- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

I fell in love in Mexico.

Like an infatuated schoolgirl, I returned home reluctantly, dreaming of Pedro Carmen Matias Enrique

I’m not fickle. I simply fell in love with a place, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo on the Mexican Riviera, and the friendly people I met there, both male and female.

None of our encounters was extraordinary — Pedro and Carmen are merchants in the crafts markets in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, respectively; Matias is a waiter and Enrique the chef at a small restaurant in Ixtapa. What made our meetings memorable was the warmth and openness of my new amigos.

I feel free to call them friends because, after all, didn’t everyone, everyday, greet me as “mi amiga”?

Let’s start at the beginning, with an invitation from American Airlines to join a handful of other travel writers on the inaugural flight of American’s new twice-weekly nonstop service from Dallas-Fort Worth to small Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport.

I turn my back on the lingering snow and biting winds of late January to be embraced by sunshine; temperatures in the low to mid-80s; and the Pacific Ocean rolling onto a flawless, uncrowded beach.

We fly over the Sierra Madre to a peaceful vista of coconut palms and rolling hills. For the next five days, we are wined, dined and shown the sights, with time to explore on our own.

I play in the gentle surf, swim in my hotel’s ocean-side pool, walk the beach, snorkel, swim with dolphins, take a bike tour through a nature preserve, eat delicious food, shop in crafts-and-souvenir markets and drift off to sleep to the sound of breaking surf. I can leave the balcony door open in my oceanfront room at the Barcelo Ixtapa Beach Resort without fear of humidity or bugs.

Given more time, I might take a horseback ride through a coconut plantation in the hills, go kayaking, learn to scuba dive or take a guided bird-watching hike. I wouldn’t surf in the more challenging waves of Los Troncones 25 minutes away or go cave rappelling or parasailing, though I have sons who might. Nor would I swing on the area’s two golf courses, one designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and the other by Robert von Hagge, but only because I’m a rotten golfer.

Below me as I stand on my balcony, the waves are teasing a two-mile-long crescent of white sand that curves into sheltering hills dotted with low-rise villas and palm trees. Offshore, mounds of volcanic rock enhance the view. Guests on the other side of the Barcelo’s bright, 12-story atrium see a different kind of beauty — palms and undulating hills.

Our first night out takes us about 15 minutes out of town — to Zihuatanejo (pronounced Zee-wha-tah-NAY-ho), a former fishing village that despite an increase in restaurants, shops and hotels retains its pueblo feeling. It’s a contrast and complement to Ixtapa, a single row of modern resort hotels on Playa del Palmar (Palm Grove Beach) with the requisite shops and restaurants across the street.

Dazzling lights

We are dazzled by thousands of tiny lights wrapped around and woven through the palms and shrubbery that are the walls of the open-air dining room at Coconuts restaurant in Zihuatanejo. Surely the stars are shining brightly, but our fairy-tale cocoon is even more brilliant and romantic.

The lobby area with its high beamed ceiling was once part of a hacienda owned by the family of manager Debora L. Mione’s first husband. “I remember Grandpapa telling my children stories of how they hung corn [from the rafters] to dry in here,” she says as I look around at historic photos and local artwork hung on the walls and watch the cooks at work through the half-moon cutout on the right wall.

In his own twinkling alcove, Aikeke Rose is playing mellow jazz. A multi-instrumentalist from St. Vincent by way of New York, he wants to start a music school in the area because the public schools do not offer music in the curriculum. “You have to give back,” he tells me with a smile during a break from playing.

The business community has made his dream its own, initiating what organizers hope will be an annual guitar festival to help pay for it. The first festival is scheduled April 18 through 25 on Playa las Gatos (Cat — meaning catfish — Beach), reachable only by boat, and in bars, restaurants and other venues throughout town. Styles ranging from classical through zydeco, blues, rock and maybe even flamenco are promised. My first night in the area is young yet, and already I have a burning desire to return — in April.

