From Mexico to the Mediterranean, Travel + Leisure magazine spotlights 23 up-and-coming seaside retreats where the dollar still goes far — and authentic experiences are well within reach.
Why go now: During the late 19th century, the Pacific Coast town of Mazatlán was a playground for vacationing members of the German, French, and Mexican aristocracy, who took up residence in the Centro Histórico, or Old Town.
Its reputation as an elite hot spot continued through the early 20th century. But in the 60s, the city — just a three-hour flight from L.A. — became a popular port for cruise ships. Soon after, southern California-style strip malls and Señor Frog's restaurants sprouted up along the Zona Dorada, a 12-mile stretch of beach 15 minutes north of the Centro Histórico. And the Neoclassical mansions with 16-foot ceilings and wrought-iron balconies — remnants of Mazatlán's heyday — were abandoned and all but forgotten. Until now, that is.
The details: The 282 acres that make up the Old Town are experiencing a renaissance, with stylish cafes, boutiques, and hotels opening on seemingly every corner. Local Alfredo Gómez Rubio jump-started the revitalization in 1997 with Pedro y Lola (Dinner for two: $40), a Nuevo Mexicano restaurant named after Mexican actor Pedro Infante and ranchera singer Lola Beltran. Housed in a 130-year-old Neoclassical building, the former social club, which hosted prominent dance performances in the 1800s, serves regional dishes such as molcajete (chunks of arrachera beef with grilled nopales, onions, and fresh panela cheese) in a wood-beamed dining room.
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Soon after, artists Miguel Ruíz and his Belgian wife, Helene van der Heiden, opened Casa Etnika, an art gallery and crafts shop. Inside, Michoacan silver necklaces hang alongside colorful paintings by local residents. More galleries followed, as did a complete overhaul of the nearby 1874 Teatro Ángela Peralta, an 841-seat Italian Renaissance-style theater with an open-air lobby and triple-tiered balconies — all of which helped put the area back on Mexico's cultural map.
In 2007, Conchita Valades de Boccard created Casa Lucila (Doubles from $185), Old Town's first seaside boutique hotel, built on the site of a 1940s nightclub frequented by John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway. Overlooking Olas Altas beach, the eight contemporary rooms are outfitted with custom-made mahogany doors, Italian ceramic-tiled floors, and local wood furniture. Around the corner, Melville Suites (Doubles from $78) is more traditional: it's a 19th-century former nunnery converted into 20 large suites that are brimming with hand-carved armoires and Mexican antiques.
Jaime Flores was a manager at Denver's historic Broker Restaurant for ten years before returning home last January to help open El Santo y La Panga (Dinner for two $78), Old Town's newest addition. The pint-size seafood joint packs in locals nightly, who come for tuna tostadas with chipotle mayonnaise and avocado. "Mazatlán has turned a corner from what it was 40 years ago," says Flores. "It's an exciting time to be here." -Jeff Spurrier
Brazil, São Miguel Dos Milagres
Why go now: Located between the much more famous Brazilian beaches in Recife and Bahia, São Miguel dos Milagres, a two-hour flight from São Paulo in the state of Alogoas, is off most travelers' radar. The attraction: natural, reef-formed swimming pools, warm emerald waters, and hypnotically tranquil beaches.
"In a sense, there's no tourism — on any given day, maybe a hundred visitors can be found on a beach twenty-five miles long," says Joaquim Gonçalves, the Portuguese owner of two pousadas in the area. That may change in the coming years: Adrian Zecha's Amanresorts has been looking at land near Alogoas's capital, Maceió, and while paulistas (São Paulo residents) make up the majority of the visitors, more than a few French, Italian, and Portuguese travelers are joining the mix. "It's getting the kind of buzz Trancoso did 15 years ago," says Eric Sheets, founder of the luxury travel agency Latin Excursions (latinexcursions.com), who has been sending clients to the region for the past seven months.
The details: Nilo Burgarelli opened the area's first lodge, the Pousada do Toque (Doubles from $327, including dinner and breakfast) in 2000. When he launched, the road hadn't been paved and there was no phone service. His 13-cabana garden retreat serves as an escape for the host of Big Brother Brazil as well as many Brazilian families, who book one of the three private pool cabanas. Set in a lush jungle garden (the sunrise bird chorus is impressive), guest rooms have marble and tile-mosaic bathrooms, ofuro tubs, and rough-hewn local woodwork. But the pousada's restaurant is the real attraction, with dishes like peixe ao molho de camarão — grilled fish topped with a chunky shrimp-and-tomato sauce.
