By: Dallas News - Robin Soslow, Special Contributor
[The] Grand Velas Riviera Maya's concierge welcomed me with a chilled orange blossom-scented washcloth perfect for scrubbing off the masculine scent. The AAA Five Diamond property is among a few luxury resorts going above, beyond and over the top to attract travelers seeking more pizzazz for their buck and time. Enhancements include menus by award-winning chefs; spa treatments integrating native traditions and ingredients; dream-like pool and sauna wonderlands; sensational entertainment; fanciful landscaping; and memorable fitness, cooking and other fun classes led by pros and elevated to "experiences." With the all-inclusive pricing, travelers can indulge in millionaire-level experiences free of sticker-shock.
It's a great excuse to hop a quick, affordable flight to Riviera Maya's dreamy scenery, palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and Mayan ruins. Billionaires don't become rich by wasting money. Why should you? You can get more blast for your buck, and have more time to play, by choosing a nearby, easy-to-reach destination. The Yucatan Peninsula's azure water, balmy weather and top resorts are just three hours nonstop from Dallas.
Opened in 2008 by Eduardo Vela Ruiz and managed down to the last detail by his family, Grand Velas Riviera Maya has become a force on Playa del Carmen, piling on revitalizing experiences to wow global travelers, win awards and inspire rave reviews for its all-inclusive, ultra-luxury, all-suites approach. Those wowza suites each exceed 1,100 square feet and have private party-sized decks with personal plunge pools facing the ocean and far-off white buildings on Cozumel. The resort's 206 acres of preserved mangrove jungle are divided into adults-only oceanfront, family-friendly ocean view and a tropical zen garden.
Here's how to splurge smart:
Treat yourself. Grand Velas recruits people-pleasers. So don't hesitate to call on your 24-hour personal concierge. Room service has a dedicated kitchen helmed by pros, and it's an all-inclusive benefit, so call anytime you want a snack or sumptuous feast at your bedside or on your private deck.
Use some of your savings for a spa treatment from Se Spa. The global award-winning sanctuary's 90,000 square feet — halved between men's and women's sanctuaries — evoke cenotes, the Yucatan's water-filled caves. Mayan-inspired treatments incorporate coffee, cacao and grape mud. Uumbal Shawl Massage integrates Mayan rituals, starting with foot immersion into a bowl of millet, which feels amazing, and then using Mexican shawls for stretching and posture alignment. Two limes placed by the therapy bed are intended to absorb "bad energy" swept from the body. The choreographed treatment included a rhythmic shaking of seeds and a choice of scents (rosemary and frankincense for me). The therapist brushed a veil across my eyes and shoulders. Afterward, I tossed the limes in the ocean as directed.
One of the best spa bargains anywhere is the "Riviera Maya Water Journey" ($80 day pass) at Grand Velas' hydrotherapy water wonderland. Trot between dry saunas, polar pools, vitality pools, whirlpools, herbal and color-therapy steam rooms, ice rooms, hot tubs and "experience showers." Jets, waterfalls and bubble volcanoes trick out the softly illuminated pool. It feels like another world, with the winding waterscape, jungle-foliage-facing windows and soaring ceilings.
In several beach cabanas facing the ocean, guests looked totally blissed out as attendants gave them foot massages.
Plan some play dates. It's tempting to hole up in your designer suite, with its sultan-esque bed, whirlpool, flowerbox-lined deck and private plunge pool. But outdoors, all-inclusive activities include guided bicycle tours, snorkeling around a coral reef you can reach by swimming from the resort's soft-sand beach, garden performances with superhero-like warriors acting out Mayan heritage stories dating back centuries, Spanish lessons, cooking demos and beach yoga, with an instructor who looks like he stopped out of a swimwear ad. You can also swim in the gorgeous infinity pools — at least up to the well-stocked swim-up bars.
Eat well. Leave your diet at home, since the all-inclusive covers five gourmet and three casual restaurants. Cocina de Autor received the AAA Five Diamond Award again this year, the only restaurant of any all-inclusive resort to receive the distinction. Twelve-course wine-pairing dinners feature creations such as "Dirt," its puffs of smoked potato cloaking minced portobello mushrooms. Azul's buffet features a vast array, from hot brunch dishes to green juices to breakfast truffles and white chocolate-dipped lollipops. In Piaf, a haven with curtains of Swarovski crystals and romantic lights, savor dishes overseen by a master chef of France. Chaká's new Yucatecan menu is based on four keys of Mayan cooking: achiote (a seed paste), citrus, habaneros and smoke. Choices include little dzotobichay tamales, soup spiked with local lime juice and Yuca doughnuts with horchata topped with Xtabentún, an anise liqueur made in the region.
Drink it in. Treats pop up in every direction: tamarind and habanero margaritas, tropical old-fashioneds, tequila shots — whatever your pleasure, made with premium beverages. Your room greets you with a bottle of oak-aged reposado tequila made for Grand Velas by Don Julio's founders. The well-stocked minibar is free, but don't spoil your appetite, since gourmet meals are included.
Let loose. Dance in the super-chill Koi lounge and on the beach. And on your oceanfront deck — why not? Stroll the beach, greet the sunrise, listen to songbirds, and watch for graceful frigate birds and pelicans — and, on the ground, gentle iguanas resting by manicured bushes. Belt out hits under a huge video screen at the karaoke bar, where the cool kids hang out. Just don't choose "Baby Got Back." It's a dance song, folks.
Bring the kids. The resort balances romance with a family-friendly vibe. Teen and tot indoor playlands engage children for hours. New family activities include Olympics-style challenges and star-gazing nights with pro telescopes. At Azul's buffet, patient servers showed two preteens how to make gourmet paninis. When one child used skinny grissini breadsticks as drumsticks, another server laughed while scooping up the crumbs. Planning a special birthday? There's a "$2 Million Billionaire's Birthday Package for Teens." Yes, that's the actual price tag.
Departing the resort, I was handed another orange blossom-scented washcloth. Thanks, Grand Velas: You're my new obsession.
Robin Soslow, a writer-photographer based in the South, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.