April 15 is approaching. Time to organize my notes and a pile of restaurant receipts, and as I do so, I take the opportunity to rank some of my most amazing meals and top new restaurant discoveries of 2013.
Ni was an unassuming Peruvian place we entered with limited expectations for lunch one rainy afternoon. We ended up spending a sublimely relaxing few hours sipping Pisco Sours while sampling a dozen dishes, like Piqueo Criollo, the classic Sudado de Pescado and a delicious ceviche with a coriander dressing.
Then there was Ramona, a minimalist spot on the water where I savored contemporary Mexican cuisine with dishes I still find difficult to pronounce: Tlacoyos, which is a masa cake stuffed with cheese and chicharrón that's simple and sublime; TikinXic, a traditional Mayan dish, delicious despite being made with hog fish; and Cochinillo Confitado, a confit of suckling pig.
The top Italian meal of the year was found at Terra Nostra, where I dined on divine fresh pasta with octopus and a wood-fired pizza topped with pork, cooked cochinita pibil-style. And by far my favorite bar of 2013 was A-Kan, where I sipped smoky Marca Negra Mescal, watched futbol on the silent TVs and admired the intricately designed walls and soaring ceilings.
Unfortunately, none of these restaurants are in OC. They're in Cancun, and all are at a single spot: Nizuc Resort & Spa.
Nizuc Resort and Spa is a rambling and beautiful beachfront property that includes 274 suites on 29 acres on the Yucatan Peninsula. The resort sits on land that was once a retreat for the President of Mexico – sort of an Eastern White House or Camp David – and it’s clear why. The property is on a beautiful stretch of white sand beach that, while only 15 minutes from the Cancun airport, has a sense of distance from the hotel zone a few minutes away.
Nizuc was originally going to be an Aman resort and was designed when the recession hit. Those familiar with the aesthetic will recognize the Aman’s touches that remain, but Nizuc is owned by the Las Brisas resort group of Mexico. They added Mayan design elements, local art and indigenous green elements to the final resort, which opened just over a year ago. The combination of aesthetics is stunning, with common areas that have the spare minimalism and soaring spaces of Aman, but made warm and more Mexican with art and interior design touches.
We spent four nights and five days in Cancun. It was only my second time in the area (the first time I swam with whale sharks off of Isla Holbox, among other adventures), and we never once left the grounds of the resort. I can sense my fellow jet-setters gasping. You flew across the continent to dine, drink and sleep-in every morning? Why?
Well, because I can, and because it was apparently what my body and psyche needed. And isn’t that what vacations are all about?
Adventure travel has been a trend for the past decade or two, and I'm an advocate of cultural tourism (hitting every museum, gallery and cathedral in town). Who doesn’t love to trace the history of a region by exploring pilgrimage routes like the Way of St. James, or every Mission in California with your fourth-grader?
But there’s also something to be said for sloth. For unplugging just enough to relax (but not so much that you stress), for sleeping well into the morning in a big bed with high-thread count sheets, drapes that black out every sliver of light and a do not disturb notice on the door, and the phone, don’t answer e-mail and switch your smart phone to dumb mode.
Drink in the morning, nap in the afternoon and eat, eat, eat all the time.
It’s hard to pick a favorite of the restaurants at Nizuc, but if pressed I’d likely go with Ramona. We filled up on appetizers, including Mexican-style gyoza with cochinita pibil and salsa Xnipec, tamales stuffed with foie gras, and pressed lobster with guajillo pepper sorbet. Next time I’ll definitely opt for the chef’s tasting menu, where we’d really see what the restaurant’s rising star chef Bladimir García can do.
We had breakfast each day at Café de la Playa, which has both buffet and a la carte offerings, and the buffet was about the only culinary element at the resort that didn’t blow us away. The food was way above buffet standards, but the ordered entrees were superior. We loved the Pan Asian cuisine at Indochine, where a chef from the Phillipines prepares everything from gourmet Malaysian dishes to sushi rolls.
Most days found us sitting by the main pool, or swimming up to the bar. We only had one really sunny day, but being from the coast, I can appreciate the appeal of gray days and tropical squalls, watching an osprey winging through the sky. I sat out one rainy hour afternoon at La Punta Grill & Lounge, a luxurious palapa-style restaurant by the adult pool that’s a remnant of when the property was the president’s. In the evening Bar A-Kan was the go-to pre-dinner ritual, where we tried every Mescal and Tequila the bartender suggested. And though we didn’t feel right putting a Cuban cigar on our tab, the Mojitos served at Havana Lounge are impressive.
We were on an all-inclusive package called Endless Indulgence, so we weren’t affected by (nor felt the need to run the numbers on) meals for two that regularly ran $2500 to $3000 pesos and more. It’s pricey, there’s no way around it (rooms average $750 per night). But this is the best of luxury travel.
The service at Nizuc matches and perhaps even exceeds what we’ve experienced at the best Mexican resorts we're familiary with on the West Coast, particularly Los Cabos. The staff uses the hand on the heart greeting many know from One and Only Palmilla, and it feels authentic and sincere.
One can chalk it up to the lower costs of labor that allow luxury properties like Nizuc to hire, train and retain large staffs. But there’s something more to it. Far be it from me to assign generalities to entire populations of people, but Mexican resorts generally provide excellent service. Smiles, and not snarls, are the rule. And Nizuc is a standout even in Mexico, offering service at a level that few resorts in the world reach.
There are adventures to be had and sites to visit along the Yucatan coast. Here are a few things we meant to do while in Cancun.
Mayan Museum :: The hotel zone in Cancun isn't all about hedonism. The musuem includes archeological artifacts from the nearby ruins and exhibits about the Mayan people.
Underwater Museum of Art :: Between Cancun and the nearyby Isla Mujeres are 400 sculptures submerged in shallow waters. It's an intriguing act of public art that has a purpose: drawing tourist divers away from damaged local reefs.
Isla Mujeres :: The Island of Women is a sanctuary of relative simplicity and beauty a few miles off the coast that was a sacred place of birth and health to Mayans.
Tulum :: An ancient city by the sea, the ruins include three main temples. Arrive before the tour buses, and bring a swimsuit.
El Camaleón :: Golfers can get their fix at this Greg Norman-designed18-hole Mayakoba resorts course 50 miles from Cancun.
Le Chique :: If you must dine outside of Nizuc, try the 14-course menu by an El Bulli-trained chef.
Nightlife :: The chic Ritz-Carlton Lobby Lounge sounds more our style, but an insider suggested Dady'O and Mandala Beach as places to sample the Cancun party scene.