The Boston Herald

Tropical Splendor
Swing from a plush luxury resort to jungleís canopies in Costa Rica

October 21, 2001

By ROBYN TAYLOR PARETS
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD

GUANACASTE, Costa Rica -- Itís easy to spend a week, or two, inside the gates of Melia Playa Conchal All Suite Beach & Golf Resort. The sprawling 292-villa hotel is Costa Ricaís largest and most luxurious resort. Set on 2,400 lushly landscaped acres in the countryís virtually undeveloped Guanacaste province, Melia Playa Conchal offers a myriad of water activities -- including kayaking, jetskiing, and sailing -- on the tranquil Conchal Beach surrounding the resort.

The hotel also features the largest free-form pool in Central America -- flanked by a swim-up bar and exquisitely manicured botanical gardens. For golf enthusiasts, the resort touts a challenging 18-hole, par-72, championship Robert Trent Jones II golf course, called Garra de Lion (Lionís Paw). As if this isnít enough, Melia Conchal also boasts four lighted tennis courts and an open-air health club, overlooking the ocean.

Besides fun in the sun, Melia Conchal is a dinerís delight. With 11 restaurants and bars, thereís something for everyone here, including seafood, Italian cuisine, an extravagant breakfast buffet, and fine dining. For night life, check out the disco and casino, where the action doesnít cool down until dawn breaks.

Days can easily run together at this enchanting resort, which was designed to resemble a village with its hacienda-style suites, restaurants and shops encircling the pool. Just strolling around and counting the iguanas or sitting under a palm tree on the beach is enough to feel lost in paradise.

Yet, thereís also ďlife outside these gates,Ē said Timothy Britton, business manager of Costa Rica Outdoors, a tour operator and publishing company. Burton, who recently joined a group of travelers on a whirlwind trip to Melia Playa Conchal and the Pacific Northwest Guanacaste region, has lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years and describes Guanacaste as a ďoutdoor enthusiastís paradise.Ē

After only one day here, itís not difficult to see why Britton feels this way. Guanacaste is not only known for its spectacular beaches, but its national parks, where visitors can hike, horseback ride or view majestic volcanoes. A key attraction is Rincon de la Vieja National Park, where exploring 1 1/2 miles of trails in the jungle is a true education. During the walk, a guide points out and discusses the various wildlife found here, like howler monkeys, toucans, and deer.

Another popular excursion is a day trip to the Buena Vista Lodge and Adventure Center, located on the Northeastern slope of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. Upon arrival at Buena Vista Lodge -- after an unexpected stop to see a group of howler monkeys swinging through the trees -- adventurers have the rare opportunity to see the forest in a way unimaginable in the United States: from the tops of the ancestral trees. Called a canopy tour, these tree top adventures are offered throughout Costa Rica, yet the Buena Vista Lodge tour is one of the best available in Guanacaste.

Before embarking on the trip, trained guides outfit thrill-seekers with harnesses and safety equipment. Then the adventure begins. After a 30-minute hike up a mountain, the first canopy platform comes into view. This simple wooden structure was built at almost the top of an 80-foot high tree. Stairs lead up to the platform and one by one, each person climbs up, is harnessed onto a sturdy metal cable, and steps off the platform. Hereís where the adrenaline rush kicks in. Swinging through the trees, speed can only be controlled by pressing down on the cable with gloved hands. The best thing to do is watch out for a guide on the next platform who will signal if itís necessary to slow down or increase the speed by relaxing pressure on the cable. Once you swing onto the second platform, itís time to breath a sigh of relief and build up the courage to swing through the trees nine more times. At this point, thereís no turning back because only the first and last platform have stairs leading down to the ground.

After 11 thrill rides, the adventure ends. Itís time to walk down the steps and return to the base lodge, where refreshing juice and water is served. The trip includes lunch at the Buena Vista Lodge restaurant. A typical Costa Rican meal -- consisting of grilled chicken, black beans and rice, and fried plantains -- hits the spot, particularly after working up quite an appetite.

Adventure tours are certainly a big draw in this part of Costa Rica. But a trip to Guanacaste would not be complete without spending some quiet time shopping and visiting the quaint seaside villages lining the Northwest coast. Itís best to rent a car in order to see as much as possible. Melia Playa Conchal offers a Budget car rental counter on-site and an air-conditioned SUV costs about $50 a day.

Tamarindo, a surferís paradise, is a must see. The tiny beach town has one main road lined with artisan shops and restaurants. Restaurant Zullymar sits right on the beach, where diners can watch local surfers practicing their passion. This is perhaps the best spot to feast on a chicken or fish platter with, of course, a side of black beans and rice. After lunch, get back into the car and drive south to visit Avellanas Beach and Negra Beach, two stretches of pristine sandy shoreline. Perfect for collecting unusual shells and watching the waves crash onto the shore, these two beaches are so secluded that itís a rarity to spot another human.

Although itís easy to daydream while listening to the surf, be sure to head back to the hotel at least an hour before dark. The dirts roads are difficult enough to navigate in daylight and street signs are almost non-existent. Once back at Melia Playa Conchal, take a nighttime stroll along Conchal Beach or a dip in the pool. Or, better yet, make plans for a morning horseback ride along the beach.

Suites start at $178 including breakfast from now until October 31. Rates increase to $205 during November and December and $220 after January 1, 2002. For more information or reservations, call (800) 33-MELIA. Several airlines fly from Boston to Juan Santamaria International Airport in the capital city of San Jose, including American, Continental and United. Once arriving in San Jose, transfer to a Grupo Taca 40-minute flight to Tamarindo airport, a 15-minute drive to the hotel. For more information on Guanacaste, call (800) 343-6332 or log on at www.tourism-costarica.com.

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