14 Inspired Ways to Upgrade Your Cancun Vacation

Got a “been-there-done-that” feeling about Cancun? These inspired Cancun vacation upgrades will make the Mayan Riviera’s sun-soaked capital feel brand new all over again.

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Sunset in Cancun
Photo: ShutterStock

How to take your Cancun vacation to the next level

It’s not easy being popular.

Take Cancun, for instance. As holiday destinations go, it’s got it all: A staggering selection of resorts, reliably warm weather, affordable prices, and the convenience of being a relatively quick, direct flight from most major Canadian cities. But it’s these very perks that can also make the Mayan Riviera’s sun-soaked capital seem so very… Ordinary. It’s such an effortless getaway, it’s almost become cliché.

What if there was a way to upgrade that Cancun vacation? To take the run-of-the-mill all-inclusive experience and kick it into high-gear? It turns out you’ve got plenty of options to turn an ordinary Cancun vacation into something truly extraordinary, and they begin with booking your flights

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Couple flying to Cancun
Photo: AirTransat

1. Splurge on a seat upgrade

The stressors of flying can prevent you from getting into the holiday mindset until after you’ve stepped off the plane. Between wailing infants, overcrowded overhead bins and the interminable wait at the luggage carousel, there’s a reason most resorts greet you with a complimentary cocktail the moment you check-in. Although flying first class can alleviate some of the ennui, it remains a luxury few can afford. Luckily, there’s a new intermediary option popping up among many airlines’ southern routes, and it includes perks that make it a worthy splurge.

AirTransat’s Luxury Collection Option Plus, for example, includes complimentary seat selection, priority check-in and priority boarding and baggage handling from just $89 round-trip. A sound investment if it turns your flight into part of the vacation, rather than a means of getting there.

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North Beach, Isla Mujeres
Photo: ShutterStock

2. Soak up the sun on Isla Mujeres

Although it’s a mere 25-minute boat ride from mainland Cancun, Isla Mujeres remains one of the Mayan Riviera’s best-kept secrets. The biggest draw to the largely undeveloped island is Playa Norte (North Beach)—widely-regarded as one of Mexico’s best beaches on account of its picturesque palms, incredibly soft sand and positively luminous waters. Having soaked up the sun and surf, rent a golf cart (the island’s sole form of transportation), and follow the coast down to the southern shore. Here, you’ll find a series of spectacular cliffs where the rays of the rising sun first touch Mexican soil.

Check out these 10 Spectacular Places to Watch the Sunrise and Sunset!

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Tequila tasting
Photo: ShutterStock

3. Book a tequila tasting

Regardless of whether you love or loathe tequila, there’s no escaping the bite of the blue agave on a Cancun vacation. The best way to appreciate the stuff (or at least hate it less) is to experience a proper tequila tasting, like the one offered at the Nineteen Ten Mexican Cantina in Playa Del Carmen’s Azul Fives resort. Although it tends to be a drink that’s tossed back rather than savoured, a tequila connoisseur’s guidance can help foster your appreciation of variations in colour, aroma and—provided your stomach’s strong enough—flavour.

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Suite at Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres
Photo: Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun

4. Take the boutique resort route

Weary of sprawling, thousand-room resorts that require a detailed map to make it back to your suite (particularly after a tequila tasting)? Consider a smaller-scale boutique-style resort like Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun. Consisting of only 35 rooms (all of them oceanfront), it’s got a remarkably intimate feel, and the ability to provide a level of personalized service that its grander competitors can only dream of. The resort also benefits from a delightful sense of seclusion, due in part to the fact it’s only accessible by boat.

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Pool at Grand Velas Riviera Maya
Photo: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

5. Rise above the “Lounge Chair Stakeout”

They’re at every resort: Those people who wake up at 4AM, slink down to the pool and plant their towel, a dog-eared paperback and a cheap pair of sunglasses on the very best lounge chairs. Following that, of course, they crawl back to bed, only claim their marked territory at a more civilized—not to mention in-demand—hour. Although hoteliers have typically washed their hands of responsibility when it comes to lounge chair stakeouts, resorts like Grand Velas Riviera Maya are addressing it head-on. In addition to providing other services, the resort’s Pool and Beach Concierges put the kibosh on seat-saving so that the prime real estate is reserved for the guests who are actually there to enjoy it.

Don’t care much for crowds? Check out these lesser-known holiday destinations in Mexico!

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Mayan soul cleansing ritual
Photo: Brett Walther

6. Cleanse your soul

For many people, a stay at an all-inclusive resort is an opportunity to heal; to let go of life’s little worries and truly relax. At Grand Velas Riviera Maya, you can take this one step further by taking part in a traditional Mayan soul-cleansing ritual. Opening with a mournful wail from a conch shell horn, the ceremony uses the purifying power of scented smoke to trip your spiritual re-set button. It’s an incredibly moving experience for some, and no one leaves without a renewed sense of wonder for these ancient customs.

