Carretera Federal Chetumal, Puerto Juarez km 298, Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Banyan Tree's importation of Thailand to the Americas is a spectacular showpiece that raised the Riviera Maya bar when it opened and still one of the best resorts in Mexico. In many ways it's the best hotel in Riviera Maya. With polished-perfect service and impressive villas with their own pools, this unique Banyan Tree Mayakoba resort easily overcomes its odd layout and split facilities.
Opened in mid-2009 with a fanfare that included attendance by the president of Mexico, this striking hotel stands out in an area filled with high–end resort hotels. No building is over three stories and natural vegetation surrounds most of the villas, but the architectural wings rise up above it all and provide a dramatic effect over the otherwise low–slung architecture. A mix of Asian design with nods to the Maya, each aspect of the resort looks nothing like anything else in the area.
As with its nearby Mayakoba region competitors the Fairmont, Andaz, and Rosewood, this new Banyan Tree development was built in a style that’s far different than the typical beach resort. Surrounded by preserved mangroves, streams, and part of the meandering PGA golf course, this is a resort where a trip to the beach is a real excursion. The best way to get there is on a boat that leaves from the lobby area and putters through the mangroves, passing egrets, anhingas, and falcons. Otherwise guests can call for a golf cart or ride one of the comfy cruiser bikes parked outside their villa door past a few holes of the golf course.
Once there, however, it’s easy to spend the day wanting for nothing. Attendants set up beach chairs and towels and automatically bring refreshing cold washcloths and water. They fetch drinks from the full bar by the infinity pool and you can order food brought to the lounge chair tables or you can dine in the restaurant overlooking the sea. There is a larger pool by the lobby and other restaurants, but it doesn’t get much action. “It’s hard to find a reason to leave your villa to go to another pool,” one manager admits.
Indeed the villas with a pool are like their own private enclave and the swimming pools in most of them are far more than small plunges for cooling off. The smallest ones are 353 square feet and the ones in the two-bedroom villas are 549 square feet (51 square meters)—larger than your average resort hotel room.
Villas are classed by size and location, with some being by the spa area, some on the golf course or lagoon, and the most expensive being right on the beach. All the villas blend indoor and outdoor space, taking advantage of a sunny climate that doesn’t see much rain. Even the smallest one-bedroom villas have an outdoor pavilion, secluded outdoor bathtub, and lounge area by the pool. The dramatic interiors have walls of glass facing the pool area. Besides the expected high-end mattresses, pillows, and sheets, they feature custom furniture, lots of hardwood, soft Asian-inspired lighting, and multiple sitting areas.
Huge baths have an oval vanity area in the middle of the room with two talavera sinks separated by a large circular mirror in the middle. Toilets and an inside shower are in separate rooms, as is a walk-in closet. Most villas have a separate air-conditioned pavilion living room with another HDTV and full surround sound stereo, espresso machine, and minibar. Tech touches include complimentary Wi-Fi, Bose systems with an phone dock, large flat-screen TVs, electronic privacy lights, and safes big enough for a laptop. The main complaint is a modern one: not enough easy-to-reach electrical outlets.
Larger villas add a second or third bedroom on multiple floors with most of the same amenities, a larger pool, and an outdoor shower. The three–bedroom villas available are either three–floor, town–house style units with a roof pool or full homes with kitchen by the beach. The ones right on the sea are the “money is no object” choice, with over 5,000 square feet of living space on two levels and some of the highest nightly rates in the country.
Nightly turndown service is extensive and you can add on a variety of services, from a romantic outdoor bath setup with flower petals and Champagne to a seafood barbecue set up in your own courtyard. Robes, slippers, beach bags, flip-flops, and more make your stay comfortable.
The Banyan Tree Mayakoba restaurants are as refined as the other facilities and the Saffron Thai restaurant just might be the best of its kind south of the United States. Thai chefs and waiters deliver authentic and beautiful plates of Thai standards and seafood dishes. Besides the beach restaurant, two other striking restaurants are available. Oriente is the all–day restaurant, serving eggs to order and an excellent buffet for breakfast, a la carte dishes from around the globe for other meals. Tamarind is an eclectic, organic, health-oriented restaurant with lighter main courses and salads and is adults-only. An extensive wine list (including some rarities) is available at the non-beach restaurants and there's a 14-seat private restaurant in the cool room where the wine is kept. The lobby area lounge on the second floor and roof area of the main building is an enticing spot for a cocktail or Mexican bites. Two private dining boat cruise options are available as well for a romantic cruise through the waterways.
The only drawback is the environment: in warmer months outdoor dining needs to come with a liberal amount of insect repellent in this nature preserve setting, especially in Saffron’s decks suspended over the lagoon.
In Asia the Banyan Tree name is better known for its network of spas than its hotels and this is an area where they are hard to beat. The extensive spa facility here is impressive enough on its physical merits, especially the array of hydrotherapy pools, steam baths, and treatment options. What really sets it apart though is its staff of Thai massage therapists flown across the world to work here, each one having completed at least 200 hours of training before they put a hand on your back.
This is far from being an eco-resort and the Mayakoba complex required plenty of creative destruction before opening, but the company performs a lot of actions that are equivalent to a carbon offset program. The gift shop is stocked with handicrafts bought direct from villages in Thailand and Mexico and it's nice to see toiletries stocked in refillable jugs rather than disposable plastic. It's still a little grating to see all the small disposible plastic water bottles though, especially when it's Fiji or Voss water shipped across an ocean.
Service here combines Mexican hospitality with Thai graciousness and the award-winning Rosewood nearby gives management heavy competition for picky guests. Even the security guards speak English well, staffers greet you by name in unlikely places, and each person seems to proactively work hard to solve the most minor problem or meet any request—all with a warm smile. Some may give this villa hotel a pass based on the quirky resort layout that is a part of every Mayakoba resort plus the Blue Diamond. But for those who are willing and able to pay for the best of the best, it is hard for most other Riviera Maya hotels to top the facilities and hyper-attentive service on display at this Banyan Tree in Latin America.
Web Address: www.banyantree.com/en/mayakoba
Total Number of Villas: 118
Published rates: $409 to $8,419 plus taxes and service charges
Review and photos by Timothy Scott.