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Saturday 16 February 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Mexico - Cancun

Mexico is one those places that have always fascinated me - the delicious food, its Mayan heritage and architecture, and the upbeat nature and kindness of the many Mexicans I met in the UK over the years helped to pique my curiosity about the place.

In winter, the climate is warmer than in the UK wherever you stay, but Mexico City is rather chilly because of its high altitude. The Yucatan peninsula on the Caribbean is however reliably warm all year round, and that is where I headed for my first trip to Mexico. A number of people advised me to minimise my time in Cancun in favour of the more historic towns in the area.  However, most flights from the UK land in Cancun, and with an arrival just before midnight, I decided to stay a couple of nights to acclimatise.

Delicious Tostada - crispy tortillas, re-fried beans, shredded chicken, lettuce, goats cheese and red onions
Until the 1970s, Cancun was a deserted stretch of sand near the fishing village of Puerto Juarez. Mexico's planners, seeking to create a world-class beach resort for the country, poured vast sums of money into landscaping and infrastructure, creating a town with straight roads and drinkable water, and huge expanses of sandy beach.  Today, Cancun is a party city, with fine beaches, attracting over 4 million tourists from all over the world (but principally the USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and lately China).  A popular venue for stag-does, hen-nights and weddings, many visitors stay in all-inclusive resorts, and seldom stray more than a hundred metres from their hotel. But if what you are after is relaxation, warm weather, beautiful pools and beaches and good food and drink brought to you whenever you fancy it, Cancun has a lot to offer.

The city, rather like Miami, is split into a downtown area on the mainland, and a long beach which hosts the 'Zona Hotelera' where there are kilometres of all-inclusive resorts one after the other, with shopping  centres and a few restaurants dotted around.   

Where to Stay

Le Blanc Spa and Resort

Considered to be the most luxurious hotel in the Zona Hotelera, the Le Blanc Spa and Resort is where we decided to stay while in Cancun.  It has a minimalist and elegant white and cream decor befitting its name, creamy natural stone, and dark wood furniture.

A top, all-inclusive, adult only resort and a favourite location to couples on their honeymoon, it has infinity pools, a large spa, and boasts of having nearly one member of staff per guest allowing very personalised service. I can vouch for the service  - during our two days, the staff were extremely attentive and very friendly.

Our room was large and on two levels, with a small balcony overlooking the swimming pool and Gulf of Mexico, a massive and very comfortable king-size bed, and a large double jacuzzi. The decor was uncluttered and included all mod-cons like flat-screen TV, free Wifi and an iPod docking station and speakers. Unusually, both room-service food and the minibar are included in the tariff, the bar featuring bottles of wines, four 75cl bottles of spirits, mixers and an ice machine down the corridor so that you can enjoy a drink in your room. The bathroom has a range of posh Bulgari toiletries.

The hotel has a butler stationed on each floor and staff who can help you pack on check out day, as well as an army of waiters and waitresses who constantly offer to bring cocktails, wine, snacks and pretty much anything you need by the pool.

Overlooking the sea, the infinity pool is impressive and has a large bar from which cocktails may be sipped between a swim or two. The hotel has two other swimming pools in different locations, so there are always loungers available.

The white sandy beach along the front of the hotel is also stunning and very clean, the hotel has a large number of loungers, covered gazebos and wicker sofas and chairs throughout its private sea-front.

Where to Eat

Most restaurants in Cancun are based in hotels. Downtown Cancun has a few restaurants dating back as far as the 1970s when the city was founded, but authenticity is not high on the list of priorities.  There are many international, French and Italian restaurants in the city, but most claiming to be Mexican in fact serve 'Tex-Mex' adaptations of local dishes. Overall, while there is good food available in the city, if you are interested in finding excellent authentic national cuisine, Cancun is not a great place to start your gastronomic quest.  

