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Peace Lodge—Vara blanca

Near Poas Volcano, Vara Blanca, La Paz Waterfalls Gardens, Heredia

Taking its architectural theme from its natural surroundings, this Tolkensian inspiration is the crowning glory of a waterfall–based nature theme park whose cascades and montane forests are replicated inside the walls.

Occupying a steep hillside in a saddle cleaving Poás and Barva volcanoes, a one–hour drive north of San José, the Peace Lodge opened in 2003 as the second stage of La Paz Waterfall Gardens, an immensely popular man–made attraction conceived by Floridian owner and visionary entrepreneur Lee Banks. Centered on a series of dramatic natural cascades plunging through a forested canyon, the park features hiking trails; walk–through bird and butterfly enclosures; frog, snake, monkey and wild cat exhibits; a trout–filled lake (fishing is offered); and traditional farmstead — all enfolded by velveteen jungle.

Peace Lodge

The park's success as a tour destination invited the addition of a hotel, whose every element reflects the natural beauty of its surroundings. The roadside reception hall overlooks the villas built into the hillside below and accessed via stone pathways lined with Disneyesque faux–rock walls and rails. The two–story units, with their orange exteriors and tiled roofs, are rather garish against the lush green surrounds. Push open the heavy Peace Lodge bathroomwooden doors, however, and their quirky charm is overwhelming. Riverstone walls basted in tangerine stucco, plus bottle–green fabrics, and glistening hardwood floors combine to invoke the colors of tropical soil and jungle. Timber–beamed ceilings of unpolished hardwoods and huge hearths and chimneys of natural riverstone echo the theme, as do diced-tree–trunk furniture and king–size four–poster beds of roughhewn timber graced by gauzy canopy drapes — a lovely romantic touch. Settle onto a raised chaise or in the two–seat rocker in front of the hearth, perhaps with a cocktail from the well–stocked minibar.

At this elevation, the rooms can be chilly at times and the decorative gas fireplace and dehumidifier are merely milquetoast against the occasional chills. Fortunately, fluffy down comforters do the job once guests tuck into bed. The cable TVs are awkwardly placed at neck–craning height, but we appreciate the music CDs (and surround–sound speakers) with CDs for guests' listening pleasure, and free Wi–Fi now in all units. The cavernous bathrooms induce a broad smile. Clad in glazed stone underfoot, and lush with bromeliads and ferns, these skylit grottoes are a study in whimsy. Faucets resembling tiny rocks bear colored frogs — red for hot, blue for cold — while a cascade tumbles down the rock wall at the flick of a switch. You could host a party in the huge stone–lined walk–in shower in the whirlpool tub designed as a natural rock pool (deluxe rooms feature two showers and a second whirlpool tub on the balcony).

Peace Lodge

Room service is offered for breakfast, and the buffet restaurant offers a vast and impressive lunch buffet that includes pizza, rotisserie chicken, and Costa Rican dishes, but it often fills with noisy tour groups, and the bamboo seats are back–breakers. A guests–only upstairs restaurant opens for dinner and offers a more elegant ambiance for local specialties and international favorites, from New York strip steak to fresh trout, and a superb breaded tilapia sautéed with garlic and lime. Wines are served in generous portions.

With good reason it was recently admitted to the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica and was featured on the Travel Channel's "Honeymoon Hotspots International" program as one of the eight most romantic honeymoon destinations in the world outside of the United States.

Peace Lodge baby ocelot

The romantic whimsy of this hotel is best suited to couples, especially honeymooners, plus families will appreciate the nature park. Still, conservative–minded travelers might find the faux element rather gauche. Regardless, the attractions come free to guests, by day and night, and provide a magnificent and educational entrée to Costa Rica's natural treasures.

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Total Number of Rooms: 25
Published rates: $315 to $725

Review by Christopher Baker, small photo from author, the rest courtesy of Peace Lodge.

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