Category Archives: Central America Travel

Hotel Grano de Oro: ethics and luxury in Costa Rica

(left) Marco Montoya, GM, (right) Executive Chef Francis Canal Bardot
(left) Marco Montoya, GM, (right) Executive Chef Francis Canal Bardot

Executive Chef Francis Canal Bardot is also a farmer. He not only grows many of the organic produce used in the dining room of the Hotel Grano de Oro but also raises the geese for his exquisite foie gras. Yes I’m well aware that will immediately raise controversy, yet that’s due to a common misconception.

Force-feeding geese to grow plump livers is never necessary. Allowing the geese to roam free-range eating healthy food produces the tender succulent livers Chef Bardot uses in creating such imaginative taste bites as his amuse bouche of foie gras topping a scallop. This sensitivity is at the core of Hotel Grano de Oro and tourism in Costa Rica.

Hotel Grano de Oro
Hotel Grano de Oro

The Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica of which Hotel Grano de Oro is a member commit themselves to leaving the smallest possible negative environmental impact on the planet – nothing we humans do is devoid of all negative impacts. From the point of view of creating a luxurious boutique hotel, Canadians Eldon and Lori Cooke used methods well established in that sector of economic development. They became enamored with the beauty and life style of Costa Rica in the 1980s, but disappointed in hotel offerings in its capital San Jose.

Private fountain courtyard for room #6
Private fountain courtyard for room #6

Eldon and Lori Cooke transformed an early 20th century Victorian mansion into a 21 room boutique hotel. Several years later they added the adjacent house owned by the same family expanding to today’s 34 rooms. Each room has a unique interior including number 6 with its own private courtyard garden complete with a fountain.

Connecting the two structures by a modern lobby, original interior courtyard gardens and maintaining many original features such as a second floor hallway of windows overlooking the dining courtyard melds the two structures while adding 21st century conveniences. A rooftop garden in the newer house overlooking downtown San Jose is complete with hot tubs. Discrete signage remind guests to keep noise at a minimum to maintain the Grano de Oro’s atmosphere of being a house guest in a grand home.

Grano de Oro interior gardens
Grano de Oro interior gardens

That’s the luxury side of Hotel Grano de Oro, but this is a Small Distinctive Hotel and, besides the culinary excellence of Chef Bardot, there’s another dimension. Eldon and Lori Cooke became concerned with a social problem that plagues many areas of the world, not just Costa Rica, the sexual abuse of young women. Beyond the abuse were the issues of abandonment, especially of the children that often resulted from abuse, and life long psychological scars.

Eldon and Lori Cooke were instrumental in creating the Asociacion Reaccion en Cadena por Nuestra Ninez and opened Casa Luz (“House of Light”) in San Jose. Casa Luz provides multi-year residential programs for abused teenage mothers and their children and a safe home. The program includes all necessary monetary, emotional and psychological support victims need. Just ask and the front desk will be pleased to discuss this significant humanitarian project while you enjoy the elegance of Grano de Oro, knowing a portion of the hotel’s profits help support this house of light.

(far left) Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels, (top left) Michelle Cooke , (top right) Ciro DeAngles, (far right) Marc d'Entremont
(far left) Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels, (top left) Michelle Cooke , (top right) Ciro DeAngles, (far right) Marc d’Entremont

I had the great pleasure over several breakfasts, lunches and dinners in conversations with Marco Montoya, Michelle Cooke and Ciro DeAngles to learn about Eldon and Lori Cooke’s vision for Grano de Oro. In an age when employee loyalty in the hospitality industry is measured in months, the hotel’s staff are lifers. Marco Montoya, general manager, started his career 25 years ago when the hotel opened.  Chef Francis Canal Bardot has been in charge of the restaurant for 23 years and many of the chambermaids will eventually retire after life long careers.

Eldon and Lori now concentrate on Casa Luz while their daughter Michelle and her Italian husband Ciro DeAngles, a certified sommelier, continue to improve Grano de Oro maintaining the hotel as San Jose premier accommodation. That takes work in Costa Rica, which is blessed with a vibrant tourist industry. Success is in the details and remembering that nothing should be taken for granted. For myself as a chef and culinary travel writer the details are discovered in the dining room.

Grano de Oro restaurant & dining courtyard
Grano de Oro restaurant & dining courtyard

A relaxed yet elegant atmosphere with a staff well trained in the best of European service is the setting for extraordinary cuisine. Chef Bardot misses nothing in creating an international menu that utilizes Costa Rica’s abundance of superb products prepared with classic precision and presented for perfect photo opps. Menu items satisfy all from omnivores such as myself to the most committed vegan.

Not only does Chef Bardot maintain his own small farm, but also most items undergo their fabrication from the foie gras to the smoked salmon in house. The pastry chef – she’s also a lifer at the hotel – makes all the breads and desserts in a dedicated air conditioned pastry kitchen.

Grano de Oro wine celler & grappa in a dedicated glass
Grano de Oro wine celler & grappa in a dedicated glass

Ciro DeAngles personally oversees the Grano de Oro’s select wine cellar. Selections range from Le Garde Malbeck 2014, an Argentine full bodied wine with distinctive cherry notes, Spain’s La Atalaya del Camino, a garnacha tintorera and Monastrell old vine red blend to smooth and fiery grappas that pair well with desserts such as an excellent cheese selection or artistically arranged frozen orange soufflé.

