"Hello, I'd like to order a cafe con leche, please," I tell the woman on the other end of the phone. "Also, I have a frog in my room."
"A frog. There is a frog in my foyer."
"Yes, of course. I will send someone right away for the coffee. And the frog."
I'm in the Mexican village of Playa Xcalacoco, a seashell's throw from Playa del Carmen, at the Viceroy Riviera Maya – a luxurious resort taco'd between honeyed beach and glossy jungle, its 41 villas decorated in shades of sombrero blonds and (appropriately, as it turns out) Kermit greens. To clarify: I am a friend of the frog. (Lord knows I've dated my share of them.) But I am not sure I want one leaping around, crazed, in my bedroom. So it is a relief when a hotel employee arrives with my coffee and gently escorts the frog (a toad, as it turns out) out of my suite.
The toad tête-à-tête is only one of many eye-openers during my sojourn in the Yucatan Peninsula. Holidaying in Mexico lately has been lassoed to images of all-inclusives, their kidney-shaped pools and their magenta-shouldered and margarita-nursed tourists crowded around bland buffets longer than the Rio Grande. (It has also, let's be frank, been associated with violence, drug cartels and kidnappings.)
But the Viceroy is one of 27 boutique properties in Mexico vetted by – and granted coveted membership into – London-based booking service Mr & Mrs Smith. Piloted by married couple Tamara and James Lohan, the collection prizes chic over, say, an abundance of amenities. Here, the result is an introduction to a lovelier, more refined side of this country than I had previously encountered (certainly more refined than the one that saw me, on a high-school grad trip to Puerto Vallarta, drinking tequila poppers and dancing to Ace of Base).
One particularly alluring and mystical corner of this other Mexico hides in the Yucatan jungle, outside of ancient Mayan city of Coba. The five-room Coqui Coqui Coba feels more like a pre-Columbian castle than a newly built hotel – no surprise since it was fashioned after the nearby ruins. It is part of model Nicolas Malleville's mini Mexican empire. (The Argentinian, who studied landscape architecture at the University of Cordoba and wrote his thesis on palm trees, owns three other Smith-approved Coqui Coqui properties, along with a perfumery.)
The place is set to moody and somewhat forbidding effect on the banks of a crocodile-populated lagoon: In the morning the edge is corrugated with crocs, their spiked backs biting through breeze-ridged waters. Meanwhile, lemon-coloured butterflies as big as birds and yellow-tummied flycatchers career about like wayward shreds of sunshine. Palms and Alamo trees – their muscular, ropy and twisty trunks topped with a voluminous and glossy mop of leaves – seem to be forever polishing a lapis sky clean of cloud. Sun and heat, untempered by an ocean, tend toward the unrelenting. Arriving to a place like this – where colours appear to have been cranked up to an almost gaudy brilliance – in the midst of a Toronto winter seems like the trick of Hollywood studios.
Maybe it's the febrile heat and the piquant colours (or the mescal), but as I walk past the papaya and lime trees (supplier of tomorrow's breakfast) and down tiny stony alleyways where froglets (yes, those again) the size of a nino's fingertip spring, I feel like I'm in the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The kind of setting where the inky of mane fall in love under gibbous moons. (Also, evidently, the sort of setting that makes a writer use words like "febrile," "piquant" and "inky of mane.")
About an hour and a half away is Valladolid. Known as the Sultana of the East, Valladolid is a languid, colonial town mapped with 16th-century spires, paving-stone streets, Spanish colonnades and stucco haciendas painted in pulpy shades of mango and guava. If once quiet Tulum is now hyper touristy, with bohos in beach fedoras on yoga retreats and juice cleanses, Valladolid offers a quiet, less aggressively trendy refuge. Here, you'll find Coba's sister property Coqui Coqui Valadolid – a mini hideout set atop the Coqui Coqui perfumery, where oils extracted from local botanicals (plumeria, coconuts, agave) are fashioned into linen sprays, candles and eau de toilette. But before you try to book your family in for a stay, be warned that the place only claims a single suite. It's big enough for just one or two guests. And a frog.
IF YOU GO
Fly to Cancun International Airport. Viceroy Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen) is a 45-minute drive away; Coba is about a two-hour drive; Valladolid is 90 minutes.
Viceroy Riviera Maya Forty-one palapa villas with outdoor showers, private pools and hammocks are set amid lush jungle, turquoise shores and spider-monkey-touristed pathways. From $437 a night. (All rates are for bookings made at smithhotels.com.)
Coqui Coqui Coba This five-room two-tower hideaway (the towers are connected by rope bridge) is fashioned after nearby Coba's Mayan ruins. Haute-rustic rooms – walls are washed the creamy mottled colour of antique maps – are scented with orange blossom. From $211 a night.
Coqui Coqui Valladolid A single room retreat – and what at room, set atop the hotel's on-site perfumery. Frangipani-scented courtyard, sunny terrace and warm service make you feel like you're the Don (or Dona) of your own hacienda. From $300 a night.
The writer travelled as a guest of Mr & Mrs Smith. It did not review or approve this article.