TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Riviera Maya during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a year after his first trip.
This is my 43rd flight in the Time of Corona and I guess it’s notable because it’s the first for which I haven’t needed a pre-flight COVID test or a vaccination certificate. I’m flying from Newark to Cancun – and for some reason, Mexico doesn’t require either for entry. But I’m mollified by the fact that to come back to the U.S., I will need to be tested – so I guess everyone on the plane has to be pretty much safe. Just to be sure, I wear two masks and fly First Class where it’s less cramped.
Newark Airport’s Terminal C has reverted to its pre-COVID chaos, with great snaking lines leading to Security. The United lounge is very much back to normal, although everything to eat is individually wrapped – which is fine by me. The flight is scheduled at four-plus hours, but it takes the 737-900 just under three-and-a-half to reach our destination. Cancun Airport has grown massively since my last visit – with three separate terminals and a fourth on the way. And United seems to get the dubious honor of parking at the far-far-far end of Terminal 3, resulting in a twenty-minute hike to immigration. The advantage of the distance is that by the time I’m passport stamped, my case is already on carousel #10.
I have arrived in Cancun several times before, but nothing has prepared me for the clamor with which I’m assaulted as the doors from the luggage hall slide open. There are at least fifty “greeters” clamoring for my attention. The masked clerks at the Hertz desk jump up and down, wave, gesture, and beckon me loudly and urgently as if their lives depend on it – which perhaps they do. And I’m not even interested in renting a car. It’s like an insane version of walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes. Except these are not photographers – they’re limo drivers, tour guides, taxi-owners, pimps – all in masks, and clearly dying for my business. A smartly dressed woman with an airport identification tag asks me where I’m bound and I tell her my hotel has sent a driver for me. Unsatisfied with my answer she wants to see the confirmation. I reach into my backpack and unfurl a creased page which she studies closely.
“I am sorry, sir, for the all noise,” she explains, “but I am with the airport and here to protect you: just ignore all these people and your driver will be outside.”
I thank her and walk on. The press of touts is enraging and pathetic at the same time. And I rationalize that in a place whose very existence is entirely about tourism, this isn’t just clamoring for business. It’s desperation after eighteen months of a fractured hospitality industry. I’m collared by a man this time, who looks official – and he too wants to see my transfer confirmation. He reads it and tells me he can give me a better price for the ride back to the airport at the end of my stay. And would I like a tour of Mayan Tulum? I’m too polite to ignore him or to tell him to fuck off, and so I take his card. He hands it to me with heartbreaking gratitude.
I finally make it to the main exit, where another fifty, eighty greeters are bearing hotel and cruise-ship signs in the 90-degree heat. They’re yelling too, but more with enthusiasm than hopelessness. I look to the right, and there, as promised on my wrinkled confirmation, a man in a white guayabera shirt is holding a sign: “Chable.” I sigh with relief, and in three minutes I am in the back of an air-conditioned white Chevrolet SUV speeding along the highway.
I have been to Cancun several times, and Tulum too, and yes, the beaches are gorgeous, but Cancun is one of those places where endless strings of hotels from horrid to dazzling are interspersed with manicured gardens, Outbacks, Fridays, Starbucks and strip malls specializing in tee shirts. It’s so very far from my ideal. But then, mercifully, I’m not bound for Cancun. I’m bound for a resort called Chablé Maroma, half-an-hour to the south, midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. I’m curious about it. It’s neither a client nor am I being hosted and I have no axe to grind. And it’s a member of Leading Hotels of the World so it’s surely not going to be vile. Surely.
