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June 10, 2009

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Guanacaste, Costa Rica

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Pura vida from Guanacaste, Costa Rica! I'm down here for the grand opening of an incredible resort right on the Pacific: The JW Marriott Guanacaste. The great news for consumers (though perhaps not so much the owners!) is that because of the state of the economy, guests can get rooms here for a bargain. And I mean, a bargain! Just this past week, they were offering rooms for a third of the regular price: $95! And wait until you see this place. In addition, my sister GeorgieJet is also in Costa Rica and she's checking out the Lost Iguana Resort at the base of the Arenal Volcano.

Last week, I left off from Costa Rica's Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia after a quick two and a half hour flight from Miami. The airport is similar to Kona, Hawaii's because it's open-air but it's not as picturesque. I was the third person off the plane and they had four or five immigration agents working the checkpoints. Mine was friendly, greeted me with an enthusiastic "Hola!" and didn't spend more than 20 seconds processing my paperwork and passport. Why can't all countries be this efficient and welcoming?

The driver/guide from Swiss Travel, which had been pre-arranged through the resort, was waiting just outside of baggage claim as planned. Jose welcomed me with the typical Costa Rican expression of pura vida, which literally translates to "pure life". Jose was super-friendly, full of life and had cold towels and bottles of water waiting for me to refresh myself with. During the hour drive to the resort, Jose regaled me with stories about Costa Rica (including the fact that there are 130 types of snakes, 25 of which are poisonous -- but they don't bother you unless you go looking for them); and his personal life. He lived in Europe for his high school years. Another interesting fact was that less than 1% of the residents are pure Costa Rican.

Costa Rica is in Central America, on the Central Time Zone (no daylight savings) and it's about the same size as West Virginia. It borders Nicaragua (to the north) and Panama (to the east and south). The name Costa Rica translates to Rich Coast and rich it is – there are 1,290 kilometers (802 miles) of coastline as the country borders both the Caribbean Sea (to the east) and the Pacific Ocean (to the west). Costa Rica has seven provinces and the total population is around 4.3 million. Other notables: Costa Rica is the first country in the world to abolish its army and it plans to become the first country to be carbon neutral (by 2021).

The Guanacaste Province is located in the northwestern part of the country. Much of it is on the Pacific Ocean and the northern part borders Nicaragua (a one-hour drive from the airport). Ever since the release of the classic retro movie Endless Summer, Guanacaste is highly ranked as a surfer's paradise. Guanacaste has a population around 300,000; it's the least populated of all the seven provinces. In case you're wondering, the name Guanacaste comes from the word quahnacaztlan, which is native for the national tree of Costa Rica, the guanacaste tree.

I was surprised that the road to the resort was paved almost all the way and totally sane. It wasn't until the last 15 minutes or so that it turned to dirt and got a bit bumpy. Before entering the resort's compound, which is in Tamarindo, we passed the road to the popular surfing town. Tamarindo Beach was just 10 minutes away but like a fool, I declined the opportunity to go, thinking I would find time later but never did. Lesson learned: When you get a chance, take it! One reason I didn't go was because there's so much to do (and not to do) at the JW Marriott and inside the Hacienda Pinilla. Hacienda Pinilla is a 4,500-acre gated residential community. It has a total of six separate beaches, a world-class golf course, stables, restaurants, a number of residences and of course the JW.

When we cleared security at the gatehouse of Hacienda Pinilla it was as if we'd entered an oasis. The roads were paved, there was no one around but the grounds were all perfectly manicured and there was plenty of signage on the 10-minute drive. When we pulled up to the resort, a bellmen opened my door and took care of the bags, while another handed me a cold towel and a bottle of water. I didn't know what to expect because many times, hotel websites don't really reflect the actual hotel but this oceanfront resort is stunning with an authentic and luxurious Costa Rican feel. It's huge too: 310 guest rooms. This place was built not only with leisure travelers in mind but also with an emphasis on hosting meetings and conventions. I know what you're thinking: bad timing thanks to the economy and the AIG effect. But the facilities really are amazing. I timed it right because I was there for their grand opening and the resort is such a big deal that El Presidente of Costa Rica, Óscar Arias Sánchez, was on hand for the ribbon cutting. He's a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and a crew of plain-clothes secret service agents sporting earpieces and two bulges in their shirts surrounded him.

It was a long walk along the red tile flooring to get to my room but I didn't care because the views from the open-air pathways were like eye candy. When the porter opened the door to my room, I was shocked by how nice and large it was. There were rich woods, local artwork and the most comfortable bed with fine linens (a JW staple). Each room comes with a huge flat screen TV with about 80 different channels, mostly in Spanish, but they also have all the local Denver channels (I think it's just to scare the Ticos to see how cold the weather is in the States in the winter time). There are also all kinds of multimedia plugs available to watch movies off your laptop or to go over presentations. The working desk has four outlets (how often do you see that?) and the Internet ($14 a day) was blazing fast.

