Paradisus Playa del Carmen

This is a long read. It’s a detailed, personal and idiosyncratic report of my stay at the Paradisus Playa del Carmen while researching a story for The Toronto Star on Cancun.

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Bright and modern rooms which can be opened to the bathroom.

After a couple of nights at the Paradisus Cancun, on Wednesday I was transferred down the road to the Paradisus Playa del Carmen. The resort is slightly north of the town – about a twenty-minute walk down the beach. Although there are similarities between the two properties, I found many more differences than I expected.

I did not receive the same welcome I’d experienced at the Paradisus Cancun. The staff seemed confused, shuffled me around and after I checked in, I waited half an hour in the lobby while my room was prepared. Admittedly, I arrived about 11am. My name on the guest information card is doubly mis-spelled as “Marteen Halibron”. Ouch.

I was also not provided the Royal Service that I’d been accorded in Cancun. No butler, no Nespresso machine, no self-serve bar in an exclusive lobby area. No plate of fruit to welcome me. Fewer supplied toiletries. Suddenly, I felt like a second-class citizen. I contemplate marching back to the registration desk, but decide to tough it out. I will see how the less fortunate manage.

The room is the size of a bachelor apartment. It’s bright, open and the design and furnishings are modern. The toilet is in a small room at the entrance, the bath and shower are separated from the bedroom by sliding wooden dividers, so the whole space opens up.

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The rooms terrace walks out onto the pool area – it’s a “swim up”.

The shower area has two independently controlled rain heads. The bed is illuminated with a large backlit underwater poster. There’s a large seating area with sofa. My ground level room is a swim-up – outside there’s a small terrace and a tiled lounger in the pool just for my room. There’s still an all-included stocked bar fridge for my use. I take back my comment about the less fortunate. I’m going to have no better idea how they manage.

I meet Yared in the lobby for a tour of the property. The complex is divided into two distinct resorts, each with their own lobby. There’s the adults only “La Perla”, on the south side where I am, and “La Esmeralda” on the north side, for families. It all combines into a large but small resort village.

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Architecture is open, stylish and modern

Like the Paradisus Cancun, there are five areas – regular guests, adults only (where I’m staying), Royal Service for adults, Family Concierge (luxury service for families) and the timeshare. Again, a total of about 800 rooms. The resort also has convention facilities.

The Paradisus Playa del Carmen is a newer hotel. In general, the staff and clientele are younger and slightly less formal than the Paradisus Cancun. The resort’s architecture is stylish, modern, innovative and striking. The transition between interior and exterior spaces is subtle, making the whole environment feel open. The setting is very natural. The grounds are large, with extensive gardens and a very active grounds maintenance staff who are always pruning, cleaning and vacuuming the pools. Like Paradisus Cancun, there are pleasant scents wafting in the various areas.

The central area of the resort has eight a-la-carte restaurants and a buffet – which are similar in name and cuisine to those at the Paradisus Cancun. Some are rated adults only. Others are adults-only after 8pm, but even those have adults-only areas for use before 8pm. The Martin Berasategui restaurant here is named “Passion”. Bana, the Asian restaurant, offers regular and teppan (cooking) tables as well as a tatami room.

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The beach at Paradisus Playa del Carmen

We head over to the beach, which is separated from the hotel by a mangrove swamp. The beach is narrow – the lounge chairs are nearly in the water. There are specific areas for adults and upgraded loungers for the royal and family service guests.

Oliver joins Yared and me for lunch at Gabi club. Yared recommends the lime lemonade, which is predictably delicious. We use table service to order our mains, but head off to the buffet to choose our salads. The selection is extensive and the quality is high, as I’ve come to expect at Paradisus.

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Happy Birthday (sadly, not mine)

After lunch I discover a dessert has been placed in my room. Closer inspection reveals that the plate has been inscribed “Feliz Compleaño” in chocolate icing. I suspect it’s meant for another guest. Room service retrieves it.

I make my own tour of the property, wandering around taking photos, trying to remember the locations of the various environments. Clouds move in and it’s now dark and overcast, threatening to rain. Back at the room I connect the Sony NEX6 to my iPad with Wi-Fi and take several photos to illustrate the story I wrote about travel photo sharing for The Star. Like in Cancun, the included Wi-Fi and Internet access here is excellent. I enjoy a refreshing local beverage while pondering whether or not to include a glass or can of beer in the image. Life can be challenging. I submit the photos.

I setup my video camera and shoot a scene for my review of the Canon SL1 on the terrace.

My schedule for the evening includes dinner at 8pm at Vento and then a Michael Jackson tribute show at 930pm. I decide that dinner at 7pm would be more relaxing, even though Vento is suitable for children. Once again, I decide to tough it out in order to be able to file a responsible report. I’m not sure if it’s my lack of Spanish, or my unfamiliarity with the terms used by Paradisus, but it takes several attempts before I’m connected with the restaurant and succeed in changing the reservation.

The shower’s rain head is heavenly, the shower gel and shampoo are aromatic therapy and I emerge renewed. Time for noms.

It’s complicated, but I find my way to Vento without having to refer to one of the many “you are here” maps. I’m seated in the well-separated adults area, but those children are loud. Has my tolerance really fallen this far since my children reached the age of majority?

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Salmon at Vento

Vento’s menu is middle-eastern. I order the recommended Moroccan Lamb Kafta with salad and the Salmon with Asparagus Ragu, Caramelized Fennel and Anise Lime. The lamb is as good as Yared and Oliver described. The combination of licorice flavours and salmon is new, interesting and tasty. I can’t figure out what the green spheres in a crispy gum are, but they’re crunchy and delicious.

The lack of ice cream on the dessert menu makes me opt for the chibouste with orange and cardamom essence. I’m not disappointed. The wine steward, having accurately assessed me as a diner with a refined palate, offers and delivers a perfectly prepared Turkish coffee. Like the Paradisus Cancun, this is so not like an all-inclusive.

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A kitschy but excellent tribute to Michael Jackson.

The Michael Jackson show is set in an enclosed courtyard not far from Vento. My timing is perfect, the crowd is already arriving, but I get a comfy seat with a good vantage point. The multimedia show is slightly kitschy but the quality of the performances is high. Two singers emulate different Jackson styles (in voice and attire) accompanied by energetic dancers, acrobats and aerialists. Music, lighting, video projections, multiple costume changes – it’s a well produced, technically impressive presentation. The crowd, including children, is quiet, attentive and appreciative. There are similar shows with different themes every night.

I wander past the bars on my way back to my room, but it’s November, it’s quiet and there’s not much happening. It’s started to rain. Relaxing in my room I check the day’s activities back in Toronto. It’s been a slow news day with the standard fare of denials and apologies.

I’m up early Thursday to take a walk on the beach. Outside, it’s wet and humid from the rain and the camera fogs up. Not just on the outside of the lens, which I clean with a lens cloth, but inside. I stroll down to Playa del Carmen before it clears and I can take photos.

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The beach south of Paradisus Playa del Carmen (facing north) – at a seemingly deserted resort.

The beach is narrow, and some of the trees and buildings are so close to the water’s edge that I have to scramble by between waves. There are deserted and abandoned complexes along the way, some semi-completed and others badly deteriorated.

The rain returns while I’m having breakfast, which cancels my plans to go snorkeling. A trip to walk and shop along Playa del Carmen’s Avenida Quintana also seems ill-advised. I’m not going to be able to write about Playa del Carmen at all.

There are alternate activities to choose from at all times of the day, so I choose the eco-tour of the mangrove swamp, which is where the crocodile lives. It’s a small turnout for the tour, so it turns pretty personal, and we have a very interactive walk with our guide and the senior botanist in charge of maintaining the swamp. Some wild dogs dash by, we see lizards and plenty of fish, but the crocodile remains elusive. The guide explains that the swamp also acts as a breeding ground for fish and shellfish that eventually migrate to the ocean. In the summer, turtles breed and hatch on the beach, as they do on much of Mexico’s Caribbean beaches.

The swamp is a protected zone, as required by the government, but Paradisus also recognizes its value in sheltering the resort from storms. I’m impressed by their diligence and commitment in maintaining the environment.