Dinners begin with an amuse bouche, daily special mini dishes created from the chef’s fertile imagination served on spoons. Papaya with salmon and herbs and salmon tartar encasing hard boiled egg at another dinner are meant to make a diner smile.

from top left: papaya with salmon and herbs, foie gras topping a scallop, country pate, timbal of smoked salmon salmon
from top left: papaya with salmon and herbs, foie gras topping a scallop, country pate, timbal of smoked salmon

As a chef I love appetizers. The imagination and artistry in creating a small plate that satisfies both the eyes and the taste buds is the true test of a skilled chef. Chef Bardot exceeds with the selections I enjoyed: mini empanadas with buffalo mozzarella and balsamic reduction, suckling pig rillettes wrapped in homemade brioche with Nubosa Costa Rican craft beer sauce, in house smoked salmon, fennel salad and a creamy tarragon vinaigrette and house made country pate with pistachios accompanied by pickled red cabbage, mushrooms, gherkins and red grain mustard.

from top left: stuffed saddle of rabbit, quinoa cake w/octopus, Duck breasts w/caramelized fig, prosciutto & porcini mushroom mousse chicken breast
from top left: stuffed saddle of rabbit, quinoa cake w/octopus, Duck breasts w/caramelized fig, prosciutto & porcini mushroom mousse chicken breast

Locally raised braised saddle of rabbit stuffed with a mousseline, red wine reduction and potatoes dauphinoise was but one choice in a select entrée menu. A prosciutto and porcini mushroom mousse was encased by a chicken breast. Perfectly grilled rare duck breasts were accompanied by caramelized fig, grilled butternut squash and a pate crostini.

Cream of Pejibaye
Cream of Pejibaye

There are an abundance of fish dishes and some vegetarian options on both the lunch and dinner menus. The lunch menu tantalized with that most iconic of Costa Rican soups, cream of pejibaye. Nearly impossible to have outside of Costa Rica this smooth, tasty palm fruit is a must have when visiting the country. Fortunately, good latino markets in the United States carry preserved palm fruit, and you can follow my recipe for this classic.

A quinoa cake on the lunch entrée menu shined with imagination and taste. Tender chunks of grilled octopus, peas, scallions and herbs blended with the ancient South American grain of quinoa accompanied by a tomato relish was light yet filling but most of all perfectly executed.

from top left: Eggs Benedict, omelet w/spinach & mushrooms, poached eggs in truffle cream, fresh local fruit
from top left: Eggs Benedict, omelet w/spinach & mushrooms, poached eggs in truffle cream, fresh local fruit

Breakfast receives the same attention to detail. Freshly squeezed organic juices, plates of glistening fruit and homemade sweet breads certainly provide energy for a day of exploring. Yet poached eggs in truffle cream with oyster mushrooms and asparagus or eggs benedict with a white hollandaise may make you question whether you should just remain at Grano de Oro and eat all day.

When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose and Hotel Grano de Oro

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of  Hotel Grano de Oro, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Special thanks to my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.

Cheese tray
Cheese tray
Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
It begins with scented hand towels
Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica
Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory
Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar
Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

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Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica

Tom Nagel, founder & owner, Hotel Cuna del Angel
Tom Nagel, founder & owner, Hotel Cuna del Angel

The fresh butter spread easily onto whole grain bread. Rich in chia seeds, the tender yet appropriately dense bread was yet another tasty creation of Tina, Hotel Cuna del Angel’s pastry chef. If gluten intolerant, everything served at Cuna del Angel is safe to eat and to all other guests it’s simply delicious.

A quick read of the classic European inspired menu at the La Palapa restaurant gives guests not a clue their dining health is being guarded. An array of breads vies with such classics as spinach tagliatelle with artichokes, beef tenderloin accented by porcini mushrooms, and a presentation of greens in the Jungle Salad that’s an evocation of the surrounding forest. Deeper reading reveals the pastas are made from cassava, lentil and garbanzo bean flours and many of the salad’s greens are sustainably harvested.

Gluten free spinach tagliatelle with artichokes
Gluten free spinach tagliatelle with artichokes

German by birth, Tom Nagel’s passion for natural healthy eating developed over time and was accelerated by organic farm ventures in Spain. Drawn over a decade ago to the climate, business potential and progressive farming methods practiced in Costa Rica, Tom’s vision for Cuna del Angel’s La Palapa dining room was to be a discrete haven of healthy eating. Second hand experience with celiac disease made the 100% gluten-free decision easy.

Hotel Cuna del Angel, Costa Rica
Hotel Cuna del Angel, Costa Rica

The Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica, of which Cuna del Angel’s a member, take pride in living sustainable tourism. Hotel Cuna del Ángel has the highest recognition – five leaves – by the Costa Rica Tourism Board through its Certificate for Sustainable Tourism program. To Tom, caring for the cradle (cuna) of the angels is a reciprocal arrangement with the guardians of human life.

Demonstrating this commitment to local, organic and sustainable foods and sources is as close as Tom Nagel’s own farm. Many of Cuna del Angel’s vegetables, greens, herbs, legumes – and eggs – are grown using hydroponics or permaculture agricultural methods. The farm produces its own natural fertilizer utilizing a bio digester with its methane gas byproduct channeled to other uses. A natural wood vinegar herbicide is made through a distillation process that condenses a smoldering fire of wood and banana leaves.

