Relaxing in one of the two all-weather rattan loungers by my villa’s private infinity-edge plunge pool, I watched the view from the deck drop down through thick hibiscus hedges and dry-forest vegetation to a shimmering Pacific Ocean a mile distant. No roads, no houses in sight – just the trees and the blues of sea and sky, the sound of birds, howler monkeys and … well, Costa Rican tropical profusion at its best.
The evening before, I had opened wide the glass floor-to-ceiling concertina wall panels dividing the high-ceilinged bedroom from the pool deck, letting the night sounds and scent of ylang-ylang fill the villa and the breeze complement the choice of ceiling or floor fan. I’ve always loved camping, but sleeping almost in the open on a luxurious king-size canopy bed, with crisp, heavy-cotton sheets and soft table lights, adds a dimension of pampering not usually found under canvas. No bugs forced the doors to be closed – perhaps a perk of not being right on the beach – and although the bedroom had full air conditioning, it was cool enough not to need it.
The next morning’s first stretch and “life’s good” smile led me out of sleep onto the smooth hardwood floor that morphs into the beckoning deck. About six paces from bed into the pool to soak up the cries of the monkeys and jays and the morning sea view – all in total privacy. This is seclusion, discreet luxury in its simplest form: This is the adults-only boutique hotel Casa Chameleon in Malpaís, on the southwest tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.
With just four villas well spaced from each other at different levels on the mountainside grounds, Casa Chameleon is the top-end antithesis of the crowded package tour resort. Originally designed to provide an exclusive hideaway for stressed celebrities, who were often brought in by private plane or helicopter, the recently refurbished property under new ownership exudes a fanciful appeal for honeymooners, couples wanting to rebond, or parents who’ve dumped the kids on relatives and need some romantic reaffirmation.
The villas have no phones, no TVs, no outside distractions. (There is Internet at reception and Wi-Fi in the rancho.) Just bring your iPod to slot into the high-end Bose SoundDock – it’s there on the clothes cabinet, along with a pair of binoculars to watch passing wildlife, a nice touch I’ve not found in other hotels. Villa decor follows a less-is-more generic line with muted beige, brown and gold colors and solid hardwood furniture, providing a relaxing contrast to the riot of greens and blues just beyond the balcony. The large wall mirror above the headboard reflects the natural artwork of the jungle and ocean, and a stack of tea lights helps create the right lighting mood.
Apparently, some happy honeymooners at the hotel barely venture forth from their cocoon of hedonistic pleasure. Without getting too personal here, Casa Chameleon lends itself to intimate escapism with appropriately discreet service. This is where you come for some quality private time with your other half. A Canadian masseuse can come and help you relax further with a couple’s massage in your villa, or perhaps you’d like your own yoga session with a trained instructor from the village.
The in-house chef, Robert Essa, is a transplant of 10 years from the U.S. state of South Carolina. Trained at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, Essa doesn’t simply serve up food to order; he discusses with each guest what they might enjoy, as well as any nutritional requirements or allergies, and then sources the freshest ingredients from local fishermen, the area’s renowned organic market and even from his own organic garden nearby. Meals are not included in the hotel rates, and Essa needs a day’s notice to provide lunch or dinner. These can be served in your own villa, or you can watch the chef work his gourmet magic in the open-air kitchen, from the muslin-walled, thatched-roof rancho close by the main pool. Meal requests are part of the online reservation process, or can be arranged through Casa Chameleon’s office in San José, so you aren’t disappointed when you first arrive and want a decent meal.
In the morning, once I managed to drag myself from the Ultra Luxury Villa’s huge bathroom, with its hand-carved stone bathtub for two and shower stall that would enable several cats to be safely swung around, up the nearly 100 steps through the gardens to the rancho, my breakfast was a visual and palatable feast. The mora (tropical blackberry) stuffed pancakes with honey were surrounded by familiar melon, pineapple, banana, orange, mango and strawberry, but also passion fruit and sweet granadilla on the half shell and a ladder of fluffy guabas in their pod, decorated with fresh-picked flowers. If you choose not to indulge in Essa’s admittedly pricey spreads, the villas all have kitchen amenities. The Ultra Luxury Villa is a spacious two-room facility offering a full kitchen with oven, microwave, coffee maker, fridge with freezer and cupboards chock full of kitchenware and accessories.
Besides being a skilled chef, Essa is a quietly pivotal, charming and highly knowledgeable presence for guests who wish to explore their surroundings farther afield. He chats enthusiastically about living in the area, his love of good food and the great local surfing. Through the hotel, you can arrange horseback riding, surf lessons, sportfishing, golf and jungle adventures, or rent a quad bike or four-while-drive vehicle for some back-road excitement.
Once you arrive in Malpaís, access to Casa Chameleon from the main Playa Carmen-Malpaís road is a typical Costa Rican vehicular challenge. With the narrow, rock-strewn, seemingly perpendicular track, thankfully paved in its upper portion, your very arrival is an adrenalin-rush achievement. But the moment you get out of the car, are greeted by the hotel manager and slip through the wooden swing doors onto the deck walkways and tropical gardens, you feel you have entered your very own Shangri-la.
So, whether you are eloping, honeymooning in style or simply want to share some luxury time-out with your partner, Casa Chameleon could be right for you.
By car, take the new Highway 27 from San José to Caldera and Puntarenas, then ferry to Paquera and follow signs to Malpaís (approximately four hours total). By air, fly Nature Air (www.natureair.com) or Sansa (www.flysansa.com) to Tambor, from which it’s a 45-minute taxi ride to Malpaís. The hotel will arrange ground transportation and/or car rental.
Low-season rates are $275 to $295 for Villas Sol, Vista and Palma, and $485 for the Ultra Luxury Villa, plus tax. Villa Sol has wheelchair access. Dinner costs $65 per person, including a bottle of wine. Breakfast is $15 per person. Packages and specials are listed on the hotel’s website; Costa Rican residents and nationals can ask about seasonal promotions. For information and reservations, call 2288-2879 in Costa Rica or 1-888-705-0274 from the U.S.; email [email protected]; or visit www.hotelcasachameleon.com.