Guest contributors John and Sandra Nowlan visit two all-inclusive, sister properties in the resort town of Playa del Carmen in Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
It was a different kind of Mexican resort experience.
In the popular Riviera Maya area, just south of Cancun, most tourists, including ourselves, usually stay at an isolated and well-guarded beachside, all-inclusive resort. To go off the property one has to take a taxi or join a tour group.
This time, we stayed at two sister beach properties, both owned by Playa Resorts, across the street from each other within a five-minute walk from the center of Playa del Carmen and its Fifth Avenue shops. This 22-block, pedestrian-only thoroughfare is lined with restaurants, bars and aggressive merchants (the cries of “see my shop” and “almost free” rang out constantly). Prices and variety are better than at the Cancun airport.
Panama Jack Resorts Playa del Carmen
The first resort we visited was Panama Jack Resorts Playa del Carmen, a 287-room, all-inclusive property spread along a section of Playa del Carmen Harbor with its colorful fishing boats and several ferry shuttles to the island of Cozumel, directly across the water. The architecture was Mexican and Italian with very pleasing columns, arches and tiled floors.
The first room we were assigned to at Panama Jack was adjacent to the large swimming pool with lots of noise and speakers blaring loud music. We asked to relocate and they kindly moved us to an identical but much quieter room near the far end of the resort.
We were delighted with the view (palm trees and azure Caribbean water), the balcony (ideal for room service at breakfast) and the layout. It was spacious, clean and comfortable with adjustable AC, plenty of drawer space, a king size bed (with great reading lights) and a bathroom with a huge, marble shower. The flat-screen TV had many US and Mexican channels plus a good selection of movies.
Playa del Carmen recently experienced high surf, flooding and, unfortunately, serious erosion of its harbor beach. The result is a narrow beach at Panama Jack, too many rocks and poor swimming. The resort is trying to fix the problem with sandbags along the shore and, eventually, truckloads of fresh sand to restore the beach.
Our disappointment with the beach was more than balanced by the friendless of the staff at Panama Jack and the excellent culinary offerings. The Brazilian Steakhouse and Ventanas, the main buffet, were closed for renovations (scheduled to open later in 2018) but both Zarape (Mexican) and Bella (Italian) restaurants were open and were universally excellent.
One great meal featured a shrimp ceviche in a black volcanic bowl. Also, by the pool each evening, the resort offered a Mexican buffet of very tasty, authentic dishes. On one of our evenings, we enjoyed the Taco Festival with pork, slow-roasted in an underground oven, as well as beef and chicken tacos plus lots of salads and desserts. During the meal, a mariachi band entertained and then a dance troupe took the stage with traditional dances. A great evening!
The Royal Playa del Carmen
After three nights at Panama Jack, we moved across the street to The Royal Playa del Carmen, a much larger (513 rooms), adult-only resort that also had Mexican-Italian architecture. Built in 2004, it includes U-shaped buildings around the large pool and another long building separated by a park-like lawn. This quieter section was our home for two nights and, although the view of the sea was almost non-existent, our room was very comfortable and well-equipped. The set-up was very similar with an even larger bathroom, a double-Jacuzzi and a massive 55-inch Samsung TV. The small fridge contained beer and pop (replenished daily). But plenty of bars at the resort provided excellent draft Mexican beer and other drinks.
Best of all, the beach in front of the Royal seemed unaffected by erosion, was almost seaweed-free and was delightful for swimming. With a thousand guests, there did seem to be a shortage of recliners and beach umbrellas for shade from the hot sun.
Again, we were very impressed by the quality and attentiveness of the employees. They really did go out of their way to help. The spa was also excellent with a wide variety of extra-cost treatments. But the hydrotherapy circuit (three pools of different temperatures, a sauna and steam room) was free for all guests.
With a stay of just two days, we couldn’t sample all five a la carte restaurants and two buffets. For breakfast the first day, we tried the main buffet called Spice. Lots of good choices (both Mexican and American) but it was noisy and crowded. The second day we discovered the “quiet pool” and its adjacent El Mediterraneo restaurant where the buffet breakfast was equally satisfying but much more tranquil.
Dinner was a treat. Maria Marie is a large dining room with colorful Mexican murals on the walls. It’s promoted as “Mexican-French Fusion” and has an unusual, but outstanding menu. Particularly interesting were the Zucchini Blossom Crepes and the Beef Fillet with Fois Gras and Port Wine Reduction.
On our final night we tried the “Chef’s Table Gourmet”, the premium culinary experience at the Royal. It’s complimentary for guests in the larger suites but $US 89 for others. The chef uses top ingredients and an imaginative flair for a memorable five-course dinner, changing every day. Her Prosciutto with Melon Salad and Edible Flowers was almost too pretty to eat (but we did!) and her main dishes were equally interesting. We had hoped the fish would be Mexican but, unfortunately, imported salmon was the featured seafood. The restaurant was able to substitute sea bass and it was delicious. The wines offered were standard, inexpensive Spanish house wines used in the other restaurants. The restaurant would benefit by improving this aspect of an otherwise wonderful meal.
Later this year, Hilton will take over the Royal as one of its few worldwide properties to offer an all-inclusive experience. We’re told the staff will stay intact. That’s good news because at both Panama Jack and The Royal, the helpful, well-trained employees are key assets.
All photo credits: John and Sandra Nowlan
IF YOU GO
Note: Although we felt very safe in both of these Playa del Carmen resorts, caution and common sense should prevail, especially when strolling along 5th Avenue. As of 11/15/18, a U.S. State Department Travel Advisory for Quintana Roo state (which includes Cancun and Playa del Carmen) suggests that visitors exercise increased caution due to crime.
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