Tom's organic chocolate, Cuna del Angel
Tom’s organic chocolate, Cuna del Angel

Honey for Cuna del Angel’s kitchen is harvested from the farm’s hives but only from the upper layers so as to minimize disturbance to the colony. Four hundred cocoa trees discovered on the farm produce the dense, smooth dark Tom’s Chocolate Bar, but they’re not for sale. Tom donates the bars for charity fundraisers and uses them as a delicious business card.

La Palapa dining room
La Palapa dining room

All of these techniques take time, but to Tom the alternatives are not debatable. Even the hotel’s design is an expression of a vision that it is possible to find balance in life and space. La Palapa dining room is homage to the traditional indigenous culture’s sense of orienting life according to energy points – the web site has a complete explanation. The soft ambient lighting in the open walled dining room that overlooks the jungle and Pacific Ocean is certainly conducive to calmly enjoying fine cuisine.

Gluten free bread at Hotel Cuna del Angel
Gluten free bread at Hotel Cuna del Angel

Meals usually start with bread and a gluten-free menu easily complies. Cultures worldwide have been making bread products from non-gluten flours for millenniums. Chef Tina at Cuna del Angel uses corn, rice and yucca flour blends. All baked items, ice creams and other desserts are made in house. Gluten-free hors d’oeuvre bread with a chewy cracker texture was served with a seasoned butter of capers and olives. Whole grain bread speckled with chia seeds was indistinguishable from its wheat flour compatriots. It was simply an excellent slice of bread.

Jungle Salad, Cuna del Angel
Jungle Salad, Cuna del Angel

The aforementioned Jungle Salad featured kutuk leaf, Jamaica leaf, organic spinach and watercress with oil and balsamic. The variations in texture and color are as interesting as their source. All grow as bushes so harvesting is by trimming as the plant continues to produce.

Fillet of snook in basil sauce
Fillet of snook in basil sauce

Soups included an earthy cream of porcini and truffle that tasted like the forest after a summer rain. Bright reddish orange cream of pajibaye is a true Central American treat. The fruit of the Peach Palm, cooked pajibaye has a dense butternut squash texture and color. Its flavor has notes of pumpkin with a touch of lemon juice. Classic entrees of baked fillet of local snook was bathed in a bright green basil sauce, while the flavor of pork tenderloin – only prepared well done – was sparked by tangy tamarind sauce.

flambé mangoes Cuna del Angel
flambé mangoes Cuna del Angel

The imaginative dessert creations are impressive especially given that they are prepared as a component to a balanced meal and not just an extravagant indulgence – but don’t remind your endorphins. Nothing is more iconic of formal dining than French table service and Roberto Bonilla Campos did appropriate justice with flourishes to table side flambé mangoes in brown sugar butter sauce with Grand Marnier and Courvoisier. Gluten-free crepes are available, but the rich mango was terrific with house made vanilla bean ice cream.

Sorbets at Cuna del Angel
Sorbets at Cuna del Angel

Fortunately it was possible to taste the desserts over several meals, so the chocolate, pistachio, passion fruit and honey ice creams are as luscious as the vanilla. Tart Tartin had as flakey and buttery a crust as any Parisian patisserie, and passion fruit pie had a firm but creamy chiffon-like texture with a zing of citrus to compliment its natural perfume.

Hotel Cuna del Angel has sixteen spacious rooms with balconies facing the ocean in the main building and seven in the Jungle Villa. The Jungle Villa has a tree house vibe as the balconied rooms are built into the forest. Wellness at the hotel extends beyond gluten-free foods to the attractive spa and the extensive list of outdoor activities in the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Guest room, Cuna del Angel
Guest room, Cuna del Angel

Located in the hills above a quiet and secluded stretch south of Playa Dominical, the hotel is ideally situated for half and full day excursions for a plethora of activities including Corcovado National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, forest hiking and canopy tours, sport fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, horseback riding, whale and dolphin watching as well as ten nearby beaches. The front desk will help with any arrangements. Or relaxing at the hotel’s infinity pool surrounded by the jungle with the chirping of birds might be the best prescription for wellness. Active or passive, a guest will be cradled at Hotel Cuna del Angel.

View of the Pacific from Hotel Cuna del Angel
View of the Pacific from Hotel Cuna del Angel


When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (
SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose. Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many tourist van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Hotel Cuna del Angel, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads safe and comfortable.

DSC_5783

 

Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
It begins with scented hand towels
Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory
Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish
Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

 

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Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish

Cream of Pejibaye
Cream of Pejibaye

Pejibaye (pronounced pay-hee-by-yay) is the fruit of the Peach Palm tree. It’s indigenous to Central and tropical South America and for centuries has been a staple before and after European invasions in the 16th century. About the size of a plum, the bright reddish orange fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates and remains wildly popular, especially in Costa Rica.

pejibaye on the vine
pejibaye on the vine

The Peach Palm tree (bactris gasipaes) not only produces large clusters of fruit for 50 to 75 years but also is a major source for heart of palm that’s favored worldwide. From street vendors to top chefs Costa Ricans adore pejibaye. The thick-skinned raw fruit must be simmered in salted water from one to three hours before eating – it’s difficult to over cook the dense butternut squash like textured fruit.

Costa Ricans enjoy cooked pejibaye as a snack sliced and dipped in mayonnaise and sometimes coated in corn meal and fried. Chef Diego Seitour at Peace Lodge adds thin slices to his incomparable Ceviche Tucurrique of sea bass. Chef Francis Canal Bardot of San Jose’s premiere hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, features the fruit in its most popular incarnation as cream of pejibaye soup.