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Pool at night – the swim up rooms face a “moat” which provides the opportunity for a long and interesting swim.

Afterwards I decide to go for a swim in the pool complex, which is like an interior moat around the La Perla area, with a large pool and pool bar in the middle. I’m at one end and it takes me close to 30 minutes to make my way around and back. It’s not what I imagined a holiday in Cancun to be like, but I love swimming in the rain.

My schedule calls for me to dine at La Palapa, the exclusive lunch restaurant in the Royal Service area. It’s raining lightly as I arrive. The restaurant is covered with a thatched roof of dried palm leaves, but is otherwise open-sided. I find it pleasant to sit under a canopy with rain outside, so I take a table at the edge.

As I’m enjoying my shrimp ceviche Sinaloa style, the rain increases in intensity. The hostess asks if I’d like to be moved to a more interior location, but I persevere. By the time my main arrives, the wind has picked up and it seems prudent to move to a slightly more sheltered location.

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Deconstructed Swiss Apple Tart

At the next table, a Canadian IT security expert shares some of his experiences at the Paradisus. He’s been here on business and has added a few days of relaxation to his travels. He’s equally enthusiastic about the resort. By now the rain has increased its intensity again. The roof is leaking and the staff is very busy mopping the floor. However, the atmosphere remains relaxed and friendly. My dessert, a deconstructed Swiss apple tart with ice cream, looks nothing like apple tart but tastes delicious. I later learn that I’ve made a mistake, as at dinner my neighbours rave about the chocolate soup. I’ll have to go back.

I’m not entirely sure I need one (knead one?), but I’m scheduled for a massage treatment at the spa. In order to provide a full report, I dutifully sign in; change into a robe and wonder why the furniture in the spa lounge looks worn. Isn’t this the highest end of this luxury experience? Shouldn’t they replace the chair? I snack on dried fruits and nuts and enjoy a herbal tea.

The treatment starts with a ritual foot washing and then the masseuse, with the same warm gentle hands I experience at Paradisus Cancun, realigns my muscle fibres along the appropriate meridians while soothing music aligns my cerebral dendrites. I imagine that I could get used to this.

Afterwards I check out the sauna and steam, which are only available while you’re signed into the spa. I’m not sure why they’re not generally accessible. The sauna isn’t very warm, so into the steam room which is nearly opaque with steam. It’s hotttt, with a fiery sensation on each breath amplified with a pungent eucalyptus aroma. I enjoy the warmth for a few minutes, but getting up to leave is nearly painful.

Here’s another similarity between the Paradisus Cancun and Playa del Carmen – I can’t figure out how to get hot water in the shower. I adjust the dials, I wait patiently … then rinse off quickly in cool water. Refreshing.

I stop by the lobby, where there are six iMacs, to check-in to my flight tomorrow and print my boarding pass. Sadly of the six, only one is actually working. The remainder are either non-functional or someone has removed either the mouse or the keyboard. (sigh)

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There is no shortage of life-enriching experiences at Paradisus Playa del Carmen, and my next activity is a wine tasting, under a canopy near the Mole restaurant. Two couples join me, the sommelier and his assistant in dashing through the rain to the canopy.

It’s an interesting experience with new world wines paired with cheeses. While tasting a white zinfandel from the Cetto Winery in the Baja region of Mexico, we learn that primitivo and zinfandel are essentially the same grape variety. It’s a guided tasting, but he allows all of us to share our sensory perceptions. We finish with an excellent 2009 Nebbiolo, also from Cetto.

My taste buds primed, I’m off to dinner at Passion, Martin Berasategui’s restaurant at Paradisus Playa del Carmen. Like in Cancun, this restaurant is not included on the all-inclusive and is open to all – with preference given to those staying at Paradisus.

Once again, I’m seduced by the promise of the chef’s seven course tasting menu – which isn’t the same as Tempo in Cancun. This one is based on Berasategui’s native Basque cuisine. I agree with my waiter Adrian’s suggestion to match the meal with the wine pairing. I mention to Adrian that the a-la-carte menu includes a peach gazpacho, which I’m anxious to try. He offers to bring that as one of my three appetizers. It’s a delicious combination of fresh flavours without being overly peachy.

