How did Costa Careyes become such a chic international playground? William Middleton charts its rise—along with the quirks, rivalries, and feats of imagination.

“Did you see that tree at the end of the pool?” asks Alix Goldsmith Marcaccini on my first night at Cuixmala. “Do you think it works?” I am having dinner with her in her villa, Casa Arcadia, high above the estate founded by her father, Sir James Goldsmith, which she now runs as a glorious resort on the west coast of Mexico—a complex of villas, bungalows, and casitas that sprawls across 25,000 acres. The conversation has turned to a new pool she’s had built by Mexican architect Duccio Ermenegildo. A bold, rectangular form, it juts out over the property like a piece of minimalist sculpture. “It might be nice if there were nothing there to break the view,” I suggest, surprised to be consulted.

When we stop by the pool the next morning, the tree has vanished. Sometime after dinner and be- fore breakfast, one of the 250 people who work here came and chopped it down. In this battle be-tween nature and aesthetics, nature has lost.

This stretch of the Mexican coast, just an hour-and-a-half drive north of Manzanillo and three hours south of Puerto Vallarta, is a little patch of paradise with some very grand ambitions. Besides Cuixmala, the English financier’s vast hilltop spread designed by Robert Couturier, there’s Careyes, the resort built by Italian entrepreneur Gian Franco Brignone on eight extraordinary miles of shoreline.

Gian Franco, who came here looking for his own Eden in 1968, sold Jimmy Goldsmith a nice chunk of land and kept the rest for himself. Over the past four decades, Gian Franco has maintained an iron grip on Careyes, limiting growth to one beachside hotel with 48 rooms, 36 casitas on a hill above a cove, and some 50 villas with sweeping views out over the bay. Palm trees, bougainvillea, and cacti seem to overwhelm the place, covering the cliffs that drop into the clear blue waters of the Pacific. The structures blend the forceful lines of Mexican modernism with the soft edges of classic Italian architecture.

The ocher-colored three-story El Careyes hotel could have blown in from the Cours Saleya in Nice, while dozens of pastel casitas with red tile roofs rising uphill from the water call to mind Positano. The main Careyes beach, Playa Rosa, is no more than 100 yards wide, with a handful of boats floating in a quiet cove. A thatched-roof restaurant serves whatever has just been plucked from the sea. Way off in the distance is the domed roof of La Loma, Cuixmala’s main villa, inspired by the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. The mood is something akin to that of a French garden—gorgeously unspoiled yet completely stylized.

Just as carefully as they have groomed their estates, the Goldsmiths and the Brignones—Gian Franco’s dashing polo-playing son, Giorgio, oversees most of the operations now—have carefully tended their flock. Before he died in 1997, Jimmy Goldsmith would regularly fly friends and family (who included three former wives, countless mistresses, and eight children from four women) to Manzanillo in his Indian-themed 747, also designed by Couturier, and then have a private plane ferry everyone to Cuixmala.

Over the years both properties have served as a playground for heiresses, dignitaries, and royalty. In more recent days, however, Hollywood and its orbit have descended on this remote land, along with ordinary millionaires looking for a little pedigree and a way into an often sealed-off world. Lee Radziwell has been replaced with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mark and Domitilla Getty with Simon and Jasmin Le Bon, and Gianni Angelli with Madonna. Seal and Heidi Klum, whose wedding here brought out the paparazzi, have built their own peach-colored villa at Careyes. The cast of Kill Bill threw a party on the beach (Quentin Tarantino shot the final scenes of his stylish B-movie riff on the property). And this winter Bill and Melinda Gates took over La Loma for a week.

“We try not to focus on who has come here,” Giorgio Brignone says. “We don’t want people to come to see stars. That’s not what it’s about.” That line may be the oldest trick in the book—making a beautiful place for beautiful people and then refusing to name names—but Giorgio may have good reason to hedge. As the glare of the spotlight inches closer, how do you protect this sequestered world of private villas and hidden bungalows, this luxe and aesthetically consistent Mexico that is almost impossible to find elsewhere?

