Gripping the throttle with a steady hand, Eduardo Quesada revved the engine of a small motorboat, pushing the craft forward through whitecapped waves. The small boat climbed up and over mountains of water, steadily making its way into the warm waters off Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. After five minutes, Quesada and his small group of passengers found calm waters and had a chance to look around. The view was spectacular. Looking landward, mountains covered in dense rain forest descended abruptly to a sandy beach. Seaward, a small group of islands jutted out of the water. Flocks of birds circled overhead, occasionally diving downward and splashing into the sea.
Quesada, a boat captain for Pacific Whales and Kayak Tours, drove the boat down the coast while guide Charlie León pointed out a giant sea turtle lazily floating in the water. The coastline, León explained, is part of Ballena National Marine Park, a system of reefs and islands that are home to a plethora of marine life, including whales, dolphins and turtles, as well as unique geological formations such as the caverns of Playa Ventanas.
This tour of the marine park is one of many attractions available to guests at Cristal Ballena, a resort outside the beach community of Uvita. Run by Austrians Waldemar and Herta Steiner, the hotel offers the calm and quiet of a bed-and-breakfast with the amenities of a full-scale resort.
“This is a very special place to us,” Waldemar Steiner said. “Barely a few years ago, this was a cow pasture. Now we have a hilltop paradise.”
Perched on a hill sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and forest-covered mountains, the hotel features Mediterranean-style architecture and stunning ocean views. Guests lounging next to the massive, 1,200-square-foot pool can enjoy a 360-degree panorama; with the turn of a head, the vista changes from mist-shrouded rain forest to an endless view of the blue Pacific. The resort sits in the middle of its own 12-hectare tropical garden. The Steiners boast it is the perfect location for a family retreat, romantic getaway, business conference or memorable wedding.
The hotel has 16 spacious junior suites, two master suites, one family suite and two “adventure lodges.” Tastefully decorated while maintaining a homey feel, each junior suite has two four-poster beds with mosquito netting. Air conditioning, ceiling fans, satellite television, Wi-Fi, private bathrooms and a private balcony come with every room.
The hotel’s open café-style bar and restaurant, dubbed Pura Vida, offers a mix of local and international cuisine. The breakfast buffet is particularly tasty, offering Costa Rican classics such as gallo pinto (a rice-and-beans breakfast dish) alongside North American favorites like pancakes with syrup.
In addition to beautiful scenery and comfortable accommodations, Cristal Ballena offers a wide array of spa treatments at its Spa Cristal. Professional therapists supply a wide range of beauty and relaxation treatments, from deep-cleansing facials to hot-stone and anti-stress massages.
Guests can choose from numerous tour options in addition to Pacific Whales and Kayak Tours’ boat trips. The hotel staff can help arrange tours to the white beaches of Caño Island, the forests of Corcovado National Park and the Nauyaca Waterfalls. Snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, surfing, bird- and whale-watching, walking tours, horseback riding, ultralight flying tours and boat tours are only some of the activities the region offers.
Cristal Ballena Hotel Resort and Spa is at Playa Ballena, 25 km south of Dominical and 7 km south of Uvita.
From San José, take the new Caldera highway west to the Central Pacific and follow signs to Jacó, then Quepos, then Dominical and Uvita. Continue south past Uvita until you see the hotel entrance on the left side of the road. The drive is about 3.5 hours.
Domestic airlines Nature Air (www.natureair.com) and Sansa (www.flysansa.com) offer daily flights to Quepos, north of Uvita, and Palmar Sur to the south. The resort can arrange to pick up guests at either airport.
“Green season” rates through Dec. 14 are $219 for master and family suites, $165 for junior suites and $79 for adventure lodges, including buffet breakfast. Rates are higher during high and peak seasons. For more information and reservations, call 2786-5354 or visit www.cristal-ballena.com.