1. Where to Stay
Villa Paradise is the onetime vacation compound of a major Mexican industrialist transformed into a surprisingly affordable hotel (from $75 per night). The white-washed Moorish palace look-alike has a full-floor penthouse suite that can accommodate up to six revelers and a private plunge pool. The waves—and charming town of San Pancho—are barely a five-minute walk away.
Boarders and hippies are the typical guests at Villa Amor (from $110 per night) in the surf town of Sayulita, Nayarit’s beachside bohemia. The hotel’s 33 villas—ranging from one to three bedrooms in traditional Mexican or contemporary condo style—are scattered along the Pacific and jungle-covered hills. All have ocean views, but larger units include private pools, verandas, and even full-size kitchens.
The St. Regis just opened a new resort last month on the swank Punta Mita Peninsula. It’s set on Banderas Bay, with 120 rooms spread over 22 beach-front acres. The exteriors are traditional adobe and red-tiled roofs; inside is white furniture, indoor-outdoor baths, and wood-beamed ceilings. It is the priciest resort in Nayarit; 2009 rates start at $555 per night and include butler service.
2. Where to Eat
Two year-old Marplata is sleepy San Pancho’s best restaurant. Named after the riverfront Argentine city, Marplata’s Pan-Euro/Latino menu is courtesy of Belgian chef Amandine Darmstaedter, a longtime Mexico vet. There are both indoor and alfresco dining rooms, a sizable wine menu (strong on New World vintages) and house specials like red-snapper tartare.
Surfer dude Mark Holt and his wife opened the tiny taco joint Sayulita Fish Taco(just off Sayulita’s main plaza) in 2001. Holt serves “Baja”-style tacos: soft tortillas, shredded cabbage, flame-grilled or beer-battered mahimahi, and even mango salsa. There are also hearty burritos and fajitas and a kids’ menu of Chihuahuas in a blanket, mini-spaghetti, and quesadillas.
La Laguna was one of the first regional restaurants to open up in Nuevo Vallarta, the resort community just across the Nayarit border from Puerto Vallarta. Set on a lagoon, the restaurant offers waterfront views and a menu filled with most underwater life.
Skip dinner and go straight for dessert, like a chocolate and raspberry heart; martini and three-chocolate mousse; or Moka tarte, at the Café des Artistes del Mar, which opened in 2007 on a waterfront dock on the Punta de Mita peninsula.
3. What to Do
Ten years ago, surfers came to Sayulita to escape the hordes at Puerto Vallarta. Now you can escape Sayulita at next-door San Pancho, a worthy, and far less crowded, rival. Bring your own boards or rent gear from the San Pancho Surf Shop (American Latina, 3; 52-311-258-4312), where manager Alonzo Hernandez will guide you to the day’s best waves, typically found along Chacala and LaLancha beaches.
When you’re ready to reengage, return to Sayulita and its unexpectedly compelling fashion scene. Its sartorial HQ is Pachamama, whose French surfer-sister owners stock sexy snakeskin skirts, colorful, hand-embroidered Mexican dresses, braided leather purses, and delicate beaded cuffs. Get a bikini from Brazil, Argentina, or Columbia at Yemaya, owned by American interior designer Hana Waxman. (There are also beach dresses and cover-ups for the less toned.) For something a bit more local, La Hamaca (110 Avda. Revolución; 52-322-227-5817) offers traditional masks, pottery, artwork, and hammocks sourced from Indian villages throughout Mexico and Guatemala.
Escape again with a ride through the treetops on a rainforest canopy tour. Embrace your inner Tarzan as you hop from treetop to treetop some 90 feet above the forest floor (safely, of course) attached to harnesses and a zip wire. Half-day (four and a half hours) excursions are $79 for adults and $53 for kids between 8 and 12.
4. Insider’s Tip
Polo Season in Nayarit—as well as the nearby Costa Careyes down the coast—began in November, and the equine action takes place through May at the jungle-shrouded Polo Court at the Rancho La Patrona in San Pancho. Check the calendar for Saturday match times, but daily morning practices are equally exciting to watch.
5. Oddball Day
The tiny man-made island of Mexcaltitan is, legend has it, the starting point of the Aztecs epic 300-year, 700-mile trek to the eventual capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Today, this thousand-year-old hamlet populated by about 2,000 people, is a peek into a Mexico long lost to colonialism and modernity. Embark on the twenty-minute boat trip from the port at San Blas, a small Nayarit mainland town just north of Sayulita. Visit the museum to catch up on 4,000 years of ancient Mexican history and walk the plaza with its elegant cathedral and city hall. Snack at any of the tiny taco stands scattered all over the island.
Check the weather and get maps from the local tourism board.
Rent a house or preview goods from local merchants at Sayulita Life.
Get information from an American perspective by two U.S. retirees who moved to Nayarit in 1999.
Bring some school supplies to donate to La Casa de los Ninos, an educational resource center in Nayarit.