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DESTINATION MEXICO

Winds change Cancún's course

Resorts renovated after Wilma steer clear of spring-break image

Spud Hilton, Chronicle Staff Writer

 

Sunday, October 1, 2006

 

(10-01) 04:00 PDT Isla Cancún, Mexico -- The sprawling, blue-tile lagoon pool at the Cancún Palace, surrounded by lounges and a view of the powdery beach and freakishly turquoise waters, was for decades a home away from home for armies of hard-partying college students. Soaking up Mayan sun and unlimited suds all day, they would revel into the night, fueled by Dos Equis and Cuervo at the all-inclusive resort's open bar.

 

But last year's Hurricane Wilma put an end to that, probably forever. Well, Wilma and 400-thread count sheets.

 

The Cancún Palace is rising again, a concrete anthill crawling with construction workers, but as with most of the huge mega-resorts in Cancún's zona hotelera, owners are not just rebuilding, but using the catastrophic hurricane damage from almost a year ago as an opportunity to go bigger, more lavish and more sophisticated -- and to broaden the gap between Cancún's luxury and the binge drinking and poorly secured bikini tops of MTV's Spring Break coverage. Debauchery in the dunes, make way for Bellagio on the beach.

 

I was in Mexico's biggest tourist draw in recent weeks to find out if Wilma's mighty winds pushed Cancún in a new direction (or simply nudged it the way it was already going); to witness one of the fastest disaster recoveries ever; and, of course, to see if the rowdy nightlife that most Americans associate with the region survived almost a year with far fewer guests to bump and grind.

 

Contrary to the deep wisdom of CNN and Playboy, the narrow, sandy spit that is Isla Cancún has always been more focused on luxury resorts and family all-inclusives than on the carnal needs of frat boys from I Tappa Kegga at Midwestern U. Consistent numbers are hard to come by, but tourism and hotel officials estimate party-seeking students represent less than 5 percent of the 3.5 million visitors in 2005. They're just more visible (and audible).

 

And luxury is why the place was invented. In the early 1970s, Mexican tourism officials sat down to pick where the country's next Acapulco should be, an eastern Mexico destination to bring in tourists (and cash) from the East Coast, Canada and Europe. According to legend, they fed the data into a computer and it named a strip of sand and limestone shaped like a seven on the Yucatan Peninsula's Caribbean coast. The government built roads, an airport and other necessary facilities, then opened it for resort development. Downtown Cancún on the mainland grew from the need to house workers supporting and building the massive resorts.

 

But on Oct. 18, 2005, what built up over 35 years was pummeled into what looked like an urban war zone during three days of hurricane winds as Wilma stalled on top of the region, creeping along at less than 4 mph.

 

Cancún's recovery has been the antithesis of that in New Orleans (although much of the damage isn't comparable). Crews restored all electricity in 10 days; built new roads and installed better street lamps within a month; planted more than 6,000 palms and added a boardwalk and modern sculptures by the fourth month. In January, a Belgian company restored 7 1/2 miles of powdery beach that is the hotel zone's golden egg -- 3 million cubic meters of sand -- after Wilma had stripped a shoreline widely known as one of the most picturesque in the world down to jagged rocks. (The restored beach is roughly the length of San Francisco's waterfront, according to the city's tourism board.)

 

Why so fast? Cancún by itself generates 33 percent of the country's tourist dollars (about 15 percent of Mexico's net gross income, according to Cancún's tourism board), and the region, including Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya, are credited for 50 to 60 cents of every dollar Mexico makes on tourism. (Imagine if New Orleans was responsible for half of all U.S. tourism revenue.)

 

Most of the hotels still shuttered are the ones undergoing extreme makeovers -- or are simply waiting to open until high season starts in December.

 

Palace coup

 

Dignitaries and guests at the Sept. 22 ribbon-cutting for the official reopening of the elegant, upscale JW Marriott struggled to hear speeches over the clamor from next door at the Cancún Palace. Legions of hard-hatted workers sawed, drilled and jack-hammered on the bombed-out shell.

