Monday, December 16, 2013

Remaking History at El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina

by John Lichty

Julio knows the history better than anyone. He has been on the property for over thirty years, starting long before it became what it is today, a unique marina and resort in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Back then, the hangar-like concrete building that is now the centerpiece of El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina was a shrimp processing plant named Boca Iglesias and Julio was a shrimp boat captain. But in September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert ravaged Isla Mujeres and destroyed the local shrimp habitat. The once prosperous operation went into decline and languished for many years.
(Click any image for a full-size slideshow.)

Eric Schott, a high-end sales and leasing agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Barbara, California, visited the property early in 2005 and met Julio, who was still piloting shrimp boats all those years later. Eric was impressed by the property’s location and potential, and he envisioned transforming it into a marina and resort, one that would offer the peace and tranquility not found in the noisy, crowded El Centro but still be located within easy walking distance.
In February 2005, Eric began the complicated process of purchasing the property, along with the adjoining Isla Blanca fishermen’s co-op, and closed the transaction early in the summer of 2006. He hired Julio to help him manage the project and later also hired Jaime, a young local man with excellent English skills acquired as a bartender. The three men had a daunting task ahead of them, as the early photos indicate. They began by removing tons of trash from the grounds and waterfront, selling off the old shrimp boats, and rebuilding the neglected pier.
Architects were hired to present plans for a combination marina and resort. Each proposed tearing down all the existing structures, including the signature concrete hangar, and starting from scratch. Eric’s intuition told him that this was the wrong approach, and his experience rehabbing concrete buildings in California gave him the confidence to undertake the design on his own. He would preserve the original structures and adapt them to their new purposes as lodging, work space, and community areas.
Late in the summer of 2006, just a few months after the project was begun, El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina opened for business with the marina, the CabaƱa unit, the Penthouse unit, and Villa 1 available for rental. The name “El Milagro” (The Miracle) was chosen by Eric because, as he explained, “it was a miracle that we were able to get the place open.” Accelerated development was possible because of Eric’s desire to keep it all as simple as possible. The humble origins of the buildings naturally lent themselves to this approach, and the interiors of the rooms reflect it: the wooden furniture is locally made, much of it by Julio, Jaime, and their talented crew in the on-site workshop; the doors and windows are natural, unfinished wood; the curtains are colorful Mexican tapestries; the floors and bathrooms feature locally made tile; and Talavera figurines adorn the pastel-colored walls. “What more do you need?” Eric asks with a smile. Just the air conditioners, flat-screen televisions, and kitchenettes that complete each room.
In keeping with the idea of simplicity, there is no bar, or restaurant, or large swimming pool at El Milagro. Eric believes that these amenities would only encourage nonguests to visit the grounds, and he prefers the quiet and serenity of his limited number of guests. Instead, he provides a well-equipped community kitchen, a dipping pool created by removing the top of an original concrete cistern, and an air-conditioned movie theater with a projector, DVD player, and comfortable couches. The kitchen, pool, and theater, as well as the large waterfront palapa, act as natural meeting places and encourage guests to interact with one another, enhancing the community feel of the place.
After the initial burst, the pace of development at El Milagro slowed to a stop for a few years while Eric worked out the details necessary for the next round of improvements. Starting in 2010, the push was on to add ten additional lodging units. A single-story wall was built separating the interior of the hangar and providing a location for a stairway and balcony to a second floor, where three villas and two studios were added above the villas on the ground floor. There is room for another villa on the second floor, but the space serves now as the furniture workshop, and Eric plans to leave it that way. Two new Ocean Garden units were created from the space below the Penthouse, and the entire grounds were elaborately landscaped with palm trees, native plants, and bubbling fountains.
El Milagro feels complete now. The view of the resort from the end of the sunset pier extending out from the manicured beach is tranquil and inviting. Hammocks hang between the shading palm trees, and lounge chairs line the sand below thatched palapas. For the energetic, there are kayaks and paddle boards to explore the bay and bicycles to tour the island. Signature blue Adirondack chairs are placed in strategic locations, perfect for watching a sunset mark the end of a another day in paradise. A just-completed tiling project, filling in the space from the community kitchen to the marina pier with terra cotta red, locally made tiles and Talavera borders, provides the finishing touch of authentic Mexico.
Julio and Jaime are still looking after things at El Milagro. Jaime is the official manager, and Julio is the assistant manager and dockmaster, licensed to conduct on-site immigration services. Eric says the staff of seven full-time local people has not changed in many months. “They like working here.” It shows in the effort they put forth for every guest and in the way they welcome new guests into the extended El Milagro family. The family feeling is regularly reinforced by the amazing seafood barbecues that Jaime and Julio organize every few weeks for guests and staff alike.
When Eric reflects back on what he has done to remake a struggling seafood operation into a first-class marina and resort, he says it took “perseverance, determination, and guts.” But he smiles when he says it because he is proud of the results. Asked what the future holds, Eric says he has no plans but to “keep on doing what he’s doing to make it better and better.”

For complete information about El Milagro Beach Hotel and Marina, including the availability of accommodations, please visit or call Eric at 805-698-8165.

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