hotel st regis

By Judy Waytiuk

Pick a Mexican vacation style, any vacation style – from raucous and busy to serene and secluded. Want a holiday bombarded with exquisite all-inclusive food and drink, or a high-end pied-a-terre resort hotel from which local area dining and drinking options can be savoured? How about an extreme pampering experience, or an exploration of mangrove swamps and Pacific jungle? You can get any of these, and plenty more, in Nayarit.

The Best Of The Best  

Thanks to the development of high-end tourism product over the past decade in Nayarit, there are now two Punta de Mitas along pretty Playa Anclote, about forty minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport. Developers moved the residents of the original fishing village a few miles to the southeast to a new location, built cinder block homes for the locals, dubbed the new town El Anclote to avoid name confusion, and re-made the location of the original Punta de Mita into Punta Mita, a manicured Paradise.

golf course pacificoPhotos Riviera Nayarit CVB

Today, elegant vacation homes back onto the par-72 Punta Mita Pacifico golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and famous for its unique three-stroke hole on a natural island about 200 yards from the tee. Nearby, a second course, the Punta Mita Bahia, makes up the other half of the two courses in the Punta Mita Club de Golf, both courses exclusively for residents or guests at St. Regis Punta Mita Resort or the Four Seasons Resort, with luxury hotel suites and private villas (one of which was temporarily occupied by Charlie Sheen following his precipitous departure from the TV comedy he had helmed). These two resorts, and the tiny, 12-suite/casita Imanta Resort a few miles to the north make up a triad of ultra-luxe spots classified as “special category” – two steps above five-star, with beyond impeccable, to-die-for everything.

Since its rebirth down the beach a ways, little El Aclote has morphed into a funky surf and budget condo rental town where dogs and roosters start up early and bands in bars play late. The two very different locations nicely sum up the variations in what Nayarit has to offer travellers these days. High-end or bargain, this area has it, with the bonus of more than 200 kilometers of all-natural beach fringed by even more nature: jungle, mangrove lagoons, mountains and the huge Bay of Banderas with its world-class whale-watching.

But that’s just the tip of the developmental iceberg that’s re-shaping this once-unknown northern neighbour to tourist-crammed Puerto Vallarta. Nayarit’s southern half has nicely-ripened for upscale vacation travel, while the towns, villages and protected park areas in the northern, still-undeveloped area make perfect adventure escapes, photo safaris, or inexpensive souvenir hunts, on a daytrip or two. Throughout the possible price ranges, a plethora of all-inclusives add myriad choices for vacationers who want a couple of weeks of sun and sand, interspersed with daytrip adventures into foreign places.

Big, Small & In Between

Dozens of glossy, glitzy all-inclusives  bask along the beachfront just north of Nuevo Vallarta, including the one step above five-star Gran Turismo level Hard Rock, Marival, Palace Pacifico, and Dreams Villa Magna. European Plan Gran Turismo-ranked resorts include the Grand Bliss, Gran Turismo, Grand Luxxe, Grand Mayan and Villa De Estancia.

Further north, in lesser-frequented spots, funky little European plan boutique or three-star hotels like the DeCameron and Costa Alegre in Guayabitos are popular with Mexicans, and can offer what parsimonious North Americans would consider the bottom-line basics in a hotel. But four-star ratings (above average, with onsite dining and drinking, TV, phone, and room service) or higher are generally preferred by even bargain-hunting Canadian vacationers who venture further north along that beach to stay in smaller tourist towns. On the miles of beachfront developed area that’s cheek-by-jowl with Nuevo Vallarta, there are no hotels, either European plan or all-inclusive, rated below five-star.

Amazingly, the drop-dead gorgeous, 40-all-suite, uber-sleek contemporary La Tranquila, opened in 2010 as the first developmental salvo in the soon-to-be built-up Litibu area, is a mere five-star property – even though it offers six pools, beachside Jacuzzis, outdoor fireplaces, an adjacent 18-hole Greg Norman golf course – and you can reserve your very own personal in-suite chef with 48 hours notice. (Note: they sell fractional ownership and the place is almost always eerily quiet). In development is a full-service beachside spa with temazcal (traditional indigenous Mexican sweat lodge).

