There was nothing doing down on the hacienda. A rare storm had blown in overnight, and a steady rain was pelting down on the sculptured Spanish garden just below our balcony. Bright yellow and lime-green songbirds took shelter among the purple bougainvillea. Hummingbirds rode out the storm, buzzing in the olive trees planted next to a rolling lawn big enough for Barry Bonds to roam for fly balls.
We could hear a stream of water flowing down off the volcano that towered above us in the Mexican town of San Antonio. It rushed across the top of the century-old aqueduct and past the hacienda's 90-year-old chapel, along the inner courtyard filled with grapefruit and orange trees, through the elegantly tiled canals crisscrossing the hedge garden and into a little brook, which swooshed delightfully past the tennis court and the organic coffee plantation, where it joined a river that winds its way 40 miles down to the Pacific Ocean.
We pulled on soft cotton robes and lit a fire in one of our suite's two enormous fireplaces. A soft puff of hardwood-scented smoke floated gently up to the vaulted brick ceiling. We threw open the four sets of French doors to our balcony. Five columns cut from charcoal-black volcanic rock supported arches that divided our broad vista into perfect postcards of green mountains and African tulip trees lush with tangerine-colored blossoms.
It was too rainy for a swim in the 115-foot swimming pool, tiled in aqua and navy and attended by a team of towel-fluffing men in white. The fleet of mountain bikes would have to wait, as would the horseback riding on the 5,000-acre ranch adjoining the hacienda, along with tennis and hiking the trails up toward the twin volcanoes, past the hotel's private airstrip. No television in the suites, thank God, and cell phones don't work up here, so those temptations were out. And we don't know how to play boccie.
Ah well, breakfast.
But that posed the kind of dilemma one faces here at Mahakua-Hacienda de San Antonio, a meticulously restored 120-year-old Mexican mansion, where the word "hotel" seems as inadequate as calling Bill Gates a "computer salesman." Where would we eat? On the rooftop terrace, under canvas umbrellas set between the volcanoes and the view of miles of lushness rolling downhill from the hacienda? Tomorrow. In the dining room in front of the castle-size fireplace, on round tables covered with white linen and Italian silver, savoring the murals of Mexican country life beneath the wall sconces? Maybe, but the fire in our suite was crackling so sweetly. And two little songbirds had just flown in through the French doors and were chirping at us from our expanse of Mexican wool carpet. It seemed hard to leave.
So we ordered in. In a ridiculously short time, coffee -- rich and dark and grown on the grounds -- and sweet rolls came on a platter with three kinds of juice and a big glass of lassie, a sweet drink of banana, yogurt and milk. We read for a while, listened to the parrots in the trees outside and decided: a full breakfast downstairs, on the veranda outside the library. There, on a lovely wrought-iron table facing the gardens, we shared French toast filled with fresh peaches, a Frisbee-size salmon omelet and more of the hacienda's homegrown coffee. One of the platoon of waiters attending us inquired if we would be needing the masseuse later.
The other half lives very well, even in the rain.
The Hacienda de San Antonio, in Mexico's Pacific Coast state of Colima, is the 12th and newest luxury resort in the Singapore-based Amanresorts chain, which began in 1988 with its flagship Amanpuri resort on Thailand's Phuket island. Aman hotels are also located in Indonesia, the Philippines, French Polynesia, France, Morocco and Jackson Hole, Wyo. A 13th resort is opening this Christmas near Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The Aman resorts raise luxury and pampering to royal levels, which is why they have been attracting the likes of Mick Jagger for almost 15 years. It comes at a price, of course. The Amanfolks speak of their "niche" market, and by that they mean Mick and others who don't blink at room rates that look more like mortgage payments. The 25 suites at the hacienda start at $900 a night for a double and the two largest, called Sol and Volcan (Sun and Volcano), provide 1,300 square feet of sprawling bliss for the size-matters crowd at $1,600 per sunset.