Chef Diego Seitour at Peace Lodge Ceviche Tucurrique of sea bass with garnish of thin slices of pejibaye
Chef Diego Seitour at Peace Lodge Ceviche Tucurrique of sea bass with garnish of thin slices of pejibaye

 

pejibaye with mayonnaise
pejibaye with mayonnaise
Cooked pejibaye
Cooked pejibaye

The dense texture of pejibaye ideally lends itself to soup. Yet as is common with a national dish, there is no one authentic recipe. The simplest are purees of cooked fruit with onions, water, a little milk and perhaps some garlic and cilantro. Other recipes include chicken or vegetable stock, cream and any number of additions such as celery, bell peppers, butter, carrots, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves.

What I’ve created is in keeping with my culinary belief that a recipe should enhance and not mask the natural flavor of the prime ingredient. I also like the silky mouth feel of adding heavy cream and the depth of flavor from a good chicken stock.

pejibaye
pejibaye

In North America it’s nearly impossible to find fresh pejibaye, even in Latino markets – the raw fruit is little known and perishable. In Florida, where I live, it is available in Latino markets preserved in jars ready to eat – after peeling the skin, splitting the fruit and removing the seed.

Cream of Pejibaye Soup – 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 12 pejibayes
  • 4 cups of well flavored chicken stock
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium sweet onion, diced
  • ½ cup diced celery
  • 3 cloves of garlic, diced
  • ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 roasted red pepper plus a couple tablespoons cream
  • ¼ cup minced fresh cilantro

Preparation:

  1. If you happen to have raw pejibayes, cover with cold water and add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for at least one hour. Cool enough to handle and peel off the skin with a small sharp knife. Cut the fruit off the seed – the fruit will be dry and easy to separate from its seed. If you’re using ready to eat pejibayes in a jar, drain, rinse in cold water, peel and slice.
  1. Preheat the oven to 400° and place the whole red pepper in a small baking dish. Roast the pepper for 30 to 40 minutes, turning every 10 minutes, until soft and the skin is slightly brown. Remove the pepper to a small bowl, cover and let cool. When cool enough to handle slip off the skin, remove the seeds, slice in strips and set the roasted pepper aside.
  1. Melt the butter in a heavy four quart saucepan.
  1. Add the diced onion and celery and cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft, transparent but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for two additional minutes.
  1. Add the sliced pejibayes and chicken stock. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
  1. While the soup is simmering, heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat just until small bubbles appear in a ring around the pan. Add the cream and white pepper to the soup and turn off the heat.
  1. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or transfer in batches to a blender and liquefy – I prefer using an immersion blender directly in the pot.
  1. Puree the roasted red pepper in a blender or with an immersion blender adding just enough cream to make a smooth sauce.
  1. Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with a flourish of red pepper puree and a sprinkle of cilantro.
Roasted sweet red pepper, skin & seeds removed to be pureed with cream
Roasted sweet red pepper, skin & seeds removed to be pureed with cream

There are conflicting Internet statistics on the caloric content of pejibaye. The calorie counts on sites range from an outrageous 1,100 calories per fruit to a low of 56. On the jar of prepared fruit I’m using the nutritional label indicates 190 calories for three pejibaye – 65 per fruit. Considering the fruit is not sweet, I find it difficult to believe any higher figure. Regardless, it’s an easy, nutritious and flavorful national icon of beautiful Costa Rica – ps: and farm animals love pejibaye.

Chef Francis Canal Bardot cream of pejibaye soup, hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, San Jose
Chef Francis Canal Bardot cream of pejibaye soup, hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, San Jose

 

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Peace Lodge – La Paz Waterfall Gardens,  Hotel Grano de Oro, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Special thanks to my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.

Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
It begins with scented hand towels
Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica
Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory
Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar

 

You can read additional articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

 

 

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Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory

Giant Helicopter Damselfly
Giant Helicopter Damselfly

Costa Rica is a landmass equal to 0.03% of the Earth, about 20,000 square miles – the size of Vermont – but accounts for 5%-6% of the globe’s biodiversity. Yet within the Monteverde Biological Reserve, a mere 55 square miles, exists half of that diversity. Among its residents are 700 bee species, 10% of the world’s butterflies – 24,000 species – 300 species of mammals, 12,000 plants including 500 orchids, 360,000 insects, 75,000 mushrooms, 1,100 species of ferns and 915 species of birds, including 91 from North America that live in the reserve only during mating season.

One of 54 species of hummingbirds
One of 54 species of hummingbirds

“It’s never happened before,” says Giuliano Salazar Gigli. That was a surprise statement. Giuliano is one of the Monteverde Biological Reserve top naturalist guides. His life has been committed to the preservation of over 35% of Costa Rica’s biosphere. “We’re using the water in a bad way. If we can collect it in the rainy season we can make it through the dry months.”

A flowering palm branch turned red to attract pollinating insects
A flowering palm branch turned red to attract pollinating insects

I’m eating breakfast at La Casona, the lodge in the Monteverde Biological Reserve,  gazing out at greenery so lush and thick I can barely see six feet into the Cloud Forest. Yet as Giuliano explains the amount of annual rainfall, 138 inches, remains the same. The change is in its pattern.

