Two unusual resorts are not only on opposite sides of Mexico, but appear in some ways to operate in different worlds.
Report and photos by Arnie Weissmann
May 30, 2022
One property is on the Riviera Maya, featuring about 300 suites, a six-acre waterpark and a focus on family fun.
The other is on the Pacific Coast, offering a mix of villas, bungalows and suites, and is adjacent to a 25,000-acre protected biosphere.
Central to one is a whimsical theme of familiar cartoon characters that appeals to parents and kids alike.
Central to the other is a sense of community designed to attract aesthetics and upscale guests and residents.
Both offer fanciful design and architecture. And deeply woven into both are the visions of the entrepreneurs who brought them to life.
The property on Mexico’s east coast is the product of a husband and wife who, against all odds, built a significant tourism empire, guided by traditional values, hard work and gracious hospitality.
The property on Mexico’s west coast reflects the life’s work of a wealthy, eccentric, Italian-born banker determined to create a unique community built on creativity and open-mindedness.
While neither is in any regard typical — each draws strength from its unique approach to hospitality — they’re both expressions of how tourism has developed in Mexico, from the calm waters of the Caribbean to the more turbulent Pacific surf.
Who lives in a pineapple over the sea?
Perched high above the Caribbean on the balcony of a penthouse suite in the Nickelodeon Hotel and Resort Riviera Maya is a walk-in pineapple. Within, a two-foot-high statue of a snail named Gary meows when its motion detector registers that someone has entered.
The pineapple’s silhouette, interior and Gary will all be familiar to anyone who has watched the cartoon show “SpongeBob SquarePants,” either as a child or with a child. The structure is situated on a 710-square-foot oceanfront terrace attached to the resort’s Pineapple Suite, serving double-duty as a lounge for adults who want a break from their kids or a clubhouse for kids who want to get away from adults.
That said, there’s ample space within the 3,000-square-
foot suite itself to spread out. It sleeps two adults and five children, and the terrace also includes an infinity-edge plunge pool.
Included in the suite’s $12,600-per-night price is a butler and two massages at the resort’s spa. Kids will certainly appreciate the tabletop tree of slime-green marshmallows-on-a-stick; adults will more likely gravitate to the drinks cabinet to inspect its premium liquors, such as Casa Dragones tequila.
The suite has a midcentury modern tiki motif, with furniture leaning toward supersaturated oranges and yellows offset by oceanic blue-patterned walls and carpeting.
Other top suites in the resort celebrate “Rugrats” (with an additional nod to Ren and Stimpy) and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the Lair Suite, which can sleep seven). And all of the 280 remaining 580-square-foot oceanfront swim-up suites can accommodate families of five.
“SpongeBob” is among Nickelodeon’s animated series that operates on two levels, drawing in parents as well as kids. The same could be said for the resort, whose waterpark has areas appropriate for toddlers, teens and those in between but whose private cabanas along the back perimeter will give adults some shade and refuge. A highlight of the waterpark — for kids and some parents — is a participatory sliming show. (Bright-green slime is core to the Nickelodeon brand.)
There are five restaurants as well as bars and snacking stations built into the pricing, described as “gourmet inclusive.” Character encounters, beachside yoga, cooking lessons, beach volleyball and live nightly entertainment are included, as well.
The resort was built by Dolores Lopez and Joe Martinez, whose journey to opening it has an almost fairy-tale quality. They met in 1979, when he was a bell captain and she was coordinating group business for a local travel agency. They married three years later, and three years after that they opened a receptive ground operation, Lomas, which today handles hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
They subsequently opened a small hotel in downtown Cancun, and its success ultimately led to the creation of the seven El Dorado Spa Resorts and Hotels, a collection of adults-only, beachfront properties on the Riviera Maya. (They, like the Nickelodeon property, are marketed by Karisma.)
The couple also owns a vineyard, El Cielo Valle de Guadalupe, which includes a hotel, in the state of Baja California.
Grupo Lomas, the enterprise that comprises their ground operations and hotels, turns 40 this year, and the couple was recognized in December with a Travel Weekly Lifetime Achievement Award and additional honors in Mexico.
