A patch of welcome understatement on a coast of big-bigger-biggest resorts, Esencia has neither a giant waterfall nor a maximum-security guard gate to mark its presence. There's just a small sign and, for reception, a typical Mayan house. That's in keeping with its former life, the winter refuge of an Italian duchess. Then, as now, it was a place for those who don't like to share paradise.
The resort, 45 miles south of Cancún, has 29 modern Mexican-Mediterranean rooms (white adobe built-in furniture, oversize windows, mahogany pocket doors, and red barrel tile) on 50 acres of jungle, manicured lawn, and a quiet two-mile stretch of beach. The top rooms, beach view, are in the duchess's home and guesthouse, with the rest scattered through a garden. I loved my second-floor garden suite, especially the outdoor Jacuzzi magnificently set in the treetops. Throughout, the residential vibe made me feel like a houseguest, as did the staff, who remembered my name and preferences at dinner and poolside.
The Aroma Spa is an enormous palapa (2,500 square feet) surrounded by a garden that produces most of the treatment ingredients (lemons, aloe vera, and herbs). They're mixed by hand in a pantry kitchen, and guests are encouraged to have a peek. There are five treatment rooms, all but one for couples. Four open directly onto the garden; one is enclosed and air-conditioned. Treatments have a Mayan bent: Before my Four Elements Massage and White Facial (named for the color of the hydrating mask), I was swept with herbs to cleanse my energy. The staff is skilled and steeped in Mayan culture-spa director Azucena Montes is a third-generation healer. The treatments given by her and Claudia Carbone were the best I've had in this part of Mexico. — M.G.