Boulevard Kukulcan Km 12.5, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Finally reopened in early 2008 after the recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Wilma, the self–consciously hip Aqua Cancun brings a new level of style to the resort city. And it backs up its style with substance, such as excellent restaurants and an expanse of swimming pools.
[Editor's note: this hotel converted to an all-inclusive at the end of 2010. We hope to have an updated review in the near future, but word is that little will change besides the rates and how you are billed.]
Aqua Cancun's parent company is better known for its Fiesta Americana hotels, high–end business–friendly properties in Mexico and South America. Originally built in 2005 but shut by storm damage shortly after, the Aqua is such a departure in style that it's the flagship of a new resort brand. It doesn't aim fully for the luxury bracket, but has some great details and is already a hit with wealthier Latin American vacationers.
The semicircular white building, accented with green glass, soars above the beach at a prime spot in Cancun's hotel zone––out of the fray of the major bar–and–club area, but walking distance to good shopping and sleeker nightspots. Caftan–clad staff (attentive, if still a bit unpolished in the month just after opening) welcome new arrivals and whisk them to overstuffed sofas in the lobby area for check in. The soaring space of this area is nothing compared with the view out the floor–to–ceiling windows: an elaborate network of eight swimming pools, all fronting the incomparably blue Caribbean––easily the most lavish pool area in the city. (Down at water's edge, though, the beach is still a bit narrow, an effect of the hurricane that has yet to be fully repaired. It is, however, in much better shape than some of its neighbors'.)
Perhaps because the outdoor space is so appealing, the designers felt they could limit the size of the rooms. Up to the suite level, they feel a bit cramped, though they do have large sunken bathtubs and carefully placed mirrors that help expand the space. For this reason, Aqua's more discerning clientele just make a beeline for one of the 36 suites––even the smallest one is 762 square feet. These have private terraces, outdoor showers and space for massages and other spa treatments. Mod Italian lamps and dark–wood furniture don't break any new ground in décor, but they're perfectly attractive. The real key in selecting a room, though, is to request one closer to the center of the building, rather than along the outer edges of the two wings––this way you'll avoid a view of the Aqua's neighbors, both of which were construction sites as of early 2008, and were likely to be so for a good year to come. (Fortunately, though, the lots are far enough apart that noise isn't much of an issue.)
Another reason to spend time away from your room: Aqua's restaurants. At MB, the hotel harnessed the talents of Michelle Bernstein, who earned a name for herself in Miami combining the gutsiest flavors from all over the globe. The menu features garlicky Spanish–style shrimp, perfectly succulent house–made fettuccine with even more garlic, and even a Thai seafood treatment. It may be all over the map, but it's cooked with confidence and a care that's still rare in Cancun.
The second restaurant, Siete, features Martha Ortiz. She is the current star of Mexico City's hot dining scene, and is the first to bring really ambitious alta cocina (haute Mexican cuisine) to Cancun. She doesn't succeed quite as well as Bernstein does, but there are some hits on the menu (anything with duck confit, and a delicate mushroom broth), and it's a superbly stylish setting, amid giant pillars adorned with mosaic portraits of Mexican pop icons like Cantinflas and Diego Rivera.
Drinks get special attention too, with a surprisingly good wine list––a small but thoughtful selection of the best Mexican bottles, as well as some from Argentina, Chile, France and Italy. You can also sample an amazing selection of mescals in the library–like lounge, or head upstairs to the clubbier space, a glass box glowing with moody red lights. A house DJ spins a mix of hipper electronica––again, probably some of the best in Cancun.
Odd for a new design–conscious hotel, the spa seems to have not received the same attention as the rest of the property. Its dim, candlelit treatment rooms are a respite from the sun, but both the space and the treatments seem somewhat uninspired. One unique touch, though, is the tai chi program––there's a morning beachfront practice six days a week, plus other classes available at different times.
Although it's no match for the Ritz–Carlton Cancun in terms of luxury service and amenities, the Aqua Cancun does trump its main competitor in the "hip hotel" class, Le Blanc, in every respect but its spa. More important, though, it feels like a truly grown–up hotel, and that's a welcome change for Cancun.
Web Address: www.feel-aqua.com
Total Number of Rooms: 371
Published rates: $602 to $2,889
Review and photos by Zora O'Neill.