A week in paradise at Playa del Carmen’s Gran Porto Real

The week started out great. We put the kids on the Zoom Airlines flight direct from Ottawa to Cancun. Zoom, an Ottawa-based international charter, offers flights and all-inclusive packages to southern destinations. (This year, the Mexican destination is Puerto Vallarta.)

Arriving in Cancun, we are taken on charter buses south for one hour to Playa del Carmen. The main road into town – Avenida Juarez – leads you right to the ferry dock and the pedestrian-only 5th Avenue. Playa del Carmen is truly a paradise. This once sleepy village on the Mayan Riviera is now bustling with Canadian and European tourists who have discovered its alabaster-white beaches, soft blue turquoise surf, coral reefs and slow lifestyle, as well as the very gentle and friendly Mayan people. (The pleasant but much more expensive island of Cozumel is just across the strait.) Playa del Carmen's dock is the pier for the 'people ferry to Cozumel, so it's only a short trip over to snorkel or dive on Cozumel's incredible coral reefs.

The resort has an incredible kids' club. Children can join anytime during the day. The kids' activity reps are always doing arts and crafts or organizing events for children on the beach. The staff is exceptional; the kids just couldn't get enough of the daily activities. Besides the extraordinary accommodation and services, we found that for the sake of convenience, staying close to 5th Avenue near the Grand Porto Real at 5th & 14th was our best option. We were close to the supermarket, stores, bus station, beach and fast-food outlets serving reasonably priced Mexican fare. The strong European influence in Playa del Carmen has created a unique, eclectic world ambiance. Combine that with a relaxed Mexican-Caribbean feeling and a sprinkling of American free spirits and you've got a tropical destination second to none.

It does not take long to become acquainted with Playa del Carmen. In one day you can get to know the vacation zone quite well.

Most of Playa's activities involve the water. The beaches are fabulous for swimming, snorkelling or diving. There are numerous dive shops around, and snorkelling, dive and fishing boats ready to take you out.

We enjoyed the marvellous beaches by day and took in the lively nightlife along 5th Avenue in the evening. Clothing stores sell the latest threads from Europe. Cuban cigar and rum stores abound. Most impressive was the incredible selection of silver jewellery made by the local population. There are bargains to be had and enough variety in both selection and pricing. Playa del Carmen has a mellow yet very vibrant atmosphere. At night, the clubs along 5th Avenue come alive.

The farther away from 5th Avenue you go, the cheaper things get. You also will find the best Mexican restaurants not far from 5th on 30th, which puts you out of the tourist zone. In fact, in-between 5th and 30th are all kinds of interesting stores that sell everything; from live chickens to computers. You'll find banks, money exchanges and pharmacies there. Playa is not that big and everything the vacationer might need is within the tourist zone. Numerous Internet cafes serve great coffees- espresso, cappuccinos and a variety of herbal teas.

Golf can be played on an 18-hole course designed by Robert Von Hagge. An American tourist I met told me it's one of the best courses he's ever played. Beachcombers can hike north and make a day of it, relaxing in beachside restaurants along the way. Wear a hat and much sunscreen. Don't miss the Chaak Tun Cave. It's on Avenida Juarez several miles down the highway on the right past Alux Cave. You can swim in there.

On day five of our trip, we ventured to Xel-Ha (which means 'where the water is born'). Known as the magical creation of the Mavan gods: Xel-Ha is 60 miles south of Cancun, on the Riviera Maya. It was a safe harbour and port-of-call for the ancient Mayan merchant fleet. Today, Xel-Ha is a remarkable recreational site, where visitors can explore such natural wonders as a labyrinth of waterways and paths through the tropical jungle, lagoons or transparent turquoise, private inlets and coves, cenotes (fresh water sinkholes or natural wells), a cool river which flows through a mangrove forest, multicoloured fish, and a verdant lush jungle.

To make these sites more accessible, the park has installed wagon carts pulled by a four-wheeler. This makes the voyage to the river's entrance a lot faster. Usually referred to as the "train," these wagons parallel the pedestrian paths, starting near the entrance and ending where the river begins. The train also carries the belongings of those who swim or snorkel down the river safely back to another checkpoint at the park's center. The park has introduced an interactive swimming program with dolphins that live in the fabulous natural aquarium.

Unpaved paths lead the explorer to hidden inlets, thatched-roof palapas, an ancient wall built by the Mayas, two cenotes that widen into a spectacular waterway with a view of rock buttresses, lush foliage and the vibrant blue Caribbean sky. We decided to journey downriver by swimming and floating in a large inner tube. It was a fantastic two-hour trip- we stopped to jump off cliffs and take in the scenery. As you go downriver, the stream opens up into an equally crystal-clear, turquoise lagoon where snorkelling is a must. The Xel-Ha journey is a spectacular vacation experience. The "Discover Tulum-Explore Xel-Ha" tour makes for an ideal day in paradise, where nature, culture and history blend into a fabulous learning and pleasure experience.

To find out more, visit www.gotraveldirect.com.