ACAPULCO HAS ALWAYS STRUGGLED with its reputation. “Dreadful hotels and all sorts of totally unacceptable people,” a member of the jet set tsked to the New York Times in 1966, and so it remains, more than thirty years later. “There’s a phalanx of skyscrapers on the beach and behind it a lot of misery,” a former hotel executive told me recently. The high-rise hotels lining the once-pristine bay; the traffic jams and American fast-food chains clogging the Costera Alemán, the city’s main drag; the presence of very pale, very unglamorous people traveling on package tours—these are among the myriad objections trotted out by those who remember Acapulco’s allegedly unspoiled days of the forties, fifties, sixties, and/or seventies. There’s an exaggerated quality to all this grieving, as if what has replaced the old Acapulco is something grossly inferior, not worth a second, much less a first, look. That couldn’t be further from the truth: Acapulco has moved from a glitzy adolescence into a feisty middle age; it’s no less sensual than before but now has a knowing sense of humor about itself too.

“Acapulco has lots of different flavors,” says local realtor Marianne Rivas, a Dallas native who has lived there for more than three decades. “Those other places are just government cookie cutters.” Indeed, if you dislike the sanitized version of Mexico offered at all those government-developed resorts, if you don’t care about hobnobbing with the most beautiful people, if your preference is for funkiness and faded glamour (do you miss the old Miami? the old Vegas?), you should know that Acapulco beckons as it always has, decade after decade after, well, decade. “I would do anything for Acapulco,” Rivas says dreamily, and it isn’t hard to see why.

There is a spectacular point high above the city from which it is possible to see the teeming, high rise—lined bay to the north, the serene blue waters of Puerto Marqués to the east, and to the south, behind another small mountain, the pounding waves of the Pacific. Outlined by the perilous cliffs and intractable vegetation, the vista provides the seminal explanation for Acapulco’s appeal: No matter how much progress encroaches, the city’s physical setting prevails, allowing Acapulco to remain the same wildly romantic place it has always been.

That past is often misunderstood. The old-timers who remember Acapulco as a quiet fishing village have conveniently forgotten that the place was, from the beginning, a port, with all the accompanying drama and exoticism. Isolated from the rest of Mexico by the lack of roads, Acapulco grew up a place apart, seductive, deceptive—the “colonial” church on the zócalo was actually built as a movie set in 1930—shaped by those who could get here, an adventurous assortment of mobsters, royals, movie stars, corporate types, and Texas fat cats eager to try on new identities and, of course, one another. “No one knew who anybody was” is the frequent, wistful description of the old days, when sex wasn’t so lethal, drinking wasn’t so bad, and money didn’t count for everything. It is to Acapulco’s credit that that feeling can still be captured—or recaptured—in a long weekend, just a short and economical plane ride from most major Texas cities.

To relive Acapulco’s glory days, it’s best to break the bank—start at $250 a night (prices include 17 percent tax) and keep going—and give in to the charms of Las Brisas (800-228-3000). (Its chief competitor, the Villa Vera, created by the famously randy bandleader turned hotel manager Teddy Stauffer, has fallen on hard times but was recently purchased for renovation.) Located between the airport and the center of town, Las Brisas winds its way up a jagged hillside, its famous casitas, each with its own microscopic swimming pool, cantilevered one above another. As was true when it opened in the early sixties, the hotel still prides itself on providing guests with nothing less than a private world. The Do Not Disturb signs are large, hand-painted, and posted on the patios, not the doors, of the cottages; hibiscus magically bloom on the surface of the swimming pools daily; extraterrestrially courteous drivers appear out of thin air to chauffeur guests around the place in those famous pink-and-white Jeeps named after sixties icons—Goldie Hawn, Ernest Borgnine, Buzz Aldrin. Best of all, that breakfast of gently warmed breads, just-picked fruit, and pungent Mexican coffee is still left discreetly in the warming box in the casita’s wall until you’re ready for it. Having it your way is, after all, the point of Las Brisas: Exploring the steep, winding roads of the resort early one morning, I passed the patio of an Asian couple who lay asleep on their lawn chaises, fully clothed underneath their beach towels, as if they had bunked there for the night. Farther on, I ambled by a gay couple in the same position, sunning themselves in the nude. Though the self-contained casitas provide ample privacy—thick hedges, patterned brick walls—it’s never quite as much as guests quickly come to imagine.

