Lights! Camera! Action!
Like Hepburn and Tracy or, more contemporarily, Lawrence (Jennifer) and Cooper (Bradley), Tinseltown has enjoyed a long and fruitful alliance with our neighbors to the south. And, by neighbors, I am of course referring to Mexico, and more specifically to Puerto Vallarta, that cinematic hamlet on the Bay of Banderas that has long been a go to destination for filmmakers.
In fact, for more than seven decades, Hollywood and Puerto Vallarta have acted as confederates, working in tandem to produce memorable moments on the silver screen that have earned a bevy of accolades and yielded millions at the box office. To say that the relationship has been symbiotic would be an understatement, but to understand how each has often been cast in a starring role in the narratives of the other, is by far the more fascinating tale.
Just to put Hollywood’s role in changing the face of Puerto Vallarta into perspective, it could quite easily be argued (and it often is), that Hollywood, perhaps more than anything else, put the destination on the map.
Consider this. In his best-selling book, Blow: How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellin Cocaine Cartel And Lost It, Bruce Porter recounts tht until after World War II Puerto Vallarta was a coastal town so sleepy in nature, that it was not even accessible by car thanks to the rushing waters of the Cuale River which split the town down the center.
But a funny thing happened when Tennessee Williams vacationed in Mexico in 1940.
Williams’ visit spawned the short story The Night of the Iguana which was published in 1948. The short story gave birth to the film of the same name for which Puerto Vallarta was chosen as the location. The production, directed by John Huston and starring Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton, brought masses of paparazzi to the quiet (and largely unknown) seaside town during filming thanks in no small part to the immense star power of Burton and his famous soon-to-be new wife, Elizabeth Taylor. The film went on to become the 10th highest grossing film of 1964 and earn four Academy Award nominations (winning one), while John Huston so fell in love with Puerto Vallarta that he bought a house in town, as did the über glamorous Liz and Dick, whose Hollywood pals followed them like pigs to a gin-filled trough of good times.
More Hollywood productions followed. They included everything from films like Predator, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Limitless, in which Puerto Vallarta featured prominently, to the Johnny Depp-starrer Blow, based on Bruce Porter’s book set against the backdrop of the destination in the 1960’s and 70’s.
And the rest is, as they say, history. The fledgling beachside town of 12,500 grew up and was transformed into a metropolis by the sea boasting a permanent population of over 250,000 and more than four million visitors a year.
Hooray for Hollywood!
After decades of providing a backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters, Puerto Vallarta is now enjoying its just desserts. An off the beaten path fishing village no more, the city is coursing with an ebullient life and starring role of its own that seamlessly meshes classic charm with fresh appeal.
The Malecon, the once sparsely populated stretch of beach that was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s introduction to Puerto Vallarta, is now a thriving hub of nightlife in the city. Behind it, narrow cobblestone streets laced with historic buildings housing vendors and business of all sorts dominate the landscape. However, at the well-trafficked boardwalk’s heart, lies scores of distinctive bars and restaurants, like the popular Cuban chain, Bodeguita del Medio, where the mojitos are perfection and the music is authentic and sensual. Likewise, open air nightclubs in this popular zone overflow with tequila swilling tourists who embrace the free-wheeling, devil may care abandon that Liz and Dick inspired when the latter bought the former a breathtaking local spread with stunning views as a gift for her 32nd birthday.
Speaking of that breathtaking local spread, Liz and Dick’s former home is today a spectacularly luxurious, nine-suite boutique hotel called Casa Kimberly (as so named by its previous owners}. Be warned however that, though Dame Elizabeth reportedly left all her belongings in the home when it was sold after Richard Burton’s death, not much history of the Burton-Taylor misalliance remains to be found in the remodeled environs of the property – beyond the sheer glamour that is its calling card. There is, of course, the bridge between the two “houses” that comprise the property, which Burton had built so that he and Elizabeth could cross the street and visit one another without having to face the prying eyes and lenses of the paparazzi. And then there is the Elizabeth Taylor Suite which boasts, among other amenities, the original pink jacuzzi installed for the lady of the house herself. But beyond that, it’s just acres of Swarovski crystal chandeliers and marble peering out over the city that has since grown up around the property.
That said, In a fitting homage to La La Land’s reigning former first couple, with its dramatic views of Banderas Bay from every room, grand furnishings as ornate as anything one might expect to find in a superbly appointed Italian palazzo, private patios adjoining each suite, stellar open air rooftop restaurant and intimate but substantially extensive spa, Casa Kimberly sets a new standard for luxury in a town that in recent years has come to be more often associated with discount package deals than grandeur and pampering. Which explains why something tells me, Liz and Dick would approve.
Elsewhere, the bay city’s once quiet outer boundaries continue to heat up with modern, sexy new nightlife and dining options. On Boulevard Francisco Medina Ascencio, for instance, you’ll find the ultra-contemporary De Santos, a restaurant cum happening bar/nightspot perfect for mingling with the locals where Mediterranean small plates dominate the menu. And just up the street, on the same boulevard in the “hotel zone”, you’ll find swank new nightclubs like La Strana paired with chic eateries like La Madalena, both of which attract a well-heeled, upscale crowd, not of the variety that would find wearing their underwear as a headdress either fashionable or acceptable.
As for the haunts of the current generation of celebrities who continue to rediscover and flirt with Puerto Vallarta, look no further than the exclusive enclave of Punta Mita, located at the northern end of Banderas Bay, which has attracted the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian in recent years. Popular stops for the A-list include the St. Regis and the Four Seasons, where they can be seen in their natural habitat frolicking in the sand.
Finally, one other not to be missed hidden treasure is the Grand Miramar, an exclusive all-suite luxury hotel located high above the Malecon in Conchas Chinas, an exclusive neighborhood that might best be described as the Beverly Hills of Puerto Vallarta. Perched on the highest point in PV, with sweeping views of the Bay. the Grand Miramar is an elegant escape within the confines of city made for escape. That it is a 20 – 30-minute drive from the more popular beaches and the heartbeat of the city is surprisingly a positive rather than a negative because, from its rooftop bar with unobstructed views of the shoreline, to its top-flight restaurant, in-house spa and excellently crafted cocktail menu, the Grand Miramar is more than self -sufficient in terms of meeting the needs of its demanding clientele. So much so that one might even imagine that this would be where Richard and Elizabeth might choose to live today if given their druthers. That is, of course, were Casa Kimberly not available.
All its Hollywood charms aside, perhaps the most endearing quality about Puerto Vallarta is not it’s celebrity-littered history or its swell new range of accommodations. It is instead the fact that it is still a destination where celebrities and mortals alike can let their hair down and just be. Viewed in this light, it’s not so much different from that tiny, scarcely visited fishing village whose natural sparkle first caught Hollywood’s attention all those many movies ago.
And that is a very good thing.
For more details about my fave places in Puerto Vallarta, click here.