There are more dry days in the Cloud Forest than in the past – 96 in 2015. In the town of Monteverde, the eco-tourism center for this region of the Cloud Forest, there are water restrictions from noon to 3:00 p.m. Fortunately, Giuliano assures, that doesn’t affect hotels or restaurants since most have constructed their own water collecting systems.

Looking up to the Cloud Forest canopy
Looking up to the Cloud Forest canopy

Yet a cloud forest thrives on mist. In a rain forest the precipitation is heavier in that it tends to occur in steady downpours, but a cloud forest is dependent on heavy mist – like a fog – to be captured by the thousands of ferns and air plants that make up the canopy. The precipitation is nature’s drip irrigation system slowly watering plants. That slow drip captures seeds, eventually making their way to the forest floor for germination.

The structure of the Cloud Forest is a prime example of the symbiotic relationships among nature that preserve our Earth. The density of vegetation growing on top of each other is essential. On one soaring tree alone, the weight of all the plants living on that tree exceeded 200 tons and included 150 species of plants among them 70 species of orchards.

Giuliano stressed it’s a misconception to assume these plants smother the tree – with the exception of the strangler fig which eventually encases its host yet provides an architecture to support the diversity. Air plants are not parasites. They do not rob the host of nutrients; they simply use them as a structure. There’s only one parasitic plant in all the cloud forests – mistletoe.

Symbiotic plant growth in the Monteverde Biological Reserve , Costa Rica
Symbiotic plant growth in the Monteverde Biological Reserve , Costa Rica

Costa Rica preserves 35% of its landmass as either national parks or private reserves, more than any other nation on Earth. This natural beauty attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Yet it has become the world’s laboratory for studying the effects of global climate change. Currently Dr. J. Alan Pounds, resident biologist at the Monteverde Biological Reserve, and the University of Georgia are conducting advanced computer studies on climate change within the Cloud Forests that will result in significant data.

One of 1,100 species of ferns in Monteverde Biological Reserve
One of 1,100 species of ferns in Monteverde Biological Reserve

“The winds are changing,” Giuliano explains. “It’s becoming windier – they clean the sky and dry it out. Deforestation in the coastal lowlands has altered wind patterns causing (higher velocity) winds that push clouds up and away from the mountain forest treetops.” This has diminished the gentle clouds that mist the Cloud Forest and affected the behavior of its wildlife.

Giuliano says there are possibly four jaguars living in the reserve – an extremely endangered and ultra shy species of cat. Yet in the past year the cats have killed 15 goats at night on farms – proof caught on film. This is unusual and indicates that the natural food supply in their habitat and the habitat’s size are diminishing, forcing the jaguars out of their usual secluded environment and closer to the source of people food.

That may be an extreme example but a more subtle effect can be found on the germination of the Cloud Forest avocado. Figs and avocados are essential food sources for forest mammals and birds. The avocado especially is dependent on the magnificent quetzal.

Female quetzal – possibly only 20 living in the Monteverde Biological Reserve
Female quetzal – possibly only 20 living in the Monteverde Biological Reserve

The feathers of the quetzal were prized by the ruling class of ancient Central American civilizations. Their plumes were harvested only from feathers that had naturally dropped onto the forest floor. Unfortunately European settlers after the 16th century conquest were not so patient, hunting the quetzal nearly into extinction while diminishing their natural environment.

Avocado seed, Monteverde Biological Reserve
Avocado seed, Monteverde Biological Reserve

It’s estimated there are only 300 quetzals in Costa Rica out of 900 total in Central America with perhaps 20 living in the Monteverde Biological Reserve. The quetzal enjoys avocados, but more important to the ecosystem, they enjoy their small seeds. For the avocado seed to germinate it must be swallowed by the quetzal and deposited through their digestive system on the ground – nature’s symbiotic relationship.

The over 90,000 annual visitors to the Monteverde Biological Reserve walk pristine trails on the 3% of the reserve open to the public. They experience a prime example of what can go right in the world when concerned citizenry, a committed government and the resources of the international scientific community work in harmony.

For me listening to Giuliano identify dozens of unseen birds by their sounds, getting a glimpse of the rare quetzal, explaining the cooperative layers of vegetation down to beautiful blankets of white mushrooms digesting fallen fauna that revert back into life giving soil was the experience of what the world can be in the absence of human conflict with nature.

Giuliano Salazar Gigli (left) & Mauricio Aymerich (right) director Small Distinctive Hotels
Giuliano Salazar Gigli (left) & Mauricio Aymerich (right) director Small Distinctive Hotels

When you go: The town of Monteverde attracts over 250,000 annual visitors and is a center for ecological and adventure tourism. Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose and 3 hours to Monteverde.

Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many tourist van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.

Where to stay: There are of number of accommodations from luxury hotels to hostels in Monteverde. I highly recommend:

Hotel Belmar (main building), Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hotel Belmar (main building), Monteverde, Costa Rica

The Hotel Belmar, a member of Costa Rica’s Small Distinctive Hotels, is an ecological and culinary tour de force.

La Casona inside the Monteverde Biological Reserve
La Casona inside the Monteverde Biological Reserve

La Casona inside the Monteverde Biological Reserve is an attractive bed & breakfast lodge with both private rooms and hostel bunk bed accommodations.

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Hotel Belmar, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Special thanks to my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica Mauricio Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels, and Giuliano Salazar Gigli for his excellent tour of the Monteverde Biological Reserve. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.

