On Mexico’s beaches, I’ve been sporty, social, or had my solitude. I’ve had the friendliest service in the world, the best housemade guacamole, and left with killer suntans. Beach vacations don’t get much better than this.
It was my first—and everyone else’s—brush with Mexico and I keep going back. That’s because it simply boasts the gold standard of beaches. Powder-white sand is such a cliché and almost never true. But it’s accurate here. Even more gorgeous is the water, so pale and iridescent, with such a flawlessly sandy bottom that the patterns the light makes on the surface evoke the kind of swimming pools that Hockney painted.
I stayed at Live Aqua Cancun when it was just called Aqua, before Hurricane Wilma wrecked it; and I stayed there after the extensive rehabilitation (it’s now all-adult and all-inclusive). If the beachfront location weren’t enough, the place has one of the choicest pool gardens in the world, with eight pools of different temperatures and types: round, infinity, wading—and one is elevated so you can fall from it, into the pool below. Did I mention the oceanfront cabanas with the sun beds that are suspended from the ceiling and gently sway with the breeze? I have now.
Cabo San Lucas
I lived in Southern California for years, and Cabo was the go-to place for Angelenos who can’t bear the 70 degree winters at home. It’s around a two-hour flight (movie trivia: in Tarantino’s film “Jackie Brown,” the L.A.-based heroine works as a flight attendant for the fictional Cabo Air). Among Cabo’s swimmable beaches, the most famous is Lover’s Beach—it’s the one with the rocky arch that launched a million postcards. This beauty can be reached by boat or via a hike from Solmar Beach. The One&Only Palmilla resort is among the area’s most luxurious: it features Jack Nicklaus’ first Latin American golf course, a renowned 13-treatment room spa, and a safe-to-swim beach.
Remote and unspoiled, Costa Maya probably only exists in its current form because of its proximity to a cruise ship terminal. It’s located on the Yucatan Peninsula near the Belizean border, but it’s a full 200 miles from the Cancun Airport. The only reason I even learned about it is because I was the editor of a magazine for Holland America and I visited the port on a Caribbean cruise. I was glad I did. Some staffers from the ship suggested I check out the main town, Mahahual, which turned into a barefoot beach paradise during its rebuilding after Hurricane Dean hit in 2007. The town’s malecon (promenade) is flanked on one side by spiffy boutique hotels and bars to get your Dos Equis on, and a beach dotted with thatched-roof palapas on the other. The Nacional Beach Club & Bungalows, overseen by hosts/owners Evan and Anna, serve up great hospitality—and quesadillas.
Get into the spirit and call it “Zihua” like a local. Zihua’s main, one-mile-long Pacific beach, Playa La Ropa, is one of the most active water-sports strands I’ve ever been on (waterskiing, parasailing, windsurfing, kayaking, banana boat rides, scuba). I was knocked out by its European feel, with colorful villas and hotels rising up onto the hillside.
The big news is the Tides resort has been reflagged as a Viceroy, and it tops the charts for luxury, but not in an ostentatious way. The design and craftsman features throughout are local, and my suite had one of the most livable layouts imaginable: it was beachfront, and I could walk right out to my plunge pool, and a few steps below that, to my thatched cabana and hammock on the sand. And I enjoyed an unprecedented service experience: When I emerged from the sea, I paused for a minute to think about where I wanted to have lunch, and a friendly staffer brought a table to the spot where I stood. Tableside-created guacamole ensued.
This luxury resort development located 40 miles south of Cancun was fashioned a few years ago out of whole cloth. To drive down from the Cancun airport is to see nothing but desert and spindly scrub to the right, and the occasional hotel sign on the left. Mayaboka boasts an eye-pleasing landscape of lagoons and cenotes, and a quieter, more affluent appeal than Cancun’s. Of course, it’s the same pristine beach and luminous water. A collection of esteemed hotel chains have outposts here, including a Fairmont and a Banyan Tree. I was beyond impressed by the Rosewood, with its assortment of huge suites—some featuring private lagoon locations, some with outdoor showers, and others set right on the beach.
Last occupied around 1,000 years ago, this archeological site, though heavily touristed, is a must-see for visitors to Quintana Roo (which encompasses both Cancun and Playa del Carmen). And its beach, overseen by the commanding Templo Dios del Viento, is one of Mexico’s finest. In the last few years, the Tulum area has become an epicenter of tiny, low-key eco-resorts and yoga retreats. Case in point: Encantada, which has eight rooms, a spa, yoga, WiFi access and ceiling fans, but no A/C.
When Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton (with Elizabeth Taylor in tow) came to this then-sleepy beach town to film “The Night of the Iguana” in the early sixties, the event set Puerto Vallarta on the road to tourist mecca. It’s been through boom years and bust years, but I was struck by the undeniable charm of the historic center, which mixes Spanish Colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets with sophisticated galleries, boutiques, and eateries. The beachfront itself—long, wide, gently curving, and great for swimming—is, of course, the ultimate draw. And the area has benefited by putting out the welcome map for the LGBT community, who tend to congregate at the “blue chairs” at Los Muertos Beach.