We were two Oregon families in dire need of a vacation. Our teen-aged children (my daughter is 17 and a senior in high school, theirs a boy-girl set of nearly 17-year-old twins) would soon be off to college. My wife, Lee, hadn't had a vacation in three years. Our good friends Todd and Sue had endured a hard year. The bad weather was coming. So were the holidays. We needed out.

We landed in Troncones, Mexico, a sleepy ocean-side retreat, and quickly fell hopelessly in love.

At first glance, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. We wanted sleepy and laid-back, but minutes off the highway, down a pleasant road we hit the T, where the main access road ends, and the waterfront road begins. On the black-and-white Internet map, it looked like a perfectly straight stretch of immaculate road that parallels the Pacific Ocean just north of Zihuatanejo < /cq>and Ixtapa, Mexico.

In no way did it prepare us for the rusty red and dusty pot-holed ribbon that followed the beach. Our rented Suburban bounced along, bruising kidneys, as we hunted for our rented home. Was this a mistake?

Before we left, we had done our homework. Six months before we ambled up this country road to the town of Troncones, population 300 -- maybe -- to see the rutted, red-clay ribbon of dust and potholes and what the locals call topes, or speed bumps, we used the Internet to full advantage.

None of us wanted to vacation in a city. We didn't want to stay in a hotel, slaves to a little shoebox rooms with no character. We wanted to escape the mayhem of Christmas and New Year's in the United States, and go practice our miserable tourist Spanish someplace where the ocean was warm, the beer was cold, and the days would be an endless string of no agendas, abandoned wristwatches, and a fresh and gorgeous sunset every day. And we didn't want to take forever to get there.

No Cabos, no Vallartas, no touriste enclaves. A friend had ventured up to Troncones the winter before and fell in love. She booked her family there. We followed suit.

We found a Web site (, courtesy of a gentleman who shall forever be known as Zihua Rob, with a list of accommodations. In Ixtapa, you'll find government subsidized high-rise hotels and tony digs with fancy restaurants. Fine for those who like that sort of stuff. In Zihuatanejo, while more of a quaint fishing town, you'll find lovely bays and beaches, but the city is nearby. Troncones, by contrast, is raw and unspoiled, with small bungalows, private homes and small hotel-ettes. It's a village, with no traffic.

So the search was on. May, we found out, is late to begin booking for the holidays. We suggest starting earlier. But we got lucky. After scoping out dozens of options (most sites have pictures and full descriptions in English), and 20 emails later, we discovered Regalo del Mar.

Owned by a Canadian couple, Cam and Bev Gesy, who live near Vancouver, B.C., Regalo del Mar looked like a private compound suitable for rock stars and reclusive CEOs. It offered three units, each available separately or can be taken as a group. As luck would have it, the Gesys, who usually spend the holidays there, would be in Canada for Christmas. All three units were available.

"Like you, we rented a home in Troncones at Christmas," Cam says, "and liked it so much that we bought a lot, built the house, retired two years later and began having our friends and family visit each winter."

With two other places on hold as backups, we negotiated via email and came to terms. Unit one was a two-story stucco-and-tile-roof affair, with two bedrooms, each with a bath. We dubbed it Teen World.

The second unit, called the Round House, was a palapa-style building with its own bath and view of the ocean. We would spend hours looking up at the intricate rope-and-palm-frond roof, analyzing how workers could design something so simple, elegant and sturdy.

The last unit was the master suite, also palapa-style, with a huge living room and bathroom. It faced out on the pool, and looked out on the ocean.

Regalo del Mar also features a separate kitchen that's elevated and would serve as de facto dining hall and morning-coffee area. Next to it was a large lighted cabana, and an inviting pool, with yet another hammock-loaded cabana out near the beach. The place also comes with a lovely couple, Naty and Jose, and their adorable toddler, Michelle, who live on the property, and who saw to our every need, including cooking for us one evening.

For two families, a total of seven people, we'd have ample space, be able to stay out of each other's way, and still enjoy plenty of communal time and frivolity.

