Luxury hotels add some refinement to raucous Cancun

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Many people associate Cancun with less-than-luxurious elements: spring break and rowdy vacationers. Indeed, college students have forged a reputation as frequent visitors to Cancun.

But as I enjoyed a cocktail in the trendy lounge at ME Cancun, one of the city's latest hotels to be reborn as a stylish, upscale getaway, it became quite clear that those stereotypes do not always apply. 

This city by the sea has turned the crisis of Hurricane Wilma, which struck Cancun in 2005, into a catalyst to create a new destination.

With renovated hotels, fine dining and an increasing array of designer shopping, this is Cancun deluxe.

Points of entry

Getting to Cancun just got a bit more pleasant, thanks to the $100 million third airport terminal that opened in May, which doubled passenger capacity. Eighty-four check-in counters and 11 departure gates were added.

Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, which operates Cancun's airport, is planning to build a second runway. A new international airport, slated for construction in Tulum, may further alleviate congestion that has plagued Cancun's airport.

And that's not all. Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste has proposed a $500 million light-rail system to connect destinations along Mexico's Caribbean coast.

City renewed

Chilled-out lounge music greeted me as I entered the ME Cancun, one of the first three hotels to carry the new ME by Melia brand.

Opened in December in the former Melia Turquesa, this chic, 448-room property has all the trappings to become one of Cancun's hippest resorts: stylish decor, moody lighting and guest rooms that include iPod docks, plasma TVs, 300-thread-count linens and all-natural amenities by Aveda.

By night, the facade is bathed in purple light, standing out from all the other hotels on the strip.

The hotel's club floor, called the Level, is home to 52 rooms and four suites that have Jacuzzis, aromatherapy amenities, complimentary wireless Internet access and complimentary cocktails and snacks.

A chilled-out, hip vibe extends to the outdoor area. Rande Gerber, founder of the Midnight Oil brand of bars and lounges, has teamed with his brother, Scott,  and Maxim magazine to create the Maxim Beach at the resort's pool and beach area, complete with DJs and Balinese-style day beds. Guests can also relax at the 11,000-square-foot Yhi Spa.

While the hotel is not restricted to adults, there are no children's programs, so clients seeking a relatively quiet getaway are assured there will be no poolside children's salsa lessons.

The hotel's dining options include Salt, which serves Mediterranean cuisine, and Silk, an Asian bistro.

The hotel's eLounge is an especially high-traffic area; part of the hotel's eSpace, it serves light snacks and drinks and offers complimentary Internet access in a groovy atmosphere.

After my relaxing stay at the ME Cancun, I moved to the 252-room Sun Palace, which reopened in January as an all-inclusive, couples-only resort. Like other recently renovated Palace Resorts properties, the Sun Palace now sports chic, minimalist decor, neutral colors and spa-focused amenities. The spa has been expanded, and five new massage rooms have opened.

Treatments include sea mud wraps, oshiburi facials, sacred-stone massages and more traditional treatments.

Spa services aren't part of the all-inclusive price. Prices start at $51 for a 25-minute "sun-soothing" massage.

Other improvements include a swim-up bar and the new, open-air Oriental Lounge, which serves drinks and snacks and features a 20-person Jacuzzi.

Speaking of Jacuzzis, every guest room at the Sun Palace has a two-seater model, making the resort perfect for couples. Rooms also have flat-screen, LCD TVs and large-size Farouk bath amenities (rather than the usual tiny bottles that hotels stock). Guests can order room service around the clock as part of the all-inclusive price.

The property has 20 presidential suites, offering plenty of opportunities for travel agents to sell up.

The gym facilities have been moved to the second floor and more than doubled in size, with floor-to-ceiling walls offering inspiring views of the lagoon.

All-inclusive dining at Sun Palace features multiple restaurant choices. Cafe Bistro is the only venue for buffet dining. (I have to admit that when I first saw it, I figured it must be an a la carte restaurant, because of its elegant decor.)

La Tratto is the dramatically elegant Italian restaurant that is open for dinner. Guests should try to snag one of the tables overlooking the beach and the sea.

The property also has 4,100 square feet of meetings space for up to 280 people. Its convention facilities reopened in April.

Guests at any of the Palace Resorts properties are entitled to all-inclusive privileges at other resorts in the Palace Resorts portfolio, so it's possible to enjoy the beach, pool, drinks and meals at the nearby Cancun Palace.

Other places to sell up

" The 601-room Cancun Palace, which reopened in February, has 23 new presidential suites just waiting for luxury-seeking clients. All guest rooms have a two-person Jacuzzi and balcony.

The resort, with fresh decor similar to the Sun Palace, has Miyako, an Asian restaurant with on-site cooking exhibitions (housed in a former meeting space) and an upscale Italian restaurant (set in the former Mexican restaurant).

