Despite it’s claim to fame of being one of the locations for the American TV show, The Bachelor, I still made a reservation at The Springs Resort and Spa in Arenal, Costa Rica. I was not going to let my bias towards ‘reality’ matchmaking TV shows dampen my enthusiasm for this uber luxurious resort, whose location, facilities and reputation for exceptional service were renowned.
Our journey from Monteverde to The Springs Resort comprised an hour and a half of bumpy pot-holed roads to the shore of Lake Arenal, a 45min ferry ride over idyllic waters through a gradual reveal of the iconic Arenal Volcano, then a short crowded bus run as people were dropped off at their resort.
The security on the front gate of our resort provided an immediate sense of exclusivity, and that impression was sustained throughout our four night stay. When we pulled up at the main lodge of the resort, Hairol opened the van door and became our personal guide to see us settled in. Check in was smooth, efficient and friendly, and we were given a tour of the resort’s facilities while we waited for our room to be ready.
After our tour (welcome drink in hand) of the restaurants, bars, spa, gym, springs and other common areas, we settled in the Treetops Grill for some light lunch snacks to wait for the summons for our freshly made up room. Considering our ‘Vista Guest Room’ was ‘bottom of the range’, we were very impressed; the spacious sprawl of the room was not swamped by the gigantic king bed, and there was still ample room for two rattan lounge chairs perched for prime viewing of the volcano. In fact, the configuration was all about enjoying the views – the mountain was the first thing you saw upon waking, and the terrace equipped with twin hammocks and outdoor furniture were ready for occupation at sunset. I was particularly enamoured with the vast cream marbled bathroom, complete with twin basins, gigantic shower room and a deep Jacuzzi bath whose dais was approached via two regal steps.
After unpacking, our priority was to work out what tours we wanted to book, so we paid a visit with our list to the concierge, Johnny, who took very good care of us and we filled our calendar top heavy at the beginning of our stay to make the most of the fine weather. Some people visit this area and never see the sun…or the volcano, so already we were luckier than most.
We decided to fill our afternoon with an onsite activity, said ‘no, thank you’ to the complimentary bus and armed with our trusty site map, headed down the winding road to Club Rio. After we set off, we heard before we saw the complimentary shuttle coming up the hill – a very noisy and clunky, yet atmospheric, 1950s school bus that spewed black smoke from its rear as the driver ground the gears on the steep incline. The driver grinned and shook his head at our folly in walking as he passed, but we were content with our downhill stroll. It was nearly a kilometre, however, and we flagged the next bus coming down, having got an invigorating walk in but grateful for the lift.
The animal sanctuary housed in Club Rio works in conjunction with the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE), and only houses ‘rescue’ animals. Jonathan was our guide for the tour, and he was very knowledgeable about each of the residents and welcomed questions. We saw crocodiles, 2 types of toucans, spider monkeys, white face capuchin monkeys, white-collared peccaries (wild pigs), ocelots (also known as ‘dwarf’ leopards), margays (near threatened small native cat), pumas (also known as mountain lions), grey foxes and marmosets (tiny, shy hairy-eared monkeys). It’s reassuring to animal advocates that these animals really would not survive in the wild – evident in the way that some of the white faced capuchins targeted another who only had 3 limbs, bullying him through the bars in the neighbouring cage. His arm had been amputated at the shoulder because of a steel trap, and this made him a target of verbal abuse and violent threats from his neighbours, not that I speak ‘capuchin’, but the volume of the screeching and the shaking of the cage communicated intent fairly clearly.
We didn’t hesitate taking the bus back up the hill, and back at the resort our early dinner was timed beautifully for the sunset. Our table at the buffet restaurant Tres Cascados (Three Waterfalls) provided perfect views for me sitting at the table sipping my cocktail, and was close enough to the edge of the balcony where John had set up his tripod enabling him to dart back and forth as the sky morphed with the changing clouds and colours. We were particularly fortunate with our stay – the staff and guests at The Springs Resort hadn’t seen the volcano all week, and we were gifted with magnificent weather and views on our very first day! Score! Our sunset moment was enhanced with a lovely bottle of Californian Pinot Grigio and some delicious vegetarian fare – a light, yet plentiful, organic green salad, and one of the tastiest vegetable stirfries I’ve ever eaten.
