News & Reviews Caribbean & Mexico Mexico Review: One&Only Mandarina, Mexico

When The World’s 50 Best Hotels was launched last year, it crowned One&Only Mandarina as the best hotel in North America, the eighth best hotel in the world, and almost, but not quite, as good as the skankhole known as Soneva Fushi, which came seventh.  It was the sixth property on our Mexican tour, the final stop, the petit fours after a fine meal.  I thought I would dispel this nonsense of it being the best resort in Mexico, only to come away thinking it is.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; this doesn’t magically transform Mexico into the Maldives.

If you know the Mexican luxury sector, you will be familiar with some colossal complexes like Mayakoba and Punta Mita.  These massive retreats are more like small towns, segmented into distinct resorts with a mixture of quality—some luxury, some five-star, some so bad that they’re like dead stars where no semblance of quality escapes.

Now, Mandarina rolls up its sleeves and steps into the ring, armed with the brains and financial power of Mayakoba’s ownership team.  One&Only is the inaugural property at Mandarina and has almost a four-year head start over the upcoming Rosewood, which is due to open in 2025.  We’re on the brink of an epic showdown – usually, there’s a clear king of the hill and a bunch of also-rans puffing out their chests, giving it all the big talk, but are about as authentic as Rowan Atkinson suiting up as the Hulk.  Here, you’re going to have two companies very much of the same quality, in the same area, competing for the same clientele.  It’s going to be a bloodbath, albeit one run at the perfect temperature by your butler.

Getting there

Picked up from the Four Seasons Punta Mita in a Mandarina-branded car equipped with WiFi, we were greeted with a tray of select beers alongside offerings of water, nuts, and fresh towels.  Upon arrival, the welcome was elevated with a choice of welcome drinks and an ice cream trolley doling out popsicles for the kids.  As is customary at One&Only properties, the little ones received a KidsOnly welcome bag, this time featuring a baseball cap and a crab figurine.  Right from the get-go, it was clear: Mandarina wasn’t just coasting on a wave of PR-fueled hype – they wanted to create a stellar first impression.

Mandarina

One&Only Mandarina is nestled along the coast of Riviera Nayarit, Mexico, where the jungle-clad mountains meet the Pacific Ocean.  It blends the untamed beauty of the jungle with the serene, sandy shores to craft an environment that feels both wild and blissfully peaceful.  The main star is the natural beauty, with towering trees and vibrant flora serving as a backdrop to the expansive, tranquil beaches.  In other words, it’s dope.

Mandarina is massive, and even with just 105 rooms, One&Only Mandarina feels enormous.  The place is so spread out that it straddles two time zones, which had my phone bouncing between the two like it was calculating Sophie’s Choice.  While it perfectly combines the jungle and ocean into a well-masked resort, it cannot hide the endless parade of buggies needed to get around the place.  You’d find fewer cars at a NASCAR race.  With the steep cliffs, you will be grateful for them.  I stupidly decided to walk from the beach to our villa, which took 30 minutes, although I got lost about 45 times on the way due to poor signing.

There’s something defeatist about having to take a buggy to get around.  I prefer to walk, and we still did most of the time, but it felt limiting.  Basically, what I’m saying is, I didn’t go to the gym cos it was twenty minutes away and that’s on them, not me.

Every property tries to flex some environmental cred by mentioning how it blends seamlessly into the natural surroundings. Still, they really do such an incredible job here that I often forgot I was in a resort and sometimes just assumed I was Tarzan, waltzing around the jungle, half-naked, showing off my pecks and abs while talking to animals. It’s incredible how quickly I can descend into madness, having been cut off from the WiFi for five minutes.

Facilities

Mandarina offers two shared areas: Canalan Beach Club and their Recreational Area.

Canalan Beach is nestled right next to the under-construction Rosewood.  Rosewood customers will eventually dominate this area, or perhaps it will simply become their turf.  It feels too low-end to share a beach at a property of this calibre.  They’ve got an Italian eatery, Allora, a couple of pools, and a bar that’s still a work in progress; in fact, the area is a work in progress.  The beach is technically swimmable, but it didn’t seem all that inviting while we were there, even though some folks were surfing.  The sand’s not exactly foot-friendly, either.  We dropped by, had lunch (which took an eternity to arrive), and then made a quick exit.

The second is a recreational area with stables, pickleball, archery, a half-basketball court, a polo field, a jungle course, and an Argentine steak restaurant.  It all feels very sophisticated and cool to see, but again, we shall see how it works out in the future when multiple resorts are clamouring for it.

