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Hacienda Los Laureles – A Oaxacan Gem

By: Lisa Coleman

One of my all time favorite Mariachi songs is called “Volver, Volver.” Loosely translated the title means “Come back, Come back,” and it symbolizes what I feel every time I leave Mexico. My heart always aches a bit and the words to that song run through my head. There is something remarkable about returning to a place that touches your soul. It’s never like the first time; it’s better. There’s a touch of familiarity that gives the impression of being welcomed back home. That’s how I felt about coming back to Oaxaca and Hacienda Los Laureles.

On a map, the state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. The entire region is filled with both natural and cultural beauty, but the centerpiece of the state is the magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop a highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The city is widely considered one of the finest displays of Spanish colonial architecture in the entire country and was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1987. A total of 1,200 historic monuments remain throughout the city and surrounding areas.

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The charming and elegant Hacienda Los Laureles is located a quick 8 to 10 minutes from the zócalo (city center).  Tucked away in the foothills, this hotel is a real gem.  Built in the early 1800s, the property maintains its grand colonial style, while offering all the modern amenities. My first visit to the hacienda was back in 2001, and I was happy to discover it was even more beautiful upon my return. The lush and manicured gardens had matured even more and are now filled with blooming flowers along with huge cypress and mango trees. To add to the natural peacefulness of the grounds, a symphony of singing birds can be heard throughout the foliage.

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From the moment you arrive, it will feel as though you are in your own private hacienda. With a total of only 23 guest rooms (including four master suites and presidential suite), the service is very personal. Owner, Peter Kaiser, tells me, “We want our guests to have a unique experience here so the staff is always available to cater to their needs.” Peter has built his reputation on attention to detail and understands the importance of “the little things” that make a hotel experience memorable.  Los Laureles is a member of the exclusive Mexico Boutique Hotels group, and received Four Diamonds from AAA. In addition, the hacienda was bestowed with the Tesoro (Treasure) Award from the Oaxaca State Government and an “M” from the Tourism Ministry presented by the previous Secretary of Tourism, Gloria Guevarra. The “M” is for “Modern,” but obtaining it requires exhaustive training and inspection.

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Each room and suite has its own look and feel. Keeping true to its historical roots, heavy wood furniture is accented with Mexican handicrafts, bursts of color and fresh flowers. The suites have big, comfortable beds and plenty of space. Everything feels special here. We were in Oaxaca celebrating my 50th birthday, so when we checked in, our bed was adorned with rose petals spelling out “Feliz Cumpleaños” (Happy Birthday).  It was such a nice touch. There are small tables and chairs just outside your door are the ideal place to sip some coffee and take in the beauty of the garden and grounds. If you need a bit more pampering, stop into the Le Petit Spa for a memorable massage or refreshing facial. Or, take a spiritual journey in the temazcal. A “temazcal” is a traditional Mexican steam bath similar to the Native American sweat lodge. Los Laureles has a small one on the property that will fit three people. Ask at the spa for details.

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Though there are plenty of wonderful restaurants in Oaxaca, I must say that one of the finest in town can be found at the hotel – Los Cipreses. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a candlelit table set in the garden and treated to an extraordinary meal. In fact, we were so impressed with the service and the food that we ate dinner on the property two out of the three nights of our stay. Chef Horacio Reyes is brilliant. Offerings range from the tasty Camarones a la Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan style shrimp with onion, garlic, mushrooms, tomato, mezcal and white wine) and an expertly prepared Filete de Res del Bosque (Filet mignon with mushrooms and herbs) to the amazing Ensalada de Nopales (sliced cactus with peeled tomatoes, onions and avocado) and the Canasta de Chapulines al Cilantro (basket of grasshoppers with coriander, garlic, onion tomato with guacamole and tortillas). Yes, I said “grasshoppers.” They are a very famous dish in Oaxaca and a “must try.” Don’t worry, you will be pleasantly surprised! In addition, the Chef offers cooking classes that will give you insight into these unforgettable dishes.

