MEXICO, VERO SUGGESTED. Specifically, Cancún and Yucatán. Hmm, not really places I’d given much thought, owing to a lifelong avoidance of sun and beaches, but Vero and husband Jon have traveled the world, and their travel-wise knowledge is worth exploiting. They already were making plans and proposed that Joe and I come along. Vero was doing the research, choosing dates, booking rooms. All we had to do was pack bathing suits and get on a plane.
Words that send chills down my spine. But I’ll get to that.
What Vero proposed was two weeks of luxury. Week 1 at a Cancún resort followed by a second week staying two nights each at three restored haciendas in Yucatán. Should Vero decide someday to come out of retirement, she definitely should consider a second career as a travel agent. The woman is a genius.
Cancún is a blast. Especially staying at a beautiful resort like the Westin Lagunamar. I know I sound like an advertisement, but I can’t help it. Hotel rooms are important to me. Thread count, well, counts. I want towels abundant and fluffy, showers spacious, and sitting rooms (or, at least, sitting spaces) included. A view never hurts, and in Cancún our high balcony overlooked one of the resort’s sparkling pools and the turquoise waves of the Caribbean.
Across the street are restaurants, an aquarium and all the high-end shopping you could want—Prada, Gucci, Vuitton, Chanel. I went native, however, after veering into shops that sold locally made clothing and crafts. The light, gauzy cotton tops and pants were so cool and comfortable in the tropical heat. Added bonus, they cost almost nothing!
Then, there was the issue of the bathing suit.
It had been at least 30 years and a few pounds since I last had one on my body, and until Day 2 of this vacation had no intention of interrupting that record. Plus, almost two years of daily prednisone accounts for an extra 20 pounds I would prefer not to share with the world.
Vero just scoffed. Her words (spoken with her French accent) basically boiled down to, “Don’t be stupid. You’re here in this beautiful place. The water is cool. The sun is warm. There is a wonderful breeze. Don’t you want to feel the air on your skin? Why would you deny yourself that pleasure? Life is too short. Stop worrying. You’re the only one who cares how you look. Just enjoy.”
So I bought a suit, squeezed into it, walked the beach, lolled by the pool. Of course Vero was right. The sun, the water, the air all felt marvelous. And no one gave me a second glance. I wouldn’t say I wore the suit with abandon, but for the rest of the vacation it served me well while I enjoyed piña coladas by and/or in the hotel pools.
Cancún can keep you busy (given its beaches, Museo Maya and proximity to the ruins of Tulum, the Isla Mujeres and the fun of Playa del Carmen’s pedestrian center). Most people have at least heard of Cancún, but far fewer have knowledge of the beautifully restored haciendas a few hours away by car in Yucatán state. We visited three and I would return to all three in a heartbeat.
A bit of history: Haciendas in Mexico are similar to our Southern plantations. Like plantations, we were told, haciendas enforced a social system of castes, based on race, with the haciendados, or landowners, as masters and the indigenous Maya as workers. Cattle, corn and sisal were among the cash crops. The glory days of the haciendas were from the early to mid-1900s, when sisal production was at its peak. The introduction of synthetic fibers (and the Mexican Revolution) put an end to the era of “green gold.” With the collapse of the sisal market most haciendas also collapsed and were abandoned. Landowners simply walked away. The buildings were looted and left to decay in the jungle.
They lay in ruins until the 1990s when hotel owners began to show interest. The Starwood Hotel group bought five haciendas across Yucatán and Campeche states, restored and converted them into luxurious boutique hotels and include them in their aptly dubbed Luxury Collection. We stayed at Hacienda Santa Rosa, Hacienda Temozón Sur and Hacienda San José (thehaciendas.com). The three are similar in furnishings and amenities, yet each has its own distinct personality with a surprise or two thrown in.
What was no surprise was the warmth of the welcome at each hacienda. From the moment we arrived in Mexico we were struck by the kindness and generosity of the locals. The Maya are lovely, lovely people, hard-working, friendly and approachable, proud and eager to share their time, culture and history. This was even more true of the hacienda staffs who were so sweet and attentive and extremely efficient.
