LORETO, BAJA MEXICO: BEACH BLISS
Access & Resources
Doubles cost 5 per person per night and include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and activities, such as horseback riding and snorkeling. 408-354-0042 www.danzante.com
Danzante Baja Resort
I KNEW I HAD A BAD CASE of Baja fever when the most gnawing worry of my day was whether I had caught enough clams to accompany the margaritas at cocktail hour on the poolside terrace. But two friends and I worked the fiesty little bivalves out of their sandy burrows until we had just enough to pique our appetites for the slipper-lobster dinner that would follow.
Twenty cactus-studded miles south of Loreto and a quarter-mile up a hillside off Ensenada Blanca beach are the nine palm-roof casitas that make up Danzante. Each is solar-powered and decorated in airy nouveau Mexican: The brightly tiled bathroom features water-saving spigots, and a wrought-iron bed is surrounded by French doors that open to ocean views. The place is so isolated that marijuana runners once used the crescent-moon bay out front as a regular rendezvous point. Swing from the hammock on your flagstone veranda and the world seems to be one giant red-rock mountain bowing down to the Gulf of California. Within an hour, the sound of the waves will have you slathering yourself with sunscreen, readying for a triathlon of diving, snorkeling, and sea kayaking among the dolphins in the bay.
The grand swaths of solitude might scare your average overcaffeinated American, but owners Mike and Lauren Farley magically appear whenever you need human interaction. Unable to find their own Baja-fever cure, the Farleysauthors of Divers' Guide to Underwater Mexico and Baja California Divers' Guide, and former trip leaders for San Diego-based Baja Expeditionsdecided not to fight it. Instead they built a life, crafting the casitas and dining room from local adobe, palm fronds, pitahya cactus, bamboo, and stone; blasting a hole out of the hill just big enough for a square soaking pool; opening for business in October 2000; and leaving the decadent relaxation up to their guests.
Nimmo Bay Resort
Nimmo Bay, British Columbia: Heli-ski Everything
Access & Resources
Four-day, four-night packages start at $3,995 per person, all-inclusive. The lodge is open June through October. 800-837-4354 www.nimmobay.com
THERE'S THE ONLY ICE I know that you can ruin with a fine scotch, Craig Murray proclaims, pointing to our landing spot, a glacier-crowned peak rising from a fjord. Moments later, sudden fog foils our attempt to set down and dine al fresco at 6,200 feet. Instead, the helicopter lands at remote Avalanche Lake, cupped between two parallel granite massifs. Soon after, my fly is the first of the season to break the lake's surface.
So it is at Nimmo Bay Resort, owned by Murray, where heli-hedonism is the rule of each thousand-dollar day. Tucked into a thickly wooded inlet on the British Columbia mainland 200 miles northwest of Vancouver, Nimmo Bay regularly hosts the likes of Boeing's chairman and other gentry. You'll see why when you arrive, stepping from one of six private helicopters to a cluster of nine cedar-wood chalets, tidal boardwalks, and a floating lodge.
Sure, the price tag's stratospheric, but you've got pilots on call, and your every need is covered. Guests come for the unparalleled heli-fishing: catch-and-release for salmon, steelhead, trout, and char. But the chopper can also drop you near Mount Waddington for a hike, at one of three cave systems on northern Vancouver Island for spelunking, and at the Klinaklini River for rafting. Or just slip into the bay by your cabin to kayak.
Nimmo Bay is more like your rich uncle's private retreat than like the Four Seasons. The food is splendid (be sure to try the maki sushi), and the service is meticulous but never stuffy. And although it wasn't glacier-chilled, I did get my 25-year-old Macallan.
Rancho de la Osa
Sasabe, Arizona: Border Hacienda
Access & Resources
Doubles cost $320 per day, including meals and riding. Closed in August. 800-872-6240 www.ranchodelaosa.com
Rancho de la Osa Guest Ranch
SCANNING THE DUSTY arroyos around Rancho de la Osa, a guest ranch near the border town of Sasabe, Arizona, it's easy to imagine a time when outlaws crossed this parched landscape to the safety of Mexico.
