Slipping into Mexico recently, I put my mind to compiling a list of unusual south-of-the-border resorts.
Hey, no es facil, amigos.
Indeed, it proved to be a dickens of a task. In the beginning I'd intended to include this favorite haunt of mine at Zihuatanejo (nothing fancy, mind you, but terribly appealing in a casual sense of the word). And then there were others--rare gems at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.
But in a country with an abundance of worthy candidates, the process of elimination got so complicated that eventually I narrowed it down to a couple of rare resorts--Las Hadas in Manzanillo and Hacienda Cocoyoc near Cuernavaca.
Without argument, both are unbeatable for their individualism and personalities.
Indeed, each possesses a peculiar charm. Particularly Las Hadas. It is here that the cognoscenti settle in regularly. Sometimes for a few days. Occasionally for several weeks.
Las Hadas--it rises along an uncluttered beach 185 miles south of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific shore--is a remote hideaway featuring a maze of minarets, cupolas and mosque-like domes. Whitewashed and spotless, Las Hadas resembles a transplant from the shores of North Africa, complete with pool-side harem.
It was the setting for the movie "10." It was also the scene of a gala several years ago when film stars and socialites the world over flew down in their private jets. They all wore white. The idea was to match guests with the setting--the resort's striking white buildings, stair-stepped up the cliff from the beach.
Las Hadas attracts those who otherwise might jet away to the Costa Smeralda or the Costa del Sol. It possesses this special appeal. The builder confided in me once that even jet setters tire of the same old scene, which is why he created this enclave on Mexico's Pacific shore. This fellow, the late Antenor Patino, was seeking a haven for himself and his friends when he created Las Hadas, now more than a decade old.
It is a retreat that is every bit as Moorish as a minaret. A guest strolling through its streets would find it difficult to determine if he or she had been dropped on some Moroccan beach or a seaside resort in Algeria or Tunisia.
Cobbled streets wind past handsome villas, blindingly white. The main swimming pool (there are two) would accommodate a pasha's harem in proper style. Islands appear at either end and there is a bridge so that guests may cross from side to side.
Elsewhere there are tennis courts and a golf course that's surrounded by pineapple fields, sugar cane, banana groves and coconut palms. When one stubborn fellow refused to move away while the golf course was being landscaped, his home was simply surrounded by the golf course, all of which provided him with the biggest lawn in all of Mexico. Golf Digest described it as one of the most scenic courses in the world.
Las Hadas was designed by Spanish architect Luis Ezquerra who had dreamed his entire life of building a casbah of his very own, an Arabian wedding cake the likes of which a sheik would sing praises about.
Each stone in the mosaic-like street was laid by hand. Statues were fashioned on the spot. A hill was dynamited to make room for additional villas.
In the beginning the owner envisioned other progress. He had in mind a hunting lodge not unlike the one the late actor William Holden created in Africa, the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.
Still, the village of Manzanillo is a huge disappointment. It provides little night life--only a few cantinas and several dismal B-girl bars.
The beauty of Manzanillo is found elsewhere--along the beaches, miles from the humdrum of the port itself. Particularly at Las Hadas.
The trouble is, until recently Las Hadas had become a trifle scruffy. In the beginning it was rated among the finest resorts in Mexico. But neglect took its toll. The plumbing didn't always work. Tiles cracked. Cobbles broke loose.
Now an affiliate of Westin Hotels has taken over the management and, several million pesos later, Las Hadas is earning back its old reputation. New tiles. New plumbing. New wiring.
At Las Hadas it is not unlikely that one will bump into Raquel Welch or sone other celebrity. Or ordinary honeymooners in search of escape and romance.
In the beginning, Senor Patino spent six years and $33 million creating his dream. Taking a cue from Laurance Rockefeller with his reputation for molding resorts out of desolation, Patino imported thousands of palm trees and planted the hillsides with bougainvillea, hibiscus and other blooms to turn the setting into a harem-like garden.
Man-made waterfalls spill musically and balconies drip with hanging gardens.
Rooms--there are 203--are a mixture of marble, tile and Moorish arches. Guests are served breakfast on the terraces, some with superb views.
