The view of the Pacific from the roof deck at Quinta Maria Cortez(Maura McEvoy)
When I told friends I was heading to Puerto Vallarta, they all had the same amused response: "That's where the Love Boat used to go, right?" Yes, friends, Mexico's popular resort town, in the curve of Banderas Bay, was the port that Captain Stubing and crew pulled into each week. The cruise ships still come, as do floods of American and Canadian tourists, who more often than not seek a certain kind of vacation. Which is apparently why, on the ride from the airport, our cabdriver keeps pushing the foam party that night at Señor Frog's. "And over here we have the Hard Rock Cafe!" he says graciously, welcoming my husband, Tim, and me to Mexico.
Surely Puerto Vallarta has much more to offer than Jell-O shot specials set to the beat of Fergie's latest single. I wasn't all that into the spring break scene even when I was in college. For this trip, I wanted to experience Mexico as a grown-up. When researching where to stay, I sought a romantic, intimate inn rather than a big resort--the kind of place where the proprietors encourage guests to explore Puerto Vallarta instead of sticking to preplanned itineraries or zoning out in their air-conditioned rooms.
So what a delight when our cabbie, after a last plug for two-for-one night at Carlos O'Brian's, drops us off at the Quinta Maria Cortez, an eclectically decorated seven-room B&B built into the steep hills right on Playa Conchas Chinas. In our airy suite, French doors open up from the bedroom onto a balcony, below which a deserted beach beckons. I open a complimentary can of Tecate and soak up the crisp, clean air.
In the morning we meet some of the guests over huevos rancheros and French toast on the inn's patio. There's a small group of gay professionals from Laguna Beach, Calif., who are driving to nearby Mismaloya in a Jeep that José Ruiz de Anda, the Quinta's elegant manager, helped them rent. Then there are a friendly husband and wife from Seattle heading out for a morning of snorkeling, and Minnesotan honeymooners who are hitting the flea markets. So much for my fears that this is a one-note town.
The beach outside the inn is gorgeous--and empty, shockingly, even though it's just a 15-minute walk on the sand from downtown's Playa Los Muertos, where there's always a circus of happy tourists and trinket-and-parasail-ride pushers. Whenever the mood strikes me, I ease down to the beach, where the water is refreshingly cold. I wade out into the clear turquoise tide pools or laze around on the sand, idly searching for deep-purple seashells. Mostly, I just sit in peace, giddy that I have the place entirely to myself.
There's more fun to be had than basking in the ever-present sun, however. Every Wednesday night from late October through March, Puerto Vallarta celebrates its painters, potters, and sculptors with the Art Walk. Tim and I head to Viejo Vallarta (the old town) to browse the cluster of small galleries, where hosts keep their doors open late into the evening, offer free wine and cocktails, and gush over their exhibitions, which are surprisingly sophisticated for a beach town. At Galeria Uno, I sip a piña colada while the resident cats, Frida and Matisse, weave through the chattering crowd.
Tim's college roommate has made a mint in Puerto Vallarta's real estate market the last nine years, and when Tim hits him up for restaurant suggestions, he sings the praises of a Chinese restaurant, a flat-crust pizza joint, and a couple of new Thai and sushi restaurants. Weirdly enough, he says, you have to hunt for high-quality Mexican food. We didn't come to Mexico for egg rolls, so he steers us off the Malecón--the half-mile cement-and-stone boardwalk that's the heart of downtown--to El Arrayan. "They serve the type of Mexican food where you feel like there's a fat old grandma in the kitchen blessing each dish on its way out," he promises.
At the end of a decadent meal of empanadas de platanos, boneless pork leg, and chipotle shrimp, we fight over the last bite of dessert--calabaza con piloncillo, a caramelized squash that has forever redefined my relationship with pumpkin pie. Carmen, the young, charismatic owner, saunters over with shots of raicilla, Puerto Vallarta's local moonshine. "Careful, this can blind you," she jokes. It tastes like tequila crossed with kerosene. A second shot and we'd probably have ended up at Señor Frogs dancing until dawn with leprechaun hats on our heads.
The next day we're ready for a little adventure. José arranges for his friend at Rancho Rides to take us on a four-hour horseback tour into the Sierra Madre. Apolonio, a shy, cinema-ready cowboy in a beat-up hat, a shirt with pearl buttons, and frayed huaraches, introduces us to our mounts, Tigre and Alison, and off we go. Once we cross the Cuale River a few times and ride through Apolonio's rural neighborhood, we leave behind the human race as our horses clamber up the steep trail. My husband speaks a little Spanish, and Apolonio speaks even less English, but they manage to chat happily for most of the ride. When we get to a deserted waterfall at the top and break for a swim, Apolonio gestures at our surroundings and wonders about our hometown. "Is New York City look like this?" he asks. "No!" we answer in unison.
