Mayan ruins and jungle communities propelled my first few visits to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Oh, and so did the beaches.

Gazing at the steps of the 79-foot tall pyramid at Chichen Itza during the Equinox when sunlight and shadow converge mystically to behold the feathered serpent god – that’s my notion of incentive to plan a trip.

I did that, yet a few years later something shifted and I returned to Cancun and nearby Playa Mujeres with a specific intention to analyze my aversion to all-inclusive vacationing.

Explore. Embrace. Discover. Those are more comfortable travel terms than “Get over a bad attitude,” don’t you think?

The Caribbean soothes souls and relaxes stressed-out bodies so I was hopeful it could work mental health wonders with me, shedding my judgment of others’ vacation styles.

My skeptical side doubted I’d be able to engage in local culture or notice the nuances of community life – only immersing with vacation-minded revelers. After all, aren’t the beverages all included too?

Do replicas of heritage sites enhance history? This is not Chichen Itza.

Do replicas of heritage sites enhance history? This is not Chichen Itza.

If my research reflects more than the two resorts that I experienced, then I comfortably proclaim my original attitude was shortsighted. My aversion to all-inclusive has ceased.

Proud-of-themselves names distinguish my Caribbean locations:
• Excellence Riviera in Cancun – adults only
• Finest Resort in Playa Mujeres – family friendly

They’re part of a group of six resorts in Mexico with another opening in the Dominican Republic, all named Excellence or Finest or the third moniker – Beloved.

My perceived, and enduring, need for cultural heritage interaction started in the spa where I only anticipated pampering and healing touch but not a shaman.

A full body massage or two clearly define vacation for many travelers and that’s possible at Excellence Riviera and Finest Resort. So is taking the waters.

Bubbles, strong jets, dumping buckets are part of 17 water treatments.

Bubbles, strong jets, dumping buckets are part of 17 water treatments.

In fact, an hour in an astonishing array of 17 water treatments is considered the ideal preparation for each massage. No additional cost, and your own personal valet accompanies you each splash of the way.

Since I consider the baths in Baden Baden, Germany, also in Budapest and the outskirts of Machu Picchu among my finest international experiences, discovering these waters in Mexico was a heritage surprise.

Abandon any notion of a hairdo because water pours from above in several of the treatments. Neck and shoulder pulsing sprays, lower calf and foot reflexology, icy cold plunges balanced with steam rooms and dry sauna dozing, lower back jets and belly jets are among the easy flow from one treatment to another.

The very idea that booking a massage also provides the personal attention of a valet for an hour of water care to strengthen my immune system reinforced my changing attitude about all-inclusive holiday life.

Unmentioned cultural surprises

My tip for all-inclusive surprises is look beyond the beauty and that’s not easy because gorgeous is good, and is everywhere. Neither Finest nor Excellence seemed concerned with pointing out the art, literature or traditions with depth, but clearly built them in place.

You’d be right to expect an abundance of colorful perfectly-sculpted landscaping. I found more within the hedges.

Looking beyond the obvious reveals a meditative path.

Looking beyond the obvious reveals a meditative path.

Roaming about one afternoon in Finest Resort I happened to look over a manicured hedge and found a labrynth. The next hour I had my own private party, the meditative kind on a winding path of big flat stones leading to a central peak, one rock higher than the others.

Contemplating a snooze in a hammock tucked into a cove of trees away from the main path at Excellence Riviera I was happily distracted discovering a sweat lodge. Participating would have taken more time and planning than I had allowed but a few specific questions led me to this:

I could have spent 90 minutes in a formal ceremony with a shaman: steam, tea, volcanic rocks, ancient traditions. This experience is outside the all-inclusive but I’d pay the $100. Those routine massages cost too.

The shaman performing traditional ceremonies also gives healing massages.

The shaman performing traditional ceremonies also gives healing massages.

 

 

Artful small bites

Would you call it a paradox, or an oxymoron? I expected the all-inclusive version of a foodie vacation to become gluttony. Instead I discovered art.

With 10 restaurants at Finest Playa Mujeres and 11 at Excellence Riviera I discovered 21 executive chefs, each with skill subsets and culinary styles distinctly different from the other.

None of my dining experiences repeated the others so even though always on the resort property, I engaged in restaurant selections as if in a city exploration.

Portions were perfect: elegant and artful, enormous never the goal. Unlimited courses could appeal to those seeking gluttony and I’ll own up to eating widely and abundantly — but always with the chef’s skills clear and obvious.

Pleasant-size servings distinguish the abundance of all-inclusive dining.

Pleasant-size servings distinguish the abundance of all-inclusive dining.

Linen tablecloth at breakfast in an open-sided palapa overlooking the sea oozes vacation. My huevos motulenos were more than fried eggs on a tortilla; their sauce of ham, green peas and white cheese with fried plantain on the side suggested art and the blue agave honey for side breads balanced thoughts of tequila.

However, the vast serve-yourself buffet breakfast fed my cultural needs better. Unlikely conclusion I thought. Buffets can be so pedestrian.

The waiter suggested orange juice and I declined because the juice bar is a rainbow of rich colors — juices made from fruits not found on trees in my neighborhood.

I drink my coffee black but this buffet at Excellence Riviera Cancun offers eight sugars: muscovado, anise, walnut, cocoa, almond, coffee, powdered and cinnamon.

Toast is complicated because this is a two-room buffet with one devoted to breads. At least half are Mexican breads of exquisite varieties, prompting much questioning of the baker on duty. That’s a room of culinary heritage.

An entire table is allocated to toppings and I never was sure what to top off with all of them, including amaranth, ground wheat, dried apricot, pistachio, pumpkin seeds, fine chopped nuts, and grated coconut.

Lunch and dinner experiences at both resorts offered equally different details and opportunities to explore local flavors consistently emphasizing the art of elegant presentation.

Secret passageway

I rarely frequent hotel room minibars but the all-inclusive life invited me in. This ‘frig intends to be emptied. Same for the shelf above it with spirits—bottles of rum, tequila, gin, vodka, whiskey.

Put the empties, or room service dishes if you ordered any, in the nifty corner cupboard and they’ll be silently removed or a new order delivered. This clever cupboard opens from your room, and also from the outside wall with a housekeeper key. No used dishes in your room, no intrusive knocks on the door, no unsightly trays in the hallway.

Accommodations

Pillow menus generally indicate a hotel intends to help your comfort levels and if the six on my bed weren’t just right, I could order from a menu of five more. So I did.

My Finest room flowed from sleeping space to balcony in a luxurious way I’d not experienced. A Jacuzzi tub for two also serves as a discrete entry to an outdoor sofabed.

Should you prefer keeping your clothes on to enjoy a balcony with a grand view, sliding glass doors and comfy chairs are also part of the scheme.

Lazy rivers connect to swim-up suites.

Lazy rivers connect to swim-up suites.

Ground level suites offer swim-up access if you think you’d like to float directly from your room to the interconnected pools, lagoons and lazy rivers.

My Excellence room included a sofa, comfy chairs and desk space, but created a sense of anxiety because the gorgeous marble floors throughout included a step down to the living room.

With expansive picture windows luring my eye outward, and sleek color lines in the marble floor, I was spooked I’d forget to step down. My solution? Put the desk chair right in the middle of the passageway.

To discover more

Ground transportation is readily available from the Cancun airport and between resorts. Chatting with taxi and shuttle drivers always gives me new insight to a local community.

The Riviera Maya region and all of the Yucatan Peninsula is rich with Mayan experiences and tours can be arranged through the resorts.

www.excellenceresorts.com

www.finestresorts.com