PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — What began as a simple remodeling project for a private vacation home took a wildly romantic turn along the way and blossomed into one of the most enchanting boutique hotels anywhere.
Janice Chatterton can't say exactly how Hacienda San Angel happened. She never ran a hotel or a restaurant in her life. But it's possible she just couldn't resist sharing the high love-nest potential that came with the property.
Chatterton bought her tropical villa from Susan Hunt, who received it as a 1977 Valentine's Day gift from her husband, the late actor Richard Burton. Just around the corner and down the street is another Burton gift house, the one he gave to Elizabeth Taylor when they were here during filming of the 1964 film "The Night of the Iguana."
With the ghosts of such dangerous liaisons of the past swirling around it, a small luxury hotel would have a hard time missing as a destination for lovebirds, and Hacienda San Angel doesn't miss.
From the outside, the place looks innocent enough, tucked into a modest neighborhood of white stucco and red tile roofs on one of the cobbled residential streets of central Puerto Vallarta. It's nothing like the glossy new high-rise hotel resorts springing up along the beaches north and south of the city.
But guests who pull the bell rope that hangs above the door are admitted to a lush tiled courtyard straight out of colonial Mexico, a place where it's easy to picture a duel for your honor on the balustrade or a senorita beckoning from beyond the burbling fountain. Bougainvillea blossoms drop from overhead. Two blocks away, the bell tolls from the tower of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Inside the hotel, romantic and secluded spaces abound. It is a warren of stairways, alcoves, winding passages, terraces, pools, and gardens that lead from courtyard to guest rooms with names like Angel's Dome, Milagro and the Celestial Suite.
Chatterton added two adjacent homes to the original villa to create the hacienda's 10 guest rooms. Each is unique, but all of them manage to feel intimate and at the same time wide open to breezes and views of the palm-spangled hills and the broad bay they embrace. Like the rest of the hacienda, the rooms are filled with heavy antique furniture, icons and art work, yet still seem light and spacious.
Chatterton, who is from California, wasn't sure if Puerto Vallarta drew enough upscale visitors for the level of luxury she found herself offering. But the market did respond. "It has more than met my expectations," she said.
And the hotel - which opened in 2003 - has gotten rave reviews from Frommer's, Fodor's, and Conde Nast Traveler, which listed the hacienda on its 2005 "Hot List."
Though the villa and its museum-quality decor come straight from the 19th century or even earlier, the hacienda offers a full array of up-to-date spa and concierge services, Internet access, and all-day dining as good as anything else in town. The staff will even serve meals in any courtyard or terrace in the hotel you choose that isn't part of somebody else's room.
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There's a cocktail hour each afternoon in the main courtyard with its open-air kitchen-dining-lounge area. Mariachis serenade these gatherings, but it's just as charming to listen to them from the guest rooms, which are all within earshot.
The shops, markets, galleries, cafes and beaches of this booming coastal resort town are all within easy walking distance. On the other hand, for the severely lovestruck, it really is possible to make tropical dreams come true without even leaving the Celestial Suite, and some guests don't emerge until check-out time.
If you go:
HACIENDA SAN ANGEL: Miramar 336, Colonia Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; By phone, (415) 738-8220 (U.S.) or (011) (52) 322-222-2692 (Mexico). Rooms $250 to $475 a night, less in summer and more during the Christmas season.
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