In keeping with full disclosure, I have to admit a very strong bias: One of my favorite destinations on the planet is Puerto Vallarta (PV). Airport transport is not a hassle (if you make pick-up reservations when you book your hotel), the road system is well maintained (see Mexico City for hellish highway congestion), the town-square is chock full of shops (from trinkets to gems), dining options (from the mundane to gourmet), entertainment (from street performers to night clubs), hotels (from budget to over-the-top luxury) and nearby towns (i.e., San Sebastian) where time stopped at the 18th century – all contribute to a desirable retreat.
If you saw the movies Night of the Iguana (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Tennessee Williams), Predator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Heartbreak Kid (Ben Stiller)); then you have seen parts of Puerto Vallarta.
Where Is It, Exactly?
Located on Mexico’s west coast, PV shares the same latitude as Hawaii. Situated on the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Madre Mountains provide southern and eastern borders. Only 553 miles from Mexico City, PV is quickly reached by air in less than 2 hours via Aero Mexico.
Health and medical issues in Mexico have been prime time news for weeks; however, the fact that PV had not one incident of flu was barely noticed. Even if a visitor does get sick there are over 4 major hospitals in the area, with world-educated medical care only moments away from hotels and beaches. Many international travelers are selecting to combine surgery with a holiday as service costs are significantly less that USA fees and after-care recovery space is readily available at condo-rentals or hotels.
Lt. Miguel Gonzalez Gonzalez, the director general of the PV Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that over the past ten years there has been an increase in the number of doctors and medical specialties in the area with a focus on cardiology, plastic and gastric-by past surgeries, orthopedics, and dialysis. With approximately ten thousand expats living in PV first-class medical services are in demand and many are lobbying the US government to get approval for Medicare to cover expenses incurred in Mexico.
According to Pedro Groshcopp, the general manager of the PV Westin, the destination is recovering from the crises of the swine flu and offering discounted room rates and extra amenities to encourage travelers to return. Hoteliers are also adapting to a new, shorter reservation time-frame; travelers are waiting for last minute air and hotel offers, and then making a quick decision.
Where to Stay
The Marina area of PV continues to be a desired location and two properties of note include the Marriott and the nearby Westin.
“The Marriott recently invested US $1.2 million to upgrade the restaurant and US$8.9 million to improve rooms and suites,” commented Dennis Whitelaw, the general manager of the Marriott Casamagna Resort and Spa. The ballrooms were redone at a cost of another US$1.2 million and parts of the property have gone “green” in an effort to reduce energy consumption. “Even the meetings and conventions department has gone green, providing pens that are biodegradable, eliminating table cloths, and offering box lunches with reusable thermo containers,” commented Whitelaw.
Take the Kids Along
Although 44 percent of PV visitors are over 51 years of age, it is still a family-friendly destination (39+ percent), and the Westin Hotel (Starwood Collection) considers children and their families a prime part of their marketing strategy.
Parents have said that they love to relax poolside – but worry that the kids will head for the deep end of the pool. Not to worry at the Westin: the water is only knee-deep in many areas and the kids can easily be spotted as they swim and splash in the baby-sized lagoons that provide privacy as well as safety.
The Westin offers brides and grooms- to-be the professional services of Abigail Duenas, the in-resident wedding consultant who has worked with bridal jitters for over 20 years. With 70 percent of her clients arriving from the USA – she is skilled in handling everyone from the Diva to the demure, from lawyers and doctors, to pampered princesses wanting the latest, trendiest and hottest wedding on the planet.
Duenas offers a “heads up” to brides to be who are bringing their dress(es) from home – be aware of the heat and humidity of PV – especially if an outdoor ceremony is planned. Gowns that are perfect for a New York winter just don’t hold up in PV sunshine.
Although many honeymooners are traveling with children, they are still looking for romance. After careful investigation I found a wedding night WOW at the Westin’s very modern, ultra-sleek penthouse presidential suite, complete with personalized food and beverage service. The staff arrives early, prepares a delicious dinner for the kids and packs them off to bed while you and your significant other quietly enjoy the sunset from your private balcony and sip a fine Mexican wine (Maria Tinto) until you are called to dinner – in the dining room of your suite.
Thanks to the artistry of Matias Uhlig, executive chef and Food/Beverage manager Otto Pareto, your slightest gourmet wish is prepared in your private kitchen and “celebrity-level” service presents the courses and pours the appropriate wines. When dinner is over, the staff clears the table, removes the dishes, and quietly departs. What is left for you to do? Enjoy your romantic evening.
Head to the Hills: San Sebastian
Whether you take the 15-minute flight to San Sebastian (a municipality in the state of Jalisco, Mexico), ride the public bus (2 hours uphill), or join a tour, carve out a day to see Mexico the way it looked in the 17th century. The town of Saint Sebastian is named after a Roman soldier who became the patron saint of athletes and soldiers after he survived being shot with arrows and left for dead.
Located in the Sierra Madre Mountains, at 4,500 feet there are radical changes in the flora and fauna (think pine trees) and chilly temperatures (turn on the heat). Although the town population has diminished (approximately 500 people) over the years as the gold and silver mining industry has disappeared it is still a pleasant way to spend a day or two in the “old Mexico.”
It is hard to believe, but 300 years ago the town was called the “Paris of America” and the elegant women of the day wore expensive perfumes and satin dresses. Today it is a sleepy back-water community where visitors are more interested in bird watching (i.e., Grey – crowned woodpeckers and Slate-throated redstarts) and history than gold and silver mining.
History buffs and celebrities often spend a night or two at the 180 year-old Hacienda Jalisco (no electricity or telephones) and stroll around the town square, exploring small shops and restaurants that cater primarily to locals rather than tourists.
A stop at the Casa Museo de Dona Conchita Encarnacion, a 300-year old house in the town square is a requirement. When San Sebastian was successfully mining gold and silver there were three principal families. Over the years, to control the family’s wealth, the children intermarried. Only two members of these formerly prosperous families still survive. Although the “museum” is actually the family living room, it is open to the public. Visitors are encouraged to leave a donation to help maintains the slowly decaying historical family artifacts. Of particular interest is a 150-year old Chinese silk baptism dress that has been worn by six generations.
Of course you will spend a few days at a PV hotel, visit a museum of two (i.e.,) and shop (i.e., Tony’s Place Leather Shop for bags and belts; Cielito Lindo for beaded belts and bracelets) but – if you do not do anything else -you MUST head for the marina and spend a week on a luxury yacht. Get in touch with VallartaSailing.com and reserve an executive yacht that sleeps 6 or 8 of your best friends (plus the captain, his/her mate and the cook). A 7-day charter (approximately $35,000) includes all food, drinks, sports (including wind-surfing and snorkeling), and sailing to remote beaches (where suits are optional) plus opportunities to go horse-back riding, play golf, organize a picnic and barbeque on an isolated shore, and live the life of a mogul.
Robert Carballo, the director of the Executive Yacht Charter division of VallartaSailing, said, “In advance of departure, guests are queried as to their favorite foods, pesky allergies, preferred wines and booze as well as foot size (for flippers).” If fantasies include living like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this is way to make it happen.
According to PV statistics, over 63 percent of visitors select the destination through recommendations of friends and family while 17 percent find their spot via the Internet. Consider this my personal recommendation (and electronic endorsement) to visit! Pull out the passport, lock the windows and doors, call Aero Mexico and head for Puerto Vallarta.