You know that feeling when you find something special and relatively undiscovered – it could be a restaurant, a store, a jewelry designer, really anything - that gets you so excited that you want to tell everyone immediately about your special find but at the same time is so precious you also want to keep it to yourself?
Well, thats how we felt about our recent stay at Esencia, a gem of a hotel and once the estate of an Italian Dutchess (the Dutchess of Ferrari to be exact) located on 50 beach-front acres on the Mexican Riviera Maya. When I told a few guests we befriended at the hotel that I was going to do a review on this blog, they pleaded me not to. The feeling that “this is our special discovery and we want to keep it that way” was universal. And while I’m in this camp, I feel compelled to let the word out (but not before I book my villa for next spring break!) – after all, I created this blog as a forum to share wonderful and unique places with others. So, my apologies to all fellow Esencia guests in advance…
We found out about Esencia on Indagare, a members-only luxury travel site which I find indispensible, where other members who stayed at Esencia gave it rave reviews. We were searching for a place to go for spring break with our two young girls that was not too large, a direct flight (still a requisite) and most importantly, authentic. We have always loved going to Mexico but mainly traveled to the other coast, in Cabo San Lucas. We looked into a number of other places on the Riviera Maya – Rosewood Mayakoba, Banyan Tree, Tides and Grand Velas to name a few – but they all felt too large and… well, not very Mexican (more about this later since we got to peek at the first two). I was a little worried after not finding much information about Esencia on the web (it has only been open since 2006) but I trusted the experts at Indagare because their advice and recommendations are always so spot on. It didn’t hurt that we got what we thought was an unbelievable deal (two free nights on our 7 night stay, a free massage, 3-course dinner for two, $350 resort credit) through Indagare.
(Unfortunately, most resorts in Mexico are still feeling the pain from the SARS scare last year. This, along with the recent surge in drug cartel killings and subsequent U.S. travel warnings, has taken quite a toll on Mexican tourism. As a result, you will find most hotels are providing enticing offers to lure tourists back).
Any worries we had dissipated once we entered the reception area — a tiny mayan hut with incense burning and beautiful hand-crafted items on display. After a gracious welcome, we were quickly whisked away by golf cart down a dirt path (ok, maybe a little worried still) and then led into a lush, tropical forest and introduced to our villa for the week -
Puesta del Sol. Ours was one of two enormous white-washed villas (evocative of something you would expect on the Greek isles) on the property and I don’t think words do justice to describe it. The 2-story villas each have their own pool, patio, media room, living room, massive master bedroom (and a second bedroom with two queen beds) and three bathrooms - all beautifully but sparingly decorated in whites and reds with natural woods. Spectacular. Havaiana sandals provided for each member of our family during our stay were very appreciated!
Note: the villas are not baby-proofed and I wouldn’t recommend it for infants/toddlers – the stairs do not have rails and are a bit slippery, the terraces are open-air and the pool is unfenced. We had to keep an eye on our children at all times).
You should know upfront that Esencia doesn’t have a gym (though they can bring equipment to your suite or villa), a kids club or provide on-site sports/water activities, thing we previously thought we needed. We booked activities outside of the resort in advance thinking that we would need those diversions for the kids since they were none available at the hotel. We were wrong. The girls quickly made friends with others and were more than happy to spend their time alternating between the pool (there are two on property), the beach, the yoga pavilion (their hangout) and each others suites. And we were happy to decompress and relax on the gorgeous beach, do a little yoga (offered daily in the mornings, complimentary), and walk/jog on the beach during the day.
We ended up cancelling most of our planned outside activities other than spending a few hours at eco-park Excaret (mixed reviews on this) and dinner in the town of Playa Del Carmen, a 25-minute taxi cab ride from the hotel. Once you are here, it is hard not to want to just stay put.
The biggest and really only stress you will have at Esencia is in the mornings when your coffee, juice and pastries arrive to greet you each morning outside your door. If you don’t get there in time, they disappear in the air, literally. Either the birds or the mysterious looking ferrets on the property (lemurs?) get there before you – they stake them out. One morning we woke to the sound of crashing cups and saw a bird with our home-baked muffin in its claws flying away – quite a sight! Actually ‘bird’ is a kind description. These birds reminded me of the raptors in the movie Jurassic Park – they converse in clicking sounds and all of a sudden 25 birds appear out of nowhere – a little freaky. Maybe it’s time the hotel gets lidded baskets?
