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Costa Rica: The Ultimate Guide

Traditionally, Costa Rica hasn't been a place known for fine cuisine. With the April opening of the Inn at Coyote Mountain, a 90-minute drive west of San José in San Ramón, the country's reputation as a food purgatory was transformed. On a remote hilltop, Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret, the chef-owners of Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia, have created an intimate retreat where aspiring chefs can join one- to three-day classes on "Caribbean-Creole" cooking (think tropical jambalaya). Built in the Mudejar style of architecture from Spain, the five-room inn has circular windows and glass-tile tubs, custom-made wrought-iron sconces and four-poster beds, and a spectacular Observatory Suite with its own spiral staircase.

Time: Four to five days. Inland from the white sands of the Pacific is one of the last intact dry tropical forests of Central America. These pristine stretches, alternating with clear-cut areas marked by lone umbrella-shaped conacaste trees shading humpbacked Brahman cows, rise up a volcanic mountain range to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Puntarenas, an essential stop on any nature-lover's itinerary. Getting there requires a four-hour drive from San José or Liberia.

When I first came to Monteverde in the early nineties, I took a standing-room-only bus and stayed in a cabin with a shared bath. Not much has changed: most of the drive is up a precipitous, unpaved track (the area is too jagged for planes, too windy for helicopters), and properties marketed as luxury lodges are often quite disappointing. But it's worth the bother to see mist-shrouded trees draped in epiphytes, 450 species of birds, and views all the way west to the Nicoya Peninsula.

Settled by Alabama Quakers looking for a utopian escape from the Korean War draft, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and its closest town, Santa Elena, retain the tranquil, anti-establishment aura conferred on them by these immigrants. Hippie kids run the butterfly farm in nearby Cerro Plano, and you can get great thin-crust pepperoni slices at nearby pizzeria Johnny. The reserve allows only 160 visitors at a time on its brick paths. A handful of decent hotels line the road to the park; two stand out from the pack. Monteverde Lodge & Gardens has 27 rooms in an Arts and Crafts-style building, with a 12-person Jacuzzi that is in an acrylic-domed room apparently inspired by I. M. Pei's Louvre entrance. Fonda Vela, owned by two brothers, is half the price and just as nice, and its eight bungalows are within walking distance of the cloud forest's entrance.

Once you've completed the tough stuff—long hikes in the cloud forest, hours spent searching for a quetzal's nest—schedule some R&R at the beachfront Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. Before the resort opened its 153 rooms and suites in January, getting to the Pacific coast of northern Guanacaste required chartering a plane or navigating bone-rattling potholed roads. Now major airlines fly direct to the nearby airport from the United States. Local architect Ronald Zürcher drew inspiration from butterfly wings and the backs of armadillos in his design for the resort's buildings, which are set on a steep hillside between two beaches. Arnold Palmer created the sprawling golf course. At the restaurant, chef James Cassidy (poached from Hawaii's Four Seasons Hualalai) makes Latin fusion dishes, such as the teetering tower of crab-and-avocado salad with red pepper sauce. Six other resorts are planned for the once-remote Papagayo Peninsula. What a difference a Four Seasons makes.

Time: Three to six days. Populated by American pensioners, international surfers, and tico farmers, this coastal corridor claims some of the country's finest hotels, all of them built with a conservationist's eye. You'd be mad to spend all your time lazing by the Costa Rican shore, but the region's dozens of beaches do come in handy for convalescing after a week spent trekking, tracking birds, and, let's be honest, driving. A ferry that crosses the Gulf of Nicoya connects the peninsula to the mainland at Puntarenas, near Manuel Antonio National Park, home to the country's most popular beach, which attracts swarms of backpackers and locals on holiday.

The nicest places to stay on the Nicoya Peninsula are the beachfront hotels that run south from Guanacaste all the way to the tip of the peninsula, at Montezuma. Hotel Punta Islita, owned by Harold Zürcher and designed by his brother, Ronald (creator of the Four Seasons at Papagayo), has occupied its own crescent-shaped black-sand beach and hillside for 10 years. Today its 43 thatched-roof rooms, suites, and casitas make up one of the most sophisticated addresses in the country. Guest quarters come with hand-hewn teak beds and hammocks angled to view the sun as it drops into the Pacific. Chef Pablo de la Torre prepares fresh ceviche and native fish dishes at Borrancho Beach Club (or on the sand with a bonfire, at no extra cost). An art gallery showcases local artisans' handicrafts. And a European-style spa opened in December.

Punta Islita is an extravagant refuge, but getting out of the resort is a nightmare: there are tide tables posted in both of the hotel's restaurants so that guests can escape before water floods the driveway. On my first visit, tempting fate, I left with only 15 minutes to spare and barely managed to cross the two rivers filling up with seawater that separated me from the main road. Harold Zürcher had not been so lucky: he'd lost his ATV the day before. Braving the tides—and the potholes—is par for the course on the Nicoya, which is why most guests fly into one of the charter airstrips scattered across the peninsula.

Florblanca, the newest addition to the luxury accommodations in Costa Rica, is just down the road from Punta Islita—but don't let that fool you. The quickest way to this resort, with its outdoor bathrooms, stucco porches, and gorgeous canopy beds, is to drive along the beach, which is subject to flooding at high tide. Regardless, Florblanca's 10 villas and its open-air restaurant (built from clear-cut wood that American owners Susan Money and Greg Mullins bought from farmers and saved for some 15 years) are always crowded—with surfers, honeymooners, and the occasional society-page regular.

When both Punta Islita and Florblanca are full, the nearby Hotel Milarepa offers consolation: its four bungalows stand beside the beach and a French chef prepares classic dishes with Caribbean ingredients.

For millionaires, there's Hacienda Cabo Velas, a 1,700-acre working ranch that goes for $65,000 a week and sleeps up to 12 people—who generally bypass the roads of Guanacaste and instead arrive by private plane on the property's own airstrip. From there, it's a short walk to a Spanish-colonial hacienda surrounded by four smaller thatched-roof ranchos, or to any of the five beaches on-site. Guests get it all: an Italian cook, a naturalist guide, a boat captain for tours of the mangroves, even a cowboy to lead horseback rides in the jungle.


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