Mexico: Green Gold

Saving baby turtles and sipping frozen margaritas, Lucy Gillmore relaxes in an eco-friendly billionaire's retreat in Mexico - if it's good enough for Madonna...

"This," Maria tells us, sweeping her arm around the villa, a vivid blaze of colour rising out of the jungle with panoramic views across coconut plantations to the ocean, "is where Jemima Khan stays when she visits." Burnished orange, Casa Alborada is part of Cuixmala, the late Sir James Goldsmith's private estate on the Pacific coast of Mexico, now owned and run by his daughter Alix Goldsmith Marcaccini and her husband Goffredo Marcaccini. And for three days (my friend Suzie and I tried to look nonchalant), it was ours. Thank God we'd shopped at Heidi Klein. This might be the mosquito-infested, crocodile-riddled Latin American coast, but it was also designer bikini territory.

We had flown into the tiny airport at Manzanillo swooping low, the runway almost an extension of the beach. Picked up by the estate's smart silver 4x4, we cruised through dusty Mexican towns, following the coast road north along the rugged Costa Alegre. An unmarked drive past a security checkpoint took us on to a dirt track and through a tangle of thick vegetation. And then there we were. The estate's manager, Maria, wearing a cool, flowing kaftan (available at Cuixmala's boutique), introduced us with a warm smile to Casa Alborada's staff, Pedro, Tita and Imelda, who were waiting to greet us with cold cloths and jugs of freshly made hibiscus juice. Sinking into the deep pink Moroccan-inspired day beds, we tried to take it all in.

Bedded into the hillside, all the rooms open on to a series of terraces, the pool - and the jaw-dropping view. The bedrooms, in contrast to the warm tones used outside, are startlingly white - white polished floors, walls and ceilings and built-in bed base and headboard. On to this pure canvas a shock of colour has been splashed; a deep blue bedspread in one, soft pink floral in another. The shuttered windows and doors a vivid cobalt. Style-wise it's an exotic mix of Moroccan and Mughal (giant elephant and cow statues, anyone?) and although the terracotta wash feels a little dated, somehow, beneath a harsh Mexican sun, it works.

The other villas cut into the hillside are Casa Puma, Casa Torre and Alix and Goffredo's house. All slightly different in style - Puma is more traditionally Mexican, Torre is currently under renovation with a stunning new infinity pool - what they all have in common is the view. A green sweep of forest flows towards the ocean - and silhouetted against the horizon, Sir James Goldsmith's clifftop retreat, La Loma, a bizarre blue and gold-domed Moorish extravaganza.

The billionaire businessman turned environmentalist bought the 32,473-acre property (of which Cuixmala covers 2,000 acres, the rest the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve that he founded in conjunction with the National University of Mexico) in 1987. He then shipped in Robert Couturier, a New York-based architect, to create not just a private hideaway but a fantastical mini-kingdom. The villas and a handful of casitas scattered around were built for his extended family and staff; pilots, doctors, tutors, biologists.

Jimmy Goldsmith, or "Sir James" as everyone at Cuixmala refers to him, led an often controversial, always colourful life. Married three times, he lived at Cuixmala with his last partner, Laure Boulay de la Meurthe and their two children. His first wife was the Bolivian heiress, Maria Isabel Patiño, who died tragically while pregnant with their first child, Isabel (who now owns the chic boutique hotel Las Alamandas, just along the coast). His second wife was Ginette Lery, the mother of Alix and her brother Manes; the third, Lady Annabel with whom he had Jemima, Zac (more environmental credentials) and Ben.

During his lifetime, famous guests included Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, who would arrive by private jet. Today, Cuixmala continues Sir James's legacy; part organic farm, part ecological reserve and part bolthole for the rich and famous. Now, however, they have to pay for* *the privilege. Putting the reserve on a business-like footing, for the past five years Alix has been renting the properties to friends. At first relying on word of mouth, a year ago Cuixmala was opened up to the paying public. Madonna has stayed at La Loma, as have Mick Jagger and Quentin Tarantino. Other famous guests include Simon and Yasmin Le Bon, fashion designer Alice Temperley and model Jacquetta Wheeler. The villas might be upwards of US$1,500 a day (La Loma starts from $9,000) but with the current exchange rate, and split between six for one of the three-bedroom properties, that makes it a less exorbitant $250 a day per person. The casitas, the old staff quarters which have been converted into stylish rooms with their own pool and restaurant, start at a more affordable $350 a night.

Taking us on a tour of the estate, Maria pointed out the huge crocodiles lounging by the lagoon (native) and zebra (not) as we headed down to La Loma. "Laure had a whim for exotic wildlife," Maria explained. "Sir James imported three zebra; now there's a whole herd." This wild, untrammelled land is also home to endangered jaguar, puma, deer and rattlesnakes.