 

When it's finished, the neighboring resorts will have more in common.

 

After Wilma, what started out as basic rebuilding of Palace Resort's oldest properties turned into major makeovers, said Ana Paradela, a spokeswoman for the company. "Now we're aiming at very luxurious, upscale properties. It is not a minor remodel.

 

"By the hotel being completely remodeled, of course the price structure will be moved up. We will be trying to stay away from the student crowd," she said. "We are expecting a different type of clientele."

 

Palace Resorts is overhauling three resorts in all. Beach Palace was demolished and is being built from scratch, Once finished, Sun Palace will be one of the only resorts in the region exclusive to couples -- which will likely limit the number of party groups making reservations.

 

The Palace upgrades are the most clear-cut example, but they are far from the only makeovers.

 

Crews at the already sizable Gran Caribe Real are building two more wings, effectively doubling the resort's capacity.

 

Patricia Lopez, spokeswoman for the Cancún Convention and Visitors Bureau, said properties up and down Boulevard Kukulkán are opening bigger and more grand than before Wilma. There is a saying, she said, that applies: "No hay mal que por bien no venga."

 

Loosely translated, "There is no bad from which good doesn't come."

 

The Vegas approach

 

Intentionally or not, Cancún is taking cues from Las Vegas. Recognizing that sometimes a really expensive hotel and a beautiful beach are not enough, resorts and retail centers are using post-Wilma down time to add features: large venues for shows, spas, chic shopping and more upscale restaurants and convention space.

 

On the bottom floor of the Ritz-Carlton, in a half-finished kitchen that looks out on blazingly white beach, chef Rory Dunaway talked about the hotel's new culinary academy.

 

"We want to educate and entertain," Dunaway said. "It'll be as if they're in a restaurant, but they're working."

 

The Ritz-Carlton, which finally reopened last week, will open a $250,000, 800-square-foot kitchen-classroom later this month for cooking lessons twice a day, six days a week. Spokeswoman Laura Perez said the culinary academy is a result of the hurricane, which allowed the company time to re-evaluate who its guests are. The verdict: younger and "wealthy but relaxed."

 

"Their lifestyle has changed," said Perez. "They want to bring back experiences."

 

Dunaway, who talks about his kitchen and classes using language typically reserved for newborn babies and recently restored vintage cars, said food will be the focus, but the setting is an undeniable draw: "I can't even comprehend the idea of cooking next to an ocean that beautiful."

 

In another move from the Vegas playbook, developers of Kukulkán Plaza, which had been little better than a cheesy strip mall with a bowling alley, stripped it down to the foundation and put up a modern, glassy retail center weighted heavily with names such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Montblanc, Rolex, Ferragamo and, for good measure, Tiffany & Co.

 

Diners will find a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and a Harley-Davidson restaurant, a step or two above the mall's pre-Wilma food court fare.

 

Keeping the party going

 

Despite all the upscaling, it was easy to see, sitting in Club Corona and watching a stage full of couples competing to pop balloons while in their "favorite sexual positions," that Cancún's rowdy side probably came out of Wilma's wrath relatively unscathed.

 

I was signed up for the Señor Frog's Bar-Leaping Tour, which promised to bounce among some of the top spots in the Punta Cancún business district, home to most of the island's nightlife. For one price, tour-goers drink all night and don't wait in lines at the door of the popular clubs -- a big deal during high season.

 

The six-hour tour was destined for three clubs beyond Club Corona -- shrine-like Hard Rock Cafe, tropical funhouse Señor Frog's, and the City, an auditorium-size rave -- but all other clubs on the short but Vegas-like stretch of Kukulkán were open and thumping away, even in hurricane season.

