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Costa Rica is Pura Vida: Pt. 1

From volcanoes to rainforests, these luxury Costa Rican hotels have it all.

Have you ever wanted to run away and start a new life in a tropical paradise? Maybe you have fantasized about living by the ocean with palm trees swaying overhead and bougainvillea bushes cascading all around. Perhaps you’d rather live high on a mountaintop with stunning views of the sea, where you can watch the sunset every evening while relaxing in your very own infinity pool.

Sound like a dream? For some adventurous expats, Costa Rica is the fulfillment of their fantasies. With warm year-round temps, lush foliage, exotic animals, and beautiful scenery, it’s the epitome of a tropical paradise.

A few expats arrive in this small Central American country and love it so much, they want to share it with others. They create a paradise for visitors to enjoy—since not everyone can run away and go native in Costa Rica. These hotels are the next best thing. Even if you can only come for a while, you can leave the workaday world behind and experience paradise in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

About the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is blessed with 763 miles of coastline on both the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific to the west. Rugged, jungle-covered mountains hug most of the west coast and spread across the interior, while in the east verdant forests cloak the shore. The warm tropical climate, the sea, and the mountains combine to create rainforests and cloud forests that provide habitat for not only gorgeous, thick forests, but also exotic species of animals.

Recently Peter and I were invited to experience eight beautiful hotels throughout Costa Rica owned by visionary ex-pats and Costa Ricans. The boutique properties, which belong to the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica group, are individually owned and managed and offer a variety of experiences from wedding and honeymoon destinations to adventure packages, wellness escapes, and family vacations. Each property is unique, sustainable, and offers a haven for travelers who dream of exotic escapes.

Come join Peter and me on our adventure through Costa Rica and discover the stories behind these intimate first-class luxury hotels.

An Oasis of Luxury: Hotel Grano de Oro

Enjoy a Day Trip to Hacienda Orosi

My first impression of Costa Rica is “Wow, people are so friendly here.” At the airport everyone is happy and helpful. “Pura vida” or pure life is the mantra in Costa Rica, and locals offer this phrase as a way of saying, “Life’s good and we’re happy you’re here in our beautiful country!”

Yes, folks in the hospitality industry are especially thrilled people are starting to travel again, and Costa Rica is becoming a go-to destination, thanks to its great weather, affordability, and diverse experiences (see sidebar for travel tips). Most visitors arrive in San Jose, and I recommend staying a night or two at a gem of a property called Hotel Grano de Oro. The name refers to Costa Rica’s “grain of gold,” aka the coffee bean, which is a prized and tasty national product of which Costa Ricans are very proud.

This Victorian-style hotel, a fifteen-minute walk from the city center, is an oasis of calm luxury in the midst of a lively city. Originally a residence, the property was purchased in 1989 by a Canadian couple who traveled frequently to San Jose and could never quite find a hotel to their liking. So they decided to build one. Originally a 21-room hotel, Hotel Grano de Oro opened in 1991. Adjoining properties were added, and today the hotel offers 39 rooms and celebrates thirty years of providing guests with a luxury experience in San Jose.

The rooms are cozy with marble bathrooms, polished wooden floors, wainscoting, and Victorian-style furnishings, like wicker chairs and cast-iron bedframes. Most rooms have or overlook lush patios that explode with palms and other tropical plants. The hustle and bustle of the city seems far away. “We want people to feel their vacation has started when they walk into the hotel,” says Marco Montoya, the general manager who’s been with the hotel since before it opened.

Today Michelle de Angelis runs the boutique hotel her parents built, together with her husband, Ciro, an Italian whom she met in her native land of Canada. They also oversee the Restaurant Grano de Oro, one of the city’s top dining destinations popular among locals as well as guests of the hotel.

Peter and I love the décor of the restaurant: tall ceilings, dark wood trim, large windows with stained glass features, upholstered chairs and banquettes, and in the center a tiled patio with tables for al fresco dining. Colorful, playful art adds whimsy, and potted palms create the feeling of a sanctuary.