A morning bus tour takes us on winding roads overlooking rugged hillsides and rocky cliffs tumbling down onto some of the 16 miles of beaches, coves and islets that make Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo so varied and inviting.

From swanos ti resirt

We learn that Ixtapa was a sparsely inhabited expanse of swamps and coconut groves until the mid-‘70s, when Mexico’s National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) drained the swamp, created a 500-slip pleasure-boat marina and provided the infrastructure for luxury hotels to take advantage of the natural beauty and begin attracting tourists and, of course, their money to bolster the economy.

Much of the land was left untouched to maintain the environmental quality. FONATUR created Aztlan Ecological Park as a preserve and recreational area. Its principal habitats — of deciduous trees, up to 115 feet high, and mangroves — are home to parrots, eagles and hawks, as well as armadillos, wild boars, deer, wild cats and crocodiles.

The only such creatures I see are crocodiles — lots of them, viewed from the safe side of a chain-link fence at the Playa Linda (Beautiful Beach) crocodile pit. Dozens of egrets keep them company in the trees and the water, and one brave turtle rides the back of a seemingly oblivious croc. I aim my camera, snap and — darn, I’m out of film. It’s not the first or last time, even after I begin packing extra, because I see so many tempting photo possibilities everywhere I go.

One sight we miss is a local man, “the Crocodile Dundee of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo,” as our guide, Paco, describes him. This man, who goes by one name, Tamaku (“If I told you his real name, no one would know who you mean,” Paco says) feeds the crocodiles around dusk every other night. He does it on his own schedule, but he evidently puts on a show for those lucky enough to arrive at the right time, even sometimes lying on a croc’s back.

The last stop on our bus tour is at the Mercado de Artesans (artisans market) in Zihuatanejo, overflowing with ironwood carvings; stone, shell and silver jewelry; blankets; brightly painted ceramics; handmade hammocks; and a variety of other goods. It’s appealing and a popular tourist stop, but I’m curious about local life and am drawn elsewhere, to Nuestra Senora de (Our Lady of) Guadalupe Catholic Church across the street.

Zihuatanejo is where most of the people who work in the hotels, shops and restaurants in Ixtapa live, and some of them already are arriving — at 11:10 — for a Mass Paco tells me will start at noon.

A bouquet of white flowers and ribbons hangs from the more-than-two-story entrance arch. Perhaps the little girls in lovely white dresses sitting with their families in the front pews are making their First Communion; maybe the baby in the third row, so cute in her white dress and white ribbon headband, is getting baptized; or maybe children often wear white to Sunday Mass and the bouquet is from a wedding the day before. I’ll never know, but the scene is endearing.

Open church

There is no door at the entrance arch, and no glass — only decorative metalwork — fills the arched windows. The corrugated ceiling high above me looks like fiberglass, letting in the light, but the woodwork surrounding the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is beautifully polished. I ask Paco what prevents water from damaging the interior during the rainy season, late June to October, but he shrugs and says it’s “no problem”; the rain, though sometimes heavy, evidently does not slant inward.

After a few days, I take it for granted that many entrances, including those leading into hotel lobbies, are invitingly open to both people and gentle breezes.

Knowing that my bus will leave before Mass begins, I return outdoors, to walk along a pedestrian area lined with restaurants, a small hotel and shops — one of which features heavy wooden chairs and tables, deeply carved and brightly painted with designs featuring sunbursts, fruits or farmers at siesta.

On the way back toward church, I notice that not all the faithful have gone inside; several families are resting outside, visiting in clusters, the men shading their faces with cowboy hats.

The pull of the market finally captures me, and I step inside, not to buy, just to browse, as I already have surveyed the market across the street from my hotel in Ixtapa. I see several merchants painting ceramics and braiding bracelets, and with their permission take a few pictures.

