandeur continued in my suite, featuring a king bed with a wall-dominating headboard, ornamental columns with a serpentine design, and in one corner, a Jacuzzi for two. And, of course, a hammock on the balcony.
The cleaning staff proved themselves to be masters at room staging and linen origami. In addition to such romantic getaway staples as rose petals strewn across the bed and chocolate treats, there were also elephant and swan-shaped towels waiting for me when I returned after touring the grounds and amenities.
Take note, The Royal’s outdoor hallways are not that intuitive — room numbers do not correspond with floor levels, i.e. room 500 will be down the hall from 300, so for those with sense-of-direction issues (like myself), the staff will have no problem guiding you to your room, but making your own map or finding landmarks is also an option.
Before touring The Royal, we stopped at Asiana Restaurant for lunch. Set off The Royal’s grounds, this was done to give visitors a sense of being in town — just off the popular Fifth Avenue thoroughfare, according to Wally Dagri, public relations manager of Playa Hotels & Resorts.
We started with communal plates of sushi, followed by selections from the menu, which emphasizes Chinese and Thai cuisines.
Segueing to The Royal site tour after the meal, I got some insight into what makes a five-star resort tick, and besides the luxurious environment, it’s also the little things that help unify the all-inclusive package. Don’t expect to see room service trays littering the hallways. Using what Dagri called a “magic box,” food can be presented to guests through a portal built in to the wall. Also don’t forget to use the services of the pool butler, someone Dagri dubbed “your best friend” when lounging by or swimming in the pool.
Underwater adventurers take note, a Scuba school is located on-site, one at which complete beginners can attend and safely learn the ropes for certification. The surrounding waters offer some great Scuba spots, so guests can leap right into an underwater wonderland.
Dinner was at Maria Marie, an on-site Mexican/French fusion eatery. The tasty squash blossom crepes covered with poblano sauce perhaps best epitomized this melding of cuisines. Continuing the trend of innovation that shows up time and again at Playa’s resorts, dessert was a kind of deconstructed apple pie topped with coconut ice cream.
Wine pairings were also a major part of this meal. Each onsite restaurant has its own sommelier, and Maria Marie’s vino expert acquitted himself well, explaining the “terroir” and grape blends of the wines that accompanied each course.
Right after the meal, we went to The Royal’s lobby for the nightly performance, which was a blend of Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, dancing and Mexican folklore. A lasso master dazzled the crowd, and then traditionally dressed dancers cut a rug to the sounds of recorded music and a live Mariachi band.
Then things took a mournful turn when two dancers engaged in a “fight,” leaving one seemingly beaten to death on the dancefloor (the “punches” were played over the PA). Suddenly everything became a tribute to one of Mexico’s icons, artist Frida Kahlo. Out came a female dancer with her face painted in Kahlo’s “Day of the Dead” style, who pantomimed breathing life back in the slain dancer. Both utilized the trapeze and elastic band to great effect, all under a large image of Kahlo mounted on the apparatus.
After this powerful cultural display, it was time to head back to my room for a dip in the Jacuzzi, then some rest.
Next morning, the group ventured across the street from The Royal to Gran Porto.
We were welcomed at the entrance by mixed drinks, hands-over-hearts and cool hand towels from a contingent of staff. And since Gran Porto is kid-friendly, we were subsequently greeted by Sebastian, the gregarious crab from “The Little Mermaid” along with twin teddy bears.
Gran Porto has a different feel than The Royal, even though it shares the hacienda style. In public areas, its architecture is dominated by brick, barrel-vault ceilings, not dissimilar to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
The culmination of the Gran Porto tour was a visit to a top-floor suite, offering a commanding view of Playa del Carmen’s expansive shoreline. Our guide told us that this vista is so revered that professional photographers regularly visit to snap photos from this room’s balcony.
Also visible from here is the pier where the ferry to Cozumel departs — the island itself is just discernable on the horizon as a line of sizeable hotels.
Back at The Royal, it was time for a visit to SPAZul for a relaxing 80-minute massage. After checking in, I was presented with a bathrobe and slippers, which I put on in the coed shower-equipped changing area. After placing my clothes in a locker, I met my masseuse Melissa.
She led me into a low-lit area accented by soothing music. I was given a choice of scented oils and chose vanilla, and then Melissa left the room while I got situated on the table. What followed was an amazing massage session where all tension was wrung out of my muscles from head-to-toe by Melissa’s expert hands.
That night was the final sit-down dinner of the trip, a feast at S’Padas Brazilian Steakhouse at Gran Porto. As a cultural show took place outside — visible through a picture window — waiters circulated wielding giant skewers stacked with meats. Chicken, chorizo, flank steak, shrimp, pineapple … I quickly lost track as skewer after skewer sent me into a food coma.
Then it was up to the roof for a tequila tasting, accompanied by a view of Playa del Carmen’s nighttime expanse. A tequila sommelier explained the spirit’s manufacturing process, then offered tastes of top-shelf local tequilas, each aged progressively longer. Accompaniments included pineapple, nuts … and grasshoppers. I tried one, the initial bite releasing an acrid juice that made me cringe. Oh well, it’s probably one of those acquired tastes.
The evening culminated with a walk down Playa del Carmen’s famous Fifth Avenue. Cobblestoned and lengthy, bars and tchotchke-heavy souvenir shops are plentiful, along with recognizable international brands. Some great cultural crafts are available, but you’ll have to explore to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Of course, there was the occasional hawker presenting a questionable service, such as tattoos and piercings, but that’s all part of the fun, in addition to people-watching.
Back at The Royal, I enjoyed my final night of unlimited food with a large plate of cheese, meats and desserts from the 24-hour snack bar, and then dozed off.
The next day, as my JetBlue flight ascended from the area, I caught a last glimpse of that beautiful turquoise shoreline as the clouds parted. Farewell Cancun and Playa del Carmen, until we meet again!
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