Mayakoba – Riviera Maya, Mexico

With direct flights from London and good weather awaiting you, Mexico and the Mayakoba resort are a wise choice if you are contemplating guaranteed sun, thanks to temperatures that rarely drop below the low twenties.

Getting to the Mayakoba from Cancun airport is easy and convenient with a short drive of less than an hour along a very straight road. It’s worth noting that I encountered minimal hassle at Cancun airport aside from a customs form you have to complete (and retain for the return). In fact I don’t think I have had an easier journey from plane to hotel.

Arriving in Mexico under the cover of darkness I felt the reassuring warmth in the air from a hot summers day. Sadly it was almost pitch black outside as our driver proudly told us about the 200 miles of Caribbean coastline we couldn’t see to our left as we travelled along Highway 307, a long straight coastal route to Playa Del Carmen, the coastal town on the Riviera Maya in which Mayakoba is located and my home for the next 10 days.

The Riviera Maya is a tourism resort district beside Highway 307 and part of a region called The Yucatán Peninsula which juts out of mainland Mexico like a thumb separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, therefore you can expect the same glorious Caribbean weather as I found in Grenada, with great beaches and the worlds second largest coral reef.

Not only is the weather great here but the region also contains the unique feature of well over a thousand sinkholes, known as ‘Cenotes’, which in some cases have been turned into swimming parks such as the popular Xcaret, one of many in the area. Apparently these drains were carved out of limestone over centuries through the erosion caused by the natural water drainage running out to sea. More are being discovered regularly which leads me to imagine the ground beneath your feet being quite possibly like swiss cheese in substance.

The other big attractions to this coastline area and worth a trip are Tulum beachside resort area, the ancient Mayan city ruins of Tulum and the Mayan pyramids of Coba.

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None of this however is quite as remarkable as the resort of Mayakoba; an eco-friendly, both architecturally and naturally beautiful resort created as a passion project by a Spanish construction company in a swamp.

Now, leave your initial thoughts for a moment, because this is no ordinary swamp. I am aware the word conjures up all manner of negative thoughts from muddy and smelly waterways to alligator death-traps. The reality of the swamp here is rather different to any preconceived notions.

The water is mostly gin clear and often a brilliant turquoise blue. That in itself sounds ideal but what makes Mayakoba really special is that you are literally surrounded by nature and the lagoons and trees are simply alive with indigenous flora and fauna. The design is so carefully thought out that when in your villa the resort feels empty despite occupancy fluctuating between 60-90% during my visit. Exactly what you would wish for on a holiday.

Mayakoba has it’s own beach and almost all accommodation is facing the water whether it is a lagoon or the sea, mine was facing the lagoon and I really enjoyed early mornings in the garden with a spiced Mexican coffee while I watched a variety of wildlife swim past me in the swamp, including whole families of turtle, tilapia fish and all manner of song birds through to herons and ducks. One of the most fascinating things I saw was a skinny looking version of perhaps my least favourite bird of all, the cormorant, in this environment the bird was extremely graceful to watch as it hunted it’s prey down under the clear water.

Opportunities to spot wildlife are abundant here and during my visit I saw several Iguana’s a Spider Monkey, A Coati (type of Mexican racoon) and a small Crocodile. I was reassured to know the the crocodiles are kept under observation and removed before they start to see you as on the menu!

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Mayakoba is a luxury resort with a first class level of service throughout however what makes Mayakoba more special than resorts of this type I have visited is because within it’s boundaries it offers accommodation with four recognised hoteliers; Banyan Tree, Rosewood, Andaz and Fairmont.

Each hotel has the ability to cross-payment so the whole resort is open for exploration wherever you stay. Now rather than be limited to four or five dining options and just one spa you have a multitude of dining options and four spas so there really is zero excuse to struggle for options during even the longest of holidays. Some lucky residents have seized this opportunity for a lifelong holiday purchasing homes within the resort.

Map Of Mayakoba

Most importantly Mayakoba offers fishing excursions and hosts two outstanding golf courses: El Camaleón an 18-hole golf course designed by PGA legend Greg Norman and The OHL Classic at Mayakoba, the latter of which made golfing history in 2007 when it became the first PGA TOUR event ever contested outside of the US and Canada. This is a truly stunning location for golfing, where else in the world can you play golf amongst beautiful turquoise blue lagoons? The stunning contrast between golfing greens and bright blue waters I have captured below in this picture but only the natural eye can really do them justice.

The golf course has an excellent restaurant called Koba with a large full fronted outdoor terrace looking out over the course, there truly has been no better way to relax after a game of golf than with one of their margaritas and outstanding octopus panucho dishes.