The hostess is having trouble explaining/translating “cassis” to the couple next to me, so I offer that it’s a very popular flavour in France and Europe made from blackcurrants. They’re having a romantic dinner, so I try to bud out, but they’re happy to engage throughout the meal.

First, I compare notes – am I being treated differently as a journalist? They’re in the Royal Service area, and they are as enthusiastic about the treatment as I was in Cancun. They’ve loved the food in the other restaurants and wanted to eat at Passion for their last night, before heading back to Sudbury.

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We compare notes on the caramelized mille feuille with smoked salmon, foie gras and apple slices. We agree that it’s interesting, but not a combination that’s totally appealing. That’s quickly redeemed with an intensely green-coloured pea and herb soup made with mascarpone and served with an egg that’s been cooked at a low temperature, which is a delight. The pea flavour is light and mild in a sweet and creamy soup with perfectly crunchy croutons, the egg yolk intense and flavourful … this course is over way before I feel I’ve experienced it fully.

On to grouper, a perfectly rare Black Angus steak and then dessert. Adrian continues to be attentive and helpful, carefully explaining the components and their ingredients and giving us some background on the wines.

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Dessert with Campari air 

I know I’m in the minority when it comes to enjoying Campari, a bitter Italian aperitif. My wife thinks it tastes like medicine or mouthwash. Whatever. My father drank it with pleasure, and so do I. The first dessert (when you have seven courses, two are desserts) is liquid sphere yogurt, passion fruit, mango jam and Campari air with flowers. My taste buds have been watering for this since I read the menu and like so many other items on Berasategui’s menus, it’s a unique taste experience. The flavours and textures both contrast and complement. There are three yogurt spheres set on a slate, which are partly covered by a pinky foam (made from Campari) that looks like a blanket and then partly covered with a white chocolate sliver. Visually it’s quite entertaining, and the taste is nothing I’ve experienced. It’s paired with lychee sake. I slowly savour each yummy bite until the plate is clean and the glass is empty. Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.

Next to me, it’s time to ask why the couple has been receiving different items for their seven courses. He, they reveal, is lactose-intolerant and he’s been served alternate lactose-free options as appropriate. Not just the same thing without milk ingredients, but different things. As I’m thinking about the implication that has on the kitchen’s logistics and preparation schedule, the chef, Maximiliano Sola, drops by to check how we’ve enjoyed our meals. I think he’s dropping by to encourage a good review, but he chats with everyone in the room. Originally from Argentina, he’s been working with Berasategui for nine years and has been at Passion since it opened two years ago.

He confirms what I suspected, that he works closely with Berasategui to develop the menus, but he has a free hand to take advantage of local and seasonal opportunities as they arise. Clearly Berasategui is not operating a franchise where he dictates, but an open collaborative environment that combines his sensibilities and best practices with the experience of the local chef. Every aspect and detail of this meal has been perfect. (I’m writing this two weeks later, and it’s making my mouth water just reading my notes, reviewing my photos and recalling the evening.)

If you are anywhere near Playa del Carmen, highly recommended. Luckily, you don’t need to be a guest of the hotel.

I drop by the dance bar, which tonight is crowded to overflowing with a wedding party and it looks like the dancers from the evening’s pre-hispanic show have joined the festivities.

Friday I’m up early and take a walk north along the beach. There’s a small passage to cross – where the mangrove swamp and the Caribbean exchange waters – and then a long walk past several resorts. I take some photos to add to my abandoned footwear series. Even so, after last night’s feast, I’m barely hungry for breakfast and then sadly, it’s time to pack up and head for the airport.

Disclaimer: My trip to Mexico was sponsored by Paradisus Hotels, who did not review this post before publication. I’m thankful to them for their hospitality. The Canon SL1 and Sony NEX6 which were used to take the photos were on loan from Sony and Canon.

My story in The Star about the trip

My post about Paradisus Cancun

The video of my cycling trip in Punta Venado

You may be wondering if it’s safe to go to Mexico. I think Paul Marshman gets it right.

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