The Arenal Volcano is no postcard relic. The volcano lives and breathes. Lava flows on the western side. Underground magma pushes up from the Earth’s core and heats the streams flowing through the resort.
A three to four hour drive from Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, Tabacón is easily reached by bus or car. My wife and I were picked up at the airport by Hjalmar, our guide and driver from Costa Rican Vacations. Driving through the countryside we passed a great variety of landscapes.
If you enjoy Hawaii without the high rises, you will love Costa Rica. For decades Costa Rica has been a pioneer in eco-tourism. Travel around the country and you enter landscapes as varied as any found on earth. There are vast savannahs, mile upon mile of farmland, tropical rainforests, white and black sand beaches, cloud forests and mountainous regions formed by volcanoes, some long silent, many still active. Uniquely, Costa Rica is the point between North and South America where the flora and fauna of both continents intermix. So, expect to see deer and parrots, pine trees and orchids as you explore the countryside.
There will be rain
In Costa Rica, the difference between the seasons is largely whether they are wet or dry. When we visited, it was the wet season, which meant humidity and brief rain storms. During the high season, from late November to late April the air is dry and warm, the perfect time to escape winter’s icy cold, dreary gray embrace.
The last half hour or so of the drive to Tabacón was in the rain forest. We were hit with a heavy downpour so we stopped at an open-air café and fruit stand on Route 141. Outside Soda Y Fruteria Mi Tata, a cart was filled with fresh local fruit and vegetables. Beautiful bananas, papayas, taro root, mangoes, pineapples and fat round watermelons were for sale. We bought a fresh pineapple, which was peeled, cut into slices and put into a plastic bag for us to eat in the car. When you travel in Costa Rica, stopping at roadside fruit stands is a fun part of the trip.
You’ll also want to eat at the roadside cafés Costa Ricans call sodas. The food is freshly prepared and delicious. A soda is a wonderful place to enjoy casado, the national dish made with fish, chicken or meat, and black beans, white rice, cabbage salad and fried plantain.
Luxury in a Natural Setting
At Tabacón, you have the best of both worlds. Luxury inside and a luxurious natural setting outside.
Inside our room, we had creature comforts galore including complimentary Wi-Fi, a flat screen TV and a large Jacuzzi that formed the dividing wall between the well-appointed bathroom and the large bedroom with a sitting area. One entire wall was glass so we could look outside to a lawn bordered by a privacy hedge landscaped with flowering tropical plants.
Staying at Tabacón puts guests up close to a wonderfully diverse natural setting. Walking to breakfast from any of the 102 rooms, on the way to a buffet breakfast with made-to-order omelets at Los Tucanes, guests follow brick pathways bordering the rain forest, passing hundreds of flowering plants. Many are recognizable, like the birds-of-paradise, orchids and bromeliads we have at home. But there were so many more that we had never seen before, their flashes of vibrant color stood out against the thick green of the rain forest.
While rain is common place during the wet months, even during the dry season, there can be brief, refreshing showers in the afternoon at Tabacón. When the rain stops and the sun comes out, your hair will frizz and your skin will soften. Birds overhead will chirp, insects hidden in the leaves of the thick tropical plants all around you will sing their high pitched songs and you will realize that you are in the middle of a real tropical rain forest and you are having a really good time.
Every day we looked forward to having lunch on the veranda of the restaurant Ave del Paraiso. Executive Chef Alessandro Geruasutti locally sources many of the ingredients, taking care to feature sustainable, organic products. As we ate fresh fruit salads, arugula and hearts of palm salads, fish casado, lobster stew and ceviche with plantain chips, we watched toucans, parrots, orioles and brown magpies fly across the sky and land on tree limbs above the restaurant.
Come for the adventure
For many years the hotel has been a popular starting point for nature adventurers looking to explore the eco-wonders of the Arenal Volcano National Park. In the lobby the tour desk offers a large menu of activities designed to match guests with exactly the right amount of interaction with the park.
With a minimum of exertion, guided tours explore the nearby lava flows, waterfalls, rivers and lakes. Having a guide on a nature excursion is all-important.
On a tour around Arenal Lake, we walked without noticing anything remarkable. Then the guide led us across the road and pointed out giant billed toucans lounging in the trees. On a different excursion, the guide stopped in front of a row of tall, non-descript trees. He told us to be as quiet as possible and gestured up at the trees. As our eyes adjusted we saw camouflaged in the shadows, forty or fifty howler monkeys. Some looked down at us while others went about their monkey-business, eating, grooming and sleeping on the tree branches.
