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When I was a teenager visiting Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with my folks in 1973, as we were flying from Cozumel to Mérida our pilot indicated a skinny, scrubby island below that was about to be developed into the country’s newest resort destination. More than 40 years later, Cancún remains the most wildly successful sun-and-fun capital of Latin America, with dozens of big resorts; a huge menu of dining and shopping; and access to diverse adventure and eco attractions down the Riviera Maya coast as well as the jawdropping Mayan ruins scattered throughout the peninsula.
And all these many years after Club Med became Cancún’s first resort, the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) has of course become packed with a bewildering variety of resorts from modest to enormous and glitzy. And as of January 2017, 438-unit Panama Jack’s has been making its mark among them as a family-friendly, four-star option whose hallmark is friendliness and exceptional service (with 640 employees, the staff-to-guest ratio is exceptionally high).
Rather than a new property, Panama Jack’s is the rebranding and renovation (slated to be complete by December 15) of the Gran Caribe, which over some four decades had developed a loyal Mexican and other Latin American following, which is still in evidence today. But the new feel is a nice, breezy mix of modern and retro that is very appealing to both new visitors and repeat guests of years’ standing, such as an Indianapolis couple I ran into, booked into here by their agent without realizing it’s an updated reboot of the same property they enjoyed 18 years ago.
It’s the result of a partnership between Playa Hotels and Resorts, which operates various all-inclusive properties in Mexico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic (including Punta Cana’s five-star The Sanctuary), and 44-year-old Panama Jack line of beach-oriented products from suncare to home furnishings; the brand’s logo evokes a pith-hatted Ernest Hemingway.
As Kevin Froemming, Playa’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer explained to me, “This resort concept resonates with all age categories and greatly with the U.S./Canada market because of the widely known brand recognition that the Panama Jack Brand has there. We are seeing great possibilities for growing this resort brand not only further in Mexico but also throughout Jamaica and the DR.”
Entering the spacious, airy lobby, a light take on retro comes into play behind the reception area, lined with knickknacks suggestive of vintage travel, such as sextants, compasses, lanterns, and exotic glassware. Just across the hall, the expansive main bar Jack’s Landing has a view out to the kids’ area’s colorful pirate ship, and a stage with nightly shows from rock bands to traditional Mayan-inspired dancers; it’s bookended by a trio of car-rental and day-tour offices. At the far end, the most recent addition is Panama Jack Coffee Co., with tasty brews and baked treats including signature cinnamon buns (a bell rings when they’re fresh out of the oven). Once I spotted a magician in slightly creepy makeup roamed the lobby, bemusing folks with his antics and tricks (as GM Mattias Klein put it, “we like to offer our guests nice surprises!”). Another quirky note is the sayings emblazoned on various walls across the property, such as “The first GPS stood for good pair of shoes. It got us here,” and “ The difference between a rut and a groove is style and attitude.”
The resort’s half dozen dining options are readily accessible from the lobby or just outside. At dinner-only Casa Rosa (above), I enjoyed a fabulous steak with huitlacoche sauce (that’s tree fungus – much better than it sounds!), part of a well chosen menu of modern Mexican treats. Others include the main Ventanas buffet (featuring sweet sea views indeed), casual waterfront grill Deck 74, seafood-oriented Italian Viaggio (a guest favorite), al fresco At Sunset, and Jack’s Shack taco stand (where you can watch local ladies making these Mexican classics by hand).
Just out behind the lobby, right next to Deck 74 and Las Olas Bar, the main pool and the beach beyond are of course guests’ main hangouts for most of the day, with regular activities including water polo; beach volleyball and Zumba; cooking classes; tequila tastings (above); and surfing contests in the moderately kicky surf. Among other amenities are the aforementioned kids’ area, which besides the water-gun-equipped pirate ship boasts its own pool; other fun water attractions like a three-story waterslide; mini-golf; kids’ program Camp Jack (ages 4-12); and #Hashtag teen zone, with video games and other activities. For adults, the Small Aura Spa offers a nice little selection of treatments such as its signature Tequila Sunrise massage (involving blue-agave oil), along with a whirlpool and wet/dry saunas. Just across from the spa is good-size gym that I found quite well appointed with up-to-date weight machines, free weights, and cardio equipment.
Another perk especially worth a shoutout is Cancún’s only oceanfront chapel, Our Lady of Guadalupe, a serene, glass-sided affair gazing out over the turquoise waters. Though nominally Roman Catholic, it conducts weddings of all denominations – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Asian, non-denominational, and LGBT ceremonies. GM Klein reports an average of more than 200 weddings a year on property (the beach is also a popular venue, as is the pavilion between the pool and the beach), with free, customizable wedding packages and coordination available, as well as a pre-wedding two-night stay for $400.
Upstairs, the rooms are pretty similar in décor - stuccoed in white and aqua, and all with balconies or terraces; very comfortable beds; flatscreen TVs with a good channel assortment; minifridges stocked with soft drinks and beer; and roomy showers – the 438 units are distributed into 12 classes, more than half of them 387-square-foot junior suites (I particularly liked the half dozen right on the beach, connected by their own pool). Located nearby in a villa annex, 115 645-sq.-ft. suites add separate living rooms, larger baths/showers, and private terrace whirlpools; 55 of these are oceanfront. In all, WiFi is quite good, and room service runs 7 am to 11 pm (plus on the sixth floor there’s a Club Panama VIP lounge with comfy seating along with a selection of snacks and an open bar, available 24/7 to all guests in higher-category rooms).
Finally, another key difference Klein likes to emphasize is Panama Jack’s social conscience and commitment to sustainability, with which the property was explicitly redesigned. That includes complex energy-saving and recycling systems; beach-cleaning campaigns; and onsite details such as notes to guests to reuse towels and limiting distribution of plastic straws unless specifically requested. These measures have won them recognition by international programs such as Green Globe.
Hand in hand with this, the resort also sponsors a number of local social initiatives; for example, one of the available day trips takes guests 90 minutes south to the town of Tulúm, famous for its beaches and seaside Mayan ruins but also home to the Melipona Maya Foundation, which works to preserve traditional but endangered Mayan beekeeping as well as to re-establish it in local communities to provide income streams from honey and beeswax. I watched in fascination as foundation staffer Omar Huichochea showed off and explained several of their dozens of hives of stingless bees.
I spoke with Fara Alleyne, who runs Travel by Fara in Newington, Connecticut, who books quite a few clients into Panama Jack’s and told me she’s seen it before and after the rebranding, and there have been “a lot of positive changes – the rooms look fresher and crisper, and there have been a lot of other positive changes. It’s a good value for clients – singles, couples, families – who want good value, a good beach and activities, and good service.”
Panama Jack’s currently operates a second property down on the Mayan Riviera near Playa del Carmen, with plans to expand to the DR and Jamaica. Cancún double-occupancy-based rates range $119 to $295 for standard rooms, $129-305 for junior suites, and $219-395 for one-bedroom master suites.