Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
Xandari Resort & Spa, Central Valley: Although there is a second international airport siphoning off visitors in Liberia to the north, Costa Rica’s nerve centre is still the Central Valley, dominated by the glittering sprawl of the capital, San José and contained by a steep ring of olive and purple crumpled mountains. The restaurant and villa terraces of Xandari jut out 1300 metres up the north side making ideal vantage points for leaf-gilding sunsets and spectacular storms, and the resort itself, an architectural masterpiece of adobe-style curving white, ochre, coral walls rising above palms, sprawling bougainvillea and clumps of heliconia, adds a dramatic beauty all of its own.
The creation of architect-owner, Sherrill Broudy, and embellished by his artist wife, Charlene, Xandari’s 22 villas have a light and airy elegance, wonderful open bathrooms and spectacular views right from the beds. While they offer semi-independence – each has privacy and a fridge, the resort’s communal facilities – a deeply restful, tropical spa, restaurant (have the pumpkin and macademia nut pie), walking trails and two 60 ft lap pools – will prove hard to resist. While Xandari offers rare comfort to discerning sophisticates, its setting is quintessentially tico rural. A golden sun-slant stroll takes you past homesteads and sodas serving the ubiquitous gallo pinto (rice and beans) and fresh cas, papaya and watermelon juice; a short drive get you to dripping cloud forests, waterfalls and the burbling crater of Poás Volcano.
Alajuela (20 mins from airport); xandari.com; Tel (506) 443 2020
Villa Montezuma Hills, Nicoya Peninsula Of all the barefoot, kick-back Costa Rican beach spots, Montezuma on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula wins hands down with its rickety palm thatch beach bars, old boats heaved onto the sand, surfers in hammocks, basking iguanas and gentle thrum of reggae. Since the 1970s the area has attracted Californian and European settlers and backpackers becoming an alternative, cosmopolitan community, extending around rocky bays and white sand scoops to Santa Teresa and Malpais. Renting a basic, thatched cabina might be more in keeping with the original spirit of place, but a week ensconced at the fully-staffed, ultra-exclusive Villa Montezuma Hills will only make you love it more. Set in an 18-hectare tropical garden and jungle estate (occupied by only one other small house and the staff quarters at the gate), and overlooking the sea, this warm-toned Mexican-style villa is designed for that easy indoor-outdoor drift from blue pool to mosaic deck, to sofas to well-stocked fridge to bed and back again. The living space which includes fancy kitchen and wooden dining table with seating for 10, is open-sided under its 10-metre roof, but the six bedrooms not only have doors but air-conditioning. In fact, for all the naïf rustic just-go-native charm, this provides plenty of modern comforts including a home theatre system with satellite TV.
Montezuma; min 5-nights; villamontezumahills.com
Hotel Tree House, southern Caribbean Even in a country famed for the juxtaposition of luxurious comfort and natural marvels, a two-storey air-conditioned tree house is a thing of wonder. While not strictly a villa per se, this Sangrillo tree, being exclusive, exquisitely furnished and well-equipped, plus enjoying a splendidly remote beachfront location, meets most villa-seeker requirements as well as being a green choice. Steel cable bridges link the upstairs double bedroom and bathroom with an air-conditioned room, kitchen and loafing space, second bedroom and shower room built into the buttress roots and tantalisingly open to the jungle below. The house was built from salvaged hardwood inside the Gandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, and is one of four dotted on a 10-acre deep soft, white sand, beachfront property belonging to the Green Iguana Foundation. Hammocks are well-positioned for not only watching for the foundation’s beneficiaries, but an amazing range of wildlife in this fecund jungle spot. When it’s too steamy to cook, head to Selvin’s for whole fish and fresh lobster. The sandy lane north to the ramshackle party town of Puerto Viejo is flanked with small hatch-front pulperias selling beer and cold drinks, palm trees, hibiscus hedges, brightly-painted stilt houses to covet, and amazingly good restaurants, the best serving Caribbean home-cooking or fancy Italian fare.
