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Rock Your Wedding South of the Border

Story and Photography by Kim Duke-Layden

The Cancún–Tulum Corridor on Mexico’s eastern Yucatán Peninsula was long a remote jungle outpost for adventure-seeking day-trippers visiting Cancún. These days, this pristine hundred-mile swath of silky white sand and crystalline turquoise surf with the world’s second-longest barrier reef has blossomed into the Riviera Maya, an exotic eco-cultural paradise flourishing with lavish resorts—and the latest one is sure to rock your socks off!

T here are a few things that I’ll willingly get up for at 3:00 a.m.: flying is one of them—especially when my passport is required. In early March, while much of the country was digging out from under yet another winter storm and the “Sunshine State” was still getting hammered with cold, rainy weather, I ventured south of the border to Mexico’s balmy Yucatán Peninsula to check out one of the Riviera Maya’s hottest new all-inclusive resorts. In addition to amping up the opulence, the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya features exclusive wedding collections by celebrity designer Colin Cowie that are nothing short of glam.

After a bumpy flight with several unnerving white-knuckle dips, we landed safely at Cancún’s sprawling state-of-the-art airport, which was a far cry from the shabby, hole-in-the wall pit stop where I received my first passport stamp twenty-five years ago. Outside, the air felt warm and the downpour that was drowning much of the southeastern United States had luckily already moved through. Soon, I was settled in a comfy airport shuttle and headed down a vaguely familiar stretch of Highway 307, which has doubled in width since I last rode along it in a rickety tour bus drinking ten-cent cervezas.

VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
The resort's beautiful seaside lagoons are fringed with winding pathways, palm trees, and palapa bars.
 

Nowadays, the four-lane highway connects the small beach communities of Puerto Morelos, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. Lining the route are fortress-like gates leading to posh playa (beach) resorts and a plethora of billboards touting the area’s countless attractions: floating down subterranean rivers, diving in caves, zip-lining through lush wildlife-rich jungles, and one I recognized from eons ago: snorkeling at Xel-Ha (Shell-ha), the world’s largest natural aquarium. Near the outskirts of Tulum, we turned off at a grandiose arched entrance that read, “Bienvenido a Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya.” I lived it up here like a rock star for the next three nights!

The Hard Rock Hotel (HRH) Riviera Maya recently took center stage after a nine-month and nearly fifty-million-dollar extreme makeover, and it is the latest addition to Hard Rock Hotel’s collection of lavish, all-inclusive resorts with cool, rock ’n’ roll vibes. The newly branded group launched in 2011 after Hard Rock International formed licensing agreements with RCD Resorts, which, in turn, transformed half of its Palace Resorts into tricked-out rock star retreats. There are three other HRH all-inclusive resorts: Vallarta and Cancun in Mexico; and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

Colorful hibiscus and bougainvillea, coconut palms, aloe, and other tropical botanicals blanket the HRH Riviera Maya’s grounds, and this reminded me of Costa Rica—as did the iguanas, the monkeys, and a curious-looking agouti that snooped about. This lush outdoor paradise is a perfect setting for enjoying the resort’s numerous outdoor activities, which include snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, playing tennis, bicycling, and climbing the rock wall.

VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
A hacienda sky terrace with sea views and refreshing breezes.
VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
The rock spa's relaxation area adjacent to its hydrotherapy pools.

I checked in at the resort’s family-friendly “Hacienda” side, which has a Mexican flair with cream-colored arches and walls painted in earthy hues. The enormous lobby has a two-story enclosed colonnaded courtyard with a trickling fountain, several planters, and a full-size tree with a swing. Boutiques, restaurants, and bars surround the lobby.

My spacious accommodations were tucked within a complex of red-and-white stucco buildings that contain nearly seven hundred guest rooms and suites. Hacienda’s brand-spanking-new rooms have inviting warm colors, hardwood floors, and, like all the resort’s accommodations, sumptuous furnishings: deluxe beds, beautifully appointed bathrooms, flat-screen TVs with killer sound systems, and balconies or terraces with a hammock. They also feature these squeal-worthy all-inclusive amenities: a minibar (stocked daily) with juice, soda, and beer; full-size dispensers of rum, tequila, whisky, and vodka; no-holds-barred twenty-four-hour room service; Wi-Fi; and free calls to the United States and Canada.