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Within Mayakoba there is also the opportunity to visit their very own sinkhole Cenote Burrodromo and ‘El Pueblito’ a rather tastefully newly-built version of a classic Mexican village square complete with a marketplace which hosts a farmers market on Sundays, a cafe, boutiques and an art gallery, most impressive was a beautifully decorated Catholic chapel as pictured below.

I stayed in Banyan Tree and Rosewood but had my favourite meal in Casa Amate at Andaz, a review of all these to follow soon.

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Mayakoba Residences
www.mayakobaresidences.com
info@mayakobaresidences.com
Tel. +(52) 984 8734920

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The Signature Collection at Celtic Manor, Wales

Celtic Manor is an interesting part of Welsh history going back to at least 1634 when it was recorded as the the residence of the High Sheriff of Monmouthshire, Lewis Van. Following this The Manor House itself was built over two hundred years later in 1860 by Thomas Powell then the world’s most prominent exporter of the black gold Wales is famous for, coal, he was also the first coal millionaire.

The current owner Sir Terry Matthews was actually born here as it had changed use to become the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in 1940, he then purchased the Manor house in 1980 spending over 100 million converting the residence to accomodate 17 bedrooms.

Celtic Manor today boasts some 70 rooms, a spa, several restaurants and 10 lodges. However most notably the resort is now a world-class destination for golf, with three championship courses, The Twenty Ten course built to stage The 2010 Ryder Cup, Roman Road and The Montgomerie as well as a Golf Academy and two clubhouses.

I was invited by my guests to experience the very latest chapter in their history; The Signature Collection, and I was eager to see what Wales has to offer Golfers having enjoyed a recent trip to Gleneagles.

First impressions are quite breathtaking as the hotel gradually appears on the horizon then in no time at all looms above you as you approach from the M4 motorway down below appearing like a colossal man made mountain, albeit one with red awnings. Once inside the building the lobby you are presented by an impressive light open glass lobby space which is somewhat undone by two of the only odd things I didn’t enjoy during my stay; plastic flowers and dated looking wooden dragon sculptures.

The Signature Collection of rooms can be found at the top of the hotel up on the sixth floor along with the hotel’s best views but what sets these rooms apart from the rest of the resort is that extra slice of luxury we found, each room was designed for adults only and finished to an impressively high standard with a relaxed modern ambience. All rooms have a 6ft king-size double bed, sitting area, a really nice marble bathroom with a large vanity unit, bath and separate shower.

All guests here have access to the Signature Lounge a stylish bar which made a great location for our first Gin & Tonic courtesy of the stunning views from the balcony and Breakfast is served on the same floor so any early morning stress can be avoided.

Signature Collection

Most importantly there are many great dining options at Celtic Manor:

Steak on Six – a steak restaurant and part of The Signature Collection described as “showcasing signature steaks from around the British Isles, Steak on Six offers contemporary dining with a relaxed, rustic flavour“. We ate a fabulous t-bone steak here which was cooked perfectly medium rare and the restaurant had a great wine menu to choose from.

Epicure by Richard Davies – a modern European dining option also part of The Signature Collection described as an “exquisite modern dining experience is sure to impress with its intricate menus and fresh, intense flavours“. We did not eat here but shall do if I return.

Cen at Celtic Manor – Asian fusion cuisine by Larkin Cen a 2013 finalist of BBC’s MasterChef UK described as “from delicious fluffy steamed bao buns to slow cooked oriental pork belly and succulent sharing platters of Cantonese duck, savour this sociable dining experience bursting with authentic pan-Asian flavours“. This was perhaps the highlight of our stay, we all thoroughly enjoyed the Asian dishes, excellent cocktails and relaxed restaurant ambience.

Rafters – a restaurant set within the prestigious Twenty Ten Clubhouse, the cuisine here is described as simple and elegant “from the finest locally reared beef to fresh fish and seafood, Rafters’ talented chefs use some of the best ingredients Wales has to offer to create succulent steaks and grills with a uniquely Welsh flavour”.

The Grill – another clubhouse restaurant offering relaxed informal dining of honest and simple food described as a “tempting menu of wholesome ingredients mixes distinctive flavours and textures offering a mouthwatering selection of comforting favourites including succulent steaks, pasta, fresh fish, salads and burgers”.

Olive Tree & Garden Room – the resorts family friendly dining option.

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Something very rare happened at Celtic Manor which surprised me: We didn’t eat a bad dish during our stay! I can therefore say on behalf of a group of four quite demanding customers that I can recommend visiting the resort purely for dinner.

