Hacienda Style

Mahakua Hacienda de San Antonio, Mexico

In the distance, steam is streaming from Volcán de Fuego, the imposing and still active "fire volcano." The air is filled with the scent of tuberose, and all around are the gentle sounds of water splashing from a tributary of the El Cordoban River and from fountains in the courtyard. Five thousand acres of hillsides beyond are covered with fig, guava, walnut, pine, mango, and pistachio trees as thick as rainforest. Butterflies drift between intricately landscaped flowergardens.

There are many places around the world that define tropical serenity, but it is hard to imagine anything better than this hotel in Mexico, the Mahakua Hacienda de San Antonio. The grand 19th-century hacienda in the western state of Colima was built between 1879 and 1890 as the manor of a successful plantation (which at its height produced world-renowned coffee). Last August, Amanresorts founder Adrian Zecha took over the hacienda under a ten-year management deal and fine-tuned everything, opening it to the public in October. This sprawling, 66,000-square-foot mansion, with its vibrant colors (pink on the outside, apricots, reds, vivid yellows on the inside), romantic arched courtyards, and singular, handcrafted furnishings, may truly be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Everything about this casa grande is luxurious, starting with the sense of space, including the 26 bedrooms with 15-foot vaulted brick ceilings and generous bathrooms. Even the furniture is oversized, adding a note of fantasy and glamour. Suede lounge chairs, intricate Mexican silver mirrors, hand-loomed carpets and tapestries--each room is different, all with sublime views. One side of the house faces the volcano (best view, not surprisingly, is from the Volcano Suite); the other side overlooks the formal gardens, designed to resemble those of Spain's Alhambra Palace (corner room 23 is tops). French doors and windows graciously facilitate the vistas. Volcanic stone fireplaces in each bedroom come in handy at night, when the 5,000-foot elevation brings on a chill, even in summer.

The public rooms are similarly massive and packed with exquisite details—the large statue of a bird constructed of silver from Guadalajara, the hand-carved table with inlays of silver talismans, the gilded 18th-century mirrors.

Immediately surrounding the house are 470 acres on which to wander. In addition to the fruit trees, there are ornamental plants from all of Central America that attract a wide variety of birdlife. And the pool is on an epic scale—115 feet long. It seems conceivable that even if all the guests plunged in at once they could swim laps without touching.

Being surrounded by all of this space and all of this beauty has a lulling effect—it's difficult to imagine leaving the grounds. But for those who do want to venture out, excursions are quickly arranged by the deft household staff, led by managers Char and Henry Gray (formerly of Amandari). Enriching possibilities include a visit to the pre-Columbian 120-acre archeological zone (15 miles from the hacienda) and horseback riding on the adjacent ranch (which grows coffee and organic vegetables for the kitchen). Or there's the visit to the neighboring town of Comala for the afternoon ritual of listening to the dueling mariachi bands in Los Portales, the lineup of outdoor restaurants across from the main square—you buy the margaritas, the restaurants spring for the botanas, or hors d'oeuvres. (The best restaurant bet: Fundador, the one closest to the main road.)

Mostly, though, days here might be spent wandering the gardens with Lupita, the naturalist-in-residence, trying to swim an entire length of the pool, dining on Australian chef Craig Wheate's delicious fusions of Asian (he was previously chef of the Eastern & Oriental Express train) and Mexican cuisine. On nights when there are few guests, dinners are held in the blue-and-white Mexican-tiled kitchen—an intimate, rewarding touch.

On your last day, the thought of leaving is excruciating. One reason, of course, isthe arduous trip back to the airport (a two-and-a-half-hour drive north to Guadalajara or nearly two hours southwest to Manzanillo). But the real reason is separation anxiety—parting from the ease and perfection here, the sensory euphoria induced by just looking around.

Room rates: $750-$1,400, including meals and airport transfers. Municipio de Comala, Colima, Mexico; 52-331-34411; fax 52-331-43727; e-mail: reserve@mahakua.com.mx.