My sales resistance evaporates as I come across a treasury of sleek ironwood animal carvings, and after bargaining over the price, I buy my first Mexican handcraft — a gift, so enough said. My salesman, Manuel Ascencio Auiles, tries to interest me in a better price for two or, even better, three, but is gracious when I decline. He polishes the piece and wraps it carefully until it is thickly padded and tightly taped.

Soon he calls over Pedro Batalla Rafael, whom, with my pitiful Spanish and his halting English, I mistake for the artist. In fact, Pedro is the owner of the stall, but he explains with all the pride of a craftsman how the carvings are made — starting with a machete to chop the basic outline into the hard-as-stone, weathered — never green — desert-grown wood. That is followed by refining with a rasp or large file and a hack file to cut any desired deep grooves, then sanding and oiling or, more recently, waxing to bring out the beauty of the grain.

He seems flattered to be asked to pose for a photo and beams while holding a large leaping sailfish to his chest — but, once again, I’m out of film. So disappointing.

On the Vlatava

The next day, my photos are mostly underwater after we head out from Zihuatanejo’s peaceful harbor on the windjammer Vltava for a half day of snorkeling.

I pull my head out of the water just in time to hear a young man call to his friend, “This is awesome. It’s like swimming in an aquarium.” Before long, I spot a school of small fish and kick my way over to swim in their midst. I know exactly what that young man means.

Even more awesome is our afternoon swimming with the dolphins at Delfiniti in Ixtapa. Fourteen of us have more than 45 minutes treading water (in life preservers) in a pool with two of the endearing creatures as they circle around and between us, inviting our touch.

Each of us gets a dolphin kiss. It’s a great photo opportunity — for the commercial photographer who is busy getting close-ups for sale later in the gift shop.

Soon we get a dolphin ride, holding a dolphin by his pectoral fins as he, on his back, sprints across the pool. The finale comes when we float on our stomachs, feet pointed toward the bottom of the pool, arms straight ahead, so each dolphin can put his nose against a foot and push us, one at a time, on a wake-raising joy ride.

We’re thrilled as we return our life preservers and put on the rings, watches and other personal items we removed earlier so as not to hurt the dolphins. One member of our group who previously swam with dolphins in three other locations says her Ixtapa experience is “far and away” the best.

Spas as options

A full day with no plans until evening leaves each of us to explore what interests us most. Some in our group have made spa appointments — most of the larger hotels have spas and welcome vacationers from other hotels, as well. Two, interested in both food and local culture, take a city bus to the central market in Zihuatanejo.

They return with tote bags full of vanilla, sea salt and other nonperishable specialties of the area and reports full of the sights, including headless chickens hanging upside down, sounds and aromas of the market, where they seemed to be the only tourists.

I’m sorry I missed the experience, but happy with my own day, starting with a stroll on the beach, where I meet Edmundo Robert of Mexico City, who has just stopped playing soccer with his children, Edmundo and Marianna. The youngsters are running in and out of the water, sometimes leaping like frogs, sometimes walking like crabs, laughing as the foaming water chases them.

“This is the family place,” he tells me in perfect English after I approach him with faltering Spanish to ask permission to photograph his family. (“It would be a privilege,” he answers graciously.) He and his wife have taken the children out of school for this holiday, their seventh to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo in 10 years. They prefer it to more intensely developed resorts and find it has the right balance of amenities, attractions and quiet pleasures.

Rick and Mary Jo Madsen, from Madsen, Ariz., feel much the same. I meet them after the three of us stop to watch a small manta ray — about 10 inches long and equally wide — flap out of the sand in the receding current and then get carried back to sea.

Annual visitors

The Madsens, who own a time-share in Ixtapa, have been coming annually for more than 15 years. They like getting “two for one,” the resort tourism of Ixtapa and the village feeling of Zihuatanejo, “which also has excellent restaurants,” Rick says.

