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A half-hour from Cancun but a world away: Find true escape in Mexico's tiny Isla Mujeres

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ISLA MUJERES, Mexico - A half-hour ferry ride from the nonstop party that is Cancun sits an island seductively named Isla Mujeres, or Island of Women.

Less than 5 miles long (8 kilometres) and just a half-mile (.8 kilometre) wide, the tiny Mexican island is an oasis that caters to every set except the rowdy students sowing their oats across the bay. They most certainly would get bored.

Frankly, there just isn't that much for them to do on the island. For everyone else, that's kind of the point.

The escape begins as soon as the cab from the airport drops you off at the dock, where there is, of course, a bar. Grab a couple beers and relax until it's time to board.

Some hotels, such as the idyllic, Italian-themed Villa Rolandi or the perfectly located Avalon Reef Club, will cart you directly to their doors. For others renting a house or staying at a budget hotel, ferries go to the island's main pier downtown.

Try to find a spot on the back of your ferry in the open air to enjoy the view and fresh sea-salt air as Cancun and its thumping music fade slowly away. It's the perfect introduction to your new temporary home in the Caribbean.

Once you arrive, first things first. Get to a beach. Now. Don't worry about where you'll eat, don't worry about unpacking, just throw on that bathing suit and get out there. You'll never forget your first sunset in Isla.

At some point in the first couple days, you'll want to rent a golf cart, the most popular mode of transportation on the island, along with scooters. The cheapest options — roughly $40 a day — will be downtown and include carts styled like Jeep Wranglers and pink Cadillacs.

The next few days depend on how much energy you can scrounge up amid the seductively slow rhythm of the island.

My plan had been to go swimming with whale sharks, play with dolphins, go on a few runs along the ocean, maybe hop over to Cancun for a day trip.

None of that happened. Like I said, island rhythm.

My boyfriend and I would wake with the sun around 6 a.m., eventually wander out to the private beach at our hotel, Villa Rolandi, sip our hot mugs of coffee and stand up to our knees in the warm-enough water as we listened to the ocean and stared in the sky.

The rest of the day would include some combination of lying in the sun, reading, napping, eating fresh lobster, drinking beer and swimming in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Outside of the private beaches at house rentals and hotels, there are public beaches on the southern side of the island, facing Cancun, with calm, beautiful waters but not a lot of sand or space.

There's the popular and sprawling North Beach on the tip of the island near the tiny, quaint downtown, excellent for people-watching or finding a game of beach volleyball, if you're into that sort of thing. This beach has the closest thing to a party vibe you'll find on the island.

For a calmer experience, head to the easternmost section of North Beach at the end of a tiny road called Zazil-ha. You'll find just a handful of people lounging on beach beds for a modest price or on a towel in the sand for free. Everyone seems to have such a content, sleepy look on their face here, it's almost comical.

The water is calm, shallow and heavenly. It's easy to forget everything here.

During one of my days at this beach, I got a blissful, hour-long massage about 10 steps from our lounge chairs. Walking to get a bucket of water to wash the sand off my feet before the massage was the most strenuous thing I did that day.

At some point amid the endless, intoxicating relaxation, we found the energy to drive our golf cart the Punta Sur, or South Point, at the southernmost tip of the island. Once there, pay a nominal fee to explore Garrafon Natural Reef Park, a series of paved trails that lead to the very edge of the ocean.

The park's designers have managed to make it feel like you're standing in the middle of the wild ocean. It's humbling and beautiful.

Other popular activities on Isla include swimming with whale sharks, docile, beautiful and enormous creatures. That may very well be a once-in-a-life, unforgettable experience, but it's a minimum of $125 U.S. dollars per person, takes up an entire day and some lose their stomachs on the two-hour boat ride it takes to even reach waters deep enough for the sea creatures. The season runs from June 1 to Sept. 15.

Others swim with dolphins, a much easier and slightly cheaper feat on Isla, though it also requires breaking away from the near-irresistible, do-nothing vibe that permeates the island. The swim will cost at least $100, but it's conveniently located in water just 50 feet from Isla's beach.

Between January and September last year, Isla Mujeres saw 227,540 visitors, according to statistics kept by the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Cancun had 3.2 million visitors in the same time period, proving that Isla is still a well-kept secret.

Or maybe that it simply doesn't appeal to the partying masses who swarm Cancun. Those less interested in bottomless blue cocktails and grinding in clubs until the break of dawn prefer it that way.

___

If You Go...

ISLA MUJERES: Official tourism site, http://www.isla-mujeres.net/tourism/home.htm .

VILLA ROLANDI: http://www.villarolandi.com/

GARRAFON NATURAL REEF PARK: http://www.garrafon.com/

Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP

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