With such a varied setting and such an extensive development, it offers a huge variety of activities, such as hikes, watching polo, horse riding, jungle adventures, and water activities.

Over at One&Only, there’s no risk of developing a pool deficiency – they’ve got five of them.  The Jetty Beach Club is hoarding two; Carao offers an adults-only option, and Alma throws in two more for good measure.  Both Carao and Alma are the Instagrammer’s wet dream and built purely for the sake of drone photography, as I kept telling myself and anyone that, for absolutely bizarre reasons, was bothered by a hovering surveillance device in their face.  They’re hanging over the cliff edge, with Alma further enhanced with their Treetop bar perched beside it, acting like it’s king of the world – and, of course, the obligatory boutique that’s selling something you don’t need but will buy anyway.  The restaurants and pools are spread so far apart that each one offers a different setting, view and atmosphere.

Jetty Beach Club is, unsurprisingly, down by the beach, which is mostly swimmable, but like almost every beach I found in Western Mexico, the sand is not the softest.

Elsewhere, there’s the KidsOnly club and their spa, which is next to the gym.  For a new resort, the gym really isn’t that large or impressive – there’s new TechnoGym equipment, but it’s surprisingly small and lacks some of the equipment I would expect.  However, the spa is a different beast.  What starts off as a modest reception area opens up into a sprawling sanctuary enveloped by the jungle, creating a peaceful and serene escape.  It boasts a vitality pool, a mud bath, and a Temazcal, which I will describe as some spiritual fire thingy where you go to find Mexican Jesus/Buddha.  I wasn’t paying attention.  Additionally, there are separate areas for men and women to enjoy a cold plunge, sauna, and steam room.  Lucie treated herself to a massage there and rated it the top treatment of our journey.

The kids club is phenomenal, featuring treehouses, slides, and bridges – an adventure playground on steroids.  Right at the entrance, you’re greeted by a butterfly sanctuary, offering a glimpse of butterflies emerging and fluttering around.  It’s rare I go somewhere and find something I’ve not seen elsewhere before – well, in a positive way, I’ve certainly been to some places where I’ve seen things I hope never to see again.  The facilities here for children are world-class.  Inside, there’s a vast indoor play area equipped with a PS4, TV, and loads of toys.  Our kids were head over heels for the nannies, not that they had a say in the matter – they were booked in no matter what.  Oddly enough, despite the resort buzzing being near full, we never saw another child in the kid’s area – maybe the crocs got ’em.

Rooms

Villas and suites are perched amidst the trees, with some room categories offering ocean views, but each is very private.  The use of natural materials, open spaces, expansive windows, and natural light ensures that the landscapes are an ever-present part of the guest experience, inviting the outside in.

In our room, they’d gone all out and set up a teepee in the living room, giving the Mandarin Oriental Costa Navarino a run for its money.  Then there was the minibar presented on a trolley, a novel idea, but that got whisked away faster than you could say, “My one-year-old will find a way to turn this into a weapon” The kids got their own sun deck chairs, too, which was ridiculously cute.  They had some snacks, even though it was very generic and not what we asked for, but better than most properties.  The only thing they didn’t seem to get was nappies, but they emailed beforehand to say they couldn’t get them – a bit weird.  Never mind, some of the walls already looked like someone had taken a shit on it.

Public Health Warning: the Treehouses, the base room categories, might cause a severe case of depression.  If I was going to what I believed to be the best resort in Mexico and ended up in one, I’d probably quit travelling, along with laughing, smiling and even grinning, smirking and chuckling.  Fortunately, we were in a Grand Villa, which is where I suggest you begin your search.  Whilst I don’t feel the looks are particularly impressive of any of the villas, at least the Grand Villas wow’d with the functionality, less so with the visuals.

Our villa was extremely private.  Perched up high and surrounded by trees, it felt like our little secret spot – and certainly took some effort to find it – with unobstructed ocean views.  There is no way anyone is peeking into your room, as the journey to get there requires a mini workout involving walking up several steps and a detour around a water feature before getting to the front door.  There’s even a service door to enter the kitchen.  Clearly, they think we’re up to all kinds of nasty things here and deserve our privacy.  They know me well.

I really loved the room, even if the design fluctuated between looking like they ran out of furniture, to the interior designer suddenly obsessing over mud and darkness, to another phase where he stole the walls from a scrap yard.  Yes, I still loved it, even though it, along with every other property we stayed in Mexico, did not have a Toto toilet.  An abomination that will haunt me until my final breath.