The future, it seems, still lies with the man whose extraordinary vision this was. When I first meet Gian Franco, he’s having a party at Sol de Occidente, one of two matching round villas that crown the hilltops on either side of a bay. The roof terrace drops off to a black infinity pool, wrapping around the house and reflecting views in every direction. Milling about are a couple dozen guests—some young Italians, a few French families, a Peruvian polo player, a handful of Americans.

The sun dips below the horizon as waiters serve frozen margaritas, chilled hibiscus water, and fresh guacamole. Gian Franco has long gray hair under a chic straw sombrero, wears a striped Mexican poncho over one shoulder, and carries a gnarled wooden cane. A playboy at 80 years old, he has one arm around his very beautiful, very young Brazilian girlfriend. At one point in the evening I overhear him say to a group of friends, “The invention of Viagra has changed my life.”

As we talk, he draws a grand—but probably apt—parallel between himself and the Aga Khan. He says he was inspired to found Careyes by the imam’s plan for the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia. Gian Franco scoured the globe searching for an unspoiled coastal area with a year-round temperate climate and a stable political environment. When he flew over these jagged cliffs and jungle-covered hills, he immediately knew he’d found his spot.

Looking out now over the landscape that he has spent decades creating from scratch, he says, “Gianni Agnelli once told me that what is remarkable about Careyes, as much as what we have built, is what wehaven’t built.”

Gian Franco not only keeps the big picture in sight but also manages—even micromanages—every inch, from the style of architecture to the color of paint used on each structure, whether he owns that structure or not. One afternoon, as we pull up to the Casa Iguanas, a private villa under renovation, Gian Franco stops by to make an inspection. Alarmed by a particular shade of pink being tested on the exterior wall, he confronts the designer, Mallery Roberts Lane, an American who lives in Paris and London and has spent several months here decorating the villa for its English owner.

“That’s not a Careyes pink,” Gian Franco says in firm, though polite, French.

“It’s the exact shade of a hibiscus flower,” she replies.

“A Careyes pink is the shade of a bougainvillea flower,” he answers. “I have lived here for a long time—I know what pink will work.”

Once the house was finished, with the hibiscus pink consigned to a single vertical stripe on an interior wall, Gian Franco would return to praise the designer. “He still says he would have chosen another pink, but he congratulated me on the house,” Mallery tells me later. “I find it touching—this is his Careyes. Even after all these years—the politics, the money, the people, the changes—he still takes every detail to heart.”

Early the next morning Giorgio, who is married and has two children, takes me for a spin in his boat to show how Careyes looks from the water. He points out some of the more successful villas (“That one has just been shot for Architectural Digest“) and such idyllic scenes as the Playa Teopa, a three-mile-long beach, with only two people walking along it. “The problem with many places in Mexico is that a beautiful place has something horrible just on the other side,” Giorgio says. “The quality of architecture at Careyes is consistent over a very extended area. We’re also surrounded by an enormous nature reserve, which helps give it a magic that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Still, there have been occasional missteps. Peeking into some of the older houses for rent, I see that the interiors—with outdated furniture and questionable art—could use some freshening up. Giorgio shows me one recent villa that is too big for its lot: a McMansion landed in Careyes. And on a small cove called Playa Rosa, he gestures toward a cluster of brick buildings constructed in the early seventies. Now vacant, this used to be a Club Med. “At first it brought in lots of young people, which was amusing,” he says, then with a wave of his hand adds, “it’s all being torn down and converted into one villa.”

Among Giorgio’s main contributions to Careyes is an enormous Bermuda-grass polo field near the ocean. It has become an important draw, with a delightful restaurant run by a couple from Guadalajara. There are matches three days a week and a professional tournament called the Agua Alta every Easter. “There is great polo in Argentina, too, but then your family will be stuck for a week on a dusty estancia,” Giorgio says.

“There are not many places that offer polo and the chance to spend time on the beach with the family. And here, the community invites players into their homes and has parties and dinners for them—you become a part of the place.” That sense of involvement is the chief advantage of Careyes. “There’s a real community here,” says Mallery Lane, the decorator of the hibiscus pink. “You’re not just staying in a hotel—you’re part of a social scene. It’s like you have an instant social life.”

