Every year sea turtles come ashore on Xpu-Ha to make their nests – and you'll want to join them, if only for Hotel Esencia. This blissful boutique resort is set on the Mayan Riviera's most beautiful beach and its luxurious main building, the whitewashed three-storey Casa Grande, was built to satisfy the whims of a wealthy duchess and her guests. Today, it stands surrounded by a 30-acre estate, with a collection of luxury suites and villas, all with a private terrace that overlooks either the jungle or the sea. Seamless service, miles of beach, expertly mixed cocktails, a spa and only the turtles to pip to the post. Oh, and did we mention the clifftop Mayan ruins of Tulum are just half an hour away?
Twenty-nine, including 17 suites and two cottages.
Noon, but flexible, depending on room availability.
Double rooms from £775.10 ($1,001), including tax at 29 per cent.
Rates exclude breakfast; à la carte items, which include coffee and teas, fruit-topped yogurts, porridge, pancakes, eggs many ways and freshly pressed juices, range from $5-$15.
Fancy a nip of something local? You'll find a sample of small-batch Casa Dragones tequila in your room.
At the hotel
Fitness centre, organic spa, gardens, DVD/CD library, free WiFi. In-rooms: Flatscreen TV, DVD/CD players, iPod dock, Ipod minis preloaded with music, minibar with complimentary water, soda, juice and beer, internet access, Molton Brown bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The Deluxe Ocean View suites have 360º views; watch the sun set from the terrace and enjoy sunrise from your giant bed. The private two-storey, two-bedroom cottages set in the gardens are enormous and wonderful for family holidays: they even have their own full-sized swimming pool, multimedia room, bar and chef. The Rosa suite in the Casa Grande was the master bedroom when the Duchess of Ferrari owned the property, so the entire hacienda can be viewed from its enormous terrace.
There are two swimming pools (one for families, one adults only) with sun loungers, plus a white-sand beach.
Overlooking the estate's cenote in a villa with a traditional palapa roof, the organic aroma spa has temazcal and phytotherapy treatments, Jacuzzis and steam rooms.
Leave your pool shoes at home: you'll find a pair of Havaianas sandals in your room. Bikinis are a must; a swimsuit is probably more practical if you want to try snorkelling or scuba diving.
Pups under 10lbs are welcome, for US$75 a night. Food bowls and beds will be provided for diminutive doggies
Welcome; the resort has multi-lingual nannies and babysitting can be arranged at $25 an hour. High chairs and cribs provided. Babies under two stay for free. An additional third bed costs $150 a night; $75 for under-12s.
Welcome; the resort has multi-lingual nannies and babysitting can be arranged at $25 an hour. Highchairs and baby cots provided. An additional third bed costs $150 a night; $75 for under-12s.
Children and babies of all ages welcome.
The private two-storey, two-bedroom cottages set in the gardens are enormous and wonderful for family holidays: they even have their own full-sized swimming pool, multimedia room, bar and chef. The ground floor rooms are ideal for smaller Smiths.
The resort has a team of multi-lingual nannies.
The fabulous beach is sandy, gently shelving into clear, calm waters, and offers all sorts of watersports. Children aged 12 and over can try scuba diving; the resort has instructors on site.
One of the resort's two swimming pools is a designated family pool (the other is adults-only).
Highchairs and kid-size cutlery and crockery are available. Your little ones can also have fresh fruit and vegetable purées made up by the chef, with advance notice.
Babysitting can be arranged at $25 an hour.
No need to pack
The hotel can stock rooms with nappies, wipes and baby food upon request.
Cottage rates cover two children and two adults. Up to two children aged under two stay in parents' rooms free. An additional third bed in any room costs $150 a night; $75 for under-12s (including breakfast). DVD/CD library.
For lunch, go for a beachside table with a sea view; for dinner, one of the tables overlooking the cenote, an underground freshwater pool that's romantically illuminated by night.
Informal and relaxed; a little dressier in the evening, if you feel like it.