The four-lane divided highway from Cancun south to Playa del Carmen is straight as a die, as if built by Roman legions two millennia ago, which, all in all, is highly improbable. We pass entries to resorts that look spiffy. As well as multiple billboards promising Jesus is the answer. Eventually we slow, and make a left turn across the central divide and enter an unpaved avenue bordered by jungle. Normally, I would be apprehensive that the road is unpaved. But I’ve been to enough ritzy resorts whose entry is purposefully unpaved and obscure to give this one the benefit of the doubt. We bump through ruts and puddles and make several turns. We approach a barrier with a guardhouse. A man in yet another guayabera and bearing a clipboard emerges. It takes the driver and him a good six minutes to navigate the list, particularly as Weill is pretty much unpronounceable in Mayan. Finally, light dawns, a check mark is penciled, and the barrier opens.
The road is no longer unpaved. The vegetation is jungly but manicured. We sweep into a driveway with a porte-cochere beyond which I see couches with smartly arranged pillows, and desks, and mid-century chairs, and minions in white linen. There is no rear or front wall: it’s just acres of space backed by lush vegetation. And I am suddenly ashamed that this supposed know-it-all world traveler has never before heard of Chablé Maroma.
The Chevy’s door is flung open, I am greeted by a smiling masked porter, my luggage is whipped from the trunk and I am escorted to a table and bidden to sit. Before my rear end reaches the seat, another minion is at my side with a tray of damp cloths and hand sanitizer. I smile and bow and plunge and wipe. A third masked minion is now next to me with a tray: I have my choice of an icy bottle of water, an icy beer, or a glass of freshly pressed maracuya juice. I go for the latter. It’s exquisite.
Veralucia is the front office manager. Middle-aged, masked, eyes smiling and dressed all in white, she stands as she describes the villa suite to which I’ve been upgraded (I’m not entirely sure why, but I don’t argue). She explains the dining options, tells me about the spa and discreetly slides my American Express card into its slot. Umberto (cream linen with Mayan embroidery) is delegated to show me to my villa. He’s charming and is eager that I should feel at home. He refuses to let me carry my backpack. We stroll along paths through the jungle. We come to a large white building whose architecture evokes Oscar Niemeyer. Umberto tells me this is the spa, and the gym. I tell him I just might visit the spa. He tells me I should dial O from my villa when I want to use the gym, as entry is staggered due to the pandemic. I file this information in my dead-on-arrival folder. I don’t do gyms.
On we stroll, along curvy paths. Each villa has a Mayan name on a small brown signboard – along with a villa number expressed in Arabic and Mayan numerals. Umberto instructs me in how to decipher Mayan numbers: a wide stripe is ten, a circle is one. My villa, Ti’ki, has three stripes and four circles. 304. We wind up a pathway of tall bamboo planted strategically to conceal the villa from the central walkway. I walk up a step onto a concrete patio with a chair and tables, and a vast day-bed for six, piled invitingly with pillows. I immediately want to collapse on to it. Next to the day bed are steps leading down into my private plunge pool – large enough to do a couple of strokes.
Umberto passes the wooden digital key card over a sensor and I hear a clunk. The villa doors are now unlocked and can be slid open revealing a cool room in pale colors and a vast floor-to-ceiling window facing the jungle. Mayan handicrafts are affixed to walls and encased in frames. Umberto explains the room’s technologies – the buttons to lower and raise opaque and black-out shades, the buttons to control the lights. Even though there’s a minibar and a Nespresso coffee-maker with all the capsules and 37 types of sweetener, he tells me that coffee will be delivered every morning at 7:30. He shows me the vast bathroom with space enough for a ballet class. There are two indoor showers leading to an outdoor shower that is backed by jungle. There’s another daybed in case you should require a nap, say, between brushing and flossing. Behind two doors there are two toilets – a lovely feature if two of you are staying, a little over the top for one.
I have to confess to being surprised by all this. Half an hour from the Torremolinos-meets-Collins-Avenue of Cancun, I’m in a secluded tropical paradise. This is the closest thing to an Aman resort since the last time I stayed in an Aman resort.