Hacienda Santa Rosa is a four-hour drive from Cancún, but it would be wrong not to stop along the way to experience the wonder of Chichén Itzá, the most well-known of the Mayan ruins. Having done so means you will arrive at the hacienda as we did, hot, wilted and dusty. You’ll bump along a cobblestone drive, but the cobbled drive is the only discomfort you’ll experience here. The staff, smiling and looking cool and fresh in impeccably white garb, walk out on the long veranda to greet you with fragrant, cold wash cloths and refreshing chilled drinks flavored with hibiscus and lime.
Our rooms were side-by-side, spacious and spare, with enormous iron beds and bathrooms the size of most suburban living rooms (which turned out to be the case with each hacienda). We had deep verandas outfitted with sisal hammocks and, just beyond, our own (well, almost our own since we were four of only six guests there) swimming pool. That evening we had dinner on the veranda lit only by candlelight and a small bonfire burning below.
Hacienda Santa Rosa is said to be the feminine hacienda. The reason? Before restoration, the hacienda had been thoroughly looted with only one original item left behind, we were told, the portrait of a woman. Her identity is a mystery, but her visage holds a place of honor in the lobby. It seems fitting she should keep watch over this intimate hotel of only 11 guest rooms.
Hacienda Temozón Sur is another matter. Its 28 guest rooms mean you probably won’t have the pool all to yourself. However, at your request the staff will gladly fill your own private plunge pool and surround it with candles. The plunge pool is just outside the bathroom door that opens onto your personal terrace, a terrace surrounded by lush vegetation and singing birds.
Temozón also has its own private cenote, and Tobacco the donkey will take you to it. Cenotes are sinkholes that form when the limestone bedrock that makes up most of the Yucatán collapses and exposes the groundwater below. They are common throughout the area. Vero took Tobacco up on his offer and appreciated that he waited patiently while she swam in water so clear it was almost invisible.
Hacienda San José, as well as Temozón, is not far from Uxmal, the ancient Mayan city that, in my opinion, is even more impressive than the better-known Chichén Itzá. Larger than Santa Rosa, smaller than Temozón, Hacienda San José is a beautiful juxtaposition of aged imperfections and modern amenities. The grounds are a luxuriant tropical jungle and the rooms impeccable. Though I feel I must warn you.
If you think you might not want to share your room with a tree, you should let the staff know. I love trees but was surprised to find I did not love having one in my bathroom. It was a large tree, extremely large, there long before the hacienda was restored. And it was a Ceiba, the sacred tree of the Mayas. Ceibas are not to be cut down. Hence, the bathroom was built around this one. I felt it would be disrespectful to voice my discomfort and kept quiet my concern about things that might crawl out of the ground around the base of a tree. The bathroom floor, what there was of it, was basically a wooden boardwalk that also provided myriad entries for things that crawl or slither.
Admittedly the Ceiba is an impressive tree that can grow to 200 feet or more. It has a spreading canopy and buttress-like roots that can be taller than a person. The ancient Maya believed the Ceiba connected the underworld, the earth and the sky. I’m good with that. I just didn’t want it in my bathroom.
Here are things all three haciendas have in common: beauty, history, excellent food, comfort, luxurious rooms, spas, dazzling pools, lush grounds and attentive staff. I will always fondly remember the sweet waiter who served our dinner that last night at San José. Though he didn’t work a night shift, at 4 the next morning he was at our door with coffee and tea to see us off as we left to catch our flight home. He led us by flashlight over the graveled paths to our car and held both my hands as we said goodbye. I think I fell a little bit in love with him.
Vero had hit a home run. Her planning, her choices, her suggestions were perfection. Thanks to her, I experienced a part of the world I might otherwise have ignored.
And I might never have put on a bathing suit.
And I might never put one on again. Old habits die hard. I sent the suit home with Vero.
Prices for the Westin Lagunamar and the haciendas will vary according to season and type of room. For our trip, which came at the end of the dry season, when rates were a bit lower, the Westin averaged $350 a night. The haciendas were around $250 per night. We flew in and out of Cancún, but you may want to fly into Mérida if you prefer to be closer to the haciendas.
LittleBird Kathy is art director of MyLittleBird and, when we can persuade her, a terrific storyteller. (And she probably looks just fine in that bathing suit.)