Sand by me

Isla Hol­box is the pick of Mex­ico chic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - MONIQUE RIVALLAND

It is dawn and I’m on a speed­boat with three Mex­i­can cou­ples. A surfer dude is at the helm. He is lead­ing us to where the Gulf of Mex­ico meets the Caribbean Sea, where the whale sharks gather in sum­mer, and where we will soon be stop­ping for a morn­ing swim.

It would be a sexy way to start the day if it weren’t for a cer­tain boyfriend be­ing ill over­board. He must be re­gret­ting last night’s mez­cals, I think, as I look back to see the lush Mex­i­can is­land where we woke up dis­solv­ing to mist. It is lovely Isla Hol­box and surely never has an is­land been so ma­ligned by its name.

Mean­ing “black hole” in Mayan and pro­nounced “hol-bosh”, it is a jam­boree of emer­ald jun­gle, golden sands and jade seas. Per­haps the name was prophetic, for it is re­mark­able that it is only now be­ing picked up on the global tourism radar.

Hol­box is a 30-minute boat ride off the north­ern coast of the touristy Yu­catan Penin­sula and yet, un­like the nearby hotspot of Can­cun, vis­i­tors to the is­land are mostly Mex­i­can. Young ur­ban­ites in search of sum­mer ex­ot­ica have been de­camp­ing here for years while the rest of us have been lan­guish­ing on the main­land.

It has been dubbed “the new Tu­lum”, a ref­er­ence to the pop­u­lar town on the east­ern­most shore of Mex­ico that went from be­ing a hip­pie paradise in the 70s to a trop­i­cal-chic hang­out for the fash­ion crowd about 10 years ago. To­day Tu­lum and its sur­rounds are a hot­bed of su­per-luxe re­sorts. Take The Rose­wood Mayakoba, where I stay be­fore head­ing north to Hol­box. It is like ar­riv­ing in Utopia. As you are driven to the spa on a golf buggy, through the man­i­cured grounds, staff smile, bow their heads and greet you by name. The rooms have but­lers and pri­vate decks by pri­vate pools on pri­vate beaches. There is a first-class Ja­panese restau­rant on a la­goon. At din­ner a man sprays your an­kles with mos­quito re­pel­lent.

There is noth­ing like this on Isla Hol­box and it’s the bet­ter for it. The only fea­tures Hol­box have in com­mon with Tu­lum are beau­ti­ful beaches and in­fra­struc­ture so dated that you still can’t put loo roll down the loo. Golf bug­gies are big on the is­land, but it’s a rugged ride be­cause there are no roads; rather, sandy, pot hole-rid­den thor­ough­fares. At night there is no limit to the charm of bump­ing through the dark with street­lights made from conch shells.

The only way to get here is by car or bus to the main­land port of Chiquila (a three-hour drive from Can­cun), fol­lowed by a ferry. Last year im­prove­ments were made to the road run­ning to Chiquila, through the Yum Balam na­ture re­serve, mak­ing the jour­ney less hairy (and packed with jun­gle scenery). The boat takes you to the only “built-up” stretch of beach on Hol­box, where 15 or so wooden, thatched-roof ca­bana-style ho­tels stand on the wa­ter’s edge. One of th­ese is Ho­tel Maw­imbi, where I am stay­ing. It was the sec­ond ho­tel to ap­pear on the is­land, built in the 1990s by the is­land’s self-styled queen, Or­nella, and her hus­band, Carmelo, who chanced upon Hol­box on a sail­ing trip. There is a cen­tral wooden struc­ture with nine rooms, some with an ocean view, and a cou­ple of stone bun­ga­lows. Fresh off the boat, I find Or­nella on the ho­tel’s beach drink­ing with friends un­der the moon­light, thereby fall­ing in love with her life at first sight.

All the rooms are dec­o­rated to is­land-chic per­fec­tion. Mine has a chunky wooden ta­ble sliced from a tree and hand­made muslin cur­tains on bam­boo rails. Most im- por­tantly, Maw­imbi is ex­tremely good value. My room, which is one of the best, is about $200 a night in high sea­son. To me, that screams back­packer-luxe, but the ser­vice, the or­ganic food and the deluxe sun-loungers sug­gest a higher class.

It’s a five-minute walk from the ho­tel to the main square which, for a small is­land, packs a lot of en­ergy. At night taco stands flicker, hol­i­day-mak­ers share lob­ster piz­zas and chil­dren play on a flood­lit bas­ket­ball court. In the ar­ter­ies run­ning from the square the young and flipflopped sit at can­dlelit tiki bars. The trendi­est is Le Bazaar, a mez­cal cock­tail bar that dou­bles as an al­fresco bou­tique stocked by Mex­ico’s hottest new de­sign­ers.

Let us re­turn to the boat trip, though, which has turned out to be ar­du­ous. Af­ter two hours of bump­ing hard against the waves, we have ar­rived for our swim. The sick man re­mains a shade of ochre. It is not for the faint-hearted, I’ll give him that. I’m ner­vous, too. But in I go, a me­tre from a whale shark’s fin, and that first pre­cious glimpse is spell­bind­ing. It is no won­der the lo­cals have pro­moted th­ese grace­ful gi­ants to di­vin­ity.

There is, how­ever, a draw­back to whale shark sea­son (June to Septem­ber), in that it is also rainy sea­son. You may pre­fer to skip the sharks and come in­stead for win­ter sun. In De­cem­ber the tem­per­a­ture floats around a glo­ri­ous but man­age­able 28C and, most im­por­tantly, it’s dry.

By the sec­ond af­ter­noon of my trip, the “roads” are knee-deep rivers. Apart from the deliri­ous frogs and mos­qui­toes, though, it’s busi­ness as usual. An un­per­turbed re­cep­tion­ist at our ho­tel tells us the wa­ter on the road will last maybe three days. But I am mov­ing ho­tels this af­ter­noon and it looks as though I might have to swim. Even­tu­ally we per­suade (with a dose of pe­sos) a plucky man to “sail” his golf buggy to Las Nubes, a ho­tel at the fur­ther­most tip of the beach where I will spend my last two nights.

Las Nubes is a good 45-minute walk from the beat­ing heart of the is­land, but what it lacks in prox­im­ity it makes

Pink flamin­gos on Hol­box, top; beach at Ho­tel Maw­imbi, above cen­tre; re­laxed is­land life, above left; bar and din­ing at scenic Las Nubes, above right

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