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TRAVELING IN STYLE : MEXICO, EURO-STYLE : Located on an isolated bay between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta is a little-known resort that's a blend of Europe and Mexico. Its pleasures are simple, the relaxation complete

October 21, 1990|BLAISE SIMPSON | Simpson is arts and people editor in the Los Angeles bureau of Women's Wear Daily and W magazine.

It was while visiting some friends in Mexico four years ago that I first heard of Careyes. Knowing Marta and Alejandro Gomez' penchant for understatement, I should have guessed that when they invited me to spend Christmas at their vacation place, "the farm," I wouldn't find pigs and ducks. Still, I was a bit open-mouthed when the farm turned out to be a splendid five-bedroom house perched on a hill above its own slice of sandy beach on the coast north of Puerto Vallarta.

The layout was perfect--whitewashed sleeping quarters in two rustic-looking buildings surrounded a pool and a central, open-air living room set under a vaulting palapa roof of dried palm fronds. After I'd admired its architecture for the umpteenth time, they said, "Oh, this is nothing. If you really want to see fine Mexican architecture you must visit Careyes," and lent me their Ford Bronco to make the 2 1/2-hour trip down the Pacific coast.

Nothing in their description could prepare me for Careyes. Located on an isolated bay between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, it is a little-known resort that's less a tourist destination than a jungle camp for world-weary souls. Although such powerful and glamorous figures as Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, Lee Radziwill Ross, British financier Sir James Goldsmith and Francis Kellogg have stayed in its hotel, casitas (little apartments) and villas, Careyes is not luxurious in a "Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous" sense. The hotel lacks gold faucets, haute cuisine and room service.

The pleasures of Careyes are simpler. On that first visit, I almost missed the small sign that signals the resort's entrance off the main highway. Turning in, I found myself snaking along a grass-and-cobblestone track that led over a hill and down to a gate manned by a sentry in a white straw cowboy hat. He waved me through to the Hotel Costa Careyes, a lovely, curved, terra-cotta building hidden among coconut palms and brilliant pink bougainvillea. Although it was the height of the season, the courtyard was quiet. In front of the hotel, dozens of palm trees swayed over a sandy beach set on a small, dazzling bay sheltered by two rocky peninsulas.

I noticed a waiter with a tray walking across the sand after serving drinks to a pair of sunbathers, and followed him to an open-air restaurant overlooking a large swimming pool. After a lunch of grilled dorado so fresh that it melted in my mouth, I climbed a cobalt-blue staircase--right behind a group of chic women chattering away in French--to what appeared to be a festive village that spilled down a hill on one side of the hotel. The women disappeared amid a maze of yellow and pink passageways that led to separate little casitas , which I later learned were part of the hotel and could be rented.

Catching my breath where the stairway stopped--at El Mirador, a restaurant and disco with a sweeping view --I saw sailboats bobbing at anchor in a previously hidden cove below and wondered about the fabulous-looking houses nestled in the rocks and foliage of the cliffs above me. The sun was getting low on the horizon and it was time to drive back to my friends' home, but here, I decided, was a place to return to.

Careyes is the singular creation of Gian Franco Brignone, a tall, aristocratic-looking man who stalks about wearing a poncho slung over one shoulder. With the help of his son, Giorgio, he runs the place more as a personal fiefdom than as a resort. Brignone Sr., once a banker in Italy, discovered the area in the late '60s when he flew over it in a small plane. That was before the Pan American Highway was built, and he found himself gazing upon what was untouched wilderness. From the sky, bougainvillea made bright stains on the green jungle, whales spouted in the clear ocean and giant sea tortoises paddled onto an untouched beach to lay their eggs. Brignone knew he had to have that place. Or so the legend goes.

Even skeptics (and Brignone, with his theatrical demeanor, has his) credit him with being one of the first developers in Mexico to be interested in ecology. Along with Mexican partners (whom he later bought out when the government changed its laws to allow foreigners to own land in trust with a Mexican bank), he purchased 2,500 acres of forest, hills and beach he called Careyes, the Spanish word for turtles. Instead of erecting a big, sore - thumb of a luxury hotel, Brignone built a two - bedroom , palm-frond bungalow on a beach he called Playa Rosa. There he began to plan a resort that would respect and protect the environment around it.

His approach was very European--a little here, a little there--and it has resulted in a resort that is a blend of Europe and Mexico. Although most of the key staff speak English, it is rare to hear that language on the premises. Spanish, French and Italian are more common, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Careyes' guests, mostly wealthy Europeans and Latin Americans.

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