Mexican Magic

Bahia Navidad, or Christmas Bay, is a gift to the Pacific coast.

If there is one thing on which mariners over the centuries agree, it is that the Pacific coast of North America is inhospitable. Few anchorages and even fewer natural harbors mark the long stretches of unbroken lee shore that have devoured man and ship since the earliest explorations.

So the arrival of a new harbor, particularly one graced by a superyacht marina, natural beauty and a five-star hotel, is a cause for delight. Bahia Navidad, which translates to Christmas Bay, is indeed a gift for yacht owners.

Situated on the Costa Alegre (happy coast) halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, this is ancient Mexico with dense jungles, dragon-backed volcanic mountains, coconut plantations and white sand beaches. Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza named it in 1540, and it served as the starting point for the fleet of Spanish galleons that would conquer the Philippines. It was also a favorite anchorage for Pacific pirates, and there is said to be treasure still buried in the nearby jungles. Bahia Navidad has also long been popular with cruising sailors who would linger in the bay before catching the tradewinds for the "Coconut Run that leads to Polynesia and other fabled South Pacific destinations.

But the completion of the Grand Bay Hotel Isla Navidad, part of the Wyndham Luxury Resort chain, recently brought the area to the attention of megayacht owners. The superbly equipped 200-slip marina and five-star resort facilities have led to a waiting list for long-term slips and a distinguished roster of transient yachts. Bahia Navidad has become a must-visit as yachts transit south to the Panama Canal for Caribbean cruising. It's also become the winter destination for Pacific yachts that head north to Alaska for the summer.

The area is referred to by several names, but it's all the same place. Bahia Navidad is the large bay about 125 miles south of Puerto Vallarta and 25 miles north of Manzanillo. Barra de Navidad is the small fishing village on a long sandbar at the south end of the bay, and Isla Navidad (Christmas Island) is, for no particular reason, the name of the resort. A 1,200-acre resort on a peninsula, it is a symbolic island surrounded by a sea of dense jungle and banana farms.

If superb facilities, pleasant weather and reasonable access are the hallmarks of popular megayacht destinations worldwide, then Bahia Navidad is definitely a contender.

The marina is capable of handling yachts to 180 feet in continually dredged depths of 12 feet. It quickly became more popular than expected with large yachts, so there are small slips lying empty and a waiting list for larger spaces. A redesign is planned to create more megayacht spaces.

Each slip has access to 110/220-volt power up to 100 amps, as well as phone and cable television. Beautifully landscaped, the marina provides a fuel dock, laundry, restrooms, a mini-market and a pumpout facility. Harbormaster Fedorico Cortina, already popular with yacht captains, has a can-do attitude and a staff prepared to handle anything from assisting with port clearance papers (required by Mexican law) to tracking down a case of good French merlot.

Best of all, the rates are surprisingly low, at $16 per foot, per month for long-term tenants plus $2.50 for 50-amp service. Transients pay $1 per foot, making this one of the best buys in Mexico.

For owners, one attraction of Bahia Navidad is the Grand Bay Hotel, which sprawls up a hillside above the marina like a Moorish palace. All of the 200 rooms are oversize with balconies and ocean views. Three pools are interconnected by water slides, and two more pools with spas are tucked away for quiet enjoyment. Restaurant facilities range from the intimately elegant Antonio's to the casual Grand Café. Thrill-seekers can damage themselves at the Tequila Bar, which offers more than 200 varieties of the native Mexican firewater.

The resort also has championship tennis facilities and a spa, but the real attraction for many visitors is the challenging 108-par, 27-hole Von Hagge-designed golf course that meanders through the jungle and along the sea. The clubhouse offers everything from a gym to Cuban cigars, and the course is one of only two in Mexico to receive Golf magazine's Gold Medal award.

When it comes to weather, Bahia Navidad is also hard to beat, with 80-degree average temperatures in the winter and 90s in the summer. The water temperature is equally pleasant, hovering in the 70s and 80s all year.

That warm water is also attractive to fish, and this is sportfishing country known worldwide as "Sailfish Alley. Crew who dally while bringing in their lines have landed sailfish within yards of the harbor entrance. The area is populated with black, striped and blue marlin, as well as yellowfin tuna, dorado and wahoo.

Despite Bahia Navidad's remoteness, access is surprisingly good. The Manzanillo International Airport is just 30 minutes away. It has a 7,200-foot runway that can handle the largest private jets, and has full general aviation facilities. Nonstop commercial flights arrive from Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

But there's more to Bahia Navidad. Just across the channel from the resort is Barra, a relatively untouched fishing village that is a refreshing change from the neon tourist clutter of Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. From the marina, a dollar buys a round-trip ride on an outboard-powered panga (dinghy) to explore the town, which has two long streets lined with shops. Restaurants overlook the water on both lagoon and beach, with fresh seafood and local specialties. Don't miss molcajete, which means lava bowl, and that's exactly what you get. The chef fills a heated lava bowl with seafood or meat, onions and tomatillas, tops it with Oaxacan cheese, and melts it in the oven.

For more upscale dining, catch a taxi from Barra to Melaque at the northern end of Bahia Navidad and visit Restaurant Maya on the beachfront. Run by two Canadian expatriates, it has no phone for reservations, so arrive early for a waterfront table. The fare is beef and seafood (don't miss the almond-crusted tuna fillets). On a warm evening, try a cooling michilada (fresh lime juice, Tabasco and beer over ice) or a melon martini.

The patron saint of Melaque is St. Patrick. If you're in Bahia Navidad on March 17, you'll find everything from fireworks to domino championships, as well as a Pamplona-style bull run in the streets and Mexicans speaking with Irish brogues.

Overhead, black frigate birds soar like leftovers from a Rodan movie, and the sun rises golden across the Navidad lagoon. Bahia Navidad can easily become a habit, and many yachtsmen are already regulars.