The early morning ride out was a blast, passing schools of stingrays, several massive manta rays, pelicans bobbing for breakfast, and giant turtles frolicking in translucent waters off Cancun. Our Whale Shark Excursion had begun, as our expert guide from Solo Buceo Diving explained that whale-sharks are neither whales nor sharks but the world’s largest fish—stretching to 40 feet—here in Mexico for their docile annual migration.
So we donned lifevest and snorkel mask and waited. At the cue, I practically fell on a 20-foot polka-dotted whale shark! Actually, the gentle giants are like dappled limos vrooming past as we snorkeled in pairs above.
Boating back, still high on the adventure, we recapped—was it real? Yes, we’d been so close we feared we’d kick their dorsal fins.
Headed back for the long shoreline along Cancun’s Hotel Zone, it was clear why this once sleepy fisherman’s village became one of the world’s top meeting and incentive locations: otherworldly blue waters, endless coral reefs, soft welcoming breezes and a stellar gauntlet of high-end hotels at rates unmatched in many warm weather destinations.
Marriott scored a coup by setting not one but two properties on its sandy beachfront. The Spanish Colonial-themed 450-room CasaMagna Marriott Resort, built 20 years ago, connects to the 5-diamond, 450-room JW Marriott Cancun Resort and Spa via a pathway between their ballroom areas.
“It’s a win-win for planners,” says Joaquin Cruz, hotel manager. “They get two distinct hotels, with 900 rooms for big meetings, great rates, and loads of meeting space two miles south of the convention center.”
Casa Magna offers 11,000 sf of meeting space withseven wired meeting rooms. JW Marriott has 20,400 sf for company pow wows. And both properties can host gorgeous outdoor gatherings.
Naturally, we wanted a taste of each.
Straightaway, we fell for the old Mexico ambience of CasaMagna. The lobby’s high arched walls, heavy oak furnishings and wrought iron fixtures, like dramatic antique-y chandeliers, hark to Spain. Meanwhile, the sun streaming in is pure Carib. Rooms have beautiful wood-framed mirrors and desks, citrus-shaded décor, and the fab Marriott bedding. All four restaurants are customized for serious fun. (Tip: The late night karaoke club at 250-pax Champions Sports Bar is a haunt of GM Chris Calabrese, who’s quite the tenor.) Outside the gardens are lush, the swim-up pool bar beckons, and the ocean is steps away.
Next door, the JW Marriott had us at its mammoth, marble-laden entrance. One of only two 5-diamond JW Marriotts in the world, the lobby dazzles with tropical floral arrangements and fab views from grand palladian windows. Afternoons, the lobby bar is a proper tearoom; at night its jazzy live-music scene is the draw. “Everybody shows up here sooner or later,” said Joaquin, so we nestled into extra-tall wicker chairs and watched the show until the wee hours.
First-class touches abound: super-comfy slippers, rich gelato in the sundry shop, private Pilates classes, a 20-foot diving pool for SCUBA lessons, and a rocking spa. Rooms are large yet streamlined, with flatscreen TVs, iPod radios, deep tubs, those Marriott beds, and a balcony or terrace for all. For VIPs, Club 91 has private bespoke service on the penthouse.
About the food? Our first night at CasaMagna’s 90-pax Sasi Thai set the tone. This thatched-roof open-air expanse is group-ready, with sunset views and a fusion-y take on standards like pad thai and Thai-spiced steamed mussels. Meat eaters shouldn’t miss the zesty beef carpaccio. Unforgettable was how well they accommodated one vegan, one gluten-free, and one gal who was simply seasoning averse. The man to thank was exec sous-chef Dominic Esposito, whose cooking creds include luxury resorts in St. John’s and Orlando. “I like a challenge,” he said with a shrug, accepting our thanks.
He now oversees eight restaurants on the campus, including Cancun’s only four-diamond eatery, the 80-pax Giustina in the JW. (Think handmade pasta, heavenly pastries, candlelight and roses, with a glam 12-pax private dining room).
We may never forget the breakfast spread at 200-pax Sedona Grill, with made-to-order omelets, tropical fruit smoothies, super-fresh guacamole, miso soup (very popular here), and vats of Nutella. (Nutella quesadillas are a Dominic specialty—not gluten-free.) But lunches and dinners here are also delish, and our group had to reorder venison tacos and grouper tostadas twice in one seating so everyone could try.
“We really win at dining in the site inspections,” bragged Cruz, quickly adding that the hotels’ other aspects are just as impressive. “We’re confident if a planner experiences the place, they’ll return with a group—it’s a done deal.” He adds that half of planners who arrive for the “Site at Your Leisure” hotel inspections—offering free accommodation and $400 to spend onsite—close the booking before leaving.
What with whale sharking and yachting and famed archeological sites at Chichen Itza and Tulum, downtime in Cancun is an embarrassment of riches. Don’t forget nightclubbing, which we saw in full swing at CocoBongo Show & Disco. There was plenty of dancing before, after, and during a show rich in cirque-style trapeze artists, plus 20-ft high videos of Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson and (when laughing and having fun) ourselves. Everyone got jello shots but not everyone got invited behind the velvet ropes, unless they were with Cruz.
On our last day, the planned trip to Tulum’s Mayan ruins was rained out, so we had to kick around the JW for the day. Another win-win, involving a Nutella breakfast and seriously exploring the 35,000-sf spa. Mayan-inspired treatments and luxe facials, including cult-fave Elemis treatments from Hungary, were carefully customized—no doubt why the spa gets global kudos.
Our DMC, International Incentive Travel arranged dinner at La Habichuela, the Cancun standard that blew us away with Mayan mole (chocolate-based meat dish) and local shrimp in tequila sauce. House special? Crème of habichuela soup—string beans like you never had them before. The restaurant overlooks the ocean, like so much around here, but a portion of its floor is glass, revealing evidence of a pre-Colombian civilization unearthed nearby.