One of the only downsides to living in Chicago is the weather. I mean cold is one thing but the endless months of cold is what gets to be a drag. The start of the cooler weather and the darker mornings is making me start to think about warm weather escapes. One of our absolute favorite spots to take our kids is the Riviera Maya in Mexico. We’ve actually been here 3 times in the last five years, which tells you something.
This beautiful stretch of land 35 minutes south of Cancun International airport is a top destination for families. There are a number of all-inclusive resorts as well as a la carte ones. And best of all, for those of us with young children, it’s an easy 3 ½ hour flight from Chicago with many airlines offering direct flights. One of the reasons we love the area so much and continually return is the number of easy day and half-day excursions there are in the area. While my idea of a beach vacation is laying by the pool all day reading trashy magazines and sipping piña coladas, my kids don’t agree. They prefer to zip line above the trees, explore caves and battle the rapids, and they range in age from 9-17. (Lucky for me my husband normally handles these duties…) The other reason is that in the Riviera Maya the value for dollar seems better and as a result the hotel rooms are significantly larger and less expensive that other destinations. In some cases the rooms are large enough for all of us because they have family suites to consider. Here’s just a small sampling of some of the marvels that await you in this tropical paradise.
Where To Stay: Grand Velas
We love this all-inclusive resort and highly recommend it for families. Grand Velas is one of the best examples of how the all-inclusive concept has gotten a makeover. The room suites are spacious and wonderfully appointed and all come with concierge butler service which means it’s easy to customize your activity itinerary. There are two room sections that are specifically dedicated to families, with one being set back in the Mayan jungle and one overlooking the 1,000 feet of gorgeous white sandy beach. Both have pools nearby so you never have to walk too far to get wet. (In fact this hotel has so many pool options from the quieter jungle pools, to the large family pool with a pool bar and a kid’s pool, you’ll never tire of the options. You have 8 on property restaurants to choose from and numerous bars with top shelf liquor. We’re total foodies and had given up on the all-inclusive concept based on our disappointing experience with the food at many of them. This resort changed our mind. The food is spectacular.
Also, included with your resort fees are poolside and beach waiter service, non motorized water sports (ie..kayaks, boogie boards) yoga & Pilates classes, and their terrific Kids Club which is great when you want to get your kids out of the sun for an hour or two. As parents, it was a dream to have a kid’s club that actually catered to the varying ages of our crew. They take children ages 4-12 years old and really worked to engage the kids with age appropriate activities like making piñatas, kites and bracelets for the younger ones. Older kids loved being able to play soccer and football and then unwinding with some X-Box tournaments at the end of the day. On most nights we would take the kids to one of the more casual restaurants and let them have dinner while we enjoyed a cocktail. Then we dropped them off at the kid’s club and went to have an adult dinner at one of the elegant gourmet on-site restaurants. A win for everyone!
Normally on a family vacation a trip to the spa can be difficult to fit in. But, I wouldn’t be doing this resort justice if I didn’t at least mention their spa, which was rated the best in the world by Virtuoso in 2010. The spa is over 89,000 sq feet and is a welcome treat at the end of a day of jumping in the waves and building sand castles with the little ones. It’s totally worth trading off with your spouse or utilizing the kid’s club just so you can experience the tranquility of this place. You can buy a pass simply to use the private facilities even if you do not book a treatment. That’s a great way to really get sometime by yourself at their private pools.
If you’re just not interested in an all-inclusive, then I suggest you consider the Fairmont Mayakoba, where we have also stayed and really enjoyed our time as a family. The Rosewood Mayakoba and the Bayan Tree Mayakoba are two other beautiful resorts in the area that are worth checking out. They just are more expensive and not as good for value for dollar. They are more adult oriented as well and my crew really likes to have lots of activities going on.
Explor: This is an amazing natural adventure park in Riviera Maya. The whole family loved the ATV ride through the bumpy terrain. We also loved the zip lines where you can choose between the high or low course. Of course, my adrenaline loving children chose the high course, which consisted of 7 zip lines with the last one landing them in an underground river. Middle did this zipline for the first time at age 5 which made him feel very grown up. (I will admit that at first I was skeptical of letting him do it, but after watching the safety procedures as they got him in his harness and helmet, I did feel that it was very safe). You can buy a daypass to Explor and a lovely buffet lunch is included as well as fresh fruit and cold drinks, which are available throughout the park.
Xel-Ha: We loved our time at this natural aquarium park and spent almost a full day here. This park is a network of cenotes, inlets, lagoons and the world’s largest underground river in the world. We went tubing down the lagoon, tried cliff jumping (well my kids did and I happily took photos), tested out the rope swing and spent lots of time in the lazy river. One of our absolute favorite experiences was swimming with the dolphins, which is an additional expense but totally worth it. We spent an hour swimming and playing with these wonderful animals and the final thrill was having the dolphins push us through the water. I swear we felt like we were flying.
Xcaret: This eco-wildlife theme park is tons of fun for the whole family. We loved swimming through the caves, introducing our youngest ones to snorkeling, and looking at all of the wild animals. Our middle child who is desperate to scuba dive but is still too young also loved the Snuba experience.
There are plenty of other excusions available in the area including tours of pyramids and fortresses of Tulum and Chichen among others.
Fun Night In Town:
Sometimes with kids it’s nice to be able to take them off property and explore the local cuisine. Playa del Carmen, a 10 minute taxi ride away from the above hotels offers the perfect opportunity to do just that. Wander down Fifth Avenue, listen to the mariachi bands and look in all the souvenir shops. Let your kids try on sombreros and grab a keepsake, and then enjoy dinner in one of the many restaurants along the street.
After dinner, stop in one of the many ice cream shops before grabbing a cab back to the hotel.
So if you’re ready to enjoy some time in the sand and sun and are looking for a direct flight, the Riviera Maya is worth a second look.