I travelled 4,200 km to a tropical all-inclusive seaside resort on Mexico’s Pacific Coast to make my debut with chopsticks.
Despite being a fan of foods that end with "a" and "o," a 22-year-old utensil-tossing ninja chef served up the unlikely culinary highlight of my short trip. Chef Jesus Alberto Dominguez was surrounded behind his flat-top stoves as he set fires and used a spatula to toss and cradle uncracked eggs and flip our bowls of fried rice.
The Japanese food at Tsuba may have been my most memorable meal at Iberostar Playa Mita, but the year-old resort located at the south end of the Riviera Nayarit offers a very Mexican experience.
The architecture and design, featuring tall hut-style ceilings and open-air hallways, merge the indoors and outdoors, so the ocean rarely lets you forget it’s there. The views of the long beach dotted with palm trees and bookended with massive green hills in the distance are spectacular; it’s hard to believe there was no resort here before.
Construction started in 2008, but the global recession brought the project to a grinding halt in 2009, leaving a concrete skeleton until work resumed in January 2013. The Riviera Nayarit is in the middle of a big international ad campaign to kick-start post-recession tourism in the Pacific Coast region, which touts itself as Mexico’s "newest beach destination."
There is very little development on either side of the resort. You could run from one end of the beach to the other and back for the most gorgeous and hellacious marathon imaginable or you could claim a lounge chair and order Miami Vices (pina colada and strawberry daiquiri united in perfect harmony). I chose the latter.
Iberostar has all the amenities one wants in an all-inclusive resort: A postcard-worthy spot on the ocean, awesome pools, plenty of sports and activities, diverse and tasty food, clean and spacious rooms, and friendly service. All this stuff helps one relax and recharge to face weeks or months of crummy weather back in the Miserable White North.
But what helps set one all-inclusive resort apart from another are the possibilities for something beyond lounging under the hot sun, frolicking in waters both chlorinated and salted, and literally eating and drinking all you can.
Just a few kilometres from the resort is the bustling seaside surfing town of Sayulita, which is an ideal day trip.
The beautiful beach is bordered by jungle-covered hills and filled with loungers, musicians, trinket merchants and, of course, plenty of surfers, including many beginners. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colourful, funky buildings that house cool shops and plenty of restaurants and bars.
Farther south, Vallarta Adventures offers boat trips to the Marieta Islands, a group of giant rocks that mark the end of Banderas Bay and the gateway to the Pacific Ocean.
The islands have been a suspected pit stop for pirates; a military bomb test site in the early 20th century; a site of exploration for Jacques Cousteau, as well as a natural marvel he would fight to protect; a camping spot; and since 2005, a highly protected national park on which only a select few scientists can step foot to study the dozens of species of marine birds that spend time on the islands.
Our guide Eduardo Cortez instructed us how to call out if we happened to see a whale during the trip across Banderas Bay.
He couldn’t guarantee we’d see one because "they don’t work for the company."
Dolphins are apparently on the payroll, though.
"Dolphins!" somebody hollered just a few minutes later. Sure enough, at 5 o’clock a group of dolphins was jumping in and out of the water.
They were but specks in the distance, too far to even capture a decent picture, but that didn’t seem to temper anyone’s enthusiasm. We might as well have been petting unicorns.
When the catamaran dropped anchor near the islands, I went snorkelling in the middle of a school of beautiful blue fish worthy of a Bond villain’s giant aquarium.
Later, our guides told us the waters had settled down enough that we could check out the hidden beach — we had already lounged on a nearly hidden beach — but we had to hurry.
So we threw our life-jackets on, hopped off the boat and kicked our way to a giant hole in one of the islands’ rock face. It led to a long, dark, leaky cave with a shiny beach at the end. This is jaw-dropping, tourism-commercial-grade scenery.
I can’t even imagine how the forces of nature — or perhaps crude early 20th century military technology — somehow managed to cut a perfect circle out of the top of a giant rock in the ocean so the hot Mexican sun could shine down on such a pristine beach.
Miami Vices on the beach at Iberostar are wonderful; the Marieta Islands are unforgettable.
Wedding vows and fun in the sun
Corralling 70 friends and family members for a destination wedding in Mexico is ambitious and requires two things: A popular couple and an awesome destination where wedding guests would be happy to pay good money to stay a week.
It becomes even more challenging when a hurricane blows away Plan A for Cabo.
Even more so when a booking blunder botches Plan B at a resort in Puerto Vallarta.
But despite those major setbacks, 56 loved ones of Nicole Newton, 29, and Stephen Evans, 30, of Kelowna, B.C., began gathering poolside under a scorching hot sun Nov. 8 for a week at Iberostar Playa Mita on the Pacific Coast in Riviera Nayarit.
The group was easy to spot with their bright orange cups — a gift from the couple.
Nicole was thrilled the plans finally worked out and pleasantly surprised so many were still able to make the trip.
"Our people just really needed a vacation," she says with a laugh.
Perhaps not Stephen’s brother, Gregory Evans, 27, who took a break from an around-the-world sailing adventure with his girlfriend that has included spear-fishing and surfing stops in the Bahamas, Haiti, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. They docked their 12.5-metre catamaran in Costa Rica and caught a flight.
While this big poolside reunion was happening, a young couple from Calgary was getting married at the altar that looks out onto the Pacific.
Pool-loungers and bar-goers snapped pictures of the smiling bride as she started walking from the bar area to the altar. Many in bathing suits watched the ceremony from behind a waist-high wall that divides the pool and wedding areas.
(The raucous water-basketball combatants nearby — who were even wearing ear guards — were far too focused on their game to notice.)
Nicole wasn’t too concerned about the possibility her wedding could be late-afternoon entertainment later in the week.
"The only time I thought about it is when we have to say our vows into a microphone. It would be like: ‘I guess this is for the resort.’"
Unless of course there’s another battle for watersport supremacy to provide some sound cover.
NEED TO KNOW
— Iberostar Playa Mita has 452 rooms, including 120 oceanfront junior suites, and multiple pools including a children’s pool and splash park. The resort is next door to an 18-hole golf course. For information, see iberostar.com or transatholidays.com.
— For more on Riviera Nayarit, see rivieranayarit.com.