Grand Spa and Thermal Resort in La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica
My husband, Jeff, and I flew into San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Ground transportation to Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort had been arranged in advance, and driver/tour guide Ronald Acuña was waiting for us as we exited the terminal. During the ~3-hour drive to Tabacón, Ronald provided us with a wealth of information about the specific places we passed and Costa Rica in general. I remember a few facts...Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia; beautiful tropical plants are grown for export and cover field after colorful field; the country has a continental divide that we crossed, cloud forests and rain forests; an eyelash viper is not the size of an eyelash but has a hood over each eye that gives the appearance of eyelashes; and I now know what a ylang ylang tree looks like.
On our way, we stopped at a fruit stand to pick up some rambutan that we remembered enjoying in Thailand. It was an interesting connection. We would later find much more that would remind us of Thailand.
The roads were in pretty good shape but are narrow and mountainous with hairpin turns in some areas. We followed the Inter-American Highway north and passed through San Ramón de Alajuela. One of the major roads had been closed due to a truck accident. Ronald knew about this, took a detour, and made good time. We passed through a number of small towns complete with bull rings (the bulls are not killed in Costa Rican bull fights). We knew we were close to our destination when we saw Arenal Volcano. This side was green with vegetation. Later, we would see the other side - rocky, brown and barren due to continuous volcanic activity. This "extinct" volcano, dormant for over 400 years, unexpectedly came to life in 1968 killing 87 people and burying 3 small villages: Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo & San Luís. Out of this tragedy, La Fortuna (The Fortune) was born as the town center and village for the Arenal Volcano area. Shortly passing through this town, we arrived at Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort. It took less than 3 hours to get there from the airport. We were fortunate. We later found out that some of the other resort guests were delayed hours because of the accident.
We checked in at the lobby desk and were given cool drinks to welcome us. The lobby opens to the surrounding rainforest. It is the location of the Tour Desk (where adventure trips and transportation are arranged), Caña Brafa Lobby Bar, a business center and a couple of computers (for those who just can't be without - like Jeff who had to see how Georgia Tech fared against Notre Dame in football and, fortunately, they won!), the Café Britt gift shop and the fitness room.
Shortly after our arrival, it began to rain - downpour, really. It was the rainy/green season (May to mid-November), and this would be typical of each day of our stay - bright and sunny in the morning, torrential rains in the afternoon and evening. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to drive yourself during this time of year. Be sure to get to your destination before the rain starts. For me, I'll just call Ronald again.
Tabacón provides transportation around the resort. A bellman and enclosed motorized cart were waiting to take us to our room and help with our luggage.
There are 114 guest rooms on the 740-acre property. We stayed in a Deluxe Forest Room. The main room was large with a vaulted ceiling, a king-size bed, table and sitting area, sliding doors leading to a large deck overlooking the rainforest, and all the amenities I appreciate but don't always use - minibar, coffee maker (with Costa Rican coffee), phones, large flat-screen TV and DVD player. The only thing missing was a ceiling fan.
The bathroom was almost as large as the other room. The main attraction for me was the oversized, blue-tiled, whirlpool tub for two. Attractive sliding wood panels can be pulled from their pockets in the wall to separate the tub from the main room, if desired. Another set of sliding doors led from the bathroom to the long deck. I soaked in the tub and enjoyed the splendid view of the rain forest. While Jeff enjoyed the tub, he preferred the large, glass-enclosed shower with a large "rainshower" shower head. Amenities provided here included plush bathrobes, hair dryer, bath amenities, a large closet equipped with a safe, and most thankfully, an umbrella. The same volcanic hot mineral water that flows through the Thermal Resort is used for the entire resort, including the guest rooms.
As is often the case, we actually spent very little time in our lovely, comfortable room. We spent the most time at the Grand Spa and Thermal Resort.
A complimentary shuttle continuously runs between the hotel and the resorts hot springs and spa. We enjoyed the walk down the steep hill to the thermal resort. However, the shuttle was much appreciated for the return trip, since we usually felt too spa'd out to feel like hiking back up.
