I plunged feet-first into a Jacques Cousteau daydream recently. I had been skimming across the clear, blue waters of Mexico's Banderas Bay in a power boat when our guide stopped near the rocky, uninhabited Marieta Islands and invited us to put on snorkel gear and jump in.
Within a few minutes, our group of eight swimmers entered a craggy tunnel, emerging on the other side at stunning Hidden Beach, a paradise accessible only to those who make the short underwater journey. I said a silent thank you to Cousteau, who loved these islands so much that he started a movement to protect them.
Cousteau, the great French undersea explorer and conservationist, would have been happy that his efforts helped the Marieta Islands become a national park in 2005, eight years after his death.
The Marietas are a short jaunt from the Pacific Coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, where a neighborhood earned the nickname "Gringo Gulch" after Liz Taylor and Richard Burton behaved scandalously there during the filming of "The Night of the Iguana" in 1964.
Now a new generation of celebs is turning nearby Punta Mita into another gringo gulch.
If you haven't heard of Punta Mita, you must not be keeping up with the Kardashians — Kim visits often and vacationed here with Kanye West — or other rich and famous A-listers: Tom Cruise, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson.
The arrowhead-shaped peninsula called Punta de Mita is about a 45-minute drive northwest of the easy-to-navigate Puerto Vallarta international airport, PVR (officially named Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz).
A resort and residential development there, called Punta Mita, has evolved into one of Mexico's most exclusive luxury communities, with multimillion-dollar villas, two Jack Nicklaus golf courses and a couple of high-end, well-known hotel brands: Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita and St. Regis Punta Mita Resort.
Tourism in the region is exploding. The Four Seasons and St. Regis resorts cater to big spenders, while a handful of less expensive resorts nearby offer more modest accommodations. All have one thing in common — beautiful beaches.
The boom is a welcome change in fortune for the Mexican state of Nayarit, which has long tried to distinguish its 200-mile stretch of beaches, including Punta Mita, from Jalisco state's popular Puerto Vallarta. Seven years ago, Nayarit branded itself as Riviera Nayarit to promote its beaches and resorts, but the jury is still out on how well the campaign is working overall. Riviera Nayarit hasn't become a household phrase yet, but Punta Mita is gaining ground, especially among celebrity watchers and surfers.
I visited last month, and although my trip to the Marietas was a highlight, it was far from the only diversion. I soaked up sun on long, uncrowded beaches; drank mojitos at open-air waterfront restaurants; and enjoyed the amenities popular at large Mexican resorts. There were lots of lessons to choose from: scuba diving, windsurfing, salsa dancing, tequila tasting, stand-up paddle-boarding and a host of others.
I tried the salsa class at the Iberostar Playa Mita, an inexpensive, all-inclusive resort that isn't really in Punta Mita (it's a couple of miles away) and tried to schedule a paddle-boarding class. Alas, the weather didn't cooperate. It was just as well. I swam laps in the infinity pool, then waded over to the pool bar for a mojito — or maybe it was three.
Some people love all-inclusive resorts. "All the food and alcohol you can eat or drink, plus free entertainment," said Linda Palmer of Los Angeles, who visits the region annually and always stays at an all-inclusive resort. "You can do as much or as little as you like."
At the other end of the cost spectrum, resorts such as the Four Seasons offer incredible perks. At its Punta Mita resort, a pool butler attends to guests so they don't have to swim to the bar. The drinks are floated to them on an inflatable cushion. And don't forget the sunglasses czar, who will clean your glasses while you sun or swim.
The Four Seasons taught me how to distinguish tequila from mescal at a tequila tasting class. Then I went to a cooking class where I donned a black-and-white striped apron and whipped up wonderful guacamole under the watchful eyes of sous-chef Esther Sanchez, who also taught our little class how to make ceviche and tequila shrimp.
But the most enchanting part of the trip was visiting the Marieta national park, which is often referred to as Mexico's Galápagos Islands.
The low, volcanic islands, recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, are known for their wealth of fauna. Besides exploring Hidden Beach, our group snorkeled in waters filled with more than 100 species of fish. Then our Island Expeditions guide (www.puntamitaexpeditions.com) took us on a bird-watching tour of the islands, and we watched frigate birds sailing on currents of air and blue-footed boobies perching on rocks.
Scenes such as these captivated Cousteau, I thought, as the boat turned to make the 15-minute trip back to the mainland. I said another thank you.
Travel to Mexico's Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit deemed safe
I'd been planning a trip to Mexico with friends for months when a member of the group backed out, saying, "I just don't think it's safe."
My response: Mexico is safe as long as you're careful about where you go and cautious once you're there.
