Not quite everything is sand, surf and sun in the southern NicoyaPeninsula town of Malpaís. The main attractions inevitably focus on the area’s deservedly enticing waves and wild beaches, but a couple of kilometers up a winding dirt road that struggles up and over to the peninsula’s lee-side coast, Star Mountain Lodge quietly awaits, ready to share its pervasive serenity and woodland calm.
The lodge lies in a 90-hectare former farm, but little evidence remains of the cattle pastures as secondary forest has flourished since it was turned into a small hotel several years ago. In fact, the property is something of a wildlife haven; bordered by two rivers, it stays green throughout the usually desiccating dry season and is an oasis for the howler and white-faced monkeys, coatis and sloths that forage in the lush foliage. The mammal and bird list posted on the lodge’s Web site should be inducement enough for wildlife observers.
Andrew Rhee, 43, took over StarMountain four years ago. His quiet, equable hospitality seems in plain contrast to a frenetic “former life” in Connecticut and Miami, in the United States. The former lawyer, financier and real estate broker decided to quit the rat race and bought Star Mountain Lodge on first sight while in Costa Rica on a scouting trip.
The peaceful location well suits Rhee’s low-key approach to the hotel business. He has little interest in the flamboyance of some resorts popping up around Malpaís and neighboring Santa Teresa, but wants visitors to feel they can settle right in and leave dayjob worries far behind.
“StarMountain is best viewed as a retreat from the irritations of the real world,” Rhee says.
Without being intrusive, he shares the breakfast buffet with guests so as to offer suggestions on what to do and places to explore.
“My greatest satisfaction is seeing their big smiles as they joyfully recount their day’s experiences,” he says. “It seems to me that modern culture and its efficiencies have left people out of touch with nature and the more basic and real rhythms of the earth.
We hope to re-expose our guests to those grounding and harmonic forces.”
The laid-back focus does not imply lack of attention, however, and requests or queries are handled by staff with friendly efficiency and a genuine desire to help.
A row of four spacious rooms with attractive, ranch-style double doors and windows with wood-slat shutters leads to an ample front terrace overlooking the forest and freeform pool and Jacuzzi below. All rooms have queen-size beds – two have extra singles – and come with ceiling fans, refrigerator stocked with water and beer, and a roomy bathroom with plenty of hanging space and shelves for clothes, so often lacking these days.
Attractive murals painted by a couple of appreciative young guests brighten the walls, and I rather liked the nifty bamboo-ladder towel rack that can be moved around to be close at hand to either the shower or sink. A six-person bungalow is also available, again with fridge and with a sitting room that converts to sleeping quarters, as well as fans or air conditioning, though the high ceilings keep the interior pleasantly cool.
Because of its small size, StarMountain is ideal for group bookings or several families wanting to reserve the entire place. The social area has a long, solid-wood, refectorystyle dining table next to a large kitchen, and an enormous built-in barbecue dominates one wall, just calling for fish and steaks to be thrown onto the grill.
For now, only breakfast is offered. Included in the room rate, it’s a feast of home-baked breads, fruits, juice and cooked dishes to order. Rhee stresses, however, that his cocina (kitchen) is your cocina, and guests are welcome to bring in supplies and use the lodge as a self-catering facility. If that seems a bit too much when seeking time out from the domestic routine, the inspiring restaurant Mary’s, two kilometers down the road at the turnoff, offers dinner, or one of the area’s excellent freelance chefs can come in to cater with a menu of your choice.
The jungle trails traversing StarMountain’s property make for good hiking, birding and horseback riding. Rhee keeps a stable of six amiable mounts, and riding tours, ably guided by the hotel’s charming field manager, Juan Flores, are available to the public.
A typical two-hour ride takes in the trails and includes a trek down to the beach for $30 per person.
Other excursions popular with guests are visits to the new Rainsong Wildlife Sanctuary (www.rainsongsanctuary.com) and the CaboBlancoNational Park in Cabuya. The hotel will help set up trips and provide transport if necessary.
But often it’s enough to soak in the pool or Jacuzzi, watching the monkeys amble through, or play one of the many board games found in the lounge area. And if you need a fix of shore time, the sand and the waves are just a stone’s throw away.
All of which add up to a pretty star sort of place.
Getting There, Rates, Information
By car, take theInter-American Highway west
from San José to Puntarenas. From there, take a ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to Paquera. Naviera Tambor (2661-2084) makes the trip at 5, 8 and 11 a.m. and 1, 4 and 8 p.m., returning to Puntarenas from Paquera at the same times. From Paquera, travel through Tambor and Cóbano toward Malpaís. Turn left at the Malpaís/Santa Teresa intersection at El Carmen. Go three kilometers and turn left at Mary’s Restaurant onto the jungle road to Cabuya. Two kilometers and two river crossings later, Star Mountain Lodge is on the left with an easily seen sign.
By plane, both Nature Air and Sansa fly into Tambor, from where you can arrange a taxi or hotel pickup. A direct bus from San José (Transportes Rodríguez, 2642-0740) leaves the Coca-Cola terminal at 7:30 a.m. or 2.30 p.m.
Rates are $50 double, $65 triple or $150 for a six-person bungalow. Rental of the entire hotel is $600 (16 guests maximum), including maid service. Prices for Christmas and New Year’s are double, but otherwise there is no rate variation between high and low season.
Freelance chefs: Demian Geneau, 8821-7546; Torsten Radtke, 8338-7099; or James Kelly, 8346-9774.
For reservations, contact Star Mountain Lodge at 2640-0101, or visit www.starmountaineco.com.