IN MY HIPPIE BACKPACKING DAYS, my idea of a good Mexican hotel was one that mosquitoes couldn’t invade. I didn’t care if other creature comforts had to take a backseat to budget considerations because that was part of the adventure. Then I grew older, wiser, and deeper of pocket—spoiled, some would say. And while I was learning to be spoiled in paradise, a new class of luxury hotels was emerging on the hidden coasts of Mexico. Far from the madding crowds of Cancún and Acapulco, these smaller and gentler destinations are generally located on secluded beaches, with luxurious rooms and pampering service.
Three years ago, while driving down a long stretch of pristine Mexican coastline between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, my wife, Christy, and I spent one unforgettable night at a remote jungle-and-beach retreat called El Tamarindo. Only fourteen of the hotel’s lavish seaside casitas were finished at the time, and at night all two hundred of its employees left the property, leaving only the guards at the gate, several miles away, and us with a deserted beach lit by stars. The next morning, just as the sun was coming up, we discovered baby sea turtles emerging from their nest in the sand and struggling toward the water. So perfect was our brief time at El Tamarindo that Christy began to cry when we had to leave.
Now we had returned, kids in tow, to check out the recently completed Tamarindo and some other chichi resorts in the neighborhood. We flew into Puerto Vallarta on Continental Airlines, then rented a car and headed south, climbing from beach to alpine forests then down again to tropical ranchland interspersed with mango and papaya orchards. (There is also an airport at Manzanillo, only a forty-minute drive from El Tamarindo.) After three hours, we turned off the highway onto El Tamarindo’s impressive drive, ten miles of jungle-shrouded road ending at one of Mexico’s most picturesque beaches. Scattered beneath a dense canopy of towering palm trees are 27 bungalows (phone and fax 011-52-33-51-50-31; www.ghmhotels.com; rooms from $230). Most have their own small private pool, and all have thatched-roof palapas for outdoor dining and half a dozen places to relax on thick cushions and watch nature put on her round-the-clock displays of grace and beauty.
In all my travels I’ve found no more enjoyable spot for making love in the moonlight, mountain biking on miles of shaded trails, awakening to the songs of tropical birds, watching an endless variety of butterflies from the comfort of a hammock, surf casting for sea bass, building sand castles, or falling in love with my family all over again. One morning, Christy and our eight-year-old, Katie, took a long horseback ride through the jungle, then met up with four-year-old Lily and me at deserted Majahua beach, where we took turns galloping up and down the sand with Lily riding double in front. That afternoon, while the girls tried to dig a hole to China, I checked out the resort’s breathtaking golf course, which winds through the jungle-covered hills like a great green snake, making occasional dramatic plunges to the crashing waves of the Pacific. You arrive at El Tamarindo thinking that $300 a night is a little expensive for your budget, and within hours you’ve decided that you’d be willing to take a second note on your house to come back.
One of my fondest Tamarindo memories is of reclining on a beachside chaise with Katie after dinner. Above us was a glittering blanket of stars accompanied by the surprise appearance of two shooting stars, while around us darted bats, luna moths, and the mysterious shadows of giant night birds. For a few precious hours all was right with the world, and wisdom was passed from one generation to another, then back again. This time it was Katie who cried when we left.
Luckily, our vacation was just beginning. Thirty minutes south of El Tamarindo, we drove through mile after mile of coconut plantations fronting our second stop, the aptly named Grand Bay Hotel Isla Navidad (011-52-33-55-50-50, fax 011-52-33-55-60-71; www.grandbay.com; “superior” rooms from $325). A lavish, 1,200-acre resort overlooking a tranquil bay and a sleepy Mexican fishing village—and just twenty miles north of the Manzanillo airport—this place nearly has it all. Among the amenities are a spectacular 27-hole golf course designed by Texan Robert von Haage, a large marina dotted with sailboats and yachts from around the world, a multilevel swimming pool, three restaurants, luxurious rooms, and superfriendly service at every turn. The only thing missing is a great beach. For 50 cents, a water taxi will carry you across the lagoon to the beachfront town of Barra de Navidad. There you join a mix of locals and tourists wandering up and down its main street of small shops and restaurants overlooking the ocean. The beauty of the town is not its funky beach architecture so much as its pace, for everything here moves slowly, a talent most gringos have completely forgotten.
