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Golf in Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo

Southeast Of Playa Principal Lies Zihuatanejo's best swimming beach, Playa la Ropa, a crescent of light sand and gentle surf. There we found a cluster of beachfront lodgings and palapa (thatched-roofed) restaurants, among them two of the most fetching and elegant small hotels in the hemisphere: Villa del Sol and La Casa Que Canta. If money is no object, stay at one of the two. (Unless you have young children. La Casa Que Canta allows no guests under sixteen; Villa del Sol draws the line at twelve.)

We had dinner at Villa del Sol on our first night in town. The menu, a sort of nouvelle Mexican, was light and wonderful: fresh corn soup, mildly spiced; the last word on Caesar salads, with each matched leaf of endive set just so; red snapper enchiladas in cilantro sauce. Under the soft illumination of torches, we sat five yards from the sand, perhaps twenty yards from the spotlit surf.

Every so often a great wooden louvered door would swing open behind us for room service, and we'd peek in at the heavy carved furniture and yellow-washed walls inside. It looked impossibly romantic. A few days later, I toured it with Peter Koehler, the hotel's affable general manager. In the morning light, with its colorful quilts and pillows and lavish marble baths, the suite seemed even more inviting. The living room flowed into the beach; in Zee-wa, indoors and out are casual distinctions.

Where Villa del Sol is low-slung, La Casa Que Canta is dramatically vertical, a series of adobe cubes perched on a bayside cliff. There is a saltwater pool at sea level, and above, the famous freshwater infinity pool pictured in When a Man Loves a Woman jutting over the ocean. When you are in it, the whole world seems to be made of water.

Another compensation is the view. At dinner, as we tucked into fabulous tuna sashimi and jumbo shrimp, the lights of Zihuatanejo switched on below and around us, like a smaller, gentler ver sion of Acapulco Bay.

Yet this is not the meal in Zee-wa that I most pine to repeat. That distinction goes to a simpler Playa la Ropa restaurant called La Perla, where parrots guard the entry, and guests are sometimes serenaded by harp and guitar.

To my mind, there is one quintessential Mexican seafood dish: huachinango al mojo de ajo, red snapper with fried garlic. At La Perla it was served whole, as it should be, grilled to a turn on both sides, with a generous extra bowl of chopped garlic--moistened with oil, crisp but not burned. The price: eighty pesos, less than eight dollars.

I would gladly have paid twice as much for such real food in this very real town, a reminder that the best things in life are often nejo after all.

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