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During our stay, their was a private birthday party being set  up. The tent and tables were festive and flawless. The hacienda is well known for hosting special events, meetings and gorgeous weddings. If you’re looking for an intimate and off-the-beaten-path place for your ceremony, you might want to add Los Laureles to your consideration list.

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 The hacienda is also a premiere location to use as a jumping off spot to explore the region. The front desk can call for a taxi for trips in and out of the city and arrange any kind of tour (private or group) with an English-speaking driver/guide. Be sure to study up on the area so you know what you’d like to see, but I would certainly recommend the archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla, and the artisan village of San Martin Tilcajete.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban

My return trip to Oaxaca and Hacienda Los Laureles was outstanding. The service was brilliant, the room was perfect and I felt as if I was coming home. This is a place I know I will return to again and again and I know it will always be magical. For more information contact Sylvie Laitre at Mexico Boutique Hotels (sylvie@mexicoboutiquehotels.com ).

Huatulco and Las Palmas – A Match made in Heaven

By: Lisa Coleman

Santorini, Greece – Interlaken and Lucerne, Switzerland – Positano, Italy – The Himalayas – these are a few of the destinations that make my short list of “no matter how you imagined it, it’s better.” After my recent trip to Oaxaca for my 50th birthday, it’s time to add a couple more to the list: Huatulco and the ocean front villas and casitas at Las Palmas.

As a writer, I have the rare opportunity to travel through Mexico in search of paradise. I have found hundreds of amazing destinations throughout this marvelous country, but from the heart, I can tell you Huatulco is simply one of the best beach resorts in the entire country, and Las Palmas one of most perfect places where I’ve had a chance to stay… and that’s a tall order. There is a certain inexplicable magic here, a laid back sweetness if you will, all wrapped in the inviting smiles of the local people who are always happy you chose their charming, yet isolated, gem of a beach town on the Pacific.

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In the early 1970’s, the Mexican government embarked on an ambitious plan to develop tourism through a series of integrated master-planned beach resorts. FONATUR, which is the National Trust for Tourism Development (Fondo Nacional del Fomento al Turismo), was responsible for the blockbuster resorts of Cancun, Ixtapa and Los Cabos, as well as the lesser-known communities of Loreto and the Bahías de Huatulco (the Bays of Huatulco, which has been shortened to simply “Huatulco.”) Nonetheless, their loss is your gain. The very fact that it hasn’t exploded with tourism is exactly what makes it so very special. Huatulco is far different from its high profile companions. Considered and developed as an “ecotourism” resort, 70% of Huatulco is made up of ecological preserves. In 1988, then President Ernesto Zedillo converted most of Huatulco’s preserves into a giant national park (protecting both land and marine life).  They pride themselves in being a totally “green” resort. FONATUR still controls all local land sales within the development and ensures that all new projects meet certain standards in order to maintain Huatulco’s Green Globe status.

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    At the center of it all are a series of nine spectacular bays notched into 21 miles of shoreline hosting 36 beaches, countless inlets and coves, and arguably some of the most extraordinary coastline on the Pacific. The crystal clear water, and usually sparsely populated golden sand beaches, somehow don’t feel like a tourist destination. It all seems a bit more secluded and private. And since some of the bays and beaches are only accessible by boat, everything remains as nature intended. I wouldn’t usually recommend much snorkeling on some parts of the Pacific coast, but rest assured you won’t be disappointed here.

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In my opinion, there just aren’t a lot of places like this left in the world. There is just enough development here to give you anything and everything you want in a beach resort, and just enough off-the-beaten-path remoteness to keep it off most tourists’ radar. Of the nine bays that were slated for development, only six have “visitor facilities.” The main areas are: Tangolunda Bay, home to the big resorts, an 18-hole golf course, a smattering of nightlife and a little resort shopping. The bay of Santa Cruz, with a good-sized marina, an intimate little village with beachside restaurants and bars, plenty of shops and an often-deserted cruise ship dock. And, Chahue Bay (CHAH-way), located between the two above, sports another marina, lots of new high-end condo projects and a public beach. About a mile inland, the charming little town of La Crucecita is a slice of pure Mexico. With a colorful and quaint town square, plenty of inviting restaurants and bars, a few excellent fresh seafood stalls to pick up the daily catch, and a very well-stocked grocery store (the Súper Che) that takes U.S. dollars and gives change in pesos at a great rate… what more do you need?

