Zebra hides, cow tails, masks and other relics from Africa adorn Moana Lodge in Malpaís, on the southern tip of northwestern Costa Rica’s NicoyaPeninsula.
It’s a quirky choice of decor, but somehow it works in this internationally flavored beach community, where Argentine, Israeli and Swedish business owners fall right in with Ticos, and it’s not unusual to be stopped by a fellow beachgoer asking for a spot of sunscreen or a sip from your water bottle.
Irishman Aidan Prior joined the eclectic Malpaís mix when he bought Moana Lodge from its previous owner, a Belgian-Congolese, in December 2005. It had been around for five years as a hostel by the same name. Prior and his Costa Rican fiancé Vicky Rovira promptly set out to transform it into a high-end option for visitors to this stretch of the peninsula.
They decided to keep the African theme while fixing what Prior called “millions of problems” and overlooked details, such as horrendous lighting, awkwardly placed bathroom mirrors and concrete walkways that became slip-and-slides in the rainy season.
Prior pointed out the numerous improvements they’ve made during a recent tour of the property. Comfy queens have replaced bunk beds. Concrete has been ripped up and tasteful rock laid in its place, and the lighting now accents the grounds at night, a necessary switch from overpowering floodlights.
Another addition is Missy the cat, who reigns over the grounds, napping among plants and quick to rub against the legs of animal lovers.
Some things didn’t need much tweaking, Prior explained. The garden areas have been left to flourish, and, next door, families of howler monkeys still swing from the trees.
The lodge offers a choice of three standard rooms and four deluxe rooms, which are a bit larger and have a small sitting area with a couple of chairs and a table. All rooms have air conditioning, a welcome luxury in Malpaís’ potentially sweltering temperatures, a four-poster, queen-size bed, well-equipped bathrooms and porches. Six of the seven rooms have an additional single bed, creating space for three.
So far, most guests have been couples, which is natural given the romantic ambience. Kids over 6 are welcome, however.
In all the rooms, whitewashed walls, high ceilings and tile floors create a cool and uncluttered feel. The decor of the deluxe rooms centers around zebra print, which jumps out at you as soon as you open the door. A zebra skin (actually a cowhide stenciled with zebra stripes) hangs over the bed, and a zebra-print blanket and throw pillows spice up the white bedspread and mosquito netting (not functional or necessary, since the rooms are sealed off to bugs).
African masks, shields and spears dot the lodge sparely enough to be interesting as opposed to tacky. Some of the rooms have a brown-and-white color scheme instead of black and white,with leopard spots replacing zebra stripes.
Details you’d expect from a higher-end hotel have been covered. A wardrobe creates plenty of space for unpacking, a hairdryer’s there if you want it and a lockbox keeps valuables safe.
In the bathroom, a stone-colored bowl atop the counter creates an unusual sink and a shower with ample room delivers instantly hot water. The toilet sits privately behind a slatted wood door.
In addition to offering more posh lodging than the slew of hostels and cabinas in Malpaís and neighboring Santa Teresa, Moana Lodge is out to offer more personalized service.
“We had to find a niche because we’re not on the beach and we don’t have a restaurant,” Prior said. “So that’s our niche – a nice, upscale environment and personalized advice, making sure people are happy, spending a lot of time talking to guests.”
This comes naturally to Prior, a globe-trotting photographer who also bartended for years in Dublin pubs. He puts his chattiness to good use by offering recommendations and helping arrange activities such as horseback riding, fishing and quad bike rentals.
Each room also has an information book describing restaurants, how to get to nearby beaches and other essentials.
As the owner points out, Moana Lodge is not on the beach, which could deter those whose idea of a beach vacation is waking up to the sand beneath their feet. But the fabulous shoreline of Santa Teresa is a short drive away, as is Playa Carmen. Playa Malpaís is across the street from Moana Lodge, but a big stretch of it is rocky and not swimmer friendly. Basically, unless you want to count on pricey taxis, a vehicle is a must during a stay here.
Though not on the beach, the ocean is omnipresent on Moana’s grounds, from the lull of waves to glimpses of the ocean meets sky horizon from the Jacuzzi and pool area.
A short hike to the top of the property rewards one with spectacular sea views all the way north to Nosara. Building a few luxury bungalows and a bar on this lookout point are among the owners’ dreams for the future.
Breakfast is included in the room rates and is served up in the outdoor communal kitchen area (a leftover from the hostel days) between 8 and 9:30 a.m. – a bit late for this visitor’s taste. Fellow java junkies should be aware that no cups were being served until 8, either.
Kitchen staffer Sonia Valverde has a reputation around town for cooking up delectable empanadas de plátano maduro conqueso blanco. This ripe-plantain-and-cheese treat from her native Nicaragua even led one former guest to show up with his own plantains, requesting that Valverde whip him up a couple.
She shapes the plantains into half-moon empanadas, sandwiches soft white cheese between them and fries them lightly. With gallo pinto and a generous bowl of fresh fruit, they make for a well-rounded and filling breakfast. The coffee,when it was served, was strong, rich and satisfying.
All in all, travelers looking for comfortable lodging who appreciate personalized service and don’t mind not being right on the beach will find Moana Lodge a solid choice.
Rates, Info, Getting There
Moana Lodge room rates, including tax and breakfast, are $90-120 for a standard room and $100-150 for a deluxe room, depending on the season.
For information, visit www.moanalodge.com or call 640-0230.
To reach Malpaís from the Central Valley, first go to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Buses leave several times a day from the San José station at Calle 16, between Avenidas 10 and 12 (222-0064). Drivers should take theGeneral Cañas Highway west
From Puntarenas, take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to Paquera. Naviera Tambor (661-2084) makes the trip at 5 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and returns to Puntarenas from Paquera at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Cars can be driven aboard, but make sure to arrive early to reserve your spot. The schedule has been known to change (as evidenced by widely varying reports of departure times from locals) so it’s a good idea to call in advance to confirm times.
Once you’re in Paquera, travel to the town of Cóbano, and from there head on to Malpaís. If you’re traveling by bus, you may be able to catch one directly from Paquera to Malpaís; if not, take a bus to Cóbano and then another bus or a taxi to Malpaís. Moana Lodge is two kilometers from the intersection at Frank’s Place; you’ll see signs for it once you arrive in the center of Malpaís. The whole journey takes approximately six hours.