Staying at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo feels like staying at a cocktail lounge. (Courtesy: Andaz Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica)
By Sara Stewart
Meandering down the white-sand beach, I spot what looks like a crab scrambling toward the water’s edge. As I draw nearer, I see it’s actually a baby sea turtle.
No, wait…make that 12 baby sea turtles. The tiny creatures, newly hatched, are all around me, making their inaugural pilgrimage to the sea.
And I’m the only one around to witness it.
I stay until I see they’re all safely in, keeping a wary eye out for birds of prey or coatis (raccoon relatives).
I bid the young swimmers good luck and continue my stroll.
Such is the remote enchantment of a visit to Costa Rica’s Peninsula Papagayo, where my boyfriend and I discovered that communing with nature and sleeping in extraordinary comfort are not incompatible.
The Central American country, long known as a scrappy paradise for surf bums and yoga campers, has opened up in recent years to a boom of higher-end properties, particularly in Guanacaste, a tropical dry-forest region on the country’s western Pacific side.
Related: Eat Like a Local in Costa Rica
Eco-friendly resorts are popping up here like artisanal cheesemongers in Brooklyn, alongside early stalwarts like the Four Seasons, which staked its claim on the peninsula 10 years ago.
Hotel Punta Islita offers horseback-riding treks on the beach. (Photo: Autograph Collection Hotels)
Our first and most far-flung destination was the old-school Hotel Punta Islita (from $253).
This 130-guest beach resort, nestled in the nearby, hilly Nicoya Peninsula, has been in business for two decades, but last year joined Marriott’s boutique Autograph collection, renovating rooms and fortifying the Wi-Fi (though, entranced by sun and sea and romance, we did contemplate lobbing our iPhones directly off the nearest cliff).
Architecture and landscape are intricately connected at the resort — palm-fronded guest rooms and villas are scattered throughout its 80 acres, while a winding staircase leads down to the beach club.
In short order, we were immersed in the main infinity pool beneath an enormous thatched palapa, drinking guaro sours (the local cocktail of choice) and gazing out at the Pacific horizon.
In addition to its luxury trappings — private villas, spa, horseback tours, golf course — the resort prides itself on sustainability, nurturing ties with the nearby tiny village of Punta Islita (rooms feature locally produced materials and artwork) and devoting funds to protecting indigenous species.
Precious, the colorful macaw at the ARA Project. (Photo: Sara Stewart)
We got a peek behind the scenes at the ARA Project, which aims to repopulate the area with scarlet macaws.
The hotel donated five acres of its land for several large aviaries, and we spent an afternoon with the project’s soulful organizer, Juan Carlos, who introduced us to some of his favorite feathered friends.
A flock of red parrots showed up at the hotel the next morning, squawking and snacking in an almond tree while we sipped coffee.
They were hardly the only splashy wildlife: In the distance, an occasional humpback whale leapt into the air and, later that afternoon while relaxing in our hammock, we listened to a pack of howler monkeys raising hell in the nearby hills.
They’re not called the world’s loudest land animal for nothing.
That night, after an al fresco dinner of seafood risotto ($30), we headed tipsily back down to the beach to watch the stars which, given the lack of ambient light, made a delicious Milky Way dessert.
Our next two destinations were on Peninsula Papagayo, closer to Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste.
Lounge on the beach at Papagayo’s posh Four Seasons. (Photo: Sara Stewart)
After a hot, dusty drive, we arrived at the immaculately manicured Four Seasons (from $475), one of the area’s original luxury properties.
Here, the main buildings sit between two expansive beaches, azure water bounding either side of this narrow strip of peninsula. For the ambitious (or gluttons for punishment), there’s a sprawling expanse of forest hikable via winding wooden staircase.
Spacious ocean-view rooms open on to airy balconies; leave the doors open and your room becomes the world’s most well-appointed treehouse.
A group of howlers showed up around sunset to hold court near us, while coatis roamed the open-air restaurants during dinner time, undaunted by the gentle shooing of the staff.
Rooms at the Four Seasons open up to a vast forest. (Photo: Four Seasons)
The hotel offers activities galore; we opted for a safari to nearby Palo Verde National Park.
The hour-long, flat-bottomed boat trip down the Tempisque River via Swiss Travel, during which we spotted mostly far-off birds and one or two capuchin monkeys, paled in comparison to our spicy lunch afterward at the nearby Hacienda El Viejo ($160/pp for tour and lunch).
If it’s a more rarefied culinary experience you’re after, there’s Taste the Stars, a private dinner served outdoors on a fragrant veranda adjoining their Caracol restaurant.
The five-course meal ($195/pp) is themed around fresh ingredients grown in the garden combined with astronomical themes and stargazing; the event was created by Four Seasons Executive Chef Mario Alcocer, working with Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz.
Alcocer’s main course, “Surf & Turf with Meteorite Jus,” isn’t kidding: there’s a hint of honest to goodness meteorite in there. (Go ahead, tell your friends you had a literally out-of-this-world dining experience.)
The dramatically designed entryway into the Four Seasons resort. (Courtesy: Four Seasons)
After a last hike in the hills, we headed to the nearby Andaz Peninsula Papagayo (from $325), a cheeky millennial to the Four Seasons’ more middle-aged vibe.
Designed by Costa Rican architect Ronald Zürcher, this eco-retreat puts a premium on open spaces and personal customization — the latter a good fit for a control-freak New Yorker.
Structures here are lighter and lower than at the Four Seasons, featuring locally sourced laurel wood and cana brava, a bamboo-like cane.
Curves and asymmetrical layouts reflect Zürcher’s mission to evoke the look of local flora and fauna.
The 153 airy ocean-view rooms feature balconies that can be opened onto — for the bold — a glass-walled shower (when in Papagayo, I say…).
The resort’s Onda spa features nine nature-immersed treatment rooms and the hotel has even developed its own soundtrack, curated by New York-based DJ Jared Dietch.
This does, for better or worse, make you feel a bit like you are living in a cocktail lounge.
Speaking of which, the Andaz’s chic small plates eatery and bar, Chao Pescao, is big on personalization: mixologists are open to giving or even receiving demonstrations on making a cocktail, though I was happy to let man-bunned bartender Anthony concoct a lemongrass mojito ($11) without my oversight.
The resort’s seafood restaurant, Ostra, dabbles in molecular gastronomy and greets diners with an amuse-bouche of ceviche, while its Rio Bhongo is an all-day eatery with a first-rate barista and a burger menu that caters to the picky: Every aspect of your order can be customized.
Though its charms as a choose-your-own adventure resort are substantial, the Andaz still seems to be getting its bearings on a practical level.
But if you can handle a few miscommunications here and there, it’s a lovely stay at a substantially lower rate than the Four Seasons.
Getting to Guanacaste
Delta, United and JetBlue all fly nonstop from NYC. From there, rentals and shuttles are available at the airport.
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