Rick is a deep-sea fisherman and says, “This time of year, it’s the best,” especially for sailfish and marlin. He takes his catch to a favorite restaurant in Zihuatanejo, where the chef cooks it for him.He and Mary Jo have taken tours into the countryside, to visit coffee plantations and coconut groves and learn to make a clay roof tile the traditional way, by hand.

It’s lunchtime, and after a quick change in my room, where the housekeeping staff has decorated one of my pillows with hibiscus blossoms and petals, I set out to find a restaurant among the shops across the street from hotel row.

That’s how I meet Carmen Flores Garcia, who wants to sell this amiga a blanket but agrees to recommend a restaurant instead. We decide that if I like his choice, I’ll return. “My revenge,” he calls, laughing. “No, your reward,” I respond, smiling at his mastery of the American idiom.

Carmen has directed me to Chile & Tequila, a thatch-roofed sidewalk cafe in Los Patios, a cluster of shops and restaurants painted deep lavender, hibiscus pink and an assortment of other Easter-egg colors. That’s where I meet Matias Lozano, a very accommodating waiter, and Enrique Romero Flores, the cherubic-faced chef whose seafood-rich menu persuades me to order more than the light lunch I intended.

When I pass by hours later after a full afternoon of roaming, Matias recognizes me and gives me a friendly wave and smile.

Carmen is even happier to see me, anticipating a good sale. Unfortunately, he’s not selling the kind of crafts I’m seeking. I leave with only a whimsical shot glass for a son who collects them, a few photographs and his hearty wish that his amiga will have a good vacation.

It’s been a wonderful vacation, and as the plane lifts off the next day, I’m thinking of Aikeke, Pedro, Paco, Carmen, Matias, Enrique ….

I want to return, soon, but I’m still not fickle: I want to bring my husband. More film, too.

Mexican cuisine is not Tex-Mex

The chefs of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo fed us well. Some served us from their regular menus, and others created special meals, as they would for a convention, wedding or other special event.

As expected, everything was delicious and nothing disappointed, but some dishes and drinks stand out as favorites. This is a far cry from familiar Tex-Mex food; it’s sophisticated and made with the freshest of seafood, fruits and vegetables.

A day to wander on my own showed me that, pizza to haute cuisine, Americanized to authentic Mexican, dining can be fun in both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo for those who choose to venture beyond the popular all-inclusive meal-and-room packages many hotels offer.

Papaya juice is a staple on the breakfast buffet included in the room rates at our hotel, Barcelo Ixtapa Beach Resort, as are a variety of chicken, pork and beef selections and the more traditional eggs, to-order omelets, French toast and ripe fruit. Most unusual, if not my favorite, is a green juice made from spinach, celery, pineapple and other healthful ingredients.

The Barcelo’s poolside pavilion lunch buffet of hot fish and meats, cold salads, pastries and ice cream is equally varied and tasty if not, as should be expected, as outstanding as a plated serving in the Barcelo’s Don Quixote or another “night out” restaurant.

One of my favorite appetizers is the Aztec soup served at Coconuts restaurant in Zihuatanejo. It likely would be called tortilla soup in a restaurant at home, but at Coconuts, it’s a much lighter concoction with a zesty fresh tomato taste.

Tied with it for a blue ribbon is tostadas of shrimp ceviche served at Chile & Tequila, a sidewalk restaurant in Ixtapa recommended to me by a Mexican entrepreneur in the nearby crafts market. Shrimp “cooked” in lemon juice rests on three crispy tostadas that also hold olives and chunks of avocado and cucumber, all enhanced by a light sauce with a subtle lemon zing. Chef Enrique Romero Flores, a Zihuatanejo native, learned his craft working in various hotel kitchens in the area, and he learned it well.

Outstanding in a parade of excellent seafood entrees my travel-writing group is served is the “seafood fantasy” of lobster, sea bass, shrimp and mussels with, at the top of the plate, the American Airlines logo of two A’s separated by an eagle, cut out of beets and potatoes. Bravo, chef Daniel Pech of the Hotel Dorado Pacifico Ixtapa.

