Kevin Wendle
Hotel Esencia, Xpu-Ha, Mexico


Someone recently asked me how I would define good style. I can’t say I’ve ever spent too long thinking about it in the past, but the question had me pondering. It’s a hard one to answer, because style is rather subjective and a matter of taste. Both are abstract and deeply personal, informed by a person’s background and culture, what we’re exposed to, our attitudes and feelings about life and how we interact with the world around us. For me, style is something that’s beyond visual – it’s inherently inspirational – and as much to do with the heart as it is with the mind. As such, it’s hard to articulate, even as a person whose career is all about putting experiences into words. But I say this without any arrogance – I’d like to think that I know good style when I see it and feel it.

Kevin Wendle – the impresario behind the joyous symphony of boutique luxury hospitality that is the Hotel Esencia at Xpu-Ha on the Mexican Caribbean’s last ‘untouched beach’ – feels exactly the same.

“I definitely know it when I see it,” he says straightaway, totally unprompted. My curiosity about how others define taste has gotten the better of me ever since I was asked myself, so it now features in my armoury of interview questions. “Others don’t always have to share the same tastes as I do, and vice versa, but I can appreciate almost any style or design that is done well, where it all comes together to create something magical that you know in your heart just works,” adds Kevin.

“And I can appreciate that my style is always evolving. It changes as I am exposed to new things that inspire me. Taste is something that can certainly alter. Sometimes when I look back at old photos of myself or my previous homes, I wonder what I was thinking back then!”

Commenting on his own personal style, Kevin claims not to be a very formal person. 

“I appreciate good style and looking great,” he says, “but I like simplicity more than anything. I tend to be quite classic.”

He’s not wrong, although I get the impression Kevin is quite modest. What I see is a charming and immaculately dressed man, sporting a beautifully cut, blue linen shirt, soft pale trousers, espadrilles and a Borsalino Panama hat.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

This story first appeared in The Spellbinding Scotland Issue, available in print and digital.

Subscribe today or purchase a back copy via our online shop.

He’s entirely comfortable with my questions – he has a background in media, after all. In the 1990s he co-founded one of the first internet media companies, CNET, whose success provided him with the funds necessary to continue his long passion for buying and flipping homes. Before then, Kevin was one of the founders of the original Fox entertainment network. He’s quick to add that this was way before Fox launched its news channel and that his work was in the development and production of many a cult TV series, among them The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 21 Jump Street, The Simpsons and Beverly Hills, 90210. As his businesses grew, so did his portfolio of luxury homes, which expanded into larger spaces and more in number than he and his then-husband actually needed. So for fun, he began renting them out to friends, complete with butlers and chefs. With the experience of dealing with ultra-luxury renters, he segued naturally into being a high-end hotelier.

I tell him that I, too, have always dreamed of owning and running a small hotel one day.

“Honestly, I look back now and wish I had jumped into hospitality as a business much earlier in my career,” he says encouragingly. “That’s how much I love it.”

If only OutThere’s coffers were half as full. But, in any case, I’m very much inspired by Kevin and see him as a role model, particularly from a design perspective. He’s a man after my own heart when it comes to style – figuratively, in his perspective of taste and, literally, when it comes to executing it.

In 2014, he bought the property that is now the Hotel Esencia, a charming, white-washed beach house first built by an Italian duchess, set in lush Yucatán jungle that seamlessly melts into a pristine talc-white beach, fronting a ridiculously blue ocean. On entering the property, I golf-cart beneath the thick canopy of mighty trees and plants, dodging lizards basking in the sun, white peacocks and a handsome member of staff (also head to toe in white), agonising over the placement of a basket of pillar-box-red umbrellas. The clean, Mykonos-white terraces of my suite are accented by electric-blue cushions, adding a touch of Malibu. Inside my gorgeously appointed accommodation, Mid-century-modern furnishings complement the intricate Mexican wool tapestry on the wall. Outside, as if straight out of a Marrakech riad, meticulously rolled canary-yellow towels rest on mahogany-coloured deckchairs, flanking my very own Mexican cenote-inspired plunge pool.

