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Cancun caters to 'end of the world' celebrations for the sophisticated traveler

If the world was going to end, you'd want to spend the last days in style, right?

That's how Maryanne and Paul Carpenter would do it -- in style and eating amazing food --lots of it. 

“We ate three servings of ceviche, then fish tacos, then beef cheeks, pork belly and a few things we’ve never even heard of,” said Maryanne, 35, who admitted to resorting to having to unbutton her pants from their feast of plenty. “We’re eating like it’s the end of the world.”

The Carpenters  were indulging in this weekend’s Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival, but there was something more that brought them to Cancun from Indiana.

They planned their trip south of the border this year because Maryanne was intrigued about the Mayan "end of the world" prophecies that predict 2012 will be our last one on the earth.  According to the MesoAmerican calendar, Dec. 21 is the date in Mayan mythology that marks the end of a 5,125 year-long cycle.  Based on astrological calculations, some believe it to be a period of spiritual renewal, but more outlandish scenarios involve the Earth’s collision with another planet or being swallowed by a black hole. 

The apocalyptic prophecies may be just myth, but still the entire Yucatan peninsula has been prepping for 2012 for the past few years.  Cancun and the surrounding areas like the Riviera Maya and Tulum are seeing a boost in tourism in 2012 due to curiosity about the Mayan’s doomsday scenario. 

More than a few Mexicans with Mayan ancestry who still inhabit the area told me they don’t think the world will literally end on Dec. 21, but they do believe 2012 is a significant time for rebirth. 

Nowhere is that more true than in Cancun where officials and the tourism board have been working hard to reinvent themselves from hard partying spring breaker destination filled with foam parties and topless bungee jumping to a more adult playground and destination for foodies.

“As we close out the traditional Mayan calendar and welcome a new era. Cancun is embracing a ‘new beginning,’ which invites locals and guests to think different and behave different by exploring the evolution of humanity, and redefining our experience in the land of the Mayans,” Erika Mitzunaga of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau told me. 

The wine and food festival, the first for Cancun, was just one way of welcoming this new era of  more sophisticated tourism. More than 30 star chefs, including the highly celebrated molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Ingrid Hoffman of “Simply Delicioso” and Jacques Pepin of “Essential Pepin,” prepared their edible artistry for crowds in the thousands.

But even before the festival convened in Cancun, the city was already starting to see an influx of different kinds of clientele arriving since the first of this year.

“The curiosity about Cancun is increasing from all different parts of the world. We are seeing an increase in interest from China, Russia and the Latin American market,” explained Raul Petraglia, the managing director of the ME by Melia hotel. “The demographic is 23-50, all folks who are young in spirit, people who enjoy being in an atmosphere of good cuisine.”

Over the coming weeks Cancun’s visitor’s bureau will put the finishing touches on their end of the world celebration plans for the city—many of them including good food, good wine and good company.

“Just as Times Square in New York City is the most exciting place to ring in a new year, Cancun is the only place you’ll want to be to celebrate the beginning of a new era,”  Mitzunaga said.

Beyond entertainment, the cultural sites have stepped into high gear too. 

A modern-day pyramid is already under construction in the town of Zama (close to the ruins of Tulum) in honor of the ancient Mayans. Visitors to the region are invited to place a dream, wish, or message on a piece of paper and then place it inside a recyclable plastic water bottle. These water bottles will be the building blocks of the pyramid.

In May, the eco-archaeological park Xcaret  is giving visitors the opportunity to practice the ancient yearly pilgrimage to Cozumel in honor of the Mayan goddess Ixchtel. The trip embarks at sunrise on May 21 at Bahía Dos Playas in Xcaret park. All visitors who arrive to the gates of the park before 5:30 am receive free admission to Xcaret.

“This is the perfect time to come to Cancun to recharge your energies under the Caribbean sun, embrace a civilization that studies show dates back to 2600 BC while marveling at the ancient Mayan ruins, or challenge yourself to experience something you’ve never done before like swim with a whale shark or dive into a cenote,” said Mitzunaga.

Cancun does still have its fair share of college-aged revelers but we checked out three hotels where grownups can party like it is the end of the world in the company of other grownups.

The ME by Melia: Winner of Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice Award for the Luxury and Trendiest hotel in Mexico, the pyramid shaped ME is reminiscent of the Mayan ruins sprinkled throughout the region. Perfect for adults who want to party like it is the end of the world without having to leave their hotel, the ME’s Rose Bar, opened by nightlife impressarios Rande and Scott Gerber attracts some of the hottest DJs from around the world.

The Balinese day beds at the beach club pull double-duty for sunbathing during the day and dancing at night. Dance like you’re in South beach while DJs spin mash-ups on the beach on Friday night and then lounge with strawberries and champagne on Sunday afternoon.

If relaxation is more your thing, the far left corner of the resort has been converted into a “chill out” zone that is entirely music free.

Dining options for the all-inclusive property (ME switched to the “Complete Me” all-inclusive last year, because who wants to pay in cash at the end of the world?)  include Mediterranean-inspired Salt and the Japanese fusion restaurant Silk.

The Sun Palace: This adults-only hotel is positioned in the heart of Cancun’s hotel zone.  The Palace, which caters to couples, offers private beach access, three infinity pools with swim up bars and an indoor pool with two Jacuzzis. The property boasts four restaurants on-site:  the Italian La Tratto, the Mexican El Alamo and the Argentinian The Steak  

Le Blanc: Also adults only, Le Blanc has a five-star AAA designation, a rare award for an all-inclusive resort. Here all-inclusive doesn’t mean well drinks and hot dogs like some of the places down the strip. The all-inclusive price at Le Blanc includes gourmet food and fine wines and access to five bars and five international restaurants, among them Lumiere, a French fusion restaurant with an eight-course tasting menu.

Guests are treated like royalty from the moment of arrival when personal butlers provide frozen drinks, tropical flowers and herbal scented towels. These butlers are then on hand 24/7 to cater to guests every whim. The all-inclusive also includes scuba diving demonstrations, access to a complete resort fitness center with workout facilities and spinning, kickboxing, yoga and Pilates classes, beach or pool volleyball and nightly live musical performances from local bands.