Island Hopping in Mexico

written by | Posted on April 5th, 2013

The oceanfront Villas Flamingos

Although it’s difficult to get away from it “all” nowadays, islands still hold a certain mystique for vacationers. There’s a sense that one can just don those flip-flops and sunglasses all day, let go of one’s city persona and completely relax, truly embracing the surrounding’s laid-back atmosphere. And in speaking with many of the travel professionals we spoke with for this story, we get the sense that that is exactly what vacationers who seek out these types of getaways are yearning, and who can blame them. In fact, we wish we were on one of these islands right now, with those turquoise waters surrounding us, the sand wriggling between our toes, and a coconut in one hand as we barter for a handicraft or two with local merchants in their shops.

Here, we’ve got all the information you’ll need for booking this type of island getaway in Mexico—from some of the best restaurant picks on the islands to the most idyllic of hotel choices.

“People come to these islands to totally disconnect from everyday life and enjoy the culture, food, language and people that occupy these places,” says Jesus Almaguer, CEO, Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox are each filled with natural wonders, unspoiled beaches and the perfect escapes.” He adds that the best modes of transportation on Holbox and Isla Mujeres are golf carts and walking, and since the islands are largely inhabited by fishermen, fresh seafood is on every menu (on Holbox, he recommends your clients try the lobster pizza at Pizzeria Carioca, and on Isla Mujeres he recommends Satay for its Asian fusion cuisine). Cozumel is a little more popular since it is a major cruise port, but nonetheless, says Adamarie King, owner of Connoisseur’s Travel, “the eastern shores of the island are empty of people and buildings, and therefore offer a great alternative for clients looking for a real retreat” away from mass tourism.

And these destinations are not just ideal for honeymooners and couples, says Sylvie Laitre, director of Mexico Boutique Hotels (MBH), with several hotel options on the islands. “I’d also say families, especially Holbox, a destination with no cars. Driving around in golf carts appeals to kids and the fact that the ocean is so calm makes it a safe place to take your kids on a fun beach adventure,” adding that “islands afford a soothing setting that is also nice for travelers who like to have a sense of smallness and even of ‘conquering’ their destination. These islands are easy to get around and visit completely.”

Cozumel

island-by-island breakdown

COZUMEL

What’s Up: Cozumel is where watersports lovers feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s made for this sort of aficionado, with some of the best scuba diving around. In fact, says King, one of the island’s most “important activities and attractions is the amazing shallow and deep-sea diving available along the magnificent reefs that surround a large part of the island.”

Where to Stay: For clients who want the all-inclusive experience and like the familiarity of a top-end hotel name such as Palace Resorts, recommend the 175-room Cozumel Palace, within easy walking distance of the town center and steps from the Caribbean Sea. Oceanview suites come with balcony and hammock, and guests have access to a spa, four restaurants, pools, a Family Connections program, unlimited long distance phone calls to the U.S. and Canada, and all sorts of amenities at clients’ fingertips. The resort recently partnered with Aqua Safari, which offers an onsite experienced dive team and dive packages for both novices and experts. Rates at Palace Resorts start at $171 pp, per night dbl and guests who book stays of five nights or longer, get a $1,500 resort credit for use towards spa treatments, tours, room upgrades, private dinners and more.

For those clients looking for a more boutiquey scene, recommend Hotel B Cozumel, part of the MBH collection. It offers 41 suites and oceanview rooms and four jungle-view rooms; pool and jacuzzi; massage and body therapies; hammock lounge overlooking the sea; certified PADI dive center; and an arts & crafts workshop and store. Top accommodation choices are the spacious jr. suites with Mexican handicraft decor, ocean-facing beds and private oceanview balconies. The hotel’s 3-night Romance package includes oceanview accommodations, breakfast, one couple’s massage, one dinner with champagne, VIP check-in and late check-out. Rates start at $368 pp.

How to Get There: The island’s international airport is located five minutes from downtown, and major airlines such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer flights from the States. Those headed to the island from the Mexico mainland can depart from Puerto Morelos and take a 28-minute ferry.

Isla Holbox offers unspoiled beaches

ISLA HOLBOX

What’s Up: This is one of the few places in the world where one can observe and even swim with the extraordinary whale shark. They start arriving in May and an encounter with them is almost guaranteed between mid-June to September. “Isla Holbox is special,” says Laitre, “in that it forces you to go through all these tiny Maya villages on the way to the ‘port.’” Adds Travel Impressions’ executive v.p. and COO, John Hanratty, “The island is separated from the mainland coast of Mexico by a shallow lagoon, which gives sanctuary to thousands of flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds and creatures—a nature lover’s dream.”

