The very first time I visited the Yucatan was in the 90’s – I was a student on a measly budget, but nevertheless took a bite out of the luxury resort apple, spending a week in a 5-star hotel in Cancun I could barely afford had it not been for my credit cards. I don’t remember much from the trip, but I do recall one memorable jaunt across the bay to Isla Muejeres, where I spent the day snorkelling, lying on white powdery sand and drinking frozen margaritas from a hammock while watching the sunset. Good times.

Fast forward two decades and with Easter break swiftly upon us, the Riviera Maya seemed to offer the best options to secure business class flights on British Airways via Mexico City, to spend a week in an all-inclusive resort a short distance from Playa del Carmen. There are some spectacular luxury resorts in this part of the country, and having narrowed it down to the Rosewood Mayakoba and the Blue Diamond Riviera Maya, we settled on the latter having discovered that up until a short while ago, it used to be a Mandarin Oriental. Considering the price tag of circa $500 per night, we felt we’d be getting a pretty exclusive, high-end luxury experience in the sun.

The Blue Diamond is located about 45 minutes from Cancun airport in a quieter part of the Yucatan. Despite rarely using it, we rented a car and drove ourselves to the resort, which was a nice way to have some freedom to move around if you’re inclined to be self sufficient. Arriving at the resort, you can see the hallmark legacy of Mandarin Oriental everywhere in both style and substance. The layout of the resort has been cleverly architected, the communal areas are beautiful, the rooms designed to a high standard and you get a lot of square footage for your room rate. The patio and gardens leading on from your guestroom are very pretty, and it was a thrill to see the indigenous wildlife – one of the few constant reminders we were actually in Mexico.

Our Laguna Cenote suite was spacious and directly opened onto manicured lawns leading down to the water. The suite had a private pool, but we never used this during our stay as the water was always a little on the cold side. With a four-poster bed and sitting area to one level, the east wing of the suite was entirely dedicated to the most terrific bathroom. Consisting of double sinks, an outdoor soaking tub and vast rainshower, you could practically gallop horses in the space, and I couldn’t have been more happier given my penchant for hotel bathrooms. We did have small issues with smelly drains and a temperamental air conditioning unit, but otherwise our suite was a major hit.

The resort is vast, and to get around you’ll be walking quite a bit, which wasn’t so much a problem for us. You can also call one of the hotel buggies to take you to the beach or to one of the dining outlets should you not want to do the walk. Alternatively, the resort also has bicycles available for guest usage, though these weren’t in the greatest of upkeep and therefore riddled with problems. As there are only a small number of guestrooms, other than at meal times and en route to the beach, we rarely encountered masses of people, which was nice. The beach itself is rather narrow, yet well maintained and somewhat of a calm oasis if you can ignore the jetski fumes and speed boats. We avoided the main bank of sun loungers directly by Ceviche, and chose to sit in a quieter area further away from the masses which worked a treat. I enjoyed lazy afternoons with my toes between the powdery sand, taking long walks and swimming in the clear waters.

From the perspective of the dining, we quickly learnt that all-inclusive is not for us. We liked Aguamarina very much, enjoying breakfast and most evening meals here rather than spending any time at Ambar – the fine dining restaurant, which wasn’t really our bag. The Blue Diamond should consider creating a third option, as having what’s essentially two functioning restaurants for this quantity of resort guests can get tiresome if you’re staying over the course of a week. The service was very patchy, and where possible, we preferred interacting with a handful of employees we thought did a stellar job in trying to anticipate our needs and preferences well.

The Verdict
The Blue Diamond Riviera Maya certainly has all the physical attributes to be a winner, and to say we didn’t enjoy the experience would be misleading. From evenings sitting on the deck of our fantastic suite to wonderful afternoons lounging away in the sun, it ticked a lot of the boxes we required from the experience. However this didn’t feel like Mexico, and perhaps our expectations were in the wrong place. I can appreciate catering for a predominantly North American clientele, but when you travel over 6,000 miles out of choice to be someplace, you want to have a representative experience – not some sanitised pastiche, devoid of any real local flavour.

As an all-inclusive resort, we also felt the expectations around tipping were eye-opening. As Europeans accustomed to an approach where tips are provided as a result of service excellence, we couldn’t help but feel service levels were indexed to where each guest fell in the general hierarchy of tippers. For this level of accommodation, at these prices, I would have loved to witness genuine service culture, and not one fuelled by entitlement. The Blue Diamond isn’t a bad option at all, it’s just not a Mandarin Oriental.

Hotel – 8/10
Experience – 5/10