Down a one-mile dirt track five miles north of São Miguel is Goncalves's four-year-old Aldeia Beijupira (Doubles from $287). Beijupira's nine thatched-roof bungalows are surrounded by private gardens of palms and red hibiscus. The stucco rooms are minimal, with polished cement floors and platform beds.
The best way to explore São Miguel's sparsely populated coast is by boat: the pousadas will contract a fisherman to take you out to the reef a half-mile off the beach ($10), where foot-deep tide pools are filled with bath-warm water and tiny scuttling crabs, and ringed by coral lined with scores of purple-back sea urchins.
"We came here for a life-changing experience. Bahia wasn't what we were looking for; it all seemed really developed," says paulista Jessy Greenhut. In March, together with her Israeli husband, Tsachi, she bought the Pousada da Amendoeira (Doubles from $167), named after the huge almond tree that shades its beachfront lounge. Steps from the Pousada do Toque, the Amendoeira has a more modest, earthy vibe, with a pumpkin patch and small cabanas. "A lot of people who come here are really attached to nature," says Greenhut. With a beach like São Miguel's, it's not hard to see why. -Ian Mount
Cyprus, Paphos + Limassol
Why go now: The prime Levantine location and sandy turquoise shores of this tiny island belie its complicated political past. But after decades spent divided between a Turkish-occupied north and Greek-speaking south, Cyprus is unifying, and international attention is now focused on its wildflower-covered hills and crystalline coastline.
Cyprus is changing dramatically around the port town of Paphos, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite. During the Hellenistic period, Paphos was Cyprus's capital, renowned for its temples and olive groves. Today, UNESCO World Heritage site serves as an entry point to the island's most exclusive resorts, and to tiny nearby crafts towns, like Omodos and Lefkara.
The details: The chic Almyra (Doubles from $242) set the tone for Paphos's resurgence when it debuted in 2004. Designed by one of Karl Lagerfeld's favorite architects, Joëlle Pleot, and Tristan Auer, the centrally located hotel lures Europeans with its whitewashed bungalows and black-bottom pool. Down the coast at the mod-rustic Thalassa Boutique Hotel & Spa (Doubles from $453), the 58 suites — most with butlers and all named after a Greek god or goddess — are perched on a peninsula just above Coral Bay, overlooking 3,400-year-old Mycenaean ruins.
Although equally historic, Limassol, a harbor town on the southern coast, is more focused on its future than its past. Indeed, the marina of this commercial hub, home to the largest shipping port in the Mediterranean, is in the midst of a $265 million makeover. In the Old Town, cobblestoned Agiou Andreou Street houses many stylish shops: You'll find Cavelliesque tunics and blouses from Cypriot designer Pantelis Mitsu at Mitsu Mitsu and handmade gold and enamel jewelry at the Precious Metal Gallery. The island's only microbrewery, Draught Microbrewery Bar & Grill, is located nearby.
On the waterfront is Londa (Doubles from $425), a 68-room seafront retreat designed by the venerable Italian firm Caruzzo Rancati, also responsible for Milan's Gianfranco Ferre flagship. A favorite of British fashion designer Julien Macdonald, the hotel has creamy marble and wood interiors, a mod restaurant, and an alfresco bar with a DJ and dancing. It adds just the right amount of gloss to the increasingly cosmopolitan city. -David Kaufman
Andaman Islands, India
Mumbai's style set flocks to this archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The Barefoot at Havelock has 18 thatched-roof cottages that are hidden in a lush rain forest. Doubles from $90.
Wealthy Chileans spend summer weekends at this elite resort town two hours from Santiago. The affordable option? Hotel Isla Seca-Zapallar, set high on a bluff above the Pacific. Doubles from $155.
Outfitters such as Micato Safaris are now including Lamu, a tranquil white-sand island off the Kenyan coast, in custom-tailored tours. If you're on your own, check into one of the six Swahili-chic suites at the Banana House. Doubles from $139.
Windsurfers have long known about this fishing village on the Cesme Peninsula. And thanks to the addition of the Port Alaçati marina (lined with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants), its reputation is fanning out beyond adventure aficionados. Stay at the 17-room Port Hotel Alaçati. Doubles from $152.
