Get a Room - Hot Hotels in Popular Cruise Stops

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Sometimes the best thing you can do in a port of call is find a world class hotel and spend the day. Here are five of the best hotels in popular Mexican and Caribbean ports of call.

I love cruising, but in ports packed with too many passengers and souvenir shops, I find my paradise at a dreamy hotel nearby. Sometimes I book a day room, so I can revel in every resort amenity. These places are Shangri-la, with must-play golf courses, world-class spas, and always, fantastic food. Most are located on the best beaches. For a thriftier getaway, I just go to the hotel and have lunch, usually on some spectacular stretch of powdery sand. And I dine with gusto, knowing that top hotel food is geared for tourists and their tummies. I take my time, soaking up the serenity and the view. Back onboard, I feel like I just had a vacation within a vacation. The best on land with the best at sea. Here are my top five picks for great hotel getaways a taxi ride away from Caribbean and Mexican ports.

THE RITZ-CARLTON, GRAND CAYMAN

Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman is a popular stop on Caribbean cruises, but unless you join a snorkel or dive excursion, the crowded town with such similar shops may leave you flat. Save the day and taxi it to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. This resort is, justifiably, one of the world's best.

This 365-room low-rise hotel is on Seven Mile Beach, a paradisiacal locale. And it's spread out on 144 acres. If occupancy allows, The Ritz-Carlton offers day rooms to cruise passengers. Accommodations are elegant (but not stuffy) takes on sun-drenched Caribbean patterns and hues. And then the world, or at least, this Ritz, unfolds as your oyster.

With a day room, you can indulge in top-flight amenities; massage at Silver Rain spa (caviar massage, anyone?), tennis lesson at the Nick Bolletttieri center (he trains tennis superstars at his legendary Florida academy) or play Blue Tip, a Greg Norman-designed nine-hole golf course. Blue Tip is dubbed a "Caribbean monster." It has five long par-fours into the trade winds, which can make a 470-yard hole play like 600. Hole four is a par-three over water.

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The beach alone is worth the room price. Can the water be any more turquoise, the sand any whiter? This view is more fetching than Colin Firth. Attendants fuss over guests, setting up chaise lounges with umbrellas here and cabanas for two there. Drinks, snacks, whatever you fancy, are delivered to your beachy-keen post. Go all out and enjoy lunch and cocktails on an Aqua Lounge dining table, which floats (replete with seats) in the calm bay. When I left this beach after a long swim, I nearly cried.

If you don't book a day room, at least have lunch at Bar Jack, the hotel's casual oceanfront eatery. The menu sings of bright flavors. Each dish puts a spin on a classic. Freshly made quesadillas are stuffed with sweet local lobster, or spice-drenched jerk chicken. Tuna ceviche gets its kick from sambal olek (Indonesian chili paste). Burgers arrive all fat and sassy, dripping with juices of Angus or American Kobe beef, or even, bison. And if you're tucking into food this good in such a first-class setting, you might as well celebrate your brilliant escape from the crowds with a cocktail. (After all, you're not driving.) Bar Jack mixologists prepare a marvelous mojito made with passion fruit. Or try Cayman Lemonade; the splash of Absolut peach vodka does wonders. At Bar Jack - and this Ritz - life is always good. (ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/GrandCayman/Default.htm)

ATLANTIS

Paradise Island, Bahamas

A Connecticut scientist made news recently when he announced that he and his team had found the fabled city of Atlantis. Some in the scientific world greeted his claim with skepticism. Caribbean cruisers certainly did. We know where the real Atlantis is - in the Bahamas.

Atlantis is a one-of-a-kind fantastical resort all about family fun. Cruise passengers have many ways to enjoy Atlantis. One is booking a day room (as occupancy allows.) Shoot for the Royal Towers. They're the most iconic, bent on invoking the legendary city's look. If you book a day room, you gain access to all the Atlantis facilities. And there are many.

Or just wander about the vast property and dine. This place has more than 21 restaurants and bars. During the day, it's easy to do casual, like Mosiac, Mediterranean-style buffet with live-action cooking stations; Seagrapes, another live-action venue known for its bbq; and Bimini Road, a Caribbean restaurant with a cool outdoor bar.

Atlantis is also home to superstar chef outposts. There's Nobu, one of Nobu Matsuhisa's phenomenal Japanese restaurants (usually found in locales like London and Los Angeles). Mesa Grill is from Food Network's fave chef, Bobby Flay. This one imparts Bahamian flair into its southwestern cuisine. Foodies who love New York's Jean-Georges Vongerichten's cooking flock to Café Martinique for chichi dishes, like rice cracker-crusted tuna and roasted Bahamian lobster.

