On car-free, carefree Isla Holbox, a stone's throw from Mexico's Riviera Maya, CasaSandra hotel is a retreat of bougainvillea-covered beach bungalows and hammocks strung between palm-trees. On this still-undiscovered paradise island, the waves are gentle, shoes are frowned upon and sunset cocktails are the only commitment of the day.
Get this when you book through us:
Bottle of sparkling wine and a fruit plate on arrival
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from $305.00, excluding tax at 19 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional resort fee of $15.00 per room per night on check-in and an additional local city tax of $1.50 per room per night on check-in.
Rates include daily American buffet breakfast, welcome cocktails, dawn yoga sessions (Wednesday to Sunday), crystal therapy lessons (Monday and Tuesday) and use of the glass kayaks (one hour a day).
Simubi Spa offers reiki, massages and reflexology just off the beach. Keep an eye out for Bernardo, the friendly local raccoon who wanders the resort every so often to check up on things.
At the hotel
Art gallery, reading room, board games and free WiFi in common areas. In rooms: free bottled water, Nespresso coffee machine, herbal bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Suite 12 is especially private at the end of the resort, and has its own hammock for afternoon naps. It’s often called the Honeymoon Suite because of its secluded spot overlooking the ocean. Room 1 in the main house was owner Sandra’s bedroom before she converted the property. It has sweeping ocean views and a private twine-woven balcony. Take a look at your shower head: many are fashioned from conch shells that were collected along the beach.
The outdoor pool is shaded by palms and surrounded by sunloungers. The sea’s on the doorstep, too, and day-beds, palapas and loungers are available on the North Beach.
Be transported by the glorious massages at the hotel's spa, Alma CasaSandra. Choose from a balancing massage with reflexology, classic massages ranging from the soothing to the knot-banishing varieties, hot stone massages and facials. Alternatively, have one in your room for ultimate indulgence.
No need to bring extra shoes here. The locals pad around barefoot, and it usually takes less than an hour before guests opt to do the same. Bring an underwater camera to catch whale sharks and the brightly coloured fish that swim around the mangroves. There are only three ATMs on the island, and they frequently run out of pesos, so bring plenty of cash with you.
Check the tidal forecasts before booking: occasional changes in currents send heaps of seaweed onto CasaSandra’s adjacent beach, which can make for iffy beach conditions (and fishy fragrances).
Although kids are welcome, the remote location and low-key style make this hotel best suited to adults.
Take a table with wicker chairs outside overlooking the ocean for the best mealtime scenery.
Island casual: kaftans and Havaianas are perfect, though you’re welcome to dine barefoot.
The laid-back restaurant, which opens out to the beach, is Holbox’s finest, serving fresh fish with a mix of Cuban and Mexican flavours. Dishes include lobster tamales, mango-spiked ceviche, fresh fillets with coconut curry, and saffron fish with garlic. On Saturdays, the restaurant serves Cuban dishes, including ropa vieja with fried sweet potatoes, and beer-soaked shrimp. For breakfast, sip fresh watermelon juice with spicy cheese-topped eggs. With advance notice, the restaurant can arrange for a romantic, torch-lit dinner on the beach.
The casual Blue Bar by the pool has a few stools, where guests can order light snacks and cocktails with a Cuban angle, including mojitos. Still peckish? Ask for some fresh seafood, and watch as the friendly chefs prepare it on the grill.
The pool bar serves cocktails and a light snack menu from noon until 6pm. The restaurant serves breakfast from 7am until 11am; lunch is offered from 1pm until 3pm, and dinner is available from 7pm until 11pm.
The full restaurant menu is available in your room from 7am until 11pm.
CasaSandra is on the island of Holbox off the Yucután Peninsula, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Cancun International Airport is the nearest airport, and is 180 km away. The airport runs several flights from the US through United (www.united.com), Virgin America (www.virginamerica.com) and others. There are also domestic flights with Mexicana (www.mexicana.com) to Mexico City, which serves Europe. You can connect from Cancun on a small plane for a 25-minute flight to the island of Holbox for $800 one-way; the views of the Yucatan Peninsula are pretty special.