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Palafitos at El Dorado Maroma
Photo: El Dorado Maroma

7. Sleep above the Caribbean Sea

Bora Bora doesn’t have a monopoly on overwater bungalows anymore. In a first for Latin America, the adults-only El Dorado Maroma resort launched these luxurious thatched-roof “palafitos” in June 2016. Each 800 square-foot suite comes complete with the requisite glass-bottom floor, private infinity pool, and direct ladder access to the blissfully warm—and astonishingly shallow—waters of the Caribbean Sea. Although you’ll likely spend most of your time soaking up the sun on your private patio, wading in to shore is well worth the effort: The Travel Channel recently named Maroma Beach one of the 10 best beaches in the world.

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Food at Piaf Restaurant
Photo: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

8. Eat a meal prepared by a Master Chef of France

What’s a Master Chef of France—a prestigious title held by only 300 chefs in the world—doing at a resort in the Mayan Riviera? (Apart from singlehandedly turning everything you thought you knew about resort food on its head, that is.) On the surface an unlikely pairing, Chef Michel Mustiere is nevertheless perfectly at home at Piaf: the sumptuous, four-diamond French restaurant at Grand Velas Riviera Maya. In a setting of Swarovski crystal curtains and flickering candlelight, Mustiere serves up some of the most exquisite French cuisine on the continent, including an outstanding escargot ravioli.

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Mayan ruins at Tulum
Brett Walther

9. Step back in time at Tulum

If you only venture off-resort for one day-trip on a Cancun vacation, make it Tulum. (And, for the sake of your own sanity, make it on a Saturday or Sunday. As the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico, Tulum’s weekday crowds can be overwhelming.) Why such enthusiasm for a fairly compact collection of crumbling old brickwork? Well, the fact that it’s crumbling so little, for one: Tulum is one of the best-preserved Mayan sites along the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, perched high on a steep cliff that overlooks a white sand beach where sea turtles are known to nest.

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Family at Grand Velas Riviera Maya
Photo: Grand Velas Riviera Maya

10. Bring the kids… Or don’t

Resorts have always catered to small children; it’s the I’d-rather-die-than-be-seen-with-Mom-and-Dad teenagers who have often proven problematic. Too old for kids clubs and too young for the disco, it’s tempting to give teens the option of staying home while the rest of the family spends a week in the sun. (An arrangement that can cause just as much grief.) The good news is that resorts are beginning to recognize the value in catering to this previously neglected demographic. At Grand Velas Riviera Maya, for instance, there’s a designated Teens Club that’s kitted out with two-seater gaming pods, a billiards table, and programming that includes lessons in mixology (mocktails, of course!) and deejaying. It won’t make your teenagers less mortified to sit with you at dinner, but it’ll certainly keep them occupied.

Here are 10 Places Your Kids Need to See Before They Grow Up!

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Fizz Champagne Bar, Breathless Riviera Maya
Photo: Brett Walther

11. Pop a cork or two

Bored with the standard swim-up bar menu? Perhaps bubbles are the answer! The Fizz Champagne Bar at the adults-only Breathless Riviera Maya provides an elegant alternative to yet another pina colada.

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Snorkelling in Cancun
Photo: ShutterStock

12. Spend the day at sea

The bustling seaport of Puerto Aventuras—a 20-minute drive south of Playa del Carmen—is the ideal jumping-off point for a day-sailing excursion. At the marina, you’ll find a number of tour operators with sailing itineraries that cater to wide variety of interests. Itching to pull on a pair of flippers? The Luxury Sailing & Snorkeling cruise from Catamaran Adventures follows the lush Riviera coastline out to the Inah Reef, where you can swim amongst stingrays and an impressive assortment of curious (and colourful!) tropical fish. With an open bar on board, those who prefer keeping dry aren’t missing out on the fun, either.

These are the 10 Best Places in the World to Swim!

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Private rooftop lounge, Azul Fives
Photo: Azul Fives

13. Book a room with a view

Although people-watching is one of the guilty pleasures of a Cancun vacation, sometimes you just need to get away from the crowds. The key is to find a bit of privacy without sacrificing full sun, and for that, nothing beats the Sky Suites upgrade at Azul Fives. These luxurious rooms extend to a second-floor private rooftop lounge that includes a built-in barbecue, Jacuzzi and a Bali bed that’s tailor-made for a sun-soaked nap. For a truly decadent treat, dial up room service and dine al fresco without ever having to change out of your swimsuit.

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Koh Thai restaurant, Azul Fives
Photo: Azul Fives

14. Dine with design

Shuffling into a vast, empty hall for a cafeteria-style buffet might have been okay for your spring break days, but the new Cancun caters to a more cultured aesthetic. At the Azul Fives resort’s Koh Thai restaurant, for instance, the décor is as big a draw as the (admittedly impressive) menu. Although the eye immediately gravitates to the imposing 15-foot Buddha, the jewel-tone wallpaper, fretwork panelling, raw-edge tables and dramatic lighting all conspire to create a truly memorable—and multi-sensory—dining experience.

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