The cost? Just over $500 per night, which may sound like a shocker price, until you price out comparable hotel rooms. For seven. Here would have the luxury of cooking many of our meals and having a place that was a vacation all by itself. We wouldn't have to leave if we didn't want to, and there were plenty of days when we didn't.

Troncones is a loose little village and stretch of beach more than it is an actual town. This little enclave stretches from where the road dead-ends up to Manzanillo Bay, a distance of perhaps three miles. Manzillo Bay is a delicious spot where the surf roles in gently, where you can rent a house, a bungalow or a small room in a small hotel, and eat fresh lobster, ceviche and tangy tacos dripping with salsa. There is surfing off its rocky point, and good snorkeling. Cold beers and tequila are plentiful.

We learned that the Mexican government relaxed some rules in 1995, and gringos grabbed some of the lots along this stretch of beach, cleared them and built vacation homes, which of course could double as rental property.

We counted over two dozen homes on the ocean-side of the road between Manzanillo Bay and Troncones proper, with names such as Casa Gregorio, La Querencia, La Morada, Casa la Paloma, Casa Ki, and others. Most are for rent.

Troncones is charming old Mexico. A whitewashed Catholic church sits in the middle of town, near the school and new Troncones public library. Popular restaurants and watering holes like Café Troncones, Burro Burracho, Tropic of Cancer and Atlantis (most of which also rent rooms) line the road. Three or four small grocery stores are tucked in, with lots of fresh produce like tomatoes, onions, avocadoes, limes and bananas and papayas, plus a small selection of beer and spirits.

Lunch was often cold Tecate beer, fresh salsa and guacamole that we either whipped up at Regalo or ate at any of several restaurants. In the village we found a pool hall, fresh tortillas at Carmen's Restaurante, a beer truck that works the road every few days selling wholesale beer, and an occasional fresh seafood truck that would sell us the catch of the day cheap.

A place called Jaguar Tours rented us surf boards, boogie boards and snorkel gear. They took a troupe of us deep into the jungle for a popular zip-line excursion through the subtropical forest.

"I've never had a vacation for this long where I had nothing to do," says Todd, an executive for Ford Motor Credit. He's more used to large-group company trips where he was the tour director. Here he slept in every day, finished two books, and never looked happier.

My wife, Lee, however, said it best. "There are moments here," she gushed, "that are just so sweet you want to cry."

We had rocky coastline, with tidepools and sea creatures. Fifty yards south was an endless stretch of white sandy beach, perfect for boogie-boarding and surfing, if you can call our feeble attempts at standing up on a longboard surfing. A 20-minute walk north deposited you at the point of Manzanillo Bay, with a couple of small beaches along the way.

The days were hot, the nights balmy and perfect. Shorts and loose-fitting shirts were the uniform of the day. We celebrated a low-key Christmas morning with body-surfing. New Year's Eve found us at a small hotel on Manzanillo Bay for a wild-hats-only party.

In the evenings, we were magically drawn to the edge of the water, to sit, drams of Don Julio tequila in hand, as the sun burned the sky toward darkness. At night, the waves crashed with a fearsome, concussive fury. It was strangely relaxing, to lie awake listening for the next boomer to fall.

We did make side trips to Zihuatanejo, for grocery shopping, and an evening stroll through Centro and its lively shops and restaurants. We also let the teens test the waters of Senor Frog's disco in Ixtapa. But we generally couldn't drag ourselves too far away from our little paradise. There was really no reason to stray far from our beach.

We met Greg Mrazchek, a Seattle resident, who owns Casa Gregorio, down the beach toward town proper. A former Midwesterner, he snatched up property in 1999, after enduring a timeshare ownership in Ixtapa. An acquaintance in Mexico "talked about a place where everybody takes their dates," he says, referring to Troncones. "He said to come on down. I saw the beach. I put down earnest money the next day."

Mrazchek built two small comfortable two-bedroom homes that share a pool. He recently added several bungalows. He does the bulk of his renting November through the middle of May, with a bustling business in June and July for renters from Mexico City and Guadalara. "Now is a good time to book," he says of the spring season. "Now is the time to start looking for Christmas, and a little bit later for Thanksgiving."

We can feel the stress building in 2003. The world is crazy these days. Our lives are crazy. We can hear Troncones calling.