How often in these hectic times does one travel to an unfamiliar resort destination with high expectations, only to have them all exceeded, time suspended, every whim anticipated? Almost never. But we recently had exactly that experience at Casa Majani in Punta Mita, Mexico, and the Spoiled Guest will tell you all about it. But first, another question.
How do you feel about Mexico?
The Spoiled Guest must ask, since there are a lot of readers out there who have a real hesitation about vacationing in Mexico these days, my dear wife and travel companion among them. We used to go to Mexico regularly, often multiple times a year. I spent three years of my childhood there, and to this day love its people, culture and cuisine. In the early years of our marriage, La Casa Que Canta, in Zihuatanejo, on the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Guerrero, became a favorite destination for my wife and me, and deservedly so. Architecturally striking, superbly situated on a promontory between the town and Zihua’s beautiful curve of beach, staffed by what seemed to be professional angels, it was our go-to place for many a happy winter getaway.
Then the drug wars started making headlines, the U.S. State Department began issuing travel advisories on Mexico, and our inclination to travel to Guerrero State, one of the hotbeds of violent gang activity, declined precipitously. Almost five years had passed since our last trip south of the border.
So when a long-time friend and former business partner invited us to a week-long gathering of acquaintances in Punta Mita, a 1500 acre development of resorts and residences on a peninsula on the so-called Nayarit Riviera some 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, we hesitated. Was Puerto Vallarta safe these days, or had it descended into the street-level roguishness of, say, Acapulco? How would we get securely from the airport to the fairly remote precincts of Punta Mita and, once there, what level of security would prevail?
But we knew that Punta Mita is the site of both a St. Regis and a Four Seasons hotel, and that the travel standards of my friend and his family are at least as high as ours. As recent headlines had reminded us, you can get shot strolling on a pier in San Francisco. There is no such thing as zero-risk travel; if you want that, best not to leave home at all. And we were being invited to stay in a private, six-bedroom, oceanfront luxury rental villa, situated directly on the Pacific, all-inclusive and fully staffed. We bought our tickets, packed our swimsuits, and we went.
We needn’t have worried. Puerto Vallarta’s airport, an easy two-hour flight from our connection point in DFW, is twice as large and modern as the one we remembered, full of stylish shops and vacationing Americans. Customs and immigration took seconds. We were met by a faultlessly polite young man who spoke fluent English and escorted us to a spotless air conditioned van. Having been presented with cold towels and bottled water from a cooler, we were off, past the Wal-Marts and Home Depots and Starbucks along Rt. 200 north of the city and into the coastal countryside along Banderas Bay.
If one were to feel nervous about the trip, it would be here, once you cross the river from Jalisco into Nayarit State, where the road narrows to two lanes that meander through dense tropical foliage into higher elevations, and the “real” Mexico can be seen in the humble shacks and roadside fruit stands along the way. But that is a Mexico I know from long ago, and my wife was further reassured by her conversation with our driver, who said that Puerto Vallarta is booming with tourism as never before, and who, in his person and demeanor, personified the grace and amiability of the Mexican people.
Some forty minutes later, we pulled up to the gates of Punta Mita, an imposing checkpoint manned by three or four white-clad gents with clipboards and serious faces. Names were taken, destinations confirmed, and with an eventual smile of greeting the big wooden gates were opened to admit us. It was a far more careful perusal than the one we had received on entering the country.
The entire peninsula, jutting into the Pacific at the same latitude as Hawaii and bathed in ocean breezes, is owned and has been carefully developed by a Mexican real estate company called DINE (a corporate acronym, two syllables), which is responsible for a number of other high-end projects around the country. Roadways are pristine and cobblestoned at their manicured, roundabout-style intersections to suppress speed (the drive from the front gate to our destination seemed to take up about a third of the journey).
