Secret Hotels of Costa Rica
In a corner of the southern Nicoya Peninsula--a laid-back slice of paradise on the Pacific that surfers would just as soon keep to themselves--we've uncovered nine charming hideaways. Even in high season, none costs more than $145 a night; one has rooms for $22. Don't tell the surfers that you heard about it from us
Ylang-Ylang Beach Resort
It takes a certain confidence to put up a hotel in a spot that requires a 15-minute hike on the beach to find, but Ylang-Ylang pulls it off. (You can arrange a lift for you or your bags from sister property El Sano Banano, located in town.) Shielded from the ocean by palm trees, the resort is set in a jungle clearing, and borders a wildlife reserve on one side. Ylang-Ylang's main, two-story building has six rooms, each with pale yellow walls and brightly striped blankets. The eight bungalows are more private; all but one have ocean views from their patios. Stone walkways connect the buildings and are lined with flowering plants and trees, including the fragrant ylang-ylang (naturally). The restaurant's menu was created by a French chef--he trained the kitchen staff and returns periodically to add new dishes such as grilled sea bass in a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and white wine. Montezuma is the most compact and walkable of the southern Nicoya towns. During the day, street vendors sell jewelry and beaded caps from folding tables; at night, surfers and tourists barhop along the main drag. 011-506/642-0636, elbanano.com, doubles from $85, includes breakfast.
Amor de Mar
An Adirondack-style lodge houses Amor de Mar's 11 rooms, paneled in dark wood and decorated sparely, so as not to distract from the views (best from the second-floor porch). Two rooms share a bath, but the others are private. A patio restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, emphasizing simple fare like tropical smoothies and homemade breads. The wide front lawn gently slopes toward a rocky point, where there's a tide pool big enough to swim in. It's a five-minute walk to the nearest sandy beach, and thrill seekers will be happy to know that Amor de Mar is close to the famed Montezuma Canopy Tour, a zip line that whizzes through treetops and down over waterfalls ($30 for two hours). 011-506/642-0262, amordemar.com, doubles from $55.
The Swiss owners of The Place have combined the famed tidiness of their home country--a custom-built rack neatly stores guests' surfboards--with design-conscious decor. Of the eight rooms, five are bungalows. Each is themed--Ocean Breeze, Out of Africa, Spicy Colors of Mexico, and so on. Some have mosquito netting hanging from a square frame on the ceiling, which lends a bit of drama, and the en suite bathrooms are separated by saloon-style doors. The Place bills itself as a surfer hangout, but the crowd is generally more novice than veteran, and many guests sign up for lessons--$45 for two hours, including board rental. (The hotel is on the nonbeach side of the street, however, and a 10-minute walk from a good surf break.) A large pool is the focal point of an outdoor living room with lounge chairs and daybeds. On Tuesdays, a screen is hung over the pool for movie night. There's no restaurant, but Frank's Place--with tasty ham-and-cheese omelets and shrimp with rice--is two minutes down the road on foot. 011-506/640-0001, theplacemalpais.com, doubles from $80.
A massive three-headed tribal sculpture--you kind of have to see it to understand--marks the entrance to Moana, and it's only the first taste of the hotel's African theme. Wa-Kabwe Kabue-Tshibanda, a Belgian with Congolese roots, has collected angular wooden masks and shields in the Congo and Ivory Coast. They're now scattered around his property--mounted next to the reception desk, near the pool, and on the walls of the seven rooms. Five of the rooms are air-conditioned and some have leopard-print pillows on the single beds. Moana is set on a hillside and has ocean views in the distance; the beach is on the other side of the road. There isn't a restaurant, but rather a well-appointed communal kitchen and a self-serve bar. Located at the southern end of Malpais, Moana is blessedly quiet--the kind of hotel that would be fun to take over with friends. 011-506/640-0230, moanalodge.com, doubles from $60.
It's easy to see why Leonardo DiCaprio stayed here with his girlfriend--the hotel has only four rooms, which guarantees privacy. Caroline Marot and her business partner (and now ex-husband) Philippe Verquin filled each bungalow with Balinese teak furniture, such as intricately carved armoires and antique four-poster beds. At night, guests are encouraged to open all the windows--and one wall of doors that lead to a private veranda--to let in the warm breezes. In the morning, noise from howler monkeys in the trees may provide a comic wake-up call. The bathrooms are private and semi-alfresco: The toilet and sink are under the roof's eaves, but the shower is open to the sky. A seven-table restaurant looks out over the pool, past a well-trimmed lawn, and down to the beach where there's a bamboo massage hut ($55 for an hour). The American chef, James Kelly, draws from Asian influences and makes great use of local seafood. He also plays another role: Marot's fiance. 011-506/640-0023, milarepahotel.com, doubles from $145.
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