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The following story I wrote appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press only a couple of months ago.

While we put all my stories and columns in our main site at www.journeystravel.com since we are here again I thought it worth publishing on the blog as well.

I hope you enjoy it.

CALL IT PLAYA…THE BEACH AND MORE

Sport fishing boats dock on the beach as the sun starts to go down. A fisherman tosses leftover bait to wide-mouthed pelicans, necks stretched out for the feast. A local restaurant owner bargains with the captain for tonight’s Catch of the Day special. A crew member fillets a large fish on the sand for a waiting customer.

Fisherman tosses bait to waiting pelicans.

What makes this idyllic scene unique is that only a couple of hundred metres behind all of this, hotel properties can almost hold hands with each other as the guests who have not gathered round to gawk, watch from the beaches and pool sides.

This is my first trip to Play del Carmen and I am fascinated by this blend of traditional, old Mexico and the city’s emerging role as the centre of the Mayan Riviera hotel expansion.

It is still a small city, with less than a hundred thousand people, but it definitely has its attractions, one of them being that it still carries the feeling that it is more of a Mexican community than a tourist centre.

The main street for tourists, Fifth Avenue, runs just beyond the beach and the hotel side streets. No one seems to really know how the first street from the beach came to be named Fifth Avenue. But anyone who gets to Playa del Carmen quickly learns how to find it.

It is the pedestrian corridor in this quaint Mexican community that is the gathering stroll for vacationers who choose to take time away from the dozens of resorts that dot the Mayan Riviera.

Sunset over the palm trees and thatched palapas casts a relaxing glow.

Shops, restaurants, and nightclubs flow from one to the other all along this singularly commercial street.

During the day the street appears quiet and serene, with shop owners enticing you inside to view their goods. At night, the avenue transforms into a kaleidoscope of music, aromas, and colour, with enough interest in what the shops are displaying that no barkers are needed to bring customers through the open entrances.

Sun and sand, as always, are the common denominators that attract us to Mexican destinations. Both are in plentiful supply in Playa del Carmen.

For many, sand is a place to lay out our blankets or just relax on our beach chairs for hours. But here, the sand offers enough firmness for fitness enthusiasts to walk for hours as well, if they so wish.

From morning until nightfall, there seems to be no end to the walkers who appear to thrive on burning off some of their all-inclusive calories, by going back and forth on this expansive beachfront.

Only a few hundred metres away, ferries make a number of trips loaded with day tourists going to and from Cozumel.

Smaller boats, filled with scuba divers, head out to some of the best dive waters in the Caribbean.

Crash course training is available for the novice willing to be satisfied with a 30 foot dive. But it is certified divers from around the world that fill the boats going out to view some of the most impressive underwater caverns and caves anywhere.

After taking the crash divers course on the barrier reef during my first trip to Australia a few years ago, I loved it so much, I was determined to become certified as well.

With some degree of regret, as I watch the camaraderie of divers leaving and returning from their dives, I wonder if this time, I will follow through with that promise for next year. On this trip however, I am not ready to be satisfied with a shallow dive, experiencing only a part of the discoveries I hear the others excitedly relate to each other.

At the same time, my consolation prize is not that bad. This is a beautiful beach to sit on, while sipping rum and Coke or a margarita.

These are postcard beaches. Blue green sea punctuated by the occasional boat or cruise ship passing. It truly does quell the racing mind, for a while at least.

Vacationers are presented with a postcard view everyday.

While my wife can absorb the sun for a good part of the day, I need to be on the go.

I choose to spend a couple of my days on the golf course that hosts the only recognized PGA Golf Tour event in Mexico. The Mayakoba Golf Classic will go into only its fourth anniversary in February, but it seems to have carved its place into the early PGA tour schedule, with many of the top pros choosing to come back year after year.

The El Camaleon Golf Club, and nearby Mayakoba Resort, are both managed by the Fairmont hotel group. The course itself, designed by Greg Norman, is kept in exceptional shape.

Norman created a course tough enough to test the tour pros, but built with enough alternate tee locations to make it playable for the average golfer.

What makes playing Mayakoba most interesting is the change of landscape that confronts you as you move from hole to hole. From jungle, to oceanfront, to dense mangroves; there is always something to impress the vision, while challenging your play.

Guests of the Fairmont can be carried to the first tee on one of the boats that flows along the canals that wind through the golf course. Norman was also able to incorporate a massive ancient cavern, called a Cenote, common in this part of Mexico, into the opening fairway as an unusual, and unexpected challenge should your first tee shot be off line.

Back at the resort, we are ready for another exceptional dining experience.

We shared our stay at two side by side beachside resorts, The Royal Resort and the Gran Porto Real, two of the Real resort properties, a group of 4 and 5 star hotel properties in both Playa del Carmen and Cancun. In the heart of Playa del Carmen, our resorts front on some of the best sand on the Mamitas beach.

Earlier this spring, The Royal was upgraded even above its five star status, when it was given the International Star Diamond Award by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

The Royal Resort is one of the resort properties in Mexico that represent part of a growing trend towards more gourmet food options, within the all inclusive environment.

At the Chef’s Plate, a different menu is prepared every day. The Pelicanos, overlooking the beach, offers a variety of fresh seafoods. If you are staying at the Royal Resort, you also have access to another ten restaurants situated on the property and at the Gran Porto. You could go almost an entire week, trying out different menus, before having to repeat a restaurant.

After dinner on most evenings, we were attracted back to Fifth Avenue. It is here where the personality of Playa del Carmen and the entire Mayan Riviera become fused.

The avenue itself is wide enough not to be crowded very often, while the streets that run off it also hold interesting places to explore, dine or shop.

There are hotels and resorts in Playa del Carmen to suit every price range. We found being in the town itself a distinct advantage when we wanted to go out in the evenings.

Playa del Carmen is becoming a centre of expansion activity along the Mayan Riviera.

Even though we often stay at all-inclusive resorts, we also like to try other restaurants in the area, at least a couple of times during most vacations. In Playa del Carmen, it was especially fun finding a restaurant along Fifth Avenue that we believed featured the kinds of fish taken from the boats we saw being unloaded hours earlier.

If you Go:

What to Do: Be sure to take a day trip to Tulum and/or the Xcaret Eco Park. We visited them on a previous visit, and they were both worthwhile excursions.

The ruins at Tulum go back as far as the 6th century, while the Eco Park is an educational adventure for the entire family.

It’s a bit of a trip by motor coach at over an hour each way, but for shopping on a broader scale, plan a day tour to Cancun as well. If you do, you will appreciate the contrast between the large and small in Mexican resort communities.

Fishing enthusiasts can easily find a number of options for sport fishing as well.

Where to Stay:The two Real properties we were at were excellent, but there are others in and near Playa del Carmen that are also worth considering.

The Royal Hideaway Playacar and the Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso are two highly recommended 5 star hotels. The Marina El Cid Spa and Beach Resort is a 4 star property vacationers seem to like.