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Over the Top

Perched high above the Pacific on five sprawling acres, everything about Villa Manzu is unique, including the owner’s spare-no-expense mentality.

The Pacifico Suite is the most secluded and serene bedroom with the highest sweeping views of the peninsula and surrounding ocean. The connected office is situated at the elevator landing and entry to the Pacifico Suite. Design highlights include a large Theodore Alexander desk with Hancock & Moore desk chair in cerulean leather, overdyed Oriental rug from ABC Carpet & Home, wallcovering by Phillip Jeffries, stained paneled walls and limestone floors.

Having traveled the world—staying at many a luxury villa along the way—my “wow” standards are, needless to say, quite high. But, sauntering into Villa Manzu, nesting in the Peninsula Papagayo of Costa Rica, raises the already elevated bar even higher. From its striking modern architecture and indoor-outdoor living spaces to top-caliber service, dedicated executive chef, cuisine and wine list, it’s a villa unlike any other—as is the experience it offers.

A private resort community, Peninsula Papagayo, which borders 15 miles of coastline, has grown immensely since its anchor, the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, first opened in 2004, an event that landed Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province on the savvy traveler’s map. Augmenting this is the 2012 arrival of a new, grander terminal at the Liberia airport (the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, officially) to welcome direct flights from several major cities—among them Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami. Situated just a few miles from the closest beach and about 40 minutes by car to Peninsula Papagayo, the updated gateway must, in part, be credited for the influx of luxury tourists and multimillion-dollar vacation homes now gracing the scene. Still very much unspoiled and somewhat under the radar to mainstream travelers—although a sure sign of its burgeoning popularity, the 153-room Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort, opened earlier this year—this beautiful paradise fittingly attracts such A-list luminaries as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway, along with pop-star Pink and tennis supernova Maria Sharapova.

Further upping the ante in the luxury villa rental arena in Costa Rica (and beyond) is Villa Manzu, which sleeps up to 22 guests in eight generously sized bedrooms. What started out as a vacation abode for a Chicago entrepreneur and his family and friends has turned into an uberluxe, paparazzi-free sanctuary for rent (three-night minimum). About one year into construction, having realized the sheer expense of the project, the owner considered making it available for others to enjoy—and we’re glad he did.

When developing the property’s innovative design, a sense of place was an important underlying theme for architect Abraham Valenzuela of Valenzuela Arquitectos. “What is this building going to make me feel as I am walking through it?” was among his considerations. The answer? A sense of surprise paired with good storytelling, evident from the moment one walks through the entrance and admires the home’s custom hieroglyphics derived from Mayan symbols diagraming origins of elements air, water, fire and Earth—the positive, life‐affirming ciphers upon which the design of Villa Manzu is based. Inside, open spaces and inspiring natural views abound, supplying a palpable feeling of relaxation. The aesthetic reflects a blend of indigenous influences, from local Chorotegan to Balinese, Thai, Mayan culture, with the aforementioned elements at the fore. From the way the wind blows through the home to its floor-to-ceiling glass that provides sweeping Pacific views, the fundamental philosophy is carried throughout.

With a vision of bringing to life the spirit of Costa Rica’s pura vida—meaning “full of life,” or said another way, “this is living”— while simultaneously echoing Villa Manzu’s architectural aesthetic, the interior design approach “was a lighthearted balance of elegance, comfort, originality and authenticity,” describes Lynn Yellen, design director of Houston-based Ladco Resort Design Group, who worked in tandem with Valenzuela as well as Terri Thibodeaux, a senior designer with Ladco Resort Design Group. “We had no limits on the budget; the owner said, ‘Make it beautiful.’ It was a dream job.”

Dream, indeed. One hallway to the next, one room to another, unsurpassed attention to detail is evident—think custom‐made wood doorways carved with images of African, Indian and Latin cultures framed by intricately woven copper pipes, custom‐designed ceilings with hand-placed stone patterns, unique textured wallcoverings and custom-made lighting. “Creative architectural details implemented by Valenzuela on the project were an impressive backdrop for ethnic and interesting pieces that satisfy a ‘getaway’ feel for the guest,” notes Yellen. Taking inspiration from nature and adding to it a broader, vibrant and energetic color palette, the vibe at Villa Manzu is homey, comfortable and relaxing, despite the museum-quality decor of its surrounds. “We found in doing second-home projects, people react to color,” Yellen explains. “We also wanted it to have some character and set out to find or custom-make interesting pieces. The owner wanted a high-end feel, and no sacrifices were made. He wanted guests to feel at home, and did not want the villa to have a hotel or commercial feel.” Such mentality explains the price tag for each room’s design, which, at minimum, was between $150,000 and $200,000.

In fashioning the various spaces comprising the vast yet amazingly cozy villa, much thought was given to lifestyle, like how guests spend their time, often transitioning from a leisurely breakfast to an active day filled with excursions (an almost endless list of activities from on-site spa services to stand-up paddleboarding, zip-lining, all-terrain vehicle tours, diving, snorkeling, yoga, biking, boating and golf is available) to laid-back evenings, characterized by gourmet dinners, fabulous wine and conversation with the sunset as a backdrop. And, not only does the villa come fully stocked with guests’ preferred food and drink options, but also with a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and two four‐person golf carts for use at their whim. The villa driver, meanwhile, will happily accommodate guests in the house Range Rover and Ford Expedition Limited Extended, while for bigger groups a larger vehicle can be commissioned.

Here, service comes with sincerity, making all the difference—the Villa Manzu staff rivals any five-star hotel counterpart. At the helm are Jenifer Cowles and her husband, Chris, who oversee operations and guest relations. Having lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, they possess a wealth of knowledge and are expert crafters of completely customized shore-to-sea guest itineraries. What’s more, Jenifer is a certified natural healing therapist, and yoga and meditation instructor and trainer, while Chris, who was involved with the area’s Tropicsurf, is passionate about the water, leading paddleboard tours, fishing and surfing excursions, and snorkeling adventures. In the customized, chef-driven kitchen with Viking appliances is Executive Chef Kevin Ketron (whose experience spans from the Four Seasons at Peninsula Papagayo to San Francisco’s Michael Mina) and his team. Together, they create mouthwatering culinary offerings based entirely on guests’ preferences and dietary restrictions. The bar offerings are also top-notch. Whether you are watching a movie in the theater, relaxing on a chaise lounge, taking in the sunset in the oversize Dedon Nestrest on the point or chilling poolside in one of the villa’s two pools, there’s a fresh drink just waiting to be poured at your request—the homemade sangria is a must.

To this and all other luxuries up at the villa, we say, “Cheers!” From $15,000 per night for 14 guests, all included (add an additional $500 per person, per night for up to 22 guests).