LA CRUZ DE HUANACAXTLE, Mexico -- The morning is perfect: warm and fresh. I smell tortillas browning, coffee brewing and jasmine blooming. The cacophony of cock-a-doodling roosters sings along with the trilling warblers, and fluorescent purple, orange and pink fuchsia and bougainvillea tumble over me in canopies. Strolling on the shiny cobblestone streets, I find myself smiling at lazy dogs enjoying the sunlight.
I thought I had seen everything in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, one of 16 delightful villages along 308 kilometres of the Riviera Nayarit coastline, but on a dusty corner, I spot an intriguing handmade sign: The Jardin del Pulpo/Octopus's Garden.
I enter and find a hidden treasure -- an organic coffee house, restaurant, artisan gallery and live music venue -- all in one tropical atrium and filled with a multicultural mix of happy people. Today's treat is a Flamenco-style trio. I start the day with fair trade coffee and Spanish guitar playing a jazzed-up version of Besame Mucho.
These lush green villages connect to each other with just a few kilometres and minutes separating them, all overlooking the Pacific, backdropped by verdant mountain ranges, the sky filled with pelicans, herons and seagulls. Each town has its own personality, its own ambience. Yet all join together in this spectacularly friendly region to offer tourists a variety of experiences, gastronomy, recreation, nature and culture.
You'll be mesmerized by the fascinating Huichol culture -- a reclusive people who maintain their language, traditions and intricate artisan work. A few come to town to sell their wares, bedecked in brightly coloured embroidered costumes.
Riviera Nayarit is just 10 minutes by car from the Puerto Vallarta airport, which is in the state of Jalisco.
If you've never visited Mexico, the Riviera Nayarit shows off the country's best features. Those who want a laid-back, surfer feel are perfectly at home in funky/chic Sayulita. Other travellers, seeking a more pampered, exclusive experience, flock to the five-star resorts and golf courses of Punta Mita. Adventurous types looking to explore and soak in the authenticity absent in so many other tourist areas, will find their nirvana in such villages as San Pancho, Bucerias, and La Cruz de Huanacaxtle.
Bird watchers and other naturalists from all over the world reach their bliss in San Blas.
Foodies find an extraordinary array of acclaimed, award-winning restaurants and unique culinary offerings only found in this state -- don't leave without trying "aguachile de camarones" (fresh shrimp cooked in lime and chili), pescado sarandeado (grilled, garlic and chili-seasoned fish filets) or a chilled cielo rojo (spicy Clamato tomato juice, mixed with lager beer and lime).
The No. 1 state for shrimp -- Nayarit is a seafood lover's haven.
If you hanker for a week of making no decisions and total relaxation, some 15 or so all-inclusives ranging from three to five stars invite you to do nothing at all on their lavish premises.
The Riviera Nayarit has more resident expats from the Canada and the United States than anywhere else in Mexico. The following are six of my favourite villages, (all within 20 minutes to two hours from the airport) and affectionately termed pueblos encantados -- enchanted towns, by the Mexican tourism department:
THE first true village on the Riviera Nayarit coastline, Bucerias attracts large numbers of expats, yet successfully retains its Mexican ambience. A long shopping and dining drag features a wide range of offerings, from made-in-China shlock faux-Mexican odds and ends to sophisticated artwork and furnishings you might find in Beverly Hills, but at lower prices.
The Paseo del Beso (Kissing Bridge) is charming -- and be sure to visit Arturo Ramirez Ortiz's booth at the southern end of the bridge. It features very nice sculptures made by him and other crafts made by members of his family.
Bucerias is known and loved for its culinary treasures, such as Mark's Bar & Grill, a hip, sophisticated spot owned by an American. Last Valentine's Day, when I had the pleasure of visiting, the place was jammed all night long with happy couples feasting on grass-fed filet mignon, pan-seared tuna and Belgian chocolate mousse with espresso cream.
Across the street, visit Jan Marie's boutique, full of interior designer-quality furniture, decor and paintings from all over Mexico.
Where to stay:
Royal Decameron (www.decameron.com/promosite/index.php/en) is a three-hotel complex, 20 minutes from the airport, with a vast beach and easy access to Bucerias.
La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
This little fishing village, just three kilometres from Bucerias, has somehow maintained its quaint authenticity despite being home to a spanking new 351-slip marina, the largest in Latin America, with yachts up to 120-metres long anchored there.
La Cruz, as locals refer to it, has its own expat community and a surprising number of superb restaurants that draw foodies from near and far, such as Frascati's and Black Forest. It is also where I found El Jardin del Pulpo.
