Got Stress? Get to Puerto Vallarta

This popular resort town is just what the doctor ordered. The only decision is whether to unwind with a night of partying or an afternoon on an empty beach. Take seven days and call us in the morning.

The view of the Pacific from the roof deck at Quinta Maria Cortez

(Maura McEvoy)

The view of the Pacific from the roof deck at Quinta Maria Cortez

(Maura McEvoy)

When I told friends I was heading to Puerto Vallarta, they all had the same amused response: "That's where the Love Boat used to go, right?" Yes, friends, Mexico's popular resort town, in the curve of Banderas Bay, was the port that Captain Stubing and crew pulled into each week. The cruise ships still come, as do floods of American and Canadian tourists, who more often than not seek a certain kind of vacation. Which is apparently why, on the ride from the airport, our cabdriver keeps pushing the foam party that night at Señor Frog's. "And over here we have the Hard Rock Cafe!" he says graciously, welcoming my husband, Tim, and me to Mexico.

Surely Puerto Vallarta has much more to offer than Jell-O shot specials set to the beat of Fergie's latest single. I wasn't all that into the spring break scene even when I was in college. For this trip, I wanted to experience Mexico as a grown-up. When researching where to stay, I sought a romantic, intimate inn rather than a big resort--the kind of place where the proprietors encourage guests to explore Puerto Vallarta instead of sticking to preplanned itineraries or zoning out in their air-conditioned rooms.

So what a delight when our cabbie, after a last plug for two-for-one night at Carlos O'Brian's, drops us off at the Quinta Maria Cortez, an eclectically decorated seven-room B&B built into the steep hills right on Playa Conchas Chinas. In our airy suite, French doors open up from the bedroom onto a balcony, below which a deserted beach beckons. I open a complimentary can of Tecate and soak up the crisp, clean air.

In the morning we meet some of the guests over huevos rancheros and French toast on the inn's patio. There's a small group of gay professionals from Laguna Beach, Calif., who are driving to nearby Mismaloya in a Jeep that José Ruiz de Anda, the Quinta's elegant manager, helped them rent. Then there are a friendly husband and wife from Seattle heading out for a morning of snorkeling, and Minnesotan honeymooners who are hitting the flea markets. So much for my fears that this is a one-note town.

The beach outside the inn is gorgeous--and empty, shockingly, even though it's just a 15-minute walk on the sand from downtown's Playa Los Muertos, where there's always a circus of happy tourists and trinket-and-parasail-ride pushers. Whenever the mood strikes me, I ease down to the beach, where the water is refreshingly cold. I wade out into the clear turquoise tide pools or laze around on the sand, idly searching for deep-purple seashells. Mostly, I just sit in peace, giddy that I have the place entirely to myself.

There's more fun to be had than basking in the ever-present sun, however. Every Wednesday night from late October through March, Puerto Vallarta celebrates its painters, potters, and sculptors with the Art Walk. Tim and I head to Viejo Vallarta (the old town) to browse the cluster of small galleries, where hosts keep their doors open late into the evening, offer free wine and cocktails, and gush over their exhibitions, which are surprisingly sophisticated for a beach town. At Galeria Uno, I sip a piña colada while the resident cats, Frida and Matisse, weave through the chattering crowd.

Tim's college roommate has made a mint in Puerto Vallarta's real estate market the last nine years, and when Tim hits him up for restaurant suggestions, he sings the praises of a Chinese restaurant, a flat-crust pizza joint, and a couple of new Thai and sushi restaurants. Weirdly enough, he says, you have to hunt for high-quality Mexican food. We didn't come to Mexico for egg rolls, so he steers us off the Malecón--the half-mile cement-and-stone boardwalk that's the heart of downtown--to El Arrayan. "They serve the type of Mexican food where you feel like there's a fat old grandma in the kitchen blessing each dish on its way out," he promises.

At the end of a decadent meal of empanadas de platanos, boneless pork leg, and chipotle shrimp, we fight over the last bite of dessert--calabaza con piloncillo, a caramelized squash that has forever redefined my relationship with pumpkin pie. Carmen, the young, charismatic owner, saunters over with shots of raicilla, Puerto Vallarta's local moonshine. "Careful, this can blind you," she jokes. It tastes like tequila crossed with kerosene. A second shot and we'd probably have ended up at Señor Frogs dancing until dawn with leprechaun hats on our heads.

The next day we're ready for a little adventure. José arranges for his friend at Rancho Rides to take us on a four-hour horseback tour into the Sierra Madre. Apolonio, a shy, cinema-ready cowboy in a beat-up hat, a shirt with pearl buttons, and frayed huaraches, introduces us to our mounts, Tigre and Alison, and off we go. Once we cross the Cuale River a few times and ride through Apolonio's rural neighborhood, we leave behind the human race as our horses clamber up the steep trail. My husband speaks a little Spanish, and Apolonio speaks even less English, but they manage to chat happily for most of the ride. When we get to a deserted waterfall at the top and break for a swim, Apolonio gestures at our surroundings and wonders about our hometown. "Is New York City look like this?" he asks. "No!" we answer in unison.

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