I recently traveled to Costa Rica with a group of other travel advisors on an educational trip, commonly referred to in the industry as a “fam” or “familiarization trip”. Designed to provide first-hand experience of the regions and properties that we recommend to clients on a daily basis, they are typically short stays, jam-packed with hotel inspections and little free time. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a “vacation” there are few better educational opportunities available to a travel professional.
On this trip, we visited the northwest section of Costa Rica known as the Guanacaste region. Also referred to as the “Gold Coast”, this area offers miles upon miles of pristine, sandy beaches and is quickly becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The growing number of luxurious resorts offer a variety of way to explore the beauty and wonder of Costa Rica’s natural habitat, as well as its rich, indigenous culture.
Along with Julia Swenda of Gogo, our US Tour Operator and fam sponsor, our experienced Swiss Travel Tour Guide, Mayor, and 13 other U.S. Travel advisors, we set out in search of Pura Vida!
And since there is no substitute for experience, I am here to share mine with you. Here are the 7 resorts we visited, and why I would recommend them:
Great for: Anyone Who Loves Luxury and Relaxation
Andaz Peninsula Papagayo
Nestled on a hillside overlooking the sapphire blue waters of Culebra Bay, the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo is a vibrant 153-room resort just 25 minutes from the Liberia Airport. A true gem, its innovative architectural design weaves the rich natural landscape with indigenous woods, handwoven textiles and carved artifacts, capturing the magic of Costa Rica! Whether the view is that of the ocean or the tropical forest, you’ll be hard pressed to know where the room ends and nature begins. This one’s got something for everyone–families, friends, couples, spa enthusiasts, foodies, nature and adventure lovers.
Resting in a tree canopy is the 11,000 square foot ONDA SPA which houses nine sublime treatment rooms, three of which are completely outdoors. A dual ONDA suite offers couple’s treatments along with a luxurious soaking tub and private relaxation area. Treatments here are tailored to the client’s needs using products freshly prepared with locally grown botanicals and indigenous techniques designed to transport you to “Pura Vida”. I’m particularly intrigued by the Guanacaste Journey treatment for 2.5 hours of an “uplifting journey with indigenous Chorotegan ingredients.”
The Andaz Papagayo offers live Latin music and features 3 themed dining experiences, each capturing the essence of Latin American culture: the open-air Rio Bhongo, the Latin-influenced Chao Pescao, and seafood extraordinaire Ostra. One of the two properties featured here that is NOT all-inclusive, each room features a complimentary minibar stocked with snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. With two secluded beaches, guests can enjoy complimentary water sports like kayaking, stand-up paddling and snorkeling, or spend the afternoon lazing in a hammock with a favorite book while enjoying a specialty cocktail. Those who prefer the pool will appreciate the two cascading versions; one dedicated to adults, the other to families. Parents and kids alike, will appreciate the dedicated kids club.
Great for: Luxurious Adults-Only Retreats
This intimate all-inclusive sits on a private bay in the Gulf of Papagayo, so guests here have the beach to themselves! A quick 20 minute drive from the Liberia Airport and you’re transported to “unlimited luxury”–it’s that easy! I was lucky enough to see this adults-only property shortly after it opened in November 2015, and am a fan! Anyone looking for a romantic getaway, time to unwind with the girls or just an opportunity to rejuvenate aside the beautiful natural surroundings of Costa Rica will not be disappointed with this property.
With just 202 suites, each with its own private patio or terrace, this property felt tranquil, luxurious and secluded. Secrets Papagayo offers 4 gourmet ala carte restaurants featuring International, Italian, Pan-Asian and Costa Rican cuisine, as well as a buffet and cafe.
24-hour room service is delivered through an ingeniously designed exterior passthrough, so as not to disturb the guest. With 5 chic bars, top shelf liquor is offered through out the resort. The Pevonia Spa features 13 treatment rooms with stunning views and unique treatments like vinotherapy, white chocolate/mint body wraps and papaya/pineapple pedicures.
On property options include a wide variety of beach, land and water activities including beach walks, cooking lessons, water aerobics, and big screen movies. Enjoy world-class sport fishing at the nearby Papagayo Marina. While on property you can arrange for a wide array of nature based day trips, golf excursions or a rental car for exploring the area on your own. But you needn’t leave the property in search memorable experiences; we spied families of monkeys frolicking in the trees during our brief tour of the grounds.
A special sanctuary, Secrets Papagayo is a place that I intend on returning to!
Great for: Golf Enthusiasts
Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica Peninsula Papagayo
No one does luxury better than The Four Seasons, and this resort at the Peninsula Papagayo is no exception. Just an hour from the airport, the drive to this isolated tropical peninsula offers spectacular views with the Pacific on one side, and the aquamarine bay on the other. Foodies will enjoy the 3 restaurants and 2 bars located on-site. Options include The Caracol Steakhouse at the Golf Clubhouse, Italian fare at the elegant Di Mare, and fresh seafood at the informal Papagayo. Enjoy live music at Tico’s cocktail lounge, or the open-air Congo bar and grill with a weekly its weekly churrasqueria. Although not an all-inclusive, all rooms include a mini-bar stocked with snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.
The challenging 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed championship golf course, with it’s breathtaking fairways, is a big draw here. Not interested? No worries! With two pristine beaches, four pools and a whirlpool grotto, water is an even bigger draw. Ride the waves with the new Tropicsurf luxury surfing experience, enjoy an afternoon of world class fishing, sail into the sunset on catamaran cruise, or snorkel off the white sand beaches of Playa Blanca. A 24-hour concierge is available to arrange off-site tours, so last minute requests are “no problemo.”
