Luxury and Local Adventure in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit
It's 7:05 a.m. as the sun rises over the Pacific. There is a knock at my door. It's Carlos, my butler, with a tray holding The New York Times Digest and a pot of coffee. Carlos sets my coffee down on my veranda; I enjoy it in my robe as he takes my shirts off to be ironed.
Did I mention that Carlos is really good-looking?
Later on this morning, I'll be off on an excursion that will involve pods of humpback whales, nearly extinct birds, a 16-foot manta ray and a swim through a 50-foot cave to a hidden beach that was a former bomb-testing site.
This is my quintessentially favorite kind of travel, born in front of the TV in my parent's house watching "I Love Lucy" as the cast jaunted throughout Europe. My favorite episode took place in Rome, where Lucy, in an attempt to "soak up some local color" as research for a bit role she'd been offered in an Italian art film, ends up in a cat fight in a grape-stomping vat. In one scene she's getting advice from a knowledgeable bellhop in her suite at a cosmopolitan hotel with a view of the Colosseum in the Eternal City; after a short commercial break, she's in a vineyard in the bucolic village of Toro. To me, that's travel: adventure by day and sumptuous comfort at night. And that is exactly what I discover in Nayarit, Mexico ... minus the grape stomping.
For those unfamiliar, the Mexican state of Nayarit is located on the west coast of the country, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the western Sierra Madre mountains. In addition to its charming countryside and stunning mountain and seaside vistas, the Riviera Nayarit shares the same latitude with the Hawaiian Islands, which affords it a mildly tropical climate with warm water and cool breezes. Thanks to a summer rainy season, visitors can enjoy a lush tropical environment virtually free of rain or any residual humidity three seasons a year.
Queen for a Day at the St. Regis
The St. Regis Hotel is located in Punta de Mita, a peninsula on the uppermost tip of Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), with sweeping views of both the bay and open Pacific. Its campus, which stretches across hundreds of yards of private white-sand beach, includes 120 exclusive guest rooms and suites over 22 acres with tennis courts, three pools, a Remède Spa and three restaurants. It is flanked on either side by not one, but two world-class Jack Nicklaus golf courses. Little wonder that this exclusive out-of-the-way enclave has attracted more than its share of Hollywood A-listers.
My room has a private garden entrance and stunning view of the bay from the spacious lanai that includes a table and sun bed. The room’s elegant Mexican-Mediterranean décor is straight out of a design magazine. With two sinks, large tub, and indoor and outdoor shower, the luxury and comfort of the bathroom made it difficult to get dressed in the morning. Two items common to most rooms that are conspicuously missing from mine: a coffee maker and iron. This brings me back to Carlos.
Of the numerous top-of-the-line amenities offered by St. Regis properties, their signature butler service, which puts a modern spin on an almost archaic art form, is perhaps the most memorable. From making drinks and coffee to packing, unpacking, ironing and other bespoke services, my butler manages the impossible by providing the option of refined elegance without making the experience stuffy.
Rituals unique to St. Regis properties include the sabering of Champagne, where the top of an unopened bottle of Veuve Clicquot is lobbed off in a clean cut by a single swoop of a very large and imposing sword before being poured into flutes at sunset.
Of the three dining options onsite, Carolina, the property’s AAA Five Diamond Award-winning restaurant, is not to be missed. Romantic dining is on a vast outdoor terrace among gentle ocean breezes, with an offering of several foie gras appetizers and a variety of freshly caught fish, poultry and beef entrees prepared in Mexican-Mediterranean fusion style. A dessert coffee prepared tableside with a parlor trick of ladled flaming tequila is a warm ending to an unforgettably luxe experience that prepares me for the following day’s adventure.
The Marietas Islands are located six nautical miles from our beach at the St. Regis. Six of us and a crew of three travel in a small boat operated by Punta Mita Expeditions. Our trip to the islands, which could take as little as 20 minutes, is delayed numerous times to stop and observe several small pods of spouting adult humpback whales and their calves.
A national park since 2005, the Marietas Islands, which were formed from volcanic rock, are called the "Galapagos of Mexico" for the number of rare species of birds that inhabit them. As our boat approaches the rocky coast to get a good view of some blue-footed boobies, our crew tells tales of when they used to cliff dive off the island before it was declared off-limits to visitors. Coral reefs and crystal-clear water offer the perfect opportunity for snorkeling, scuba diving and paddleboarding.
One of the few places on the Marietas where visitors are allowed on land is the hidden beach, a secluded formerly subterranean beach believed to be formed in the 1950s when the Mexican government used the islands as target practice for bombs.
To reach the hidden beach, our boat moors roughly 300 feet off the coast of the island. We’re given life jackets and snorkeling gear and have to swim nearly the length of a football field before reaching a cave where the tide takes us 50 feet underground to a spectacular beach inside the perimeter of the island. Getting back to our boat after our brief trip on land takes more than a bit of doing, but the adventure is well worth the effort. Upon getting back in the boat, a 5-meter (16 foot) manta ray gracefully swims a mere 10 feet under us.
Heading down the coast from Punta Mita, we stop off in the seaside village of Bucerías for a first real taste of local culture. Meaning "the place for divers," Bucerías is an unassuming Mexican coastal town built in the 1930s with cobblestone streets and a number of charming shops and restaurants. Literally split in half by a dry riverbed, Bucerías features an authentic open-air Mexican market selling any number of souvenirs, from ironic T-shirts, Lucha Libre wrestling masks and a plethora of the ever-present Day of the Dead skeleton figurines. A donkey tethered to a nearby tree completes the postcard experience.
