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Insider Guide: Best of Cancún
By Maribeth Mellin, for CNN
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Be a shame if these stayed empty.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Yes, Cancún's been fighting a Girls Gone Wild image for years, and it's true the Corona flows freely at bargain-rates at all-inclusive hotels.
But there's more to Mexico's Caribbean capital than wet T-shirts and shooters.
As Mexico's most profitable beach destination, Cancún draws international sophisticates to work and play.
Top-notch chefs add a regional Mexican flair to cuisines from throughout the Pacific Rim.
Visitors who've done the whole ay-ay-ay scene have refined their quest for the requisite tequila, sipping rather than slamming their shots.
A new Maya Museum adds some cultural depth to the sun and fun scene.
But let's be real -- in the end, it's that amazing aquamarine water, talcum-soft sand and dazzling sunlight that will always define Cancún.
Mexico's only Ritz-Carlton.
Glistening chandeliers and Old World oil portraits might not be the norm in Cancún, but the Ritz pulls off its trademark elegance by adding local touches like tequila and regional wine tastings, Mexican cooking classes in a slick Culinary Center and volunteer opportunities in Mayan communities.
Guests wear cargo shorts and ball caps as they depart on tours, but spiff up nicely with slinky sundresses and linen slacks to enjoy some of Cancún's finest bars and restaurants without ever leaving the property.
For extra romance, you can book a casita on the sand for a barefoot candlelit dinner.
Le Blanc Spa Resort
With its virginal white décor, Zen-like ambiance and minimalist style, Le Blanc could be a retreat for cloistered nuns -- if it weren't for that pesky sexy vibe encouraging hedonistic grownup getaways.
Setting the standard for luxury all-inclusives, the resort offers a butler on each floor to draw bubble baths, uncork champagne and fulfill romantic fantasies (within reason).
Minimalist white and cream rooms have double Jacuzzis, double Swiss showers and ocean-view balconies (only a few are oceanfront).
Five restaurants span the gamut from gourmet French to sushi, offering opportunities for dressing up or down.
Bamboo gardens edge the spa, where couples treatment rooms and massage tables for two encourage intimacy.
Singles: look elsewhere.
An anything-but-typical single suite at Live Aqua.
Though other "hip" hotels have opened in Cancún, the Aqua's many advantages keep it in the lead.
Electronic gadgets and sophisticated in-room entertainment systems please techies, while whirlpool tubs and ocean views from plush beds soothe escapists.
Scarlet macaws swoop above sparkling pools.
Aromatherapy scents linger in elevators.
Aboriginal drumming echoes throughout the spa.
One of the seven on-premise restaurants boasts tiled portraits of Frida Kahlo and other celebs; another specializes in tropical fish, fruit and chile ceviches.
All such pampering is covered in the all-inclusive room rate.
Extra splurges include spa treatments, high-end alcohol and some gourmet meals.
Club room with ocean view.
Back when Cancún was but a glimmer in investors' eyes, the Mexican government chose a few prime beaches for the town's first fancy hotels.
The Presidente was one of the originals, and though it's been around for three decades it hasn't lost its elite standing.
Bellmen greet returning guests like old friends and Mexican hospitality rules from the front desk to the restaurants and pools.
A recent $8 million remodel modernized the minimalist rooms, adding deep soaking tubs to some and window-seat couches to others.
The old-timers' prescience is most evident at sunset.
Unlike most Cancún resorts, the Presidente faces northwest, capturing vivid sunset views best enjoyed at the Deck Bar with a mango margarita.
The Club Grill
Exquisite cuisine, an outstanding wine list, impeccable service and glamorous décor keep the Grill at the top of all best lists.
Chef Juan Pablo de la Sota keeps menus fresh by spicing his duck with chipotle sweet potato puree and expanding the soufflé selection to sweet coconut -- though the Gran Marnier version's hard to beat. Sommmeliers decant fine French, Spanish and South American wines -- plus a few Mexican vintages you won't find elsewhere.
Diners in Cancun's most formal attire (sans ties) begin their evenings in the Grill's martini bar, linger through dinner and end with a turn or two on the adjacent dance floor as the jazz band kicks up the beat.
Crème brûlée with fruit, gingerbread and edible flowers.
With a running time longer than the latest blockbuster, the 14-course dining experience at Le Chique is well worth the 15-minute drive south to Puerto Morelos.
Chef Jonatan Gomez Luna draws upon his training at Spain's stellar El Bulli and El Celler Can Roca to tantalize diners with Campari-infused cherries, black truffle "marshmallows," foie gras crème brulee and a seemingly endless procession of waiters bearing sensory delights.
Burgundy curtains, leather furnishings and lots of twinkling lights serve as a dramatic backdrop for the adults-only $150 per-person culinary production, including 14 courses and seven wine pairings.
Guests at the Azul Sensatori Resort, home to Le Chique, pay a mere 320 pesos (US$25) for the same experience.
When it's time for full-on beef overload, Puerto Madero is Cancún's pocket of porteño-style indulgence.
