All-inclusive family resorts in Mexico usually have a great beach, bright, comfortable rooms and a buffet restaurant large and varied enough to satisfy the tastes of young and old. What they don't normally have is a AAA Five Diamond Restaurant supervised by celebrity chefs plus four other high-quality gourmet restaurants (Italian, Pan-Asian, French and Mexican) with top chefs from around the world.
The Grand Velas Riviera Maya, situated just south of Cancun near Playa del Carmen, certainly has a great beach, inviting swimming pools, huge stylish rooms with Jacuzzis and a can-do service attitude. What sets the five-year-old resort apart is the high level of its cuisine, not just in the five specialty restaurants but in room service and the three anything-but-ordinary buffet and a la carte eating places.
Our visit lasted just four nights but we were able to sample all but one of the specialty restaurants (Lucca, the Italian eatery, was temporarily closed) and try the other offerings at breakfast and lunch.
The Five Diamond Cocina De Autor lived up to its reputation as the first all-inclusive restaurant to earn that honour. The avant-garde dining room, complementary for all guests, blends the flavours of Spanish Basque Country with local products grown at the resort and across Mexico. Particularly memorable for us was the ground lamb, wrapped around a green grape and then fried. Unique and delicious!
In a resort of this quality, one expects the Mexican-themed restaurant to be outstanding … and it was. Frida, named for the renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, is located on a bougainvillea-covered terrace and offers a tasting menu of culinary treats from across the country plus a unique selection of margaritas made with top-shelf Mexican tequila.
Piaf, the elegant French-theme restaurant, is run by a recent imported chef from France with emphasis on authentic and tasty foie gras, escargot, truffles and soufflés. The lamb chop we enjoyed was divine but, sadly, the duck was disappointedly tough and dry. A rare miss in a fine restaurant.
On our final night we went to the Asian restaurant, Sen Lin, where perfection returned again to the service and the menu. With dishes like glazed duck (excellent this time) served with julienne vegetables, thin crepes and sesame plum sauce, we felt we were back in Singapore instead of on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.
We had several breakfasts and lunches at the Bistro (a la carte) and Azul (a la carte or buffet) and they were both outstanding. The imaginative, tasty food with artistic presentations even in the buffet were as good as any we've enjoyed at a resort. In addition, the complementary wines available at lunch and dinner were of a very high quality. They had some fine Mexican offerings but their international selection was outstanding, much better than the usual wines at other all-inclusives. Our one experience with breakfast room service was a delight. It arrived on time with an excellent server and an array of imaginative dishes that took Mexican breakfast to a new, high level.
The Grand Vilas is actually two resorts in one. The beachfront area (with several man-made breakwaters to preserve the sand) includes the adults-only Grand Class area with private plunge pools (90 suites) and the family-friendly Ambassador area (195 suites). The Zen section (which includes a huge Convention Centre) is also for families but it's situated in the middle of a Riviera Maya jungle, a kilometre from the beach. With an emphasis on ecology and preservation (Zen has Green Globe and Earth Check certification for ecological sustainability), each suite overlooks a natural pond with tropical vegetation. A carefully laid path allows visitors to wander through the jungle, admiring the efforts made to preserve the natural environment. On our tour with a guide, we had to make a detour because a crocodile decided to take up temporary residence on the path!
Next to the Zen resort section, a lavish 90,000-square-foot spa invites guests (extra cost, of course) to indulge in one of the great spas of the world. Named the best spa in the world in 2010 by Virtuoso, it includes a water journey with sprays, bubbles, ice rooms and steam rooms that precede the application of ancient healing rituals. We chose a relaxing aromatherapy massage, a honey scrub massage and a special foot massage by hundreds of tiny, toothless Terapia fish, which nibbled away at dead skin on our feet and ankles. A unique, ticklish experience!
It's hard to go wrong with the Grand Velas, a resort that respects the environment as much as its well-pampered guests.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax. Their stay was paid for by the Grand Velas Riviera Maya.
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