You have to love a room with a balcony and a magnificent view. Pretty much every afternoon I worked on the deck. Unfortunately, the handsomely furnished tables and chairs were comfortable to sit and work at but not too comfy for lying down and taking a nap. But who's complaining? At least they have balconies! At night I kept the door open with the screen door shut so I could listen to the waves while the ceiling fan kept me cool. During the day when it was hot, I would switch on the air conditioning.

My favorite part of the room besides the balcony, bed and wireless Internet was the bathroom. Just over the separate deep soaking tub was a gigantic open space that could be closed with wooden shutters for privacy but I was by myself so they always stayed open and I would just stare out at the view while taking a shower. The bathroom was stocked with soft, oversized towels and robes but I always use just one the whole time to minimize my carbon footprint. There was also a phone next to the secluded toilet -- gotta love that! Speaking of phones, there were three in the room so there was no running around trying to run or reach for them. The water is safe to drink in Costa Rica (in most parts) but the cleaning staff leave two bottles each time they clean, which is twice daily.

The only thing I didn't like about the room was that the shower temperature changed once in a while and there's a pretty good-sized gap under the door – so when it's windy, the wind howls and some bugs find their way in ... which is probably why I found two small spiders in my room. They weren't poisonous and they weren't the tarantulas I've seen at other Costa Rican places.

I'm not sure if I was getting special treatment or not but the service was fantastic. The staff speak Spanish until they find out you no hablo Espanol. Then they all pretty much speak English. Every day, the waiter called me by name and said it was a pleasure to serve me and assured me that he could do anything for me. I was thinking … anything? The resort has four restaurants and two bars all with unique ambiances and different culinary styles.

When I first arrived, I went straight to the Azul pool grill and had lunch. They feature seven kinds of ceviches but I'm not a seafood man so I had the chicken lettuce wrap with bibb lettuce, white rice, guacamole, "pico de Gallo" and sour cream ($14). The following day I had a fantastic salad with turkey, cucumber, tomatoes, and passion fruit dressing at Mansita restaurant. Normally, I tend not to eat salad in Latin America (and some other parts of the world) but as I mentioned before, the water is safe here. Did I mention dessert?

By the way: All the menu prices come in U.S. dollars but the bill is in both dollars and Colones and 10% is included for service. U.S. dollars are accepted in many of Costa Rica's tourist areas but outside of them, they use Colones (1 USD = 570 CRC).

Every morning I really looked forward to the breakfast buffet ($25) at Mansita because it's elaborate as can be with a Costa Rican flair. They have all the usual fixin's of eggs at the omelet bar but I was more into the pastries, rice/beans, tamales, fresh fruit and the fruit juices and smoothies. My favorite juices were guabana (soursop) and berry. The gooseberries here are much sweeter than those in the States and Europe so I fancied them. I satisfied my sweet tooth with the dried grapefruit stuffed with a nougat of caramel del leche! Ariba, ariba!

I couldn't wait to go down to the pool and beach – so after lunch, me and my bloated belly took a stroll down the beach. The beach had about a hundred lounge chairs and not one of them was taken and no one was in the water -- so it doesn't look like it's a good swimming beach. However, it sure was nice to walk down the deserted beach by myself for some quiet downtime. All the guests (there weren't a lot) seem to congregate around the 25,000 square foot pool, which was absolutely beautiful. There were countless of choices for chairs and a prime location so no need to worry about getting up early to reserve a spot. The hotel is staffed with a ton of pool boys and girls, well dressed in bright, colorful red shirts, who are eager to help. I took a dip but the water temperature was a bit chilly!

I had the option of playing golf on Hacienda Pinilla's 18-hole championship course, zip-lining or horseback ridding. I didn't feel like playing golf alone and I've zip-lined a number of times, including once before in Costa Rica, so instead of driving off-property I decided stay close and go horseback riding at Hacienda Pinilla's ranch. BTW: Zip-lining was created in Costa Rica but Jose said a Canadian guy made it famous. Jose also said that Costa Rica has between 200 and 300 different zip-lining courses. Imagine that!

The drive to the ranch was eight minutes and I thought it was crazy that they made everyone wear helmets until they said, "Who wants to run fast?" Every place I've gone horseback riding in the past, they never allow the horses to let loose. One Argentine guy in my group grew up riding horses and rode the horse like the Lone Ranger. He said afterwards that it was one of the best horses he's been on and that it was like driving a Formula One car. I rode mine like Pee Wee Herman.

