In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, the two convicts know where they're going if they ever get sprung: Zihuatanejo. My first visit to Z, a nickname for this fishing village on Mexico's Pacific coast, did not coincide with a prison break unless you consider a tough New York winter doing time.
One freezing night I called a friend who recommended an escape that would include plenty of beach, sans skyscrapers. I couldn't spell the name of the spot, let alone pronounce it (though I soon figured out it's "see-whah-ta-nay-hoe"), but I phoned the number she gave me anyway. I reached Casa Loma, a string of bungalows just above Z's white-sand Playa La Ropa, and a lovely American woman told me she'd just had a cancellation. If I FedExed a check, a $60-a-night hideaway would be mine.
It was one of the best checks I've ever written. It brought sunny blue skies, deserted beaches and snorkeling coves, and what seemed like an unending chain of serendipities, such as stumbling upon a seaside hut where a family with a fishing rod and a gas stove produced magnificent lunches of grilled red snapper for only $10. For two heavenly weeks I explored the area, going wherever my rented VW bug would take me (once, that was into a ditch on a dirt road at sunset). The next year, I returned to sample Zihuatanejo's rustic and refined sides, and found that the low-key fishing village hadn't changed a bit.
One of Cortés's captains discovered Zihuatanejo, whose name means "land of women," in 1524. Three years later, Spanish conquistadors launched a trade route from here to the Orient. The ships returned laden with silks and spices. It is said that British admiral George Anson and his crew planted the first coconut palms in the area in the 18th century, having brought the trees from the Philippines. In the 1940's, John Wayne and his cronies shuffled down to Zihuatanejo to fish and hunt jaguar and boar. Timothy Leary, who knew paradise when he saw it, took refuge here in the 1960's, holding seminars for his International Foundation for Internal Freedom.
High-profile writers, artists, and actors continue to find their way to Zihua-tanejo, an hour by plane from Mexico City, 150 miles northwest of Acapulco, and four miles south of Ixtapa, a high-rise resort area. "It's a real town," says the writer Carlos Fuentes, who vacations here, "not an ersatz Miami, like Cancún. It has real people, real restaurants, real stores, and one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico: Playa La Ropa, named for the clothes that supposedly drifted ashore from a shipwreck centuries ago."
There's something comforting about practicing hedonism in a place where the everyday surrounds you, where housewives shop in the market and children take after-school splashes in the sea. How could you be anything but charmed when an enterprising woman selling gasoline from her house by the road asks you to hold her baby while she fetches a five-gallon can?
And how can you resist places like Casa Loma, where I fell in love with Zihuatanejo?It's perched on the hilltop Zona Hotelera, overlooking the boat-filled, crescent-shaped harbor. I drove uppast groves of mangoes, tamarinds, coconut palms, and banana treesand was relieved to find Casa Loma just as I'd left it in 1995. The four adobe bungalows trimmed in cobalt, lavender, and turquoise are designed for the simple life. Each has a kitchen and living room overlooking the bay, a wonderful place for coffee at sunrise (the roosters make sure you're in attendance) or a sunset drink. My bedroom, occupied just before me by Lauren Hutton, was always siesta-ready. Unfurl the mosquito netting, more an aesthetic than a real necessity, switch on the ceiling fan, and dissolve into golden slumber.
Casa Loma's owners are Patsy and Joe LoGiudice, an American couple who have made Zihua (another nickname for the town) their primary residence since 1979. They also rent out Casa Luna, their stylish house just down the road. How tempting to enter the gates of one of Zihua's private villas and call it your own for a few days (or even a month). When the LoGiudices bought it in 1972, Casa Luna was only a four-room adobe hut. Joe, a former SoHo art dealer trained as an architect, transformed it into a showplace, where the boundaries between outdoors and indoors blend seamlessly.
Casa Luna blooms inside and out, thanks to the flower beds that Joe says are the closest thing to an Italian garden in Mexico. The tiled eat-in kitchen is the heart of the house, where you can throw together a great meal after dipping into Joe's fruit and vegetable garden stocked with six designer lettuces, 14 varieties of tomatoes, and papaya and mango trees.
Down the hillside from the Zona Hotelera, Zihua's town is little more than 12 square blocks, so it's easy to find your way around. In from the water, its stores, restaurants, and houses are cheek by jowl, and the crowded sidewalks are often impassable. If you walk south just a few cobblestoned streets to the town pier, which sits on Playa Municipal, you can watch fishermen bringing in red snappers, still flapping from their struggle. Nearby is the Mercado Central, more than a square block of stalls selling everything from food to makeupand frequently at the same stall. A little boy will wave you down with a rag to help find a parking space (one peso) or to circulate through the market with you, carrying your purchases (two pesos).The displays of fruits, vegetables, and fish are dazzling. Most visitors pick up huarache sandals, bags of coffee and sea salt, and the plaid vinyl tote bags that fashion magazines deemed must-haves this past season. A little harder to transport, but worth it: honey in a wine bottle with a corncob stopper.
Patsy LoGiudice's Coco Cabaña is one of the best sources for Mexican folk art. The shop's buyer, Elena Solow, scours Mexico's markets for painted pottery from Puebla, tinwork mirrors, and santo dolls. At Casa Marina, a two-story mall run by another expat family, you can browse through El Embarcadero for handwoven cotton clothing; Manos for serapes and embroidered dresses and shirts; and La Zapoteca for Oaxacan rugs, wall hangings, and hammocks. Also visit Arte Mexicano Nopal, which sells custom-made wood and rattan furniture, and Galería Maya, for copper candelabra and carved masks.
