With its white-sand beaches and relaxed vibe, Sayulita is the kind of place you never want to leave. Photographer Anne Menke tells Jo Piazza all about her Mexico digs
There are places you visit and think, ‘I could live here.’ And then there are places you visit and say, ‘I know I could live here.’ It’s something about the place itself, the way it speaks to you, the people, the scents, the way parts of it stay with you when you return home, the magic. Fashion photographer Anne Menke found that magic in sleepy Sayulita, Mexico, on a surfing trip with her husband Johann, 18 years ago. ‘Magic’, she says, is still the best way to describe what kept her coming back.
The couple finally succumbed to that magic four years after their first visit, when they bought a property in wild rainforest on the rugged coast of the hippie-chic fishing village.
Initially, they commuted back and forth. But after having three boys, they decided to call Sayulita home, and made the move from big-city living in New York to smalltown life at the base of the Sierra Madre mountains, on the white sandy beaches of the Pacific.
It speaks of the uniqueness of this special little oasis that Anne, who was born in Germany and has lived in New York and Paris, decided this was the place she would put down roots.
As one of fashion’s most in-demand photographers, she’s traversed the globe from the Mongolian steppe to the Peruvian Andes, shooting some of the most spectacular locations and people on the planet for glossies such as Vogue, Elle and Travel + Leisure, for brands like J Crew and Ralph Lauren and for her book See the World Beautiful. Their family of five could live anywhere but, according to Anne, nowhere else would do.
When the family first moved south of the border, they built themselves an adorable cobalt-blue house with a thatched roof within a grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean, and named it Casa Ninamu (ninamu means blue in Tahitian).
From within the polished cement walls, you could hear the sounds of waves in one ear and the jungle birds puttering about in the other. It was so private, the beach was almost always empty.
A few years later, they finished their dream house, Casa O’te Miti, a luxurious tangerine-coloured six-bedroom hideaway on a rocky point, with a 200-degree view of the Pacific. Together, Ninamu and O’te Miti make up Teitiare Estate, a small luxury hotel. ‘Our dream was to run a hotel, maison d’hôte-style,’ says Anne, referring to the renting of guest rooms within one’s own home, similar to a bed & breakfast.
‘When people stay with us, they either rent Casa Ninamu (the original two-bedroom home) that comes with a full chef and concierge service, or they rent rooms with us,’ says Anne.
The couple have four rooms in the big house, O’te Miti, that they rent by the night. They delight in playing concierge – organising activities, scheduling babysitters, making restaurant reservations and often cooking huge meals for everyone. ‘The feeling in the house is that we are all one big family,’ Anne says. ‘Guests and all.’ Anne and her husband have also worked hard to give back to their community.
Ten years ago, they started the Costa Verde International School, a community-driven green school where 50% of the kids are on scholarships. Sustainability and ecology are woven throughout the curriculum. ‘We created the school to change the world, one person at a time,’ says Anne. ‘Mexican families send their children to school with the kids of the expats living here.
The international mix of creative people living with locals is one of the most inspiring things about Sayulita.’An average day in Sayulita finds Anne walking her kids to school, then going for a surf at one of the magnificent local beaches. Sayulita’s main beach offers waves for most levels of surfers, from newbies to serious wave chasers. Anne is partial to the famous El Faro breaks, which are recommended for more experienced surfers. After a few hours in the ocean, Anne hits the nearby farmers’ market for fresh veggies, local honey and fish straight out of the ocean to cook with the family and their ever-rotating menagerie of friends and guests.
A wander through the three main dusty streets of Sayulita brings Anne to some of her favourite places. There’s the Pachamama boutique, owned by Nathalie Mignot, a French expat.
Named after the goddess of nature and fertility, the bright and welcoming Pachamama sells Mignot’s extraordinary black-pearl jewellery and locally made art, clothes and handicrafts. Anne often picks up T-shirts featuring Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, funky cushions and bright blankets from Revolución Del Sueño, also owned by an expat French couple.
She can’t rave enough about one shop in particular, Evoke the Spirit, owned by another friend, Brittney Borjeson. The women are both New York transplants who fell for Sayulita’s charms. Brittney creates some of the town’s most coveted interior designs and works with indigenous artists on her one-of-a-kind ceramics and textiles. Her yarn-painted cow skulls have developed a cult following among art collectors and celebrities. After school is out, Anne goes fishing or diving with her kids. In the early winter and spring, it’s possible to spot humpback whales, the jorobadas, right from the beach as they migrate south to mate.
She will also treat her kids to Wakika Heladeria, a favourite stop for ice cream and paletas, Mexican ice lollies that come in creamy and fruity varieties made from local ingredients and containing far less sugar than frozen treats found in the States. After watching the kind of sunset seen only in Instagram shots, the family wander home to enjoy dinner.
Some nights, Anne and her husband will stay out and treat themselves to a night at Don Pedro’s, a renovated beachfront bungalow owned by two Los Angelenos that serves a delicious Mexican fusion menu.
They may end the night with the perfect margarita at Le Zouave, the bar at Petit Hotel Hafa, a bohemian boutique property. Both the bar and hotel are run by Nathalie Mignot’s brother Christophe and his wife Marina. Sayulita is often compared to Tulum, its more developed counterpart on Mexico’s east coast. But regular visitors to both towns will tell you that as Tulum has begun catering to crowds more accustomed to velvet ropes and VIP service, Sayulita has managed to maintain its heart, its soul and its authenticity. And even though it’s changed plenty since American surfers first flocked here in the Sixties, Sayulita hasn’t fallen prey to overdevelopment like many Mexican resort towns.
You won’t find any mega-resorts, with their kids’ clubs and massive waterparks, and yet Sayulita is still an ideal place to bring children of all ages. ‘There’s so much to do — from ziplining to diving lessons,’ says Anne. ‘It’s a wonderful place for children.’
Getting there: Fly non-stop from London and Manchester with TUI Airways (one flight a week from each city) and with Aeromexico through Mexico City daily. The ight leaves at 10.30pm and arrives at 5am, with a 7am connection so you can be at the resort at 11am. Fares from £500 return.
Sayulita is located about 45 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta Airport on the Riviera Nayarit. Photographer Anne Menke’s TeiTiare Estate is ve minutes outside Sayulita. Taxis are available from the Puerto Vallarta airport to take you to Sayulita for about £28 each way for a family of four. But there’s plenty to see in the area, so families who want to explore might want to rent a car. All the major rental companies are at the Puerto Vallarta Airport; prices vary depending on the time of year.
Where to stay: TeiTiare Estate is made up of the two- bedroom Casa Ninamu and the six- bedroom Casa O’te Miti. Casa Ninamu can be rented for £457 a night in high season. Rooms at O’te Miti start at £343 a night; the house can also be rented out in its entirety for £7,617 a night in high season. teitiare.com
How to give back: Costa Verde International School
For more information check out Riviera Nayarit