rice delights

Yhi Spa at Paradisus Playa del Carmen is wedged both physically and philosophically in the middle of the Cancan to Tulum hi-lo continuum, a potent reminder that sometimes it’s not about the brand but the breeding. Yhi might not be well known in the wellness world but that shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of it’s pedigree – or its commitment to authenticity. The signature treatments in this particular spa are a reminder that maize wasn’t the only grain prized by the local Mayans – they had quite the taste for rice, too. Beyond pairing it with beans, natch. Whether used as an extract or oil, its natural antioxidants were valued for inhibiting free radicals. Used as a water, rice has moisturizing and softening actions, improving the flexibility of skin with a healthy dose of Vitamin E. After an afternoon spent soaking up too much sun, Rice Delight proved the perfect palliative for me: a double dose of exfoliation and massage using rice in all its permutations. Rich in both proteins and amino acids, it left my skin as smooth as silk, proving that sometimes a happy medium is a happy place indeed.

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talk to the hand (or sit on it)

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hotel paradise

For all their friendly hospitality, Mexican hotels almost uniformly miss the mark to some degree. It’s never tragic mind you; in fact it’s often nothing more than a curious detail that leaves you to scratch your head, bewildered by a corporate thought process which somehow led to a jar of mustard arriving alongside an egg white omelet, or an artful turndown arrangement of bed pillows in the bathtub, or plush bathrobes atop paper slippers in the spa. (I will go on record, however, with enthusiastically vocal admiration for the novel Mexican art of twisting humble bath towels into fancifully shaped flowers and swans.) Brain power has obviously been extended into these little flourishes. But to what end? What does it add?  All this blather is just a long introduction to telling you how Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Perla & La Esmeralda, twined resorts which share a common zocalo yet somehow manage to navigate the task of catering to – and keeping separate – both families and adults, proves a refreshing exception to the rule. Attention has been paid here. And a great deal of thought and design have gone into Paradisus: La Esmeralda is for families, while La Perla is adults-only. Opt for Royal Service – a semi resort within the resort – and the two need never intersect. Royal Service features a private pool, bar, and an exclusive restaurant surrounded by palapas and Bali beds – in addition to a private stretch of  beach. Discrete butlers are at your beck and call, available for everything from ironing trousers to finding a preferred table at Passion by Martin Berasategui, a restaurant collaboration with the seven Michelin-star Basque chef. (Surely that’s a first for an all-inclusive resort.) Each resort is its own oasis, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico – with the stress-free luxury of never having to reach for your wallet.

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supine beach views

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video: almost a sunrise

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tidy tidal pools

Playa del Carmen and the oceanfront that stretches up to the Riviera Maya are rightly famous for clear Caribbean water and fine, white, sandy beaches. Yet something I’d never noticed until today are the shallow tidal pools that dot the craggy bits of coastline between beaches. Aquariums in miniature, each is rich in life:  seaweed, coral, tropical fish, and colonies of spiny sea urchin.

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three little words

I never expected to hear in the same sentence: Thierry Mugler toiletries. So, so sad.

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hotels with karisma

Ten minutes north of Playa del Carmen, Azul Fives Hotel by Karisma, subverts the idea of the all-inclusive resort experience that’s become all-too common to Mexico with a concept they’ve trademarked as Gourmet Inclusive and believe me, that’s not an oxymoron.  Even more interesting, perhaps – certainly for me personally – is the fact that it caters to a niche market which in any other circumstance I would be inclined to stay clear of as though it were kryptonite:  families.

Yet it all seems to work so well.  Even to a child-hating, foodie-hotel-snob going solo like myself.  How is that?

The secret, I think, is in the suites:  the multi-bedroom units were designed to foster familial togetherness and so hold as many as eight individuals in separate sleeping quarters with shared living areas, making it an ingenious arrangement for multi-generational vacations. Fully equipped kitchens and over-sized living quarters (1,300 – 1,500 sq. ft.) mean families can stay together and play together without always being on top of each other.  Better still, lots and lots of room for uncle nanny and grandma babysitter means the kids stay engaged, attended, and out of my face.  When even the family needs a break, there’s a qualified Kid’s Club so overstocked with toys, games, and activities – a play program designed by Fisher Price and My Gym’s Children Fitness Center, for example –  that it’s practically guaranteed to wear the little buggers out. Over the course of the past three days I’ve seen my share of children, so trust me, I know what it’s like to be on red alert and ready to pounce.  Yet even my acerbic self hasn’t seen fit – or had cause! – to raise an eyebrow or shoot the parents of some obnoxious brat the death stare.

