12 11 travel cancun adult resort swim whales tbOur editor shares how the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa has grown up.

When you hear someone say “Cancun,” perhaps you envision partying spring-breakers up till dawn. Just not your scene, right? But it’s time to rethink this Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, destination, which is definitely more about relaxation, indulgence and communing with the wonders of nature than it is about unbridled hedonism. (Although there’s some of that, too!)

THE RESORT

The JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa (jwmarriottcancunresort.com) is a classically designed and styled hotel with 448 rooms, all with private balconies and views of white sand beaches and the Caribbean. In addition to a luxury spa with indoor pool there are two free-form outdoor pools, a dive pool, fitness classes, a comprehensive gym and a variety of activities either offered at the hotel, or close by.

12 11 travel cancun adult resort swim whales 3SPA LIFE

My first stop (literally! I’m a spa junkie and not ashamed to admit it.) was the Mayan-inspired spa, a modern, 35,000 sq. ft. facility with 16 treatment rooms, a salon, a lagoon-style pool with ocean views and a menu that’s far from the norm: holistic treatments incorporate local ingredients and traditions. What a refreshing departure from regular spa fare!

I chose the Balche treatment. Balche means “Sacred drink of the Mayans” and was traditionally made by fermenting the bark of an indigenous tree with honey and water. At the JW Spa, this recipe is replicated using a combination of honey, lilies and calendula.

Since I’ve already admitted to being a spa junkie, it’s likely clear that I’ve tried a lot of spa treatments. The Balche treatment is now in my top three. (As in best. Of all time.) It was truly unique and sublimely relaxing. In Mayan ritual, Balche was an essential element that helped connect the body with the cosmos and nature. The treatment involves a body cleansing component, using an exfoliation base of brown sugar and cinnamon, followed by a full-body massage using a mixture of oils and sacred herbs. The final step: mini-facial and head rub. Truly, the best of all worlds.

In addition to the Balche, the JW Spa offers Mayan-inspired treatments including the Hunab Ku Ritual Mayan Massage, still traditionally performed in Mexican communities; the Chaya Detoxifying Envelopment, which uses a plant native to the Yucatan rich in vitamins and minerals; and the Ah Mun God of Corn Exfoliation, which uses ground corn, honey and Mayan sacred oils to exfoliate and hydrate.

12 11 travel cancun adult resort swim whales 2ANIMAL ADVENTURES

My calm and connected mindset following the spa visit was the perfect state to head into my next adventure: a journey to the middle of the ocean to swim with whale sharks!

Each year, hundreds of whale sharks (up to 1,400 were counted this past season) migrate through Cancun’s coastal waters. Among the world’s largest species of fish (they can reach up to 15 metres in length) these sharks are surprisingly docile. Meaning that even someone like me, who is afraid of a wide range of things—including seaweed and her own shadow—was able to jump off a fishing boat into the sea and swim alongside at least 50 of whale sharks without feeling fear, only a sense of wonder. Accompanied by an experienced guide, we were able to go into the water with the whale sharks several times. And because we started early, leaving the hotel before 7 am, much of this time was spent in private tranquility.

Whale sharks are an endangered species, but according to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the largest aggregation of whale sharks in recorded history was reported in 2009 off the coast of Isla Mujeres, near Cancun. This makes the daily whale shark excursions arranged through the JW Marriott’s concierge a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After pausing beside Isla Mujeres for lunch and in impromptu swim in crystal-clear waters, we returned to the resort where we were invited to participate in a sea turtle protection and release program, in tandem with the JW’s adjoining sister property, the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort.

The program saves an average of 3,000 endangered baby turtles each year by working with biologists from the Department of Natural Resource Ecology in Quintana Roo. In the summer and early fall months, female turtles emerge from the ocean to lay their eggs on the beach in front of the resorts. Without this kind of intervention, tourism and poachers would destroy the nests. Instead, on a nightly basis, resort associates wait on the beach for nesting turtles. When a turtle is spotted, the area is secured. When the female completes the nesting process, the eggs are carefully relocated to a turtle nursery. Some of these eggs had hatched during our stay, so we joined hotel staff and other guests in releasing tiny turtles into the sea at sunset.

TO DINE FOR

The resort has four world-class restaurants, plus access to the restaurants at CasaMagna. During our stay, we dined at Sasi Thai, where the Asian fusion offerings combined with fresh seafood were beyond compare. At Mikado, the Japanese restaurant, teppanyaki chefs cooked a range of culinary delights for us at our table, including fresh mahi mahi, shrimp, steak and vegetables. And at Gustino Italian Grill we enjoyed upscale northern Italian food in a high-class setting.

We also ventured off the resort to swim in a cenote ( a deep natural pit, or sinkhole, with cool, clear waters reminiscent of a northern Ontario lake), explore Mayan ruins and dine at Oscar & Lalo (oscarandlalo.com), a roadside bar and grill with traditional (and delectable!) Mexican dishes, fresh seafood and killer margaritas. (My favourite: the Chaya , made with the legendary Mayan plant, plus cucumber, pineapple, tequila, pineapple juice, lemon and salt.)

TRY THE ESCAPE!

With the ‘Your Way in Cancun’ package, which includes one $100 resort credit per stay, luxury accommodations and complimentary Internet access. Rates start at $179 per night at CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort and $259 per night at JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa for travel through December 21, 2012.