The master plan of Punta Mita combines a series of gated, high-end residential enclaves with the two large hotel properties, and not surprisingly makes maximum use of the nine-mile oceanfront perimeter of the peninsula. Clearly, wealthy gringos are the target clientele, and many of the residences (big single-family compounds of the kind we are bound for, but also low-rise condos and townhouses), are second or retirement homes of wealthy Californians from Silicon Valley and L.A.
The terrain is hilly and thick with palms and bougainvillea, punctuated here and there by a fairway or green of one of the two 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf courses within the property. Every structure is hidden behind walls, vegetation, or both, giving the place the feel of an endless parkland. We never laid eyes on the St. Regis or the Four Seasons, though I suppose with some modicum of effort we could have. But effort was soon to seem a ridiculous notion.
Behind yet another high gate lay Casa Majani (the name being a conflation of the names of the owner and her daughters), and as we alighted from our van we got our first hint of the level of service in which we were to be immersed in the ensuing days, as a petite hostess stood awaiting us with frosty margaritas and more cold towels.
The “villa” is actually a compound of striking one-story structures designed by the renowned Mexican architect Manolo Mestre, who was responsible for Isabel Goldsmith’s boutique resort Las Alamandas, down the coast a ways, and for Blancaneaux Lodge, Francis Ford Coppola’s jungle hotel in Belize. Casa Majani is of a much more intimate scale, designed for families or groups of a few couples, thoroughly modern yet warmly organic, with a palm-lined entranceway that draws you toward the crashing surf just beyond the edge of a huge infinity pool. (The beach immediately in front of the villa is not swimmable due to the rockiness of the waterline, but there are swimming beaches nearby and guests have access to Punta Mita’s private beach club, a short golf cart ride away.)
An enormous thatched palapa (photo, top) anchors the graceful sprawl of low stone-faced structures and shelters a lounging area and a triangular dining table that could easily seat twenty guests. A smaller table fronts the chef’s kitchen for informal breakfasts, and the staff adroitly arranges a picnic table for lunch in the sand under the beachside manzanillo trees if you wish.
The five spacious bedroom suites (there is a sixth, smaller unit that can be included for groups of more than 10) are clad in stone and warm woods, sleek and functional. The suites are designed with the goal of opening interior spaces to the seaward views, and while this diminishes the privacy of the bath spaces, the trade-off works well.
There is a large in-house yoga room, a beautifully appointed rec/TV room, and massages can be easily arranged (mine was superb). Guests of Casa Majani have access to the two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, a tennis club, the local fitness club (supplementing the small in-house gym), as well as two beach clubs. Access to the Four Seasons and St. Regis Hotel properties and amenities is available seasonally, though difficult during high traffic holidays.
The nearby beaches afford paddleboarding and surfing and, for the more adventurous, a huge ziplining complex is a short drive away. I joined a group in playing one of the pristine but challenging golf courses, many of whose fairways border or face the blue Pacific. Whale-watching, we were told, is a favorite diversion in the winter months.
But the temptation never to leave the property is strong because, apart from the stunning seaside location and the graceful architecture, what shines most here is the impeccable staff, under the supervision of maître d’ hotel Karsten Lemke, an affable German fluent in Spanish who came to Casa Majani by way of stints with the Ritz Carlton and Starwood hotel groups. His pride in his adopted country and in the unique property he runs radiates from his face, and he will happily wax eloquent on the subject of tequila (we enjoyed an educational tequila tasting on the beach during our stay). A refreshing paloma or mojito or limonada is never more than a smile and a “con permiso” or “de nada” away, and the meals – emphasizing seafood, of course, and fresh locally-sourced fruits and vegetables — are comparable to those served in the haughtiest metropolitan venues, with tortillas and artisanal ice creams hand-made in-house. Housekeeping is discreet, constant, and efficient.
Casa Majani is a private paradise on the Pacific, well worth the trip to Punta Mita and proof positive that a vacation in Mexico can be as benign and transporting as ever. More photos and details about the property may be had at http://www.casamajani.com and reservations can be made at majani.omajani.com.