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Get Off your beach blanket and go see Mexico

Nestled within a sparsely developed stretch of the Pacific Coast of Mexico south of Puerto Vallarta lies one of the great private estates of the world.  In 1987, Sir James Goldsmith, a British billionaire, bought 25,000 pristine acres as a secluded retreat for family and friends.  He added a sprawling villa and named the paradise Cuixmala (“soul’s resting place”).  Following Sir James’s death, his daughter Alix gently transformed the property into an exclusive boutique hotel, retaining all of the original features that made it unique.  Cuixmala shares the land with a startling variety of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles—including crocodiles, pink flamingos, jaguars and wild boars.  From the moment I first read about Cuixmala, I’ve wanted to go there.  

Nothing can quite prepare you for Cuixmala.  It scores a 10 on the list of what have become mandatory five-star requirements: infinity pool, high thread count sheets, sophisticated “fusion” dining, Balinese-trained masseuse, doting staff.  But this is not just another luxurious hotel that could as well be in the Turks and Caicos or South Pacific.  Deep in its bones, Cuixmala is authentically Mexican.  Every piece of wrought iron furniture, hand-hewn stone sink, and intricately painted vase was executed by the finest local artisans observing traditions unchanged in generations.

The lush photo-filled Cuixmala website had given me a hint of what to expect.  But a website can’t convey a cacophony of seabird calls as you slip through the mangroves in an electric boat at dawn, nor describe the feeling of a sea turtle hatchling squirming in your hands, eager to begin life.  Cuixmala has one of the highest survival rates in Mexico and I suddenly remembered a Condé Nast articleI read more than 20 years ago.  At the end of a sailing voyage along the southern coast of Turkey, he and his Swedish photographer spotted two miserable turtles in a shallow sun-heated restaurant pool.  They returned at night, carried the turtles to their dinghy, and scraped the fungus from their shells before releasing them.  The author wrote that as they watched the two dive together until out of view, nothing on their journey—no Lycian tomb, no thousand-year-old city—could match the joy of giving back to the turtles their freedom of the sea. 

There are times you will feel that you have all of Cuixmala to yourself.  Walking and biking trails are clearly marked, and you’re trusted to close gates behind you so as not to let the rescued zebras and elands grazing in the grasslands wander into the plantation.  The two-mile-long beach is wild and untamed.  Lobsters for dinner come from these waters. There are two private postcard-perfect swimming beaches with umbrellas and chaises nearby.  A bronze bust of a helmeted conquistador hangs over the door of the cleanest stables I’ve ever seen.  Cuixmala is nothing less than astonishing and I found it amusing to hear that no one was exactly sure why the normally migrating river crocodiles chose to stay put in Cuixmala.   

Before I give the false impression that we are Type A outdoor types, let me quickly say that we spent equal time reading at the pool, playing backgammon, (I won’t say who won), sipping aged tequilas and lingering over stupendous meals.  “I see Señora loves fresh coconut water,” our waiter Marco Antonio remarked as he removed a nearly empty pitcher from our breakfast table.  The coconuts had been cracked open in the kitchen that morning.  That afternoon, next to the platter of mangoes, pineapples, peaches and melons we’d requested, was a plate of what looked to be abalone sashimi.  Marco and his wife Belen, a superb chef, had meticulously scooped out the thin gelatinous lining of the coconut, cut it into strips and rolled it—fastening each roll with a toothpick.  Just for me.

All of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs for our meals were grown organically on the estate.  The lush papaya and citrus orchards—and a coconut plantation dense with 10,000 palms—ran almost all the way to the Pacific.  Sir James’s former mountain retreat in the highlands of Colima two hours away is now the sister hotel Hacienda de San Antonio.  Alix’s Italian husband, Goffredo Marcaccini, runs the 5000 acre working hacienda ranch, raising livestock and producing superb coffee and cheeses.  Runny Camembert and coffee beans are sent from Colima to Cuixmala; fruits sent from Cuixmala to Colima are returned as liqueurs and thick chunky jams.

The Goldsmith family history reads like a telenovela.  Back in the fifties when Sir James was a young playboy, he eloped with his first wife, Isabel Patiño.  Her father Don Antenor Patiño, son of Bolivian tin king Simón Patiño, strongly objected to the marriage and insisted they separate.  It didn’t matter that the Golds


The best way: 

The nearest airport is Puerto Vallarta.  Numerous airlines have direct 3-hour flights from LAX to Puerto Vallarta.  Easy two-hour drive from Puerto Vallarta on renovated Highway 200 south (yes, it’s safe!) that skirts the sea.  If you don’t want to drive, car transfers ($400 round-trip) and 25-minute air charters ($2000 round-trip) can be easily arranged through Cuixmala Reservations Manager Doris Iglesias.

Getting around:

Car rentals from most major agencies are available at the airport.  In Puerto Vallarta old town we liked locally owned Prestige Rent A Car,  #114-A Calle Amapas.  011-52-322-222-6506, $50 per day with unlimited mileage and all insurance.  Cuixmala is vast and requires a vehicle.  Doris Iglesias can arrange to have one waiting for you upon arrival if you choose not to rent beforehand.

Where to stay:

In Puerto Vallarta; Hacienda San Angel, Miramar #336, Centro, toll free 877- 815-6594, or (322) 222-2692,  This antique-filled oasis was once owned by Richard Burton.  Double rooms from $250 (plus tax) include breakfast.

Villa Mercedes Hotel; Calle Amapas #175, Old Town, (322) 223-4543,  A charming, less expensive option whose location can’t be beat. $70-100 double rooms includes tax but not breakfast.

Cuixmala, km 46.2 on Highway 200 south, Costa Careyes, Jalisco; toll free 866-516-2611 or (312) 161-1675,  Guests can book any of nine casitas from $500, one of four fully staffed private villas from $2500. The main house Casa Cuixmala and 6 adjacent bungalows can comfortably accommodate 22 for customized special events.  Their single-engine prop plane affords spectacular views of the entire reserve; a crewed sailboat is available to explore offshore islands; golf and polo nearby.  Note: the casitas offer terrific specials in shoulder seasons.

Hacienda de San Antonio in Colima; toll free 866-516-2611 or (312) 316-0300.  Double suites from $540, meals and taxes not included.

Where to eat:

In Puerto Vallarta, whether staying at the Hacienda San Angel or not, I recommend having dinner at their rooftop restaurant.  Expensive. 

The family-owned River Cafe perched at the edge of the rushing Río Cuale is another favorite. Isla Rio Cuale L-4, Centro, (322) 223-0788,  Moderate.

Small restaurants with innovative tapas menus abound on Calles Amapas and Pulpito near Avenida Olas Altas. Pulpito #116, (322) 127-5513 won our hearts. Inexpensive.

Costa Careyes is a 15 minute drive north of Cuixmala to jetsetty Careyes, whose homes fill the pages of architectural design books worldwide.  La Coscolina, Plaza de Los Caballeros del Sol (town plaza of Careyes); (315) 351-0630, Contemporary food, cool vibe. Reasonably priced.  Owners are members of the artist Fernando Botero family.