Ideas about wellness are changing,” says Rocco Bova, taking a thoughtful sip of mescal. “We’ve made a conscious decision not to put spa, massages and fitness at the centre of everything. Instead, we’re focused on the wellness of being.
“For me, that’s about creating happiness, be it through experiences that please the palate, the eyes, the mind and the soul.”
As general manager of the globally acclaimed Chablé Yucatán Resort & Spa, hidden deep in Mexico’s Mayan jungle, Bova is a well-placed observer of the changing nature of wellness. And while his five-star hotel does have a genuinely spellbinding spa that wants for nothing (see p73), he argues that just as important are other factors essential to wellbeing: sublime gastronomy, a profound sense of space, a respect for local culture and exquisite design.
For Bova, a lesson in making tortillas, a tequila tasting session or a celebration of the annual Day of the Dead festivities with local community groups may provoke as much joy as a carefully tailored hydrotherapy treatment. “You’d have to stay for weeks to enjoy the full range of experiences we have here,” he says.
According to Chablé’s brand manager, Liliana Castellanos, the company calls this philosophy ‘redefining wellness’. “We think it’s the most innovative aspect of our portfolio,” she explains. “It allows us to touch the hearts of our guests through both the tangible and intangible. With so many distractions in the world today, we invite our guests to go back to basics and to value the important things in life in an unforgettable setting. Our aim is to speak to them in a real and honest way.”
It’s a bold claim, but Chablé, and parent company Hamak Hotels, can fairly point to the fact that it spent 12 years developing the concept and building the hotel, which finally opened in 2016. Every detail has been accounted for. The results are quietly spectacular.
Modernism meets memory
Spread across the sprawling grounds of an 19th century hacienda, once home to one of the region’s most important sisal carpet factories, the hotel is a self-contained paradise. Winding trails lead through pockets of jungle and past verdant organic gardens (a source for restaurant and spa ingredients), a deer park, tennis courts, golf course, several pools and a cenote – a natural sinkhole common to the Yucatán Peninsula – which the spa is built around.
And then there’s the resort’s architecture. Despite the huge amount of space on offer, Chablé features only 36 casitas and four villas. Every residence lies hidden down its own jungle track. Architect Jorge Borja of Cancun-based Grupo BV SC has created a series of sleek, minimalist, white-clad volumes, fronted by expansive glass panels that allow 180˚ views of the surrounding nature. Outside, generous plunge pools, complete with hammocks, add an extra dimension of understated style. Think Tracy Island reimagined by Oscar Niemeyer.
The interiors, designed by Paulina Morán, are equally impressive, with local textiles and natural materials, such as tropical wood and limestone, subtly used alongside splashes of colourful art and nods to traditional Mayan design. An extreme sense of care, materiality and lightness of touch is evident throughout, and the result is a genuine sense of luxury, without any requirement for bling.
In contrast to the casitas, most of Chablé’s public amenities are situated amongst what remains of the hacienda’s historic buildings. The main office and welcome area can be found in a former administration HQ, a private wine cellar occupies an old jailhouse and the signature Ixi’im restaurant has been built in the carefully restored remnants of the abandoned textile factory.
Nature is also permitted to take its course. Trees burst through gaps in facades, twist majestically around rooftops and provide courtyard centerpieces. Such is the presence of the jungle, you’re left with the lingering impression that you might find Indiana Jones lounging in the vine-covered cigar room, or Lara Croft perusing Ixi’im’s extensive tequila collection (3,175 bottles – more than anywhere else in the world). Even more ludicrously, when you walk back to your room at night, the route is illuminated by fireflies.
“True luxury is about preserving the soul of an incredible destination,” says Bova. “One of the mainstream trends important to the new wave of travellers is design, and the Global Wellness Institute put in a recent report that we must ‘build well to live well’. I guess we’re just translating into action what consumers expect nowadays.”
The effort has paid off faster than Chablé could have dared hope. Just a year after opening, the hotel received the 2017 Prix Versailles award, presented by UNESCO and the International Union of Architects to celebrate “structures that have the most remarkable interior and exterior architecture”. Last year, Ixi’im won the same award in the restaurant category.
Being known as the world’s best-designed hotel with the world’s best restaurant has done no harm to business. Bookings have multiplied and Chablé’s wellness philosophy is being reinforced to a new generation of travellers.
Such has been the success of Chablé in Yucatán, Hamak is expanding. The first sister property, Chablé Maroma, opened near Cancun in 2018 after eight years in development. Unlike its faraway Yucatán counterpart, a different guest experience is on offer, this time revolving around a tropical beach on the Caribbean Sea.
While there are no shells of ancient buildings here, the jungle once again takes centre stage. Signs on the approaching roads warn drivers to keep a careful eye for crossing jaguars and bridges for monkeys hang overhead.
Morán once again provides the hotel’s interiors, with architect Javier Fernandez this time responsible for creating the casitas. As before, modernism meets nature, with smart geometric volumes placed carefully around existing mangroves on the 11-acre (4.5-hecare) site.
“This hotel is a response to our guests who seek the Chablé experience in a tropical beach setting, with closer proximity to an international airport,” explains Castellano. “Maroma has long been considered one of the best beaches in the world and it seemed an obvious choice for us, far away from the all-inclusive hotels and noise.
“In line with its sister property, it respects the natural landscape, with minimal interference to the surrounding jungle and beach. We’ve touched none of the flora or dunes along the hotel’s coastline.”
There’s also a unifying focus on creating experiences that encourage happiness, she adds, although this time an itinerary might incorporate kayaking, jet skiing, scuba diving or a conch-blowing ceremony on the beach, as well as a similar range of spa facilities, treatments and temazcal offerings.
“The aim of redefining wellness is the same, with the same combination of exceptional service, attention-to-detail, gourmet cuisine, unrivalled wellness activities, and culture and traditions in their authentic setting,” she says. “Our future aim is to take this manifesto around the best places in Mexico and the world.