Above the Fray

  • Jack Smith

Night has fallen in Acapulco, and any moment now a young Mexican diver will fling himself off a cliff and into the surf pounding against the rocks 95 feet below. He stands at the cliff’s edge, torchlit against the blackness. He is in no rush to jump. To depart this perch too soon or too late or to fail to clear the jagged limestone wall below him will have disastrous consequences, so nobody begrudges him this moment of contemplation. Finally he bends his knees and takes wing, suspended between the night and the sea. In this instant we can imagine that nothing has changed, that this neon-lit resort town is still Hollywood’s playground, that its bars and hotels are crowded with celebrities, and that anyone who is anyone comes to Acapulco.

Splash!

The illusion passes as the diver plummets into the water and then reappears amid the waves to the applause of onlookers. It is 2010 again, and everyone has been to Acapulco. Once the seaside Shangri-La of the privileged, this resort town has come to epitomize mass travel, with all that term connotes: discount rates, all-inclusive package deals, bus tours clogging narrow streets, pink-faced cruise passengers disembarking to go souvenir hunting, spring breakers partying with cast members from MTV’s The Real World, conventioneers stretching their per diems at Hooters, and baby boomers in town for theme weekends featuring the performers of their youth.
 
Even the city’s tourism officials acknowledge that, yes, somewhere in the course of the past few decades Acapulco has become a little tacky.

Then there is the crime. This is no small matter. In the past four years drug-related violence has claimed some 28,000 lives throughout Mexico. The danger posed by warring drug factions has prompted the U.S. Department of State to issue a safety warning for Americans traveling to and living in Mexico. In Acapulco, two rival cocaine cartels have been fighting for control of the trafficking route through the city (though the two gangs recently declared an alliance). In April, the conflict resulted in a shoot-out on the main tourist strip that left six people dead, including a mother and her 8-year-old daughter. In June 2009, 16 people were killed in a firefight between cartel gunmen and Mexican soldiers. Four years ago, members of a drug cartel decapitated two local policemen and left their heads outside a government building.

So given that conventional wisdom holds the city to be either passé or a war zone or both, Acapulco might appear to be second only to Kabul as an unlikely site for development as a luxury destination.
 
But that is precisely what is happening. Despite the drug war, a new Acapulco is taking shape. In the hills beyond the downtown district, stylish resorts, hotels, and spas are sprouting like palm trees. Vacationing coeds are eschewing flip-flops and cutoffs for stiletto heels and go-anywhere black dresses as they explore restaurants with cutting-edge architecture and extensive wine lists. In the gated and heavily guarded hillside communities of La Cima and Las Brisas, on the eastern flank of Acapulco Bay, countless infinity pools appear to pour from the property of one lavish new palace into another, as if to irrigate the bay below.

One thing that has not changed since that day in the late 1930s when Errol Flynn sailed into the bay on his yacht is Acapulco’s breathtaking setting. “With the mountains and the bay, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” said Ron Lavender, an Iowa native who is regarded as Acapulco’s leading purveyor of high-priced real estate. “The weather’s great, too. So it only follows that the wealthy want to live in places like Las Brisas and [La] Cima.”

Notwithstanding the violence and the media’s coverage of it, Lavender’s problem, he lamented, is a lack of supply of luxury homes in Acapulco, not a lack of demand. “Nobody wants to sell,” he said. “And even if they do have a property on the market, none of my clients are selling one house to pay the mortgage on another. Though I do have one owner who just sold his home in Beverly Hills for $20 million to expand his place in Acapulco.”

Part of the appeal of these pricey neighborhoods is the views, and some of the most sensational belong to a Chicago businessman (who asked that his name not be used). His seven-bedroom, 11-bath home, Casa Abuelo, sits at one of the highest points of La Cima, offering views of Acapulco Bay on one side and Puerto Marqués, a more rustic bay, on the other. The property features a man-made lagoon, with water running around huge boulders and statuary and stepping-stones arranged to keep visitors dry. The home is built in what appears to be the Acapulcan style—with floor-to-ceiling windows and a minimum of interior walls to avoid impeding sight lines to the bays below. You can rent Casa Abuelo, which also features a disco where music plays and fog flows at the touch of a button, for $4,000 to $7,000 per day, depending on the season.
 
From the businessman’s retreat the road loops around Puerto Marqués to one of Acapulco’s most engaging resorts, the Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués. When first glimpsed from the approach along the water, the resort resembles a hillside colony of oversize mushrooms that have been carved into chocolate-brown cottages—like something from the pages of a children’s picture book. On the property, the sense of a woodsy idyll is unrelenting. Somewhere amid the flora, say staffers, are families of resident bandicoots, badgers, and foxes. When it rains, which is rare except during the summer, the property abounds with waterfalls, as the rainfall flows into channels that have been dug into the steep hillside.
 
General manager David Cayuela noted that the cottages were assembled by hand. For that matter, he said, the developers could not have used heavy machinery to build the Banyan Tree even if they had wanted to. “The hills are too steep,” Cayuela said. “We had to use almost all wooden beams, not steel. The philosophy is high-touch, low-tech. Here there are no neon lights, no artificial rain forests, no tricks. It’s an Asian philosophy, but we think it is right for Acapulco.”
 
