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Caribbean secret: two-star heaven in the Yucat'an

ACCORDING to the travel guide, our favorite Yucat'an beach destination had just remodeled its bathrooms. I was dismayed. They might have renovated the charm right out. But I was relieved to read that the hotel earned a poor two-star rating in the guidebook, while Canc'un's elegant high-rises - the kind we avoid - won five stars.

La Posada del Capitan Lafitte is a secret I can no longer keep to myself.

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This rustic, isolated Caribbean beach retreat hides on the east coast of the Yucat'an Peninsula, 40 miles south of Canc'un. Thirty simple cabanas, half of them covered by palapa roofs, sit among palm trees and red-flowering hibiscus on sugar-white sand only yards from the turquoise water of the Caribbean. The setting alone could incite a winter exodus of frozen northerners to the Yucat'an; but any of the secluded beaches tucked into Mexico's Caribbean coastline could do the same. Capitan Lafitte offers much more than an exotic setting. Its Mayan staff helps transform total strangers into a kind of family, related by the knowledge that they've discovered something unique.

Within hours after my husband and I arrived, the casual do-what-you-please atmosphere had worked its soothing charms.

For seven days we sunned and strolled on the beach, and, still barefoot, dined on fresh seafood and spicy Yucat'an dishes served on linen tablecloths in Lafitte's open-air restaurant.

On our next vacation, we returned to Capitan Lafitte and found that its magic does not disappear, as we had feared, but merely changes to reflect the current mix of visitors and staff.

During that second visit we met Bud and Elena, who lived at Lafitte during the winter months assisting the ever-growing number of American guests with their Spanish. While lying by the pool, I discussed world population with the wife of an Argentine diplomat, undeterred by the fact that she spoke very little English and I spoke even less Spanish. On a snorkeling trip to the reef, I learned about growing and harvesting grapes from the owners of a Bordeaux estate. And the evening of the Mexican fiesta, I talked about books with a publisher from Paris while the waiter, Ricardo, performed a traditional Mayan folk dance with a tray full of bottles on his head.

``Next time, bring your hija!'' Ricardo implied. Would our three children, including our 13-year-old daughter, the ``hija,'' for whom the concept of time spent without the company of friends has no meaning, appreciate Capitan Lafitte? We decided to find out. On our next trip, we brought them along.

As we drove the 40-minute stretch from the Canc'un airport, the children hung out the windows of our rental car exuberantly shouting, ``Senor, senor!'' - the extent of their Spanish vocabulary - to astonished farmers walking along the highway.

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When we arrived at Capitan Lafitte, manager Jorge Fuentes greeted us in the usual flurry of chickens, barefoot Mexican children, and yapping dogs. Our children, already feeling right at home, left a trail of sweat shirts and shoes as they bolted to the water's edge.

We had barely settled into our cabanas - the remodeled bathrooms are a bonus - when our children appeared on the beach with some new German friends. Practical information

La Posada del Capitan Lafitte has a swimming pool, a game room, a diving-equipment shop, a small gift store, and a restaurant. You can make arrangements with the dive master, Carlos, for sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, or picnic boat trips. All equipment is available for rental.

Side trips can be made to the many interesting sights nearby. The Mayan ruins of Tulum, Coba, and Chich'en Itz'a are all within a few hours of Lafitte. The island of Cozumel, 12 miles offshore from Lafitte; the bay at Akumal, 36 miles down Route 307; and Xel-Ha National Park, a few miles beyond Akumal, are all excellent places to snorkel and scuba dive. The most convenient way to get around is by rental car, available at the Canc'un airport.

The peak season at Capitan Lafitte is Thanksgiving through Easter. Book at least two months in advance through the CVI Group, Box 2664, Evergreen, CO 90439; telephone (800) 538-6802 or (303) 674-9615. The cost is $42 a person per night, breakfast and dinner included. Children 12 and under are free.

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