Got kids? The Kids For All Seasons children’s program for ages 4-12 years is open from 8am to 5pm offering daily activities and a private kids’ pool. Older children needing “me time” will enjoy the Tuanis Teen Center equipped with a basketball court, flat-screen TV and every game system you can imagine. Oh, and kids under the age of 4 eat for free at this Four Seasons. Adults in search of wellness will crave time at the award-winning spa. I recommend the 3-hour “Purification Ritual”, which is a complete body ritual based on ancient traditions including a “Green Coffee Detoxifying Body Wrap” and “Natural Healing Bamboo Massage.” Also available are “Couple’s Experiences” designed to bring a sense of closeness and harmony while indulging in side-by-side treatments.
Looking for a truly unique experience here? Try one of the Canopy Suites. The popular stilted tree houses offer spectacular views from a Four Season’s perspective!
Great for: Couples, Friends and Families
Dreams Las Mareas
Opened in 2016, the newly built Dreams Las Mareas is located on the far northern coast of Guanacaste, in the up-and-coming area called Playa El Jobo. Owned by AMR Resorts (the parent company of both Secrets and Dreams Resorts), the luxury all-inclusive was designed for couples, friends and families. With 447 luxury suites, the property showcases brilliant views of the turquoise Pacific, as well as the mountains and tropical jungle. Daily activities are varied and include the following: cooking and cocktail classes, Spanish and dance lessons, tours and excursions, deep sea fishing, yoga, local wildlife viewing, snorkeling, introductory scuba diving lessons, scuba diving trips and kite surfing.
Like Secrets, Dreams has a luxurious full-service spa. With 10 indoor/outdoor therapy cabins, guests can choose from services that combine hydrotherapy and indigenous treatments. The five a la carte restaurants run the gamut of gourmet fare, including fresh seafood, Mexican, Pan-Asian, Italian and International specialties. And to top it all off, the seven bars on the property offer top shelf spirits.
In addition to the plethora of activities for adults, the kid’s programs on property are really exceptional. A fully supervised children’s program for ages 3-12 called Explorers Club, is run by Red Cross certified staff and age appropriate activities, based on science, nature and exploration include options like nature hikes, weekly camping nights, sand castle competitions, movie nights, treasure hunts, arts and crafts and a kids swimming pool. Parents are supplied with pagers so they can keep in touch with their children. Older children, ages 13-17, will enjoy the Core Zone Teens Club, with nightly entertainment, daily activities and a vast array of sports and games including: late night disco mixers, pool games, euro-bungee, snack bar, pool table, ping-pong and video games.
A two-hour drive from the Liberia Airport, the transfer to Dreams Las Mareas requires travel over some rough, dirt roads—conditions which ongoing infrastructure development should improve. Despite its distance from the airport, I really liked the resort. The vibe here felt sophisticated and lively. The property was infused with touches of Costa Rican design and culture, with a professional staff intent on delivering an exceptional guest experience. And with its close proximity to the Nicaraguan border, you could easily split your vacation time between the two countries!
Travel advisory: Be sure to carry your passport when off resort grounds. Vehicles are frequently stopped due to a recent influx of illegal immigrants from neighboring countries.
Great for: Big Multi-Generational Groups
The Westin Resort and Spa Playa Conchal
A former Paradisus property, The Westin Playa Conchal is an all-inclusive resort located on Playa Conchal Beach, featuring large hacienda-styled suites with private balconies that provide perfect perches for wildlife viewing! Although this hotel is very spread out, golf carts are readily available throughout the property so you’ll never feel stranded. Avoid frustration and get a better understanding of the lay-of-the-land by taking the golf cart tour of the resort when you arrive (it is offered daily from 3-4pm).
The Westin works well for weddings and groups, especially those interested in golf and fishing. Many units overlook the 18-hole, par 71 Robert Trent Jones Golf Course. For romance, superior amenities, location and service, I recommend the adults-only Royal Beach Club section of resort. Exclusive access to the Royal Lounge, top shelf liquor and Adults only pool, make it well worth the upgrade!
The complimentary fitness program includes activities like morning beach yoga, couples massage lesson, aqua yoga and sunset pilates. Westin Kids Club is open from 9am-5pm at no additional charge. Round-trip Shuttles to Tamarindo available day and night, for a small fee. Tours can be arranged on-site with Swiss Tours, housed in the hotel lobby.
Great for: People Who Love Choices
Hotel Riu Palace & Hotel Riu Guanacaste
Located on Matapalo Beach, just 20 miles from Liberia Airport, these two all-inclusive, ocean-front resorts offer a staggering 1,239 rooms between them. Although I’m not typically a fan of the mammoth all-inclusive, there is something to be said for the value that these two properties provide.
Combined, the two resorts offer a whopping 10 restaurants and 9 bars, most of which are accessible to guests of either property. We happened to be there for breakfast and I was pleasantly surprised by both the meal and the service, including live cooking stations throughout. And while I wasn’t particularly impressed with the general interior of the guest rooms, the furnished balconies were spacious with gorgeous views.
The magnificent scenery is the real star here. Set on a gorgeous beach, the massive swim areas, lined with lounge chairs and seating built into the pool, provide ample area to enjoy the views while sipping on unlimited cocktails. I spoke with one happy guest who raved about the number of howler monkeys she had seen on property.
For those who don’t like to sit still, activities such as tennis, scuba diving lessons, windsurfing, kayaking and snorkeling are included in the rate. And for parents in need of a break, the Riu offers two children’s programs: one for ages 4-7, and another for the 8-12 year olds.