Perfect Playas

You can lodge in a no-frills dive hotel or an ultra-exclusive resort in Mexico and Central America. You can spend your day above or below water - or in a spa, on a golf course or sampling foods from down-home tortillas to multi-course gourmet wine-pairing dinners. You can enjoy weeks at a time lounging around the pool or taking on challenges like zip-lining, dolphin encounters and cave tubing. No matter your choice, you'll never be far from one of the region's splendid, perfect playas.

You needn't plan a beach vacation in Belize, but if it's sand and surf you want, you'll have quite the array to choose from. Most mainland strands tempt with sugary golden sands, while the shores of Ambergris Caye and the 200-plus outlying islands tend to lure with powdery white strands. The beaches lead to far more - most famously amazing diving and snorkeling spots in waters that are largely protected marine reserves. Most spectacular is the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the hemisphere at 185 miles long.

CENTRAL AMERICA | BELIZE

Adventure travelers seeking water sports, jungle treks and zip-lining have long been keen on Belize, and history buffs have been fascinated by its myriad Maya temples. Now couples are tuning into this English-speaking destination. Whether they're seeking indulgent spa treatments for two or kayaking excursions through mangroves, Americans in love are finding Belize to be both romantic and affordable. Belize's service providers give couples plenty to visit for. Boutique-style inns offer friendly, personal service in an intimate atmosphere. In the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, enjoy a private meal for two with the 90-foot Butterfly Falls behind you. Couples can also have special dinners inside a cave or on quiet Snake Caye. Weddings here can be barefoot on the beach, in a fine restaurant or even 30 feet below the water; divers call these ceremonies "Belizean wedding bubbly."

Affordable, gorgeous and English-speaking - plus it offers an enormous variety of natural attractions by land and sea. Learn more about Belize at 800-624-0686 or travelbelize.org. If you're eager to make the most of the your time in Belize, take advantage of the services of Astrum Helicopters and experience the country's most spectacular sites from the air. With a fleet of Bell 206 helicopters and multiple private heliports, the Astrum team can take you up for a bird's-eye view of scenic Belize jungle and mountains or islands and reef. The helicopters can also transport you directly to your hotel on different scenic flights, which is a huge time-saver. That's only the beginning. Astrum's Helicopter Adventures combine scenic helicopter rides with incredible journeys. Eight entirely different excursions offer an array of activities. With the Cave Tubing & Canopy Tour, you'll fly to two sites. First you'll tube through an underground cave system. Then you'll head to the Lost World, where you'll travel via zip line and suspension bridge as well as rappel down a cliff. The Maya Mountains, Waterfalls, Xunantunich & Horseback Tour involves flying over six thundering waterfalls and horseback riding past Maya ruins in a subtropical preserve. 888-278-7864, astrumhelicopters.com A group of American friends who adore Belize got together and created the resort where they'd always wished they could stay. Now Tranquility Bay shares this bounty with guests, who stay on the 12-acre property in one of 11 suites, each a beachfront cabana with one or two bedrooms, air conditioning, queen-size beds with Simmons Beautyrest mattresses and Egyptian-cotton linens, fold-out sofas, kitchens with hand-painted Mexican tiles, and, delightfully, no telephones or televisions. This is roughing it the civilized way. The resort's Tackle Box Sea Bar, a re-creation of a beloved Belize landmark, serves meals and beverages from a perch overlooking the aquamarine sea. As for pretty? At the hotel's opening, Belize Prime Minister Said Musa remarked, "Surely this must be one of the most beautiful places in all of Belize." While you'll find luxury, the ultimate draw is location: Tranquility Bay is the closest Belize resort to the barrier reef; you can actually swim

