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Discover Puerto Vallarta, the world's friendliest international city

Steve RoccaBy Steve Rocca,

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- The urge to get away from everything, especially during the winter, comes over us as soon as that first cold snap hits. When the rigors of your life leave you void of inspiration and energy, and you can't feel your toes because it's so cold outside, it's time to get away.

Will it be the Bahamas this winter? Will it be a cruise? How about Puerto Vallarta?

What's that you say, Mexico? Indeed. This is not Pancho Villa's Mexico. This is the world's friendliest international city, according to Condé Nast Magazine, in part because of the remarkable amiability of the locals. This is the new Cabo San Lucas, but with more history and character. This is the trendy place to visit, rivaled in Mexico only by places like Cancun and Acapulco.

Puerto Vallarta is nestled in Banderas Bay, which, at 27 miles from east to west and 20 miles from north to south, is the third largest bay in the world and North America's largest. It sits on the western coast of Mexico in the state of Jalisco. It enjoys roughly the same weather as Hawaii with temperatures generally in the 60s in the winter. The charm of the city's cobblestone streets, beaches, and stunning views of the Sierra Madre Mountains remains largely undiscovered.

For those who have never been to Mexico, this is an easy trip. American-style resorts, complete with spas, pools, workout rooms and golf packages, make visiting and integration easy. Although many people don't speak English in Puerto Vallarta, many do. Most taxi drivers, hotel employees and store clerks speak enough English for communication. Most signs and menus are in English, and a large expatriate community thrives here.

You need not be afraid of the language barrier, the money exchange or unnecessary wasted time in customs. This is a trip that couldn't be easier from the United States. The people are friendly, helpful and accommodating. You don't even need a passport to get in; an original birth certificate and a driver's license will do the trick.

For those who seek it, top-notch golf awaits at courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Joe Finger. All three courses are located within a short drive, and many packages are available.

There are four other courses in the area: El Tigre Golf Club at Paradise Village, Los Flamingos Golf Club, Mayan Palace Golf Club and 40 minutes away is Punta Mita Golf Club. Farther south and much more exclusive is Tamarindo Golf Course. While these designers have created splendid courses, golf is just part of the allure of Puerto Vallarta, which offers plenty to those who just want to get away and warm their toes for a few days. Package deals and information can be found at foremexico.com. Packages are available at Marriott CasaMagna Resort, Westin Regina, Velas Vallarta, Holiday Inn PVR and Sheraton Buganvilias.

Where to stay

Many hotels in Puerto Vallarta have spas, salons, tennis courts and water sports, and most have an activities chairman that can help guests get in the groove. The Westin Regina Resort and the CasaMagna Marriott Resort are excellent choices for people who want a variety of activities and fun. CasaMagna offers the popular "Aphrodisiac Margarita" for those in the mood for a little romance. The signature drink includes Agavero Tequila mixed with Damiana Liquor, Contreau, lemon juice and ice, and it's a sure-fire path to an exciting evening. In addition, between August and December on the beaches of CasaMagna, you can watch and participate in the release of baby sea turtles, an unforgettable experience.

The Quinta Real, which just experienced a $6 million renovation, is the finest, intimate spa and golf resort in the city. In addition to its location between the first and 18th holes of the Marina Vallarta Golf Course and its address in the prestigious Marina Vallarta community, it also has a chic private beach club overlooking the Bay of Banderas and a world-class spa facility.

The 6,000-square-foot spa has five treatment rooms, a whirlpool, sauna, steam room and pressure shower and offers 55 different services from body wraps to massage. Its design is sleek and soothing with teak and rattan furnishings in its relaxation areas and state of the art equipment in its treatment areas. A comprehensive exercise facility with yoga, tai-chi and meditation adjoins the spa and overlooks two outdoor Jacuzzis and the gardens.

With just 84 suites, it's a very intimate setting with expansive gardens enveloping a hacienda-style building and a picture-perfect pool. The arches of the hacienda provide a cool path to guest rooms, a library with Internet access, and a lobby lounge framed by an impressive fresh water pond adorned by sculptures. Each room has about 10 original Sergio Bustamente masks, considered a precious feature in the guest rooms.

Specials are running until December 22, 2003. Depending on the package, you can get a nightly "suite and breakfast" for $171. If you want to upgrade to $195, you can get extra treats, like a 25-minute massage per person and a complimentary bottle of wine with dinner. One package deal for two people for three nights includes hotel, all breakfast, a round of golf, two massages at the spa and other extras for just $1,443 ($480 per night per couple).

Quinta Real Puerto Vallarta
Pelicanos No. 311, Marina Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco 48354
Tel: +52 (322) 226-6680
Fax: +52 (322) 226-6699
Email: qrvallarta@mexicoboutiquehotels.com

Package deals: mexicoboutiquehotels.com/qrvallarta or call (877) 278-8018; Canada toll-free (866) 818-8342; Mexico toll-free 01-800-508-7923; or calling from other countries at +(52) (322) 221-2277. Fax: 322-221-2255.

Marriott CasaMagna
Golf Packages available
Toll free: (888) 393-4191
For group rates and more information contact karla.rodriguez@marriotthotels.com

Westin Regina Resort
52(322) 226 1100
raul.almeida@westin.com or maripepa.gonzalez@westin.com

Eating out

There isn't a Taco Bell in Vallarta, but there is McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and Outback Steakhouse. But what's the fun in that?

