Mayakoba: Mexico's mysterious land of mangroves, cenotes and championship golf

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PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Quintana Roo, Mexico – If the mysterious, one-lane road through the jungle or the welcome drink in the beautiful open-air lobby overlooking a lagoon doesn’t leave a lasting first impression about the Rosewood Mayakoba, the boat ride certainly will.

Guests don’t simply walk to their rooms. They’re whisked away by water taxis to explore twisting canals and lagoons cut from the mangroves before reaching a lavish luxury suite.

'We loved the boat to our suite,” said Tim Sperling, a Highland Park, Ill., resident visiting with his wife. 'You saw wildlife, crocodile and exotic birds. That’s a neat first impression...As soon as I walked in the room, I said to my wife, 'This is the first time any hotel room has thoroughly exceeded my expectation.''

Exceeding expectations remains the core mission of this posh 1,600-acre retreat 40 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport along the Riviera Maya. The entire Mayakoba complex, home to three resorts and the El Camaleon Golf Club, is gearing up for the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, Mexico’s only PGA TOUR event, on Nov. 14-17. This year could be Mayakoba’s coming-out party as one of the premier golf destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico.

The OHL Classic at Mayakoba

Mayakoba

For the first time since its inception in 2007, the OHL Classic at Mayakoba has its own date on the schedule. The new date, a purse increased to $6 million, plus an added bonus that the inaugural 2013-14 PGA TOUR schedule brings (500 FedExCup points and a trip to the Masters for the winner), will help erase the stigma of the event being classified as a 'secondary' event.

'The players will be the best ambassadors for us,' said Glenn Preciado, El Camaleon’s new director of golf operations. “We will run a tight ship. The tournament will benefit us as the guys start choosing where they play. A lot of them don’t like the West Coast’s bumpy greens. They will start weighing (going to) Hawaii, too. If you live on the East coast, you don’t need to go to the Sony (Open). They can come here (in November instead). It’s a transition year for this new schedule. We’re not sure how it will play out.'

The El Camaleon Golf Club

El Camaleon

El Camaelon Golf Club winds through mangroves before heading out towards the Caribbean Sea. 

The Greg Norman-designed, 7,024-yard El Camaleon course traverses through three ecosystems: jungle, mangroves and along the beach. The signature par-3s at no. 7 and no. 15 overlook the emerald waters of the Caribbean Sea. All but a couple of the par-4s are sturdy, especially in the crosswinds off the ocean. A giant 'cenote' (meaning sink hole), sits in the middle of the fairway of no. 1, a 554-yard par-5. Nobody but the resort players end up in it, though.

Preciado believes the course will play entirely different coming out of Cancun’s rainy season compared to its previous date in the spring.

“The course will be playing long,” he said. “It has been shorter hitters (like Fred Funk and Mark Wilson) who have won it in the past when the course has been firm and dry. Look out for the bombers.”

A clubhouse makeover in its finishing stages will enhance the player’s locker room and lounge on the lower level. The previously unused upper level will open to become a bar with a pool table next to a movie-theater-sized flat-screen TV and a restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking the 18th hole.


View tee times and stay-and-play packages in Mexico on GolfNow


The Rosewood Mayakoba

Rosewood

Rosewood is one of three luxury resorts in the Mayakoba development on the Riviera Maya. 

Mayakoba’s three resorts (there’s also a Fairmont and Banyan Tree on property) hope to attract golf fans to stay and enjoy their spoils before, during and after the TOUR event. The Rosewood Mayakoba has introduced The Ultimate Golf Package, a $175,000 dream vacation for three golfers during tournament week that includes a private lesson with Jim McLean, a round of golf with Norman at his nearby Playa Mujeres design (with private helicopter transportation to and from the course and tee times in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba Pro-Am, plus lavish accommodations in a the Presidential Suite, V.I.P. access and luxurious meals.

But you don’t have to spend your life savings to stay in this tropical paradise. The 128 suites come stocked with private plunge pools, rooftop sundecks, outdoor garden showers and the finest in-room design and details. The staff, including private butler service for every room, aims to please.

The food is as exemplary as the service. The “Mexican night” at Punta Bonita along the beach goes off-menu for a filling six-taco sampler. The fine-dining Casa del Lago serves a versatile lunch and dinner menu near the main pool. The Agave Azul Sushi & Tequila Bar used to be just a premium tequila-tasting bar until transforming into one of Mayakoba’s most popular (and most romantic) restaurants last year. Call ahead for reservations.

I wisely scheduled a visit to Sense, A Rosewood Spa® for my final night on property. Designed around a cenote, this retreat within a retreat is essentially a private spa island hidden in the jungle. The facilities encourage hours of relaxation in the hot and cold therapeutic plunge pools, a steam grotto, sauna or an individual rain shower with heads spraying in all directions. Every treatment – whether in the 12 treatment rooms or eight island suites – starts with a relaxing foot scrub. My 90-minute signature island massage mixed massage techniques with Mayan chocolate oils to set the world right. Suddenly my 6 a.m. flight back to reality in the morning didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was already flying high.


Video: Matt Ginella checks in from Mayakoba on Morning Drive