To mix things up, we get out of town midway through our week's vacation. There are several great overnight trips from Puerto Vallarta, including the surfer town of Sayulita, the chic beaches of Punta Mita, and the secluded village of Yelapa. We go for the latter because we've heard it's paradise.
We catch a Yelapa Water Taxi from Los Muertos pier (the only way to get to Yelapa). The boat dodges a couple of lazy sea turtles on the 45-minute ride. Our days in Puerto Vallarta have left me relaxed, but as the boat rounds the bend into Yelapa's calm cove, I can just about feel my blood pressure slow to a near stop. Yelapa got electricity all of five and a half years ago, and there are no roads or cars. The largely American and Canadian expat population oozes a Jimmy Buffett-like satisfaction, fully content with a life spent in shorts.
Our first stop after tumbling out of the motorboat is the beachfront Hotel Lagunita. The low-key, rustic hotel, with a yoga studio next door, is the hub of "activity" in Yelapa. We settle in under one the palapas for Coronas, guacamole, and shrimp aquachile: a ceviche of raw shrimp, lime, onions, and hot pepper. Lagunita is booked, but the masseuse, Nancy, who is followed everywhere by her pack of five rescued dogs, rents us one of her spacious guesthouses at Casa Frida.
As it'll soon be dark, we grab one of our casa's flashlights and stroll along the water to the other end of the quarter-mile-long beach. After hiking a couple hundred steps, we're rewarded with one of the outdoor tables at the village's finest restaurant, La Galería. Our handsome waiter brings us mojitos and tamarind margaritas, pear salads, fresh-caught amberjack, and passion-fruit cheesecake, while we enjoy a candle-fringed view of the beach. The bill is under $40. No wonder everyone in Yelapa is in such a good mood.
Back in Puerto Vallarta the next day, we check into Casa Amorita, a chic and warm four-room bed-and-breakfast. And what a breakfast! We have huevos divorciados, eggs fried and served with refried beans and red and green salsas. The owner roasts her own coffee, a special strong blend that's a tad spicy. I wind up buying two pounds to bring home.
A few crucial blocks off the Malecón, behind the Cathedral Guadalupe, the inn has a roof deck with one of the town's best sunset views over the ocean. There's a vitality and authenticity to the neighborhood, too. Downtown, we saw mariachis playing in restaurants; here, we pass the band packing sombreros and instruments into the car trunk at the end of a gig.
It's immediately clear that Casa Amorita's friendly staff knows the city inside and out, and when they tell us where to eat, we obey. Some of our vacation's finest meals are in the surrounding blocks, at Planeta Vegetariano, which offers a scrumptious $6 buffet, and at the simple, sunny tapas bar Esquina de los Caprichos, run by a chef from Mexico and his Spanish wife.
For our last night in town, we head to Casa Amorita's vote for the best Mexican food in town, The Red Cabbage Cafe. Lola Bravo's friends worried when she opened her restaurant 11 years ago on the far edge of the Zona Romantica, a 15-minute walk from the Malecón. Judging from the line of people waiting outside, they worried needlessly.
Inside, the walls are covered in Frida Kahlo prints, paintings of Billie Holiday, old Beatles albums, and stills of Richard Burton and John Huston--whose 1964 Night of the Iguana was shot in Puerto Vallarta. Every table is decorated differently. Ours is painted and stenciled with movie titles with the word cabbage subbed in: Silence of the Cabbages, The Red Badge of Cabbage, Jurassic Cabbage.
Dinner is both delicious and beautiful: Queso Rebecca (a rich appetizer of panela cheese, chipotle salsa, and ancho chiles), grilled mahimahi, and the Maria de Jesus Mexican plate (chile relleno, grilled steak, and enchiladas in mole sauce). While we sip potent margaritas, Bravo greets the diners next to us warmly. Turns out we're eating next to the Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee and his wife and friends.
After dinner, Tim and I walk through the Zona Romantica, passing families congregating around food stalls and a buoyant wedding party spilling out of a church. We follow peals of laughter and music to the Malecón, where the amphitheater is packed with locals and tourists taking in street performances. A face-painted comedian in a Charlie Chaplin getup calls for a man from the audience to volunteer--and then promptly goes into the stands to hit on the guy's girlfriend. The show is in Spanish, but the laughter and energy are so infectious that we stay, standing on our toes and craning our heads with everyone else.
Later that night, on our final stroll on the Malecón, we sit and gaze out over the water. Fireworks start going off at the other end of the bay. I settle in for the show, happy it's there and happy I'm here. Somewhere a killer foam party is just getting started.
Correction: The above version of this article has the correct web address for Quinta Maria Cortez (quinta-maria.com). The original print edition contained an error.