To be sure, the sense of good karma was everywhere. When, for instance, a cricket came hopping along the bar, the bartender gently captured it in a glass to be released later on the grounds. “It’s a Buddhist philosophy thing,” the bartender explained. So, too, he claimed, is using bamboo straws in a cocktail rather than plastic. “You get a more natural vibe with bamboo.”
 
Another new luxury property in Acapulco is the gleaming white Hotel Encanto, which opened a year ago. A more than $20 million boutique project from Mexican architect Miguel Ángel Aragonés, Hotel Encanto has a minimalist design conceived to enhance guests’ awareness of the sea and the sky. Encanto contains 44 rooms—22 of which have private pools—and is building a full-service spa that will have eight treatment rooms. Some of the rooms feature floor-to-ceiling white blinds that, when pulled shut, serve as a screen for a muted light show; push a button when the room is dark, and lights hidden in a crevice between the wall and ceiling shine on the blinds and subtly shift from hues of lavender and blue to shades of red and pink and back again.

While much of the talk of Acapulco’s renaissance focuses on the newest multimillion-dollar properties, some of the city’s older resorts and hotels are investing lavishly in upgrades and makeovers. In an attempt to recast itself as more than just a honeymoon destination, Las Brisas Acapulco, famous since its opening in 1957 for its pink-and-white jeeps and private swimming pools, underwent a nearly $20 million upgrade in 2008. Nevertheless, the resort had planned a theme weekend for baby boomers, with Donna Summer as the featured entertainer; the plan fell through. “So many of our guests identify this place with their own past,” said Vladimir Ortiz, the hotel’s sales manager. “One guest told us he’d booked a room with us just so he could come here to die.”

Of course, even those boomers old enough to remember when Donna Summer hit the charts are still too young to have experienced Acapulco’s true heyday, when the Hollywood gang descended upon Hotel Los Flamingos. The latter was a ramshackle, one-story hotel set on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the former a gaggle of Hollywood leading men who, in 1954, chipped in and bought the property to be their private clubhouse. Here, Johnny Weissmuller entertained with Tarzan yells, John Wayne showed pals how to chase tequila with a squeeze of lime, and Errol Flynn tirelessly romanced one ingenue after another. Other investors included such silver-screen icons as Tyrone Power, Rory Calhoun, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Red Skelton, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray, and Roy Rogers, to name a few.
 
When Frank Sinatra sang “Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay,” he could have been thinking of the Rat Pack’s soirees at the palatial Villa Vera, which also was a favorite of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Rita Hayworth. Lana Turner lived at the resort hotel for five years, and Elizabeth Taylor got hitched there to producer Mike Todd; after his death she returned every year for nearly two decades.
 
One of the most influential figures to land in Acapulco was hotelier Teddy Stauffer. The general manager at the Villa Vera, Stauffer was the celebrity’s celebrity; he caused a sensation by installing the first swimming pool at a seaside resort—an idea that at the time seemed to defy all logic. He was also a world-class Lothario whose five wives included cinematic femmes fatales Hedy Lamarr and Faith Domergue.
 
However, not all of Acapulco’s high-powered guests came from Hollywood: JFK and Jackie, Bill and Hilary, Donald and Ivana, and Henry and Nancy Kissinger honeymooned in the city. And, in the 1970s, recluse Howard Hughes prowled the top floor of the pyramid-shaped Princess Hotel.
 
It was an omen, though, that when Elvis was filming Fun in Acapulco in 1963, he apparently preferred the ambience of Sunset Boulevard to the Mexican seacoast. Except for a few establishing shots and action sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a Hollywood backlot. By then, Hotel Los Flamingos had been sold and was again open to the public

The stage was set for the Beach Blanket Bingo market in 1964, when American Airlines commenced commercial jet service from the United States. American college students were quick to catch on that, while the drinking age in the United States was 21, in Mexico it was 18, and nobody ever carded you. With the international jet set packing their bags for Puerto Vallarta, Cancún, and Los Cabos—the new glamour destinations—Acapulco’s growth became fueled by cheap hotels, cheap booze, cheap drugs, and free sex. The city’s population ballooned from about 5,000 in the 1940s to 50,000 in the mid-1960s. Like some surf-soaked fun park, Acapulco offered something for everyone.
 
As long as your standards were not too high.

Hotel Los Flamingos is still open today, owned and managed by Adolfo Santiago, who was a teenage busboy at the hotel when John Wayne and company owned it (a circa-1950s photo of Santiago and Wayne hangs in the lobby). Every Thursday the town’s who’s who gather at the hotel for posole, a thick soup made from popped hominy, red or green chilies, and chicken or pork and served with tamales. A mariachi band plays hits that were probably old when the Hollywood gang was there, and guests knock back shots of tequila with lime chasers, just as the Duke used to do. Travelers with a yen to immerse themselves in the tradition of the Hollywood gang can spend a night in the two-bedroom round house located at one end of Los Flamingos. This is where Johnny Weissmuller lived out the final years of his life.
 