The Dorado also comes up with one of my preferred deserts, though in this category I can only reduce the finalists to a field of three. I like the bright yellow-orange mango cheesecake sitting on a light mango, yogurt and saffron sauce. It is creamy and not heavy.

Its competitors are both specialties of the beach-side Restaurant at Villa del Sol in Zihuatanejo.

The first is a unique pineapple gazpacho with red fruits and mint granite, refreshing in its tart-sweet fruity taste with a touch of mint and pretty in its layering of golds and pinks in a desert glass.

The second is the sinfully rich chocolate tart “Nicole,” created by co-manager Nicole Z. Wise. It’s so dense and smooth that those who try it insist the rest of us “have” to taste it.

A regional favorite on most drink menus is the Dirty Banana, a smooth concoction of disguised potency that probably varies according to the bartender mixing it. Here’s the recipe shared by the Dorado Pacifico: ½ ounce condensed milk, ½ ounce coconut cream, ½ ounce coffee liqueur, 1 ounce brandy and ½ ripe banana; add all ingredients to ice (amount not specified), blend and serve in a tall glass.

The prize for most whimsical drink name goes to mi loca fantasia (my crazy fantasy), one of a menu page full of beverage specialties at the world-class La Casa que Canta (The House That Sings) on a hillside overlooking two beaches on Zihuatanejo Bay. The recipe isn’t divulged, but it involves grapefruit juice and grenadine, and I’d be loco not to like it.

When nothing but a hamburger will do, Ruben’s Hamburgers, across the street from hotel row in Ixtapa, is a favorite of at least one return visitor I know. Ruben’s grills its burgers over wood chips in converted oil drums and serves them outdoors at backyard-variety white resin tables and chairs or inside behind a decorative red iron entrance gate. The aroma when the grills are fired up is hard to resist.

As if to prove the variety of dining choices, across the pavement from white-tablecloth Chile & Tequila is Frank’s Bar & Grill Ixtapa, where the bar fills one long wall, and the music is Credence Clearwater Revival; Elvis; and Peter, Paul and Mary. Greeter Frank Aiello is more like an ebullient host at a backyard barbecue than a restaurant employee. That’s because this transplant from Windsor, Ontario, is also the owner — and chief pizza maker at the wood-fired stove.

For undeniable authenticity, check the pavement in front of the Ixtapa crafts market to see if a local woman is dishing out homemade food to the merchants and a few tourists. I buy a taco, made with cubed beef and served on two 5-inch tortillas, from Florencia Alvarez, who scoops the meat out of a large plastic pail. It comes with piquant shredded cheese and a large fruit drink for 5 pesos — 50 cents. I’m surprised how mild the seasoning is — definitely not Tex-Mex.

There’s often a story behind place names

History and local color sometimes are wrapped in a name. Here are two examples.

Zihuatanejo: The Indian name, Zihuatlan, means, depending on the translator, “place of women” or “place ruled by women” for the matriarchal society of the earliest indigenous people. The symbol of Zihuatanejo, seen in a roadside sculpture and smaller reproductions, is an incomplete circle that looks at first like a graceful interpretation of a cresting wave.

On closer examination, one sees the figure of a woman, back arched, torso pointing to the sky, on one side and, opposite her, the body of a man facing inward, toward her.

Playa la Ropa: Clothes Beach. When Zihuatanejo was the starting point of a trade route to China and back, a ship loaded with clothes is said to have capsized, littering the beach with clothes from its cargo hold. The beach today is a favorite of locals and tourists alike.

Low-key haggling nets bagful of gifts

I not only fell in love with Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo but underwent a form of conversion as well. I learned that the familiar term “recreational shopper” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron, even for someone like me who normally puts shopping near the bottom of her want-to-do travel list.