Tabacón's Thermal Resort and Grand Spa are centered around the very heart and tradition of Spa - Sanitas per aquam / Salus per aquas / Solus per aqua / Sana per agua / Solus par aqua - health through water. Thermo-mineral rivers, running at a temperature range from 25º C to 42º C (77°F to 108°F), flow through exotic tropical gardens, forming natural waterfalls and river pools. A few man-made pools of varying temperatures have also been created. The largest is the main pool close to the entrance. At one end of the pool is a building housing a Café Britt gift shop, the Ave del Paraíso Restaurant and locker rooms for day guests. At the other end of the main pool is the swim-up Arenal Wet Bar. From this end, you can enjoy a magnificent view of Arenal Volcano. There are four smaller pools very close to the main pool ranging in temperature from 25°C to 39°C (77°F to 102°F).
One of the first things I noticed upon entering the Thermal Resort was the absence of the rotten-egg aroma of sulphur often found at hot springs. Apparently, a small percentage of the water actually touches the magma where the foul odor originates. I know sulphur is great for the skin, but I was happy to enjoy sweet-smelling, fresh air and still have natural, hot, mineral water.
The Thermal Resort is open to guests of the resort and day visitors. However, the large central part of the property is accessible only to guests of The Grand Spa. From the main pool, you walk under the main pool's curving water slide, through the tropical garden, past a gorgeous waterfall, and across a long, stone-paved bridge to get to The Grand Spa.
Shortly after becoming Tabacón's General Manager, Mr. Uwe Wagner, began a renovation and improvement project to upgrade and change the resort's identity. Part of the project, which ended in 2006, transformed the resort's eight-year-old, enclosed Iskandria Spa into The Grand Spa, a true open-air tropical spa paradise. Mr. Wagner was highly impressed by the spas in Thailand, and much of The Grand Spa's buildings' beautiful design and decor has a Thai flavor. The main building now houses the reception area, locker rooms with showers, the spacious open-air relaxation area with a thermal mineral water whirlpool, an open-air manicure and pedicure area and Vichy Shower room.
Getting to the rest of the spa is a small adventure through the rainforest. You leave the main building and walk on stone pathways along rushing streams, over bridges and past natural pools to the 11 open-air, separate, completely private treatment bungalows, each with two tables and their own couple's whirlpools. These paths also lead to the yoga pavilion, the beautiful Watsu pool, and the Temazcal area.
The gardeners have been instructed to allow the plants to grow naturally into the paths, so when you walk along them, you feel a sense of discovery.
On the first day of our stay, Jeff and I went to The Grand Spa early, since we had mid-morning treatment appointments. We ended up staying the entire day and only left because we had dinner reservations.
We entered the spa, checked in at the reception area and were lead along a teak walkway to the separate men's and women's changing areas. The lockers held sandals and soft microfiber and terry robes. Jewelry boxes were a nice touch. The changing areas also had private changing rooms and multi-head showers. We put on our bathing suits under our robes, grabbed our books, and met near the whirlpool in the lounge.
We had about an hour before our appointments. We settled in lounge chairs near the whirlpool and chatted, read, soaked and snoozed. The fountain pouring into the whirlpool, the aroma of the copal incense, the beautiful fresh floral arrangements, and flickering lights of a multitude of candles created a very restful atmosphere.
Before long, we were collected by our therapists, Lorraine and Salinas. They led us through the rainforest to our private, open-air treatment bungalow hidden deep in the lush green foliage.
Spa music played softly and blended with the natural sounds of the wild birds and flowing water of the stream behind the bungalow. We were invited to sit down in chairs near the entry. Our therapists poured warm water into basins and washed and massaged our feet. We were then left in privacy to get settled on the treatment tables. We rang the small chimes that had been left with us when we were ready for the therapists to return. Lorraine gave Jeff an 80-minute Swedish Massage which he says was "literally the best massage I've ever had." Salinas gave me an 80-minute Tabacón Massage, the spa's signature treatment. It started with the aroma of Lemongrass (my favorite) and a number of range-of-motion stretches and joint manipulation - basically an abbreviated table Thai massage session that felt wonderful. Salinas then massaged my body with a gritty mud. This was not like a typical body scrub where the exfoliant is rubbed on the skin with a few strokes. This was a full massage using the exfoliant. The massage was excellent. When it was over, Salinas gave me three choices to wash off the mud. I could go back to the changing room and use the shower. She could fill the bungalow's whirlpool, and I could soak the mud off there. The last suggestion was the one I selected. Salinas helped me get off the treatment table and put my robe on. She led me out of the bungalow and down the winding path. We stopped at a private natural pool. She showed me where to hang my robe and towel and left me alone to soak while she waited on the path. The pool was perfect. The water was quite warm, and it flowed in from a small waterfall and left from another. I soaked and rinsed the mud off my now-soft skin. I let the warm water wash over me and thought, "This is the real deal. All of the hydrotherapy tubs and whirlpools created for spas are merely trying to imitate this experience." I was completely relaxed and fully appreciative of this special place I was in.
