It is In one of George Carlin’s early routines, the comedian describes the essential difference between football and baseball by merely stating their terminology: “In football,” he’d say, his voice growing ominous, “you have to cross the end zone. In baseball,” his voice now went boyish and innocent, “you just have to come home.
“In football,” the gruff voice again, “you need a helmet.
“In baseball,” his voice lilting, “you wear a cap.”
And so it went, two tough sports divided, suddenly–one becoming ineffably formidable, the other as sweet and warm as a fresh pie.
I felt a similar difference between the two top hotels in the town of San Miguel de Allende, the famous art colony in the highlands of central Mexico, 224 miles north of Mexico City. The venerable 26-room Casa Sierra Nevada, in the esteemed Relais and Chateaux group, is in the center of town. The newer, 24-room Puertecita Boutique hotel is in a private park a few minutes’ walk outside the village.
At Casa Sierra Nevada, there’s an international chef. At Puertecita, an authentic Mexican cook. You dress for dinner at the former; not necessarily at the latter.
At Casa Sierra Nevada, the staff is trained at hotel schools like Cornell; Puertecita’s staff is local.
You understand the game. Casa Sierra Nevada, in the Swiss management tradition, is all Colonial, courtyards, and classicism–wonderful, but it could be located in any city. Puertecita, a restored hacienda, is emphatically Mexican, from its huge terra-cottaed rooms–every one quite different–with fireplaces and garden baths and domed, brick bodera ceilings, and sculpted-stone windows built in the style of the region, to the great expanse of cactus, flowers and waterfalls that surround it.
The two separate moods and spirits, one formal, the other, looser, more South of the Border, have everything to do with the two owners. Casa Sierra Nevada can run along on reliably with its owner, Jimmy Sproul, living in Mexico City. Puertecita’s owner John Kay, by contrast, is so present that his personality–he’s a sculptor, a biker, and, most of all, a lover of San Miguel–infuses and informs everything, from the bronze sculptures scattered about the gardens (they’re his own work) to the easels that have been put in every room.
Puertecita, where I stayed, is geared toward a hipper, newer kind of guest–a seeker: one who notices the easel in her room and decides right then to take up watercolors. Who observes that Puertecita is Backroads’ official hotel in the area and signs up for a 20-mile bike trip the very next morning. (John and his wife, Claudia, might very well decide to be the guides.) Who wants to learn Spanish, or write a novel, or practice Yoga, or rethink his life–right there.
In fact, the word “transformation” perks John Kay right up–while hotel lingo, words like “luxury” and “sophistication” just make him itch. “I think of stuffy, old places and stuffy, sedentary people,” he says, looking around for a kindred soul in a jean jacket. This is a hotelier less interested in whether there’s a hairdryer in each bathroom than whether that easel gets used. Fortunately for those of us in jean jackets who adore luxury, though, the staff is warm and pampering, the two pools are heated, the blankets are electric, the Guacamole is sublime, the hot tub is really hot, the masseuse experienced and the bar boasts at least six kinds of tequila.
Because the health-conscious visitor might want to begin the day with either very light food or something that will stick to the ribs during a morning of hiking, Guadelupe, the cook (she’s the one who doesn’t like the term “chef”), offers the very lightest–a medley of fresh juices–carrot, beet, pineapple, say– with yogurt and a steamy leche con chocolate; or the serious Chilorio, scrambled eggs and shredded pork in a fresh pepper and tomato sauce, or Chilaquiles, strips of corn (Guadelupe doesn’t use flour) tortillas in a garlicky tomato and green pepper sauce, topped with cheese. While some of the specialties may sound familiar–chicken mole and enchiladas do–they don’t resemble their derivative tex-mex cousins. They’re more delicate, more intensely flavored and all freshly and proudly homemade–with surprising additions like spicy walnut sauce or guajillo chile sauce. The Huachinango a la Veracruzana resembles the more familiar ceviche, but with red snapper marinated with olives, capers, and guero chiles as well as fresh lime juice, it becomes deeper, richer, brand new. Her soups are simple chicken-based broths–her sopa de Elote adds pasilla chile, corn, pobla sno chile, Oaxaca cheese and epazote so it’s flavorful and hearty enough, when combined with a salad and her thick, dense flan, for lunch or a late supper. Dinner for two, without wine, peaks at around $30.
Delicious, authentic, reasonable. Everything you need to feel safe at home.