Soak up the sun
Nueva Vida de Ramiro, Tulum, Mexico
I’m something of a high-maintenance traveler. In my book, a good trip begins with limo pickup from the airport and includes dinners at swanky restaurants, daily spa treatments and air conditioning cranked to high. So imagine my surprise when I fell helplessly in love with the rustic Riviera Maya outpost of Tulum, Mexico, and the decidedly homespun digs I found there at Nueva Vida de Ramiro.
Only ninety minutes’ drive south from Cancún, Tulum is where the Caribbean vacation is distilled to its easygoing essentials: pristine beaches, inexpensive accommodations, casual seafront restaurants and a live-and-let-lounge vibe. Powered entirely by generators supplemented by solar and wind energy, Nueva Vida, like most hotels in this sleepy, off-the-grid boondocks, has no hot water and no in-room phone, TV or Internet. Cancún-based architect Oscar Ortiz and his wife, Gea, opened the eco-resort 11 years ago and have created a low-frills getaway where rest and relaxation are the top priorities. “This is a place to do nothing,” the irrepressibly vivacious Ortiz told me proudly. “Come here and get lazy; just eat, sleep, read and scratch.”
His beachfront hotel encourages languor with 21 breeze-filled, sea-facing bungalows set amid a sandy garden studded with native shrubs and spindly coconut palms. My second-story room in the hotel’s new Corazon area was simply furnished with traditional Mexican pieces, vibrant local art, a canopied bed, and indoor and outdoor showers. At night I was lulled to sleep by cool winds and the whisper of the surf through French doors wantonly thrown open to the elements.
Surprisingly quickly, I downshifted and learned to do what the locals do: to take the day as it comes. Sunny skies invited carefree hours on bone-white sands lapped by turquoise waters, and afternoon thunderstorms were simply an opportunity to linger longer over a lunchtime cerveza. I followed Ortiz’s sage instructions to the letter (save for the scratching), interrupting my sloth only for a succession of delectable meals.
On my first night in town, I discovered the piquant pleasures of sopa de lima (lime broth with chicken and tortilla strips) at Nueva Vida’s palapa-roof restaurant, Casa Banana. Farther down the strip, at la Zebra Beach Cantina y Cabanas, I sipped a mojito as a newlywed English couple oohed and aahed over the postcard-perfect seaside vista. But it was at Zamas’ ¡Que Fresco! restaurant, where crayon-colored tables and chairs were strewn casually along the sand beneath a palapa roof, that I found my bliss. Was it the sea air, the chilled-out setting or my so-relaxed-I-might-slip-into-a-coma state of mind that made the seafood quesadilla taste so heavenly and my chelada (beer with lime, served in a salt-rimmed glass) slip down so easily?
Don’t tell Ortiz, but I did venture beyond the beach for a few hours. Tulum is divided into two areas: the six-mile seaside hotel zone and the town center, or centro, which borders both sides of the main drag, Highway 307. Lined with a hodgepodge of bars and restaurants, souvenir stores, tour companies and fruit stalls, the pueblo is light on charm but heavy on local flavor, best sampled at one of the many cantinas that line the sidewalk, where you can sip a margarita to the strains of a roving three-piece band. Snorkeling in the cool, crystalline waters of nearby Gran Cenote was a refreshing break on a sweltering day, and I certainly couldn’t leave without touring the town’s star attraction, the Maya ruins. The compact compound is well worth the hour or so it takes to navigate its three main structures, but after running the gauntlet of vendors and taxi drivers in the strip mall at the entrance, I craved the peace and tranquility of my hotel-zone haven.
As a traveler with a taste for luxe amenities, I’d never have imagined that I could enjoy a hotel that didn’t offer air conditioning or hot water, never mind niceties like turndown service. But Nueva Vida made me a believer. In this simple yet satisfying oasis, where dressing for dinner means slipping on a pair of flip-flops, less is most definitely more. — Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
From $115 per night in low season ($178 high). 984-877-8512; tulumnv.com
Three more beachy getaways
Cooper Island Beach Club, BVI
Enjoy life’s simple pleasures in the cozy cottages beachfront at Manchioneel Bay on this surprisingly affordable private Virgin, a 35-minute ferry ride from Tortola. From $549 for a seven-night package in low season ($919 high). 800-542-4624; cooper-island.com
Ti Kaye Village, St. Lucia
At this low-key and intimate old-school retreat, 33 colorful, hillside cabins on stilts have outdoor showers, ocean-view porches and the secluded crescent at Anse Cochon all to themselves. From $190 in low season ($280 high). 758-456-8101; tikaye.com
Stella Maris Resort Club, Bahamas
Snorkel, fish or dive at this casual Long Island oasis, where 32 rooms and villas are nestled in a beachfront palm grove. From $145 in low season ($160 high). 800-426-0466; stellamarisresort.com
Get back to nature
Chaa Creek, Belize
I’m certain that one of the ancient Maya sat in this very spot above the Macal River and marveled at this same sight: a brilliantly colored toucan following a sine-wave flight path along the forest verge, its small wings battling the weight of its improbable bill. The Maya believed that every object contained a life force and that toucans were sacred spirits, messengers between the gods and man. Inspired by this toucan’s passing in the early evening’s golden light, the Maya craftsman might have begun carving its image into a limestone frieze on a ceremonial temple. As for myself, I retain just enough life force after a long day of exploring the rainforest to toast the toucan with another rum and fresh papaya, one of the bird’s favorite fruits.
