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An eco break on the Riviera Maya | The Times

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An eco break on the Riviera Maya

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve - View from Cesiak, Tulum Meera Dattani

Meera Dattani
Last updated August 23 2010 12:29PM

A luxury hideaway with beaches, wildlife and ancient history a stroll away
You want to be green, but you crave a little luxury. Not quite a lodge in the jungle, but you want to be ‘near’ nature. And you’re desperate to get away from it all, but not to the middle of nowhere. If you’re flying into Mexico’s busy hub of Cancun Airport, that sounds like it could be a tall order, but not so. 80 miles south of the tourist mecca of Cancun in Mexico’s northeastern Quintana Roo state is Tulum, hippy backpacker hub turned eco chic beach resort where yoga centres, Mayan

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9/30/2010 11:00 AM

An eco break on the Riviera Maya | The Times

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mud spas and green tourism are flourishing like never before. Backed by seven kilometres of powdery white sand, this resort on the Yucatan peninsula seems to have the whole package. What makes Tulum shine is what’s at either the end of the endless sandy beach. At the northern tip are Tulum’s Mayan ruins, admittedly more spectacular for their location above the Caribbean Sea than the actual temples, while at the southern end is the 1.3million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a treasure trove of wildlife and protected habitat. And it was right beside the biosphere reserve where we decided to stay. Driving along the Tulum Beach Road, which runs parallel to the beach, it’s easy to miss the entrance to Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves), the last property on Tulum beach before the reserve. You can’t see it from the road and only a sign marked ‘Private Entrance’ suggests there may be something at the end of the windy, bumpy road. There are some firsts you never forget, and walking into Casa de las Olas’ master oceanfront suite with its Chicago-born manager Heather Anderson is one of them. Even now, sat at my desk, my eyes mist over, reminiscing over the days when that room was mine, if only for four days. I dream of the king-size canopy beds, the sunken lounge area, hardwood beam ceilings, wooden dining table and 300-square-foot terrace overlooking the pristine beach. And the hammock. And the luxury natural stone bathroom suite. I could go on. There are also four smaller suites in the villa, all with private entrances, but the villa can be rented for groups too. Casa de las Olas has a touch of green to it too - the property uses solar energy, although owner Russell Granger is careful to point out that they are friends of the earth, rather than full-on eco-warriors. “There a lot of other things we do and are going to do. We’re green wherever we can be, but there are areas where it’s not realistic, especially here in Mexico.” But where they’re green, they mean it. During peak sun hours, solar panels power the electricity supply and charge the battery banks, so during non-sunny spells, It’s these nifty batteries that store energy to power the wifi internet, iPod docking station and give you electricity 24 hours a day, something of an anomaly in Tulum’s Beach Zone. That said, hair dryers, straighteners and the like are best left at home. Other environmental measures include gravity-fed plumbing, complimentary biodegradable shampoo, body wash and hair balm and the use of biodegradable, non-toxic cleaning supplies. There’s also no air conditioning, something which, despite the heat, I never even realised. Apparently, the biophilic design of the villa captures the sea breezes, which eliminates the need for air conditioning. Biophilic design is all the rage, bringing the outdoors into interior living space, using morning sun, water features and natural views through the window-wall to promote wellbeing. Heather runs Casa de las Olas in a laidback, hands-off, yet friendly manner. If you need anything, she’s always there, but she won’t be popping up every hour. It’s a refreshing

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An eco break on the Riviera Maya | The Times

