Casing the scene along Riviera Nayarit

The Tail of the Whale hole at Pacifico.

PUNTA de MITA, Mexico – Like a well-made mole sauce, a visit to Mexico’s central coast is a perfect balance of the sweet and the bitter. Ashen gringos enjoy the best of first-world amenities – golf, spas and lodging – while locals toil in relative poverty, their indomitable spirit as sunny as the neighborly star that sinks cinematically into the Pacific at dusk. Together, the two halves add up to a spicy and compelling whole.

The high-end touristic action that centered around Puerto Vallarta three decades ago has migrated some 40 minutes north to what’s being marketed as the Riviera Nayarit, a subtropical stretch of coastline favored by 345 days of sunshine annually. More specifically, the peninsula called Punta de Mita is home to the golf-bordered Four Seasons and St. Regis Resorts, a gated, 1,500-acre swath of Banderas Bay-side luxury. Sprawling condo developments dot the region, and a pair of Jack Nicklaus Signature courses anchor the turf to the surf.

Between the swine-flu scare and the world’s economic woes, things here are eerily quiet, prompting local hotels to make some unrefusable offers. The Four Seasons will give you a $1,234 credit if you lay up for four nights running, bringing the average room rate to about $225 per night – which is roughly what you’d pay for a round of golf at one of Jack’s tracks. And even the super-luxe St. Regis is wheeling and dealing, offering room upgrades and two rounds of gratis golf for as little as three bills and change per night.

All that and a butler on-call 24/7; I summoned mine at 3 a.m. for a fresh papaya juice and a short-game clinic.

As for the adjacent golf, the newer Bahia course has more teeth than the Pacifico layout, mostly due to severe greens still too new and hard to hold an approach shot. The generous

fairways force one to do a little swale-watching – there is nary a flat lie to be found here. At the Pacifico, eight holes border the ocean, but all fade from memory compared to the celebrated third – described on a tee-side plaque as “the world’s only natural island green.” Sure enough, some 200 yards away sits a black lava island with a flagstick waving in the wind. When the tide is high, only an attendant-driven amphibious vehicle allows access to the putting surface. Count yourself lucky – they used to use rowboats, a good way to add a half-hour to your round. So there you are on this pristine peninsula with its white-sand beaches, its swanky spas and eateries, its gleaming marbled pools – but without leaving the gated premises, you could be in Tahiti or Waikiki, anywhere the ubiquitous palm trees bend in the sea breeze. Luckily, a two-minute drive to the beach area known as El Anclote gives one a much-needed blast of local culture. This is where the relocated locals were deposited when the ’dozers came through.

At a cool seafood dive called Tino’s, fresh red snapper is king, slathered in a red chile sauce and grilled whole, while at the upscale Café des Artistes next door you’re talking a refined lamb osso buco and quite-drinkable Mexican wines.

If you want to go one level funkier, a 20-minute drive takes you into Sayulita, where dreadlocked northerners in search of greener pastures mingle with the 4,000 or so residents. Novice surfers share the waves with the locals, while strolling jewelry hustlers jangle their turquoise and silver chains in the persistent sunlight.

At Litibu, a development between Punta de Mita and Sayulita, sits a promising new Greg Norman design which wends its vertiginous way through mature palm groves before turning toward the sea. Fonatur, the Mexican government’s superfund for resort development, is behind a major transformational effort in the area. Muchos condos and timeshares are under construction everywhere there used to be a vacant stretch of beach.

On your way back from Nayarit, by all means don’t overlook a pair of venerable tracks closer to Puerto Vallarta. One fully expects to see Johnny Weissmuller hacking his way around the jungle-like Flamingos Golf Club, home to copious crocodiles and armadillos and distinguished by elevated greens and narrow fairways. Nearer yet to the airport is El Tigre, the only golf course in the world with caged live tigers at the turn, just in case the 13 holes worth of water hazards didn’t raise your blood pressure sufficiently. Tiger who?

Finally, do not leave the area until you’ve had the deservedly famous fish burritos directly across from the airport at El Tacón del Marlin. These are old-school, indigenous vittles intended for local consumption but frequented by every flight crew that passes through these impossibly blue skies. Grown men have been known to weep and rend their return tickets after one bite. You’ve been warned.

– David Weiss is a freelance writer from Los Angeles

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