So don’t go thinking it’s all about families.  The design of the suites is such that friends traveling together can make the same arrangement yet still maintain degrees of privacy.  Couples can opt for a self-contained wing and enjoy the romantic rainforest showers, double-whirlpool tubs, and 24-hour room service.  Four stylishly-designed gourmet restaurants, supplied with organic produce from the resort’s 70,000 square-foot greenhouse – and top shelf alcohol – means nobody goes hungry.  Ever.  Which just might be my only qualm about this weekend:  too much of a good thing sometimes necessitates a vacation from one’s vacation.

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bucket list: 2009 edition – October

OCTOBER

Waterfire

PROVIDENCE:  I’ve said it before in print and I’ll say it here again:  Providence is perhaps the coolest little city you’ve never visited.  An atmospheric and restored downtown, a robust restaurant scene, a groovy community of artists and designers, plus some of the prettiest colonial architecture this side of Williamsburg:  I don’t understand why the place is not choked with tourists.  Well…okay, I do: the 1980’s and early 90’s were not kind to the city, which saw crime skyrocket and downtown abandoned.  Despite a massive decade-long renewal, the news of its rebound seems to be traveling slowly.

One of the inventive ideas that shepherded the city’s revitalization is WaterFire, a massive public art project that’s the brainchild of sculptor Barnaby Evans.  Defying logic, over the course of almost six months WaterFire sets three conjoining rivers of downtown Providence alight each night at sunset.  It’s by far the most successful public installation of art I’ve ever seen, drawing visitors and locals down to the center of the city after dark to listen to music and interact with the fire, the river, and the community that nightly springs up along its banks.

mayan-towel-god

RIVIERA MAYA:  I know in an earlier post I had waxed rhapsodic over my adventures in Mexican street food, as well as hiking the ruins of Tulum, so let’s take this moment to appreciate the unheralded art of Mexican towel origami.  I’ve not seen it practiced elsewhere, yet in Mexico the housekeeping staffs are masters of the art.  More often than not towels are rolled into swans, hearts or flowers, usually accompanied by a handful of rose petals or hibiscus blossoms.  Here however, we have a much more playful – if less technically difficult – Mayan towel god.

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memorable meals: playa del carmen

I can count on one hand the number of truly great sit-down meals I’ve had in Mexico.  (Street food doesn’t count, natch.)  When it comes to what we call Continental dining, they just don’t get it.  (Even more bizarre, nobody but nobody thinks the native cuisine deserves to be elevated and treated with respect; it’s almost like Mexico is embarrassed by Mexican food in the presence of strangers.)  There’s an odd disconnect where quality local ingredients are paired and embellished in the most revolting ways at even some of the higher ends restaurants and hotels.   Think of freshly-made pasta topped with canned peas and coagulated cheese passing as a carbonara or sushi-grade fish cut against the grain and slathered in mayo and enough wasabi to choke a horse.  So it comes as a relief to share that  I discovered some impressive gastronomy coming out of the kitchen last week at Las Ventanas, the fine dining restaurant at Royal Hideaway Playacar in Playa del Carmen.

Florian & RaulUnder the guiding hand of Spaniard Raul Vaquerizo (r), who cut his teeth at La Saranda and Monastrel in Alicante, and sous chef Florian Durre, the chef’s table “experience” is a playground for molecular gastronomy, adventurous flavors, and a live video feed.

Chefs table view into kitchenThe concept of dining within the chef’s domain is not new, of course; however, a camera that zooms in to the plating area and beams the detailed feed to a television in the dining area is.  This is food as theater – all that’s missing is a running commentary:  “What on earth is chef Raul going to do with that huitlacoche foam?  Come back after the break to find out, diners!”

It can be distracting, if you let it.  But for the most part it’s an entertaining divertissement watching two sure hands layer a complex series of flavor profiles moments before you assemble them in your mouth.

Each chef’s table is sui generis, never to be repeated, and breaks down into six distinct courses.  Don’t let the interesting grammar and capitalization of the menu fool you – this kitchen knows what it’s doing when it comes to tickling the tastebuds.

Here’s the unexpurgated menu from last week:

Snacks Scallops with Mole and Coconut foam, Thigh and sweet potato emulsion, Foie and Olive Oil

Green Sensations Pickled lamb tenderloin, chips and salad

Movement Soft creamy risotto

Go on refreshing with Cold Cassis Water

The Land Confit Piglet, bread cylinder and apple, spice potato

Our dessert green tea soup with refreshing ginger and peach, black sesame crispy

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