VACATION

This great Delectus cab was one of many bottles we enjoyed in Costa Rica

Sometimes we might limit ourselves in terms of enjoying a vacation by not planning ahead in terms of wine. Speaking personally, many of our vacations are specifically to regions of great wine, so it's not a probllem. But there are places where access to wine is limited. That could lead to a choice of skipping the place...or skipping the wine. But it doesn't have to. We just came back from a fabulous week in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is famous for a lot of things. Great beaches. Wonderful birds and wildlife. Eco-tourism. But not wine. The trip was actually born in a charity wine auction. A friend purchased it at Hearts Delight 2013. The auction provided rooms in a tiny hotel in a remote Costa Rican village on the Pacific Coast. A glance at Trip Advisor made clear that people enjoyed the hotel. There were numerous references to the owners going out of their way to accommodate guests. We contacted them a couple of months before our trip. Among the things we discussed was wine. Their wine list was limited. Good selection of beers. Skilled bartender making tropical drinks. But limited wine selection. The owners didn't take long to prove that their reputation for accommodating guests was deserved. They sent us their distributor's whole portfolio--giving us a chance to choose some wines, which they ordered. And Costa Rica's laws--and the hotel's cooperation--allowed us to bring some wine to augment those selections. From the international airport in San Jose, it was about a five hour drive to the Hotel Laguna Mar in the village of Javilla. More than half of that drive was through the mountains on twisting dirt roads. It was a adventure! We were glad to arrive. Though small, the hotel had nice ambiance that has been called "South Beach" in style. The rooms are European-size (smaller than the US average) but comfortable and air conditioned. The airy casual bar and adjacent dining area are the social center. We had heard the food was good--and it didn't take long to become believers. Chef Pablo was from a nearby village--but had honed his craft in Europe. He gave that up to return so he could be close to family and enjoy Costa Rica's relaxed "pura vida." Ceiling fans stirred the thick air as we sipped Viu Manent rosé from Chile and savored Pablo's cuisine. A mixed ceviche, made from four kinds of shellfish, was the hit of the appetizers. Short ribs and beef tenderloin were among the popular mains. A couple of bottles of Vistalba Corte C from Mendoza contributed to the festivities. The wines were fresh, fruity and enjoyable…just right for a warm night. Several local couples were at the bar, with salsa music quietly playing in the background. They welcomed us generously and chatted about things to do in the area. And we shared our wine. The hotel was built by a couple from the DC area about ten years ago when the global economy was booming and the forecast for development along Costa Rica's Pacific Coast was encouraging. The global downturn dampened that encouragement. But in its own way, that contributes to Hotel Laguna Mar's charm. It's alone. No competition. No other tourists. No crowds. It's almost hard to comprehend. Sunday morning, around noon, I walked from one end of the beautiful beach to the other…and then back. A total of perhaps five or six miles. In all that time, I saw one other human being (walking the opposite direction). I had the whole gorgeous beach to myself. Last year, a French couple who were in the middle of a year traveling around the world, heard about the hotel, looked at it…and bought it. Jean-Luc and CiCi have added a French flair to what was already a very successful operation. It's not easy to characterize why it's so successful. Part of it is the warmth and friendliness of the staff. Part of it is the exceptional efforts the owners make to help people enjoy their stay. Jean-Luc made suggestions for things for us to do…made reservations for us to do them…and then drove us to and from the activities. And the activities were wonderful. We spent a morning at the Jungle Butterfly Farm with Butterfly Mike. The trek through the jungle revealed lots of different species of butterflies…but it was Mike himself that was truly fascinating. His passion for what he was doing was infectious. A day later, we went kayaking in the mangroves with Ingo. These mangroves, which are perhaps only visited by people twenty or so times a year, are a special place--teeming with an amazing diversity of life. But again, it was Ingo's passion that most captivated us. The kayaking was pretty fun, too. And our visit to the macaw breeding center at The Ara Project was fascinating. What beautiful birds. There were dozens of scarlet macaws…less of the rare and endangered green macaws. In fact, so few that when one young female looked for a partner (macaws are monogamous) there were no suitable young males. So she decided that Carlos, the project leader, was her partner. It was very cute to see her nuzzle his finger. But apparently it's less cute when he brings a date back to his house. She gets jealous and bites! Our day at the beach with Ingo and Connie probably deserves special mention. Though they may look like poster children for California surfing--tall and blonde and fit--they're actually from Canada. They spend winters in Costa Rica where Ingo teaches kayaking and Connie teaches surfing. Summers, they teach mountaineering, wilderness survival and white water kayaking in the mountains of Alberta. They live a simple life, close to nature…in beautiful places. And they are kind and generous people--who enjoy sharing their love of nature with others. Teaching old goats like us to surf might either seem too hard or too funny for many surfing instructors. But they seemed to really enjoy making the experience a victory for us. The definition of victory varied from those of us whose time vertical was measured in micro-seconds to one who stood regal as a queen all the way to the beach. But all were victories in our eyes. Connie was very cute as she talked with us with great sincerity about what to look for in our next surfing experience. Uhhh…Connie, this was our surfing experience. Prior to a driftwood bonfire on the beach, we demonstrated more skill at coconut bowling than we had at surfing. The pins were made up of driftwood stuck in the wet sand--the balls selected from among the plentiful coconuts that had fallen. Apparently, at least one and perhaps more of our teams broke the scoring record. We may not have the athletic ability to surf very well, but when it comes to silly games our brute competitiveness shone brightly! What really mattered during all that was not the bowling--it was the stunning sunset and the excellent Oregon pinot noir that we shared as we watched it. Whatever the day's activities, the transition from day to night was marked by a dip in the pool, followed by a glass of wine. And another. And then dinner. The restaurant has a nice menu. But if you stay a while, like we did, there's no need to be constrained by it. We gave Pablo an idea of what we might like and he prepared outstanding dishes to match…from a delicious grilled chicken to go with our chateauneuf-du-pape to a wonderful beef wellington-style dish to go with big reds (like the cab above). And of course, there was great fresh fruit and seafood. There were usually just a few other guests…so essentially, it became one party every night. We didn't feel like tourists staying at a hotel…we felt more like friends who'd been invited to share a relaxed home. With a five-hour drive back to the airport, we had to be off early on departure day. The owner was up at 5:30 to hug us goodbye. I guess that's what you do when friends leave your home.


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