On a car–free island settled by Mayans and once favored by pirates, Casa Sandra Hotel is the original luxury resort here and still stands out for its great location and unrivaled blend of Mexican and old–world Cuban cuisine that awaits at the proprietor's tables.
After riding two or more hours from Cancun (:unless you arrive by charter plane), you board a ferry to the Isla Holbox sleepy fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. Its seafoam–green waters are shallow and calm, teeming with pelicans, penguins, and other sea birds. Offshore excursions head out to swim with the rare whale shark, a docile mammal that makes its appearance here in summer months.
The main hotel, both elegant and rough–hewn, is flanked by suites and guesthouses with hunky beds swathed in luxury linens. Orange and pink cloth flutters in doorways and hammocks unfurl on balconies, inviting one to do very little. There are also beds for lounging right in front of the hotel and on the beach, where lounge chairs also beckon and a waiter will fetch your drink of choice.
If the wind kicks up or the sun gets too hot next to the waist–depth sea, the pool here offers some protection and shade. It is enclosed in the interior courtyard of the hotel, the water surrounded by places to lounge and read a book.
The Cuban owner mixes the best of her own country with the best of the Yucatan in both the design and the menus. The hotel is filled with items from her Cuban art collection and eclectic antiques. There's a fitting playfulness to it all though, with steamer trunks for coffee tables and lamps fashioned out of utilitarian items like old sewing machines. On the beach, the bar has lights fashioned from metal buckets and serves up fun tropical cocktails, many made with Havana Club rum.
© Casa Sandra
When it comes to dining, however, inside or out, the cuisine is sophisticated and complex. The air–conditioned indoor dining restaurant Esencia draws a steady stream of foodies, travel writers, and chefs as its fame extends far beyond the island. The menu at dinner makes use of the abundant seafood in the region, including lobster, but also includes some favorites from Havana and some Yucatecan specialties with a twist. Once a week there’s a Cuban night with live music, a more focused menu, and mojitos. The other nights, Latin jazz provides the atmosphere.
© Sandra Scott
The restaurant's ambitious dinner plates are available at lunchtime as well — a good thing, considering the vast menu. A wine list includes a few offerings from Europe and Latin America, but has more of a focus on western Mexico's own vineyards. Ceviche and guacamole are available all day. Breakfast under shade umbrellas outside is the most elegant on the island, with classical music playing and dressed–up versions of chiliquiles and huevos al gusto served with style.
Sandra Pérez Lozano, the hotel's founder and former wife of one of her country's great composers, Pablo Milanés, built the hotel in 2002 as a haven for artists. By day she writes poetry and at night dons lovely dresses to visit with customers and pour wine. Once the sun melts into the Gulf of Mexico, the hotel is alit in candles.
Rooms — all with at least a partial sea view — range from simple to deluxe suites with king–sized beds and down–feathered comforters, a range of pillows, and sheets with thread counts in the high three figures. Bathrooms are decorated in Mexican tiles, and sport lush towels and thick robes. High–quality organic soaps, oils, shampoos, and lip balm are the design of its proprietor and bear the Casa Sandra label. There are no TVs or radio alarm clocks to spoil the mood here, though there is Wi–Fi throughout in a nod to those who must stay connected to business. For the most quarters, request the master suite or La Villa two–bedroom apartment.
© Casa Sandra
Because of the island's fragile eco–system, the hotel is conscious of its environmental impact. For guests this means sheets are not changed daily unless requested, though there is turndown service each evening.
The hotel provides one of the island's few spas, with a range of massages, reflexology, and reiki. Yoga classes may be arranged.
The island's tranquility is partly attributed to the ban on cars and trucks; golf carts remain the ride of choice, and are available for rental at the hotel. Also easily arranged are boating tours to nearby swimming holes, known as cenotes, or for rare–bird watching along uninhabited shores. This is the closest upscale hotel to town though, which is a few minutes’ walk away. The hotel can arrange transportation to and from Cancun.
Non–Spanish speakers will have to ask bilingual staff to translate some of the hotel's written materials, though the level of English proficiency among staffers has improved as the island has become better–known and attracted more foreign tourists.
Casa Sandra's remoteness and unexpected luxury amid what is reminiscent of the old Florida Keys, before mass tourism, is its essential charm. Just don't come here looking for action and nightlife. Come here to unwind and get away from it all, but with sophisticated cuisine to accompany your relaxation.
Web Address: www.CasaSandra.com
Total Number of Rooms: 14
Published rates: $220 to $490 BB
Original Review by Lisa Wixon, updates and photos by Timothy Scott except where indicated.
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