Eco-conscious travelers are flocking here for the region's extraordinary biodiversity, found in the 130 million-year-old prehistoric forest. The just-opened Gayana Eco Resort in Sabah has 44 overwater bungalows. Doubles from $200.
Culebra, Puerto Rico
Off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, this island gem is stealing the spotlight from its Caribbean neighbors, thanks to dune-studded beaches and blue-green waters. Stay in one of the 12 villas at Club Seabourne, on Fulladoza Bay. Doubles from $195.
Known to insiders as one of the world's great diving spots, the nearly four-square-mile island is poised to enter the international spotlight with the opening of the Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa this December. For now, check in to Boracay Beach Club. Many of the 30 rooms overlook the sea. Doubles from $110.
European expats are converting groups of Andalusian-style villas in this quiet coastal town into boutique hotels, including the Spanish-Moroccan La Maison Haute, near the bustling souk. Doubles from $78.
Big Corn Island, Nicaragua
A laid-back tropical spit dotted with thatched-roof hotels, known for its lush forests and a smooth shoreline. At Casa Canada, 20 cabanas overlook an infinity pool. Doubles from $85.
Porta Vila, Vanuatu
Tucked between Australia and Fiji, this island has the best of both worlds: traditional Melanesian tribal culture and a modern hotel called the Breakas Beach Resort and Villas. Fronted by a palm-studded private beach, the 36 bungalows are decorated with dark-wood furniture and neutral tones. Doubles from $220.
The Black Sea's answer to St.-Tropez (with the yachts to back it up) is attracting celebrity visitors like Brangelina. Hotel Logatero's 11 rooms are outfitted with sleek natural-wood furnishings. Doubles from $140.
Isabela Island, Galapagos
Tranquil beaches, five volcanoes, and diverse fauna make up the seahorse-shaped island. Wildlife viewing is unparalleled from the private seaview balconies at La Casa de Marita. Doubles from $70.
Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
An alternative to overtouristed Bali, the laid-back pace of this surfer's mecca is now drawing international crowds. With only one hotel on the island — the beachside Aman Gati Hotel (not part of Amanresorts) — you're guaranteed a stretch of sand to yourself. Doubles from $38.
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
The white-sand beaches and olive groves on this windswept isle off the North Island are a welcome respite from the bustling pace of Auckland — just a 40-minute ferry ride across the Hauraki Gulf. Check in at the Onetangi Beach Apartments for private patios with views of the Coromandel Peninsula. Doubles from $120.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Just a half-hour boat ride from the mainland, the five-mile coral strip has stunning barrier reefs and two nature preserves. The huts at the oceanfront Seaside Cabanas have a cheery orange-and-red palette. Doubles from $105.
Con Dao, Vietnam
This pristine chain of volcanic islands is only 140 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon Con Dao Resort offers simple, light-filled rooms set in a tropical garden. Doubles from $100.
Musandam Peninsula, Oman
This sandy spit is known for its arid landscape and secluded, mountain-backed beaches, just a two- to three-hour bus ride from Dubai. Book a room at the 60-room Golden Tulip Resort, Khasab for mesmerizing Persian Gulf views. It has an on-site dive center. Doubles from $209.
With cobblestoned streets and stylish new restaurants and boutiques, the classic colonial city on the western coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is slated to become the next Merida. Our favorite place to stay: the 19th-century Castelmar Hotel, in the city's historic center. Doubles from $85.
Port Willunga, South Australia
A recent influx of farm-to-table restaurants and small-scale wineries has turned this Fleurieu Peninsula town 30 miles south of Adelaide into a choice summer retreat. Willunga House is a 160-year-old Georgian mansion with five simple, light-filled guest rooms. Doubles from $215.
The main island's hilly little sister, just four miles north on the Mediterranean, was proposed as the site for the Malta International Fashion Show. There are 13 terraced rooms at the family-run San Antonio Guesthouse in Xlendi, a small fishing town. Doubles from $44.
By Katie Bowman, Lisa Cheng, Tanvi Chheda, Caroline Davis, Angela Fleury, Jennifer Flowers, Serra Guercay, Kendall Hill, Catesby Holmes, David Kaufman, Rosamaria Mancini, Ian Mount, Bree Sposato, Jeff Spurrier and Stephanie Stephens. Visit travelandleisure.com for contact details on the properties mentioned in this article.
Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation