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“Catch an exclusive Mexican wave”, by Matthew Smith, features Punta Mita excellent surf

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Catch an exclusive Mexican wave

By: Matthew Smith

As originally published in the Financial Review, Australia. To view the original, visit www.afr.com

Aug. 15, 2014: Two oversized grey pelicans watch our boat as it bobs up and down while we surf. Apart from the pelicans, we start the day with this spot to ourselves, just the three of us: a smiley, English-born surfing guide named Martin, a young local Mexican named Kalle and me. A chatty surfer who arrived from Southern California that morning eventually joins us in the line-up – we watch the not-so-quiet American pick his way across the black boulder beach, keeping his distance at first and eventually paddling over to where we are sitting, where the waves are forming a perfect bowl shape and peeling off to the right.

Martin chooses to surf The Cove today: one of the handful of “wave magnet” breaks, alongside La Lancha and Baiah, that are within minutes of each other at the northern entrance to Banderas Bay on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. We’re about an hour’s drive from renowned Mexican holiday destination Puerto Vallarta and on the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands.

The water is warm – warmer than body temperature – and the dramatic mountains in the distance are a shade of purple so gentle on the eyes it’s hard not to become mesmerised by their ghostly shapes. Kalle, who’s along to share his local expertise, knows these surf breaks like the back of his hand and mere seconds after jumping from the boat a large set seeks him out.

RARE BREAK

Surfing is all about timing and positioning; Kalle has an abundance of both. We watch as he launches himself onto the first wave; gliding, he pauses at the bottom where the lip is crashing onto the glass-like surface, before leaping like a praying mantis. Turning into the face of the wave, he twists his skinny muscular body, completing an arching turn as a wall of water rises into the air. The wave rumbles past and we continue to watch from behind as Kalle’s small frame launches into the air at least twice more before he paddles back out to hoots and cheers.

It’s rare to find a spot such as The Cove, with its high-quality and consistent waves, so relatively uncrowded; this is in large part thanks to the exclusive community along the shoreline. Luxury hotels the St Regis and Four Seasons, along with a handful of upmarket villas, fan out across a six square kilometre peninsula, accessible only via a single, gated road flanked by the Pacific Ocean on either side at the tip of Banderas Bay.

Surfers who make the three-hour drive through the lush mountains from Guadalajara – Mexico’s second-biggest city, three hours’ flight from Los Angeles – or those who opt to transfer onto a smaller connecting flight to Puerto Vallarta and drive from there, tend to end up at the more easily accessible public surf breaks such as nearby Sayulita, where they are greeted with busy beaches, American-themed bars and gift shops.

SILICON VALLEY ARRIVES

25e6351a-2355-11e4-8336-bc91776dda13_Sunset - PacÃ-fico Golf Course--646x363Those not staying on the peninsula but who know about The Cove can get there only by hiring a boat from the nearby fishing town, or by attempting to walk from the public road, navigating the golf courses through thick scrub and across the rocky beach.

Meanwhile, large black Cadillac Escalades with tinted windows are becoming an increasingly familiar sight rumbling along against the jungle green backdrop on the road from Puerto Vallarta. They signal the arrival of newly moneyed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and next-generation Hollywood celebrities, choosing to holiday at Punta Mita over other exclusive Mexican destinations such as the Mayan Riviera on the Caribbean coast.

Celebrity singer Lady Gaga was snapped learning to surf at Punta Mita; mega-celebrities Kim Kardashian and Kanye West recently stayed at one of the exclusive Punta Mita villas, though neither was seen surfing.

The region’s celebrity appeal has been heightened since Matt Damon and Jodie Foster starred in the 2013 science fiction thriller Elysium, which was filmed in the area.

The neighbouring Punta de Mita township is a small fishing village and about as low key as you can get: basic homes, a handful of beachside restaurants and a reasonable surfing beach called El Anclote. If you follow the shoreline in a boat heading towards the mouth of the bay, the exclusive coastline comes into full view.

BAREFOOT LUXURY

Frequent visitors to Hawaii, not to mention weekend warriors relegated to surfing city beaches, will be more accustomed to looking back onto high-rise buildings and car parks. It may take a moment to get used to the manicured greens and bunkers of private golf courses that characterise the onshore landscape at The Cove.

Most people who come to Punta Mita would be more interested in perfecting their golf swing or double-handed backhand than their cutbacks.

However, the place lacks ostentation. Both the St Regis and Four Seasons promote barefoot luxury, which ensures the high-end resort chains fit comfortably into their surroundings; the bungalows and low-rise suites have an authentic Mexican design aesthetic, but with the attention to detail you’d expect from a flagship hotel somewhere in continental Europe.

There’s also a great sense of space at the resorts, so guests are not funnelled towards a single beach or pool bar. The amenities are spread out to make the most of the diverse and panoramic landscape.

But for a surfer, the most enticing feature of Punta Mita has to be the handful of private surf breaks that would rival any in the world.

Tony Palmer, an Australian based in the United States, is global head of brands and innovation for Kimberly-Clark. A keen surfer, he’s been coming to Punta Mita for five years, staying at the St Regis a few times a year for up to a month at a time.

HEAVEN ON EARTH

Last year, Palmer decided to buy his own block of land and build his dream vacation villa at his favourite surf break: right in front of The Cove.

“It’s heaven on earth if you’re a surfer,” says Palmer, who’s travelled and surfed all over the world. His passion for surfing was reinvigorated after his twins were born 11 years ago. Today, surfing is the family’s activity of choice.

“One thing I like is that electronics don’t work in the water,” he says.He likens the wave at The Cove to Tea Tree Bay at Noosa, in that it can produce a long and forgiving wave in a large swell, but with the added benefit of a rock bottom so the banks (the ocean floor which dictates where the peaks form) don’t shift around.

A year ago, Palmer was eyeing a vacation home in San Onofre, one of southern California’s premier surf spots, which is about the same travel time and distance (a three-hour flight) as Punta Mita from his base in Dallas, Texas.

He chose Punta Mita over California for its relaxed vibe and uncrowded waves. “Frankly, I got sick and tired of 50-year-old guys pushing my seven- and eight-year-old kids around surfing in southern California,” he says. “The Mexicans are so welcoming and friendly.”

Indeed, Kalle is sensing another set of waves coming along. Instead of taking it himself, he’s doing what many of the Mexicans who are already spoilt for waves here do: he’s whistling to me and pointing to where I should position myself for the perfect take-off.

It’s a nice ride, but Martin tells me I need to relax onto my heels to produce a more effective cutback. He’s right, a few more days in Mexico like this, and it should all start becoming second nature.

The writer was a guest of Four Seasons Punta Mita and St Regis Punta Mita. He was also hosted on the Tropicsurf surf charter (tropicsurf.net). The Four Seasons is priced from $US600 a night for an Ocean View room. St Regis from $US699 a night for a deluxe room.

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