The Deep Dive
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Last spring, a formerly fashionable part of Acapulco was the setting for a small revolution. The occasion was the grand reopening of Boca Chica, a fifties modernist hotel that’s the city’s first outpost of Grupo Habita, best known for its eponymous Mexico City property and sister spot Condesa DF. On Thursday night, before a weekend packed with opening events, a quiet dinner was held for members of Acapulco’s old guard. Under the hotel’s bayside thatched-roof palapa, the evening began with cocktails—Aca Brown with tamarind—and innovative dishes like poached salmon with mezcal sorbet and Kobe beef tataki with truffle oil and sea salt. The 80 guests were an impressive collection of local socialites, businessmen and dignitaries. Halfway through the night, Liliana Melo de Sada, an elegant blonde from an important Monterrey family, wearing a simple black dress and some serious gold jewelry, leaned over to one of her hosts and announced, “I already know all these people! I want to come back and see the new Acapulco.”
For the next three days, she was able to do just that. The gala weekend was filled with olive-skinned beauties in slinky dresses and dark men in tailored jeans and designer stubble. The young, chic crowd from Guadalajara, Puebla and the capital—everyone from Mexican film stars to Soumaya Slim de Romero, the daughter of billionaire Carlos (and whose husband is also a Boca Chica investor)—took over the hotel for a marathon of dinners, all-night fiestas, boat trips, pool parties and, appropriately enough, a so-called Sunday Recovery Brunch. A DJ in from Mexico City, wearing a straw fedora, played groovy music from the sixties and seventies, and later an L.A. import spun thumping dance music as bright lights from the hotel lit up the bay, the partiers moving to a waterfront terrace and swaying to the rhythm. At dusk on Saturday, some impossibly cool twentysomethings powered out on the hotel’s bright red speedboat to see the legendary cliff divers at La Quebrada. The vintage craft bobbed in the water as they watched the divers climb the rocks, pray to the shrine of Guadalupe and plunge into the Pacific. As they did, the young Boca Chica guests took out their cell phones and called their parents to tell them about it.
“Everyone in our country has amazing memories of the old Acapulco,” says Carlos Couturier, managing partner of Grupo Habita. “This is the place where our grandparents first saw the sea, where our parents went on honeymoon and where we, as kids, learned to swim and water-ski.” And now Couturier, his partners and a host of new spots, together with the city’s ultrachic establishment set, are seeking to create something that hasn’t been seen in Acapulco for years: a sense of international glamour.
Long known as the Pearl of the Pacific, the centuries-old port of Acapulco has a rich history. The city, which flows around a long, graceful bay that has to be one of the most beautiful in the world, began in the north, with homes and hotels perched on the cliffs around La Quebrada and expanding down toward the Yacht Club and the small beaches adjacent to Boca Chica. In the late forties, Mexican president Miguel Alemán threw his considerable authority behind Acapulco’s development, carving a grand boulevard (now named for him) around the bay from the old town toward the south. A decade later, the new part of town was dominated by the Hotel Las Brisas, where modernist villas with private pools spilled down the side of the mountain in pink and white splendor. Then, in the early sixties, Alemán built an international airport south of the city, pulling all elegant development toward that half of the bay.
It was in those years that Acapulco became one of the world’s first tropical playgrounds. It was the destination of choice for Hollywood stars from Johnny Weissmuller to Esther Williams, and international socialites from Egon von Furstenburg to Ricky and Sandra di Portonava. Loel and Gloria Guinness, who owned a particularly dramatic house, hosted such high-voltage friends as Ari Onassis, Jackie Kennedy and Stavros Niarchos. After his stay, Tennessee Williams set his Night of the Iguana in Acapulco. Viviana Corcuera—a stunning blonde and former Miss Argentina who married into a prominent Mexican family—had one of the most stylish old-world houses, high on the peaks near Las Brisas. Today Corcuera says she couldn’t possibly discuss all the people she knew there over the years, that it would simply take hours. But she does mention one New Year’s Eve when Frank Sinatra was one of her houseguests.
Alejandra Alemán, the daughter of the former president, remembers a Christmas at her parents’ house when she was very young. A guest got up to sing and all the women went wild: It was Tom Jones. And Susanna Palazuelos, author of one of the most respected books on Mexican cuisine and considered the country’s Julia Child, remembers a 1983 meal she created for Queen Elizabeth. Hosted by then-president Miguel de la Madrid, it was a state dinner for 300 held in Acapulco’s most historic building, the 18th-century Fort of San Diego. “It was unbelievable,” Palazuelos says of the event, “seeing the royal yacht Britannia harbored in the bay with all its flags.”
