It is beyond scary: I am on a plane out of New York’s JFK headed to Cancun at Spring Break. Am I out of my mind? Is this a bad dream? Who arranged this, me?
Worse, it’s a charter flight I’m on–all I could get at this absurdly crowded time of year–a planeful of hyped-up teens and twenty-somethings in t-shirts with dopey slogans on the front and short shorts, racquets, scuba gear, tanning oils, and hellish school-is-out fun-worship emblazoned on their eager faces. Now you have to understand, I do not want to go to Cancun. I am not twenty-anything. I do not seek all-night kicks. I do not want to return burned, hung over, or with beaded dreadlocks. What I want is a few days to chill (I’m even starting to sound like them); so I am overwhelmed, now, by the idiocy of aspiring to meditative peace on the same playground as this call-back for the casting of Animal House.
I am taking a chance on a hotel twenty miles south of Cancun that promises not to be like Cancun. Called Maroma, it has for several years been heralded as a deluxe secret hideaway and billed as the exquisite antidote to this overcrowded and polluted part of the Yucatan’s once-glorious Caribbean coast. I’d heard only this: You booked it directly, at the hotel–not through a travel agent. It had no U.S. PR firm; no special package deals, no tour operators. Once I booked, through a lovely man named Lorenzo, the confirmation letter was faxed back promptly and signed, “Regards from the Maroma family.” A sense of the uncorruptible, the untainted, surrounded it. This was promising.
At Cancun airport, the by-now hooting passengers get their bags (their hormones causing the nearby “Duty Free” sign to vibrate) and pile onto buses while whipping out their Palmtops to make dates for that evening. A man appears at the baggage pickup and asks, “Ms. Heyn?” and whisks my husband and me away in a tiny van. We drive for 20 minutes down stick-straight route 307, away from Cancun (dare I still hope?), and then, suddenly turn off the highway at an unmarked white stucco and bamboo gate. We’re on a one-lane road seemingly hacked out of the jungle by hand (turns out it was), just big enough for our car. I see nothing other than a rusted-out red Volkswagon for one whole mile, and then: a peacock, an iguana, a few turkeys; an oblong reflecting pool in front of a thatched, stone building; and bewhind you, a reclining Mayan figure of smudged stone surveys the scene. Out of a white stucco Hacienda-style entrance come three woman clad in white Mexican dresses, one of whom hands us a Margarita, then guides us past an elegant, shaded, open-air “lobby,” in front of a fountain surrounded with Mayan figures and terra cotta pots, and down a stone-tile path of palm trees and hibiscus. Squares of glistening, lighted aquamarines shimmer up at me from underfoot. We continued along the path, where heart-shaped rhododendrun leaves lead to the dark-blue tiled pool, a stone Mayan eagle head spouting fresh water into it, and on to our room beyond it, just steps away from the beach. It was spare, white-walled, with a huge bed canopied with mosquito netting, prints of children and Mayan villages on the walls, a mammoth, sunken tub–big enough for a small family–and a rounded terrace facing the beach. No TV. Hand-carved teak and mahogany furniture; terra cotta flooring; bamboo shutters. Paddle fans and air-conditioning in the room. A hammock and and built-in sofa on the balcony.
I was three hours and forty-five minutes away from JFK, and let me tell you, this was not whatever those kids on the plane were checking into. In fact, I had not checked in at all. I was instead treated like the welcome guest of a lovely Mayan host in the old Mexican Caribbean. (A host that welcomes you and then leaves you alone, I should add. The staff–courteous and kind–are invisible until you need them.)
Maroma is a statement against Cancun, which, in the 1970s, was one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The Yucatan peninsula is, of course, land of the Maya, where once bottomless wells (cenotes) and pyramids ruled by sun Gods suddenly morphed into an overwhelmed (and underthought) tourist hellhole, whose sewage system backed up into the lagoon. By the late `80s, the only people racing to this mess of a mecca were kids taking advantage of cheap, overcrowded hotels. Maroma, the brainchild of Mexican architect Jose Luis Morena, who bought this working coconut plantation in the late 70s, became his personal declaration against the blight that had trashed Cancun. Built for six-million dollars by hand, with no electricity (it has it now), it emerged out of 530 miles of mangrove- and coconut palm-filled jungle that is one of the last bits of Mexico’s wild coast between Cancun and Tulum, 90 miles south. The cobbled courtyard, bamboo shutters, limestone driveway, palm-leaf thatched rooves, speak of Morena’s love of nature and of Spanish Colonial (and Mayan) architecture, as well as his commitment to low-density, eco-sensitive tourism. (Hence, no televisions in the room; only recently has he succumbed to telephones.) The furniture, also designed by the owner, is all mahogany, teak, bamboo, crafted by local artisans from Puerto Morelos. The white-walled stucco compound is dotted with impossibly bright, lush, jungle flowers, created with curves and angles and cutouts and cupulas and catwalks, all the better to see the aquamarine, the orange, the deep blue, the purple that bursts out from every angle. Catwalks and bridges, arches, terraces and palapa-capped turrets, lead to further snapshot-like vistas of the prettiest views of the beach, the hotel, the grounds. Moreno, who was away when I was there, used to draw pictures of his vision of Maroma (which means “somersault”) in the sand, refusing anything so unwhimsical as formal drawings.
Its 36 rooms were filled, during my stay, with equal parts young and old–a low-key, bookish crew in very casual dress–some English, German, American. It is more Martha’s Vineyard in feel than Mazatlan: Men don’t need jackets; women don’t need resort clothes (I saw no evidence, even, of high heels and pareos). Just khakis, t-shirts, comfortable sandals. The waiters looked spiffy, though, and remembered guests’ names and their favorite tables. The cooking was spotty, however, perhaps attributable to the fact that the new Swiss chef, Sebastien Vielletoille, had just arrived two weeks before, and was trying to recreate the menu his way. Meanwhile, you couldn’t go wrong with the Yucatecan Chaya salad, a wonderful lettuce-like cactus green; or the seafood ceviche, with chunks of octopus, shrimp and white fish in a spicy lime marinade. The pina coladas were wonderful–heavy on the coconut, giving it a rich scalded-milk-and-vanilla taste. The salsa was fresh and perfect, redolent of cilantro and limes, and served at each meal with warm, freshly baked (and unsalted) tortilla chips. The Mexican coffee is an elaborate production of flambeed tequila and Kahlua, fresh orange and vanilla ice cream, with sugar around the rim and a dash of cinnamon on top.