Sunday, December 27, 2009
Banyan Tree Mayakoba
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Dates of visits: March 2009 (4 nights Spa Pool Villa) and June 2009 (4 nights 3-bedroom beachfront villa)
Overall Comments About Resort
The Banyan Tree Mayakoba is a stunning new resort located on the Riviera Maya of Mexico, near the cities of Playa del Carmen (to the south) and Cancun (to the north). The idea is to bring the Asian pool-villa concept within easy reach of North America, and Asian influences are seen throughout the resort from the architecture to the food. The resort GM is Pancho Llamas, and he is largely responsible for the high level of service and accolades the resort has received from its guests. His personal charm is contagious and he personally greeted me during my second arrival at BTM. I visited the resort two times, once shortly after its opening in March 2009 when I stayed in a Spa Pool Villa, and again in June 2009 when I stayed in a 3-bedroom ocean-front beach villa (upgraded from a Spa Pool Villa). The resort is not currently part of Virtuoso or FHR.
Location and Transfer from Airport
The resort is located about 35-45 minutes south of Cancun airport. Travelers from the West coast like me will usually arrive around 2-3PM (or around 11AM if you take the red-eye). The resort offers a roundtrip transfer service from the airport ($275). I thought hard about whether to get the transfer or not, and I've decided that it is worth it for me because of the high level of service (chauffeur greets you at the exit of the airport, helps with the bags, and gives your cold towels and bottled water) and the car is very comfortable (Black Cadillac Escalade). I also don't speak Spanish and personally feel more secure using the hotel car service. After spending 10+ hours in the air/waiting at airports, I like the feeling of falling into someone else's care the moment I get to my destination. However, there are lots of taxis and even buses that can take you to the resort.
Arrival at Resort
On both occasions I was personally greeted by the manager on duty upon arrival to the resort, and given a welcome drink (a delicious green juice, made from local fruit). You are invited to enjoy your drink in the public lounge, but check-in is done in your villa. When you are ready, you are swiftly taken to your villa by golf cart.
Spa Pool Villa
Upon arriving at your villa, the first reaction is, "who's staying next door"? This is because your villa is actually comprised of two separate structures: a main villa with a bedroom, bathroom, outdoor shower and outdoor bathtub on the lower level, and an outdoor spa/sundeck and second outdoor shower on the top level. The second structure is the "pool house" (that's what I call it anyways) that has a large built-in daybed, dining table, coffee maker, and entertainment center (television and stereo).
Sandwiched in between these two buildings is your own private swimming pool and private jacuzzi. Elegant landscaping and dramatic lighting finish the scene. It is absolutely private, though I can imagine that the level of privacy might be dictated by the location of your villa in the resort (e.g. next to the golf course, etc.). I personally walked around in my birthday suit when skinny-dipping at night, and felt perfectly comfortable. The only thing I heard at night was the warm breezes blowing the wind shades on the upstairs spa level.
The bedroom is large and elegant, and does have a television (though you won't use it) and a Bose sound system (you will use this!). My favorite part is that the Bedroom walls on two sides slide completely open into the swimming pool that wraps around your villa. You can literally hop from your bed to the swimming pool in only a few steps. One wall opens to a hammock that hangs adjacent to the pool, which was a very nice touch. The bed is very comfortable, and the linens felt wonderful against my skin. Each night, you are left a special present at turn-down service, sometimes it is a satchel of incense, other times souvenir paperweights or carvings. Again, nice touch.
Fresh flowers are left in your rooms and at night special candles are lit which glow inside special clay jars that leave the Banyan Tree logo illuminated against the wall.
The bathroom is completely stunning. There is a circular sink in the middle for his and hers on either side with a mirror in the middle. A large walk-in closet easily holds your luggage and a safe is available for your valuables. There are two best parts of the bathroom: 1) the steam shower (heavenly!) has easily enough room for two people and it has a door that opens to an outdoor shower/bath area, 2) one entire wall of the bathroom opens up to an enclosed outdoor bathtub where you can take a soaking bath and gaze at the stars at night. The wall in back of the bathtub is made of slates of stone with pockets for candles that can be lit at night. They even have portable iPod speaker systems so you can play music while you enjoy your outdoor bath! The toiletries are from the Banyan Tree Spa, and good.
