The thing is, I’m a nervous traveller. It’s not the flying; it’s everything else. I always leave heaps of time to get to the airport before check-in, usually about a month, and I always overpack – I need two suitcases and a deluxe carry-all with trolley option just to get the morning paper. I exaggerate of course, but, as my family will vouch, only slightly.
Still, even I couldn’t say no to a trip to Mexico to cover the celebrity opening of a luxury hotel to be attended by, among others, Cindy Crawford. Besides, this was my chance to be a different sort of traveller, the sort of rugged, confident type who doesn’t take seven pairs of underpants for a three-day trip. Ruggedly, I went online to look up my destination: Cancun, on the Caribbean coast. According to legend, Cancun was founded in the 1970s when Mexico’s tourist planners fed various data into a computer (sun, sea, available land) in an attempt to come up with the perfect resort. OK, as founding myths go it’s not exactly Romulus and Remus, but it worked.
Despite its vulnerability to hurricanes (I don’t know how the computer missed that minor detail), Cancun soon outstripped Acapulco as the Mexican Las Vegas, America’s Ibiza for kids ready to go out and enjoy their first legal tequilas.
It was when I changed planes in Miami that the Cancun demographic hit home. It looked as if everyone over 35 had been siphoned off at the check-in desk and herded on to a bus, which is probably even now still sitting on the Tarmac. Only the young and beautiful had survived. And me.
Throughout the plane, groups of boys and groups of girls were noisily trying to make groups of a boy and a girl. Undaunted, I remained focused and professional, and began studying my publicity pack as the girl next to me asked a black guy whether it was really true what they say about black guys. The hotel I was heading for was the ME Cancun, run by Sol Melia, one of the largest hotel operators in the world. “ME” is their new luxury brand. I don’t speak fluent PR, but it sounded incredibly hip, with ” Experience Managers” and an “Everything is Possible” service appealing to “travellers with a common psychographic” (as opposed, I suppose, to “demographic”). I feared it was all a little too hip for a man whose prize possessions on this trip were the new linen suit he’d bought for £70 from H&M and a jumbo-sized bottle of Pepto Bismol. I wasn’t even sure how you pronounced “ME”. Was it “me” as in “myself”? Or “ME” as in the disease, which seemed a bit unlikely.
But as soon as I’d swept through the hotel lobby, with its New World sense of space and clear conviction that it’s actually an über-cool art gallery, I knew that I’d have to leave my cynicism at the front desk for the duration of my stay.
And then I saw my room. It wasn’t just the sheer size of it. It was all the toys. The iPod dock with surround sound; the large plasma telly; the ” rainstorm” showerhead wide enough to soak every bit of all but the largest American. By the time I looked out of my fifth-floor window I was ready to phone down and get them to break up my cynicism into little pieces and distribute it to the poor. The beach seemed so close I practically checked my feet to make sure they weren’t getting wet. It was as if they’d held a sandcastle competition on the beach a couple of years ago, where one kid had built a sandcastle with a moat, one had built a castle with a little flag, and one had built an 11-storey hotel in a horseshoe shape with 448 rooms, a spa complex, three main pools and a nightclub. I imagine he was the winner.
I rushed down to the beach like a child at Christmas running downstairs to see if Santa’s been. (Maybe I ought to get out more.) VC It was night-time and the most ridiculously beautiful full moon hovered over the sea, as if someone – probably one of the Experience Managers – had hung it there. It was perfectly parallel with the middle of the hotel. There was something a little bit Da Vinci Code about it (“when the full moon is aligned with the ME hotel and the pasty-faced Englishman…”), something a little bit Truman Show. It was just too textbook beautiful.
By daylight, it was clear this was The Truman Show. The sea was as turquoise blue and clear a sea as I’ve ever seen – and I’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and 2. The beach itself, which the locals claim is the most beautiful in the western hemisphere (haven’t these people been to Blackpool?), was postcard-white, and sprinkled with just enough of the young and gorgeous to make it picturesque without feeling in any way crowded. Beer guts and stretchmarks were clearly banned under Mexican law. Timidly, I stripped off – the whitest man in the western hemisphere – and lay on a sunbed.
They take the idea of a sunbed literally at ME. All around the pools and along the beach are king-size beds. Some of them even have their own thatched roofs to keep you shaded. There are beds in the bar areas as well where somehow they seem to really fit in. It’s surely only a matter of time before Phil Mitchell and Dot Cotton are lolling on a king-size down the Queen Vic.
And then there’s the music. If you like silence, then get thee to a Mexican nunnery. Here, it’s music everywhere – the bars, the lobby, the pool, even the beach. It starts in the morning somewhere to the left of Sting circa his rainforest years, then gets more upbeat and techno as the day (and night) goes on. It worked for me. As I plastered on my factor 112, capable of withstanding a small nuclear explosion, I was starting to feel just a little bit hip.
That evening, only slightly confused by my meal of some traditional Mexican, er, sushi (international cuisine being part of the ME “psychographic”), I decided to sample Cancun’s famous nightlife and headed for a club whose very name conjured up a sense of elegance, style and sophistication: Coco Bongo. This was the Cancun my friends on the Miami plane were heading for. I feared the worst as I queued next to a bloke with a T-shirt set out like an optician’s chart saying: “READTH/ISWHIL/EICHE/CKOUTY/ OURT/ITS”. But I was soon whooping and cheering like a crazy man as dancers and acrobats acted out pop videos and scenes from films on stage and high above the dancefloor: a Mexican Madonna “Like a Virgined” for us; Spider-Man swung from ropes above our heads. Every now and then a siren rang and huge clouds of what my fellow clubbers reckoned was oxygen was pumped at us to keep us from tiring. It was only when I found myself cheering a dwarf on a trapeze dressed as Beetlejuice who then stripped to reveal he was wearing a bra that I began to suspect they were actually pumping in a gas that removes your critical faculties.
