Centuries before Spanish occupation, the Yucatan Peninsula was a hub of Mayan civilization until 15th century. Wetlands, mangroves, jungles and virgin beaches distinguished the land and inspired the original inhabitants to call the low-lying, verdant area “Kan Kun” (roughly translated to “den of snakes” or “golden serpent”). The Spanish, in turn, continued to refer to it as “Can Cun.” Although some purist travelers feel Cancun is not “old Mexico,” they are correct as the Mexican government in 1968 started looking into transforming the humble peninsula between Nichupte Lagoon and the Caribbean Sea into greater economic opportunity for Mexican businesses and citizens.
Harvard‐educated Antonio Enriquez Savignac, head of Infratur (a.k.a. Fund for the Promotion of Tourism Infrastructure), was tasked with bringing the concept of Cancun into a concrete reality by 1970. Given that Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and other seaside destinations were recognized as playgrounds for the well-to-do, Cancun was originally intended to democratize American and European travel to Mexico as well as provide day trip access to Tulum, Chichen Itza and other historic pre-Columbian sites. It caught on with American and European travelers, leading to a building boom in the 1980s and 1990s and, later, an influx of higher-end boutique hotels, resort properties and destination restaurants.
Although much has changed in the past year, Cancun still has the joie de vivre we need right now after months of cabin fever—even with with safety measures in place. In fact, the first half of 2021 may be a good time to re-discover Mexico’s home-grown Caribbean resort town in a slower, more relaxed mode that contrasts to rollicking “spring break” reputation of old. One place to take in Cancun at its best is JW Marriott Cancun Resort and Spa, a mile up from the convergence of night clubs, chain restaurants, souvenir emporiums and shopping malls along Avenida Kukulkan.
The JW Marriott Cancun and the adjoining four-star Marriott Cancun Resort not only have weathered the storm of the pandemic/current world events, but also actual storms from the most recent hurricane season. Even as some of its landscaping required some shoring up at press time, the JW is resplendent from its $40 million 2019 renovation conceived by Mexico City-headquartered G+G Interiorismo’s Martha Gaos and Claudia Gonzalez. Even with 447 generously sized ocean-facing rooms and an abundance of event space, the designers’ approach to the color scheme and subtle use of Mayan and Yucatan folkloric motifs (hummingbirds, local quetzales birds, four-petal flowers, snail fossils) juxtapose clean-lined furnishings. This creates an ambiance that’s airy and modern, yet never stark. Shapes inspired by undersea vegetation and water rendered in pops of blue, from pale cerulean to navy, are offset with warm gray and sand tones.
“The JW Marriott Cancun sits at the heart of one of the most beautiful destinations in the Mexican Caribbean, and our new room interiors complement the natural beauty discerning guests have grown to know and love,” said General Manager and Vice President Christopher Calabrese. “The detail is truly impeccable, and the elevated design, paired with authentic touches like the Mayan cross-stitching, pays homage to Cancun’s history and culture. Opening our guests up to the world around them is one of the most authentic travel experiences they can have.”
The 4,000 square-foot 14th floor Presidential Suite reflects the ultimate realization of the Gaos and Gonzalez’s vision for the rest of the hotel. The stylish rethinking of the Cancun experience starts with a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows that allow sunlight to flood the entire space by day. Executives or guests taking the suite over for a special occasion can wake-up to a perfect day or upcoming dinner party they can make their own with a conversation-starting sitting room, a perfectly stocked office space, full kitchen, bar area and dining room. Sleek oak accent panels ceramic tiles curated by renowned Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola tie the look together.
Club 91, also on the 14th floor, is awash in calming navy blue and olive-hued chairs and appealing coral reef ceiling décor. Updated menus and top shelf spirits (particularly tequilas and mezcals) further enhance the executive lounge’s ambiance, enabling guests on “bleisure” to plan one-on-one meetings or small gatherings against a backdrop where work and play seamlessly blend. Other rooms and suites follow suit aesthetically, with herringbone floors, blonde wood headboards, marble appointments, rainfall showers and a free-standing soaking tub. Every terrace overlooks tropical landscaping, breezy cabanas, Bali-inspired day beds and the outdoor areas of three of the hotel restaurants.
The property’s spacious, two-story Mayan-inspired spa offers a full range of body, face, hair and nail treatments. Beyond the reception desk (and a wall of international spa awards of excellence), there is a sparkling indoor pool, well-appointed juice bar, fitness center and gift shop, which are readily accessible to all resort guests. The treatment rooms, saunas, steam room, Jacuzzis and locker rooms on the second floor are accessible with a massage or treatment appointment. Couple’s treatments, men’s services and bridal packages are available. Beyond the fully outfitted (and socially distanced) fitness room, spin, yoga and other fitness classes are available for an extra charge.
When circumstances allow, the JW Marriott Cancun will be able to open out its 20,236 square feet of meeting space among several rooms. This, in turn, can be expanded or continued into to its Marriott Cancun Resort sibling across a short walkway. Services within the JW Marriott Cancun include a wide array of AV equipment and high-speed Wi-Fi, access to the in-house catering and planning team and other services for company-wide meetings at the full-service business center.