The way into that life is Viviana Dean, a beautiful fortysomething native Guadalajaran who used to work for Gian Franco and is now Careyes’s ultimate fixer. She oversees three of the resort’s finest villas: Casa La Huerta, a soaring rose-colored structure, Casa Altiplano, which is pale yellow with graphic gray stripes and a sparkling blue pool, and Casa Candelabro, with a black wraparound infinity pool that looks out over the bay.

A grand dame of Torino society spent several weeks here training the staff at each house. One evening, Viviana pulls together a casual dinner with Giorgio, Mallery, and Viviana’s boyfriend, landscape architect Diego Quiñones. Dressed in a vintage Moroccan caftan that belonged to her great aunt, Viviana serves zucchini soup, grilled mahimahi, red rice with peas, and a dessert of coconut flan.

Over dinner she explains the allure of the local hibiscus water (a highly addictive tisane made from dried blossoms and served ice cold) and introduces us to her Chihuahua, Nube. “She has a friend staying with her for the weekend,” Viviana says. “She likes younger men, too.” By the time we’ve moved to the living room, Viviana and Diego have kicked off their shoes and leaned back into the oversize cushions and are talking about Careyes days gone by, setting a scene of magical realism. It’s no wonder that many visitors here end up buying their own slice of Careyes. (Villas sell for $1.5 million and up.)

The Goldsmith and Brignone families are on amiable terms, but from a distance and with an undercurrent of healthy rivalry. The day we are to leave Careyes for Cuixmala, that friendly conflict turns into farce. “There is really not that much to see in Cuixmala,” one resident I’d met informs me. “You won’t need to be there more than a day.” Another shows me an article on Careyes and says, “See, Cuixmala is barely mentioned.”

For our 12:30 lunch with Giorgio on Playa Rosa, he shows up at 1:45. “Are you sure you don’t want to go look at the sea turtles this afternoon?” he asks. Instead of serving lunch, waiters bring out dish after dish for Jonathan Becker to photograph. Giorgio lingers with friends at another table while Gian Franco, putting in a surprise appearance, describes some new top-secret sculpture he is erecting in the jungle—it’s not clear exactly what he’s up to. He offers, “Would you like to see it?” Even though the conditions couldn’t be lovelier, we’re being held hostage.

[elfsight_instagram_feed id="7"]

Whether the Brignones like it or not, the Goldsmith legacy has become as key to the idea of a luxe Mexican Riviera as their own. Sir James, an inveterate gambler who inspired tremendous criticism along with fierce loyalty, first came to Careyes to ring in the New Year of 1984. “We had rented Casa Mi Ojo, Gian Franco’s house,” recalls Alix, who was 19 then. “Gian Franco stayed with us and did everything possible for us to fall in love with Careyes.”

It worked. After complicated negotiations to assemble all the properties, Sir James hired Couturier to design the entire project and had thousands of workers swarming over the site to make sure every structure was finished in two years’ time. Alix quips, “It was like building the bloody pyramids.”

Indeed the estate is nothing short of astonishing, with a scale that is otherworldly. La Loma, the domed main house, has only four bedrooms in more than 37,000 square feet, with ceilings more than 15 feet high. On the crest of Cuixmala’s highest hill some distance from La Loma, the peach-stuccoed Casa Puma, where we are staying, looks back at the main house over a plantation filled with 10,000 palm trees.

Elsewhere is another large villa; six guest bungalows, scattered near La Loma on an overgrown butte; the house of Alix’s mother, Ginette Goldsmith, nestled by the ocean; three hillside villas for family; nine casitas originally for senior staff and now rented to guests; and a huge stable in orange stucco topped by a gigantic bronze bust of a horse. (Because of severe undertow, there’s no swimming beach at Cuixmala—a fact that raises more than a few eyebrows at Careyes.

