It’s a bit of a dive – but I love it

You should have seen it in the old days – it was so clean, so perfect, the most beautiful bay in todo el mundo.”

Mexican children grow up with this misty-eyed patter, absorbing a lament for Acapulco’s glorious epoch of the 1950s from their parents and grandparents, as though it was an enduring love song.

The relish in reminiscing about this world-renowned beachside town in its heyday is impressive. It contrasts proudly with the megabucks sterility and historical vacuum of Mexican destinations that were built merely to rake in the tourism dollars.

The sentiment equals that of having danced the cha-cha-cha or sipped daiquiris with one of the grand movie stars – from Gregory Peck to Elizabeth Taylor – who graced the glamorous port’s golden shores.

It can also be dashed annoying to be reminded continuously that this shining, pulsing holiday destination has seen better days.

But the peeling paint and retro neon signs make it unavoidable. To be allowed into the throng of Acapulco fans who come to party every year, you have to flirt with its past and enter its decadent dreams.

The mere name (an indigenous word of the Nahuatl language meaning “where the great reeds grew”) clucks and coos reassuringly with nostalgia for better, simpler and happier days, of blue skies, polka dot under-wired swimsuits, Elvis Presley, Ford Thunderbirds, wavy palms and shapely legs.

A Mexican Miami of yesteryear, it really was a city of celebrities. Countless stars from John Wayne to Brigitte Bardot made it the place to be seen. Former US presidents and lover boys honeymooned here, JFK with Jackie, and Bill with Hillary.

One of the hip places to hang nowadays for a 21st-century sunset cocktail is the 1930s Hotel Flamingo on Caleta beach. Perched on a 450-foot cliff overlooking the Pacific, this was one of the first luxury hotels in town. It was purchased by a gang of Hollywood actors, including Johnny Weissmuller and Cary Grant, for their private fun and games in the 1950s and the lobby walls are peppered with film memorabilia.

The legendary cliff-divers still perform their daredevil antics at La Quebrada, Acapulco’s most iconic attraction.

The city does not pretend to be a cultural treasure trove, so there is no need to be sheepish if you prefer sun and surf to museums and churches. But you should not miss the bronzed young men climbing the jagged cliff face and then praying at a shrine before their death-defying leap. They hurl themselves 148 feet into a narrow crevice, timing the dives to coincide with incoming waves that save them from splintering their limbs in the shallows.

There are plenty of ways to avoid doing anything. Amorous couples with wallets both fat and thin can find endless entertainment and views on more than 20 beaches, as well as glitzy lunch, dinner and disco cruises, to stimulate their romance.

For a song you can tuck into oysters and lobster round the corner from the Zócalo, or Spanish colonial main square, at El Amigo Miguel and couples can commune in a blazing margarita sunset from anywhere on the Costera, as the five-mile oceanfront commercial street is called. If you are feeling flash, a sojourn in the 46-year-old Westin Las Brisas hotel is called for. Each coral-hued, hillside casita, or suite, has its own pool bobbing with hibiscus petals, along with private terraces and cool marble floors.

A pink-and-white clad man in a matching jeep ferries guests around the complex (to the courts, the bar, the al fresco restaurant overlooking the crescent-shaped bay) and serves breakfast discreetly into a secret cubbyhole in each room at the requested hour.

A steamier scene is easy to come upon too, for those brimming with exotic appetites, or the merely curious. Remember, this is Mexico’s dearly beloved resort, not some sanitised concoction for picky foreigners who like their Mexicans in pale, pressed uniforms, scuttling away with the breakfast tray or hauling heavy luggage with a frozen, polite smile.

Acapulco is brash and tacky. Not only will you find authentic national food, fashion, pastimes and even mealtimes (lunch here is around 3pm, unlike midday in Cancun) and hear more Spanish spoken than English, but you will not have to pay through the nose.

Naturally, prices are pumped up by the odd creative individual who will size up a gringo (which is what you look like) and triple the going rate for a taxi ride or a shark tooth necklace. You are meant to haggle in the popular mercado de artesanías (craft market) at the Diana roundabout or the massive mercado municipal in the old town.

There are also a few tricks to know about the higher-end restaurants in the stunning Las Brisas area that offer to-die-for vistas over the twinkling bay at night. Madeiras, for example, is sublime and the musical accompaniment is top-notch, but you have to order a pricey set dinner. Dining with the fashionable set at the stylish Kookaburra offers similar views and sophisticated seafood cuisine without this constraint.

