Spring Break for the Whoooole Family

Zihuatenejo, Mexico
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

I have to be honest. When my younger sister, Claire, called one dreary winter day last year and said that my mother's dearest wish was to take the whole family on a trip to celebrate her 75th birthday, I thought: bad idea.

Let's face it: My mom was pretty spry, but she said she wanted to go someplace hot even though she burns to a crisp in the sun even in full-body zinc. My dad, at nearly 79, well, let's just say he likes his familiar routine of going to church in the morning and hanging out in his den in the afternoon. My mother loves to sit and talk; my husband is only happy on the move. There would be 12 of us. My older sister had two teenagers, and my youngest was 5. Where on Earth could we go that wasn't already long booked, wouldn't cost a fortune and wouldn't make us want to kill each other? I figured I would bite my tongue and just nod sympathetically when Claire came up empty-handed and we decided to just go out to dinner.

Instead, there was a snowstorm in Portland, Ore., where my extended family lives. And for three solid days, my tenacious younger sister surfed the Internet and called hundreds of places until she found what we would all much, much later agree was about as close to perfection as you could get: a cliff-side villa overlooking a sky-blue ocean bay in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, for a week in March.

Zihuatanejo is an old fishing village on Mexico's Pacific coast, about 150 miles north of glitzy, touristy Acapulco and just south of lower-key but still touristy Ixtapa. (Ixtapa was built by the government in the 1970s on an old coconut plantation just to draw visitors from El Norte.) I'd never heard of Zihuatanejo. Claire assured me that it was the place that the inmates of "The Shawshank Redemption" dreamed of going once they broke out of jail. Once we landed, I could quickly see why.

* * *

The winding, narrow streets of Zihuatanejo lead past the tree-lined Zocalo (town square), right on the ocean, up an impossibly steep cobblestone hill to the cliff-side part of the town called El Almacen. Our destination was toward the end of the cliff-side road: Villa Bahia, owned by a colorful European-Israeli expat named Andre Chen, who was to become a regular visitor and teller of tall tales.

The first thing we noticed when we walked into the tile- and thatch-roofed villa was the breeze. Zihuatanejo is hot, no matter what time of year. But local architect Enrique Zozaya, who carefully studies the direction of the wind and the way the tropical light plays on a piece of land, had designed the villa to take maximum advantage of the ocean breezes. The living room upstairs was completely open to the winds, and three of the four bedrooms had open terraces. Downstairs, the open-air kitchen led to a spacious patio, where cushy white couches were nestled under a palapa roof. There was an infinity pool, a teak dining table under a broad umbrella, and a stunning view of the bay. This was where we were to do most of our living in the next week.

Within minutes, we met the villa "staff." Included in the price of the weekly rental was a cook, Gama; his wife, Judy, who would clean and do laundry; and Alfredo, who was our fixer and did everything else. It sounds luxurious, and it was. But with such a big group, we were able to spread the costs around. We paid $1,400 per night, or about $100 a person.

The first order of business was groceries. So, while my husband and kids jumped into the pool, I climbed into Alfredo's red pickup for a trip to the market. I wasn't expecting our first stop: Costco. Well, Comercial Mexicana. But it's owned by Costco and has that company's products. The big difference is what you can buy: limes by the hundreds and an assortment of pure Mexican agave tequila.

Alfredo then took me to wonderful local shops for such things as fresh coffee beans from nearby Atoyac, in the Sierra Madre Mountains, and an open-air farmacia where any medicine under the sun seemed to be for sale.

By the time the rest of the family arrived later that afternoon, the staff had squeezed the juice from the limes, made a gigantic pitcher of margaritas and put out platters of fresh guacamole, salsa and chips. The kids played in the pool while the adults caught up. Gama grilled the guachinango (red snapper) that had been caught earlier that day. And we ate by moonlight at the teak table out on the patio before turning in. We would end up eating all of our meals this way.

There were too many of us for the four bedrooms, so the sleeping arrangements were always in flux, with kids sleeping sometimes with an aunt, sometimes with a parent or grandparent, and many times on the couches under the stars on the patio.

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