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Hangin' out in Mazatlan with John Wayne

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Story and photos by Bob Schulman

If you like hotels with fancy chandeliers in the lobby, twice-a-day maid service,  deep-pile bathrobes in your closet and other posh perks, you probably wouldn't want to stay at the Belmar.

Still, if you're a history fan, you might want to consider spending a night or two there – especially in rooms where superstars of the likes of Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Mae West, John Barrymore and Rock Hudson once bunked down.

When it opened on the golden sands of Mazatlan in 1920, the Belmar was one of the ritziest hotels in Mexico – some say THE ritziest hotel. At the time, Acapulco was mostly a strip of barren beaches. Ditto for today's booming resorts at Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa, Cancun and the Riviera Maya. But Mazatlan was already up and running in the 20s, particularly on a four-block stretch along the beach called Olas Altas. That's where the silky set came to play, and their favorite watering hole was the Belmar.

The stars sailed down the Pacific coast on yachts packed with their fun-loving friends, often including land barons, oil tycoons, railroad moguls and sometimes even a European king or two. Among familiar sights in the bay at Olas Altas was Hollywood bad boy Errol Flynn's 75-foot twin-masted yacht, the Sirocco.

After checking in to their ornate rooms at the Belmar, and perhaps taking a stroll around the hotel's plush, gilt-lined hallways and exotic gardens, the gentlemen donned tuxedos while their ladies slipped into crushed velvet gowns for a gala night of dinner and dancing in the Belmar's elegant ballroom.

There may have been European royalty among the guests, but the undisputed king of the Belmar was super-actor John Wayne. Having first scored top billing in John Ford's award-winning film Stagecoach in 1939, he went on to star in 140 more movies over the next 30 years – and was as rugged in real life as he was on the screen. “John loved to battle for sailfish, marlin, swordfish, tuna and the other big gamers that pack (our) waters,” said Gregario Hernandez, who once fished with Wayne.

Stories say Wayne spent so much time at the Belmar that his favorite room. No. 48, was held for his exclusive use.

It's still there, except Tim O'Brien, an expatriate from Boise, Idaho, lives in it now.  Over his four years in Wayne's room, O'Brien has turned it into an eclectic throwback to Hollywood of the 1950s, complete with plastic flamingos and a cutout poster of Wayne with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

What's the rest of the Belmar like? Well, it's hardly a contender for a luxury hotel award, but for a 91-year-old property it's in pretty fair shape. What's more, it's slowly being renovated. Besides a spruced up front, some areas inside the hotel are sporting fresh paint jobs, new tiles and murals and remodeled courtyards.

Several of the Belmar's 90 rooms are filled by repeat guests from the U.S. and Canada. “We have customers who just love this place...some have been coming back for 10 and even 15 years,” said desk clerk Alicia Anorbe, a 19-year employee of the hotel. Room rates range from $35 to $43 a night.

The Belmar is among a dozen or so hotels and boutique inns around Olas Altas and Mazatlan's adjoining downtown historic area. All told, the city offers around 10,000 hotel rooms, mostly in the modern Zona Dorada (golden zone) about five miles up the beach.

More information: Visit www.gomazatlan.com.

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Copyright © 2002 Mary J. Andrade

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