Instead, there are two private beaches, both perfectly picturesque, 20 minutes away.) From within the estate, there is virtually no sign of outside life—except for Gian Franco Brignone’s own sprawling house, Castillo el Tigre del Mar, which he built after Sir James finished Cuixmala. “My father would look out his window and see this big blue penis,” Alix remarks, “with a flag on top!”

“Jimmy was a very big man and he swallowed up space,” says Couturier, now based in New York. “He thought a lot, and he would think while walking—he’d walk around the patio, chewing his handkerchief or chewing his cigar and thinking.” Couturier says the style of Cuixmala emerged through the process of elimination. “Jimmy didn’t want something modern, and we knew we didn’t want to build a European castle.

What we ended up with is more Moorish—a combination of a mogul’s palace and a monastery.” And yet the interiors are surprisingly spare. All the villas have white floors and walls; bright cotton fabrics cover the banquettes; and the ceilings are done in the traditional domed redbrick style called bóvedas. The simplicity was intentional, Couturier explains, “because with so much going on already, we didn’t want to add any more. That would have been preposterous.”

As indulgent as Cuixmala may be, Jimmy Goldsmith also committed himself and his heirs to significant stewardship of the land. He established the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, the first such private concession in the country, with 32,000 acres of dry tropical forest and more than 1,100 species of plants, 72 mammals, 110 varieties of fish, and 270 species of birds. The rivers and lagoons are now crawling with hundreds of snapping crocodiles.

Dozens of imported zebras, gazelles, and elands roam the coconut plantation. The estate is 80 percent self-sufficient, with all the fruit, vegetables, and livestock raised organically. Almost everything—the orange juice and huevos mejicanos at breakfast and the roast pork and platter of fresh cheese at dinner— is produced on the estate.

After her father’s death, the only way Alix could continue what he began was by opening up the property to guests (“You can’t imagine how much it costs to paint that every year,” she says of the glossy white walls, floors, and ceiling). She does, after all, come from a family with a long history of hospitality: Sir James’s father ran some of the finest hotels in Europe, among them the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the Carlton Hôtel in Cannes.

His eldest daughter and Alix’s sister, Isabel Goldsmith, owns Las Alamandas, an elegant small hotel 30 miles north of Careyes. Alix has also converted her father’s mountain retreat into a hotel—the Hacienda de San Antonio is near the town of Colima, some three hours from Cuixmala. (Those visiting both places usually take a 45-minute flight between them; each has its own airstrip.)

Tucked into a lush 5,000 acres in the shadow of a live volcano, the Hacienda is a working coffee plantation that dates back to the 19th century. In the eighties Sir James hired Couturier to build a 25-bedroom colonial-style house in pink stucco and black volcanic rock. Having turned over management of the Hacienda to the Aman hotel group for several years, Alix has now regained control, redecorated, brought in a general manager from Paris, and hired a protégé of celebrated French chef Guy Martin.

Despite the monumentality of Cuixmala, I never feel intimidated or lost in the shuffle of such a complicated operation. This, like Careyes, is still a family affair: Alix’s husband, Goffredo Marcaccini, runs the property, and Alix—along with her striking assistant, Maria Campos—oversees every detail of the guests’ stay. That sense of the personal, that Cuixmala is a home, is never lost, and the result is an entirely unique experience.

One morning near the casitas, we come across a group of five friends: the head of a Mexican telephone company and his wife; the publisher of a political magazine and his wife; and a renowned and remarkable Mexican singer named Carolina Cordova. She has light green eyes and is wearing a black and white polka-dot dress, as if she just stepped out of a fifties film. They sit around a late breakfast, talking, laughing.

Soon Carolina moves to the side of a hill under a tree; the pool sparkles below, the palm trees and the rest of the estate glimmer in the distance. She takes out her guitar, strums rhythmically, and breaks into full-throated song. “Que Bonito”—it’s a love song, a beautiful lament. Pulled in by her performance, her friends take their places on the chaise longues around the pool. When she finishes, she closes her eyes dramatically and the little audience breaks into applause. The morning air fills with shouts of “Brava! Brava!”

[elfsight_instagram_feed id="29"]