Zihuatenejo: Still Mexico's Best Kept Secret

When I think of an ideal beach vacation, I think of a tropical climate with warm water, coconut palm trees, and soft sand. And when I think of great service, I think of raising a flag on my beachside palapa to signal I'm ready for another margarita and having it delivered moments later.
06/25/2015 10:44 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2016

The tropical paradise on Mexico's Pacific coast that's not Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco

When I think ofᅡᅠan authentic Mexican getaway, I immediately start with the food: freshᅡᅠceviche, guacamole, and fish tacos. When I think of an idealᅡᅠbeach vacation, I think of aᅡᅠtropical climate with warm water, coconut palm trees, and soft sand. And when I think ofᅡᅠgreat service, I think ofᅡᅠraising aᅡᅠflag on my beachside palapa to signal I'm ready for another margarita and having it delivered moments later. But there's only one place I know that has all three: Zihuatenejo.

A post shared by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

Inᅡᅠmentioning to friends that I'm headedᅡᅠto Zihuatenejo, Mexico, for a vacation, they either don't know where it is or have only heard the name from Shawshank Redemption. It'sᅡᅠthe place Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman escape to -- quite literally -- in the denouementᅡᅠof the 1994 film. I've been visiting Zihua, as it's known, with my wife for more than a decade. Our destination wedding took place there in 2003 on Playa la Ropa, the main beach on Zihuatenejo Bay, in front of what was then Hotel Villa del Sol.

This smallᅡᅠluxury beachᅡᅠresort with 46 rooms and a picture-perfect infinity pool has changed ownershipᅡᅠtwice since then. It became The Tides and is now theᅡᅠViceroy Zihuatenejo. During this same period, my wife would give birth to our two children, now five and eight.ᅡᅠI'dᅡᅠwrite a book and foundᅡᅠa VC-backed software company. The United States would fightᅡᅠtwo different wars in the Middle East, elect its first black president, and go throughᅡᅠthe worstᅡᅠfinancial crisis since the Great Depression. And yet through all of this, the Viceroy Zihuatenejo changed only in name. The rooms, the vibe, the menu, the service, and several membersᅡᅠof the staff are just as they were in the late '90s and early '00s. Which makes sense, because it's not possible to improve on perfection.

A post shared by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

The low-keyᅡᅠtown of Zihuatenejo is located just south of the midpointᅡᅠbetween Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco on Mexico's west coast. The allure of the destination in general and to this hotel in particular is its unique mixᅡᅠof intimacy, convenience, and luxury that I've yet to findᅡᅠanywhere else in Mexico, despite years of trying. I find that while Cabo San Lucas is convenient to Los Angeles, it's a desert climate, much like LA, and the luxury hotels go too far. I don't need a butler or a $30 cheeseburger. Zihua is a three-and-a-half hour direct flight from LAX, and the Viceroy is a 20-minute cabᅡᅠfrom the airport. Which means you take off around 10am PT, and you're drinking a margarita on the beach by 4pm CT.

A post shared by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

A typical day at the Viceroy for us looks like this:

7:30 a.m.: Coffee is delivered to our room, per the time we specified at check-in

8:00 a.m.: Go to the gym for a workout or head out for standup paddle boarding on the bay. Shower and get ready for breakfast.

9:30 a.m.: Daily breakfast on the beach at the Viceroy's La Villa restaurant comes with most packages. It includes fresh fruit, juices, coffee, and espresso drinks. Our favoriteᅡᅠdish isᅡᅠthe Mexican eggs with habanero salsa. For the last couple days, we start with a pancake appetizer.

11:00 a.m.: Post up under a palapa and chill. The waiters from the Coral Bar, which services the beach and infinity pool, set up our chairs with pads and fresh towels. It isᅡᅠromantic and even a bit magicalᅡᅠto be on a beach chair next to very spot where we said our vows almost 12 years ago.

12:00 p.m.: The palapa flag goes up, and our first margaritas arrive shortly thereafter with a side of chips and guacamole. Again, the Viceroy's home-style tortilla chips haven't changed in more than a decade, and they're fantastic. When itᅡᅠgets too hot, we're only a few steps to the ocean, which is typically flat, or the infinity pool to cool off.

2:00 p.m.: Lunch is setup at a table immediately behind our beach chairs in the shade of theᅡᅠpalapa. It's literally two steps from a beach chair to a white-tablecloth lunch. The service is quick and attentive but far from overbearing. The flag mechanism isᅡᅠan ideal way to manage this.

5:00 p.m.: The sun is setting on the bay as we finish our drinks and make our way back to the room for a siesta and shower to get ready for dinner.

7:00 p.m.: Dinner at the Viceroy's La Mareaᅡᅠisᅡᅠsetup on the beach under the palm trees, just down the way from our daytime palapa. The sun drops behind the hills of Zihua, which are dotted with multi-colored lights from the homes, creating a magnificent sunset of reds and purples as darkness falls. The best dinner alternative is a five-minuteᅡᅠcab ride up to the restaurant at La Casa Que Canta, which is perched on the rocks above the bay, offering a distinctᅡᅠbut equally stunning perspective on this one-of-a-kindᅡᅠMexican paradise.

A post shared by Max Gladwell (@maxgladwell) on

There are a number of good reasons to venture outside the Viceroy sanctuary, from deep sea fishing to shopping in town and various jungle-themed adventures via kayak, horseback, ATV, and zip line. Our modus operandi, however, is to deep chill on Playa la Ropa, where the Viceroy's service flag and an ice-cold margarita are never far from reach.

Note: Alaska Airlines currently flies between LAX and ZIHᅡᅠon Tuesdays and Fridays, which enablesᅡᅠfour- five-, and seven-day-stay options. Other carriers fly through Houston if you're coming from the East Coast, but avoid any route that connects in Mexico City, as I've experienced various delays and missed flights due to customs and poorly managed domestic airlines.