Four standard-setting hotels in Acapulco make Mexico's oldest—and most overexposed—vacation spot worth getting to know again
Acapulco is a casualty of its own success. Though it put Mexico on the map as an international hot spot in the 1960's, its thunder has since been stolen by Puerto Vallarta, Cancún, and other upstart destinations around the country. But if it's not quite what it was when Truman Capote kept them in stitches on Gloria Guiness's yacht, Acapulco refuses to be written off just yet. The party-hearty atmosphere rivals that of any Caribbean island, the wide-open, powdery beaches are a toasty place to chill, and sightings of Elvis's snake-hipped ghost are frequent. What more could you ask for?How about these four long-lived hotels …
It was a long, steep, serpentine walk from my casita—one of 263 "little houses" at Las Brisas—to the lobby and command center. Not that anyone had suggested I walk. This was just me being me, willfully ignoring what I had both read and been told, which was that whenever I wanted to move around the mountain-hugging, 110-acre compound, all I had to do was call for one of the resort's signature Pepto-Bismol—pink-and-white jeeps. They're known for arriving practically before you hang up, but I wasn't interested. The more I travel, for better or worse, the more disobedient, the more headstrong I become.
Anyway, like taking a hotel staircase rather than the elevator (which I always do at least once), choosing to explore Las Brisas on foot proved a good way to get a feel for the place. Sticking my rubber neck around surgically trimmed hedges of starry basket flowers and palm trees with glowing whitewashed trunks brought into focus the resort's most famous feature: every casita either has its own swimming pool or shares one with another unit. Though generally not huge, the private pools are very swimmable and definitely the way to go when reserving.
Around one hairpin curve was a trim white truck that looked like an emergency medical vehicle, except that neatly set out on the tailgate were a blender, a cooler, a pail holding bottles of Tabasco and other condiments, and all the makings for margaritas. The words bar de primeros auxilios, which translates as First Aid Bar, were stenciled in bright red on the side of the truck. (If all of Acapulco was this witty, I was going to have a very good time.) Pulling up a chair to a stone parapet with exhilarating views of Acapulco Bay and Roqueta Island and sipping "relief" cocktails is a sunset ritual at Las Brisas.
But as I continued down the switchback, the view took a nosedive. Whoever is responsible for the sloppily concealed (and in some cases completely exposed) water tanks and garbage cans should be fired. Hardly worthy of a 44-year-old institution that put the jet in jet set.
Thankfully, the casitas live up to Las Brisas' reputation for tropical pleasure-seeking with a fantasy edge. Even if it strains your budget, book a junior suite, which could serve as a blueprint for seamless indoor-outdoor living anywhere in the world, weather permitting. On one side of a sliding door is a spacious bedroom painted that same creamy Pepto pink (it's everywhere) and cooled by a ceiling fan (not as automatic in Acapulco as you might think); the bathroom is clad entirely in gray marble. On the other side are the outdoor quarters: a homey bar and sitting area, shielded from the grilling sun by an overhang and furnished with a stylish, Saarinenesque table and a giddy bamboo bubble swing that alone is worth the price of the suite. A few paces deliver you to the lip of a vaguely L-shaped pool spangled every morning with fresh hibiscus flowers.
I also became a big fan of La Concha, which Las Brisas bills as the only private beach club in Mexico. The sprawling complex, with one freshwater and two saltwater "lagoons," is at the end of a five-minute ride in the resort's minivan. At the club, as at the hotel, service is fresh and nimble—and heartfelt in the Mexican manner.
5255 Carretera Escénica Clemente MejÌa; 52-7/469-6900, fax 52-7/446-5332; doubles from $240.
FAIRMONT ACAPULCO PRINCESS
I didn't know what to expect. I am more familiar with the Hôtel du Caps of the world than I am with all-inclusives or big chain hotels. In fact, in my adult life I have never been to a hotel that actually embraces (as opposed to merely suffers) children, much less to one with a swim-up bar. If not fun, staying at the Princess was at least going to be interesting.
No one is more surprised than me, but I'm happy to report that the beachfront Princess is very doable, even for someone accustomed to boutique, silver-spoon properties whose doormen are cast, not hired. What I learned is that attentive service and a respectable comfort quotient are not exclusive to hotels where personnel outnumber guests.
Of course, for people with no experience of what might be called stadium resorts, the scale takes getting used to. The Princess has 1,017 rooms. They're divided among a 20-story monolith with sloping sides—inspired by Aztec temple architecture—and two squat, rectangular towers. With 480 acres of obsessively maintained gardens scattered with mango, lemon, and almond trees, you could walk from now till next November and never retrace your steps. Hunger is cured, diverse palates amused at seven dining spots, from La Hacienda, which offers haute Mexican fare and more than 50 tequilas, to the Café Los Angeles coffee shop, the only place in Acapulco besides Price Club where you can get Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Waterbugs have their pick of four free-form freshwater pools (two of them interlocking), one sultry saltwater lagoon, and Revolcadero Beach, at 12 miles the longest in Acapulco. Of course it wouldn't be Acapulco without a disco. And did I mention the man-made waterfalls?
