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Betsey Johnson's Zihuatanejo

Trujillo-Paumier Betsey Johnson in a plaza in Petatlán.

Photo: Trujillo-Paumier

The dreadlocked wild-child fashion designer Betsey Johnson discovered Zihuatanejo four years ago, almost by accident. On a rainy vacation in Miami, she asked friends to suggest where else she could go that was "guaranteed hot, the water guaranteed warm, the people wonderful." The answer was this seaside resort area two hours north of Acapulco.

After staying a few days at La Casa Que Canta hotel, Johnson learned that to see "the real deal—what Zihuatanejo used to be," she should drive 20 minutes south to the fishing village of Barra de Potosí (population 513). "I stayed at a funky three-room hotel, and by the second morning I was begging the owner to sell it to me," says the designer, who renamed the little compound of thatched bungalows "Betseyville" and splashed it up with bright-colored walls, printed chiffon curtains, and Mexican crafts.

Now Johnson invites neighborhood children over for piñata parties and buzzes around in a beat-up Jeep, hunting for folk art and eating fried fish at roadside shacks. Recently, she bought a cliff-top manse in nearby La Barrita. But she still prefers Betseyville (she rents it out by the week), which inspired the line of home furnishings she will launch next spring.

Johnson took us to see her favorite spots in her adopted village—and along the coast.

Barra De Potosí

WHERE TO STAY With its open-air rooms and kitschy décor, Johnson's rough-around-the-edges villa Betseyville (Los Achotes Rd.; 800/387-2726; www.lacurevillas.com; from $5,500 a week for up to 10 people) isn't for everyone—but it's perfect if you like the idea of stepping into a world where "Frida Kahlo meets Carmen Miranda."

WHERE TO EAT The beach shack La Condesa (Playa Blanca; no phone; dinner for two $25) is "like home for me," says Johnson, a fan of the grilled huachinango (red snapper) caught just offshore. • Casa Frida (Playa Blanca; 52-755/557-0049; dinner for two $50). "They're the most charming neighbors I could have," says the designer, who sends guests over for home-cooked meals under the stars.

TOP TIP "Get a fifteen-dollar, hour-long massage on Playa Blanca with Rosa, who advertises her services with a pink sign. She's incredible," Johnson attests.

Zihuatanejo

WHERE TO STAY La Casa Que Canta (Camino Escenico; 888/523-5050 or 52-755/555-7000; www.lacasaquecanta.com; doubles from $415). Built into the rocks above La Ropa beach, La Casa is Zihuatanejo's superstar resort. "You feel very successful when you're there," says Johnson. She frequents the restaurant for lobster in broth— and Isabel, the waitress. "She lets my dog Lucy sneak in for dinner." • Johnson heads to the beachfront Hotel Villa del Sol (Playa La Ropa; 888/389-2645 or 52-755/555-5500; www.hotelvilladelsol.net; doubles from $300) for its pool and to hang out with guests such as Steve Martin and Anna Sui.

WHERE TO EAT Caprichos (4 Cinco de Mayo; 52-755/554-3019; dinner for two $40). "Delicious homemade soups," says Johnson. "Sit in the backyard, with its twinkling lights." • Coconuts (1 Agustín Ramirez; 52-755/554-2548; dinner for two $20). This perennial hot spot revealed a personal connection for Johnson: "I used to live at Max's Kansas City in Manhattan in the sixties. I go down to Zihuatanejo, and who is the owner but Patsy, my favorite waitress from Max's." • Il Mare (Carretera Escenica; 52-755/554-9067; dinner for two $24). "An Italian restaurant with a view, and they play all those songs from Moonstruck." • Kau-Kan (Camino a Playa La Ropa; 52-755/554-8446; dinner for two $44). Johnson likes the rooftop restaurant's tomato-and–Oaxacan cheese salad and sunset views. • La Sirena Gorda (90 Paseo del Pescador; 52-755/554-2687; dinner for two $38). Run by the former owner of Betseyville, it's the place for fish and shrimp tacos.

WHERE TO SHOP The town's winding bazaar of fresh fruits, meats, and crafts Mercado Municipal (Avda. Benito Juarez; no phone) is open daily, 7 a.m. to noon. "I love to walk through the spice barrels and find a carved-coconut monkey head." • Casa Marina (21 Juan N. Alvarez; 52-755/554-2373). A mini-mall for "wildly colored" rugs, at La Zapoteca, and handwoven cotton clothes, at El Embarcadero.

TOP TIP "Ask one of the fishermen in town to take you out on a motorboat to the Rocks, where there are millions of birds. The people are so nice here. The next thing you know, they'll invite you over for dinner."

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