I am lucky enough to have known a bit of that Acapulco myself. My parents began visiting in the mid-fifties, driving from the plains of Kansas along the Pan-American Highway in their Raymond Loewy–designed 1954 Studebaker, or flying down in a single-engine Cessna. Starting in the late sixties, I went to Acapulco almost every New Year’s, and I have vivid memories of places like Armando’s Le Club, a huge property that went from the main boulevard to the beach. With its soaring, Moorish-inspired design, Armando’s was an open-air affair supported by white columns and surrounded on three sides by a spectacular pool covered with miniature mosaic tiles in shades of blue. During the day you walked through dense tropical grounds filled with peacocks to have lunch around the pool or to go to the beach club, while at night it was dinner and dancing. Acapulco in those years had restaurants like Villa Demos, fine Italian cuisine on the terrace of a posh villa that was a favorite of Nancy and Henry Kissinger’s, and discos like Le Jardin, where on New Year’s Eve in 1979 I saw a performance by a very young, and very intense, Grace Jones.
It wasn’t too long after that, however, that Acapulco began to slip. Successive Mexican leaders, seeking to emulate the success of President Alemán, began building their own legacy destinations—Puerto Vallarta in the seventies, Cancun in the eighties, Los Cabos in the nineties—and sophisticated travelers started going elsewhere. The numbers are startling. Up through the mid-eighties, 80 percent of Acapulco visitors were international, 20 percent domestic. Since then, however, it has been the opposite: 20 percent international, 80 percent domestic. Even the flights have dried up: There are only eight U.S. cities with regular nonstop flights to Acapulco, compared to upwards of 15 cities 25 years ago. As the number of regular international tourists dwindled, everything that went along with them—the best hotels, restaurants and clubs—also began to disappear. Even the hotel chains dotted around the bay were downgraded to lesser, local properties.
But Mexico City’s affluent never stopped coming; in fact, with the construction of a new highway that reduced the driving time to several hours, it was easier than ever for them to spend the weekend at the beach. “The international crowd was more my mother’s generation,” says Alejandra Alemán. “For my generation, we had all the beautiful people from the capital. They still have their houses here, they still have their boats.” And now others outside the country are starting to return. “People are discovering that we live in an absolute paradise,” says Palazuelos, the chef and cookbook author. “I travel all over, and it is definitely my favorite place. Puerto Vallarta is now very middle-of-the-road; Acapulco is sophisticated, with a mix of people that makes it unique.”
Today, the sense of international glamour that had been missing from Acapulco for decades is starting to reappear, and it’s most apparent in the city’s new hotels. In the past year, three top-flight properties have opened—the first to arrive in nearly 20 years. To the south is Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués, only the second North American resort from this Singapore-based brand. Its 47 Eastern-inflected villas, each with a private pool, evoke the city’s history as an important 16th-century trading port with Asia, and its all-Thai spa staff works with the attention to detail for which that continent is known. Just down from Las Brisas and overlooking the bay, meanwhile, is Hotel Encanto, a gleaming white 44-suite cube whose dramatic swimming pool flows around huge trees, its infinity edge leading to spectacular views. At the northern part of the bay, in the old part of town that hasn’t been hip for years—the opening scenes of Elvis Presley’s 1963 Fun in Acapulco were shot there—is Boca Chica. The 36-room midcentury mod monument sits on a point that juts out into the water, its rooms decorated with bright white linens and lacquered walls, black concrete floors and vivid splashes of color. The details are immaculate. “We spent three years buying vintage furniture around the country,” explains Habita’s Couturier.
Acapulco’s new glamour can also be found in its restaurants, like Zibu, where chef and owner Eduardo W. Palazuelos—the son of cookbook author Susanna—has created a fusion he calls Mextai in dishes like Thai adobo sea bass with a julienne of mango. (Eduardo tells of one New York client who flew down just for dinner.) Then there’s Becco al Mare, a deceptively simple Italian spot in a two-story glass-and-wood box just off Acapulco’s main drag. On its open-air terrace, flowing white panels hang from above, wood tables and upholstered chairs are scattered about, and the entire bay is on view. Some feel the cuisine—lobster taglioni, seafood risotto, fresh grilled tuna—is not as spectacular as the setting, but it’s hard to imagine many menus that could be.
Alejandra Alemán says a certain cosmopolitan experience distinguishes Acapulco from newer resorts. “Other places don’t have the feel of a city,” she explains, “with concerts, cultural events, neighborhoods. There is real life here: It’s not just for holidays.” (Unfortunately, urban dangers, like the recent drug-related violence that has shaken Mexico, have not spared Acapulco: The weekend before my visit in March, two dozen members of rival gangs were killed on the outskirts of town. Tourists have not been targeted, however, and during my trip I felt as safe as I would in any other large city—some 750,000 call Acapulco home.)