Candles flicker, crystal sparkles and animated voices raise the energy level in the expansive dining room, while outdoor lagoon-side tables with the lights of downtown across the water are better suited for intimate conversation.
In either, you're sure to see impossibly sleek model-types bumping cheeks as they work the crowd.
Juicy cuts of beef demand classic accompaniments like thick tomato and onion slices, puffy soufflé potatoes and grilled asparagus.
A robust Mendoza Malbec makes sense, though the wine list has many other vintages from Mexico, Chile and Spain.
It'd be a shame to skip the crepas con cajeta or alfajores for a finishing touch.
La Habichuela Sunset
Beloved downtown for more than two decades, La Habichuela has opened a dreamy Mayan-influenced refuge in the raucous hotel zone.
White wrought iron chairs cluster around candlelit tables beneath backlit replicas of Mayan deities and stelae in a garden setting reminiscent of a Yucatecan hacienda.
That influence extends to a menu of shrimp with huitlacoche (a truffle-like corn fungus), cream of habichuela (bean) soup or the aphrodisiacal Xtabentun Honey Coculnich Cocktail. Flames flare as waiters prepare classic crepas con cajeta.
Though Mexicans usually dine after 8 or 9 p.m., La Habichuela Sunset lives up to its name with glorious golden skies at dusk, leaving time afterward to claim a prime booth at one of the nearby clubs.
A one-stop shop for post-prandial entertainment, the Ritz-Carlton's Lobby Lounge seduces guests with its crimson glow and plush settees.
In one area, a tequilero pours sipping tequilas during an enlightening tasting, while a mixologist blends impeccable Manhattans at the bar.
Chic young things cluster beneath the golden onyx wall in the Clau Lounge, while cigar aficionados savor hand-rolled Cuban and Mexican cigars on the lounge's terrace beneath midnight-blue skies.
As the hours slide by, the Latin band picks up the beat, encouraging drinkers to shed their suit jackets, leave their corners and mingle on the dance floor.
Yes, it's tacky and touristy. But a near-capacity crowd (1,800 max) packs this Cancún landmark most nights.
Perhaps it's the high-energy, Vegas-style shows that make CocoBongo irresistible, or the let-loose dancing style that keeps the multi-level dance floors filled till dawn.
No musical icon is safe from CoCoBongo's choreographers. Shows cover hits from KISS to Sinatra.
Bungees and tightropes are part of the scene as acrobats swoop and dive overhead. Every imaginable legal stimulant appears as film clips play on massive video screens beneath pulsing, flashing lights.
Bubbles, balloons and confetti douse dancers and fog rises from the floors in a phantasmagoria sure to enhance dreams -- when sleep finally comes.
El Rincón del Vino
Cancún seems far away when there's flamenco strumming, rioja in the glass, fondue pots on the tabletops and a polyglot murmur in the background.
European travelers gravitate to El Rincón as if on autopilot, drawn by the aromas of melted cheese, Iberian ham, pulpo and olive oil.
Guests wander around the wine cellar, checking out price tags before choosing the night's bottle, returning again and again as the music segues from jazz to rock and conversation levels peak.
Black goes best for the casually sophisticated crowd -- no trashy T-shirts here.
With "aura managers" overseeing the resort's "everything is possible" ethos, you can be sure management does its darndest to make sure the hotel's Rose Bar is the place to find international DJs and celebs amid swank locals.
Channeling South Beach and Ibiza, the mood is loungy and sensual, especially during Friday Ladies Nights.
While mash-up mixes throb indoors, cigar aficionados gather on the Rose Bar Deck.
Cancunenses don their slinkiest sundresses and long pants for a night out here -- shorts are frowned upon.
In the land of global mediocrity, this small chocolate shop and café stands out for its main product -- intense and rare criollo chocolate, the Maya's "food of the gods," in bars, cocoa or roasted beans.
The small café with a few outdoor and indoor tables and free Wi-Fi serves rich, addicting brownies and frothy hot chocolate whipped with a traditional molinillo (wooden whisk).
Chocolate bars, cocoa, whisks and other accoutrements make great souvenirs.
Sabores de Mexico
When it comes to the flavors of Mexico, this sweet shop is the real deal.
Owner Erandeni Abundis travels the country, collecting mole, mezcal and chapulines (fried grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Chihuahua cheese, nata (like a thick whipped cream) cookies from Queretaro and homemade mermeladas and salsa that bring a taste of home to Mexican transplants working in Cancún.
Abundis also works with indigenous cooperativas, selling their silky woven rebozos (shawls), embroidered huipiles (blouses from Chiapas) and regional pottery.
Local Maya communities provide homemade soaps, shampoos, creams and even an efficient cough syrup made out of bugambilia, onion, honey and cinnamon.
Pile your purchases into a woven beach bag and you're good to go.
Sabores de Mexico, Avenida Cancún (also known as Las Torres), SM 510 Mza. 54 Lote 2, El Centro; +52 998 251 3841
Named after an indigenous Huichol term denoting the passage and barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds, this shop by the crowded Mercado 28 is packed with high quality folk art.
