Hop a direct flight, and soak in the warmth of sunny Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Caribbean Getaway (PROMO)
When you need a break, take a brief siesta at Xel-Ha.
| Credit: Gary Clark

This time of year, sunshine, sea, and sand beckon. So why not grab your passport and answer the call?

Playa del Carmen, Mexico, about an hour south of Cancún, offers everything you'd want in the sunshine, sea, and sand department--minus the wild reputation. Easily reachable by way of direct flights to Cancún from Atlanta, Houston, and other Southern hubs, this area promises a fun vacation with a Spanish accent and temperatures in the low 80s. Take note: This isn't Disney. Leave the little ones at home.

Where To Stay
Upon arrival in Cancún, it's best to get a cab to Playa del Carmen, which will cost about $60. This wonderful and walkable town offers many lodging options, but our favorite is Blue Parrot Hotel (www.blueparrot.com). Located just off Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida), which is the main shopping street, you can get a one-bedroom suite for $187 per night. Most rooms have ocean views, kitchenettes, and all the modern amenities.

Where To Dine
This one-time fishing village still features some of the best seafood you'll find anywhere. Stop in at Palapa Hemingway, located on Fifth Avenue, for the freshest fish imaginable. Lunch costs around $15. Breakfast at Media Luna includes tropical fruit and potato-zucchini pancakes ($6) as well as terrific fruit drinks. If you want to branch out internationally, then hit Yaxche (www.mayacuisine. com), for authentic Mayan cuisine. Be sure to ask for Cafe Maya; this flaming finale offers quite a show.

What To Do
The beaches are wonderful in Playa. Grab a lounge chair, and watch the turquoise water roll in. You'll also see a beautiful beach at the don't-miss spot in this area--the ruins of Tulum, about 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen. Go early; it gets really hot in the afternoon. The ruins open at 8 a.m. and cost around $3 (but you must pay with pesos). Tulum contains the only Mayan ruins that sit dramatically on a cliff overlooking the beach and Caribbean Sea below.

Don't miss Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-ha; www.xel-ha.com). This water park and natural aquarium makes a great spot to cool off.

Sign on for a daylong Mayan Encounter with AllTournative (www.alltournative.com), which includes a tour of an archaeological site deep within the rain forest and a visit to a Mayan village, all for around $104.

For a primo dolphin experience, head to Dolphin Discovery (www.dolphindiscovery.com) in Puerto Aventuras. You can swim and interact with the popular mammals.

Where To Shop
Walk straight to Fifth Avenue, where you'll find everything from traditional Yucatán crafts to fine jewelry. Ask at your hotel or in the individual shops about shipping items for you. Don't miss Telart for Mexican textiles and La Calaca for handicrafts and masks. You can find tablecloths and embroidered clothing at Caracol. The Mercado de Artesanias Xaman Ha contains 14 shops that sell silver, dresses, blankets, and jewelry. Another fine crafts shop is La Hierbabuena, run by an expatriate American.

Helpful Hints

  • Check with your cell phone carrier before you leave. Many phones can be "unlocked," so they may be used in Mexico. Another alternative is Skype (www.skype.com), an Internet phone service, which is nearly free to use for international calls.
  • Drink bottled water, beer, or soft drinks. Avoid ice as well.
  • Order a Can-Do Guide-in-a-map from Laura McFarlin at www.mapchick.com. It costs $10 and is filled with restaurant, hotel, and shopping information.
  • Be extra careful when swimming both in hotel pools and the ocean. Lifeguards are not usually present, and the safety measures you're used to in the United States do not necessarily translate to Mexico.
  • Check out these Web sites: www.travelyucatan.com, www.rivieramaya.com, or www.undiscoveredmexico.com. The best one of all is www.playa.info. The message boards are particularly helpful.

"Caribbean Getaway" is from the January 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.