Walking back into ME after Coco Bongo it was a miracle we didn’t get the bends. The hotel is so flawlessly tasteful, so perfectly cool, you can’t even get annoyed with its coolness. Earlier, they’d shown us how each area of the hotel has its own smell: coffee and vanilla in the internet bar, cucumber and melon in the lobby, etc. Every sense is subtly massaged. If these guys ever turn to the dark side, they’d make excellent torturers. They also showed us the VIP rooms – not that much better than ours, give or take the odd Jacuzzi, though if you can’t be bothered to bring your own iPod you can phone ahead, tell them your musical taste and they’ll put one together for you. As the blurb said, “Everything is Possible”. I was starting to believe.
The next day, the day of the party, there was a buzz at breakfast. Cindy Crawford was there. A US colleague asked me to swap seats so they could see what Cindy was having (muesli, so not exactly a scoop, I’d say.) As for me, I didn’t have time to sit and watch a supermodel digest. I wanted to check out Ciudad Cancun, or, for those of you who speak guidebook: “downtown” Cancun. Cancun is really a tale of two cities (of two ciudads?) – the Zona Hotelera with its hotels and luxury shopping arcades, situated on a strip of land so freakishly narrow it was bound to have been bullied at school; and downtown – a busy, humming Mexican city with shops and markets and, as far as I could tell, a complete absence of pedestrian crossings. I spent so long stranded with a Mexican lady in the middle of one road that when I finally tried to leg it in front of a truck it was her life that flashed in front of me, not mine. Still, it was good to glimpse the real Mexico – loud, friendly, with sheltered squares and grocers and people who didn’t have perfect teeth.
It was also good to confirm the odd stereotype. Even in the tourist markets the Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother to hassle you. Most of the shopkeepers just sat in hanging chairs, eyes, at most, half open under their cowboy hats, as if auditioning for an part in a Clint Eastwood western. I was almost disappointed not to be called “gringo”. At least their relaxed attitude allowed me to have a good look round their wares. These ranged from garish ponchos and outrageous sombreros so huge they were like a visual aid for that schoolboy joke showing a Mexican on a bicycle from above, to more subtle, traditionally made, Mayan clothing: the sort of thing that would have got you instantly elected president of the Islington CND back in the 1980s.
Jewellery is a local speciality, with a lot of silverware, but my eye was caught by the traditional Mayan flutes. These are shaped (and coloured) like a penis, with holes along the, er, shaft. Like the real thing, they come in different sizes, but intrigued though I was to see if the bigger flutes played lower notes, I wasn’t quite at ease enough with my sexuality to put one to my mouth in public and try. Instead I went for a hammock. Because of the weak dollar, your pound goes a long way in Mexico, but I was still so happy I’d bartered the price down to £20 (something the pre-ME me would never have done) that I totally forgot the damn thing would be murder to get home – where I had nowhere to put it. Anyway, I couldn’t wallow in triumphant haggling. I had to be ruthless, tough, uncompromising, and get back to ME for a “Colour of Turquoise Spa Ritual and Massage”.
Normally, nothing makes me tenser than a massage. There’s the whole pants-on/pants-off question, whether you’re meant to talk or not, anxieties about erotic thoughts entering your head and their embarrassing consequence which then guarantee that erotic thoughts enter your head, etc etc. But the card with my free bedtime gift of perfume the evening before said today’s motto was “Dare ME!”, so I dared.
It started badly. I couldn’t work out which hole in the disposable pants they gave me I should put my foot through so I ended up tearing them and asking for another pair. As a punishment I was taken into a room and brutally exfoliated. The lady rubbed some stuff into my skin which she later revealed was cloves, ginger, grapes and rice – basically, she’d covered me in food. It was the first time that had happened since a rugby club dinner when I was at university. I was then put in a bath and pummelled with jets of water while she pressed down on my face with an aromatherapied flannel. And for this people pay money? Finally, I received a full massage and – would you believe it? – by the end I was so relaxed I forgot to laugh when she tinkled a little bell over my body’s four compass points. I’m no expert, but a journalist whose only job is to travel the world and write about spas (it’s tough, but someone’s got to do it) said it was one of the best she’d ever experienced.
Relaxed, exfoliated and smelling of food, I headed for the party. Rumours that George Clooney and Shakira were coming turned out to be false, but it didn’t matter as some weird Sorcerer’s Apprentice effect kept depositing more and more beautiful young Mexicans through the front doors of the hotel. I chatted by the lifts where a couple in a bed with white satin sheets writhed together, but tastefully, the ME-way. I downed sublime melon gazpachos in tequila glasses, unconcerned about the two-yard exclusion zone my garlic breath inevitably created. I danced to DJ Skribble, even though I wasn’t so sure about his taste – a scratch version of The Carpenters’ “Please Mr Postman”? Surely not. But by then it didn’t matter. ME (pronounced “me”) had got me. I was smiling, chilled, probably taller and definitely younger than I had been when I arrived. I was one of the beautiful people. Truly, everything is possible! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. Cindy’s waiting…
This article first appeared in The Independent