Gulf of Nicoya from the Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Gulf of Nicoya from the Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
It begins with scented hand towels
Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish
Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar
Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica
You can read additional articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

 

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Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar

“We’ve grown smaller,” Pedro Belmar said quietly as we sampled the crisp organic kale with Parmesan tapas. That would not ordinarily be a hotel’s best business plan, but as a Small Distinctive Hotel of Costa Rica, the Hotel Belmar strives to reduce its carbon footprint while at the same time expanding its hospitality. That sentiment has greater resonance coming from a second generation heir to a hotel that has his name on everything.

craft cocktails at Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica
craft cocktails at Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica

A pleasant reminder of Pedro Belmar’s vision for the new look of success is as close as the hotel’s La Chispa cocktail. It’s firmly rooted in the forest and the 21st century cocktail revolution.

  • cedar pine needle smoke
  • premium Sloane’s Gin
  • black tea syrup
  • fresh lime

Crushed ice is swirled in a cocktail glass. Local dry cedar pine needles on a flameproof dish are lit with a torch. Discard the ice and invert the glass over the flame which should extinguish immediately and rest it on the needles capturing the smoke. The gin, syrup and lime are stirred in crushed ice. Upright the glass and strain the cocktail into the captured smoke.

Hotel Belmar (main building), Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hotel Belmar (main building), Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sipping a smoky cedar scented La Chispa ensconced in the all-cedar Hotel Belmar overlooking the cloud forest tumbling down to the Gulf of Nicoya is an expression of “growing smaller.” The black tea syrup was made from ingredients in the Hotel Belmar’s organic garden as well as fresh limes. The cedar pine needles are on site. The gin may be imported, but the new craft cocktail menu anchors the Hotel Belmar’s commitment to sustainable growth and 21st century eco-luxe travel.

Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

When his parents, Pedro and Vera Belmar, opened their home as a bed and breakfast in 1985 in the heart of the country’s fabled Cloud Forest, Monteverde was a remote hamlet among lush subsistence farms. Located 85 miles northwest from the capital at San Jose, backpackers and naturalists exploring the cloud forests were the area’s first tourists. Isolation and climate conditions favorable for a plethora of unique indigenous flora and fauna helped Monteverde develop a mystic for natural wellness.

With nary a paved road to what is recognized today as a biological treasure, travelers to the cloud forest grew from just backpackers to seekers of tranquility with comfort. The 13 room all-cedar Hotel Belmar main building is Pedro and Vera’s homage to a love of alpine architecture. The extensive amount of cedar wood made opening a wood shop on site a logical decision. Handling all the work for hotel maintenance, it made sense for the wood shop to design and craft designated tableware for both the dining room and bar such as the sectional plate for the craft beer and tapas tasting.

Suite the Chalet, Hotel Belmar
Suite the Chalet, Hotel Belmar

Under the second generation the past five years, Pedro, Jr, and his sister have renovated the hotel and transformed the original home into the sleek wood and glass nine room Chalet. The Chalet is the center of the hotel’s wellness program, spa services and organic juice and tea bar. The juices are made from fruits and vegetables grown on site.

Organic garden, Hotel Belmar
Organic garden, Hotel Belmar

On eight cultivated acres at the nearby Belmar family farm and the compact but expanding hotel organic garden, chickens for eggs, coffee, dairy, sugar cane, bananas, avocados, curly endive, lettuces, kale, watercress as well as sunflowers, nasturtiums, fennel, amaranth seeds and dozens more items supply the hotel’s Celajes Restaurant.

Smoke house, Hotel Belmar
Smoke house, Hotel Belmar

A smoke house made from recycled materials smokes cheese, bacon and churresso sausage with the wood shop supplying the cedar chips. Plans are to grow mushrooms using the farm’s coffee hulls and natural compost.

Methane gas is collected for kitchen use through the hotel’s biological water filtration system. The system uses no energy yet produces methane, which is stored in a tank for the kitchen. Clean water is returned to the mountain stream in exchange for energy.

Gulf of Nicoya, Hotel Belmar
Gulf of Nicoya, Hotel Belmar

“My parents had the ideas,” says soft spoken Pedro taking little credit for the Hotel Belmar’s successful transition into a 21st century Small Distinctive Hotels retreat that consistently achieves Costa Rica’s highest awards for sustainable tourism. Knowing that the caché of Monteverde and the Cloud Forest is the region’s draw, Pedro wants to position the Celajes Restaurant and bar as the hotel’s unique attraction. It starts with the view: located on the main lobby floor, the spacious Celajes Restaurant and bar commands a sweeping vista of the forest, mountains and Gulf of Nicoya far below.

Bar ingredients from the organic garden
Bar ingredients from the organic garden

The bar reaches deep into the hotel’s organic garden for unique flavors to combine with premium sprits. Bitters and syrups are house made from reduced stout, coffee, eucuplytos and garden plants such as palo santo, a lemony scented herb that has been burned in South America to cleanse spaces of contrarian spirits – like sage. Room mini bar options include excellent house bottled Hotel Belmar cocktails.

Roberto Saenz is the Hotel Belmar’s brew master. The compact brewery just down the hill from the main hotel building was created using recycled equipment. All bottling is done on site. An inventive beer and food tasting is offered to guests at the bar or after the brewery tour.

