CANCUN: ON THE REBOUND AND BETTER THAN EVER

Ancient Caribbean Resort City Welcomes Guests with Upgraded Attractions

By Neil Leiberman

One can easily imagine how in the course of the millennia of human civilization in Mexico’s Yucatan, there had been natural disasters – and human ones – of epic proportions. The folklore, the myths and legends, the mysterious places and rituals that have been handed down from the Maya who made this a center of their empire, speak to us from those times.

Cancun has come back from just such a force of nature – Hurricane Wilma. There are 85 percent of the 27,822 hotel rooms have been fully restored and upgraded; a $20 million beach recovery project fully restored nine miles of beach that had been damaged. Some 6,000 new palm trees sway in the balmy wind and there are new gardens, sidewalks and park. Cancun is back to being what it has been, for the ages, a place for gathering, and better than ever.

The renaissance has repositioned Cancun as more upscale. There are now 15 world-class spas and magnificent resorts like Le Meridien and Ritz Carlton Cancun that line a spit of land separated from the mainland by a lagoon and stretching nearly 16 miles along the Caribbean Ocean.

Today, the sun-worshippers come by the planeloads – more than 170 direct or connecting flights a day into Cancun, including new direct service on JetBlue from New York’s J. F. Kennedy Airport. They come as newly weds to this honeymoon haven, as couples seeking romance, as families with a sense of frolic and adventure. They come for the natural splendors of coral reefs and white sand beaches. And they come to see for themselves these archeological wonders of the Maya. More than stone. More than structures that seem to defy the technology of their time. They speak of a spiritual connection to the four essential forces that ruled their lives: earth, water, air and fire.

Cancun, JetBlue’s newest nonstop destination from New York, has changed with the times, but respects its past.

Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa guests enjoy stunning pools and beachfront (© 2007 Neil Leiberman).

This is exemplified in one of the most unique attractions, , a 200-acre ecological-archaeological park located 48 miles south of Cancun. Prepare to spend the entire day, first adventuring on river rides, visiting animal exhibits including a manatee lagoon, a bat cave, sea turtles, a coral reef aquarium, jaguar island, butterfly pavilion (one of the largest in the world), a spider monkey island, tapir house, deer shelter. A regional wildlife enclosure is filled with birds and native animals some in danger of extinction.

You can swim with dolphins, snorkel, do an underwater sea trek, where you wear a diving helmet in order to walk underwater, take a ship to a 22 ft. deep coral reef where you can do “snuba” an activity that combines scuba diving with the ease of snorkeling; visit the “xpa,” enjoy a 20-minute float on a pontoon boat down Paradise River.

One of the most thrilling experiences is floating along underground rivers to see limestone formations on the ceilings and fossil-encrusted walls.

The culture and heritage of the Mayan empire are also on display. Indeed, the ecological park encompasses the site that the ancient Maya had named Pole and was one of its most important ports and ceremonial centers on the Caribbean coast. You can walk a cave route to understand the mysteries of the Mayan netherworld and visit a Mayan village to learn about the customs, culture and traditions of Mayan communities in this region. You can see a pre-Hispanic ball game as it was played on a sacred site and visit an exhibition of scale models of Ancient Mayan cities around the court. A Mayan village cemetery, located on a hill, has 365 tombs, one for each day of the year. Visit the House of Whispers, where, according to legend, the secrets of families and friends that were hard to say face-to-face were whispered to a wall.

Satisfy your appetite as you sample the Mexican specialties from nine different restaurants.

Save some energy for the night. The climax of the visit is the nightly Xcaret Mexico Spectacular, a breathtaking production involving 260 performers in colorful costumes, who enact the history and culture of Mexico through music and dance on a multi-tiered stage. One of the highlights is the Papantla Fliers, a ritual of honor to the spring god Xipe-Totek.

Enter Xcaret, a 200-acre ecological and archeological park (© 2007 NeilLeiberman).