Entering the room, the living area opens up with grand glass doors that frame the pool and the ocean.  The outdoor area boasts a sizeable heated pool, a dining setup, and a jacuzzi next to an electric fireplace.  There’s a bonus toilet that seems to toggle between mud hut chic and prison cell vibes.  The influx of natural light through massive glass doors somewhat compensates for the dimly lit ambience and earthy tones.  The living space is equipped with a dining table for six, a couple of sofas, chairs, a coffee table, and a TV.  Comfortable was the name of the game.  The bedroom was so bare, you’d think it had been ransacked by the previous occupants, yet somehow, it all just works.  The design is certainly not spectacular, but the sheer spaciousness and facilities feel luxurious – you’re essentially splurging on square footage, not artistic flair.  Unless your artistic flair is feeling like you’re in a cave.

The bedroom sticks to a minimalist script – just a bed, and I think they might have thrown in a floor, too.  The skylight is a standout feature, opening up to let in a cascade of light from the tall ceiling above.  Large glass doors lead to a modest balcony, offering glimpses of a neighbouring villa and snippets of ocean views.  One annoying aspect is how the curtains only ever went back about two-thirds of the way, leaving us to wonder why have all that glass in the first place.  And the light switches make total sense….if you can find them.

Then there’s the bathroom – a vast expanse with glass doors next to the bath that open up to, presumably, extend an invitation to every bug in the vicinity.  It also features the much-loved indoor/outdoor shower option, perfect for those who like to choose their own showering adventure – with or without a mosquito audience.  My highlight was the spacious wardrobe area, saving us from the chaos of living directly out of a suitcase that had exploded its contents across the floor.

Food

The dining options include Jetty Beach Club, located by the water’s edge, offering seafood and grill items amidst ocean views (pro tip: if you order the ceviche, it’s larger than a main course); Alma, set within the resort’s lush landscapes, where guests can enjoy a range of local and international dishes with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients (the farm being on Mandarina); and Carao, perched with a view, specialising in high-end Mexican cuisine.  Additionally, Allora, situated at the shared beach area, features a pizza oven for wood-fired pizzas alongside other Italian classics.  They also had a Singaporean pop-up at Jetty Beach Club for dinner.

The design of the restaurants didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, but it didn’t turn me away either.  It’s the architecture and the views that really steal the show.  Alma is a sunset chaser’s dream, with its almost floating design and pools that create a tranquil vibe, sometimes amped up by some live music.  A few cabanas dot the area, offering prime ocean views.  Carao, while sharing that prime spot for sunset admiration, dishes out a distinct atmosphere all its own.

Unusually, in a good way, you have two dining venues for breakfast, although one doesn’t open until 9 a.m., which is almost lunchtime in our house.  Both serve up a similar, limited buffet spread but diverge on the à la carte front, with Carao leaning heavily into Mexican fare.  I couldn’t tell you if it’s any good, as I couldn’t wait until 9 for breakfast, as what am I, a hero?  We ate breakfast at Alma, which I found to be the most disappointing aspect of the stay, not just from the slow service but the limited breakfast options and, during our last breakfast, an annoying amount of wasps.

The food at each spot we tried was top-notch, worthy of a repeat visit, though I had to trade plates with Lucie at Carao to maintain that sentence being true.  Watching the staff attempt to remember food preferences was a treat, especially when they gave me a heads-up about my dislikes at the start, only to serve them to me anyway.  You could practically hear the waiter’s spirit breaking as he recited the ingredients list.

As children under five did not eat free (something common in other Mexican properties), the food prices were similar to Cancun, but the real pain point was asking for some sparkling water in the room and being charged $65 for four bottles.  Proof, if ever it’s needed, that sparkling water is devil’s juice.

Can I also take a moment to moan about this recent trend of signing for breakfast, even when it’s free?  What next?  Signing for every time housekeeping change the sheets?Perhaps a legally binding agreement every time I snag a towel?  Will I need to provide a sworn affidavit with the doormen?  Why not make me need to sign a confession for every souvenir I’ve “accidentally” slipped into my bag?

Service

Aside from the breakfast mayhem, which was oddly slow and disorganized despite our early arrival each day, the service shone, especially with a butler assigned to us through a WhatsApp group.  This personal touch made a world of difference, offering a more intimate service experience compared to the somewhat impersonal Four Seasons app interactions.  Our butler did an excellent job and made everything seamless.