Gandoca-Manzanillo; costaricatreehouse.com; Tel (506) 750-0706
Hacienda Pinilla, Guanacaste When H.G.Patillo, a developer from Atlanta, Georgia fell for a wild stretch of rocky pools and shell-strewn sand on the northern Guanacaste coast, he was told si, he could buy the piece of land but he’d have to take the 4,900 acre cattle ranch that went with it. Thirty years much of the estate is untouched, part transformed into an 18-hole golf course, a corner taken for the construction of a JW Marriott, and several patches given over to residential development. Many of the privately-owned Spanish colonial-style villas and units, and a few substantial, opulent and well-marbled million dollar dream houses are available for rent, wi-fied, well-furnished and equipped to perfection. The big treats here though are the extras – the golf course, stables, hiking trails and 7km empty beach, the sense of open space and freedom in this chunk of cowboy country, and the night sky which, far from light pollution, is always black-hole black and full of stars. These simple pleasures are best experienced at Matapalo, one of the Hacienda’s three Pequeňa Finca beach houses. Old and traditional, with wooden walls, porch, veranda and leather rockers, it can sleep 20 and lurks dreamily in the shade of trees full of monkeys on the very edge of Playa Langosta, a coconut toss from Mr Patillo’s favoured spot and his own home. Superb Asian-Costa Rican fusion food is cooked up at Posada del Sol, a small hotel on the property, and local entertainment in the form of a pig at Lola’s beach bar across the Estuario Avellanas, as well as bullfighting (bulls versus unarmed ranchers) and rodeos in nearby Villareal.
Nr. Tamarindo; Matapalo (the smallest, Farolindo sleeps 6); haciendapinilla.com; Tel (506) 680 7060
Mono Loco, Los Suenos, Central Pacific When shadows grow long, bats flit through the rancho-style living room and a soft hoo-hoo and rustling emanates from behind the jungle curtain, it’s possible you may derive comfort from knowing there is a Marriott Hotel serving Long Island ice teas a Jeep-hop away, golfers driving white carts to the 19th hole, boat-owners drinking sundowners at the marina, holiday-makers examining menus in eight decent bars and restaurants on the very same property, children scooting across pools on lilos all down the steep hill, from knowing – in short – that relative civilisation remains on stand-by in case required. Being a well-established swanky resort community on the shores of Bahia Herradura, most of the accommodation at Los Sueńos is in upmarket condo clusters with tidy lawns and pools. But the 600-acre property gets a bit wilder round the edges and in that fecund undergrowth, the forest fringe, larger, secluded private houses can be found for rent. Mono Loco (mad monkey) has three air-conditioned bedrooms (one in a building of its very own) but not many walls aside from that and therefore, like Costa Rica on the whole, not for entomophobics. Get over this detail and you’re in for a treat. There’s a masseuse and chef at your disposal, the gardens are lush, and the infinity pool has ocean views.
Rates include 24/7 security guard and concierge service, daily maid, access to 2-acre owners’ Beach Club. Helicopter transfer from San José available on request; stayincostarica.com/monoloco; Tel (506) 637-7111
Casa las Brisas, Central Pacific Manuel Antonio has long been the country’s premier boutique hotel destination. Now there are as many private villas hidden in the foliage above the jungle-fringed white sand beaches as hotels, from budget to grandiose, and offering a good alternative for those ready to move onwards and upwards from cocktails at the wet bar, buffet breakfasts and the company of older honeymooners. The convergence of national park, seaside, informal restaurants and adventure tours make this the ideal family destination, and with 9-bedrooms and small pools indoors and outdoors, Casa las Brisas is certainly big enough to accommodate one or two and keep them happy. Quirkily luxurious, built over multiple levels, fundamentally white and bathed in light, the villa is designed for appreciating its unique surroundings. Out back, a wooden veranda looks onto the rainforest and twice-daily parade of squirrel monkeys, howlers and capuchins; out front, the balconies, pool and vast basking deck look over Manuel Antonio bay sparkling turquoise below. Should you tire of feeling removed from it all, jet ski safaris, sport fishing, kayaking and sunset cruises can all be booked at one of a dozen tour agencies in the lush, bustling tourist town lying virtually on your doorstep.
Manuel Antonio: (minimum 8 adults) rates include transfers, 4×4 Car, private chef, food and (local) drink, maid, laundry, gardener, guard and house manager. Villa also available as 5-bed rental. vivalasvillas.com; Tel (506) 777 5258
SORREL DOWNER, CONDE NAST TRAVELLER