By Lena Katz
Just like the Riviera Maya separated from uber-developed Cancun, the Mexican Pacific coast north of the Nayarit state border is divorcing itself from overbuilt Puerto Vallarta to the south. And what does that mean to travelers? Many more beach hotels — many of them self-contained and/or all-inclusive resorts. More golf courses, more marinas, more spas, all competing for your vacation business. The Riviera Nayarit aims to be a more upscale, more family-friendly alternative to PV. As yet, it’s really just an annex — but still, if you’re looking for a relaxing Mexico vacation, this region’s got all sorts of options.
All-Inclusive for Families
Both the European-based RIU chain and the Mexican-owned Palace Hotels are great for family vacations on a budget. With hundreds of rooms and a half-dozen restaurants per property, these self-contained properties offer the package vacation experience: a week of sun, swimming, buffet dining and group activities for one up-front price. Three RIU properties in Nayarit offer a range of price points and experiences, and since all are located on Playa de Flamingos, guests staying in one property can enjoy certain privileges at the neighboring properties. Guests of the RIU Palace — which is the priciest of the three — can use all three hotel pools, and drink at any of the bars.
Guests of the lower-tier RIU Vallarta and RIU Jalisco aren’t allowed quite as much freedom at the Palace, but still can use their bracelets to visit the neighboring properties. If you’re staying at RIU Palace, though, you probably won’t want to leave the sprawling pool area, where the kids do water activities in one area while grownups lie on chaises listening to the piped-in music and drinking daiquiris.
Don’t confuse the RIU Palace with the Vallarta Palace. This property is smaller, and may not seem as exciting as the RIU, but it has lots of surprise perks, including free wireless all over the property, a premium all-inclusive bar that even features dozens of wines (also part of the package price), an excellent buffet where most entrees are cooked to order right in front of you; and free phone calls to the U.S., Mexico or Canada (through next year). Not included by still worth noting: the Palace salon probably boasts the most jaw-dropping salon view ever. While getting a mani-pedi done, guests look through a semi-circular front-facing wall made of floor-to-ceiling glass, showing the Pacific all the way out on the horizon.
Oh, So Romantic
In the gated enclave of Punta Mita, two hotels — a Four Seasons and the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort — offer surroundings so serene, picturesque and luxurious that they inspire honeymoon thoughts even in the unattached. Infinity pools, pristine swathes of private beach and sun-lit terraces are set amidst lush grounds, with so few guests per square acre that staying at one of these properties almost feels like a private villa experience. The staff are incredibly competent, and poised without being too chilly. Both properties exemplify their respective brands, and deliver on the luxury promise to perfection. However, the St. Regis is much newer; while the Four Seasons is a sophisticated landmark with a decade of history.
Scoring surprisingly high on the romance/luxury scale is Villa la Estancia Nuevo Vallarta. The newest of the Villa Group, this property centers around a free-form pool with many water features including fountains and a great swim-up bar. The lobby smells sweetly of Villa la Estancia’s signature jasmine, while rooms offer a choice of aromatherapy scents to incoming guests. An inclusive plan is available, and everything on all menus (except Kobe beef) is part of the inclusive plan. Guests visit the main restaurant in the daytime, pick out their seafood from the fresh catch of the morning, and tell the chef what style to prepare it.
For the multitude of people who come into Puerto Vallarta on a cruise ship, or who come into Riviera Nayarit on an incentive trip, El Tigre Golf Course is an answer to golf/spa prayers. The busy and centrally located 18-hole course caters to one-day guests from many of the surrounding hotels…and also to cruise ship passengers from the nearby harbor. Just because it welcomes lots of players doesn’t make it an easy course though. With 157 sandtraps and 12 hotels surrounded by water, it hosts a lot of tournaments both national and international.
It’s also distinguished for having a full-service on-site spa and adjacent shopping center and beach club. Above all, this club is very dedicated to its namesake. A full-scale tiger and wildcat reserve is on the grounds. The bigger cats reside in protected areas all over the grounds; when babies are around, they live everywhere from the pro shop to just off the 18th hole. You can beat your best golf score or indulge in a four-hour signature treatment, but until you’ve played with a 2-month old tiger cub, you haven’t really had the El Tigre experience.
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.