If you're in the mood for a late breakfast, head to Nueva Zelanda, a café in town. Their hot cakes are world-class. Not to be confused with pancakes, these are sweet buns sliced in half, grilled, and drizzled with honey.
If you got an early start and it's lunchtime, check out La Sirena Gorda, a lively restaurant near the town pier famous for its fish tacos. Taking their cue from the name, which means "the fat mermaid," the owners packed the place with oil paintings and sculptural renditions of zaftig mermaids.
For something with a bit more glamour, try Coconuts, owned by Patsy and Joe LoGiudice. The adobe building, remodeled by Joe, began life as a weigh-in station for coconut growers in 1865. Ask for a table in the lantern-lit garden, and dine on spicy red snapper with garlic sauce. The margaritas, made with fresh lime juice and Sauza Hornitos tequila, are the best in town.
For dessert, stop at Paletería La Michoacana, where the specialty is exotically flavored ices: piña colada, guava, tamarind. Then wander across the street to see one of the ever-present games on the basketball court, or stroll to the beach to watch the fishermen's cleanup crewhuge pelicans.
My favorite restaurants are on Playa La Ropa. La Gaviota is at the beach's southern end, and across the road is Rosy's. The two places have similar menus: shrimp, squid, and octopus; breaded, fried, a la plancha (grilled), or mojo de ajo (with garlic). At the opposite end of the beach is La Perla. In 1975, when the Rivera family started it, the restaurant was simply their kitchen table, which they hauled to the beach each day from their house up the hill. Raquel Rivera still cooks her simple seafood dishes with the freshest ingredients. If you're into cigars, ask their son, Francisco, to show you his stash of Havanas.
Farther along, La Casa Que Canta, its name Spanish for "the house that sings," is cantilevered on the hillside above Playa La Ropa. Zihua's most romantic hotel is the creation of Jacques Baldassari, a French executive who was sent to Mexico City on business in 1975. Like the LoGiudices, Baldassari and his wife, Yvonne, first came to Zihua on vacation. La Casa Que Canta, a five-year-old terra-cotta-colored pleasure palace, reflects the couple's good taste.
Of its 24 rooms each named for a Mexican song and individually decorated with hand-carved, hand-painted furniture from Michoacáneight have a private pool and a terrace. But all come with sounds of the sea and flower-petal mosaics that the maid "paints" on your bed every day. In the morning, coffee, fruit, and freshly baked breads are delivered to your room.
After breakfast, go for a swim in one of the hotel's two pools. One freshwater and one salt, they must be among the most beautiful in Mexico. The freshwater pool, lined with a mosaic of blue and green tiles, sits suspended over the sea, with views to infinity. It made its movie debut in When a Man Loves a Woman, which Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan shot here in 1994.
Zihua was abuzz last winter when Alain Delon and Lauren Bacall rolled into town and stayed at Villa del Sol, La Casa Que Canta's beachfront neighbor. They were here to film Le Jour et la Nuit, a movie about an expatriate French writer retired in Mexico. It's no wonder the crew chose to stay at Villa del Sol. Helmut Leins, an order-obsessed German who has lived in Zihua more than 20 years, runs the resort like clockwork and offers every comfort.
The hotel's private section of beach, where attendants will set up your chair and umbrella and bring you meals, calls to mind a Riviera beach club. Curved footpaths lead to the split-level suites, which resemble Mexican cottages and are filled with rattan furniture.
On my first visit to Z, I wondered what the hilltop mansion across the harbor from Playa La Ropa could possibly be. I've since discovered it's a wonderful new place to stay called Puerto Mío, managed since 1996 by Helmut Leins. It has the look of a Mediterranean villa, a gorgeous free-form pool, and 22 bay-view rooms, some in the mansion and others lower down the cliff in cottages.
If you want to get away from everything, take a day trip to Troncones, a remote town about 20 minutes north of Zihuatanejo, with a three-mile-long unspoiled beach bordered by coconut palms. Seafood restaurants with tables and hammocks dot the sand.
In the last few years, several places to stay have sprung up in Troncones. The best is Casa de la Tortuga, a six-bedroom open-air villa on two acres owned by Dewey McMillin, a former commercial fisherman from Alaska, and his girlfriend, Karolyn McCall. In search of warm weather, McMillin found his way here 12 years ago. He camped with friends in an abandoned house that he subsequently bought and refurbished. Their first guests were poached from town, and since then, word of mouth has kept Casa de la Tortuga full.
One of Casa de la Tortuga's more famous guests was Alice Waters, of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. She spent a week at the hotel last winter with her family and friends, venturing out only to visit Zihuatanejo's market. There she marveled at "the day's fish in rigor mortis, beautiful dried beans, fantastic little sweet bananas, lots of oranges and avocados, and great pork." Every day the group gathered coconuts on the beach, drank the milk, and tossed the meat in with the meal's rice.
Lying on Troncones beach in front of Casa de la Tortuga at sunset, I watched the sky progress from blue to pink and thought of another progression, the one that had landed me here. The LoGiudices "were in Cozumel when it started raining," Joe answered when I asked what brought him to Zihuatanejo. I was in New York City when it started snowing. And I just happened to call a friend who happened to be a friend of the LoGiudices. Isn't that the essence of travel?It's one part serendipity, one part knowing whom to ask, and one part being open to adventure.
And then my thoughts landed for a moment on Alice Waters, who had cooked joyfully in the kitchen at Casa de la Tortuga. It's all recipes for enriching existence, I thought, whether through food or travel. As recipes go, Z is a good one.