I took two nongolf side trips while I was in the country, both of them memorable. The first was a potholed but spectacular three-hour drive from the international airport at San José to the town of La Fortuna, which is located at the base of the Arenal volcano. Constantly active since a major eruption in 1968 (which killed seventy-eight people and covered an area of almost eight square miles in rock, lava and ash), Arenal is rightfully one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The premier hotel is the remote Arenal Observatory Lodge, built by the Smithsonian Institute on a ridge considered the perfect place to study and monitor the volcano's activity.
Depending upon the weather, the views of the volcano from the hotel's bar and rooms can be spectacular, though I was equally amazed by the tropical birds, whose exotic names--like red-legged honeycreeper, yellow-throated euphonia, and scarlet-rumped tanager--didn't do justice to their actual appearances.
The lodge's nighttime Hot Lava Tour takes you close enough to hear the whooshing roars of gas escaping the lava dome, and seconds later, to see bright red car-size boulders of thousand-degree lava falling out of the clouds and tumbling down the mountain toward you. Exhausted but exalted on the way back to the lodge, I stopped at Tabecón Resort for dinner, cocktails and a long soak in the spa's volcano-heated mineral waters.
Despite the natural beauty of Arenal, the highlight of my trip was Hotel Punta Islita, a secluded haven overlooking a small Pacific bay and surrounded by lush valleys and dramatic mountain ridges.
Most guests choose to fly here from the capital, but I made the three-hour drive from the Meliá Playa Conchal, stopping primarily to scout a couple of rivers I had to drive through that were running at least fifty-feet wide. Arriving at an architectural gem of thatched conical roofs and 360-degree views, I was so impressed that my very first item of business was to add an extra night to my reservation. I peeled off my dusty clothes after checking into my plush casita and slipped into the private plunge pool, staring out at the ocean and ducking a bit as three green parrots came squawking just overhead.
There are miles of hiking trails here, fine riding horses, the hotel's own fishing fleet and a beautiful beach club on a protected cove. The food at the hotel's formal restaurant measures up to the nighttime views. Seated beneath the stars after dinner, I enjoyed a Cuban cigar and began to dream of my next visit to Costa Rica.
My passion for the game is the strongest when I am playing somewhere new and wonderful, where the smells on the afternoon breeze are exotic and unidentifiable, where the crashing curl of the ocean waves in the distance matches the curl of a putt as it falls into Mother Earth, where the golf course becomes a part of its natural surroundings, not the other way around.