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A posh getaway in the Caribbean

Banana Azul co-owner Colin Brownlee recently conducted a survey to better understand what people want from the Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. Was it adventure activities? Romance? Amazing food?

As it turned out, all of those were in the running. But by far the most popular reason that people came to the Caribbean was simply to relax. They wanted to lounge on the beach, sip cocktails, and do nothing, channeling the attitude of Costa Rica’s all-knowing spokescreature, the sloth.

To be sure, slothy Rastas and backpackers dot the beaches of the sleepy hamlets scattered up and down the southern Caribbean. But nearly 10 years ago, when Brownlee constructed his property just steps from the tranquil Playa Negra and began marketing it on the Internet, he figured something out. The wealthy wanted to come to the Caribbean and be sloths, too.

A koi pond that is home to fish and turtles winds by the Banana Azul restaurant.

Approaching the hotel on a gravel road that snakes past a dive bar and a few modest homes, a visitor may not expect much. But upon reaching the well-constructed Banana Azul, with its hardwoods gleaming and bromeliads rampant, it becomes clear that the place is a hidden oasis.

Tucked away from Puerto Viejo’s riffraff, Banana Azul rents bikes for the 1.5-kilometer trek to all the shops, restaurants and culture that define the area. But those who don’t want to leave the premises certainly don’t have to.

The 14 units run the gamut from a spacious two-bedroom apartment, which the owner originally constructed for himself in 2004, to charming suites and cabinas, some with ocean views, private dipping pools and Jacuzzi tubs. Many of the accommodations also feature balconies (some more private than others) and art depicting local flora and fauna. Hammocks abound.

The two-story main building includes a downstairs bar and restaurant, which perches alongside a winding koi pond and serves up mouthwatering dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is ever changing, with special nights for Caribbean style fare, fajitas, garlic jumbo shrimp and more.

Beside the restaurant, a recently installed pool system is dotted with lounge chairs and palapa-topped cabanas, which are also a prominent fixture on Playa Negra. The chocolate-sand beach is just a short walk down a wooden pathway surrounded by lush tropical foliage.

Brownlee, a Canadian expat and community leader, originally conceived of the hotel with backpackers in mind. But from the time it was constructed, Banana Azul began attracting a well-heeled set, due in part to Brownlee’s prowess with Internet marketing. His visitors wanted high quality rooms, amenities and services, and Brownlee complied.

“Already over budget and broke, I liquidated another Canadian rental property and started to upgrade the facility immediately,” he said. “We have never stopped.”

Brownlee’s expertise with Internet marketing, and particularly TripAdvisor and online travel agencies, is something he’s eager to share with neighbors. That’s why he began a series of seminars to teach fellow business owners in the Caribbean some tricks of the trade. The first one, entitled “TripAdvisor for Dummies,” took place last month. More than 30 people showed up, and they are already adopting some of the tactics, such as asking directly for guests to post reviews.

“My motives are not entirely altruistic,” Brownlee said. “If we have a small army of people out there doing good marketing, the combined efforts really magnify and everyone benefits.”  

During the high season, Banana Azul routinely fills up, and Brownlee says that’s because he goes out of his way to make sure people get what they came for. People are trusting him with time out of the one of two weeks a year they are given to enjoy themselves, he said.  “I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Although many development plans around Puerto Viejo are on hold due to the recent maritime zoning fiasco, Brownlee is in expansion mode. On a quick tour of the property, he shows off a nursery next door, Jardines Paraíso, where plant specialist Rick Hibbitts has been selling a wide variety of rare and stunning bromeliads.

Brownlee continues the tour through an undeveloped area of his property, for which he has big plans. Next year, he says, this will become the site of Banana Verde, a collection of about 20 glass-fronted bungalows scattered along a man-made river system. The finished product will look and feel like a resort in the Arenal area, Brownlee said.

In other words, super-slothy.

Going there:

To get from San José to the Caribbean coast, take Highway 32 through Braulio Carrillo National Park; when you hit Limón, you will see a sign (at the Colono gas station) to turn right for Puerto Viejo. Turn and follow the coast all the way down, and after about an hour, you will come to Hone Creek, 5 kilometers from the turn-off to Banana Azul. After passing a hardware store called San Francisco you’ll see a bus stop with a roof on it, (right across the street from corner store Pulpería Violetta). Take a left and follow along beach. After you pass Perla Negra Hotel, the wooden gate and sign for Banana Azul comes up in 200 meters.

Accommodations range from $69-$194 with a two-night minimum. Children under 16 are not permitted. For more info, visit Banana Azul’s website.

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