I’m happy I took the 8AM flight from Newark because I’m here in time for lunch. I stroll through more jungly paths and arrive in the central area of the resort with its large L-shaped pool, whose socially distanced pairs of chaises longues face palm trees, the serene beach (more chaises longues) and the turquoise Caribbean. Here too, is a tall, minimalist concrete cube whose open wood and glass doors aew open to reveal the concierges. Next door is the boutique with high class fashion, jewels and, yes, tee-shirts -- but they’re tasteful. Here is the Kaban restaurant, with its indoor and outdoor tables. To the left is the Bu’ul gourmet restaurant, and above it, the Raw Bar. It’s all a combination of concrete and thatch. Architecturally, it’s four parts Brasilia, two parts Polynesia, and ten parts gorgeous. Seen from the pathway it’s an orgasm of geometry: concrete and stucco squares, thatched and umbrella-ed triangles.
I’ll explore later, I tell myself, as I sit at an outdoor table at Kaban. Fernando has smiling eyes above his mask. I order ceviche and flatbread with prosciutto and arugula. And a mojito. He brings an array of breads and guacamole. I realize I’ve over-ordered. I don’t really care even though these are Aman prices, not your average Cancun Marriott. It all arrives on artisanal crockery. It’s all delicious: the ceviche not over onioned, not over chillied. The flatbread turns out to be a pizza scrumptious beyond words. It’s far too much and I leave not a crumb. The mojito washes it all down.
I laze on a chaise longue. I spray myself lavishly with SPF50, and even though I’m under an umbrella, after two hours I have a painless tan – well, not a tan, but the kind of maroon body-painting that is the curse of those born in the British isles.
The following morning, as promised, a thermos of coffee and a straw hamper of cups, sugar and pastries is delivered to the table on my villa’s patio. The waiter departs. Then I see the first one. Then a second. They look like a marriage between a badger and an anteater. They’re the size of your average house cat, with long bushy tails. They circle guardedly around each other on the pathway waiting for the right moment. Suddenly, one leaps on to a chair, on to the table, and a deft paw with four (or is it five?) little claws whips the hamper open, whips open the interior straw basket and seizes a pastry. He’s back in the jungle before I can close my dropped jaw. His colleague is the next to jump up, and he absconds with pastry number two. I drink my coffee and smile. I’m not a morning pastry person anyway, and this was weirdly delightful…a touch of harmless safari. I can’t wait for tomorrow morning when I will have my iPhone set on video ready to go. I ask a gardener the name of the animal. Coati he tells me. And google confirms it’s an animal unique to Central America and particularly the Yucatan.
Later that morning, I stop by the concierge desk. The concierges are seated at computers, but when you enter their sanctuary they stand. They charm, blue eyes sparkle. Another Fernando walks me through another jungle path to a thatch covered area that is, in normal times, obviously a tropical ballroom. But in the Time of Corona it has another purpose. I am greeted by a young medic who bids me sign a form, and check it’s my name on the test tube. I sit and it’s a gentle swirl in one nostril. The result comes back in the evening, elegantly printed, elegantly folded in an elegant envelope. Oh yes, negative.
I could churn on about the deliciousness of the Raw Bar with its cocktails, oysters and view of the moonlit Caribbean. I could wax lyrical about the flavors of breakfast (no buffets during COVID), and lunch by the pool and dinner under the stars. I could share the warmth of the Caribbean surf. But you get the point. And the point is that in these Times of Corona, it remains entirely possible to have a totally enchanting and safe vacation despite the masks and the hand sanitizer. Indeed, it is the masks and the hand sanitizer that make it possible to feel relaxed and secure. Eventually, of course, the masks and gel won’t be required – but until they aren’t, the perfect escape is totally doable. And at not much more than three hours from New York, this is beyond ideal.
On my last morning, I order the green juice and eggs benedict with smoked salmon. I take a final swim. Hector is at the villa on the strike of eleven and we stroll back to the reception area. Veralucia is all smiles and regret that I am leaving. I time the ride to the airport: exactly twenty minutes from nirvana to United check-in.
What we all feared might be forever impossible in and after the Time of Corona isn’t impossible at all.