By Ted McIntyre
We’re sitting waterside on the sprawling deck of La Laguna restaurant at the Fairmont Mayakoba, about 40 minutes south of Cancun in Riviera Maya, Mexico, as the occasional thatch-roofed tour boat slowly slips past. Mayakoba, which also includes a Rosewood and Banyan Tree resort, is the Venice of Mexico, with a system of waterways slithering through the mangroves of this 1,400-acre, environmentally sensitive, five-star property, and there is no end of colourful waterfowl making their presence known as the sun prepares to drop and the air cools.
This sublime setting, with Mayakoba’s mile-long stretch of beach a five-minute shuttle ride away, is what Samuel Jimenez calls his office. Assistant restaurant manager and official beer server at the Fairmont, Jimenez has Microcerveceria Gourmet Calavera, Latin America’s 2012 Brewery of the Year, on the menu for the one of the Fairmont’s many unique experiences, its craft beer tasting.
Paired with gourmet hors d’oeuvres, this affordable activity ($35 US), features a selection of four cervezas artesanales, and Jimenez knows each intimately. Yes, the Fairmont also offers a tequila pairing with Master Tequilier Gabriel Beyer, but it’s the chance to sample the country’s growing craft beer movement that has piqued my interest, and the quality of the maverick microbrewers being showcased by the Fairmont will make you forget all about Mexican heavyweights Corona and Dos Equis.
First up of the Belgian-style Calavera is the Witbier. Light, crisp and refreshing, it features notes of tropical fruit, owing largely to the bitter orange peel and coriander seeds and its ingredients. That makes it a perfect fit for a citrusy ceviche Yucatán-style—a blend of grouper, habanero, cilantro and avocado.
As though he’s sampling wine, Jimenez first examines the colour of the beer in his glass, before taking in the nose, then finally rolling it around the tongue. The four beers have been left out at room temperature on purpose, Jimenez explains, to allow the different aromas and flavours to open up.
Calavera Dubel is next. Caramel malts and a dark candied sugar from Belgium give it its amber hue, while the flavour suggests breads, caramel and crême brulé. At home it would be a great match for smoked meat, smoked cheeses and any number of barbecued goodies, but here it’s paired with locally sourced and smoked marlin atop a tostada. Dubel is an abbey-style beer, Jimenez notes, meaning it owes its heritage to monks whose high-protein monastic brew helped them endure the trying 40 days of lent.
Next is the stronger (8.5%) Calavera Tripel, but it’s so well balanced that you don’t taste the alcohol. Golden straw in colour, it has apricot, apple, honey and floral notes and great structure. The stronger the cheese, the better the match, Jimenez advises, and we have a wedge of flavourful Brie wrapped in prosciutto, with a balsamic reduction and basil leaves.
Saving the best for last, we sample the robust Mexican Imperial Stout—9% alcohol. Pouring as thick as motor oil, it’s rich with chocolate, espresso and tobacco flavours, but the addition of four types of dried chili peppers adds a light spicy kick, making it an ideal pair for many Mexican dishes, including our Chocolate Mole dessert.
As the more than hour-long tasting comes to a close, and with no room left for dinner, I enjoy La Laguna’s subdued atmosphere as a blue heron wings by. This end-of-October timing is perfect for tourists, Samuel and I discuss, with the hurricane season pretty much concluded, shoulder-season room rates and a lower humidity level. Little wonder the PGA Tour annually drops by two weeks from now. The OHL Classic, which made history in 2006 as the first official Tour stop outside of the U.S. and Canada, is contested at Mayakoba’s El Camaleón Golf Course, a superb Greg Norman design that draws its name from its seamless routing through an ever-changing landscape that includes tropical jungles, dense mangroves and a pair of oceanfront visits, with no shortage of holes bordered by massive limestone canals and crystal-clear waters.
The uniquely Mexican terrain is evident from the opening hole, where players stare into the gaping mouth of a cenote, an ancient underground cavern that was unearthed during the initial stages of course construction. Bombers can reach this natural hazard from the tee, but for the most part, Norman eases players into their rounds before the layout begins to swallow golf balls around the eighth hole, a menacing par-5 that drifts to the left, where it is flanked the entire way by a canal that curls behind the green.
The canal bends to the right of the ninth fairway, and if you somehow manage to hit it over the bordering trees on the right, and then over that water beyond, you may find the balcony of one of the Fairmont’s guest rooms—which I didn’t even know were there until I heard the distinctive thwack of a golf ball striking a patio table. But seriously, you’ve got to be a good 50 yards off course to find that destination.
Tropical winds can also occasionally wreak havoc, and the paspalum greens also require a little training. Downhill is usually also downgrain, and vice versa. As with many putting surfaces, when reading your putts, note that dark shadows mean it’s into the grain, while shiny surfaces mean it’s downgrain.
Although most players see the highlights as the short par-3 7th and 15th holes—each of which borders the ocean (El Camaleón is the only course in the Riviera Maya featuring two holes just steps from the Caribbean)—what makes the course truly special for me are the interludes provided by this diverse ecosystem, with its cornucopia of birds, fish, iguanas, turtles and other native species, not to mention the occasional sighting of the resort’s handsome mahogany tour boats (or ‘launchas’), which ferry guests of Mayakoba’s three resorts from place to place throughout the massive property. In some cases, these boats can fetch golfers directly from their rooms and bring them straight to the course!
Or straight to the deck of La Laguna’s beer tasting, if you are so inclined.