We were highly recommended by locals to visit the nearby restaurant Hacienda El Mortero for its Mexican food and live Mariachi music (sombrero-wearing singers and guitarists). Having walked through a tacky neon-lit strip that felt like Las Vegas with a hangover, we arrived at the restaurant, and after a quick inspection decided to return instead to the hotel for dinner, concluding that this really isn't the best area for sampling Mexican food.

 Le Blanc Spa and Resort has 5 restaurants, including Mexican, International, French, Italian and Asian options as well as a great breakfast served until 11.30.
French Restaurant at Le Blanc

Steaks at International Restaurant at Le Blanc
Aquilino, the Mexican chef responsible for breakfast and lunch on the days we were there, took a shine to us in view of our interest in his food, and made a few special dishes for us.

Aquilino in action -preparing my motuleno

These included Motuleño (a Yucatan breakfast specialty of re-fried beans, fried egg, chilli sauce, ham cheese, peas and fried bananas on tortilla), and Tostada (re-fried beans, shredded chicken, lettuce, goats cheese, red onions on crispy taco).  They were both delicious, with fresh, crunchy textures and zingy flavours.

Chefs are willing to prepare local Mexican dishes on request. We had a good spread for one lunch, including Enchilladas (with chicken, green tomato sauce, habanero peppers and cheese), Cochinita (pork with red onion and habanero pepper sauce),  Chillaquiles (tortilla with chicken, green and red tomato sauce, coriander and onion, topped with a fried egg) and Chicken Fried Tacos (with refried beans, sour cream, chopped lettuce and green and red sauce).  We finished off with some nice crunchy, cinnamon-rich  Churros.

Fantastic Mexican spread prepared by Chef Aquilino - he is the man to know at Le Blanc!

The man himself - Aquilino!
Food is served virtually 24 hours a day in the restaurants (and there is literally 24 hour room service), with just a half hour break to turn around restaurants between breakfast, lunch and dinner. In my opinion, breakfast was the best meal of the day at Le Blanc - the buffets of fruit (very ripe and sweet), hot Mexican food, cheeses and cold meats, yoghurts and cereals of every type were a feast to the eye and the stomach!

Breakfast at Le Blanc Spa and Resort - best meal of the day!

What to Do

If you are into sunbathing, swimming, eating and drinking whilst barely needing to move from your lounger (and who doesn't enjoy a little of that now and then?) you'll be well catered for (and in great style) at Le Blanc Spa and Resort. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a day relaxing by the pool working my way through their long list of cocktails and bar snacks. There are also watersports easily available including water-skiing, paragliding and diving if you are feeling energised by all that sunshine.

The Le Blanc Spa and Resort offers a range of activities throughout the day, ranging from yoga, spin classes and  volleyball to wine and martini tastings. It also has, of course, a spa including the foot-nibbling fish which seem to be de rigueur these days, and access to a nearby golf course. There is also a massive gym with the latest exercise equipment.

Probably the most under-used gym in the world!
If preferred, it is possible to stay in Cancun and arrange day trips to the many interesting historic sites around the peninsula either independently or via the hotels.  At Le Blanc, these include the Mayan and Meso-American ruins at Chitchen-Itza (US$120 pp) Tulum (US$75pp), Coba (US$89pp). There are also options to take a day trip Isla Mujeres to swim with dolphins in a dolphinarium (US$129pp), as well as a boat trip to snorkel in the Nizuk reef (Us$89pp). We preferred to explore them in a more leisurely fashion after leaving Cancun.

Travel Essentials

Direct flights are available from Gatwick to Cancun with Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, currently starting at around £620 return.

Le Blanc Spa Resort
Blvd Kukulkan KM-10
Zona Hotelera / Hotel Zone
Quintana Roo, Mexico

Our hotel room's rate, which was an upgrade from the standard, but not the most luxurious, was £378 per night on the hotel's website, but Thomas Cook had the same room available for a week at £287 per night. This may sound steep, but bearing in mind that includes all accommodation, meals and alcoholic drinks for 2 people, it isn't as dear as it might seem.

It is a 25 minute taxi ride from the airport, and the hotel will arrange complimentary collection from there.

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