When my three-year-old took a tumble at a restaurant, the staff went above and beyond, sending teddy bears with “get well soon” messages—not just for her, but for her sister too, to prevent any jealousy.  Although regularly needing a buggy to get around could be annoying, they always arrived promptly, mirroring the quick and attentive response to all our needs.  The turndown service treats were a delight, featuring a superb selection of chocolates.  However, unlike at Four Seasons Tamarindo, where half-chewed snacks lingered in our room for days, here, the housekeeping team was perhaps too efficient, whisking away our treats almost as soon as they were delivered, sometimes even while we were still savouring them.

Help was always on hand whenever I ventured out with a stroller, with numerous staff members offering assistance.  One curious incident involved receiving an apologetic note for an issue we hadn’t noticed—apparently, there was a problem with the water supply.  They told us not to drink tap water but then gave us such a measly selection that the only way we’d have survived is drinking piss.  One message to the butler and suddenly, we were drowning in enough bottled water to fill a pool.

On our last night, the proactive service was highlighted once again as someone was dispatched to escort us back from dinner despite it being just a short stroll away.  This gesture reflected their forward-thinking approach to enhancing our stay, always trying to anticipate our needs.

Wild Life

Being so close to nature comes with its own set of rules, mainly keeping an eye out for the local critters.  Coatis, in particular, turned our room into their personal buffet after we left the door ajar, indulging in a little exploratory feast.  Then, there’s the beach’s crocodile residents; only five of the nine have been graced with trackers, leaving someone with the shits and giggles of croc-watching.

And let’s not forget about the wildest creatures of all: the humans.  By our second day, the beach was bustling.  With plans to introduce 55 Signature Villas, I’m curious about the property’s future ambience.  During our visit, the resort was at 90% capacity, bumping up to 100% the week prior, which meant having to book restaurant reservations and once missing out on dining at our preferred spot.

Maintenance

Now, the biggie.

On our first night, the taps gave up on their one and only job: providing water.  An engineer appeared swiftly to solve the no-show, but it was not the last time we would need him.  The water pressure was always lousy, but at one point, we had the indiscretion to have a bath and shower simultaneously.  I had to stand around as it first went down to a drip and then went cold.  It turned the flow into a reluctant dribble that eventually gave up, leaving me waiting around wondering where they feature this in their brochure.

The general maintenance was the biggest letdown with the hard product.  The Gallivanter’s Guide pointed this out in their review – he commented on how worn down it is for a new resort, and the man speaks the truth.  The KidsOnly outdoor area was closed due to a termite infestation.  The bathroom door would not close properly, the door seal was visibly hanging off, some of the flooring looked like they’d been performing a Trinity Test on it, and you could see visible wear and tear everywhere.  I was sure the air con wasn’t working in the bedroom either, but with two young kids, you forget these things….only to blog about them later.

They have to fix this. Otherwise, it will ruin their reputation faster than you can say, “Is that a Rosewood over there?”

The Good

  • Service
  • Food
  • Activities

The Bad

  • Mosquitos score = 8/10.  I can feel them at night touching me up like they’re Harvey Weinstein.
  • The biggest issue (other than housekeeping being so keen that they removed your food just after you could smell it) is how hard it is to get around or to anything—even the kids’ club feels like a hike once you get to the entrance.
  • Poor maintenance

The Luxurious

  • Accommodation, but only if you get a Grand Villa or above
  • Kids club, but only if termites aren’t around
  • Setting, but only if the wildlife doesn’t get you

Rating

Good

Conclusion

“Why is it the best?” you might wonder. Well, it might be the best resort in Mexico, though I’d argue it doesn’t exactly take home gold in any particular category – except maybe the Kids Club, which was partially shut because of a termite rave. I appreciate I sometimes need to confirm whether I’m joking; I am not.  The termite party must be some kind of fable of their approach to maintenance. But let’s focus on the positives, shall we? I found myself unusually lenient with One&Only Mandarina. The truth is, their kids’ club is brilliant, as are the villas, and the setting is simply stunning. The food, service, activities, and beach are all good, sometimes excellent.  When you bundle it all up, it ticks the boxes for a memorable stay.

A lot of money has gone into Mandarina, yet even more funds are necessary to maintain its status.  With a golf course set to open by year’s end, alongside Rosewood and the enhancement of shared amenities, there’s potential for a bright future.  But they must sort the maintenance issues out; otherwise, it will quickly become a relic.

In Summary

  • Child friendly?

    Very - One&Only Mandarin has an amazing kids club, particularly their outdoor adventure area....when it hasn't been infested by termites.

  • Best room

    Signature villas are 5-7 minute buggy ride to the beach and sit outside of the resort. I suggest a Grand Villa.

Grand Villas start from $5,000 per night

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 13th Mar '24

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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