Well, you need an amazing place to stay… and that’s the subtle, refined, and perfectly done Las Palmas. Since we were looking for a villa, my good friend Sylvie Laitre, who owns and operates Mexico Boutique Hotels, made the recommendation. A quick glance at the endless 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor and it was an easy sell. I was put in contact with the darling and incredibly efficient manager, Courtney Glassman. Her title, Director of Escapes, is very appropriate. She is the ideal hostess and makes sure everything is in perfect order before you arrive.

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Las Palmas has a prestigious location, perched on a cliff with incomparable views of Violin Bay on one side and Santa Cruz Bay on the other.  Just five minutes from La Crucecita and 15 minutes from the Tangolunda Golf Club, you won’t spend more than $6 USD to get anywhere in the area. (Taxis are plentiful and happy to wait for you at the grocery store.) With a total of five casitas and three villas, Las Palmas has the look and feel of an expertly designed Mexican estate. Owners, Ron and Jackie Williams, saw it as just that. Ron told me, “We came down here in 2001 with another couple. We had always wanted something tropical but had been leaning towards Hawaii. On our fourth day in Huatulco we saw the beach at Violin Bay from the road, looked up at the cliff and, even though it was all jungle, knew this was the place.”  Ron and Jackie tell their story with such love and passion that their energy can’t help but flow into the property.  “We took a boat around to the bay and looked at the property by sea. We wired the money as fast as we could.”

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Over the course of the next several months and years, the vision of Las Palmas began to develop. There was infrastructure in place with fresh water and electricity available at the street. They interviewed three different architects and finally decided on Gontran Orozco Canales, who Ron and Jackie affectionately call the “contractor from heaven.” The doors opened to the Turtle Bay and Dolphin Cove Villas in 2007, the casitas followed in 2008 and the House of the Rising Sun villa in 2009. And since the beginning, it’s been all about the guests. “We have so many repeat guests that are like family to us now,” Jackie says. “The same five couples come every year and we arrange our big bookings (which are weddings) around our regulars,” Ron boasts with a smile. “It’s just soulful here and we do our best to make it unforgettable for everyone.” From where I sit, I’d say they have certainly succeeded in doing just that.

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Even though there were only four of us, we went all out and opted for the Dolphin Cove Villa. As many times as I looked at the pictures on their website in the months before we left, it was even more breathtaking when we arrived. We kept staring at each other in disbelief. The open-air dining room and living room flowed seamlessly to the negative edge pool that seemed to connect to the Pacific horizon. The view… well, check out some of the photos and I think you’ll agree it’s quite breathtaking. Our concierge, Talina, was waiting for us at the villa to offer her services for anything we might need – excursions, private massages, restaurant reservations, etc.

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All three of the villas are gigantic and everything is wide open. Each has four suites, making them ideal for both couples and families. Daily housekeeping service and a grounds keeper ensure you feel completely spoiled. There is also the option of having your meals prepared daily – TAKE IT! DO IT! There are few things more decadent than waking up and having fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and fruit waiting for you on your poolside terrace. Follow that with a ridiculously delicious traditional Mexican breakfast and every day is off to a superb start. There are countless options for things to do and see if you’re feeling ambitious, but I can promise you’ll be hard pressed to leave the glorious sanctuary of your own pool over the Pacific.

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To enjoy the beach on Violin Bay, it’s a short, and not particularly steep, hike down to the usually deserted shore. The snorkeling is great and you’ll feel as though you have the ocean all to yourself. There is another fantastic swimming and snorkeling beach, La Entrega, that is also an easy walk from the property. There are a number of little restaurants there so bring some pesos. Avid snorkelers can also take a bay tour that brings you into some remote beaches by boat.