Another example of Acapulco’s retro chic is the Hotel Boca Chica, which reopened last March. A 1950s-style hideaway that claims to have spawned the margarita, the hotel is located just a few steps away from the Playa Caleta, a virtually private ocean cove that is ideal for snorkeling, diving, and boating. The hotel houses 30 rooms and six suites (each suite has a private terrace and a hammock). The spa area features a gym, several massage cabanas, and a therapy station offering a variety of body and facial treatments. Speedboats and yachts moor in front of the hotel so that their passengers can order sushi rolls and sashimi to go from Boca Chica’s Japa­nese restaurant, which has operated at the hotel in one form or another for 60 years.
 
Acapulco remains a high-energy town, the kind of place where restaurants welcome their stylishly attired patrons to sit down to dinner at midnight. Becco al Mare is one such establishment. Here the cuisine is Tus­can and the reservations list long; celebrities and socialites might wait three weeks to get a table in high season, from January through March, and during spring break. Until late in the evening, the crowd flows through the glass-walled entrance, which resembles a large, wood-trimmed ATM booth. The girls in the crowd do a Heidi Klum catwalk down the runway toward the open-air terrace at the edge of the water.
 
On one recent night, the lights from the opposite shore of the bay were twinkling and a low, contented hum was coming from the restaurant’s tables when something whistled overhead and burst kaleidoscopically above the bay.
 
During a break in the fireworks display, Becco’s thirtysomething owner, Rolly Pavia, returned to one of his favorite topics—the quality of Mexican wines. “We like to serve Mexican wines,” he said. “They are a tremendous value. It is just now becoming fashionable for us to drink Mexican wine, especially the Cabernet Sauvignons from the Baja. It is not yet fashionable for the wealthy to grow wine, as in California, but I think that will come.”
 
Pavia turned to greet another group of J.Crew-clad dinner guests, who appeared to be in their early twenties. “You know, these are all spring breakers,” he confided after they had passed. “Ten years ago they would have come here wearing jeans and T-shirts. Of course 10 years ago this place would not have been here.”

Nearby is Zibu, another hot spot of Acapulco’s dining scene. Zibu’s entrance appears much the same as Becco al Mare’s, and both restaurants offer bay views, but that is where the similarities end. Where Becco is minimalist and pristine, Zibu is flamboyantly rustic, with a thatch roof covering the bar and illuminated bamboo trees growing through holes in the outdoor decks. The cuisine, which fuses Mexican and Thai styles, earned the restaurant’s 37-year-old chef and owner, Eduardo Wichtendahl, a Mexican presidential award in 2008 for innovation. “This is a great time to be in this city,” said Wichtendahl, whose mother, Susanna Palazuelos, is Mexico’s most famous caterer and author of Mexico: The Beautiful Cookbook. “Ten years ago people thought Acapulco was dead.”

At Casa Abuelo, after concluding a tour of his hilltop house, the Chicago businessman climbed behind the wheel of his Jeep to take his visitor on a short drive. He hit the horn, which played the opening chords of “La Cuca­racha,” and laughed. “Get in,” he said. “I’ll show you where the rich people live.”
 
As he drove along, the businessman identified the houses by their owners’ professional affiliations: “Here’s Siemens, here’s Oakley, here’s Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon…”

The doctor was in so we stopped to take in the scenery at Villa Pamela, which, in contrast to the sleek modernism of Casa Abuelo, is tropically rustic, a style underscored by its palapa roof. The view from the front door extends through the house to the turquoise basin of the bay below. The sensation is like entering a theater and seeing the bay projected onto a screen. “We designed it that way,” said Dr. Steven Hoefflin (after denying responsibility for the pop star’s later surgeries). “People from the U.S. build their homes [in Acapulco] open, with no walls.”
 
A burro named Barney wandered the grounds behind the house. “I got him to carry water to the poor Mexicans who live on the other side of the hill,” explained Hoefflin. A few years ago, though, he built wells for those neighbors, so Barney is now retired.
 
“You know, you can go to Cancún and have a nice vacation, but it’s vacation,” Hoefflin said. “What I like about living here is, besides the phenomenal beauty, it’s a real city, with a sense of community.”

The businessman has a different perspective on life in Acapulco. “What I like best is the nightlife,” he said. “When asked about the violence in the city, he responded in true Chicago fashion. “The drug lords just knock each other off,” he said, overlooking that three bystanders were killed in the latest shoot-out and that he requested anonymity because of security concerns. “I feel real secure up here.” 

Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués, +52.744.434.0100, www.banyantree.com; Becco al Mare, +52.744.446.7402, www.beccoalmare.com; Casa Abuelo, +52.744.446.7334, www.acapulcovillarentals.com; Hotel Boca Chica, +52.744.482.7879, www.hotel-bocachica.com; Hotel Encanto, +52.744.446.7101, www.hotelencanto.com.mx; Hotel Los Flamingos,+52.744.482.0690, www.hotellosflamingos.com; Las Brisas Acapulco, +52.744.469.6900, www.brisashotelonline.com; Ron Lavender Y Asociados, +52.744.484.7000, www.ronlavender.com; Zibu, +52.744.433.3058, www.zibu.com.mx    

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