In the production, our “guide” is a modern-day Mayan girl, Lol-Bech (her name means “flower on the road”), who guides us through time and space of Mexican history. Dancers of the old men represent the four stars of the south, where the mother nature lies over the four elements: earth, water, air and fire (www.xcaret.com).

Outside the park, there are many other opportunities for eco-tourism and adventure.

Xel-Ha, surrounded by an emerald jungle, is a sub-aquatic paradise where hundreds of multicolored fish lie in the river and inlet. You can take a nature walk, bicycle ride or tour by mini-train. Devoted to ecology and preservation, the park has a turtle camp, a dolphinarium and an aviary, and is very near the archaeological Mayan site of Tulum.

Isla Mujeres, known as the “Pearl of the Mexican Caribbean” is an island about four miles from Cancun’s shoreline. It is renowned for Garrfon Natural Park, an eco-park with breathtaking landscapes, art and traidtion, a beach, and reefs for snorkeling and diving. Sail aboard the Captain Hook, an authentic replica of an 18th century galleon to learn the history of the area from pirates, followed by a lunch or formal dinner and entertainment (www.captainhook.com).

The Mesoamerican Coral Reef, the second longest in the world, begins just a few miles south of Cancun. a snorkelers’ and scuba divers’ paradise.

It is easy to see why the Maya worshipped the water: the water is so clear, the color is such an exceptional blue, it is called Cancun Blue.

There are many ways to experience the ocean. Aquafun is a water park where visitors can experience a “jungle tour” by boat through mangrove channels, snorkel in the lagoon (www.aquafun.com.mx); Aquatours offers jungle tours as well as Dolphin Discovery, and a dinner cruise (www.dolphindiscovery.com). BOB Cancun offers an unusual underwater experience: the breathing observation bubble that lets you explore the natural reefs, plants and marine life with your own personal “submarine” (supervised and assisted by a trained diver; www.cancunbob.com).

One of the many appeals of Cancun is that it provides nearby access to important archaeological sites. Some are scattered around the town, such as El Rey, an ancient Mayan city developed during the Post-Classic period dating 1200 to 1521, which consists of 47 structures; and El Maco, four miles north of Cancun on the Punta Sam Highway which features vestiges of temples, columns and stucco-covered walls surrounding a large central plaza. Smaller archaeological sites are located at Pok Ta Pok, San Miguelito and Yumil Lu’Um.

Cancun also provides nearby access to Coba, once a city of 50,000 people which had its peak in 300-1000 AD; the 27-sq. mile compound was almost swallowed by jungle; now you can climb the 138-feet high Nobuch Mul pyramid, the tallest on the Yucatan. There is also Tulum, located two hours drive south of Cancun; Chichen Itza and Merida.

World-class Resorts

Cancun is located on the northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun has over 90 hotels on the ocean side; no construction is allowed on the lagoon side, thus preserving its natural beauty. Cancun is most renowned for its nearly 16-mile stretch of white sandy beaches – a powdery limestone that never gets hot – world class hotels, fine recreational facilities including deep sea fishing, swimming, parasailing, kayaking, snorkeling, kayaking, and even bird-watching.

Our hotel, Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa, is set on a hilltop affording gorgeous views from every room of the lagoon on one side or the ocean on the other (many rooms have views of both); while most hotels were in shade by 2 p.m., our balcony still had the sun’s rays until after 4 p.m. With 213-rooms, Le Meridien is one of the smaller four-star hotels, affording an intimate, personalized feel, and ideal for small groups.

From the moment you arrive, you are treated royally by the staff, who seem dedicated to making your stay a memorable one.

Le Meridien’s Spa del Mar, rated as one of the best in all Mexico, is a European-style spa with Swiss showers with jets that spray from all directions, and cold plunge pools… Every six months, all the masseuses are taught new techniques by international trainers. This spa is adorned with an outdoor hot tub and waterfalls. Some of the special treatments include “A Couple’s Delight,” “Exotic Blends,” and the 3 1/2-hour “Ultimate Pampering Spa del Mar Experience,” including rain shower delight, mud bath (pure milk), balanced massage, Elemus skin specific facial, frangipani wrap to nourish skin.