Dining out in Mexico is an experience to be enjoyed, unlike most drive-thrus. American meals out usually take about an hour, but it is not unusual for a good meal in a Puerto Vallarta restaurant to take two or even three hours. Their approach is to savor every bite, sip, and converse between courses. The experience lies in the quality, not in the quantity, and as a result they escape the battle of the bulge that plagues so many Americans.

The Quinta Real hotel and resort has one of Puerto Vallarta's best restaurants in El Candil, which always plays an important role in the annual Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Festival (Nov. 13-23). It offers contemporary Mexican and international haute cuisine and is not above turning out a great Sunday champagne buffet breakfast, which includes beef, chicken, pork, fruit, pastries and desserts. With its own herb garden and pastry kitchen, the emphasis is on freshness. Lunches are light, while dinners lean to the more formal.

Make sure to venture out to La Palapa, which is a $10 cab ride away from most hotels, but it's well worth it. The city's first restaurant on the beach, right on the water's edge, is a classic. Exotic drinks served in hand-blown glassware, live music and freshly caught seafood from the bay make this a tropical paradise. Listen to the waves crash up on the beach just a few yards away as you enjoy the Shrimp La Palapa. After dinner take a relaxing walk on the beach without worry because there are plenty of Tiki torches for light, and white uniformed police officers roam throughout the night. Enjoy watching the boats bob in the water as the sounds of "My Way" being sung in Spanish by the mariachi band echo in the distance.

After dinner smoke

Head over to the Vallarta Cigar Factory for the freshest cigars in town. Victor Torres Perez and his two partners will take care of the experienced cigar smoker and the novice. Their storefront and cigar-rolling plant are located in the Old Town section of Vallarta near the malecü;n (boardwalk). They produce fine quality cigars, perfect for the golf course or for a relaxing time after dinner, made from the best Mexican grown tobaccos. There are two on-site cigar rollers, and this stop is well worth it.

Vallarta Cigar Factory
Libertad No. 100-3
Col. Centro
Puerto Vallarta, Jal. Mexico
(322) 22-203-00
Email: cigarfactory@pvnet.com.mx

Night life

This is one of the safest cities imaginable. People walk the streets at 4 in the morning and think nothing of it. It's much like New Orleans, without the debauchery. The malecü;n (boardwalk) is a center of city life, much like Bourbon Street is to the Big Easy. At night, it is packed as thousands of people mill around. Street performers, food venders and artisans make this stroll entertaining, lively and interesting. The wide boardwalk that runs along much of the waterfront allows for heavy foot traffic, and people-watching, in both directions. Be sure to venture into the Zoo, a nightclub and meeting place that attracts a wide range of clientele, especially young breakdancers looking to make an impression. For excursions further afield (or a-sea), you can do everything from whale-watching cruises to tree-top canopy tours to flight-seeing in the Sierra Madre mountains. Call +52 (322) 222-6606 for more information.

Off Course

For many, a relaxing day on a ship at sea like the Geronimo or the Bloodhound is just what the doctor ordered. Spending time on the beach reading, playing volleyball or shopping for deals with the beach vendors takes the mind away from other matters. No matter where your interests lie, there is a stress reliever for everyone in Vallarta. The city is divided into zones: the main, central area known as the "centro" or "pueblo," and the newer area is known as the Marina. Nevertheless, all of Vallarta still has the same appearance. The majority of the smaller streets are picturesque, with high curbs and roads made of cobblestone. It is easy and safe to explore the streets, and no matter where you go, there will be treasures on every block.

One of the greatest benefits of the downtown area is that it is easily reachable on foot. One can stroll along the boardwalk and enjoy its beauty step by step. From the banks of the Cuale River (which crosses the city), or from the Romantic Zone -- also known as the Café Zone -- the authentic "fiesta" can be experienced each and every night.

What to wear

Mid-December to February: During the daytime the climate is very temperate and you can wear light clothes. Warm clothes at night, during the local winter, temperatures start going down after 6 p.m.

March to June: Light clothes and light materials.

July to Mid-October: The rainy season begins. Bring rain clothes along and/or umbrellas, etc. It is hot and humid, much like South Florida, with temperatures hitting the mid-90s in the afternoon.

Mid-October to beginning of December: The climate is temperate, with no rain and very little breeze. Light summer clothes are recommended during the day and long sleeve blouses or shirts should be used for going out to a restaurant or bar at night.

Other essential information

Purified water is standard in all hotels and restaurants. Puerto Vallarta's water authority has received special recognition certifying the cleanliness of the local water supply for five consecutive years. If you are still leery, bottled water is plentiful. … The money used is pesos, and it is easily converted into dollars in your head. If your bar tap comes to 100 pesos, you just spent $10. Don't panic when your hotel bill comes and you see a four-digit number, just move the decimal point one spot to the left. … A great idea is to get to the airport about two hours before your plane leaves. Check in, deposit your luggage and head to the duty free shops. Whether its tequila (you can taste anything and everything for free) or perfume you want to take back home, the prices here are about half what you'd pay elsewhere. … Check these airlines for direct flights into Puerto Vallarta: Aeromexico, Mexicana, America West, Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines.

Last glance

Because of the Sierra Madre Mountains behind Vallarta, the planes taking off need to circle the Bay of Banderas before bringing you home. In the winter months, the plane is usually low enough above the bay that you may see a whale breeching or surfacing. Ask for a window seat!

For more information about Puerto Vallarta, call (888) 384-6822, or direct at (52) 322 22 41175; fax: (52) 322 22 40915.

Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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