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Exploring Mexico’s Pacific Coast

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Photo: Anne Menke

Given the smudged visage the town shows visitors, the services and shopping are as surprising as the food scene. Why a surfer might need the "innovative" lawyering skills of MJ & Co., a firm that specializes in trademarks and copyright, I can't think. But I suppose you never know. Painting and slicing are among the coloring techniques Graziella Jones and John James, Vidal Sassoon–trained stylists from England, have on the menu at their Jungle Hair Design salon. Fleur d'Oranger offers shiatsu, Reiki, and a range of products—volcanic-clay mask, almond-and–aloe vera exfoliant, orange-blossom toner—created exclusively for the boutique by Veroushka Tarazi, a "clinical essence therapist," whatever that is.

Smelling like a piece of Moroccan pastry, you can head across the street to Jaeti, which goes narrow and deep into lovely artisanal jigsaw puzzles, then over to Yemaya for practically invisible Brazilian bikinis from labels like Bumbum and Poko Pano. La Hamaca is the finest shop for folk art and crafts in the village but also the most overpriced, though the silkiness of a string hammock did convince me that it was somehow worth $135. Around the corner, Gypsy Gallery is an overstuffed bazaar of tiles, pareus, antique oriental rugs, Day of the Dead papier-mâché figures from the annual fair in Patzcuarao, Guatemalan textiles, satiny black Oaxacan pottery, hand-loomed bedspreads, hand-embroidered pillow slips, hand-tooled leather bags, and hand-painted wooden bowls, plates, and trays. Copper mirrors, candlesticks, and jewelry are brought in from Santa Clara del Cobre. Anything that can be fixed with the image of Frida Kahlo, is.

Frida T-shirts are fun, as far as they go. Hunters of big retail game prefer Pachamama, a showcase for the Les Gazelles line of ready-to-wear, accessories, and pearl-and-leather jewelry (shells and eagle, flamingo, and peacock feathers are also sometimes used) of ­Nathalie Mignot and Laurence Mignot Hodge, who market themselves as beautiful nomads and citizens of the world. Their idea of a skirt is five inches of snakeskin and lamé leather animated with two bushy tassels. For the rest of us there are terra-cotta bowls from Guadalajara with swirls or dots, and the lengths of loosely woven striped cotton that Mexican farmers use as bedsheets but that the Mignot girls think are more amusing as beach towels. For $1,200 a day—which buys seven bedrooms, three baths, a sprawling mezzanine for sleeping under the stars, a maid, a cook, breakfast, surfboards, long boards, and snorkeling gear—you can imbibe the French sisters' chic by renting Les Oiseaux Volants, their largely open-air duplex directly above the store.

Villa Amor has two things going for it: sweeping ocean vistas and a sexy room concept that does away with outside walls and invites you to see Sayulita through a rustling fringe of palm fronds. But the execution is ham-fisted, the opposite of luxe: if God is in the details, you will not find Him here. Amor is supposed to be a full-service hotel, but no one ever seemed to be able to do anything for me. Six times over three days I asked for cushions for the bony iron longues on my terrace, and six times they never came. I would have been much happier at Petit Hotel d'Hafa or Haramara Retreat. Owned by the Mignots' brother Christophe and his Spanish wife, Marina, unofficially the best-looking couple in Sayulita, the six-room Hafa is a winsome bit of Morocco in the middle of town just steps from the water, with barrel-vaulted ceilings, chartreuse polished-cement floors, and pierced-tin wall lights in the shape of angel wings. Straw mats are stenciled with hearts, crescents, and Pop art flowers, and hand-tempered copper jam basins do the job of bathroom sinks. Haramara is a serenely stylish (biomorphic walls, floors embedded with beach stones), magnificently groomed yoga-and-meditation compound that accepts nonpractitioners without making them feel like second-class guests. Sixteen palapas, scattered on a jungle bluff overlooking the Pacific a few minutes out of town, have no electricity, only kerosene lamps and candles. The wildlife is terrifying. Coatis, which resemble a cross between a raccoon and a monkey, are adept at undoing the most securely zipped suitcases and helping themselves to the fruit you thought was safe inside. A woman who lives nearby left her house one morning to do the marketing and returned to find a boa constrictor half asleep on the kitchen table. It had just eaten her cat.

Whether or not they choose to call it slumming, people staying eight miles down the road in Punta Mita do get a thrill racing in and out of Sayulita, loading up at Pachamama before returning to the gated security and branded comforts of the 178-room Four Seasons Resort. Punta Mita is a grandiose 1,500-acre master-planned development of which the hotel is just one component. A 120-room St. Regis Resort opens early next year, to be followed in 2010 by a third hotel, La Solana, which will almost certainly be another Four Seasons. Tim Koogle, the former chairman and founding CEO of Yahoo, bought a 125-acre plot near Punta Mita in 2003 to build a boutique hotel and what can only be described as "McHaciendas."

Can't quite commit to owning?Maybe you're part of the emerging "entourage travel" market. At the Four Seasons, a 9,150-square-feet private casita with five bedrooms, a media room, a fitness center, a "personal host" who never sleeps, and a waterway that snakes through the interior goes for $15,000 per night. No word on whether this is where Britney Spears, fresh from rehab, and her cousin Allie stayed in June, when pictures of the former starlet snapped at the resort had the blogosphere wondering if she'd combed her hair with guacamole.

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