Hotel Esencia

My impressions of Hotel Esencia, a chic boutique hotel on a relatively quiet undeveloped strip of the Riviera Maya in Mexico’s Yucatan region, halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum were way off. The site features quirky illustrations, pleasant and playful, like colored-in takes on the New Yorker, but they don’t scream style, sophistication or luxury.
The hotel itself doesn’t scream those things either. It just does them all – style, sophistication and luxury – incredibly well, but quietly, discreetly and seemingly casually.
We’re met by our bubbly personal concierge and given a quick guide to where the spa, restaurants, pool and beach are, walking past a lawn where a deep blue and a pure white peacock are roaming free, before being shown to our villa, where our bags are already neatly stashed.
Esencia, a white hacienda-style mansion, was originally built as the private home of Italian duchess Rosa d’Ferrari. Now, alongside the mansion, there’s also several villas, a total of 30 rooms or suites, which keeps things on the small and intimate side, especially compared to some of the giant luxury hotels found along the Riviera Maya.

We settle into our villa, which is on the edge of the beachfront gardens. The bedroom is simple but stylish, decorated floor to walls to ceiling in white, which feels both cool (as in fashionable) and cooling (as in temperature), with both AC and fans to aid that effect. Windows, fitted with electric blinds, let in light, but we’re surrounded by jungle, so it feels pretty private inside. There’s a large, incredibly comfy bed (also in white) at the heart of the room, with a potted plant and copies of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair on the bedside shelf, and a comfy sofa area in front of a big TV that barely gets used during our whole stay. The music system does get some action though, with the hotel’s pre-programmed mix of Pink Floyd and other chilled tunes working well. A writing desk by the window looks out onto the jungle, and there’s good Wi-Fi inside the suite, which is handy as I need to, sadly, keep on top of a few work matters while I’m here.

The smooth white continues into the bathroom, with white flooring and walls, twin white sinks, a big white oval bathtub and a spacious rain shower room. Toiletries provided are both organic and locally made, containing ingredients like Yucatecan lime, avocado and coconut, while the soap is made of agave, the plant responsible for tequila and mescal.

A door from the bathroom leads out onto a private little area with two loungers and our own small plunge pool. Although my girlfriend takes a restful dip in it to cool down, the pool doesn’t see much use, as it’s hard to beat the beach and ocean location just a minute’s walk away. The duchess clearly had an eye for a fine location, building her house on the difficult to pronounce but very easy to enjoy Xpu-Ha beach, a curving bay of cool fine powdery white sand with translucent water. Apart from Esencia guests, it’s empty – very pleasantly so.

We watch the sunset down at the end of the beach, then spend an incredibly calm evening by the main swimming pool (which also goes underused, because of the excellent ocean swimming on offer), sitting on comfy loungers beneath trees lit romantically with orange bulbs, working our way through mescal cocktails.
Afterwards, we make our way to the poolside and oceanside Garden Restaurant for dinner, where the menu is modern Mexican, with plenty of fresh seafood, which makes sense given how close everything is here to the sea. I tuck into a crispy crabmeat coquette with avocado puree as a starter, which is tasty enough, but a main of two big chunky yellowfin tuna steaks, perfectly pink and served on Mexican caponata, is delicious. My girlfriend is also highly impressed with her grilled octopus, a hard ingredient to cook perfectly, but nailed here, served with roasted cherry tomatoes, roasted baby potatoes and parsley oil. We’re both equally impressed by a place of juicy jumbo shrimp sautéed in tamarind honey sauce, with saffron rice. My dinner’s great, but I’ll admit to having a little ‘order envy’.

We wake in the morning, well-rested, to the gentle sound of birdsong in the jungle, and find the pre-ordered tray of tea and coffee on the verandah, along with a basket of croissants, muffins and pastries – a pleasantly laid back start to the morning.
The whole of the day is spent relaxing. There are two swimming pools here, one for families with a shallow shelf dominating the site, for toddlers to be able to stand, with another larger, quieter child-free pool across from it. But we spend most of our time on the beach, on loungers where waiters occasionally come by with fresh coconut, skewers of fresh fruit or to take a drink order.

We break only for lunch, which includes tasty deep fried avocado chips and a healthy quinoa salad with shrimp, beetroot and grains, then make our way in the evening to the spa, where the dusk air has a pleasant aroma coming from the fire near the entrance.
There’s a rustic earthy feel to the spa, far away from the modern clinical feel of some modern spas. It’s warmer and homelier, designed with flowing walls, according (apparently) to Mayan principles of energy flow. We sit for a while in robes in a chill out area, a candle gently flickering, before our joint treatment starts.

Esencia, it has to be said, is a romantic place to stay, despite being, unlike some other hotels in the area, also open to families with children. And the Essence of Love spa treatment, as the name suggestions, ups the ante even further. It starts with a ritual, a Mayan blessing as my girlfriend and I close our eyes, fragrant smoke surrounding us. We take our place on a bed which has been decked out with a heart shape of rose petals, soft music playing in the background, for a full body massage with vanilla cream. The masseuse suggests this is not a “hard massage, just gentle, easy, like a little dance,” but actually there’s some decent pressure applied too to work out knots in shoulders from too much time spent as a computer.
At the end of the massage, my girlfriend and I are positioned face-to-face, and left alone in the room, an open door leading to a steamy room with a round pool that looks out onto the cool green forest. The rim of the pool has also been carefully decorated with rose petals. We soak for a while, occasionally lifting a relaxed limb to pick up a glass of champagne or a chocolate-covered strawberry from the tray at the poolside. I’d guess that there have been a few engagement rings brought out here at moments like this.