Where to Stay: Two MBH hotels call Holbox home: CasaSandra and Villas Flamingos. CasaSandra, Hanratty says, is known for its culinary prowess and artistic flair, making it popular, adds Laitre, with New Yorkers. The owner has adorned the hotel’s bright white walls with her original art pieces—as well as some created by Cuban artists—personally designed the furnishings and named the rooms after inspirations: Ilusion (Illusion), Amanecer (Dawn), Sentido (Feeling), and it’s all complemented by beautiful terracotta floors, cushions and embroidered tablecloths. And The New York Times says that the hotel’s restaurant is one of the best places to eat on the island. Room of choice has got to be the spacious Master Suite, which feels like one’s own tropical cottage. Rates start at $367 per night. Villas Flamingos, meanwhile, offers 18 rooms and has an eco-component. “It’s the least chic of the two options,” says Laitre, “but it doesn’t try to be [more than that]. It’s authentic, colorful and friendly.” Recommend the jr. suite #12, with its private terrace and ocean view. The 3-night Family package ($1,035) offers accommodations in a jr. suite; 1-hour bicycle for four; 1-hour kayak for four; 2-hour horseback riding for four, and other goodies.

How to Get There: The most common transportation is to drive to Chiquila (a couple of hours from Cancun), and from Chiquila take a ferry to Holbox. The trip is a 30-minute boat ride and they run each hour.

ISLA MUJERES

What’s Up: “Diving, fishing, snorkeling, touring the island,” says Almaguer. The island is known for the eco-park, Garrafon Natural Park, captivating art, island tradition, the tranquil and endless Playa Norte, observing sunrises and sunsets in Punta del Sur or visiting la Cueva de los Tiburones Dormidos (Sleeping Sharks Cave), as well as the Mayan ruins that are found in the island’s jungles.

Where to Stay: MBH’s 35-suite Villa Rolandi, which is ideal for adults and offers a Thalasso spa, pools, a private beach and, Almaguer says, “incredible food.” It’s an all-suite resort and all oceanfront, nevertheless, says Liatre, “nothing beats its Presidential Suite, and important guests like Sir Richard Branson and Kofi Annan can attest to that.” The 3-story suite features marble finishing and state-of-the-art decor, although its most decadent feature has got to be the top jacuzzi terrace with a private solarium that offers panoramic views of the island. The hotel’s Fourth Night Free Rest & Relax package includes four nights in an oceanfront suite with jacuzzi terrace; breakfast and other goodies, with rates starting at $1,090 for two.

How to Get There: There are ferries every 30 minutes from Cancun, which run from 5:30 a.m. to midnight. The trip is a 20-minute boat ride through the unparalleled turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

WHAT TRAVEL AGENTS ARE SAYING…

Who’s the Target Clientele

“These three islands are very different, and therefore appeal to and target diverse elements of the tourism mix.

• San Miguel in Cozumel is the oldest town in the Yucatan. You can still find traditional restaurants and cantinas that offer up varied local specialties for the locals, not tourist fare. It’s a very authentic experience.

• Isla Mujeres is for the people who are looking for great beaches, lots of creature comforts and a slice of local life without being excluded from the mainstream attractions of Cancun.

• Holbox is for the more experienced traveler looking for a more unique and off-the-beaten-path destination. The tradeoff is that facilities are not as sophisticated. The types of activities available: bare hand shore fishing; whale shark spotting; birdwatching and meditation.”

—Adamarie King, Owner, Connoisseur’s Travel &
Eduardo Seijo Solis, Tourism Minister, Yucatan State

An Island Getaway with Travel Impressions

So who’s booking these island getaways, you might ask? According to Travel Impressions’ John Hanratty, the company’s executive v.p. and COO, “We find that most Cozumel vacationers have already fallen in love with Mexico during previous visits, while Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres are perfectly suitable for first-time visitors seeking relaxation in a laid-back island atmosphere. Scuba divers and golf enthusiasts are a good fit for Cozumel, while Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres are ideal for those looking to escape for much-needed pampering and relaxation.”

Travel Impressions offers numerous resorts on these islands in its portfolio, including CasaSandra on Holbox. In fact, for travelers headed to Holbox, Hanratty recommends an overnight stay in Cancun with transportation provided by the tour operator to Chiquila (about a 2.5-hour ride) in the morning, followed by a ferry to Holbox. And Hanratty stresses that because the company has devoted significant resources in Mexico, “Travel Impressions is one of the leading tour operators for the destination.”

A sample 3-night package on Cozumel at Cozumel Palace is $532 pp in a standard city-view room and includes roundtrip hotel transfers; 3-night hotel accommodations; hotel tax and service charges; all meals, drinks and snacks; daily activities; non-motorized watersports and more. For more information, visit travimp.com or quest.travimp.com/phase1/FEAgentLogin.cgi (travel agent login).

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/supplement-archive):
Mexico Boutique Hotels’ Stellar Collection (October 2012)

contact information

Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau: cancun.travel/en

Cozumel Travel: cozumel.travel or cozumel.travel/about/travel-agents.cfm

Cozumel Palace: (877) 325-1537; palaceresorts.com/cozumelpalace or palaceagents.com

Mexico Boutique Hotels: (855) 223-6061; hotelesboutique.com/en or hotelesboutique.com/en/travel-agents