What to do
For the best chance of seeing wildlife — howler monkeys, tapirs, crocodiles, manatees, and if you're very lucky, even jaguars and jaguarundi — join an excursion to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (amigosdesiankaan.org), the largest protected area of jungle, marsh and mangrove in Mexico.
If that sounds a little wild, there is always Xel-Ha (xelha.com). Styling itself 'the world's largest natural aquarium', this fishy theme park is built around a series of inlets, lagoons and cenotes (underground caves) in which you can swim and snorkel, surrounded by myriad brightly coloured fish.
For those who prefer to snorkel in less controlled conditions, on the Mesoamerican reef itself, the island of Cozumel (islacozumel.com.mx) is the place to head for.
Back on the mainland, Xcaret (xcaret.com) calls itself an 'eco-archaeological' theme park. In other words, an opportunity to learn about the ancient Maya civilisation and rites without the bother of having to schlep to the actual sites themselves. Kitsch, but fun for children.
For man-made underwater installations, the Cancún and Isla de Mujeres Underwater Art Museum (underwatersculpture.com), the world's first underwater sculpture park, can be visited by glass-bottomed boat. Visit xplor.travel to arrange excursions.
Where to stay
As little as 30 years ago, the Yucatán was largely virgin territory — even the four-lane Cancún-Chetumal highway is scarcely a decade old — and, until the 1990s, there was very little accommodation between the sand-floored palapa-roofed cabaña hotels at Tulum and the high-rises of Cancún (Starwood's Le Méridien Cancún is an honourable exception).
Nowadays, there's much more choice and most of it is top end. The highest profile of these has been the giant upscale holiday complex Mayakoba, which includes the very stylishly designed all-villa, all-with-pools Banyan Tree (banyantreemayakoba.com); the Rosewood (rosewoodmayakoba.com), less of a design statement, more family-friendly, and thanks to its outstanding staff and superior stretch of sand, a very fine place to stay; and the vast Fairmont (fairmont.com/mayakoba). The hotels share access to a Greg Norman golf course.
Immediately to the north of Mayakoba, on a slightly inferior stretch of beach, stands a new, and super-stylish Mandarin Oriental resort (mandarinoriental.com/rivieramaya), truly the sort of place one hesitates to leave, not least because its spa, where the circular steam room, tiled in little iridescent squares of glass the colours of a Yucatecan sunrise, its perfumed air filled with music, is quite the loveliest I have ever perspired in.
The oldest of the upscale resorts is Orient-Express's Maroma (maromahotel.com), notable for its sensational sweep of beach and its slightly hair-shirted notion of old-school luxury (no TVs, erratic air-con and coarse, if locally sourced, bed linen). There's no faulting the service or the setting, though.
These are all quite large hotels, but there are also boutiques. Formerly known as Ikal del Mar, The Tides (tidesrivieramaya.com) is an alluring jungle hideaway of very private villas, each with its own garden, plunge pool and hammock. Too bad that only the Royal Villa has a sea view and the beach is rather rocky. It now has a rival, in terms of laidback cool, in Esencia (hotelesencia.com),
a private 50-acre estate with a first-rate spa.
For those in search of nightlife, then Playa del Carmen — the fastest-growing town in Mexico — feels like Cancún's younger, more stylish, more soignée little sister and is a good option for people who want shops and entertainment. Its coolest hotels are the almost painfully style-obsessed Basico (hotelbasico.com), which accepts dogs but not children, and Deseo Hotel + Lounge (hoteldeseo.com), but don't bank on getting much sleep here, for the music pounds practically all night (it's even piped into the bedrooms, though you can switch it off).
Indeed, every taste is catered for here. If you fancy a big upscale all-inclusive, try Hacienda Tres Rios (haciendatresrios.com) or, for something less exclusive, the Dreams resorts (dreamsresorts.com) near Cancún and near Tulum, or Fiesta Americana (fiestamericana.com) properties in Cancún and on the island of Cozumel.
At the opposite end of the scale, there are still simple, small, inexpensive family-run beach cabañas, especially around Tulum — try the excellent specialist website differentworld.com. But perhaps the most memorable hotels in the Yucatán are the former haciendas inland. Now operated by Starwood's Luxury Collection (haciendasmexico.com, or book through catherwoodtravels.com), these five stunning period properties make great bases for exploring the ruined Maya sites and the colonial city of Campeche.
A perfect base for Uxmal, Hacienda Santa Rosa was once an 18th-century sisal hacienda with 300 indentured workers. Now it's an 11-room hotel with luxuriant gardens and a stunning, if shallow, swimming pool converted from the former irrigation tank and lined in chukum, a watertight mixture of lime and tree resin that also happens to be the basis of chewing gum and which reflects the light so that it seems to change colour as the sun sets.
Alternatively, try Hacienda Temozón, another former sisal plantation that in its 1890s heyday employed 640 and had its own chapel, currency, school and estate railway. It's larger, grander and more formal than Santa Rosa but no less beautiful. And with 90 acres of grounds containing peacock-roamed gardens, two cenotes and miles of paths, through sisal fields, to walk or cycle through, not to mention a 43m chukum-lined pool, complete with fountains and swim-up bar, it's no easier to leave.
But perhaps the loveliest is Hacienda San José, with its cobalt walls, frescoed chapel, shaded pool — over which hang hammocks — and traditional Maya suspended beds, though they can make you feel oddly as though you're at sea.
BA offers seven nights at the five-star Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa, Riviera Maya, from £929 per person based on November 2010 departures, with two sharing and includes flights from Gatwick and all UK taxes), including flights and all-inclusive accommodation; seven nights at the five-star Fairmont Mayakoba, Riviera Maya, Cancún, from £1,095 per person*, including flights and accommodation; and seven nights at the five-star Hacienda Tres Rios, Riviera Maya, Cancún from £1,374 per person*, including flights and all-inclusive accommodation. Visit ba.com/cancun or call +44 (0)844 493 0758.
*based on November 2010 departures, with two sharing and includes flights from Gatwick and all UK taxes.
Way to go
From 3 November, British Airways flies to Cancún direct from London Gatwick. Flight time: about 11 hours. Visit ba.com, where you can book great-value holidays and Avis car hire.
Earn up to 27,716 BA Miles when you fly First to Cancún as a member of the Executive Club. Or redeem your BA Miles. For example, with 50,000 you can fly to Cancún (World Traveller return, excluding taxes, fees and surcharges).
Book now at ba.com