To say it was an extremely long 14 months from the moment the world stopped rotating on its COVID-related axis to my first post-vaccine international trip would be a colossal understatement.
There are only a handful of countries where Americans can travel. The European Union has indicated tourism will be opening up this summer. Opening dates, entry requirements and quarantines for each destination differ and should be routinely checked before departure.
Most Asian countries are virtually closed to U.S. tourism. Devastating surges in India, Nepal and Thailand are making unrestricted tourism to Asia anytime soon unlikely. Additionally, entry, testing and quarantine rules routinely change; electronic visas have mostly disappeared; and several have onerous financial entry restrictions in place.
The U.S.-Mexico land border remains closed to non-essential travel until at least May 21. However all Mexican airports are open to Americans, with enhanced screening, cleaning and temperature checks in place.
Though community transmission in Mexico remains widespread, no Mexican states are coded “red” under their measurement for the period ending May 9.
Mexico was chosen as my re-entry to international travel for several reasons: stellar Mexican hospitality, short flights and superb, all-inclusive resorts offering onsite COVID-19 testing required to board U.S. return flights.
On arrival to Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport serving Jalisco’s Puerto Vallarta, temperatures were taken, everyone donned masks and hand sanitizer stations were ubiquitous. Since health certificates were completed online in advance and customs and immigration forms completed en route, my husband and I were in a taxi 15 minutes after landing.
Sitting on the northern edge of Banderas Bay and framed by the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit faces several miles of wide, pristine beaches. The arc-shaped hotel is designed so each of its 267-suites have panoramic ocean views. The airy lobby and several suites have exquisite contemporary paintings by Spanish-Mexican artist Juan Manuel Zufiaur. The property’s wide walkways and expansive, manicured grounds ensure that even when high occupancies return, it would not feel crowded.
Suites are immense containing 1,000 square feet. Separate sitting and dining areas, Unikonfort beds, one of the industry’s finest, are intoxicating. Fuchsia bougainvillaeas blast color while hugging ocean view terraces.
Minibars stocked with beers, soda and bottled water are replenished daily. The in-suite snack shelf — likewise replenished daily — contains Oreos, potato chips, peanuts, candy bars and in case one overdoes it, a package of Alka-Seltzer.
Grand Velas’ forté is its expansive all-inclusive concept. Besides great restaurants, premium liquors, kids’ club, teen club, exercise classes, kayaks, boogie boards and 24-hour in-suite dining, guests are assigned a concierge.
Maria the detail goddess communicated throughout our stay by WhatsApp. She had extra Nespresso pods and pillows delivered, changed dinner reservations and reserved the requisite COVID test — provided in a hotel conference room. Think Siri on steroids without syntax errors: an ideal combination of efficiency and privacy.
The glorious and massive free form pool ends in an infinity edge with forever views. The adults-only section has one of the largest infinity Jacuzzis I’ve encountered.
Sipping coffee on my terrace’s comfortable lounger while the sounds of surf competed with a cacophony of bird chirping was a soul affirming joy. https://vallarta.grandvelas.com
Mexican happy hours are legendary, perhaps because they start early, and often because they include scrumptious homemade guacamole, chips and various types of fresh ceviche. Grand Velas’ oceanfront Agua Bar was our first stop.
I know I’m lucky. Unlike me, my husband has very limited culinary desires. A true lane two eater: meat, chicken or fish, salad, rice, hot sauce. Eat, digest, repeat. Key of course is the hot sauce. Throughout my solo travels, the concession to my carry-on — and perhaps my marriage — is that on return my bag includes a three-ounce hot sauce souvenir bottle. The hotter the better. Many years and schlepped bottles later, while appreciated, they have never, ever, according to him, been hot enough.
In between bites of his hot sauce-laced ceviche, my husband uttered those magical words, “In. Love.” Thinking again of my good fortune in picking such a good partner years ago, he continues, “This is absolutely the best, hottest, hot sauce. In. The. World.” All men have needs. Apparently Grand Velas’ executive chef Guillaume Morancé and his team understand this completely.
Cocktails were so often works of art, Picasso would have been proud. One day, Clamato and beer-based Micheladas were the poolside drink du jour. I opted for one instead of a Bloody Mary. Garnished with a shrimp, jicama, cucumber and pineapple tower rimmed with Tajin spice, it was delicious and soon disappeared. It didn’t matter that it was difficult to decide if it was beverage or meal.
Perhaps the most remarkable all-inclusive aspect of Grand Velas is its ability to serve truly a wide variety of inspired food.
Velas’ Asian fusion, urban chic décor Sen Lin restaurant is under chef Wayu Wattanakamin’s culinary direction. His amuse bouche of sriracha surrounded pork belly Bao was so divine, I requested another one at the meal’s end. Tender duck with coconut milk and red curry was splendid.
At Frida, named for Mexican artist Frido Kahlo, walls were painted with 1940s recipes and notes and accountings of hers and husband artist Diego Rivera. One expects good Mexican food in Mexico, but Frida’s is distinctive gourmet Mexican cuisine. A citrus and berry topped green salad drizzled with mint vinaigrette and bittersweet chocolate sauce was enchanting. The octopus and pork stuffed corn gordita vied for first place with al-pastor salmon served atop avocado mousse and grilled pineapple salad.
Our final dinner at the Italian-Mediterranean Lucca included delectable, thinly sliced eggplant parmesan, a burrata salad so fresh it may have been in a buffalo that morning, mouth-watering lasagne and traditional clam and garlic spaghetti. The culinary crescendo ended in a perfect chocolate mousse on a hazelnut cookie base.
Right outside the hotel is a four-mile, north-south paved path amid palm trees that’s perfect and peaceful for morning runs. Towards the southern end are a few shops and well-stocked market with everything you forgot to pack. Also, there’s a 24-hour pharmacy in case your spouse topples your entire contact lens solution stash.
The Nueva Vallarta beaches fronting Velas are wide, flat and also enticing for jogging. One morning I ran several miles with running shoes. Another morning I went barefoot. This made it easier to jump into the enticingly warm waters when finished.
On Mother’s Day Eve, Velas prepared a private, beachfront sunset experience complete with furnishings, tiki torches, fire pit, canapés and champagne.
Grand Velas’ Se Spa is beautiful, modern and contains every possible amenity. Known for its “water journey,” there’s hydro-reflexology, steam, Jacuzzis, eucalyptus inhalation, cold plunges and multi-jet showers with Vitamin C-infusions.
Just before a fantastically seamless massage, the spa valet brought creamy homemade lavender ice cream. Though never a lavender fan, it quickly evaporated. No small wonder Condé Nast named this one of the world’s best spas.
The lesson learned
Mexican hospitality has not waned one iota. Without exception, every single person encountered made us feel welcome and we felt safe; all employees wore masks and face shields and guests were required to mask when not eating or poolside. It wasn’t my first jaunt to the region and surely won’t be the last. For a post-COVID international trip, a sojourn at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit was picture perfect.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer, however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.