• Luxury Lodging for the Eco-Tourist
By LISA CHAMBERLAIN
Published: November 25, 2007
FOR many travelers, Costa Rica has become a destination for eco-tourism — that is, vacations intended to celebrate and preserve the natural environment. And over the years, travelers on such trips have come to expect mostly ascetic accommodations after long days of surfing or hiking, typically not much more than a decent bed in a bug-free room with a semiprivate bathroom.
But the options are expanding for those with more discriminating tastes. Breaking ground next summer is Cacique, Costa Rica, an $800 million, 650-acre luxury resort in Guanacaste, on the Pacific Coast of the northern part of the country.
The development will be the first for Revolution Places, a venture created by Stephen M. Case, the co-founder of America Online. And it will have an array of partners including the Agassi/Graf Tennis and Fitness Center, designed by Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf; a golf course by Tom Doak, whose designs are known for naturalist landscaping; 120 coastal hotel villas built by One&Only Resorts; and an additional 120 rooms and 60 villas by Miraval in Tucson. Environmental oversight will come from Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau.
“Every one of the partners is putting something important into this,” said Philippe Bourguignon, the vice chairman of the Revolution Places Group, who once served as the chairman of Club Med and EuroDisney. “The good news is, everyone is smart,” he said. “The bad news is, everyone has a strong opinion.”
Having myriad partners is not the only challenge and opportunity for the developer. Cacique (pronounced ka-SEE-kay) will be the first resort to break ground since President Óscar Arias declared Costa Rica a carbon-neutral country in June; the goal is for the country to emit no net greenhouse gases by 2021.
“We are working closely with the government to set a standard for other developments,” Mr. Bourguignon said. “There are a lot of people looking at land and a number of resorts in the planning phase,” including developments by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts and Regent Hotels and Resorts. All are scheduled to open in 2009 or later.
Scott D. Berman, a principal in the hospitality and leisure consulting group of PricewaterhouseCoopers, noted that dozens of other projects are in the works, many of them upscale. He called Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province — with its beaches, wildlife reserves and volcanoes — “the next hot destination.” He added that “rarely have you heard luxury and eco-tourism in the same breath.”
“You will have luxury accommodations while traveling through one of the most magnificent rainforests in the world,” said Mr. Berman, who has been working in Costa Rica for 20 years. “It’s the closest you can get to a safari experience in the Americas.”
To help maintain that safari experience and to meet the government’s carbon-neutral challenge, Revolution Places decided to considerably reduce the development footprint on the site, which juts out into the Pacific Ocean and had once been a cattle ranch. The area was zoned 10 years ago for seven hotels with up to 2,000 rooms; Cacique will cover about 20 percent of the landscape.
The goal is to lower energy consumption by 40 percent from that of a typical project of its size. At the same time, the developer has a reforestation and revegetation project to repair damage done to parts of the site during its previous use as a cattle ranch. The work will include planting a million trees along the Tempisque River. Revolution Places also intends to work with a local government to improve the handling of solid waste, and to start shared transportation systems for guests, residents and employees to minimize traffic and vehicle emissions.
“We have a commitment to being a responsible citizen,” said Mr. Cousteau, who in 2000 was a co-founder of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington. “What we do in terms of social conservation is just as important as environmental conservation.”
Mr. Cousteau, who is also a correspondent for “Animal Planet” on the Discovery Channel, says Revolution Places intends to create a fund to help local business owners and crafts makers and to donate computers to schools in the region.
“People are looking for something other than sitting on a beach somewhere,” Mr. Cousteau said, “and they want to stay somewhere that’s not exploiting the people and the area.”
Of course, doing good does not preclude one from living well. At the very tip of the peninsula will be the 120 villas developed by One&Only, a five-year-old ultraluxury brand by Kerzner International. The site will be the eighth One&Only project; its developments are currently found in places from Dubai to the African island nation of Mauritius to San José del Cabo, Mexico. There are plans to expand further in Africa, to Zanzibar and to Cape Town, South Africa.
With access to the Pacific Ocean, the typical villa will have 800 square feet of space and include a 300-square-foot deck and a private pool. Rents start at more than $1,000 a night.
Paul Jones, the president of One&Only Resorts, said of the terrain: “There are some pretty steep contours, which makes for a difficult planning process, but the difficulty brings with it a lot of drama. As you enter, you will arrive into the high point, about 85 meters above sea level, and in that building we will have a restaurant and a bar that projects out into the forest with commanding views through the trees out onto the ocean.”
In addition to offering spa and fitness amenities, Mr. Jones said, “we believe in infusing life and energy into our properties, so there will be opportunity for activity on the site day and night.”
“If someone wants to switch off and do nothing that is certainly possible,” he added. “But we believe in active fun.”
On the more inland side of the peninsula will be Miraval’s portion of the project, with 120 hotel rooms and 60 villas. Its mission is more geared toward the health and wellness traveler. John Vanderslice, the chief executive of Miraval, said his resort would offer 150 different programs, like yoga and meditation, fitness and conditioning and arts and crafts. “This is for the luxury traveler who is seeking an experiential vacation,” he said.
In the middle of the peninsula, meanwhile, will be a small village of mixed-use buildings, with 100,000 square feet of retail space and 55 residential units above the shops, an amphitheater and other public spaces, open to Cacique visitors and residents (for-sale lots are also part of the development), as well as local residents.
“There are a lot of walled-off resorts in the world,” Mr. Case said. “There is a better way. What we’re doing here is taking the best property in the hottest market, and designing a resort community that integrates with the neighboring communities in an environmentally sustainable way. That is the future standard of luxury resorts.”
More: The New York Times