Today, being on the good side of the lawand on a horse or a bikeis the prime way to explore this area, 66 miles southwest of Tucson. In a glen at the end of a mile-and-a-half dirt road, Rancho de la Osa resembles an old Mexican hacienda surrounded by giant paddle cacti. Nineteen rooms, each painted by a local artist and decorated with traditional Mexican antiques, are laid out in single-story adobe wings.
The pink main building houses a library and a dining room with a long candlelit table where owner Veronica Schultz serves dishes like Yucatán-style orange roughy. A cantina with worn-out saddles for barstools is among the oldest buildings in Arizona, dating back to the late 1600s, when Spanish Jesuits built a mission outpost here.
When it's time to explore, wranglers will put you on one of the ranch's 50 paint, sorrel, or gray horses for trail rides to destinations like Presimudo, an abandoned trading post. Non-riders can hike into the grasslands of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the lodge's 600 acres. Birders can try to spot endangered ferruginous pygmy owls or simply look up into one of the property's eucalyptus trees for the resident spotted owl. And cyclists can borrow the lodge's mountain bikes to explore the refuge's 17-mile Antelope Drive loopimagining they're being chased by a posse and can't rest until they cross the border.
Luray, Virginia: Woodsy Fishing
Access & Resources
A three-day stay costs $695 per person, which covers lodging, all meals, fishing gear, lessons, and guide. Burnett also offers drift-boat fishing and backcountry trips in the national park. 800-866-9958 www.shenandoah-lodge.com
Shenandoah Lodge and Outfitters
TEN MINUTES AFTER WADING chest-deep into the South Fork of Virginia's Shenandoah River, my fellow gueststhree brothers from Bostonand I have all caught fish. No troutyetbut we've landed spirited bluegills and smallmouth bass, not bad for lifelong spin casters taking a crack at fly-fishing. Our guide, Alec Burnett, a native Virginian, chain-smoking former chef, and owner of the Shenandoah Lodge, nudges and cajoles us: Try that hole there. Slow down your cast.
Burnett's two-story wood-frame inn, tucked into walnut, locust, and oak forests on a dead-end dirt road 20 minutes west of Shenandoah National Park and the town of Luray, looks the part of a woodsy Appalachian retreat. The 12-year-old lodgeone of three in the state endorsed by Orvissits on a knoll above the rocky river, surrounded by the northern ridge of 3,000-foot Massanutten Mountain.
Despite the lodge's appearance and pedigree, it's not all good ol' boys and cigar smoke. The proprietor's infectious passion and encyclopedic knowledge of fish ensure river pleasures for novices as well as experts. He is patient with beginners, and his approach is occasionally unorthodoxthe river has trout and bass, yet he sees fat-and-fighting carp as sport fish, not junk-eating rubber-lips, as would many of his peers.
When it gets too dark to cast, the diversions are simple: cold beer, bourbon, meat-and-potato meals with a hint of gourmet (chateaubriand is a house specialty), and kicking back on the wraparound porch, surrounded by wilderness. Guests, usually no more than four to six at a time, stay in two bedrooms adjacent to an airy great room; there's also a shared bath. The fish-themed bedrooms come with an ample supply of fishing tomes. Some afternoons, it's hard to choose: Return to the river and try for a 20-pound carp, or get comfortable by the fireplace with McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia?
Mission Beach, Australia: Hilltop Bungalow
Access & Resources
Doubles cost $61 per night, $390 per week; bring your own food. The Doctor's, a two-bedroom villa 50 yards from Coco Loco, sleeps up to six and costs $103 per night, $645 per week. 011-61-7-40687637 www.cocolocomissionbeach.com
Coco Loco Mission Beach
COCO LOCOthe Crazy Coconut? It certainly didn't sound like paradiseit sounded more like an overpriced blender drink at a suburban Mexican theme bar. But after a two-hour, 100-mile drive south from Cairns, I was happy to find that Coco Loco doesn't live up to its name.
