When Australian actor Nathalie Kelley and her then-boyfriend Jordan Burrows found themselves with a night to spare while holidaying last year in the boho “gypset” town of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline, they decided to rent a car and create an adventure.
Kelley had recently wrapped her role as Cristal Carrington on the popular remake of Dynasty, and was enjoying some R&R with Burrows, a DJ and hospitality consultant. The pair had only 24 hours, but they’d heard good things about the difficult-to-get-to city of Mérida – the capital of Yucatán province, with a colourful Mayan and colonial heritage, and a four-hour drive west of Tulum.
Besides, there was a Belle Époque-inspired one-bedroom private residence there located in a 1903 townhouse – Coqui Coqui Mérida L’Epicerie – that the Peruvian-born, Sydney-raised Kelley had discovered online and was keen to visit.
“It was an absolute calamity getting there, but we felt we had to do it,” says the 34-year-old from her home in the Hollywood Hills. “It’s usually booked out for weeks in advance, but it was free that one night, which felt like kismet.”
Kelley and Burrows were pulled over by police en route then got hopelessly lost. “Even after all that, to arrive at the Coqui Coqui and discover how beautiful it was, with the huge freestanding French bathtubs in the bedroom, was ‘wow’,” sighs Kelley. “We jumped straight into them, and agreed the hassle had been worth it.”
The adventure didn’t stop there. A month after returning to LA, Kelley proposed to Burrows after dating him for just three months, and they married in their hometown of Sydney in April 2018.
“It was actually our ordeal driving to Mérida that led me to propose,” laughs Kelley. “I knew if he could put up with me tired and slightly hungover on a road trip, not to mention arguing with police about the toll, then he could be my husband.”
They continue to return to Mérida despite the drive, given it represents what Kelley adores most about Mexico – namely, the combination of riotous tropical colour and slightly dilapidated colonial charm. “That’s what I loved about the Coqui Coqui. It’s very chic and European in one way, but there’s a wonderful shabbiness too.”
With its too-good-to-be-true high ceilings, Venetian-plaster walls, crystal chandeliers and gold details, Coqui Coqui Mérida is as aesthetically pleasing its owners: perfumers and hoteliers Nicolas Malleville (an Argentinian former model who worked for the likes of Gucci and Burberry) and his wife Francesca Bonato, an Italian designer.
The couple now run four guest residences across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, with a fifth Coqui Coqui hotel due to open next year in French Polynesia’s Bora Bora, where they reside with their three young children.
All Coqui Coqui’s mini-hotels house a perfumery with a lavish day spa, and Bonato explains how simple curiosity led the couple to continue transforming properties after they turned their first home (in Tulum) into a boutique hotel.
The seven-room Coqui Coqui Residence & Spa opened in 2003, just one year after they met and fell in love on Tulum’s white sand beach. “Nicolas is really an explorer, we both love to travel, and after we met we felt like, what’s next?” she says. “We both love design and hotels, so we just took that step.”
Income from Malleville’s modelling career provided the capital to underwrite that first hotel, which is now closed. Today, the pair employ 80 staff to run their four hotels across the Yucatán (in Cobá, Valladolid, Izamal and of course Mérida).
However, their perfume business has become the core financial driver. “The hotels are a beautiful extra layer,” says Bonato, describing them as “houses for the perfumes” that give customers a 360-degree sensory experience. “The hotels help our customers understand the story of the perfumes – where the flowers come from, how to use the products in the bathtub, that sort of thing.”
The couple designed each of the residences and perfumeries themselves, drawing on their travels and European heritage for inspiration.
Their Bora Bora perfumery sells eight fragrances inspired by French Polynesia’s exotic tropical flora, in addition to the Yucatán scents, and a residence and botanical garden will soon follow. Then there’s Bonato’s line of floaty dresses and leather bags, as well as two European residences that are also in the works – in Grimaldi, Italy, and Ventimiglia near the Italian-French border.
With celebrity actors such as Sienna Miller, Kate Bosworth and Eva Mendes flocking to Coqui Coqui’s Mexico “residences” to enjoy the bespoke scents created on site, Kelley is in good company.
She’s presently awaiting word on a pilot filmed in Miami for the American ABC network. She’s also an ambassador for Bulgari and Edition Hotels, a role that keeps her flying to events in Rome, Barcelona, New York and beyond.
Her lifestyle is as exhausting as it is fabulous, and often leaves Kelley craving Mexico’s restorative beaches and jungle, as well as the country’s pre-Columbian archaeological sites, colonial towns and art and design inspiration. “A few visits to a great day spa on arrival resets my body to relaxation mode – then I start exploring,” she says.
Kelley first visited Mexico in 2008, staying in Puerto Vallarta “in some mega-mansion that wasn’t an authentic experience at all,’’ she says, adding she barely saw let alone spoke to a local.
It wasn’t until she returned in 2016, to shoot a promotion film for Madre Mezcal in Oaxaca, that she fell for the country. “In Oaxaca, I discovered traditional ways of life; the locals are close to their ancestry and still speak native languages,” she says. “I caught the bug and knew I’d explore Mexico for the rest of my life.”
Tulum – with its beaches, nearby cenote (sinkhole) swimming spots and beachfront Mayan ruins – and Mexico City are Kelley’s go-to haunts. “My favourite museum in the world is the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and just an hour’s drive north you have the pyramids of Teotihuacán.
“The weavings and handicrafts made by the indigenous people are phenomenal; each piece is made with so much intention and is a little bridge to the past.”
Despite concerns that President Trump’s border wall promise is fuelling anti-Mexico sentiment, the number of US visitors into Mexico has recorded double-digit percentage growth every year for the past five years. The Mexican tourism board reported a record-breaking 10.6 million American visitors during the first quarter of 2018, up 12.6 per cent year on year.
Only 21,700 Australians visited Mexico in 2017, according to DFAT figures, partly due to the long-haul flight to get there, and the ongoing security alerts stemming from Mexico’s drug-related violence.
For those with security concerns, keep in mind that the World Tourism Organisation ranks it as the sixth most-visited country in the world.
Celebrities also continue to put Mexico on the map, and Tulum has pretty much replaced Cancún and Los Cabos as the celebrity destination of choice, with Reese Witherspoon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz all being spotted there.
To cater to the style set, the past few years have seen a rise in boutique Tulum hotels that highlight Mexico’s rustic-chic aesthetic, and offer a more intimate experience than the large all-inclusive resorts that began springing up in the 1970s.
La Valise, opened in early 2018 by Belgian-born hotelier Yves Naman, is an example of the laid-back elegance popping up. Set between the jungle and the beach, the four-room, five-suite hotel champions the work of local Tulum craftspeople, featuring traditional palapa thatched roofs, Mexican artwork, woven-reed lamps and fringed hammocks.
Since opening in 2017, Habitas, with 32 glamping-style tents on the beach, has been capturing the hearts of sea-loving creative souls, while the January 2018 opening of the 16-room hacienda-style Casa Pueblo is attracting those who love a minimalist aesthetic, and are happy to stay a 10-minute bike ride from the beach.
Meanwhile, Pablo Escobar’s erstwhile hacienda opened as the luxurious Casa Malca in 2015, where the massive wooden entrance doors are framed with curtains made of antique Mexican wedding dresses.
The one common denominator is all are low-key but polished: just the kind of places, in fact, you’d expect to spot an up-and-coming actor and her husband tucked away, enjoying some quiet down time between her cinematic projects.
Rates at Coqui Coqui Mérida L’Epicerie start at $565 per night.
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