Counting the giant turtles splashing through the waves alongside our boat was a delightful way to spend the hour-long sea journey to Mexico’s Isla Contoy.
Around 22 miles north of Cancun – the country’s number one party resort for Brits – this tiny desert island is sanctuary to these majestic yet endangered creatures that lay their eggs on its white sand beaches.
It was designated a national park more than 20 years ago by the Mexican government so the loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles that rely on the island as a breeding ground are protected, along with the frigatebirds, pelicans and cormorants that nest there.
Only 200 people a day are permitted to visit, so as not to disrupt its rhythm of life.
Visitors are granted access to 10% of its beaches, plenty enough to find a spot on the sand and dip your toes in the sea. The rest is rightly left to its natural inhabitants.
It’s known locally as the “island of birds”, and I was also keen to climb the 89ft observation tower to try to spot some of the 170 species which inhabit the place. Take binoculars – as well as plenty of sun cream and mosquito repellent.
I then headed to a lagoon at the centre to watch the black-feathered frigatebirds swoop and play, the males puffing out their bright red breasts and squawking loudly to attract the females’ attention.
This colourful congress with nature continued on the boat journey back to Cancun marina as the captain stopped to let us snorkel alongside the Great Mayan Reef. It is the world’s second largest coral reef, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and is just as teeming with aquatic life.
Colourful fish like Nemo in the animated film darted about in orange and white-striped shoals, while parrotfish crunched and nibbled on the coral’s hard, brain-like shapes.
Luckier snorkelers might get to see a turtle up close, a stingray skimming across the sea floor or even dolphins frolicking in the surf.
Afterwards, I returned to my luxury accommodation, the newly-opened TRS Coral Hotel in Costa Mujeres, an upmarket area dubbed the “new treasure of the Mexican Caribbean”.
Just north of the airport, this tranquil stretch of natural sand with dunes and mangroves feels like a world away from the bright lights of vibrant Cancun, which is a 20-minute taxi ride down the road.
The resort itself – a swish, adults-only affair and part of the Leading Hotels of the World consortium – is perfect for travellers wanting excellent service in glamorous surroundings.
There are uninterrupted views of the sand and sea – not other hotels. The pools are pristine, with double sun loungers spaced across floating decks on the water. The pool bar serves a mean margarita.
The resort also has a system of canals which allow guests to reach all parts of it by boat.
The spa at TRS Coral is particularly spectacular. Its salt cave helps visitors achieve that all-important holiday glow. And after heating up in the sauna or steam room, brave souls can cool down in the ice room. Wear flip-flops if you don’t fancy standing barefoot on thick ice.
I did not and barely lasted three minutes, but it is exhilarating fun and a welcome contrast to balmy daytime temperatures of 27C-30C and around 20C at night in late November.
With other stand-out features including the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre, a swim-up bar, watersports and seven restaurants (the Spanish tapas was my favourite), I found it difficult to drag myself away from the resort to go exploring.
But trips to see the Mayan ruins at Tulum, Xcaret ecological park, and the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza are well worth the effort.
One afternoon I decided to take a taxi ride to Isla Blanca, a narrow isthmus that juts out from Cancun. Its northernmost tip is barely 200 yards wide, and the shallow lagoon on the west coast is super for fishing.
Locals will take a group of four out for a day’s angling for about £160.
But I found paradise at the small, outdoor beach bar (it had no name) on the eastern coast. A bottle of beer was just £1 and three empanadas de cazon – fried pasties filled with locally caught dogfish – cost only £2.
It was delivered to my table on a near deserted, white sand beach with jade coloured waves from the Caribbean Sea washing against the shore. A tropical idyll if there ever was one.
Book the holiday
Caribbean Warehouse has seven nights at TRS Coral Hotel in Costa Mujeres, Mexico, from £1,221 per person based on two sharing on all-inclusive. Price based on a March 3 departure from Manchester. Find out more at caribbeanwarehouse.co.uk or call 0843 775 2380.
GET THERE: British Airways flies to Cancun from London and Manchester. Find out more at ba.com.
MORE INFO: Head to visitmexico.com
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