 

In general, nightclubs are an easier restoration than hotels: Señor Frog's, for instance, re-opened in March after almost total destruction, and even added an indoor swimming pool. Some of Cancún's biggest hot spots, however, are elaborate venues for live stage shows and Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. La Boom, a top nightclub before Wilma, was still shuttered in September with no notice of when music and shows will return.

 

The City, the last stop on our tour, was at full strength with soaring gymnasts, seizure-inducing lightshow, all manner or props dropping from the ceiling and raised, pulsing dance platforms full of people for whom God invented Red Bull and vodka. From my spot, the circular, tiered nightclub was a colosseum, complete with spectators and performers.

 

Maybe it was the last margarita, but at one point, the roiling, circulating mass of humanity resembled the satellite view of, well, a hurricane.

 

Building the future

 

The hotel zone is not made for walking -- think Las Vegas stretched four times as long -- but it has an effective bus system and seemingly countless taxis, both of which are a good way to get a feel for how many resorts there are -- and how many are still being worked on.

 

A massive blue banner draped across the side of the towering Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua states, in Spanish, "The only thing more exciting than building the most beautiful hotel ... doing it one more time."

 

The banner, however, has been there for at least four months and, as of two weeks ago, construction on the property is nonexistent.

 

But others are feeling the pressure of the oncoming high season. Walking a 1-mile stretch of Boulevard Kukulkán one afternoon, I saw four times as many construction workers as tourists.

 

According to tourism officials, as of last week there were 23,549 rooms in service in the region, 18,769 of those in the hotel zone. Some other big names are still out of commission, including the Hyatt Regency and the Avalon Grand, while other resorts, such as the neighboring JW Marriott and CasaMagna Marriott, are operating but with entire wings closed off as crews scramble to be ready for crowds fleeing the December cold.

 

Abelardo Juárez, general manager of Señor Frogs, said that, in the long run, the long closings will benefit customers.

 

"We were so starved for tourism, the service of course improved," he said. "Everybody's going for another star."

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

IF YOU GO

Prices are in U.S. dollars except where noted.

 

Getting there

 

Alaska Airlines will begin nonstop service to Cancún from San Francisco on Oct. 28. A number of airlines offer one-stop connecting flights.

 

Getting around

 

Boulevard Kukulkán is the main road through the Hotel Zone, so addresses for resorts and most businesses are based on how many kilometers they are from the northern entrance to the island. The local bus costs 6.5 pesos (about 65 cents US), less than one-tenth of a cab ride; the next vehicle is rarely more than two minutes away; and most go as fast or faster than the taxis.

 

Where to stay

 

Accommodations range from bare-bones to high-end. Almost all resorts include restaurants, bars, large pool areas and access to the beach or lagoon. Among the many choices:

 

CasaMagna Marriott, Boulevard Kukulkán Km. 14.5. 011-52-998-881-2000, www.marriott.com (search "Cancun"). $149-$339 per night.

 

Gran Costa Real, Boulevard Kukulkán Km. 4.5. 011-52-998-881-7300, www.realresorts.com.mx/gran_costa_real/. All-inclusive; drinks, meals and most activities included. $186-$261 per couple per night, not including tax.

 

Where to eat

 

Paloma Bonita, Blvd. Kukulkán Km. 9. 011-52-998-848-7000. Upscale but authentic Mexican dishes; lively atmosphere (including Mariachi band). Entrees $8.25-$24.

 

La Dolce Vita, Blvd. Kukulkán Km. 14.8. 011-52-998-885-0161. Upscale Italian restaurant overlooking lagoon. Entrees $12-$30.

 

What to do

 

Señor Frog's Bar-Leaping Tour: Drinks, transportation and admission included. $60 per person. www.doCancun.com/nightlife.htm and click on link for tour.

 

For more information

 

Cancún Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.cancun.info.

 

GoCancun.com. Pages of guides, advice and links for hotels, restaurants and nightlife.

 

Spud Hilton is deputy editor of Travel. To comment, e-mail travel@sfchronicle.com.

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