Those parents wishing to foster a closer bond with their children can experience a parent-child spa treatment together. But when parents want to go off to the spa or to golf on their own, Le Meridien also has a Kids Club that offers supervised activities for children 4-10.

A breakfast buffet each day features made-to-order omelets, pancakes, sausage, bacon, potatoes, pastries; Le St. Trop at the pool offers grilled specialties and a wide variety of tropical drinks.

This comfortable hotel offers an artful blend of art deco and Mayan styles. Its d�cor utilizes lots of wood, glass and mirrors. There are such thoughtful details, like having different temperature water in each of the swimming pools (www.cancun.lemeridien.com).

Cancun now features some 15 world-class spas.

Ceiba Del Mar Spa Resort, a 45-minute drive from downtown Cancun, features as the signature treatment of its Aromatherapy & Holistic Spa the Top’Nikte Massage, that begins with a 50-minute relaxing massage, followed by a cocoon-type body wrap with cotton cloth soaked in aromatic herbs that allow the body to eliminate toxins. While resting; you get a scalp treatment and facial massage. The Balsamic Mayan massage; Fango massage; Deep Cleansing treatment are other choices. Another unusual experience is the Temazcal, an ancient indigenous ritual that was used to purify and to renew the mind, body and spirit; it is performed at sunset on the beach within a terra-cotta sweat lodge, and uses volcanic stones with aromatic herbs to create steam.

Ceiba Del Mar Spa Resort is set on a stretch of pristine beach, secluded, but only a 15-minute seaside walk from the seaport town of Puerto Morelos. It offers 88 guest rooms, master suites and terrace-topped penthouses with views of the sea. The great Maya Reef forms a natural breakwater just a half-kilometer offshore, keeping the water calm for swimming. The resort also offers spectacular snorkeling and scuba. Two restaurants, one on the beach with a rooftop bar, serve Mexican and international selections (877-545-6221,www.ceibadelmar.com).

The Ritz Carlton Cancun reopened last fall following extensive, $15 million renovation after Hurricane Wilma. The Kayanta Spa (the name is from a Mayan phrase meaning “to be reborn”) has been upgraded and includes new services and treatments including Lol-Ha, a traditional Mayan bridal bath; Zac-Xib treatment for men using essential oils and plant extracts that were used in rituals for brave warriors; and Sacred Piedritas Facial. It also has an expanded fitness center. A new $250,000 Culinary Center with Viking range equipment provides the setting for celebrated chefs to conduct interactive cooking classes; themed classes include Spa Cuisine, Real Mexican, a Grilling Feast, Tuscan Dinner Party and Treasurers from the Sea.

All 365 guestrooms, public areas, recreational and meeting facilities of this AAA Triple Five Diamond oceanfront resort (the only one in the world) were refreshed and enhanced; the resort now offers 1,200 feet of beachfront, the Cliff Drysdale Tennis Club with three outdoor courts, a KidsCamp program, and three specially designed guest rooms to cater to families traveling with infants.

Renowned for dining, it offers the five-diamond rated Club Grill, offering an English Club-like atmosphere, and Fantino restaurant offering Mediterrean-style cuisine with views of the Caribbean and live piano music.

The Ritz-Carlton became the first property to achieve the AAA Triple Five Diamond status in 1999 when it became the first to earn three Five Diamond Awards in one year, since the organization began the diamond rating system in 1977 (800-241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com).