I’d like to tell you we ventured out and explored more, but we are saving that for our return trip. This trip was dedicated to pure relaxation and soul rejuvenation. It was also about sleeping in, taking an hour and half to eat breakfast, cruising to the Súper Che to pick up wine and other goodies, napping, swimming, reading and stuffing ourselves with fresh ceviche prepared for us daily by the incomparable Margarita (our angelic and splendid cook, housekeeper and professional happy person).  They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I am quite sure after checking out some of these you’re already planning your trip here… and you should be!

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Ron also gave us a tour of a couple of the casitas. They were all full at the time, but the other guests welcomed us with open arms to take a peek. The five casitas all have one-bedroom suites with ocean views and share a pool and a cozy common area with tables where everyone meets, greets and enjoys breakfast and afternoon snacks (featuring the best homemade guacamole ever!).  If you must (and I did) check email, there is free WiFi there too. A lot of people we met had been coming for years, and it was just as Ron described, like being part of a family.  (And, if you’re considering planning your wedding in Mexico, look no further, as this would be an unforgettable spot.)

A quick shout out to a local restaurant we visited in Tangolunda: We did actually leave our private paradise to sample some local fare with Ron and Jackie. There are a lot of expats here and one of their favorite hangs is the exceptional Cafe Vienna. The colorful Austrian owners, Manfred and Helmut, serve an unusual and delectable fusion of Austrian and Thai cuisine. It was excellent food and service and the only time in my life I have eaten expertly prepared European schnitzel in Mexico!

Trust me when I tell you I could ramble on and on about this place… and I most likely will in some following posts. Suffice to say, you’ll love it here. I promise. There are few times in life when reality meets your expectations. A visit to Huatulco and a stay at Las Palmas may very well be one of them.

For more information visit their website at www.laspalmashuatulco.com or email Courtney at courtney@laspalmashuatulco.com

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* Professional photos courtesy of Las Palmas (Only the two of the bay from above and this last one are mine!)

Turning 50 in Oaxaca – A Celebration of the Senses

By: Lisa Coleman

20 years ago I sat on the shores of Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo celebrating my 30th birthday. My dear friend from Switzerland told me she had planned a party on the beach. It sounded great, but since this was a new destination for me, turns out she was the only person I knew when I arrived at my own fiesta. A gorgeous table covered with plates of fresh fish, flowers and gifts came courtesy of the locals – people I’d never met, friends I didn’t even know I had.  A trio of musicians stood in the sand and serenaded me with song after song. By the time the evening was over, I had fallen even more in love with Mexico and the extraordinary people that embraced this stranger with smiles, laughter and kindness. It was pure magic. It was pure Mexico.

At the time, I had only been working in Mexico for a few years and had yet to discover the many gifts this magnificent country would continue to give me.  Nonetheless, I knew immediately I was drawn to the country’s more off-the-beaten path places:  the more intimate locales filled with culture and beauty, and the towns and villages enjoyed by the traveler rather than the tourist.  As my 50th birthday loomed on the horizon (and I don’t say that lightly!), I knew in my heart the only place to celebrate this milestone would be my favorite place on earth: Mexico. But where? So many choices, so many memories…  it was difficult to pin such an occasion on a single destination. After much contemplating, I decided to make it a combo adventure – my favorite colonial city and a beach town I’d always wanted to see. And so the wheels were in motion for a trip to the state of Oaxaca.

Photo by Josh Slocum
Photo by Josh Slocum

If you’ve spent much time traveling Mexico, you know this country is a chameleon. Every state shows a different color, every region a unique energy, and every local culture a special tradition. The only constant is diversity… And so it is with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As intriguing as its name, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) is one of the most unusual and dynamic places in all of Mexico. On a map, the state of Oaxaca can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. Its stunning Pacific coastline is home to the remarkable beach resort of Huatulco (more on that later), but the centerpiece of the state is the magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop an arid highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The streets resemble a brightly colored painting, enticing aromas fill the air and music abounds… everything looks and feels like a celebration.