Visiting the artisans markets in both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo is, quite simply, fun. The quality of the merchandise is better than I expected; the merchants, though tenacious and eager to sell, are very friendly and usually not overbearing. Best of all, some of the merchandise is created or finished on site.

I discovered something about bargaining, too. Everyone knows that in foreign markets, the first price quoted isn’t what the merchant expects to get and that even the sharpest negotiator can’t haggle a merchant below profitability.

What I learned from watching a master fail is that proven strategies can backfire, and novices can succeed.

I strolled through the Ixtapa market with a new friend after lunch on our arrival day. She was eager; I was planning to browse, maybe pick up a few pointers, but not buy.

A costume-jewelry aficionado, she was impressed with the offerings in the first place we stopped. After much trying on of strings of polished stone, she told me with great assurance that she thought if she bought in bulk (10 necklaces) she could buy for both of us for half price.

Wrong. The young men who had been demonstrating the many ways to wear a handsome carnelian lariat necklace that I favored not only looked genuinely insulted when she made her offer, but packed up the necklaces, carried them out of the stall and then returned empty-handed to await more customers.

No problem, my friend told me; she would return periodically, and by our final day, the young men would realize she wasn’t budging, and she would get a much better price, if not half price.

It didn’t work that way. After four days of her teasing strategy, the young men raised their price.

After staying away from their stall during the rest of my visit, I returned the morning before my flight took off, bargained a little and bought the necklace for the best price my friend had been able to get during her extended campaign: 200 pesos ($20).

“It’s real silver,” the young man who helped me said proudly that morning, referring to decorative silver discs separating the larger stones on each end of the lariat as he took out a polishing cloth to make them shine.

While most people patronized Zihuatanejo’s shops and market at the last stop on our area bus tour our second day, I did more people-watching but ducked into the artisans market at the last minute. I walked out with an ironwood carving.

“I think I got a good price,” I told my friend, “but even if I didn’t, I don’t care. I really like it, and I know I couldn’t touch it for that price at home.”

That’s the test, she assured me.

The shops surrounding the market have some of the same goods at comparable prices, and some of the jewelry stores have exquisite silver and stone jewelry, finer and appropriately more expensive than what I was seeking, but a pleasure to see.

The market was more of a magnet. I liked strolling among the stalls, watching merchants painting their bowls, crocheting handbags, braiding bracelets and embroidering cotton clothing.

I liked the friendly way they said “Hola, amiga”; the earnest assurances of “Good price, amiga”; and the offering of better prices in dramatically lowered voices, as if they couldn’t let competitors in adjoining stalls hear.

I got a kick, most of the time, out of watching other shoppers negotiate and ponder possible purchases. The one exception was a young woman I overheard angrily telling one merchant, “Listen, it’s … or nothing.”

Her tone was so insulting and yet almost desperate that I was hoping the merchant would put her choices back on the shelf and send her on her way.

What was the big deal? Was this the only place in the world, or even the only stall in the market, where she could get such an item? Didn’t she know the man she was berating was in business, feeding his family? Lighten up.

The final inventory: my lariat necklace, the ironwood carving, a brightly painted shallow ceramic bowl that I bought for pasta but use for fruit, five printed cotton wraps for women to be gifts later, four novelty shot glasses for my sons; a lovely white cotton dress with embroidered flowers and crocheting around the bib collar (bought in one of the shops) for a newborn grandniece; and some maracas and drum-head noisemakers for other children in the family.

The last I could have gotten at a number of stores at home, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Endangered turtles find safe haven at resorts

“We have a treat for you tonight,” Roberto Lopez says as he greets us at the entrance to the Best Western Posada Real Ixtapa, where he is general manager.

In fact, he has two treats in mind — a glorious sunset about to turn the ocean and the water in the hotel’s beach-side infinity-edged pool a brilliant hibiscus pink and Aztec gold, and a chance to hold 15-day-old turtles that are gaining strength in a plastic tub before hotel employees and guests will release them into the Pacific.

