This Luxury Resort in Playa del Carmen Appeases Even the Pickiest Eaters
The chicken nuggets have visible spices in them. My hungry seven-year-old Ben—a picky eater to the extreme—is in tears as the waitress plies him with a parade of chicken-y items, but none devoid enough of anything illegal, like flavour or, say, a sprig of parsley, to satisfy his decidedly unsophisticated palate. This is getting serious. A manager is summoned.
“What can I get you, boss?” the manager soothes. Eventually someone runs to the beachside snack shack to fetch Ben a hot dog. My husband Jason and I breathe a sigh of relief and turn back to our grilled panella cheese and ceviche. Averting such crises is a big part of why we choose The Fives Azul Beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico for our sunny getaway. Karisma resorts (there are five in Mexico alone), have a “gourmet-inclusive” concept, which means that this brand knows food—which satisfies snobby city foodies like us—but they also know kids, which satisfies snobby mini Neanderthals like Ben.
Luxury resort brands like The Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Rosewood and Karisma have zeroed in on the fact that families do need different offerings and special services, but that they don’t want to be banished to plasticized wonderlands with only some grilled cheese and limp French fries for comfort. The Fives is the type of place where jars of Gerber baby food are artfully displayed next to a massive wheel of parmesan cheese at the breakfast buffet, and wedding parties and multi-generational groups happily coexist amongst the jungle foliage and pretty lazy river swimming pools that wind through the grounds.
The Fives is the type of place where jars of Gerber baby food are artfully displayed next to a massive wheel of parmesan cheese at the breakfast buffet
Karisma dubs it “Monkeys, Milkshakes and Magic,” and while Ben is bitterly disappointed that he never spots any of the free-roaming spider monkeys that live on the grounds, there’s definitely some smoothie imbibing and a magical walk across a wooden bridge carved through the jungle lit up with fairy lights. (There’s also an adults-only pool and adjoining poolside resto where grownups can escape the under four-feet-high crowd entirely.)
We stay in a one-bedroom suite in one of the newer villas in the Essence section, all of which are outfitted in fresh modern décor. They’re a bit further from the beach and main restaurant area, but are definitely more up our aesthetic alley than the standard rooms in the older section. The Essence rooms, however, don’t have bathtubs, so if you’re travelling with a little who’s terrified of the shower—even a glamorous, glassed-in rainfall shower—you may want to request a room in the original buildings. If you have a baby, you can ask for an infant tub, as well as pack ‘n’ plays, bottle sterilizers, strollers and plush teeny tiny bathrobes for your room. Suites all have full kitchens, so every day I ring the 24-hour room service (lifesaver!) and load our fridge up with foods that Ben will eat (the peanut butter and jam sandwich plated just so is particularly hilarious) and I’m definitely not the only parent pocketing bananas and yogurt from the breakfast buffets. There are always gluten-free and vegetarian options, too.
But for anyone for whom the word “buffet” sends a chill up their spine—they call them “displays” at Karisma resorts—The Fives has 13 restaurants, including French, Italian, Japanese and Thai options, all with their own appropriately-infused Menu de Niños (Children’s Menu). There’s also a Mexican cantina that hosts mezcal and tequila tastings and several adults-only wine bars and cocktail spots. While the under-two crowd is more abundant at Karisma’s nearby Azul Beach Riviera Maya baby and toddler-focused property, at The Fives they will also puree any of the meals at the sit-down restaurants for hungry Harpers and impatient Imogens. If you have a rooftop suite with its own barbeque, for an extra fee you can book your own chef to come whip up Mexican-, Texas- or Argentinian-style dinner.
But it wouldn’t be a luxury family getaway without a luxury family spa experience, now, would it? I’m dying to sign Jason and Ben up for the “Daddy Scape” package at the on-site Vassa spa (massage, facial and pedicure for each of them, performed in a kids’ treatment room strewn with teddy bears) only because I obviously need a snap of Ben and his dad in fluffy robes getting pedis, but sadly I decide to pass due to the $406 US price tag. All the RMTs at Vassa are licensed and most Canadians are able to claim the treatments on their private insurance plans, and I do seriously ponder trying this to get a “turtle massage” for Ben. There’s a full menu of individual services for kids, special treatments for teens and a sampling of scrubs and prenatal rubs for moms-to-be (though lower-altitude areas of Mexico like Playa del Carmen are still technically considered a risk zone for transmission of the Zika virus, which means pregnant women should probably avoid travelling there for now).
One thing parents—especially parents of only children like me—quickly learn is that a vacation with your sweet, sweet child isn’t always exactly relaxing, especially when you’re on tap to build sandcastles for hours or chase them around the pool for the 82nd time. This is where that magical invention, the kids’ club, saves you. The Azulitos Playhouse at The Fives is an indoor/outdoor facility, complete with it’s own wading pool, small playground and planned activities, including Mommy-wants-to-get-tipsy-at-dinner evening programming between 7 to 9 p.m. It’s included for kids age four to 12, and features both typical fare like crafts and beach relays plus some that are specific to the region, like Ben’s favourite, a session with indigenous Mayan musicians and their traditional instruments which prompts a mad Internet search for where he can get his very own Mayan death whistle.
One thing parents—especially parents of only children like me—quickly learn is that a vacation with your sweet, sweet child isn’t always exactly relaxing, especially when you’re on tap to build sandcastles for hours or chase them around the pool for the 82nd time.
For the under-four set you can book babysitting for $20/hour per kid. Most activities are included, but some non-kids’ club fun, like the artist who had a whole table of paintable ceramics—including traditional sugar skulls—starts at an affordable $12 per piece. Ben and I each paint a skull, and they’re so pretty they end up being some of my favourite-ever holiday souvenirs. There’s also giant checkers and chess boards and ping pong tables under the trees. A small on-site gift shop has essentials like bathing suits, diapers, and, of course, inflatable pool swans, for sale. I don’t use the glossy gym, but I peek in and it looks lovely, and also peeking burns calories because you turn your head!
If you become terribly bored of all that horrible relaxing, you can also book a plethora of family-friendly excursions in the area, including some that launch right off the resort’s beach like parasailing—which they do with kids as young as five if they go with a parent. I try to talk Ben into this but he’s more of an “admire-from-the-ground” parasailer. Concierges can help book reservations with outside operators for everything from snorkelling and cave exploring jaunts to zip-lining and visiting Mayan ruins. (A visit to nearby Xel-Há, a sort of eco fun park, is a particularly good for families.)
It’s our last day, and Ben is crying again. First because there are ACTUAL PIECES OF STRAWBERRY in his homemade strawberry ice cream (it’s delicious, and if it’s originally your kid’s ice cream there are no calories in it) and second: “But I don’t want to leave Mexico!!” Life’s hard, kid. Have a gourmet chicken nugget.