I didn’t think my views overlooking Hacienda’s pools with swim-up bars and seaside lagoons could get any better, until I discovered I had a private upstairs sky terrace! It was large enough for an entourage of twenty and included a half bath and my own hydro spa tub under the stars.

My inner rock star had officially awakened.

 
VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
A double room on the hacienda side, which features warm earth tones, hardwood floors, and a contemporary flair.
 
I didn’t think my views overlooking Hacienda’s pools with swim-up bars and seaside lagoons could get any better, until I discovered I had a private upstairs sky terrace!
 

Hard Rock is renowned for its music and memorabilia, and the HRH Riviera Maya represents both exceptionally well. Before dinner on my first night, I joined a group of fellow journalists on an entertaining memorabilia tour led by the resort’s vibe manager, Jose Vargas. The avid guitarist, who credits legendary band Santana as his inspiration, is as passionate about music as I am about travel—and that’s saying a lot! Vargas told us that he personally researches every single item of memorabilia before placing it on display at the resort. This was evident from his extensive knowledge of each piece. My favorites were a pair of checkerboard-patterned platform boots worn by Paul Stanley of KISS and Cher’s iconic two-piece bell bottom outfit designed by Bob Mackie. Besides giving daily tours, Vargas has his pulse on the resort’s awesome common-area music, which he keeps fresh by changing the playlists daily.

For dinner, we walked over to Heaven, the adults-only section of the resort, secluded on the opposite side of the grounds and exuding a rocker-chic vibe. Although Hacienda has similar architectural features, Heaven’s vibrant blue-and-white exteriors have a more Mediterranean aesthetic. Heaven’s accommodations—nearly six hundred rooms—feature posh interiors in their signature “heavenly” hues with sleek metallic and black accents. It is also home to the resort’s fine dining scene: French gastronomy at Le Petit Cochon, Italian cuisine at Ciao, Spanish specialties and tapas at Cava Roja, and steaks at Toro. Our group of writers ate at Toro, which means “bull” in Spanish. By day, Toro’s casual, open-air palapa serves breakfast and lunch buffets with Spanish and American fare. Then, it dials back at night, offering à la carte Continental selections.

Toro, like all nine of the resort’s restaurants and its nine bars and lounges, is all-inclusive, including taxes and gratuities. For the next several hours, we sipped and sampled nearly half of Toro’s tasty menu. We tried to pass on dessert, but our gregarious waiter insisted on preparing us a round of Mexican coffees. All eyes watched as he caramelized raw sugar around the rim of each glass with the deftness of a glassblower. He then poured a fiery elixir of flambéed Kahlua-infused coffee into each and topped them with fluffy cream. The delicious spectacle was definitely the highlight of the evening.

 
VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
Kayaking the HRH Riviera Maya's crystalline lagoons is just one of many all-inclusive activities offered.
 

After an incredible night’s sleep, I awoke to picture-perfect skies that were ideal for an excursion to Tulum’s famed Mayan ruins. Our guide was Alejandro Gamboa, an expert on Mayan culture whose grandparents had been Mayan shamans (healers). We toured Tulum’s temples, which were crawling with black-and-white iguanas that resembled sun-bleached rocks, and Gamboa enlightened us about the ancient Mayan beliefs and his ancestors’ remarkable accomplishments in math and astronomy. Our astute guide also pointed out fascinating similarities between the Mayan religion and the religions of other ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, Greece, China, India, and Israel. Gamboa said that his personal view on religion is best reflected in a paraphrase from political philosopher Thomas Paine: “I’m a citizen of the world and my religion is to be good and patient.”

