San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cristal Ballena Adds New Sparkle to Southern Pacific Coast

IF, like Nellie Forbush in the musical“South Pacific,” you’ve ever wondered“how it feels, living on a hillside, lookingon an ocean, beautiful and still,” here’syour chance. Cristal Ballena Hotel Resort,wedged between El Tigre Mountain andPlaya Arco, south of Uvita on the southernPacific coast, is the perfect hillside hotelwith an ocean view. Smack-dab in the centerof everything the Dominical/Uvita areaoffers, the new four-star hotel is now themost luxurious base for exploring thisadventure-packed area.Apart from the ocean view, the jewel inthe crystal crown of this hotel is thesparkling pool. At 400 square meters, thereis arguably no grander pool in the country.Other pools may be larger, but perhaps noother boasts such a scenic panorama ofmist-enshrouded mountaintops and boundlessocean. Serious swimmers can actuallyget in a 25-meter lap, though there is, alas,a sloping beach entry (the bane of lapswimmers) at one end of the pool and a sittingledge at the other. Dedicated poolloungers can just sit back and enjoy theever-changing, spectacular views. Onequibble: It seems a shame that in the midstof so much natural beauty, the ownersopted for generic, white plastic pool chairs.THE new hotel, granted four stars bythe Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT),opened in March. It’s a dream come truefor owner Waldemar Steiner, a formernotary public and politician in his nativeAustria. Inspired by motivational guruTony Robbins’ seminars, Steiner and hiswife Herta decided to completely changetheir lives and way of thinking.“We had been coming to Costa Rica for14 years, drawn by the sense of adventure,”Steiner said. “When the road toUvita finally went through (about eightyears ago), we bought property.”Four years ago, after Steiner retired, thecouple decided to build a seminar center.“But we realized people attending theseminars would need to eat, so we built arestaurant, then a hotel – now, after all thatmoney going out, we need to start bringingmoney in,” Steiner joked.The hotel is done in a fresh, blue and whiteMediterranean style, with lots ofglass, balustrades and classical touches,juxtaposed with primitive Choroteganstone statues. Its 14 rooms and five mastersuites are beyond spacious, and featureamenities such as minibars, coffeemakers,safety boxes and satellite televisions set onswivel bases. Each room has a large, private,furnished terrace, with a sea view.The decor is fairly conservative, en- livened by small original paintings of animals,flowers and birds by local artists, andhandsome curved chairs designed bySteiner himself. Tropical-themed linenscover the canopy beds, which are draped indramatic mosquito netting. All the roomsare air-conditioned, but many people willwant to sleep with the sliding glass doorsopen to catch the ocean breezes. The large,tiled bathrooms have the added luxury oftwo separate sinks.What is a little unusual here are thevarying degrees of wear and tear. Therooms are all spanking new, as is the toweredreception building with a mirador(viewpoint) on top. But the restaurant andpool, built earlier, are showing slight signsof age, as are the four adventure lodges,rustic cabins originally built for the owners’guests.THE hotel restaurant, Pura Vida, overlooksthe pool and the ocean from a breezyterrace. The menu is international withsome tropical Tico touches – pejibaye,heart of palm and passion fruit. There arealso a couple of Austrian dishes: Wienerschnitzel and beef goulash.The restaurant is still finding its culinary feet. Chef Joseph Reyes hasimagination, but his execution is sometimesheavy-handed. Pork medallions aresmothered in a pineapple, mango andblackberry sauce, accompanied by perfectlyroasted rosemary potatoes, but thepork is slightly overcooked, and the sauceis a little too sweet.The chef does know how to cook fishperfectly. His tender mahi-mahi swims in abuttery white-wine sauce covered withthinly sliced macadamia nuts, all arrangedover a medley of properly steamed babyvegetables. The presentation is sophisticatedbut not pretentious. The portions arehuge (and shareable), justifying what atfirst seem like high prices ($10-18 plus taxfor dinner main courses).Breakfast, included in the room rate,is a feast, starting with a buffet of fruit,orange juice, cereal and strong coffee,followed by made-to-order, huge portionsof eggs, excellent omelets, gallo pintoand crisp bacon. The only failing here isthe lack of whole-wheat bread – there’sonly white – for toast.The restaurant’s main problem is slowservice, especially at lunch. The wait staffis amiable enough, but the kitchen isn’tcrackerjack efficient yet. So give yourselflots of time to relax; do a little birdwatchingfrom the terrace, perhaps, and enjoy theviews and breezes while you wait.LAND and sea adventures abound inthe Dominical/Uvita area. The hotel staffcan arrange activities ranging from dolphin-and whale-watching, snorkeling,fishing, sea kayaking and white-water raftingto canopy tours, birdwatching, hiking,horseback riding and even ultralightflights. The hotel is also organizing visitsto the year-end Fiesta de los Diablitos, anindigenous festival held in a Boruca villageabout an hour and a half’s drive away. Ifyou want to stay close to home, a swimmablesector of Ballena National Marine Parkis just 1.5 kilometers straight down the hill,and the Whale’s Tail section of the beach,walkable at low tide, is 6 km to the north.The hotel is already hosting meetingsand special events in the glassed-in, airconditionedconference center that sits atopthe restaurant. A regional Public HealthMinistry meeting was under way when Ivisited, and it was obvious that participantswere having a hard time concentrating onthe business at hand. Most of them keptgetting up to gaze out the windows, takingin the 360-degree views of pool, mountainsand sea.Cristal Ballena Hotel Resort is 7 kmsouth of Uvita on the coastal highway, 25minutes by car from Palmar Sur airport.Until Dec. 15, special introductory ratesare $107 for junior suites and $137 formaster and family suites, plus taxes.Adventure lodges are $57 plus taxes. Forreservations or information, call 365-6258or visit

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