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Though Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit stand only miles apart, they're so different from each other they don't even share the same time zone. The Riviera Nayarit region, which begins about 20 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta and stretches along 100 miles of Mexico's Pacific coast, is building a reputation for its luxury resorts, world-class surfing, and professional golf courses. But much of the area remains undeveloped -- there are fewer than 1 million residents in the Riviera Nayarit, versus almost 7 million in the region in and around Puerto Vallarta. Many therefore visit the Riviera Nayarit because it is less touristy than Puerto Vallarta, but still within reach of that city's first-rate nightlife, restaurant, and cultural offerings.

Soon visitors will have even more reason to base themselves in the Riviera Nayarit. In 2007, a luxury marina opened in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (7 miles northwest of Nuevo Vallarta), and a boardwalk will eventually be built from there to the sleepy fishing town of Bucerias (8 miles north of Nuevo Vallarta). Two new golf courses that will open in late 2008, along with the seven that are already being played on, are poised to make the Riviera Nayarit one of Mexico's top golf destinations. And 30 new hotels are set to open here in the next 5 years. This surge of development should further position the Riviera Nayarit as a competitor to Puerto Vallarta, but it's being spread out in a way that will hopefully preserve the region's laid-back charm.

In addition to the towns of Nuevo Vallarta, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, and Bucerias, the Riviera Nayarit features the bohemian surfing village of Sayulita, exclusive resort communities like Punta Mita, and outdoor activities like bird watching in La Tovara National Park, hiking in the Sierra Madre mountains, and whale watching on Banderas Bay.

Where to Stay & Dine

Nuevo Vallarta has the most resorts of any town in Riviera Nayarit, ranging from very high- to low-end hotels, so it's the most convenient place to stay in the area. Of the many accommodation options here, one of my favorites is the 162-room Marival (tel. +52/322-226-8200; www.gomarival.com), which bills itself as the all-inclusive resort with the highest number of repeat guests in town. After staying there, I can see why people keep returning: the service is excellent and the resort has a mix of attractions that appeal to children (like its water park and kids club) as well as adults (such as its martini bar and five specialty restaurants). All rooms are spacious and feature modern decor, though the suites are particularly lush -- they come with balconies or terraces, which look out onto the resort's private beach, as well as full kitchens and lounges. All-inclusive rates start at $148 a night in high season for a standard double.

Another option in Nuevo Vallarta is the Paradise Village (tel. 800/727-2476; www.paradisevillage.com), which is the largest hotel in town; it occupies 400 acres on a peninsula facing the sea, and it adjoins a world-class marina and a golf course. If you can think of an amenity, this resort surely has it. Guests have access to two spas, a racquet club, tennis courts, an amphitheater, three pools, a basketball court, nine restaurants, and a shopping center -- there's even a zoo, with monkeys, a cougar, and a tiger. That last attraction, along with the hotel's reptilian-shaped waterslides and children-12-and-under-stay-free policy, makes the Paradise Village an especially good bet for families. The hotel is offering rates starting at $153 a night for a standard studio if you reserve via their website before April.

Nuevo Vallarta is also home to one of the finest spas in Mexico, the Grand Velas Spa (tel. 866/261-8436; www.grandvelas.com). This 16,500 square foot spa, listed as a member of Leading Spas of the World (www.lhwspas.com), offers 80 treatments in its 20 treatment rooms as well as two couples' rooms. Some of the spa's more unusual offerings include a pre-Hispanic massage using Obsidian stones and a coffee treatment that exfoliates the skin with coffee beans. I tried out their hydrotherapy area, which over about 30 minutes had me hopping from a whirlpool to an eucalyptus-inhalation room, from a herbal steam room to a cold plunge lagoon, finally landing in a pressure shower. At the end of the treatment, I felt incredibly refreshed (not to mention clean), though I was even more relaxed after having one of the spa's 50-minute holistic massages. The Grand Velas features 267 ocean-view suites, and, through the spring of 2008, it is offering a spa package that runs $399 per night for a master suite, including meals at the hotel's gourmet restaurants and two spa treatments.

Venture just a few miles north of Nuevo Vallarta, and the vibe of the Riviera Nayarit becomes decidedly less plush and mellower. Sayulita, a surfing town that's increasingly popular with Americans, is representative of this shift. In addition to world-renowned waves, it also has a number of art galleries and shops, which stock lots of native Huichol crafts. It's also home to terrific informal restaurants like Choco Banana (tel. +52/329-291-3051), where surfers can fortify themselves with the cafe's signature chocolate-covered bananas, along with sandwiches and salads. The standout place to stay here is Villa Amor (tel. +52/533-275-0196; www.villaamor.com), which is every bit as romantic as its name. Its 35 rooms are all imaginatively outfitted with local art, and some come with giant outdoor patio areas -- perfect places to perch and observe the surfers on the waves below. Rates start at $110 per night for a standard.

