Jazz on the Beach in the Mexican Caribbean

For those of us who live in New England or anywhere else in the nation’s northern tier, autumn is a wistful season. Gone are the long, warm days of summer. There’s a chilly tang in the air. The final harvest has been reaped. Soon there’ll be frost on the pumpkin. For avid golfers and jazz buffs, it’s time to start thinking of warmer places.

Of the many tropical getaways sprinkled throughout Mexico, precious few offer white sand beaches, clear mild waters and a fine array of courses set back from the Caribbean Sea. Throw in ancient Maya ruins and a free jazz festival this fall, and the appeal meter, like a Spinal Tap amplifier, jumps to 11.

Scheduled for Nov. 25-28, the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, now in its eighth year, has developed into one of the world’s most acclaimed events. OK, it’s not Montreux or Newport, but neither of those venues has a glorious beachfront setting. This south-of-the-border gathering, which drew more than 50,000 visitors to the region last year, has showcased artists ranging from Herbie Hancock and George Benson to Pat Martino and Sergio Mendes.

All concerts presented by the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival are free and open to the public, allowing visitors and residents alike to partake in the musical experience. Concerts begin around 7:00 p.m. The stage is located under the stars at Mamita’s Beach Club in Playa del Carmen. This year’s featured artists will include Al Di Meola, George Duke, the Manhattan Transfer, John McLaughlin (of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame), and many more.

Located an hour’s drive south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen is a former fishing village with a lovely Caribbean beach and a growing reputation as one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s trendiest getaways. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with this seaside enclave. A vibrant settlement built on the broad slope of a hill, the town appeals to young-at-heart hipsters who eschew the pre-packaged Cancun vacation experience.

The best place to commence a tour of Playa del Carmen is Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with colorful boutiques, artisan galleries, intimate b & b’s, whimsical hotels, rooftop clubs and open-air cafes. Filling the streets are hand-holding couples and exuberant life lovers who enjoy the palpable sense of fun the town exudes. This is the perfect place to go for a morning swim and loll away the afternoon sipping a margarita in the shade.

Unless of course you want to tee it up before the music starts.

This sun-drenched region features a superb array of venues laid out by the game’s top designers, courses that skirt tropical forest, saltwater lagoons and mangrove swamps. Here’s a review of my three favorite golf clubs in the Mayan Riviera, a.k.a. the Mexican Caribbean.

As a golf destination, the Riviera Maya took a major step forward in 2003 with the debut of Moon Palace Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus-designed course that significantly raised the region’s golf profile. Created to harmonize with the site’s lush vegetation, the sprawling layout is flanked by dense jungle, natural wetlands and enormous waste bunkers, many them dotted with small grassy islands. A former host of the Mexican Open, Moon Palace is a championship-class course that is nevertheless playable from the forward tees thanks to its wide fairways.

Moon Palace is one of Nicklaus' best Mexican courses

As fine as the course is, and it’s one of the fairest tracks on Jack’s resume, it’s not all about the golf at Moon Palace. A round of golf here is also a nature safari. Crocodiles sun themselves on the sandy banks of the lagoons. Iguanas and aardvarks occasionally appear at the place where the rough disappears into the jungle. Deer and fox can often be seen early and late in the day.

Based on the success of the core 18, Nicklaus returned five years ago to build the Dunes, a desert-themed nine-holer designed to complement the original Moon Palace layout, now known as the Jungle and Lake nines, resulting in three 18-hole combinations.

While the site’s elevation change amounts to no more than a ripple, each hole is encased in its own jungle corridor, creating a feeling of containment. Among the feature holes is No. 6 on the Jungle nine, a short “driveable” par four of 337 yards that doglegs almost 90 degrees to the right over sand and water to a slippery green that slopes away from the fairway.

Another superb hole is the grand par-four 18th on the Lake nine, a sturdy 445-yarder that calls for a carry over wetlands from the back tee. A large fairway bunker down the right side forces players chasing par to hew close to the water up the left side for a better angle into a large, skewed green that tilts abruptly from back to front.

While Nicklaus’s new course set a new standard for the area, the all-inclusive Palace Resorts also offers the Playacar Golf Club, a demanding 7,202-yard layout by Robert von Hagge that opened in 1994 on the southern outskirts of Playa del Carmen. With a slope rating of 148 from the tips, this broad-shouldered course, carved from dense jungle rooted on a limestone plateau, presents one of the stiffest tests of golf in Mexico. To his credit, von Hagge managed to build the course without disturbing more than 200 Mayan ruins on site. He also incorporated in the design a number of cenotes, or sinkholes used by the ancient Mayans to collect rainwater.