The structure adjacent to the pool is a very large separate "house" that contains an extremely comfortable built-in daybed along with an entertainment center, dining room table and chairs, and a Nespresso-style coffee maker with capsules. There is also a small wine cellar. This is a great place to relax, enjoy music and read. Private meals can also be enjoyed here.
There is a small lawn/patio in the back of the Villa facing the lagoon where you can sit or lay out and get some sun. This is where we enjoyed our in-villa barbeque that was prepared onsite by one of the cooks.
There is a house phone in every room, television with regular programming and on-demand pay movies and free wifi internet throughout the villa. Doesn't really matter though, because you won't be using any of it, except maybe to call for the in-villa barbeque (more on that later).
Food and Beverage
On my first visit to BTM, the only restaurant that was open for dinner was Tamarind. I have to say that I am not a fan of this restaurant. It is adjacent to the BT Spa and I think it takes its cue from this proximity because it offers fairly small portions and the prices are quite high. I don't remember much about my dinner at Tamarind except that while the service was exceptional (everyone at BT knew my name, and my likes and dislikes almost immediately), the food is not something that I would like to try again.
The dining along the beach at Sands is another matter entirely. The shrimp tacos, club sandwiches and other treats are wonderful and nourishing fare that make for a fantastic lunch. The setting can't be beat, and the prices are reasonable. I also love their ice tea -- it is brewed at your table and deliciously refreshing.
This restaurant is similar to Tamarind in that they attempt a fusion of Latin and Asian cuisines. Oriente offers a great morning breakfast, which I enjoyed each day. I went for dinner only once, and while the setting by the pool is spectacular, the meal itself does not linger in my memory. I do remember enjoying the desert, however, and the pastry chef was kind enough to come out in person to take a bow. The staff and service at all venues is exceptional.
This is my favorite restaurant at BTM and completely redeems its F&B. They have flown chefs from Thailand to Mayakoba to create contemporary Thai and Asian-inspired dishes. The prawn in spices (sorry, I forgot the exact name, but it is a specialty) was so delicious, I had to return a second evening in a row to have them! Asian cuisine is also a nice break from the plethora of Mexican food offered in Mayakoba and Playa del Carmen.
In-Villa Dining - Barbeque
I did order the in-villa barbeque once during my stays and it is truly a remarkable and memorable experience. It is a bit expensive, I don't remember the exact cost, but it came to several hundred dollars with wine. The chefs bring a cooking grill to your villa and assemble it next to the pool. Then your table is set with linen and fine tableware. Wine is served with appetizers, salads. The main course is a selection of seafood: lobster, prawns, fish, and steak. These are served with several sides including several different salsas and grilled vegetables. The warm breeze, sound of splashing water, and mesmerizing flames from the grill at sunset all came together to make this a dining experience to remember. I do highly recommend it.
If you are at all mobile and not adverse to a little exercise, I absolutely highly recommend asking the concierge to bring bicycles to your villa. They are the easiest and most enjoyable way to get around the resort. My first stay at the Spa Pool Villa was an easy five-seven minute bike ride to the beach. The alternative is to call for a buggy to pick you up, and I'm frankly too impatient for that. On your way back from the beach, I highly recommend you try at least once the hotel motor boat that will take you along the resorts lagoons to the main lobby of the hotel. It is a wonderful new perspective to enjoy the resort. BTM also provides a complementary Escalade house car to take you to other resorts in the Mayakoba complex.
The main public resort pool is located next to Oriente in the main complex. It is large and was completely empty on every occasion that I visited (just the way I like it!). In a resort where everyone has their own private pool, I imagine the public pool would get less use. It is a lovely place to get some sun and does have a swim-up bar (though it was closed on both my visits). There is also an ocean-front pool at Sands and it has a very nice pool-side service. Cold towels and spritzes of cold water are de rigeur. However, they turned it up a notch by offering ceviche and other amuse buche every hour or so. Delightful and delicious!
