Perhaps you’ve had a hankering to visit the sparkling blue waters of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, or you’ve heard about the country’s efforts to boost tourism to Mayan sites between now and the much-publicized end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012 (hey, you’d better get there before the world ends!). And perhaps you’ve heard about all the benefits of the eco-tourism trend and you’re eager to reduce your carbon footprint. Then you’ll want to know about a one-of-a-kind destination that lets you put a different twist on a visit to our southern neighbor. Called Taninah (pronounced Tah-knee-nah), which means “first home” in Mayan, it’s a private, gated and fenced jungle retreat on 10 acres within the Riviera Maya, the name designating the coastal region south of Cancun. The retreat is booked by only one group at a time and can hold up to 35 people, so it’s ideal for a family gathering or a big group of friends (it’s available for weddings, too). My siblings and parents take a vacation together every year, so it was a great solution to offer plenty of privacy to our 14-member group, ranging from one-year-olds to grandparents. The estate, about an hour and 15 minutes south of the Cancun airport (shuttle service is provided), consists of several guest houses arranged around a central gathering spot with a kitchen and pool. It offered amenities that we’ve never seen or experienced on one of our family vacations before – more about those in a minute – but the best part about it was the onsite Mayan staff who cooked every meal and attended to every need. That single feature eliminated the No. 1 source of stress on our family vacations: deciding what to eat, where to eat, when to eat and how to wrangle noisy toddlers during mealtimes. The quiet, attentive employees were more fluent in Spanish than English – but if your party doesn’t have any Spanish speakers, a supervisor can easily translate for you. They tailored each menu to our multigenerational needs, accommodated special requests and allowed us to select each mealtime in accordance with our schedule. Each meal was delicious and stress-free, since we didn’t have to worry about restraining youngsters running amok in a restaurant. And we were able to experience authentic, home-cooked cuisine such as Xotchitl soup, a chicken soup named after the Mayan flower goddess, and Cochinita pibil, a slow-cooked pork that might even rival North Carolina barbecue. But mealtimes were just one of the daily highlights. Taninah includes its own zipline, a miniature golf course, a hot tub, a trampoline, game room, library, music room with a DVD projector for big-screen movies, and an enclosed and padded toddler play area, plus walking trails and green space perfect for an impromptu game of soccer (which the staff was happy to join). There’s also a spa on site with appointments available for massages, pedicures and other treatments solely for the enjoyment of Taninah’s residents. Another one-of-a-kind highlight: A cenote (pronounced say-no-tay), an underground limestone cavern with a swimming hole, typical of similar caves dotting the entire peninsula. But this one, equipped with its own waterslide and waterfall, is just for the guests of Taninah, and provides plenty of time for splashing and cooling off underground. We could have happily spent our entire week just enjoying the grounds. But of course the Caribbean beckoned, so we made several day trips to nearby beaches and other attractions. Xpu Ha Beach (pronounced schpoo-ha) was about 10 minutes away and offered snorkeling, Jet Ski rentals, shaded hammocks and more. Also nearby were Puerto Aventuras, a small town offering shopping and a chance to swim with dolphins; spectacular cliff-side ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum; and a shopping day trip to Playa del Carmen. More beaches, golfing, horseback tours, ATV tours, zipline adventures and dozens of other attractions were within an hour’s drive or less (a rental car is advisable for exploring). The Mexican equivalent of a Walmart was just 10 minutes away for our day-to-day shopping needs. Just as impressive as what Taninah has is what it conserves. It’s “off the grid” and powered entirely by solar panels and generators. Everything is composted and recycled. There’s no air conditioning, but between the ample shade, time spent in water, the heat-absorbing properties of the jungle and constantly whirring fans, we found the temperatures comfortable even during a hot summer month (and I was cool enough at night to want bedcovers). There’s no TV, but bring your DVDs or select from their impressive library. There’s no landline phone or landline internet connection, but our mobile phones, texting and mobile internet worked with international roaming (and besides, how bad would it be to actually unplug for a few days?). Because of those eco-friendly features, Taninah is best for those who are adventurous. Its open-air nature means you’ll have experiences similar to those you might have camping – including close encounters with local wildlife. Most of that is of the trilling-birds-and-beautiful-butterflies variety, but yes, the Yucatan is home to several species of exotic insects including tarantulas and scorpions, and yes, the guests of Taninah do occasionally encounter them. However, as frightening as the prospect might sound to some, we were assured that they don’t sting unless directly confronted, and the effects of a sting are no worse than a bee sting (ice is the recommended remedy). The staff regularly checks rooms for insect intruders and is happy to clear them if anything is spotted. If you truly want to minimize the chances of an encounter, visit during a winter month when the insects are more dormant. (And despite warnings about safety in other parts of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula has remained safe for tourists.)Taninah has been featured on HGTV and The Travel Channel and profiled in magazines including Time, Caribbean World and Travel + Leisure. It’s owned by Marino and Kathy Tomacelli – Marino, a Mexico City native, and Kathy, who hails from Rhode Island, met in southern California and bought the property that would become Taninah after they married and were living in Playa del Carmen in the late 1990s. It was their family home before they opened it up for vacation rentals a few years ago. The per-person costs are less than that of many all-inclusive resorts.For us, Taninah meant a week of family harmony and a great base of exploration of the Riviera Maya. We left our recent visit with full stomachs, beautifully filled photo albums and happy memories of our most adventurous family vacation ever.
Rates: Costs at Taninah vary according to the size of the party, and rates are higher during holidays, but standard non-holiday rates start at $100 per person nightly for groups of 30-plus, to $150 per person nightly for a group of 8 to 10 adults (kids under 6 are free). Meals are included.For reservations and more information: www.taninah.com.Flying: USAirways offers nonstop service between Charlotte and Cancun. www.usairways.com.For more on attractions in the Riviera Maya: www.travelyucatan.com; www.visitmexico.com.