When it came down to planning, I reached out to my good friend, Sylvie Laitre, who owns and operates Mexico Boutique Hotels. For me, MBH is simply the best of the best. Sylvie personally chooses each property in the collection and there is something enchanting about staying in a boutique setting rather than a big chain hotel. The service is unprecedented and the feel and experience are completely different.  Over the years, as I have become a savvier traveler, I completely embrace “small property” hospitality, attention to detail and personal touch – especially in Mexico.

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My birthday digs in Oaxaca City would be at the exquisite Hacienda Los Laureles located just a few minutes (five to eight at most and about $4 USD) by taxi outside the center of town. I had stayed here once before (on one of my first trips to Mexico with my husband), so the property holds special meaning for me. With a total of only 23 rooms and suites, Los Laureles is the ideal combination of traditional Mexican style and classic colonial elegance. You feel as though you are in your own private hacienda, complete with lush gardens, towering cypress trees, outstanding service and one of the best restaurants in town. Nestled in the mountain foothills, the hotel maintains its 19th century charm. The owner, Peter Kaiser, makes it his personal goal to ensure every guest feels at home. The evening we arrived, a “Feliz Cumpleaños” was written in flower petals on our bed, and a candlelit dinner was planned for us in the garden. It was a wonderful beginning to my birthday adventure, and the rest of our stay was equally as flawless. (Stay tuned for a more detailed feature story on Hacienda Los Laureles coming soon.)

Monte Alban
Monte Alban

The highlight of any trip to Oaxaca is going to be a visit to the majestic archeological site of Monte Albán.  Indigenous tribes of Zapotec and Mixtec inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. Over 2,500 years ago, the Zapotecs built the holy city of Monte Albán on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The view is nothing short of spectacular and whether you’re an archeological buff or not, this will be well worth the visit. We had a fantastic guide, Suzanne Barbezat, from Discover Oaxaca Tours . She and her husband, Benito Hernández, offer six different day trips around the area, and will also customize excursions to fit your personal needs. Benito is Zapotec and has lived most of his life in Oaxaca City so he offers prolific knowledge on culture, tradition and history. Suzanne comes to Oaxaca via Canada. She first visited in 1997 and fell in love with Benito (and Oaxaca!). She is completely bilingual, holds a degree in anthropology, and is the writer and editor for About.com’s Mexico Travel website . They are quite the impassioned pair about anything and everything Oaxaca, and I recommend them highly.  (If you love bird watching, Benito also does birding tours—visit www.birdingoaxaca.com)

Suzanne and Benito
Suzanne and Benito

After a memorable day at Monte Albán, it was time for the main event: a birthday dinner at the famous Casa Oaxaca Restaurant. I selected this restaurant based on the location (just steps from the Santo Domingo church in the city center), the ambiance (simple and romantic with wood tables and towering white stucco ceiling), the awesome rooftop bar, and of course, the exceptional cuisine provided by world-renowned chef, Alejandro Ruiz Olmeda. Known for his creative dishes, Chef Alejandro has populated the menu with everything from expertly prepared rack of lamb, duck in green agave sauce and venison in yellow mole, to traditional Oaxacan specialties and fresh herbed octopus and grilled fish.Our party of eight enjoyed bottle after bottle of Mexican and Spanish selections from the extensive wine list while listening to a trio of musicians playing Mexican favorites. All was as it should be in Mexico – great friends, great food, and great wine, all wrapped up in cozy restaurant.

