Zihuatanejo: Say bah to blah weather with this Mexican destination
Que bueno! We knew we made the right decision, as we dozed off to crickets and all manner of bugs and nocturnal beasties chirping, pleeping, and cricking in the night. The waves of Bahia de Zihuatanjo broke gently, the most soothing sound there is, next to wind in the tops of Northwest Douglas firs. The night breeze was the only blanket we needed.

We woke up after 12 hours of blissful sleep to our own private, sun-dappled jungle. We might as well have been on the next planet over. Our family plan was to finally, for once, for all, escape the relentless oppression of another Oregon winter. We wanted to be far, far away from it. Or at least stall it off as long as possible. As a bonus, we hoped to shamelessly ignore the holiday mayhem, and not succumb to the frenzy of shopping and buying and crowds and all that stuff that seems to consume December.

We lounged in a bed that was a two-minute walk from a beach we'd only seen in pictures. We somehow knew, or just guessed right this time, that the south end of Playa la Ropa, the southernmost area of the little town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, would be the tonic we needed to cure that singular Pacific Northwest variety of winter oppression, the one that closes down around you like a big cloud of Zoloft-resistant depression.

Zihuatanejo was a bright and succulent target, especially for a family like us looking for a stress-free winter vacation. The little fishing village sits on an idyllic harbor on the Pacific Ocean, between Puerto Villarta and Acapulco, almost due west of Mexico City, on the shores of Mexico's western mainland. Unlike the tourist Mecca of Ixtapa to the north, in Zihua there are no high-rise hotels, no fancy discos, no faux-Italian restaurants.

Instead we got miles of sandy beaches, simple accommodations, and fresh seafood like ahi and mahi mahi, marlin, calamari, and swordfish that only minutes before were playing in the surf, as well as other delicacies, like that citrus-cooked bowl of magic called ceviche.

We parked ourselves on Playa La Ropa, this quiet stretch of clean beach south of Zihua proper, because it was out of the way enough to be peaceful, yet near enough to creature comforts to be practical, especially with two teen-aged girls. We could have chosen from any handful of beachfront hotels along this beach, like Hotel Paraiso, Sotavento and Catalina - all clean, sturdy and inviting -- or sprung the big bucks for the tony Hotel Villa Del Sol with its bright tile, inviting fountains and pools, and attentive wait staff.

But we discovered that a few casas can be rented, too, with names like Casa de las Piedras, Villa del Mar, Villa Zanzibar and Casa Hueso, among many others, right in the neighborhood.

In the end we opted for an open-air palapa-style house for our group of four, arranged entirely via the Internet. Despite several weeks of wrangling and research, we still weren't exactly sure what we'd end up with when we arrive. We made the easy flight from Oregon to Los Angeles, and the final leg into Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa International. The natives were, if not amused, at least tolerant of our Spanish 101. Cabs were easy to come by, and we somehow managed to point our way to the end of the road where we'd stay.

Stepping out of the cab, we stuck our faces into the balmy, tropical air. A day later we'd buy phone cards, call home and learn that Portland was glazed over with miserable freezing rain. In between we parked our bags at the lush Mexican bungalow set in the jungle that was even more than we dreamed it would be, for the best night's sleep any of us had had in weeks.

Before turning in, we dined at La Gaviotta and stuffed ourselves on fresh seafood. As days went by we found plenty of gourmet yet affordable dining at the classy La Perla, El Marlin, and Rossy's, all short beach walks from any of the hotels at this end of the beach and our casa. A dinner pleasantry were the strolling musicians who worked restaurant row, and who for a tip would play sultry or spirited Mexican folk songs. One trio, whom we affectionately called Tres Hermanos, and who in fact were brothers, we saw nearly every night, and nearly every night we made our requests for romantico and rapido. It somehow made dinner complete.

And that's just the south end of Playa la Ropa. We hoofed up the beach and spied other eateries, made the short trek to Playa Madera, and wandered into town more than once. The dining choices boggled our palettes.

The next day we walked to Zihua, partly on the beach, partly up the road. It took a little longer that we thought it would, but we stopped for lunch along the way MJ & Richie's on Playa Madera, to duck out of the sun. As we found our way into town, we wandered along Playa Municipal, by Muelle Pier, a public dock that bustled with activity, through the artists' market, and up and down cobbled streets amid the shops, hotels and small businesses.