In fact, nothing could be saner. Coco Loco is two hilltop bungalows, one that sleeps up to four people, another for cooking in, both with timber roofs and open-air rooms, set into a rainforest with staghorn ferns. If you're looking for spotless luxury or a full-service lodge, you'll be turned off by this Australian jungle hideaway. But if your idea of heaven is a simple adobe-style playhouse, a 180-degree Coral Sea view, and three-foot-long monitor lizards milling about, this is your place.
Coco Loco is located in Mission Beach, a collection of sleepy oceanfront hamlets in far northern Queensland. A small path runs 60 feet from your breakfast table to the palm-fringed beach, where ancient lava flows mix with sand and the fresh flotsam of cuttlefish bones and pods of mangrove seeds. To the east, an hour by catamaran from the Clump Point Jetty or Wongaling Beach lands you and your scuba gear on the Great Barrier Reef. To the west lies the largest block of lowland rainforest south of the Daintree. Here you can fish the Hull River for barramundi and mangrove jack, or hike the Rainforest Walk through Licuala State Forest. An eight-mile round-trip route cuts through a pristine 100-million-year-old greenhouse where cycads and fan palms shelter iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies, green tree frogs, and the endangered southern cassowary.
I came for the jungle, but I stayed for Coco Loco. Sprawled on the sand, homemade margarita in hand, I had to laugh: If this is loco, please feel free to drive me here anytime.
Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquís
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica: Water World
Access & Resources
DEPRIVED OF WATER AT HOME in the Southwest, my boyfriend and I arrived in Costa Rica craving days on a river and nights soothed by the drumbeat of tropical raindrops on a thatch roof. At the Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquís, a newly opened lodge an hour and a half north of San José on the Sarapiquí River, we won the liquid lottery. Here was a jungle retreat of elegant huts that came with a rambunctious río out the back door.
The Sarapiquí, which leaps and twists from Costa Rica's Cordillera Central north to Nicaragua, flows between the nonprofit lodge and a 750-acre nature reserve, Tirimbina, full of poison-arrow frogs and oddly mobile walking palms. Overshadowed by the better-known Pacuare River, the 20-mile stretch of the Sarapiquí near the lodge is perfect when you're a parched paddler who doesn't want to share.
During our three-day stay we soaked up Class III rapids like Confusion and Gringo Hole in an inflatable two-person rubber duckie. Quiet stretches allowed us to watch three-toed sloths and howler monkeys in trees on the banks.
At each day's end we drained Imperial cervezas in the breezy bar at Neotrópico, which opened in 2000 on 25 acres with nearly as many shades of green. Orchards, gardens, palms, and grass surround four buildingseach a circular, pointy, thatch-roofed, 60-foot-tall palenque. The 24 guest rooms clustered in three of the huts have limestone floors and terraces furnished with carved hardwood chairs. Meals, such as stewed pork with vegetables, are served buffet style in the main palenque. Run by a Belgian foundation, the lodge this fall will have a museum filled with Voto Indian artifacts up to 800 years old and found on-site.
But in the end, the water remained the greatest draw. Days after leaving, my shoes were still dampthe best souvenir of all.
Cavalli Beach House
Rapaki Bay, New Zealand: Kiwis' Playhouse
Access & Resources
The three rooms and one beach cottage at Cavalli all sleep two and start at $180, breakfast included. 011-64-9-405-1049, www.cavallibeachhouse.com
Cavalli Beach House
IT RAINED THE ENTIRE four-hour drive up the coast of the North Island from Auckland. A freak summer squall, they called it. It'll blow over in no time, mate. Well, it didn't. Until I crested the hill leading down to the secluded cove where Cavalli Beach House sits. Then the clouds parted and the rain stopped. In front of me lay Rapaki Bay, beyond it the Mahinepua Peninsula Scenic Reserve, and beyond that the Cavalli Islands themselves. After a day of Middle Earthy gray mist, suddenly everything was bathed in color: big orange sun, black-and-blue ocean, lush green hills. Someone put a glass of wine in my hand and directed me to the hot tub. I was home.
