San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bully, Bully for Hotel Bula Bula, a Happy Hideaway in Playa Grande

Despite all the development controversies and pollution problems in and around the booming beach community of Tamarindo, on the northern Pacific coast, there are still some relatively unscathed hideaways nearby. Just 21 kilometers north on a (finally!) paved road, or a short boat shuttle across the Tamarindo estuary, Hotel Bula Bula happily sits in Playa Grande between two nature reserves: the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge stretching along the lush, mangrove-lined estuary, and Las Baulas National Marine Park, famous for its pristine surfers’ beach by day and leatherback turtle nesting by night.

“Happily” is the operative word here, not only for this hotel’s location but also for its amiable ambience – and its name, a Fijian greeting literally meaning “happy, happy.”

This dream location didn’t happen by accident. Co-owners Wally Beck and Todd Redecker, who teamed up in California, scouted 60 properties from Playas del Coco to the north to Dominicalito in the south, before choosing this perfect spot in 2002.

Beck had years of experience as a food and beverage director for mainstream hotel chains, and Redecker had worked in the high-tech industry. Together, their California dreaming turned into a happy reality.

The buildings, which began life as the Hotel and Restaurant Cantarana (since moved to a new location farther north in Playa Grande), provided a great foundation for Beck and Redecker to build their “boutique” hotel. In the five years since they opened for business, the sparsely landscaped grounds have blossomed into a tropical tour de force of hibiscus hedges, enormous cacti, primeval cycads, lacy dwarf poinciana and colorful crotons, all shaded by mature palms.

The pool isn’t huge, but curves and landscaping provide private nooks and it’s unusually deep, which keeps it cool. There’s a shallow shelf where you can sit and sip a drink, soothed by the splash of a small cascade. But the shelf drops right off into deeper water, so it isn’t ideal for kids.

In fact, the hotel is aimed more at grownups than families. The 10 rooms, arranged in two rows set at a 45-degree angle along two plant-bordered verandas, all have king-size beds. Although the rooms are on the small side, you’ll find everything you need to be comfortable – a small fridge, a decent-sized closet area, a full-length mirror and deep storage shelves.

The color scheme is a bold mix of jewelcolored walls: orangey-gold, aqua, ruby red and royal blue, all in the same room. Wall sconces cast a romantic glow, and colorful wall plaques of toucans and fish add tasteful tropical touches.

A handsome, leaf-shaped ceiling fan and quiet air-conditioning unit at ceiling level keep the rooms cool. The satellite TV and DVD player are also mounted high on the wall, taking up less space and making TV watching comfortable from beds piled high with pillows. Reading in bed isn’t very practicable, though, as the wall sconces aren’t bright enough. But there are two rattan armchairs out on the veranda, where you can read during the day or sit and talk late into the evening.

Bathrooms are bright, white ceramic accented with art nouveau tiles, with good lighting, enough space to stow your toiletries and a gentle misting shower with plenty of hot water.

This is one hotel that passes my personal “hook test” with flying colors. I figure any hotelier who understands that guests need somewhere to hang up damp bathing suits, sun hats, bathrobes or beach bags is attuned to their guests’ other needs as well. I counted seven hooks in my room. Not only were they useful hooks, but they were also fun to look at, shaped like iguanas and flamingos.

Luxury touches here that you usually expect to find only in more expensive hotels include complimentary bottles of chilled water, glasses with cloth napkins, thick pool towels, colorful sarongs and coffeemakers with ceramic coffee mugs and metal spoons, instead of throw-away plastic.

The hotel’s social hub is the ample bar, presided over by Bert, a talkative yellownaped parrot who has his own extensive garden perch and toys, but likes to socialize with guests. Popular with both locals and tourists, the bar is famous for its oversize martinis, margaritas and piña coladas in 21-ounce goblets. I tried the huge Siberia, a sweet version of a White Russian, with Kahlua, Café Rica, vodka, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. I couldn’t finish it. An even bigger draw for me were the two laptop computers with Wi-Fi connection, free for guests to use at the bar.

The large, alfresco restaurant, called The Great Waltini’s, is very popular with locals, drawing regulars and tourists from Tamarindo as well. When you reserve for dinner, the hotel will send a boat to pick you up in Tamarindo and shuttle you over the estuary.

Beck describes his cuisine as a fusion of the Americas, including California fresh,  Gulf Coast Cajun, New England traditional and Costa Rican specialties. The fish is always excellent – especially the tuna (¢6,595/$13) – and the restaurant is renowned for its peel-and-eat shrimp (¢4,250/$8.50), imported rib-eye steaks (¢6,995/$14) and aged Costa Rican fillet (¢8,495/$17). Be warned, though: menu prices do not include tax and service.

Breakfasts, included in the room rate, are hearty and delicious, with fresh fruit and juice, huge mugs of coffee and choices of omelets and giant banana or plain pancakes.

When you aren’t relaxing by the pool, sipping a huge fruit smoothie or eating heartily, you can stroll 10 minutes through the shaded, prettily landscaped Palm Beach Estates to the public access to Playa Grande.

Signs warn you of dangerous currents, but the long, flat beach is great for walking and wading, and watching intrepid surfers battle the waves. At night, of course, you are just steps away from the most important leatherback turtle nesting area in Costa Rica.

The hotel books tours with national park guides every night from November to April ($16 for tourists, ¢2,000/$4 for residents and nationals).

One of the best features of staying here is right in the hotel’s own backyard: the 953- acre Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge estuary, home to a host of herons, wading birds, monkeys, iguanas and crocodiles. You can walk 10 meters to the dock to pick up an early-morning boat tour of the estuary ($25), or ask the hotel to arrange kayak or canoe rentals to explore the extensive mangrove channels at your own peaceful pace. Happy

Happy Meals at Bula Bula

The Great Waltini’s is a home away from home for many locals, and is especially popular for its festive Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s dinners.

For Thanksgiving this year, the kitchen served up 17 turkeys with all the trimmings.

This Christmas, along with traditional turkey, duck and beef, Wally Beck will once again be offering his renowned Kahlua Pig, an 80-pound pig stuffed with tropical fruits, garlic and onions, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a sand pit for almost 15 hours.

New Year’s Eve is always a prix-fixe night, including appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert, plus a glass of champagne and what co-owner Todd Redecker claims are the best fireworks in the area. For more information and reservations, call 653-0975.


Getting There, Rates, Info

Hotel Bula Bula is in Playa Grande, 21 km north of Tamarindo. From the Huacas crossroads, drive west to Matapalo and then south to Playa Grande, a  total of 11 km along a decent, paved road. The last 2 km to the hotel, which is at the east end of the Palm Beach Estates, are on a graded dirt road.

A double room in high season costs $110 plus tax, including breakfast and free Internet access. Note: the restaurant is closed Mondays.

For information and reservations, call 653-0975 or visit


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