Studies show that connecting with nature improves both our physical and psychological well-being. It shifts the mind into a more relaxed and receptive mode than what we experience in our over-wired, work-obsessed world. The ancient Maya, who lived in harmony with the forests and rivers, offer an excellent model for a back-to-nature escape. Here on the Macal River, in Western Belize, near the border town and adventure-tourism center of San Ignacio, the Maya established several settlements, each with farms, a trading post and an administrative center active during the civilization’s classic period, more than 1,000 years ago. Today this site is home to Chaa Creek, one of the world’s premier jungle lodges.
At Chaa, it’s easy to get into the spirit of the Maya. You reside within a sprawling village of cottages, garden villas, tentlike casitas and forest-luxe treetop suites, all topped in traditional thatch and decorated with indigenous artwork. The 365-acre property includes a farm — worked by a Maya family who supplies organic vegetables, fruits and herbs to Chaa’s excellent restaurant — and a medicine trail, where staff naturalists introduce guests to local plants used for millennia to treat all manner of disorders.
Nearly six miles of trails wind through natural areas along the river and in the forest, leading to the resort’s natural history center, Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm and three Maya archeological sites. Exploring just beyond the lodge’s manicured lawns by foot, horseback, mountain bike or canoe immerses you in Belize’s fabled biodiversity.
Once you’re inside the lush greenery of rosewood, mahogany and allspice, the jungle comes alive with the buzz of hummingbirds, the firecracker pops of white-collared manakins, the hoots of motmots and the cricketlike chirps of keel-billed toucans. More than 300 species of birds have been counted in and around the Chaa Creek Nature Reserve. Ocelot, coatimundi, jaguarundi, agouti and giant iguana prowl beneath the forest canopy here in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and on an otherworldly night hike, our guide tickled a tarantula out of its lair while we were given a hair-raising serenade by howler monkeys and heard the peeps and shrieks of wide-eyed, nectar-gorging kinkajous high in the trees.
If you’re going to use your vacation to connect with nature, you want to make sure nature’s being well taken care of. Chaa Creek was an eco-lodge before the term existed. Modern eco-consciousness, though, is a far cry from a hammock and a hut, as evidenced by Chaa’s new pool and the river-view Jacuzzis in the decks of its honeymoon-happy Tree House suites. But the lodge’s ultimate luxury is experienced at its hillside spa, where a wonderful thing happens with an ancient Maya staple.
Astronomy, art, architecture and written language aside, the Maya proved just how advanced a civilization they were by cultivating cacao trees and transforming the seeds into a thick elixir — a little something we call chocolate. These days, if there’s one thing that can renew your life force and shift you into a relaxed and receptive mode, it’s stripping down and communing with Belize’s natural cocoa butter as Chaa Creek’s masseuse performs a full-body chocolate massage. — Bob Friel
Cottages and garden suites start at $270, double occupancy, in low season ($300 high). Macal River Camp beds are $55 per person, year-round, and include breakfast and dinner. 877-709-8708; chaacreek.com
Three more top nature lodges
Al Natural Resort, Panama
When you want to get away from it all, the Bocas del Toro archipelago is a good place to go. This Belgian-owned, boho-chic eco-camp has bungalows that open to a marine park with great snorkeling and isolated beaches. From $220 in low season ($240 high). 507-757-9004; alnaturalresort.com
Concordia Eco-Tents, St. John
Don’t think tent; think canvas-and-screen villa. Adjacent to the national park, with its hiking trails and snorkeling beaches, Concordia’s low-impact tents have kitchens, baths, solar power and hot water, as well as high-impact views of the forest and ocean. From $105 in low season ($155 high). 800-392-9004; maho.org/concordia.cfm
Jungle Bay, Dominica
Fitting the island’s rugged beauty, its most complete resort is a jungle lodge. Cabins on stilts stand amid the tropical canopy, with alfresco showers and hammocks on the porches. Good food is locally sourced; a yoga pavilion offers serenity; and the spa is sublime. From $195, including breakfast, in low season ($209 high). 767-446-1789; junglebaydominica.com
Surrender to the spa
CuisinArt Resort & Spa, Anguilla
Life is just a bowl of cherry tomatoes.