"I don't believe in tripe, I believe in the religion of life," Bill Schwass, co-owner with his wife, Paula, told me. I could tell. Just three years old, the mod wooden beach housethree floors and three rooms, with a triangular white roof that curves down over the top like a mainsail filling with windsits on the northern edge of the Bay of Islands, one of the prime sailing, snorkeling, diving, and fishing grounds in the world. The wreck of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, which sits just off the Cavalli Islands, is a popular dive site.
That evening, over a dinner of fresh red snapper and a few glasses of local sauvignon blanc, Bill hatched a plan for a dawn-brigade kayak excursion. We'd paddle across the cove, drag our kayaks over a narrow section of the Mahinepua Peninsula, and explore a sea cave on the ocean side where little blue penguins nested. A capital idea, I thought. Until the next morning, when I found myself snorkeling into that cave with Bill, trying hard not to swallow another gallon of salt water as the waves bumped us off the dark walls. "Now you know what it feels like inside a washing machine," Bill yelled. Yes, I do.
Makena's Hill Camp
Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch, Kenya: Private Africa
Access & Resources
Luxury tents cost $320 per person per night, all-inclusive, plus a $25 conservation fee per person per day. 800-223-6078 www.parkeast.com
THE PROP PLANE LANDED on a grass airstrip at the edge of Africa's Great Rift Valley 175 miles northwest of Nairobi, and a driver took me on an abbreviated tour of author Kuki Gallmann's private 100,000-acre Kenyan reserve. After 20 minutes on a dirt road we arrived at the Makena's Hill Camp, a luxury retreat completed last March.
The camp consists of a stone common building with three walls and a roof (allowing views of the Great Rift Valley to pour in where a fourth wall would stand), as well as six canvas-walled tents, each with a veranda. In front, an assembly of employees stood at attention: a gardener, a masseuse, a night watchman, a cook, two maids, and a wildlife guide. Only 12 guests can stay here at a time. Colonial? A bit. Seductive? Completely.
Kuki, an Italian expat who wrote the best-selling 1991 memoir I Dreamed of Africa, opened the Makena's Hill Camp because she wanted to share this land that she says healed her after she lost her husband to a car crash in 1980 and, a few years later, her son to a poisonous-snake bite.
Over the next couple of days, I stayed out after dusk spotting game from an open-topped Land Rover. A hippo floated in a shallow mud pond. Herds of zebra grazed roadside meadows. I could have taken a horseback ride or gone on a camelback picnic but opted to lounge on Nigerian pillows and talk to Kuki. "I hope staying here feels like a return to the healing comfort of home," she said one afternoon. Yes, it felt healing. No, it felt nothing like home.
Muir Beach, California: Bay Area Secret
Access & Resources
Doubles start at $201 a night, including breakfast and taxes. 415-383-6000 www.pelicaninn.com
AFTER A BREAKFAST of grilled tomatoes and eggs-over-medium, my girlfriend and I narrowed our hiking options down to two. She, a tireless trekker, proposed a hike east through the coastal chaparral of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I, knackered from a bike ride the day before, suggested a shorter stroll west to the Pacific.
It was our second day at the Pelican Inn, a three-story Tudor lodge scarcely 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in California's Muir Beach. The inn, which sits secretively in a valley surrounded by verdant hills, was built in 1978 by Englishman Charles Felix to resemble a British country inn. With its whitewashed walls, angular roof, leaded-glass windows, and "snuggery," a traditional English den, the inn would pass without a blink in Devon. Guests stay in one of seven up-stairs rooms, each with canopy beds and wingback chairs. Downstairs you'll find a tavern dispensing 20-ounce imperial pints of locally brewed Lagunitas Ale, and a candlelit restaurant serving British "fayre" like cottage pie and bangers.
Best to purge that arterial sludge on the roughly 82,000 acres of public land right out the door. Hikers can tackle the Redwood Creek Trail to Muir Woods National Monument. Mountain bikers can spin along the doubletrack Coastal Trail, with open vistas of the Pacific. Or, keep it simple and walk five minutes west to the beach, a quarter-mile-long break in the notoriously rugged coast.
Narrowing our choices to two was as far as we got. We finally agreed to split up for the day. That night we'd grab a flashlight, walk to the beach, and spend the evening kicking star-spangled foam off the edge of a continent.