When I was done, Salinas led me back to the main spa building and gave me a glass of water. Jeff joined me, and we relaxed for a bit then decided to do a little exploring. We spent a good part of the afternoon before the rains came lounging at the many warm and cool natural and man-made pools in the spa and the rest of the Thermal Resort. It was a perfect afternoon.
During our time at the spa, Jonathan, a spa attendant, provided us with exceptional attention, serving refreshments, bringing warm neck wraps, fresh towels, etc. and anticipating our needs as well as those of other guests. We saw him throughout the day. At various times, he brought us iced tea, water, champagne, white chocolate bonbons, and fresh fruit. He showed us to all of the mineral pools. His good work at the spa was equally as important as the therapists' in creating an excellent experience for us.
*The following morning we went on a Sky Tram and Sky Trek Tour where we zip-lined through the canopy of the rainforest. It was very enjoyable, and I highly recommend it. When we returned to the resort, we headed right back to The Grand Spa where we had a late afternoon appointment for an Idyllic Massage for couples.
We arrived just ahead of the afternoon downpour and had plenty of time to lounge, soak, chat and read to the soothing sound of rain before our appointment.
At the appointed time, our therapists led us through the raindrops to another lovely treatment bungalow. We were given another foot bath, left in privacy to settle on our treatment tables and rang the chimes to summon our therapists. We each enjoyed a mini facial, volcanic mud foot therapy and a wonderful massage. When it was over, the large whirlpool tub was filled and waiting for us. We shared each other's company, fruit to snack on and a bottle of sparkling wine. The tub was completely secluded and situated half in the open under tall trees and half under the roof of the bungalow. When there was a break in the rain, we could lie back in the water and watch drops of water fall from the tree tops and count the number of seconds before they splashed in the tub. When the rain started again, we just slid under the protected side of the tub. It was a lovely experience. Again, we were impressed by the skill of our therapists.
According to Mr. Wagner, Costa Rica has no spa or massage school. The therapists working at The Grand Spa are professionally trained physical therapists who have completed a 4-6 week formal spa course created and taught by The Grand Spa.
Other spa services at The Grand Spa include:
Tabacón's web site states, "The Tabacón Hot Springs perfectly combine mineral content, volume and temperature. Hot springs are considered a natural expression of Earths inherent energy. Geologically, Tabacón Resorts hot springs are 97% rain-based and 3% magma-based. Rainwater enters the earth through fissures on the surface and is then heated by magma found in the earths core.
"Once heated, the waters rise to surface, taking with them minerals
found in the earths rocky stratus. Thus, the resorts waters are loaded
with minerals. Hot springs provide many benefits stemming from various chemical,
physical and biological effects.
"The physical effects are due in large part to the water temperature, which helps dilate the skin, thus improving oxygen flow in the tissues that are being treated. The heat also encourages the flow of natural sedating substances in the body, encouraging muscle relaxation. Altogether, these effects create of a sense of wellbeing.
"The biological effects are produced by the hydrothermal flora and fauna, integrating micro and macro organisms in a complex union. This effect is called biogleas and is composed of thousand of different species which strengthen the skins defense systems, helping it to repair itself from external attacks such as aging."
