Estrella a refuge for turtles and golf lovers

The teeny-tiny turtles were moving at, well, a snail's pace, seemingly trying to get as much out of their beach time as possible.

Meanwhile, their surrogate mommies were growing nail-bitingly nervous, scanning the sky every three seconds for swift, hungry, turtle-eating birds.

Erndira Gonzlez was calm, however. She was used to this. She clicked her tongue every time we reached out to right one of the 50 or so olive ridley turtles, each one barely bigger than an Oreo, after it had flipped onto its back, or, even more bizarre, had turned away from the ocean that was supposed to be its new home and begun heading rapidly in the wrong, bird-buffet direction.

“No, no,” she would say in her gentle, scientist voice. “You have to let nature run its course.”

Gonzlez has been helping nature do just that here at Estrella del Mar Golf and Beach Resort, half an hour south of Mazatlan, since 1998. Mazatlan is on Mexico's Pacific Coast, across the Gulf of California from the Baja Peninsula.

The resort's Turtle Sanctuary, which is run by Gonzlez and collects, catalogs, hatches and witnesses the imprinting on the beach and return to the ocean of tens of thousands of the creatures annually, was established to protect the endangered sea turtles, which likely would have been lost when development of this high-end property kicked into full gear.

Estrella sits along 3.5 miles of pristine ocean, and the 816-acre gated resort is several phases into multiple types of ownership levels, including home lots and condos, as well as a restored hotel and a popular Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course, one of the lucky few in the world with sand traps that look just like the beach next to the holes.

In fact, golf is a primary reason many people pick Estrella.

“It was the golf course, and the other reason was to be so close to the ocean,” said Julie Wallace, who lives in Colorado and, with her husband, Bob, bought a pool-side condo at Estrella in 2004.

“The privacy of the beach, that was another factor. It's ours; only the people who are staying at Estrella use it. It's so beautiful and remote,” she said.

The Wallaces are visiting with their daughter and son-in-law.

Julie says that at first they were worried they wouldn't find enough to keep them busy. “Being a half-hour away from Mazatlan, we thought that would be a problem,” she says. “But not at all. We go into town a lot, to go to the theater, to go shopping. There's just so many cultural things going, you wouldn't believe it. And that's where we get our groceries and things.”

The resort has a small trailer on-site that they keep stocked with the essentials – sunscreen, eggs, cheese and a few things you could use to cobble together a dinner if you weren't picky – but for serious cooking in the villas and condos that are available for rent by tourists and occupied by the owners, a trip to town is necessary, although for a fee, the resort will take care of your shopping.

There's also the excellent La Paloma restaurant, which serves three meals a day – the breakfasts, the soups and the margaritas are noteworthy – and has a roomy bar, as well as gracious service. They're accommodating to families, as well, which increasingly are choosing Estrella as a vacation destination.

Besides the turtle release and other sanctuary activities, kids have their run of multiple pools, and fishing excursions also are available.

The ocean at this part of the coast can be rough – the resort advises guests about the periodic threat of jellyfish and riptides – but wading at the edges is an option, and deck chairs are always available.

Horseback riding along the beach is an adventure – be aware that signing a release or getting a safety talk may not be included.

We handed over $20 a person, and a couple of local boys handed us the reins of three bareback horses, but then surprised us when two of them insisted upon climbing on the horses behind my teenage daughters, who were many shades of red the entire hour-long trek along the water.

“If people are looking for something high-powered and glitzy, this isn't it, at least not yet,” Julie says. “And I hope it never is. Sure, some of the properties are fancier, and I'm sure they're hoping this all makes a lot of money. But mostly I think people are here, and a lot of them are Coloradans, because it's this very nice, relaxed lifestyle.”

One evening, we're all quite relaxed around the pool at about midnight; everyone is animatedly gossiping about a local wedding that had been held on the property and was still in full swing, after starting with the bride being carried down the aisle on an elephant.

“They like to do their celebrations up big here in Mexico,” Craig said. “It's a good thing they have a lot of room here.”

For the elephants, and the turtles..