RSVIP: Dinner with an Astronaut and Fireworks in Costa Rica
The Obama-appointed ambassador, a font of Indiana-spun charm, is a formidable advocate of biodiversity, a former environmental lawyer, and an entrepreneur. At her current post, when she isn't glued to her BlackBerry or being whisked off by her security detail, she spends 16 hours a day at chess like diplomacy.
Friday afternoon, a breath of jungle steam greeted RSVIP as the cabin door of my Taca Airline flight opened at San Jose International Airport. After a bumpy, 20-minute taxi shuttle through gumdrop volcanic hills, we puttered up to the Real Intercontinental Hotel in Escazu, a chichi suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica. A cacophony of parrots in palm fronds screeched overhead. A five-story lobby and a kickboxing session at the spa overlooked two attractive pools with a throbbing water feature. Views were complemented by an, ahem, $41 Mexican buffet and a Factory Steak and Lobster restaurant with tables facing the pool. A nearby mall boasts a Givenchy boutique, but good luck crossing the street at rush hour.
That night, at the security wall of the Ambassador's residence, our shuttle was greeted by a woman with a clipboard, backed up by hydraulic barricades built to stop a tank. When our names were checked, the stubby metal poles retracted into the earth. The bulky gate swung open to reveal a cloistered garden and the residence. The Prairie School-modern building contained hip art on the walls inside courtesy of the Art in Embassies program, including a dreamy piece by April Gornik, Eric Fischl's wife. Outsider art by the late Reverend Howard Finster hails from Mr. Andrew's collection.
The Andrews' stunning young daughter, Meredith, has a gift for interior decoration. The Mies van der Rohe-modern interior looks as if it has been plucked from the pages of a shelter magazine. Paper shades on the spokes of a chandelier have been scribbled on by noted guests. Over cocktails we noticed Costa-Rican-born astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, on right above, holding court. Movie star-handsome, he also happens to be a doctor of applied plasma physics from MIT and has logged 1600 hours in space. "He's a friend of my son, Will," quipped Joe Andrew, below right, whose son, an ace science student, has interned for Chang-Diaz.
During Mr. Andrew's birthday dinner by the pool, to the strains of a Tico acoustic ensemble, our table enjoyed the company of off-duty Security officer Stephen DeWitt and his Macedonian wife, who could play a Bond woman. Nice people.
In the morning, with the carretera, or highway, washed out by a mudslide, guests decamped in shuttles for two hours over a serpentine mountain route to the Xandari by the Pacific in Playa Esterillos Este. Recently purchased, the getaway will eventually be operated by RockResorts, a company founded by the eco-visionary Lawrence Rockefeller. RSVIP and a few friends rented a villa on a hill, left, overlooking the sea, surrounded by iguanas and leaf-cutter ants. The buzz of insects and frogs in the jungle sounded like audio feedback. That night, at Xandari by the Pacific, dinner tables were set up on a lawn beside the thundering surf. After much ceviche, paella, birthday cake, and bubbly, 20 minutes of fireworks were lit by a nimble local with a cigarette.
On Sunday, Mr. Andrew led a guided group through Manuel Antonio National Park , an isthmus with back-to-back rounded white sand coves. The remote paradise was nearly untouched when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton first explored it. Through our guide's husky telescope, RSVIP encountered a row of ten sleeping bats the size of ravioli, furry sloths, a rare stick bird like an owl made of bark, a volleyball squad of white-faced capuchin monkeys, one rollicking in a water fountain, and a basilisk, or Jesus lizard, known for its ability to sprint on water. Ambassador Andrew, pictured with her husband above, met us for lunch at nearby Si, Como No, or Yes, Why Not, resort in the hills. Here she introduced us to the owner, Jim Dalamas, a fit Hollywood producer turned environmentalist.
The lunch tables offered jet-window vistas of both the jungle and the sea. Before apps, guests crossed the road, slid on rubber gloves, and fed crocs at a preserve where Dalamas nurtures ailing specimens back to health. A pioneer in sustainable tourism, Dalamas has also successfully lobbied with sites like Travelocity to include a button that calls up only green resorts. Villa Blanca, a Dalamas getaway in the Cloud Forest near San Ramon, received top marks on its Certificate for Sustainable Tourism.
After a dizzying ride back over the mountains, airport security directed RSVIP into a cramped back room, where police photographed an ancient-looking stone mask this writer had purchased. Images of it were forwarded to museum experts, who eventually deliberated that it was in fact a $15 tourist item--no embarrassing call to the Embassy required. Fun trip!