Mexico's lush Yucatán peninsula conjures up images of mindless hedonism, be it idle sunbathing or seductive nightlife. Yet the area offers far more than sun-baked beaches. Just a few hours inland are majestic Mayan pyramids, colonial-era cathedrals, and a trail of historic haciendas restored to their former splendor.
A dose of hacienda culture can be a fascinating way to explore the peninsula. That's possible because in recent years many of these once-abandoned plantations have been turned into upscale restaurants or luxury hotels. Dining in the leafy courtyard of a pastel-hued mansion or waking to the sound of chirping jungle birds in a thatched-roof hacienda villa can be a welcome antidote to the tourist traps of Cancún.
The best hacienda inns boast rooms with cathedral ceilings and period furnishings such as four-poster beds. All have updated bathrooms, some with bonus features such as outdoor jacuzzi baths. But the real highlight is the Spanish-influenced architecture: soaring arches, thick walls, and intricate tile flooring. Many, like Hacienda Xcanatun (xcanatun.com), offer an assortment of resort amenities, including holistic Mayan spa treatments using native flowers and locally produced honey. That can help work out the kinks after hiking through the 1,000-year-old ruins of Uxmal or exploring the streets of Mérida, the region's capital and host to the continent's oldest cathedral.
The Yucatán's haciendas date as far back as the 16th century, when they served as cattle ranches or corn farms. But these feudalistic agriculture hubs only began to flourish in the late 1800s, when demand soared for sisal, a crop used to make rope that is related to the agave plant used in tequila. That Gilded Age boom lasted only a few decades -- by the 1950s petroleum-based fibers made sisal obsolete. The plantations, most of which are located in distant rural areas, were deserted in the 1960s and fell into disrepair. Many still haunt the landscape.
POOLSIDE COCONUT GROVE
Staying at one is much more than an extended history lesson. Hacienda San José Cholul, one of five Yucatán haciendas that are part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT ), boasts an inviting infinity pool bordering a shady grove of coconut trees (luxurycollections.com). Those who don't want to get wet can kick back on a poolside chaise longue while sipping tamarind margaritas, the house specialty. Remember to save time for on-site diversions. Hacienda San José offers guests free horseback rides, garden tours, and contemplation space in the property's traditional chapel.
Starwood's involvement dates from 2001, but one of the first investors to see promise in the ruins was a local businessman, Jorge Cárdenas Gutiérrez. He reopened Hacienda Teya (haciendateya.com) on the outskirts of Mérida in 1991 as a tony restaurant. Locals know to order the eatery's mouthwatering rendition of cochinita pibil -- spicy pork wrapped in banana leaves -- and tall glasses of fresh-squeezed limeade. "It took my grandfather 20 years to restore this hacienda to its 17th century grandeur," says Bernardo Fernandez Cárdenas.
Most of the inns fall into the luxury category, with rooms starting at upwards of $300 a night. Rates come down in the late-summer and fall low season and can be as much as $700 during peak season, which runs from Christmas through Easter. Spanish-language skills help but are not critical. On a recent stay at Hacienda San José, service and upkeep were excellent, with one exception: no hot water the first night, a problem that was confined to our room.
Accessibility is by far the biggest issue. While some haciendas provide transportation from Mérida's airport, renting a car is a better way to get to them -- and to explore the countryside. Sure, you can see the sights by making day trips from Cancún, but that entails driving several hours each way that could otherwise be spent sightseeing. A hacienda hop makes for a great Yucatán visit before or after spending a few days on the beach.
By Chester Dawson