Casa Arabia, Colima, Manzanillo: The Big Unwind
March 21, 2007 – Manzanillo, Mexico
We start with the words of the renowned philosopher Jose’ Vasconcelos from his “La Raza Cosmica” (1948):
…..Collonades will be raised in a useless demonstration of beauty, and perhaps spiral constructions, because the new asthetic form will try to mould itself to the endless curve of the spiral which respresents free aspirations, and the triumph of being in the conquest of the infinite.
The countryside, full of colour and rhythm, will communicate its wealth to the emotions; reality will seem to be imagination.
Transcendancy is expected in this part of the world, and the world spread below you from the terraces of Casa Arabia is hatched from mythology and mysticism as much as from mortar. It’s something that you’ll come to understand and not question as the days unfold here on the Santiago Peninsula.
I’m not much of a lounger. However, after a few days at Casa Arabia, I’ve become world-class at it. Perhaps it’s the fairies hovering over Las Hadas who gently pin me back to my chaise with their soft wings. I’ve lost the will to fight…so I simply indulge them, and haven’t felt so utterly relaxed in years.
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From this cliff in the sky overlooking the magical white roofs of Las Hadas and the Santiago Bay below, it’s strange to think that these waters were once threatened and looted by English pirates like Cavendish and Drake for the Phillipines route: the prosperous “Nao De China” trade and the famous “Galeon de Manila” between the Orient and the Nueva Espana were a subject of great temptation for the pirates of yore.
And, a few centuries later, Bo Derek caused nearly as much havoc simply by running on the beach wearing braids. (see the movie “10”). As the “Bolero” marches through our heads, I’ll guide you around the place.
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Enter the iron terra cotta gate to the house on the hill and wander up the white-and-tile steps which lead immediately to the outdoor living space and key-shaped 50-foot infinity pool. You’re surrounded by large, leafy palms in every direction. The air is sweet and tropical.
Pink bougainvillea spill from oversized pots as you focus on several distinct areas in which to partake in your new favorite sport: Olympic Lounging. You’ll particularly enjoy the Moroccan-themed outdoor living room with its long, curved “sultan’s” couch and colorful pillows beneath arched windows dripping with silken draperies. This is a reading spot from the heavens!
A waterfall spills from the top of a tall rock wall, and the pool water circulates as well, so it’s like living in a natural spa. Moving water, sighing palms, Spanish music and the aroma of garlic and tomatoes hit the senses simultaneously as Jenny shows us around the villa. Welcome to Casa Arabia!
The landscaped grounds are supremely inviting; lush with exotic flowers and fruits from Mexico’s highland regions. The property is also graced with 66 gigantic palm trees, hand-picked and perfectly placed on the property.
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As we walk through the master bedroom, Jenny De Koninck points out some of the artwork that hangs on the walls and sits atop the furniture. She has favorites by now, having supervised this villa for 23 years, and is the home’s spiritual keeper as well.
The vast, impressive folk art collection was curated by Mr. Kelly Amen, ASID, in conjuction with Mr. William Graham, a former Paris art dealer. It was officially presented to the art world at the John Fitzsimmons Gallery in Houston in February of 1980.
In all its aspects, The Collection encompasses a special kind of art work; one which provides a startling reminder of the pride and intricacy of ancient and vivid cultures made visible and tangible for today’s world. It includes a camel saddle bag and silk wallet from Morocco, a Syrian peasant dress, Persian wood blocks, a brass shield of Ottoman Empire design, a 19th century horse braid from Pakistan and a silver necklace from Afghanistan, and many other masterworks.
Room after room is presented to us—each with its own king-sized bed and private balcony with enormously satisfying views. It’s a wonderful place to bring multiple couples because all the rooms are unique and inviting—and no couple will feel disappointed with their quarters. With 8000 square feet of living space in this Arabic-styled interior, privacy is guaranteed.
The master offers an enormous bath with walk-in dressing area with a Baccarat chandelier, marble sunken bath and separate shower, a large step-down bath and separate marble shower, a generous mirrored vanity as well as a long lovely counter with two sinks flanked by sconces. An entire family could easily get ready at the same time in this master bath with the four-foot urn in the center.