There is ample evidence of von Hagge’s “vertical expression”—steep mounds inset with bunkers rise from the perimeter of the targets and provide a foundation for the bunkers. The mounds provide some containment, but the slim fairways and tiny greens leave little margin for error. In fact, Playacar is the ultimate macho course, an airtight test of skill, chutzpah and ego. Novices need not apply. Two of the par fives exceed 600 yards from the tips, while the fearsome 468-yard seventh is not only long, it plays uphill into a prevailing headwind. The narrow green is fiendishly guarded in front by deep bunkers. The hardest par four south of the border? Si, mi amigo. Players who manage to survive the longer, more watery front nine may have a chance to improve on the shorter, less daunting back nine. Maybe.

The Riviera Maya’s best-known golf resort is Mayakoba (Mayan for “city on the water”), which debuted in 2006. Built by a Madrid-based development group whose goal was to create an “anti-Cancun,” the 1,600-acre property’s eco-friendly ethos was ahead of its time. Instead of crowding the beach with high-rise hotels, the design team built low-rise properties well inland from a dune ridge and a mile-long stretch of sandy white beach. Also, the site’s mangrove swamps were left intact. Mangroves serve to purify organic materials and prevent runoff from clogging reefs, in this case a pristine coral reef that extends to Belize and is rated the second largest in the world.

While it appears natural, Mayakoba’s extensive system of lagoons and canals was man-made. Crystal-clear water from subterranean aquifers flows through the site’s porous limestone to fill these waterways. The resort complex, encompassing a Greg Norman-designed golf course and three luxury hotels (Fairmont, Rosewood and Banyan Tree), is closed to vehicular traffic. Guests get around on foot, on bicycles, in golf carts, or in canopied electric boats called lanchas. They look like floating tiki huts.

The Rosewood Mayakoba appears to float on water

El Camaleon, another of Norman’s admirable ‘least-disturbance’ designs, has sinuous fairways shoehorned into the jungle, the holes tracing the curve of the meandering waterways. Host of an annual PGA Tour event, the layout, surfaced in salt-tolerant paspalum grass, transitions from dense forest to mangrove swamp to holes flanked by limestone-edged canals. Cenotes, the underground caverns that occur naturally in the limestone bedrock of the Riviera Maya, also come into play, notably on the first hole, a sturdy par five with an enormous watery maw in the heart of its fairway. Many of the tee shots are hit-or-miss affairs—El Camaleon transitions very quickly from short grass to impenetrable jungle. Also, water comes into play at nearly every turn. Two of the holes beckon from rippled seaside dunes, but for the most part, the golf course, like the hotels, are set well back from the sea. The exception is El Camaleon’s par-three 15th, a postcard hole tucked in the dunes, its wafer-like green framed by the pale blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. It’s only 153 yards from the tips, but it’s a tough shot on a breezy day. Operated by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, this well-groomed course functions as a delightful resort spread that also manages to give PGA Tour pros plenty of tussle from the tips.

Golf and jazz normally would be enough for most campaigners, but the Riviera Maya has more to offer. A short drive from Playa del Carmen is Xcaret, a one-of-a-kind eco-archaeological attraction. Xcaret translates as “inlet,” and the park’s limestone rock is honeycombed with cenotes and subterranean rivers. Here’s the place interact with dolphins, wander through a wild bird aviary filled with dozens of exotic species, be surrounded by butterflies within the world’s largest butterfly pavilion, and learn how sea turtles are raised for release back into the wild.

Also recommended is Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-ha), Mayan for “where the waters are born.” This beautiful 22-acre nature park is one of the Yucatan’s largest eco-attractions. Serene and natural despite its many recent expansions, Xel-Ha, like Xcaret, is built around an inlet of the sea, in this case a centuries-old trading port used by the Mayans. A large lagoon teeming with tropical fish is fed by a river that flows from a jungle. Xel-Ha is a perfect place to snorkel in a protected sanctuary where coral reefs and rock formations create an ideal habitat for marine life.

The region’s third major attraction is Tulum, located 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen. One of Mexico’s more fascinating archaeological sites, Tulum, a walled city dotted with 60 masonry-and-stucco structures, is highlighted by El Castillo, an imposing fortress that commands a limestone bluff overlooking the sea. The edifices at Tulum, which date to the late Post-Classic period (between 1200 and 1500 A.D.),  are relatively small compared to other Maya cities, but the setting is magnificent.


Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: www.rivieramayajazzfestival.com

Mexican Caribbean Golf Association: www.cancungolf.org

General travel information: www.visitmexico.com

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