Cancun a playground in paradise

Boldly painted tour boats at dock in Isla Mujeres against changeable skies. BILL BRATT/QMI Agency

Boldly painted tour boats at dock in Isla Mujeres against changeable skies. BILL BRATT/QMI Agency

BILL BRATT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:44 PM ET

When it comes to Canadians and their favourite sunshine destinations, Cancun, Mexico, is often at the top of that list despite the fact Cancun — as a vacation spot — is really only 40 years old.

Cancun has it all — predictable weather, a variety of food to satisfy any palette and plenty of activities for both active guests or those who prefer a more serene stay. That said, time spent in Cancun doesn’t have to be one or the other — there’s a wonderful choice of activities that will get your pulse revving or quieter times that provide reflection and relaxation.

To truly get a sense of the Cancun area you must plan a few outings — a trip to Isla Contoy, a day of snorkelling at the world famous Underwater Museum and a day trip to Isla Mujeres are a few suggestions.

ISLA CONTOY

Located 30 km from Cancun, Isla Contoy is a wildlife sanctuary that is tightly controlled by the Mexican government. To protect this UNESCO paradise, only two — government approved — ships and 200 visitors are granted access to the island daily. All others require special permission. One ship is a replica of the Pinta, the fastest of the three ships used by Christopher Columbus on his transatlantic voyage back in the 15th century. The other a much quicker, more modern, 50-person vessel, which gets you to the island in half the time but without the Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean-style experience.

We opted for the quicker mode of transport to allow us time for more of what Isla Contoy has to offer. Upon arrival we toured the island under the guidance of a government-sponsored biologist who also monitors and studies the eco-system of this natural wonder. Among the island’s 150-plus species of tropical marine birds is the brown pelican with a wing span of well over 2 metres. And you can’t miss the 5,000 frigates that nest on the island, whether they are perched in a tree or gliding effortlessly for prolonged periods thanks to wing spans of more than 2.5 metres.

While our hosts prepared a shore lunch of fish — grilled Tikinxik style — rice, salad and more, we spent time snorkelling in the turquoise waters where marine life thrives. And while my beginner status as a snorkeller took me off course from time to time, I had the good fortune on one such occasion to come across a starfish nearly 30-cm-wide.

ISLA MUJERES

After our exotic lunch we headed back to Cancun with a stop at Isla Mujeres, Spanish for Island of Women — so named after Francisco Hernandez Cordova found female-shaped idols (representing the goddess Ixchel) when he discovered the island in 1517. This charming island, a throw-back in time, is a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun. The very active docking area has a “Kensington Market feeling” while Aztec ruins can be found at the island’s far end.

Our brief stop on Isla Mujeres was enough to convince us to return a second time — there was so much to take in. The ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres runs several times throughout the day and is reasonably priced. To get the true flavour of the island, visitors should either hire a guide or rent one of the many golf carts for a self-guided tour.

Isla Mujeres is a thin band of land that stretches 7 km from end to end. The island is colourful, historical and flavourful. We headed to the furthest point of the island, Punta Sur, where ancient Mayan ruins have stood for centuries. A paved trail through the ruins provides easy access to visitors.

Among the stops on our golf-cart tour was an unnamed cemetery that, despite being a cemetery, ranks among the most interesting places on the island. Box tombs and platform tombs that overlook the sea are brightly painted or covered in ceramics and often marked with handmade tributes to those who have passed.

Surrounding the docking area are many restaurants and places to sample street fare — lobster tail, taco variations, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, even Nutella crepes! Time spent under an umbrella with feet firmly planted in the sand, a cold cerveza in hand and Blackberry stowed in a hotel vault makes for a terrific afternoon.

UNDERWATER MUSEUM

Another ”must do” activity is the Underwater Museum, a magnificent project undertaken by English artist Jason deCaires Taylor and the Mexican government in 2009.

The submerged collection of 400 life-sized sculptures, made from ph-neutral clay, promotes coral growth and marine life. It serves as art but is practical in terms of conservation.

We booked an outing with Aquaworld, a local tour operator, for a half-day session that included snorkel above the museum. The current was a tad strong so our time hovering over the statues was somewhat limited but invigorating nonetheless. The fish that now reside in the area are as colourful as any kaleidoscope image you can imagine — small fish in schools or larger fish meandering at their own pace. The combination of beautiful sculptures, intricate coral reefs, the fascination of seeing so many varieties of fish, and the calmness of hearing my own breathing was an experience I treasure.

DINNER AND SHOW

Outside of our hotel, one of the most interesting places to dine is La Habichuela, where you can sample traditional foods and watch an Aztec show. The crab tacos were excellent, and the main courses are good. My recommendation is to dine tapas style and sample a wide variety of local flavours. Leave room, and time, for a delicious Cafe Maya and the entertaining production that goes along with it.

ACCOMMODATIONS

We stayed in the heart of Cancun at the new RIU Palace Peninsula, a luxurious all-inclusive hotel built by the Riu family, their fourth in Cancun. Costing more than $140 million, the hotel is characterized by its architecture and by the funky design and colour scheme throughout.

The lobby is welcoming, dramatic and impressive — with high ceilings, bold artwork and over-sized plush, purple chairs that would fit right into an Alice in Wonderland set. We stayed in a junior suite that was spacious, clean and well-appointed. Amenities include a bar rail with full bottles of spirits, a mini-bar filled with water, soft drinks and cervezas. Rooms are complete with a flat screen TV — kind of makes a guy feel right at home!

The openness of the room extends to the bathroom area, where a jacuzzi sits outside of the large, invigorating shower. Each room has a balcony and a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea. If you prefer a more private stay, villas are a nice option.

RIU Palace Peninsula offers great dining at five specialty restaurants — Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Fusion and Steakhouse — as well as a buffet restaurant. While some people tend to turn their noses up when you mention the word “buffet,” this one is exceptional at any time of day, both in terms of quality and variety. All of the meals we enjoyed at the a la carte restaurants were excellent but, be advised, you should make dinner reservations as soon as you settle into the hotel to ensure seating throughout your stay.

The lobby bar buzzes with caffeine and freshly baked pastries for early morning visitors. It serves as a popular gathering place as the sun goes down in the evening. The 24-hour Sports Bar is a great spot to catch a game on one the many TVs or to enjoy a drink or a snack, particularly when tour departures or early morning planes await. The nightly show is surprisingly well done and surpasses many I’ve seen over the years.

For those travelling with children, RiuLand is a retreat for both children and parents. Complimentary care is available if the parents are looking for a little private time. You’ll find a well-equipped gym if you get the urge to burn a few calories. I, however, chose the serenity of the Renova Spa for a cooling massage away from the heat of the day. Guests can tap into their inner artist in the art room and have hotel staff assist in sending finished masterpieces home.

I guess the reason Cancun feels so right is it’s matured nicely over the past 40 years — and so, too, have my travel tastes.

MORE INFORMATION

Sunwing Vacations offers packages for the new RIU Palace Peninsula. See sunwing.ca. For information on activities, see cancun.travel, islacontoy.org, isla-mujeres.net and aquaworld.com/mx.


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