Explore ancient culture and enjoy a watery adventure with your clubbing on the Riviera Maya, writes ELLA BUCHAN
IT was like playing underwater chicken with a huge truck.
We bobbed around in the Caribbean Sea, the occasional deep grey fin slicing through the water.
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"Put your head under," said our guide, Luigi. "Quick!" We did. And coming right towards us, mouth wide open like a supersized guppy, was the biggest fish in the world.
Forget swimming with dolphins or snorkelling with giant turtles - an encounter with whale sharks trumps them all.
These gentle giants of the sea, which can grow as long as 46ft with 4ft-wide mouths, congregate near the Isle de Mujeres, an hour by boat from Mexico's Mayan Riviera.
And while their size can be intimidating, the benign beasts are more interested in filtering fish eggs and plankton than gobbling up a human.
Although Richard Branson, who is working with Wild Aid to help protect these extraordinary creatures, claims he was once "swallowed and spat out" by one.
Getting up close to fish the size of a small flat is just one of many experiences on offer near Cancun.
Venture away from the hotels, bars and clubs and you'll find one of the most diverse holiday destinations imaginable.
The Yucatan peninsula, easily explored by car, is considered the safest in Mexico.
It includes ancient Mayan ruins (including UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza), tiny rural villages and Izamal, a city painted entirely in yellow.
You can swim in cenotes - underwater sinkholes - zipwire high above the trees in huge parks like Xplor or snorkel down a natural lazy river at Xcaret where, in the evening, a spectacular cultural show is staged deep inside a cave.
There is so much more than the bars and clubs the destination usually brings to mind.
Although if you do fancy a bit of wild partying, a night at Coco Bongos in Cancun or Playa del Carmen is like eating a big wheel of cheese before bed then waiting for the surreal dreams to start.
From a dwarf dressed as Jim Carrey in The Mask pouring tequila down the throats of scantily-clad women to Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, the varied entertainment packs in revellers every night.
But for true relaxation, the hotels along the Riviera Maya - a lush strip of beaches and thick forest right next to Cancun - offer a very different taste of Mexico.
We stayed in Playacar - a long cul-de-sac of hotels, marina and shops close to the laid-back beach town of Playa del Carmen.
Rooms at the all-inclusive Royal Hideaway Hotel, inset below, are in pretty villas, with views of the tropical gardens or, if you're lucky, the talcum powder beaches lapped by the Caribbean Sea.
There are so many pools it seems as though there is one for each guest.
Small whirlpools are dotted around the gardens offering total seclusion or there is the bigger, two-tiered infinity pool melting into the horizon - the perfect place to enjoy a sunset cocktail.
At the Royal Hideaway the best spot for food, sea views and all-day snacks is The Deck, which serves everything from nachos to cerviche - fish or seafood "cooked" in lime juice.
For breakfast, Spices restaurant houses its buffet in a huge room next to the seating area, where you can pick up fresh mango, papaya and melon sliced into perfect rectangles, omelettes, bacon, hash potatoes, chorizo, tacos… For a health injection (much needed if you're indulging in tequila), try the green juice - a delicious (honest) blend of parsley, apple and lots of other nutritious stuff.
BHS boss Philip Green chose the Riviera Maya for his 60th birthday party in March, where he was joined at the Rosewood Mayakoba hotel by scantily-clad A-listers including Naomi Campbell, Kate Hudson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
This place, recently added to Virgin Holidays' portfolio of properties, is the ultimate in lowkey luxury.
Eco lodges perch on the edge of a lagoon and are accessed only by boat, offering guests total privacy.
In Cancun, Le Blanc Spa Resort is close to the party scene but it feels a million miles away.
Guests can chill out on the terrace, where 50 shades of white justify the name.
There are pouffes the colour of milk, crisp tablecloths and a smooth snow-white floor.
Splashes of colour come courtesy of dangerouslydrinkable cocktails - the watermelon mojito goes down a treat. Oh, and then there's buffet. It's not your average buffet but one that rivals the fat and fabulous offerings of Vegas.
Inside is a rainbow of a sushi bar.
Outside is a barbecue with juicy steaks and juicier chorizo, a salad bar, make-your-own tacos, pizza and seafood.
Just like the delights of this beautiful part of the world, there's something for every taste and whim.
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VIRGIN Atlantic flies twice weekly from Gatwick to Cancun with return economy from £619 per person. See virginatlantic.com or call 0844 770.
Seven nights in Cancun, including scheduled flights Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick direct to Cancun, accommodation the 5V Royal Hideaway Playacar on an all-inclusive basis and transfers, starts from £1,395, based on September 4 departures.
Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room and include all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.
Start your holiday before you've even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport - adults £20, kids £12. See virginholidays.co.uk, call 0844 557 3859 or visit one of the 90 stores located in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores nationwide.
Excursions including the whale shark swim and Xplor can also be booked through Virgin Holidays' resort team.