With a final click, my four-point harness was secured. It was late morning, so Costa Rica's heat and humidity were tolerable, and our guide gave his briefing under a cool canopy of trees. Still, beads of perspiration dripped from my brow. This was not the sweat of heat; it was the sweat of panic. I was about to embark on what is called a rain forest "canopy tour." I had believed this would amount to a leisurely tractor ride or an easygoing wilderness hike. I discovered I was about to blast through the forest via a system of pulleys and cables suspended hundreds of feet above the forest floor-not exactly the best endeavor for someone with a not-so-small fear of heights.
As it turns out, it was one of the coolest things I have ever done. Welcome to Costa Rica.
The canopy tour, of course, was just one adventure Costa Rica had in store for me. The area is also known for its spectacular fishing, abundant wildlife and surfing, and during my short stay I sampled a bit of each. At the end of a long day, the luxurious Los Sueños Resort and Marina, in Playa Herradura, is the perfect place to call home. Its easy accessibility from the States and rock-solid infrastructure, from staffing to waste management, clearly were the reasons this luxury development has taken hold where others failed. Now, as upscale adventurers revel in its luster, its momentum seems unstoppable.
The nonstop flight from New York's JFK Airport to San José International Airport was just short of five hours. I shuttled to the resort with a veteran of Costa Rican travel, who made easy work of the two-hour drive along curvy mountain roads, which grew congested behind every slow-moving truck and tourist bus. As he navigated, I peered through the window at uniformed children heading to school, hillsides blanketed with coffee trees, and roadside fruit-and-vegetable stands. Chirping tropical birds supplied an overture to Costa Rica's symphony of wildlife.
When we pulled up to the gateway at Los Sueños Resort and Marina, we transitioned from quaint countryside to the essence of luxury without missing a beat. This sprawling complex, which includes the Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort, a 200-slip full-service marina and ship's store, and an array of condominiums and villas, blends with-rather than intrudes upon-the tropical landscape. In addition, the hotel property includes a spa, an 18-hole golf course and multiple dining venues.
Los Sueños, which opened to guests in 1999, is the brainchild of William Royster, the resort's president and CEO. Years ago, after battling a 700-pound-class marlin, he cast his eye shoreward, to what is now the resort's property. In 1992, Royster and his partners acquired the working cattle farm and began the process of developing its 1,110 acres. The team was careful to preserve the integrity of the surrounding rain forest; it commissioned a long-term environmental-impact study and worked closely with government officials, a dialogue that continues today. (The Los Sueños team was instrumental in establishing Costa Rica's present-day marina regulations.)
The time to visit Costa Rica is, well, any time. It has two seasons: rain and no rain. Both are enjoyable, according to locals, since even in the rainy season, often half the day is dry. High season at Los Sueños runs from November to May. July and August see an influx of vacationing families.
I toured the grounds with Andrea Cooper, the resort's executive director of communications. She said the complex, when complete, will have a total of 1,000 units. Buyers are snatching up condos at a good clip; the resort sold 84 in 10 months. The Del Mar units I viewed were gorgeous, so it's no surprise the first collection of condos has already sold out. Prices for the condos in the second group, all on the beachfront, begin at $700,000, for a 2,000-square-foot unit. On the hillside, the new Riviera villas, at 6,000 square feet, command upward of $2.3 million. Many first-time visitors fall in love with Los Sueños and buy on the spot; I don't blame them.
Guests who avail themselves of the Marriott's hospitality, as I did, will be well served. The tastefully appointed, air-conditioned rooms reflect the region's flavor and have many modern conveniences (too many for my taste), a phone, cable TV and mini-bar. The hotel's open-air hallways offer spectacular views, as do the rooms.
