A jet-set playground on Mexico's Costa Algere is ruled by an 83-year-old entrepreneur whose taste in architecture and fine living has created a unique community. We talk to Gian Franco Brignone, the founder of Costa Careyes.
“I wanted to create a community of international people in a place with year-round sunshine,” explains Gian Franco Brignone of Costa Careyes, a resort and residential estate that he created on a remote stretch of Mexico’s coastline. And so it was that after scouting various exotic locations the nonconformist Italian entrepreneur discovered this lush part of the world in 1968 and set about building a stylish utopia made in his vision.
What he created was a bougainvillea-covered paradise where spectacular villas grip to rocky cliffs, which has attracted everyone from Giannai Agnelli to Seal and Heidi Klum. More than just an unfathomably beautiful location with remarkable houses, Careyes is about an attitude (eccentricity and discretion are highly prized) and a
lifestyle (“The most popular activity at Careyes is to do absolutely nothing,” he says). An average day here looks like a Slim Aarons photograph come to life, except that no society photographers are invited.
Central to the ‘Careyes Style’, as its aesthetic has come to be known, is its unique architecture. Brignone employed a team of contemporary Mexican designers to translate his architectural fantasies into the sorts of houses that are surrounded by circular infinity pools or which are connected to outlying islands by rickety string bridges. He describes the architecture as a, “combination of the sensuality of Italian architecture with the smoothness of Mexican aesthetics.”
Every detail at Careyes, from the exact shades of the jewel-like colours that each villa is painted to the conspicuous absence of umbrellas on the beach, is strictly adhered to as part of Brignone’s preferences. It’s a Republic of Style and Brignone is its dictator. “Buying a large site allows control,” he says of his renowned influence over all aspects of this eight-mile long estate.
Alongside the approximately 50 villas, most of which are available to rent, there is one hotel which adds flavor to the already international cocktail of homeowners. “The mix of people is so important,” says Brignone, who is democratically conscious of building smaller houses to attract the merely well off as well as the super wealthy. His polo playing son, Giorgio, who now oversees most aspects of the Careyes estate, helps to attract younger visitors to the community.
As the jet-set migrate to Careyes for the winter holidays, we talk with Gian Franco Brignone about his vision for this extraordinary corner of the world.
What is your definition of luxury?
A great sequence of normal pleasures!
If luxury were a person?
If luxury were a place?
The Costa Careyes coast.
If luxury were a moment?
Having dinner on the terrace at Playa Rosa with friends and being surprised by an unexpected eclipse of the moon.
If luxury were an object?
Iced tequila in the right place and with the right people.
Please describe what you set about to create at Careyes.
The story started 60 years ago after seeing the damage done to much of the beautiful Mediterranean coast and after visiting the Aga Khan, who had created the Costa Smeralda, a balanced and exciting international community in Sardinia. I always thought that the industry of the sun was the industry of the future and that people would spend more time out of the office, which is certainly the case now because of modern communications. My vision was that people would be able to work from anywhere and that they would choose to work from a place where the quality of light is excellent. With Careyes I wanted to create a community of international people in a place with year-round sunshine.
What were you inspired by?
The Aga Khan at the time had purchased a large amount of land on the northern coast of Sardinia, now known as the Costa Smeralda, and was developing the site with his own architectural rules, which created an aesthetic harmony. Buying a large site allows control. I wanted to create something similar but in a place where there was good weather all year round.
How did you first discover Mexico’s Costa Algere?
By a process of elemination. Where did I want to live? Africa wasn’t an alternative at the time. Europe didn’t have the sun. Latin America was the obvious choice - it has a similar culture to Europe. Mexico is close to USA, which was valuable, and has good weather, which was the most basic requirement. I went to visit Antenor Patino at Las Hadas in 1968 and took a little plane to discover the coast, which at the time was totally undiscovered - no roads and very few people living there as there were seven rivers that did not allow easy comunication. Most land owners had never visited their land. I found paradise here.
You have created some fantastical houses at Careyes. Tell us about your attitude to the architecture at Careyes.
I wanted to create an architecture for Careyes that enhanced the place instead of appearing imposed. The interesting combination of the sensuality of Italian architecture with the smoothness of Mexican aesthetics was the solution. Local traditions such as the use of tree tunks and thatched palapa roofs also informed the design. And so our famous architecture was born and then copied along the coast! It is very unusual to own two pieces of land on each side of a bay like we do at Careyes. For this stretch of the site we decided to create the houses that we call the ‘castles’, which are the largest and most spectacular properties at Careyes. The houses on the two peaks are thremed around sun rays, which can be seen in the swimming pools which surround the houses. The house with the drawbridge to an island came about through practicality – it was the only way to access this speck of land. I was lucky that in Mexico the word ‘no’ doesn’t exist; when designing something here there is always someone who will attempt to execute it.
Which architects did you work with to fulfill your vision?
The Italian designer Alberto Mazzoni was the orignal artchitect of the masterplan and was chosen because he shared the spirit of the Costa Smeralda architecture that I had been inspired by. Diego Villasenor, a Mexican, was related to Alberto Mazzoni, and so became his Mexican representaive. Marco Aldaco became part of the equation because of his great sense of colour and love of Mexican materials. But the most important architect at Careyes was, and still is, Jean Claude Galitert. In collaboration with myself, he has designed most of the houses here. I have the ideas and he is extraordinary at executing the proporations and dimensions which are so important to the houses here.
