Cancun’s Culinary Makeover
I started to get worried when I saw the other passengers boarding my plane to Cancun. The late morning flight had been delayed and was now filling up with 20-somethings who had obviously chosen to wait it out with 2-for-1 cocktails at the airport bar. I was realizing that the week of relaxation I'd been anticipating might actually be spent fighting for a beach chair among the crowds of rowdy spring breakers.
Even the flight attendants looked concerned.
It's no secret that Cancun has a reputation. The combination of stunning beaches, budget-friendly resorts, and over-the-top nightlife has made it a magnet for college kids looking to cut loose.
But I soon learned that the options are also plentiful for those of us craving something a bit more luxurious.
Spring Break, Upgradeed
My home for the week was the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach, an elegant and expansive all-suite resort and spa located on what is widely regarded as one of the best stretches of beach in Cancun. One of the few not all-inclusive resorts in the area, they pride themselves on attracting a somewhat more sophisticated crowd of young professionals and well-heeled European and Asian tourists in search of a different kind of Cancun experience.
"We don’t accept spring breakers here," explained the hotel’s general manager. The difference is evident at the pool and beach area, where the sound of crashing waves - not beer pong - is the dominant soundtrack. In a region where all-you-can-eat buffets and fishbowl-sized margaritas are a draw, the hotel stresses quality over quantity.
The suites are truly spectacular. I found myself giggling with glee upon being shown my room, an 860-square-foot master suite complete with Jacuzzi, sunken living room, and wrap-around terrace overlooking the gentle Bahia de Mujeres. Decorated elegantly in a mix of dark woods and cool white marble with bright turquoise accents, it seemed to blend seamlessly with the glittering white sands and blue waters of the beach below.
Details are everything, and the Fiesta Americana does them right. From baskets of raisin cookies and muffins at the spa, printed weather reports on my pillow each evening and complementary bottles of chilled water at the front desk, the thoughtful touches abound. On the first day, I discovered a platter of tiny treats on my dining table - crumbled gorgonzola floating in a shot glass filled with pear puree, figs topped with fresh passion fruit pulp, and a cube of watermelon filled with chilled crab salad. I assumed the array was a welcome snack but returned to my room each evening to find another new surprise to enjoy while preparing myself for dinner.
Cancun’s Culinary Renaissance
Two of the Fiesta Americana’s restaurants have been awarded AAA Diamonds - Le Basilic, offers a formal French dining experience, while the more casual La Joya serves traditional Mexican-inspired dishes to the sounds of a 10-member Mariachi band playing traditional ballads while classic black & white Mexican films are projected onto one of its towering walls.
While certainly solid choices for those who prefer not to leave the resort, I found that there were even more innovative options in the nearby area.
Molecular gastronomy fans will appreciate the dining experience at Le Chique at the Karisma Azul Sensatori Hotel in nearby Puerto Morelos. Chef Jonatán Gómez Luna - a Ferran Adria disciple who previously worked at Alinea in Chicago - presides over the trendy adults-only restaurant. While the boudoir-style décor feels a bit out of place (hot pink fringe table dividers hanging from the ceiling and black velvet upholstery), the menu is spot-on with playful dishes such as a crispy black croquette oozing with black truffle béchamel and a Pringles can filled with paper-thin homemade potato chips. The flavors were remarkable, but I found myself wishing there had been a bit more Mexican influence on the menu.
After the meal, I learned that most of the produce used at Le Chique and all eight Karisma properties in the region comes from their own organic hydroponic greenhouse, located at El Dorado Royale resort in Riviera Maya. The first in the region, the 100,000-square-foot greenhouse is open to guests for educational tours. During my visit, our group learned about the hotel’s sustainable practices and was encouraged to pick and taste fresh basil, chiles, cucumbers and mint.
