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Ode to Mexico

Whether on the hunt for fresh catch in Banderas Bay, surfing in Sayulita, or gourmet tapas in a quaint fishing village, this curated guide uncovers why Real del Mar is the gem of the Riviera Nayarit.

"Neil Diah-mond o Mexicana tradicionale?" grins Salamon. He tunes his guitarra and strokes a curled mostacho. Cocks an eyebrow. We’ve just taken cover in the rustic kitchen of Serendipity Restaurant & Mezcaleria in Punta Mita — not the typical private dining room for three American turistas. After sipping hibiscus-infused mezcalitas under a hauntingly beautiful sky, our al fresco dining plans are waylaid as a mighty orchestra of wind and rain has its own serenade over this quaint little fishing village. After several minutes huddled together near the restaurant’s entrance — now a wind tunnel — and watching two confused Chihuahuas wade through a muddied Main (and only) street, it’s quickly determined to set up camp in the dry cocina. And just like that, best-laid plans sidestepped, the evening becomes a dalliance of unexpected bliss: authentic Oaxacan platas, más mezcalitas, uninhibited group sing-alongs (“Sweet Caroline” is impressive, yet Salamon’s own tunes are the stars of the storm). Travel turned experience; journey fine-tuned.

If Mexico has had its own dance in courting northern neighbors, with media often hyping the notorious side of our southern counterpart, the 200-mile Riviera Nayarit and the gorgeous hillside haciendas of the Real del Mar resort are one of this country’s many magnificent gems. Hugged by the Sierra Madre Mountains and the expansive Banderas Bay — a breeding ground for the humpback whale — the Riviera is not only embraced by a strikingly beautiful jungle, but by a soulful community welcoming those in search of sun, sand, and surf. A 30-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta International Airport, Real Del Mar is a private retreat adjacent to the tiny and decidedly un-tony town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Stereotypical street dogs and chickens line the La Cruz alleys, yet so do mouth-watering ceviche stands, coco frío, and the scent of fresh tamales. As the one-street town of La Cruz snakes northeast, a short hillside climb unveils the gated resort of Real Del Mar. David Lozano, Exclusive Resorts’ head Concierge, greets us at the entrance and escorts us to Villa Abanico. With four separated bedrooms and a main living area that overlooks an infinity pool and Banderas Bay, our headquarters allow for both solace and celebration. We quickly find the outdoor terrace to be our gathering spot for the week — the view of the Madres and the Bay demands it. Our first afternoon is spent at the Real Del Mar Beach Club over fresh mahi mahi and shrimp ceviche. And though Odile has thankfully retreated, the bay rumbles with a large swell. As such, talk quickly turns to surfing and the nearby Bohemian beach town of Sayulita.

Sayulita Surf + Turf

There are two paths to Sayulita from Real Del Mar — one a longer, serpentine trail of emerald green. Considered the back way, a curvy, two-lane road kisses Jurassic Park-esque jungle. Bobbing along in a rental, heed the left blinker syndrome (left blinker signals the car behind you to pass, not for you to turn) but make time (40 minutes) to travel this route. Canopies of voluptuous trees tent the road, as fruit stands and tiny little villages pepper the route. When arriving in Sayulita proper, expect welcoming locals (more dogs, more chickens), and a funky, festive main village that hugs the town’s centro. The main square is sprinkled with tourists, weathered Mexican cowboys, young skateboarders, yoked local surfers, and a dizzying amount of restaurants — some seemingly tourist traps, others serving spot-on local cuisine and Sayulita charm.

We park near Petit Hotel Hafa. On our hit list for its wine and tequila bar, Le Zouave de Hafa, once inside this heart-inspired hotel and boutique, we lasso rusty Spanglish to mine the manager on other top shops. Christophe and Marina Mignot own Hafa, and we’re given directions to his sister, Nathalie Mignot’s, Pachamama boutique. Known among the well-traveled, the Mignots have staked an international claim in the Tahitian black pearl business. With nine siblings amongst an impossibly chic and well-traveled clan, this prominent French family once circled the globe for nearly a decade via sailboat. Christophe and Nathalie found, of all the places they’ve roamed, Sayulita was home. We find Nathalie at her store; an effortless “Gypset” style the backbone of her Pachamama charm. Bellsleeved traditional Mexican caftans, leather-fringed totes, island-inspired art, and Nathalie’s latest obsession — oversized, brilliant dream catchers — all celebrate beach chic. A wealth of leather-embraced black pearl jewels, the Mignot stamp, is prominently displayed. Also exhibited is Assouline’s Gypset Style by author Julia Chaplin; dog-eared pages capture the alluring Mignot clan. “I love that I can walk barefoot, surf every morning, and I love the jungle here,” says Nathalie.

Adjacent to her store is the spacious Pachamama art gallery, where on this particular dia oversized photos of her pro-surfer son and beautiful daughter, amongst other locals, showcase various poses with one of Sayulita’s most precious commodities: the coco. Nathalie has been championing her campaign “Toma Coco,” logo-ed in the familiar Coca Cola font, in an effort to promote health and wellness. Employing her camera, she explains, “I register what I see and who I love.” We’re invited to her eclectic home, located above her shop and overlooking Sayulita’s famous break. We acknowledge an enviable surfboard collection. “My library,” she winks. “The ocean is an education.” And after she skillfully hatchets a coconut in her living room, we drink its milk from a communal bowl. Nathalie serves us fresh cactus sprinkled with sea salt and coconut oil (surprisingly delicious) while we smear fresh aloe from her garden on our thirsty skin.

