Retorno del Rey No. 36, Cancún, Mexico
Now an older kid on the block, The Ritz-Carlton Cancun still impresses with traditional, old-fashioned glitz and glamour geared to those who still want that at the beach as well. Gleaming facilities, food and drink, and outstanding service are hard to fault, keeping it a standout choice in Mexico's busiest tourist zone.
Opened in 1993 and about to celebrate its 25th birthday when we visited, The Ritz-Carlton Cancun feels like an elder statesman in Cancun's ever-growing hotel scene. Plenty's changed since the hotel first arrived, with an abundance of new constructions throughout the Riviera Maya all the way to Tulum. Immense all-inclusive luxury resorts have launched, but there's also been a trend, especially of late, for smaller, more intimate places, with fewer rooms, more personal service and more of a sense of privacy and getting away from it all.
In that sense, The Ritz-Carlton Cancun feels quite old-fashioned or "classic" in 2017. Halfway down the hotel-filled strip known as the Hotel Zone, it's a large, palatial, sand-colored building with 363 rooms.
Driving up to the entrance, staff come to collect bags and valet the car. You'll also be told there's an additional nightly $20 charge to park within the hotel grounds; if not, you need to find somewhere to park on the surrounding streets. Those streets can be packed with cars, meaning finding a spot isn't easy. It's not the ideal "welcome" or the least stress-inducing start to a stay.
Check-in is also a little hurried and flustered inside, though it is peak check-in time when we arrive, with a small queue forming. The lobby and hallways gleam, with marble floors and weighty chandeliers. Paintings lining the walls, featuring what look like old aristocracy, seem an odd design choice, more classic London hotel or English country house than a Caribbean beach getaway. But they're in keeping with the step-back-in-time glamour of the hotel. There's plenty of space within the hotel, too, with long wide corridors splitting off from the main lobby, and hall areas thick with greenery.
The hotel really comes into its own with the food and drink and the exceptional service. The casitas on the beach are transformed at night with white curtains and dining tables into romantic spots for "Dinner Under the Stars". The weather's too blustery during our stay to try it, but it looks like a memorable way to spend an evening, as well as a pretty good proposal spot. Instead, we dine at Mediterranean restaurant Fantino. Again, there's an old-fashioned feel, with white tablecloths, shining silverware, and a talented jazz singer standing next to a grand piano to soundtrack the evening. This is a "Special Occasion" kind of place; in the course of our meal, the singer breaks from her set to sing "Happy Anniversary" to one couple, and a couple of renditions of "Happy Birthday." Waiters make helpful recommendations from the menu and the extensive wine list, which includes good bottles from not only Australia, France, and Chile, but also some of Mexico's finest from up in the Guadalupe Valley. Service is impeccable: friendly but formal, with everything tightly organized and flowing. There's a bit of theater, too, with trolleys presented to tables with selections of breads and oils, and, later, three waiters gathered around the table at one time to simultaneously remove metal cloches from plates.
The food falls under "fine dining," but it's not fussy or overly modern at the expense of flavor. There's a menu of appetizers, hot and cold (including Truffle Burrata, grape tomato, and Tuscan olive oil), and dishes From the Ocean (lobster, salmon) and From The Land, including Filet Mignon with parmasean gnocchi. But there's also a highly recommended Tasting Menu, heavy on seafood. From a creamy cup of polenta soup, an amuse bouche, through to an easy-to-demolish Valrhona chocolate savarin with figs, hibiscus, hazelnut and milk ice cream, each dish is elegantly presented and a pleasure to eat. Maine lobster with sea scallop and cauliflower is another highlight. It's memorable food that matches the sense of occasion created in the restaurant.
Bedrooms are sea-facing and have their own balcony, though there are also other balconies above and to either side, meaning they don't feel all that private. They are, though, a fantastic place to sit with a cold beer or a bottle of chilled sparkling wine, and drink in the blue skies and blue shades of the ocean. The interiors are more modern than in the lobby and public areas, but still elegant and refined, with greys and muted greens and browns. The bed's comfortable and large, with plenty of space around the room. It has a comfy armchair in one corner, a desk/table in another, and a large TV hung on one wall above a unit that contains a minibar plus tea and coffee facilities. The room feels quite neutral, with a subtle Mexican influence in the modern black and white painting on the wall and some of the textiles.
The bathroom's bright, with shining surfaces and more marble, and stocked with Asprey products. Rainshowers have become almost standard in the Yucatan's top hotels, but here, in a sign of the hotel's age, perhaps, the shower is a wall fitting, though perfectly functional. There's also a large white bathtub.
The high standard of service continues at breakfast down in El Café Mexicano. In the grand breakfast hall, overlooking the pool and palm trees, waiters arrive always at the right moment to asks if you want "one more," whether it's tea, coffee, orange juice or champagne. The Health Bar offers juices with likeable names, including a Lagoon Sunset and (one to increase blood flow) and The Vampire. There are plenty of healthy options, from smoked salmon to fresh fruit, but this is also a generous indulgent buffet. It's one of the best I've seen on the Riviera Maya, with trays of fresh breads, pastries, croissants and muffins, and hot options, including an omelette station. Every Sunday morning, there's also a Quesadilla station serving Mexican dishes, including Tacos al Pastor.
The main swimming pool is long enough to have a proper swim, with white sunbeds surrounding it. Waiters here also help out with umbrellas, drinks, or whatever else you need. The beach is just a few yards away. Despite how built up Cancun gets, this stretch of soft white sand and vividly colorful ocean is still very appealing. There are some free sunbeds down on the beach, too, though there are additional charges for a shaded sunbed ($25 per day) and cabanas ($184 per day), which contain beds and hammocks.
Between the pool and the ocean, there's the informal Caribe Bar and Grill, which has a menu of ceviches, fish tacos, pizzas, burgers, salads, and fish dishes, such as lobster or Catch of the Day (a meaty chunk of grouper during our stay). A bucket of jumbo shrimp on ice, served with three salsas, is definitely the kind of food I'm happy to eat by the ocean, and the cocktails are excellent here too. A personal favorite (and a good test of cocktail-making skills), an Old Fashioned with Mezcal instead of whisky, is refreshing and well balanced, the kind I'd order more of.
It's a little tucked away, down a long corridor between wings of the hotel, but there's a good spa here, too, as well as a boutique shop and a hair salon. Stocked with ESPA products, the Kayanta Spa is peaceful inside, and the service is again thorough and professional, each member of staff introducing themselves by name. There are separate changing, pool, and relaxation areas for men and women. A personal valet guides guests into the changing rooms. There's a relaxing steam room and a cool, quiet pool area, where the water in the showers is infused with mango and citrus. The sight of each neatly laid out towel decorated with a small purple orchid is another sign of attention to detail. The treatments menu is extensive, from facials and exfoliations to warm stone massages, reflexology and wraps. The Kayanta Synergy Massage, which couples can book together in the same room, combines a hot towel foot rub, hot stones, limb-stretching and a deep tissue massage with fragrant eucalyptus and citrus oil. After treatments, you'll be led to a comfy little lounge with magazines, drinks, soft chocolate brownies, and green tea muffins. Resting on a lounger, a thick, fluffy rug is laid over your legs, a warm compress placed around your shoulders.
There are cooler, smaller, artier places to stay than The Ritz-Carlton Cancun, but some (not all) don't have the substance to match the style. What often makes for a good, memorable stay is comfort, top food and drink, and outstanding service, and here they deliver the whole package.
Web Address: www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/cancun
Total Number of Rooms: 363
Published rates: $250 to $8,500 plus taxes and fees
Review and photos by Graeme Green