Affordable Acapulco no longer an exclusive enclave for the elite

Acapulco is the grande dame of Mexican resorts. Even the most hardened traveler's pulse quickens as he catches his first glimpse of Acapulco with its luxury hotel towers suspended between green hills and a glittering 12-mile bay. No longer the exclusive enclave of Hollywood greats, tycoons, and politicians who tried to keep this romantic fishing village under wraps, the city has broadened its appeal by expanding its facilities. It's now a bustling warren of endless boutiques, restaurants, and high-rise developments. If you yearn for the quiet life, look somewhere else.

The big season is from Dec. 15 to April 20, when temperatures are in the 80s and rain is nonexistent. Hotel reservations get scarce, hotel prices increase dramatically, and rental cars and jeeps get booked in advance. In the hot summer, there is less pressure and better service.

Surprisingly enough, there are hundreds of hotels catering to all pocketbooks. You can bask in your swimming pool in sybaritic seclusion or get a modest hotel just minutes from Acapulco's famed, free beaches. Accommodations:

The superdeluxe hotels ($180-$330 -- with the price doubling in winter) aren't along the beach strip.

Only five miles from the airport is the gargantuan, pyramid-like Acapulco Princess, a self-contained resort circled by a championship golf course, and the smaller, chalet-like Pierre Marques. Both have luxury facilities: magnificent tropical pools crowned with waterfalls, floodlit tennis courts, and huge breezy lobbies filled with boutiques and excellent restaurants.

Las Brisas, one of the world's finest hotels, has individual villas on a terraced hill with private and semiprivate pools.

The strip contains a core of top-quality, modern hotels. El Presidente, Condesa del Mar, and Fiesta Tortuga (the least expensive) are three outstanding choices. You can stay in one and use the facilities of the others.

The moderately priced hotels (doubles $50-$125) in this resort town are a very good vacation bargain, as you can stay in one for a very reasonable cost and yet enjoy the same beaches (not right outside your door, but very nearby), nightspots, and restaurants frequented by those paying twice as much for their rooms.

Highly recommended: the Auto Ritz with its modern rooms and small balconies, the congenial Maralisa with its palm-shaded swimming pool and sauna, and the romantic Mirador, a landmark of the city. Certainly worth a look is Hotel Mision (2-3643) and Hotel Angelita (3-5734).

For Acapulco at budget rates (doubles $15-$25), you'll have to look downtown where hotels are older. Don't expect hot water, a swimming pool, view, air conditioning, or a multilingual staff.

A very special place is the 20-room Playa Hermosa (3-3792), run like a small club and beloved by international regulars.

My favorite hotel is the glamourous, Mediterrean-style Villa Vera Hotel & Raquet Club perched high on a hill (doubles $120-$220). There are 79 oversized balcony rooms and villas, 13 pools, and manicured gardens filled with palms and bouganvillea. Celebrities and expatriots breakfast at the airy patio restaurant with a breathtaking view of the bay. Recreation:

Acapulco's appeal is its wide-open living and wide range of sports. Not to be missed is a parachute ride pulled by a speedboat. Anyone can do it, because you just sit there, strapped in, and float away like a feather.

The principal hotels rent boating, scuba-diving, water-skiing and carnival-striped wind-surfing equipment. Other popular sports include deep-sea fishing, tennis, golf, and horseback riding.

A bay cruise in a glass-bottomed boat is a delightful way to view beautiful underwater life.

Visitors, if they choose, can spend their entire vacation -- and many do -- around their American-style hotels in swimming pools or adjacent beaches working on nearly-flawless tans and absorbing little more of Mexico than the Mariachi band and a tropical punch. Those who are more adventurous can rent a jeep, take a taxi (ask the price before you get in because there are no meters), ride in a horsedrawn carriage, or go exploring on their own.

Acapulco has more variety of beaches than almost anywhere else -- and each has a distinct feeling of its own: Caleta is a lovely sheltered bay; Hornos is a quiet beach safe for children; Condesa, a narrow beach filled with beach-front restaurants and live music, attracts those who like to see and be seen. To avoid platoons of overeager vendors selling everything from stuffed iguanas to striped blankets, try Puerto Marques, a shimmering cove, or Roqueta Island, a short ferry ride from Caleta. Pie de la Cuesta is the ideal spot for glorious mauve and peach-streaked sunsets. (The sea looks harmless, but it deepens quickly and the strong undertow can be dangerous. Red flags will warn of unsafe conditions.)