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Just off the master bedroom is a spacious ante-room or den with a high domed brick ceiling, arched windows and fluttering sheers leading out the double doors to the patio with a stone Jacuzzi and two comfortable chaises. It’s an old world feel here…enhanced by flowering plants, the chirping of cicadas and more wonderful sculptures—some are spherical and are lit from within, making for a magical environment in the evenings. We’re on the sunrise side of the bay, and they are lovely.
Lunch today was a fresh mahi mahi steak which had been marinated in oil, garlic and fresh rosemary grown here on the property, vegetable rice, salad and fresh asparagus. Perfect for a balmy afternoon on the veranda. The cook, Yolanda, has the warmest smile on the planet, and with her beautiful young helper, Rocio, makes dining al fresco at the property a complete pleasure.
Nowhere else during this visit did I have a finer, fresher meal than on the patio or in the dining room here at the casa. Sincere compliments to the chefs! Last night it was fresh Dorado Veracruz, preceeded by an impossibly creamy garlic avocado soup (served chilled) and easily the best home-made caramel flan I’ve ever laid teeth on. Yolanda roared with laughter when she caught me actually licking my plate.
Tonight I give the chefs a rest and venture 5 minutes down the cobblestone streets of the tony “La Punta” gated community in which the villa is set to the famous arches, spirals and pure-white rooftops of Las Hadas. Rumor has it Jean-Claude Van Damme is staying here this week, but I’m heading there for a different kind of scenery. By the way, this is one of the safest spots anywhere I’ve traveled for a post-dinner foot cruise.
Los Delfines is the more casual restaurant here, located right on the water, and like everything at Las Hadas, is named after a local legend in which the dolphins chased away the sharks from these waters simply by doing their job: playing and frolicking endlessly in the bay. It’s nice to watch the twinkling lights in the distance with a glass of wine served by waiters dressed in all white. It’s also very easy on the wallet. (Legazpi is the more formal restaurant at Las Hadas, located on the second floor above the piano bar. Reservations are required, as it fills to capacity every night.)
A respectable flank steak with peppercorn sauce, a baked potato and a side of broccoli and it’s back up to the villa for a delicious poolside star-gazing session with only the crickets for company. If you need to get away, this is away!
From the end of the dock at Las Hadas during the day you can gaze up at the mountainside and see the ivory structures and towers standing out against the electric blue sky—quite a sight. In the water is a brigade of seagulls—one in the exact center of each buoy— calmly standing guard in a long line all the way from the jetty to the shore. A family of pelicans has commandeered the swimming raft and they’re not about to surrender it.
The next day is a golf day at the Las Hadas course, a quick taxi ride from the villa. Luckily, they have left-handed golf clubs for rent (you’d be amazed how many places don’t!) so we’re all set. It’s a pleasant course, if a bit dry this year; like many places including southern California, it’s feeling the effects of drought. Nonetheless, it’s enjoyable to be able to play solo without joining a foursome since the course is uncrowded on this particular afternoon. Nor is a caddy required, so I can make all the bad shots I want without feeling embarrassed—bonus!
There’s the ancient dyke on the back nine that’s unique to try to pitch over, and the mountain scenery provides a splendid backdrop. I was totally unprepared for the dramatic par-3 18th hole, with the sea crashing behind me and the green set into the sea in front of me. Between the flag and the tee are a stone wall, the sea, and another stone wall. Target golf! (With an audience, no less, since the guards from the Hotel Karmina Palace and some hotel guests were watching closely as I teed up.)
This was no 8-iron par 3! I took out my driver and gave it everything I had, since the wind was blowing firmly in my direction. The ball soared……my heart pounded….and then I lost my ball in the bright sunshine. Assuming it was in the sea, I quickly teed up another. This time time a hotel guest and obvious golf enthusiast shouted “I’ll watch it for you!” and so he did. It went up, up, hit the green, and tumbled slowly back off the green and into the jagged rock wall below. So close, and yet—so swallowed.
The hotel guest ran up to me and told me to cross the white bridge to the green and take a look at my first shot. Lo and behold, there was my ball not 6 feet from the pin! An honest-to-God miracle! And that’s when I knew why I’d gotten up this morning. Just for that one shot. And golfers, you know it as well as I do—that’s what keeps you coming back for more punishment. It was a stupendous way to end my rather feeble round (even though I predictably missed the putt) and I decided to celebrate at the hotel’s poolside restaurant, The Hermosas Grill at Karmina Palace.
The Karmina Palace is the newest hotel in Manzanillo; about 9 years old, and it’s an all-inclusive all-suite hotel like you might find in Cancun, with its enormous free-form pools, water park for the kids, multiple restaurants, shops and festival astmophere. You’re supposed to have a reservation to eat at the poolside grill, but I explained I’d just gotten off the golf course and was just looking for a quick, early bite. The manager relented and let me have a table; probably because only two other tables were occupied at the time.
The fajitas were good; served table-side with a tequila-flame show by the waiter, and the service was great. It was very pleasant looking over the well-manicured grounds, pools, and the bay as the sun set. If you’re itching for humanity, this is a nice night out for you—but make sure to make reservations before 4pm or risk being chastised.
The other restaurant at the Karmina Palace is called Cariocas. It’s a very romantic spot poised on a point over the ocean with big tables, a mile-high thatched roof, plenty of elbow room, and a tempting menu. Yes–reservations are required here as well. (It’s about a 6 minute cab ride from Casa Arabia).
At night it morphs into a disco and if you feel the need to bust a move, some hired caballeros wearing white will teach you some local and potentially embarrassing dances. Beware of flying flip flops! Nightly theme shows at an outdoor theatre on the grounds are also a popular way to spend an evening under the stars. (They’re family-friendly, in case you’re wondering.)
I thoroughly enjoyed my day-jaunt away from Casa Arabia, but felt so fortunate to be able to return to its serenity and melt into the hot tub; sharing it with only my friends the cicadas. Jenny had thoughtfully left a pitcher of frozen margaritas in the freezer, so it was a tasty and refreshing homecoming. It’s a simple joy to wear a nighty (or not!) and ramble through the indoor/outdoor villa at night, enjoying the comfort of the sea breezes and the lighted sculptures. After all these years walking on earth, I had no prior notion that swanning about au naturel could be so pleasing. Hmmm….wonder what other latent traits the fairies will uncover here?
For non-golfers staying at Casa Arabia, there’s scuba diving and snorkeling, deep sea fishing, horseback riding, desert jeep adventures, tennis, wave-riders, nature camps where you swing on cables through the jungle, hiking, waterskiing and much more—if only you can peel yourself off that chaise longue! The staff will be only too happy to assist you with planning your day trips and activities.
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Casa Arabia is for casual travelers who need a break from their high-tech, fast-paced existences and who want to take a step back in time to simpler days and ways. It rather reminds me of living in a Fitzgerald novel– all the acoutrements– without all the neurotic, unhappy characters. Instead, there’s a happy and talented staff to cater to your whims and to feed you—body and soul. I fell hard for the ladies (and gentleman) who are in charge of this villa, and you will, too. Especially after you’ve tried Jenny’s home-made Belgian caramel crepes…..Simply to die.
A sure haven for writers, harried soccer moms, old friends who need catching up, and families who’d love spending time together in a glorious setting under the Central American stars. And who don’t mind sharing their time with some gentle, ancient lounge fairies.
Many thanks to this engaging TTT member Dayna for an absolutely delightful stay.
Vaya con dios!
Now, a word about those fairies. Because without this background, you might not be fully able to conjure up the magic that’s all around you!
On this land enclosed by the sea with its beaches and cliffs as old as the world, exciting and evocative stories and legends recall names which have existed from antiquated times.
What does the presence of “Las Hadas” (the fairies) in the peninsula mean? Are they sorcerers who cast spells, elves, wood nymphs, Mediterranean fairies or Greek sirens trying to ensnare sailors—the sixteenth-century successors of Ulysses?