or kayak to the string of coral. The lovingly crafted hotel is located inside the Bacalar Chica National Marine Park and the United Nations World Heritage Site. World-class fishing, diving and snorkeling, with ace guides, are steps - not boat rides - away. Bonefish, permit and tarpon swim the local waters. And the beach itself? It's one of the finest and highest in the entire country. Families are welcome, and they enjoy the beach cookouts and barbecues held regularly. Ocean kayaks, Sunfish, Hobie Cats, and full deep-sea fishing and scuba-diving services are located at the resort. 888-THE-CAYE (888-843-2293), tranquilitybayresort.com Oh, the indulgence! Ambergris is a laid-back dive town ... and Xanadu Island Resort is like a home away from home - in a prime location. The pristine resort is a short walk from bustling San Pedro Town's restaurants and shops, yet far enough away to be blissfully peaceful. Xanadu's 19 suites offer not only one-, two- and three-bedroom accommodations but also dining/living areas and fully equipped kitchens. You'll find resort-like amenities too. The lagoon-style freshwater swimming pool is flanked by shaded thatched-roof palapas. The resort's pier offers easy access to dive and tour boats; you can also snorkel right off the tip. Its service-desk staff will help you plan excursions. Bicycles and kayaks are complimentary. Proud of its eco-effort, Xanadu was Belize's first island property to achieve Green Globe Certification. Even Xanadu's shampoos are environmentally friendly! 011-501-226-2814, www.xanaduresort-belize.com

CENTRAL AMERICA | HONDURAS

Beautiful and affordable, Honduras offers wonderful beach vacations. The Honduran island of Roatán is both gorgeous and contemporary, with wireless Internet access, a modern airport and a population that widely speaks English. West Bay Beach is among the most beautiful you'll see anywhere, with powdery white sand and pristine blue waters that lead to the world's second-longest barrier reef. Enjoy this truly special destination in comfort at the Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort. Its condos of all sizes are spacious and equipped with bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms and full kitchens. Breakfast is always included; guests who opt for the all-inclusive

Honduras, tranquil Turquoise Bay does indeed offer diving - terrific diving from a PADI Five-Star facility and a National Geographic Dive Center, yet that's only the beginning of what you'll find here.

Turquoise Bay is pretty and has stylish decor, it's air conditioned (both the restaurant and the guest rooms), it offers many activities, and, perhaps best of all, it boasts its own secluded 500-foot stretch of white-sand beach. Did we mention good food? Chef Juan Carlos Rosales takes great care to procure excellent ingredients from local markets, and he expertly transforms them into destination-worthy buffet and a la carte meals.

Lounging on that beautiful, serene beach is sport alone at Turquoise Bay. But guests also have the option of using the resort's kayaks, pedal boats, Jet Skis and snorkel gear. You can even join a game of beach volleyball. Yet most guests spend their free time wiggling their toes in the sand and listening to the gentle surf. That's Turquoise Bay. 786-623-6121, turquoisebayresort.com

Talk about personalized service! When you lodge and dive with Roatán's Anthony's Key Resort, your divemaster and captain will know you well. As a guest, you will be assigned one boat for the length of your stay. That way the crew will be able to cater to you specifically, and you won't repeat any dive sites - a blessing in a locale with so many spectacular underwater sites.

While Anthony's Key has been a diving hot spot for 42 years, the resort offers far more, including numerous swim-with-dolphin programs. Kayaking, volleyball, horseback riding, an island fiesta night and a tropical beach picnic are among the diversions. Of course, there's always the option to spend your days just swinging in a hammock. 800-227-3483, anthonyskey.com

MEXICO | COZUMEL

Cozumel has long been known as a laid-back place for a low-key getaway. Today it's that and much more. With its pristine blue waters that are home to 250 species of colorful fish - plus the toadfish, which you'll find nowhere else in the world, and the world's only inland coral reef - Cozumel will always be primarily a place to explore below the surface. And now welcoming resort hotels have sprung up, along with tourist attractions designed to complement the island's undersea wonders and Maya heritage. Water activities such as snorkeling and deep-sea fishing are always popular.

The sights here are incredible. Visit Chankanaab National Park, which has not only a natural aquarium but also sea lion and dolphin shows and a reproduction of a Maya village. Get a taste of Mexico - now, during colonial times and even in pre-Hispanic eras - at Discover Mexico, a cultural theme park. An underwater Maya city is part of the fun at Playa Mia Grand Beach Park, where sailboats, a water trampoline and a beach soccer area appeal to active beach-lovers. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Cozumel Country Club golf course is the country's first certified by the National Audubon Society. You'll also find a museum, archeological sites and a golf course.