Where to stay:
Villa Bella Bed and Breakfast Inn (www.villabella-lacruz.com) is an elegant former hillside home with five suites and a small pool, sumptuously furnished and decorated, quiet and pampering.
Just five minutes from shops and restaurants below, but with sweeping views of the bay (whale spotting) and the mountains and village, and a truly hands-on owner, Elsa, who breakfasts with the guests daily.
Punta de Mita
While this community at the north tip of Banderas Bay caters to those who can afford the St. Regis and the Four Seasons and their gated resort and residential community, along with their amenities, such as two 18-hole Jack Nicklaus championship golf courses and luxurious spas, those of us in the lower ranks can also enjoy its beautiful beaches and delightful shops.
There are excellent restaurants, such as Mariscos Tino's, where I gorged on tacos de jaiba (crab tacos,) coconut shrimp, bacon-wrapped shrimp and had yet another Cielo Rojo.
Where to Stay:
Splurge on the posh Hotel Cinco (www.cincopuntamita.com) a boutique hotel where you just might spy an A-List celebrity -- it's that kind of place. The hotel is adjacent to the renowned Caf} des Artistes, one of Riviera Nayarit's finest restaurants.
San Francisco (San Pancho)
Just five minutes from Sayulita, San Pancho exudes a whole different scene. Home of the famous Polo Club, the town comes alive during polo season between November and May. San Pancho is quiet, tasteful and ecologically minded.
A true gem (don't miss a visit) is the Entre Amigos community centre, founded by a California woman. Free to all, it provides courses in music, art and language and involves the local Mexican community as well as expats and tourists.
San Pancho has a lovely beach and small beachside plaza, several small hotels, B & Bs and charming restaurants as well as an active, involved expat community.
Where to stay:
Hotel Cielo Rojo (http://www.hotelcielorojo.com) a delightful boutique property with kitschy adornments, organic coffee, and a bevy of surprises. A very San Pancho-like hotel!
About 21/2 hours north of Puerto Vallarta's airport, San Blas is a haven for birders, naturalists, silky-soft, golden-sand beach lovers (it boasts 30 km of pristine coastline,) surfers and surprisingly, gourmets. San Blas is a taste of the old Mexico.
San Blas is visited by thousands of birders from all over the world each January for the Festival of Migratory Birds. Bird-watching tours are offered during the festival, including special tours of the La Tovara Mangrove Park, which is one of the most important natural refuges in the western hemisphere.
The federally protected La Tovara National Park and mangrove eco-region in San Blas is one of the most important winter habitats for birds in the Pacific, home to 80 per cent of the Pacific migratory shorebird populations.
Who would have thought of eating cordon bleu-inspired cuisine like jicama and avocado tartar or fresh lychee sorbet in a tiny hotel in a relatively tiny town (just 10,000 inhabitants) on a stretch of Mexican coastline far from the madding crowds?
Dozens of happy foodies do so each day in San Blas, at internationally acclaimed, French-schooled Chef Betty Vasquez' El Delfin restaurant.
Where to stay:
Hotel Garza Canela (www.garzacanela.com) is the home of the fabulous El Delfin, and is a cosy, pleasant eco-hotel with a pretty garden area.
The epitome of surfer-chic, Sayulita also has an established expat community but also hosts large numbers of temporary residents -- some of them young surfer nomads, who travel around seeking the "perfect wave."
This just might be the most diverse town you'll ever see -- ranging from dreadlocked Rastas to fixed-income single seniors seeking new lives, to affluent art collectors and yoga/spa enthusiasts.
Sayulita has a multitude of yoga classes and aficionados, as well as a true falafel/Middle Eastern café, vegan bistros, a beloved ChocoBanana stand (check out their frozen chocolate- and coconut-covered bananas) and for the more sophisticated, very fine dining at places like the beachfront Don Pedro's (tapenade served with bread is incredible) or the artisan bakery and coffee house of Panino's.
In this funky town, I awoke early to watch the dawn's surfers and standup paddlers.
Anything goes in Sayulita -- it's for tolerant, creative tourists who seek a charming small-town feel with plenty of quality handicrafts and friendly natives.
Gem: the Galeria Tanara Huichol Free Trade store -- plan to spend at least an hour in this exquisite shop with informed personnel, offering authentic Huichol jewelry, textiles and decorative art all obtained in free trade practice from the Huichols themselves.
Where to stay:
Hotel Kupuri (www.hotelkupuri.com), a lovely, 22-room boutique hotel located just off the main street and fronting the town's cultural centre (Casa Cultural.)
This Asian-influenced property offers thatched roofs, onyx and hardwood decor, impeccable service, a huge palapa in the atrium with a pretty swimming pool, and a rooftop bar with lounging beds and a spectacular view.
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