The turtles, small enough to fit in the palm of a child’s hand, have been adopted by the hoteliers of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, who have made it their business to increase the survival rate of the leatherbacks and olive ridleys that lay their eggs on the beaches also enjoyed by hotel guests.

When someone spots a female turtle laying her eggs on the beach, the nearest participating hotel is notified, and employees scoop up the eggs before they can be carried off by birds or poachers or crushed by beach chairs, the shoes of beachcombers or other hazards. They are fed and kept safe for 15 to 20 days and then carried to the water’s edge to be released.

It’s a low-key environmental effort with impressive results. Jonathan Wise, co-manager with his wife, Nicole, of the luxury Villa del Sol in Zihuatanejo, says the two of them personally released 70,000 turtles in 2003.

Only about 1 percent of the turtles that make it into the water survive five years, he says, but the hotels’ program has increased the number of hatchlings that make it that far.

Both species are on international endangered-species lists. The olive ridley is the smallest of the world’s sea turtles, weighing about 100 pounds as an adult, with a shell 24 to 30 inches long. The leatherback is the largest, weighing 700 to 2,000 pounds and with a shell 4 to 8 feet long.

Their prime egg-laying time is late July through October, but as we saw in early February, some turtles continue to come to land through mid-January. As adults, they often return to the beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. They know who loves them.

Direct flights, many places to stay

Winter, mid-December through March 31, is high season in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, when daytime temperatures hover in the low to mid-80s but sweaters sometimes are needed at night. Humidity is low, and rain is unlikely. Summer, late June through late October, is the “wet season,” when rainfall can be heavy and rates are at their lowest. The between seasons of fall and spring bring intermediate rates.

American Airlines’ new direct flights from Dallas-Fort Worth to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo are in the air Saturday and Wednesday. Connecting flights are available from all three Washington-area airports, and all planes on both legs of the trip have American’s redesigned cabins with fewer seats and more legroom.

Continental and Northwest airlines also fly to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo from all three airports with one stop, in Houston. Expect to spend 5½ to six hours in the air, plus time between planes. The twin destinations are about 150 miles north of Acapulco.

Fans of the Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman movie “The Shawshank Redemption” may remember Zihuatanejo as the fishing village where Mr. Robbins’ character realized his dreams after his escape from prison.

Those who dream of vacationing in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo will find a wide choice of lodging, from bungalows, cottages and villas to top-of-the-line hotels.

Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia’s producers chose well when they filmed part of 1994’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” at the 24-suite La Casa que Canta, a multitiered hillside adobe retreat above Zihuatanejo Bay that was named best in the world in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2001 Readers’ Choice Awards and, not surprisingly, is a consistent award winner. Rates through Dec. 19 range from $360 to $690 per suite. Telephone 888/523-5050; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.lacasaquecanta.com

Also at the top end is Villa del Sol, a one- and two-story complex of 35 suites, each with a private pool, and 35 rooms spread across a lush setting of gardens, lagoons, fountains and a meandering stream with tiny islands, all on the beach on Zihuatanejo Bay. It made Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List of Best Places to Stay in the Whole World six years in a row, starting in 1995, and is another consistent award winner.

Winter rates range from $300 for a “superior room” to $900 for a lagoon penthouse suite. Off-season rates are $250 to $750. A mandatory $60 fee for breakfast and dinner is charged in winter. Telephone 888/389-2645; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.hotelvilladelsol.net

Hotels in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo can fit almost anyone’s budget, from all-inclusive resorts to small retreats with fewer services and amenities.

Many hotels, including the high-end ones, have packages that reduce the cost considerably. For help finding them and for other information, contact the tourist bureau. Telephone 755/553-1270 or, for all of Mexico, 800/44-MEXICO; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.ixtapa-zihuatanejo.org.

Golfers will want to ask whether their hotel offers reduced rates at the area’s two golf courses; many do.

Here are a few samples of lodging, with the

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