In more than 15 years of travel to Mexico I've learned more than a few things about what I like in a hotel. I've stayed in dozens, from the funky, ramshackle beach-front cottage in Zihuatanejo in the early '70s to the hillside suite with its own pool in Acapulco's sleek, sexy Villa Vera.
I've sweated through sleepless, mosquito-filled nights and lived serenely above such annoyances in hermetically sealed splendor.
There were housekeeping apartments in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, a hotel room with cheap plastic furniture in Puerto Escondido and a regally furnished one in Cuernavaca, a bleak cell of a living space in Guanajuato and in Oaxaca a room large enough for an aerobics class.
What I've learned about Mexican hotels is that I value location over almost anything else except, possibly, the quality of the room service. If the hotel isn't properly situated--on a good, swimmable beach, with a smashing view, or right in the heart of a city--it doesn't stand a chance with me.
After location, everything else good about a hotel--food, service, ambiance, activities--is an extra. And when these extras add up, you have the best hotels in Mexico.
Tidy Beach Inn
Hotel Villas Del Sol, Zihuatanejo: Eight years ago I literally stumbled from La Ropa beach into this tidy beach inn on Mexico's Pacific coast 150 miles north of Acapulco, and began talking with Helmut Leins, the German who had just built and opened it. I was astounded to find an ideal little hideaway with nice suites and good food on a wonderful beach.
Since then, happily, there have been essentially few alterations to the special barefoot sophistication of Villas Del Sol. The room count has zoomed to 17 from the original 9, all recently redone with air conditioning added.
Now there is a tennis court (Zihuatanejo's first) in the back and an affiliated beach club next door. And, yes, prices are still magically reasonable for such a fine place--$140 for two (through April 30), including breakfast and dinner. Beginning May 1, prices are $110 for two.
Mexico has a tax of 15% built in to its hotel prices. The Villas Del Sol adds a 10% service charge to its prices, in lieu of tips. To book, call direct (011-52-743) 4-2239.
Casa De Sierra Nevada, San Miguel de Allende: Similarly small and smartly run by Peter Wirth, a Swiss whose family has owned European hotels for five generations, this inn with 14 suites and four rooms is the toast of San Miguel, a historic town on Mexico's high inland plateau about 180 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Transformed a Charmer
"I'm running it like a small European inn," Wirth said. He acquired the Sierra Nevada in 1981 and quickly transformed what was already a charming little hotel into a fine property with superb Mexican and continental food (the dining room is often booked days in advance). Airy, charming rooms are furnished with antiques and there's a total commitment to service and artful ennui.
The hotel is really three separate buildings, all of colonial vintage, on a cobblestone back street close to San Miguel's main square. Room rates range from $55 to $120. Call (800) 372-1323 or direct to the hotel, (011-52-465) 2-0415.
Las Mananitas, Cuernavaca: Behind high walls in the middle of once-sleepy and now-bustling Cuernavaca is this jewel that has coddled its clever guests since 1955.
The hostelry, whose name means Little Mornings, and the city are tranquil oases about 40 miles (and farther, psychologically) south of Mexico City. The climate is a splendid one of continual springtime. Wood fires crackle, peacocks fan their tails, romance lives.
The hotel has 14 suites and one marvelous two-bedroom unit, all furnished with pieces recovered from old Puebla estates. Several acres of gardens contain valuable sculpture, including Zuniga bronzes, exotic strolling birds and a hidden swimming pool.
In the renowned dining room, the emphasis is on grilled seafood and authentic Mexican fare--but the service can be lax if the dining room is busy. Rooms range from $29 to $85. Call (011-52-731) 2-4646.
Acapulco Princess, Acapulco: It's extremely rare, especially in Mexico, to find such a large (1,032 rooms) but seemingly uncrowded and excellent hotel. Everything works here, from the theatrical lobby, with its jungle foliage and 16-story atrium, to the 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. room service.
It has hundreds of acres of gardens, one saltwater and four freshwater swimming lagoons (they can't possibly be called pools), a very good 18-hole golf course fronting the hotel and Revolcadero Beach backing it, and 11 tennis courts (two indoors and air-conditioned).
The numerous restaurants are surprisingly good, and La Posadita has a mind-rattling buffet breakfast.