Nevertheless, certain aggravations crop up. For one thing, one must have sturdy legs for the climb between guest rooms on the hillside and the beach. And frequently when passenger ships put in for a visit the resort is mobbed. Although these interlopers spend relatively little time, it is disturbing to those seeking total privacy. Besides this, another hotel and a condominium complex, both relatively new, have been added to the scene.
Still, one can rent a car and drive beyond Las Hadas to discover near-deserted beaches and picnic alone with only the wash of the waves.
Las Hadas isn't an inexpensive resort, so bring along plenty of pesos. The cheapest room comes to about $120 a day and a two-bedroom suite figures out to more than $500 (the Presidential Suite fetches nearly $800 a day). Besides this, the meals are extra, with prices that aren't particularly bargains.
Guests have the choice of four restaurants--Legazti with its indoor/outdoor dining, El Terral (terrace setting), El Palmar which overlooks one of the swimming pools, and Los Delfines, where seafood is served under a thatched roof.
Spread across the grounds are five watering holes and a disco for youngsters (although Las Hadas generally appeals to a more mature crowd).
While room service is available 24 hours a day, frequently it becomes a lesson in patience for gringos accustomed to rapid responses when ordering breakfast or a drink.
Marina and Cruises
Still, Las Hadas has its appeals. The resort provides guests with a marina in case one brings along the family yacht. And there are trimaran cruises, sailfishing, snorkeling and water skiing. The works.
On a scale of 1 to 10--and particularly for those seeking a resort divorced from traffic and other irritations--Las Hadas comes out near the top.
The same sense of privacy prevails at Hacienda Cocoyoc, a peaceful resort that slumbers in the valley of eternal spring, just beyond Cuernavaca outside Mexico City.
Hacienda Cocoyoc has stood since 1521. It is surrounded by miles of sugar cane, and there are viaducts that run through its walls, so that at night the musical sound of water lulls guests to sleep.
Romantics, young and old, choose Hacienda Cocoyoc. Behind its old adobe walls they discover a peacefulness belonging to another time, a time when life was rich in simplicity. The air is soft and nights are blissfully still.
Years ago Paulino Rivera Torres, who was a Mexico City real estate developer, had a dream. At Hacienda Cocoyoc he would create the most romantic hideaway in all Mexico. His promise became a reality.
Without disturbing the ancient walls he established a hotel with dozens of casitas and honeymoon suites. Couples seeking total solitude choose suites facing private swimming pools, $95 (regular doubles figure out to $65).
The hacienda's remaining guests share a huge pool the size of a small lake. It is fed by a waterfall and surrounded by magnificent crumbling walls choked with bougainvillea.
Night owls run off to a club that's installed inside the hacienda's old sugar mill. Meals when I was there were taken inside an ancient barn. Once the old hacienda employed 500 workers. They tended the sugar fields and harvested oranges, and there were fiestas when the work was done.
Mass and marriages are performed inside the hacienda's private chapel, and there is a fountain that plays melodies in a patio outside the sacristy.
During this earlier visit thunder rolled across the valley of Cuatla, and lightning flashed above the Sierra de las Tetillas. Later it rained. By morning the air was springtime fresh, and beyond the hacienda small pools of water mirrored the cloudless sky as I rode off down a lonely road to explore other haciendas.
A few miles away, Hacienda Pantitlan was ghostly with its weed-choked rooms and crumbling walls. The life was gone except for a Mexican family living in a single, roofless room. The deserted hacienda, like Cocoyoc, was once an immense sugar plantation, and where the weeds grew there were fiestas, and the peaceful days were alive with the voices of hundreds of workers.
After exploring the valley of Cuatala, guests from Hacienda Cocoyoc visit Cuernavaca, the city of eternal spring. American travelers know it as a city of flowers and grilled balconies. It has been described as the gentlest town in Mexico. The weather is mostly warm and sunny and waves of bougainvillea spill from the rooftops and fences surrounding its houses.
For 400 years Cuernavaca has been entertaining tourists, and still they come. By car and by bus, some even by burro.
Once Cuernavaca was the stronghold of the Aztecs. Maximilian vacationed here. And Cortes lived here after his conquests.
For centuries Cuernavaca, looming like an orchid in a valley drenched by sunshine, has been a retreat for the rulers of Mexico as well as the ordinary vacationer. It is a place where time stands still in a world that frequently hurries by too fast.