Costa Rica's natural riches: hot springs, sloths, monkeys and rain forest

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The Arenal Volcano, perhaps one of Costa Rica's most notable topographical features, is surrounded by a national park and is near rural tourism sites as well as spots for zip lining, whitewater rafting and soaking in the hot springs. (Terri Colby/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

'There he is," said Juan Jose, pointing to the young sloth on a tree near the entrance to Nayara Springs. Not wanting to see a sloth is akin to not wanting to go zip-lining in Costa Rica. I had declined the vertiginous sport, but am thrilled to gaze upon that little guy hanging on to that tree for dear life. Juan Jose is one of the most enthusiastic staff members any hotel could have - a true naturalist at heart.

As a matter of fact, heart has everything to do with this ultimate romantic boutique hotel, tucked away near the town of La Fortuna, steeped in the rain forest, and within sight of the one of the world's most active volcanos, Arenal.

Nayara Springs is the younger sister of the Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens. They are separated by a 250-foot pedestrian bridge over the jungle, and the newer Nayara Springs is strictly adults only, comprising 16 breathtaking villas, each nestled in a garden of tropical delights. Relaxing in my private plunge pool fed by mineral hot springs, I'm surrounded by a riot of giant red-stalk palms, birds of paradise, and pink ginger plants - all so towering I feel like one of Swift's Lilliputians.

The villa itself is vast (1,500 square feet), a kind of Noah's ark on terra firma. The king-size four-poster bed is festooned with the softest of white cottons and two hot-pink-and-deep-turquoise velvet accent pillows. The glass shower stall with its twin rain-head showers divides another part of the villa into two separate sink and vanity areas, each with a glass door opening to an outside Balinese-style shower with another set of rain heads. All of this amid a second garden anchored by a floor of azure stones and open to the sky.

Just in case that sky confirms that you are, indeed, in a rain forest, a clutch of bright-orange umbrellas stand sentinel at the recessed front door. It rains, but it is a warm, caressing kind of rain that doesn't deter me from swimming long lengths in the hot springs pool bracketed by individual covered lounges on one side and the indoor/outdoor restaurant, Amor Loco, on the other. Its chef has created inventive and artfully presented dishes of Costa Rican ceviches, quinoa salads, burritos, and quesadillas - just for starters. The inside lounge area of Amor Loco sets a rather sultry, Moroccan tone with its dark wood and deep-purple velvet chairs, a small stage at one end for entertainment, and at the other, a bar presided over by an award-winning mixologist.

Even though I am traveling solo, the convivial atmosphere engendered by the staff, which, for the most part comes from the town of La Fortuna, makes me feel I'm part of their family. If you become too slothful to drag yourself away from this idyllic setting, the staff is happy to whisk you away in ubiquitous white golf carts to two other restaurants beyond the bridge.

For the truly adventurous at heart, Nayara Springs offers a plethora of off-site tours, including the popular mystic hanging bridges, lava fields walk, birding around the volcano - the list goes on. But other than one most enjoyable trip to Danaus, an ecological reserve, where I hold butterflies in my hand, watch a wily caiman, and see two- and three-toed sloths high in the trees (via binoculars), I am quite content for my three days and nights to take full advantage of what this boutique resort offers.

On the day I arrive, the charming and well-informed resort manager, Frederic Cappello, greets me with the news that the spa was just anointed No. 1 in the world by Condé Nast Travel Reader's Choice Awards. No surprise, then, that I book their signature Costa Rican coffee scrub followed by the volcanic-mud massage. The setting of the spa is dramatic. It is completely open on one side to the sights, sounds, and smells of the rain forest - no need for mood music or incense.

Because it is raining and a bit chilly, Norma wraps me in warm blankets and expertly works her magic. A soothing soak in the room's hot springs tub completes the ritual while exotic birds flitting about in the trees provide a natural sound track.

The next day, I meet two of the three owners, Leo Ghitis and Angelo Zaragovia, who also triples as the architect and eclectic designer. Their passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Even though the two properties have won most of the top international awards, their unique vision for expansion is impressive. Nineteen additional villas are being constructed, and a camp of 24 luxurious safari-style tents is in the planning stages.

Ghitis, a great admirer of Isadore Sharp, founding father of the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, has taken to heart Sharp's creed that no guest should ever leave unhappy. It works for me.

Four Seasons Resort, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The screech of a howler monkey wakes me at 5:30 on my first morning at the Four Seasons Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula. More curious than annoyed, I grab my binoculars and run to the screened-in terrace to locate the source of the sound.