Only two blocks from the shore, you'll see another vastly different Acapulco. The resort city, unlike shiny new mega developments like Cancun and Ixtapa, changes into a noisy tropical port. Sights and shopping:

To see the remnants of Old Acapulco, you can visit the Zocalo, the frenetic main square with its mosque-like church and San Diego Fort, built in 1616 to protect the port from Dutch and Spanish pirates. If you like bargaining, continue downtown. In the maze of shops, you'll find embroidered shirts, popular handicrafts, copies of colonial furniture, strong-smelling huaraches and other leather things, bulky sweaters, enormous straw baskets, copper housewares and elaborate textiles at good prices (especially since the peso is devalued).

You can visit the bustling central market (Mercado) in the north section of town to see what Mexicans buy and sell to each other. Block after block is filled with exotic produce, fragrant flowers, and pungent aromas. Restaurants:

If you're doing things the Mexican way, you won't even consider having lunch before 2:30.

Thatched-roof, open-sided restaurants on the beach serve fresh red snapper and succulent shrimp. Try cerviche, a seafood cocktail, that is the city's best native dish.

Most hotels offer poolside brunches featuring international or Mexican fare (the latter with less spice for the tourists).

The most popular restaurants along the Costera are the Embarcadero, Bluebeard, and the moderately-priced Carlos 'n Charlie's (go early because there's a long line and no reservations). They seem to compete more in d'ecor than in their menus, which are much the same -- lobster, shrimp, and steak.

On other nights, it might be Villa Demos for tasty homemade pasta, or La Hacienda in the Acapulco Princess for steak. Maderias, on the road to Las Brisas, offers a million-dollar view and excellent seafood. You'll also find Acapulco full of American-style restaurants for those who can't live without Kentucky Fried Chicken and hamburgers. Dress:

Dining out in Acapulco is informal and doesn't begin until 9:30 p.m.; many restaurants are open-air with only the prevailing breezes for air conditioning. During the day, a bathing suit is proper attire anywhere, and comfortable clothes are just as much a part of the night-time scene. Women wear anything from d'ecollet'e-T-shirts and easy skirts to caftans and thonged sandals. Many men adopt the Mexican wedding shirt, a cool, acceptable stand-in for tie and jacket.

Acapulco has a flourishing nightlife -- from moonlight cruises to Mexican folkloric shows to discoth`eques.

Don't leave Acapulco without seeing the divers who plunge 100 feet into the sea, timing their dive to the flow of the waves. The brief spectacle can be viewed from the terrace of the Mirador. Additional trips:

If you tire of the resort city's pace, head 150 miles north to Zihuatanejo, a fishing village on the Pacific reminiscent of Acapulco 30 years ago; it has ideal beaches and a lovely bay, backed by rugged, green hills.

Of the few small and informal places to stay, the best is Hotel Sotavento, built into the cliff with a marvelous view of the bay.

Zihuatanejo, dotted with handicraft shops, cantinas, and restaurants in town and on the beach, is not for everybody. It's for travelers who need little outside entertainment. Travel tips

Acapulco, the second most popular winter destination for United States travelers, has direct service from many major cities.

Mexican hotels, large travel agencies, and Mexican Airlines offer package tours. Consult your travel agent for up-to-the-minute prices.

As you arrive at the airport, pick up a free fold-up guide pamphlet with invaluable listings and phone numbers of hotels, restaurants, and clubs.

A half dozen cruise lines sail the Mexican Riviera; most depart from Los Angeles or Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

If you drive through Mexico, make sure your gas tank is full and your car is in tiptop condition. Carry a detailed map, tools, spare tire, and parts.

It is recommended that tourists drink bottled water in hotel rooms and mineral water in restaurants, and avoid overeating when the weather is hot.

For more information, write or call the Mexican National Tourism Council at 405 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; telephone (212) 755-7212.

Rose Hartman's trip was partly sponsored by the Acapulco Princess Hotel.

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