Recently, during my stay in Mexico, I attended a “soirée” at a beachfront residence owned by a friend. It was an overcast afternoon on the Pacific coast, but there comes a moment at the end of the day when the sun dips beneath the clouds, bathing everything in a golden glow. It was then that we all noticed what was previously unseen: a mansion, nestled on its own beach across the bay, with a blue dome and fiery orange walls suddenly gleaming in the dark forest that surrounded it. Someone mentioned it was built by the corporate raider billionaire Sir James Goldsmith in 1989. Zebras and African antelopes grazed on the property; both Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger had been guests.
“Who owns it now?” I asked.
“It’s a hotel,” someone else said, adding that I could stay there too if I wished.
Sir James Goldsmith, the Financial Maestro Behind Two Luxurious Mexican Retreats Turned Hotels.
At that time, this kind of ostentatious luxury felt a bit too reminiscent of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord, for my taste. However, being a curious soul who has witnessed the rise of a billionaire class disappearing into retreats like this over the last decade, I confess I’ve fantasized about entering this “Great Gatsby” world that exists parallel to ours, sometimes so close it can be seen from across the bay—a blue dome glowing like a beacon in the distance. Would it be what I imagined? After contemplating, I decided to go and see how the billionaire once lived and learn a bit more about him.
Goldsmith’s 1997 obituary in The New York Times described him as “a flamboyant Franco-British financier who maintained three families, homes in four countries, and used his billions to battle the European Union.” He passed away at the age of 64 in Spain from a heart attack. It was the abrupt end of a controversial life, initially devoted to corporate raids against companies like Goodyear, and later, politics—anticipating Brexit by about two decades, he formed his own political party with the sole aim of a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. Along the way, he acquired two properties in Mexico: Cuixmala, the mansion I saw on the Jalisco coast, and Hacienda de San Antonio, a 19th-century coffee plantation in the neighboring state of Colima.
“He was one of a kind,” said Alix Marcaccini, Goldsmith’s daughter with his second wife, Ginette Lery, who now manages both estates. Her memories of her father are less about his politics and more about his obsession with details, like sketching ground-level layouts of pools with chalk. “My father had this childlike quality; he was constantly amazed by the simple beauty of things. He always said, ‘If you’ve built something that’s not nice, don’t keep it, as your eye will get used to it.'”
In the Realm of the “Tin King”
My journey into Goldsmith’s aesthetic world began at Hacienda de San Antonio. The Mexican landscape is dotted with plantations from bygone eras now in ruins, resembling something out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. But not this one: the journey to the hacienda, at the end of a well-maintained road on the property, culminated at the main house, rising in pink and black, as if it had been built yesterday.
After dinner and a tranquil night, I set out the next day with Eliceo Ramírez Castellanos, a guide on the property known as Chito, to Rancho Jabalí, the 5,000-acre ranch adjacent to the plantation house. Mr. Ramírez began the ranch’s history with his own. His family, he said, had cared for the ranch even before Goldsmith bought it, settling in a village of several hundred people founded to manage the sprawling hacienda. The first owner was a German coffee magnate named Arnolno Vogel, who came to plant Arabica bushes in the 1870s. The plantation’s coffee, according to legend, was served to the German imperial family.
Coffee, mining, Wall Street finance—the commodities of this plantation varied over time, I told Mr. Ramírez. We had dismounted from the horses and were surveying the landscape around us: a waterfall, a lake, and towering trees. Mr. Ramírez made a gesture. “This part doesn’t change with the owners,” he said.
Tropical birds sang in the mid-afternoon sun as I wandered to explore the place. There was a winding garden with fountains and geometric hedges designed to evoke the Alhambra in Spain. A pool with a checkerboard bottom reminded me of the one at Hearst Castle in California. But the looming volcano in the background made it clear that I was in none of those other Xanadus: the Volcán de Colima, one of Mexico’s most active, sat just eight miles away, often puffing smoke.
My room was a spacious chamber with ceilings soaring a dozen feet, hardwood beams above, and a fireplace a few steps from the bed. I opened the wardrobe expecting a closet but found a minibar inside, stocked with shakers, wine glasses, and some kind of locally made mango-infused grappa—mangrappa, they called it. I opened the bottle, reclined on the chaise longue, and opened a book. It couldn’t have been more comfortable.