The casual poolside restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and small plates throughout the day in a relaxed shaded pavilion. Start your day with filling chilaquiles, nibble on grilled fish tacos for lunch and pop by for ceviche after a day at the beach. Open for dinner, the Garden Restaurant is set in an open-air palapa with views of the manicured gardens; the space deftly balances rustic beach chic (thatched roof and dark wooden floors) with the elegance of a fine-dining room (moody candlelight and white linen-dressed tables). The menu is inspired by regional cuisines with a Mediterranean accent and an emphasis on fresh local produce, herbs and vegetables grown in the estate’s gardens and seafood. Don't miss the red snapper marinated in Mayan achiote sauce. Fusing Peruvian and Japanese flavours with the best ingredients of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, chef Dimitris Katrivesis' menu at Mistura includes lots of creative dishes like confit duck leg with watermelon, hoisin sauce, cashews, thai basil and cilantro, and charcoal-grilled chicken skewers flavoured with oregano and cumin Peruvian sauce – all to be enjoyed with panoramic ocean vistas.
Refresh with a cold-pressed juice after a spa session from the made-to-order juice bar. Sip drinks in the chill-out lounge in the main house, by the pool or on the beach up till 11pm. Try one of the tequila-based creations spiced with home-grown herbs and chilis.
The Pool Restaurant serves meals from 7am to 4pm and dinner from 7pm to 11pm; the Garden Restaurant serves dinner from 7pm to 11pm. Mistura is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Round the clock: hot food is available until 11pm; after the kitchen closes, cold snacks are still available.
Cancún International Airport is an hour's drive from the hotel. From here, you'll be able to fly to cities all over the US, with onward connections to the UK. It's also served by some charter flights from the UK.
Taxis are inexpensive, but it’s worth renting a car if you want to explore further afield – there are desks at Cancún airport. The hotel is around 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, accessible via a small lane running off Highway 307, which links Cancún with towns along the Riviera May.
Worth getting out of bed for
The Yucatán’s comeliest stretch of coast is on your doorstep, so spend some time spread on a towel on Xpu-ha beach. Free sunrise yoga sessions are held daily, the hotel has its own cenote and the thatch-roof spa has soothing organic treatments (cacao scrubs, honey-infused massages, meditation sessions) – plus, kids can get pampered too, with mini facials, wraps and such. There’s a Technogym-equipped fitness room if you want something faster-paced.
The hotel can help you get more intimately acquainted with the region; a tour of Tulum’s clifftop ruins is a must, chased with a chill-out session on the beach below. Chichén Itzá’s sprawling Mayan complex is worth nosing around too. Rio Secreto is a recently unearthed underground river you can trek along for head-turning scenes of stalactite-studded caverns; above ground, lush wildlife-roamed Sian Ka’an offers lazy boat rides, snorkelling, fly-fishing and guided nature hikes.
Watersports fans can find fascinating dive sites and paddleboarding close by. Horse rides feel so much more romantic when you take them beside the Mexican shore, and you can try your hand at catching barracudas, groupers and more on a deep-sea fishing trip.
The hotel has a suite of eateries dedicated to meat, seafood, tacos, ceviche and such. But, the Riviera Maya’s gourmet rep makes it worth diving into the local dining scene. Get your fish grilled straight from the boat at La Popular (10.5km Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila). Dairy- and gluten-dodgers, head to Smith stablemate Sanara Tulum for healthy yet decadent dishes. Arca’s (Avenida Boca Paila) motto is from ‘fire to table’, but that barely begins to cover how cool this micro-seasonal dining experience is – we love the plant-wrapped alfresco pavilions. Deep in the jungle you’ll find Kitchen Table, where there’s always something tasty sizzling away on the grill – bring cash for your bill or pay using Bitcoin.
Spotting Uma Thurman on the verandah of the villa helped validate our decision to visit Esencia at the outset. We were still pale new arrivals at that point. Only a short time earlier, a hotel taxi had picked us up from the Cancun airport and driven us a quick hour south toward the resort, turning down a two-lane road off the highway toward the water. Upon entry, a ‘butler’ assigned to us made quick work of signing the paperwork before guiding us on the tour of the grounds – the manicured green lawns of the Esencia estate, dotted with palm trees, which until recently served as the private vacation home of an Italian duchess. I quickly entered into fantasies of owning our own such family compound.
