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Beyond the sprawl, a family has a ball at a beach in Mexico

Waylon Ellis, 3, overcame his unease and enjoyed pescado frita, and joined his mother, Amanda, and sister Quincy, 5 months, on the beach. Waylon Ellis, 3, overcame his unease and enjoyed pescado frita, and joined his mother, Amanda, and sister Quincy, 5 months, on the beach. (Photos By Ann Wilson Lloyd/For The Boston Globe)
By Ann Wilson Lloyd
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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TRONCONES, Mexico - Franklin the Turtle is the favorite storybook friend of our grandson Waylon, 3. Imagine his delight at herding hundreds of baby Franklins into the twilight surf during our three-generation family beach vacation at this surfing village near Zihuatanejo, on the Pacific coast.

“Can I keep him?’’ Waylon asked as he hoisted a tiny air-swimming turtle.

“This little Franklin needs to swim away and find his mommy,’’ I explained, slightly tweaking science. We watched as his hatchling scrambled down the beach, guided by Angel Maldovinas Monje, the aptly named local naturalist who had invited us to help.

Moments like these are the reason we plan a multigeneration vacation every so often. Like many extended families, ours is spread across the country. Gatherings back home can begin to feel like Groundhog Day: ever less exciting for returnees, ever more exhausting for aging hosts.

A vacation rental in an appealing destination can be an excellent family adventure.

Beach vacations in winter are a big hit with us. Mexico’s Pacific coast is a bargain, and cities like Zihuatanejo and Puerto Vallarta are easy flights from the various US cities our family connects through. Popular resort meccas like these can be touristy, though, their beaches choked with chaises, vendors, and crowded high-rise hotels.

We’ve learned to look just beyond the cities for safe, clean, friendly villages like Troncones, bucolic places that are minimally developed and within a short drive of large airports. Here, small inns are often interspersed with beachfront villa rentals, frequently owned by US or Canadian expats but managed locally.

Vacation rental homes offer full kitchens, indoor and outdoor space to gather or romp, and quiet and privacy. In Mexico, daily maid service and pool maintenance are usually included. Especially when traveling with children - in our case, Waylon and his sister, Quincy, 5 months - these bonuses trump the swankiest hotel.

Even without kids, a rental villa in a small beach village can be idyllic. On their honeymoon in 2004, our daughter Amanda and her husband, Miles, discovered the surfing village of Sayulita, just north of Puerto Vallarta, where they stayed in a small cottage overlooking the sea. Their blissful experience led us to return there in 2006 for a Christmas week, four-generation family gathering.

Eleven of us were divided between two villas, each with its own pool. It was no honeymoon, but it was crazy fun, and best summed up by our daughter Erin’s Christmas Day query to the table: “Which would you rather be eating right now - this fresh shrimp taco, or Grandma’s Christmas ham? No, offense, Grandma.’’

“None taken,’’ Grandma said, sipping her margarita. Relieved from wrangling yet another holiday dinner, the joke was not on her.

Christmas is the priciest season for beach resorts in Mexico. This past winter, to avoid top rental fees and competition for prime houses, we shifted our holidays to mid-January and celebrated belatedly on the sand. Planning ahead allowed all to adjust vacation schedules, and January travel meant cheaper, less crowded flights. Off-season discounts for longer stays enabled us to book our casa for 10 days.

For novelty, we also shifted farther south. Looking on Zihuatanejo websites, we found Troncones, which boasted good beaches and lots of rentals. Our family group was smaller this trip, five adults and two children, so we chose a single house, Casa Helen, with three big bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, and private pool, on the beach, for $2,700, or $270 per night.

The house was great but the beach was terrific. Very clean, nearly empty, with fine sand, warm water, and gentle rolling waves. Waylon and his grandfather, Mike, seldom bothered to dry off. There were good snorkeling spots, some beginner to intermediate surfing action nearby, and small tidal pools in the occasional rocky outcrop for Waylon and Amanda, his biologist mom, to explore. Amanda, who has dipped her toe into Pacific waters from the Yukon Delta in northern Alaska, to southern Chile’s Patagonia coast, declared this “the best Pacific Ocean experience ever.’’

Troncones offered more than a great beach and baby turtles. Every evening at sunset, local ranchers led their horses along the beach, trolling for riders. Waylon, his mom, and Auntie Erin took an hourlong jaunt ($18 per horse) that Waylon reported was “just like being a knight, and in a cowboy movie!’’

Preferring fishing to horses, Miles always travels with collapsible gear. One morning right in front of our house he caused a stir by reeling in a 5-foot-long, prehistoric-looking needlefish, whose pointy snout had rows of evil-looking teeth. Both staff and guests from Tronco Bay Inn, the small hotel nearby, gathered to watch the excitement.

Erin sought occasional refuge from kids and family life at the elegant Present Moment yoga retreat spa just down the beach, where daily 90-minute sessions are open to retreat guests and visitors for $12.

Refreshed, she joined in the family surfing expedition to Saladita, another small village 20 minutes away, where baby Quincy and her grandparents hung out on the beach while Waylon and his dad surfed the foam line.

Fishing boats come into Saladita daily, with catches of spiny lobster for which the fishermen free-dive. We bought a dozen at $7.50 per kilo. Miles, our family’s most innovative cook, made a lime chipotle salsa to spoon over them on the grill.

Speaking of food, we had shopped on arrival day at Zihuatanejo’s huge Comercial Mexicana, a super center type grocery store, but found that small local shops carry most necessities. Quincy had her first ice cream at one of these, entertaining the locals with her messy gusto.

Respite from cooking (or from the family) was as close as a walk along the beach, where Tronco Bay Inn, Hacienda Eden, and Inn at Manzanillo Bay serve local specialties like enchilados camarones (shrimp) and pescado frita (fried fish) at palapa-covered tables. Café Sol, a five-minute drive, offers gelato and great brunches. Dining on the beach is relaxing since restless kids can safely frolic till the food comes.

The best local cuisine, however, we enjoyed at our villa, cooked by Carmen Cortes Orozco, our housekeeper, and her teenage daughter Leidi. For less than $10 per person, including food, preparation, and clean-up, they served delicious chilies rellenos one night, and chicken enchilados, another. Rental property managers will help guests arrange for local cooks.

We’re already planning our next time in yet another little Mexican paradise. Let’s hope it comes with baby turtles.

Ann Wilson Lloyd can be reached at annwilsonlloyd@gmail.com.

Finding the right house In Troncones,
try Casa Helen, www.tronconeshelen.com, or search by destination on Homeaway.com.

For the Troncones, Ixtapa, and Zihautanejo areas,
try www.zihuatanejo.net, www.zihua.net, www.zihua ixtapa.com, or www.ixtapa- zihuatanejo-vacationrentals.com, all of which have links for nearby villages.

For the Puerto Vallarta area,
try www.sayulita.com, www.sayulitalife.com, or www.sanpanchorentals.com. These sites have helpful information and message boards.

Tips A rental car is most convenient, but getting a taxi from the airport is an affordable alternative. Drivers will happily escort you to city supermarkets before delivering you to your village casa. The 45-minute drive from Zihuatanejo airport to Troncones costs about $65. Village buses make regular circuits between the big towns.
Cellphone service can be spotty in outlying areas, but many villas come with wireless Internet.
Night life is limited, dress-up occasions are nil.