Grab A Piece Of Beach Town

North of the developed stretch, a series of beachside towns pepper the ocean shore landscape, all of them once fishing villages, all of them now joyfully aware of the pleasures of tourism dollars. The southern Nayarit coastline winds north through the municipalities of Banderas Bay, Compostela, San Blas, Santiago and Tecuala, all the way up to about 50 kilometers west of inland Tepic, the Nayarit state capital. Beyond that lie San Blas and La Tovara National Park’s dense, marshy mangrove forests, with a network of canals used by tour boats to show visitors wildlife like herons, turtles and alligators.

san blas

San Blas itself offers a few inexpensive hotels for overnight stays on a long day trip, and ruins from the Spanish occupation, while small, are evocative of history. This region’s frequented more by domestic tourists than incoming North Americans. North of La Tovara lie the National Marshes, and inland, the Sierra de Vallejo State Biosphere Reserve is home to jaguars, wild boars and parrots. The San Juan State Biosphere Reserve edges the base of the San Juan and Sangagüey volcano. For devoted ecotourists, this area’s a must-see from a San Blas base, but charter packagers haven’t yet discovered it.

They have, however, discovered Bucerias and Sayulita, the best-known towns just north of Puerto and Nuevo Vallarta, with good assortments of restaurants, dedicated flea or straw market areas, and a little nightlife. Many North Americans keep winter homes here, or have moved right in year-round, so there’s a comfortably familiar cultural ambience below the colourful Mexican surface, for visitors who are a little timid about venturing off their all-inclusive properties. Sayulita’s funky beachfront is especially entertaining, with plenty of chairs-sinking-into-the-sand outdoor fresh fish restaurants. Here, the fish on the menu is often listed simply as pescado – fish. Varietal issues don’t count when lunch was caught a few hundred metres away just before breakfast that morning (yup, there are still a lot of fishermen in these two towns).

partido de polo

San Francisco, aka San Pancho, is just north of Sayulita, and has been less touristed-up so far; visitors here can see a traditional village as it’s been for generations – although there is a polo club, La Patrona, open sporadically with competitions and a restaurant where local wealthy folks hang out.  In La Cruz de Huanacaxtle west of Bucerias, a recently-built marina and restaurant facility are intended as cornerstones for future development here, but so far it’s an oddment, seemingly in the middle of nowhere en route to Punta de Mita.

Another middle-of-nowhere town, en route to Guayabito, Lo de Marcos offers a small assortment of bargain to luxe hotels, and a trailer park and bungalow development. Solitude-seeking escapists will love the fact that nightlife options for this town are described by one of the hotel sites (Suites Margarita) as “walks on the beach, watch the stars, the moon and sun sets”. But perhaps the most secluded and unknown of them all is Chacala (which looks now like Lo De Marcos did 20 years ago). Just south of San Blas, this village of 300 people finally got a paved road recently, replacing a broken-down dirt road. A few tiny, rustic hotels dot the beach, fleshed out by a handful of vacation homes (casas) or B&B rentals, and half-a-dozen restaurants.

naturaleza ballena

Bling Out Beside Banderas Bay

But most travellers to Nayarit will find themselves happily washed ashore in one of the busy, glossy, neatly charter-packaged glittery resorts along the beaches of Banderas Bay, where they’ll take part in the area’s signature activities: boat tours to watch the humpback whales in mating and calf season, snorkeling trips to the Los Arcos rock formations, ziplines, horseback riding, catamaran trips to the islands in the bay, daytrips to small towns in the mountains or north or south along the bay, or, for the physically-toned, wind, paddle or body surfing. Every charter packager offers an assortment of Nayarit resorts, and they’re all top-drawer hotels with good food, bars, beaches and varying degrees of contemporary or traditional opulence. There’s not a cheap clunker in the bunch here.

For busy, active vacationers, Nayarit’s a reasonably-priced, upscale Mexico-style holiday fuelled with plenty of booze and food, all sorts of trinkets to buy, and literally hundreds of daytrips possibilities that offer consistent quality and certain customer satisfaction. The locals have figured out just what tourists want here, and how to supply it in bulk with a personal touch.

Time was, I’d have picked upscale all-inclusives and high seas tequila-shooter parties. But quiet little Chacala and Lo de Marcos have increasing appeal to this boomer ageing into grey resplendence.

And that’s the thing about Nayarit. Here you still have plenty of choices.