It’s a great vacation, if you plan ahead
We wanted to come to Costa Rica. That much we knew. And for the first time in our family’s vacation history, we decided to try an all-inclusive — flights, rooms, food and drinks included.
So we delved into the mysteries of cut-price vacation websites and after many hours of searching, found an Air Canada Vacations package to northern Costa Rica at what we knew was an astoundingly good price.
We found the vacation on redtag.ca but that isn’t an exclusive recommendation. On previous vacations, we’ve found fabulous hotel deals through hotwire.com. And there are several others, such as selloffvacations.com, expedia.ca and travelocity.ca. It takes time and patience.
A few days after we booked, we checked the Air Canada Vacations site and found the exact package we had bought selling for $800 more. Go figure. Our flight, via Toronto, was on one of the regular, daily, Air Canada flights to both San Jose, the capital, and Liberia in the north.
From Toronto, the flight takes about four hours. Air Canada doesn’t feed you “free” food, but instead sells you a menu of stuff at sky-high prices.
First recommendation? Take your own food. Air Canada’s self-aggrandized inflight bistro leaves much to be desired.
Take the individual flatbread pizza — please. It’s limp and overwhelmingly laced with so much salt that they should rename it Stroke in a Box.
And the roasted vegetable sandwich is equally sad: A thick chunk of white bread with a few well-stewed strands of peppers crushed into submission between the halves.
And for your convenience, only credit cards are accepted.
You have to admire airlines’ indefatigable enterprise in withdrawing what were once basics of air travel and selling them back like they’re doing passengers a huge favour.
The aircraft and the pilot got us there and we were lucky to get an efficient, good-humoured crew in both directions.
Our eventual destination was Occidental Grand Papagayo, a 45-minute coach trip from the airport on the northern Pacific coast. Each year it’s the destination for thousands of Air Canada Vacationers.
It’s a large complex in a stunningly beautiful area surrounded by rainforest and volcanic mountains and populated at its periphery by monkeys and many types of birds.
A measure of any consumer-oriented business is how well it does on a consistent basis, but the real test is how it does when things go wrong.
And our first full day was a bit of a natural disaster.
Our family of four — myself, my wife and our two teenage children — were billeted in basement-like hillside accommodations. The room entrance is deep in the hillside, but the patio doors open onto a pleasant-enough vista overlooking the hotel pool and well-groomed grounds with regular overflights by flocks of parrots.
And then lightning struck. And the thunder crashed. And it rained. And rained.
We expected rain because late summer is Costa Rica’s rainy season. And it was a wonderful storm — a dramatic light-and-sound show with wonderfully warm rain.
Unfortunately, the rain flooded our bedrooms.
The most agreeable people on the planet man the reception and they are trained to disarm the angry and frustrated. They agreed immediately to move us — to rooms on the top floor of the same complex.
We packed and hauled our bags upstairs with the assistance of a young man designated to help with our move and calm our slight irritation.
Sadly, one of our new rooms was leaking from the ceiling. A few frantic calls from our helper and we found ourselves in upgraded accommodations — not larger necessarily, but airier, with a significantly more pleasant veranda on which we would spend many relaxing hours.
And they gave us complimentary bottles of wine for each of the two rooms, four passes for half-hour massages and privileged access to the Italian restaurant, which along with the Japanese restaurant offers something different from the nightly buffet.
And the gift came with a form letter from the guest services manager.
So the people at Occidental Grand Papagayo passed the test: How to treat guests who’ve paid for a hassle-free good time when the wheels start to fall off. The staff did well and made it right with a smile.
Check on various websites and you’ll find contrasting opinions about the Occidental Grand Papagayo: Some think it’s great, others consider it the hotel from hell.
Aside from a room that doesn’t leak, two things matter most in a resort of this sort: the weather and the food. (We more or less know what the drinks are going to taste like).
Not even Air Canada can do anything about the weather. We knew it was the rainy season and after our initial flood, the short, occasional spurts of rain were just pleasant interludes. The alternative, we were told, is dawn-to-dusk intense heat and blue skies. That’s during our winter, so take your choice.
For an all-inclusive, the resort does a pretty decent job of the food.
The breakfast is a mix of cereal, fresh fruit and eggs, sausages and all the rest for those able to ingest large volumes of food first thing in the morning.
Buffets inevitably become boring, so the Papagayo has buffet theme nights — Japanese, Italian and so on — and two separate restaurants, one Asian, the other Italian.
The basic deal allows those staying for one week to eat once in each of the restaurants.
The Occidental Grand Papagayo is on the beach, where the rhythms of the ocean are gentle and the underwater views spectacular for those who remember to take a pair of goggles.
“It’s like swimming in a tropical fish tank,” remarked our son Jeremy.
We went on a snorkelling trip that was a waste of money. We saw more fish life a short and free swim from shore.
Down at the hotel beach, you’ll find the excursion salesmen the Air Canada agent warns you about on the trip from the airport. Air Canada Vacations, along with a couple of other airline-related companies, operates its own excursions from the hotel, along with a couple of other airlinerelated companies. It is in the corporate interest to warn new arrivals about the shady characters at water’s edge.
But the beach salesmen are not ripoff artists — at least not according to the numerous people I spoke with who bought trips from them. You can bargain with them — you must bargain with them — either on the price or the extent of the trip, but essentially they go to the same places as the official tours and cost less.
All-inclusive resorts have their benefits, but even a week can become too routine and limiting. So we hit the road and broke out of the comfort zone.
First stop: Tamarindo, a small town built on surfing and one of dozens of surfing beaches along the coasts of Costa Rica.
Surfing aficionados will tell you that Tamarindo is a perfect base from which to try other beaches within driving distance in the region.
The relative isolation of the Occidental Grand Papagayo is a revenue stream for the hotel, with contracted taxis driving guests to nearby locations. The trip to Tamarindo, for instance, cost US$120 return. A return trip to nearby Coco Beach cost US$40.
The highlight of the entire trip for my family was our excursion to Borinquen, a megaresort and spa nestled in the rainforest.
It wasn’t inexpensive: At about $ 200 each, including transportation and lunch, it just about ate up the difference between what we spent and what Air Canada Vacations’ website was quoting the day we checked after booking.
But some money is well spent.
The day began with horseback riding into the rainforest, where we dismounted and hiked a while. Then came the zip-lining — or the canopy ride, as they call it.
In case you haven’t tried it, ziplining is an extreme act of locking yourself onto a high wire and speeding along that wire from tree to tree, in this case suspended several hundred metres above the tree line.
In fairness, the first ride looks very scary and, for people like me who get vertigo in thick socks, that initial plunge is purely an act of will.
After that, it becomes very enjoyable and, by the second of 11 runs, our kids were travelling upside down.
As we were going through the unnecessarily cumbersome process of paying our exit tax at the airport — the final cash grab — and buying food before boarding the flight home, we agreed that the vacation had generally been a good one and a cool introduction to Costa Rica.
But next time — and there will, we hope, be a next time — we’re going independent. We’ll rent a car, find our own accommodation and explore the country’s myriad of natural delights on our own terms.