There are approximately 50 houses at Careyes and growth has been very controlled. Is there an ideal size you have in mind for the resort?
There is no set number but I think around 200 houses would be a good size. The masterplan dictates that now we build less homes and that these be larger properties positioned on bigger lots. There is a trend now for people to have a larger family homes in places like this, with service, and in their cities they have smaller residences without service and just for themselves. At the moment we have 100 owners and my priority is to be sensitive to their desires. As the masterplan evolves, we are giving over more space to green areas that won’t be devloped. And although we are selling bigger and more spectacular houses, it is also important to provide smaller houses for the younger market. The mix of people is so important.
Careyes has been described as a private club. How do you react to this description?
It is true as a concept, but no club exists in reality. The residents of Careyes respect oral rules and traditions. There are no signs, only the respect of normally well behaved people.
A stay at Careyes can cost from $300 up to the tens of thousands; the resort is popular with both the young and old; and residents come from all over the world. Is this mix important to you?
This is very important to me. Rich and famous people typically want to be surrounded by young and fun people. If there were no flexible or average rental rates available, then young people and artists would not come. Adding polo to our list of facilities was designed to attract a more dynamic and younger market. It’s a difficult mix to create.
Who is the typical Careyes resident?
Our clientele is one third North American including many Europeans living there, one third Mexicans and Europeans living in Mexico, and one third from the rest of the world including Europe. They all love nature, privacy, magic, primitive sophistication and being part of a community.
You have described Careyes as a ‘guarded secret’ and the resort has a low profile, despite its famous guests. Is it important to you that Careyes remains a little mysterious?
Very much so. Even when arriving at Careyes, you might miss the entrance, as there are so few signs. Famous people are not chased and can enjoy feeling like a normal person. It’s very difficult to market a place like this. Either you do a lot of marketing and you lose the secret, or you don’t do any and everyone forgets you. So our marketing is non-traditional. We do events and use personal contacts to show friends of friends the properties in the hope they will come back. The people who come here would not like it if we did any marketing on a major scale. A lot of our owners will not even tell their friends. And as soon as we are featured in a couple of magazines, everyone gets a bit worried.
A hotel’s success depends on the sum of a number of elements: service, food, location, architecture etc. Is it any different at Careyes? How have you addressed all these different areas?
We think that these things are necessary and exist at Careyes, but we like to add simplicity and genuine smiles, which are rare to find in upscale resorts. I’ve never been involved in the details of service and food, but instead contracted sepcialists to train our staff. We were also lucky to have a Club Med near us at one point, who were great trainers. Say what you like about Cub Med resorts, but for us it was an extraordinary school for our staff. We are more residentail than a hotel, so the set up is not the same. The efficiency of the staff in Asia may not exist here, but our team are always there, working hard, so that you are never disappointed.
Please describe your usual day in Careyes.
Wake up slowly, take a walk on Teopa beach (a turtle sanctuary) or swim in the clean Careyes bay. Then lunch in the villas or at the famous Playa Rosa restaurant for Mexican-Italian food, followed by a siesta and a massage at home. Dinner at the polo ranch (pasta, steak and tequilas) or at Cocodrilo Azul beach for music and sushi. During the polo season, I might meet friends at the club and watch my son play.
What are your plans for the future of Careyes?
We want to beome more involved in ecological, cultural and social plans in the area. We’ll be having more polo events, building a few spectacular villas, a village for culture and commerce and 14 casitas that each represent a star. We want to educate by building more sculptures, which also compensates for the pressure on space. The artworks we currently have are almost living sculptures – art that you can interact with. You need to create places that people want to visit, where you can mediate.
The growth of Careyes will be balanced by building houses for the young and building attractions that makes life more interesting.
For your own vacations, where do you go?
I like to visit other special places around the world where it may also rain and be cold. I just came back from an extraordinary tour of Italy, one of hte most beautful countires in the world. I also like Sweden and the northern countries. My favourite hotel? I perfer private houses and boats. When I travel I stay away from hotels because that is my work.
Gian Franco Brignone’s guide to Careyes
When is the best time to go? Why?
The best temperatures and relative humidity are found from December to June. But for the most beuatiful landscpes, come in August to November.
Which beaches are worth seeking out?
Playa Rosa for postcard pretiness, Careyes beach to visit the meteorite, Teopa beach for long walks and sunsets, and Tenacatita and Chamela bays for watching sea turtles.
Your favourite restaurants?
Shrimp quesadillas at Playa Rosa restaurant, scallops ceviche at Cocodrilos Azul, pasta maito and picanha steack at Rancho de don Andres polo club, river langostino soup at La Loma, and octopus with hot sauce at La Viuda.
Interesting day trips?
Look for the crocodiles in the lagoons or spend time in the copa del sol [a giant bowl-like sculpture where people medidate].
Please describe an ideal day at Careyes.
Wake up one morning a few days after you arrived and realize that you still have plenty of time left in life. Acknowledge that you live a wrong life and that you could come more often to Careyes or you can afford to buy a house here!
How to Get to Careyes:
Careyes is located an hour-and-a-half drive north of Manzanillo International Airport and three hours south of Puerto Vallarta International Airport.