The spa has two notable features: the Rainforest experience and private treatment cabanas. I enjoyed a massage on both visits, and highly recommend the Balinese massage. The therapists are flown in directly from Thailand and are very talented. First you are walked to your treatment room, which looks like a mini-villa on stilts floating above the water. Each treatment begins with a cup of tea while you get a foot bath. A wonderful touch is a bowl of water with orchids and lavender placed on the floor underneath your headrest so that you have something beautiful to enjoy as you lay on your stomach for your massage. After the wonderful treatment, you are given another cup of tea and some fresh fruit to enjoy on a sofa in your treatment "villa".
If you are adventurous, you can try the Rainforest--I did. It is a journey of different water experiences and you begin by walking down a hallway that "rains" from above. You then enter different thermal caves, and showers, culminating in a hydrotherapy pool with colored light. It is a very unique experience, though the price is fairly expensive for a 30 minute visit.
The beach at BTM is fairly small, but the adjacent Viceroy resort on the beach had stopped construction during my past two visits (?financial problems), so there is more separation from the next resort over, the Rosewood. I had the pleasure of being upgraded on my second visit to a 3-bedroom ocean-front beach villa, and I have to say the beach is an absolutely wonderful place to stay! I have fond memories of napping on the beach at midnight and taking late-night swims. Unfortunately, BTM doesn't have any Spa Pool Villas on the beach, only large family-oriented villas. So couples are out of luck unless they spring for a large 3-bedroom villa. Or you can get upgraded if you are lucky
Mayakoba Resort in General
The Mayakoba resort consists of several luxury resorts in a gated and highly secured complex (there are security guards stationed all over the complex--I felt very safe). There are currently four resorts open or under development: Banyan Tree, Rosewood, Fairmont and Viceroy. The last time I visited Mayakoba, Viceroy was still under construction and it appeared that construction had ceased (though now the Mayakoba website is saying Spring 2010--I'm not holding my breath). I favor the resorts in descending order I have listed them (except Viceroy, which I obviously can't evaluate).
I thought the Fairmont was a zoo, much too crowded in the public areas I visited and I was thoroughly disappointed by the F&B. In fact, there was a huge noisy corporate dance/music party going on when I visited. The Fairmont didn't give me the impression of being a place where I could easily relax and enjoy myself.
The Rosewood is a gorgeous resort and I did enjoy meals at the sushi/tequila bar, Agave (be wary of the mosquitos at night here though, you might get eaten alive if you sit outside). I also enjoyed nice lunches at the beach restaurant (just 10 minutes walk down the beach from BTM) Punta Bonita. My favorite restaurant in all of Mayakoba (even tops Saffron) is Casa del Lago, which serves contemporary European cuisine. I found the chef to be extremely innovative, and he even noted that I had dined two nights in a row and came out to introduce himself!
Mandarin Oriental Resort
With so much to be found inside of Mayakoba, I found only few occasions to venture outward for meals. One of my favorite food memories is dining at Azul restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami. Somehow, foolishly, I thought that Mandarin Oriental's restaurant Ambar would be in the same league. Unfortunately, it was not even close. The food is extremely overpriced, and the portions were very small. I found the cuisine lacking innovation or flavor. In fact, after "dinner" at Ambar, I went back to Saffron at BTM and had an order of the signature prawns! To their credit, the concierge at BTM did try to advise me not to go to Ambar, but was so diplomatic in her explanation that I didn't take her advice too seriously. Lesson learned!
Mayakoba is an exciting and stunningly beautiful beach resort destination that I can highly recommend. Even for people who are "nervous" about traveling to Mexico, Mayakoba feels (and is) extremely safe. If you want privacy, serene quiet, and large asian-style pool-villa accomodations, BTM can't be beat. I have already made a reservation for Banyan Tree's second Mexican resort in Cabo Marques, which opens in March. I'm hoping for another spectacular warm winter destination!