We then climbed up to the highest temple, perched atop rocky cliffs that plunge down to crescent-shaped beaches with azure waters. Before leaving, we explored Tulum’s touristy maze of colorful cantinas and stalls chock-full of vibrant embroidery and pottery, silver jewelry, and bottles of Mexican vanilla and habanero sauces.

Tulum is one of the many off-site excursions that can be paid for with the complimentary $1,800 in resort credits that guests at the HRH Riviera Maya receive with a minimum three-night stay (note: a 20 percent service fee is applied). Other options include golf at Robert Von Hegge’s signature course; fishing and scuba diving; admission to Xel-Ha, Xcaret, and Xplor ecoparks; and shopping in Playa del Carmen. Resort credits can also be used for upgraded on-site experiences, such as wine and tequila tastings, chef-hosted dinners, salon and spa treatments, and even an exquisite wedding designed by one of the world’s foremost event planners, Colin Cowie.

 
VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
Tulum's highest Mayan temple perches atop a rocky precipice that drops off into stunning turquoise coves.
 
We toured Tulum’s temples, which were crawling with black-and-white iguanas that resembled sun-bleached rocks.
 

Television personality, bestselling author, and interior designer Colin Cowie, who is widely revered by his A-list clientele, including Oprah, J-Lo, Bruce Springsteen, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston, partnered with HRH’s all-inclusive resorts to present a diverse beach wedding collection consisting of nine ultra-chic designs.

“My inspiration came from the opulence of the all-inclusive destinations themselves,” says Cowie. “From the crystal clear waters to the vibrant cultures of the Caribbean and the Pacific, inspiration was everywhere I looked.” His designs vary from traditional elegance in whites and ivories to waves of soothing turquoise, green, and navy. Rocker-chic brides may prefer his shimmery metallic motif, glistening purples, or black and white with bold pops of red. For dazzling south-of-the-border flair, El Sol rocks sunset-colored pinks, oranges, and purples.

HRH Riviera Maya’s sales manager, Delia Ferrias, says, “I love Colin Cowie’s designs because he thinks outside the box and we want to offer our guests something different. When we combined Colin Cowie’s name with Hard Rock’s, the reaction in the wedding market was ‘Wow!’”

Cowie echoed these sentiments: “I wanted to partner with a hotel that shares the same commitment to excellence and attention to detail as I do. The all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotels were a natural fit for my exclusive wedding collection because we share the same vision for creating a spectacular wedding for the couple.”

 
VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
The interior is one of the resort's two seaside chapels with spectacular views from its wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows.
 

Although the resort has only been operational for a few months, wedding bookings are off to a strong start and are a highly regarded affair. According to Ferrias, “We understand that weddings are very important and are unlike any other event. Not only are our employees committed to doing everything we can to make our guests’ dreams come true, but Mexico also has a very high standard of customer service, which its people take tremendous pride in providing. It’s part of the culture.”

Colin Cowie’s wedding collections include a beach setup with a gazebo and an altar, a floral arrangement, and seating for thirty guests. Additional decorative elements and seating are available for extra fees. Catholic weddings can be held in the resort’s two seaside chapels, yet, in accordance with Mexico’s laws, non-Catholic ceremonies cannot be performed in churches.

Zen is where we ate dinner on my second night. It is tucked away on Hacienda’s upper mezzanine and specializes in hibachi-style teppanyaki and Asian-fusion cuisine. The interior was especially alluring: colorful dragon motifs on the stainless steel grill hoods, illuminated turquoise floors that resembled ocean waves, and a floor-to-ceiling Buddha face that smiled serenely from across the room.

VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
Hacienda's complex of family-friendly pools, hot tubs, and lounging decks with thatched umbrellas.
 

Downstairs at Hacienda’s Sun Bar, the action was hotter than Zen’s knife-wielding chefs. The casting semifinals for The Voice were well under way, and rock-star wannabes belted their hearts out to wildly cheering crowds. Not ones to miss a great party, we eagerly joined in.

By the time my last day rock and rolled around, I was living large and feeling spoiled rotten.

