The Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya

By Nicole Dorsey Straff / September 14, 2011

After a weary four-hour flight from Los Angeles and a dusty ride along the bumpy main strip leading out of Cancun, I gladly undergo a Mayan welcome, which includes a signature chaya juice, a chilled aromatic towel (essence of white tea) to blot the humidity, and a quick-change out of my shoes into spa slippers. The soaring, open palapa-style front lobby is indicative of the overall feel of this two-sided resort—a subtle mix of Asian elements common in Mandarin Oriental properties—but now combined with oversized shells, local limestone, and tropical gardens inherent to northeast Mexico.

Set against 36 acres, the guest rooms feature large bathrooms with huge rainforest showerheads and a small outdoor soaking pool. Inside each type of room, the modern Asian architecture is, again, interspersed with bold Mexican accents. Suspended over the mangrove lagoon adjacent to the sea, generous-sized villas open onto expansive patios that lead to a boat dock. There’s also a deep fresh-water reservoir sacred to the ancient civilizations that once lived here, and it serves as the resort’s thoughtful centerpiece.

About a quarter-mile from the rocky beach are the lobby, the spa and the Selva villas, which open onto “art courtyards,” where the work of six local artists are showcased. Interestingly, of the six Mexican artists featured here, every one chose to incorporate water into their installations. In daylight, these six patios offer a shaded place to meditate or read, but every evening each display offers a hypnotizing show of lights surrounded by the squawks of night birds and the occasional splash of a shy crocodillo. (More on that later.) According to Pablo Amore, resort art director, “These living art courtyards incorporate earthy elements that appeal to our senses and merge the sense of art, nature, and architecture. They’re meant to invite the weary traveler to travel through and explore.”

The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya is a 25,000 square-foot showpiece of contemporary, crisp lines mixed with vibrant Mexican accents. After sipping the welcoming lemon-ginger tea and sliding on a plush robe and slippers, your Mexican esthetician leads you to the extraordinary Mandala herb garden where you can personally pick the ingredients that will partially compose your massage or body treatment. Featuring seasonal herbs and plantings, I sauntered between rosemary, lemongrass, rose, and large beds of colorful healing plants, but finally decided to go local with the Mexican chaya (sort of like a thicker spinach leaf). In my Mayan herbal scrub ($145 U.S. for 60 minutes) the chaya leaves were chopped into coarse sea salt and stirred with Mexican honey, and then the thick exfoliant was applied to my body. I passed some time in the tranquil Zen Relaxation Room and applied snow-like crushed ice to my temples, hands, and shoulders as my esthetician recommended. She told me that the freezing three-foot-high crushed ice fountain is used to constrict blood vessels, lower body temperature, and stimulate nerve endings. London-based Aromatherapy Associates is their signature product line; and my sunburned cheeks were thankful. (This past June, the Mandarin Oriental introduced this new signature product line. Each product has been created according to the oriental principles of five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Bringing together the purest plant and flower oils from East and West, the products incorporate five body oils, five bath and shower oils, as well as a body scrub, body wash, and body lotion. All contain natural ingredients and are paraben-free, and a master blender to Mandarin Oriental’s specifications has mixed them.)

British-born spa director Clive McNish opened the resort in September 2008 with 11 treatments rooms and a thought-provoking combination of spa philosophies (Shiatsu Massage, Oriental Foot Therapy, for instance) and pure Mexican and Mayan Rituals. “Though Mandarin Oriental Spas are world-class, in terms of service and products, I thought it was very important to show our guests that they can walk over to a wild banana tree or Mexican coconut, pick it from the tree, and we’ll make you a spa smoothie out of it,” says McNish. “This is an indigenous sort of wild place that we’ve kept just that way so visitors can find their own reasons to enjoy Mexico.” To that end, McNish interviewed well over 80 estheticians, and began intensive trainings for the 12 full-time therapists he now employs.

A spa signature, the Temezcal Ceremony ($315 for two hours and 15 minutes), signifies spiritual rebirth and occurs in the sauna-like heated Temezcal with lava rocks heating the cave from the inside out. Led by a local shaman (or medicine man), the two-hour spa journey incorporates blessings, chanting, herbs, and meditation. It concludes with outdoor reflexology and a scalp massage; I skipped the Mexican spiritual sauna and opted for the hydrating 90-Minute Indulge Facial ($205) instead.

“The Mandarin Oriental trains staff for the highest level of consistent and sincere service but we also have an eye to sustaining a natural Mexico. And fifteen percent of all of our spa guests are Mexican citizens as well,” says McNish. Within the spa and the resort, there’s a green towel program, and drinkable water is filtered and generated on-site. The resort reuses guest water to hydrate the tropical plants and flowers. Though the local wildlife is very shy within the surrounding mangroves, an intrepid hiker may find huge iguanas, boa constrictors, giant turtles, sea birds, and coatis, which are large raccoon-like creatures.

My calorie-burning high point was a 60-minute private yoga class in the spa area, but there are also three swimming pools, beach snorkeling, fishing boats for rent, and guided excursions to nearby Tulum and Coba archeological sites. Their state-of-the-art health club was perfectly air-conditioned and stocked with freshly baked mini-muffins and fruit. A newfangled Kinesis weight-lifting center resembled a jungle gym for adults, so I worked off my fresh tuna and salmon sushi lunch there. Guests may flock to one of the three championship golf courses within a five-mile radius, and rent yachts and sailboats for half-day pleasure trips.

Throughout my relaxing wanders, the only sign of two resident, four-foot-long crocodiles was a giant splash in the lagoon as I left the Latin Ambar restaurant and walked back to my villa. Maybe it was the potent margarita I sipped with my well-seasoned crab ceviche and grilled grouper, but I waved off the golf cart driver who offered me a ride in the dark; I preferred staring at the stars and walking. “Goodnight crocs,” I yelled over my shoulder just in case they were listening. “Thanks for a lovely time.”

Nicole Dorsey Straff

Nicole Dorsey Straff

Nicole Dorsey, M.S. is a travel and wellness expert who earned a Master’s Degree in the health sciences while writing and editing for industry giants, such as The New York Times, Fitness Magazine and Her true passion is adventure travel and her spa reporting has taken her all over the world.
Nicole Dorsey Straff

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