Cooper said those with an experienced eye who walk the Marriott's Ted Robinson Jr.-designed La Iguana golf course can spot as many as 374 species of birds. The challenging course offers duffers an incentive to keep out of the rough: It is home to some of the world's nastiest snakes. (They live beneath the cool underbrush and rocks.) Though signs posted throughout the course remind players of the hazard, I did not encounter any snakes on my round. Of course, I went through a dozen Titleists-I wasn't taking any chances (or penalties!).
If you mention Costa Rica to a fisherman, his response will probably be a knowing nod. The area's calm waters and rich big-game fishing are hard to beat. State-of-the-art sportfishermen, motoryachts and megayachts fill the marina, which opened in 2001.
The full-service marina includes diesel mechanics, storage for small craft and a complete marine store, and serves as one of the few diesel-fuel stops for recreational boaters, according to Cooper. Many yacht owners have taken a liking to Los Sueños-many have deemed the area a welcome change from Mexico and Venezuela-since Costa Rica presents no compromises in fishing or amenities, and offers a lot less wind. Those who hesitate to reserve may find themselves on an ever-growing waiting list for dockage.
Some owners send their 50-plus-foot fishing platforms through the Panama Canal or down the Mexican coast on their own bottom. Still others transport their boats, some smaller than 50 feet, from Ft. Lauderdale or Ensenada on a semi-submersible yacht carrier owned by Dockwise Yacht Transport. The boats are offloaded in Golofito, an easy trip to Playa Herradura.
Some have purchased new Cabo yachts from Central America Yacht Sales, an on-site dealership, and keep the boats at Los Sueños year-round. The dealership has even created a special open model, the Los Sueños Edition, which has no windshield, and special rails and trim.
Many visiting anglers leave their boats at home and charter once they arrive, according to Joe Alisco at Costa Rica Dreams Sport Fishing. From January to April, Costa Rica offers excellent marlin, sailfish and rooster fishing. Most venture 25 to 40 miles offshore for the pelagics. The charter operation owns a small fleet of modern fishing boats and manages 15 additional boats. Center-console models are available for inshore fishing. An eight-hour day, including lunch, costs $800.
The town nearest the resort is Jacó, a few miles away. Local taxis are abundant, and the American greenback is readily accepted. The cheapest fare from the hotel to Jacó I could wrangle was five bucks. Jacó is best described as a funky surf village filled with American expatriates. A solitary road is braced by restaurants, guesthouses, a few bars, and storefronts selling trinkets and T-shirts. Behind this row of activity is a miles-long beach, as wide as a football field, composed of a dark substance resembling something between soil and sand. Here, locals, travelers and the occasional stray pooch stroll and watch the amateur surfers, while those in the know venture a short distance from town to a beach with bigger waves.
Perhaps the finest souvenir you can bring home, apart from fond memories or the title to a luxurious Los Sueños villa, is available at Mas o Menos supermarket. For two bucks, you can pick up a bag of the finest coffee you have ever tasted.
Like the coffee, Costa Rica is at once robust and mellow. You won't be satisfied by just one cup-or just one visit.
Contact: Los Sueños Resort and Marina, (011) 506 637 8886;
Dockwise Yacht Transport (954) 525-8707; www.yacht-transport.com. Costa Rica Dreams (732) 740 0601; www.costaricadreams.com. Central America Yacht Sales (011) 506 637 3886; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cenamyachts.com.
DINING AT THE MARINA
El Galeon Restaurant and Martini Bar. Fine dining. The Hook-up Bar and Grill. Pub fare with a view.
DINING NEAR THE MARINA
Tsunami Sushi Jacó; (011) 506 838 9916. Japanese. Hotel Poseidon Jacó; (011) 506 643 1642. Fusion cuisine. Hong Kong Fuey's Jacó; (011) 506 643 2145. Chinese takeout. Pelicanos Playa Herradura; (011) 506 643 3181. Seafood. Hotel Villa Caletas Jacó; (011) 506 637 0505. Sunset cocktails.
Canopy Adventure Jacó; (011) 506 643 3271; email@example.com.