Costa Rica is the epicentre of all things "eco." Eco-lodges, eco-treks, eco-tours, eco-eateries - the list goes on. The ubiquitous prefix, however, isn't the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of the upscale Four Seasons chain of hotels and resorts, which last year opened its first property on the Pacific coast of Guanacaste province, the least populated, sunniest and driest part of the Central American country.
But after you drive past the enormous white-marble sculpture fronting the resort's guardhouse, and pass through the 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, you are presented with a vision that amalgamates, on a much grander scale, the tree houses, cloud-forest lodges and thatched-roof cabanas that cover the rest of the country.
From the three-piece salsa band playing in the open-air lounge to the nearby cigar roller, the resort leaves no doubt that you're vacationing in Central America. But this isn't your typical hive of all-inclusive hedonism. Its à la carte approach means that guests simply sign for meals, drinks and spa treatments, imbuing the place with an air of quiet restraint. It's quite relaxing to know that having to eat and drink to get your money's worth is not a concern.
Snippets of conversation were revealing: "Mother had lunch with [Massachusetts senator]Ted Kennedy last week," and "I always try to spend at least two weeks in Provence" were two choice examples that illustrate the mostly American, well-heeled guest list. Families predominated, but honeymooning couples and conventioneers were also well represented.
Celebrities and star athletes are also commonplace, as evidenced by sightings of actor Meg Ryan and her family in one of the three swimming pools, and new Pittsburgh Penguin John LeClair arriving with his brood. The surprisingly forthcoming bellhops also disclosed that actor Bruce Willis and singer Ricky Martin have also stayed at the resort.
Costa Rican architect Ronald Zürcher oversaw the resort's construction, which after almost four years yielded a cluster of earth-toned buildings that seem to grow out of a hillside that slopes down to an isthmus. The rounded roofs resemble armadillos, while the meticulously manicured gardens add splashes of colour to the tropical dry forest surrounding the resort.
Two sandy beaches - one geared toward lounging, the other for activities such as sailing, snorkelling and kayaking - flank the property. As at several other Four Seasons resorts, guests are shuttled about the winding paths that connect buildings in golf carts. And after a day of beaching, spa-ing and pina colada-ing, the ride is appreciated.
Most of the 153 rooms are in three four-storey buildings, offering fine views of either Virador Bay to the north or Blanca Bay to the south. Even the standard rooms are a spacious 603 square feet, including a screened-in balcony. Large wooden shutters are all that separate the living space in the standard rooms from the en suite marble bathrooms, which feature double sinks, a deep bathtub and separate glassed-in shower.
For an over-the-top treat, however, consider one of the private freestanding suites, all with roomy outdoor terraces. The cabana-like structures are built into the steep hillside, and offer unbeatable Pacific vistas. Ranging from one-bedroom suites with plunge pools to the presidential three-bedroom version with a private central courtyard and outdoor shower (among other indulgences), these accommodations are secluded and sumptuous. A full room-service breakfast, served with fine silver and crisp linens on your private terrace overlooking Blanca Bay, is about as good as it gets.
All rooms have high-speed Internet access and satellite TV with a CD/DVD player. And if you like, room-service staff will bring you a printout of the day's New York Times.
Food and drink
Since the resort is 40 minutes by car from the nearest town - and because it's doubtful you'll want to leave - there are four restaurants on hand.
Di Mare, the elegant Italian restaurant, is the most upscale option, serving dishes like locally caught grilled dorado with herb risotto, sweet red-onion compote, roasted garlic aioli and basil oil. Its cellar is extensive, with a fine stash of California reds, and the decor - wicker furnishings and wide windows opening onto the gardens - is tasteful. But the cuisine, while adequate, wouldn't hold up at many Italian eateries in Toronto or New York.
Caracol, a 10-minute ride from the lobby at the golf course, serves light lunch fare till 6 p.m., when it transforms into a casual steakhouse. Papagayo is yet another casual option, serving Costa Rican specialties such as shrimp and crab ceviche with green mango, avocado and crispy corn. Congo's pool bar and grill, meanwhile, offers local and American fare in an open-air pavilion.
Things to do
Self-guided diversions range from active (tennis, windsurfing, golf) to sedate (massages, pedicures, golf). The extensive menu of staff-run programs includes snorkelling trips, sailing and scuba lessons. Never a dull moment.
This eco-palace offers anything your heart could desire on a sun-and-sand getaway, honeymoon or client-impressing business trip. Just be sure your wallet can take it.