Down at La Loma, outlandish bronze statues of a gorilla and rhino guard the entrance. Inside we found the place teeming with workmen; all the villas are redecorated twice a year - the white paintwork requires a lot of upkeep. Picking our way over ladders in the central courtyard, passing through grand carved doors imported from Rajasthan, Maria explained that there was to be an American wedding here in a couple of weeks' time. Trying to imagine the villa in all its glory we stood in the middle of the master bedroom, a sea of white without the scattering of bright cushions sewn from Indian sari silk, listening to the thundering of the ocean pounding the beach below. Light flickered through the Indian jalis (handcrafted stone grills or screens) in the bathroom. The bride was going to be married down by the swimming pool on the beach, at the bottom of a dramatic stone staircase. Another wedding, taking place early next year, is to be staged in the forecourt. The moneymaking potential of "the wedding planner" is just one of the more commercial ventures being tapped into.

From the decadent to the worthy. Next stop: turtles. We bumped along a dirt track down to the turtle-monitoring programme on the beach. From July to December the turtles lay their eggs in the sand along this stretch of coast. These are collected at night then re-buried in a fenced-off area to protect them from scavenging birds and coatamundies. One of the project workers handed us a tiny, just-hatched baby. It looked far too small to face the raw power of the waves smashing into the sand.

From the worthy to the decadent: we headed back, via the organic farm, to a glamorous scatter cushion-rich daybed where, as if by magic, Pedro appeared with two frozen margaritas just as the sun started to sink into the ocean. Later, mulling over everything we'd seen, I found myself stumbling over seeming inconsistencies. The farm is organic and the estate is part of the larger biosphere. But the villas are the height of decadence - and not solar-powered. However, Maria's husband, Efren Campos, who is involved with the reserve as well as managing Cuixmala, told me that they do recycle as much as possible. The horses' bedding is made from palm fronds that are then used as fertiliser on the farm. The villas were also built with thick walls so that they didn't have to use energy-depleting air conditioning. Cuixmala's green credentials are also tied up with the biosphere. There are 1,200 species of trees and plants alone in the protected area.

I suppose Cuixmala's USP is that it's not a hotel. It's a very personal venture - with the idiosyncrasies that can entail. The guests that you get here would presumably object to the electricity cutting out halfway through the evening, and it wasn't originally built as an eco-resort. Unlike Hotelito Desconocido an hour or so to the north, created by the Italian fashion designer Marcello Murzilli, and my benchmark for eco-resorts, it was the family bolthole of an eccentric billionaire turned environmentalist. On this coast, scattered with luxury, Americanised resorts and villa complexes such as El Careyes or El Tamarindo, what you're buying into is the fact that it was once the private retreat of the Goldsmith clan and is now an unusual, bespoke travel experience.

Dinner was a feast of fresh produce. In fact, all the food at Cuixmala was delicious and wholesome - simple yet not plain. Breakfast: freshly squeezed orange juice, thickly cut papaya, melon and kiwi fruit, oven-warm bread and coffee ground within earshot, strong and potent. The coffee is grown on the family plantation at Hacienda de San Antonio, in the mountains near Colima, where they also farm cattle for meat and dairy. Three-and-a-half hours away by road, or 20 minutes by light aircraft - both properties have grass runways - we were heading there for a couple of nights after our stay on the coast. But first, the Cuixmala experience. Hiking, kayaking, birdwatching, mountain biking (unlike us, avoid freewheeling down to the boutique for a spot of shopping during the 5pm mosquito feeding-frenzy), activities can be strenuous or soporific. Early morning horse-riding on the beach, Western saddle and Stetson-style, is one of those slow-motion Hollywood movie moments. Cantering along dusty tracks through coconut groves shading citrus trees, the horses scrabbled over the grassy dunes and down onto the driftwood-scattered shore. The waves were breaking in a white mist as we galloped along the sand.

A picnic on our own private beach was another perfect brochure shot. Although most of the coastline here is wild - the currents are treacherous - there are a few safe spots. Caleta Blanca is backed by a little coconut grove and protected from the tug of the ocean by a series of islands at the cove's mouth. The water is calm and safe for swimming, the sand a well-groomed white powder, hammocks are slung between palm trees and there are just six heavy wooden loungers and umbrellas. Eagles soared overhead, the craggy headlands on either side sprouting thick vegetation. The picnic? A full spread. Behind a thatched palapa with jauntily painted blue wooden benches and tables, Pedro worked his magic and served up the most delicious grilled fish kebabs, chicken and fresh peppers, tortillas, ripe avocado and tomato salad washed down with chilled white wine.

Tearing ourselves away from Cuixmala, we headed inland to Hacienda de San Antonio, the family's mountain retreat. As we left the coast behind, the air cooled and we swapped coconuts for cows. Hacienda de San Antonio, in the shadow of the Volcan del Fuego, was built in the 19th century by a German immigrant, Don Arnoldo Vogel, and his Mexican wife, Doña Clotilde Quevedo de Vogel. The cool highland climate, they had found, was perfect for coffee and sugar cane production and Hacienda de Santa Cruz's coffee (as it was then called) was once served at establishments as prestigious as the Waldorf Astoria. A volcanic eruption in 1913, which narrowly missed the hacienda, led Doña Clotilde to build a chapel onto the main house and dedicate it to Saint Anthony. The estate was then renamed.

Sir James bought the dilapidated hacienda in the late Eighties. Old photographs in reception show what a wreck it had become before Robert Couturier set to work. He oversaw the renovation of the building, adding a second storey and grand staircase. Sir James asked Alix to decorate the hacienda in the style of a grand estate. A family home, just like Cuixmala, after his death it was turned into a small hotel and managed for five years by the Amanresorts group. Now, however, it's back in the hands of the family.

We were greeted, after our drive, by the new manager, Viviana Dean. The hacienda is an elegant pink building with a lush interior courtyard garden and shady stone corridors. A French château-style garden all miniature box hedges, crazy-paving paths and fountains, leads down towards the pool hidden at the bottom of the property, along with the tennis courts. The interiors are beautiful, but the crowning glory is the dramatic view of Volcan del Fuego, a plume of smoke rising from its cone. The atmosphere at the hacienda is far more formal than at Cuixmala. The dining room is a grand baronial space with huge candelabras - while the food, rather than fresh chunky produce, is fancier fare created by a French chef. There is always a choice, however, of traditional Mexican or a French or international dish.

At night, it's cosy and romantic: roaring fires and aperitifs served in the elegant cream and gold lounge. "Under Amanresorts a number of things had changed", was Viviana's tactful way of putting Alix and Goffredo's desire to reclaim the hacienda from the resort group. Flowerbeds had been grassed over, for instance - just one of the projects Diego, Viviana's landscape gardener husband, will be overseeing. Martin, a German lighting specialist who met Alix and Goffredo at one of their famous parties, joined us for drinks. He is sorting out the lighting at both properties, including illuminating the pathways to the satellite villas attached to La Loma. Guests, it seems, enjoy the resident wildlife during the day but don't want to stumble across a wild cat or hungry croc at night. One thing that hasn't changed is the staff. "Alix greets most of them with a hug," Viviana smiled, "as many have been here since it was the Goldsmith's private house and they're like family."

Activities here are as varied as at Cuixmala. There are nature walks around the hacienda; a 45-minute loop takes you round the valley passing arabica coffee trees, orange, grapefruit, avocado and banana trees. You can go birdwatching in the early morning - binoculars are provided. Or you can scale a nearby hill for breathtaking views of the volcano. After a morning spent by the pool, we headed to the nearby 4,500-acre Rancho Jabali to go riding. Surrounded by the soaring peaks, picnics can also be arranged by the lake here. There are plans, Viviana told us, to build a platform in the middle of the lake and offer spa treatments there.

Meeting Alix and Goffredo in London a few months before, their passion for the ecological foundation and environmental issues had been the thing that stuck in my mind. After staying at Cuixmala and the hacienda, my overriding impression was that neither could be easily pigeonholed; Cuixmala is not a purpose-built eco-resort but one man's vision, carried on by his family, offering a real tailor-made experience. It's still a family estate and guests are welcome to join in with picnics or whatever activities are planned. The hacienda, however, feels more like the hotel it has been for the past five years, although the organic farm and ranch add an extra dimension. When we went riding we were given straw Stetsons and jaunty red neckerchiefs, rather than the couple of old English-style riding hats (one too small, the other too large) at Cuixmala. But although more professional, we felt more at home on the coast.

For Suzie's birthday, Pedro decorated the dining room with streamers, Mexican ponchos and huge sombreros - and lined up three bottles of tequila on the table. After a traditional Mexican feast cooked by Imelda and Tita, he came in with a giant home-made birthday cake with candles and "feliz cumpleaños Susi" scrawled in icing on the top. Wreathed in smiles, mariachi music blaring from an old tape recorder, we felt part of the family.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), the only airline to fly direct from the UK to Mexico City with flights from Heathrow from £645. Alternatively, you can fly via Paris with Aeromexico (020-7871 6801; www.aeromexico.com) or via the US with American Airlines (020-020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk).

Domestic flights to Manzanillo are available with airlines such as Aeromar ( www.aeromar.com/mx) and Aeromexico. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Mexico City, in economy class, is £19.20.

STAYING THERE

The trip was organised through MasonRose (020-7235 3245; www.masonrose.com/cuixmala). Cuixmala (00 52 312 314 3143; www.cuixmala.com) has villas from US$1,500 (£833) per day, one room casitas from US$350 (£194) and two-room from $700 (£389). Hacienda de San Antonio (00 52 312 316 0300; www.haciendadesanantonio.com) has doubles from US$800 (£444) full board.

MORE INFORMATION

Mexico Tourism Board: 020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com.

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