The two constants? Beauty and friendly residents. 52-987-872-75-85, cozumel.travel Talk about the best of both worlds. Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort & Spa is an intimate, elegant, full-service resort, yet this sophisticated hideaway lies in the heart of Cozumel's Marine National Park. Amazing snorkeling and reef diving are mere steps from the resort's silky white-sand beach, and lush landscaping surrounds the property, which is decorated with a contemporary take on classic Mexican style. While groups and families have a grand time at this gem within a natural paradise, couples find the resort especially romantic. To complement the lapping gentle waves and seductive sunsets, Presidente InterContinental hosts weddings, encourages honeymoons and, for others, offers the Heart's Desire package - including red roses and romantic decor features in your room, a sunset boat ride for just the two of you, a candlelit dinner, daily breakfast on your terrace and a $300 Mandara Spa credit. At the wedding site cozumelweddings.com you'll learn

about wedding elements such as Maya ceremonies, tempting menus and ceremony venues. Share a romantic dinner in a thatch-roof lifeguard tower, on the beach, on the pool deck, in your room or on your terrace. Celebrate with a Mayan Ceremony of Love citrus blossom bath followed by side-by-side massages. 800-327-0200, intercontinentalcozumel.com Embracing its Mexican location, Hotel Cozumel & Resort is a tribute to its beautiful country. Vivid orange, yellow, green and adobe hues honor Mexico's classic style. Yet festive paint colors are only the beginning of what you'll find at this hotel. In addition to beloved warm-weather activities - swimming in the island's largest pool, sunbathing at the nearby beach, alfresco dining, shopping at the local town square - Hotel Cozumel offers every guest an array of extras. Guests on the all-inclusive plan receive free wireless Internet access, an introductory diving lesson, 15 percent off gift-shop purchases and 25 percent off room upgrades - plus unlimited meals, snacks and domestic drinks. Those opting for the European plan receive the same non-foodservice perks plus hotel credits of $25 to $50 per room, per stay, for food and beverages. All guests enjoy Hotel Cozumel's newly expanded beach club, a scenic area with a restaurant/bar, a solarium, a dive center, a private pier, and a diving board, ramps and ladders from which to easily enter the Caribbean Sea. 877-454-4355, hotelcozumel.com.mx/eng

MEXICO | RIVIERA MAYA AND CANCUN

Mile upon mile of incredible beach distinguishes Cancun and the coastline south of it, known as the Riviera Maya. All-inclusive resorts and contemporary amenities complement natural beauty and Maya ruins. In the center of the two tourist areas is Playa del Carmen, a city that draws visitors with an upbeat mix of shopping, dining and entertaining. A quiet fishing village and artist colony not long ago, Playa del Carmen has grown as resort hotels have sprung up along the nearby coastline. It's known as the heart of the Maya

Riviera, or El Corazon de la Riviera Maya. Stroll down the main drag, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), and you'll feel as if you've stepped into a movie. Along the paver-topped streets, you'll hear mariachi bands playing in vibrant restaurants whose fronts open to the street. You'll see small-time vendors selling crafts and silver jewelry. You'll discover galleries featuring the finer jewelry crafted by true artisans. Boutiques and entertainers (including young men who dress in traditional Maya warrior costumes and willingly pose for photos in exchange for a donation) make the area an upbeat and fun shopping and dining destination. A beautiful stretch of beach is only a couple of blocks away. Whether you lodge in one of Playa del Carmen's boutique hotels or take a day trip from a Riviera Maya hotel, you'll find plenty to explore. Small Maya ruins, cenote diving and historical churches are among the highlights. facebook.com/playadelcarmen.rivieramaya, twitter.com/turismoriviera Even the name sounds refreshing: Along the mainland's Caribbean coast, two Ocean by H10 Hotels beckon with refreshing decor and all-inclusive programs that include several restaurants and activities apiece. By the Puerto Morelos coral reef, Ocean

