San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Couple Transforms Old Surfers’ Hotel on Playa Guiones into Sophisticated Beach Haven

WANTED: Down-at-heels surfers’ hotel, 14 years old, desperately seeking new lease on life. Mature gardens, swaying palm trees, fabulous swimming pool. Nosara’s best surf breaks just two minutes away. Must find simpatico new owners to Save Our Surf haven.

That ad never actually appeared. But when the neglected Hotel Villa Taype on Playa Guiones, a favorite surfers’ haunt for more than a decade, was put up for sale in 2005, it was touch and go whether it would be torn down, parceled off and redeveloped.

Happily, the beach hotel near Nosara, on the northern Pacific coast, has been rescued by a young New York couple who just happen to be avid surfers. Susan (from Miami) and John (a New Yorker) Johnson not only met on the beach in Nosara, but they also got married there.

What could make a happier ever-after than rescuing and restoring the flagship hotel in the place where they fell in love?

The Johnsons’ concept was to transform the overgrown gardens and sprawling, unloved buildings into a sophisticated beach haven for people like them. Tall, athletic thirty-somethings, the Johnsons are past the age of cramming bodies into shared hotel rooms and partying late into the night.

“We made it the way we would like it,” Susan says.

And the way they like it is very pleasant, indeed. The watchword is low-key luxury, with a focus on maintaining harmony with the environment, hence the name Harmony Hotel.With the help of a New York architect, the Johnsons got the ball rolling and after eight months of hard work succeeded in giving the old girl a miraculous facelift.

The last time I visited the old Taype, the basic bones of a grand hotel were still there, but the garden was an overgrown jungle, fabrics were threadbare, rooms were neglected and musty and the clientele leaned heavily toward the unkempt, bearded, biker category.

I visited again in early March, just before the 24-room hotel’s official opening. What a transformation! I walked under the new canvas awning with a fringe – very Palm Beach – and entered a chic new hotel, quietly glamorous with a subdued palette of sage, café au lait and cream.

The lobby/bar/restaurant is a grand, tiled arcade softened with earthy textures: grassmatting on the walls, jute-covered sconces and a cane and bamboo bar. Furnishings feature oversize, retro, basket-weave chairs, giant pots with palms and jaunty Frenchbistro tables and chairs, which look convincingly like rattan and cane but are actually longer-wearing plastic.

The massive, curvaceous pool glimpsed from the shade of the tiled lobby is still the heart of the hotel. The old tacky pool bar has been reincarnated as an idyllic, tropical islet with coordinating pale-green palms.

Handsome teak chaises longues, plush with chocolate-colored square cushions piped with cream, circle the palm-shaded pool, adding a touch of ’50s Hollywood glamour.

You almost expect Marilyn Monroe to saunter in and take up a sunbathing pose under a sage-and-cream canvas umbrella.

Under two arcaded passages facing the pool, dove-gray doors with ceramic French number plates lead into nine spacious “Cocos” rooms, each with a private sundeck out back, and both indoor and outdoor showers. New mosaic paths made from shards of cream-colored tile meander through the garden to seven spruced-up, white, one-bedroom bungalows and four huge, two-bedroom bungalows shaded by towering palm trees.

All the rooms have luxurious king-size beds imported from New York, heaped with a snow-white duvet and plump pillows. The rest of the furnishings are still a bit of a mishmash, with some vintage Taype, darkwood pieces lurking among ultra-cool glass lamps and French bistro chairs. But the rooms now have new, quieter air conditioners, mini-fridges, coffeemakers, safety boxes and updated bathrooms with plenty of hot water. Overhead reading lamps, hammocks and retractable clotheslines are all on order.

There’s no TV, but the pool area is equipped with wireless Internet access, and the rooms will also have Wi-Fi soon.

The kitchen wasn’t open yet, but a New York chef in beach shorts was busily working on his laptop, creating a simple, health-conscious menu. After the menu is finalized, the chef will hand off to a team of local cooks he has trained, leaving behind a detailed recipe book, complete with photos of finished dishes.

In line with the Johnsons’ earth-friendly leanings, there will be no bottled or canned soft drinks sold in the hotel. Instead, there will be fresh juices and fruit smoothies available at the bar (which also has a limited cocktail list) and at a new juice bar tucked in a corner of the hotel’s extensive gardens.

There’s a new Ping-Pong table in a covered rancho in the garden, and a separate spa building is in the works. A former swimming pool outside what is now employee housing has been converted into a plant-edged pond in the hopes of attracting thirsty wildlife.

Just past the villas, a gate leads directly into the Nosara Wildlife Refuge, a narrow band of trees and grassland, twittering with bird life.

Just a couple hundred yards beyond lies the glorious seven-kilometer-long beach with its famous surfing waves.

The Johnsons definitely succeeded in making the hotel look marvelous. But they astutely realized that there is much more to running a hotel than making it look good. So they called in expert help in the form of Cayuga Sustainable Management, a San José-based management company, backed by an international network that specializes in “conservation-oriented hospitality.”

Cayuga’s most famous client is Lapa Ríos, the award-winning eco-lodge on the Southern Zone’s OsaPeninsula.

Luis Fernando Rodríguez, a Cayuga associate and the hotel’s new general manager, went to work last December, making sure Harmony’s infrastructure and service live up to the Johnsons’ conservation goals and high expectations.

Conserving water is one of the crucial tasks. New copper gutters funnel rainwater to a tank where it is filtered and reused in the garden sprinkler system. Gray water is used to irrigate the outer edges of the garden, where banana trees and gingers have been planted to attract animals.

In keeping with the hotel’s sustainable tourism focus, all employees are locals, most of them brand new to the hotel business.

Rodríguez’s job is to train them and help them develop new skills, including mastering English. Although it’s early yet, all the staff I encountered were friendly and helpful. There wasn’t a surly or indifferent face among them.

So, the Hotel Villa Taype happily lives on in a new, upscale incarnation, a draw for beach  lovers who appreciate comfort and natural beauty. Loyal guests can return to the scene of youthful surfing days, although it will cost them a little more. Nosara keeps a potential mega-development at bay. And the Johnsons get to surf in their own beautiful backyard.

Rates and Information

Harmony Hotel is in Playa Guiones, just south of Nosara. Take the Café de Paris road almost to the end. Until April 30, standard “Coco” rooms are $100 plus tax; a spacious private bungalow is $170; and large two-bedroom bungalows (three have connecting doors) are $340. Low-season rates, about 20% lower, start May 1. Breakfast and lunch are now available. For info or reservations, call 682-0571, fax 682-0187 or visit


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