I found a bit of the Latin influence I craved in the dishes at Tempo, Chef Martín Berasategui’s newest restaurant at the Paradisus Cancun Resort. The six Michelin star Spanish chef is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, and his partnership with international luxury hotel brand Meliá has turned the property into the only all-inclusive resort with a Michelin starred chef on the roster. The menu at Tempo features Basque and Mediterranean inspired dishes like Poached Tomatoes Stuffed with Baby Squid and Broken Potatoes Aioli.
Chef Berasategui, who joined us for a 7-course lunch at his restaurant, explained that while his dishes were Basque in origin, each was influenced and guided by the local Mexican produce and seafood. This was especially evident in my favorite course-a salad of fresh leaves atop a gelled avocado cream dotted with bits of local lobster, anchovy, and roasted red peppers.
Next page for an insider look at the Cancun-Riviera Maya Food and Wine Festival, one of Cancun’s best spas, and links to plan your next getaway.
Cancun-Riviera Maya Food and Wine Festival
My stay in Cancun coincided with the celebration of the third annual Cancun-Riviera Maya Food and Wine Festival, which celebrates the best restaurants, chefs, and winemakers in the country. While still young and working through the growing pains (lack of translators, faulty WiFi, and somewhat chaotic culinary demonstrations), the festival has the bones of a great yearly event that is definitely worth the trip.
A highlight was the American Express Tasting Village - a 3-hour tasting exhibition featuring dishes from 100+ top restaurants, pastry shops, wineries, and mezcal producers. Upon entering, I was handed a wine glass and invited to go around the tent at my leisure tasting dishes such as chile-spiked shrimp on sweet taro chips, ancho braised shortribs, and icy Mexican paletas (fruit ice pops). Unlike some of the larger food festivals in South Beach and New York, the crowd was not overwhelming and it was easy to navigate the tables and samples, even going back for seconds or thirds of favorites.
Other notable festival events that weekend included a Mexican wine tasting hosted by three of Baja California’s most accomplished boutique wineries, an artisanal Mezcal seminar led by Kansas City-based spirits expert and Master Sommelier Doug Frost and an interactive cooking demonstration with Food Network star Aaron Sanchez.
The festival closed with an "Italy Meets Mexico" themed beach party at the Paradisus del Carmen La Esmeralda, where guests enjoyed cocktails and small bites while a DJ spun beats and encouraged guests to kick off their sandals and dance in the sand. Plans for next year’s festival (March 13 - 16, 2014) are already underway.
Say what you will, but marathon dining can be exhausting. A few hours of pampering were in order, so I booked myself a treatment at Gem Spa on the grounds of the Fiesta Americana. The 40,000-square-foot-spa offers a tempting array of massages and therapeutic treatments, but I was most excited to try their famed 10-step hydrotherapy ritual inspired by the baths in ancient Rome and Turkey.
The 120-minute process, included with any spa treatment or available on a day-pass basis, guides guests through a series of rooms, saunas, pools, and baths designed to detoxify the body through contrasts of warm and cool temperatures combined with high and low water pressure.
Highlights included a dip in the co-ed "pool of sensation" filled with water cascades and cervical neck jets, the pebbled maze pool dotted with massaging soft pebbles and warm water jets, and a thrilling polar plunge.
The experience ended with a warm scented neck pillow in a dimly lit relaxation lounge, where an attendant brought me a tray of hot herbal tea and encouraged me to sleep and stay as long as I wanted. Were it not for my flight leaving the next morning, I would have gladly taken her up on that offer and established permanent residence.
Plan Your Trip
While Cancun can (and does) offer cheap thrills for the collegiate crowd or those who want to indulge in cheap liquor hangovers, my experiences proved that an accessible sophistication has also arrived at this beautiful oceanfront oasis.
Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach
Cancun-Riviera Maya Food and Wine Festival
Read more of EDGE’s travels to Mexico...
Cancun: Sun and Fun at the Oasis Sens
Mexico City’s Ravishing Renaissance
¡Viva La Mexico! Or What I Learned on Spring Break