Dining at Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort was a treat. We ate all of our breakfasts and all but one of our dinners at the open-air Los Tucanes Restaurant next to the hotel's swimming pool and whirlpool. The delicious breakfast buffet offered a lovely selection of fresh tropical fruit, omelets made to order, pastries, cereals, and more along with French pressed Costa Rican coffee prepared at the table. Dinners were consistently terrific. Vegetarian and spa selections were available and very good. We ended each dinner with Costa Rican coffee prepared with a vacuum coffee maker at the table. For those of us who forget our reading glasses, the restaurant offered a selection in a beautiful wood specs box.
We ate all of our lunches at Ave del Paraíso Restaurant near The Grand Spa on the open air verandah overlooking the main waterfall, lush tropical gardens, and the volcano. The extensive lunch menu featured salads, sandwiches and spa entrees. We enjoyed traditional Costa Rican fare.
On our last evening, we enjoyed a Romantic Gala Dinner in a private bungalow located in the tropical gardens next to a gently flowing stream behind the resort's main building. We had our own chef and waiter. Dinner was served at a candlelit table for two strewn with rose petals. Soft piano music (Windham Hill Piano Sampler 2) played in the background. The meal, with wine pairings, was absolutely fabulous. Entrees included Anchovies and Cheese Canapé and Salmon Carpaccio with Caper and Chives Vinaigrette. The main course was Sea Bass with Zucchini and White Truffle Oil Vinaigrette, Raspberry and Blueberry Sorbet, and Steak with Choucroutt and Fresh Foie Gras Sauce. The final, decadent touch was a Chocolate Trio with Vanilla Ice for dessert. Once again, the service was outstanding. It was the perfect ending for a perfect romantic getaway.
Guests of Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort can enjoy a number of outdoor adventures close to the resort. The resort has carefully selected tour providers and constantly evaluates them to ensure the best experiences for its guests, and the resort's Tour Desk can make the arrangements for you. Among the selections are: excursions to wildlife refuges and private reserves to observe the rainforest, hikes to the volcano, canoe float trips, bird watching, the Arenal sky tram, hanging bridges, white water rafting, canyoning, kayaking, canopy tours, rainforest sky trek, horseback rides to the Volcano, and rappelling down La Fortuna Waterfall.
Jeff and I went on the three-hour Sky Tram and Sky Trek Tour. A van picked us up at the resort and took us on short drive past Arenal Lake to the base of the mountain not far from Arenal Volcano. Once we were fitted with gear and protective helmets, we were taken on a ride up the mountain on the Sky Tram. We had fabulous views of Arenal Lake, saw enormous neon-blue Morpho butterflies and a family of howler monkeys on the way up.
At the top of the tram ride, the highest point of the Arenal Reserve, there was a large platform that provided wonderful views of the lake and Arenal Volcano. Sky Trek is a zip line system that includes 8 cables that together have a total length of 2.8 Km. (1.7 miles) with a distance from 30 to 760 meters (98-2500 feet), and from 20 to 200 meters of height (66-656 feet). The cables are connected by 3x15 meter platforms. Two guides (accredited by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo - Costa Rica Tourist Board) accompanied us and showed us what we needed to know. One would go ahead to help us land, and the other would send us off after the person in front of us arrived at the next platform safely. There were two practice zip lines. I was the first to try it and thought it was very cool. However, two people did not, decided not to continue and went back down on the Sky Tram. The next line was the real thing. My belt was attached to a two-handled pulley with carabineers. I hung onto the handles and tucked my knees to my chest. Off I went. Strangely, I experienced a surreal sense of calm as I zipped though the canopy and looked down from heights almost a half mile above ground. It only took a minute or two but felt like slow motion. In reality, I was going between 50 and 60 miles per hour. Zipping on one cable provided a spectacular view of Arenal Volcano.
I felt safe the entire time with one exception, and it had nothing to do with the zip lines. On about the third platform, the volcano decided to rumble. The platform vibrated, and we saw ash and huge boulders the size of buses fly out of the volcano in the distance. We were safe, but it was a bit "exciting."
Under the direction of Mr. Uwe Wagner, Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort changed its identity and upgraded its service standards resulting in numerous awards and accolades:
Tabacóns hospitality mission
is to provide the ideal setting and personalized services to help you attain a
state of complete relaxation. Mission accomplished!
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