There is plenty to do besides golf, too many activities to mention in one post, particularly if you have kids.

The activities I spotted and took part in include:

  • Forest Jump – I tried my hand at this treetop assault course and sadly have to admit I was truly terrified! The logo is deceptive rather than being an activity for kids it really puts your bravery to the test. There is a lower version for kids also.
  • Laser Clays – Having done quite a bit of clay shooting recently with the outstanding Phillip Thorrold Shooting Academy I enjoyed having a go at this activity which I found surprisingly realistic and much less noisy!
  • Fishing Excursions – Sadly I didn’t have the time but the river Usk is definitely worth a trip as is Wales for fly fishing in general.
  • Shopping – a couple of clothing boutiques and gift shop with a nice selection of designer labels.
  • The Forum Spa – the staff here were truly great and I would definitely visit again for another massage which really helped ease my aches and pains from the assault course.
  • Above all what impressed me the most during my stay was the relaxed atmosphere and warm welcome from all of the staff which made me feel very much at home in Wales. I will definitely be returning here for dinner again soon on the way back from one of my fishing trips to the River Usk.

    The Celtic Manor resort
    Coldra Woods
    The Usk Valley
    Newport
    South Wales
    NP18 1H2

    Tel: +44 (0) 1633 413 000
    Travel Info: Driving M4 (J24) Trains from Newport Rail Station or 90 minutes from London Heathrow and 45 minutes from Cardiff and Bristol Airports.
    www.celtic-manor.com

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    The Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire Scotland

    I was recently invited to attend a short Golf 101 break at The Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. My first thoughts were of trepidation due to the fact I haven’t picked up a golf club in a decade, shortly followed by anticipation for the opportunity to visit such a revered and famous resort that has recently celebrated a 90 year anniversary.

    I am what you might call quietly competitive by nature, in fact I have up until this point deliberately avoided opportunities to play golf with friends as I don’t like the fact I am unable to compete and ultimately lose. The opportunity to learn correct golfing techniques from some of the UK’s best instructors was the perfect tonic to my avoidance.

    Not sure what to expect from a hotel that is setup for golfers I chose to discover upon arrival rather than my usual approach of researching to near fatigue. I suppose this can either make the discovery more exciting as you refrain from anticipation or highly disappointing if your destination doesn’t live up to your hopes. Fortunately I can state wholeheartedly that I am glad I chose to discover instead. As soon as you arrive at The Gleneagles gates you can instantly tell that you are in a special setting as you take in wonderful views of the Ochil Hills behind you and the stunning landscaped grounds around you that feature a lake, club house and immaculate golfing greens.

    The greeting at check-in was friendly and the atmosphere in the hotel can best be described as warm, mildly informal yet classy which pleased me instantly I can recall golfing friends complaining at length about how stuffy the atmosphere can be in golf clubs. I was surprised to learn that the hotel was purpose built for golfing retreats in 1924 rather than a re-imagining of a country estate as with most grand buildings of this size.

    My double room was suitably luxurious with a small lounge area including it’s very own fireplace and view out onto the golfing greens. For a Bed & Breakfast rate of £335 per room the bathroom in particular was better than many I have stayed in at this level with a double sink area, bath and shower. Being brought a tin of good quality Scottish shortbread on arrival was a nice touch and made a great gift upon my return (albeit with one missing). The fabrics in the room included tartan and tweed and featured their Scottish roots very tastefully, many places I have visited can go a bit over the top on tartan which can make you feel like you are trapped in a giant game of chequers.

    Having browsed the welcome pack I think it is fair to say that you could have a very enjoyable time at Gleneagles without ever picking up a golf club, in fact the hotel is perfect for a leisurely short break for either groups or couples with mixed tastes.

    Aside from the golf there are also the following activities:

    • Fishing: Gleneagles has six trout lochs and offers lessons from skilled ghillies and the chance to have your catch cooked, also Salmon fishing trips can be arranged with a weeks advance notice.
    • The Spa by ESPA: Massage, facials, treatments, detox, tropical shower, crystal steam rooms and swimming pool. There is also a nail bar for the ladies.
    • Horse Riding: From beginner to advanced including an introduction to Polo.
    • Gundog and Falconry: Introductions and lessons are available and dogs are made very welcome at the hotel.
    • Indoor Tennis: Four acrylic courts with a good choice of professional lessons.
    • Off-Road Driving: Gleneagles has two purpose built off-road courses and offer lessons for anyone, a good chance to actually use your 4×4!
    • Shooting: Clay pigeon, archery and air rifle.
    • Programme of kids activities: From horse riding, mini athletics and air gun shooting to movie nights and arts & crafts.
    • Shopping: wandering the corridors of the hotel there are numerous shops selling whisky, cashmere, leather goods, jewellery, sports and lifestyle clothing and tweeds of which the focus is on quality Scottish items and produce.