On summer nights or at dawn, it’s not difficult to discern thousands of tiny lights sparkling like will-o-the-wisps over the water, on the beach and among the vegetation of the hillsides. Yes, we now know that this is caused by phosphorous from the spoils of marine species and from burial places, but we have to admit that it is a strange and wonderful sight and one which must have assumed a mythical significance among local superstitions as time went on.
A considerable portion of the peninsula was a vast cemetery during the pre- Spanish period, for the remains of Indian tombs from all epochs appear as soon as modern day man starts digging. This great cemetery had a mystical meaning for the Indians up until the time they were converted to Christianity by missionaries and exchanged their burial grounds for those of the new religion they had adopted.
To this day, thousands of clay and terra cotta statuettes sleep forever in the soil of the Santiago Peninsula in the vain hope that no one will disturb their slumber.
Fairies have existed since time immemorial; they lived in our dreams with the delightful charm of fabulous creatures with human faces…..beautiful little people who were always ready to perform miracles and wonders.
That was how we saw them when we were children and were capable of understanding them and seeing them in our dreams. Here’s the story of a place where fairies came to life again for all those who believed in them.
There is a tanned, clear-eyed, wavy-haired old man named Santiago who is the patron saint of the people in this area. They say he came from Galilee and crossed many countries riding a spirited white horse. When he was young, he accomplished many chivalrous quests. The image of Santiago was that of half-bird, like a quetzal because of his plumage, and half-snake because of the splendid iron mail which covered his body. People called him Quetzal-Coatl, and they say he still lives among the people. Children see him walking or riding his horse along the shore, carrying on conversations with the starfish.
One day Santiago came down from his tower at dawn, sensing the presence of malevolent spirits embodied by black goats. He decided to alert all the good fairies in the dream city. Although they normally live in the ethereal state, it’s necessary for some of them to consubstantiate with a noble tree or with an inanimate Being; in order not to lose their immortality, the fairies must become incarnate at least one day every year.
They may assume either a human or animal shape. They sometimes embody fabulous creatures in the form of clouds, lightning or enslaved demons that transport them at the speed of light. Santiago deemed that this would be the day for the annual revival of the fairies. As soon as the first light of dawn lit up the sky, a brilliant fairy emerged from the sea among millions of sparkling pearls, riding the white steed of the Apostle, and headed for the enchanted city.
The white-winged Pegasus and fairy passed through the narrow streets of the city like a sigh; the horse’s hooves resounded as they crossed in front of the Tower of the Wind: what joy! The fairy had come back to life and everyone was at the post assigned to him by Santiago in order to defend their city.
The flight of the Pegasus was superb; from the air there could be seen on all sides domes, pinnacles and stairways all of the most immaculate white and dotted with bright flowers of the most vivid colors. Towers stood out on the hillside like icebergs from the forest of palm trees.
Nymphs and minor fairies sang and played in the sun which gilded their tresses; a little further off their wings skimmed a reminder of the sea; the amphora taken from the ancient galleons of trade and war, and the cannon-gargoyles which in former times defended the city.
Heaven alone knows how long the battle in the palm grove lasted. The soldiers and settlers defended their people and their shipyards. Joris, the Flemish pirate, attempted to loot the galleons and the precious cargoes which had arrived a few weeks before from the distant islands, but the inhabitants, fighting valiantly by the side of the Apostle Santiago, prevented him.
When the fairies re-entered the city by way of the terraces of El Terral, Santiago was waiting for them at the foot of the Tower. His noble, lined face lit up at the sight of them. Although utterly exhausted, the fairies were radiant with happiness. It had been a wonderful day: at last, The Day of Las Hadas. (The day the fairies landed).
Now, as you gaze upon the white towers and rooftops of Las Hadas directly below you at Casa Arabia– or as you wander the cobblestone streets of that white village, the gargoyles, dolphins, spirals and Pegasus carvings that greet you from doorways and planters, lintels and archways are a fond reminder of the ancient magic that lives on even today—if only you’ll let it—in this inspired and enchanting part of the world.
(Many thanks to Jenny for directing me to a book written by the architect of Las Hadas, Jose Luis Ezquerra De La Colina, which detailed the legends of Las Hadas and the Santiago Peninsula).