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The sun had barely risen when I sat on my terrace, pounding on my laptop single-mindedly. Looking up to ponder a word, I noticed carafes of orange juice and coffee on the table. A bit later, a basket of pan dulce (sweet pastries) appeared. Peering through lush foliage, I spotted a waiter at the edge of the nearby restaurant and waved. He walked over, nodded at my thanks and said, “You needed this.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
The year was 2007, and the Riviera Maya region was beginning to boom. I was writing a guidebook to the area, racing from hotel to hotel, and I desperately needed some downtime and pampering. Having heard positive reviews about the new seaside estate, I made my way to Esencia.
The property belongs to the Duchess of Ferrari (no relation to the flashy car company), who had used it as a vacation villa before turning it into a small, exclusive hotel. My suite, located in the white Mediterranean-style guesthouse beside the main villa, was beyond minimalist, with an unadorned desk and a low bed dressed in white Egyptian linens. Pieces of driftwood and a bowl of oranges created a sense of sophisticated simplicity.
A rustic, Maya-style building of slatted wood housed the spa, and the restaurant overlooked a small pool. Despite the modest style, the hotel had an air of refined exclusivity. After indulging in a massage, dozing on the white-sand beach of the idyllic Playa Xpu-Ha and savoring several helpings of delicious ceviche and grilled fish, I knew I had found a true gem.
I’ve returned twice since that original visit, and despite some alterations, Esencia still remains free of ostentation and ornate decoration. The number of accommodations has grown to 29, spread over the estate’s 50 acres. New two-story thatched-roof buildings and elaborate cottages are buried amid dense vegetation beside broad lawns.
On my first two visits, I stayed in the guesthouse and villa, but last spring I reluctantly passed on those incomparable oceanview suites and tried out a second-story garden suite instead. The decor and amenities were identical to the oceanview suite, including the Molton Brown toiletries in the bathroom. The room also had the same technology as the other suite — remote-controlled shades, indirect lighting, a wide-screen television, a sub-zero fridge and a loaded iPod. Plus, the garden suite had a private plunge pool and a balcony buried in trees, where birds sang and flitted about, trying to steal my morning pastries. The setting was so serene that I hardly missed the sea view.
The estate now has two side-by-side pools, an outdoor yoga studio and a temazcal (a sweat lodge), and the sugar-white beach remains one of the loveliest along the coast. The spa is still simple, with some of the best therapists I’ve ever met. Best of all, the cuisine has remained so top-notch that I can’t imagine straying from the grounds for a meal. On a recent visit, Chef Bernardo Garcia showed me how to make one of my favorites, ceviche verde, in one of his regular cooking classes. Breakfast and lunch are served poolside, while dinner is more formally presented in the candlelit Sal y Fuego restaurant. The chef offers Yucatecan dishes, along with seafood, lamb and vegetarian options. The wine and tequila lists are suitably impressive.
I’ve heard that the Duchess is still on property sometimes. Though in my three visits I haven’t caught a glimpse of her, I’m so glad she has opened her home to unfamiliar guests and I’m grateful for her impeccable taste. The Rivera Maya is packed with exceptional resorts, but in my experience, Esencia delivers the most regal escape.