A new spa, loosely based on Mayan culture, makes this palmy Yucatan enclave even better
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By Gary Walther
Photographs by Matthew Wakem
September / October 2005
The first-rate small hotel is the rare hothouse flower of the travel world. It is usually the product of will and cultivation rather than money and commercial prospects. It adheres to some of the conventions of luxury-hotel keeping but is more often beloved for eccentricity and whimsicality. It is almost always inimitable, which is why in our Age of Version 7.0, such hotels are in high demand. And it often flourishes in unlikely soil, in this case a former coconut plantation, backed by a mangrove swamp, in the Yucatın, 30 miles south of Cancın.
Maroma lies off the Cancın-Tulum highway, some three miles down a largely unpaved washboard road walled in by a zero-visibility tangle of jungle and brush. It is the love child of architect Josı Luis Moreno and his wife, Sally Shaw Moreno, an American whom he met at the jazz club he once owned in Cancın. "We lived here like the Blue Lagoon," he tells me, recalling the halcyon days in the '70s and early '80s, when the two built a house on what was then still plantation land. "We cut the road in from the highway with a machete," says Moreno, "and in those days we often had to drive the crocodiles back into the mangrove swamp."
Maroma's evolution into a hotel was a matter of necessity mothering invention. One practical reason Moreno bought the plantation was his sideline business in coconut meat, the white flesh inside the shell. In 1985, though, the trees were almost completely wiped out by an epidemic of lethal yellowing disease. By then Maroma--the name means "somersault" in Spanish and refers to the playful surf along this stretch of coast--had become a kind of hostelry for the Morenos' friends (and, one suspects, their friends). Like the talented home cook who opens a restaurant, the couple decided to build a hotel, which made its debut in 1995. "By then we were no longer in our Blue Lagoon stage," Moreno says with a chuckle.
You might say that the hotel is no longer in its Blue Lagoon stage, either, having been bought by Orient-Express Hotels in 1995, a common denouement to these stories. (The Morenos are still part owners and live on property.) Orient-Express is now expanding the resort (see the Maroma Resume on page 150). It opened a spa in April and is planning to unveil eight new Beachfront suites, each with its own massage room, in October. The challenge for the company is retaining the hotel's individuality while bringing the assets and management skills of a large corporation to bear on it.