If you’ve ever wondered how the other half lives, Acapulco offers the chance to find out. Here you can taste a lifestyle normally reserved for celebrities — without spending your 401k in the process.

Like movie stars when they visit this beach resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast, you, too, can hide away in its posh villas. Built by counts and countesses, Mexican and American moguls and Hollywood glitterati, these pleasure palaces are scattered throughout the mountain foothills framing Mexico’s most beautiful bay. Best of all, many of Acapulco’s villas can be leased for about the same rate per bedroom you’d pay at a deluxe hotel, even less during low season from mid-April (after Easter) to mid-December. And you get quite a bit more. For starters, plenty of space: Most villas are two or three stories or sprawl across lush grounds like Villa Alejandra, the eight-bedroom complex that Brad and Jennifer once rented beside a secluded beach. Then there’s the privacy: All that rambling space is yours, from the swimming pool and bar to the open-air living room overlooking Acapulco Bay.

Along with ocean views and a private pool, these villas come with their own staff to cook, clean and wait on you. If you want beef enchiladas for dinner or grilled snapper with garlic butter, you tell your houseman or cook when they plan the menu. Margaritas as you lounge in the pool watching the sunset? They quickly appear as lights start to twinkle around the huge bay. Being the focus of such attentive service in the midst of your private tropical domain, it’s easy to imagine you’re VIPs holed up in your own exclusive retreat. Villas as a way of life in Acapulco began when this seaside city became the darling of the newly anointed “Jet Set” in the 1960s, the decade when air service made Acapulco Mexico’s first international playground. Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd here, while other Hollywood stars also vacationed at Acapulco villas, along with national leaders, royalty and young adventurers with the Right Stuff. Col. Frank Brandstetter, a veteran of World War II, helped put Acapulco on the map when he offered America’s astronauts free R&R stays at his luxury hotel Las Brisas, composed of casitas designed like a colony of mini-villas climbing the hills above the bay. At his own villa, Casa Tranquilidad, near the top of the Las Brisas development, the colonel still regales guests with astronaut stories as he shows them souvenirs from space missions.

As lavish villas went up, another American fell in love with this city and started a real estate firm. While selling these hacienda-like hideaways, Ron Lavender began to manage them for their owners. Owners soon realized they could underwrite their villa’s upkeep by leasing it out now and then with Lavender’s help, and Se Renta, Acapulco Luxury Villas was born 36 years ago. Today Se Renta is the oldest company specializing in private villa rentals in Acapulco, offering more than 100 properties ranging from three-bedroom family villas to 11-bedroom estates suitable for large family groups and corporate entertaining. The company doesn’t take on all the villas that come to them, for they have to make sure each villa meets its standards. Those standards include a bilingual houseman to head the staff so English-speaking guests can communicate their needs. A tour with Se Renta staff revealed the range of villas available. Relatively new and over-the-top in opulence, six-bedroom Villa El Dorado sits near the summit of the Las Brisas area with sweeping views of the bay from its infinity pool and terrace jacuzzi. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls make the most of the bay panorama, and a waterfall tumbles down a stone wall beside the grand marble stairway of this swankienda.

Four-bedroom Villa Selamat’s dramatic living room is designed around the huge boulders embedded in the steep hillside, and this grand, open-sided space is just steps from the long pool with swim-up bar overlooking the vast Pacific. The cozier three-bedroom Villa Delfin has beautiful Mexican tile throughout, a characteristic as common to Acapulco villas as travertine marble floors. All are lushly landscaped with the bougainvillea, hibiscus, mango trees and other splashy vegetation that thrives in Acapulco. But a tour is no substitute for experiencing the real thing. At Villa Demara, Steve and I could peer over the balcony of our open-air living room and watch the translucent turquoise waves rolling around massive rocks 100 feet below. We could dine al fresco while admiring the glittering lights across the bay. We could hike down winding steps for a dip in the ocean cove. But most of the time we simply hung out by the pool, savoring the view and the sound of the waves as houseman Enrique brought us cold drinks. Enrique struck exactly the right balance between being there when needed and disappearing, making us feel we had this tri-level, five-bedroom complex all to ourselves.

Two-story Villa Azure was smaller but just as relaxing, and its three-bedroom size seemed about right for two couples or a family with several children. (It has two master bedroom suites and a third tiny bedroom). Its cheerful houseman, Alfredo, immediately volunteered to arrange massages, manicures or pedicures for us right at the villa — one of the services Se Renta offers for a fee, along with just about any excursion or activity a guest desires: Shopping tours, water-skiing, golf, chartered yachts for fishing or cruising the bay, outings to see the famous cliff divers and even a nanny to watch the kids can all be arranged. We especially liked Villa Azure’s upper bedroom suite, where the king-size bed looked out over the light-spangled bay at night. Yet wonderful as they are, Acapulco’s villas aren’t for everyone. Their two- and three-story layouts mean most villas provide a better daily workout than a Stairmaster (few have elevators), and their hillside locations mean you must drive (or take a taxi) to the beach unless you’re in one of the few (such as Villa Demara or Villa Alejandra) that’s close to or on the sea.

In addition, most villas reside in Las Brisas or other quiet, upscale neighborhoods outside the main hub of tourist activity (though there are a few right in the city), so the cost of taking taxis to and from town ($5-$10 or more per one-way trip) can add up. But for those with a natural aptitude for the villa lifestyle, such considerations are all the excuse you need to practice the fine art of doing nothing at your villa paradise

Author: Melanie Young