'Mexico, but not an all-in resort'

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The Independent Travel

Q. I would like to take my family to the Yucatan Peninsula this winter, possibly somewhere on the coast although I would be prepared to look inland. I'm not too keen on the all-inclusive-resort concept but would like to stay somewhere child-friendly within a reasonable distance of activities suitable for a 10- and 13-year-old. Where would you suggest?
J Barber, via e-mail

A. Mexico's Yucatan peninsula is home to the garish party capital Cancun and a wealth of white sand, and is a magnet for package tourists and North American spring-break students. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find rich Mayan history, flora, fauna, indigenous culture and miles of stunning beaches.

Last October, the peninsula was battered by Hurricane Wilma, a category-five storm, and Cancun bore the brunt of the damage. The resort has made a swift recovery, but hurricanes present an annual threat right up until the start of December. However, winter is a good time to visit the Yucatan. Not only do you avoid the hurricane season (normally June-November), but you will also enjoy cooler temperatures - averaging in the mid- to high-20s centigrade- and lower rainfall. But expect to pay for it: December to April is the peak tourism season in Mexico.

Since you're looking for something more child-oriented and less commercial, Cancun, on the north-eastern shoulder of the Yucatan, is probably best avoided. One option is to head south along the coast to Tulum. This picturesque stretch of the self-styled "Riviera Maya" was relatively unharmed by Wilma and was even granted an extra few yards of white sand. Indeed, Tulum is an excellent place to relax and take full advantage of the long stretch of unspoilt beach, lapped by warm turquoise water, as well as the cliff-top Mayan archaeological site at its northern end.

It also makes a convenient point from which to explore the region, for example the island of Cozumel - popular for snorkelling, and Xcaret (00 52 984 871 5200; www.xcaret.com), an "eco theme park" complete with aquarium, wildlife enclosures, underground rivers and recreated Mayan villages. Just a few miles south of Tulum is the tip of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a protected 1.3-million-acre nature sanctuary, which gives visitors a privileged glimpse of the myriad Yucatan ecosystems.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Sian Ka'an comprises tropical forest, salt-water marshes and a barrier reef. The site is also nesting territory for endangered sea-turtle species. While you may enter the reserve unaccompanied, it's best to contact a professional guide to get the most out of your trip and to avoid the tricky drive along the bumpy approach. Centro Ecologico Sian Ka'an (00 52 984 871 2499; www.cesiak.org) offers group tours. Its all-day canal tour, which includes a swim in the cenotes (natural underground pools common to the Yucatan), costs US$68 (£40) per person. A pick-up service for guests of nearby hotels (including Zamas - see below) is also offered. The organisation is devoted to the upkeep of the reserve, so at least you know your money will be put to good use.

For a typical Mayan Riviera experience, you could stay in a cabana at the Hotel Zamas (001 415 387 9806; www.zamas.com). The hotel is the perfect antidote to commercial Cancun and is right on the as-yet-unspoilt beach at Tulum, within walking distance of the impressive Mayan ruins. Be sure to bring warm clothing and a torch for the sometimes cool winter nights - the area is relatively undeveloped and the beach and roads are unlit at night, with the notable exception of fireflies.

Bungalows at Zamas sleeping four people start at US$145 (£85) per night in December, room only, but be prepared to pay in cash or travellers' cheques as the hotel, like most Tulum establishments, does not take credit cards.

Moving inland, the Yucatan capital of Merida in the north-west of the peninsula is a beautiful colonial city with a strong Mayan identity and would make an equally interesting base with a wide range of accommodation, including a number of converted sisal haciendas. Hacienda Santa Cruz (00 52 999 910 4549; www.haciendasantacruz.com) is a good, child-friendly option around 14km south of the city.

Guests have the option of staying in one of two casitas (small cottages), which once housed the hacienda's labourers.

Each has one double bed and two singles so they are ideal for families. Airport (Merida) pick-up and drop-off is included in the room rate, and transport to local sites can be arranged, as can meals cooked by the amiable owners. The extensive grounds provide plenty of room for the children to roam and there's a pool to cool off in.

The smaller cottage is available for US$199 (£117) per night in December, including breakfast. A further US$23 (£14) gets you the larger cottage with a separate bedroom for the children. The downside of staying on this side of the peninsula is that the beaches don't compare to those on the east coast. However, the small island of Carmen, around an hour and a half's drive south of Merida, near Campeche, boasts several rival beaches around Ciudad del Carmen, as well as a lagoon inhabited by a host of freshwater species. Another easy day trip from Merida is Chichen Itza, the staggering archaeological ruin, and perhaps the most famous symbol of Mayan power, which lies between Merida and Tulum. But the remains at Uxmal, south of Merida, boast the spectacular 128ft-high Piramide del Adivino, with its unique oval base. Arriving outside the peak hours of 11am-3pm minimises the problem of hot sun and irksome tour groups. Your choice of accommodation will be able to organise day trips to either site.

There are no direct flights to Tulum or Merida from the UK. The nearest airport to Tulum is Cancun, which is served by charter flights: Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) flies direct from Gatwick and Monarch (0871 225 3555; www.flymonarch.com) from Gatwick and Manchester. Alternatively, you could fly to Mexico City with BA (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and pick up a connection on Aeromexico (020-7801 6234; www.aeromexico.com) to Merida or Cancun.

For more information on accommodation and activities in the Yucatan Peninsula, contact the Mexico Tourism Board (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com).

Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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