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Mexico's Costa Careyes : Destination: Mexico : Wild Style : At a revamped resort surrounded by jungle and bay, people are pamperd and turtles protected.

November 20, 1994|JANE GALBRAITH | Galbraith, a former Newsday correspondent, is now deputy press secretary for Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan. and

COSTA CAREYES, Mexico — When someone first mentioned this Shangri-La of a place called Costa Careyes, a resort that is part ritzy hotel, part untouched ecological wonder and renowned for its giant sea turtles, all I could mutter back was, "Where? Careyes? Never heard of it."

Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa, Cancun, sure. But never a resort called Costa Careyes (Spanish for Turtle Coast).

Like its L.A. namesake, the tony Hotel Bel-Air on the Westside's Stone Canyon Road (to which it is unrelated), the Hotel Bel-Air Costa Careyes looks somewhat like a large, sprawling Mediterranean villa. But instead of pink, it is painted in the most brilliant crayon colors. I am told you can spot it from the air when flying over it in your own private jet, or when shuttled in from Manzanillo or Puerto Vallarta airports in a helicopter. (Or when driving to it off the Pan American Highway, the approach most guests take.)

Too bad my Gulfstream was in the shop.

Surrounded on all sides by jungle, this 60-room hotel is on its own private bay and just a short distance away from a nature preserve that has crocodiles, cormorants and all kinds of exotic flora and fauna, not to mention two championship polo fields.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 27, 1994 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 4 Column 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Costa Careyes--Because of an editing error, a wrong telephone number was given in a Nov. 20 story on the Hotel Bel-Air Costa Careyes. The correct number in Mexico is 011-52-335-10000.

Obviously, I think to myself after having been told all this, the place is so exclusive, it's obscure. But clearly it is very expensive--with those great amenities you crave when daydreaming out a smoggy Downtown L.A. in midsummer.

I was intrigued about eco-traveling in Costa Rica--which also boasts great sea turtle-watching and luxury hotels--but it was too far away for the time I had, essentially a long weekend. Careyes, on the other hand, is relatively close--about the same distance time-wise (five hours total) as driving to Yosemite from Los Angeles. Yet it felt like a true foreign getaway.

The question was how a non-top-of-the-tax-bracket type like me could swing a visit to a place that is frequented by international financiers, Hollywood glitterati and polo-playing royalty.

When I checked up on Careyes' past, I learned of its jet-set history. It was founded in the late '60s by Italian financier Gian Franco Brignone as a winter playground for him and his polo-playing buddies such as British industrialist Sir James Goldsmith, cereal heir Francis Kellogg and Italian automobile tycoon Gianni Angelli.

Brignone sold the hotel and a dozen or so adjacent casitas , or hillside townhomes--a resort formerly known as Hotel Costa Careyes--two years ago to Hoteles Bel-Air Mexico, and it has since undergone a multimillion-dollar face-lift. The pool alone looks like it cost a million.

There are antique Mexican artifacts in the hallway alcoves, a sauna and gym and landscaping to rival the L.A. County Arboretum.

How to pay for this slice of paradise? My friend, Reagan Gray, a Los Angeles advertising executive, came up with the answer: We went off-season, shared a room, and ate breakfast and dinner only. We went last August, leaving on a Thursday flight and returning late Sunday afternoon.

We landed in a rainstorm at Puerto Vallarta (summer is the wet season in the tropics: hot and muggy) and arranged to be picked up by the hotel van, rather than renting a car.

Ten minutes south of P.V., the skies cleared and we headed through lush, steep forests that dramatically nose-dive into the Pacific. Along the coast we passed Gargantuan high-rise hotels popular two decades ago and woefully dated now.

Up over the mountains we went, then headed down into a flat farm region. Cattle grazed fearlessly right alongside the highway. The adobe and thatched homes of the country villages were a strange contrast to the road's speed bumps, which signal the presence of underground high-tech fiber optic cable lines.

After a long drive--two hours and 15 minutes--we turned off the highway and onto the cobblestone road leading to the hotel. At the end of a long lawn laced with coconut palms, the van emerged to reveal a grand, tri-level, bougainvillea-disguised hotel with a high, wide arched entrance that frames the blue bay beyond. The air was clear, the grounds pristine.

The office manager greeted us with glasses of "Careyes nectar" (blended pineapple, papaya and banana) and said he'd show us around the compound and then escort us to our room.

"Did an artist paint this place?" I asked. The stucco walls are washed in a mesmerizing assortment of colors, executed in glorious juxtaposition under massive wood beams. A yellow archway, long white halls, a magenta walk-through, more white walls, a chartreuse entryway . . . so it goes on in a vibrant pattern.

This is "Careyes style," our guide told us, and it was inspired by some of Mexico's best architects who have designed many of the private villas nearby. But it was hard to concentrate on a recitation of the hotel's amenities when a pinkish-gold sunset was washing out over the horizon.

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