The future of family travel?

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Rooftop area at Azul Fives

Day Three: I think I’ve seen the future of family travel. It’s called Azul Fives and it’s about a half hour south of we’re staying just outside of Playa del Carmen. Originally, we were supposed to stay here — I liked the location (plenty of action in town for the young adults, Mayan ruins a short drive away, good diving and snorkeling right from the resort).

But the resort’s opening was postponed until early 2009. I think the place will be ideal for family reunions with oversized condo-like units that can sleep up to eight. (Book a Penthouse and you not only get a fabulous view but a family sized hot tub and wrap around deck where the chef can prepare a private BBQ (or stock up at the Sams Club in Playa del Carmen and make your own).

I like that you can go the all inclusive route (the resort has four restaurants, including one designed for “private” special meals prepared just for you overlooking the beach and infinity pool.) or you can cook for yourself in your well-appointed condo kitchen. Don’t want to shop? The resort staff will stock the condo for you.

There is a beautiful kids’ club in the middle of the resort with its own baby pool and stocked with the latest toys from Fisher Price. (You can also borrow toys to take to the condo) But the emphasis here will be on family togetherness, says general manager Enrico Lindenhaln. “We want to get back to the old-style family vacations where they come to spend time together, not drop the kids off all day,” he explains. He’s the dad of a two year-old, incidentally.

There’s a pool that meanders through the property and a gorgeous infinity pool that overlooks the beach. What’s not to like? The place hasn’t opened yet so we’ll have to see if the service and food will be as good as Lindenhahn promises. If the poolside lunch they served us (guests who own condos here were lounging nearby) is indicative, they’ve got the food right.

Lindenhahn is a veteran of Sandals and Beaches all-inclusive resorts and he says the difference at these Azul hotels is that they are smaller and, with different restaurants rather than large buffets, it’s easier to serve better quality of food. We’ve no complaints at the Azul Sensatori, the sister property where we’re staying. The dinners have been very good. (We especially like the Mexican specialties served at breakfast-zucchini tamales, green salsa, freshly made tomato salsa… yum!)

Another plus to this new hotel: It’s just 10 minutes from Playa del Carmen, the up and coming beach town. Playa is funky and kitchy and hip all at once — bars spilling out into the streets, shops selling everything from pricey sunglasses and bikinis to handsome silver jewelry and stands selling giant sombreros, tee shirts with garish sayings, and tequila (yes, with a worm in the bottle) and Mexican blankets. My husband scores some Cuban cigars and some freshly rolled one s from a brand new Cigar Factory where Caudido Cagal Cota is expertly rolling cigars from tobacco, he tells us, comes from Cuba.

It’s fun to wander the streets. They’re busy but not over-run with tourists. It would be nice to be at a hotel just ten minutes away so you could return again to soak up the atmosphere, I think. There is also the option to tour Mayan ruins that are less than an hour from here — famous Tulum and Coba.

We spend the afternoon with Tank-ha Dive (www.tankha.com). I’ve arranged a combination snorkel-dive trip for our gang — three snorkelers and three divers. I figured how we could be in this part of Mexico without diving at least once! I didn’t reckon on all of the waves! The boat ride — only about 10 minutes to the reef — is decidedly rocky and my two daughters, prone to motion sickness, look green. The snorkel trip from hell?
Gamely they get in the water with one guide while we’re ferried out a little further with the dive master. We have so much fun — swimming amid giant schools of yellow snapper, watching a moray eel, glittering fish no bigger than a finger nail — blue and black and white and yellow. It’s a whole other world down here and of course we couldn’t care less about the waves.

Until we get back to the boat and discover both daughters are seasick. I feel guilty. I’m glad we’re only 10 minutes from shore. Ice cream (there’s Haagen Daz right near the dive shop) and some Mexican beer (it’s happy hour so the beers are two for one — only the equivalent of $6 for four beers ) are a fitting end to the day.

I remind myself that whatever you do or plan on vacation, it’s bound not to go as planned. The point is to make the best of it. I’m sure we’ll be talking about the snorkel-trip-from — hell for years to come.

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