Coral & Turquesa hugs the beach, with its bright white sand and ultra-clear water. In addition to fee-for-service Despacio Spa treatments and diving expeditions, this Ocean resort offers a bundle to do for free - windsurfing, sailing and kayaking among the choices. Join in a beach activity, dance to nighttime entertainment, or take on a loved one in tennis. Four outdoor pools will help you build up an appetite, and the eight restaurants will satisfy any craving. Eight! Indulge in tender stuffed crepes at Le Petit Crepêrie, pasta at Ritratto d'Italia or Asian flavors within Sensai. Traditional Mexican foods, all-American fare and cuisines from around the world, prepared before your eyes, are available at other restaurants. For a somewhat more intimate resort experience, choose instead the newly renovated Ocean Maya, where thatched beach umbrellas and old-time hammocks interweave an authentic Mexican feel with contemporary services and amenities. Diving, spa treatments and daily activities provide diversion here, too, along with four restaurants, two bars (one of them swim-up) and several different stores and boutiques. Get active at the sports center, the tennis courts and the beach volleyball net. 888- 531-8927, oceanhotels.net Competition among the Mexican Caribbean's hotels has pushed the bar increasingly higher, and now AMResorts, which has long tempted guests with its Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resorts and Secrets and Dreams Resorts & Spas brands, has introduced Now Resorts & Spas. A fresh, fun and cheerful vacation experience aimed at singles, families and couples, the two Now Resorts & Spas are beachfront havens loaded with all the privileges of Unlimited-Luxury®, including gourmet restaurants, chic bars, luxurious amenities and plenty of activities. Now Jade Riviera Cancun, a quick walk from quaint Puerto Moreles along the Caribbean coast, is a contemporary 550-room beauty offering Unlimited-Luxury® - which means that just about everything except a deep tissue massage is complimentary. Dine on satisfying meals in gourmet restaurants (reservations? You won't need 'em), cozy up in plush robes and slippers, sink into your private Jacuzzi for two ... get the idea? At Now Jade, with its meandering lagoon-style pool, beverages are delivered to your water-side lounger. Kayaks, Hobie Cats, tennis courts and bicycles are yours to use. Catch a flick any evening on the beach. In Cancun, Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun wows with Maya architecture and lush landscaping. Bali beds line the pool deck, while thatched-roof palapas provide shade on the sand. Sip top-shelf martinis in hip lounges, order room service at any hour and enjoy evening entertainment every day. Like its sister property, Now Sapphire keeps the little ones happy with an Explorer's Club, where children 3 to 12 might enter a sandcastle-building competition or participate in a campout on the beach. All this allows parents more time to indulge in a spa treatment, take an aerobics class or go on a diving adventure. 877-NOW-9953, nowresorts.com The virgin beach at Hacienda Tres Rios Resort, Spa & Nature Park is barely the star attraction. Three gentle rivers flow through this property and an incredible 10 cenotes (freshwater springs) invite cooling off beyond the pool and sea. Part of a 326-acre paradise of coastal dunes, mangrove forest and jungle, Hacienda Tres Rios is a luxury-oriented eco-resort within a natural environment. More than 120 types of plants and 90 animal species will be your neighbors. Hacienda Tres Rios will eventually encompass five hotels, full- and part-time residences, a marina and yacht club, an equestrian center, a spa, a beach club, a nature park, a Maya cultural center, a bird sanctuary, a botanical garden and a convention center. But don't wait; this pampering resort already offers 273 suites with a modern Mexican ambiance. Comfort is practically guaranteed. Each suite, for instance, includes a pillow menu, bathrobes, slippers, 3,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, Mexican mahogany furniture and a 32-inch flat-screen TV with CD and DVD players. Relaxed yet? Meals and snacks are included in the price at this all-inclusive resort. Room service is available all day and night, your minibar will be restocked daily and wireless Internet access is complimentary. Take a yoga class or participate in daily activities (kids and teens have their own), borrow snorkel gear to step into the sea, kayak in one of the beautiful rivers or cenotes, take a bike tour or tour a nursery. 800-494-9173, haciendatresrios.com The Maya ruins in Tulum, at the southern end of the Riviera Maya, are a must-see attraction for any visitor. Lodge nearby at Blue Tulum Golf & Spa Resort, a luxury beachfront getaway where every room is a suite. With only 96 accommodations, each one crisp, spacious and comfortable with pampering amenities, Blue

