The Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit: Good for Nothing
You know those vacation spots where everything beckons: places to go, people to meet, things to keep you busy morning, noon and night?
Yeah, I hate those places.
I admit it. I'm a vacation vegetable. I want to do nothing. No lists to check off, no schedules to follow, no deadlines to meet, no timetables to reference, no guilt about it. Me, I like it where there's a drink on this side of me, the pool on that side of me, and the sun, preferably a tropical one, overhead.
So when I found myself poolside at the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, whose most pressing demand was that I kick back on a lounge chair and tip back the margaritas, Nirvana was achieved.
Considered a crowning jewel of the Riviera Nayarit, a sparkly stretch of Mexican coastline stretching 200 miles from San Blas south to the town of Nuevo Vallarta, the Grand Velas sits prettily on Banderas Bay, with the emerald-mountain majesty of the Sierra Madre rising up into the deep, tropical skies for a backdrop.
You know you chose the right resort when the lobby alone gobsmacks you. The Grand Velas constructed theirs like a Mayan hut ... if Mayan huts were the size of imperial concert halls, soared four stories and had inset fountains for centerpieces.
I stood there gaping like a landed fish for about five minutes. Because the open lobby shoots straight through to the equally open shorefront courtyard and its manicured gardens, whispers of flowers and the Pacific waft on every breeze. This is a hotel whose interior vastness gives the mind-bending impression of being bigger on the inside than on the outside.
I always considered hotels something of a bland necessity. I spend far more time outside one than in. A hotel room is a holding cell for my luggage and sometimes a place to hide the occasional hangover from daylight.
At the Grand Velas, I could hide not only my hangover but those of several of my friends. My room was bigger than my apartment. (OK, as I live in New York, this isn’t hard to pull off, but you get the idea.)
Palatial rooms? Check.
As I inhaled the Pacific breezes and gentle scents of bougainvillea and lilies, I got as close as one does to a lung orgasm. This was my first "all-inclusive" hotel experience, but it wasn’t until I was up to my ears in it that I realized what that meant. There is actually no compelling reason to leave the property. Everything you need is there, available at your discretion.
Like the whopping 12 kinds of margaritas some creative bartenders in the Lobby Bar can whip up. It was a virtual rainbow of unlikely ingredients -- who knew an avocado makes for a great margarita?
I’ve always been a tequila man, and if there was one challenge I was to meet, it was getting through all 12 libations, from the pungent chili pepper concoction to a tart tamarind entry. The hibiscus is tops in my book, but my hat was off to the hotel’s signature Huitlacoche Margarita, made with Mexican corn truffles that imbue a rich, earthy flavor.
The same spirit runs through the hotel’s other restaurants, Piaf and Lucca, whose respective and authoritative (French and Italian, AAA four-diamond) cuisines bring to the palate all the savory sensations of Europe.
The chefs are exactingly faithful to their trades; there was no watering-down or sugaring-up of foods I find in some restaurants to make this or that dish more acceptable to American palates. At Piaf, I was in France. In Lucca, I was in Italy. The presentation was astounding. Dishes are so beautifully prepared they reach the level of aesthetics where you don’t want to eat them because you’ll spoil the tableau. Tableaus taste great, by the way.
Of course, I did not fly all the way to Mexico to end up in Europe (no offense). For a taste of our next-door neighbor, Azul -- a poolside paradise rife with birdsong and open architecture that lets natural light and ocean zephyrs wash over you in equal measure -- faithfully serves up Mexico’s rich culinary culture. The ceviche de Colima had me coming back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths.
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World-class spa? Check.
I’ve always been dubious about massages. They usually end up like bad straight sex: clumsily done and over in five minutes. The prospect of an additional 75 minutes was a little daunting.
Nevertheless, after a guided hydrotherapy experience that included showers, an herbal steam room and a dip in a two-temperature lagoon (that’ll wake you up), I put myself into the hands of a masseuse whose gung-ho attitude for her job equaled that of Jason Voorhees for a slutty camp counselor.
No clumsiness here: I had my pick of music and was instructed to cup in my hands a butterfly as a symbol of my "transformation" before climbing onto the table, whereupon every kink, knot and clench was found out, chased down and obliterated.
There is more than one way to embrace nothingness, it seems. Particularly when you are in a liquid state.
Triple-decker infinity pool overlooking the ocean? Check check check...and check
The Grand Velas is shaped like a chalice, and the pool is the sapphire-hued wine within. There is even one of those cool bars you can swim up to, with the sweeping panorama of Banderas Bay to set the mood. If there was a place to actively do nothing, this is it.
Throughout all this aggressive nothing-doing, I was perfectly aware that a stone’s throw (or a cab ride, which the English-fluent concierge is happy to arrange) across the Ameca River rises the party-hardy-polis of Puerto Vallarta, Latin America’s gay-friendliest beach destination.
What Fire Island is to New York, or Palm Springs is to Los Angeles, Puerto Vallarta is the laid-back Grand Velas’ frenetic opposite. It has all the high-octane bars and clubs, even a circuit party (Vallarta Fever -- I recommend it) that nail the city to the LGBT map.
Above the city, the vales of the Sierra Madre offer up delights of a no-less-disorientating nature in the form of agave plantations and tequila distilleries (something else I recommend, provided you bring insect repellant that is as wrath-of-God as the mosquitoes are).
But for all of Puerto Vallarta’s energy, I found myself enticed more by wind, wave and the teeming life of Banderas Bay, a regular drop-in for dolphins, sea turtles and whales of all sorts, as well as a cluster of small islets, the Marietas. In the humid air of the bay, they appear, enchantingly, only at sunset.
Vallarta Adventures, a top-rate eco-tourism firm with excursions all over the local landscape (and seascape), takes daily trips onto the bay and to the Marietas themselves.
A cluster of volcanic rocks jutting up into the northern fringes of the bay, the Marietas’s wild, rocky lines seemed at odds with the polished contours of the mainland shoreline until I was informed that they were used as a bombing range for the Mexican navy. (If you want a picturesque, albeit suspiciously circular, grotto of a beach, all you have to do is pick some seafront property, launch off a military-grade thermite charge, and voila!).
Since then, the Marietas have prosaically reincarnated themselves as a national park and now shelter more than 90 species of birds. True fact: There is a bird called a "booby." At the Marietas I found myself in a veritable booby bonanza; big boobies, small boobies, brown boobies, white boobies and boobies with blue feet.
The bomb-made beaches are as far as one goes on the mainland of the islands -- some snit about unexploded ordinance -- but the waters and reefs are fair game for snorkeling, kayaking and free diving among a full-blown spectrum of fish that put any dentist’s office to shame.
That the Marietas were a favorite of Jacques Cousteau is little wonder: Float still enough in the glass-like water and sparks of neon yellow, and fluorescent-purple wonders will swim right up to your fingertips.
The trip definitely rates as an "A," and when Charles, one of the Vallarta Adventure deck hands, took off his shirt, it was an "A+." In the middle of all the nothing I planned on doing, that was really something.
For air travel to Nuevo Vallarta, all visitors come through nearby Puerto Vallarta International Airport. Aeromexico, Mexico’s flagship carrier, offers flights to Puerto Vallarta via Mexico City from 17 U.S. gateways, including New York, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco.