Cancun’s airport could be anywhere. Throngs of fluffy Americans draped in matching polo shirts or stuffed into too-tight track suits struggle to hoist their steamer trunks from the scraped metal leaves of the baggage carousel. Some are more facile than others.
In a nearby corner, a 20-something couple embraces passionately as bystanders watch awkwardly from the sidelines. Frazzled parents drag their brood and their bulging Samsonites and Travelpros through the customs checkpoint. Every box, bag and carton whirls through an X-ray machine before it and its owner are permitted to leave the airport terminal. Moments later, they emerge from the air conditioning and plunge themselves into the thick Mexican heat.
From far-away destinations, they’re called by the Siren song of Cancun’s normally tranquil waters. To reach the beach, however, they first navigate a sea of taxi and tourist bus drivers all hawking the same thing: access to Mexico’s vacation paradise.
The ocean winds swirl in the airport parking lot, and billows a Mexican national flag tethered to the top of a tall pole. The flag flaps like an angry tempest. Cars and vans try to hide from the noon heat beneath the barren skeletons of sun canopies, their skins ripped away by last year’s hurricanes. Now, only their metal bones remain, last vestiges of the damage wrought by Hurricane Wilma in October.
Other than the airport, fully intact and engorged with tourists, what can visitors expect to see of this region’s recovery?
Actually, much has returned to normal. Most of Cancun’s beachside hotels and businesses are recovering, though they still look a bit rough around the edges. And not all of the area’s 15 golf courses are ready for play, but a new P.B. Dye course, (yes, he’s the son of golf great Pete Dye), debuted this past summer. It triumphantly endured Hurricanes Emily and Wilma (Emily struck only 16 weeks after the course opened) and survived both attacks no worse for the wear.
The Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that 88 percent of all hotel and rental units will reopen by winter. The entire beachfront has been reopened following a $20 million recovery effort. In less than a year since Hurricane Wilma nearly annihilated the entirety of this holiday metropolis, the tourists – and the tourist industry – seem to be back. Signs of destruction are yielding to reconstruction everywhere.
“I lost my home and all of my possessions,” a deeply tanned woman from Colorado wearing a light cotton dress tells a fellow passenger. “There’s nothing left. Not even the foundation.”
Will she rebuild, I ask?
“That’s why I’m here,” she replies, almost exuberantly. “I’m building a bigger home in a better area with the insurance money. That’s how property appreciates in Mexico. You wait for a hurricane.”
In the cleanup effort, she is not alone. Insurance dollars and private equity are pouring into this area adjacent to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Much of the recovery is evident on the 30-minute route from Cancun’s airport to Iberostar’s upscale Paraiso Maya Resort, at the far edge of town.
The drive would be mostly forgettable except for the nearly new concrete four-lane highway interrupted only a couple of times by traffic lights and speed bumps. A few years ago, this passage was no more than a dusty, gravel and asphalt road. The road makes the commute to the resort easy.
From the sandy shoulder, a small teenage girl maneuvers easily between cars stopped at the second intersection. She’s selling plastic bags filled with flour tortillas as big as serving platters to drivers, who tear open the steamy bags and snack on them in their cars.
Along the right side of the road, mangrove tree trunks lean deeply into each other, like fallen dominoes tumbled by Hurricane Wilma last year and unable to right themselves. Corrugated tin roofs top a shanty here and there. Stacked cinder block walls show early signs of a housing rebirth. A few paces beyond a security checkpoint on the main road from the airport to Cancun, a dozen day laborers sit nearly motionless, languishing under the noon sun, parching like caliche clay.
Still, the laborers are there, ready to work. Cancun – and the Mexican people – are nothing if not resilient.
Dense vegetation has grown to blanket the caliche clay, defiantly rebounding from the hurricanes’ wrath. Beside downed trees, new growth has nearly overtaken the old stumps. On the horizon, 10-story cranes sweep above the raw structure of a new 450-room Iberostar luxury hotel set to open in the fall.
Better known for its Spring Break beer bashes and party boats, Cancun fights a bit of an image problem for adults. But a few miles outside Cancun, high-end resorts that cater more to families and luxury travelers to than college refugees now line the highway.
To attract that clientele, the area has branded itself the Riviera Maya, and the sprawling Iberostar Playa Paraiso Resort is its current darling.
