This Is What Paradise Looks Like When You Build The World’s Next Great Ultra-Luxury Resort And Residences

Otto I. Eovaldi

Kappner Clark isn’t who you’d immediately envision when you stereotype a C-suite Marketing Officer for one of Mexico’s top publicly-traded real estate development companies—or an American expat south of the border.

Lithe, 32, and soft-spoken, with her hands almost always folded in front of her the way European Heads of State like Angela Merkel do to convey poise and respect, her Spanish is already impeccably fluent after 10 years working in Cabo and Mexico City, even though she was raised in Denver.

When you get her talking about the mechanics of real estate, she’s calculated and informed in a way that defies her relative youth yet belies her deep experience in an industry that’s frequently dominated by older men.

When she starts speaking about One&Only Mandarina, however—which she’s been helping to develop with RLH Properties for the past five years—her eyes radiate a deeper blue, the cadence of her voice spikes, and all of a sudden she’s struggling to contain her corporate self.

When I recently found myself in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit just north of Puerto Vallarta standing with Clark out on the edge of an infinity pool 450’ over the Pacific Ocean with a dozen miles of pristine jungle canopy and deserted beaches tapering away north and south of me, I found myself similarly unable to contain myself.

When I started travel writing two decades ago, I was frequently savaged by editors for two cardinal editorial sins: talking too much about me (I just did it, again) and marring my text with throwaway superlatives.

I’d love to say that I’ve matured as a writer since then. But even now when I’m lacking the words to capture a place on earth that confounds me, I find myself reverting back to the same bad hyperbolic habits.

So, as Clark reached out over the view in front of us with both arms and exhorted me to take it all in, I only had one thing left in my narrative arsenal: profanity.

Holy [blank] Kappner. Is this [blank] place for real?”

That the landscape upon which One&Only Mandarina even exists at all today is something of a minor real estate miracle.

Totaling 636 acres of previously (and still almost completely) undeveloped coastal mountains, cliffs, old growth semi-tropical jungle, and wildlife-rich estuarian flat lands hemmed in by 1 ¼ miles of private, Pacific Ocean beach, there are few other comparable oceanfront landscapes that have been contiguously and privately assembled between Alaska and Panama since the turn of the 20th century. For reference consider that the average Club Med is 50 acres; most Mexican mega resorts in places like Cancun or Cozumel cover barely 25 acres.

“Mandarina was first discovered via helicopter during a scouting trip of the Riviera Nayarit coastline,” Clark tells me in what I quickly learn is her typical understated manner. “The dramatic, jungle-covered mountains bookending the flatlands, estuary, and long stretch of white sand beach in between really caught our attention.”

That RLH Properties’ vision for the land they’d discovered was ultimately pulled off into the resort and residential community it is today is an even greater miracle.

It’s also a testament to what one, focused real estate development firm can do when it marshals all of its talent in pursuit of what much less agile companies would never have had the capacity to see in the first place.

It’s a long-standing myth of hospitality that hotels and resorts somehow conjure themselves up out of nowhere overnight. Anyone who’s been in the commercial real estate business for any amount of time, however, will tell that there’s nothing further from the truth.

From its original vision, One&Only Mandarina took a decade to bring to fruition—which is a large part of what prevented any other real estate company from previously taking on the challenge. Despite Mandarina’s cherry location one hour north of Puerto Vallarta and within a few hours flight time from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston, RLH was the first company to see how to solve the fundamental problem that would eventually make Mandarina possible in the first place: cobbling it all together.

“The 636 acres of what today is now Mandarina was originally owned by 58 different local families who’d been granted the land as homesteaders generations ago,” Clark recalls of the development’s earliest days. “We had to buy each of these original families out one by one, sometimes having to track down their descendants who were living in other countries to get each of them to buy in. It took almost two years of negotiation and patience on all sides before we were able to consolidate all of the parcels into a contiguous tract and the last holdouts were the hardest part since we couldn’t have made our vision possible without all of the pieces in place.”

From a development and construction standpoint, Mandarina also bit off more than RLH had ever chewed before, conceived as it was entirely end-to-end from the ground up. This approach, says Clark, was counter to the company’s previously successful buy-and-upgrade model with its other existing luxury hotels and resorts in Mexico City, the Riviera Maya, and Spain. It also meant taking on a completely new approach to time, construction, and cost management—all while assuming a precariously new level of risk.

