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Paradise Found

mexico
Christina Waters

The High and the Flighty: A forest of chaise lounges and a soothing pool form the bedrock of Camino Real's sybaritic escape scenario in Puerto Vallarta.

Zihuatanejo's Hotel Villa del Sol and Puerto Vallarta's Camino Real are two ways of saying "tropical paradise" in fluent Mexican

By Christina Waters

For over a decade now, we've fled winter's chill by heading south into the heart of Mexico's caressing tropical warmth. Almost by accident, we found two resort sanctuaries, each occupying sheltered beaches 1,500 miles south of where we live--the Camino Real south of Puerto Vallarta and Hotel Villa del Sol on Zihuatanejo's Playa La Ropa.

Each of these impeccable getaway retreats offers outstanding beaches of soft, white sand, landscapes of fragrant flowers, and body-surfable waves of clear, warm water. At each, jungles of banana and coconut palms grow right down to the edge of the water and regional dining is only a few feet down a hibiscus-perfumed path. The two resorts are in many other ways as radically distinct as they are seductive.

Wedged into an idyllic pocket of the Bay of Banderas, between the town of Puerto Vallarta and Mismoloya beach--still famous as the cinematic location for Night of the Iguana--the gleaming whiteness of the Camino Real emerges from plantings of palms and a riot of bougainvillea. We love this place for lots of reasons, most of which involve sun, water, tequila and prawns.

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It's a sumptuous layout, with ubiquitous blue-glazed tilework and polished teak decks jutting out to capture the last rays of sunset. Every spacious room seems practically suspended over the beach itself, and there's cable TV in every room. A new multi-story addition (tastefully hugging the cliffs on one side of the perfect private beach) offers the corporate meeting rooms and retreat facilities crucial to staying competitive in the business/leisure market.

Once sophisticated enough in tone that you wanted to make sure you'd packed a jacket and maybe a nice linen dress for la hora feliz, the Camino Real increasingly attracts a more casual, 30- to 40-year-old crowd, many with families.

Amberjack in a Banana Leaf

La Perla, the hotel's upscale restaurant, specializes in gourmet Mexican dining. Many of its spectacular creations utilize ancient recipes and regional exotica like the smoky-flavored huitlacoche corn fungus that's tucked into delicate crepes tied with scallions. Breakfast here is served al fresco--terrific egg dishes, spectacular fresh-squeezed juices and acres of ripe fruit--as the sun begins turning the sand shades of pale pink.

We finish up quickly and stake out our favored chaise lounge on the wide terrace between the pool and the ocean. When waves start picking up, we catch a few before diving into the pool to lazily tour all of its undulating nooks and crannies.

You're never in danger of going thirsty here, thanks to the staff's strategic sense of timing. Before you can even wish for a giant coconut filled with fresh watermelon, ice and rum, it's delivered to your chosen turf.

Puerto Vallarta is a charming town to stroll around, and we used to do the Yelapa cruises, back when the remote beaches of this mythical hippie outpost were still clean and hustle-free. But now we park ourselves at Camino Real and stay there for our entire vacation.

However, a newish seafood restaurant just south of downtown PV, Balam, is definitely cause to get up out of that deck chair and put on street clothes. I spent my birthday in January feasting on garlicky prawns in their shells, freshly caught amberjack steamed in a banana leaf, and the house specialty, a fish broth laced with fresh prawn sausages so good we ate it even in 90-degree heat.

Balam's tortilla chips come with an addictive, fiery black vinegar and garlic salsa, and the beers are served in tiny ice buckets. It's a destination restaurant that we start dreaming about before we've left the airport.

Reservations for the resort are available by calling 800/7-CAMINO.

A Return Trip to Eden

For the ultimate in luxury getaways, we take a three-hour flight to Zihuatanejo--and the incomparable Hotel Villa del Sol. An elegantly rustic hideaway, Villa del Sol is a member of the group of fine small luxury hotels known as the Relais et Chateaux. Small wonder. Poised on arguably the most perfect beach in creation--Playa la Ropa--this place is paradise on a personal scale.