Kevin’s attraction to simplicity and unfussiness is instantly apparent at the Hotel Esencia, not only in the overall aesthetic, but in the type of food served in the hotel’s restaurants too. I’m curious to know where Kevin finds inspiration. It’s clear that a great deal of love and attention to detail have gone into styling the hotel. It takes a lot of effort to look this simple.

“My inspiration can come from anywhere,” he tells me. “I have around 5,000 design books that I’m always skimming through and the people I work with every day on my creative team are my style icons. They constantly expose me to new ideas. And I’ve worked with so many brilliant architects and interior designers over the past 30 years. I’m really a frustrated designer, but with no real talent of my own to put it all together. My skill lies in having a good eye for spotting great talent to help me.

 “Also, my two sons inspire me daily. They are teenagers now and I revel in seeing how they think, how they interact with their friends, their choice of clothes, food and experiences. I’m just blown away by the gender-neutrality of this new generation, that my 15-year-old son, who is a total jock, thinks it’s cool to present as a female warrior dressed in pink in the video game Fortnite, and my macho 18-year-old hangs out at the YMCA wearing a pearl necklace.

“I always pay attention to what length socks the kids are wearing. The colours, patterns and insane little details reveal so much about today’s creative trends.”

I’m curious to know (I would be, wouldn’t I) if travel has been crucial to informing his aesthetic appeal.

“My first international vacation was in Paris when I was 21 years old. I was so enchanted by the culture, history, architecture, fashion and the attention to detail. I dreamt of living there one day, something that became a part-time reality for almost 15 years. Italy is another country that just grabs my heart. It’s everything that I love about France, but even more potent sometimes, so rich in design, especially in its textiles, colours and, of course, attitude.

“I also can’t say enough about Japan. There’s an unparalleled attention to perfection and to even the most minuscule detail in everything you see there – it’s like being transported to another planet. And, now, Mexico, which is a culture so unbelievably rich in artisanry, culture and cuisine, it has never ceased to surprise and delight me.”

I see hints of all these global influences at the Hotel Esencia. The haute couture of Paris, the elegant escapism of the Amalfi Coast, the precision of Japan and a sense of place that is distinctly Mexican. It’s not an easy thing to pull together, especially in the footprint of a heritage building. So how did it all happen?

“We started by analysing the structure and qualities of the main house,” says Kevin. “Stripping away the superficial elements, we soon realised that we literally had a blank canvas to play with, which was such a relief and a delight. The origins of the house as a retreat for an Italian duchess are not only part of the property’s history, they are evident in the choices that were made by her and her architect. It’s a finely balanced mix of Mediterranean features and colonial architectural accents, with very solid bones, generous proportions and a lovely combination of indoor and outdoor spaces.”

This all makes absolute sense. Roaming around Esencia, you soon see how it’s as much a playground as a home. In fact, there’s very little about it that feels like a hotel.

“My vision for this place was never to build a classic hotel,” Kevin continues. “At first, I wanted to have somewhere I could share with my family and friends, a magical retreat, secluded and away from it all. I have to admit that from the very beginning, I saw this place as my home. Honestly, I’m lucky it’s become a business at all. I really bought the hotel as a passion project and, more than anything, my goal was to avoid losing too much money. I even brought my own personal collection of Mid-century-modern furniture, artwork and objects here and they turned out to be the inspiration for the development of the different atmospheres and spaces, the mix of old and new, the fabrics and raw materials.”

“Considering that I’ve almost doubled the number of rooms since I bought it, the building still feels very much like home to me, which is, I think, why my guests feel so comfortable here and want to return. The role of the design and the service elements makes the hotel feel just as much of a home to them. It’s not an easy thing to achieve. It’s a vision that comes with so much subtlety, so it was hard to communicate this to the builders, vendors, artisans and even our own staff, but over time they have come to understand and be a part of it.”

Although the Hotel Esencia is international in concept, Kevin wanted to imbue it with an authentically Mexican sense of place.

“Above all, I wanted to blend in local and regional elements,” he explains. “It’s an aspect that we have curated really carefully, embracing the local culture, Mexican heritage and landscape without exploiting them. We wanted to elevate and sublimate them. This part of the world is so serene and peaceful, surrounded by jungle, open sky and calm sea. Having intense pops of colour here and there exemplifies that. What you see as accents, I see as the blue of the sky, the yellow of the sun and the red of the hibiscus flowers. I also love pure materials, and our design team has used this as a base for creative decisions in terms of the soft furnishings, to bring out all that is natural and simple.”