It was a good choice to have an early dinner, because the next day we had an early start with our tour of the Arenal National Park. We were the only people booked on the tour, which quite frankly made the experience delightful! Not many people on holiday are fans of the early rise, so we found all of our morning adventures were similarly sparse. Our guide for this tour was Huberth, and he was accompanied by trainee, Anthony. The company that provides all tours for The Springs Resort is Green Vacations, and like everything else at this resort they are the best. We had a wonderful four hours of easy walking and stopping and looking and chatting, seeing many things, including: a white-collared peccary, 3 three-toed sloths, a crew of about 12 coatis (black furred, long-tailed, racoon looking animals), an agouti (a large tailless rodent similar to a guinea pig, but the size of a sturdy house cat), an umbrella bird (VERY rare, especially here), yellow eyelash pit viper, fruit bats, termites (which we ate!), poas squirrel, Montezuma oropendula (yellow tailed bird), road-guarder snake, and a purple ‘one day’ orchid.
Our tour would not have been complete without a bit of scrambling over volcanic rock to gain an up close and personal moment with the base of Arenal Volcano. Because this gargantuan of nature is still active, climbing the volcano itself is not allowed, so instead we perched ourselves on a scratchy, pointy bit of black igneous matter, and listened to Huberth’s engaging and informative history of this once very volatile mountain.
Because we had spent so long gawking at and taking photos of the very rare umbrella bird (see pic), we had little time for lunch, but thanks to the prompt service of the crew in Tres Cascados, we enjoyed a meal of spinach and cream spaghetti and roast vegetable focaccia sandwich with green salad, washed down with an ‘amber’ beer before meeting our afternoon guide and setting out again.
The Hanging Bridge Tour being an afternoon tour meant that we were not alone with our guide – there were seven others. Although Joshua did his best to locate the animals that we were all hoping to see, the time of visit (when most animals were at rest) and our chatty companions meant that we saw very little in the way of wildlife. But like our morning guide, Joshua was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the region, and ensured that our walking through rainforest and over bridges was informative and a lot of fun.
Our two walking tours left us feeling pleasantly tired and our vista room and the continuing fine weather gave us the perfect location and the aspect for relaxing. This was our second day of completely unimpeded views of the volcano, and we made the most of the mild afternoon on our terrace, sipping chilled white wine and gazing in wonder at the panorama, as the hummingbirds flitted through our sightlines amongst the lilies. We felt more than fortunate, considering that only 25% of guests visiting get to see the volcano – most of the time it is shrouded in cloud.
Another early tour (pick up at 7:30am) meant we were pretty much the first ones to breakfast. You have a choice of eating a la carte or buffet for the first meal of the day, but it really is a no-brainer – the value for money is in the buffet (unless you’re a ‘coffee only’ kind of morning person). They offer the usual continental options as well as eggs any way you want them, and a different range of hot food supplementing the daily offers of rice and beans and breakfast potatoes.
Loaded up with a substantial breakfast, we hopped into our tour van at 7:30 on the dot, and headed out for our safari river raft experience. Once again, we were the only ones on the morning tour, and our guide, Pablo, was sharing and explaining from the moment we were onboard. We drove through the town of La Fortuna to the Rio San Carlos and floated with the current north towards Nicaragua. Pablo’s excellent eyes found us many birds and a few families of howler monkeys to watch as we drifted down river at a very relaxing pace.
