By Steve MacNaull
Miguel Barquet arrives with a flourish and an armful of tequila bottles.
“Are you ready for your tequila education?” asks the sommelier excitedly.
My wife and I and our 11-year-old daughter reply ‘si’ with enthusiasm. We’re on the terrace of Sky Bar at Grand Velas Resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya just as the sun is setting.
Three different-shaped glasses in front of us are quickly filled with premium tequilas, each progressively darker than the other. Being 11, our daughter only sniffs each, scrunching up her nose.
“Mexicans sip tequila straight,” declares Miguel. “We never shoot it. We never take it with lime or salt or make a funny face when we drink it. And most Mexicans never touch a margarita.”
What? We are so looking forward to having many a margarita on this Mexican holiday.
Ironically, we start by sipping white Don Julio tequila out of a shooter glass, concurring with Miguel that it’s delightfully grassy, because it’s distilled from the heart of the agave plant. The amber-coloured Herradura reposado gets its hue from oak aging and is served in a glass reminiscent of a little brandy snifter. The Tres Generociones anejo is almost black and so smooth it deserves to be served in the special tequila glass esteemed crystal maker Riedel designed for the drink.
We thank Miguel, feel educated and go into dinner at Grand Velas’ Frida. Yes, the restaurant is named after Frida Kahlo, the famous unibrowed Mexican artist. My wife and I immediately order margaritas, the delicious cocktail of tequila, triple sec, lime juice and ice, served in a salt-rimmed glass with a wedge of lime garnish. We also have it blended into a refreshingly potent frozen slush, which apparently is another Mexican no-no.
The tequila tasting is the start of a week-long Mexican foray that will take us through many more meals and margaritas, frolicking on the beach, lounging by pools, ziplining, swimming in an underground river, visiting the seaside ruins of Tulum, strolling vibrant Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen and being pampered at the spa.
Grand Velas, located south of Cancun and north of Playa del Carmen, is one of the new breed of luxury resorts that kicks the all-inclusive concept up a serious notch. Most of the 500 suites at this Leading Hotels of the World property have private plunge pools on their patios and balconies. The décor is modern with Mexican touches and the amenities go on and on and on. To start, a beach with powdery white sand and aquamarine Caribbean Sea. Then there are the three pool complexes, five a la carte gourmet restaurants and Signature Spa.
Xavier Perez Stone, the slim and bespectacled man in charge at Cocina de Autor was named Best Chef in Mexico in 2012 and his resto is the only one at an all-inclusive to receive AAA’s Five Diamond rating. Our cooking class with Xavier includes kitchen and dining room tours and hands-on work to help create the green Mexican sauce, tomato and red pepper skins, raspberry sauce and anise bread that show up in dishes on the eight-course tasting menu we come back to enjoy a couple of hours later.
The Signature Spa earned No. 1 ranking in Latin America from Leading Spas of the World. My wife and I indulge in the seven progressive hydratherapies in the modern cathedral-like space that includes pools, steam rooms, saunas and showers and then go zen during a side-by-side couples Velas Maya massage.
We did tear ourselves away from this luxury a couple of times. Ana Mari Irabien, who works with both Velas Resorts and Riviera Maya Tourism, takes us to nearby Tulum to admire the seaside ancient ruins of the sophisticated Mayan city and stroll Playa del Carmen’s famous Fifth Avenue to shop and down margaritas at a sidewalk cafe.
Ana Mari is the consummate guide. She has her own half-hour TV show on national network Excelsior called Vision Tourism every Saturday. “I guess I'm a little bit famous,” she says nonchalantly. “Sometimes I get recognized on the street.”
Xplor is a nature park created by an asteroid smashing into the earth 65 million years ago. It formed the perfect setting for us to swim the underground river, explore caves and zipline over jungle, through caverns and under waterfalls.
Air Transat packages flights and stays at the five-start Grand Velas as part of its Luxury Collection. “It’s one of the highest-end resorts we partner with in the most popular sun destination we fly to,” said Transat product director Paula DeCampos.
Air Transat flies to Cancun non-stop from 18 Canadian cities. Flight and all-inclusive accommodation, dining and drinks packages start at about $2,500 a week per person based on double occupancy.
Check out TransatHolidays.com and RivieraMaya.GrandVelas.com.