Though her rooftop begs for an afternoon siesta, next up is Sayulita surf. If one of this area’s coveted riches is coconut, its gold mine is a beautiful break right off the main drag. And considering Hurricane Odile’s recent wrath, an extra-large swell has recently teased Sayulita locals. As such, the surf community is jubilant. Though certainly no pros (skiers and snowboarders, we’re humbled by the ocean’s ride), a lesson with WildMex Adventures’ Edson finds us catching, and riding, almost every wave tackled. Between whoops, high fives, and grins, perhaps the biggest take-away is found in between sets — a glimpse of the Sayulita coast is at once wild and serene, in many ways a mirror of the funky town. “The ocean will talk to you,” instructs Edson as we attempt to read the sets. Today, the sea is kind to both beginners and local rippers, who master the larger break to our left. Using Edson’s terms, the ocean’s voice has been respected, and playfully answered.

We refuel with mahi mahi tacos and margaritas from Restaurant Carmelita, located on the main square. Cheesy, albeit entertaining, American ‘80s videos are looped on the interior TV, and a mix of South African surfers, American tourists, and locals toast each other. Next door, the Yambak Bar sets up for the eve. Owned by Arturo Saucedo, a local surfer, he crafts his own beer — Yambak Stout, Sayulita Pale Ale, and Chango IPA — and has developed a loyal following by staging hip, live music. Yambak’s interior is clad with surprising little vignettes: A shrine to rock legends and classic records, a mural depicting a scene by famous Mexican artist Jos Guadalupe Posada, and a wall of vintage license plates brought by a late New Yorker with a passion for the Bohemian lifestyle. We linger over the pale ale, our favorite, and as Arturo explains his plans to move his brewery on premise, we receive a local tutorial on the underground Mexican DJ scene. Don Julio Blanco is passed, though we call it an early night, as tomorrow we’re off to the famous Hidden Beach.

Beach Bound

“We never spot a California sea lion!” yells David, our Vallarta Adventures tour guide. It’s 9AM and we’ve just left La Cruz Marina, a five-minute drive from Real Del Mar, on a private boat charter. While admiring a fleet of yachts as we set out to sea, our boat is greeted by an unlikely visitor — a skinny sea lion that plays by the bow and then climbs the rocky shore to pose. David, a young dive master and aspiring marine biologist, flashes a contagious smile. The day’s fortunate tone is set. After watching the lion sunbathe, our captain steers southwest to the famous Marieta Islands. A 40-minute boat ride from Real Del Mar, this natural sanctuary, though at times overrun with tourists, should remain top of the Riviera Nayarit checklist; there’s reason the legendary Jacques Cousteau pleaded with the Mexican government in the ‘60s to declare the islands off limits to inhabit. You can admire Marieta’s magical face from the boat, but you may no longer trample her delicate skin. The islands’ history is one of conflict — in the early 1900s the Mexican government conducted military tests, bombing the area. Eventually an international uproar, started by the outspoken Cousteau, led to protection of the islands, declaring them a national park.

A favorite way to experience Marieta’s beauty is by swimming through a narrow arch to one of her most famous hidden beaches. A volcanic, cavernous shell, the top of it collapsed, and the result is azul waters and white sand topped with a circular gateway to, on the ideal day, a beautiful blue sky. A short swim through the 50-foot tunnel with David (who guides us through the six-foot airspace) once inside, visitors are privy to this national treasure. On a busy day, expect to navigate a sea of orange life vests (some tour boats carry groups of 100 and more), but it’s worth the trip regardless. Lady Luck’s on our side, and after enjoying the Hidden Beach all to ourselves, our private charter (which accommodates up to eight) also allows for ample time to watch the Marietas bird convention: rare, blue-footed boobys and magnificent frigate birds. Next, we visit another nearby island to snorkel and paddleboard. Underwater, we spy playful blue angelfish, parrotfish, and a stealthy tiger eel. Also a coveted dive spot, when visibility is good, a brilliant coral landscape gives reason to pause. On the way home, a huge sea turtle surfaces near the boat. David smiles, “Thanks to God for our blessings today.”

Hidden Beach is a bucket-list highlight, so we celebrate a blessed Mexican sojourn with a culinary finale at Casianos Restaurant in La Cruz. We’re treated to a private Don Julio tequila sampling and a five-course tasting menu. Tucked away in a tiny, unassuming locale off the main drag, this discreet gem is helmed by Executive Chef Carlos Rojas. His inspiration is simple and written on the wall: “No menu. No rules. Spontaneous cuisine.” Rojas combs local markets for nightly inspirations. As such, we’re served such knockouts as shrimp ravioli with corn and ginger sauce paired alongside salmon with cauliflower puree and chipotle sausage, and mahi mahi with crab and cilantro risotto and balsamic. “I don’t go into the markets to make something,” Rojas says. “I look for what’s fresh.” Casianos attracts diners typically staying at Real del Mar or posh Punta Mita resorts. Its refined, free-form cuisine and the staff’s passion for the region are authentic. The result, a culinary tour de force.

We’ve been invited to experience a full-moon party in Sayulita, followed by live music at Yambak. Though tempted, we decide on a last night spent at our Real del Mar villa. Sun-kissed, bellies full, and just the right amount of local tequila, we tee up the iPod with retro ‘80s music and have our own full moon dance party. We toast a trip blessed with laughter and discovery. And in honor of Salamon’s serenade at Serendipity restaurant, we belt Sweet Caroline but practice a recently taught, authentic Mexican dance. We channel Nathalie’s gypsy spirit, and smile as bright as David. Tomorrow may call for real world re-entry, but the unsuspected journey has been instrumental.