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No plans, no worries in paradise

Two intimate hotels in the jungle away from the crowds mean you can jump at the chance to do nothing.

October 27, 2002|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Costa Alegre, Mexico

SPENDING a week on a tropical beach wasn't only a pleasant prospect, it was necessary. If we didn't de-stress from our demanding jobs soon, my significant other and I felt, the alternative would be a soundproofed white room with bars on the windows.

Bill and I had several requirements. Our dream destination had to be off the beaten track. No standard, glitzy resort for us. We wanted to be close to nature, not a five-minute elevator ride away, but camping wasn't an option. We wanted to be surrounded by natural splendor from the moment we woke up in a Frette-sheeted bed.

And that's exactly what we got at El Tamarindo, a secluded cluster of 29 thatch-roofed villas and a fabulous golf course nestled into a 2,040-acre ecological reserve on Mexico's Pacific Coast between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. We found it at Boutique Hotels of Mexico (www.mexicoboutiquehotels .com), a Web site so tantalizing that cruising it can begin to feel like a vacation in itself. It includes colonial mansions and historic monasteries converted to lodging in large and small Mexican cities, as well as beach resorts.

A friend who had been to El Tamarindo suggested it was gorgeous but not a place to spend an entire week. "It's great if you're with someone you love a lot, but there's really very little to do," she said. In other words, perfect. We chose El Tamarindo for the first three nights and El Careyes Beach Resort, its sister property less than an hour's drive away, for the final four. Both are on a stretch of Mexico's Pacific coastline called the Costa Alegre.

So in March, after an easy 2 1/2-hour flight from L.A. to Manzanillo, a well-traveled taxi without air-conditioning transported us to El Tamarindo on the dusty, bumpy 45-minute drive north. The route took us through small towns that were neither depressing nor picturesque. (We passed the turnoff to the port town of Barra de Navidad, which I later learned has lively restaurants, tourist shops and beaches, but which we never got to.) I imagine that some of the people who are accustomed to the luxury El Tamarindo offers, perhaps first-time visitors to Mexico, might be distressed by the uncomfortable drive.

When we turned off the highway onto El Tamarindo's private cobblestoned road, it was clear we were leaving the real world. The sunbaked landscape suddenly gave way to a tropical oasis. Well before we could see the ocean, we felt cooled by the sheltering forest. The road wound through dense jungle for 15 minutes or so, finally arriving at the resort's main building, a large, open structure supported by the trunks of giant guayabillo trees and covered with an immense thatched roof, a sort of beach palapa on hormones. It contained a reception area and a boutique selling bathing suits, sunscreen and crafts.

The resort was built in 1995 and initially run by a Singapore-based hotel management firm. But last February, Grupo Plan, the Mexican real estate company that owns both it and El Careyes, turned the management over to U.S.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which markets them under its Luxury Collection.

Luxurious simplicity

Once we were registered at El Tamarindo, a bellhop and golf cart brought us and our luggage to our casita along a meandering pathway through tropical gardens. The simple white stucco villa, also with a thatched roof, was only 600 or 700 square feet but felt spacious, with a bedroom and sitting area, bathroom and dressing room. The main room's glass doors could slide open to make the patio, bar area, built-in cushioned banquette and dipping pool seem like one extended space. The spare decor incorporated natural woods, polished stone floor inlays and luxurious white bed linens. The effect of the sophisticated design was a calming simplicity.

As we followed a stone path to the beach, we passed numbers identifying other casitas hidden among palm trees and lush landscaping. For $429 a night, excluding meals, we'd chosen a casita that was away from the beach and less expensive than the larger villas nearer the water's edge.

Being surrounded by jungle was novel, romantic and extremely peaceful. The sounds of the jungle, different during the day and after dark, were a wonderful alternative to the usual noise of telephone or TV, neither of which was available in our room. (Phones have since been added.)

Within a few hundred miles there are several deluxe resorts where the nightly charge can be even more, but I can't believe that they could be more beautiful. The service was excellent but unobtrusive. We'd return from a late afternoon walk on the beach to find that candles had been lighted around our private pool and fresh towels had been provided. Special insect repellent candles were placed in the room, but on our next visit I'll bring some bug spray of my own.

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