Riviera Nayarit Is Mexico's Next Great Place

SAYULITA, Mexico — For some residents of this formerly secret surfers' haven on the Pacific coast, the sure sign of gentrification came in December with the opening of the town's first wine bar. Others cite the $18,000 life-size wooden horse displayed at a swank home décor shop north of town as evidence of the area's seismic demographic shift. Still others point down the beach toward gated Punta Mita, where new villas start at $4 million.

Could celebrity sightings be far away?

"There's one behind you now," says Richard Zarkin, whose job is to market the image of what may well be Mexico's Next Great Place. He motions to a hunky guy at the next table hunched over a laptop and a bowl of oatmeal.

Indeed, it's grooming guru Kyan Douglas, one of the stars of the former Bravo TV reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and a new Sayulita homeowner. So what if he lacks the stature of, say, a Richard Burton, whose presence (along with Elizabeth Taylor, director John Huston and a cadre of other Hollywood greats) helped propel nearby Puerto Vallarta to fabulous status back in the 1960s? The horde of developers, hoteliers and marketers flocking in recent years to this 100-mile stretch now known as the Riviera Nayarit are seeing to it that the word gets out.

The beaches here range from secluded rocky coves to wide, palm-fringed expanses. The sea shimmers a dazzling Caribbean blue on some stretches, thanks to an abundance of coral reefs. And thick jungle foliage cloaks the slopes of the Sierra Madres that tumble toward the shore.

The character of the 20 or so Riviera Nayarit locales varies from bustling to sleepy. The coast begins atNuevo Vallarta, chockablock with big, all-inclusive resorts 15 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport, and ends at San Blas, whose largest hotel has only 50 rooms. In between lies everything from new ultra-exclusive gated enclaves such as Punta Mita; the '70s-vintage mass-market resort town of Rincón de Guayabitos; pristine beaches that draw campers, such as Chacala; and fishing villages with growing ex-pat populations, such as Sayulita and San Francisco.

In the past two years, the Mexican government has infused the coast with $1.5 billion in infrastructure, primarily at the southern end on the Bay of Banderas. But the region took a promotional leap forward last year when Mexican tourist officials tacked "Riviera" to the state name of Nayarit. Within three months of the March 2007 announcement, more investment money poured into the state than in all of 2006. When land in one government-planned resort went on the block, it sold out in only 20 days.

Meanwhile, in various places along the coast, villages whose commerce once revolved around taco stands and auto repair shops have sprouted organic cafes, yoga studios — and hotels for well-heeled travelers who demand such amenities. Nineteen lodgings with more than 4,000 rooms are slated to open by 2011. One major development, Litibú, will house seven upscale resorts and boutique hotels, and a Greg Norman golf course is due to open there this fall. Farther south at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, a new marina accommodating yachts of up to 400 feet opened in December, with more surrounding hotels, shops and housing to come in the next two years.

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