Ask anyone to name an LGBTQ beach destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and the first response will likely be Puerto Vallarta. Just north of that vacation hotspot is the Riviera Nayarit, a very different, and equally appealing place that welcomes LGBTQ globetrotters with natural beauty, a laidback vibe, and lots of luxurious experiences.
I had visited Puerto Vallarta countless times before I finally discovered the Riviera Nayarit a couple years ago. Served by the same airport, both destinations are equally accessible and gay friendly. While Vallarta is “party central” for the international LGBTQ community, the Riviera Nayarit is quieter, less populated, and offers a growing array of luxury hotels and resorts. It’s a great place to relax and indulge.
Located in the state of Nayarit, the Riviera Nayarit is a region that spans 192 miles of Pacific coastline and is home to small towns, beautiful beaches, luxury resorts, and local attractions. During my most recent visit, I explored various aspects of what the region has to offer, including posh hotels, excellent cuisine, abundant natural beauty, and lots of outdoor activities.
I also experienced what it’s like visiting during the pandemic. It’s good to know that the Riviera Nayarit has earned the Safe Travel Stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) for following hygiene protocols in order to protect both visitors and locals.
ARRIVING IN PARADISE
After landing at the Puerto Vallarta International Airport, I enjoyed the scenic ride north into the state of Nayarit (the most seamless way to travel is by arranging for a private airport pickup through your hotel or tour operator; all drivers wear masks and passengers are required to do so, too).
Things are spread out in the Riviera Nayarit, so you either need to rent a car, use taxis (which are usually available at hotels) or hire a tour operator or guide. Among the top tour operators that offer group and individual services are Vallarta Adventures and Nuevo Vallarta Tours.
Within less than 45 minutes, I arrived at the state’s newest luxury hotel: the Conrad Punta de Mita, a beautiful hotel that’s a perfect example of why the Riviera Nayarit is so popular with upscale travelers. Opened in September 2020, it’s a handsome property with impressive attention to décor, service, and cuisine.
As is to be expected, the hotel experience is a bit different during the pandemic.
Following state regulations, the Conrad Punta de Mita was operating at less than 30 percent capacity during my visit, which provided me with lots of space to spread out, social distance, and enjoy my time. The bellhop took my temperature upon arrival, offered hand sanitizer, and requested that I step on a sanitizing doormat. Receptionists welcome guests from behind a clear plastic divider, and there was a package of sanitizing wipes left in my room, which, by the way, was a spectacular suite with comfy living room, a spacious bathroom, and handsome details like wood ceiling fans.
The most impressive part of my room, however, was the giant balcony, which was furnished with chaise lounges, a table and chairs, and a plunge pool. I loved the views of the ocean and beach, as well as some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. I also enjoyed the hotel’s excellent restaurants and its lovely spa, which is graced with an exceptionally beautiful outdoor area, complete with private pool and treatment pavilions fashioned to resemble giant wooden nests.
Sumptuous hotels are one of the Riviera Nayarit’s biggest selling points. On this visit, I also checked into the W Punta de Mita, which exudes the W brand’s legendary hip vibe, blending cheeky beach and surfer décor with touches of local Huichol artistic traditions. Pieces of surfboards serve as headboards in some of the colorful guest rooms, and there are two pools, one of which is in the shape of a thermometer that sits above ground level, providing decidedly Instagrammable moments for those who pose in front of its clear side window. The Away Spa is another must-see at the W; set amid lush greenery, the facility features a large outdoor area with pool and whirlpool baths, and the couples massage rooms have a lovely view of the garden. And if you’re getting serious about your latest romance, take note: both the W Punta de Mita and the Conrad Punta de Mita host LGBTQ destination weddings.
On a previous visit, I indulged in a stay at Imanta Resorts, a Relais & Chateaux property set beautifully on the beach in the Sierra de Vallejo national biosphere reserve. With just 10 suites and two large casona accommodations, this hotel offers lots of lux privacy, which makes it one of several favored choices for vacationing celebrities in the Riviera Nayarit (if you simply must know, Kourtney Kardashian has stayed in Imanta’s 10,000-square-foot Casona Jaguar).