Those who do not wish to devote their entire time at Las Brisas to the world within their casita should not miss the opportunity to visit La Concha, the hotel’s beach club at the base of the hill. I say this not just because the beach club is lovely, with three pools (two regular and one salt water) and a bayside restaurant under a giant palapa (the swim-up bar, it should be remembered, was invented in Acapulco), but also because the Jeep ride to La Concha allows hotel guests a peak at the private homes located within the separate housing development also known as Las Brisas. (These can be rented from Marianne Rivas, 011-52-74-84-34-24, and other brokers starting at around $410 a week in the off-season—the rich are nothing if not diligent when it comes to maximizing their real estate investments.) This brief tour—introduced by uniformed guards at the gated entry—is not to be missed. These embassy-size houses with their competitively manicured gardens evoke Mexico less than certain exclusive neighborhoods in or near Los Angeles and have sheltered the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor, Halston, and various Texans, including Lyndon and Lady Bird and assorted Mecoms and Murchisons. Las Brisas is a reminder that geography has never been a problem for the wealthy: They all belong to the same club, after all.

If economics makes Las Brisas impossible, a charming new guest house, Casa Cebra, recently opened in the old Caleta neighborhood, north of the zócalo, providing a reasonable facsimile of Acapulco’s heyday at a fraction of the cost ($117 a night and up for a double room; 011-52-74-83-00-91). A restored circa-1950 house, Casa Cebra offers a blending of fifties style and nineties convenience in the walled, winding part of town that was once a Rat Pack hangout. There is the requisite pool, spectacular views, and privacy on demand, along with field trips to mud baths at Polita’s Jungle Restaurant, which also features homemade mescal. Instead of Teddy Stauffer as host, Casa Cebra has two cheerful and deeply tanned hairdressers who cashed out in Chicago, a difference that, given the passing of the decades, comes out about the same.

Less adventurous travelers—and those who require cable and HBO, or just a television, for that matter—might want to stay in one of the high-rise hotels on the bay. While disdained by old-timers, they offer fine views of the sunsets and the parasailers and tend to be more child-friendly than the exclusive resorts. (Acapulco may no longer be a playground of the beautiful people, but it’s still a playground for grown-ups. The Villa Vera doesn’t allow children, and the management at Las Brisas didn’t seem exactly thrilled about them either.) My stay at the Elcano ($117 a night and up; 011-52-74-84-19-50) was friendly if not exotic, though a swarm of bees that parked outside my balcony for several mornings was a constant reminder of Mexicans’ ambivalence toward their neighbors to the north.

Because it is a big city, Acapulco offers far more in the way of restaurants than most Mexican resorts, and it is possible to get a good seafood lunch or dinner just by dropping in at one of the many small beachside dives along the Costera near the center of town (Sirocco is one of the best). For a romantic late lunch—actually, all lunches in Acapulco are late—the best spot is the Marina Club at the old Boca Chica Hotel, which serves the freshest fish and salsa, along with walloping margaritas, under a giant palapa right on the water. Adjacent to Caleta Beach, a.k.a. the “morning” beach (Acapulco has one for every time of day), the Boca Chica is a paean to the old Acapulco: From here you can watch the locals frolicking with their children and observe international tourists experimenting with the hotel diving board, which leads not into the now obligatory Olympic-sized pool but directly into a bayside lagoon.

The city has its share of wonderful restaurants for dinner—the famous Coyuca 22, El Olvido, Peoples—but my favorite is the Villa Fiore, an open-air Italian restaurant just off the Costera near the civic center. Go late, as the Mexicans do, so the stars will be shining overhead. The stuccoed walls and stone floors feel more like Tuscany than Mexico, which isn’t such a bad deal; order the seductive pink mamey-fruit sorbet to remind yourself where you are.