But after that first helicopter ride everyone at RLH knew that in Mandarina they’d discovered real estate gold.

“Construction of One&Only Mandarina took about two years at a non-stop pace after we’d consolidated all of the land together,” recalls RLH Properties COO Francis Muuls. “At the height of it all, there were more than 4,000 workers on site. Because of the low-density design and the vastness of the property, each of the One&Only Hotel’s 105 villas and treehouses as well as the amenity buildings essentially had their own individual construction team.”

Since RLH also started from 636 acres of virgin, undeveloped land in the middle of nowhere, the resort’s development required cleaving a careful balance between imperceptibly laying critical infrastructure like power and water and cutting subtle, serpentine roads through the ancient forest canopy without displacing wildlife, terraforming the landscape, or removing the old growth white fig and papelillo trees that were here before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived.

It’s no secret that lot of resorts in Mexico, particularly in places like Cancun and Acapulco from the 1980s and 1990s are more bull than butterfly, trampling the land rather than gently alighting on it. Mandarina’s essential design philosophy by contrast was always intended to take a more lepidopteran approach, borrowing cues from nature like topography, light, canopy, orientation, and view so that its built environment would blend in with the natural one and respect it instead of reshaping it.

“As with all design in Mandarina, we drew a lot of the inspiration in our development approach from day one from the land itself,” Clark recalls of RLH’s original vision for the property’s design. “One of our biggest goals was to have as little impact as possible on this incredible site, with the intention that future guests and residents would be able to enjoy Mandarina in its rawest and truest form and preserve that innate ruggedness of nature while also offering an ultra-luxury, 5-star experience.”

To do this, RLH Properties recruited a Chief Development Officer for RLH Properties who was previously Director of Urban Construction for one of Mexico’s largest general contracting firms and had delivered some of the country’s most famously challenging and high-profile buildings like Los Cabo’s International Convention Center where the G20 Summit was held in 2012, Acapulco International Airport, and Toluca Stadium which twice has hosted the World Cup.

“The beauty and potential of this place called for something bold and unique but equally importantly people who shared our vision and knew what was at stake to get this right and open on time especially when the pandemic hit,” says RLH Properties’ CEO Borja Escalada. “Construction was paused during the quarantine when the Mexican government prohibited non-essential work. Afterwards, there were strict guidelines we had to follow. It ended up delaying the opening of the hotel for a few months, but we were able to open the same year as originally planned thanks to the team we’d built.”

Now, years after its original genesis moment in a helicopter, One&Only Mandarina is at once flawlessly and luxuriously 5-star, yet somehow subtly and respectfully rooted in the landscape and local Huichol and Cora traditions in the way that RLH Properties always intended.

This is no small accomplishment when it comes to projects of Mandarina’s scale, size, scope, and cost—and whose unexpected bottlenecks and unforeseen events like pandemics usually force developers to bend their original visions for the sake of playing catch up or saving money, and almost always result in compromises and regrets for future owners and guests.

“Honoring the land and its rich history with the Cora and Huichol tribes was from day one a fundamental part of the ideation of Mandarina that we were never going to deviate from,” RLH’s CEO Escalada continues. “We wanted our guests and private home residents to feel a deep connection to this place, authentic to Mandarina. It has been incredibly rewarding to see today how much our guests and residents really value that heritage and respect even if they don’t understand what it took for us to make that happen.”

Most real estate developers would also love to tell you that there are no accidental moments in great architecture—only mistakes. Yet, at the heart of Mandarina’s design from the beginning was the essential premise that nothing would be missed. Every detail and touch would be intuitive, purposeful, contextual, respectful, gentle, and light—a lesson that every other luxury hotel brand should take to heart particularly when designing in sensitive habitats and locations around the world while respecting the need to honor local culture and traditions whether born from cowboys or Coras.

“Everything at Mandarina is intentional for a reason,” says Clark, gently kneading her fingers together as if she’s holding a tiny, fragile shell, just delicately enough to show it off but not enough to have it crack. “From the biggest visions down to every minute detail.”

Out of this philosophy, Mandarina’s most memorable moments are not surprisingly curated from touch points that are at once subtle and significant, so you often don’t know they’re happening to you but you can never forget them once they do.