International dining also ties together the “JW” and the Marriott Cancun Resort for business, leisure and “bliesure” journeys. On the “JW” side, restaurants include the poolside BeachWalk (serving fresh sandwiches, salads and “street” tacos stuffed with octopus or shrimp), hearty breakfasts at Sedona Grill, and Gustino Italian Grill’s fine dining dinner experience. Business groups will appreciate Gustino’s artfully executed mains and appetizers (particularly those involving seafood) and a program where guests can craft their own pasta as an icebreaking activity before a meal. Across the way, restaurant selection covers the rest of the globe, from Kasai Izakaya, with Japanese “street” style cuisine and fresh sushi to Sasi Thai’s Southeast Asian-based cuisine.
The most exciting development coming to the properties is HANA, Cancun’s first-ever Polynesian white tablecloth restaurant, set to open in fall 2021 inside the Marriott Cancun Resort. Under the direction of Executive Chef Pedro Maldonado, the kitchen clearly aced the concept (an October 2020 press tasting session) well in advance of its opening. Every course, rendered with the Quintana Roo region’s rich variety of produce, fish and seafood, presented an original, earthy spin Pan-Asian classics: Spice- and smoke-forward Szechwan pork ribs with sweet potato puree; a minimalist salad topped with luscious sushi-grade tuna poke; grilled and smoked octopus with blackened rice, and crab cakes with cilantro and scallop tulle garnish.
Although classic Mai-Tai’s started the test dinner in the opulent Presidential Suite, mixologist Diego stressed that the cocktail menu would shift away from the usual “Tiki” tropes and instead reveal how Southeast Asia and Caribbean Mexico share a variety of flavor profiles and influences. The wine menu, meanwhile, lists a playful mix of Mexican, Argentine, Chilean and New Zealand wines that pair beautifully with HANA’s playfully seasoned dishes.
The overall mixology program, meanwhile, has gotten a major upgrade. Its centerpiece is the ‘150 Margaritas’ menu at the JW Lobby Bar, broken down into “Classic,” “Modern,” “Fusion” and “Exotic” categories. All 150 cocktails are built on a foundation of top shelf tequilas and mezcals, either neat or infused with black tea, beetroot and serrano chili. Although the cocktails are being promoted as “Instagram-able,” imbibers simply coming to the lobby bar—or any other bar-restaurant on property—for a great drink made with quality ingredients and techniques will not be disappointed.
The Kiwi-rita (top) and Red Dragon-Rita (bottom) from the “150 Margaritas” menu. Photos from the JW Marriott Cancun.
While there are many appealing upscale dining options across the road from the hotels along Avenida Kukulkan, Harry’s Prime Steakhouse & Raw Bar boasts the creativity, sophistication and ambiance frequent business travelers actively seek out. Along with the bells and whistles found in New York City’s finest steakhouses (table side salad and tartare preparation; the refrigerator with the restaurant’s best Kobe, Black Onyx and USDA Prime cuts; the seafood display and raw bar; Instagram-able drinks and desserts), it also deserves kudos for taking a more minimalist approach to condiments that enable the natural flavors of Quintana Roo’s bounty to shine through. Although the restaurant is large, it is divided up in such a way to allow business groups privacy. The Tomahawk steak, which feeds several people and is further enhanced with colorful sides and appetizers, is a highlight.
Although the JW Marriott Cancun has a lot to offer, even during this challenging time, it’s ultimately the upbeat, can-do spirit and tight organization among the staff that puts guests at ease and frees them up to enjoy the surroundings. Small details add to that all-important goal of making guests truly feel like they are on vacation, from fresh-squeezed green juice sold every morning at all food venues to a living room-styled business center to lobby employees providing accurate information on the local bus routes and (non-touristy) taquerias and hangouts. They get that this generation of travelers want to experience a side of Cancun that’s “real” Mexico, even as Cancun came into existence only 50 years ago.
So does the JW’s concierge, which collaborates with companies such as the excellent Tropical Incentives DNC, who can organize bespoke day trips to Tulum, Chichen Itza, Coba, Uxmal, Isla Mujeres, fishing and diving expeditions and some of the region’s best “nature parks,” such as Selvatica . This cute spot, adorned with old cars and interesting bric-a-brac, offers several packages where planners can mix and match adrenaline ziplining, cenote swimming, snorkeling, off-road driving adventures and even “Mexology” and tequila tastings.
Author’s Note: While there remain many questions and concerns about the safety of travel domestically and abroad at press time, my editors and I hope this story will provide inspiration on how you can plan for interesting, enlightening and responsible journeys in the future once circumstances allow for travel with confidence—such as increased availability of a vaccine or the dramatic slowing of new cases over the next few months. In the meantime, be sure to regularly consult sites such as the U.S. State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and the official tourism offices and government sites of your intended destination.