On an island settled by Mayans and once favored by pirates, Casa Sandra Hotel is a newcomer among the mangroves and dolphins and flamingoes that grace its shores. The requisite jungle roadtrip and quaint ferry ride to Isla Holbox seem hardly enough effort for the unrivaled old–world Cuban cuisine that awaits at the proprietor's tables.
Two to four hours from Cancún, depending on the savvy of your driver, Isla Holbox is a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico, its seafoam–green waters shallow and calm and teeming with birds as well as the rare whale shark, a docile mammal that makes its appearance here in summer months. Many visitors agree to swim with them.
© Casa Sandra
Travelers who say a country with Cuban culture and Mexican food would be perfect can easily test their theories at Casa Sandra, a stately two–story affair filled with Cuban art and a kitchen offering sophisticated Cuban dining and cocktails on the Mexican sea.
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.
A main enticement is the inn's intimate restaurant. Cuban–bred chef Felix Diaz Rubio delivers the plates himself, managing to keep his crisp whites unblemished in the kitchen. Favorites are the picadillo (a ground beef), camarones in red sauce, and grilled lobster with a side of mojo that would pass muster by even the most exacting Cuban home cooks.
The restaurant's ambitious dinner plates are available at lunchtime as well––a good thing, considering the vast menu. A wine list includes offerings from Europe and Latin America, as well as western Mexico's own burgeoning vineyards. Casa Sandra's cocktails are made with Cuban rum and its mojitos are proportioned in the strict Havana standard.
Mexican food is also a specialty at Casa Sandra, though the chef knows better than to fuse the clashing cuisines. Ceviche and guacamole are available all day, and best eaten while lounging in beachside daybeds under palm–thatched palapas and cuddling with the resident Chihuahua, a mischievous beauty named Havana.
Cuban proprietor Sandra Pérez Lozano, the hotel's young 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 sea views––range from simple to deluxe suites with king–sized beds and down–feathered comforters and 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 soaps, oils, shampoos, and lip balm are the design of its proprietor and bear the Casa Sandra label. For the best quarters, request Suite10 or maestro Milanes's room, El Ilusión.
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.
The hotel provides the island's only spa 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 are to nearby swimming holes, known as cenotes, or for rare–bird watching along uninhabited shores. The hotel can arrange transportation to and from Cancún.
Non–Spanish speakers will have to ask bilingual staff to translate the hotel's written materials. Some staff members speak only rudimentary English; it's advised to carry a dictionary and learn key Spanish phrases.
Casa Sandra's remoteness and unexpected luxury amid what is reminiscent of the old Florida Keys, before mass tourism, is its essential charm. But that remoteness and lack of connectivity could wear thin after four or five days.
Web Address: www.CasaSandra.com
Total Number of Rooms: 14
Published rates: $155 to $315
Review by Lisa Wixon, photos by Lisa Wixon except where indicated.
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