NAYARA SPRINGS RESORT, COSTA RICA - My friend and I creep through the bushes, flashlights in hand, with bated breath. Every so often, we stop to stealthily part the bushes and quietly gush with delight. To anyone who might happen across us, our behavior would no doubt appear suspicious, or at the very least, peculiar.
At Nayara Springs Resort in the middle of a Costa Rican rain forest, it is neither. We are on the resort's nocturnal "frog walk," hoping to locate the source of the loud trilling we have been hearing once the sun goes down.
We're rewarded when our driver/guide Alexander's flashlight beam lands on the most beautiful frog I've ever seen. Its tiny emerald body is decorated with a cobalt blue stripe on each leg, and, at the moment, it is staring back at us with bulging, scarlet peepers. Alex tells us it is a red-eyed tree frog, one of many species on Nayara's lush grounds.
I feel like a voyeur, as our flashlight beam has apparently interrupted the female frog's flirtation with a male in a neighboring tree. After what must seem like an eternity to the courting frogs, our little band mercifully moves on.
Frog-spotting is only one of the delights for visitors at Nayara Springs Resort, named the best resort in Central America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
The property, in Arenal Volcano National Park, a 21/2-hour drive from San Jose, is a rain forest retreat that engages the senses: Listen to birdsong in the morning and frogs in the evening; sniff tropical blossoms; feel gentle pop-up rain showers; and, above all, see the lush green that surrounds you at every turn.
Checking into one of the property's 35 villas is your own adventure in paradise. Decor is inspired by the best of the tropics: gauzy mosquito netting around the four-poster bed, local art on the walls, a multicolor hammock for afternoon siestas on the deck, and two features you won't soon forget - a two-person outdoor shower that is a tropical oasis in itself, and a private plunge pool fed by natural mineral hot springs.
It might be tempting to spend all your time lounging around your villa, but please don't - there are too many other things to do, such as the free bird-watching tour (6:15 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays) and the complimentary yoga class (at 8:15 every morning in the yoga pavilion).
As coffee is so much a part of Costa Rica's culture, my friend and I signed up for the coffee class (4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Saturday) in Mi Cafecito. Diana, the manager, took us through the intricacies of coffee roasting, giving us interesting facts such as: lava from the volcanoes results in excellent soil for coffee growing, and the darker the coffee bean, the less caffeine it has. Better yet, there is a tasting to accompany your tutorial.
The resort can even arrange for a three-hour private tour of an organic coffee plantation (adults, $79; children, $63).
Speaking of children, they are not allowed at Nayara Springs unless they are 16 or older. However, families are welcome at its sister resort, Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, accessed by crossing the 250-foot pedestrian bridge through the rain forest that separates the two properties.
Eating well at Nayara Springs is a given, considering the sheer number of restaurants scattered throughout the property, offering everything from the freshest of sushi at Asia Luna to romantic candlelight dining at Amor Loco to the newest restaurant, Mis Amores, where you can dine on a deck overlooking the rain forest, with a view of the volcano.
Though I found the quality of the food at all the restaurants superb, my favorite dining experience had to be at Alta Mira, which offers authentic Costa Rican dishes in a casual setting. I opted for one of the country's favorite comfort foods - casado, a choice of beef, chicken, pork, or fish with rice, beans, green salad, and sweet fried plantains, served with soft tortillas.
It was so delicious it was all I could do not to lick my plate.
Nayara Springs' excellent concierge staff can arrange any number of activities for guests, from ziplining and canopy touring to gravity falls waterfall jumping and canyoning in the Lost Canyon.
Despite my dislike of high places, I tried ziplining and canopy touring on a previous trip to Costa Rica; as for waterfall jumping and canyoning, I decided they were best appreciated by watching an Indiana Jones movie. Instead, I settled on two tours that offered an opportunity to see the country's landscape and wildlife up close and personal. Costa Rica, about the size of North Carolina, has 100 volcanoes, although only five are active, including Arenal. On the lava walk tour, I learned that the volcano, long believed dormant, blew its top in 1968, and, although no lava has been seen since 2010, volcanologists believe it is just a matter of time.
Though you can't climb all the way to the top because of the potential threat, you can take a trail about halfway up, stopping at several lookout points.
My second experience turned out to be my favorite - a hike through the Danaus Ecological Reserve. A tapestry of flora and fauna that weaves together a secondary growth forest, botanical garden, butterfly farm, and bird sanctuary, it is Costa Rica at its beautiful best.
On our two-hour hike, we saw tiny tree frogs and giant, electric-blue morpha butterflies, a three-toed sloth inching down a tree, a caiman (crocodile) sunning on a stump in the lagoon, an oversize iguana testing the strength of a spindly tree branch, and a procession of leafcutter ants making their orderly trek back to their queen's nest. We even saw a shy toucan trying to hide its distinctive yellow head in the dense foliage.
No matter which physical activity you choose, the first place you might want to head when you return to Nayara Springs is its world-class spa. As though the physical setting weren't enchanting enough - open-air pavilions that allow the rain forest inside, and soaking pools strewn with blossoms - the treatments make use of the area's natural environment: an exfoliation using coffee grounds from a nearby plantation, scrubs with volcanic mud, and wraps of chocolate clay made from cocoa beans.
Costa Ricans have an expression - pura vida - meaning pure or good life. A stay at Nayara Springs Resort will definitely have you living la pura vida.