But the restaurant’s creative cuisine, prepared by their French chef, Francis Canal Bardot, is what people come to enjoy. The dishes star fresh, flavorful ingredients, including Costa Rican seafood, meat, vegetables, and fresh herbs. Sauces are light and add nuanced flavors to the dishes. I fall in love with the salads at Restaurant Grano de Oro. Who knew lettuce could taste so good, and the chef’s passion fruit dressing is to die for.

Every dish we try is amazing—from the roasted octopus to the mushroom tower. The restaurant’s staff provide exceptional service, and the wine list, compiled by Ciro, a sommelier, has a variety of unique offerings from Old World wines to New.

Since Peter and I are planning to explore San Jose at the end of our journey, we opt for a day trip to Hacienda Orosi, a hot springs attraction about an hour’s drive away. Mauricio, who runs the PR firm that manages Small Distinctive Hotels, picks Peter and me up our first morning and, after a brief tour of the city, we head southeast into the mountains. Our first stop is an overlook high above Orosi Valley. Below us, like a patchwork quilt, fields and rivers and trees create a stunning panorama.

The views from Hacienda Orosi are equally breathtaking. In the distance you can see Irazu Volcano, the highest volcano in Costa Rica—over 11,000 feet. Peter and I change into our suits and head for the beautiful thermal springs, where we soak in tranquil pools of varying temperatures.

It’s a gorgeous blue-sky day. Birds sing, butterflies flit about, and flowers of all colors and descriptions bloom. After we soak for a while, the staff brings us mud balls and invites us to rub mud all over ourselves. What fun.

We join a group of Costa Ricans on a deck near a waterfall and cover each other with mud from head to toe. It’s local mud with therapeutic properties, so they say, but we just love playing likes kids with the mud, which turns a pale green color when it dries. After rinsing off, my skin does feel softer, so maybe I’ll play in the mud more often!

We lunch at the Hacienda Orosi Restaurant, which has fabulous food. I try a creamy Peruvian shrimp chowder, which is out of this world. Peter has a fried rice dish called chaufa that features al dente veggies and comes with French fries! A light rain starts to fall, a nearly everyday experience in this tropical country, we discover, but we enjoy the rat-a-tat on the roof and the fresh negative ions in the air.

Sleeping Giant: Hotel Arenal Kioro

Don’t Miss the Fabulous Hot Springs

The next day after a fabulous breakfast on the elegant patio of Restaurant Grano de Oro, we head north to our next destination, Hotel Arenal Kioro, which perches on the edge of Volcano Arenal. The spacious suites feature rich wood paneling and floors, huge windows overlooking the volcano, and in-room hot tubs. The property also offers thermal pools for soaking. I can’t wait to try them.

First we meet Daniel, whose Costa Rican grandfather built the hotel after buying the land in 2002. Daniel tells us the history of the volcano. After centuries of dormancy, Arenal erupted in 1968, killing 87 villagers and 45,000 head of cattle. Today you can still see the lava fields, where trees no longer grow. The day we visit the volcano is shrouded in clouds, so we only see its bottom half. Daniel shows us photos on his phone that he recently snapped and—wow, the volcano is immense and so close! While it was active as recently as 2002, Daniel assures us it’s not going to blow anytime soon. Still I feel a sense of energy under my feet, like there’s a sleeping giant, waiting for the right moment to wake up and roar.

Daniel shows us the grounds of Hotel Arenal Kioro, including a lovely gazebo for weddings, the thermal pools, a spa, and fitness center with an adjoining room for playing pool and ping pong. The region around Volcano Arenal offers a ton of adventurous activities—from zip lining to white water rafting and much more. We decide to take it easy and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the hotel.

