Thursday 30 March 2023

BuzzFeed Founder’s Costa Rican Hideaway

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 A surfer rides a wave at Playa Guiones. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times
A surfer rides a wave at Playa Guiones. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times

(QTRAVEL via Dozens of surfboards bobbed on the Pacific waves rolling in as the sun came down on yet another perfectly clear, piping-hot day in the Nicoya Peninsula beach town Nosara.

This hard-to-reach spot has pulled in surfers since American expatriates discovered it in the late 1960s. But something radical has changed on the beach. The $10-a-night flophouses that once housed the bohemian surfer crowd have largely been replaced by high-end boutique hotels, and more than a dozen new restaurants have opened in the last year alone.

They have helped lure affluent travelers to a once-sleepy yet still decidedly laid-back beach town, including waves of families who usually vacation in places like Telluride, Colo., Montauk, N.Y., or the south of France.

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Its natural beauty is the primary draw. Nosara has a virtual amusement park of outdoor activities: some of the world’s best surfing, stand-up paddle boarding in adjacent estuaries, and, in the nearby mountains, one of the world’s longest zip-line tours. But it is Nosara’s embrace of an eco-friendly, all-natural, organic lifestyle that rounds out its appeal. It is home to a dozen or so yoga retreats, day spas, natural healing classes and a culinary scene that emphasizes super-fresh ingredients like farm-fresh produce and just-caught seafood. This is the kind of place where a crowd assembles at the beach for the sunset each day, in a Zen-like tribute to nature.

 John S. Johnson III, co-founder of BuzzFeed, and his wife, Susan Short, a naturalist and filmmaker. Credit Eric Lipton/The New York Times
John S. Johnson III, co-founder of BuzzFeed, and his wife, Susan Short, a naturalist and filmmaker. Credit Eric Lipton/The New York Times

Accelerating its shift upscale has been the entry of an unusual hotelier: John S. Johnson III, the Brooklyn- and Nosara-based co-founder of BuzzFeed, whose great-grandfather started the giant global pharmaceutical and personal care company Johnson & Johnson. Mr. Johnson, himself a surfer, first came to Nosara about 15 years ago in search of a wintertime surf spot closer to the East Coast than a home he had in Kauai, Hawaii.

Costa Rica in my mind, back then, you sum up my impression of the country in three ideas: Closer. Waves. Spanish-speaking people,” he said.

He soon found that there was more to it.

Costa Rica has garish, party-scene resort towns like Tamarindo, just 40 miles up the coast. But Nosara puts a premium on natural preservation. No new development is allowed in beachside conservation areas within about 200 yards of the ocean. There are no high-rise buildings, no fast-food restaurants, very few beach bars — there are not even chaise longues on the beach. It is, in effect, the anti-resort resort.

Ostional, one of the four area beaches, is itself a wildlife refuge, as its black, volcanic sand is a breeding ground every July until early December for hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles. They climb onto the sand to lay their eggs, and a fraction emerge approximately 60 days later as newborn turtles. The ocean waters are a gathering spot for humpback whales, which migrate through the region during the same months. And the nearby Reserva Biológica Nosara boasts at least 270 types of birds, such as orange-chinned parakeets, cinnamon hummingbirds, long-tailed manakins and black hawks.

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“There is a freshness in Nosara that is pretty compelling,” said Mr. Johnson, in torn jeans shorts and a patterned, partly unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt during a recent visit. “It’s kind of an analog to a little ski town, like the early days of Telluride.”

There was one other critical ingredient that Mr. Johnson found here: Susan Short, a naturalist, filmmaker and also a surfer, whom he met on one of his early visits to Nosara and who is now his wife and partner in their business endeavors.

The couple have gone on something of a buying spree in town, purchasing two small hotels; two unfinished condo developments; and even the local weekly newspaper. They are determined to prevent large-scale, resort tourism from taking hold, and have enough available capital to actually stop it.

The centerpiece of this effort, at least so far, is the 24-room Harmony Hotel, which has the aura of a Lana Del Rey music video — with its 1950s-era tropical décor, its super-attractive, super-fit clientele, its juice bar and healing center with classes like Yin & Yoga Nidra.

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The Harmony is not a place that pampers its guests, despite the premium price: The rooms are relatively small and hardly luxurious (and lack televisions), and room service is not offered. (Rates range from $210 for a basic room in low season to $990 a night for a two-bedroom bungalow over the Christmas holiday.) Mr. Johnson is proud of the fact that it serves no sugary sodas or junk food. Even the minibar is stocked with treats like a homemade granola bar and artisanal chocolate.