All too soon it was time to head south to the beach for the last leg of the celebration. We hopped on Aerotucan’s 8-seater commuter for our 45-minute flight to Huatulco (wah-TOOL-co). You can take a bus or rent a car, but you’re in for six to eight hours of winding roads. Despite the steep price tag, it’s certainly the fastest and best way to connect the cities. Of all the resorts in Mexico, I had never been to Huatulco; lucky for me it looks like I saved the best for last. This 21-mile stretch of coastline with nine pristine bays and beaches was one of the most striking beach destinations in Mexico that I’d ever seen. Anchored by the charming little town of La Crucecita, Huatulco was developed by Mexico’s tourism fund (FONATUR) and was designed to be a major Pacific coast resort community. Nonetheless, it has remained small and almost undiscovered… which, to me, is a good thing.

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I had also worked with Sylvie from Mexico Boutique Hotels on a location in Huatulco and she recommended Hotel Las Palmas. After a quick look at their website, and some communications with their amazing staff, it was an easy choice. We were met at Huatulco’s “palapa-topped” airport and were greeted by hotel transportation. The service was spot on from the instant we arrived. When we got to the Dolphin Cove Villa at Las Palmas, it was nothing short of astonishing. I don’t use that word often, but that’s the only description that really sums it up. Our massive 4-bedroom/4-bath villa had an open-air living area, huge kitchen and negative-edge pool overlooking the picturesque Violina Bay and beach. Even though we were there in the dry season it was incredibly beautiful. Owners Ron and Jackie Williams came to Huatulco on a trip from Lake Tahoe in 2001. They took one look at the area and knew they had to realize their dream and build a hotel overlooking the Pacific. Well, their dream turned out to be my dream come true too, as you won’t find many places in Mexico as breathtaking as this. With a total of five casitas and three villas, Las Palmas feels more like a giant private home rather than a hotel. At the risk of overstating the obvious, it was perfect.  (Stay tuned for a full feature story on Las Palmas and Huatulco coming up as well.)023

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about turning 50. But, I can tell you this: turning 50 in Oaxaca is the way to go. Thank you, Mexico. Thank you for reaching into my soul and giving me so many gifts of so many memories. I look forward to the next 50 and continuing to discover your treasures.

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3rd Annual Nick Gallo Award Presented at Puerto Vallarta Destination Booth Cocktail at the 37th Tianguis Turístico de México

Puerto Vallarta, MEXICO (March 27, 2012) – Excellence in travel writing comes in many forms and, in Mexico, recognition for these endeavors now comes in the form of the Nick Gallo Award, created by MexicoPremiere.com  and co- sponsored by Mexico Boutique Hotels four years ago in honor of one of the country’s fondest admirers.

The Nick Gallo Award

Today, another Mexicophile and, coincidentally, a long time friend of Nick’s took home this prestigious award. Larry Dunmire, journalist and photographer, put together an extraordinary look at whale sharks in Cabo in his article “Gentle Giants of Baja” (Cabo Living Magazine), which was chosen from among dozens of Mexico articles as an excellent feat of storytelling that will surely bring this astonishing adventure to the top of visitors’ lists for years to come.
The 2012 Nick Gallo Award was handed out during a short ceremony hosted by the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board during the Tianguis Convention, held for the first time in this exciting seaside city from March 25-28 in its new International Convention Center. This is Mexico tourism’s premier event, a gathering that brings together not only the industry’s buyers and providers, but also a brilliant roster of international and local travel journalists.

 

Sylvie Laitre and David Simmonds accept the Nick Gallo Award on behalf of Larry Dunmire

David Simmonds and Lisa Coleman of Mexico Premiere and Sylvie Laitre of Mexico Boutique Hotels accepted the award on Larry’s behalf. Dunmire will receive this engraved plaque created by Nick’s widow, Laurie Brown-Gallo, plus a three-night stay for two at the incomparable Casa de Mita, thanks to co-sponsor Mexico Boutique Hotels. Casa de Mita is an ultra-chic beachfront pad, and an ode to good taste and effortless elegance. Owner Marc Lindskog has elevated all-inclusive to a new level, where service is as five-star as the meals, and the only place you’ll need your wallet is at the tiny—but irresistible—boutique shop.
Congratulations, Larry! And, hey, Nick….We hope you’re having fun wherever you are.

