AS MUCH AS I LIKE to think of myself as a grand adventurer, an explorer of all things exotic, I have to admit that when it came time for my Mexican vacation, I headed straight for a beach resort. I'm not talking about a tiny hotel on a remote beach where you dine by candlelight because there is no electricity. I'm talking about one of the gigantic resorts that have sprung up along the Yucatán Peninsula on Mexico's eastern seaboard, featuring parasailing, jet-skiing, scuba diving, water aerobics in the swimming pools, golf, kids' clubs, cabaret shows in the hotel theater, and even the Cartoon Network beamed in by satellite to your room's TV.
Laugh at me if you will. Call my vacation "Mexico Lite." But the fact is that a Yucatán beach resort is the way hordes of Texans now experience Mexico, especially those traveling with children. If you hang around the Cancún airport, you'll be amazed at the number of chartered and scheduled flights, run by packaged-tour companies like Funjet and Adventure Tours USA, that swoop in from Dallas, Houston, and Austin, unloading tourists who are bused straight to their resort. Some go to the high-rise hotels crammed into the frenetic, overdeveloped Cancún hotel zone. Others head south toward an area known as the Mayan Riviera. Those of you who last visited this region a decade ago, when it was considered a rustic paradise, would be amazed at what has happened. More than sixty resorts by my count, most of them the size of small college campuses, line the eighty-mile stretch of highway between Cancún and the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. Although you can still find a few resorts that strive for an intimate boutique feel—among them the Maroma Resort and Spa, which is operated by the Orient-Express hotel company; the Ikal del Mar, with palapa-style villas and an exquisite restaurant serving "Mexi-terranean" food; and the ultraglamorous Royal Hideaway Resort and Spa—the new resorts only get bigger and bigger. The recently opened Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret, south of Playa del Carmen, has 769 rooms in more than a dozen buildings, thirteen restaurants, ten bars, and five swimming pools, each big enough to hold the Fifth Fleet.
Because the smaller, high-priced resorts don't allow children (or have little for them to do), my wife, Shannon, our five-year-old daughter, Tyler, and I took a taxi from the Cancún airport to the Riu Palace, a child-friendly hotel in the resort area of Playacar, just a couple of miles from the bustling town of Playa del Carmen. Eleven big resorts stand side by side at Playacar, and there is one reason why: They front a dazzling, palm-tree-dotted alabaster beach and ocean waters that are clearer, even at depths of twenty feet, than most backyard swimming pools. You can stand on the beach, look to your left and right, and see hundreds of people lounging on chairs or bobbing in the gentle surf and, farther out in the water, motorboats, banana boats, catamaran sailboats, paddleboats, and jet-skis zipping about. All the resorts have beach volleyball courts and huts where you can sign up for parasailing ($90 tandem or $50 per person for about ten minutes in the air), jet-skis ($50 for thirty minutes), and snorkeling or scuba diving trips (a two-hour snorkeling trip—a boat picks you up right on the beach and takes you to a nearby coral reef—is about $30, lunch included).
If beach activities aren't your thing, the people-watching is spectacular. It's not just Americans who are hitting this part of Mexico. European charter jets are unloading Germans, Brits, Danes, and even some French, who apparently are finding the Mayan Riviera just as good as their own. Many of the European women go topless, a source of endless titillation for American fathers and teenage boys. The culture clash between the glowering, cigarette-smoking Europeans, who lie on their beach chairs all day long reading existential novels, and the frisky Americans, who build giant sand castles and toss Frisbees and pump their fists in the air during beach volleyball games, is simply a wonder to behold.
The 434-room Riu Palace is considered one of the pricier of the eleven Playacar resorts. It's an impressive-looking place, with an expansive lobby (complete with statues, urns, hand-painted Mexican murals, and even a small chapel), an outdoor courtyard (with splashing fountains, gazebos, a huge plaza, and lush gardens), and the obligatory enormous swimming pools with swim-up bars.
People accustomed to the best U.S. hotels won't be overly thrilled with the guest rooms—the bedspreads are scratchy and the pillows ridiculously small, and there are never enough towels—nor will they swoon over the food. Like most of the big resorts on the Mayan Riviera, the Riu Palace is all-inclusive, meaning that the price you pay for your room covers all of your meals and drinks, including alcoholic beverages. As long as you stay on the property, you never have to carry any money or credit cards (you wear a colored wristband that identifies you as a guest of the hotel), and you can walk into any of the Riu Palace's four restaurants and eat as much as you want. Almost everything is served buffet style, which ensures a certain blandness, except in the resort's steak restaurant and at breakfast in the main restaurant, where chefs cook omelets and pancakes to order.
The biggest drawback of an all-inclusive resort, however, is that some people rarely leave it for the four or five days they are there, whether because they feel they are wasting money if they don't eat the meals they've already paid for or because they are a little afraid of what might happen to them if they venture into non-tourist areas. They might as well be in Florida.
As much as my family is addicted to the ocean—on the first day of our four-day trip, we spent six hours just hanging out on the Playacar beach—I was determined that we were going to venture beyond the realm of