A Blend of Old and New

A renovated Presidente emerges from the storm

By: Maribeth Mellin

Chilly winds blew around the temazcal at the Presidente InterContinental Cozumel, threatening to destroy our spiritual experience. Rain sprinkled the hot rocks for the Maya-style sweat lodge (all the rage at Mexican spas).

Moises, a young shaman dressed in white, did his best to create a steamy ambience as he led a group of strangers through the purification ritual meant to inspire tranquility and renewal. He told us to imagine a place where we felt happy, secure and peaceful. My mind didn’t wander far. As always, the Presidente Cozumel felt like home.

Any agent who sells Mexico has likely heard of the hotel. Clients who stay there tend to become loyal fans. Over the past 37 years the Presidente has been Cozumel’s classiest and most romantic resort. It opened as a government-owned property simply called “the Presidente,” then went private and added the names of various management companies. InterContinental has maintained the property’s reputation as one of the most endearing hotels in Mexico.

A disclaimer is in order here. The Presidente Cozumel is one of my favorite hotels anywhere in the world. I’ve stayed there at least a half-dozen times and have recommended it to countless readers and friends. When Hurricane Wilma smashed the hotel like a sandcastle in October 2005, I felt like my own vacation home had been destroyed. The storm trashed roofs, ceilings, gardens, jungle and the prettiest beach on Cozumel. It took nearly 12 months for the doors to reopen. A design team came in from L.A. to thoroughly revamp the property and create a 21st-century resort, injecting a new level of sophistication while retaining the hotel’s laid-back charms.

“The challenge was incredible,” said general manager Javier Rosenberg, who rode out Wilma in the hotel’s ballroom. “It normally takes years to conceive and design a five-star hotel, but the Presidente’s team was on a tight deadline. Clients and agents canceling reservations wanted to rebook ASAP. We got the go-ahead in four months.”

Suites were enlarged and tricked out with oceanview bathtubs, outdoor rain showers, MP3 docks and plasma-screen TVs. An adults-only pool replaced a patch of stripped-down jungle. The spa was rebuilt beside a new kid’s club.

Like other longtime devotees, I approached the new Presidente with trepidation shortly after it reopened. My fears were assuaged the moment the taxi turned into a driveway once buried in palms. All of the hotel’s lush landscaping was battered and burned by Wilma’s salty winds, but the gardeners had obviously been busy. New palms sprouted healthy green fronds and shiny hibiscus sported vivid red flowers.

Familiar faces welcomed me many of the bellmen, waiters, housekeepers and handymen have been with the hotel for years. A butler led the way to the same seaview suite where I’d stayed with my mom in the late 1980s. Entering the room felt like deja vu with a twist, immediately comfortable yet vastly different. The bright yellow and blue color palette was replaced with sophisticated creams and browns. Sleek dark-wood furnishings took full advantage of the scenery, with a cushy king-size bed facing the terrace and beach.

Clients returning to the Presidente for the first time since Wilma are in for endless surprises. They may be amazed by the new room rates, starting at $333 for a pool-view room and $491 for an ocean suite, and the hip decor. Wi-Fi access, cordless phones, classy linens and Elemis toiletries have been added to the amenities, and in-room coffeemakers serve up gourmet coffee and tea.

Many of the hotel’s most touching traditions survived both Wilma and the $25 million facelift. Clients will smile at the fanciful animals perched on their beds. The housekeepers have become quite adept at creating elephants, lizards and swans from towels and flowers. By the end of my stay I had a menagerie scattered about on the couch, coffee table and bed. I certainly didn’t need to use the towels. The bath sheets by the shower and beach towels in a basket near the sliding glass door were more than sufficient though I could have used a smaller towel to wrap my wet hair.

Small details from the past blend beautifully with the thoroughly modernized hotel. Waiters prepare fresh guacamole tableside at Caribeno, the seaside restaurant topped by a gigantic brand-new palapa. The restaurant’s breakfast buffet and breads have always been fabulous and now accompany a more sophisticated menu. Lunch is particularly fun make sure clients sample the ceviches and margaritas. Antonio Loranca strums familiar Santana and Sting hits during steak and seafood dinners. An accordion player accompanies more formal dinners at Alfredo di Roma, the gourmet Italian restaurant. Chef Sergio Leoni oversees the menu used at Alfredo restaurants in Presidente InterContinental hotels throughout Mexico. Book a window-side table for your clients’ first night they might want to return for more homemade pastas, imported cheeses and robust wines.

The Presidente’s Serenity Spa is Cozumel’s first full-scale facility offering sublime hot-stone massages and Mayan fruit and spice wraps. A well-equipped gym is located right next door, beside the tennis courts. New sand was trucked in for the long beach fronting the sea. It will take some time for the coral formations near shore to recover from the storm, and the swarms of tropical fish that once hung out beside the hotel have yet to return en masse. But the on-site Scuba Du dive center, one of the best on the island, has reopened with a new dock and trips to nearby coral reefs teeming with life. Even the hotel’s resident iguanas have new homes in mock Maya temples beside the jungle and sea. Clients are sure to remember fond moments from the old Presidente as they appreciate the new.


Presidente InterContinental Cozumel
Resort & Spa