After two hours of rafting we pulled ashore and walked to a small nearby family farm, about 20min drive outside of La Fortuna. The gaggle of guard-geese waddled and squawked towards the arriving strangers – cute but intimidating ‘bouncers’. Our smiling host showed us to the trestle tables that had been preset for our arrival, and immediately brought an array of products made on the farm for us to snack on: their own cheese, fried plantains and banana cake, all delicious.
The rain chased us back to The Springs Resort, and by the time we were secure in our room it had really set in. Suddenly it was cool and misty and we couldn’t even see the trees that were only metres from our room. The drop in temperature did not dissuade some guests from using the hot springs though, and apart from the rain hampering the sipping of cocktails away from the shelter of the swim-up bar, it was business as usual in the steamy lagoons.
With 44 rooms onsite, the excellent design of this resort meant that it never felt crowded, even when at full capacity. This is especially appreciated when wanting private moments in the springs. There are two separate springs areas: Las Lagunas (The Lagoons) near the main building of the resort; and Perdido Springs (Lost Springs), which is closer to the rooms another level down (and is complete with water slide). Each pool has a different temperature, usually cooling as the water makes its way downhill, so you are sure to find one that suits your tastes. The warm mineral water certainly seemed to promote a serene sense of well-being, but we were after the hottest of the springs on offer, and its apparent 36 degrees (Celsius) didn’t feel accurate. Maybe because the ambient temperature had dropped!
After walking past the bar of Ginger Sushi many times throughout each day, we decided to give it a try for dinner. The service here, like everywhere else in the resort, was outstanding, with our waiter making excellent suggestions for both the sashimi and the accompanying sake. The island bar is intimate enough that chatting to guests on either side is easy and boosts the relaxation and holiday mood…or was that just the sake?
The Springs Spa consumed our focus on our final full day at the Resort. If I had known what a delightful, little Zen retreat from the world it provided, I would’ve availed myself of this sanctuary earlier. The women’s area was definitely more luxurious and larger than the men’s, I assume because there would be more female guests wanting to indulge in the spa. There were the usual facilities such as the steam and sauna rooms, but I really liked the small fern-filled sitting area and the lounge with views to the volcano. It was almost obligatory to sample some of the tiny sweet snacks provided while reclining on the chaise with glossy mag in hand. The treatment menu is extensive and the staff proficient, and I certainly could’ve indulged myself further. But then I reminded myself that the outdoor experiences of Costa Rica could not be replicated at home, whereas a good massage is much easier to find!
For dinner on our last evening, we made a reservation at Las Ventanas (The Windows) – the fine dining option at the resort. The title couldn’t be more apt – we actually felt like we were in the hull of a gigantic ship of glass that was sailing through the air towards the mountain. Only this vessel provided delicious food and no sea-sickness! In terms of menu, there were only a few vegetarian options, so we were glad we utilised the other on site venues for our previous meals – they gave a wider selection. We selected a beetroot, goats cheese and toasted walnut salad and grilled mushroom and ricotta ravioli with pesto, and enjoyed both immensely.
On the morning of our departure, we made sure we said goodbye and thanked the staff members who had been our regular ‘helpers.’ While every member of The Springs Resort team were very fine hosts, there were some whose shifts regularly coincided with our meals or activities. Michael was often ‘on duty’ in the dining areas when we visited, and no matter how late he had been serving us in the evening, the next morning when we were first to breakfast, he was always bouncing with enthusiasm, and always remembered our names. We were lucky enough to enjoy Jose’s humour and charm, but I failed miserably in any effort to assist him in practicing his French – mine is too “school girl’s” to be of any use to him at all! Thankfully, he reverted to his excellent English to prevent me making a fool of myself. There was also Johnny, the incredibly helpful and efficient concierge, and Hairol who always greeted us with a smile and witty conversation whenever he saw us wandering around. All of these people made our stay at The Springs Resort and Spa far more personable and memorable than I would’ve expected from such an exclusive place. The bottom line is, there are more and more resorts being built in the Arenal region that offer luxury accommodation and high-end experiences, but I think it would be difficult to beat The Springs Resort for its staff and service.