The activities offered at the tour desk had something for everyone. Bike around Arenal Lake, the largest body of fresh water in the country, or stop to fish, wind surf and go wakeboarding. There were walking tours across spindly hanging bridges suspended over forested gorges and long hikes with naturalists who would point out the animals hiding in plain sight. There were zip line adventures that plunged down from the forest canopy to the floor far below. And, for anyone who wanted more strenuous activities, there was horseback riding up the Arenal Volcano, canoeing on the lake and white water river rafting.
The Grand Spa and Resort
Even for those who crave adventure, staying at Tabacón means enjoying the pleasures of the spa and resort. The combination of luxury, comfort, great natural beauty and the spa have made the resort a popular honeymoon destination.
The spa and resort are a short van ride down the hill from the hotel. At the entrance to the resort, you pass Ave del Paraiso Restaurant where lunch and dinner are served buffet style in an open-air dining room and on the veranda. To reach the Grand Spa requires walking across an arched wooden bridge over a fast moving stream. Look to your left and you’ll see that stream is one of several that traverse the resort.
Rich with minerals, warmed by the volcano and fed by thermal springs, the water is the perfect place to relax. My wife and I sat together in a pond fed by a small waterfall. The water flowed and eddied against us as if we were seated in the most gentle, outdoor Jacuzzi imaginable.
Another day we found a good spot on a stone seat anchored into the side of a waterfall where white waters cascaded around us. As I held onto the wooden railing to steady myself, I felt the sediment and river pebbles underfoot. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized at that moment that this was a real river not some theme park imitation.
In line with the resort’s commitment to the Luxury Eco Certification Standard (LECS), keeping the water in the pools completely natural means not using chlorine or other chemicals. So, every morning the pools are drained, cleaned and filled with fresh spring water.
To maintain a comfortable temperature of 85-90 F, thermal and cold water streams are mixed together. While the sources of the waters are completely natural, the resort has been landscaped with a large pool, small waterfalls, shallow ponds, bridges and walkways. Families with children enjoy the pool, slides and interconnecting ponds.
Shangri-La Gardens is tucked away off a secluded path. The adults only area is reserved for couples who want romantic time alone. The area has a small outdoor bar, swings and cabanas large enough to share. Piped in music from the spa adds to the feeling of privacy and serenity.
A massage table with a view of the river
Tabacón is well-known for the Grand Spa. When I arrived for my appointment, I was greeted with a tropical smoothie made with tart and refreshing pineapple, peppermint and lemon juice. After changing, I was invited to lie down on a chaise lounge in the sun room with a hot pack on my neck and shoulders to relax my muscles before the massage.
For my treatment, I was taken to one of the open-air massage bungalows. Under the thatched roof, the massage table shared the intimate space along with a Jacuzzi. One of the swift flowing rivers on the property was so close to the massage table, a cooling mist filled the hut, the result of the water hitting the rocks as it rushed down the hill.
Lying face down, covered with a thin sheet, Maribel, the massage therapist, signaled the beginning of the treatment with the chiming of a Tibetan bronze bell. She massaged my back, neck and shoulders. I loved having the massage outside in the bungalow. Even with my eyes closed, I could hear and smell the water.
A breeze moved through the hut and Maribel whispered that it was time to turn over. How could it be that the treatment was half over? The massage continued as warm oil and her strong hands coaxed my body to relax. As part of the treatment my feet were placed in booties and my hands slipped into soft cloth gloves to hold the warm oil against my skin.
With my feet and hands attended to, she turned her attention to my scalp and face. Afloat in sensation, I was awake and asleep at the same time. I felt the pressure of her fingers on my skin. I heard the motion of the river and the sound of the breeze pressing the long leaves of the tropical plants against one another.
I lost track of time.
And then, Maribel whispered, “Is everything to your liking?” to signal that the massage was over. What could I say? Of course, everything was wonderful.
Afterwards, relaxing in the quiet room I was offered a pineapple-mango smoothie and a plate of fresh tropical fruit. The afternoon rain had started so I was in no rush to leave. I read a magazine and listened to music on my iPod, completely happy. Only when my wife texted me that it was time for us to have dinner at Los Tucanes did I leave the quiet of the Grand Spa, happy and relaxed.
Visit websites: http://www.vacationscostarica.com/hotel/tabacon and http://www.vacationscostarica.com/hotel/tabacon/