Cancun and Playa del Carmen - the two major towns on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula - couldn’t be more different
My family and I must have blurted out 1,000 `holas` during our three-hour stroll through the streets of Playa del Carmen, a busy resort on Mexico‘s east coast. Polite folk that we are, we had no choice. Every market stall-holder, restaurateur and masseur wants to engage you in conversation, in order to sell you their wares, and `hola` (Spanish for ’hello`) is the way they kick things off.
No problem if the `holas` and the atmosphere of the bazaar were confined to a couple of streets, but it goes on for miles. You gradually realise that the heart of Playa del Carmen is one huge marketplace set in a vast patchwork of tight, narrow streets, bordered by beautiful ocean on one side, Spanish-style suburbs (with properties ranging from the shabby to the chic) on the other three.
My older children George, 12, and Evie, nine, were in knick-knack paradise amid the souvenir shops and stalls but in 28 degrees of afternoon heat, all that pressure to buy can get a bit much. My four-year-old, Jack, sought solace in his thumb and favourite cuddly toy, after being asked for the tenth time if he would like his back massaged. (He didn’t, by the way).
Ironically, his mother and I finally found, peace, quiet and a very decent cup of coffee bang in the middle of Quinta Avenida, the town’s longest and busiest thoroughfare. Café Sasta has to compete for business with Starbucks, Burger King and McDonald's - global outlets that show Playa Del Carmen isn’t that bothered about hanging on to its unique Mexican look - so let’s hear it for an establishment that sells not only splendid iced coffee but (according to George) the best toffee cheesecake this side of Acapulco.
Just along from Café Sasta is another oasis of calm in Playa del Carmen. El Jardin de Marieta is a small but delightful collection of eateries and shops tucked away from the street and at peace under thick, cooling, foliage.
The Posada Freud Hotel, in the heart of the town, sums up Playa Del Carmen perfectly. The paintwork in the bedrooms borders on the garish but the place as a whole has a certain quirky charm. And the three-bedroom penthouse apartment is well worth checking out, for use by families of four and more.
Cancun is only 20 miles north of Playa Del Carmen but might as well be on a different planet to its much older, southern neighbour. It’s a shiny, modern, Mexican Milton Keynes, except with shore and sea instead of concrete cows.
When the sun shines at Cancun, the Caribbean Sea looks as if it has been computer-generated, it’s so extraordinarily turquoise. The waves that break on the golden sands were big enough for our children to boogie board but not huge enough to give my wife or me cause for concern.
So a great place for a family holiday, you’re thinking, especially in one of those huge, sharp-angled chain hotels that dominate the beachside skyline? Well yes, possibly, although my family and I found Cancun a little soulless - even cramped. Several of the plushest beachside hotels boast cabanas, four-poster beds, in effect, where you can lounge beside the pool while still hearing the crashing ocean waves. All very nice but all very public: you’d struggle to get a cigarette paper between each of the cabanas and the lack of curtains means zero privacy.
At our more restrained, out-of-town hotel - the Sensatori, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen - the cabanas came curtained and separate. Mind you, the five-star Sensatori, with its six high-quality restaurants, incredibly attentive staff and splendid raised setting between jungle and ocean, is probably the best hotel in which my family and I have ever stayed. It really is that good.
Back in Cancun, and a gentle stroll from the beach leads to La Isla Shopping Village on the southern end of Nichupte Lagoon, the stretch of water that separates mainland Cancun from the island part of the town. The precinct has some eye-wateringly expensive shops and a splendid eaterie called Ah Cacao. An interesting challenge for you and your children is to find a dish on the menu that doesn’t involve chocolate. (Remember the Monty Python restaurant sketch where every dish came with Spam? It’s a bit like that at Ah Cacao, only sweeter).
A must-see attraction for the kids at La Isla is an aquarium containing a sunken boat, a diver and a huge shoal of brightly-coloured fish. It was sufficiently unusual and striking to keep four-year-old Jack goggle-eyed for an hour.
The great thing about Cancun - the great thing about much of the Mayan Riviera - is that it hasn’t lost touch with nature. There may be a fast-moving highway between Nichupte Lagoon and the seafront hotels, but you can still see manta ray gliding by just a few feet away in the lagoon, earnestly watched from roadside rocks by iguana.
And what’s that: a sign saying “beware crocodiles” opposite the Coral Negro Fleamarket, a colourful array of handicraft shops and stalls in downtown Cancun? The sign is genuine enough. It’s just not clear whether it refers to the sharp-eyed, slippery creatures that live in the lagoon - or their human equivalents trying to bag top dollar for their goods at the Coral Negro Fleamarket.