It’s now 23 years since I signed a contract to author the first edition of Moon Handbook Costa Rica  (published in 1994 as the Costa Rica Handbook). On that first in-depth research trip to San José , the capital city, I chanced upon a brand new boutique hotel offering personalized service—a novelty in a city that had plenty of hotels, but no stand-outs, and certainly nothing that could be called “boutique.”
Fast forward to August 2012 and my current research trip…
As I type, I’m relaxing with a cappuccino amid an oasis-like calm in the open-air patio restaurant of the Hotel Grano de Oro , 20 years after my very first visit.
In the years in-between, Canadian owners Eldon and Lori Cooke have elevated their hotel into one of the world’s finest urban boutique hotels.
Visitors who knew it as it was two decades ago wouldn’t recognize it today. What a metamorphosis!
The building, at the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 30, in Barrio Don Bosco, about 1.5 miles west of the city center (and within easy walking distance), is a classic example of Costa Rican tropical Victorian architecture. It began life around 1910 as a private residence belonging to the Pozuelo family (owners of multiple businesses in Costa Rica , including foods ).
When the Cookes inaugurated the hotel in December 1991, they named it “Grano de Oro” (grain of gold) after the Costa Rican colloquial term for the coffee bean.
I showed up a few months later and the Cookes kindly hosted me—the beginning of what has evolved into a very warm, long-lasting friendship.
Back then their 21-room hotel had a quaint, yet small café-type restaurant, a gift shop, and parking for half-a-dozen vehicles. All the rooms had original wooden ceilings and floors and wainscoting, as they still do (although the wood is now new following a thorough remodeling).
One of the joys for many years was waking up to the sound of choral music echoing in from the adjacent nunnery and Catholic girl’s school.
Three years later, the Cookes bought an adjoining home (also owned by the Pozuelos) and merged the two buildings into a 34-room hotel that continued to pervade a turn-of-the-century feel. A rooftop terrace with two Jacuzzis was added, along with a sensational wood-paneled suite (see photo). And the restaurant—which opened onto a lush garden patio—gained a brilliant new local chef, Francis Canal, who began to elevate the restaurant into one of the city’s finest. Local business folk began to frequent it as their power-breakfast option of choice. (The divine “pie grano de oro” dessert, on the very first menu, is still to die for!)
As Eldon explains the third evolution: “The fame of our restaurant made it impossible to serve all of the customers who wanted to come to eat, especially its popularity with local customers.”
I recall many conversations through the years about how Eldon and Lori wanted to buy the nunnery in order to expand (together the hotel and ecclesiastical establishment commanded the entire city block). But the nuns weren’t selling. Then, lo, in 2005… Bingo! They got it.
But rather than merge the existing buildings, they tore down the nunnery and built from scratch a gorgeous new building inspired by the original tropical Victorian architecture. This corner structure, completed in May 2007, houses the stunning new wood-paneled restaurant  (the most elegant in the city) with high-backed banquet booths and a patio courtyard, plus a wine cellar, and—discreetly tucked upstairs—four lovely new executive rooms. The hotel also got access to its own purpose-built parking lot.
When I arrived in the summer of 2007, I was thrilled to find that Eldon and Lori had built an immaculate new lobby in contemporary style, entered by soaring sliding glass doors and with floor to ceiling wall of glass, and bamboo wood paneling. New, too, a cobalt stone staircase from the street lined with cubist metal columns and framed by water-cascades. Sublime!
Meanwhile, all the guest rooms (now totaling 37 plus three suites) have recently been refurbished in an upscale vogue, with flat-screen TVs, luxurious linens, and regal color schemes (most with beige and rich browns with touches of gold and emerald green, or crimson, or Prussian blue). All boast ceiling fans (plus a/c) and gleaming white-tiled bathrooms with a walk-in shower or tub-shower combos, heaps of steaming hot water, and eco-friendly toiletry dispensers. Many also boast their own patio gardens, with little fountains.
Some of the staff were here when I first visited in 1991. Such loyalty! In fact, the staff here is yet another of its multi-faceted assets. Friendly without being obsequious. And superbly proficient.
No wonder Hotel Grano de Oro  has been named the fourth best hotel in Central America by Conde Nast Traveler . And why it’s the only place I want to rest my head when I’m staying in San José .
The couple were also co-creators of Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica 
Read my review of the Hotel Grano de Oro  in Moon Handbook Costa Rica.
Now that you’re ready to travel to Costa Rica, buy Moon Handbook Costa Rica .
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker