It’s tempting to try to figure out which celebrities have stayed at Villa Manzu on Costa Rica’s isolated Peninsula Papagayo. The only ones mentioned by name are Beyonce, Katy Perry, and the expansive Kardashian-West clan — because they all posted Instagrams from their suites — but there are scores of others.
“Last week we had a famous American football player,” Jenifer Cowles, who manages the property, said on my first night there.
“Which one?” I pressed, probably three-degrees too eager.
Jennifer waved off my question, offering only a sly smile. “I can’t say.”
“The most famous one,” her husband Chris said, grinning.
I might be telescoping a few conversations, but I feel like I had six versions of that interaction during my time at Villa Manzu. The staff isn’t being coy just for kicks — privacy is part of their business model. When you’re as famous as Manzu’s guests, you don’t need any more attention and you respect people who know how to keep their mouths shut.
But seclusion isn’t the only reason the property is so popular with stars and the über wealthy. It also feels like a splurge in the very best sense. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to cover high-priced properties all over the world and can safely say that this is precisely how luxury should be done.
Want a coconut at 3pm? It’ll be delivered to your deck chair. Want that coconut half-full of rum? No problem. Want it at 3am instead? Ring the bell. And you’ll never see a bill for these nice touches. They aren’t extras or “above and beyond” — they’re Manzu’s standard.
In the olden days, luxury was the absence of control: package tours, planned meals, group activities. To be wealthy meant to cede the reins to someone who knew the territory better than you. At Manzu, luxury means the opposite. In an era when travelers value collecting experiences over everything else, the property hands control back to the client.
That means that changing the scheduled snorkel for a surf is never a crisis. Neither is cancelling both the snorkel and the surf to day drink in the infinity pool. Or say you and your friends crave a snack after a night of karaoke. Not only will the chef cook up some comfort food for you, but he’ll be happy to. It’ll feel like it’s all in the flow of the evening. And it will be superb.
Look, I get it, $20-something thousand dollars is a lot for a night at a hotel. But that price — the closest quote I could get to a “rack rate” — doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, it’s a buyout property so you’re talking about 15-17 people (if kids are involved). Plus you have food, drinks, transport… when you pay piecemeal this stuff adds up.
Fine, it’s a splurge. Or one step above a splurge, whatever that is. But if you’re going to splurge, as we’re all tempted to do at some point in our lives, it should feel special. It’s should feel extra and beyond and not like, “I wish we’d rented a really nice AirBnB instead.”
For me, plodding past other couples on the beach in our matching resort robes and slippers doesn’t have the splurge effect. It’s such an easy recreatable experience, so generic-feeling. But reading a Raymond Chandler novel by my private plunge pool while drinking rum punch and eating freshly caught yellowtail sashimi? Now that feels special. Leaving the aforementioned novel someplace because I’m buzzed, only to find it on my bedside table later with a leather bookmark holding my page later that day? That’s my version of luxury. So is having a world class breakfast prepared for me the second I start to stir the next morning, even though everyone else ate hours ago.
Point being, at Villa Manzu the value-per-dollar is much better than at properties that are similarly pricey but still manage to seem canned. That happens a lot in luxury travel: The experience isn’t so very different from just a “pretty nice” hotel. Manzu is different in every way. It’s thoroughly imagined — with every room feeling like an intricately designed show piece. The baths are massive, the thread count is stratospheric, and views are stunning. The massage table is shielded from view by two massive waterfalls.
More than all of that, the service is literally second to none. Perhaps on the planet. Then there’s the surfing, the nearby marine reserve, the jungle, the private yoga instruction, and… did I emphasize the food? Because you won’t find many innovate haute cuisine chefs working in small Costa Rican resorts. But Villa Manzu has one. Just ask Zac Efron and the US Swim Team.
On a single day at Manzu, I surfed with five people in the lineup at the world famous Witch’s Rock, zip-lined over Peninsula Papagayo’s expansive jungles, snorkeled, wakeboarded, treated the resort to the best karaoke version of Don’t Stop Believin’ they’ll probably ever hear, and still had time to get drunk by the pool while eating obscene amounts of sashimi. You want memories? Look no further.
The point is, this place is special. Beyond special. Yes, it’s a splurge, a mega-splurge, a one-day-when-my-geolocation-taco-app-takes-off type of dream. But it’s just the sort of dream worth hanging on to.