The company is renowned for taking care of its staff even when business has been curtailed by hurricanes, economic slowdowns or, more recently, pandemic. “When you have thousands of employees, you have a moral responsibility, a moral obligation, a duty to them,” Martinez said. “When times are good, they help you. When times are bad, they need you. It’s about maintaining hope. That’s important.”
A Pacific coast visionary
Just one degree latitude south of the Riviera Maya — but separated from it by the entire width of Mexico — is Costa Careyes, located north of Manzanillo and south of Puerto Vallarta. It has little in common with the Nickelodeon resort except that its success, too, is linked in a very personal way to its developer.
Depending on where you are in Careyes, you might think you’re walking down a path in Positano, Italy; on the beach in a small, Mexican fishing village; poking around a modern home of the sort featured in Architectural Digest; in a Moorish palace; attending a polo game in the Hamptons; or, you’ve been shrunk, Alice-like, and fallen to the bottom of a giant goblet.
Wherever you are on the property, you’re living in the realized vision of Gian Franco Brignone, a larger-than-life Italian who, in 1968, shrugged off his expected role as a banker and, fleeing the menace of Italian Red Brigades and the sentiment behind the French student uprising, went to Sardinia to seek the advice of the Aga Khan about what to do next.
Told to go somewhere he could get away from political movements and government impositions, he ended up buying eight miles of Pacific coastline in Mexico and, despite a lack of supporting infrastructure, started building a community for himself and those he felt might be simpatico.
Brignone died earlier this year at age 96, but his children and the children of some of his influential friends continue his legacy, which include activities such as a beach blowout earlier this year, with tequila flowing and fireworks blasting, to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Tiger, Brignone’s birth sign and animal spirit.
There are options for accommodations at Careyes: One can stay in the resort hotel on a small bay, which was originally managed by Starwood but now is run by the owners; or rent one of the brightly colored bungalows tiered along one of the arms of the bay; or take one of three beach bungalows; or stay in one of the design-forward vacation rental villas with spectacular views, high in the coastal mountains rising out of the sea.
The resort strives to be a community of people with common interests, and its founder even developed a tongue-in-cheek list of 27 attributes he favored in people interested in buying a residence or staying on property, ranging from “to speak more than one language” to “[having] committed most of the seven deadly sins.”
Although the top residential villas rent for $10,000 per night, “if you come here expecting a five-star, 24-hour hotel, you’re missing it,” said marketing director Luisa Rossi di Montelera, whose father, from the family that makes Martini & Rossi vermouth, was one of the original investors.
“It’s about getting the right mix of people,” said Brignone’s son, Filippo, who, along with his sister Emanuela and brother Giorgio, plans to continue and even expand Careyes. “We need to be careful to attract people who understand [the vision]. People who think outside the box.”
“It’s not about being snobbish,” Emanuela added. “It’s about education, it’s about culture. To preserve such a place is our duty.”
The primary question following their father’s death, Giorgio said, is, “How can we grow without changing?”
He has some thoughts: Keep the community mix one-third each American, European and Mexican. Don’t let the architecture get too modern. Keep the density low (currently, 2% of the land is developed; the maximum, he said, should be 7%.)
“And no big hotels on the beach.”
There are three restaurants on-site, with a fourth planned on a bay about a 15-minute walk from the resort, but part of what’s striking about Careyes is what is not here: No Jet Skis to rent, no golf course. The spa is tiny and offers few bells and whistles.
Instead, what’s there reflects the interests of the founder and his family; for instance, the largest polo field in Mexico. Or a meteor incorporated into a small beachside monument. Or La Copa del Sol, an 88-foot-diameter concrete half-sphere, both an homage to women and a site of meditation, perched on an oceanside cliff.
And, of particular interest, the original residences built by Brignone. Although many of the newer villas are high-design and luxe — one resident put tiles of pure gold in her swimming pool — Tigre del Mar ($12,000 a night in high season), the Moorish-inspired Sol de Oriente ($10,000 a night in high season) and other early buildings reflect the originality of his character and thinking.
Although Careyes doesn’t offer every activity typically associated with resorts, some of the residents and those who settled in the nearby village of Careyes are tennis pros, scuba instructors and yoga teachers and offer their services through the resort. (A private gym, medical clinic, shops and an exceptional Mexican restaurant, Pueblo 25, are in the village of Careyes, an easy walk from the resort.)