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Golf in Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo

A new road fr om Acapulco had already stirred the narcoleptic fishing village. Now FONATUR would slap it awake with the newborn Ixtapa ("Place of White Sand") in pursuit of the best of all possible worlds: an international luxury resort, complete with purified water and good towels, just an avocado's throw away from a living, breathing Mexican community.

Building a place from scratch is an intricate task. Swamps were drained, roads laid, utilities strung in. Beachfront lots were parceled out to hotels. Zihuatanejo's toy-size airstrip gave way to a modern jetport. A golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Campo de Golf Palma Real (also called Campo de Golf Ixtapa), was carved out of the jungle. In 1975, Ixtapa opened to the public.

The funny thing is, this bureaucratic vision has pretty much panned out as planned. Mass tourism, and the homogenization that follows it, remains concentrated in Ixtapa, allowing Zihuatanejo to preserve its quirky originality. (What other Mexican tourist town has a basketball court for a town square?) The two places are fraternal twins, to be sure, like DeVito and Schwarzenegger--different but somehow well matched. For people settled in at the Sheraton or Krystal, it feels good to know that Zee-wa is out there, waiting, even if they make it into town just once or twice. Beyond the generic buffets and fiesta nights at the high-rise hotels, an authentic, low-rise Mexico beckons, a three-to-four-dollar taxi ride away.

Though the area's population has grown to about sixty-five thousand, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo remains along the road less traveled on, and that makes all the difference.With fewer than a million annual visitors, there is no state of tourist siege here. Instead of color-by-numbers service, people actually take care of you. At Beccofino, an Italian restaurant in Ixtapa's marina area, where a second championship golf course opened in 1993, my pasta with seafood came dried out and oversalted. No sooner had I slid my plate to the side than a ponytailed man in jeans and loafers without socks materialized at our table. He insisted upon a substitution, touting the grilled sea bass with fresh rosemary and black butter. The fish was simple and perfect. My savior was Angelo Pavia, the owner and executive chef.

The Sign On The Fourth Fairway At The Campo de Golf Palma Real is small, subtle, aimed more to inform (or amuse?) than alarm: cuidado con los lagartos.

Watch out for the alligators.

The first handicap hole would be challenging enough without reptiles: a 583-yard par five with a dogleg right and a large sand trap protecting the left side of the green. You need to clear a shallow lake, ninety yards from the cup, to have any chance at par--and to avoid getting up close and personal with the toothy inhabitants. The alligators like to sunbathe on a small island in the lake, but they've also been known to crawl ashore. (Most people take a drop within a radius of fifteen feet.) One scaly fellow made it to an adjacent villa's swimming pool.

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