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Atlantis also offers several outstanding day pass options. Swim alongside Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the state-of-the-art 14-acre Dolphin Cay at Atlantis. Or embark on the Discover Atlantis Tour, where expert "navigators" guide you through the "ancient city streets" of Atlantis. This tour also explores the marine habitats, which houses some 50,000 sea animals representing more than 250 species.

Atlantis Beach Day pass is great for beach-lovers; it offers all-day access to the white-sand beaches of Atlantis, including lounge chairs and towels, access to marine habitats and complimentary lunch at a venue.

I've saved the best for last - Atlantis Aquaventure Package. It provides all-day access to pools, beaches and Aquaventure, a 141-acre waterscape that is the resort centerpiece. This thrill-a-minute water experience consists of waterslides, a mile-long river ride with high-intensity rapids and wave surges. (atlantis.com)

HOTEL GUANAHANI & SPA

St. Barthélemy If I had to pick just one hotel in the Caribbean that stole my heart, I'd say Hotel Guanahani & Spa. Just thinking about it makes me yearn to return.

This place gets under your skin, haunts your dreams. It's that beautiful and that romantic. Hotel Guanahani is designed with Caribbean, French and Zen elements in one seamless blend. It's laid out languidly; a cottage here, another there, along winding paths ablaze with tropical flowers. And the startling-blue of the Caribbean frames its uncommon beauty.

At Hotel Guanahani & Spa, you can book a day room, right on the beach, if occupancy allows. Or, just come for lunch at the exceptional Indigo restaurant.

Do either, because the town is jam-packed with tourists, which detracts from its charm. St. Barts has so much to offer beyond expensive shops and cafes. You need to discover why it's such a magnet for the world's rich and powerful. The drive alone to the Hotel Guanahani & Spa helps tell the story.

When you arrive at the hotel, you'll spot the cottages, drenched in colors like banana yellow, indigo or green brighter than a parrot. They come in many configurations, from garden-view rooms to one-bedroom suites. Book a one-bedroom pool suite, and even if you are married 50 years, you'll feel like honeymooners. Each has a separate living room, terrace and private swimming pool in a secluded garden setting. The best overlook the water. (Yes, you can skinny-dip.)

Baths are stocked with Clarins, one of France's most coveted skincare lines. Floors are polished wood and sheets are soft as kittens. And even with the simple Creole decorating style, modern amenities like air-conditioning and flat-screen TV are de rigueur.

With a day room, you can lounge in near solitude on a breathtaking stretch of beach. It's beyond relaxing to unwind here; your limbs turn to jelly. After a swim, enjoy a rousing game of tennis, caressed by a constant ocean breeze.

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Stellar executive chef Philippe Masseglia oversees lunch at Indigo. Actually, he oversees all dining venues, and his playful French-Caribbean dishes utilize precise techniques and sublime ingredients.

Codfish fritters, garbed in an ethereal batter, arrive crisp and grease-free. Quick-fried coconut shrimp are superb. The coconut and shrimp taste incredibly fresh.

Tuck into caught-that-morning fish, courtesy of Patrick the fisherman. Or fresh grilled island lobster, with Creole sauce and lilting Thai salad. Raspberry macaroon filled with iced red fruit mousse is such a refreshing dessert.

The view at open-air Indigo is gorgeous. It abuts a pool overlooking the white sand and the sea. And the people-watching is A+. Lots of pretty people, speaking French, wearing bikinis. They look like they stepped out of Vogue. No one will rush you, in true French café fashion. So sit and soak up the Caribbean-meets-France vibe. You'll feel like a jetsetter. (leguanahani.com)

LAS VENTANAS AL PARAISO

Los Cabos, Mexico

While some cruise ships are pulling out of Mexico due to security concerns, others are simply switching up ports. For instance, Crystal Cruises is cancelling an April 4th Crystal Symphony visit to Mazatlán on a roundtrip Los Angeles cruise, and giving guests an overnight in Cabo San Lucas, instead. As the ship is in port two days, why not hightail it to the highly lauded Las Ventanas al Paraiso? Even if you're in port for the day, this resort is a must-see. Visitors are allowed to book spa treatments or dine at the resort (no day rooms), and the taxi ride is but 15 minutes.

I could never forget Las Ventanas al Paraiso. The visuals evoke awe everywhere you look. And the sense of place is strong; you never feel this from a quick visit in port. The architecture and design combine Mexican and Mediterranean influences and art is everywhere, inside and out. Its 71 stunning suites and public rooms are decorated with handcrafted pieces designed by Mexican master artisans. Meandering walkways possess landscaping elements of jaw-dropping beauty. And then there is the backdrop, the beyond-blue Sea of Cortez.

