Like many of the planet’s most beautiful locations, the Pacific coast of Mexico has suffered at the hands of the mega-resorts whose consideration of the local environment, history and culture is, at best, limited. Motivated purely by investment return, towering concrete blocks of replica rooms with neo-traditional, theme-park imitation architecture designed to pack in tasteless tourists by the thousands blot the landscape, ironically destroying the very environment that made the place attractive in the first instance. Paradise reduced to blandness.
Fortunately for all of us, there are visionaries who realise that you don’t need to tarnish a landscape to develop a successful hotel or resort. You can work to create a space at harmony with your environment, embracing it rather than damaging it. Three hotels on Mexico’s Pacific coast perfectly demonstrate how considered design and appreciation of the environment can create some of the best destinations in the world.
Translated as ‘Undiscovered Little Hotel’, Hotelito is probably one of the worlds most luxurious and romantic eco-escapist hotels. In total contrast to the ‘Hotel Zone’ of nearby Peurto Vallarta, Hotelito sits in a 40-acre site located on a 60km stretch of deserted beach, with a lagoon teeming with nature dividing the beach side of the property from the mainland. This is a place designed to remind us of what life is all about, the experience of simply living.
Created by Marcello Murzilli, a successful Italian fashion entrepreneur without previous interior or architectural design experience, who conceptualised Hotelito as he sat with a notebook on the beach, sketching his ideas as he visualised them around him. Marcello fell in love with the empty, natural space first and wanted to create something that delivered back to the local community, to improve their way of life. Staff, mostly from the local village, learn the skills of the hospitality business here, a springboard to well-paid jobs in the large resorts, should they ever be able to tear themselves away. This focus on the local people results in an honest service, a natural willingness to help.
Building of the property took three years, with the team living on the beach in tents during this time. Marcello sourced furniture from across Mexico, salvaging and restoring whatever unique items he could find. The bar was made from an old wooden pharmacy shelving unit, a sofa created from a bed cut in half. Prayer plates adorn the walls, handmade in the local village in the 1920s and provisions store shelving was salvaged for storing crockery.
Minimal environmental impact and harmony with nature is Hotelito’s core philosophy. Though unnecessary, this was actually a condition imposed by the Mexican government as part of the planning permission process. A turtle protection campaign half paid for by the Government and half by Hotelito has so far released over 30,000 baby turtles into the wild, with guests partaking in the release programme.
This is truly design with a conscience, a sustainable luxury property. Waste water is recycled, to be used on the garden, (a Bio-Digester contains bacteria that biologically eats human waste!) with a lily filter system the final part to the purification process. 35% of food consumed on the resort is grown on site, gardens are carefully tended that contain bananas, pineapple, chillies, papaya and numerous herbs, amongst other vegetables and fruits.
Candles provide most light and over 1500 are lit every evening by a member of staff whose sole role in the organisation is to look after the candles and lanterns. As you can imagine, this creates a sensational experience as the sun goes down, the Palafitos, pathways and restaurant / bar area lit only by natural candlelight, flickering in the sea breeze.
Each of the rooms, or Palafitos, is an individual hut, scattered around the lagoon or on the beach. Some have mini docks with a row-boat moored so you can cross the lagoon to the beach. The Palafitos are each named after Mexican lottery cards with artwork and decoration to match the room’s concept. This ensures that each room has a unique atmosphere, sole and spirit. As you would expect here, everything is made from natural materials, stone showers with bamboo heads, thatched roofing, wooden beds, all lit purely by candlelight in the evening.
One particular piece of ingenuity is a red flag that can be raised from the Palafitos to order room service – utilising clever design to avoid technology without compromising service.
It’s rare indeed to discover somewhere as perfect as Las Alamandas, which really does excel as a boutique resort in every possible way.