About the only thing taking the edge off the price is that it includes all meals and all the wine, tequila and other drinks you care to consume -- and the kitchen produces fantastic meals to order, at all hours. To further help you cool your smoking wallet, it also throws in laundry service and romantic picnics in forgotten meadows deep on the property, near lakes filled with trout and with egrets, cormorants, blue herons and hawks soaring overhead. The staff of more than 75 never misses an opportunity to refill a glass or bring a cold towel on a hot afternoon. The hacienda makes its priorities clear with a single fact: There are 36 fireplaces here, and no clocks.
Luxury Break in the City
Once wrapped in the hacienda's luxury, there is no reason to ever leave the property -- except that it sits in the middle of a state well worth exploring, one that few travelers know much about. Colima rests at the Pacific elbow of the flexed arm of Mexico. It is slightly more than 2,000 square miles, almost twice the size of Rhode Island. Travelers, if they have ever heard of Colima at all, know it for the ocean resort city of Manzanillo, which is about a four-hour drive south of Puerto Vallarta.
Manzanillo gives good value for the Hawaiian Tropic crowd, but Colima has a lot more to offer inland, on the sweeping aprons of two huge volcanoes: the 13,000-foot Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, which is still actively spitting bright-red molten rocks, and the extinct 14,000-foot El Nevado de Colima. Temperatures in Colima here are generally sweet and warm year-round (mid-seventies to low eighties), hotter down by the ocean and fresher in the higher elevations.
Colima City, the state capital, is home to about half of the state's 540,000 people. It is a pleasant and exceptionally clean city known for the University of Colima and good museums. The city's Regional History Museum on the Plaza Principal is filled with artifacts from the region's pre-Columbian days. Many came from La Campana, the region's ancient capital, which is now an archaeological site nearby. The university has a museum of modern art, and the century-old Hidalgo Theater is still operating. The Hotel Ceballos, on the main plaza, has an outdoor patio that is pleasant for breakfast or an afternoon margarita.
The town of Comala, known as the White Town for its whitewashed buildings, is a good place to watch how Mexicans relax, and to join them at it. The town square is lined with arched walkways where every door is a restaurant and every square inch of sidewalk is filled with tables and chairs. People come for the paquetes, the package deals, that are ordered in terms of booze: The most popular includes a bottle of tequila and a bucket of 10 beers on ice. The food is thrown in for free.
Waiters hustle around with endless trays of quesadillas, tacos, salsa and other Mexican munchies. Mariachis in silver-studded uniforms sing and strum, competing for space on the cobblestones with Norten~o bands in cowboy outfits and other guitarists, percussionists and singers. It's a party that lasts all afternoon, every day, but with special gusto on the weekends.
Comala is a 10-minute drive outside of Colima City, and about the same distance from the Hacienda de San Antonio. It's a town built around the festivities in the square and around ponche, the local drink, a mix of mescal and anything, really, from grapefruit to coconut to almonds. Shops all over town sell their own special variation in one-liter plastic bottles. A little ponche and a few tacos, shared amid the happy jabber of a Sunday afternoon in the square, is a delightful Mexican experience. Near Comala is the Hacienda de Nogueras, a restored 17th-century hacienda operated by the university as a museum and center for archaeological, historical and anthropological studies.
Now, Back at the Hacienda
There are plenty of hotels in the state of Colima, from luxury seaside resorts in Manzanillo to moderately priced inns in Colima City. But there is only one Hacienda de San Antonio, where we found that 2 1/2 days was enough to transport us completely from the real world.
As the rain fell, we played Scrabble sunk deep in the cushions of the overstuffed couches in a room filled with Moroccan antiques. We barely moved for hours. When the sun came out the next day, we lay by the pool, surrounded by wild ginger and orchids, looking up toward the volcanoes and smelling lunch (steak sandwiches with onion marmalade, tomatoes and mustard butter) being grilled in the pool pavilion.
