© Grana de Oro Hotel
Many a man has popped the question in the jewel box dining room. French chef Francis Canal mixes "Costa Rican tropical" with European cuisine. He excels at Italian dishes, and also offers New Zealand lamb, Canadian duck breast with caramelized figs, and sensual cheese plates. The menu changes often and may feature sea bass with Macadamia nuts, scallops with risotto, or pork tenderloin with yucca croquette. Don't miss the tres leches cake or the signature Grano de Oro pie, made with chocolate and espresso. Select wine pairings from a smartly chosen and extensive cellar.
Top Chefs on a Pacific Ocean Beach
By now I was fantasizing about big waves and wild animals. Enter Arenas Del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort. With 38 rooms on the Pacific Ocean, it's a friend, eco–conscious five–star resort. Not only could you mistake employees for helpful friends, but here guests meet over teak breakfast tables or flights of wine in the open–air El Mirador Restaurant. There's plenty to talk about, since Arenas offers a wide range of activities like kayaking and zip lining. I loved the tortilla–making workshop and the visit to Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation—where I bought organic cinnamon and vanilla for gifts. We took a night nature walk, plus the Tarcoles crocodile tour with knee–bit guide Miguel.
Awash in tropical birds, this jungle property is a corridor for howler monkeys and other animals. Seven curvy white buildings perch on a green slope that descends to a swimming pool, beaches, a café, and bar. Acres of rain forest edge nearby Manuel Antonio National Park, one of Costa Rica's top attractions. There I saw my first sloth, a muddy fur ball upside down in a towering tree.
Dave Callan and Jeremy Allen, the resort's Philadelphia–based owners, aim to serve local ingredients in clever ways. Grass–fed beef, local fish "right off the boat," South American wines—whatever is freshest in the market that day. You may dine on sea bass ceviche with passion fruit puree, whipped guava with spun caramel sauce, or perhaps empanadas stuffed with hearts of palm. The menu changes constantly, making dinner a must–do event.
The owners hired Tico chef Adrian Cerdas Cortes in 2013 to run the kitchen. They also brought in top international chefs on three–day visits to create five–course tasting menus. Most memorable was Top Chef contestant Jason Cichonski, aka "Philadelphia's sexiest chef." He rose early to shop in the local market, took his iPad down to the beach to draw up menus, and soaked up Latin techniques.
"Jason asked our chef to make chimichurri sauce 'the way your mother did,'" said Jeremy. "Jason showed him how to infuse it with coffee and other ingredients. Everybody learns from everybody else here."
Café con Leche in the Central Highlands
I woke to parrots squabbling in the high trees at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation Resort, only 20 minutes north of San José by car. At 4,200 feet in the green hills of Santa Bárbara de Heredia, I felt like I was bunking with rich friends who have great taste in art—and cuisine. If the curvaceous, whitewashed main house feels Spanish, that's because Tico architect Francisco Rojas Chaves used Barcelona's eccentric Antoni Gaudi as muse. Each of 13 quirky rooms gleams with local art and handicrafts, from clay pots to murals and hardwood furniture.
Rosa Blanca is the creation of U.S. expats Glenn and Teri Jampol. They flew into Costa Rica on vacation many years ago and never wanted to leave.
"We love the beauty and the cheerful, good–natured people," said Glenn, a tall, bearded artist who lectures around the world on sustainable tourism. "We raised our two daughters here." Teri is proud of the fact that guests dine on homegrown coffee and ingredients pulled from the organic garden; yes, vegans are welcome.
Striped butterflies float over the paths, winding through gardens, to El Tigre Vestido Restaurante. On a sundeck overlooking the Central Valley and volcanic peaks beyond, I sampled Chef Oscar Picado's Latin fusion cuisine. Grilled chicken in coffee–tamarind sauce is one of his creations.
© Finca Rosa Blanca Resort
You can also get café con leche and such tipico food as huevos caballeros (eggs with chorizo, black beans and tomatoes) for breakfast. El Tigre is even more beautiful at night, with lit candles and centerpieces of carved vegetables. I enjoyed hearts of palm spread on Parmesan crackers and a "catch of the day" ceviche. Next came tomato soup with a coffee reduction, the plate decorated with coffee leaves and coral nasturtiums. The tenderloin braised with a coffee reduction, eggplant and carrot is a standout. Don't miss the espresso ice cream and Latin American wines.
The next morning I toured the tree–shaded coffee plantation, a former rain forest with a stream running through it. My guide Ulises poked a steel rod into this plant and that to show me how one lives off another. Not only did I learn how coffee is grown and roasted, but also that parrots travel in packs, banana bark smells like cucumber, the civet is the only wild animal that likes coffee beans, and high tourist season starts in November.
"When it's snowing in the U.S., people come to Costa Rica," Ulisis said. On the right path, now they can eat well while they're here.
If you go:
United Airlines flies into San José, Costa Rica's capital, from the U.S., Central America, South America and Europe. Alamo has 15 rental car offices in Costa Rica. To book a culinary and adventure tour at the properties featured here, contact the Cayuga Collection group.
Story by Candace Dempsey, photos by Dempsey except where indicated.