Cancun is also developing as a golf destination., with some eight major courses already operating and five more planned to open. The Hilton Cancun Golf & Spa Resort recently concluded a $2.9 million renovation of its 6,735-yard course, designed by PGA member Isao Aoki, with stunning views of the Nichupte Lagoon. The Moon Spa & Golf Club, the only Nicklaus Signature Course in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, is designed with environmental conservation in mind; totaling 10,798 yards of play, the three, nine-hole, par 36 courses are surrounded by natural mangroves and exotic animals. Playa Mujeres Golf Club is the newest Greg Norman signature, championship course for Cancun, with ecologically friendly arrangement of water holes, jungles, bunkers and greens. Cancun Golf Club at Pok-ta-Pok is the oldest and most prestigious club in Cancun, an 18-hole, par 72 championship course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The El Camaleon Golf Club designed by Greg Norman blends tropical jungles, dense mangroves and stretches of oceanfront sand. Iberostar Playa Paraiso Golf Club, a par 72, P.B. Dye design that incorporates native Mayan jungle into narrow fairways and deep bunkers. Playacar Spa & Golf Club is considered one of the most difficult in the region.

It is easy to see why Cancun is known for romance.

Enjoy a 2 1/2-hour Lobster Dinner Cruise aboard the ‘Columbus’, a 60-foot Spanish galleon-type boat in the moonlight. Sail along the calm waters of the Nichupt� lagoon. A saxophone musician serenades from the moment you board. Dine on lobster or steak (or a combo) with wine in the dining room below or on deck (www.dolphincruise.com).

The nightlife is lively, with a host of discos and nightclubs, many open past 3 a.m.

Shopping can be considered sport, here. Bargains on resort wear can be found throughout; most malls contain trendy boutiques that specialize in locally designed as well as imported clothing. Jewelry and fine watches, European perfumes and other imported goods can be found in the duty-free shops in malls and downtown.

With all the spas, nightlife, beach and shopping, it is easy to see why Cancun has become so popular as for honeymooners, and now, as for destination weddings. Wedding consultants are available to assist in the details of arranging everything from florists and caterers to musicians and couture designers, such as Cancun Bridal (www.cancunbridal.com); Cancun Wedding Consultant (www.cancun-weddings.com); Caribbean Carnaval (www.caribbeancarnaval.com).. Some of the destination-wedding spots include Avalon Baccara Cancun, an intimate, exclusive and totally private boutique resort with a tropical setting designed to resemble an old-word Mexican mansion, affording 27 guestrooms and suites (www.avalonvacations.com); El Pueblito, an all-inclusive Mexican village with 326 rooms, 24 ocean view penthouses and five cascade-shaped pools (www.pueblitohotels.com).

JetBlue’s New Direct Service

JetBlue has begun offering daily nonstop flights to Cancun from J.F. Kennedy, to Cancun International Airport, which is undergoing two renovation projects to expand capacity and improve the passenger experience. There will be new wireless passenger check-in counters, a new lounge, more security filters and an expanded immigration facility to better accommodate the 800,000 passengers who stream through each month.

“Our new daily nonstop service connecting the sunny beaches of Cancun and the great metropolis of New York, our hometown, marks our eighth Caribbean/Atlantic destination and our 15th new city addition this year,” said JetBlue Founder and CEO David Neeleman who came along the inaugural flight last November. “We look forward to bringing a convenient, affordable, first-rate travel experience to new customers as more people discover the breathtaking scenery, ancient archaeological sites and robust culture that Mexico has to offer.”

The flight aboard JetBlue’s A320 fleet departs daily at 8:15 a.m. from JFK, arriving in Cancun at 11:25 a.m., local time, providing enough time to enjoy the day. The departure from Cancun is at 12:25 p.m., daily, arriving back in New York at 5:10 p.m.

JetBlue brings its distinctive style, service and efficiency – including personalized TVs with 36 channels of programming including a selection of first-run movies, roomy leather seats, to Cancun, its 49th destination.

A recent online search put JetBlue’s fare as low as $99 each way; the site, www.jetblue.com, offers “travel deals” as well as “getaways.” Members of JetBlue’s customer loyalty program, TrueBlue, receive six points per flight, with double points awarded for purchasing online at www.jetblue.com.

For more information on Cancun, visit www.cancun.info.

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© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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