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experience. But you always know she’s looking after you. In the kitchen, the huge garrafon (water bottle) is always replenished with (complimentary) drinking water and on arrival, we enjoyed complimentary wine, beer and fresh fruit. A communal gas barbecue is another nice touch. Once you’ve realised the beach view is not going anywhere, it’s not a bad idea to stop staring at it and realise that you’re next door to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sian Ka’an is translated from Mayan as ‘where the sky is born’ or ‘gift from the sky’. Spanning 120 kilometres from north to south (nearly one third of Mexico’s Caribbean coast), its 1.3 million acres are packed with mangrove lagoons, 23 Mayan sites and natural habitats, including nesting areas for sea turtles and many wading birds. It also has 110km of the world’s second largest barrier reef. A five-minute walk from the main entrance by Casa de las Olas is one of the reserve’s cenotes or sinkholes, underground caves filled with fresh groundwater, particularly common in the Yucatan region. A dip and snorkel in this freshwater pool is the perfect pick-me-up before exploring the reserve. Around 2,000 people live in the reserve, mainly in the fishing villages of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, where a fishing industry still thrives. You can actually stay inside the reserve at CESiaK (Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an) in deluxe or double cabins which meet rigorously high environmental standards, set on raised platforms, with wind and solar power providing electricity and climate control, and composting toilets-with-a-view. Cesiak also runs kayak, flyfishing, canal and sunset tours where you can follow Mayan trade routes used 1,200 years ago. Over a sundowner on their terrace, swathes of nature unfold in front of you and it takes a moment for your eyes to absorb it this endless view of beach, mangrove and inland saltwater lagoon. It’s a humbling moment. A few kilometres away at the northern end of Tulum beach are the Mayan ruins. Perched above the gleaming Caribbean Sea, they are the oldest on the Caribbean coast. Tulum was a major trading post during the 13-15th century until it was conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The pyramid of El Castillo, perched on Tulum’s highest cliff, doubled up as a lighthouse where two lit torches would help ships navigate their way through the reef. Walled on three sides, Tulum was a mighty fortress with the ocean protecting its fourth side. Of the preserved buildings, one of the most attractive is Temple of the Frescoes, still featuring Mayan motifs like the diving or descending god, supposedly a symbol of Kukulkan, the sacred feathered serpent god. These ruins attract crowds of daytrippers (and harmless iguanas!) so when the hordes and the heat get too much, escape to the beach below and take refuge with a quick dip in the sea. Ruins and reserve aside, it’s hard to leave Casa de las Olas – if you’ve stocked up, dining on the terrace night after night never dulls and one evening turned into an impromptu dinner party in our suite, with Russell and Heather dishing up homemade Italian cuisine to us and

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An eco break on the Riviera Maya | The Times

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two other guests. However, one eatery that’s worth every peso is just a few doors down from Casa de las Olas El Hechizo restaurant. Located in the private Rancho San Eric, El Hechizo (Spanish for ‘enchantment’), is Michelin-style dining at very friendly prices. Run by Austrian-born owner/chef Stefan Schober and his wife/pastry chef Ying-Hui, who met while working at the Ritz Carlton in Singapore, this is undoubtedly one of Tulum’s best restaurants. With only nine tables, no menu and no fixed prices, Stefan and Ying-Hui base the menu on ingredients sourced that day before chatting to you at your table about what’s on offer. They love to mix and match with starters like watermelon and mild Mexican goat cheese on watercress salad, with pine seeds, black pepper and balsamic-honey reduction. And after a stomach-stretching main course of seared king scallops on homemade white truffle-butter fettuccini, finding space for one of Ying-Hui’s desserts was a challenge – but not an impossible one. Instinct craved the warm flourless chocolate fondant cake but to test the palette, I opted for the black pepper cheesecake with balsamic-infused strawberries, and the gamble paid off. After four restful nights, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and four days of barefoot beach bliss, I felt relaxed, recharged, revived and restored. I’d even enjoyed a dose of Mayan history and had a lesson in biosphere conservation. People talk about the art of doing nothing, but there’s no art to it. It’s the easiest thing in the world in Tulum and definitely at Casa de las Olas. Need to know Casa de las Olas is located at the end of Tulum Beach. Weekly rates to hire the whole villa are £4,600 (low season May-Nov) to £5,900 (high season Jan-Apr) per week. The Master Ocean Front Suite (five-night minimum) costs from £262-£295 per night while other suites (three-night minimum) cost from £96-195. A 10 per cent discount applies to seven-night stays. If you’re arriving from Cancun, car hire is probably the easiest option but we did it without car, using ADO buses and relying on taxis for the few trips from Casa de las Olas to the ruins and to Tulum pueblo. A meal for two at Hechizo including wine costs approximately £80 ($120) exlcuding tips. It’s open Tue-Sun for dinner only. Email hechizo_tulum@yahoo.com to reserve. They don’t take cards or cheques so bring US dollars or Mexican pesos. See http://www.cesiak.org for more information about Cesiak and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
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An eco break on the Riviera Maya | The Times

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