‘Maybe we should see our room before we buy the place,’ my sensible Mr Smith cheerfully suggested. But first: midday cocktail hour by the pool.
I rarely drink hard liquor, but we were in Mexico after all, and Mr Smith assured me it would be impolite not to at least test the local tequila. We sat under a hot sun overlooking the sparkling blue ocean and were served two, and then two more, of the most exquisite margaritas, salted. Guacamole and fried chips kept arriving unbidden. As two well-behaved children splashed adorably – but not too loudly – in the water in front of us, we decided that we had made an excellent choice.
And then Uma emerged, ruddy and fresh from a facial. Exchanging knowing glances, we simultaneously cited, in whispers, our favorite celebrity magazine feature – ‘Stars! They’re just like us!’ in US Weekly, which publishes photos of stars engaged in mundane activities such as drinking lattes at Starbucks – and decided that in fact we were just like stars. Mr Smith rummaged around for the camera to document our immense success in life.
Before the silliness could continue, our usher appeared to tell us our room was ready. We stumbled across the lawn to a white stucco villa a short distance away, and were led into a sprawling suite.
Sobriety set in. This was our dream loft, not a resort hotel room. Up a short flight of stairs, the heavy wooden door opened up onto a split-level room decorated sparsely, all in white, with a large sitting area leading out onto a patio with an ocean view. On the upper level, a large bed sat in front of a flat-screen television (done tastefully modern, not gameboy style), with a nano iPod plugged into the surround-sound system. A Spanish music medley, downloaded by the hotel, played at the just-right romantic level. Before collapsing onto the bed, we inspected further: On each level was a bathroom, one featuring a standing, wood-paneled shower, the other with a walk-in closet and a large bath. Our fridge was full of (complimentary) local beer, juice and water.
‘Could you live here now?’ I teased. As we would repeatedly discover over the next two days, the beauty of Esencia was the mandate to do absolutely nothing other than wander a few feet to the next station of luxury – perhaps stopping to admire a small iguana on the way to the bar, or lazing in our private hammock, or staring blankly at the ocean before heading off to a massage. Although we had been duly informed at check-in about the available activities, including private scuba lessons and daily morning yoga lessons, nothing in the atmosphere (or the room brochure) urged excessive exertion. Even upon being shown the wi-fi equipped common room overlooking the pool, we were urged by a member of the hotel staff: ‘Please don’t do too much work.’
Thus implored, we headed to dinner our first night at the early hour of 7 pm – something of a tactical mistake, as we found ourselves surrounded by young families with children in high chairs. Still, a tasting from the extensive wine list and ceviche menu quickly put the family atmosphere at some remove. The next night, at a much later hour, the dimly lit dining area had a more exclusive feel. And yet the open seating encouraged interaction among the guests. One couple from San Francisco, having heard us say that we had previously been to the the Tides Riviera Maya resort down the road, did not hesitate to introduce themselves and ask for a comparison, which led to a spontaneous, alcohol-fueled forum on destination weddings that kept us laughing well after we had left.
By day, we did what we do best, examining every feature of the spa and taking advantage of as many services as we could justify spending money on. Set apart in its own bungalow (though with a full complement of modern amenities), the spa welcomed us even when we did not have appointments set, to use both the steam room (with a rosemary aroma) and the outdoor plunge pools. My best moment came when Claudia, a wiry Mexican woman with tattoos, led me to a private room for a massage, where for 80 glorious minutes she stretched and kneaded muscles I had never known. Afterward, she sat me down in a low wooden chair surrounded by candles to serve me fresh fruit and sweet tea. When I inquired about sitting in the jacuzzi, a therapist led me to a private, heated outdoor pool, where I sat and read, sans swimming suit, for more than an hour.
‘I am so happy and relaxed, I just can’t believe it,’ we overheard a lithe blonde woman at the next table on the patio (not Uma) say later on our final afternoon, before she tumbled onto the lawn with her Mr Smith for a round of tickling. We watched with the satisfaction of those who knew what she was talking about.