Morning began with room service on my balcony followed by a great workout at Heaven’s Body Rock Fitness Center with my new posse. Then, it was time for major pampering at Heaven’s luxurious Rock Spa, which is the Caribbean’s largest, with seventy-five treatment rooms. Dressed in swimsuits and robes, we followed our spa butlers into the ultracool relaxation room, which had glowing curvy white chaises surrounded by deep purple walls and Roman columns. We started with a thirty-minute hydrotherapy treatment, which began with a broiling-dry sauna sweat that opened every pore followed by a sinus-clearing eucalyptus steam. Dripping in sweat, we then plunged into the bone-chilling current pool for a very brief rotation before soaking euphorically in a jetted hot tub. Massages were next, and mine ranked among the best I’ve ever received. Despite her petite appearance, my masseuse, Antonia, had powerful hands that worked wonders on my fatigued muscles.

Afterward, I floated down to Toro’s seaside terrace for a delightful lunch and then reunited with my comrades around one of Heaven’s four spectacular pools and cabana bars for a blissful afternoon of sunning, bonding, and imbibing. As the afternoon progressed, so did the rounds of tequila shots, and before I knew it, an impromptu hot-tub party had begun on a nearby sky terrace.

 
Salsa played in the background as we munched on fresh ceviche and table-side guacamole in between lip-puckering sips of fresh mango margaritas with spicy jalapeño sugar instead of salt.
 

Afterward, I floated down to Toro’s seaside terrace for a delightful lunch and then reunited with my comrades around one of Heaven’s four spectacular pools and cabana bars for a blissful afternoon of sunning, bonding, and imbibing. As the afternoon progressed, so did the rounds of tequila shots, and before I knew it, an impromptu hot-tub party had begun on a nearby sky terrace.

Living like a rock star has its demands, so without missing a beat, we quickly retreated to our rooms and freshened up. When we reconvened, we were ready to hard rock the night away, Riviera Maya–style.

Frida bar and grill is located just off Hacienda’s lobby and exudes old-world Spanish charm; the decor features aged tequila barrels, tile floors, and burnt sienna walls with wrought iron and dark wood accents. Salsa played in the background as we munched on fresh ceviche and table-side guacamole in between lip-puckering sips of fresh mango margaritas with spicy jalapeño sugar instead of salt.

Much too soon, we had to dash off to our next engagement, a beach barbecue under the stars.

VIE Magazine Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya Cacun Tulum Mexico Wedding South of the Border
HRH Riviera Maya knows how to rock a sunset!
 

The evening could not have been more perfect for a concert on the beach. Less fashionably late rock stars were treated to an acoustic storytelling session with the Swon Brothers, who were season four finalists on The Voice. By tiki torchlight, we danced barefoot in the sand while top contenders of The Voice semifinals competed for a coveted ticket to Hollywood. After the winner was announced, we boogied over to a private after-party with the Swon Brothers that was held on the terrace steps behind the soon-to-open Club Heaven—a spot fondly referred to as the “Stairway to Heaven.” Although we didn’t get a chance to experience the resort’s premier nightclub firsthand, Club Heaven will be open in time for the resort’s grand opening on May 3 and will undoubtedly host the epic after-party that will follow the headliner concert with Bon Jovi and the Kings of Suburbia.

Among Club Heaven’s many highlights are the retro-looking Library Bar, where one can imagine 007 meeting a Bond girl for shaken, not stirred, martinis, and an ultramodern lounge with an indoor pool and columns that resemble shiny, outstretched Slinkys. The area outside the Stairway to Heaven has a South Beach-meets-Santorini feel, with cascading white cabanas that created a memorable stage for us to dance the night away on. I even got a chance to rub elbows with the guests of honor, and we bonded over mutual affection for his or her mentor and my cougar crush, Blake Shelton.

I confess that before arriving at the HRH Riviera Maya, I was jaded about all-inclusive resorts. But I discovered a hip, opulent oasis that I cannot wait to share with my husband, John, for a romantic rock-star getaway.

 

— V —


HRHRivieraMaya.com



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