A certain global spirit is alive in the private villas that line the cliffs here, as well. I had a late dinner at the home of an American who’s been coming here for decades. An L.A. businessman who recently sold his Beverly Hills house for $20 million, he regularly parks his private plane at the airport and comes to his six-bedroom villa close to Las Brisas. Guests that night included Ron Lavender, an American expat who is the premier real estate agent in Acapulco, and a couple from Denver who own a nearby villa and have been coming here since the seventies. (Dropping by were the host’s granddaughter and her bevy of beautiful friends, staying at the house during spring break from USC.) I asked the woman from Denver—a handsome lady with rich red hair, chunky jewelry and a coral cashmere shawl around her shoulders—what kept her coming back all these years, and she told me of her first visit: driving in from the airport, making the long trip up the side of the hill, reaching the crest and catching her inaugural glimpse of the tremendous bay as it stretched in front of her. “I fell in love immediately,” she said, “and I’ve been in love ever since.”
Acapulco as it Was
From the forties through the mid-eighties, the resort and its crescent-shaped bay were the destination for American royalty, from jet-setting silver-screen stars to presidents.
Rita Hayworth, 1947: There to film The Lady from Shanghai, she became one of the first stars tied to Acapulco’s glamour.
Liz Taylor, 1957: A Mexico regular, Taylor honeymooned in Acapulco with her third husband, producer Mike Todd.
Eisenhower, 1959: Ike visited during his second term, going yachting with Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos.
Elvis Presley, 1963: The King’s Fun in Acapulco opened with iconic scenes at Boca Chica.
When in Acapulco...
Banyan Tree Launched in April, this spa resort has 47 pool villas perched on a rocky, wooded site that drops down to the water. From $520. At Col. Punta Diamente; 52-744/434-0100; banyantree.com.
Hotel Boca Chica Old-school yet wildly modern, Boca Chica reopened this March. Its 36 rooms boast terraces with hammocks and unobstructed bay views. From $95. At Playa Caletilla; 52-744/482-7879; hotel-bocachica.com.
Hotel Encanto Opened last year, the 44-suite clifftop Encanto exhibits spectacular design, with recessed LED lights that turn the building into a piece of art, like one by James Turrell. From $250. At 51 Jacques Cousteau, Fraccionamiento Brisas Marqués; 52-744/446-7101; hotelencanto.com.mx.
Hotel las Brisas Ideal for couples, the legendary 50-year-old resort has 263 casitas with their own pools, plus a fleet of pink-and-white jeeps that carry guests around the property. From $450. At Fraccionamiento Las Brisas; 52-744/469-6900; brisashotelonline.com.
Casa Guitarron With arched courtyards, stone pillars and a red tile roof, this remarkable Spanish Colonial seven-bedroom house includes a pool, a beach and a dock (with a fishing boat and a yacht available). From $4,000. At 370 Av. Costera Guitarrón; 52-744/446-5607; casaguitarron.com.mx.
Villa Karin and Villa Alejandra Each of these five-bedroom houses—built for the wife and the daughter of Mexican president Miguel Alemán—has spare, locally styled interiors, spectacular pools and a private beach. From $2,000; villaalejandraacapulco.com.
Villa Sabalo Perhaps Acapulco’s grandest home, with 14 bedrooms, tropical gardens and a cantilevered pool, Sábalo comes with a full staff, a steam room, a gym and a state-of-the-art disco. From $3,250. Contact Lourdes Mendoza at 52-55/3003-1784 or email@example.com.
Becco al Mare A dramatic open-air terrace with unobstructed views of the bay complements Italian specialties like shrimp tagliolini, seafood risotto and grilled fresh fish. Dinner, $45. At Av. Escénica; 52-744/446-7402; beccoalmare.com.
Pampano With branches in Mexico City and New York also serving its sophisticated nuevo Mexicano, this is a favorite of locals. Dinner, $40. At Carretera Escénica; 52-744/446-5636; richardsandoval.com.
Hotel los Flamingos Bar Coco Loco cocktails, perfect margaritas and unparalleled views are the rule at this alfresco spot above the Pacific. At Av. Adolfo López Mateos; hotellosflamingos.com.
Zibu The Mexican-Thai fusion here is best eaten on the lovely semicircular terrace. Dinner, from $40. At Av. Escénica; 52-744/433-3058; zibu.com.mx.
Casa de Dolores Olmedo A bright block-long mythological mosaic by Diego Rivera decorates the front wall of this private home. At 6 Inalambrica St., Cerro de la Pinzona.
La Quebrada The famed cliff divers are best seen by boat or from the Hotel Mirador restaurant’s terrace. At Plazoleta La Quebrada 74 Col. Centro; miradoracapulco.com.