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Beach bliss

Cancun: More than just spring break

Joe Johnson March 24, 2014

Playa Paraiso beach Playa Del Carmen

When you think of Cancun, partying immediately comes to mind, but this resort has so much more to offer than megaphones, super soakers, bikinis and teenagers on ‘Spring Break’.


It may surprise you to learn that Cancun has not always played host to this festival of excess, in fact, Fort Lauderdale (along with several other Floridian coastal resorts) kicked off what is now a global phenomena, attracting not just kids from Ohio State but all over the world – see Time Magazine’s definitive history of Spring Break.


This is a thriving year-round beach resort that caters just as well for families and couples as it does for those looking for an unforgettable break they’ll probably never remember.


Cancun occupies the north eastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula, a part of land in southern Mexico that juts out invitingly into the Caribbean Sea. A visit here not only offers you Mexican hospitality, sunshine and cuisine but beautiful beaches lapped by the warm Caribbean waters, gently cooled by westerly winds. Geography lesson over, what’s Cancun really like?


Cancun can realistically be divided into two areas; downtown and a thin strip of land floating in the sea, precariously tethered to the mainland, this is known as the hotel zone, and using your powers of deduction, you’ll be able to guess that this is where the bulk of the tourists stay. Now, ‘hotel zone’ sounds like the name of a neighbourhood from some kind of post-apocalyptic, Blade Runner-esque cityscape. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth, the skyline is dominated by high rise buildings but with high-end steak houses, world-famous nightclubs and vast open air malls on one side of the strip and the Caribbean Sea on the other, you’ll quickly forgive.


Life’s a Beach
Every hotel on the strip backs directly onto the sand, so if you’re often challenged with the age-old ‘pool or beach’ debate whilst on holiday, you won’t have that problem in Cancun. Wherever you stay, the beach won’t be more than a few paces from your room. This means pool-dwellers will be easily lured away from their natural habitat and instead of rooted to their sun bed, they’ll be on the beach. And what a beach! Cancun has a shoreline that roughly matches the sand and sea you used to draw pictures of when you were 4 years old – sunshine yellow and electric blue.


Taking a stroll on the sand is pure bliss, something akin to skipping through a fluffy cloud; the fine grains yield effortlessly underfoot and flow between your toes like mini waterfalls giving you a massage. The sea is warm. And not warm as in ‘c’mon, get your shoulders under and it’s not too bad!’ warm - actually warm. Add in the waves and you essentially have a vast hot tub but without that one person who strikes up a conversation with you.


Mexican Food
Cancun isn’t all about the beach though; there’s plenty to do here if you love high-octane action (watersports), nature (swimming with dolphins), nightlife or amazing food. And that brings me on to my favourite topic – FOOD.  Go to Cancun and you’ll find gourmet steakhouses, seafood shacks at the end of a jetty... in a lagoon and authentic Mexican chow down spots.


My hotel could not have been in a better location; almost directly adjacent to a branch of Outback Steakhouse, hands down THE BEST steak joint I’ve ever eaten at. I recommend the Prime Rib – so good it’s served with a side dish of IT’S OWN JUICE.  Needless to say that was dinner sorted on the first night. There was also A Ruth Chris Steak House – a high end establishment that wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood Boulevard. If you want to keep it authentic, then there are plenty of options – we headed to Paloma Bonita one night for a cauldron of assorted meat and tortillas.


However, if there’s one place you absolutely need to eat at in Cancun, it’s Senior Frogs. If you’re planning a romantic meal, don’t do it here. In between eating your chicken wings and fries, you’ll be doing the conga with other diners, buying official merchandise, playing drinking games and riding the restaurant’s very own flume which exits in the lagoon out the back.


But if leaving the hotel sounds like too much hard work or you’re short on Pesos, you should be well catered for, even the 3-stars in the ‘hotel zone’ are luxurious. Each serves up mountains of infinitely-varied food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. One thing’s for sure, you won’t go hungry here.


Stuff to do
There’s a hell of a lot to do in Cancun; the challenge is prising yourself away from the beach for long enough.  Xcaret and Xel-ha are two eco parks not more than an hour coach ride from Cancun that allow you to get up close and personal with the natural world – kind of like interactive zoos or museums - think live shows, exploring caves, zip wires and speed boat rides, all around vast vistas teeming with tropical birds and marine life.


In Cancun, you can be jet skiing in the Caribbean Sea and just a few hours later, marvelling at some of the world’s most famous ancient architectural masterpieces. Chichen Itza is one of the largest Mayan cities, strewn with the ruins of ancient temples and dominated by the pyramid-like El Castillo. If you’re feeling guilty about spending too much of your holiday on your backside then a trip here might appease you. It’s also a good way to tip the balance of your holiday snaps in favour of culture and away from cocktails and clubbing, useful for when you’re doing the obligatory slideshow for the in-laws.


Swimming with dolphins is one of the most popular activities in these parts. We’ve all heard how intelligent they are but you can’t really appreciate that until the most subtle hand gesture from a trainer prompts them to do a triple back flip then submerge, whilst simultaneously spraying water and singing Bohemian Rhapsody in D major. Ok I made that last bit up, obviously.


Seeing the dolphins up close made the holiday truly memorable and I’d recommend it to anyone. Even those not so enamoured with nature could be converted after a light-hearted frolic with these lovable mammals.


‘Did You Go to Coco Bongo?’
When you return from Cancun, this will be the question on everyone’s lips.


If you are looking for a taste of Cancun’s electric nightlife, then you absolutely have to pay a visit to Coco Bongo. The name might sound familiar from the film, The Mask, that’s because this fictional Chicago venue has been brought to life with all the glitz and glamour of the club where Jim Carrey strutted his stuff back in 1994. It’s unfair to call this place a club, it’s more like a fusion between a cabaret venue, circus tent and a concert arena, all combined into an entertainment Mecca, which also happens to offer very reasonably priced drinks ($60 gets you an open bar pass).


With musical tribute acts (Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Guns ‘n’ Roses) on a towering podium above the dance floor, scenes from films acted out in mid air by trained acrobats dressed as super heroes, and balloons and streamers constantly raining down from the ceiling, there’s rarely a dull moment at Coco Bongo. I was most entranced by the waiter’s skills, all of whom managed to somehow carry a tray stacked with three layers of drinks around a packed club without spilling a drop.


All the nightlife is concentrated in the north east corner of the ‘hotel zone’, and while Coco Bongo might be the jewel in the crown, there are several other world-class venues, including City and Palazzo, as well as whole host of bars and fast food joints dotted around the area (a late night burrito beats a kebab all day long!).


Go to Cancun!

While some might not be keen on the ‘crowded’ feel of Cancun’s ‘hotel zone’, you barely notice the high-rise buildings looming over you as you sink into the sand. The strip of beach, while not particularly wide, is so long that there are acres of room, so no sharing your patch with any Speedo wearing chronic paddlers that decide to shake themselves dry over your new Kindle Paperwhite. There is a lot packed into a relatively small area here but it never feels like it and with the Caribbean Sea, gourmet steak houses, designer shops and world-famous nightclubs all in close proximity, along with glorious sunshine, there really is very little reason NOT to take a holiday here.