Oppressive warmth, broken air-con, and two conflicting, illegible maps is a recipe for disaster, and the making of a heated ‘Mr and Mrs’ – what my mum diplomatically refers to as a spousal dispute. There we are, sweating in our rented Nissan two-door tin can, attempting to navigate the arid, monotonous terrain between Cuixmala
, a collection of villas on Mexico’s Pacific Coast (the former estate of Sir James Goldsmith), and La Hacienda de San Antonio, Cuixmala’s sister property up in the mountains outside the tiny town of Comala. A dozen identical road signs point to route 200, the road we want, each with its own sense of direction. It is confusing enough to make Hernando Cortez’s head spin.
Hacienda de San Antonio is 15 minutes from the sleepy, cobblestoned streets of Comala. We pull up to iron gates worthy of a conquistador and descend through a dense grove of trees, finally emerging into a grass covered plaza bordered by a grand hacienda dripping in bougainvillea and ivy. The irritability produced by a four-hour drive evaporates as we pass through the colossal wooden doors and the staff offer us chilled mint tonics (a fine tipple, I later discover, when paired with vodka. I manage to acquire the secret recipe and might be persuaded to share it if you tweet me @ashleyhartswick
The hacienda was built in 1890 by Don Arnoldo Vogel, a German immigrant clearly enraptured by the hacienda lexicon of courtyards, colonades, and lightly curved arches. Vogel turned the estate into a thriving coffee plantation, but at some point, things went south and by the time Sir James picked up the property, the hacienda had long been shuttered. He gave his daughter, Alex Marcaccini, the task of bringing the place back to life and she succeeded splendidly. The yellow bar alone, with its creamy canary walls and drapes offset by a vaulted ceiling in cinnamon, was worth risking divorce on the road.
On entering our suite, we feel as though we have teetered back in time to a princely era. The room boasts 25-foot ceilings and is filled with 18th-century furniture, with surprise contemporary touches such as bright red ikat tapestries. We put a musty tang to the air down to the combination of old stone and burnt firewood, and we take it in our stride as part of the ambience.
The grounds behind the hotel are an imperial succession of gardens that exalt geometry: allées of boxwood splaying from a circular ornamental pool, the spaces between brimming with flowers; a cascade of semicircular stone steps descending to another decorative pool, this one of Moorish inspiration. Hidden benches and natural nooks and crannies scattered throughout the grounds induce the urge to strip and run wild over the lawns. Aside from the staff (gracious, knowledgeable and ever-aware of our comings and goings), there are only two other guests who would notice. I am game but Mr Smith says if he went along with it we'd have to get room service for the rest of our stay.
An entire afternoon is spent splayed out on a wide chaise beside the tiled, Olympic-size pool, with us reading and being raucously serenaded by a band of chachalacas, a large wild-turkey-like bird. Aside from the squawking, the atmosphere is serenity squared, and somehow staff materialise at just the right moment with a new set of cold, rose-scented hand towels or a top-up.
Lunch, served in a gazebo by the pool, consists of a myriad of Mexican dishes, accompanied by a bottle of native rosé: Monte Xanic’s Calixa grenache. We later learn that 80% of the Hacienda's organic food (from vegetables to beef) is produced on its adjoining ranch. We also discover that the hotel is searching for a new chef. This explains our concern that it's occasionally a little bland. However, the guacamole is not to be missed and the homemade ice-cream is a standout. And by the time you read this hopefully they'll have a new gourmet head honcho.
At dusk, the hotel’s grand scale takes on a magical, mysterious aspect, perhaps because the palms, loggias, and oversized decorative terracotta pots are often in silhouette, and the pathways lined with torches and votive candles. You want romance? Just try and avoid it. After cocktails and stargazing on the veranda, dinner on the terrace, and a rousing game of dominos in the main salon, we retire to our room and discover the hotel’s only other shortcoming, lack of air conditioning. We try opening the windows, but are soon assaulted by squadrons of mosquitoes, and so endure a hot night.
Mr Smith successfully challenged to a morning tennis match is followed by massages for us both savoured in the privacy of our room. Active travellers, we could have done with at least another day to take full advantage of the hotel’s offerings – hiking, wine tasting – but we settle for some horseriding. Venturing out into the countryside on horseback proves a highlight of our stay.
Now, as an innate horse-lover and experienced rider, I am not quite as excited as Mr Smith, knowing how fretfully boring most organized ‘trail rides’ can be. But once we are mounted, our guide (tipped off about my prowess by Mr Smith, I assume) spurs his spirited pony, and before I can adjust my cowboy hat, we are galloping off to some nearby lakes. And what a landscape. Keen to see how this dramatic terrain must look after the rainy season, I plot a way to come back after August. Indeed, the only thing that could make this place more magical, would be seeing it when the wild flowers are in bloom.
Reviewed by Ashley Wick and Oliver Guinness