One of the main reasons I go to Barra is to fish with a local boatman named Ricardo “Colo” Amador. Fishing Pacific waters often requires cruising for one or two hours from shore to find the clear blue water that big game fish favor, but in Barra the blue water is just off the rocky point that shelters the town. It is not uncommon to find fast action fifteen minutes from shore.
This time I wanted to introduce my daughters to the wonders of the open sea. Happily, Colo, who runs his own outboard-motor panga, is also the new captain of a thirty-foot cabin cruiser chartered by the American-owned local sport fishing outfit Z Pesca (www.zpesca.com, or you can contact Colo at 011-52-33-55-64-64). A bigger boat, I figured, might go a little easier on the queasy stomachs of a couple of young rookies (not to mention their mom). At eight on a beautiful, clear morning, we climbed on board the Maria Elvira, which was docked just beneath our room at the Grand Bay. After Colo slipped anti-seasickness bracelets on Katie’s and Lily’s wrists, we headed through the channel for open water, and within an hour both girls had reeled in all the bonito and tuna they cared to catch. “When are we going to see some dolphins?” Katie kept asking. In the meantime, despite her bracelet, Lily was turning green from the pitching of the boat. I was debating whether to turn back when I saw breaking water about half a mile to port. “There!” I shouted. “Dolphins!” Almost immediately we were in the middle of a pod of spotted dolphins. With the seasickness immediately forgotten, both girls dangled their legs off the bow as the beautiful mammals surfed our wave just beneath extended toes. Musical accompaniment was provided by the girls’ peals of laughter.
If you travel in search of natural wonders, Mexico has them in astonishing quantities. Dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, whales—you never know what you’ll see in these waters. The day before, Colo and I had been fishing in his panga when we saw a rare sight: a waterspout. Several miles from shore and just skirting the edge of a small developing thunderstorm, we saw the spout in its formative stages, a slender, dark spiral of water stretching from the ocean’s surface perhaps a thousand feet to a cloud above.
As I clicked away with my camera, I was amazed to see the spout growing larger and larger until it was a violent black funnel about fifty feet in diameter. The millions of gallons of seawater it was sucking up were being propelled high into a rapidly growing cloud. Within minutes the thunderstorm above and downwind of the spout had grown to cover several miles, with repeated cloud-to-surface lightning accompanied by deafening thunderclaps. As we marveled at this display of nature’s power, we spoke via radio with a boat that was caught beneath the thunderstorm in a heavy rain of saltwater (though no fish came crashing down from the sky, a phenomenon that can accompany waterspouts). At one point the weight of the water in the vortex of the funnel grew so heavy that the entire spiral collapsed, crashing down into the ocean in a massive splash. Within moments, the swirling wind began to suck the water up anew. Then there occurred about the only thing that could possibly distract me from such a sight: A large Pacific sailfish grabbed the bait on one of the lines we had nearly forgotten about behind our boat. Despite a long first run, we never actually hooked it, but I wasn’t really disappointed; I wasn’t sure my heart could stand any more excitement.
The original purpose of this trip had been to investigate the brand-new Four Seasons Resort at Punta Mita, which would have been our final stop. Just north of Puerto Vallarta, it boasts a Jack Nicklaus golf course with its own island green (an island in the Pacific Ocean), a lavish spa, and a renowned beach. We were booked for the opening week, but a few weeks before our departure, a hotel representative called to say that the opening date had been postponed.
It was too late to change our frequent-flyer tickets, but I reminded myself that the secret to happy travels is remaining open to change. And as it turned out, we would have incomparable times at El Tamarindo and the Grand Bay, thanks to the Four Seasons’ delay. So we made reservations to end our trip at a nice enough but unexciting family hotel in Puerto Vallarta. Then, the day before we left the Grand Bay, Christy said, “Let’s see if we can get a room at Careyes.”
On a quiet cove halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, the Hotel Careyes has 48 rooms and suites starting at $210 a night, most with a private pool and whirlpool bath and some with an ocean view as well (011-52-33-51-00-00, fax 011-52-33-51-01-00; www.ghmhotels. com). Since our reservation was last-minute, our room had neither a view nor a pool, so we quickly settled into a large lounge area ideally situated between the hotel’s lovely beach, Playa Rosa, and the sprawling free-form pool. And there we stayed for nearly two days, reading, playing games, and marveling at our good fortune while the outdoor restaurant’s friendly waitstaff brought us hot burgers, cold gazpacho, big plates of fresh fruit, and frozen limeades and piña coladas.