The hotel can arrange land transfers to CasaSandra from the airport for $245 one-way for two; for each extra guest add $90 except for under fives, who travel free; the journey takes around two-and-a-half hours. A luxury transfer (with bar service, snacks, on board WiFi and music) costs $320 for two, one-way and can accommodate up to six people. If you want to rent a car and drive there yourself you'll need to arrange the ferry crossing, which can take up to three hours. If renting your own car, follow the road from Mérida to New Valladolid, turn right at Kantunilkin and continue on to the small port Chiquilá. You will have to leave your car at the port as Isla Holbox is strictly car-free, but golf carts are available from rental kiosks in town, and can be delivered to the hotel.
Ferries and small private boats depart from Chiquilá to Isla Hollbox. The last ferry boat leaves at 7pm, but the private boats do not have regular schedules.
Worth getting out of bed for
Holbox is the best place in the world to glimpse the planet’s biggest fish, whale sharks. Between June and September, the gentle sharks – which can weigh more than 50 tonnes – swim in the waters off Riviera Maya, and the hotel can arrange boating trips to see them. CasaSandra will also arrange visits to local islands, including Isla Pasion, Yalahua and the bird-watching hub of Isla Pajaros, where crocodiles lurk. On the mainland, take tours of the colonial city of Valladolid or the ruins at Ek Balam.
Isla Holbox has good conditions for wind surfing; there is also deep-sea fishing, horseback riding and wildlife walks. CasaSandra can arrange tours, and bring golf carts around for guests who explore the island on their own (there are no cars here). There are also bikes available to borrow, so you can cycle explore the island at your leisure.
CasaSandra hosts a cinema night on the beach every Friday and live Cuban music every Saturday night.
Dining on the small island is quite casual, and many restaurants are open throughout the day for late lunches or early dinners. Overlooking Plaza Principal, Los Peleones (+52 984 120 9685) serves ultra-fresh seafood and traditional Mexican dishes, including smoky mole. The daily catch in champagne sauce is a house specialty. The Italian chef at Restaurante La Guaya (+52 984 875 2026) on Plaza El Pueblito creates light carpaccio from each day’s haul of fresh fish. The chef also makes some of the island’s best pasta, including lobster ravioli. Off the square, Pura Vida (+52 331 411 9538) serves sushi with a Caribbean twist, using local fish and lobster in spicy or fruit-paired combinations.
Several nameless open-air bars line the beach, a short walk from the main square. Most serve frozen cocktails, and all pour crisp Mexican beer. After dinner, many locals gather here to listen to reggae.
I’m chatting away to our Mayan barman in half-remembered GCSE Spanish and I don’t mean to boast, but it’s all going pretty well. I’ve just asked him what went into our deliciously refreshing welcome cocktail. He considers...
‘Menta, limón, pepino, azúcar...y mucho mucho amor.’
I laugh slightly too hard. Not because it’s particularly funny. But because it’s a joke. In Spanish. Which I understand. And I want everyone to know what a cultured, well-seasoned traveller I am. I glance up nervously, half expecting the barman to sneer at my pomposity. Instead he claps me on the back and chuckles along like we’re old pals. Either he’s adept at hiding his contempt for pretentious Englishmen abroad or here at Casa Sandra they’re all distinctly more laid back than I am.
The warm reception is more than appreciated. Isla Holbox is only accessible via an eight-mile boat ride from the remote Yucatan town of Chiquila. We’ve been travelling for the best part of a hot, dusty day and were accompanied on our final leg by a band of Hare Krishnas who spent the journey chanting, banging hand drums and attempting to convert us to an ovo-vegetarian lifestyle. It was actually more enjoyable than it sounds, but that’s not to say we’re not relieved to finally arrive at Casa Sandra’s sleepy beachfront locale.
Built and run by owner and artist Sandra Pérez, the hotel seems designed from the ground up to soothe the weary traveller. Hammocks pepper the shaded balconies of thatched huts. Inside, the rooms are restful havens from the scorch of the sun. White muslin drapes hang down from above while terracotta floor tiles are cooling underfoot. The walls are speckled with original paintings by the eponymous owner and a collection of like-minded local artists. It’s part beachside retreat, part hip East London gallery.
