El Camaleon's sixth green and 110-yard seventh hole near the thatched roof of Las Brisas restaurant at the Fairmont.
In his 2000 Academy Award-winning movie "Traffic," director Steven Soderbergh used grainy film to separate the scenes taking place in Mexico from the U.S.-based storylines. Walking outside the airport in Cancun recently, I saw and heard the grain of Mexico.
The Avis agent warned me to pay close attention to the speed limit and buckle my seatbelt. I should not give the Mexican Federales any excuse to pull me over. And if they did, I shouldn't give them the bribe money they might be looking for.
Unsettled and unsure, I drove slower than slow along Mexico's Caribbean coastline and passed machete-wielding weed cutters in the center divide of the road. Forty-five miles later I turned off the highway, out of the grain, and into the golf glam that is Mayakoba.
Beyond Mayakoba's entrance you have a choice of two high-end resorts, the Fairmont (opened in 2006) and the Rosewood (opened in March). I sampled both resorts and played two rounds at El Camaleon, the Greg Norman course and host of the first PGA Tour event in Mexico in 2007 (and 2008), the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
El Camaleon does anything but disguise its distinct features. An ancient Mayan water well, or cenote (se-NO-tay), can be found in the middle of the first fairway with several more scattered throughout the course. These natural water pools are surrounded by bright green vegetation and a few indignant iguanas. El Camaleon also has exotic blue water, alligators and durable paspalum greens. My favorite hole was the 144-yard 15th that runs parallel to the ocean and plays down the coast toward Cancun.
The Mayakoba Golf Classic is getting positive reviews from tour players. "It's one of the few cases where we all stay on campus," says Fred Funk, who won the tournament in 2007 at the age of 50. "It's a good week. It's fun to run into other players off the course. The kids [his eight-year-old daughter, Perri Leigh, and his youngest son, Taylor, 12] have a good time at the pool--more than the ocean." So does Funk. "I was on the waterslide for a long time."
The Fairmont (401 guest rooms and suites starting at $279 a night) is a 2008 AAA Five Diamond Award winner, but the Rosewood (128 suites starting at $790 a night) is an even better lodging experience for couples looking for less noise, less group activity and more individual attention. The ratio of hotel staff to guests at the Rosewood is 5-to-1, versus 2-to-1 at the Fairmont. Every suite at the Rosewood comes with 24-hour butler service, an outdoor patio and a private "plunge" pool (a decent-size Jacuzzi without the massage jets).
Both resorts have several options for food. I recommend the restaurants by the ocean at each. Don't miss the fish tacos at the Punta Bonita at the Rosewood, which has a good pool scene for a quiet resort and relaxing reclining chairs on the beach. If I go back, I'll pass on eating at Casa del Lago. The dressy atmosphere, no view of the ocean and European cuisine seem out of place in Mexico.
The young award-winning chef at Fairmont's Las Brisas, Luis Lujan, puts on a culinary show. Lobster from the Riviera Maya and a tender filet make up a classic combo of surf and turf. Who knew mint foam went so well with an artichoke salad? The homemade blackberry sorbet was even better than it sounds. After five courses I was full and in need of a post-meal walk. Unfortunately, the distance between the restaurant and my room was too far, so I jumped a golf cart back.
Mayakoba's two resorts are on 1,600 acres. I navigated the twisty paths through the Fairmont using the community bicycle service during the day. Without GPS, I was left to the ancient device of asking for directions on more than one occasion. "It's easy to get lost here," said an empathetic employee. "It's not the margaritas." Golf-cart shuttles were a better choice than bikes after dark (especially after some margaritas). To get around Rosewood, you can use golf-cart shuttles or ride in wooden motor boats through man-made canals.
As I checked out of the Rosewood, I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver and their kids checking in. Back through the gates of the two swanky golf resorts and on my grainy way to the airport, I smiled at the thought of a corrupt cop trying to take a bribe from the Terminator.
OVER THE MOON
There is more good golf along the highway between Mayakoba and the Cancun airport. I picked a Nicklaus Signature course, Moon Spa & Golf Club (above), another big resort off the strip. There are three nines, but I played only the Dunes and Jungle for $260. (The Lakes was closed for maintenance.) The Dunes takes up more open space and plays longer than the Jungle. Both nines feature that Nicklaus trademark of a reachable, short par 4.
SENSE OF PLACE
Most spas at high-end resorts have the art of pure physical bliss figured out. The Sense spa at the Rosewood takes it to a different level than the competition. It's on an island surrounding a cenote, and all guests have unlimited access to the saunas, Jacuzzis and relaxation stations.
PLAYING AT PLAYA
If there's not enough food and shopping for you inside the gates of Mayakoba, go 15 minutes down to the town of Playa del Carmen. "The atmosphere is neat," Funk says. "The roads are closed throughout the town. It's great for food and shopping, and it felt very safe." The resorts will drop you off and pick you up.