While a multi-storied complex of sun-drenched rooms and suites has been constructed back from the beach to accommodate the resort's many annual visitors, it's the 21 original palapa-style suites--clustered like a desert island colony around a series of pools, bars and extravagantly Edenesque plantings--that keep us coming back. Each suite feels like an apartment, with spacious living rooms a few steps down from a sleeping area highlighted by king-sized canopy beds and tiled bathrooms with showers built for two.

It's exactly 20 paces from our private porch, where as many as four bathing suits--all mine--may be drying at once, past banana trees heavy with ripening fruit to the main terrace. Twenty more steps through a fringe of chaise lounges with individual shade palapas and across powdery sand puts us waist-deep in the pale green water, where we take the first swim of the day at dawn each morning. The air at this hour is almost opalescent pink and already 70 degrees in temperature.

On our first visit here, we created a ritual of greeting the first light each morning at exactly the spot on the beach where the sun rises through the fronds of a neighboring coconut plantation. Chest-deep in the primal waters, we've shared the sunrise with the soaring uracas, baby manta rays who show up with the occasional flounder, and schools of transparent nameless fish. This is adventure with all the edges smoothed.

This tropical paradise with no phones, no TV and no worries casts a spell that forces us to unwind and spoil ourselves. Our routine is sensuous and simple. What we do here at Hotel Villa del Sol is snorkel down the far curve of the tiny bay. We then stop at any number of fresh seafood restaurants perched permanently on the sand, their colorful tablecloths rippling in the breezes. The views here abundantly flaunt why this stretch of the globe is called a riviera.

We walk the beach, soaking up its changing light, watching for beautiful fish, collecting the odd shell or rock. We swim in the hotel's two pools, and find ourselves partial to the one lined in deep blue tile that's got its own swim-up bar but, even better, is situated right next to Orlando's bar--the emotional heart and soul of Villa del Sol. Your particular drink order has been memorized and produced almost before you arrive.

mexico
Aerial Eyeful: Zihuatanejo's incomparable Playa La Ropa frames the palms and palapas of Hotel Villa del Sol, an almost-secret hideaway on the Mexican Riviera that welcomes gourmets and sports buffs.

Taking the Warm, Indigo Air

Something fresh from the beautiful bay--sport fish, lobster, snapper, oysters, prawns--will be on tonight's menu. Given the international tone of the clientele, however, the menu will also include gourmet Mexican dishes and continental fare--some steaks, some pasta, all terrific. Nightfall involves only a slight drop in temperature, so all dinners are taken in the warm, indigo air, listening to the waves.

After a day of swimming and sunning, or exploring the pretty fishing village of Zihuatanejo (Ixtapa is just too glitzy and filled with generic highrise hotels for our taste), our rooms have been tidied back into their original immaculate condition. Fresh flowers appear by the bedside and in the bathroom along with fresh bottles of mineral water. The service is not only impeccable, it's offered graciously, with a smile.

When we do make day trips to Zihua, it's usually to have breakfast at the charming Sirena Gorda--the Fat Mermaid--where we can stuff ourselves on fried eggs smothered with poblano chiles, refried beans, ham and local cheese, plus fresh-squeezed juice and coffee, all for $4 per person.

We're not the only ones who've fallen in love with Villa del Sol. So have lots of visitors from California, New York, France, Canada and Italy, who keep turning up every winter to shed their real-world lives and become whoever they want to be for a week or two. I shouldn't even be telling people about this sybaritic haven, but when you do visit for a winter getaway, bring a book or two, your favorite CDs, some shorts and a linen shirt for dinner, and three bathing suits. The slowed-down, easy-living rhythm of Playa la Ropa will do the rest.


Hotel Villa del Sol--Playa La Ropa, Apdo. Post. 84, Zihuatanejo, Gro. 40880, Mexico; FAX: 743/4-27-58; Phone: 0-11-52-743-4-22-39.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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