Dive in to discover the delights of Mexico's Caribbean coast. Joanna Booth reports
The shark swimming beneath us is as big as our boat. About the length of a double-decker bus, its jaws, a metre and a half wide, contain more than 300 teeth. I pull on my snorkel, swing my flippers over the side, drop into the water and swim towards it as fast as I can.
Yes, that’s right, towards it. I’m not mad. Nor am I brave – not even slightly. Luckily for your cowardy-cowardy-custard correspondent, this shark is a whale shark. These gentle ocean giants are filter feeders, eating nothing larger than plankton and treating divers and snorkellers with nothing more than fleeting and utterly unaggressive interest.
Whale sharks congregate in warm seas, and the water off Mexico’s Yucatan coast is a favourite spot. It was here that scientists counted a school of 400, the largest ever recorded.
There are plenty around on the day I visit, and swimming with them is utterly magical – a peaceful, hypnotic dance where you end up eye-to-eye with creatures known by the Mexicans as ‘pez dama’, or domino, after their distinctive polka dot skin.
The whale sharks aren’t the only big fish in the water with me. Not far away, Sir Richard Branson is treading water and talking to TV cameras about the conservation of this stunning species – a cause close to his heart.
But the whale sharks aren’t the only reason he’s here. Virgin Atlantic chose Cancun as one of its new destinations for 2012, and next week it is increasing the number of flights from two to three a week to meet demand.
SELL: VALUE AND VARIETY
UK visitor numbers to Mexico have shown double-digit growth each year since 2010, and sales of Mexican pesos through the Post Office rose by a third last year.
Funway’s 2012 bookings to Cancun and the Riviera Maya were up 73% year on year. Virgin Holidays has already sold stays there to more passengers for this year than it did for the whole of last year, and receives some of its highest customer satisfaction scores for the destination.
There’s no real secret to the area’s success – it’s a tried-and-tested recipe that really works. Airlift has increased hugely, with direct flights available with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Thomson Airways, which is due to start flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the route from May 1, pending the aircraft’s safety clearance and delivery. Hotels score well on quality and value, offering all-inclusive packages at lower prices than many Caribbean competitors. The climate is reliable and the destination diverse, with activities, watersports and historical sights.
In addition, Cancun and the Riviera Maya are distinctive resort areas that suit different clients. Lively, built-up Cancun has a raucous nightlife, with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops, and is particularly good for holidaymakers who enjoy going out. However, Katie Parsons, Hayes & Jarvis regional product manager, says it can also appeal to families and couples due to a wealth of family-friendly and adult-only hotels.
“Because of the density of hotels in Cancun, they tend to be more compact and high-rise,” she says. “By contrast, the Riviera Maya suits those looking for a spacious low-rise resort set in lush greenery and with a more laid-back atmosphere. Resorts here boast wider stretches of beach and have a varied range of activities and dining options. Small towns such as Playa del Carmen are also just a drive away, providing a slightly livelier atmosphere.”
STAY: ALL-INCLUSIVE LUXURY
Mexico has built a reputation for high-quality hotels and excellent service, and the Caribbean coast has all-inclusive packages at a range of price points.
Funway’s lead-in price is £955 for seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Catalonia Riviera Maya, a 422-room property with an energetic atmosphere, five pools, seven restaurants, a whole host of complimentary activities and a free kids’ club for under-sixes.
Funway and Virgin Holidays report that both AMResorts and Palace Resorts sell very well. AMResorts’ brands include high-end, spa-focused Zoetry boutiques, adult-only deluxe Secrets properties, family-friendly Dreams, and the lively Now brand.
Hayes & Jarvis recommends Secrets The Vine, which opened last summer with a particular focus on fine wine, six à la carte restaurants and an extensive spa. The operator offers seven nights’ all-inclusive from £1,349 including flights and transfers, departing July 11.
Palace Resorts’ Moon Palace is a key property for Thomas Cook. It is vast, with more than 2,000 rooms, lively, with a nightclub for up to 300 guests, and has the biggest swimming pool in Cancun, plus 15 restaurants and a 27-hole golf course. Seven nights’ all-inclusive costs from £1,270, with flights departing Gatwick on May 1.
Another vast property and big seller is Gran Bahia Principe Riviera Maya, a three-hotel resort combining to offer 15 restaurants and 25 bars, plus a well-run kids’ club and excellent children’s pools.
The new Hard Rock Hotel is bound to be popular. It is a 12-storey temple to excess in the centre of Cancun with 601 rooms, five restaurants, five bars, a spa and the signature music memorabilia. Suited to adults looking for activity rather than peace and quiet, and to families, it is featured by Sovereign Luxury Travel which currently offers two free child stays and $1,500 resort credit on a seven-night all-inclusive stay for a family of four, priced from £5,359, departing Gatwick on April 7.
For the ultimate in luxury, the Mayakoba development on the Riviera Maya is set on the beach in a secluded landscape of mangrove swamps, with chic Rosewood, Fairmont and Banyan Tree hotels.
SEE: MAYAN CULTURE AND MARINE LIFE
Whale sharks may physically be the biggest draw, but there are plenty more fish in the Mexican seas. Snorkelling cruises and catamaran trips to the reefs are widely available, and can be combined with quad biking in the jungle for a full day’s adventure.
The area has several eco-waterparks. At Xcaret, visitors can snorkel along an underground river, take a jetboat ride, see a turtle conservation area and learn about the history of Mexico with an interactive stage show, while at Xel-Ha, near Tulum, activities include swimming with dolphins and manatees, and Snuba and Sea Trek underwater walks.
The Yucatan peninsula is home to two Mayan sites. Tulum (pictured above) has a stunning cliff-top position and is very close to the hotel area. Chichen Itza is farther away, but still easily achievable in a day.
In terms of nightlife, party cruises are easily pre-booked, as are tickets for the legendary Coco Bongo nightclub in Cancun.All the above activities can be booked with add-on providers such as Do Something Different and Attraction World.
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