A series of coves and beaches lines the coast south of Tárcoles , beginning with Playa Malo, a scenic bay fringed by a scalloped 800-meter-wide white-sand beach. Fishing boats bob at anchor and are roosts for pelicans. At the south end rises the headland of ,span class="b">Punta Leona,smothered with forest protected in a 300-hectare private nature reserve—part of a self-contained resort called Punta Leona Beach Hotel (tel. 506/2231-3131, fax 506/2232-0791, www.hotelpuntaleona.com ).
About seven kilometers from both Tárcoles  and Jacó , just south of the Río Caña Blanca, is a turnoff for Playa Herradura, which gained attention a few years ago as a film set for the movie 1492. The long gray-sand beach is swarmed by Ticos on weekends and holidays. Playa Herradura hit the big time in 1999 with the opening of the mammoth Los Sueños Marriott Beach & Golf Resort and Los Sueños Marina.
South of Punta Leona the road climbs steeply before dropping down to Playa Herradura. At the crest of the rise is the entrance to Villa Caletas, a fabulous resort hotel atop a 500-meter headland with staggering views. You owe it to yourself to visit for lunch or dinner, or for a massage or treatment at the Serenity Spa.
Every Saturday night Villa Caletas has music concerts, particularly jazz and New Age, in a Greek amphitheater tucked into a cliff face. Costa Rica’s annual International Music Festival is hosted here each July and August, and a classical guitar festival is in November.
Stellaris Casino (tel. 506/2630-9000), at Los Sueños Marriott Beach & Golf Resort, is open 6 P.M.–2 A.M. daily.
One of the nation’s top stores for quality indigenous art throughout South America, Dantica Gallery (tel. 506/2637-7572, www.dantica.com , 9 A.M.–7 P.M. daily), in Plaza Herradura, has an irresistible collection of jewelry, masks, and other pieces from Costa Rica, Panamá, and Colombia.
Costa Rica Dreams Sportfishing (tel. 506/2637-8942, U.S. tel. 732/901-8625, www.costaricadreams.com ) offers half- and full-day sportfishing charters out of Los Sueños Marina. Herradura Divers (tel. 506/2637-7123, www.herraduradivers.com ) offers scuba trips.
A round of golf at Los Sueños’s Los Iguanas Golf Resort (tel. 506/2630-9000, ext. 372, www.golflaiguana.com ) costs $159 for nonguests, including cart. Club rental costs $35. Go to Villa Caletas for daily yoga at 7 A.M. and 4 P.M.
Inevitably, there’s a canopy tour: Canopy Vista Los Sueños (tel. 506/8342-3683, www.canopyvistalossuenos.com , $60), with 15 platforms, 13 zip-line cables, and departures at 8 A.M., 10 A.M., 1 P.M., and 3 P.M. daily.
If you like planned resorts, consider Punta Leona Beach Hotel (tel. 506/2661-2414 or 506/2231-3131, www.hotelpuntaleona.com , call for rates), a time-share that packs in the Tico crowds and has a canopy tour.
The swank Los Sueños Marriott Beach & Golf Resort (tel. 506/2630-9000, U.S. tel. 888/223-2427, www.marriott.com , from $199 s/d) mega-resort and residential complex is centered on a championship golf course and draws a predominantly Yankee clientele. At its heart is a four-story hotel in Spanish-colonial style—lots of red tile, natural stone, and wrought iron—but nonetheless with an “Anywhere, USA” feel. Its 201 regally appointed air-conditioned rooms have all the expected amenities, and the resort boasts six restaurants, a casino, and a wide range of sports, shopping, and services. Suspended walkways lead through the forest canopy, and Costa Rica’s largest marina is here.
You can also rent the deluxe three-bedroom villas at Los Sueños Resort & Marina from Costa Rica Luxury Rentals (tel. 506/2637-7105, www.crluxury.com ).
To feel like royalty or a Hollywood star, head to the palatial Hotel Villa Caletas (tel. 506/2637-0505, www.villacaletas.com , $160–450 s/d low season, $180–520 high season), a member of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica and perhaps the finest boutique hotel in Costa Rica. Imagine a French colonial–style gingerbread villa—reached by a winding hillcrest driveway lined with Roman urns—and matching self-contained casitas overlooking the sea. Surround each with sensuous, tropical greenery, then add sublime decor and stunning museum pieces, such as tasteful paintings, Renaissance antiques, giant clam shells, and Oriental rugs. You’ll think you’ve entered the Louvre! It has 35 luxurious air-conditioned accommodations in eight categories, including eight bedrooms in the main house. Each is done up in warm tropical colors, with antique-style beds, Japanese-style lampshades, floor-to-ceiling silk French curtains and Indian bedspreads, cable TVs, minibar, and (in most) verandas opening onto stunning ocean vistas. Eight sumptuous and huge Junior Superior Suites have outside spas, and self-contained master-suite villas in their own private gardens have private parking and entrance, whirlpool tubs with wraparound windows, horizon swimming pools, and bedrooms mirrored wall to wall for the ultimate romantic experience. Some are a hefty hike up and down stone-walled pathways. A shuttle runs down to the beach, with decks and bar. Guests get golf privileges at the nearby Los Sueños Resort.
Villas Caletas’s French owner, Denis Roy, runs the adjoining Zephyr Palace (www.zephyrpalace.com , $450–1,500 s/d, $7,500 daily for the entire place), indisputably the most extravagant and deluxe hotel in the country. Inspired by Imperial Rome and truly palatial, it has just seven individually themed suites, including an Imperial Suite with its own mirrored gymnasium and Turkish sauna. As the website reads: “Relax with the comforts of an emperor.” Other suites transport you to Africa, Egypt, the Orient, and, dare I say, heaven! They reflect a genius of interior design. It has spectacular salons and state-of-the-art meeting rooms, plus a gorgeous infinity-edge pool, its own small private disco, and a boardroom and art gallery with a secret tunnel that leads to the Imperial Suite. A perfect executive retreat.
Steve ’N’ Lisa’s Paradise Cove (tel. 506/2637-0594, 7 A.M.–10 P.M. daily, $2–20) moved from its beachfront locale to a lesser locale on the main highway. It offers breezy patio dining and serves burgers, grilled chicken, and tuna melt sandwiches.
For a beachfront porch, head to the simple open-air El Pelícano (tel. 506/2637-8910, noon–10 P.M. daily), by Playa Herradura, serving seafood.
The mountaintop Restaurante Mirador (6–10 P.M. Fri.–Sun. only during low season, $10 breakfast, $22 lunch, $35–45 three-course dinner, $65 seven-course menu) at Villa Caletas offers a sublime setting in which to enjoy chef Miguel Bolaños’s gourmet nouvelle cuisine. Choose from à la carte dishes such as fire-grilled chimichurri vegetable rolls with tomato bruschetta and goat cheese ($13) and sea bass sashimi ($15); or entrées such as peach palm mahimahi with white wine ($26) or roasted lamb tenderloin ($29). The Mirador is a tad formal and aloof.
More informal is the Anfiteatro Sunset Restaurant (7 A.M.–11 P.M. daily), beneath the Mirador. Breakfast on the mountaintop with New Age music playing softly is a sublime way to start the day.
Plaza Herradura (beside Hwy. 34) features an Inka Grill (tel. 506/2637-8510) for Peruvian fare; plus a Pops ice cream store, and a supermarket.
Los Sueños Marina (tel. 506/2643-4000) has a state-of-the-art dock with 200 slips. National Rent-a-Car (tel. 506/2242-7878 in San José) has an outlet at the marina.