About Nick Gallo
Nick Gallo, two-time winner of the Mexico Tourism Board’s prestigious Pluma de Plata award, regular contributor to such prestigious titles as Travel & Leisure, Alaska Airlines Magazine, United Airlines Hemispheres, Private Clubs, Northwest Airlines WorldTraveler, father, husband and matchless colleague, passed away in October 2007 while on assignment in Greece. The following year we at Mexico Premiere started the Nick Gallo Award, dedicated to Nick’s memory and the lofty standards he brought, yes, demanded, to travel writing.  The Gallo Award fills the void left when, at that same time, the yearly Pluma de Plata Award, presented every year at Tianguis by the Mexican government, was discontinued. A touching in memoriam written by fellow writers can be found at www.MexicoPremiere.com/?p=256.

The Boutique Hotel Experience…A Unique Way to See Mexico

By Lisa Coleman

For many, many years the big chain hotels defined tourism in Mexico. Over time, however, the boutique hotel experience has carved out quite a niche for itself. It seems more and more travelers are looking for an intimate and authentic look at Mexico. They are stepping away from the one price fits all “wrist band” vacation and opting for time in something with some cultural bite.  In 1999, I was working in Mexico full time and started to hear a buzz about a new hotel group. Back then, Mexico Boutique Hotels (MBH) was just getting a foot hold in the market. Today MBH is one of Mexico’s most prominent and respected hotel associations and has raised the bar high for small luxury properties. 

The lovely and brilliant Sylvie Laitre is the Director of Mexico Boutique Hotels (MBH). Originally from Canada, Sylvie graduated with dual (bilingual: English and French) degrees in Communications and Leisure Studies (specializing in tourism development) from the University of Ottawa. She worked in Canada in museums, at festivals, and even as a private fashion consultant (while in college). She moved to Mexico to learn Spanish and never looked back. She moved up through the ranks of the hotel world wearing a number of hats ranging from guest services, sales, and reservations to accounting, reception, and public relations. I recently talked to Sylvie about MBH and learned more about the “boutique” experience in Mexico.

Sylvie Laitre

 Tell me about MBH and how it came to be, how long it has been around and a bit of the history?

MBH was created at a time when hotels didn’t have websites (and if they did, they were unilingual or very poor), when large travel sites didn’t see the point of promoting small boutique hotels and when it was still difficult to find someone that spoke proper English when calling hotels. The founder—John Youden—met boutique hotel owners through his travels in Mexico and realized they all had similar challenges; promoting on a very, very small budget, being taken seriously as far as quality, and understanding the hotel business (as most were not hoteliers).

These small properties needed economies of scale and a brand of quality that would help put them into a group and give travelers, agents and writers the confidence that these were quality hotels. They needed a bridge and MBH became that bridge. These hotels also needed eyes and ears outside their property… Someone who was watching trends, keeping up with technology, monitoring the industry, etc… And I do that for them.
How many properties in how many states? And what are the requirements are to be a member?
MBH was founded in 1999. Today, we have 35 hotels in 26 destinations throughout Mexico. The criteria are part tangible (quality linens, elegant decor, original artwork, great amenities, etc) and part intangible (how does this hotel make you FEEL? Are you inspired to take a photo everywhere you look? Does the property tell a story? Is it part of the local heritage? Does the hotel a clear voice and personality?) In translating this concept into hotels, potential member properties must be intimate in size (our requirement is under 50, but most have less than 30 rooms), be meticulously and tastefully decorated, have perfectly choreographed, impeccable service and, most importantly, be willing to go to great lengths (and think outside the box) to provide guests with a faultlessly tailored, exceptional experience.

 What do you feel the appeal is of the smaller properties in Mexico for the boutique traveler?

This is a great question as I just posted something in Spanish on our blog (inspired by a recent study I read about the appeal of B&Bs and Inns): My title was Hoteles Boutique de Mexico; calidad, calidez y conocimiento (quality, warmth and knowledge). Basically, the appeal of a small hotel is just that: Quality of experience, decor and services. Warmth in service and details.  Knowledge of local culture and the ability to help guests connect with this.