I got stuck with the crazy horse. You could just tell my guy wasn't happy. I've forgotten his name since I've repressed the entire experience. I'm just relying on my daily notes to tell you this story. All I remember is the guide saying, "You have to let him know who's boss!" But I'm not a cowboy and I don't like to manhandle animals. The first half (45 minutes) he was going really slowly with sudden and rapid bursts. At the mid-way point, we had a break and we walked up a water tower to see the view and the guides handed out water. The way home was more fun since we rode through the woods. We saw some quiet howler monkeys and then rode on the beach, which was great fun. The cowboy in me started to make an appearance but after 90 minutes, I was ready to go back to the hotel.

After my crazy horse experience, it was the perfect time to check out the health club. There was no problem getting an appointment since they have 22 treatment rooms in the 13,500-square-foot spa. I could have had a variety of treatments, indoors or out, but I opted for a Swedish massage inside. First, I warmed up in the sauna, then roasted in the steam room, bypassing the beauty salon and fitness center on the way to the room. My masseuse was cool but she rubbed my body way too gently. I was going to say something but I didn't want to hurt her feelings and her English wasn't so good so I didn't want her to get into trouble when I yelled, "Harder!"

Later that night I was back at the stables of Hacienda Pinilla not to go riding but for Savannah Fiesta. It's a fun horse show followed by dances by Guanacastecan women dressed in their traditional colorful fine clothing, accompanied by their cowboy partners for a sampling of the province's customs, traditions and typical dances. We arrived at 6pm, just around dusk and the whole ambiance was amazing as the sky was a perfect color and they had candles in paper bags lining the dirt walkway. I felt like I was in a movie or watching one of my old 8mm home movies from when I was a kid – it was a surreal feeling. When we first arrived, they handed out shots in a little keepsake clay jar, along with hats and bandanas. They begin with folk dances, "the peseteado", in some crazy costumes and then there was the horse show. They use the same horses that we went riding on but I didn't see my beast. The show was just a little too long but it had some fireworks at the end and overall it was a fantastic time from the start to finish at 8:30pm. The traditional Costa Rican buffet was filled with all kinds of salads, chicken, beef, rice, beans, string beans with ground beef and dessert. I ate way too much.

I found that $95 dollar deal on Marriott's new Deal of the Day website. They offer up to 60% off leisure rates for their resorts in the Caribbean, Hawaii and California. The deals are announced daily at 7am EDT, Monday through Friday and are only good for 24 hours. The last deal is scheduled to be announced June 14th but they might extend it since it's been so successful.

My flight back to Los Angeles was at 8am on Continental Airlines via Houston. The resort recommended I leave for the airport at 5am but that was way too early since it only takes an hour to get there. My driver was flying, at some points 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph), which was way too fast on the winding roads, so I had to tell him to take a chill pill. There's nothing to do at the airport except buy some last-minute gifts at some tiny shops and get some food at a greasy spoon. It took a minute to check in. I used Continental's self-service kiosk and then went and paid Costa Rica's departure tax of $26 (you can pay with Visa or cash) before going through security (laptops out, shoes stay on, no liquids and they do random searches, which I hate).

Flight time to Houston was three hours and 16 minutes and I got upgraded for having elite status on one of their partner airlines ... and for being nice, the agent said. The flight attendants were cool, the food was good and I was impressed with Houston's Bush Intercontinental (IAH) customs area. It's new, bright, clean and quick. There were only four people in each line and they processed people quickly. On the three-hour, five-minute flight to LAX, I didn't get upgraded but my Continental experience was still great. In addition to having a whole row to myself, you have to love an airline that still serves free food in coach (cheeseburger, salad with Caesar dressing and a mini Hersey's chocolate bar). I was starving so it tasted like one of the best burgers I've ever had.

Here's a four-minute Johnny Jet video of my trip to the JW Marriott Guanacaste, Costa Rica. We also have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube.

Next week: ???

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by JW Marriott Guanacaste

Copyright 2009 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Welcome to Guanacaste!


Liberia Airport




Costa Rican License Plate


Drive to Resort


Fruit Stand On The Side Of The Road


Costa Rican Countryside


Guanacaste Tree


Costa Rican Beauty


Costa Rican Beauties


Hacienda Pinilla Residence


JW Marriott


El Presidente


JW Quad


Walk To Room


My Room


Flat Screen


My Balcony


View From Balcony


View From Shower


Azul Grill


Azul Grill Lunch


Friendly Staff


Breakfast Buffet


Breakfast Fruit


Breakfast Pastries


Hotel Beach


Chilly Water


What Is That?




Pick A Chair


Horseback Riding


On The Beach




Spa Time!


Back At The Stables


Almost Showtime


Our Goodies


Folk Dances


Horse Show


Traditional Dances


My Chariot Home


Food In First


Food In Coach


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