By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
CJ Travel Editor
Back in 2010 I visited Grand Velas Riviera Maya and was blown away. In a landscape of three-star hotels posing as five, the Mexican all-inclusive resort near Playa Del Carmen proved to be the real deal, offering luxurious features and services that transcended anything I’d previously encountered in the Caribbean. Last month I had the chance to stay there again. Six years later, would the the hotel have lost its luster? And after scores of stays at other top-rates all-inclusives, would I still be impressed? I was about to find out.
Then Comprising three discrete resorts-within-a-resort (Ambassador, Zen and the adults-only, beachfront Grand Class, where I stayed), each of the resort’s suites was a study in marble-and-hardwood modernity. Behind huge carved-wood sliding doors, my mammoth bathroom included a “party shower” large enough for two or more and a whirlpool tub. The patio was an outdoor oasis complete with a chaise and its own plunge pool. An elegant (and complimentary) Don Julio tequila setup came standard in every suite, offering a true Mexican welcome.
Now My second visit was split over two resorts. Zen, nestled amid the jungle about a three-minute shuttle ride from the beach, was where we spent our first night. The rooms here were spacious and elegantly decorated with scarlet accents and Chinese characters painted on the wall. A patio opened to a natural lagoon, where tadpoles wriggled and cicadas sang from bordering bushes. With room blocks connected by a series of elevated wooden walkways crowned with palapa-style straw roofs (dimly and shaded by day, candlelit by night), the atmosphere was appropriately tranquil, calling to mind a luxurious jungle oasis. Our final nights, spent in a fourth-floor beachfront Grand Class suite, were as comfortable as I remember, and made even more so by the in-suite tequila service, now featuring a custom-branded reposado, manufactured exclusively for the resort by the founders of the Don Julio brand.
Then Grand Velas’ seven restaurants (shared between the three hotels) satisfied both gourmands and the greedy, with a trio of all-day eateries and four elegant dinner choices, as well as ‘round-the-clock room service. I breakfasted at Azul, where the bountiful buffet included mimosas and roast-duck wraps, and enjoyed a Pan-Asian dinner at Sen Lin, where the Ebi Imperial featured shrimp in sea-urchin sauce garnished with flakes of genuine gold leaf.
Now With eight eateries (including the new Italian, Lucca) to choose from, I was once again thankful that I packed my stretchy pants. How else to mitigate the waist-widening effects of a calorie intake that included hearty traditional Mayan breakfasts at Chaká; exquisite gourmet Mexican at Frida; and French cuisine at the crystal-embellished Piaf, where a harpist played and even the bread (I can still taste that brioche stuffed with blue cheese and walnuts) was life-changing. Cocina Del Autor, the only five-diamond-rated restaurant at an all-inclusive resort, serves molecular cuisine. And even the buffets at Azul were extraordinary, featuring quail eggs and caviar.
Then With an impressive 3:1 staff-to-suite ratio, Grand Velas’ service lived up to the surroundings, with staff perpetually sweeping and polishing on the periphery. For every dozen Grand Class suites, the retinue also included a butler, whose duties surpassed the typical. If, for example, you change rooms mid-stay, your butler would expertly execute a “picture move,” snapping photos of your original suite and then replicating the placement of your personal items in your new digs.
Now The staff-to-suite ratio remains the same, as does the exceptional level of service. At the buffet, waiters offer to carry your plate to the table. Poolside and on the beach, butlers bring chilled towels, umbrella drinks and fresh fruit right to your chaise. And when you ask a member of staff where something is, they never just point in the general direction; it’s their pleasure to accompany you wherever you’re headed. Everywhere you go staffers somehow know your name — a level of personalized attention that makes you feel genuinely cared for. And which, in my book, is the biggest luxury of all.
Then Grand Velas’ centerpiece is a palatial two-story spa, claimed to be the largest in the Caribbean. Guided by a spa valet, my hydrotherapeutic Water Journey was a blissful hour spent in a near-comatose state, drifting from clay room to steam room, ice room to hot tub, massaging shower to jetted pool.
Now At 75,000-square-feet, the spa still reigns supreme as the largest in the Caribbean. But it’s not just the size that impresses. As you embark on the Water Journey, those spa valets guiding you now wear walkie-talkies with headsets, constantly communicating with each other so you’re never left wandering aimlessly around a space so expansive that it’s easy to lose your bearing. The signature Water Journey (now complimentary with any 50-minute or longer treatment) was as blissful as I remembered it. And the new Bacal Massage – incorporating, of all things, steamed corn cobs! – was a muscle-melting revelation.
Then Grand Velas delivered all the grand gestures I expected of any luxury resort, all-inclusive or otherwise. But it also excelled in the smaller touches: Doormen offered mahogany step stools for graceful disembarkation from the hotel shuttle. Bottled water and a card with the weather forecast arrived at turndown. And percheros, wooden stands designed specifically for ladies’ handbags, stand tableside in restaurants.
Now On this visit, as then, it was all in the details. And even though I was expecting thoughtful touches, I was still impressed with the new small but significant ones that caught my attention. When I ordered juice at breakfast it was brought to the table in a small decanter and poured at my seat. Newspapers are delivered to your suite in a linen bag. Beach butlers, without prompting, adjust the position of your umbrella for maximum shade throughout the day. Towels in the spa and on the beach are meticulously folded to display the hotel logo. And early one morning I saw a housekeeper actually vacuuming between the river stones embedded in the concrete walkways! None of these things is huge on it’s own, of course. But as a whole, they demonstrate a commitment to quality and dedication to guest satisfaction that is unparalleled.
Grand Velas Riviera Maya wasn’t as good as I remembered it. It was better.