Tulum offers the personal service of a boutique hotel. You'll have plenty of privacy yet can always make new friends at the swim-up pool bar, in the Martini Lounge & Bar and, of course, around the pool and on the beach. As indicated by its name, golf and spa are Blue Tulum specialties. On the premises, the 5-Star Spa is a 15,000-square-foot sanctuary offering Maya-influenced treatments in 10 healing rooms. Head outdoors for a daily yoga class. A quick 15-minute ride away is the Riviera Maya Golf Club. Blue Tulum is a member of this exclusive enclave, meaning its guests can hit the greens there via private chauffeured luxury SUV. If your children aren't interested in massages or tee times, drop them off in the Kid's Club. A handmade wooden playground, scheduled activities, a pool table, toys, Xbox and board games will keep them happily entertained. When hunger strikes, head to any of Blue Tulum's four restaurants. The restaurant known as ‘8' specializes in ceviche and grilled items, Globe offers Mexican and international fare, Trattoria Di Blu features foods of Italy and the Mediterranean, and Yozu has specialties of the Orient. 866-336-2213, bluetulumresorts.com Oceanfront luxury is only part of the appeal of boutique Ceiba del Mar Beach & Spa Resort. Guests of this peaceful Riviera Maya resort also have plenty of options. Guests who sign up for the Luxury Gourmet Plan will enjoy fresh Mexican cuisine, snacks and premium beverages day or night without restrictions - no buffets, no lines. Those who plan to tour the pleasures of Quintana Roo while paying for meals on-the-go, however, will love the European Plan, which includes daily a la carte breakfast. Guests under both plans will select freshly prepared fare from the resort's ocean-view restaurants - the Xtabay Restaurant and the Arrecife Grill & Lounge, both of which boast delicious menus featuring dishes that incorporate the luscious flavors of Mexico and the Mediterranean. Wood-fired ovens and special regional dishes distinguish the fine food at Ceiba del Mar, which also offers three bars to keep guests refreshed and cool under the warmth of the Mexico sun. Ceiba del Mar isn't all about eating, of course. The resort's 88 rooms, suites and penthouses are pampering retreats stocked with organic bath products, soft 300-thread-countsheets and pillow menus. Two outdoor swimming pools and a Jacuzzi invite relaxation, which can also come by way of beachside yoga, Pilates classes and sunset meditation on a high-platform palapa. When it's time to de-stress, head to the aromatherapy wellness Spa at Ceiba del Mar. Surrounded by lush tropics and located within steps of azure seas, the holistically focused spa features six serene treatment rooms. More than 50 specially mixed essential oils are incorporated into treatments, among them a Top'Nikte (Cocoon) massage and the Temazcal ceremony, a Maya-inspired cleansing ritual that takes place inside a terra cotta sweat lodge on the beach at sunset. 877-545-6221, ceibadelmar.com Maroma Resort and Spa, a jewel of the Orient Express collection, is an authentically Mexican resort that sits on 25 glorious acres both in front of the world's second-largest reef and at the edge of a jungle preserve. Most guest rooms face the sea. The beach's soft, powdery sand is naturally mixed with a fine layer of pink coral, which ensures that the beach rarely gets too hot to stroll along. Maroma takes its Mexican heritage seriously. Its furnishings are crafted by local carpenters in its own workshops, and every guest room boasts original works of art. The eatery El Restaurante was constructed by Maya masons and is decorated with works by Mexican artists. El Sol, another dining spot, features creative takes on Mexico's bounty with flavors unique to Maya, Yucatecan and creole cuisines. Maroma offers more activities than many other hotels. Visitors can go deep-sea fishing along the nearby Yucatan Channel. They can scuba dive right from the hotel. They can even learn to kiteboard. Snorkeling, sailing, parasailing and kayaking are other options. Its Kinan spa has a Maya influence and was named one of the world's top five. The Temazacal Maya steam bath was the first to open in the Riviera Maya. And at Maroma, you'll find nine Sian Nah suites for unwinding in front of the ocean in your beach bed. 866-454-9351, maromahotel.com Excellence Group Luxury Resorts is a smart collection of five-star all-inclusive adults-only resorts located on the best Caribbean beaches, including the Mexican Caribbean. Excellence Playa Mujeres (Playa Mujeres, Cancun) and Excellence Riviera Cancun (Riviera Maya) offer over-the-top Mexican vacations. Excellence Resorts carries the philosophy of "all-inclusive is luxury." Each Excellence property includes all the necessary elements to create an exclusive and luxurious getaway.

