CancÃºn, Mexico By Jinny VanDeusen
Why Go: CancÃºn was created, literally, to be the ultimate beach destinationâwhich is why most people love it, but also why many travelers are wary of it. Originally home to Mayans centuries ago, the area was almost entirely uninhabited until the early 1970s, when the Mexican government began developing a money-making tourism hub there. Over the past 30-plus years, the â7â-shaped island, connected to the mainland and CancÃºn City by two bridges, has become a bustling string of beachfront hotels, referred to as the Hotel Zone. And we mean bustling: An estimated 3 million people visit the Hotel Zone every yearâso weâre not talking about an undiscovered paradise. Still, itâs hard to argue with translucent blue waters, white sands, and access to Mayan ruins. The challenge is finding a good spot to stay.
Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n offers a great combination: everything youâd want in terms of beach, dining and activities, but at a distance from the churning tourist machine. The resort was an early arrival in the Hotel Zone, originally opening in 1976, but it took a beating during Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. In November 2006, the resort re-opened, looking, well, distinctly younger.
The $24-million renovation made the resortâs accommodations more spacious and up-to-date. Half of the 384 rooms, and all 18 suites, were expanded, and a Parisian design firm gave the rooms a contemporary spin on traditional Mexican dÃ©cor. Accommodations are comfortable rather than luxurious, but overall the resort delivers an upscale experience. The revamp also added the Jade Villa building, where guests can get room service, a private car from the airport and niceties such as laundry service and fresh flowers. There is also a new emphasis on the Yucatan setting: menus have been updated (including local wines) and the resort now offers culturally- and environmentally aware excursions. Perhaps most important, the resort shifted from being couples-only to a family-friendly destination that welcomes kids, with a special emphasis on those from 4 to 10.
Like at all Club Med villages, staffers are known as GOs (short for âgentils organisateurs,â or âgracious organizersâ), guests are called GMs (âgracious membersâ), and the all-inclusive, egalitarian vibe encourages easy socializing between staff and guests, as well as an active, outdoorsy routine. (For more on Club Medâs history, see our review of Club Med Sandpiper.)
Our correspondent, Jinny Mansfield, and her family arrived with few preconceived notions, having never visited a Club Med before. (âThe fact itâs a well-known, established brand was a positive, so I was interested to see what it was like. I was looking forward to some good beach time and family time, and warm weather.â) Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n delivered on just that, thanks to a generous-sized beach and plenty of activities for her two kids, Kate, 9, and Jack, 7. That the resort was an all-inclusive was key. (âWith kids itâs even more of a selling point becauseâat least with my kidsâthereâs always someone hungry or thirsty at random times. And itâs nice to be able to take advantage of so many activities without having to pay for each, which would add up quickly.â)
They also appreciated that the environment was laid-back and understated. (âIt was not an overtly kid-centric resort with life-size cartoon characters walking around. Kids are welcomed and included but not at the expense of making adults feel like theyâre enduring a theme park.â) Best of all, between the beach and myriad grown-up activitiesâsnorkeling, kayaking, tennis, and exercise classesâthere truly is something for everyone. (âThe biggest thing Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n has going for it is that it offers a resort vacation with plenty of things to do.â)
Getting Oriented: The 14-mile CancÃºn Hotel Zone stretches down the YucatÃ¡n coastline like a â7,â with the Club Med CancÃºn sitting near the bottom. Thatâs a huge plus: It feels distinctly out of the Hotel Zoneâs congestion, even on the beach. (âNo noise, no craziness.â)
The 22-acre, horseshoe-shaped resort is comprised of low-slung, modern-looking buildings, up to three stories high and painted alternately in white or bright colors; a picturesque lagoon sits in the compoundâs center. As you round the curve upon entering the resort, you pass the eight-court tennis center and the Jade Villa. At the end of the horseshoe is the reception building and the resortâs hub, where youâll find two of the three restaurants, the theater, pool, beach and most of the guest rooms.
The resort is less than 5 miles, or a 15-minute ride, from CancÃºn International Airport. Thereâs no free shuttle, but you can book one for about $13 per person. Since the transportation area at CancÃºnâs airport can be both crowded and confusing, itâs a good idea to book your transfers (through Club Med or your travel agent) before you leave home. As an alternative, you could take a taxiâabout $45 one-wayâbut a cab fills up fast with kids and bags.