As a society, we are over-informed, over-digitalized, and over-programmed nowadays. The small, boutique hotel takes you back to simpler times where you matter, and where the experience is truly personal. Travelers want unique, meaningful experiences and MBH is one of the channels. Small boutique hotels are also affordable, competitive, good to their loyal visitors and focused on ‘celebrating’ your visit.

Hacienda De Los Santos

 Boutique traveling is a completely different experience than the all-inclusive route, what’s the single most important thing you want travelers to know about that experience?

All-inclusive experiences (aside from their economical pluses) are tailored to please groups of people and therefore must be standardized and somewhat generalized in terms of what they offer. They are molded to please the majority of guests who do not want to venture out of their comfort zone too much. A boutique experience throws you out of the zone…in a good way. It allows you to connect, to experience something different and to immerse yourself in a local culture. 

I know some of the properties are located in “off-the-beaten-path” locations; can you address the fears that travelers may have?

True, many are off-the-beaten-path. But, the very nature of the boutique hotel (taking care of you even before you arrive) makes sure someone is expecting you, in many cases picking you up directly at the airport, sending a driver, etc.  My personal philosophy is that an unbeaten path presents much less traffic and thus, less interest for potential trouble makers. Like anything, and anywhere in the world, preparedness, knowledge and common sense are important.

Quinta Real Huatulco

How are the hotels working together to thrive in this tourism climate?

I’ve seen more cooperation in terms of recommending each other. Group promoting is important and necessary. Shared co-op ads have been placed in key national magazines, and we have a good repeat guest program where our hotels pamper past MBH guests (even if the person did not stay in their own hotel). The hotels are working together to make the MBH traveler feel special and hopefully encourage more repeat business between properties.

There are other hotel groups in Mexico, what makes you unique?

 Our niche. Our bi-cultural position (knowing and living in Mexico yet still understanding what a foreigner expects and needs). Our size (in terms of operation): we’re not corporate. We’re not government run. We’re just a very tiny group of people that love Mexico, love hotels and curate them in order to help others have the best experience possible. We don’t accept hotels that want to buy membership and we must know each of our properties.

I recently made an important decision that I believe truly sets us apart. We no longer commission bookings. We can still help with reservations BUT not through commissioning. I am allowing the hotel to present its best rate and allowing the traveler to get the best deal on my site. I want to be a channel and a voice for small hotels. I want to be a friend for travelers that want a good recommendation. 

Villas Flamingos

What are the goals of MBH and what are your plans for the future to build your brand?

I want to give great, small hotels a platform to promote, a network to communicate with each other and share tips and strategies. I want to help fantastic hotels continue to get the word out and help them see what is so great about themselves. It’s also very important for me to be their eyes/ears on the Web. They don’t have the time or the resources to monitor activity and reputation. I enjoy doing this and keeping them aware.
For the traveler, I want to be a friend. I want to be the girl who lives in Mexico, who visits hotels; the one who will tell you the truth. The one who puts together a list of places she thinks are pretty fantastic.

For the media and travel agents: a one-stop shop. A place for advice, for recommendations, for the latest news on boutique hotels in Mexico, for current deals, etc.

I’m updating our site to be more of a portal with great links to others sites. I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it and how it all fits in. We’ll be posting relevant blog posts on our hotel pages for example now. Great articles on other sites, maps, destination reviews; anything I think can help a traveler make a more informed decision. And of course, if they need me, I’m always an email away.
 

Sylvie and Mexico Boutique Hotels are a dynamic combination. They are a small group with a huge impact. This attention to culture and detail is fantastic trend for all travelers and could change the face of how we see travel in Mexico. For more information visit http://www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/ and for Sylvie’s blog go to http://www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/wordpress/. MBH is launching a new website in the next few weeks so stay tuned.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Community Manager for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.