It is just what the regulars come for. In this unpretentious beachside spot, the lobby at times seems more like a family room. Children hang out while their parents are at the pool or dining on plates like ceviche and Costa Rican casado in the nearby bar and open-air restaurant.

A lush, tropical garden connects the hotel lobby to the nearby bungalows — serving as home to howler monkeys, hummingbirds and other wildlife — and the hotel’s yoga center, day spa and juice bar. Mr. Johnson is going to open an organic supermarket nearby soon.

The hotel does no advertising outside Mr. Johnson’s website, yet it has become an impromptu gathering place, particularly during the peak season, of filmmakers, fashion designers, journalists, Silicon Valley tech executives and New York bankers, their spouses, and children, as well as a sprinkling of European families who somehow heard about the place. Almost all of them know Mr. Johnson or his wife personally, or someone else who does.

“This is a surfer yogi’s spiritual Beverly Hills Hotel,” said Coralie Charriol Paul, creative director of the Swiss watch and jewelry brand Charriol, who was there with her husband, Dennis Paul, a New York investment manager, and their children, after an evening in which they had drinks at the hotel bar with Roopal Patel, the fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, who also happened to be in town. “It has just got a great energy.”

There that same day was Alan Bibby, the television commercial director whose clients have included Mercedes-Benz and Google, with his wife, Alice Bertay, the fashion stylist, whose own roster includes Nike and Target, and their 6-year-old son. They took a break from several hours of surfing for some sushi and a bottle of wine at the Harmony for lunch.

“This place is very much made for gringos — let’s be honest,” Mr. Bibby said, conceding that he was a bit uncomfortable to be a part of this affluent, New York-centric crowd. “But at the same time, I am a hypocrite. I am here.”

Go Juice, a food truck selling fresh juices. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times
Go Juice, a food truck selling fresh juices. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times

The success of the Harmony has spilled over to a collection of other hotels nearby, including the Sunset Shack, which Mr. Johnson and his wife also bought, next door.

Nosara, at least, does still offer some decidedly less expensive and still comfortable options, such as the Living Hotel, and even some of the original surfer spots, like the Gilded Iguana. But there is not a single large-scale resort hotel. It’s just not a town that travelers come to if they are looking for all-inclusive, walled-off resorts.

Since there is little night life here — the most popular spot is perhaps La Luna, a restaurant right next to Playa Pelada, one of the four beaches — just about everyone seems to be in bed by about 10 p.m. The busiest scene comes at the first light of dawn, when surfers of all ages start streaming toward the beach.

All of this physical activity — surfing, yoga, zip-lining, horseback riding, paddle boarding — and the deep pockets of this new generation of out-of-town guests help explain why the restaurant scene here in Nosara is also on fire.

 Pool at the Harmony Hotel. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times
Pool at the Harmony Hotel. Credit Toh Gouttenoire for The New York Times

Just in the last year, one intersection near Playa Guiones — the most popular beach in the Nosara area — has become home to 22 restaurants, compared with six in 2014.

A dizzying array of food options is available, including the super popular Burgers & Beers (the menu is just that), as well as Rosi’s Soda Tica (classic Costa Rican dishes) and Go Juice, a food truck, which in addition to its juices and smoothies has a delicious Tuna Poke bowl, a classic Hawaii surfer’s meal made of raw tuna over sushi rice with ginger, sesame and soy sauce.

Among the best new restaurants in town — there are too many for any visitor to try them all on a single visit — is Tibidabo, a tapas bar across from the Harmony Hotel. It was opened by a Barcelona native and his Costa Rican wife, and the menu includes classic (and excellent) dishes such as patatas bravas and croquetas de jamón, along with local, Spanish-inspired seafood dishes. The chef was trained at El Bulli in Spain.

Playa Garza, about four miles up the road, is a sleepy spot, with a largely empty beach frequented by local Costa Ricans and home to the family-run Restaurant Bahía Garza, which offers some of the area’s best ceviche, served with chips baked fresh in an adjacent stone oven.

Reaching Nosara remains a bit of a chore — it requires a bumpy two-hour trip across mostly dirt roads from the closest major airport, in Liberia. And do not rely on Google Maps — it will tell you to take a hazardous mountain-pass road. But in a way, that is just how everyone wants it to stay. Make it any easier, and Nosara, as it is today, will disappear.

“This is an amazing town — I don’t really know how you would keep it from growing,” Liev Schreiber, the actor, told a reporter from The Voice of Guanacaste, the small weekly paper Mr. Johnson bought in town, after a visit to Nosara. “As the world gets smaller, places like this become fewer and farther in between. I guess more than anything I hope it continues to grow in a nice way because there’s not too many spots like it.”

Read more at the New York Times

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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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