    As you can see these are mostly aligned to Scottish field pursuits but there really is something for most tastes on that list and talking of taste the hotel really delivers on the food and drink front with five superb dining opportunities.

    Visitors can choose between the following restaurants:

    • The Bar: The bar is avery comfortable space which also offers light lunches. I haven’t eaten here but I can tell you as you would hope in Scotland their whisky selection is second to none and we enjoyed two evenings sampling whiskies recommended to us and my personal favourite Lagavulin 16 years old from the Isle of Islay.
    • The Dormy Clubhouse Bar & Grill: A classic all day menu of favourite dishes from sandwiches and burgers to fish and chips with a tandoor grill. I opted for their tandoori chicken dish which was cooked and presented beautifully.
    • The Strathearn Restaurant: This is one of the very largest grand dining rooms I have eaten in and has a tangible air of nostalgia about it. Sitting at the table gazing into the open floor ahead of me I could easily picture the scenes of past decades and I doubt very much the piano playlist or the ceremony behind the crepe suzette the table next door ordered has changed in all the dining rooms 91 year history, a wonderful site to behold. I ate a very decent Crab starter and Halibut main course here and at least one meal in this restaurant is a must for any visitor
    • Deseo: a relaxed Mediterranean restaurant serving classic holiday style dishes. This was perhaps my favourite restaurant which I would choose even over The Strathearn Restaurant, mainly because their choice of dishes is almost a checklist of things I personally like to eat on a European holiday. I chose to sample their gazpacho which was every bit as good as in the Mercado de San Anton in Madrid and a Scottish beef Rib eye steak which I can honestly say nudged ahead of Hawksmoor for the best steak I have eaten this year.
    • Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles: This is a two Michelin starred restaurant and unfortunately I haven’t eaten here as you would expect you need to book.

    The main reason for my visit however was the golf. During my short two night break we had one and a half hour lesson with with Andrew MacRae a PGA Senior Golf Professional and very pleasant and patient coach. In our first session we received coaching on the correct stance and how to strike the ball correctly. Having mastered the stance we had varying degrees of success with striking the ball which we recorded on video and quickly analysed before returning to the driving range to see a marked improvement and further fine tuning from Andrew as he watched our progress. My main issue it seems and where I have been going wrong in the past is leaning backwards as I strike the ball, to quote the famous phrase “it’s all in the hips” and rotating them effectively. I managed to iron out my poor swing by keeping my eyes firmly on the ball and my chin up which I then practised for a while after the coaching ended aided by enthusiasm from the afternoons progress.

    The following day we had a one hour morning session where we learned how to pitch and putt. I managed to make good progress on putting but the pitching eluded me somewhat as the technique of cutting dead your swing was an entirely new discipline from driving the ball. Following the session I stayed behind with two enthusiastic members of our group and we practised pitching for quite a while with Andrew’s tips still fresh in our memories until we had improved quite considerably.

    After a long lunch in the Dormy Clubhouse we all played the “Wee Course”, a short nine hole course amusingly endorsed in the hotel by Ronnie Corbett himself. The course was great fun and there were plenty of oohs and ahhs as we moved from great shots to howlers as our old habits crept back in, however the marked improvement in our group in just two sessions was clear for all to see. I personally fared very well, even surprising myself by managing to par one hole.

    Having only just learned the basics I will need to get some practice in on smaller courses before attempting a full round of golf at Gleneagles but should you already be an accomplished ‘swinger’ you have the chance to play on three of Europe’s very finest championship golf courses.

    Gleneagles offers three full size courses:

    • The PGA Centenary Course: The host venue for last years Ryder Cup.
    • The King’s Course: Gleneagles world famous course opened in 1919.
    • The Queen’s Course: A secluded course in a woodland setting with many water hazards and favoured by legendary golfers such as Greg Norman and the one I remember the most Seve Ballesteros.

    Enthused by my very rapid progress in just two days I am now looking into my first set of golf clubs and my next golfing invitation which this time will not be declined.

    PGA Centenary Course

    The Gleneagles Hotel
    Auchterarder
    Perthshire
    Scotland
    PH3 1NF

    Tel: (0)1764 662231
    Email: resort.sales@gleneagles.com
    Travel Info: Simply within one hour of either Edinburgh or Glasgow airport and train stations.
    www.gleneagles.com

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