Well, it is at Anguilla’s CuisinArt Resort & Spa, where that’s precisely what guests find in their room every day: a just-picked selection of what are some of the sweetest and purest specimens of the fruit known to mankind. Mini-maters may sound like a peculiar five-star amenity, but here they’re a signature touch that speaks volumes about the wholesome, holistic ethos that permeates the resort. They announce, “You’ve come to a place that’s going to take good care of you.”
The Rendezvous Bay hotel, whose style was inspired by the whitewashed architecture on the Greek island of Mykonos, was opened in 2001 by Leandro Rizzuto, the American owner of the CuisinArt appliance company. In a stroke of inspiration, Dr. Howard Resh was drafted to build and curate a one-acre hydroponic garden, the likes of which is to be found at no other resort property in the world. The good doctor is also its docent, leading daily tours that turn out to be far more fascinating than one might expect of a quick tutorial on greenhouse horticulture.
Hydroponics is the method for growing plants without soil, using water and nutrients, and man, does it work — those tomatoes go from seed to bowl in three months, and the plants grow to 40 feet over a 10-month cycle. There’s more: Dr. Resh and crew harvest 128 heads of bib lettuce every day, and they grow peppers, microgreens, cucumbers, and 15 kinds of fresh herbs and edible flowers. You like salad? They’ve got salad.
“Nutritionally, it’s better for you than what you could grow in your own backyard,” says Dr. Resh. It’s also prepared more expertly than you probably could in your own kitchen; the ultrafresh produce is, of course, an extraordinary resource for executive chef Daniel le Guenan. “Now I can playing with that!” says the Frenchman. In his “Meditaribbean” fusion cuisine, he uses little butter or oil, cooks quickly and incorporates local ingredients like plantains, sweet potatoes and fresh fish. Le Guenan hosts an educational chef’s table near the kitchen and offers hands-on cooking classes. “My cooking is a part of my heart,” he says. “I love to share it with my staff and guests.”
Not to be outdone, the bar staff also exploits the garden’s bounty. To make a batch of tomatinis, vodka is infused with cherry tomatoes for eight weeks. Cumin and sweet basil are added to the blend; the rim of the glass is dusted with paprika and sugar; and the drink is garnished with three cherry tomatoes, orange, red and yellow. Folks, that is not your everyday cocktail (but perhaps Petal’s Hydroponic Cucumber and Sage Martini is). At CuisinArt, the bar’s an adventure in the possibilities of hydroponic, alcoholic goodness.
So, too, it turns out, is the Venus Spa, a 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the art facility that underwent a $10 million expansion this year. “You know that people are going to leave here feeling better than when they came in,” spa director Kathy Eggleston said as she showed me to the men’s locker room. I opted for a 2½-hour regime called the Pyrat Refresher, named for Anguilla’s own premium rum blend and offered in the Men’s Club Suite “for all our distinguished gentlemen,” as the menu put it.
First I was the fortunate recipient of a tandem massage performed by expert masseuses. Upon my creaky and aching middle-aged body, they practiced simultaneous effleurage — my favorite new word, meaning slow, circular strokes. They were like four-hand pianists coaxing a beautiful duet out of an out-of-tune instrument. This was followed by a facial — my first — and then a pedicure, another first. During the latter, I couldn’t help wondering where the nymphs with grapes were. Then a woman walked in with a tray of fresh fruit and a mojito made with Pyrat and aromatic mint from Dr. Resh’s garden. I felt like a pharaoh.
When I got back to my room, I said to my little tomato friends, “You were right: I have been well taken care of today.” — Dave Herndon
From $400 in low season ($740 high; check website for promotions); 800-943-3210; cuisinartresort.com
Three more top spa retreats
Ceiba del Mar Beach & Spa Resort, Mexico
Just outside the sleepy village of Puerto Morelos, about 20 miles south of Cancún, Ceiba’s 88 ocean-view rooms and suites surround a 9,000-square-foot sanctuary, which specializes in Maya-inspired rituals, including the traditional purifying sweat lodge, the temazcal. From $148 in low season ($280 high). 877-545-6221; ceibadelmar.com
Rosewood Little Dix Bay, BVI
Lap up the luxury on Virgin Gorda, where the cliff-edge Sense spa overlooks glistening waters and offers treatments (including the neem leaf facial) that utilize locally harvested ingredients. From $450 in low season ($650 high). 888-767-3966; littledixbay.com
Jamaica Inn, Jamaica
Intimate and low-key, this 47-suite Ocho Rios classic offers tasteful accommodations, exceptional service and the KiYara Ocean Spa, where plant-based treatments are administered in a thatch-roof waterfront cottage. From $300 in low season ($590 high). 800-837-4608; jamaicainn.com
Fall in love ... again
Parrot Cay, Turks and Caicos
“It’s like a honeymoon!”’