I’ve personally checked out several other noteworthy luxury hotels in the Riviera Nayarit, too, including the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, where I savored a delicious lunch at the hotel’s newest restaurant, Dos Catrinas, and toured the lavishly landscaped grounds and accommodations that range from spacious suites to oceanfront casitas, villas and residences. Guests here can test their swing at Punta Mita’s Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, which are also accessible to guests at the nearby St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, a luxurious choice that sits on 22 oceanfront acres.
As if those posh brands weren’t enough, the Riviera Nayarit is gearing up to welcome several new luxury hotels, including the One&Only Mandarina, which is to open in November. Still in the works are hotels that will fly the flags of Ritz-Carlton, Fairmont, Rosewood, Westin, and JW Marriott.
THINGS TO DO
With so many amazing hotels, it may be difficult to tear yourself away from your home base and explore, but it’s worth the effort. Unlike destinations like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, the Riviera Nayarit is a region, rather than a city, with different areas that offer a variety of activities.
Considering that the Riviera Nayarit is a coastal beach destination, you’d be remiss if you didn’t include some water-based activities in your agenda. Choices include everything from surfing to scuba diving, from deep sea fishing to sailing. On my previous visit, I especially enjoyed a boat excursion onto the giant bay; one of the most beautiful outings includes a visit to Isla Marietas, an island with an unspoiled “hidden beach” and excellent conditions for snorkeling as well as spotting birds and countless marine life like yellow snapper, olive Ridley turtles, and even whales. From mid-December to late March, whale-watching excursions offer a chance to glimpse migrating blue whales, sperm whales, and humpback whales, among others).
Animal lovers can also enjoy bird watching at places like the municipality of San Blas, which is home to some 250 bird species, or go horseback riding at La Patrona Polo & Equestrian Club , which also stages polo matches and hosts a popular Sunday brunch. If wellbeing and rejuvenation are a goal, you might also want to consider a yoga session or retreat at places like Playa Escondida a nature-focused yoga retreat and hotel.
TOURING THE TOWN
Nearly two-dozen picturesque towns line the coast of the Riviera Nayarit, and each one has its own unique appeal. The most renowned place to wander and chill is Sayulita, a beach town that’s accurately described as “boho chic,” where you shouldn’t be surprised if you spot a celebrity (my most recent spotting: Adrien Grenier). It’s also a great place for shopping, with handcrafted jewelry and home décor among the top finds at shops like Evoke the Spirit and quirky-cool art and accessories at Revolución del Sueño.
Dining is a rewarding experience in Sayulita as well. Dive into the fresh salad, seafood and casual fare at Don Pedros Restaurant & Bar and you’ll be ready for more shopping or relaxing on the beach.
Some people say that the nearby town of San Pancho is the “next Sayulita,” and it already has its share of noteworthy shops and restaurants, as well as a popular beach. In addition to browsing intricate and colorful Huichol art sold by street vendors, you can also refuel with organic delicacies at Bistro Orgánico, a restaurant located inside Hotel Cielo Rojo in San Pancho.For an even quieter setting, the town of Lo de Marcos offers an uncrowded beach, pleasant streets for strolling, and easy access to birdwatching and a sea turtle sanctuary located right on the sand.
Punta de Mita, a town that’s near several of the big luxury hotel, is an especially worthwhile culinary destination, too. I’ve savored the sophisticated Mexican Pacific creations at the stylish Tuna Blanca by Thierry Blouet, while Hector’s Kitchen, features an equally tempting menu of upscale cuisine that represents traditions from various parts of Mexico.
After several days of exploring, eating, and indulging, I bid farewell to the Riviera Nayarit’s sunny shores and pampering hotels. I headed back to the Puerto Vallarta airport, where the check-in process was easy and quick at the kiosk. There was a line at the security checkpoint however, made longer partially because of the health form that all travelers are required to fill out, either using a QR code or the paper version available near the security area. Plan extra time for the potential of a longer wait for security, and you’ll be fine. Considering that the Puerto Vallarta airport is welcoming more winter flights soon (including additional service from Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago), it’s certainly getting easier to visit paradise again.
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