San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arenas del Mar: Sand, Sea and Sustainability in Manuel Antonio

What you don’t see is what you get at Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort, a new hybrid of eco-luxury hotel in Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast. No cars. No crowds. No clutter. In fact, you can barely see the hotel’s seven sage-and-beige modern buildings, melded into a forested hillside that slopes down to two glorious beaches.

How can a brand-new, 38-room luxury hotel almost disappear into 12 acres of beach and forest? It took a lot of planning by masterminds Teri and Glenn Jampol, owners of Finca Rosa Blanca in the northern Central Valley’s Santa Bárbara de Heredia, the first hotel in Costa Rica to garner five leaves, the top rating in the Tourism Ministry’s Certificate of Sustainable Tourism (CST) program. As president of the National Ecotourism Chamber (CANAECO), Glenn has some pretty strong eco ideals. Designing this hotel was a chance to prove that luxurious can also be sustainable.

“Our goal was to create a five-star luxury resort that is also a five-leaf sustainable hotel,” Teri says.

Many of the resort’s ecofriendly features are invisible to guests, but from the moment you arrive, you can feel a natural difference. The open-air welcome pavilion, at the bottom of a precipitous concrete road, is as far as any motorized van or car goes. You then hop aboard an electric cart and wend your way up a winding path through a forest domain bustling with birdsong and backlit by slanting rays of sunshine.

You arrive at an elegant, open-air lobby with a soaring thatched roof punctuated by orange parasols. But your eye is immediately drawn beyond the reception area to the large outdoor deck and small swimming pool, and beyond that to the panorama of sparkling ocean and the sandy stretch of Playa Espadilla, ending at Manuel Antonio’s landmark Cathedral Point.

From here you travel on foot or by electric cart along labyrinthine concrete paths, edged with greenery, stone walls and split-rail fencing, to your room or suite. At first it’s hard to see the three-story buildings for the trees, and the initial effect of the architecture is a little underwhelming. But soon you realize that’s the whole point here: The buildings are camouflaged to blend in. The landscaping is natural, with the focus on native plants; it actually looks a little scruffy in places. But the real beauty of this carefully conserved, secondary-forest habitat is that so much wildlife feels at home here, especially birds.

Because the rooms and paths are built on a slope, you are often actually at bird’s-eye level, looking straight into upper branches. The birds here seem oblivious to human activity and go about their business all day long, even when you are just a few feet away. You can get close-up, prolonged views of such middle-canopy denizens as yellow-crowned euphonias and red-legged honeycreepers, among many others.

In the surrounding forest, you’ll also get your fill of the ubiquitous white-faced capuchin monkeys scrambling among branches and throwing down half-eaten fruits and partially vivisected insects (some still squirming).

There are less common sightings as well. Relaxing by the upper of the hotel’s two swimming pools, I watched a coati emerge from the forest at the far side of the pool, dive in, dog-paddle diagonally across, climb out and make a beeline into the forest on the other side. I didn’t even know coatis could swim, and this one seemed quite nonchalant about using the hotel pool as a shortcut.

The hotel’s other precious natural resource is direct beach access, rare in Manuel Antonio. Wherever you are on the property, the constant sound of the sea is a reminder that you are just steps – albeit steep ones – from two glorious Blue Flag beaches.

A winding concrete path gently descends through forest to the western edge of Playa Espadilla, a long stretch of flat beach that’s perfect for walking, running, people-watching and swimming, or boogie-boarding and surfing when the waves get high. At this end, the beach is quiet and serene, and the hotel disappears into the foliage. A 15-minute walk along the beach delivers you right to the entrance of ManuelAntonioNational Park.

Even more secluded, separated from Playa Espadilla by a rocky headland, is Playa Playitas, also known as Playa Dulce Vida. Life is sweet here, indeed: This is the picture-perfect, castaway-island beach of your dreams, fringed with beach almond trees – and it’s right at the doorstep of the hotel’s lowerlevel guest rooms. In the past, its seclusion made this beach a destination for gays and nude sunbathers, and it still attracts a few noticeably handsome, buff men. But they are now attired in swim trunks (however brief), behaving decorously under the watchful eye of a guard.