To start, we have lunch by the pool, where I devour a steak sandwich on a ciabatta roll that’s so tall I can barely fit it in my mouth. The beef is flavorful, and I love the caramelized onions. Peter has a club salad adorned with cheese and charcuterie. Everywhere we go in Costa Rica the food is out of this world: fresh and prepared with love.

Afterwards, we try the thermal pools. The mineral-rich springs must be slightly acidic because my skin tingles—in a good way—as we sit in the pleasantly warm water. The pools are surrounded by lush foliage, and the exotic warbles of birds provide the soundtrack. Costa Rica is a mecca for birders, and wherever we go colorful birds dazzle.

Turns out this small country is one of the world’s most bio-diverse and home to 500,000 animal species. Iguanas are everywhere, for example, and we spot a coatimundi—a raccoon like animal—in the bushes by the pool. That evening we dine at the restaurant on delicious fare and then relax in our private Jacuzzi as the clouds darken and an evening rainstorm moves in from the mountains. Hotel Arenal Kioro is a lovely spot for a family getaway or a group of friends who seek adventure!

Up Among the Clouds: Hotel Belmar

Try an Adventure Like Monteverde Horsetrek

We pass a huge lake and more amazing scenery the next day on the winding road to the third property, Hotel Belmar, in Monteverde, an area known for its cloud forests. Also Costa Rican-owned, this hotel is tucked into the side of a mountain and features wooden Alpine architecture. Each room has a balcony overlooking terraced gardens with views of the surrounding cloud forest and the silvery Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Hotel Belmar’s restaurant is known for its fresh, farm-to-table cuisine, and our taste buds soon understand why. We lunch on a balcony overlooking the stunning view, and Peter enjoys a veggie pasta dressed with a light tomato sauce. I try a yummy salad with chickpea croquettes bathed in a ginger vinaigrette. We savor our food and watch the cottony clouds scud across the sky as sun rays dance through now and then.

After lunch we walk through the gardens down a path past the hotel’s brewery to a pond where chairs and tables invite guests to commune with nature. But the weather has other ideas, and as we hike back up the hill, a steady rain begins to fall. Luckily, we grabbed an umbrella at the front desk!

Back in our room, we watch the sky grow darker as storm clouds gather. I love a good rainstorm, and our chalet-style room is the perfect spot to enjoy it. Outside leaves scatter as gusty winds blow, and the rain falls for about an hour before slowing down to a light sprinkle that continues into the evening.

A lovely enclosed hut with carved wooden tree trunks sits in the garden and houses a Jacuzzi, where Peter and I spend time relaxing in warm, bubbly water and listening to the raindrops on the metal roof. Darkness comes like clockwork in Costa Rica—around 6 p.m.—and adds to the cozy, romantic vibe in our private little jungle hut.

Another stellar meal ends the day. I try the Costa Rican sea bass served in a delicious cardamom sauce with potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and zingy pickled onions as a garnish. Wow. Peter has curried vegetables served with quinoa and loves the fresh flavors of the al dente vegetables: carrots, broccoli, squash, mushrooms, and Brussel sprouts.

Next morning’s breakfast is equally delicious. My avocado toast is served on homemade bread, topped with a luscious sunnyside up egg, and dusted with parmesan and colorful fresh herbs. Peter has Caribbean French toast with lavender and sugar cane honey accompanied by bananas, strawberries, and cashews. Such innovative and delicious cuisine!

Monteverde is also known for adventurous activities, and Peter and I opt for a horseback ride with Horsetrek Monteverde. We meet Marvin, a Costa Rican who owns the business with his British wife, and he drives us to the pasture where his horses and dogs await.

It’s a beautiful morning—no sign of yesterday’s rain, and Marvin whistles for his horses as his dogs head out to round up the slowpokes. Three or four horses and a couple of mules come galloping toward us, and Marvin bathes and massages the three we will ride before tacking them. You can see he takes fabulous care of his horses.

