‘NYC&G’ and ‘HC&G’ Editorial Director Kendell Cronstrom Takes a Trip to the Mexican Riviera

At Mexico’s posh One&Only Mandarina resort, it really is possible to get away from it all.
Carao Pool Hero Big

The “adult” pool outside restaurant Carao.

A Man and a Van

I have been to Puerto Vallarta’s Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz airport many times over the years, enough so that I’m not fazed by the tedious lines through immigration and customs, the taxi and ride-share drivers that descend on tourists the minute after they collect their bags, the throngs of hotel and excursion touts. But nothing prepared me for the wholly civilized ride that awaited beyond the airport’s spirited chaos: a private van, poised to whisk me about 35 miles north to the jaw-droppingly beautiful One&Only Mandarina, one of the newest entries in the resort chain’s heady portfolio.

Gregorio, the genial driver, offered me a cold towel and a Félix Maracuya Veracruz, a fizzy take on a passion-fruit agua fresca, and we were off. I do not aspire to a Kardashian-esque lifestyle, so I was surprised when Gregorio told me how to use Bluetooth for my playlist and gave me the Wi-Fi code. Yes, there is Wi-Fi in the private vans that take guests to and from Mandarina, and it works perfectly, from the airport through the formerly sleepy beach towns of Bucerías and Sayulita, past roadside stands selling pulpe de yaka, fresh coconuts, straw hats, and copper cookpots and through rural villages with dirt roads and thickly forested mountains. How come, I wondered, Wi-Fi service on the Hampton Jitney is iffy at best, and nonexistent on the Long Island Rail Road, which I have been traveling on for years? How difficult is it really to make connectivity happen? And for people who want to unplug, is Wi-Fi in a van wending its way through the jungle on a bumpy highway a good thing or bad thing?

Lay of the Land

I’d say it’s a good thing—although I barely made use of Wi-Fi once I arrived at Mandarina’s lush, sprawling property, comprising about 750 acres along the rugged Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Within minutes after checking in, a buggy swiftly deposited me in front of my chic Treehouse villa, cantilevered off the hillside with a private plunge pool and peekaboo view of the ocean. While savoring the villa’s chic and understated Studio Rick Joy–designed environs, I took note of the reverence for nature and eco-sensitive approach to the decor. Soon, a miniature cheesecake arrived, made in the shape of the resort’s namesake mandarin orange and graced with a white chocolate NYC&G logo, and I was ready to explore. The plunge pool would have to wait.

Plunge Pool

A private plunge pool at a Signature villa.

Over drinks at the Treetop bar—also built into the hillside, with stunning vistas and a buzzy early-evening crowd—the resort’s marketing and communications manager, Axel Basurto, and I tucked into “welcome shooters” of gin, pineapple juice, and white wine followed by Cantarito Anchos, a heady combo of mezcal, guayaba, grapefruit and lemon juices, poblano chile emulsion, and habanero tincture. A British Vogue shoot had just finished up the day before, and a famous fashion designer was currently staying in one of the top-tier Signature villas, so it was clear that Mandarina, although barely two years old, is already on a roll with the luxury lifestyle crowd. But as we toured some of the villas and the impressive polo grounds the following day, I realized the secret of Mandarina’s success: The habitations aren’t cheek-by-jowl but judiciously sprinkled throughout the property, the restaurants offer fantastic food and great variety, and there is ample beach access and four sumptuous infinity pools, all with their own personalities and character. Unlike other all-inclusive-style resorts, this is not some White Lotus–type affair: You might dine next to guests from a neighboring villa one night, but a repeat performance at breakfast the next morning is highly improbable.

Food for Thought

La Abuela

La Abuela.

One morning I completed the somewhat challenging hike to La Abuela, a legendary 497-year-old banyan tree that is said to embody the spirit of a young girl who yearned to protect the forest. After leading me past ancient petroglyphs along the precipitous trail, my guide, Jesús Daniel Arias (Daní), conducted a brief ceremony, burning copal and playing sounding vessels, while I lay on a mat under the majesty of the tree’s branches. I was surprised at how forcefully I felt the pull of the jungle and the extraordinary landscape.

I also built up an appetite, which was sated by the fruits of my labor during a tortilla-making class at Mandarina’s signature Carao restaurant later that afternoon. I learned the intricate dance of pressing and cooking the delicate tortillas, made from ground nixtamalized corn and prepared on the premises every day. Once I got the hang of it, I created intricate trifold tetelas, a Oaxacan staple filled with refried beans and spicy diced octopus.

Tortilla Class Small

Tortillas are made fresh daily at Carao restaurant.

Although I enjoyed the class immensely, I was happy not to bear the responsibility of cooking dinner that evening at Carao, where internationally renowned chef Enrique Olvera has curated a sumptuous menu of tricked-up Mexican specialties. I started off with a Celestún cocktail (mezcal, Campari, Aperol, and cinnamon) and an amuse-bouche of a simple slice of watermelon wrapped in an edible leaf native to Oaxaca, followed by fried octopus and an odd but super-delicious combo of fish, chorizo, and cheese. The finishing touch: shards of cocoa-nib cookie served with helado de queso and chocolate ganache. It was a child’s dessert for grown-ups, and I took pleasure in being a kid again, in a place so far away.

The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Travel by Design: Riviera Nayarit.