A Celebrated Artists’ Colony and a National Monument
Mexican and international artists and writers are drawn 6,200 feet above sea level to the mountaintop town of San Miguel de Allende by the glory of its Old Mexico charm and the purity of its seductive light. Among its many attributes are restored mansions of noble families, 18th-century churches, the always lively laurel tree-shaded El Jardin square, outdoor cafes, and excellent restaurants.
In addition, a still-active and centuries-old trade in traditional Mexican artisanship helps make San Miguel a vigorous cultural center. Founded in 1542 by wealthy Spanish cattle barons and retaining an aura of prosperity that came later from the Guanajuato region’s lucrative silver mines, this casual but sophisticated town draws a mix of well-heeled Mexico City weekenders, intelligentsia, international tourists, and a growing community of American residents.
Much of its fame has been secured by the long-term success of the Casa de Sierra Nevada, San Miguel’s most refined hotel (and one of Mexico’s finest inns). Built in 1580 and transformed into the sumptuous home of the Archbishop of Guanajuato in the late 1700s, it is comprised of seven colonial-era manor houses.
A welcoming staff gives new meaning to the expression “Mi casa es su casa.” Each distinctive suite has its own personality and decor: Some have wood burning fireplaces and their own courtyard patio or private garden, while many enjoy full views from the unique mountaintop vantage point for which San Miguel is known.
Among the Most Romantic Views on Earth
Much of Acapulco’s sultry reputation as Hollywood’s south-of-the-border beach club has been shattered by a groundswell of tourism, but the heart-stopping beauty of the bay is eternal. With physical endowments that have often been compared to those of Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco also features unbeatable sunsets over its 7-mile horseshoe-shaped bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Avoid the package tourists and revel in unparalleled water views by checking in at the Hotel Las Brisas, the legendary hilltop grande dame that has shared Acapulco’s fame and high profile for more than three decades. Every day is a honeymoon here: Secluded fuchsia- and bougainvillea-draped casitas boast private pools filled with floating hibiscus flowers and breathtaking views of the bay. The hotels Bella Vista alfresco restaurant is aptly named.
Most guests never leave Las Brisas’s 750 tropical acres on the lush mountainside, but those who do jump in one of the hotel’s hallmark pink-and-white-striped jeeps and head 6 miles north to the nearby fishing village of Pie de la Cuesta, a laid-back spot where a hammock and the roar of the surf evoke a long-ago Acapulco.
The Charm of Old Mexico in a Hilltop Silver Capital
Silver-hungry tourists make a beeline for this delightful colonial-era hill town, whose zigzag streets are lined with more than 250 silver shops. The shop-till-you-drop group won’t be disappointed by the quantity and refined quality of Taxco’s silver objects and jewelry, but sightseers will also find a charming town of red-roofed, whitewashed houses piled on top of one another.
Cobblestone streets lead to the Plaza Borda, the main square, named after the town’s 18th-century benefactor, a miner who inaugurated Taxco’s second silver boom (the first happened with the 16th-century arrival of the conquistadores). In gratitude for the bounty (since depleted) that made him wealthy, the French-born Borda financed the construction of a Baroque twin-towered church, Iglesia de Santa Prisca, in the square.
It is considered one of the most elaborate examples of the extravagant churrigueresque architecture in Mexico—no expense was spared either for the exquisitely carved pink-stone facade or for the interior, where twelve gilded altarpieces vie for attention.
The church and plaza are at the heart of Taxco’s renowned Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, the most compelling in Mexico—self-flagellating, black-hooded, bare-torsoed penitents are only part of the lavish spectacle that involves the entire town.
Take advantage of Taxco’s magnificent views, especially romantic at night, from the top-notch restaurant and Mexican-style bungalows that make up the beautifully landscaped hilltop Hacienda del Solar.
Windows to Paradise
Located at the tip of the 1,000-mile long Baja Peninsula, near where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, Las Ventanas al Paraiso evokes an ends-of-the-earth solitude, cushioned between sea and desert sands, with the rough-hewn mountains beyond.
Once geographically isolated, Los Cabos—a 25-mile corridor that joins the two desert towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose6 del Cabo—has undergone rapid development in the past decade, with Cabo San Lucas in particular becoming known for wild, cerveza-drenched spring breaks (check out the town’s Cabo Wabo, where every night is tequila night) and hippie-happy social dropouts.
