The hotel that's shaking up the Riviera Maya

Kelsy Chauvin, CNNUpdated 14th June 2018
(CNN) — The dappled Caribbean sunshine and white sand seem even more relaxing from the balcony of a duchess.
Well, the former balcony. Today, her peaceful vacation villa is the main house of Hotel Esencia, a refined, tropical hideaway 30 minutes down the coast from Cancun, Mexico.
Occupying 50 acres of pristine beachfront and a swath of coastal forest, Hotel Esencia's secluded paradise befits its royal provenance. The resort honors nature through savvy design and undeniable luxury, evoking the grandeur of its original owner, Italian duchess Rosa de Ferrari.
Yet upon check-in, guests may feel more like they've arrived at a friend's lavish estate than a boutique hotel. That's the idea, according to the hotel's creative director Juan Carlos Gutiérrez.
"Esencia" is Spanish for "essence," and the hotel makes relaxing essential.
"Esencia" is Spanish for "essence," and the hotel makes relaxing essential.
Fabrizio Costantini for CNN
Gutiérrez says that when owner Kevin Wendle bought the property in 2014, it was a smaller, understated hotel where, for a time, he entertained friends.
Eventually, Wendle, Gutiérrez and their team transformed the property, introducing 29 total guest rooms, suites and villas. But the casual, friendly vibes stuck, even as accommodations shifted from traditional to what Gutiérrez calls "sophisticated simplicity."
The concept works perfectly for the context, a soothing spot "where the Yucatán jungle dissolves into the pristine sands of one of the only remaining undeveloped shores of the Mayan Riviera," as Gutiérrez describes it. He says that the locale has for so long been privately tended, Xpu-Ha beach remains "pure."
Accommodations are splendidly simple, including the spacious Beach Suites, palm-shaded Jungle Suites (most with private pools), and multi-room villas.
They blend colonial and Mediterranean architecture with mid-century modern Mexican décor reflected in the hotel's furnishings and 1950s art collection.
A native Mexican, Gutiérrez incorporated locally made ceramics, blown glass, baskets, dishware and drinking glasses throughout. They complement the hotel's custom-designed tables, hand-woven rugs and textiles.
The sun, wind, earth and water also factor into the Esencia spa, and enrich the oasis-like experience, where Gutiérrez's circular design inspires a natural flow.
For many guests, quiet seclusion is among the most enticing features. It attracts honeymooners, families, and quite a few celebrities -- Lupita Nyong'o, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, Diane Kruger, Rebecca Romijn and Robert Redford among them.
Fashion designer Jason Wu was among the first to hold a wedding on the picturesque grounds among an assemblage of chic luminaries.
With the hotel's deserted-island feel come three restaurants and a bar for guests to enjoy on premises, and for outside diners seeking breezy fine dining to visit. Its Pool Restaurant serves Latin-American "coastal staples" and vegetable-centric dishes daily.
The Garden Restaurant comes alive with fresh juices and superfood bowls by day, with casual evening dining and lawn seating in the palm garden. On the hotel's seafront, the two-story Beach Bar occupies a palapa overlooking the sunset pool and Xpu-Ha beach.
Hotel Esencia's three restaurants and stretch of pristine beach make it tempting not to leave the property.
Hotel Esencia's three restaurants and stretch of pristine beach make it tempting not to leave the property.
Fabrizio Costantini for CNN
The restaurant Mistura is the hotel's new addition in 2018. Under its giant, round thatched roof, Chef Dimitris Katrivesis prepares a divine fusion of tropical, Peruvian and Japanese cuisine using fresh Yucatán and Caribbean ingredients.
Across the grounds, Hotel Esencia cultivates its guests' restorative tranquility with a small library, "yoga palapa," new fitness center, twin pools, and a hammock garden. Just off the shore there's diving, kite surfing, paddle boarding, snorkeling and other activities that tempt some guests to more active pursuits.
The beach sees another sort of natural activity each fall, when bales of sea turtles bury their clutches (nests) in the sand.
Yes, the turtles operate independently of the hotel's green design. But ultimately, they may remind guests of why they came: To retreat from their everyday worlds, and surrender to a place where nature is nothing short of sublime.
Hotel Esencia, Carretera Cancún -- Tulum km 265, Xpu-Ha, Quintana Roo 77750 Mexico, + 52.984.873.4830