“Our approach to gardening is similar – to do as much as we can to make it look as if there has been no gardening. Apart from the actual grass-mowing, our maintenance team has been guided away from square-trimmed hedges and perfectly shaped flowerbeds. We are immersed in the jungle and, although we try to tame it, we love to let the plants and trees be themselves. Those that are endemic, like the coconut trees and palmetto palms, have very geometric lines, with perfect fan-shaped leaves in infinite shades of green. They all merge together to create a perfect background that only nature could have come up with and that we amplify to an extent.”

“Sustainability is extremely important to me. In terms of design, specifically, most of our furniture is handmade in-house by our very own carpentry team from wood that has been locally sourced. In a quest for purity, we avoid using synthetic materials altogether, if we can.”

“Our philosophy extends to every aspect of the hotel, even down to the smallest detail. We are located in a very fragile area, just miles from an important biosphere and a matter of metres from the second biggest barrier reef in the world. We are inspired to be careful about the imprint we have on the eco-system. We have eliminated single-use products as much as we can and, where we haven’t been able to, we have switched to biodegradable ones. We have a totally biodegradable and cruelty-free line of bath amenities, we use glass water bottles wherever possible, and the plastic ones are biodegradable and recycled by the vendor, who is located just three miles from the hotel, so there’s barely any carbon footprint there. Also, our bottled water is filtered rainwater. To protect the eco-system, we have our own residual water-treatment plant and we have implemented various energy-saving protocols.”

Kevin clearly doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. Since my first visit, he has been working hard to add yet more new embellishments to the property.

“Almost half our guests are repeat bookings,” he says, “and, although they come back for the Esencia they know and love, everyone is excited to see what’s new as well. So, we are always looking for fresh ideas to improve the experience. Like the launch of our new Rooftop Wellness Suites, for example, which are extremely spacious duplex suites with their own private fitness studios, steam showers with essential oils, Peloton bikes, Technogym weights and luxurious rooftop pools with living rooms, sun loungers and outdoor showers.

“While we were closed during the pandemic, we added two luxury suites – apartments, really – on the west side of the original house, one with a spectacular rooftop with 360° views and enough space to host a dinner for 30 people,” he says proudly.

Following the success of the Rooftop Wellness Suites, the hotel has just introduced another, the Esencia Suite, in the north wing of the original mansion. It spans 110 square metres indoors, with over 1,300 square metres of private outdoor space. A true expression of space and comfort – and that size is everything – the Esencia Suite comes with its own private 80-sq-m rooftop terrace, spacious master bedroom and domed living space, as well as a light-filled master bathroom with a double bathtub and steam shower – all with enchanting panoramic views of the beautiful Xpu-Ha Beach. Other features include a generous outdoor dining area, perfect for quiet mornings and a view of the rising sun, the largest private plunge pool on the property, a sizeable den and seating area with windows overlooking the ocean on three sides, a Peloton bike (of course), as well as a second guest bathroom. 

In October, the hotel is set to unveil its luxurious new tennis court and pavilion which, it comes as no surprise, will be ‘US Open standard’. There will also be announcements with exciting news on the food and beverage front.

My time at Hotel Esencia bordered on perfection. I feel that Kevin’s passion, eye for detail and pursuit of the best quality, not to mention the development of an extraordinary, world-class hospitality experience, are what OutThere travellers are looking for, especially after this sudden hiatus, when the world returns to travelling again. At the Esencia, this all comes with heart and authenticity in a safe haven and open space (in all definitions of the words) – a place where people can relax, be themselves with no restraints and simply enjoy the finer things in life.

It is no accident that this property has been created by an OutThere person and so I go back – full circle – to my thoughts when I was asked what constitutes good style. It is Kevin’s life story, his approach and how he sees and navigates the world around him that supply the magic behind Hotel Esencia, evident in its aesthetic, but equally in how you feel while you are on holiday here in this paradise.

Photography by Tanveer Badal, Korena Bolding Sinnett and courtesy of Hotel Esencia