Getting Around: A big reason families choose an all-inclusive is so that they can stay put and soak up the food and atmosphere, so a car isnât necessary at Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n. If you choose to take a day trip, the resort offers 17 excursions, many with a distinctly eco-tourism bent, such as swimming with dolphins, visiting archeological site Chichen Itza or snorkeling in Cozumel. Seven-day packages to Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n include a free excursion to the archaeological site El Meco. Otherwise, excursions range from $15 to $135 per person. Outings are offered on specific days, so itâs a good idea to check the excursion schedule soon after you arrive to help schedule your time during your stay.
On Day 4 of their stay, the Mansfields went to eco-theme park Xcaret, but instead of joining an excursion group, they rented a car for about $75 a day from the resortâs on-site Thrifty counter (âWe ended up doing it on our own because of how our schedule worked out,â Jinny said âand because we had purchased Xcaret tickets before the trip.â) Even so, Jinny found the staff at the Discovery Center, the resortâs excursion office, very helpful about explaining the details of each trip. Note: Seven excursionsâincluding Chichen Itza, biosphere Sian Kaâan and the deep-sea fishing tripâhave a minimum age of 12.
If you want to explore the immediate environsâthe rest of the Hotel Zoneâs shopping or restaurants on the more northern end of the â7ââyou can get a cab, or even catch the bus that runs along the strip. The hitch: From Club Med, you have to walk up the beach and cut through the Westin, the next hotel north, to get that bus. (âI donât think the bus is worth it: inexpensive but crowded, and with kids in tow I wouldnât want to be schlepping up the beach and through the Westin!â)
We Are Family: During her November visit, Mansfield estimated that about half her fellow guests had come with kids, ranging from infants to early teens.
For children 3 and under, Club Med CancÃºn doesnât have an organized program, but it does offer services such as in-room babysitting (about $15 an hour), as well as complimentary amenities such as high chairs, bottle-warmers and baby food.
For kids 4 to 10, however, there is great program. Mini Club Med is free and runs daily from 9am to 9pm, with a break for dinner. Activities include tennis, crafts, story time, swimming, beach time, piÃ±atas, and a trampoline and trapeze (the latter being a trademark part of Club Medâs âcircus schoolsâ found at some of its resorts). The evening programs tend to carry themes. For example, one evening during the Mansfieldsâ stay, the 8- to 10-year-olds did a version of âThe Amazing Race,â while the 4- to 7-year-olds had a mini-car race.
According to Club Medâs brochure and web site, kids are supposed to be broken out into tight age groups of 4 to 5, 6 to 7, and 8 to 10. If relatively few children are staying at the resort, however, the groupings might be larger. When the Mansfields were there, for example, there was just one group for ages 4 to 7. (âThat works well, unless your kids are at the north end of those groupsâbut even then it depends on how many other kids are in the group.â) During their stay, Mansfield estimated that there were about six to eight kids in each group on any given day.
Kate and Jack participated in Mini Club Med a total of six times and, overall, they liked it. Nine-year-old Kateâthe oldest in her groupâgot bored at times, like when the tennis clinic featured a two-foot net and oversized balls. (âJack seemed to have a blast, as evidenced by his desire to go back on another day.â)
Compared to counselors sheâs encountered at other resorts, Mansfield was impressed with what she saw at Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n. (âI thought the counselors were goodâsome very good. Did they have the jovial, wrap-you-up, almost instinctive kid-warmth of some resorts? No. But they were fun with the kids, encouraging and engaging.â)
For kids 11 to 17, the offerings are pretty spotty. In theory, the teen club, âPassworld,â is open daily from 9:30am to 10pm with a dinner break. But the club only operates during school holidays such as Christmas or winter break (and, the resort spokesperson says, when more than 10 teen guests are staying at the resort). Passworld was closed during the Mansfieldsâ November stay. We would prefer to see this group broken down into two smaller age ranges, since it can be particularly intimidating for preteens to socialize with high-school kids. This can be especially true where a teen program is fairly unstructured, as is the case at Club Med. The groupâs main hangout is an open-air area next to the pool, called the Car Wash; when open, the program also offers excursions such as an eco-tour or a day trip to a Wet ânâ Wild waterpark. As an alternative, teens can sign up for the resortâs popular daily events (some are 12-and-up only) such as beach soccer or water polo. Teens can also check out the âMaya Loungeâ in the hub area, which has a Ping-Pong table and a pool table but, for better or worse, no video games.
There are three pools at this Club Med village. Within the kidsâ club area, there are two small (10ft x 10ft) pools used for water play.