Mr. Ramírez parked the car and entered the stables, returning with a pair of horses that we mounted and started riding into the forest. It was the dry season in Mexico, and the forest was parched; leaves crackled under the horses’ hooves. Mr. Ramírez continued the hacienda’s story: Vogel died in the 1920s, he said, and after a few decades of decay, the plantation was snapped up by a Bolivian mining tycoon, Antenor Patiño, known in the press by his nickname, the Tin King. Goldsmith, Mr. Ramírez said, had married a daughter of Patiño and later bought the hacienda after acquiring the land to build Cuixmala, his other Mexican estate.
The night was chilly, which always surprised me in the tropics. “It’s the altitude,” said the woman who came to light the fireplace in my room—we were, after all, where the coffee was grown, at nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. I still couldn’t resist the temptation to stargaze, so I put on a sweater. You could see Sagittarius, shaped like a teapot, and the Milky Way flowing from its spout. I strolled to the small chapel dedicated to St. Anthony, who gave his name to the hacienda, where a few candles burned. I had been told earlier that it was built when an eruption spared the plantation after Vogel’s wife prayed to the saint. In the distance, the volcano sat quietly in the moonlight.
Under the Dome
The next day, I was on my way to Cuixmala. The journey is entirely downhill, first through the capital of the state of Colima, then along a fast highway until you reach the ocean, where the air suddenly becomes humid and coconut plantations stretch for miles. Two hours after leaving San Antonio, I made a left turn at an unassuming sign. A man with a clipboard lifted a barrier and told me to follow his colleague, who was waiting for me on a motorcycle.
Five minutes on the dusty road, the man on the motorcycle stopped, pointing to the lagoon we were passing. A crocodile slipped into the water, then a second. There was something else moving in the distance, so I squinted my eyes. It was a herd of zebras grazing in a field beyond the water. It turned out Cuixmala eclipsed the size of the hacienda—some 36,000 acres in total, most of which serve as a nature reserve for a menagerie of African animals, as well as countless indigenous species like jaguars and ocelots, and is home to about 400 people.
I had seen Goldsmith’s mansion at that party years ago, but that fleeting sight barely prepared me for what it would be like to see the place when it filled my field of vision. The dome, which had been just a small dot from afar, was now a massive tiled rotunda with blue and yellow chevrons sitting atop the roof. Two bronze statues—a rhinoceros and a gorilla—playfully guarded the entrance.
On my last night at Cuixmala, Efraín Saucedo, the house manager, revealed a surprise: “All the other guests left today, so the house is yours tonight.” Such luck, I knew, was not likely to come again, even if I returned. Where would I start? First, I asked for a margarita and went outside to watch the sunset over the ocean. The drink was strong; reds and violets in the sky swirled like Diego Rivera’s “Evening Twilight at Acapulco.” Then I headed to the reading room, pulled out a copy of the first book I found (a hefty tome with images of ancient Mesoamerican pottery), and pretended the entire library was mine.
I ascended the grand steps, feeling a bit like royalty, passing by fountains and other sculptures. It was the golden hour, and the wind blew through a curtain in the window. I looked outside: about a hundred feet below, a secluded kilometer-long beach stretched, waves crashing in from the Pacific. The French architect Robert Couturier, an artisan, had opted for an almost fantastical blend of Mexico and Morocco. There were Moorish-style lattice on the doors and rooms filled with handcrafted ceramics from Michoacán. The scale was immense. I walked past a whitewashed library filled with books and red couches to read them. I strolled past a ten-sided courtyard with a fountain and entered my room—one of only four in the mansion—where I was greeted by an alebrije dragon, a colorful Mexican figurine that tourists often bring home in their suitcases. This one stood on its hind legs and was as tall as me.
Cuixmala has two private beaches, and the next morning, I headed to the second one. The property’s boat captain was waiting to take me to see what lies to the north along the coast. No zebras and eland, it seemed—the Goldsmith reserve quickly gives way to a series of other luxury mansions, each with its own pier. (Ms. Marcaccini spent years fighting her neighbors, including Mexican billionaire Roberto Hernández, to block development.) We passed by an abandoned fishing village on an island; encouraged, we cast a fishing line, but the fish weren’t biting that day.
What was it like to feel like a billionaire for a night? I will say it was a bit lonely. The most beautiful places in the world should never be the domain of just one person—they are meant to be shared.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought I could hear a party from another beach house in the distance. And I imagined someone looking at the mansion, as I once did, wondering who was there.