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World's Most Expensive
A Visit to Casa de las Olas in Tulum, Mexico
October 5, 2017
“Those baby turtles were born an hour ago,” owner and manager James Greenfield explains, as he guides us around his beachfront property. “We rescued them because if they try to get to the ocean during daylight, frigatebirds will eat them. You can set them free later, after dusk, if you want...”
Helping to save newly hatched turtles seems in keeping with the green ethos at Casa de las Olas. It is a Platinum LEED-reviewed property, certifying that the hotel runs in an eco-friendly way. The whole property is powered by 40 solar panels, with a generator for back-up use on cloudy days. They strive to generate as little waste as possible, turning all the kitchen and landscape waste into food for the plants. All the water comes from the natural, free-flowing, underground streams and collected rainwater. Cleaning products are organic, and guests are served only locally sourced food. “We are not ‘eco-chic’ or ‘eco-happy’, and there is no ‘greenwashing’ here. We mean it,” says James, passionately.
Tulum is an eclectic, bohemian town, the beachfront road lined with signs that read “Follow that dream” and “Stay present”. Driving along the coast, away from the hustle and bustle, there are less businesses, the roadside greener, with a few surprised iguanas laying on the tarmac. We’re close to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a place where the Caribbean reef, jungle and mangrove coexist, and that’s well known for wildlife, from jaguars to crocodiles.
Close to the entrance of the reserve, we find Casa de las Olas (The House of the Waves), the tranquil environment so well hidden that the only sign we’re able to see, indicating that we’ve arrived, is a hand-painted ocean wave on a wooden post.
There’s nothing as formal as a ‘check-in’ here. James, along with his loyal companion Janja, a lumbering dog with a mellow temperament, greets us and shows us around. As we walk through the palm trees down a pathway that’s outlined by dried coconuts, we instantly feel the calmness, the sound of the waves not far away.
The property consists of two houses. The one right on the beachfront has a weathered, sea-and-the-elements feel to the decor, with exposed dark wooden beams and, near the doorway, dried palm tree leaves forming a little roof providing shade from the often hot sun. The house located a little further back has a more modern finish, but still blends well with the earthy atmosphere. “This isn’t luxury-glamour or glitz, where everything has gold tiles,” says James. “Luxury has different meanings: it's about what you experience, what you see, where you are, what surrounds you.”
Waiting for us, as well as a vase with fresh flowers, is a spacious, white suite, with seamless decoration combining locally crafted, modern, wooden furniture and traditional Mexican elements, like throw pillows with delicate handmade textiles. The spacious Mexican-style bathroom has a tempered glass shower and a terrace with a view of the jungle and the Caribbean ocean, just 20 metres away. The toiletries are all organic, a sweet smell of rosemary pervading the bathroom, all the products made by Tanya, owner of local beauty shop Lolita+Lolita, and inspired by her grandmother's recipes.
There is no AC in the suite, part of what James meant by “being sustainable”, and not much else that requires any electricity, besides a ceiling fan, a Bosé speaker and a few lamps. A greatly appreciated breeze arrives the moment the ceiling-to-floor sliding door opens onto the balcony. The fresh air isn’t a coincidence, as the suites were designed to maximize nature’s benefits, with rounded walls to aid the flow of cooling air. There’s also plenty of natural light. Both factors are down to the original Austrian architect who constructed the house 40 years ago. Five of the seven suites also have a kitchenette, providing the essentials for making a little dinner with an ocean view, inside or on the balcony, without leaving the property.
After we’ve settled in, we go for a walk on the beach. There’s a pleasant feeling of remoteness, as we see nothing but palm trees, pelicans and frigatebirds. We walk for three kilometres before we come across other people and signs of another property. A passing storm and lightning bolts over the ocean increase the feeling of being in the wild. Strolling back to the hotel, we suddenly spot 30 or 40 tiny baby turtles coming out of the sand, making their first ever steps towards to the ocean. With a high chance of being eaten by frigatebirds, we help a few local men who work inside the reserve to collect the turtles up into a bucket, to be released at night, standard practice in the protected nature area.
We wash off the sand back at Casa de las Olas, under a beach shower that has a massive seashell instead of a shower head. Knowledgeable host James, who describes himself as ‘the Navigator’, is happy to help with local dining recommendations, as the property doesn’t have an evening restaurant. He suggests nearby Hartwood, New York chef Eric Werner’s restaurant serving wood-fired meat and seafood restaurant. It’s currently listed in Diners Club International’s 50 best restaurants in the world, popular with Noma’s chef René Redzepi. There, I order the pork ribs covered in agave honey with a side of habanero chilli, while my boyfriend has the sizeable yellowtail hammer jack fillet on a bed of roasted pineapple and local chaya leaves. The smoke from a fire, burning to keep mosquitoes away, gives the laidback, jungle-side restaurant a mystical feel, the delicious, perfectly cooked food absolutely justifying Jamie’s recommendation.
Back at the casa, it’s finally time to release the baby turtles we were introduced to on arrival. We carefully rinse our hands to protect the newborns, then head down to the beach. Our eyes slowly get used to the darkness. I carefully hold the little bucket in my arms and walk towards the ocean. Under the stars, I put my hand inside the bucket and feel the turtles flopping about here and there. I swear that the little ones are ready, and so am I. Watching them enter the ocean is a magical experience.
Next morning, there’s a large wooden table down in the common area, next to a kitchen with a tiny window framed by hanging pineapples. There’s nothing like starting the day by dipping your toes in the sand and drinking a cup of French-pressed coffee. We’re also served tropical fruits, like mango, pineapple, colourful dragon fruit, along with natural yogurt and the local dish of ‘sopecitos’, a thick maize tortilla with a topping of mushrooms, melted cheese and a delicious Salsa Verde (green sauce), all brought out to us with a smile by Lulu, the on-site chef.
After breakfast, we head to the beach. The sun is out, giving the sea a vibrant turquoise colour, so it’s time for a swim and tanning on the lounge beds. There’s a whole line of little palapas (palm tree-leaf umbrellas) ready to provide some welcome shade as well.
Later, we take two of the free-to-use bikes and head down the road to explore and to have lunch at another of James’ recommendations, eating tacos in the beachfront Taquería La Eufemia. It hits the right spot after an enjoyable bike ride through Tulum’s beachfront boutique shops. The rest of the afternoon is spent eating gelatos, swimming in the cenotes (natural pools) and taking a few photos of the murals painted on the walls of the town.
As chilled out as Tulum is, the town feels busy and noisy compared with the isolation back at Casa de las Olas, a place where shoes are not needed for the entire stay, and where the white sand and the pristine water of the Caribbean are just steps from your door. At night, it’s easy to relax with the sound of waves, staring at a sky full of stars. The worrying thoughts of “Where did I put the keys?” or “Did I lock my door?” don’t exist here. That feeling isn’t something every so-called ‘eco’ hotel can offer. Everything at Casa de Los Olas seems to go hand-in-hand with day-by-day living and taking everything as it comes, surrounded by nature at it’s finest.
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