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Hotel Esencia—Riviera Maya

Carretera Cancun–Tulum, Xpu–Ha 2, Quintana Roo, Mexico

With flawless service and excellent design, the revamped Esencia is a low-key resort for high-net-worth travelers who shun the big mega-resorts.

Whitewashed inside and out, the exclusive resort of Esencia is set almost alone on a beautiful bay between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Detachment from the outside world happens at the front gate, where you pull up to and pass through a traditional Maya house, a dirt–floor oval made of saplings and lit with candles. From here, a golf cart takes you down a path meandering through the low forest. As you get closer to the water, you reach substantially more splendid buildings clustered along the beach and extending back amid neatly tended gardens and the forest.

Entering Esencia

The heart of the place is a villa built by an Italian duchess, where guests can sprawl on deep sofas in the salon or chat on the front terrace that overlooks two pools and the broad, fine beach; upstairs are two of the more remarkable rooms, the Rosa suite, which has its own pool, and the torre (tower) suite, with its panoramic views of the bay and surrounding greenery. Filled with original mid-century and more recent Dunbar furniture and well-chosen lighting, the main floor is a good place for lingering over the regular afternoon tea and playing chess or backgammon.

Garden Room Suite

A string of two–story outbuildings in the garden section contain the most common room layout, the gardenview suite. They make up for the lack of sea views with private plunge pools, outdoor showers, and, in many rooms, deep soaking tubs; the ground–floor rooms have a little more space and two outdoor sitting areas. The indoor showers have two heads, one dinner–plate hanging from the ceiling and another jutting from the side of the stall. Families may want to book one of the two cottages—one has a separate bedroom for children, while the larger complex has up to four additional adjoining rooms and its own large pool. In every case, though, privacy is paramount—front terraces, where coffee and pastries are delivered every morning, are screened with greenery, and buildings are angled so you can lounge by your plunge pool without being on display. (THe outdoor shower is best for rinsing off in your bathing suit, however, as groundsmen could easily see through the slats.)

In 2014, Esencia was taken over by owner Kevin Wendle, who has ushered in a new era in the hotel's decoration, upgrades, and organization. Throughout, mid–century Mexican art and design in the form of accents like woven rugs, bed throws and table tops give the hotel a modern yet homey affect. The hotel's new soundtrack—which you can play via your room's furnished iPod and built-in Bluetooth stereo system—has been created by Paris DJ Michel Guabert. Remote controls for the blinds and air conditioning join regrigerators stocked with non-alcoholic drinks, quality coffee makers, and a bevy of new art and design books in guest rooms and hotel salons. Everywhere you turn, there are thoughtful details like complimentary flip-flops, smartly placed power outlets, and soft, light robes perfectly suited to the climate.

Esencia pool

Although it has expanded well beyond the Main House, Esencia maintains its feeling of hominess. This is managed primarily through the seemingly effortless hospitality extended by the staff—you'll see few uniforms, and certainly no name tags among the employees. Whether you're chatting in the salon or settling into pool chair, someone will soon arrive to offer cocktails or other refreshment and the staffers seem genuinely happy to work here in this environment and under the new management.

The Esencia Organic Spa offers a wide range of traditional Maya treatments, manicures, and facials. A yoga platform between the main buiding and ocean hosts classes each morning. Their fitness room and cold-press juice bar round out the holistic wellness experience. Two identical pools run parallel to the beach, surrounded by cushioned lounge chairs and yellow towels. One is for adults only, the other allows children. Chairs and a few cabanas are also set up on the beach.

The restaurant flanking the adult pool is open all year, serving Yucatacan specialties and a few international options, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Menu prices are meant for those used to dining in New York or Paris but the talented chef can compete with Mexico's best. is kitchen sources top-quality ingredients from around the country and grows some items on site. The extensive wine list includes plenty of options from Baja Norte.

Esencia master suite

Esencia has a social feeling, in part because the guests are not just couples, but also because the layout encourages socializing, in the spirit of the afternoon tea begun by the original duchess. Despite heavy competition along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Esencia stands out as one that makes people used to special treatment still feel special. If you're in search of quiet elegance—and can stand the sight of children—Esencia will feel like a home away from home.

Web Address:
Total Number of Rooms: 29
Published rates: Suites $650 to $4,356 including continental breakfast but not taxes and 10% service charge
Review and photos by Timothy Scott