Beer & tapas tasting on designated cedar plates
Beer & tapas tasting on designated cedar plates

The Aura Pale Ale was light with a refreshing hint of citrus and paired well with veggie ceviche: chiote, green bananas, cilantro and lime were fresh and tangy on a small tortilla. The dark, earthy hops of Dos Maros IPA melded with the rich meat of house smoked churesso. A creamy Stout had a great vanilla nose and a lingering molasses flavor. Coffee and chocolate notes in the stout blended well with smoky and lightly candied house made bacon. The small batch brews change often so pairing combinations will vary – that’s fun.

The freshness of both the ingredients and artistry of Celajes Restaurant does not disappoint. Breakfast can include a coconut milk and yogurt with chia seeds, fruit, tarragon and basil accompanied by house made granola. A lunch of beef carpaccio was a visually stunning platter of ultra thin slices of raw beef napped with a caper vinaigrette.

Beef carpaccio, Hotel Belmar
Beef carpaccio, Hotel Belmar

At dinner house baked bread is served with chimichuri sauce harkening back to Pedro, Sr, Chilean roots. Roasted beets, micro greens, grilled carrots, fennel flowers, basil, sunflower seeds with a yogurt dijon vinaigrette made a colorful salad. Beef tenderloin was seasoned with soy sauce, lemon juice, cilantro and fennel flowers. Wild sea bass was gently poached in butter. The perfume of a light dessert of verbana water, lavender flowers, tarragon, tropical fruit and guanabanas sorbet linked the dinner to the scents of a Cloud Forest evening.

The ethos of Hotel Belmar and of all Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica is to succeed by taking less from the Earth. What is taken must be sustainable and is often delicious. Pedro Belmar and his diverse staff enhance the guest experience by living the true meaning of less is more.

Verbana water, lavender flowers, tarragon, tropical fruit and guanabanas sorbet
Verbana water, lavender flowers, tarragon, tropical fruit and guanabanas sorbet

When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose and 3 hours to Monteverde. Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many tourist van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of the Hotel Belmar, Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje. Transportation within Costa Rica was provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.

Hot tub, Hotel Belmar
Hot tub, Hotel Belmar
Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
It begins with scented hand towels
Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish
Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica
Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory
You can read all my articles and subscribe to my Examiner columns at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

 

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It begins with scented hand towels

La Paz Waterfall Gardens at Peace Lodge
La Paz Waterfall Gardens at Peace Lodge

It begins with refreshing, moist hand towels scented with lemon grass and glasses of chilled passion fruit juice upon entering the lobby. A visitor becomes a connoisseur of this refreshing amusebouche that teases and soothes the senses. Scented hand towels and exotic juice blends transition the visitor from the tropical humidity of Costa Rica’s lush countryside to an enclave of tranquility that is a Small Distinctive Hotel.

Nine boutique hotels, each averaging fewer than 50 rooms, are members of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Each is privately owned, several in the second generation, unique in architecture and setting, luxurious with fine dinning and backstories as distinctive as the properties. The amusebouche – the tease – is that all this comfort helps others; each property visited touched the human side in unexpected ways.

Hotel Belmar – the burden of a name

Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hotel Belmar, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Craft cocktails are not usually associated with the world famous natural wonders of the Montverde cloud forests of Costa Rica. Quakers, cows, hostels and hikers come to mind first. But when you’re Pedro Belmar, second-generation general manager of a famous family mountain retreat, continued success requires thinking out of the box. Or in this case nothing boxed.

In the Belmar’s La Chispa cocktail the refreshing, earthy aromas of the rain forests are recreated.

  • premium Sloane’s Gin
  • black tea syrup made from the hotel’s organic garden
  • cedar pine needle smoke
  • fresh lime

Crushed ice quickly wets a cocktail glass, as local dry cedar pine needles are lite with a torch. Quickly the glass is inverted over the flame – should extinguish immediately – and rest on the needles capturing the smoke. The cocktail is mixed. Upright the glass and pour into the captured smoke.

bar ingredients from Hotel Belmar organic garden
bar ingredients from Hotel Belmar organic garden

Sipping a smoky cedar scented La Chispa ensconced in the all-cedar Hotel Belmar overlooking forests tumbling down to the Gulf of Nicoya is all a tease – a visual amuse-bouche. It’s the forerunner that everything good for the guest at a Small Distinctive Hotel should be good and sustainable for 21st century Costa Rica. It should be at your fingertips. “We’re growing smaller,” Pedro  Belmar said with a faint smile, expressing a vision for the new look of success.

Hotel Grano de Oro and the House of Light

A private guest room garden Hotel Grano de Oro
A private guest room garden Hotel Grano de Oro

A blend of old, restoration and cutting edge, Hotel and Restaurant Grano de Oro is firmly established as San Jose’s premiere property. Yet it’s very design from the restoration of a classic Victorian colonial early 20th century mansion was to maintain the hospitality extended to houseguests in a spacious urban home. With understated elegance and graceful service, the exquisite cuisine of Executive Chef Francis Canal Bardot, has set the standard for three meals a day for a quarter century at Grano de Oro and San Jose. Hidden gardens, art and the soothing sound of water fountains follow even into the rooms. A quiet private garden patio with fountain in room six was an opportunity to discover Casa Luz.

