I knew he wasn’t a genie but it felt like it when my personal concierge kept asking, in his charming Spanish accent, what more I desired as he walked me through my suite at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort in Playa del Carmen on the Mexican Caribbean. He had already shown me the pillow menu, where I could sample and decide from a variety of firmness levels and configurations; the stocked minibar, filled with premium, full-sized bottles and snacks; the room service menu, from which he said I could order anytime; and the sitting space on my secluded patio, filled with the echoing vibrations of the jungle. Fat palm fronds and hanging vines grew in a stream of water a few feet from my lounge chair outside my room in the rainforest-filled Zen Grand section of the resort. It was like a moat, protecting this Mayan-themed fantasy from my real world for the next few days.
The other two sections of the all-inclusive resort, called Ambiances, are the Grand Class Ambiance, 90 oceanfront suites with terraces and private plunge pools; and the 195 suite ocean-view Ambassador Ambiance, close to the kid’s and teen clubs.
Outside my door, tropical foliage filled every area between the walkways and polished, dark wood bridges, thick with thatch covering, connecting the clean structures of the resort. Each building presented shiny, earth-toned marble floors. Ceramic white planters lined the halls, displaying contemporary designs of thin trees. Shallow pools, set into the lobby, presented mosaic art pieces and everywhere Mayan crafts served to remind guests of their indigenous world.
Nothing is spared to bring an authentic, luxurious experience crafted by this ancient civilization. Eight foodie restaurants, three of which earned four and five diamonds from AAA, and seven bars strive to create unforgettable moments. The Piano Bar is the site of an Ancestral Beverage Tasting. Our teacher, Brandon, patiently explained to our group how many types of alcohol are derived from the agave plant, how they are processed and how long they’re each stored. “There are 320 different agave plants,” he told our tasting group. “Tequila is made only from the blue agave.” Turns out alcohol is super regulated in Mexico and this is an actual law. As we tasted our way through the history of the regional drinks, we learned tequila is produced in the Oaxaca region, while Mezcal is from Jalisco. Mezcal is the smoky tasting cousin of tequila. “It was made as a present to the gods by the Mayan people,” Brandon told us. The Espadin agave plant is commonly used to make the mezcal and the reason for that smoky flavor is because the plant is literally burned, first as a whole and then in pieces, before it’s ground up and added to water and yeast to ferment.
Another, newer to the U.S. alcoholic beverage, is called Raicilla. Raicilla also comes from the Jalisco region and was largely produced on the sly so farmers could avoid paying taxes on it to Spanish conquerors, which is why it’s only recently become a thing in the United States. It uses a variety of agave plants to produce. Raicilla is also burned like mezcal instead of steamed like tequila and, unlike mezcal, is usually distilled only one time so it retains more of the flavor of its region. Finally, there is Sotol from Chihuahua, which doesn’t even come from agave though many think it does. It comes from the dasylirion plant and is a bit sweeter than the others. Tasters could also explore the differences between how long each beverage was aged: Silver or joven is only zero to two months old, reposado is two months to a year while anejo is between one to three years old. I think our entire group agreed history and geography lessons through distilled spirits are a great way to learn.
Every dish we consumed, at every restaurant in the Grand Velas resort, was spectacular. Each could stand alone at a high-end restaurant out in the actual world; however, the presentation at Cucina de Autor felt more like an art show than a dinner. Each of the eight courses presented exquisite plates with unusual and delightful textures and flavors.
There was a complex arrangement of trout balls on crispy wafers over black rice and a dish called The Sea in Monochromatic Green, poblano peppers, green tomato and coriander and also another platter, which was gazpacho with raw tuna, avocado and apple — seriously unusual and crafted by genius. Everything came out slowly so conversation poured freely around the table like the accompanying wine.
Just when you think it can’t get any better than the powder, white-sand beach, the azure ocean and the drink mixologist crafting his garden and cellar concoctions on his mobile cart, you discover the spa. The award-winning SE’ Spa is 89,305 square feet of jungle heaven. Surely created by your genie, the spa is a luxurious cross section of the outside rainforest. Its stone walls are panels of cliffs from which giant fans of fronds and flowers spring. Waterfalls provide a soothing soundtrack to immerse yourself into the relaxation experience.
Every 50-minute treatment starts with a complimentary eight-step Water Ceremony. Designed to imitate the therapeutic benefits of the wild world, guests are taken through a ritual that involves clay masks in a steam room, a dry sauna with cucumber slices provided to cover your eyes, a polar room with a eucalyptus-scented damp facial towel and an infinity pool with corners full of bubbles and actual turbo jet stone beds. After the ceremony, you choose from a bounty of the best treatments gathered from around the world. I chose the personalized massage that started with my feet resting in barley and included hot stones, but I could have had the Thai or Hindu Foot and Scalp Rub or the Lomi Lomi. My genie must have taught my masseur how to read my mind because my massage felt that personalized.
The staff at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya is so committed to your satisfaction, they will tailor your vacation to meet you in the exact place in which you live your life. Are you recently divorced? They have a package for that. Are you a single parent? They have a program for that, too. Or are you ready to tie the knot? Yep. There’s something amazing for you. They go out of their way to custom fit everything. It’s like having your own personal genie.