Another bonus in Acapulco, indeed a treasured Mexican tradition, is that it is family-friendly. Children and babies are welcome in restaurants, where waiters will happily fetch high chairs and ferry bottles to the kitchens to be sterilised. Family parks such as Cici Parque Acuático and Papagayo Park abound, with slides, wave machines, swimming with dolphins, seal shows, rollerblading, go carts and pedal boats. A glass-bottomed boat trip from Caleta and Caletilla Beach to La Roqueta island, which houses a zoo, is another classic family favourite, as is merely watching the fishermen pull in their nets at Hornos or Tamarindos Beach.

Watersports are plentiful and varied, including deep-sea fishing and scuba diving, with parasailing over the bay being a popular option. The best temperatures for golfers are in early winter, and there are currently four 18-hole courses on the Acapulco Diamante area.

But there are many who find Acapulco’s urban tempo, clamour and chaos overwhelming. Unchecked urban growth has left much of the native population of nearly two million simmering in an unhealthy stew of rotting vegetable matter and petrol fumes. Consequently, Acapulco is not every tourist’s cup of Corona … some call it dazzling, some call it a basurero (rubbish dump) and both are right.

The most boisterous resort in Mexico is a true disco capital – try Baby O’s or Andromeda’s from midnight until dawn – but it is also a sweating, honking, yelling and reeking population hub.

Being beyond contradiction is part of Acapulco’s brazen style. While the nostalgia peddlers say there was no evidence of misery (it was just “poverty” then), drug abuse and traffic snarls in the early 1960s, mansions and slums have coincided for a long time.

Acapulco’s balmy decline and indiscriminate embrace of the past along with the present is one of its many nonchalant charms. It is not new to declines and renaissances and currently has, in characteristic oxymoronic style, a couple going on at the same time: a new uproar about foul water quality on Mexican beaches along with a wonderful wave of superb spas, putting the town on the map again for the health tourism and luxury pampering scene.

But the erstwhile Pearl of the Pacific still has pulling power. It is hard to nudge it off the glitterati Top Ten list as a sentimental preference. And for those looking to relax, it has another card up its sleeve, one Mexicans are still wary of sharing with foreigners. Ten miles north-west of Acapulco, a 25-minute drive along a winding road where the ocean glistens with untouched promise, lies Pie de la Cuesta. Here, a long, narrow strip of land separates the thundering Pacific from the mangrove-fringed Coyuca lagoon, where water-skiers compete in the evening with local shrimping families throwing out their nets.

Horse-riders and sunset-watchers enjoy a hammock-rocked oblivion on the wide, sandy beach lined with simple restaurants and small hotels. Developers have their eye on this 20-mile stretch of paradise, but so far it’s a self-contained haven – with phone lines but no bank, occasional hot water but no credit cards – and provides a perfect, soothing counterpart to the bright lights some do not need to see.

But why come all this way to avoid the kitsch, the strawberry and spearmint-coloured high-rise hotels of the silliest shapes, the transvestite bars, the roar of the traffic competing with the waves, the choked streets verdant, if not always fragrant, with mango, papaya and tamarind trees?

Acapulco’s seedier sides give it a rush and an edge, but it is not dangerous – just colourful. I have hailed taxis on the street there after midnight, half-naked in the warm, briny air, and often it is a chatty woman cabbie, doors unlocked, seatbelts unfastened, windows rolled down – it is simply too darned hot to bother with what would be essential safety precautions in Mexico City.

No faded glamour, pristine young upstarts, air pollution, hurricanes or sewage in the sea could strip Acapulco of its title “Queen of Mexico’s beaches”. By now, this city of nearly 1.5 million has earned her honour of Queen Mother, a living legend, beyond reproach.

Acapulco essentials

Getting there

Acapulco, 268 miles south of Mexico City, is easily reached by coach from the capital. Tickets from www.ticketbus.com.mx cost about £18 to £30 one way . It is also served by Aeromexico and Mexicana airlines , as well as Alaska, American, America West and Continental.

Where to stay

On the Costera: Hotel Continental Emporio, tel: 01 744 484 0909; Hotel Elcano, tel: 01 744 435 1500. Las Brisas Area: Westin Las Brisas, tel: 01 744 469 6900, 01 800 228 3000 ; Hotel Camino Real, tel: 01 744 435 1010, www.caminoreal.com/acapulco. In Pie de la Cuesta: Hotel Ukae Kim, tel: 01 744 460 2187; Hotel Vayma, tel: 01 744 460 2882.

Where to eat

Budget: El Amigo Miguel, tel: 01 744 483 6981; Pie de la Cuesta, Tres Marias Ski Club, tel: 01 744 460 0013

Exquisite: Kookaburra; El Olvido; Hotel Quinta Real

Further information

www.mexico-travel.com/acapulco.htm, www.visitmexico.com and www.acapulco.com

This article: www.thescotsman.scotsman.com/