Each of the hotel's restaurants has its own wine cellar. All facilities are now handicap-accessible.

The all-inclusive resort's pools have been enlarged, and a bigger spa has opened with additional treatment cabins.

The new, well-designed lobby separates check-in and checkout counters, assuring that guests aren't waiting on a long line when it's time for them to approach the desk.

"In April, Dreams Cancun opened an on-site dolphin swim-and-show program.

The company partnered with Via Delphia, which operates dolphin swim programs in various locations in Mexico, to open Delphinus Dreams Cancun, billed as the first interactive dolphin program at a resort in North America.

Guests also can choose a new room category: Deluxe Dolphin View, with private balconies to watch the show. The show is open to the public, but hotel guests get first crack at tickets. Guests can also choose from photography and DVD services to record their experiences.

Dreams Cancun is one of the first two properties in the AMResorts portfolio to launch the Spa Journeys by Pevonia program, offering a variety of treatment packages grouped as five "journeys." The Rejuvenation Journey, for example, includes a selection of natural, holistic, botanical and marine extracts.

" Renovations at the Gran Melia Cancun include the debut of the Yhi Spa as well as Nami, a new sushi lounge.

Guest rooms at the 700-room property, a AAA Four Diamond resort and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, now have flat-screen, 32-inch TVs; laptop-size safe-deposit boxes; new bedding; rain showerheads; and high-speed Internet access.

Clients looking for even more amenities should splurge on the Royal Service level, which features separate check-in and checkout, a private lounge, a pillow menu and a private swimming pool with Bali-style beds.

" The 295-room Hyatt Regency Cancun reopened April 14 after a $20 million renovation, with a conceptual style it calls "Cosmo-Chic." All guest rooms now have LCD TVs, an MP3 alarm clock with CD player and new linens and furniture.

"The 365-room Ritz-Carlton, Cancun finished its $15 million renovation in September 2006, upgrading its Kayanta Spa and refurbishing guest rooms with 400-thread-count linens, rain forest showerheads and 32-inch, LCD, flat-screen TVs.

Also new to the property is the Cliff Drys-dale Tennis Center, a club operated by TV analyst and former pro Cliff Drysdale. A new restaurant, Casitas, sits on the beach and has private cabanas for dining.

The Ritz-Carlton's new Culinary Center, equipped with Viking Range appliances, offers cooking classes with themes, including Spa Cuisine, Real Mexican, Grilling Feast, Tuscan Dinner Party and Treasures From the Sea.

Each class covers three to five complementary recipes, led by chef Rory Dunaway. Cooking classes are held Mondays through Saturdays, starting at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wine and tequila tastings are offered at 6 p.m.

" The Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua, Cancun is scheduled to reopen this fall. Guest rooms will have Bose home theater sound systems, DVD/CD/MP3 players, satellite TV and high-speed Internet access.

Shopping and dining

Cancun has built a world of fine shopping and dining that is a far cry from cheap T-shirts and tequila shots.

Among the top choices for upscale shopping is La Isla Shopping Village, which opened in 1999 and has recently expanded to house more than 250 stores, restaurants and attractions. Top brands include Zara, LaCoste, Diesel, Envy, Miss Sixty, Tommy Hilfiger and Guess.

Lots of open-air corridors make for pleasant strolling. There's a small canal and a waterfront pier perfect for viewing sunsets over the lagoon. There is also an aquarium.

The granddaddy of upscale shopping, Plaza Kukulcan, remains a popular choice for shoppers seeking to exercise their plastic. It's now home to Luxury Avenue, a "mall within a mall" with vendors that stock Clinique, DKNY, Montblanc, Coach and Louis Vuitton.

Plaza Caracol Shopping Center is home to a branch of Envy (which stocks Boss, D&G and Ermenegildo Zegna) plus jewelers and Ultrafemme, which sells cosmetics and fragrances from Biotherm, Estee Lauder and Clarins.

Nearly all of the luxury properties in the Hotel Zone have multiple upscale dining options, but the city itself has introduced a growing number of restaurants.

Visitors can savor fresh seafood at Lorenzillo's, scenically set on a pier in the lagoon, and La Dolce Vita, which also specializes in homemade pasta. Puerto Madero is the place to sample Argentinian cuisine, while Pericos offers an elegant take on local Mexican delicacies.

For a decidedly sweet dining experience, clients can head to Chocolate City, a restaurant that opened this year at Plaza Kukulcan.

The restaurant's fixed $45 price includes dinner, a drink and a circus-like show with acrobatics and music -- and plenty of desserts and drinks with chocolate.

For more information about Cancun, contact the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau at (011) 52-998 881-2745 or visit www.cancun.info.

To contact reporter Mark Chesnut, send e-mail [email protected].

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For more on Cancun, see "Changing Cancun's image the top goal for CVB chief."

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