The hacienda was built between 1879 and 1890 by Arnoldo Vogel, a German who saw grand opportunities in Colima. It was an era when Mexico's president-cum-dictator, Porfirio Diaz, encouraged foreigners to invest in a country that had been wary of outsiders since independence from Spain a half-century earlier. The vast money that flowed into Mexico resulted in extravagant land holdings that ultimately created great resentment among the country's landless peasants, leading to all-out class warfare in the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution.
But when Vogel arrived in the 1870s, the possibilities seemed endless. He found a place of fantastic beauty and fertile volcanic soil that he could buy for virtually nothing. He married a local woman, and by 1904 his lands rolled from the volcanoes almost all the way to the ocean. He exported coffee from around the world. His luck seemed so limitless that when the Volcan de Fuego erupted in 1913 and destroyed much of the region, Vogel's grand hacienda was spared. And when the Mexican Revolution barreled through Colima, angry mobs chose not to destroy the hacienda.
Vogel died in the 1930s and his property fell into ruins. A new Mexican owner began a restoration project in 1978. Then in the mid-1980s, British billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith, who already owned another fantastic oceanfront property not far from Manzanillo, bought the place and spent another decade finishing the multimillion-dollar restoration. Sir James died in 1997 and had little chance to enjoy the finished product, which his family trust leased to Amanresorts in 2000.
What Goldsmith left behind is a 66,000-square-foot house of pleasure, where almost every corner can be turned into a romantic dining spot. During our stay, we ate in front of the fireplace in the main dining room and, on the second night, at a table for two set in front of the massive volcanic-rock fireplace in the gallery, surrounded by floor candles as thick as oak trees and two huge candelabras flanking the fireplace. The staff will set a table anywhere: in the garden, warmed by a pot-bellied fireplace; in the grass-and-stone amphitheater surrounded by candles; poolside; on the roof; on the lawn. If you can imagine it, they will set it.
The Restoration Era
The restoration of Mahakua (a hybrid of Sanskrit and Central American Indian languages that means, roughly, Great Community) is a particularly opulent example of a wave of hacienda restoration that has been happening in Mexico in recent years. Old and disused haciendas are being put back into service as hotels, restaurants, museums and vacation rentals. Dozens have been restored in the southern state of Yucatan, and the trend is catching on elsewhere. That's great news for travelers and officials in a country where only the state oil monopoly produces more revenue than tourism.
The Mexican hacienda dates to the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in Mexico in the early 1500s. After the initial arrival of soldiers and priests, more and more aristocrats came to the empire's newest outpost. They brought grand notions of how they were entitled to live, and they set out matching those ideas to the realities of hard life in old Mexico.
The result was the hacienda, a vast working farm centered on an often fantastic main house. Haciendas were self-contained societies. Everything from meat to walnuts to clothing was made on the grounds, as there was simply no other way for supplies to arrive.
The owner lived in splendor in the main house, dripping with bougainvillea and scented by citrus trees. The houses were often appointed with collections of European and Asian art and furniture, which made them improbable bubbles of luxury amid the poor lands of a nation where even today half the population lives in poverty. The Mexican Revolution ended the party, and over the course of the remaining 20th century, many haciendas decayed into ruined memories of a bygone era.
Hacienda de San Antonio keeps some of its old traditions alive, mainly for show. An on-site plantation produces 14 tons of coffee each year. The horses in the stables are mainly for guests' use, and most of the fruit and vegetables are now organically farmed for use in its big kitchen, where a rustic wooden table is always set for guests.
But the hacienda's main product these days is quiet relaxation. Telephones, televisions, newspapers and the Internet are available, but not obvious or encouraged.
There isn't a necktie or a Palm Pilot for miles. Time is measured in sunrises and sunsets, and success is a perfect meal, or a warm swim, or the discovery of a new smell, like wild ginger blossoms or lotions of grapefruit and juniper.
Sitting barefoot on our balcony sipping a tequila, we started to feel a little guilty about all the indulgence. Shouldn't we do something strenuous? A bike trek, a run, tennis? Learn how to play boccie? Anything?
Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan are The Post's Mexico City co-bureau chiefs.