The arcing break wall off the Jetty Beach Club, for example, is formed from volcanic rock excavated on site during construction to mimic the top of the ancient volcano that still exists underwater here—but you’d never see it unless someone told you. Every night, something new from a local artisan that reflects a mindful Huichol cultural principle emerges as part of turn down service—with a detailed description of what it is so you know why it matters. And across Mandarina’s 636 acres, the indigenous petroglyphs discovered during development have been preserved exactly where they were found along the trails—so you know who came here before you and what they believed.

It’s also out of this purposeful philosophy of intention and respect why everyone at Mandarina puts their right hand over their heart as they greet you, which was the first thing that stood out to me when I arrived.

Depending on your individual level of cynicism, it would be easy to assume that the salutation was born from some recently graduated marketing wiz who’d never even been here before. But as it turns out it’s one of the purest and most evocative of Mandarina’s “moments”, speaking to the fundamental sense of service, connection, and loyalty that One&Only and RLH wanted at the heart of every guest’s and owner’s experience here.

“The origin stems from an ancient, forgotten tradition from the Huichol tribe in the mountains of Jalisco and Nayarit who believe that when you welcome someone into your home, your heart must be clean and pure,” explains One&Only Mandarina hotel General Manager Serge Ditesheim of the ‘hand over heart’ gesture. “The welcome ceremony includes gathering water from the river and bringing it up to your heart to purify it. So that’s how it became a tradition not only originally at Mandarina, but now also at every One&Only resort: we want our hearts to be clean and pure for everyone who comes to stay with us.”

Taken in totality, if it sounds like the rarity of the land RLH discovered here, the company’s original vision for what it built here, and its partnership with One&Only to brand the resort and real estate here is as close to hospitality perfection as possible it’s because it is.

Every developer who manages to snatch up a cherry piece of waterfront property in today’s real estate market, particularly in sunny climes like Florida, Mexico, the South Pacific, or the Caribbean, has the option of partnering with almost any luxury name in the hospitality business to launch a new 4-star hotel or branded residential community. Yet, when it came to marrying up with One&Only, RLH’s COO Muuls says that was one of the quickest decisions the company made when it came to bringing Mandarina to life.

A big part of the calculus, notes Muuls, was simply the ultra-luxury, global cache of the brand, having been built for 20 years around some of the most pristine, exclusive, and hard-to-develop locations in the world like the Maldives, Mauritius, South Africa, Rwanda, and Dubai.

The other part of RLH’s logic was what Muuls loosely terms “starvation supply”. Currently, One&Only has only twelve resorts around the world with plans for only four more. That long-term lack of dilution reckoned Muuls would firmly plant Mandarina at the core of one of the most elite and selective hotel brands in the world, while also offering RLH the opportunity to develop One&Only’s first private branded residential community.

“We explored working with various different luxury hotel operators at first,” Muuls explains. “But we eventually chose One&Only because of their five-star reputation globally, and we also knew that anchoring Mandarina with that level of ultra-luxury status would put Mandarina, Riviera Nayarit, and our Private Homes on the global stage.”

In the same breath, Muuls is also quick to acknowledge that Mandarina wasn’t a guaranteed slam dunk with Sol Kerzner, One&Only’s founder who died in 2020 but remains a hospitality legend. Kerzner for years had already had his pick of the litter when it came to choosing the best places in the world to expand the One&Only brand. But ultimately it took less than half an hour to seal the deal at Mandarina, says Muuls.

“Fifteen minutes into his first tour here, standing on the cliff where our restaurant Carao now sits, Sol Kerzner calmly said, ‘OK’. For all of us from RLH who were there, there was immediately this initial concern that his ‘OK’ was meant to be dismissive and he no longer wished to continue the tour. What it actually meant was that after just 15 minutes, he was already convinced that he wanted One&Only to be a part of Mandarina. Later it was decided that One&Only Mandarina would become the brand’s first resort with One&Only Private Homes. To be only a two-hour direct flight from the U.S. yet immersed in a topography that makes you feel like you’re in Southeast Asia, coupled with the warmth and genuineness of Mexican service was a no brainer for them and for us.”

As for One&Only Mandarina’s Private Home collection, the same supply constrained approach that underpins One&Only’s resort philosophy has also now produced one of the most exclusive and anticipated new branded residential developments in North America.