In the dim light, I manage to identify a large hairy mass on a branch level with my third-story suite. As the light slowly illuminates the sky, the animal leaps to another branch closer to me.

Thrilling. In Costa Rica, nature is always near and often in your face.

It is one the country's most appealing assets. The fact that Costa Rica is making huge efforts to be a viably sustainable country in protecting its natural richness is admirable - maybe just not at 5:30 a.m.

The day before, after leaving Nayara Springs, a three-hour winding-road trip through various microclimates ends with a stunning view of the Four Seasons Resort (a 2016 Traveler's Choice Winner) with its 182 guest rooms spread along the isthmus of the peninsula that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. The sun is blazing and the sea sparkling. I can't wait to jump in.

But before that happens, a cool facecloth and cold drink await me at the entrance. I am out of the rain forest and in a hot, dry climate. Everyone seems to know my name, which, after Nayara Springs, doesn't surprise me - getting to know guests and their desires seems to be part of the code of hospitality in this country. (I just wish all the staff, on both properties, could do so without being wired with microphones, which sometimes distract attention from guests.) I happily accept the greeting, "Pura vida," which the Costa Rican people, affectionately known as "Ticos," extend to visitors.

It means "pure life," a lovely way of wishing you a wonderful stay.

As I'm being escorted to my room, I notice the unusual shape of the roof mimicking the wings of a butterfly. It turns out the local architect, Ronald Zurcher, devised his design from the cultural history and environment of the area - the suites resemble luxurious and beautifully dressed tree houses, incorporating the indoors and outdoors. (Now I know why the nest-building howler monkey was watching me - he was after my digs.) On my side of the screen, my "nest" is filled with fabrics of contrasting tropical colors and designs, cozy seating arrangements, and a bathroom with shutters opening onto the bed and sitting areas. Perhaps because of the drought, the stall shower and bathtub provided precious little hot water, but the sea was beckoning.

I unpack, don my bathing suit, and off I go. With three swimming pools, one ocean, and one protected bay to choose from, I opt for the ocean and plunge into it with abandon. It's not hot-springs warm, but is delightfully warm, just the same.

After a quick change and a refreshing cocktail at the outside bar near one of the swimming pools, I begin to explore. The thatched-roof artisan market with local handmade crafts; the bay side (Playa Blanca) bouncing with kayaks and canoes, sailboats and motor boats; and a small hut offering snorkeling equipment. (I did snorkel one morning, but the water was murky and the fish not so perky.)

Near the Sol y Sombra restaurant (where a $43 buffet breakfast is served - everything you could possibly wish to eat) stands a huge blackboard chalked with events of the day - mostly complimentary. I count 20 options, including boot camp, mini-golf, tennis strategy, ice cream time (for sure), and moonlight stand-up paddleboarding (maybe). I book the mangrove adventure tour and then the cooking class. To get to the mangrove area, we drive past the 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course and walk into the cool forest of old-growth trees.

Two secluded and pristine beaches beckon as we approach the mangrove area. Sadly, because of a drought, the mangroves are underwhelming, but the journey is invigorating and I work up an appetite for my cooking class. Not being a great cook myself, I am impressed by the organizational skills and ease with which Justo Perez, charismatic sous-chef, prepares, from scratch, a tortilla soup for our small group of seven. He demonstrates how to properly chop and combine various ingredients and what spices would blend in well. Our mouths are watering in anticipation. It's worth the wait.

It is a great food day, for that evening, Dario Montelvere, the chef de cuisine of the Italian restaurant Cena Sociale, creates one of the best meals I've eaten anywhere - a delicate filet of sea bass resting on a bed of tender shrimp and mussels laced with vegetables Julienne. For dessert - homemade coconut ice cream with warm fudge sauce and a box filled to the brim with hot, tiny, perfect bombolini (Italian filled doughnuts). I take the box back to my suite and go to bed with a smile on sugarcoated lips.

Next day, I arrive at the airy three-story spa for the signature bamboo massage and antiaging (I hope) facial. Before my treatment, I "take the waters." An outdoor balcony houses a long trough of bubbling hot water next to a freezing-cold plunge pool. While I am steaming in the former, a huge gray tiger heron alights to groom himself - no doubt a spa veteran. Before my skin shrivels, my masseuse escorts me to a quiet, dim room. I must admit, after the open-air massage at Nayara Springs, I am a bit disappointed by the somewhat stuffiness of the room, albeit warmer, but the massage itself soothed me into sublime submission.