Food Lover's Guide to Mexico
Camino Real Oaxaca. Rick Bayless, one of America's leading experts on Mexican cuisine, has visited Oaxaca for the past 20 years. Bayless, the chef and co-owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, says this sleepy colonial town has some of the best food in Mexico. And every time he goes, he stays at the Camino Real Oaxaca, a restored sixteenth-century convent with original frescoes in the halls and luxurious rooms that are a far cry from nuns' cells. The location is unbeatable: just four blocks from the zócalo, the town center (300 Calle 5 de Mayo; 011-52-951-60611; doubles from $195). Best food excursion: Bayless always goes to El Naranjo for black mole (a complex sauce with chiles) and salads made with local, organically grown greens. "It's one of the few places in Mexico where Americans can safely get great salads," Bayless says. "The chayote with oregano is fantastic" (203 Calle Trujano; 011-52-951-41878). Best nightlife: Bayless says that at Candela, a salsa club a few blocks from Camino Real, people "of all ages, body types, skill levels and fashion sense" dance to the live music (413 Calle Murguía; 011-52-951-42010). Best spa: Bayless and Deann, his wife and cookbook co-author, always book treatments at the Temazcal Indigenous Herbal Steam Baths, where after meditating inside a saunalike adobe hut, they lie on palm mats for a gentle massage (402 Calle Reforma; 011-52-951-61165).
Villa del Sol. "You don't know hospitality until you stay at Villa Del Sol," chef Traci Des Jardins of San Francisco's Jardinière says about her favorite resort in Zihuatanejo, a traditional fishing village on the Pacific coast. As soon as you arrive, Des Jardins reports, the staff hands you a cold towel and cup of refreshing guava juice. The hammocks scattered around the resort invite guests to take a siesta at any time of day, and massage therapists work at tables set up on the beach (Playa la Ropa; 800-525-4800; doubles from $240). Best food find: At La Gaviota, a seafood restaurant on the beach a short walk from the resort, Des Jardins recommends the percebes, big barnacles that look like clams but have the flavor of sea urchin, and the delicious baby abalone seviche. "These are flavor sensations you just don't experience anywhere else," Des Jardins says. "And those margaritas with fresh Mexican limes are divine" (Playa La Ropa; 011-52-755-43816).
Related: How To Make Tamales
La Casa Que Canta. Lydia Shire, the chef and owner of Boston's Biba and the newly revitalized Locke-Ober, raves about the romantic week she and her husband spent at La Casa Que Canta, just down the beach from Villa Del Sol: "It was the most sensual place I've ever been." The cliffside resort doesn't allow children, and there are only 24 suites. Shire stayed in one with its own swimming pool. Every day the housekeepers scattered rose petals on the white bed linens (Playa la Ropa; 800-525-4800; doubles from $375). Best souvenir: Shire bought a dozen pearly shells from a peddler on the beach that she plans to use for serving caviar. Best local drink: Shire made sure to get the recipe for the amazing sangria she had at La Sirena Gorda. "It has three distinct layers—a sugar-syrup base, red wine and then slices of citrus fruit floating on top," she explains. "We drank glass after glass" (90 Paseo del Pescador; 011-52-755-42687).
Four Seasons Punta Mita. Jamie Mammano, the chef at Mistral in Boston, used to work at the Four Seasons, but the real reason he and his bride Monica honeymooned at the new Four Seasons Punta Mita was its location: a secluded beach north of Puerta Vallarta that's known for scuba diving and surfing. For golfers, the Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole course is another draw. On the third green, the tide dictates which of two holes to shoot for. Best food: Mammano has great memories of the hotel restaurant Ketsi's tamales and mahi mahi with mango-pineapple salsa—and the piña coladas on the beach. "Next time," Mammano says, "I'm bringing my in-laws" (Bahía de Banderas; 800-332-3442; doubles from $590).
SAN JOSÉ DEL CABO
Hotel Palmilla. When Trey Foshee, the chef at San Diego's George's at the Cove, goes surfing in Baja, he prefers San José del Cabo to the better-known nearby Cabo San Lucas because it's less developed. He usually stays at the Hotel Palmilla because "it has a lot of character, with adobe-style buildings, red-tile roofs and wrought iron" (Km 7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 800-637-2226; doubles from $245). Best food excursions: Foshee's favorites include Tequila for its steak with chiles (1011 Manuel Doblado; 011-52-114-21155) and Tropicana for the whole grilled snapper (38 Blvd. Mijares; 011-52-114-21580). Best sightseeing: Foshee sends friends for a drive along the East Cape, with its miles of unspoiled white-sand beaches (interrupted only by the occasional enclave of multimillion-dollar homes). Best local bar: After a long day on his board, Foshee kicks back with a beer at Buzzards, a small surfer bar (East Cape Road; 011-52-114-82415). Best day trip: For a break from the beach, Foshee suggests driving to Todos Santos, an artists' colony with galleries, shops and restaurants.
Camino Real Sumiya. Zarela Martínez, a cookbook author and the owner of Manhattan's Zarela and Danzón, spent many childhood vacations in Cuernavaca, the former Aztec retreat that is now the Hamptons of Mexico City. Now she often returns to Camino Real Sumiya, which was originally a faux Japanese palace built in 1959 by American heiress Barbara Hutton for, legend has it, trysts with her lovers. The koi ponds, stone lanterns and shoji screens blend in with the more recently added Mexican cottages with beamed ceilings and tile roofs. "I'm a hedonist," Martínez says. "I get all the beauty treatments, lounge by the pool and take in the view of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the nearby volcanoes." She also takes great pleasure in the climate—the daytime temperature hovers around 72 degrees year-round. Martínez recommends the hotel restaurant Sumiya for its melding of Japanese and Mexican cuisine, like sushi with avocado, chile and lime (Col. José Parres Jiutepec; 011-52-732-09199; doubles from $200). Best food excursion: Martínez always goes to Las Mañanitas, another Cuernavaca hotel, for a leisurely brunch. Peacocks still roam the hotel property, just as she remembers from childhood visits (107 Calle Ricardo Linares; 011-52-731-41466).