A pool formed by a rocky outcropping in the ocean just in front of us proved to be filled with tropical fish, so snorkeling in the gentle swells was a big bonus. It makes a papa proud to snorkel alongside his four-year-old, pointing out the schools of brightly colored fish, or to show her sister how to dive down in ten or twelve feet of water in search of shells on the sandy bottom. We had already gathered more than our share of shells that first day at El Tamarindo, putting most of them back after discovering that the seemingly empty shells of every size and shape were all occupied by hermit crabs, which scooted away as soon as we set them down. But now, diving just a little deeper than we should have, Katie and I each grabbed something from the bottom and pushed for the surface—where, gasping for air, we held out our hands to show what we had found: two perfect, matching spiral shells. These we did not return to the ocean.
The story of Careyes is almost as good as the place itself. In 1968 a young Italian named Gian Franco Brignione saw these bays and lagoons from a small plane. Though there were few towns in the vicinity and no electricity, paved roads, or even an airport at Manzanillo (where most of the hotel’s guests now arrive), Brignione knew that it was love at first sight.
For thirty years he has devoted his life to developing this area in what he believes is the best manner possible. In addition to the Hotel Careyes, he has built a couple of small, exclusive residential areas and a new school and clinic for a nearby village, and he has helped establish extensive ecological preserves. Over the past twenty years, the hotel’s turtle-protection program has resulted in the release of 200,000 hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, many of which return every winter to lay their eggs on local beaches (“careyes” means “turtle shells”). And Brignione’s love of horses is reflected in two polo fields, a stable of sixty horses, and miles of jungle trails and beautiful beaches where you can ride for hours without seeing another soul.
For longer rentals, the Brignione family built the Casitas de las Flores, 48 brilliantly colored villas on a hillside next to the hotel (011-52-33-51-02-40, fax 011-52-33-51-02-46). Guests in the casitas enjoy access to Playa Rosa; rates range from $180 to $750 a night (four-night minimum). And finally, there are the stunning houses Brignione built along the cliffs on either side of the hotel, each unique in its colors and design but almost all incorporating soaring interior lines and traditional Mexican stucco. The permanent residents of the Careyes community represent 27 nationalities. Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing and director Francis Ford Coppola are both frequent renters, and the pop singer Seal has built a recording studio in the house he owns.
The most striking residences are two almost-matching architectural wonders, set on opposing cliffs, that guard the entrance to beautiful Careyes Bay—“A bay as perfect as an angel’s wing,” says Brignione. One is called Casa Sol de Occidente, the other Casa Sol de Oriente. Touring Oriente, I found a sun-shaped structure with seven protruding rays, each housing a triangular bedroom that opens onto a negative-edge pool that nearly surrounds the house. Walls of concrete polished as smooth as marble—updating the traditional Mexican stucco—and painted in brilliant whites and pastels are combined with lofty thatched roofs that shade massive open-air living areas. There’s even a small tram to take you from the house partway down the cliff to a medieval-style watchtower that serves as a guest house. With a staff to pamper and feed you, all this splendor can be yours for a mere $5,000 a night. To a writer who has been in more than a few $5-a-night Mexican hotel rooms—for that matter, to almost anyone in the world—that figure can only sound absurd. On the other hand, if you can afford to spend that kind of money, my recommendation is that you drop everything and go.
Leaving Careyes, we turned wistfully onto the highway and pointed the car for Puerto Vallarta. The following morning I toured the still-unopened Four Seasons and played its new Nicklaus golf course (the hotel opened in September; 800-819-5053, fax 011-52-32-91-60-60; www.fourseasons.com; rates from $425 a night). The 186-yard island green was as fun a hole as I’ve played anywhere in the world, and the lovely reefs in the crystal-clear water surrounding it looked mighty inviting, but to tell the truth, my mind was still on the Casa Sol de Oriente.
“Five thousand a night,” I pondered. “Maybe we could split it with another family.”