The main pool, in the resortâs hub area, is open from 9am to 7pm. It ranges from three to six feet deep. The pool is a bit tough to manage with little ones. Thereâs just one small entry, with a few steps that are not shallow enough for safe water play. Mansfield noticed that most parents of small tots ended up holding their kids while they stood in the pool. There are no life jackets or swim aids available, but guests can bring them if their children arenât strong swimmers. There were two lifeguards on duty when Mansfield visited. The pool had neither diving boards nor slides, but some kids brought toys to dive for. (âThere were also organized activities in the pool most daysâincluding rousing games of water poloâso the atmosphere never felt stuffy. We never felt like the kids had to be overly quiet.â)
There is beverage service at the poolside bar, as well as a small table with snacks during happy hour. The pool bar even offers non-alcoholic cocktails for kids. (âKate said that there was nothing quite so heavenly as sipping her non-alcoholic piÃ±a colada while lounging poolside reading Harry Potter.â) Except for peak pool times (mid-morning and mid-afternoon) the Mansfields had no problem finding enough free lounge chairs. At the corner of the pool deck overlooking the lagoon, you can also relax in a portico filled with giant pillows, or an outdoor lounge area with canopy-draped chaises. (âJust make sure you hang onto the âtowel cardsâ included with your room folio. Towel attendants will give you one towel per card you hand them. No card, no towel. When you return your towels at the end of the day, you get your cards back.â)
The Mansfields spent more than half of their time on the beach (âWe couldnât get enough of the view of the spectacular waterâpictures truly donât do it justice.â) As a bonus, the sand is made up of crushed coral, which remains cool even on very hot days (âand eliminates the sprint from lounge chair to waterâ). Club Medâs beach is wider than at the hotels further north along the coast, and buffered on the southern end by a rock jetty thatâs fun to explore. (âJack met a few lizards out there.â) From the jetty, the beach sweeps up the coast of the â7â and eventually narrows until thereâs no more room to walk. Mansfield and her family made the 20-minute walk many times during their stay. (âThe nearest hotel, the Westin, is a 5-minute walk up the beach, but it doesnât feel too close.â)
Beach lounge chairs are plentiful and complimentary, and drink servers often appear to offer beverages. It was very windy during the Mansfieldsâ visit, which made for plenty of waves. (âThere was some surf, but nothing our kids couldnât handle. Younger ones, though, would have had a tough time.â) Lifeguards stationed along Club Med beach kept a watchful eye on swimmers. GOs also circulated through the chairs, chatting with GMs and recruiting for activities such as beach volleyball.
A Club Med hallmark is its roster of free watersports, and this property doesnât disappoint. The Mansfields went sea kayaking (âFun, but itâs not as though you can paddle for miles. Youâre limited to an area right off the beach.â) At the beach, guests can choose from kayaking, windsurfing, and snorkeling. At the lagoon, thereâs waterskiing (âcomplete with the alligator disclaimer!â). Note: Though watersports are free, thereâs a one-time, nominal ($2US) reef conservation fee. There are also minimum ages for some activities.
Overall, this resort does a good job at appealing not just to kids, but to the entire family. When Kate and Jack were with their peers in Mini Club Med, their parents were able to spend time kayaking, playing tennis, and enjoying open-air dining. (âWe really liked the fact that it didnât shut down at 9pm, that it couldâand did, oftenâfeel like a âgrown-upâ vacation, and that it had an international flavor.â)
Where to Eat: The food at Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡n is both delicious and plentifulâa huge relief when you have booked an all-inclusive vacation. The resort has three restaurants, all tempting but with slightly different schedules and styles.
La Hacienda offers three buffet-style meals, with good service, four brightly decorated dining rooms and great lagoon views. High chairs and boosters are easy to come by. Dinners each night has a different themeâMexican, sushi, Frenchâand the Mansfieldsâ only complaint was that the dinner service, which begins at 7:30pm, could be a bit late for the kids. The food offerings kept everyone happy, from adventurous eater Kate to slightly pickier Jack, who frequented the ample kid-friendly choices like pasta, chicken fingers and the like.
The other two restaurants are smaller, and perhaps slightly more adult-oriented. La Pergola, located near the reception building, is open for late breakfast, as well as for late lunch or snacks (from 4pm to 7pm) and evening tapas. The open-air Las Cazuelas, meanwhile, focuses exclusively on Mexican fare. It offers a late-lunch buffet and reservations-only dinner. Tip: Make dinner reservations soon after you check in.