Nearly 20 years ago Grano de Oro founders Eldon and Lori Cooke were instrumental in creating the Asociacion Reaccion en Cadena por Nuestra Ninez and opened Casa Luz (“House of Light”) in San Jose. Casa Luz provides multi-year residential programs for abused teenage mothers and their children and a safe home. The program includes all necessary monetary, emotional and psychological support victims’ need. Just ask and the front desk will be pleased to discuss this significant humanitarian project while you enjoy the elegance of Hotel Grano del Oro  knowing a portion of profits help support a house of light.

Peace Lodge – inside the Cloud Forest

Peace LodgeOf course there’s a tropical garden with stone waterfall shower in the skylight ceilinged bath of the guest suite at Peach Lodge. After all it’s nestled within La Paz Waterfall Gardens. In 18 large individually decorated suites, guests luxuriate in river stone hot tubs on plant-bedecked balconies and within private courtyards. Rooms with massive wood honed beds and river stone gas fireplaces open onto views of waterfalls and meandering free-formed trout ponds all designed to make you resign the tensions of the day – the trout may appear on the menu as a real amuse-bouche.

Peace Lodge is an integral component of the privately owned La Paz Waterfall Garden, both the visions of Florida entrepreneur Lee Banks, which protects a plethora of local fauna and animals in this area of the forests and encompasses five stunning waterfalls. Peace Lodge and La Paz Waterfall Gardens are on-going eco-tourism success stories with exciting culinary news forthcoming.

Cuna del Angel – discretely guarding your health

Gluten free bread at Hotel Cuna del Angel
Gluten free bread at Hotel Cuna del Angel

It all starts with the bread. It’s gluten free. It tastes good. It’s whole grain bread with quality organic ingredients prepared by someone who understands proper techniques as in all good cooking and baking.

At Hotel Cuna del Angel, besides practicality due to a family member’s celiac disease, Tom York has every reason to prefer that his restaurant serve only organically grown and produced foods 100% gluten, GMO, and hormone free. Tom has been a devotee of healthy living spanning a decades long career. Many ingredients come from Tom’s own farm, and much of everything else is locally sourced.

Yet the tease is that a guest would never know their health is being guarded unless the menu is read in detail. Dishes from the classic continental repertoire such as flambé mango on vanilla sorbet and fresh snook with a creamy basil sauce are all components of a classic up-scale menu nutritionally balanced. The soft ambient lighting in the open walled palapa dining room overlooking the jungle and Pacific Ocean certainly are digestives in themselves. That’s just one part, as readers will discover in upcoming articles, Tom plays in helping to preserve this cradle of the Angel.

infinity pool at Villa Caletas
infinity pool at Villa Caletas

Villa Caletas – gazing into infinity

Denis Roy emigrated from France with a dream somewhere in his head that materialized into creating a fantasy in Costa Rica. On over 700 acres of improbable, undeveloped coastal and mountain wilderness, using building methods that hearkened back to the days of the pyramids, the multi building hotel, restaurants and spa complex of Villa Caletas and the Zephyr Palace emerged over a decade. A fusion of river stone castle and tropical Victorian, the 50 rooms range from stunning to awe inspiring.

Sunset at Hotel Villa Caletas
Sunset at Hotel Villa Caletas

Sunsets from the amphitheater are legendary, and views encompass forested hills and the Gulf of Nicoya from many angles. Yet those beautiful hills required total reforestation just a decade ago due to overgrazing. The lush peaks of today were barren, rocky and eroding into the clear Pacific below. Ecological restoration is ongoing and Villa Caletas spearheads major reforestation projects in the region.

That’s why the many infinity pools dotting the complex become a metaphor for the group of Small Distinctive Hotels owners, managers and chefs this journalist interviewed during an eight-day tour. They were all rooted in reality, but liked to tease. My upcoming articles will let you in on some amuse-bouche recipes – the visions they see gazing into infinity.

When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose. Getting around: Costa Rica has an extensive inter city bus system and many toursit van options. The easiest transportation is renting a car. Costa Rica’s road system is generally in good condition.

Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Small Distinctive Hotels, ENroute Communications and Revista Ander de Viaje.

Transportation within Costa Rica provided by Toyota Rent a Car of San Jose. A Rav4 made Costa Rica’s mountain roads, especially the few unpaved, safe and comfortable.

Chef Francis Canal Bardot cream of pejibaye soup, hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, San Jose
Chef Francis Canal Bardot cream of pejibaye soup, hotel and restaurant Grano de Oro, San Jose

 

Additional articles on Costa Rica by Marc d’Entremont:
Cuna del Angel is discretely gluten-free in Costa Rica
Monteverde Biological Reserve is a climate change laboratory
Costa Rica and the vision of Pedro Belmar
Cream of Pejibaye: a Costa Rican national dish
Hotel Grano de Oro: ethics and luxury in Costa Rica
Villa Caletas: luxury with a conscience in Costa Rica
Exquisite Pacific Bisque at the El Faro Hotel, Costa Rica
Peace, waterfalls and trout in Costa Rica’s Cloud Forest

 

You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

 

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Fortaleza San Felipe

DSC_6241

has guarded Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic for over 400 years and  now anchors a pleasant ocean side park @fathomtravel #traveldeep #cruise #voluntourism #travel

sharp coral moat
sharp coral moat

 

Puerto Plata harbor
Puerto Plata harbor

 

the park
the park

You can read all my articles and subscribe to my Examiner columns at:

Hellenic News of America

Original World Insights

Culinary Travel Examiner

 International Dining Examiner

International Travel Examiner

Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner

Food & Recipes Examiner

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