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Estate of Grace
By Beth Weitzman | March 7, 2016
Perched at the tip of Costa Rica’s lush Peninsula Papagayo, Villa Manzu is a private retreat amid tropical splendor, offering spare-no-expense luxury, pursuits both active and tranquil, and a full staff to pamper you and up to 21 of your best friends.
The monkeys scampering through the trees have no idea how fabulous this place is. But I do. I’ve traveled all over the world and put my head on beaucoup plush pillows in plenty of villas owned by celebrities. But Villa Manzu, an estate on 5 acres of verdant jungle on Costa Rica’s Peninsula Papagayo, high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, raises the bar on luxury—all the way to the puffy white cloud-punctuated cobalt sky.
I’ve just arrived at this intimate hideaway after taking a nonstop flight—which wasn’t even possible before 2012, when the Liberia Airport (officially, the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport) started welcoming direct flights from several major U.S. cities (including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Miami) in a grand new terminal building. Despite the easy flight and effortless 40-minute drive to the villa, I’m beat. So I’m thrilled to make my first stop the spa—a floating platform wedged between two waterfalls that trickle gently into the limpid infinity pool. I can feel the knots in my neck starting to unravel even before my spa service—a relaxing massage featuring locally made products—begins.
When my reverie is over, I take a closer look at this stunning residence, which edges the well-established Four Seasons Resort and Andaz Peninsula Papagayo that opened in late 2013. Hammocks, chairs, benches, and nooks and crannies bedeck the property; it’s a sanctuary of leafy trees and jaw-dropping sea views. Eight commodious bedroom suites hold just 22 guests at a time; and the lawns, outbuildings and common areas, not to mention the natural setting, ensure plenty of room for personal privacy. I’m here with a group of friends; the resort is ours to conquer and adore. Villa Manzu started as the vacation abode for a Chicago entrepreneur and his family and friends. Over time, more friends wanted to stay, and the uberluxe project became a paparazzi-free private escape for the glitterati and well-traveled. It’s ideal for weddings too since one party reserves the entire villa.
When developing the property’s innovative design, a sense of place was an important underlying theme for architect Abraham Valenzuela of Valenzuela Arquitectos. “What is this building going to make me feel as I am walking through it?” was among the questions he asked himself. The answer? An element of surprise, paired with good storytelling, evident from the moment one saunters through the entrance and admires the home’s custom hieroglyphics derived from Mayan symbols that diagram the elements: air, water, fire and earth. The design of Villa Manzu is based upon these positive, life-affirming ciphers. Inside, open spaces and inspiring natural views abound—the outdoors come in, providing a palpable feeling of relaxation. The aesthetic reflects a blend of indigenous influences—Chorotegan, Mayan, Thai and Balinese. But the monkeys never let you forget you are in Costa Rica.
Pura vida means “pure life.” It sounds a bit like water drawn from the fountain of youth. And that’s how the inhabitants of Costa Rica greet one another. Like aloha in Hawaii, pura vida means hello, goodbye and best wishes here. It’s also the underlying theme for the villa’s interior design. “We adopted a lighthearted balance of elegance, comfort, originality and authenticity,” says Lynn Yellen, design director of Houston-based Ladco Resort Design Group, who worked in tandem with Valenzuela, as well as Terri Thibodeaux, a senior designer with Ladco Resort Design Group. “We had no limits on the budget; the owner said, ‘Make it beautiful.’ It was a dream job.”
Dream indeed. One hallway to the next, one room to another, unsurpassed attention to detail is evident—think custom-made wood doorways carved with images from African, Indian and Latin cultures, framed by intricately woven copper pipes, custom-designed ceilings with hand-placed stone patterns, unique textured wallcoverings and custom-made lighting. “Creative architectural details implemented by Valenzuela on the project were an impressive backdrop for ethnic and interesting pieces that satisfy a getaway feel for the guest,” notes Yellen.
Drawing inspiration from nature, Yellen also used a vibrant, energetic color palette to create a vibe that is homey, comfortable and relaxing, despite Villa Manzu’s museum-quality decor. “We found in doing second-home projects, people react to color,” she explains. “We also wanted it to have some character and set out to find or custom-make interesting pieces. The owner wanted a high-end feel, and no sacrifices were made. He wanted guests to feel at home and did not want the villa to have a hotel or commercial feel.” Such a mindset explains the price tag for each room’s design—between $150,000 and $200,000, perhaps more. And, not only does the villa come fully stocked with guests’ preferred food and drink options, but also with a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and two four-person golf carts to use at their whim. The villa driver, meanwhile, will happily accommodate guests in the house Range Rover and Ford Expedition Limited Extended, while a larger vehicle can be commissioned for bigger groups.
We pass our days here in a blur of fun and relaxation. Activities are tempered with languid moments, lying in chaise lounges with books we’ve been meaning to finish for years, sipping mojitos and bobbing about in one of the two pools. Some days, we awaken early for yoga, then take a dip in the sea. Snorkeling reigns here; the villa’s own Secret Beach is a short hike away, and a community clubhouse isn’t far either. I garner the energy one afternoon to zip line, but I pass on a surfing lesson. My favorite night began by setting sail late in the afternoon for a sunset cruise. And as it drops into the sea, the sun’s magic orange light suffuses everything, making the dream that is Villa Manzu seem like a portal to another world.
Guest itineraries are customized at Villa Manzu—there is always someone to accompany you on fishing forays, in cooking classes and on the tennis court. The lovely villa managers, Jenifer Cowles, and her husband, Chris, who oversee operations and guest relations, ensure things are done right. Having lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, they possess a wealth of knowledge and expertly craft completely customized shore-to-sea guest itineraries. What’s more, Jenifer is a certified natural healing therapist and yoga and meditation instructor and trainer. Chris, who is passionate about the water, leads paddleboard tours, fishing and surfing excursions, and snorkeling adventures. In the customized, chef-driven kitchen is chef Mariano Fernandez, an Argentina native whose experience includes stints in such culinary meccas as New Orleans, London and Valencia. He and his team create mouthwatering cuisine featuring local ingredients, based entirely on guests’ preferences. The bar offerings are also top-notch and included. Whether tumbling into the comfy chairs in the movie theater, relaxing on a chaise lounge, taking in the sunset in an oversize Dedon Nestrest or chilling poolside, there’s a fresh drink just waiting to be poured at your request. The homemade sangria is a must.
What can I say? I’m dreaming about my return to this island paradise. To this and all other luxuries up at the villa, we say, “Cheers!” From $16,500 per night for 14 guests, all inclusive (add an additional $500 per person, per night for up to 22 guests)