Birds and lemurs are not the only ones sharing this beautiful paradise with you. There are little wild pigs. And lots of
iguanas, big and small. The girls made a game of naming them on our daily walks to and from our villa. All the animals are perfectly harmless but can be alarming at first sight.
It’s hard to hard to pin it down to one thing that makes this place so special – similar to our experience at Villa Mangiacane in Tuscany, what appealed to us the most is the feeling of being a very pampered guest at someone’s house (more like a very rich friend’s estate) and a very ultra-private and chic one at that. The graciousness of the staff (especially towards our children), the beautiful property and interiors, the food and relaxed vibe all contributed to putting Esencia on our list of favorite places.
WHAT WE LOVED: Our villa, the white sand beach, the warm hospitality of all the staff (not intrusive but always available and responsive – unlike many Caribbean resorts we stayed at), the food (particularly the homemade guacamole, salads and breakfast options), and daily afternoon tea hour for adults and children alike. No need to sign bills or checks for any service - instead you receive a bill review every two days (although a bit hard to decipher) – a very welcome feature.
TIP: A wonderful complimentary nanny-on-call service is provided when you want to dine at the hotel’s restaurant, Fuesta Y Sol, without the kids or get a massage at the Mayan spa, ‘Aroma‘. Most of the nannies work at the hotel and are lovely. I highly recommend taking advantage of this service.
WHAT WE DIDNT LOVE: I would have liked to have seen a few special activities/offerings for the kids during the holiday break (ie. mayan crafts, pinatas) beyond those mentioned below. We missed the beach barbecue (they were holding it the night after we departed) and were disappointed there wasn’t any special evening event during our stay as going to the same restaurant each evening can get tedious.
ROOMS TO GET: Most suites (there are about 29 in total) and both villas are nestled in a tropical forest with winding paths to the beach and main public areas. A few suites in the main house face the caribbean sea – the Rosa suite in particular, has spectacular 360-degree views and a large terrace. If you are on a family vacation and lucky enough to snag one of the two villas, splurge – you won’t be disappointed!
DONT MISS: For kids: the hour-long cooking class with the chef, making cookies, pizza, quesadillas, chocolate-covered strawberries and salad, was a big hit ($75 per child and kids get to take home an apron and chef hat). The kids chocolate massage at the spa was also a fun activity for my 6 year old but terrified my 3 year old so I would recommend it for ages 5 and up. For adults: Any massage or treatment at the Mayan spa (check out their organic herb garden) – all products for the treatments are prepared using their herbs, medicinal plants, flowers and locally made massage oils. They even use Mayan rituals – when I was there they shook herbs around me to get rid of all my “bad NY energy”. What else? Oh yes, the home-made ice creams. Also, the restaurant Al Cielo, next door on the beach, was surprisingly delicious.
SKIP: Dolphin Discovery was 5 minutes away. While the kids loved playing with the dolphins, it is quite a tourist trap as they constantly hit you up to purchase photos and videos. Good for one time but if you have done before, skip.
THE COMPETITION: We did get a chance to have dinner at Banyan Tree and take a quick tour of Rosewood Mayakoba – both are hotels in the massive Mayakoba complex (our taxi driver got lost for 10 minutes). Both were beautiful. Banyon Tree felt a bit out of place and contrived, with its Asian decor and Vegas-style entrance, for our tastes. Rosewood was gorgeous but VERY spread out (you need golf carts to get from your rooms to the beach) – friends who stayed there loved it outside of this one inconvenience. Several friends who stayed at the Grand Velas praised it (I believe there are seven restaurants to choose from). Esencia, the low-key and intimate property that it is,
is a stark contrast to these large resort complexes and we were really happy with our choice after seeing the other places. Different strokes for different folks…
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you are the type that needs a kids club, lots of facilities and planned activities to keep you content, look elsewhere. But if you want to mellow out (with or without your kids) on a gorgeous beach, with wonderful food, excellent service and authentic decor – all at an exceptionally reasonable price - put Esencia on your list.