Arenas del Mar definitely tops the charts on the ecofriendly scale, with solar-heated water, recycling bins stationed at the entrance to every room, biodegradable toiletries and other environmentally responsible features. But how does it score as a luxury hotel with accompanying five-star prices?

The accommodations are certainly luxurious. Spacious, ocean-view suites have two bathrooms, elegantly furnished living rooms, deluxe bedrooms and mosaic-tiled whirlpool baths on huge, private terraces. The master bathrooms are particularly impressive, with round, rain-forest showers with glass-brick illumination. All the latest technological toys are here too: wall-mounted, flat-screen TVs, silent, high-efficiency air-conditioning units in the bedrooms and Ethernet data ports, with Wi-Fi throughout the hotel.

The interior design is understated, elegant and modern, in earth tones with lots of natural materials and textures – marble, dark woods, bamboo, cane, wicker, ceramic tile, terracotta and stained glass. The most luxurious touches are the fabulous fabrics: purewhite cotton linens and duvets on king-size beds piled high with burgundy and gold silk cushions; sliding-door windows layered with woven-cotton sheers and earth-toned drapes detailed with leaf appliqués and filigree embroidery.

The modern decor is saved from cultural anonymity by gorgeous, large-scale, stretched silk prints of heliconias by San José artist Ana Laura Vargas. Drama is also provided by oversize entrance doors, embellished with bas-relief swirls of tropical leaves. Made of recycled plastic and resin, these impressive doors are proof that eco can be deco, too.

El Mirador, the hotel’s restaurant, presents a surprising view – of trees rather than a panorama of sand and sea, with six living, pillarlike trees growing through the floor and disappearing through the ceiling. The decor here is quite austere and the cuisine is described as “Costa Rican fusion” (see separate story). While the restaurant is still finding its feet at lunch and dinner, breakfast, which is included in the room rate, is excellent. You don’t even have to get up early; it’s sensibly served from 7 to 10 a.m. From your first sip of the excellent coffee – Finca Rosa Blanca’s own – to the basket of freshly baked cinnamon buns, macadamia muffins and moist banana bread, this breakfast is faultless. Fresh juice and a plate of prettily carved fruits are included, along with a wide choice of protein dishes, such as huevos rancheros a lo tico (with cheese corn tortillas) or poached eggs with spinach and a mound of crispy bacon. Other breakfast favorites, such as pancakes and French toast, come with interesting tropical twists.

There’s also a thatched-roof snack bar and restaurant beside the hotel’s second swimming pool, down at Playa Playitas, where you can eat creatively light lunches and snacks with a view of the beach. Or help yourself every afternoon to a glass of the featured fruit juice and a basket of unusual root vegetable chips with salsa and dip set out for guests to sample. Complimentary coffee is laid out in the air-conditioned room behind reception that doubles as a gift shop and Internet café, where guests have free use of two high-speed computers.

Service in the restaurant and throughout the hotel is extremely friendly and pleasant, with some standout employees going way beyond the usual line of duty. But it’s still a little uneven as the hotel management team, committed to hiring local staff, trains new employees.

Arenas del Mar still has some work to do in the food and service areas to qualify as a top-of-the-line luxury hotel. But whether you come here to roam the property in search of wildlife, wander the beaches or simply relax by the pool or in your deluxe room, you’ll find the indisputable luxuries here are the superb natural resources and the priceless serenity and seclusion.

Location, Rates, Info

Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort is at the far west end of Playa Espadilla, down the El Parador road in Manuel Antonio.

Double-occupancy rates, not including taxes, are $360 for ocean-view suites with two bathrooms, private whirlpool bath, king-size bed and sofa bed; and $220 for superior rooms with ocean view or for rainforest suites with private whirlpool bath. Add $50 for additional guests; kids under 6 stay for free.

For info, call 2777-2777, e-mail or visit



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