When I arrived in Playa del Carmen last week, a stretch of sugar white shoreline nestled along Mexico’s famed Riviera Maya, I expected to find, well, the expected: a barrage of all-inclusive mega-resorts and pop-up American franchises interspersed with a cultural hotspot or two. Such is what Playa’s cousin, Cancun (a 45 minute drive north), has become known for. What I didn’t expect to find was an exciting new crop of oceanfront resorts not just embracing an eco-chic mantra, but successfully combining a seemingly incompatible ménage a trois of sustainability, luxury, and all-inclusivity. Blasting the belief that eco-luxury is a myth, these posh properties are not your average all-inclusives – providing Ritz-defying quality and green initiatives that go well beyond watered-down margaritas and suggested towel reuse.
In 2008, when the Mexican government started implementing strict ecological conservation laws to protect its pristine environment, Hacienda Tres Rios was born amidst a 326-acre mangrove forest turned nature preserve. Cushy touches like private balconies, marble bathrooms, and dark mahogany furnishings reign supreme indoors, while outside, guests can snorkel in the 10 private cenotes (deep freshwater pools unique to the Yucatan Peninsula), or explore native flora and learn how the park develops its all-natural fertilizers through a unique composting process at the on-site nursery.
Playa’s newest eco-chic all-inclusive (and my home last weekend!) – is the Grand Velas Riviera Maya. Surrounded by 215 acres of flourishing, protected jungle, Grand Velas debuted in March 2009 along with next-door neighbor, Banyan Tree Mayakoba (also an eco-conscious property, though not all-inclusive, its 132 villas are tucked into meandering lagoons and home to a pair of jaguars). Despite being open nearly a year, Grand Velas still looks and feels spotless (no doubt a partial result of the 2009 Swine Flu craze which more or less quarantined the entire country until just a few months ago).
Spread throughout three distinct “ambiences” (a fancy name for buildings) the resort’s design gorgeously integrates the surrounding environment (fresh flowers and luscious greenery are everywhere, from the lobbies to the open-air walkways). Each of the 491 suites boast 1,000-plus square feet, terraces with private plunge pools, and large bathrooms with walk-in rain showers, Jacuzzis, and Molten Brown products. Even though ala carte rates for my adult-only digs can rise as high as $900 per person, per night in high season, even the lowest starting price includes every imaginable perk – from a 24-hour private concierge to decadent room service, morning yoga classes to endless coladas in a beachside cabana.
Not to mention first-rate cuisine: each of the stylish fine dining restaurants is helmed by a world-class chef whose creative talent manifests itself in dishes like asparagus cappuccino, flaming apple tarts, and appetizers served beneath a glass bauble filled with garam-masala smoke (the type of food you’d expect at a Michelin-starred restaurant in, say, Manhattan . . . not an all-inclusive hotel south of the border). Breakfast and lunch buffets proffer nearly a dozen different fresh-squeezed juices and ceviche, and the 90,000-square-foot water-therapy spa, bathed in natural light, is the Riviera’s largest.
Even more surprising than Velas’ striking all-inclusive caliber is its environmental bravado. An onsite plant allows the resort to co-generate its own electricity (causing the lights to flicker on and off twice each evening), while two desalting systems reuse and replenish the water supply on a daily basis. Biodegradable products are used for cleaning, while menus offer organic options made from local ingredients (and seasoned with herbs from the on-site garden). The chefs also boycott dishes prepared with jeopardized sea species. Now that’s what I call Smart Luxury.
This year, Grand Velas is offering a new Green Escape package starting at $383 per person/night. Along with a room overlooking tranquil Zen pools and all the usual goodies, you'll get: roundtrip airport transfers; a guided visit to Xcaret eco-park or the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site); tour of the resort’s own cenotes; snorkeling excursion to the world’s second largest coral reef, located just off the coast; and a spa water journey. You’ll also have the chance to plant a mangrove tree on the grounds (adding to the 18,000 the resort has already rooted) and, afterwards, watch it grow from home on Google Earth.