Each of One&Only Private Homes’ 55 five-to-eight bedroom villas has been surgically planned and designed to maximize privacy, natural light, ocean breezes, and open view lines all while giving owners the option of varying experiences based on their location. Some are perched along the coastal cliffs capturing panoramic ocean vistas. Some overlook the equestrian center and polo field looking east catching the sunrise every day. While still others are immersed in the rainforest with vistas stretching through the trees to the sea.

As with everything Mandarina, this respect-for-the-land design approach when it comes to the residential component of the resort was also intentional, says Clark. Each villa is architecturally unique and site specific in order to coalesce with the landscape rather than stand out from it based on a climate responsive and environmentally sensitive design, all while taking a humble approach to scale and massing so Mandarina’s nature always takes center stage.

“Each day, when you wake up you can decide what kind of experience you want to have here,” says Rick Joy, Master Architect for One&Only Mandarina Private Homes. “The villas are simply the instruments that frame those experiences.”

Intention and context also define the shape, color, texture, and materials of One&Only Mandarina’s villas on the inside. Glass walls, stone accents, custom furniture, and earthy finishes integrate seamlessly into the ocean and jungle views from every direction, bring the outside in, and effortlessly blur the lines between luxury and landscape.

“When it came to the space where luxury, experience, and sustainability came together, we felt a deep sense of responsibility to raise the bar for our industry, not just in Mexico, but in the world,” says Clark. “And in the end, we believed that if we stayed true to the values that Mandarina was always originally about—context, purpose, sensitivity, respect—that would come through in every essence of the project from the architecture, interior design, to the amenities and experiences that One&Only would be able to offer.”

If there could ever be a last-but-not-least element to Mandarina, the final place I visited on my journey with Clark was a place called the “Flatlands” on the backside of Mandarina a half mile away from the beach—which initially would make it sound like the kind of place you’d park trucks and construction equipment during the day and go out of your way to have your kids avoid at night.

But here—in a fertile, wildlife rich estuarian swale between two mountain ranges flanked by one of the longest stretches of private beach on Mexico’s Pacific Coast—RLH decided build a state-of-the-art equestrian and polo center, one of only three in Riviera Nayarit and a handful in North America, where every other developer would have built just another golf course.

That’s a lot of land—and huge opportunity cost—dedicated to an uncertain outcome given how niche polo as a sport is compared with golf. But in the same way that RLH chose deconstruction over density and privacy over popularity when it came to the design of the One&Only resort and its Private Home collection, its land use approach to the Flatlands is proving to be yet another bet well-made if the popularity of the polo exhibition matches and the packed tables at Chukker, the recently opened Argentinian-themed BBQ restaurant, are any indication .

“We wanted Mandarina to be unique and offer an elevated experience difficult to find anywhere else in the world,” says Clark. “We were drawn to polo as it is a sport the entire family can enjoy together, whether watching from your picnic on the sidelines, sipping champagne during the divot stomp, or taking a turn playing. Horses are such majestic animals, and we really liked the idea of homeowners being able to look out their windows and see horses grazing in a pasture next to the beach.”

As for the name ‘Mandarina’, which is based on the root of the mandarin tree, “It’s a place where all the elements of nature, life, and experience meet in dramatic fashion,” says One&Only’s GM Ditesheim. “The majestic Sierra de Vallejo in the background, the steel blue Pacific contrasting with the verdant lushness of the rain forest, the volcanic origins of this entire area, and a perfect climate year-round—the name Mandarina is a reflection of perfection.”

It’s also now a symbol, adds Clark, of what luxury hospitality today has come to mean: disconnecting from the world, reconnecting with yourself, replenishing your bonds with loved ones and family, and being able to do that in place that enriches your relationship to the natural world.

“The bliss of connectivity in the world today most easily happens in nature, so at Mandarina we wanted to create a place where both guests and residents could have the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature, where the sounds of trains, planes and automobiles would be replaced with the sounds of jungle birds chirping and Pacific waves lapping the shore.”

For what it’s worth from a travel writer who remains addicted to superlatives and hyperbole, I’m still looking for the words to do justice to the essence and potential of this place. So I’ll just leave you with the only two I have left: Holy [blank].

One&Only Mandarina’s 55 Private Homes are currently being offered from $4.4 to $16.25 million, with 4 and 5 bedroom villas ranging from 4,470 to 7,390 square feet, and the eight bedroom estate villas starting at 11,085 square feet. Prospective buyers can find more information here.

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