Puerto Vallarta Offers Adventure and Luxury for Families
By Julie Hatfield
PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO 揑 am Jane of the Jungle." Tarzan's Jane, swinging high above the treetops on a tiny rope that may or may not hold me, and I'm scared out of my mind. Actually, my "rope"is a strong metal cable, to which I am harnessed, and I'm not alone. Large grown men and a couple of six-year-olds are happily swinging with me from the same cable above the jungle canopy toward ten different treetop stations, courtesy of Canopy Tours De Los Veranos (322-223-6060, www.canopytours-vallarta.com, $70 per person, $50 for ages 6-12).
We start slowly, going just a few yards to the next station, with guides pointing out the coffee trees, vanilla vines, and orchids in the jungle below us. But each new ride gets longer and faster and higher so that by the end, we are hurling our bodies high over the Orquidias River rapids and a gorge edged by huge granite boulders. I would no more do this at home than I would bungee jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, but hey, it's Mexico, and it's warm and the spirit of adventure here under the southern sun calls louder and more urgently: "Live in the Moment!"
Besides which, if a six-year-old can play Tarzan or Jane, so can I. There are climbing walls near the entrance to the first cable, for those who have completed their ten rides and want more action, and even a mini climbing wall for little climbers.
The half-hour trip out here from the town allowed a beautiful ride along Banderas Bay on the Pacific Ocean, and a view of the gorgeous home where Hollywood director John Huston settled for the last 20 years of his life after he finished filming "The Night of the Iguana." The 1963 film with Ava Gardner and Richard Burton put Puerto Vallarta on the map and changed it from a sleepy fishing village to the second most visited destination in Mexico.
It is easy to fall in love with a place as warm and inviting as Puerto Vallarta, and families all across North America are finding that out. A beautiful place to stay, if you want to be close to the ocean and every amenity that an all-inclusive resort can offer, is the $50 million Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort just finished in 2003 ($290 to $3120 per night, all meals and beverages included. Toll-free from U.S.877-398-2784, www.grandvelas.com). Luxuries include a "pillow menu" featuring eight different types of pillows, and a Grand Kids Club featuring a daily activity program for kids, ages 4 to 14. A trained staff is on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to lead kids in activities including face painting and daily treasure hunts inside and outside of the hotel. As part of their children's program, Grand Velas also brings in a Huichol Indian from the nearby region of Nayarit State, who teaches children how to work with clay in the manner taught by the tribe. There are three evening programs each week in the outdoor theater overlooking the ocean, many of which are suitable for the youngest hotel guests.
The resort is fifteen minutes north of Puerto Vallarta in Nuevo Vallarta, actually an extension of Puerto Vallarta, which is itself just ten minutes north of the international airport. This gorgeous new resort, built in a semi-circle so that every room looks out on the ocean, has three huge joined pools with an infinity edge, a children's pool, a private children's playground, and three of the best restaurants in the country. Azul is an all-day casual dining room, housed in a giant palapa on the beach. It serves buffet food (kids can go on their own, leaving Mom and Dad to eat at different times or places). Parents (and their children if they so wish) can enjoy Lucca, an Italian restaurant located inside the main structure, or Restaurante Frida, named after the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Frida is a formal French/Mexican dining room featuring foods such as beef filet served with tequila sauce, cream of brie soup flavored with chili chipotle, and warm scallops with caviar. The food here was as beautifully prepared as that of any fine restaurant in Europe.
The most popular excursion for resort guests or for anyone visiting Puerto Vallarta (the canopy tour is relatively new) is the three-to-five-hour trip to the Marieta Islands, which are an ecological reserve and natural sanctuary for whales. From November through April the trip showcases the humpback whales' mating season, and Nuevo Vallarta is one of the few destinations in Mexico where guests can observe these fascinating creatures from the boat on the way to the island. Grand Velas golfing guests have special playing privileges at three different golf courses.
If the canopy tour isn't exciting enough for you, it's also possible to bungee jump in Puerto Vallarta, free falling over a 120-foot cliff to the ocean (Jump the Pacific Bungee, La Jolla de Mismaloya, $50 per jump, www.vallarta_action.com). You can also take SCUBA lessons, including the certification program for the PADI rescue diving program, from the Twin Dolphins Resort Center in the middle of Puerto Vallarta (Twin Dolphins Resort Center, www.twindolphinspv.com). (Jump the Pacific Bungee, La Jolla de Mismaloya, $50 per jump, www.vallarta_action.com.)
While the city center of Puerto Vallarta is a bit touristy looking, with a few too many kitchy T-shirt and sombrero shops, it also features one of the most beautiful churches in the area, Our Lady of Guadalupe, built in 1905, and some striking sculpture. The City of Santa Barbara, California, donated a huge dolphin sculpture which sits along the main promenade overlooking Banderas Bay, the largest natural bay in the area. Also on this street is the sculpture of children climbing up a ladder toward the sky while a mother watches. Its sculptor, Manuel Lepe, is said to have believed that only children go to heaven. Downtown Puerto Vallarta is picturesque. Orange bougainvillea spills over stone walls, the yellow primavera trees were blossoming in March while we were there, and some of the cobblestone streets going up into the Sierra Madre Mountains from the center of town are so steep that you don't dare drive a car on them.
While Dad is bungee jumping and the children are off face painting, Mom might enjoy Grand Velas' state-of-the-art, 17,350 square foot $3 million Spa Velas, which features body treatment rituals that have been collected from around the world, including the Samunprai, traditional therapy from Thailand that releases muscular tension with soft rolling movements with a hot pack or herbal poultice filled with dried herbs such as ginger, lavender, laurel and tamarind leaves. It finishes with a massage using essential oils from the Far East. But the best part of the spa is the outdoor section, wherein one can receive a massage while looking out at the ocean and hearing the music of lapping waves just a few feet away. Spa services are extra and non-guests can make reservations for them as well.
While Richard Burton was acting out the love scenes in "Iguana" with Ava Gardner during the day in 1963, he was trysting every night with Elizabeth Taylor, who flew in to settle into a mountainside home with him at the top of the town. The whole family might want to visit Casa Kimberley, complete with the couple's original furnishings. Casa Kimberley has become a bed and breakfast inn (Calle Zaragoza 445, daily tours 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
There are, in fact, still a lot of Hollywood connections in Puerto Vallarta, which was recently named by National Geographic Magazine as a member of the "Top 50 Film Locations in the World." Many world famous actors, including the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger who came here in 1987 to film "Predator,"have fallen under Puerto Vallarta's spell while working on location here. Last year, 40 years after John Huston helped introduce Puerto Vallarta to the world, the city instituted the first annual Puerto Vallarta Film Festival, with a special homage to John Huston, to which Huston family members came. This year's festival, which invites visitors to many free filmings, runs from November 6 through 14. (www.puerto vallartafilm.com).