Isabel Goldsmith-Patiño, the daughter of the late British financier Sir James Goldsmith and the granddaughter of “Bolivian Tin King” Don Antenor Patiño, managed to convince her grandfather to preserve this fabulous natural site, who had originally intended on building a large resort and golf course. With four private beaches permanently protected from developers, the estate is now a refuge for wildlife. Passionate about preserving the environment and without any previous design experience, Ms. Goldsmith-Patiño developed the 1500 acre, 15-room private hideaway over 17 years.
Like a beautiful oil-painting, she slowly, carefully enhances the resort, adding a villa here or a terrace there, considering at all times the requirements of her very discerning clientele, who have included numerous household names. She defines her design philosophy as “Finding an idea somewhere and translating it into a different medium.” Consideration of this special natural environment is even represented in Las Alamandas’s brand identity, which depicts a brilliant yellow Alamanda flower incorporating dolphins as petals.
Everything about Las Alamandas contains passion and perfection. One of the most striking aspects of the design is the colour palette, which would be so less effective without the perfect natural context. Splashes of bright pink, canary yellow and dazzling orange sit amongst the backdrop of lush foliage, clear blue sky and sparkling sand. This palette is evident throughout the design, from entire walls of the buildings down to the striped vertical faces of steps leading up from one of the villas.
Inside, the rooms are comfortable, cool and peaceful, with white ceramic floors and rattan furniture. Ms. Goldsmith-Patiño has carefully, personally selected fabrics, crafts and folk art hand-painted artifacts from across Mexico. In one villa, a garden appears in the bathroom that lightens the room, bringing nature indoors.
The public spaces are simply beautiful. Pebble mosaic floors, pre-Columbian Aztec designs depicting the elements of Mother Nature can be seen in the large, open-sided beach-front lounge designed by noted Mexican architect Manuel Mestre. White toweling cotton day beds and sun-loungers with bright yellow pillows exude luxury, facing the crashing Pacific Ocean surf. The consistency of design runs through everything, down to the minutest detail on each table setting in the restaurant.
Imposing wooden doors to the Gallery Room were hand-made on the property and are complimented by Mexican statuettes topped with bright tropical flowers. Inside, the Gallery displays hand-weaved artworks made by Huichol Indians.
It’s exciting to anticipate what Ms. Goldsmith-Patiño will decide to do next to this continuously evolving project. Listening to her describe various ideas as we walked through the estate, I wondered how she could possibly improve on such perfection, but she seems determined not rest on her laurels, continuously fine-tuning every aspect of this idyllic retreat.
Hacienda San Angel
Deep in the heart of Puerto Vallarta’s cobblestone street Old Town lies Hacienda San Angel, aptly named, as this hotel is indeed a little piece of heaven. Owned, conceptualised and designed by Janice Chatterton, who again didn’t hold any previous hotel design experience, the Hacienda consists of four separate villas, three of which are cleverly connected through a central fountain courtyard. One of the villas, Casa Bursus, was once the home of Richard Burton who purchased the property as a Valentine gift for his wife.
The Hacienda San Angel’s layout is a truly fascinating collection of sunny terraces, lush gardens, pools, fountains and open-sided buildings. Wherever you turn, the attention to detail in the interior design is impressive, with an eclectic mix of hand-picked antiques and original artworks scattered throughout the property. There is no escaping the central angelic theme, as numerous angel-orientated fountains, statues and oil-paintings sit amongst silk wall hangings and crystal chandeliers within the walls of the Mexican Colonial architecture. Much of the property’s artwork dates from the 16th, 17th & 18th Century, including a French gothic steeple from the 16th Century and an imposing oil painting of the Archangel San Miguel, circa 1730.
Only a couple of miles from Puerto Vallarta’s imposing tower-block lined ‘Hotel Zone’, Janice Chatterton has successful demonstrated how to provide a peaceful, tranquil space working within the boundaries of what already exists. Though less about the natural environment than the other properties I visited, this is a superb example of how to sympathetically develop existing architecture and property in an urban environment into places where people actually want to be and stay without destroying the starting-point canvas.
article originally published in GS Magazine