Nightlife: Evenings are a fun time at Club Med. Some options are grown-up, such as dancing in the nightclub next to La Pergola. There are also family-friendly events, such as concerts with live bands, dance parties and screenings of movies, such as âZorro.â (âThe area buzzes with activity well into the night.â) One evening during the Mansfieldsâ stay, a âMexico Nightâ featured several local vendors selling jewelry, pottery and toys, as well as CancÃºnâs omnipresent hair-braiding ladies. (âThe vendors were a big hit with the kids, but most of the items are available farther up the Hotel Zone for less money.â)
When parents want a romantic dinner for two, Club Med has them covered with two childcare options. For kids 4 and up, the evening Kids Club runs from 7pm to 9pm. Kids get dinner (parents can help little ones get situated), followed by an activity. For instance, on Fridays the attendees can have their faces painted, then take part in a âgraduation ceremony.â (âJack showed up painted as Spiderman, and it took me 30 minutes to remove it! So if you donât travel with industrial strength make-up remover, caution your kids to go light on the face-painting.â)
Another option: You can hire a local, certified babysitter through the resort (9pm-midnight; $17/first hour; $15 for each additional hour).
Where to Stay: There are three levels of accommodations: Club rooms (which have partial views of the ocean or lagoon), deluxe rooms (which have full views of ocean or lagoon, plus balconies) and suites (which also have full views and balconies).
The Mansfields had a two-bedroom oceanfront suite on the second floor of the Topacio building. (âThe level of comfort was mid-rangeâjust fine for beach accommodations.â) Each room had bright accent walls painted red, fuchsia and orange, as well as dark tile flooring and dark-wood furniture. The sitting area featured a small purple couch, coffee table, a wall-mounted flatscreen TV, and a small refrigerator. Three closets offered plenty of storage. Sliding doors led to a balcony, with a chair and a small bench. (âWhile we had to keep the sliders closed at times when the wind brought in sand, we always had the drapes open because we couldnât get enough of the stunning view.â) There was a king bed in the master bedroom and two twins in the kidsâ room. The bathrooms were on the small side, with a lack of counter space. (âIf the four of us were sharing one room, it would have been a big drag.â)
The Mansfields especially appreciated that Topacio was a three-minute walk to the pool, kidsâ club area, restaurants, and the beach. (âI loved our locationâvery easy.â) The Obsidiana building has a similar proximity to the beach and the main hub of the resort. The Turquesa building sits closer to the pool areaâbut that means it could also be noisier. The Jade building is furthest away from the action, and therefore probably the quietest. (âBut itâs also a definite walk to the actionâto my mind, a minus if youâve got kids.â) Likewise, a room on the second or third floors pumps up your view, but may not be worth it if you have strollers and gear to tote on a daily basis.
Note: Many rooms at Club Med CancÃºn have bathrooms with showers but no tubs. If your kids are bath-takers, you can request such a room when you book. Cribs and rollaways are available for free if you call the reception area. Internet access is available for $10 an hour.
Price Tag: Club Medâs all-inclusive rates include room, all meals and most activities. (âThere really werenât any hidden costs.â) Prices for extrasâexcursions, rental car, and items in the gift boutiqueâare reasonable. A family of four paying full price on a one-week stay during peak season would spend $9,100, before airfare. Kids rates are discounted: Little kids 2 to 3 pay just 30% of the adult rate, while kids 4 to 15 pay 50%. Rates at the more upscale Jade Villa are slightly higher.
The good news: Itâs almost never necessary to pay full price at Club Med. There always seem to be online specials, which bring rates way down. At press time, for instance, we found these deals:
- If youâre a family of at least four, traveling during certain dates between April 26 and October 31, the 7-Night Family Escapes start at $1,000 per person.
- Look for âShort Stay Specialsâ for 3-, 4- and 5-night stays, starting at $333 per adult for three nights, and half off that for each kid.
- Register on Club Medâs web site to get news of promotions sent directly to your email addressâan easy way to pre-plan your trip.
- Be sure to book your airport transfers, through Club Med or your travel agent, before you go.
- Itâs hard to pry yourself away from the pool and beach, but Club Med CancÃºn YucatÃ¡nâs eco-minded excursions are worth a day trip or two.
- Stay in Topacio or Obsidiana buildings for a balance of low noise and easy access.
- Request that your room have a bathroom with a tub if itâs important to you.
- Youâll find cheaper souvenir shopping off the propertyâsuch as in Hotel Zone open-air markets.
- Pack Ziploc bags for collecting shells