Throughout their stay guests are taken on an epicurean adventure, and cocktails are always made with premium spirits. Each Excellence Resort is outfitted with up to eight enticing gourmet restaurants that never require a reservation, numerous bars and 24-hour room service. Guests also have access to exquisite and unique accommodations combined with superior service, like lavish two-story rooftop terrace suites equipped with expansive HydroSpa pools at the Excellence Playa Mujeres, or ground-floor suites allowing guests to literally swim up to their private veranda outfitted with lush tropical vegetation and hammocks. Excellence Resorts also features the signature Excellence Club Suite category, which offers an unsurpassed level of luxury, privacy, exclusive amenities and service. Situated on secluded, pure white-sand Caribbean beaches, Excellence Group Luxury Resorts provides an aura of tropical romance ideal for guests looking to rekindle a romance, get married or celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. Excellence Resorts offers three deluxe wedding packages as well as two luxurious honeymoon/anniversary packages. At Excellence guests also can take advantage of a wide variety of water activities, including kayaking, introductory scuba lessons, snorkel gear, scuba with instruction (at an additional cost) and water aerobics. 866-540-2585, excellence-resorts.com

MEXICO | LOS CABOS

In Los Cabos, pampering resort hotels tend to offer panoramic vistas from clifftop locations. Spas and fine dining are as common as beautiful beaches. With four outstanding, award-winning resorts in Los Cabos, Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts & Spas offers every kind of vacation experience. Walk into an enchanting oasis exclusively for adults at Pueblo Bonito Pacifica. With its stunning architecture, luxurious accommodations, top-notch restaurants and award-winning spa, Pacifica has everything you need for the perfect adults-only getaway. Pueblo Bonito Rosé and Pueblo Bonito Los Cabos are situated on El Médano Beach, one Throughout their stay guests are taken on an epicurean adventure, and cocktails are always made with premium spirits. Each Excellence Resort is outfitted with up to eight enticing gourmet restaurants that never require a reservation, numerous bars and 24-hour room service. Guests also have access to exquisite and unique accommodations combined with superior service, like lavish two-story rooftop terrace suites equipped with expansive HydroSpa pools at the Excellence Playa Mujeres, or ground-floor suites allowing guests to literally swim up to their private veranda outfitted with lush tropical vegetation and hammocks. Excellence Resorts also features the signature Excellence Club Suite category, which offers an unsurpassed level of luxury, privacy, exclusive amenities and service. Situated on secluded, pure white-sand Caribbean beaches, Excellence Group Luxury Resorts provides an aura of tropical romance ideal for guests looking to rekindle a romance, get married or celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. Excellence Resorts offers three deluxe wedding packages as well as two luxurious perfect playas of the few swim-friendly beaches in Los Cabos. Both resorts offer stunning views of Los Cabos' famous arch at Land's End and are just steps away from the renowned shopping and nightlife in Cabo San Lucas. A world-class destination resort, Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach Resort & Spa provides a striking setting with hacienda-style villas that range down the hillside toward a secluded beach. For families, in addition to kids' swimming pools and menus, the Kids Club program gives parents the option of arranging a fun-filled day of activities for their children. And when wedding bells ring, all four Pueblo Bonito resorts are designed to provide all the essentials for the perfect destination wedding. Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas are the recipients of many prestigious awards. 800-990-8250, pueblobonito.com

Whether you choose to stay someplace rustic or elegant, the beautiful sunny beach is never far away in coastal Mexico and Central America.