Recent news from Mexico has been unsettling. The homicide rate has been climbing nationwide, and the disappearance of 43 college students on Sept. 26 has shaken residents and potential international visitors.
Government officials have said that the mayor of Iguala, a small town in Guerrero state, south of Mexico City, ordered the detention of the students; an organized crime group is said to have killed them. Investigators are working to identify remains thought to be those students.
Facing waves of protests, President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a plan to revamp local police departments.
Despite continued struggles with organized crime, tourism to Mexico is growing. Through September, the rate had increased nearly 20% from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel & Tourism Industries. More U.S. residents visit Mexico than any other international destination.
In a travel warning posted Oct. 10, the U.S. State Department warns about the risk of traveling to certain places in Mexico "due to threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups in the country." The State Department recommends deferring nonessential travel to parts of Guerrero.
The warning contains a state-by-state assessment of areas that are considered unsafe. Puerto Vallarta's (Jalisco state) and Riviera Nayarit's (Nayarit state) resort areas are on the "safe" list. It also notes that "millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day.
"Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime that are reported in the border region or in areas along major trafficking routes."
To read this and other travel warnings and alerts, go to lat.ms/1G83a8Y.
Nearby Sayulita prefers personality over resorts
Sayulita. The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue: Pronounce it "Si-you-li-ta."
Pronounce it again so you won't forget. There's a chance it will be a household word someday.
This little beach town 25 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta is one of those places that is supposed to be a secret, but the word has gotten out. Sayulita is a happening place.
Originally a surfers' destination because of its consistent break, the beach town now draws celebrities in addition to surf vagabonds. Some, like Brooke Shields, who reportedly visited a few weeks ago, come to take surf lessons.
Next month, Sayulita will host its second film festival (www.festivalsayulita.com), with live music, sunset screenings on the beach and tequila tastings. The Jan. 14-18 event will include a longboard competition with a $10,000 prize.
The town offers an eclectic, colorful mix of cultures. A Huichol Indian family is selling its intricate beaded crafts on one corner, on the next an '80s-era hippie sells Ojo de Dios — eye-of-God — weavings. Nearby, yoga shops, health food cafes and taco stands vie for attention on the narrow cobblestone streets. Palm trees and sidewalk cafes paint an inviting picture.
There's a sizable art colony here, which is apparent in the arts and crafts shops as well as the physical look of the town, with its brightly painted shops and walls, some covered with murals.
Golf carts zip up and down the hilly streets, even though there isn't a course nearby.
Because of the town's popularity with tourists from the United States, many signs are in English. And there's a Gringo Hill here, where expensive mansions overlook the town. People try hard to get along, residents say.
Sayulita has personality. It isn't anything like the four-star resorts in Punta Mita.
And its fans like it that way.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PUNTA MITA, MEXICO
From LAX to Puerto Vallarta International Airport, nonstop service is offered on Alaska, Delta and United, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on US Airways, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Aeromexico. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $473, including all taxes and fees.
To call Punta Mita, Mexico, dial 011 (the international calling code), 52 (the country code for Mexico), 329 (the code for the Punta Mita area) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Iberostar Playa Mita, Lot 15, Litibú Commercial Road, Punta de Mita; (888) 923-2722 or in Mexico, 298-4280, bit.ly/1cDCz2G. Iberostar offers some of the region's lowest rates. It's all-inclusive, with food, liquor and activities rolled in. From $258 per night, double occupancy; three-night minimum.
Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Punta Mita, Bahia de Banderas; toll free in the U.S. (866) 280-9490, www.fourseasons.com/puntamita. Rambling resort with high-end amenities and service. From $587, double occupancy.
St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, Lot H-4, 200 Carretera Federal, Punta Mita; (877) 250-8871, 291-5800, starwoodhotels.com/stregis/puntamita. Features the brand's signature private butler service and has three infinity pools. Rates from $649 per night, double occupancy.
WHERE TO EAT
Mariscos Tinos, 64 Av. El Anclote, Punta Mita; 291-6473, tinosvallarta.com. Waterfront, open-air restaurant is a favorite with Punta Mita visitors. Fresh seafood, nice tropical ambience. For a splurge, try the lobster and grilled shrimp platter. Entrees from $11.
La Esperanza, 12C José Mariscal, Sayulita; 291-3271, www.facebook.com/LaEsperanzaSayulita. If you're looking for vegan or vegetarian meals, La Esperanza is the place. Entrees from $8.
Sí Señor, 200 Av. El Anclote, Punta Mita; 291-6652. Si Señor, which has a larger restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, has a casual, beachfront version here. Entrees from $13.
TO LEARN MORE
Mexico Tourism Board, (800) 446-3942, visitmexico.com/en/riviera-nayarit