Undiscovered Guanacaste’s inviting oasis

Playa San Miguel is so far off the beaten track, even Ticos have trouble picturing where it is. Luckily, once you make it to this remote, central Guanacaste destination, your efforts are rewarded with sweeping empty beaches, dramatic Pacific panoramas and now, an upscale boutique hotel to relax in. We drove the 260-odd kilometers from San José in about 4½ hours, the last hour from Carmona being a fairly tortuous, hilly, unpaved stretch that is dust-filled in summer and slippery mud in the rainy season. Just getting here can be an adventure!

Launched in August 2012, Hotel Laguna Mar features South Beach-inspired design, as I learned from its amiable owner, Drew Callahan. Originally from Washington D.C., Callahan drew on the SoBe style to create a simple, almost austere concept, softened with fabric swathes and occasional splashes of vivid color.

The exterior has an uncompromising cement angularity, but once you cross the threshold, you enter an intimate haven of light and shade. White net curtains waft gently between seating areas dotted with blue striped cushions, and the azure-tiled pool and Jacuzzi provide the shimmering centerpiece around which the rooms and social areas are arranged. 

The hotel has just nine rooms spread over two floors with standard rooms, family suites and a penthouse. Our ground-level accommodation followed the neutral tones with a steel gray-on-cream color scheme, dark brown shelving and a desk accentuated with a bright orange, hanging lamp.

While not large, the bedroom was filled with the amenities you’d expect in an upmarket boutique-hotel like this one: flat-screen TV, alarm clock-radio, phone, free WiFi, safe, and AC, while fun extras included umbrellas and iPod docking station. In the bathroom, a huge shower gushing loads of high-pressure hot water and a spacious vanity area.

From the moment guests arrive, the staff’s genuinely friendly welcome stands out. The receptionist, Angelica, greeted us by name in the car park and made sure our luggage was whisked away to our room. As we completed check-in, general manager Michael Vega appeared with chilled fresh fruit juice – perfect after the dusty drive. Callahan and his small team manage the delicate balance of making sure guests feel well cared for but not intruded upon.

They skillfully multi-task from serving tables to helping in the bar or conversing knowledgably about the area. It’s like being part of a house party as Callahan, after inviting new arrivals to a complimentary drink from the bar, introduces guests to each other and chats with the affability of an impeccable mein host.

It’s no surprise that Laguna Mar has quickly become a hub for local Ticos and expats to enjoy happy-hour drinks in a congenial and stylish atmosphere, or take advantage of the first-class restaurant. Trained in Denmark, with experience in Italy, chef, Pablo Rossi (Tico despite the last name!), has created an appetizing Italian/international menu and a loyal stream of patrons who turn up to savor the à la carte or his specials. 

Watching him at work in his open-window kitchen as he effortlessly conjured competent dishes, we admired how Rossi also finds time to visit tables and engage with diners. But this is typical of the relaxed connection the hotel’s staff accomplishes with its guests.

Callahan admits the hotel’s remoteness is a challenge when sourcing quality supplies for the kitchen, which means Rossi has to be inventive with simple ingredients: his baby pork ribs and shrimp-stuffed ravioli were just two main dishes we happily polished off, but his ceviches, quesadillas and fajitas are also popular hits.

The hotel’s small size makes it ideal for groups and families, and Callahan frequently posts special deals on Laguna Mar’s Facebook page: (facebook.com/hotel.lagunamar.3?fref=ts). 

Laguna Mar is a five-minute drive or 15-minute amble to Playa San Miguel – the nearest beach – so a car is almost a necessity. But if you fly in and don’t have a vehicle, the hotel can organize tours in the vicinity with a bilingual guide and transport to beaches. Horseback riding and spa and massage treatments are also available on request.

For more information, call 2655-8181, or 8651-9487; from the U.S. call 704-851-8181; visit the hotel website at www.lagunamarhotel.com. Rates in the high season hover around $90 for a standard room, while a family suite or penthouse costs $113, but check Facebook for package deals. From San José, Nature Air has daily flights to Punta Islita 8:50 a.m., and to Liberia 5:40 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 3:20 p.m. The hotel will meet flights. Driving from San José, approx. 4 ½ hours,  Highway 27 and Pan-American Hwy 1 to Puente Amistad, then two route options: 1) Mansion, Hojancha, Islita, Javilla, or 2) Carmona, Bejuco, Playa San Miguel, Javilla.