Playa Espadilla and Playita, Manuel Antonio, 5km west of Quepos
Toward the end of the lusciously jungled road to Manuel Antonio National Park, echoing with the throaty calls of howler monkeys and tropical birds, lies an exquisite experiment in sustainable luxury, overlooking the loveliest setting imaginable.
Arenas del Mar, the Sands of the Sea, offers all the delights one expects from a five-star boutique hotel, as well as the maximum five "leaves" awarded by the Costa Rican government for conservation and community consciousness. It is the epitome of this new luxury eco-travel movement, affording every amenity with a carbon footprint no larger than many camping trips. Divine.
The resort rises to two groups of rather unremarkable stucco buildings perched atop a steeply pitched headland, flanked on both sides by truly beautiful beaches. To the south is broad swath of pearl-white sand, Playa Espadilla, stretching almost two scenic kilometers, a soft and leisurely twenty-minute walk, toward the national park entrance, where dozens of restaurants and tiny shops congregate, fronted by a festive tent city of colorful fluttering sarongs, beneath which dreadlocked entrepreneurs offer handicrafts, ceramics, jewelry, massages, yoga classes and more. To the north, just steps from the resort, is much more exclusive Playita ("Little Beach"), a gentle half moon cove bookended by two rocky outcroppings that provide as private a sunbathing experience as is possible in a country where all beaches are public by law.
You arrive at the sunny, secluded spot between them after a steep descent from the hotel-lined main road; a solar-powered electric cart transports you from the thatch-roofed kiosk at reception to the beautifully furnished lobby, overlooking a stunning peninsula called "The Cathedral" and a handful of tiny islands, held sacred by the region's original indigenous inhabitants, islands that enhance the deep blue-on-blue view.
Just 38 rooms, all of them nonsmoking, are distributed in two groups of three-story buildings: "Ocean Breeze" rooms, some with excellent views, are a better choice for people with mobility issues (request a ground-floor room) as they adjacent to the lobby and restaurant. The more atmospheric "Rainforest View" rooms are deep in the jungle on Playita Beach. Golf carts and chauffeurs are at your disposal as you move around the property, or enjoy the workout ascending each hill.
All the rooms at Arenas del Mar are paired off in larger suites and superb superiors, which can be combined as "apartments" to accommodate groups and large families. They are not enormous, but are elegantly adorned with gorgeous Mexican tiles, impressive watercolors by Costa Rican artist Analaura Vargas, and comfortable, architecturally interesting furniture-much of it made with sustainable wicker, bamboo, and even recycled materials for an almost minimalist atmosphere. This tranquil living space flows seamlessly onto the private terraza, through wooden sliding doors that allow profound appreciation of the resort's stunning setting.
Bedrooms are furnished with luxuriously outfitted king-sized beds, cable television, safety deposit boxes, and wireless Internet that did not work well when I was there (computers in the lobby worked fine). The minibar niche is particularly pleasing, with polished granite countertops and hammered steel sinks, as well as coffee supplied by Arenas' outstanding sister hotel, Finca Rosa Blanca.
The standout bathrooms offer enormous circular showers, with solar-heated water and glass bricks that bathe the wonderful mosaic tiles in natural golden light. But you'll also want to bathe outside, in your semi-private half-moon Jacuzzi overlooking all that natural beauty beneath the stars.
There are two restaurants onsite, both committed to culinary creations cooked with fresh, local and often organic ingredients. The more casual Playita Snack Bar offers creative takes on Tico cuisine, such as the garbanzo and pejibaye (a starchy palm fruit) dip appetizer, as well as healthy wraps and sandwiches, try the Dixon's Vegetarian Burger, made with black beans and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds served with homemade fries and chayote slaw.
More elegant Mirador Restaurant and Bar, with stunning ocean views, offers a more upscale menu beneath the gently glowing spiraled glass chandeliers that beautifully illuminate the breezy, polished-wood dining area, along with starry candles and perhaps a sunset. Start with the peppery tuna sashimi, drizzled with soy sauce and served with organic local greens, and perhaps one of their mojitos, made with native Costa Rican sugarcane liquor, aguardiente. Then take your pick off an ever-changing gourmet menu of creative Costa Rican classics and international fare; seafood is of course a specialty, while a number of vegetarian dishes are also on offer.
This commitment to sustainable community support extends to their great gift shop, where jewelry, belts and handbags fashioned by an area women's collective, ReciclArte; biodegradable plastic bottles, and many other interesting items are all on offer. Try the locally produced line of top-notch beauty products, Raw Botanicals, at their small but scenic spa, where a variety of massages, scrubs, wraps, facials and packages will convince you to take a bottle home for yourself.
The hotel is only a year old, and while service was very good while I was there, some reviews suggest this isn't always the case; not everyone on staff speaks perfect English, for instance. The hotel's relative isolation might also dissuade those who want to enjoy the region's limited nightlife. Despite these minor concerns, however, Arenas del Mar is a truly successful experiment in sustainable indulgence, one that will hopefully inspire the next generation of luxury boutique hotels.