Las Ventanas, opened in 1997 on 12 acres along the much calmer corridor, has brought the ultimate note of refinement to this scene, from the breezy luxury suites (the largest in Mexico) to the seaside drop-edged pool, the championship 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, and an indoor-outdoor spa that offers everything from a torchlit couples’ massage and cactus-cleansing wraps to—no kidding—a stress-reducing rubdown for your poodle.
The smiling and eager staff second-guesses every whim, and guests who venture off the property can take advantage of the area’s ruggedly beautiful scenery and world-class diving and big game fishing. Sunsets are completely intoxicating, even if you didn’t attend the afternoon’s tequila tasting.
Who’s Watching Whom?
At San Ignacio Lagoon, a magical place halfway down the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula, whales regularly rise out of the sea to touch and be touched by humans. In one of the most remarkable annual migrations nature offers, Pacific gray whales make the 5,000-mile trip from the chilly feeding grounds of the Arctic to the safety of the warm, shallow waters of the Baja Peninsula for their breeding and calving season (the calves are about 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds at birth).
Several thousand whales may visit San Ignacio every winter, and there are sometimes up to 400 in the lagoon at one time. Las amistosas (the friendly ones) is the local nickname of the whales, which regularly approach the small panga fishing boats to be stroked and touched by awed whale-watchers, in a genial gesture that has stumped scientists for more than twenty years, since it was first recorded.
Nearly driven into extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gray whales now return in greater numbers every year and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Baja’s Pacific lagoons and fifty uninhabited islands, often referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos, are renowned for their exceptional marine and bird life. Hundreds of dolphins accompany the gray whales, while humpbacks, finbacks, and Brydes whales make regular appearances along with blue whales, the largest animals on the planet.
Medici Pleasure Palace by the Sea
Europe is a place where people come from,” wrote Henry Morrison Flagler more than 100 years ago. “Nobody should actually go there.” The self-made American developer, railroad magnate, oil baron, and partner of John D. Rockefeller in the creation of Standard Oil, built the magnificent Breakers in 1896, importing master European artisans to create his twin-towered, Medici villa—inspired extravaganza.
Today, the ultra-affluent enclave of Palm Beach has other top-drawer mega-resorts to be sure, but the 140-acre Breakers was the first to envision Florida’s then wild and alligator-infested swamplands as the playground destination of choice for the North’s most socially prominent families.
Rebuilt after a fire in 1926, it is possibly the most remarkable beachfront hotel on the eastern seaboard, having secured its priceless sliver of real estate way back when competition was nonexistent. A heroic $145-million lily-gilding renovation has recently put it back on the map.
Vaulted ceilings, frescoes, Venetian chandeliers, 15th-century Flemish tapestries, and a friendly, snap-to staff of 1,300 combine with a cool Floridian palette of sea foam greens, aqua, and seashell pinks to create the ultimate warm-weather resort. Gorgeously manicured, fountain-splashed grounds are shaded by more than 3,000 regal palms (representing thirty species) and include two 18-hole golf courses (one of which was Florida’s first) and twenty-one Har-Tru tennis courts.
Meandering pathways lead down to a half-mile of private beach, the breezy location of the hotel’s Beach Club and Mediterranean-style 20,000-square foot indoor/outdoor spa.
The Most Popular Resort Destination on Earth
Still the pacesetter for theme parks around the globe, the brainchild of entertainment giant and genius animator Walt Disney is an ever-expanding universe of make-believe and escapism, celebrating magic, technology, nature, and, of course, Mickey Mouse. In the 30-plus years since it opened its doors, the 30,000-acre former cow pasture has developed into four distinct main theme parks, each of which nurtures its own personality.
The Magic Kingdom (opened in 1971), the lighthearted fantasy world that revolves around Cinderella’s Castle, is home to two of Disney World’s most famous (and very different) attractions: It’s a Small World and Space Mountain. Epcot (1982), the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, is an educational theme park where thrills are mostly of the mind, with attractions such as the very popular Spaceship Earth. At Disney-MGM Studios (1989), visitors walk right onto a “Hollywood that never was and always will be” movie set that blends nostalgia with high-tech wonders (don’t miss the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror).
The 500-acre Disney’s Animal Kingdom (1998) is Disney World’s largest and newest theme park, with more than 1,000 animals (from giraffes to lions) roaming in a natural, Serengeti-like setting. Three themed water parks fill out the Worldly options.