Don’t come expecting high-end luxuries, though. As our welcome letter explains, technology in the rooms has been banished as part of an ongoing effort to ‘eliminate external factors that cause stress,’ which is a nice way of saying there’s no phone, no fridge and a giant conch shell where the power shower should be.
Mind you, there’s also a huge claw-foot bathtub for those who fancy an indulgent soak and handmade Yucatan toiletries to help wash away the stresses of your pre-island life. Still, Mrs Smith and I opt for a quick, cooling shell shower (she’s not saying it but I can tell she got a little caliente under the collar witnessing my smooth Spanish repartee) and head off in search of sustenance.
We find it in the form of ice-cold beers and a light lunch by the shaded teardrop pool. Mrs Smith orders a zesty ceviche that can’t have been more than an hour out of the sea. I plump for the lobster tacos, drawn by the chilli smack of this Mexican staple paired with the opulence of that meaty shellfish. Little do I realise at the time that if there’s one thing that isn’t in short supply on Holbox, it’s lobster. They add it here like a seasoning. You can have lobster tamales, lobster enchiladas - and for the willfully sacrilegious, why not try the island speciality – lobster pizza. The sunburnt crustacean is so ubiquitous you feel you should add a disclaimer to everything you order: ‘Mineral water please. Ice, no lemon. No lobster’.
Lunch done, we head for the beach. One of the big draws of the island is the opportunity to swim with the magnificent whale sharks who make this place their home each year. But ever the poor planners we’ve arrived in January and missed the season by a good four months either side so we’re forced instead to just unwind on the shore. Mrs Smith does an admirable job of feigning disappointment.
Running only one-and-a-half kilometres across, Holbox is of course all about the coastline, and Casa Sandra sits on its own pristine stretch, looking out onto the clear turquoise Caribbean waters. Even the beach seems designed to eliminate any unnecessary stress. There are no rocks, no jellyfish, no surprisingly powerful undercurrents – just long stretches of fine white sand and gentle lapping waters. The hotel provides full-on king-size beach beds for those who simply can’t squeeze enough relaxation from an ordinary sun lounger and regular visits from our beaming Mayan barman who plies us with freshly made ¬ – smoothies made from mango, pineapple and chaya, a green leaf that locals will tell you treats anything from poor circulation to heart disease.
Not that I can imagine there’s too much of that on Holbox anyway. I’ve never been anywhere so calm and serene. On our way from the port we witness a man smash his golf cart (there are no cars on the island) into the back of another one delivering ice-cubes. I brace myself for an explosion of road rage but instead everyone gets out of their vehicles and just starts laughing.
Meanwhile on the beaches I notice that they don’t build sandcastles here. Instead they construct intricate scale models of the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza. And watching these blissed-out locals serenely composing the famous pyramidal shape, there’s something distinctly Close Encounters about the whole affair. The sand here is so fine and white that when it gets wet it even has the consistency of a good buttery mash so it’s all terrifically Richard Dreyfuss.
As the sun comes down we take a stroll into town to work up an appetite for dinner. I say town, though it’s really just a handful of streets surrounding a charming pastel shaded square. Rustic wooden shacks house a series of appealing little restaurants and boutiques selling local crafts. The place still retains a knockabout charm that you imagine the Thai islands used to have when smug friends would boast about travelling there in the late eighties.
Back in our room I’m starting to suspect that Holbox is working its magic on me. I’m even toying with wearing flip-flops down to dinner! So I’m somewhat perplexed to hear what sounds like workmen climbing onto the roof of our hut. And when one starts tapping on our window I get up to investigate fully ready to lose my rag... only to discover that it’s a gigantic iguana just popped by to say hello.
Mrs Smith and I take advantage of the photo opp before gliding down to dinner. We’re eating al fresco on the beach lit only by flaming torches and a galaxy of stars. I kick off my flip-flops and sink my feet into the sand. As the waiter comes by I decide to make everyone’s life easier and just order in English. ‘I’ll have the risotto.’
With lobster, of course.
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