Spain’s Iberostar group knows a thing or two about upscale leisure hotels. They operate 100 hotels and resorts – 63,732 beds – in eight countries, including Spain, Greece, the Dominican Republic and Turkey. Here in the Riviera Maya, adjacent to their Playa Paraiso Resort and their Paraiso Maya hotel, they’ve opened their first golf course.
After only its first year, the P.B. Dye track is among the top resort courses you’ll find in Mexico or the Caribbean. The fairways, greens, bunkers and landscape are meticulously manicured and mature. You might never realize two recent hurricanes pummeled this area and submerged most of the course under sea, sand and debris.
The resort staff is a clever bunch. Realizing that without tourists their employment would suffer, they recruited their families and worked for three solid weeks to manually clear the course, repair the damage and reopen for play.
Dye, like his father, likes to sculpt the land himself from the seat of a bulldozer. “If he didn’t like the way a hole was progressing, he’d hop on the ‘dozer and rebuild it himself,” Sergio Poo, the head pro told me.
No fan of flat terrain, Dye incorporated 20-foot mounds, deep greenside bunkers, multi-tiered greens and plenty of trees into his layout. Depending on the winds and your swing, the 6,800-yard, 136-slope course (back tees) plays differently every day.
Dye built in plenty of reward for taking the most minimal of risky shots; if you take one risk, you’ll usually find a reward. For example, carrying a wall of trees on your second shot on No. 14, a dogleg-left par-5, leaves you fewer than 100 yards to the green. Bite off a bit more, (fly the ball 180 yards over those trees and a small shack), and you’re on the green in two.
On the fourth hole, a straight-ahead, 350-yard par-4, deep fairway bunkers protect the green from long hitters but favor easy approach shots (the bunkers begin 294 yards from the men’s tees; “Lay back off the tee so you don’t reach the deep grass bunkers,” the yardage book coaches you. Who doesn’t feel good about being told to “lay off” you tee shot so you won’t reach a hazard 300 yards ahead?).
This is a course you can conquer and feel good about.
If anyone in Latin America understands tourism, it’s Iberostar and its resort staff. In the hotel as well as on the course, employees are quick to offer assistance and anticipate your needs. Iberostar spent millions on the amenities, rooms and common areas, and every peso shows.
The lobbies are grand, the free-form pools are enormous, and the rooms are luxurious – and air-conditioned.
On the course, maintenance workers routinely turn off their power equipment as golfers approach, then toss you golf balls they’ve found. All snacks and beverages (water, soft drinks, beer and even liquor) are complimentary.
In fact, nearly everything at this Iberostar resort is complimentary (though green fees are not). Playa Paraiso is an all-inclusive array of four hotels, each offering slightly different levels in-room luxury but sharing the common areas and restaurants. Dining options are varied. Room service, cocktails, wine, beer, soft drinks, water and all meals are included in the all-inclusive price. (And so are all gratuities, so you can leave your wallet in your room safe.) Dining options, late-night entertainment and bars stocked with premium liquors – it’s like a cruise ship that never leaves port.
There are acres and acres of kid-friendly and adult pools (some with swim-up bars) and a wide beach area on the ocean. The 435-room Paraiso Maya is the resort’s current premiere hotel, though an over-the-top Grand Paraiso hotel is now under construction and slated to open in late fall.
After golf, a visit to the region’s premier spa should be mandatory. If you’ve never had a massage, this is the place to try your first. Prices are reasonable, the locker rooms and wet areas are private and luxurious, and the therapists are uniformly excellent. The spa offers a massage designed specifically for golfers and is particularly relaxing and refreshing. If you’re a spa veteran, you’ll be impressed with this spa facility and its menu of services. (Consider the hot stone massage or some deep tissue work.)
Also consider a dinner at the nearby Pavo Real, an inexpensive taxi drive away. Chef Alan Grimond and his wife Sonya operate a 50-seat country French restaurant with Mexican influences. Prices are reasonable for his ever-changing menu, which included venison osso buco, rack of lamb and wild sea bass on my visit. The candle-lit setting and attentive service will exceed whatever expectations you may have.
If you think Wilma and Emily left the Cancun region as an uninhabitable, devastated wasteland, or if you only equate the area with College Girls Gone Wild, Iberostar Playa Paraiso will surprise you. You can tote your family with you and feel perfectly at ease.
With attractive room rates, comfortable accommodations and a surprisingly solid golf experience, Iberostar has turned the stereotypical all-inclusive holiday on its ear.
A vacation at Playa Paraiso – and its golf and spa, in particular – makes Cancun worth another look.