Is there any more satisfying a string of words a man could hear from his beloved on their first night at a resort he’s selected for its romantic allure?
Skyrockets in flight!
Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos, had long been a place I dreamed of going for an amorous escape. Not because it’s a well-known hideaway for the likes of home owners Christie Brinkley, Donna Karan, Bruce Willis and Keith Richards (though I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wainscoting when and if the latter two gents get together for a neighborly howl), but because the resort quietly projects an image of enlightened beauty and serenity. A castaway private isle where you go to walk hand-in-hand on a dreamy sweep of sand lapped by tepid turquoise wavelets, have massages, take naps and read books in cozy intimacy with the one you love — and Thing One and Thing Two.
Yes, this romantic retreat was to be somewhat ... enlivened by the exigencies and antics of two rascally lads under the age of five. Let’s stipulate that the Thing brothers aren’t yet attuned to the concept of serenity and that their attitudes toward mommy-daddy togetherness have not evolved beyond the Oedipal. And that is why their primary caregiver and I were so secretly thrilled to meet a delightful Balinese woman with the 007-esque name of Martini. When she was introduced as a butler we magically heard the word nanny, and by the time we had enjoyed dinner for two that night in the very grown-up Terrace restaurant, the second honeymoon was underway in earnest.
You know going in that Parrot Cay is going to be nice - but what’s it like? You kiss the world behind at Provo’s marina and embark on a half-hour boat ride that delivers you to a four-mile-long, one-mile-wide slice of Out Island loveliness incarnate. Golf carts transport you down lanes lined with bougainvillea and frangipani, passionflowers red and white. The main campus — a small hotel on a hilltop, a smattering of beachfront houses, a pool/bar/restaurant pavilion and a gym — is quiet, almost to the point of monastic (or at least it was till we got there). Rooms and furnishings are by no means opulent, but they are spacious, gracious and eminently comfortable. Teak Balinese-style pieces and pervasive white muslin establish a tone of simple, functional elegance that’s just right for the beach. And what a beach: Just over the dunes lies a mile-long stretch of sand so soft it pampers your feet as you walk. Pairs of lounge chairs with umbrellas are set apart at discrete 20-yard intervals, and the A-list private houses are down past a rocky point, so there’s plenty of privacy for everyone.
One afternoon, Martini took the boys out to hunt for endemic lizards, and the love of my life and I slipped off to the Shambhala Retreat — a veritable temple of the soothing arts — for a couples massage, a blissful hour of sensual healing all the better for having been shared. Another day, Martini patiently coached the youngsters in crafts while we sought out the “old spa,” a mostly forgotten oasis where it’s possible to pass a couple of hours in near-total privacy, rotating between a hillside Jacuzzi, a plunge pool and a steam room. Seldom since the blessed arrival of Thing One had we enjoyed such a peaceful and, yes, romantic afternoon together.
It was then that we understood why the guests who’d arrived before us were walking around with beatific expressions on their faces, and what makes Parrot Cay a favored destination for a clientele that can go pretty much wherever they want: Parrot Cay isn’t just a resort; it’s a sanctuary, a place that has what it takes to soothe the harried, metropolitan soul.
“This really is a paradise,” said my bride as we floated back to the room from our secret rendezvous. “If I were dead I’d like to walk down this path forever.”
And so would I, as long as we could do it together. — Dave Herndon
From $690 low season ($930 high); 877-754-0726; parrotcay.como.bz
Three more romantic escapes
Casa Colonial Beach & Spa, Dominican Republic
Amid a compound of all-inclusive resorts, this stylish Puerto Plata luxury boutique exudes understated chic with sleek and spacious suites, a rooftop pool and bar, and prime position on a sandy crescent perfect for romantic sunset strolls. From $286 in low season ($350 high). 809-320-3232; casacolonialhotel.com
Palm Island, Grenadines
Nothing’s more romantic than a private-island retreat in the limpid waters of the Caribbean. Palm Island shines with water’s-edge suites, five beaches, and stellar sailing and snorkeling opportunities off its 135 acres. From $725, all-inclusive, in low season ($855 high). 866-237-2157; palmislandresortgrenadines.com
Rock House, Bahamas
This adults-only, 10-room Harbour Island boutique offers attentive service, fine cuisine and a villa-like ambience that draws honeymooners and anniversary celebrants. From $300 year-round. 242-333-2053; rockhousebahamas.com