Trujillo-Paumier

She went to Zihuatanejo on a whim and ended up with two villas. Here, designer Betsey Johnson's guide to life in "Z."

Laura Begley Bloom
June 15, 2009

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."

Petatlán Johnson often makes pit stops in this bustling little town a bit south of Zihuatanejo, for its "parades with little kids, and ladies cross-stitching in the street," she says. And she always discovers "some strange something here—like ten-dollar bling-bling Lady of Guadalupe watches." • La Barrita "There's no village and no tourists—just a beach with restaurants where the local people cook for their families. It's all sky and coastline." • Pátzcuaro A 3 1/2-hour drive from Zihuatanejo, this colonial town is "a little discovered but a far cry from San Miguel de Allende," Johnson says. "The people still make their own shoes, embroider their dresses, and wear long braids." Her favorite place to stay: Hostal Santa Fe (Lloreda No. 27; 52-434/342-0512; www.hostalsantafe.com.mx; doubles from $60).

Hostal Santa Fe

Casa Marina

Mercado Municipal, Zihuatanejo

Kau-Kan

Il Mare

Coconuts

Caprichos

Casa Frida

La Condesa

Betseyville

With its open-air rooms and flashy décor, Betsey Johnson’s rough-around-the-edges rental villa isn’t for everyone—but it’s perfect if you like the idea of stepping into a Frida Kahlo–meets–Carmen Miranda world. Betseyville is a compound of five thatched bungalows in the fishing village of Barra de Potosí (population 500), south of Zihuatanejo. Set in an oasis of hibiscus, poppies, and palms, the villa’s palapa-style cottages splash on the kitsch—colorful chandeliers, printed chiffon curtains, funky antiques, claw-foot tubs. And for those who would like to reproduce the retreat’s whimsical sensibility, Johnson has launched a Betseyville-inspired line of home accessories.

La Sirena Gorda

Viceroy Zihuatanejo

Formerly Tides Zihuatanejo.

Recently reopened palm-shrouded villas and palapas on a quiet beach.

La Casa Que Canta

Pure romance of the white-wine-at-sunset and walk-on-the-beach variety is the allure at this 25-suite hideaway above La Ropa Beach. All rooms have a cool Mexican contemporary vibe, ample ocean views, and private terraces (televisions are notably absent); 11 have private plunge pools. Because of the hotel's construction—made up of three terra-cotta-colored villas built into a terraced hillside overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay—there are lots of secluded decks and hidden corners, perfect for canoodling couples or sunbathers. Of the two pools, our favorite is the saltwater expanse: It's adjacent to the beach is filled naturally by the sea. Lounge there in the evening as the sun sets into the Pacific.

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