There's an especially impressive selection of beaded masks, figurines and wall hangings made by the Huichol, who live in the high Sierras and use peyote as a religious sacrament.
A wide selection of whimsical painted alebrijes (wood creatures) from Oaxaca, handcrafted silver jewelry, handblown glass and art books make this a collector's delight.
Cancún's hotel zone has so many shopping centers it looks like a U.S. suburb.
Luxury Avenue is the glitziest, filled with baubles and shiny things.
Amid the international standards is a Pineda Covalin boutique, carrying the designer's silk masterpieces.
Intricate indigenous designs swirl around silk scarves, purses, neckties, even shoes.
Like kaleidoscopic mandalas, the brilliant designs are nearly too beautiful to wear -- but they'll definitely be noticed at your next soiree.
Pineda Covalin, Boulevard Kukulkán, Kilometer 13, Zona Hotelera; +52 998 840 6100
Museo Maya de Cancún
Just in time for the much ballyhooed and misunderstood Mayan renaissance, Cancún finally acquired a viable cultural institution.
Designed by Alberto Garcia Lascuráin for the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the new Maya Museum puts the Yucatán Peninsula's history into perspective with an entryway exhibit of 14,000-year-old skeletal remains discovered at Tulum in the early 21st century.
Carvings, statues, jewelry and household tools from the many Maya sites near Cancún fill display cases in mock pyramid and temple buildings beside the recently opened San Miguelito archeological site in the middle of the hotel zone.
Just eight miles across the sea, this laid-back island is the antithesis of busy Cancún.
Locals and visitors putter about in electric golf carts and motos (scooters), cruising the five-mile-long island at speeds that would drive the average New York cabbie crazy.
The island's main beach, Playa Norte is one of the Caribbean's loveliest, with shallow translucent water, sugary white sand and enough space to give everyone room to roam.
Snorkeling, swimming and hanging about in hammocks are the preferred activities at the Garrafón Natural Reef Resort, an eco-park with a pool, zip line, changing rooms and restaurant.
A sculpture garden at the southern tip of the island leads to the Cliff of Dawn, said to be the first place the sun rises in Mexico.
Isla's downtown pedestrian-only streets are lined with quirky cafes and shops carrying everything from Guatemalan textiles to Balinese pareos.
It may have evolved some since its hippie, anything-goes days, but Isla Mujeres is still Mexico's funkiest Caribbean hideaway.
Isla Mujeres, ferries depart from Puerto Juárez and El Embarcadero in the hotel zone; 190 pesos ($15) round trip, per person
Parque de las Palapas
Being less than 40 years old, Cancún's central plaza lacks the Old World charm of the picturesque squares in colonial cities like Mérida and Oaxaca, but it's still the central gathering point in El Centro, or downtown Cancún.
On weekend afternoons and evenings families gather here just like they do all over the country.
Vendors sell steaming corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise (try it!), French fries doused with hot sauce and tacos with more flavor than you'll find at tourist restaurants.
Live bands usually perform on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, and there's a good chance you'll stumble upon a crafts fair or civic event.
On the Beach
Massive hotels claim much of the beachfront property along Cancún's hotel zone, but all beaches are public in Mexico and you're free to wander wherever you wish.
Timid swimmers are happiest splashing about in the calm waters off the north side of the zone facing Bahía de Mujeres.
Playa Tortugas and Playa Linda are popular with local families and especially fun on weekend afternoons.
After Punta Cancún, the hotel zone's beaches face the open sea.
Playa Gaviota and Chac Mool, behind several of Cancún's most popular clubs, are party central, with beach bars, sand volleyball games and primo people watching.
The scene varies along the subsequent hotel lineup, with parasails, banana boats and waverunners in some areas and quiet, private cabanas in others.
Beyond the hotel chain, Playa Delfines, at the southern end of Boulevard Kukulcán, is a popular public playground with beautiful views and plenty of sunbathing space.
Locals flock here when the surf's up, as there are few places to surf in Cancún.
Cancún's dazzling white, cool, soft sand washed away during Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Subsequent extensive beach recovery programs with cream-colored sand have restored the hotel zone's long, broad beaches, which, set against the brilliant aquamarine Caribbean, are nothing short of gorgeous.
Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA)
Everywhere in Cancún is an excuse to party.
It sounds eerie at first, this garden of life-sized sculptures rising from the sea floor in a national marine reserve between Cancún and Isla Mujeres.
But British artist Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater sculpture garden has brought new life to the reefs nearly loved to death by thousands of divers.
Coral formations are now growing on the first statues, submerged in 2010, and lobsters -- who'd virtually disappeared from these waters -- now gather within a mock VW bug.
Since some of the 400 statues sit just 10 feet underwater, they're visible from the surface.
Snorkeling amid the waving purple sea fans and angelfish is easy, and divers need only go 28 feet underwater to see the whole display.
At this air-conditioned indoor water world, divers with underwater microphones point out seahorses, eels, clownfish and jellyfish in a ceiling-high aquarium.
Touchy-feely types can stroke rays and starfish in outdoor tanks, and true daredevils feed sharks while immersed in an acrylic cage.