The time had come to plan our honeymoon -- the luxe vacation after the harried days leading up to the wedding. We had our hearts set on a beach getaway, with a splash of culture, some pampering at down-to-earth prices, a variety of day trips, and, oh, yes, a destination that didn't involve more than five or six hours of flying time from New York. After quizzing friends and flipping through travel brochures, we decided on the town where Elizabeth Taylor followed Richard Burton to a movie he was filming, The Night of the Iguana -- making their love affair public. After our visit, we, too, were in love -- with Puerto Vallarta, a coastal enclave nestled against the Sierra Madre mountains along the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Our Spanish-style resort, the Five Star Diamond, all-inclusive La Jolla de Mismaloya (lajollademismaloya.com), was at the southern end of the city, away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded hotel zone. Seven nights' stay in a top-floor suite, including all meals and drinks plus airfare, came to under $1,500 per person, a real bargain. In Vallarta South, the beaches are larger, cleaner, and emptier than those in the hotel district. With the mountains just across the street, the setting is lush and private.
Even so, we were a quick $6 to $8 taxi ride to the flea market or the Malec?n -- the boardwalk that abuts the beach and the main shopping district. The city center, a few blocks off the Malec?n, is a beautiful throwback to colonial Mexico, where most of the open-air, whitewashed buildings have red-tiled roofs and paneless windows decorated with wrought-iron bars. In the middle sits the Church of Guadalupe, a brick structure erected over 12 years, beginning in 1929. Its ornate crown, replaced in 1951, is said to resemble a tiara once worn by a 19th century empress, Carlota, wife of Maximilian, who first visited Puerto Vallarta when it was merely a stop-off for sailors to supply their ships. On the steps, peddlers sell baskets and other handicrafts for a few dollars apiece.
Not in a buying mood? The Bay of Banderas offers incredible marine life tucked into its reefs and underground rock formations, especially around Los Arcos, a giant boulder of an island with underwater caves. Los Arcos snorkeling tours usually include a sail to Las Animas, a wide beach tucked away in a secluded cove. Another great snorkeling venue is Yelapa, a white-sand beach about a two-hour sail from the Marina Vallarta. Trips including drinks and lunch start at about $55 per person.
WORKING UP AN APPETITE
For a more high-flying activity, take a forest canopy tour. An open-air truck picks you up in southern Vallarta for a 20-minute drive up the mountainside to Los Veranos (www.canopytours-vallarta.com/tour.htm). There, English-speaking guides snap you into a harness and hook you to a pulley on a short cable between trees. You'll glide across to a platform where another guide will unhook you, rehook you, and set you off to the next platform. By the middle of the two-hour adventure, you'll reach heights of nearly 3,000 feet above the river.
After sailing on the water or above the mountainside, you'll have worked up an appetite. Puerto Vallarta has no shortage of delicious seafood and Mexican delights. Some of the best eateries are a bit hidden: Tony's open-air restaurant, in the town of Mismaloya a few miles away, occupies half of Tony's house. His sons wait on guests while his wife and daughter cook. The menu? A platter of fresh fish, or scrumptious shrimp cooked three ways. A full dinner for two runs about $70.
Except for June through September, when it rains around 14 days per month, the sun shines almost every day in Puerto Vallarta, and temperatures average 75F to 85F. High season starts in mid-November and ends in late March, but October and April offer the same weather, fewer crowds, and the same pink-and-golden sunsets -- all at off-season prices. By Jennifer Merritt