The ride is everything we hoped it would be: two and a half hours of riding up hills and down into valleys through some of the most scenic landscape imaginable. We take lots of photos and then stop for a break near a waterfall, where Marvin eats his lunch, tossing us an apple to share. He tells us about the flora and fauna, and we hear howling monkeys hooting and grunting in the distance. I can’t wait to see my first monkeys in the wild.

Costa Rica Trip Tips

What You Need To Know To Have a Safe Vacation!

Before You Go

1. Make sure your passport is valid.

2. Check the U.S. website for updates on travel to Costa Rica: travel.state.gov

3. Check the Costa Rica tourism website: www.visitcostarica.com/en/costa-rica/planning-your-trip/entry-requirements

Plan Ahead

1. To enter CR, you will need proof of travel insurance that covers up to $50k in medical care as well as up to $2k in quarantine expenses. You will also need to complete an online form and submit proof of insurance 48 hours before you leave. You’ll receive a QR code once the CR authorities approve your insurance, which you will need to present at the airport. The cost of the “Covid” insurance for both Peter and me for 17 days was approx. $100.

2. To return to the U.S., you will need to present a negative antigen (rapid) COVID-19 test performed within three days of departure at the airport ticket counter. Hotel Grano de Oro arranged for a medical professional to administer the test the day before our flight home. The cost of the test was $60 each. Our results were emailed within two hours, and the hotel printed out our test results so we could present them at the airport.

3. Safe travels!

Design Your Stay in Costa Rica

Find Out About Travel Information & More

Stay at the Best Hotels in Costa Rica

Make plans now to stay in Costa Rica’s top boutique hotels, part of the Small Distinctive Hotels group. Each property is unique, sustainable, and offers a haven for travelers who dream of exotic escapes and a relaxing home away from home. Find out more at www.distinctivehotels.com.

Hotel Grano de Oro Offers a Sophisticated City Vibe

Passing through San Jose? You won’t want to miss this charming, Victorian-inspired hotel close to the city center. You’ll love the cozy hotel rooms and delicious cuisine at Restaurant Grano de Oro. For rates and reservations, visit www.hotelgranodeoro.com.

Sleep Next to a Volcano at Hotel Arenal Kioro

Spacious suites overlook Volcano Arenal, which also provides thermally heated water for the hotel’s hot spring-fed pools. Besides luxury accommodations, you can also enjoy fabulous cuisine at their two restaurants. Get the best rates and schedule your tours at www.hotelarenalkioro.com

Commune with Nature at Hotel Belmar

Stay in a comfortable Alpine-style hotel perched on the side of a mountain surrounded by cloud forest and incredible views of the Pacific. Enjoy farm-to-table cuisine at Celajes Restaurant & Lounge, specializing in simple, balanced Costa Rican-inspired cuisine. For rates, reservations, and menus, check out www.hotelbelmar.net.

Escape San Jose for a Day to Hacienda Orosi

Surrounded by lush foliage and colorful birds, you can spend the day pampering yourself in relaxing thermal pools and enjoying incredible views of Orosi Valley. Don’t miss dining at Hacienda Orosi’s excellent restaurant. Find out opening hours, rates, and restaurant menu at www.haciendaorosi.com 

Horsetrek Monteverde: An Unforgettable Adventure

If you love riding horses, don’t miss this amazing adventure in Monteverde. You’ll ride through lush scenery and enjoy mountain views. Rides vary in length from 2.5 hours to multi-day treks. Find out more about rates and available tours at www.horsetrekmonteverde.com

Costa Rica Tourist Information

Get to know the “pura vida” lifestyle at the official tourist website for Costa Rica. You can also find out about travel restrictions, dining, shopping, activities, and more. For all this and the latest COVID-19 updates, go to www.visitcostarica.com/en.

Stay tuned for Pt. 2 of Peggy and Peter’s Costa Rican Adventure coming up in the June issue. Pura Vida!

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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