Witheringly hip, attitudinal hotels—the kind with fun-house designer guest rooms that look great in magazines but are hell to sleep in—would do well to check out the Princess's accommodations. Standard doubles are exceedingly pleasant and larger by a third than my quite respectable New York City apartment, with big entrance halls, walk-in closets, efficient if plain bathrooms, and dressing rooms conveniently fitted with second sinks. The decoration isn't going to win any awards, but neither is there anything to object to. Materials run to bamboo, cane, and wicker, and the palette largely (and wisely) skirts the hot, hysterical, south-of-the-border colors you'd expect in favor of browns and beiges you barely notice. Louvered panels roll in front of the terraces, filtering the light, the breeze, and the lulling surf sound track.
Playa Revolcadero; 800/866-5577 or 52-7/469-1000, fax 52-7/469-1012; doubles from $139.
THE FAIRMONT PIERRE MARQUES
Half a mile down the beach from the Princess, the Marques is everything its sister resort is not: relatively intimate (343 guest rooms), unshowy (if it weren't for the fountains, you wouldn't know you were pulling up to a hotel), and low-slung (while the Princess plays the vertical card, the Marques plays the horizontal—no building is higher than five stories). Only the accommodations and service are in the same mold.
The Marques's very human qualities have particular resonance with Mexico's professional and privileged classes. The languid early-summer weekend I spent there, it was packed with members of the country's bourgeoisie basking in the low rates—and in the absence of foreigners, who find Acapulco intolerably steamy at this time of year. It was not unusual to see three generations of the same Mexican family (plus nannies) whooping it up in one of the hotel's three swimming pools, breaking just long enough to dip warm chips into some divinely chunky guacamole or to down an icy Coco Loco. The house cocktail is made with gin, vodka, rum, tequila, Kahlúa, and coconut milk from coconuts grown on the premises. No one ever accused the Mexicans of not knowing that living well is the best revenge.
Guests can board a shuttle bus to use the more spectacular pools at the Princess, as well as its other facilities. Shared, too, is a private water purification plant capable of producing a million gallons a day—with Mexico's notorious potability problems, water is on every traveler's mind—and an 18-hole, par-72 championship course designed by golf greats Percy Clifford and Robert Trent Jones.
What became the Marques was begun in 1958 by J. Paul Getty as a hideaway—cum—country club, a place where he could draw the shades against the world or receive friends, family, and business associates in industrial quantities. More than 40 years later the property retains the civilized flavor of the time in which it was built. Public areas are furnished with smart white cast-iron sofas and chairs with claw feet and crisp hunter-green cushions. El Tabachin, one of two restaurants, has the stagy sophistication of a theater set by the English scenic-design legend Oliver Messel. The poles that hold up the awning between the biomorphic Ixtapa pool and the Pierre Bar are topped with tole lanterns and angled inward, which no one would think of doing today. What's the big deal?If the poles were straight the awning wouldn't even register. The chic is in the minutiae.
Just as I knew they would, the Marques management looked at me like I was crazy when I questioned them about such details. For the hotel, it's business as usual.
Playa Revolcadero; 800/866-5577 or 52-7/466-1000, fax 52-7/466-1046; doubles from $265.
VILLA VERA HOTEL, SPA & RACQUET CLUB
How can you resist the hotel where Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd (with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher as attendants)?Or where the Nixons celebrated their 25th anniversary?Wait, it gets better. Lana Turner lived at Villa Vera for three years. And Elvis, who would still have the Mexican tourist board kissing his rings if he were around today, filmed part of Fun in Acapulco at the resort.
Like the Pierre Marques, Villa Vera started out in the fifties as one man's retreat. It was built for Carl Renstrom, the American inventor of the modern hair curler, who was known as "Mr. Acapulco." Renstrom launched what remains the city's greatest attraction, cliff diving at La æuebrada. He sited his getaway on a vertiginous 15-acre plot in a residential neighborhood just behind Costera Miguel Alem·n, Acapulco's famously hectic main drag. The location isn't everyone's idea of heaven. But for those (especially young club hounds) who insist on being in the thick of things, only the Vera will do.
While a third of the 69 accommodations have private or shared swimming pools, most guests make use of the main pool, which is watched over by a campy sculpture of King Neptune. Guest rooms are unfortunately rather generic, a fact many regulars seem willing to overlook. They're much less interested in the furnishings than they are in the red-clay tennis courts and the 1,500-square-foot spa (try the paraphango mud-and-paraffin wrap). Service regularly descends to the level of a dog-and-pony show, though housekeeping did an excellent last-minute job of wrapping a beautiful rope hammock I'd bought on the beach for next to nothing.
35 Lomas del Mar; 52-7/484-0333, fax 52-7/484-7479; doubles from $145.