31 JAN 2013: Moonlight over Matapalo Beach, the night frogs were hitting a high-octane alongside Howler Monkeys droning in the distance. But snug as a bug in a rug tucked inside our spacious suite we were dreaming of our next day’s thrills in Costa Rica.


It helps we were staying at the newest luxe all-inclusive to hit this side of Guanacaste: the RIU Palace Costa Rica.

Check-In

The 538-room hotel is located in a nature reserve adjacent to the sister property Riu Guanacaste overlooking the spectacular Gulf of Papagayo. Opened this past November the interiors are trendy contemporary with vibrant colours in purple, blues and fuchsia that convey a chic vibe in line with Riu’s new design concept. Large modern art pieces designed by artist Martin Fernandez provide a whimsy throughout the resort’s public spaces.

Plus the newly revamped international terminal at the Liberia Airport 33 kms away makes transfers easy peasy.

Diversions


So what can you do in this paradise?

Most people chill by one of the four pools, cocktail in hand preferably laced in rum. Many vacationers were touting Kobo and e-book readers while others were Facebooking poolside. Since November 1, 2012 the resort company now offers free Wi-Fi in rooms and communal areas at the Palace resorts.

By the golden sugar sandy beach the Pacific Ocean’s warm waves coat this highly sought after beachfront. Kids giggle making sand castles. Couples walk hand in hand surfside. And friends lean into the bingo callings by the swim-up pool bar.

Daily resort activities are scheduled throughout the day. This leaves lunch and dinner with its own surprises.

Mmmm...good

Riu’s introduced new culinary fixings – a micro cuisine concept -- with dainty amuse-bouche sizes catering more to portion control mindful of waistlines. Still if you enjoy generous helpings of crab salad and paella head back for more.

By night, the four restaurants: Krystal, Tokio, L’Anfora, and Papagayo turn into a culinary pageant with wait staff eagerly escorting dining guests to their white linen tables. These a la carte eateries allow for intimate quiet time, a soulful rapport without distractions.

Some newlyweds dressed smartly for the occasion but for the most part it was laid-back casual: men in tropical Tommy Bahamas short-sleeves and women donning cool summer dresses.

Conscious Neighbour

Immersed in a natural beauty, this part of Costa Rica is the unexplored, rugged side and Riu’s location is quite fitting.

The two properties, says Riu’s director for Costa Rica Till Koehler, work closely with three nearby communities by providing infrastructure development. In the past it’s been building a road, helping schools, and assisting the elderly.

“In Sardinal about twenty-six elderly live in a home so we help them with food and excursions and activities like this,” he noted one evening over tea by the resort’s Cappuccino Bar.

Even on the second evening of the RIU Palace’s opening help was sent out. This time it was for turtle hatchlings. Wim Bracke, Riu Palace Costa Rica’s director, explained how the success of hatching turtles went off with a big splash.

“All these hatchlings made their way to our pool so staff and guests assisted them by sending the baby turtles back to the sea,” he said recalling the evening’s big excitement.

That’s no surprise. The area is a renowned hub for sea turtles, and the neighbouring Riu Guanacaste Hotel has a Sea Turtle Protection Program that has been recognized with a sustainable tourism certificate. Last year more than 2,000 baby turtles were born along this Blue Flag designated beach.

For families who want to expose their kids to a green paradise-sanctuary but not skimp on lovely surroundings you’re right at nature’s front door. One morning we beach combed and headed to a trail known for its resident Howler Monkeys. These black rambunctious animals did not disappoint as a fun-filled banter went atop our heads by the Guanacaste trees.

At the end of the beach by a rocky promontory, a flock of pelicans hammered into the ocean diving in for fresh fish samplings while watchful turkey vultures stooped by the gnarly cliff branches keenly eying the outcome.

Beneath our feet, teeny-weeny clams sporting the most interesting camouflaged shell-like homes quickly rolled themselves inside as we intruders hovered above them wondering when they’d ever get over their ‘happy as a clam’ demeanor.

Surrounded by wilderness and green laden hills the Riu Palace grounds are a mix of new foliage and its manicured gardens reflect the attention to detail. Water is a huge theme with stunning water fountains lining the main pathway leading to the beach.

Day trips

Outings are easily arranged with the local tour operators who eagerly welcome bookings at the lobby. Then there are those amiable tour reps who like to hang by the beach practicing their English as they ask what country you are from.

One day local tour operator Swiss Travel took us to Rincon de la Vieja, the largest active volcano in the country's northwest and the closest to the beach. It's part of a national park of the same name, which translates roughly to "old woman's nook."

In the morning we rode horseback through lush tall grasses bearing spiny Pochote trees. This stretch of heaven is the remnant of volcanic activity eons ago but the region is still very active. Guanacaste is located like much of Costa Rica in a volcanic zone. Just around us nine craters are visible.

Locals call this place “Little Yellowstone” because of the rich biodiversity and its numerous boiling mud pots. It emits an otherworldly ambiance as the sulphurous fumaroles cast small mushroom clouds over the terrain in some parts.

By the Rio Negro (so named due to the black lava rock), we bid the horses adios then resumed the next leg: white water tubing.

Churning around and around, laughing in hysterics the entire way, I couldn’t get over myself. I mean I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to battling rapids. A Niagara Falls-born gal I am, so hitting the infamous Niagara Gorge in a turbo jet is done on a lazy afternoon (okay I was a passenger on that one, but still) and splashing around rapids outside Ottawa I’ve done in a day.

But this one was like nature’s amusement ride. It helps its dry season from December through April so water levels are low. Still the turning action as I spun around this tempest in a teapot got my heart pounding as I twisted and turned through this jungle canyon.

Giddy with excitement, I snuck my neck inside the tube like a cautious turtle bracing myself for the unknown. Instead as I looked above a heavenly blue butterfly fluttered watching over me.

That night at the resort we laughed and reminisced on how we conquered the Rio Negro.

Boy would I do it again.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Stephen Smith

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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