On the way home, we stopped at Comercial Mexico, a large grocery-and-sundry store for supplies, and treated ourselves to a cab ride, which ran 250 pesos or about $2.50 US, the going rate for nearly any ride anywhere in town.

On day three, the teenagers needed beach life, a place to see and be seen. And we found it, in spades. We made the 20-minute trek over the rocks to Playa Las Gatas (though boats are available from the public dock in Zihuatanejo, and from most beaches). It's a cozy beach along Kings Reef, a reef that legend says was built by the Tarascan king Caltzontzín for his own amusement. The beach is rowed with some 10 establishments, all promising the coldest cerveza, the freshest grilled fish and fruit, the cleanest banos.

Based solely on the warmth and charm of one Franco Abarca, who promised all of the above, we opted for his place, Otilio, about three-quarters of the way down the beach. Franco spoke good English, tolerated our Spanish, and catered to our every whim, which turned out to be snorkel gear, mai tais served in whole pineapples (virgin versions for the teens) and a fresh grilled seafood platter, with guacamole, camarones, sopas, red snapper, tortillas and more.

We'd been hit upon by every barker along the way, and can offer this advice: Walk the length of the beach before succumbing to the joints' hawkers. It seems the prices drop the further you walk, but the secret is to just pick one hustler you like. And if you have teenaged girls in tow, the service somehow gets even better.

We returned several times to spend the day basking in the warm water and sun, always under the care of Franco. The beer was always cold, the fish fresh and the snorkeling around King's Reef amusing. We'd loll, looking out at across the bay at Zihua and the full stretch of the playas la Ropa and Madera. Somehow Christmas and shopping malls seemed so far away.

Basking is great, but we needed adventure. We found it at the water's edge by making arrangements for a boat trip to a secluded beach south of Zihua. Several captains whom you can find along Playa la Ropa, Playa Madera or downtown, can boat you out of the bay into the Pacific for game fishing, or take you south out to secluded, inaccessible beaches for a day of snorkeling, sunbathing, and shell-and-corral gathering.

Some, we discovered will even for a small fee prepare multi-course fresh-fish lunches of ceviche and grilled mahi mahi. Captain Sergio and crew, who run a small operation on the beach near El Marlin, boated us out on his Black Tuna II to Playa Manzanillo, a deserted and isolated beach 30 minutes or so south by boat.

Slicing over the bluest water we'd ever seen - not the gray roiling stuff we see along Oregon's coast -- we caught glimpses of dolphins and other sea life, not to mention splendid vistas of the rocky coastline covered with cacti, an old lighthouse and the occasional sandy beach.

We drifted into Manzanillo and waded ashore. It was a day where time stood absolutely still. "Tranquillo," Sergio said. Tranquil. We snorkeled over coral reefs, lazed under mesquite trees, walked along the coral-strewn shore, and packed away Sergio's fine grilled fish. Offshore you can see the guano-covered islands called Los Morros De Potosí, rumored to a favored hiding place for pirates. An armadillo, somewhat rare and endangered, was spotted. And there was no sign anywhere of good old American holiday-season frenzy.

I'll admit we sampled the upscale life in Zihua's neighbor to the north, Ixtapa, making a visit to the beachside Hotel Krystal, where friends were staying. It was beach resort living at its finest. The hotel was first-rate, with spacious pools and waterfalls, pottery and other activity for kids, hair braiding on the beach that was popular with the teens, and relentless, almost intuitive poolside service. The beach, Playa Del Palmar, offered spectacular body-surfing waves which we sampled to exhaustion and boat-drawn parasail rides. We dined at Mandila's nearby, danced to strolling mariachis, watched tortillas being handmade. And the girls demanded a visit to la discotecas, Senor Frog's and Kristine's.

But the calm returned the moment we hit the edge of Zihuatanejo. We'd stroll the beach at night, stick our feet in the water, have a nightcap at La Perla. We'd lay ourselves down, exhausted, and doze off to the rhythmic little symphony of chirping, pleeping, and cricking in the night, and the gentle waves licking the shore. Maybe next time we'd discover the other beaches, Playa Contramar, Playa Troncones to the north, and the others. But for the moment, we'd found our cure.