In the Hills of Rio de Janeiro, Santa Teresa's Sweet B&Bs
With a creak and a groan, the faded yellow tram lurches to life. As it has several times each day for the last 110 years, the Bonde leaves downtown Rio de Janeiro's Estação de Bondes Carioca station and begins the long, slow climb up the city's famed hills. It passes tall palm trees; groups of kids waving from the nearby favelas, the shantytowns built on the hills; walls speckled with graffiti; and the occasional shirtless man holding a cat as he gazes blankly out a window. About 10 minutes later, the tram grinds to a halt in Santa Teresa, Rio's bohemian quarter.
Everyone knows about the city's gorgeous beaches, its hedonistic Carnaval, the majestic Christ statue known as the Corcovado. But Santa Teresa offers a different experience of Rio: an authentic neighborhood where peasant skirts trump thongs. At once charming and edgy, packed with art studios and gracious colonial houses, Santa Teresa stands in stark contrast to the glitzy scenes of Copacabana and Ipanema. "This is a village, a small city in a big one," says Lucia Miranda, a 20-year Santa Teresa resident and a salesperson at La Vereda, a handicrafts store. "I love it here."
About a century ago, Santa Teresa was one of the most prestigious addresses a Carioca--the informal name for a Rio local--could have. Close to downtown but blessed with a cooler, less humid climate due to its hilly location, the district became home to many of the city's elite residents who built colonial and neoclassical mansions there.
Over time, however, Santa Teresa's charm faded. A devastating flood in 1966 led many inhabitants to leave. In the 1980s, huge influxes of relocated northern Brazilians created favelas in the adjoining hills, and some of their violence spilled over. (It's still wise to be extra cautious in Santa Teresa, particularly at night and while on public transportation.) But in the 1990s, the beautiful buildings--and cheap prices--sparked the current gentrification.
Today, many of those newly renovated mansions are taking guests, thanks to a B&B network called Cama e Café ("Bed and Coffee"). The three-year-old organization--the only one of its kind in Brazil--works with locals to make 50 to 80 houses available for overnight stays. "We really wanted to show the day-to-day lifestyle of a Brazilian family," says Carlos Magno Cerqueira, one of Cama e Café's three founders, who are all natives of Santa Teresa. Each guesthouse owner must complete a special training course with the program to learn the fine points of becoming a host. And using an online questionnaire, organizers narrow down the options, selecting three homes best suited to each potential visitor.
"There's a nice relationship between the hosts and the guests," Cerqueira says. "If they're going to a party, they often take the guests along as a friend." One of the most spectacular B&Bs is a 1932 white art deco house owned by Guido Sant'Anna. Sant'Anna moved to Santa Teresa from a ritzier part of Rio three years ago, drawn by the memory of visiting his grandfather, who used to live in the area. He now rents out three rooms, each for $72 a night, the best of which has romantic blue walls and a terrace overlooking the city.
Sant'Anna is also an accomplished baker; his signature creation is the Torta Crocante, a rich chocolate confection with a gooey interior and a crunchy top. Each morning, fresh breads and sponge cake are laid out for breakfast.
Several other grand houses are open to visitors, though not overnight. The former home of a socialite at the Parque das Ruínas is used for open-air shows and other cultural events. Next door, another mansion has been transformed into the Museu da Chácara do Céu, a modern and contemporary art gallery with works by Picasso and Dalí. Many original objects and furnishings are on display, including a table setting in the opulent dining room.
Cama e Café guests receive a card that entitles them to a free drink or appetizer at many area restaurants and discounts at local shops. La Vereda features crafts from Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state north of Rio. Trilhos Urbanos, a music and handicrafts store, specializes in works by Santa Teresa artists. Out back, there's a postage-stamp-size terrace where you can taste a variety of cachaças, the sugarcane liquor used in caipirinhas.
"I came here for a love affair and never left," exhales Patricia Ford, a silver-haired Canadian, through a cloud of cigarette smoke at the Bar do Gomes, where the crowd spills out into the street. But while the affair ended, Ford's connection to her adopted village didn't. And one of her favorite things about Santa Teresa is the strong community she's found: "Everyone still knows everyone."
"The people that live here think differently," says Ana Maria Clark, a psychologist and 17-year Santa Teresa resident, who rents out one room (for $72) in her bright peach 1908 colonial house. "They are more calm, more sensitive, more artistic." And that is perhaps most apparent at Santa Teresa's annual three-day Open Door Arts Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary at the end of July. About 75 artists open their studios to visitors, cafés sponsor poetry readings, and musicians jam on various street corners. Last year, some 30,000 people turned out, and this year, chances are the crowd will be even larger.
Chilling Out in Quebec
In the past year, three Nordic-style spas have opened around Quebec City. The area's lakes and rivers make it well suited for the Scandinavian water cure, which consists of a thermostatic rotation: Sweat in a hot tub, sauna, or steam bath; dunk in cold water; rest; repeat. "What we offer here is nature. No traffic. No power lines. No distractions," says Hugues Lavoie, owner of Le Nordique, 25 minutes north in Stoneham. In winter, the spa cuts a hole in the ice of the Jacques Cartier River for the cooldown portion (747 Jacques-Cartier Nord, 418/848-7727, lenordique.com, day pass $25). Michel Carrier, owner of Sibéria Station Spa, a 10-minute drive from the city, says Quebec's European heritage makes it a fitting place for the Nordic cure. Sibéria Station's stone pools are flanked by man-made waterfalls, and the Mongolian yurt is a nice spot to relax, with a fireplace, chair hammocks, and a skylight (339 bd du Lac Beauport, 418/841-1325, siberiastationspa.com, day pass $25). Zonespa, unlike the other two spas, also offers fancier treatments, like wraps and facials. Next to the Mont St. Anne ski resort, about 45 minutes northeast of Quebec City, Zonespa caters to the après-ski crowd. Director Normand Lachance says the cure "relaxes your muscles like nothing else." (186 rang St-Julien, St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, 418/826-1772, zonespa.com, three-hour pass $30.)
Maui's Chic Boutiques
The small town of Paia has long been the self-crowned windsurfing capital of the world, as well as a great place to grab a fish taco. But over the past few years, savvy boutique owners have taken notice of a steady stream of international passersby headed to Hana, and set up shop. The latest, and most famous, is Tamara Catz, who is about as close as you can get to a chichi Hawaiian fashion designer (83 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9184). You might have seen her clothes on the cover of the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Originally from Buenos Aires, Catz lives in the nearby town of Haiku with her husband, Francisco Goya, a competitive windsurfer. She chose Paia for her first store, which opened last April, because "everyone goes through Paia at one point. Plus, it's more authentic than other towns on the island." Known for bright colors and breezy cuts, Catz's clothes are too sophisticated to be categorized as beachwear. Her popular hand-embroidered pants ($155) transition seamlessly back to the mainland. The greatest concentration of cool shops is around the corner, along Baldwin Avenue. Bahama Mama is stocked with trendy jeans and sparkly tops by Custo-Barcelona, Von Dutch, and Rock & Republic that look as though they were shipped in from Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles (62 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-8188). A recent visit found Pucci-esque handbags by Donatella d'Aquino, made from vintage Hawaiian fabric ($86). Across the street, Alice in Hulaland stocks a cute mix of T-shirts with thick bands of color at the arm and neck holes (19 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-9922). The tees with Alice's signature kitschy logo--a Hawaiian girl sitting cross-legged with a ukulele--cost $25. In the sand-floored back room, there's an eclectic collection of island goods, like banana-patterned water-resistant fabric, which is great for tablecloths ($11 per yard); reproductions of 1950s tiki mugs ($8-$13); and yummy-smelling bars of fruity soap in six different flavors, including Ginger Papaya and Lemon Drop ($6). Even men who normally cringe at the thought of aloha shirts will have a hard time walking out of Moonbow Tropics empty-handed (36 Baldwin Ave., 808/579-8592). Silk bowling shirts and funky button-downs with retro prints by Kamehameha, Paradise Found, Kahala, and Tommy Bahama start at $58. Across the street from the post office is the two-year-old Na Kani O Hula, a shop with ukuleles ($48) and handmade uli'ulis (starting at $50), the feathered gourd rattles that hula dancers shake at luaus (105 Baldwin Ave., 808/573-6332). There's also the occasional entertainment: Owner Gayle Miyaguchi has been dancing the hula for 25 years, and when asked, she's happy to give a demo. The Paia Trading Company, along the Hana Highway, is one of the few places on the island where you can find genuine Hawaiiana at reasonable prices (106 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9472). Vintage postcards, Treasure Craft pottery, prints of Ted Mundorff flower paintings, monkeypod bowls, classic vinyl Elvis albums--you never know what you'll discover at the shop, which has been run by the same family for 30 years. The stock changes daily, but you can always be sure you'll get far better prices on originals here than on reproductions in other stores on the island. A few doors down, put your new fashion inspiration to work at Aloha Bead Company (43 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9709). Sarah Klopping has gathered hundreds of thousands of beads from around the globe in every shape, size, color, and material imaginable. With about $15 worth of raw materials and 30 minutes, you can string up a bracelet or necklace to bring home as your own little slice of Paia.
Europe on the Quick: A Long Weekend in Stockholm
The cardinal rule of a long-weekend getaway: Don't do anything to make it less long--like miss your flight. My partner, Adam, and I took the subway to JFK airport, feeling pretty good about ourselves for getting to the AirTrain transfer earlier than we'd expected on a Wednesday afternoon. I scanned the list of airlines and their terminals. Saudi Arabian Airlines, Singapore Airlines . . . . Where was Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS? In Newark, it turns out. I called SAS. "The flight to Stockholm is never delayed," said the agent, drolly. "Except tonight." It took us a total of six trains to get there, but we made it. Having lived in a sublet while renovating a new apartment, Adam and I didn't travel much last summer, because there were always apartment-related things that needed to be done. And we didn't plan any big trips for after we moved in, because (a) renovating is expensive, and (b) we figured that all we'd want to do is savor finally being in our new place. But we found ourselves living inside a to-do list: Everywhere we looked, there was another task staring back. We needed to get away. In honor of a certain special someone's birthday--mine--I proposed a quick trip to Stockholm. While we may not have wanted to spend 10 days in the Scandinavian winter, three sounded like a hoot. I've always believed that part of the reason people travel is so they have something fresh to talk about, and right away, it was a relief to focus on something besides, say, the fact that our new oven makes a strange booming noise when it hits 200 degrees. I saw some appealing hotel/airfare packages, but bagged the package idea when I went to SAS's website. The airline was promoting a "Campaign Fare" on its home page: Newark (ahem) to Stockholm for $399, including all taxes. Our preferred dates were available, but every time I tried to book the flight, I kept getting error 140004. "Please try again later," the message said, so I did, every 15 minutes, convinced that someone was about to snap up the last two Campaign Fares. Eventually, I spoke with someone at the SAS offices in Sweden who knew how to fix the problem: I was entering myself as "passenger #1" and Adam as "passenger #2," but because Adam's last name comes before mine alphabetically, the system couldn't process it. That was a new one. I bought the Time Out guidebook to Stockholm and checked out a bunch of hotels online. Adam likes a hip hotel, and the Nordic Light fit the bill. It had a weekend deal for $140 a night, but it was only valid Friday and Saturday nights. I e-mailed asking if they'd kindly extend the rate to Thursday. One of the many benefits of traveling off-season is that hotels get much more flexible. Was it cold? Yes, generally about zero degrees Celsius--the sole Celsius temperature anyone can convert easily. Was it dark? The sun never got high in the sky, and it set around 4 p.m. The city's beauty was often accentuated by the long dusk: Restaurants place a pair of candles outside their doors, the very definition of a warm welcome. Was it fulfilling? Was it ever. Stockholm, situated on 14 islands, is geographically blessed: Walk 15 minutes and you'll probably end up with a water view. We didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about the city, and consciously didn't do a lot of advance planning. What was the point of trading one to-do list (our apartment) for another (guidebook essentials)? We mostly wandered, getting a real thrill when we'd happen upon something monumental. On the way to Gamla Stan--the old town, crisscrossed with narrow lanes--we passed a hulking brick building. I insisted we check it out, only to discover it was Stadshuset, the city hall. We entered a majestic courtyard, then passed through another set of arches, to a terrace area that runs right down to the water. It was like Venice for people who can handle the cold. Considering we'd never actually follow through on it, Adam and I spent a lot of time talking about moving to Stockholm, coming to the optimistic conclusion that we'd be happiest in the upscale neighborhood of Östermalm. Two parts, in particular, struck our fancy: Strandvägen, a waterfront street, and Karlavägen, a broad avenue with a park down the middle, like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. On Karlavägen, we stopped for lunch at the fussy little Café Foam. Seated next to us were three overly groomed young men and a woman with a Chihuahua dozing in her lap, forcing us to reconsider exactly how well we'd fit in. Stockholmers, generally, were just lovely. The day we arrived, we went for panini and double espressos at Tintarella di Luna, a café in the city center. A woman overhearing our conversation recommended several places we should see during our stay. At the time, we were surprised, but then it happened again and again: Locals would offer suggestions, or help us if we looked lost. As easy to manage as the city was, we still got that delicious sensation that we were somewhere foreign. For one thing, we saw no other Americans, and people thought we were Swedish. For another, while everyone spoke impeccable English, signs were written in Swedish, and maybe it's because I traffic in words for a living, but I love the Swedish language. They call an elevator a hiss, which had us ridiculously hissing the word--"Hisssssss! Hisssssss!"--every time we rode one. Instead of pull, doors are labeled drag, though not often enough. (Sweden, in my limited experience, has yet to realize that doors that push open shouldn't have handles. It leads folks like me to tug awkwardly, especially after we've had a glass of wine.) And the word chickybits, which we spotted on a street-food stall, makes me giggle just thinking about it. The shorter your trip, the less you should feel like you have to see everything--because you can't. Whether that's true or not, it gave us a nice excuse to laze about the hotel room. The front desk clerk, bless her, had upgraded us. (She didn't know that I work at Budget Travel, or that I was writing an article.) Our new room was remarkably small, but if the floor plan posted in the room was any indication, we got very lucky. We still found it relaxing, if only because there weren't unpacked moving boxes in the corner. We also decompressed at Sturebadet, a grand day spa, where we each had 20-minute massages--all they had available--and pondered using the gym. This will make me sound like a prude, and for obvious reasons I probably care less than most men, but I was shocked to see that women work inside the men's locker room. There's nothing like a trip to Sweden to make you realize you're not as progressive as you think you are. Three days just might be the ideal amount of time to get jolted out of one's routine. Any longer and we'd be in rehab: We don't really drink before dinner anymore, but we did on this trip--at Berns Hotel, a neat old building, and Fräcka Halvpannan, a restaurant in Söder (as locals call Södermalm, the hipster neighborhood) where our waiter was friendly to the point of perky. We don't drink after dinner, either, but that didn't stop us from going for a Carlsberg at Pelikan, an old beer hall in Söder. We drank, in part, because we couldn't get into a restaurant we wanted to eat at. We had read that you need to call ahead, especially on weekends, but we didn't pull it together to actually make reservations (see the part about decompressing, above). Sometimes we waited until a table was available, like when we went to Tranan, just north of the city center. I had the pork sausage, with potatoes drowning in cream; they were the richest thing I have ever eaten, and I'm no stranger to the dairy aisle. Another night, we planned on trying a restaurant called Matkultur, but the wait was an hour and 20 minutes, so we backtracked to a little Italian joint we'd passed, Zucchero. It reminded me of the kind of place where I'd eat when I was fresh out of college: The pasta was no more than fine, but it was fairly priced, the crowd was fun, and the room was done up in Italian kitsch. In another way, our trip to Stockholm was serendipitous. Every other shop there seems to be selling exactly the kind of housewares you buy when you've moved into a new place only to realize you hate everything you own. For some reason, we were on a quest for place mats. We bought plastic ones, based on Josef Frank fabrics, for $5.50 apiece at upmarket Svenskt Tenn in Östermalm, and woven ones for $3 at Granit, which is like Crate and Barrel with a cooler, more organic, almost Asian sensibility. The other two stores that made an impression on us were DesignTorget, a showcase for cutting-edge design where we bought pillowcases with electric guitars silk-screened on them, and Asplund, where I couldn't pass up a coffee mug illustrated with hippos. For the first time in awhile, thinking about our apartment became fun. Before we'd come to town, I had asked the photographer who'd be shooting this story, Martin Adolfsson, for advice on his city. I had never met Martin, but it turned out that he and his girlfriend were having a housewarming party the weekend we were there, so he e-mailed an invitation. I can count on one hand the times I've been invited to see how people in other countries truly live. I can also remember exactly the look on the face of the front-desk clerk at the Nordic Light when I asked her to translate the directions on the invitation. Martin had made it himself, using a photograph of Dave Chappelle as Rick James; IT'S A CELEBRATION BITCHES!!! was blazoned across the top in multicolored type. The party brought out our insecurities. Martin is 24, and we were sure he'd have hip, creative friends who would make us feel like yuppies at best, fogies at worst. The other guests were indeed hip and creative, and I didn't help matters when I said that we'd found Östermalm to be particularly charming. "It's not the real Stockholm!" protested Martin. He's right, of course. Then again, Beverly Hills isn't the real L.A., but I sure like to visit. As is often the case when people from two countries hang out, we talked a lot about cultural differences--the irony being that we have much in common. From what Martin's guests had to say, Scandinavia is obsessed with poker, sudoku, and Harry Potter. The Ikea lamp Martin has in his bedroom is the one I have in my office. And like at every party everywhere, most of the guests loitered in the kitchen. Adam and I had such a good time that we stayed a half hour longer than we intended, and we were late for a reservation at Bistro Süd, which Martin had recommended. He insisted we come back afterward, as they were going to play Ping-Pong at Lysy Pingwin, a bar around the corner. (He even did a sprightly Ping-Pong jig.) Alas, we're older and more bourgeois than we like to admit. I learned later that the party went on until 5:30 a.m. It was snowing, the first of the winter, and as we walked across Söder to Bistro Süd, where we had a wonderful birthday dinner of steak frites and Arctic char, I felt more alive than I had in months. If that's not why we travel--and the best reason for going anywhere, at any time of year--I don't know what is. Transportation Arlanda Express 011-46/8-588-890-00, arlandaexpress.com, one-way $24 Lodging Nordic Light Hotel Vasaplan 7, 011-46/8-50-56-30-00, nordiclighthotel.se Food Tintarella di Luna Drottninggatan 102, 011-46/8-10-79-55, panini $6 Café Foam Karlavägen 75, 011-46/8-660-09-96, panini $8.50 Berns Hotel Näckströmsgatan 8, 011-46/8-566-322-00, berns.se, beer $6.50 Fräcka Halvpannan Bondegatan 57, 011-46/8-642-20-70, cocktail $6 Tranan Karlbergsvägen 14, 011-46/8-527-281-00, pork sausage $12 Bistro Süd Swedenborgsgatan 8, 011-46/8-640-41-11, steak frites $26 Zucchero Borgmästargatan 7, 011-46/8-644-22-87, pasta $12 Kaffebar Skåningen Skånegatan 92, 011-46/8-642-29-00, espresso $1.25 Activities Stadshuset Hantverkargatan 1, 011-46/8-508-290-58 Moderna Museet Skeppsholmen, 011-46/8-5195-5200, modernamuseet.se, free Vasamuseet Djurgården 011-46/8-519-548-00, vasamuseet.se, $10 Sturebadet Sturegallerian 36, 011-46/8-545-015-00, sturebadet.se, 20-minute massage $52 Shopping Svenskt Tenn Strandvägen 5, 011-46/8-670-16-00 Granit Kungsgatan 42, 011-46/8-21-92-85 Asplund Sibyllegatan 31, 011-46/8-662-52-84 DesignTorget Kulturhuset, 011-46/8-21-91-50 Grandpa Södermannag 21, 011-46/8-643-60-80 Nightlife Pelikan Blekingegatan 40, 011-46/8-55-60-90-90, beer $5 Lysy Pingwin Närkesgatan 6, 011-46/8-641-26-26, beer $6 General advice for long weekends in Europe Fly direct whenever possible. I came across an appealing air/hotel package on Go-today.com--$449 per person for three nights--but the company wouldn't promise direct flights. We'd be in Europe for all of 72 hours; I didn't want to spend any of them sitting around Heathrow. Stay at a hotel that's centrally located. Stockholm has an amazing airport train, the Arlanda Express: It goes from the Arlanda airport to the city with no stops in between, and costs $24 one-way. Even better, we walked from the train platform at Central Station to the hotel lobby in less than 60 seconds. Also, because all of Stockholm's subway lines stop at Central Station, we didn't have to connect to get back to the hotel. Accept the fact that you won't be able to see everything. Stockholm is home to 75 museums (see stockholmtown.com for info); we only went to two: the Moderna Museet, which has a great selection of 20th-century art, and the Vasamuseet, which houses a wooden ship that capsized in 1628--15 minutes after it launched--and was dredged up only 45 years ago. What about the other 73? Think of it this way: If you love a city you're visiting, you can go back and see whatever you missed. Don't make too many set plans. The massages we reserved at Sturebadet were nice, but it was a distraction to have an appointment of any kind looming in the afternoon. Moreover, the whole experience--finding the spa, checking in, changing, showering, paying--took a much larger chunk of time than we'd expected. I wish we'd skipped it and walked around Söder more, spontaneity being more fulfilling. Don't be afraid to relax. I don't sleep on planes, and find flying to Europe hard. But, boy, the sleep you get when you're jet-lagged is the best, and that alone is almost worth the trip. Where the Scandinavian deals are Continental Journeys 800/601-4343, continentaljourneys.com Finnair 800/950-5000, finnair.com Gate 1 Travel 800/682-3333, gate1travel.com Go-today.com 800/227-3235, go-today.com Icelandair 800/223-5500, icelandair.com Nordic Saga Tours 800/848-6449, nordicsaga.com Nordique Tours 800/995-7997, nordiquetours.com Passage Tours 800/548-5960, passagetours.com ScanAm World Tours 800/545-2204, scandinaviantravel.com Scandia World Travel 800/722-4322, scandiaworldtravel.com Scandinavian Airlines 800/221-2350, scandinavian.net Scantours 800/223-7226, scantours.com
Secret Hotels of Costa Rica
MONTEZUMA Ylang-Ylang Beach Resort It takes a certain confidence to put up a hotel in a spot that requires a 15-minute hike on the beach to find, but Ylang-Ylang pulls it off. (You can arrange a lift for you or your bags from sister property El Sano Banano, located in town.) Shielded from the ocean by palm trees, the resort is set in a jungle clearing, and borders a wildlife reserve on one side. Ylang-Ylang's main, two-story building has six rooms, each with pale yellow walls and brightly striped blankets. The eight bungalows are more private; all but one have ocean views from their patios. Stone walkways connect the buildings and are lined with flowering plants and trees, including the fragrant ylang-ylang (naturally). The restaurant's menu was created by a French chef--he trained the kitchen staff and returns periodically to add new dishes such as grilled sea bass in a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and white wine. Montezuma is the most compact and walkable of the southern Nicoya towns. During the day, street vendors sell jewelry and beaded caps from folding tables; at night, surfers and tourists barhop along the main drag. 011-506/642-0636, elbanano.com, doubles from $85, includes breakfast. Amor de Mar An Adirondack-style lodge houses Amor de Mar's 11 rooms, paneled in dark wood and decorated sparely, so as not to distract from the views (best from the second-floor porch). Two rooms share a bath, but the others are private. A patio restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, emphasizing simple fare like tropical smoothies and homemade breads. The wide front lawn gently slopes toward a rocky point, where there's a tide pool big enough to swim in. It's a five-minute walk to the nearest sandy beach, and thrill seekers will be happy to know that Amor de Mar is close to the famed Montezuma Canopy Tour, a zip line that whizzes through treetops and down over waterfalls ($30 for two hours). 011-506/642-0262, amordemar.com, doubles from $55. MALPAÍS The Place The Swiss owners of The Place have combined the famed tidiness of their home country--a custom-built rack neatly stores guests' surfboards--with design-conscious decor. Of the eight rooms, five are bungalows. Each is themed--Ocean Breeze, Out of Africa, Spicy Colors of Mexico, and so on. Some have mosquito netting hanging from a square frame on the ceiling, which lends a bit of drama, and the en suite bathrooms are separated by saloon-style doors. The Place bills itself as a surfer hangout, but the crowd is generally more novice than veteran, and many guests sign up for lessons--$45 for two hours, including board rental. (The hotel is on the nonbeach side of the street, however, and a 10-minute walk from a good surf break.) A large pool is the focal point of an outdoor living room with lounge chairs and daybeds. On Tuesdays, a screen is hung over the pool for movie night. There's no restaurant, but Frank's Place--with tasty ham-and-cheese omelets and shrimp with rice--is two minutes down the road on foot. 011-506/640-0001, theplacemalpais.com, doubles from $80. Moana Lodge A massive three-headed tribal sculpture--you kind of have to see it to understand--marks the entrance to Moana, and it's only the first taste of the hotel's African theme. Wa-Kabwe Kabue-Tshibanda, a Belgian with Congolese roots, has collected angular wooden masks and shields in the Congo and Ivory Coast. They're now scattered around his property--mounted next to the reception desk, near the pool, and on the walls of the seven rooms. Five of the rooms are air-conditioned and some have leopard-print pillows on the single beds. Moana is set on a hillside and has ocean views in the distance; the beach is on the other side of the road. There isn't a restaurant, but rather a well-appointed communal kitchen and a self-serve bar. Located at the southern end of Malpais, Moana is blessedly quiet--the kind of hotel that would be fun to take over with friends. 011-506/640-0230, moanalodge.com, doubles from $60. SANTA TERESA Hotel Milarepa It's easy to see why Leonardo DiCaprio stayed here with his girlfriend--the hotel has only four rooms, which guarantees privacy. Caroline Marot and her business partner (and now ex-husband) Philippe Verquin filled each bungalow with Balinese teak furniture, such as intricately carved armoires and antique four-poster beds. At night, guests are encouraged to open all the windows--and one wall of doors that lead to a private veranda--to let in the warm breezes. In the morning, noise from howler monkeys in the trees may provide a comic wake-up call. The bathrooms are private and semi-alfresco: The toilet and sink are under the roof's eaves, but the shower is open to the sky. A seven-table restaurant looks out over the pool, past a well-trimmed lawn, and down to the beach where there's a bamboo massage hut ($55 for an hour). The American chef, James Kelly, draws from Asian influences and makes great use of local seafood. He also plays another role: Marot's fiance. 011-506/640-0023, milarepahotel.com, doubles from $145. Luz de Vida Opened in 2003 by a group of seven Israeli friends who wanted to escape city life, Luz de Vida has built up a loyal clientele of surfers, families, and surfing families. Footpaths lined with palm, guava, and coconut trees lead to 13 cabins, eight with air-conditioning and five without. They're decorated with chunky wood furniture; three have sleeping lofts. Each has a private patio with two rocking chairs and a hammock. The view from the pool--past the restaurant, right down to the ocean--is spectacular. In addition to massages, the on-site spa offers treatments like manicures, pedicures, and peels. Yoga classes are held in an outdoor studio. 011-506/640-0320, luzdevida-resort.com, doubles from $80, includes breakfast; children under 10 stay free. Casa Zen Experienced surfers, backpacking young couples, and hip parents unafraid to travel with their babies--these are the kinds of free spirits that tend to find common ground at Casa Zen. Kelly Lange, a transplant from Kansas City, Missouri, opened the hotel in December 2004. She rents nine rooms with one or two beds, and three dorm rooms. Even the six shared bathrooms could be considered part of Casa Zen's communal ethos. All rooms are spare but inviting, with batik-print bedspreads and tangerine, ochre, and yellow color schemes. But guests usually hang out either in the hotel's Thai restaurant or in the "rancho," a circular outdoor pavilion decked out with primary-color pillows and comfortable banquettes. It has games, toys, and books for guests, and hosts movie nights on Thursdays and Sundays. 011-506/640-0523, zencostarica.com, doubles from $22, cash only. Point Break Hotel This hotel is just off one of the best breaks on the Nicoya Peninsula. Experienced surfers will want to know that despite the property's name, it's actually a beach break, not a point break--but nonsurfers probably won't care. There are six small cabins; the roofs are topped with dried palm fronds and the "walls" are largely screens (the overall effect is like sleeping out on a porch). White cotton curtains add a degree of privacy. The floors are concrete, inlaid with log cross-sections. Each cabin is fronted by a sandy area with deck chairs for lounging. One slightly more expansive cabin has its own bathroom and a fridge. The rest share a large bathroom, whose multiple sinks are out in the open. For groups of four, there are two rooms in a wooden building that's lifted high on stilts, each with a bathroom and a kitchen. It looks like a big, fun tree house. 011-506/640-0190, surfing-malpais.com, doubles from $40, cash and traveler's checks only. SAN FRANCISCO DE COYOTE Casa Caletas Atop a high bluff, Casa Caletas overlooks the bay where the Coyote River meets the Pacific. The sunsets can be magical. There's no tourist-friendly town nearby, so guests (many of them honeymooners) tend to stay put. The hotel restaurant has a terrific spa-like menu which features fresh fruits, seafood carpaccios, and green salads. It's read out loud tableside, sometimes by chef Cynthia Baltadano herself. Everything has been art-directed at Casa Caletas--even the coconuts lining the walkways have been painted the resort's signature light green--but the place doesn't come off as fussy. An infinity pool takes advantage of the incredible view. The main house is grand, with high beamed ceilings, lots of picture windows, and dark, rattan furniture. The nine rooms have private patios and striking abstract art made from reeds. A junior suite, though no bigger than the other rooms, boasts a private hot tub on its porch. Optional activities are numerous--kayaking ($10), horseback riding ($25), and waterskiing ($50)--but the nearest swimming beach is a mile away. To reach it, you can rent a golf cart for $25 a day. 011-506/289-6060, casacaletas.com, doubles from $130. When to go, how to get there, what to pack The best weather is in the dry season, between November and April. It's also high season, and we've listed those prices in this story. May through September is "green season," when it rains often, but in short, torrential bursts; hotel prices tend to be slightly lower. Avoid October; it's usually a washout. No matter when you go, bring an extra pair of flip-flops just for walking through town, as streets can get muddy. And in the dry season, a bandanna or other dust protection, even goggles, is advised for those who drive an ATV or ride a bike--the best ways to explore these small towns. Driving a car in Costa Rica, meanwhile, is an adventure in itself. Plan on six hours to get from San Jose to the southern Nicoya Peninsula--heavy rain can make some roads impassable. Or fly: Nature Air (800/235-9272, natureair.com) and Sansa (011-506/221-9414, flysansa.com) run round-trip flights between San Jose and Tambor for roughly $130. From Tambor, it's a half-hour cab ride to Montezuma ($25), and an hour to Malpais or Santa Teresa ($35). For Casa Caletas, fly from San Jose to Punta Islita ($160 round trip). If your itinerary calls for an overnight in San Jose, Hotel Grano de Oro is a great choice (011-506/255-3322, hotelgranodeoro.com, doubles from $90).