San Francisco (also called San Pancho), 31 miles north of Nuevo Vallarta, is even farther from the all-inclusive mindset of Nuevo Vallarta. You'll encounter far fewer restaurants and shops here, but also fewer spring breaking Americans -- which means it'll be that much easier to secure a spot on the gorgeous beach. My favorite place to stay in town is Cielo Rojo (tel. +52/311-258-4155; www.hotelcielorojo.com), a charming boutique hotel that's decked out with old movie posters. Its nine themed rooms are all creatively decorated by the artist/owner, and rates run $65 per night for a standard with continental breakfast.

What to See & Do

Much of the appeal of coming to this part of Mexico involves simply enjoying the many amenities offered by your resort, from beach activities like snorkeling and diving to exercise classes like yoga and pilates. But there are a number of things to see and do outside the resorts, too, especially at the far northern edge of the Riviera Nayarit. That's where the colonial village of San Blas and the national park La Tovara are -- and both are well worth the 3 hour drive up from Nuevo Vallarta. According to the World Wildlife Fund, La Tovara is "one of the most important winter habitats for birds in the Pacific, home to 80% of the Pacific migratory shore bird populations." During my boat ride through these wetlands, I saw such birds as a white heron, a kingfisher, and a stork. My guide informed me that this made for a "bad day," so I can only imagine how many birds you'll see on a good one. Included in my visit, taken as a day trip with Banderas Bay Tours (+52/329-296-5587; www.banderasbaytravel.com), was a tour of a nearby crocodile reserve and a visit to the 18th-century ruins and town square in San Blas. You can easily see all these attractions on a day trip as I did, but if you'd like to stay longer, I recommend the Hotel Garza Canela (tel. +52/323-285-0112; www.garzacanela.com). It offers 50 rooms starting at $121 per night for a double in high season, and a diverse slate of eco-adventure tours through the park.

You can experience the great outdoors without heading up to the far northern Riviera Nayarit, though. The tour operator Vallarta Adventures (tel. +52/322-297-1212; www.vallarta-adventures.com) offers a number of adventure trips in the region, ranging from low to high intensity, including hiking through the Sierra Madre Mountains, whale watching on a catamaran off the coastline of Riviera Nayarit, and swimming with dolphins off Banderas Bay. The region is also the nesting site of four protected species of sea turtles: leatherbacks, Olive Ridley turtles, hawksbill turtles, and green turtles. During the summer and fall, visitors can join tours through the Group Ecologico de la Costa Verde's marine turtle nursery (tel. +52/311-258-4100; www.project-tortuga.org) to see young hatchlings released into the sea.

Many of the tours in this region allow for stops at some of the Riviera Nayarit's roadside markets, where tour members can try local homemade candies and tropical fruits. Puerto Vallarta may still have the Riviera Nayarit beat in internationally-known restaurants (at least in terms of non-resort options), but when it comes to fresh jackfruit and fruit-flavored shaved ice, I side with the Riviera Nayarit. The fishing village of Bucerias, about 10 minutes north of Nuevo Vallarta, is particularly known for its street cuisine -- in the town square you'll find everything from simple tacos to birria (spicy goat stew).

Planning

When to Go: Now through April is Mexico's dry season, with average temperatures ranging between 70 to 80°F. Expect more crowds and higher hotel rates until the summer; rates plummet in May, but temperatures stay around 80°F on the Pacific Coast even then.

Getting There and Departing: Flights into Puerto Vallarta International Airport (PVR) are available from the U.S. and Canada on Aero Mexico (tel. 800/237-6639; www.aeromexico.com), Air Canada (tel. 888/247-2262; www.aircanada.com), Alaska Airlines (tel. 800/252-7522; www.alaskaair.com), American Airlines (tel. 800/223-5436; www.aa.com), Continental (tel. 800/537-9222; www.continental.com), Delta (tel. 800/221-1212; www.delta.com), Frontier Airlines (tel. 800/432-1359; www.frontierairlines.com), Mexicana (tel. 800/531-7921; www.mexicana.com), United Airlines (tel. 800/538-2929; www.united.com), and US Airways (tel. 800/428-4322; www.usairways.com).

The Puerto Vallarta airport is only 15 minutes south of Nuevo Vallarta and 25 minutes from Punta Mita. Bear in mind that the Riviera Nayarit is 1 hour behind Puerto Vallarta time when making pickup arrangements from the airport.

Tourist Information

You can find more information on this region by visiting www.rivieranayarit.com or reading Frommer's Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, and Guadalajara or Frommer's Mexico 2008.

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