Dockside Digs

Secluded, but still near the action, Marina Vallarta is booming

By: Maribeth Mellin

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico The scent of ripe mangoes mingled with the salt-tinged air as Emma rubbed grainy lotion into my skin. The sun was just beginning to cast light and heat. My shoulders melted under the silent therapist’s touch. My mind, so weary from travel, went blank. Dozing on a low, padded massage table beside the sea is a pleasant way to start the day. I slowly awakened and slipped into the gentle surf to wash away my dry skin cells, then showered and reclined once again. Emma was back with lavender and chamomile moisturizer and her strong kneading hands. I could hear kids splashing in the waves and feel the beach come alive at the Westin Resort & Spa Puerto Vallarta.

I’ve been visiting Puerto Vallarta on long weekend getaways for a while, choosing different beaches as a home base. The Westin is in Marina Vallarta, a 15-minute drive from downtown. It’s a destination best known to golfers and sailors, and one I’ve ignored too long. It’s perfect for Vallarta visitors seeking seclusion along with a sampling of the region’s famed shops, restaurants and galleries and a large dose of pampering.

The marina area is undergoing a building boom, with condo towers rising along the waterfront and private villas edging golf greens. The 18-hole Marina Vallarta Golf Course is the centerpiece of the 500-acre development, providing a generous swath of turf, trees and ponds inhabited by crocodiles.

Birds nest in the mango trees around the Quinta Real hotel, a luxurious haven surrounded by greens and golf paths. Five other hotels are located on a peninsula with open water on one side and boat slips on the other.

The long, narrow marina shelters private yachts, tour boats and cruise ships. The Westin’s pedestrian walkway runs from the hotels to a bustling shopping and dining area facing a seascape of masts and sails.

I wandered the walkway, or malecón, one morning. Marina residents and visitors sipped cappuccinos and read newspapers at The Coffee Cup or ate more substantial breakfasts at Las Palomas, a branch of one of downtown’s most popular restaurants. La Terraza Di Roma’s deck above the marina was buzzing with boat talk. Shopkeepers opened their doors to tempting displays of silver jewelry, Talavera pottery and folk art.

Maripepa Gonzalez, a longtime marina resident, showed me around. She recommended Mariscos 8 Tosadas for seafood cocktails and Marisma for fish tacos. Both inexpensive neighborhood hangouts are located on side streets a block away from the marina, near the Neptuno shopping center where Gonzalez operates Florart, her florist shop.

“We’ve got everything here now,” Gonzalez said.

There’s certainly enough to keep clients busy for a weekend or week, and if they want to stay longer, most of the hotels in the marina have timeshare or vacation ownership units. Tour boats await passengers in a separate marina, just a two-minute drive from the hotels. The blast of cannons from a Pirate Ship announces evening sails across Banderas Bay, complete with dinner and a pirate show. The trip is very popular with children, who delight in the crews’ costumes and antics.

Vallarta Adventures offers an evening Rhythms of the Night catamaran trip to Las Caletas, where director John Houston lived for many years. The tour includes a mystical dance performance in the jungle and a good buffet dinner with free bar.

The combination of outside attractions, the sybaritic pleasures of the Westin’s spa and the physical challenges at its health club create an idyllic weekend escape.

The spa emphasizes a “Seven Pillars of Well-Being” concept, including harmony and vitality. Spinning, pilates and yoga classes are held at the semi-civilized hour of 8 a.m. and are best followed by a shower and the signature Temaztac Maya Body Wrap, combining soothing milk and honey.

Then it’s out to the beach and thickly cushioned lounge chairs, or into one of four pools that seem buried in a forest of more than 600 palms.

It’s impossible to be anywhere near downtown Puerto Vallarta and ignore its excellent restaurants and galleries. Weekend nights bring couples and families to the waterfront promenade, a far more pleasant place now that weekend vehicular traffic is banned starting at sunset on Saturdays. Galleries and folk art shops abound, and even die-hard shoppers can become overwhelmed. Fortunately, sustenance is close at hand. I revived at La Valentina, Vallarta’s newest gourmet restaurant, dining on a spicy Filete Tarascan with chipotle chile and tomatillo sauce. The restaurant is also an art gallery with vibrant paintings and star-shaped chandeliers.

Sunday morning was devoted to a burst of exercise, followed by a long leisurely brunch at the Westin’s new Nikki Beach, the chi-chi sister of the famed South Beach club, which some call the sexiest place on earth.

Locals dressed in their Sunday best sat at tables facing the beach while children played in the club’s white teepees and climbed over huge beds piled with pillows on the sand.

The spread included fresh sushi, smoked salmon, crisp waffles and all the champagne one could consume without sleeping the rest of the day away. I tried to eat sensibly, keeping in mind the spa’s seven pillars. Gluttony, unfortunately, wasn’t among them,

I succumbed to one more spa treatment on the beach, my eyes cooled by cucumber slices as a therapist smeared green seaweed on my body. I splashed in the waves for a quick rinse, then accepted yet another application of moisturizer. My skin never felt so good. Bedtime came early, since my flight was scheduled at 7 a.m. Plus, I wasn’t about to miss a minute’s sleep in the Westin’s trademark Heavenly Bed, a mass of cloud-like goose-down comfort.

Fortunately, Marina Vallarta is only a three-minute drive from the airport a major plus for anyone trying to get the most out of a long weekend.

My stretched and well-tuned muscles actually stayed relaxed on the flight home. Now, all it takes is a sniff of mango and I’m back at Marina Vallarta and that sublime state of relaxation.


Westin Resort & Spa Puerto Vallarta
Commission: 10 percent.

Puerto Vallarta Convention and Visitors Bureau

The toll-free number is a good source for general info, but for specific queries it’s best to send e-mail to:

More Marina Hotels

Flamingo Vallarta
Though not located on the beach, this 100-room hotel is an economical choice for clients on a budget. The rooms and pool face the marina, and a water taxi is available to transfer guests to the beach.

Marriott Casa Magna
Dramatic architecture and design make this more than a basic Marriott. The 433 rooms and suites all have private balconies and multiple amenities including massage showerheads and coffee makers.

Quinta Real
Luxurious and private, this boutique hotel has an elegant spa and 80 gorgeous suites surrounded by golf greens. The gourmet restaurant serves luscious Mediterranean cuisine. Shuttles run to a nearby private beach club with another restaurant.

Sol Melia
An excellent choice for families, this all-inclusive with 460 rooms and suites has an enormous swimming pool, loads of activities and a children’s program.

Velas Vallarta Suite Resort & Hotel
This horseshoe-shaped resort facing the water has 361 suites, all with full kitchens. Designed for time-share guests, the suites are also available as hotel units and are especially nice for clients on weeklong vacations.

Maribeth Mellin