Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, Costa Rica
A hot spot, did you say? Absolutely, and not just for the luxury. Tucked into the Arenal Volcano National Park, the Tabacon lies at the foot of Costa Rica's best known volcano, and makes the most of the natural hot springs gushing out of its lower slopes. But don't expect to see an eruption; after decades of activity, Arenal recently entered a dormant phase, and in pristine rainforest, the Tabacon offers little more than relaxation. Combining the elements of water, fire, earth and air, the property has gleaned countless awards since it opened, first as a day resort (still highly popular at the weekend) and later as a luxury hotel.
What's so special about it? Thermal waters cascade through the resort in a series of pools and waterfalls (far right). Temperatures rise from 25 to 50 degrees Celsius in the upper reaches, mineral content is high but, blissfully, sulphur content is low, so, should you feel carried away into the ether, it's likely to be just the effect of the steamy haze drifting through the 350 hectares of tropical grounds. The resort is dotted with quaint bridges and quiet trails, romantic corners and Shangri-La Gardens, a section of the resort reserved for adults but shared by hummingbirds and Blue Morpho butterflies. Now and then, the perfect cone top of Arenal, at 1,600 metres, peeps through the clouds.
The Grand Spa (right) specialises in ancient therapies and guests are invited to partake in an indigenous steam bath accompanied by tribal chants and meditation. The group ritual is led by a shaman in a womb-shaped temazcal (a sweat lodge), which draws its energy from the volcanic earth. You don't have to go native to enjoy a grand holistic experience in one of the open-air bungalows, with private hot tubs, set in stunning gardens. Treatments range from a volcanic mud wrap to coffee exfoliation, a 'born-again' facial and underwater massage in the Watsu outdoor thermal pool. Wrapped in the earthy sensuality of the rainforest, Tabacon has been rated among the world's sexiest spas and one of the top five honeymoon spots.
Great, but what's the hotel like? The hotel is on higher ground, across the road. Its 102 rooms are decorated with crafts and furnishings produced by local artisans. The rooms have garden or forest views while rainforest and honeymoon suites boast oversized jacuzzis fed by the hot springs.
Is the food anything to write home about? It's enticing, traditional and creative, and as stylish as the designer plates (for sale at US$150 apiece). The Cana Brava Lobby Bar and Arenal Wet Bar serve snacks and light meals while Los Tucanes and Ave del Paraiso share the spotlight for elaborate lunches and dinners. Among the favourites are themed evening buffets, fusion cuisine and signature dishes such as guacamole prepared at your table. Tandoor oven food is Tabacon's ultimate treat. The menu offers healthy alternatives, from light spa options to Ayurveda cuisine.
If you really want to impress, a candlelit dinner for two can be reserved at the time of booking, in an open garden bungalow with private chef and waiter. Your credit card may cringe a little but there will be a torch-lit path, rose petals or exotic blooms on the table, a four-course gourmet meal with wine and, all around, the mysterious sounds of the rainforest.
Sounds yummy but what else can we do? That depends on whether you're the quiet type or you prefer a shot of adrenaline. The former tend to head for La Fortuna, a quaint provincial town with a landscaped plaza and a sprinkling of restaurants and souvenir shops. There is an eco-farm nearby and, of course, the volcanoes, Arenal and Chato. There are river trips, to view the wildlife, gentle treks for birdwatchers and a Sky Tram that glides through the canopy.
The active sort hike in the national park, follow the trail to La Fortuna waterfall - and take a dip in its chilly waters - or explore the canopy either by zipline or hanging bridges. Add to the list of options cycling around Arenal lake, windsurfing and white-water rafting. All this is just 20 to 40 minutes from the Tabacon.
What's the bottom line? A superior room starts at US$295 a night, a master suite at US$675. Daily rates include entrance to the hot springs (worth US$60 per person).
Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort is at La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica, tel: 506 2519 1999; www.tabacon.com.