I came for lunch and toured the resort muttering nonstop wows. What beauty, such distinct style. I sat for hours at the open-air Sea Grill. I couldn't move; the soft sea breezes rustling through the restaurant mesmerized me. (That and the excellent margaritas.)

Have no fear to dine here; food is prepared with the highest sanitation levels for our sensitive north-of-the-border stomachs. Vegetables come from local organic gardens. Fish from deep waters in the nearby sea. Herbs from the organic resort garden. That obsession with health and food safety puts all guests at ease. And the food tastes so good. Flavors are brilliant, as vivid and intense as the sea.

Many dishes are cooked on wood-burning grills. Any ceviche - here, a marriage of Japanese and Mexican flavors - is rock-solid. Shrimp with avocado and cilantro, sea bass with lime and coconut milk, or local fish with habanero chili and olive oil, are marvelous. Flank steak sandwich, with melted Oaxacan cheese, chipotle and onion marmalade, is delish. Lobster tacos are prepared with handmade tortillas and sweet local lobster, and salsas are so lively, they're like mariachi music for your mouth. And why wouldn't you sample Mexico's finest 100% agave tequilas?

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After I left Sea Grill, I strolled onto the beach. I confess, I crawled into a hammock strung between palm trees in the sand. That sky was as blue as the sea and the hammock swayed gently in the breeze. I know that the hammock was for hotel guests, but I couldn't resist.

The Spa at Las Ventanas is buzzed about in spa circles worldwide. Its "Four Elements" menu is inspired by Baja's ancient healers. Treatment names sound unbelievable; imagine "Walking on the Clouds," "Dreaming in Nirvana," "Cleopatra Ceremony."

If possible, book a spa cabana that opens onto a private garden of succulents and flowering plants. Each has its own music system and oversized jetted tubs. Or go all out and book a Spa Suite with its own treatment room, living area, terraces and dedicated butler. The walk-in rainforest shower, infrared sauna, infinity-edge Jacuzzi and organic mini-bar bring bliss mighty fast. (lasventanas.com)

FOUR SEASONS RESORT PUNTA MITA

Punta Mita, Mexico

This resort is nearly 36 miles from the popular cruise port town of Puerta Vallerta on the Mexican Riviera. I wouldn't include it if it wasn't worth the time and cost of the drive. Besides, many shore excursions often include one-hour bus rides each way. And when you arrive at this resort - set amidst 1,500 acres of nature reserve - you think you found nirvana.

Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita is located on Bahía de Banderas, one of the world's largest natural bays. The shoreline is nearly nine miles of white-sand beach. The jungle peaks of Sierra Madre Mountains form a movie-set-like backdrop.

The resort has about 173 rooms and suites, grouped together in Mexican-tiled casitas. A freeform, infinity-edge pool is the resort centerpiece, with picture-perfect bay views. Like all Four Seasons, this resort excels at service.

Smart cruise passengers purchase a day use package. This includes a day room (four guests can share the room), food-and-beverage credit, and a discount on spa and golf course fees. It must be booked in advance.

The spa Apuane translates to "healing waters," and water treatments are the signature services. One such treatment is "ha waye;" the guest is under a multi-head Vichy shower while two therapists work in unison to massage away stress. Many massages are done outdoors in private spots with stunning ocean views.

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Pacifico Golf Course at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, designed by Jack Niklaus, was named the number-one golf course in the world in 2008 by Conde Nast Traveler readers. Bring your camera. You'll want to shoot at least eight of the holes, which border either the Pacific or Banderas Bay. And during seasonal whale migration, you may spot some that breech the waters and rock your world.

The range of quality restaurants in-house is striking. And, naturally, all meals are prepared with "gringo" stomachs in mind. Ketsi, the all-day restaurant, is by modern Mexican chef Richard Sandoval, who is known in foodie circles. His inventive take on traditional Latin flavors cause quite the culinary stir. (In fact, he has partnered with opera star Placido Domingo in several restaurant ventures.)

Ketsi was built next door to the showpiece pool. Guests dine al fresco under a large thatched roof. Local seafood and regional and modern Mexican dishes make up the menu. Think guacamole made tableside and shrimp turnovers with Mexican chile-spiked vinaigrette. Ceviche Punta Mita, made with octopus and scallops, comes with Bloody Mary sorbet. Save room for huitlacoche stuffed chicken; huitlacoche is sometimes called a "Mexican truffle." It's a fungus that grows on corn with an earthy, inimitable flavor that is highly prized. (fourseasons.com/puntamita)

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