Gone for a Burton in Puerto Vallarta
Once home to Hollywood's most famous couple, Casa Kimberley hasn't changed since `The Night of the Iguana'. Simon Calder contemplates the Taylor/Burton taste in interiors
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 27 June 1998
When you visit the former home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Nina Diebold says only the last sentence of that paragraph. But, given the astonishing state of Casa Kimberley, you would not be at all surprised if the actors, so united and divided by passion, were to walk up the stone stairs and into the huge lounge/verandah/bar that looks out over Puerto Vallarta.
The beaches hereabouts comprise regulation pristine hectares of white sand, brushed but not beaten by the Pacific. So only a few visitors haul themselves up the sharply sloping cobbles to a hacienda by the name of Casa Kimberley. You can't miss the bright pink footbridge placed as daintily as possible across Calle Zaragoza. This was a later addition, when Burton decided they needed a swimming-pool and promptly bought the house across the road.
The couple first came to this point on Mexico's Pacific coast before they were married, and before it had become a popular resort. The director John Huston summoned Burton here (Taylor accompanying him) to make The Night of the Iguana - a love quadrangle including Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon. If you don't know the film before you come to Puerto Vallarta, you will by the time you've been here a day.
Hollywood created the resort at the same time as it made the film. When Huston's raft of talent drifted 1,000 miles down the Pacific coast from California, the paparazzi followed in its wake - not least because Liz and Dick were on the brink of becoming an item.
On slow days, of which there are many in the languid, sultry summer this far south, those involved in making the movie and those who merely snapped at the coat tails and costumes could look out around the Bahia de Banderas (seventh-largest bay in the world, as you're sure to be told) and wonder at their good fortune. It's a jolly, if back-of-beyond, port protected in a relaxed sort of way by a fine arc of sand, with some monumental mountains in the background.
Richard Burton was hooked. It's fair to assume that he set out, when the cloying humidity of summer had eased, to find the villa with the finest view in Vallarta. That, at any rate, is what he bought in October 1964. And that is the place which, after two marriages, two divorces and the funeral of her former husband, Miss Taylor sold lock, stock and photograph album. So you get an intensely personal insight into the life of a British couple who commuted between glamorous Hollywood and prosaic Puerto Vallarta, where their house stood close to the Mercado Municipal.
A poster publicising the screen version of Tennessee Williams's short story proclaims they "devour life". Part of this feast was the conspicuous consumption of some truly tacky furnishings, with violently purple cushions covering most soft surfaces. "Suggested for Mature Audiences", continues the billing.
The watershed of your $5 tour around the house is in the bathroom of the penthouse - a veritable crater of a bath, in a puce amalgam of marble and plaster. If you're wondering where the makers of the ill-fated serial Eldorado got their ideas, look no further. But instead of sneering at the Burtons' taste, you can live it: the house is a strange combination of tourist attraction and working apartment complex. You can rent the penthouse, including bath and rather too many faded monochrome prints of the former owners, for pounds 90 a night in high season.
Budget travellers can choose from rooms ranged around the pool or the courtyard. No numbers: each is named after a film in which one or both of them starred. The Taming of the Shrew is next-door to The Comedians and opposite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Each is fitted with a professional make-up mirror and lighting arrangement for prospective stars. Coming to stay entitles you also to play pool and table tennis where the Burtons did, and read their junk novels, which line the shelves in every room. This attention to humdrum detail sums the place up, but also touches a romantic nerve in even the cynical visitor: off-screen love just cannot match the real, steamy thing, but here's how Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tried. This is a hacienda de amor if ever I saw one.
Casa Kimberley, Calle Zaragoza 445, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco 48300, Mexico; tel/fax 00 52 322 21336. Tours $5 (pounds 3). Bed and breakfast rates depend on season - November-May is high, June-October low - and the accommodation. A poolside suite costs $75 (pounds 45) per night per room, low season; the penthouse suite costs $150 (pounds 90) per night in high season.
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