In Costa Rica, a Family Vacation That Rivals the Kardashians’—Only Much Cheaper

MY FAMILY IS not part of the private-jet crowd. We are not even resort people. And we certainly are not the take-over-an-entire-hotel sort of snobs. Quite the opposite, really. Last summer, at the height of the pandemic, we rented an RV along with our frequent traveling companions—my first “mommy” friend and her brood—and pitched tents across upstate New York. I knew this summer, with my oldest heading to college, would likely be our last time to travel together, so we let the two clans’ kids decide where to venture for this final hurrah. It was unanimous: Costa Rica.


Have you booked a hotel buyout with family or friends? What other tips on traveling with a large group do you have to share? Join the conversation below.

But how? We weren’t yet comfortable sleeping in hotels with strangers. We didn’t want the hassle of navigating treacherous roads to reach Airbnbs. We needed six teens to be entertained without devices, to have freedom to do their own thing, to hole up in an unfussy retreat where they couldn’t get into much trouble. Did such a place exist?

Miraculously, an email about a new lodge appeared in my inbox this spring, one that fulfilled all our needs: Cielo Lodge, in Golfito, Costa Rica. I wrote the owner and asked if all six villas would be available the third week of August, and like an omen from the travel gods, it was. (We only needed four of the villas but wanted to be assured that other guests wouldn’t book the other two). For one week and $21,600—including all activities, meals and transfers—the entire resort could be ours.

We aren’t the only ones seeking adventure in solitude during this pandemic. The superrich and the super famous have always taken over resorts, always at great cost. But since Covid-19 hit and intrepid types began traveling again, booking out an entire hotel seemed worth the price even for mere mortals. focuses on Europe and offers properties that can accommodate up to 28 guests for as little as 2,000 euros per night. Requests for total buyouts, from Maine to Mexico, are inundating travel agents. “About 92-94% of our bookings are resort buyouts,” said Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond travel agency in New York City. Mr. Ezon said that his company has arranged for several buyouts in the coming months, including at Hotel Jerome in Aspen and Nizuc Resort in Mexico.

Americans Nicole and Keith Goldstein decided to relocate from Silicon Valley to Costa Rica seven years ago. Soon after, they bought a 380-acre mountain parcel overlooking the Pacific’s Golfo Dulce and set about constructing a lodge. Besides the open-air main building, it includes six wood-and-glass bungalows (each has a king-size bed and a full-size sofa bed) that are far enough apart that you’d never hear your son’s music or walk past someone taking an outdoor shower. Nicole and I conferred over WhatsApp (no cell service there), and she put together an itinerary that satisfied everyone’s desires: zip-lining, deep-sea fishing, waterfall hiking, whale-watching, surfing. Because it was “Green Season” (the tourism board’s term for rainy season), she suggested we beat the rains, arising daily at 5:30 a.m. to coffee and baked goods delivered to our rooms, followed by breakfast at 7 a.m., then an activity from 8 a.m. until about 2 p.m., when the skies inevitably released their levees across the rainforest. Nicole also helped us order the right antigen tests for our return to America. (Tests are required to enter the U.S., but not to enter Costa Rica, though you do need to fill out a health questionnaire. Unvaccinated visitors need proof of insurance.)

Finally, Nicole suggested our two families charter a plane from San Jose to sidestep the tight connecting flight. (It cost $300 more total than nine seats on the commercial flight.) So there we were: the Kardashians, with our own plane, our own resort and our own staff. Maybe we are private jet people after all.

Our first adventure the day after we arrived was an exceedingly long hike requiring the fording of half a dozen river tributaries. Our guide, Fernando—secured by Catalina, Cielo’s general manager—led us around snakes and spiders and muddy paths to a natural water park. He attached a rope to a carabiner slung from a tree, and one by one we climbed up the rocks, swung across a waterfall, and dropped into the chilly rapids. Even the jaded teens were impressed. Back at the lodge for a lunch of seared shrimp and fresh vegetables, everyone was giddy, if exhausted. After, without complaint, we all read our books and quietly played cards.

Every day was different, if equally exciting. We’d journey down the unpaved switchback to the main road in Golfito, then make our way to whatever Nicole had planned. One day, we zipped over the rainforest canopy to a dozen platforms, some 150 feet high. Another morning, we boated out to view humpback whales and dolphins, then returned through the eerie mangroves.

The men spent one long day out at sea seeking tuna, bringing back a haul so big, Chef Cesar prepared sashimi and sesame-seared steaks for dinner. I stayed behind with the women for massages. The next day, Catalina’s son Daniel, a resident naturalist, joined us on a trip to the beach town of Pavones, where the world’s second-longest left-hand wave breaks. He and surfer Harley Rios ensured that any of us who actually got on a board caught a wave.

We had plenty of escapades at the lodge too. Daniel pointed out a coati, a resident sloth and an annoyance of monkeys who daily plucked their morning berries from a melastoma tree beside the lodge. I felt guilty denying Daniel sometimes; he offered nightly “Frog Walks” to spy on animals but we were too knackered most evenings.

On my son’s midweek birthday, the staff had planned a surprise party for lunch, which included a piñata and dancing to Flo Rida. No guest was around to tell us to turn down the music. Nor could they complain about kids at the bar (not that they drank); it was ours, and ours alone.

Not everything was perfect. The switchback to the resort sucked up a bumpy 25 minutes each way. The pool wasn’t heated, and thus mostly unused. The Turkish towels in the villas never dried. It rained a lot, making the lodge floor dangerously slippery. We probably did too many outings. But I don’t think that’s what any of us recall. In fact, as our private plane pulled into the landing strip, the six kids approached the parents with a plea: Can we do this again next summer? (Standard room rates from $440 per person; for a resort buyout, from about $21,600, including activities, meals and transfers;

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.


Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8