Lunch at the beach restaurant El Brujo proves my theory that sometimes the best things in life come in modest packages. Seated in a plastic chair at a table with mismatched umbrellas, I feast on the most delicious mahi mahi I have ever had the pleasure of eating in a lifetime of seafood dining. Caught fresh that morning, the generous portion of mahi is covered with huitlacoche, a fungus grown on corn, dubbed by Mario Batali as the "Mexican truffle." Earthy, nutty and deeply savory, this traditional Mexican delicacy pairs beautifully with the local fish.
Tableside entertainment comes with the arrival of quite possibly the worst mariachi band ever to grace the Pacific sands. Two drums, an out-of-tune trumpet and the vocal styling of a tone-deaf 8-year-old boy provide more than a few unintentional laughs. Their rendition of "Canta y No Llores" (the "Ay-yi-yi-yi" song) prompts me to give them 50 pesos with the promise of a quick adios, proving another theory: mariachi bands are like prostitutes. You pay them to leave.
All-Inclusive Gets a Makeover
A trip down the coast carries us to our next hotel destination, the Marival Residences. Set in a gated stretch of Nuevo Vallarta on a strip that includes numerous resorts, the Marival Residences, with its modern traditional-stack resort feel, is a stark departure from our digs at the St. Regis. Rooms range from penthouse duplexes with private wading pools in the main structure to private, fully equipped three-bedroom condos. A large pool with an outdoor restaurant and bar dominates the grounds. I shack up in an 1,800-square-foot apartment with two full bathrooms, kitchen, dining table for six, washer and dryer, living room and bedroom with a large terrace featuring a beautiful unobstructed view of the bay.
The Marival Residences is an all-inclusive resort, which usually sets off warning bells in my head for dining options. Traditionally, all-inclusive means that breakfast will be great, lunch so-so and dinner a disappointment. But I’m pleasantly surprised by the Marival’s options. The rooftop Insú Sky Lounge offers a wide array of global tapas and tasty cocktails in ample-sized glasses. The sunset view in a word: breathtaking. Lacking the view of Insú, Marival’s ground floor restaurant, Omaggio, features delicious entrees. However, the diminutive size of my lobster mac-and-cheese portion literally leaves me wanting more.
The Marival Residence’s only major shortcoming is its lack of direct beach access. Although there is regular shuttle service to the beach on their nearby sister property, the far less elegant Marival Resort, the experience of seeing the beach without being able to walk to one is frustrating.
A few resorts down the strip from Marival is the significantly more opulent Grand Velas. I spend the day "on property," sitting poolside for hours sipping mojitos and ogling a gaggle of spring break college boys playing touch football on the sand, before going in for a treatment in the resort’s spa. Named "Most Excellent Spa Hotel" by Condé Nast magazine, the spa experience includes various hydrotherapy treatments before my "tequila massage."
Post-massage, I enjoy a casually elegant dinner at the resort’s AAA Four Diamond restaurant, Piaf, where I feast on a multicourse French tasting menu of lamb, seafood, escargot and foie gras.
It Takes a Village
The trip to the villages of San Pancho and Sayulita, located 30 minutes from Nuevo Vallarta, take us on windy narrow country roads through hills and verdant jungle terrain. Passing roadside stands selling local produce and pottery, our tour guide, Guillermo, points out a tree with reddish peeling bark called a papelillo, but nicknamed the "gringo tree" for it’s resemblance to sunburned skin. I immediately reach for my sunblock and make the necessary precautions for a day of soaking up local color in the two charming villages.
Quaint is the perfect word to describe the unassuming village of San Francisco (also called "San Pancho"). Situated where jungle meets beach, San Pancho is dotted with recently refurbished early 20th century villas and small boutique hotels. The village’s quiet, easygoing, almost sleepy feel has made it a favorite spot for writers. One could easily imagine Ernest Hemingway relaxing, sipping racillia (a pre-Hispanic Mexican moonshine far smoother than tequila) in the picturesque Hotel Cielo Rojo.
Surprisingly, the most unforgettable establishment in this Mexican Mayberry is EntreAmigos, an eco-sustainable community center built in an abandoned milk-processing plant. The center, which was hand built by volunteers through private donations, boasts a lending library, craft shop, community garden and a children’s circus training center started by a Cirque du Soleil co-founder who is a San Pancho resident. The Dalai Lama recently honored EntreAmigos’ founder and Executive Director Nicole Swedlow as an "unsung hero of compassion."
Compared to San Pancho, the nearby village of Sayulita practically is a bustling metropolis. Filled with art galleries, shops, numerous open-air bars and restaurants and a number of affordable boutique hotels, Sayulita is often called "the jewel of the Riviera Nayarit." Designer graphic T-shirts featuring Mexican historic icons like Zapata, Pancho Villa and the unibrowed artist Frida Kahlo abound in this seaside town favorited by local surfers and friendly hippie leftovers.
Galleries and gift shops mix the sacred and secular with items such as a miniature wrestling ring, its mat embossed with Jesus and the disciples of Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Lucha Libre masks, as well as a statuette of the Madonna and Child in full wrestling regalia. The laid-back vibe extends the length of the beach, where I am solicited on numerous occasions to sample the local weed.
Like in Bucerías a few days earlier, I had lunch on the beach. This time at Don Pedro’s, where I enjoyed a fresher-than-fresh mahi mahi ceviche served with habanero peppers. As I sipped my Corona on the beach, watching the surfers, I hear the familiar strains of "ay-yi-yi-yi" belted out by a preadolescent accompanied by a musically challenged combo. It’s an ear-splitting sound I recall from Bucerías, now here to torment locals. The kid recognizes me as an easy mark from earlier in the week. What am I to do? I order a second Corona, gave the kid 100 pesos and let him sing an entire set. His "Bésame Mucho" is everything I expected, and then some.