Fresh grilled lobster at a popular lunch spot known as Velasquez Restaurant after just being caught in the sea off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. / The Associated Press
Inside the idyllic, Italian villa-styled Villa Rolandi hotel, which overlooks the bay off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. / The Associated Press
ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO — A half-hour ferry ride from the nonstop party that is Cancun sits an island seductively named Isla Mujeres, or Island of Women.
Less than 5 miles long and just a half-mile wide, the tiny Mexican island is an oasis that caters to every set except the rowdy students sowing their oats across the bay. They most certainly would get bored.
Frankly, there just isnít that much for them to do on the island. For everyone else, thatís kind of the point.
The escape begins as soon as the cab from the airport drops you off at the dock, where there is, of course, a bar. Grab a couple beers and relax until itís time to board.
Some hotels, such as the idyllic, Italian-themed Villa Rolandi or the perfectly located Avalon Reef Club, will cart you directly to their doors. For others renting a house or staying at a budget hotel, ferries go to the islandís main pier downtown.
Try to find a spot on the back of your ferry in the open air to enjoy the view and fresh sea-salt air as Cancun and its thumping music fade slowly away. Itís the perfect introduction to your new temporary home in the Caribbean.
Once you arrive, first things first. Get to a beach. Now. Donít worry about where youíll eat, donít worry about unpacking, just throw on that bathing suit and get out there. Youíll never forget your first sunset in Isla.
At some point in the first couple days, youíll want to rent a golf cart, the most popular mode of transportation on the island, along with scooters. The cheapest options ó roughly $40 a day ó will be downtown and include carts styled like Jeep Wranglers and pink Cadillacs.
The next few days depend on how much energy you can scrounge up amid the seductively slow rhythm of the island.
My plan had been to go swimming with whale sharks, play with dolphins, go on a few runs along the ocean, maybe hop over to Cancun for a day trip.
None of that happened. Like I said, island rhythm.
My boyfriend and I would wake with the sun around 6 a.m., eventually wander out to the private beach at our hotel, Villa Rolandi, sip our hot mugs of coffee and stand up to our knees in the warm-enough water as we listened to the ocean and stared in the sky.
The rest of the day would include some combination of lying in the sun, reading, napping, eating fresh lobster, drinking beer and swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Outside of the private beaches at house rentals and hotels, there are public beaches on the southern side of the island, facing Cancun, with calm, beautiful waters but not a lot of sand or space.
Thereís the popular and sprawling North Beach on the tip of the island near the tiny, quaint downtown, excellent for people-watching or finding a game of beach volleyball, if youíre into that sort of thing. This beach has the closest thing to a party vibe youíll find on the island.
For a calmer experience, head to the easternmost section of North Beach at the end of a tiny road called Zazil-ha. Youíll find just a handful of people lounging on beach beds for a modest price or on a towel in the sand for free. Everyone seems to have such a content, sleepy look on their face here, itís almost comical.
The water is calm, shallow and heavenly. Itís easy to forget everything here.
During one of my days at this beach, I got a blissful, hour-long massage about 10 steps from our lounge chairs. Walking to get a bucket of water to wash the sand off my feet before the massage was the most strenuous thing I did that day.
At some point amid the endless, intoxicating relaxation, we found the energy to drive our golf cart the Punta Sur, or South Point, at the southernmost tip of the island. Once there, pay a nominal fee to explore Garrafon Natural Reef Park, a series of paved trails that lead to the very edge of the ocean.
The parkís designers have managed to make it feel like youíre standing in the middle of the wild ocean. Itís humbling and beautiful.
Other popular activities on Isla include swimming with whale sharks, docile, beautiful and enormous creatures. That may very well be a once-in-a-life, unforgettable experience, but itís a minimum of $125 U.S. dollars per person, takes up an entire day and some lose their stomachs on the two-hour boat ride it takes to even reach waters deep enough for the sea creatures. The season runs from June 1 to Sept. 15.
Others swim with dolphins, a much easier and slightly cheaper feat on Isla, though it also requires breaking away from the near-irresistible, do-nothing vibe that permeates the island. The swim will cost at least $100, but itís conveniently located in water just 50 feet from Islaís beach.
Between January and September last year, Isla Mujeres saw 227,540 visitors, according to statistics kept by the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Cancun had 3.2 million visitors in the same time period, proving that Isla is still a well-kept secret.
Or maybe that it simply doesnít appeal to the partying masses who swarm Cancun.