There are countless less expensive (and less fantastical) hotel options in the Orlando area, but make the magic last by staying in one of the Disney-owned and-run hotel/resorts. The benefits are numerous, including sheer logistics:They’re close to the principal attractions and are linked by complimentary boats, buses, or monorail.
Of Disney’s luxury options, the re-created gabled vintage of the Victorian-style Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is one of the most elegant and least contemporary in atmosphere, evoking the breezy days of a turn-of-the-century summer resort.
A Grand Winter Escape, Italian Style
Sometimes called the “Hearst Castle of the East,” the Italian Renaissance-style Villa Vizcaya was completed in 1916 as the extravagant wintertime retreat of Chicago industrialist James Deering, known for his deep pockets and keen European sensibility.
A thousand continental artisans labored for five years to create the estate and its world-famous bay-front gardens in then-undeveloped Miami (whose population at the time was less than 10,000), incorporating a rich collection of antique doors, gates, paneling, ceilings, fireplaces, and decorative arts brought home from Europe by the owner and his architects.
Deerings’ fascination with 15th-through 18th-century art and architecture is obvious in every detail of the lavish mansion, forty-two of whose seventy rooms are open to the public. It’s a remarkable paean to late Renaissance architecture, authentic enough to convince visitors that it’s been standing here overlooking Biscayne Bay for 400 years.
Of Vizcaya’s current 28 acres (all that remains of the original 180), 10 are dedicated to formal gardens planned by Deering’s Florentine-educated landscape artist. Adaptations were made to accommodate South Florida’s brilliant light and subtropical climate, but the stone fountains, grottoes, statuary, and plant life still evoke a Mediterranean grandeur of centuries past and make a favorite spot for wedding photos. The waterfront tea house, with its little footbridge, is a traditional proposal spot.
Art Deco Darling on the American Riviera
As Miami continues to nurture its role as an international crossroads, the hot-spot neighborhood of South Beach remains its vibrant, glamorous, multicultural core, open 24/7. Much of the neighborhood’s visual allure derives from palm-lined Ocean Drive, along whose length (from 5th to 21st Streets and east to Alton Road) lies the largest concentration of tropical Art Deco architecture in the world, some 800 pastel treasures from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this electric concoction of teal, lavender, pink, and peach buildings houses outdoor cafes, shops, nightspots, condominium apartments, chic hotels, and world-class restaurants, but the real artwork here is the parade of people.
If all the world is a stage, Ocean Drive is its casting couch, its sidewalks and eating places fairly choked with alarmingly good-looking people. It’s all best appreciated from Ocean Drive’s Cafe Cardozo (in the Cardozo Hotel at 13th and Ocean Drive), a kind of 24-hour reviewing stand that allows you to step out of the path of the year-round tourist crush and take in the sights.
To really escape the rollerbladers, buffer-then-thou poseurs, and Euro invaders, retreat to the cool oasis of the ultra-hip but classy Tides Hotel, a Deco queen from 1936. All of its oversized seaward-facing rooms are done in a quiet, good-taste style and have telescopes for “beach combing.” The Tides’s small but excellent lobby-level restaurant, 1220 at the Tides (the hotel’s address) is a total scene-and-cuisine experience.
A South Beach Institution
Before SoBe, Joe be, touts Miami Beach’s (and possibly the nation’s) number-one crab institution, referring to its decades of renown prior to the rebirth of its trendy neighborhood, South Beach. Word spread quickly when the family-run place first opened; in 1913, and the line to get in has been long ever since. On the menu, the stone crab: A delicacy of sweet meat that is as much a symbol of Miami as the palm tree or the state seal, and especially delectable because of its limited-season availability (mid-October to mid-May).
At Joe’s, they come in four different sizes (from medium to jumbo) and the standard order is an ; imposing mound of crabs, served with drawn butter or a piquant and creamy mustard sauce, coleslaw, creamed spinach, and cottage-fried sweet potatoes. For dessert, the Key lime pie is the real thing. Freshness and quality are paramount, but if you can’t indulge in person, Joe’s will FedEx you your fix, overnight. That helps explain why they sell about 200 tons during the average crab season, with 1 ton alone served on a good day in the 450-seat indoor restaurant, manned by a formally attired staff. Tender and sweet, Joe’s crabs aren’t cheap, even though they come from local waters—Damon Runyon once said they were sold by the karat. Go anyway and find out what all the hype is about—but be prepared to wait.