Though the guidebooks are full of shopping recommendations, Acapulco is not really a shopper’s paradise. Despite its proximity to some of the country’s best craft regions, what’s offered here cannot compete with other Mexican cities—nearby Taxco’s silver, for instance, or the folk art stores in the capital—and the fashions pale compared with those offered in any reasonably good American shopping mall. (The Polo store on the Costera is worth a look if only to experience the powerful disconnect between Ralph Lauren’s aristocratic ideal and the understandably sullen local shop girls who work there.) A thoroughly satisfying shopping experience can be found at the market, however. Not the tourist market near the zócalo or the small markets that line the Costera, but the old market in the neighborhood of avenidas Constituyentes and Ejido. This is what all Mexican markets used to be: parakeets stacked in cages, bins brimming with aromatic herbs and spices, opulent sprays of just-cut roses, Mexican coffee beans that can be ground to taste, with or without sugar. Hand-painted confetti eggs, cascarones, in electric shades are just a few pesos each (a great present for the kids if you can get them home); eccentric plastic lawn chairs and huge clay pots will make you consider coming back with the car; oil-cloth in the gayest forties, fifties, and sixties patterns, which can cost $40 for a swatch in the U.S., is only 20 pesos ($1.50) a yard here. The market reassures that the old Mexico still endures; the only caution is that it will cut into your beach time.

A word on that: Though Acapulco is famous for its beaches, the prettiest ones are not necessarily the best for swimming because of the powerful undertow. Swim in the bay or at nearby Puerto Marqués but walk along the Pacific—or rent a horse—near the Acapulco Princess and its fraternal twin, the Pierre Marqués next door. Both of these hotels, which are now owned by the same company, are architectural wonders for completely different reasons: the giant, pyramid-shaped Princess because it’s so showy (this was the place where owner Howard Hughes was or was not dead when he was helicoptered from his penthouse to a private jet bound for Houston), the Pierre Marqués because it’s so understated. Commissioned and owned by J. Paul Getty, who unlike Hughes rarely visited the place, it is a solemn compound of low-rise buildings of native stone, glass, and carved woodwork that makes the Princess seem like a Vegas casino. For fans of mid-century modern, this is as good as it gets.

Nightlife in Acapulco takes place on two levels, public and private. The city is famous for its discos—yes, discos. Acapulco was one of the first places to take up the craze. “You’d have breakfast sent to the room between eleven and three o’clock, lunch would be around five-thirty or six, dinner would be at around ten or ten-thirty. You’d go out to the discos until five,” recalls Houston journalist Betsy Parish, an Acapulco regular in the early seventies. The discos are still here, less elaborate but no smaller. (The one that resembles a Third World capitol building was a favorite of either Sylvester Stallone or Mel Gibson, according to local cabbies who may or may not have been in cahoots with the owner.) Enter as you would in Houston or Dallas: at your own risk.

The real social world of Acapulco can be found, as it always has, at private parties held at the walled-in private homes. If you can finagle an invitation to an Acapulco party featuring longtime residents, don’t pass it up. Acapulco was always a city of hostesses, and some of them are still around, like the now venerable Emi Fors, who was pictured in a sixties-era Holiday wearing a sheer blouse with strategically placed paper flowers and dancing with a man in a G-string of similar construction. Today Fors lives in a modest house near the Villa Vera, keeps the Christmas lights in the trees around her swimming pool twinkling every night, and notes with some satisfaction that few people give parties as well as she once did.

If socializing does not appeal, there is always a walk along the Costera. Like all Mexican cities, Acapulco begins again after siesta; stores and businesses stay open until eight or nine or even later. Start at the zócalo to watch the families and entertainers in the square and then begin walking east. Most of the year the air here is cool and the ocean breezes are gentle, perfumed with that distinctly Mexican aroma of grilled meats and car exhaust. There are plenty of street vendors pushing trinkets and an ice-cream store or two to keep you going, as well as a glimpse of the enormous cruise ships, docking overnight before heading on to decidedly chicer ports. But the trendiness quotient may be about to change. A Texas group has just started a new development here, evocative of the grand resorts of twenty or thirty years ago.

Just before I went to Acapulco, I called a Houston woman who had been a regular there in the sixties for advice. She was from a wealthy family and had enjoyed the best of the place—the wildest parties, the fanciest accommodations. But she hadn’t been in years, she told me, and was sure Acapulco was all changed now. Then she confessed that she too was going back, for the first time in decades. She was apprehensive—she’d traveled there with her late husband, with whom she’d been very much in love, and the place was associated in her mind with those days.

I caught up with her again after she returned. “How was it?” I asked. She flashed a smile that sparkled brighter than the gargantuan diamond on her finger. “It was just the same,” she said, laying the old Acapulcan ghosts to rest.