In lieu of an actual post about Costa Rica, I am posting a review I wrote for Trip Advisor for the place we stayed. In CR, we did the usual touristy stuff. You know...zip lining, horseback riding, holding 17 ft long snakes, chasing rats. That sort of stuff.

So here is my review of our hotel in Costa Rica, Toad Hall.

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"It's never the wrong time to call on Toad. Early or late he's always the same fellow. Always good-tempered, always glad to see you, always sorry when you go!"
- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

At 3:00 a.m. on June 28, 2012, I sent an e-mail from our rental home in Nicaragua to Lydia at Toad Hall. "I'm hot, tired, there are bugs everywhere and my wife stepped on a bat (the fuzzy, flying mammal kind...not the Louisville Slugger kind). How much would you charge if we showed up at your place 5 days early????" I hit "SEND" and went to sleep. At 7:00 a.m. that morning, I had a reply, "Come on down early. We'll be glad to have you. We have glorious air-conditioning!" 

Right then, I learned two things. One, I should never write e-mails in the middle of the night when I'm exhausted, hot, frustrated and slightly tipsy. Second, I learned that Toad Hall is where I really wanted to be!

I spent months researching and making plans for our monthlong trip to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. My wife and two young children, 6 & 8, were very excited about our pending trip and VERY excited about staying at Toad Hall. The pictures and descriptions were terrific. I purposely planned it for the last week of our journey because I knew we would want a nice, clean place to relax after spending 3 weeks in Nicaragua. Plus, anything with the word "Toad" in the title sends my kids into apoplexy because they think frogs are the greatest things since sliced bread. Which, when you think about it, is kind of a silly expression since practically no one can remember when bread was NOT sliced. 

My wife convinced me to stick it out in our hot, bug-filled house on the beach in Nicaragua and it ended up being OK...green pool notwithstanding. So, I told Lydia we'd arrive at Toad Hall on July 5, 2012 as scheduled and we did so as planned. 

Our drive from Nicaragua to Arenal was beautiful. Toad Hall is not exactly in Arenal, it appears to be in a place called La Union...at least that's what my iPad locator kept telling me. Who cares. Find it and go there. 

Lydia met us at the front door with warm welcome, as if I were a long lost relative. Of course, after the late-night e-mail, she was probably concerned I was a little crazy so maybe she was trying to be nice in case I was an ax murderer or something. Or worse, French. Shortly thereafter, we met her husband, Jeff. If you were to go to central casting at a movie studio and tell them you needed a Southern, Marlboro Man looking smooth-talker, they would send you Jeff. 

From the time we arrived, we loved the place. I won't bore with details about the beautiful, well-maintained rooms or the groomed grounds because the pictures tell that story. I'll sum up my take on the place like this...I have never stayed in a place so reasonably priced where the owners put so much thought, effort and time into every detail. Even the toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms were cool. Seriously. 

We had an amazing week. Typical Costa Rica stuff...zip-lining, horseback riding, volcano trek, etc. Blah, blah, blah. Let's get back to Toad Hall. 

The place runs like a well-oiled machine. And even if it doesn't, the amazing staff makes it seem so. Jeff and Lydia worked constantly while we were there, making sure that meals were perfect, rooms were clean, lawns were maintained. I've never seen a staff work so hard, but seem so family-like. Jeff and Lydia are not taking advantage of cheap Costa Rican labor and sitting around on their butts doing nothing. Everyone works and everyone has fun. Hell, while we were there, Jeff even put a lame horse to work, dressing him up in a sombrero and hooking his ass up to a beautiful hand-painted cart in the front yard so people can stop and have their picture taken with him! No one on Jeff and Lydia's staff gets away without pulling their weight!

If you want to make a positive impact on my wife, Polly, and I, be nice to our kids. Jeff and Lydia treated my son, Grady and daughter, Annie, as if they had known them all their lives. True story...one afternoon, Jeff told Annie and Grady to make me and Polly stay in our room and then come down to the kitchen. The kids eagerly awaited 6 p.m. and then ran downstairs to the beautiful outside cocina. About 20 minutes later, I snuck down to check things out (OK, I really went down to get a beer...) and Jeff had them in the kitchen, making grilled cheese for themselves and dinner for us. Jeff had them actually working in the kitchen and they were having a blast. Jeff and Annie told me to go away. Shortly thereafter, they brought dinner up for us and we sat on the balcony and ate, overlooking the beautiful Lake Arenal. HUGE points on the scoreboard for Jeff and Lydia.

Jeff found out how much the kids like bugs, frogs and other creepy crawlers. On 2 different mornings, we came outside our rooms only to find containers on the balcony supposedly containing some kind of large insect. Of course, Jeff struggled with figuring out how to actually keep the bugs INSIDE the containers, because they got out both times! But how many places have you stayed where the hosts take the time to catch bugs for your kids?

The food was wonderful. On the first night there, Jeff asked "What do you want for dinner?" I asked him what they were having. He replied, "You didn't hear me. I asked 'What do you want for dinner?'" He and Lydia and their chefs went out of their way to make what we wanted and when we wanted it. It's a small hotel, so you need to be considerate of their time, but whenever we asked, they seemed to accommodate our every wish. 

They have a small farm down the road where they raise chickens, goats, pigs, etc. On our second day there, in the rain, Jeff took all of us down to the farm and showed us around. In the middle of all the work that is always going on, he took the time to again entertain my kids, thus scoring even more points on the scoreboard for Toad Hall.

Jeff and Lydia even planned a special dinner for the four of us one night while the kids stayed in the room and watched TV...or lit things on fire in the sink, I'm not sure which. Anyway, for a couple hours, Jeff and Lydia regaled us tales of their life adventures. I won't go into details, but suffice to say, I am boring and have apparently done nothing interesting in my life. And if you think you've done a lot of cool things in YOUR life, sit down with Lydia and Jeff over a beer during your visit and ask them this, "So, how did you two meet and what have you been doing the past 15 years?" Then, sit back and enjoy the show!

I "retired" (my wife says I'm a slacker and quit) from business 4 years ago to become a teacher so I could travel with my family. My wife teaches also, so we have summers off. We like to travel to interesting places and meet interesting people. Our week at Toad Hall has been a Top 3 stop along the path of our journey. Perfect for young kids, older kids, teens, couples, honeymooners, and anyone else who wants to visit a place where people treat you like family and you never want to leave. 

So, Jeff and Lydia, this is our late thanks for a great week in July. We'd love to come back some time, with or without the kids, so make sure you don't do something nutty like run off to Kenya and open a yurt motel or some sort of weird treehouse hotel. But if you do, let us know when you open so we can be your first guests! And when we come, we will bring our own container for catching bugs and we will make dinner for y'all!

Adios....Thomas, Polly, Grady and Annie!
 


10/11/2012 7:08am

Hi there! I stumbled across your blog when I googled "family travel Nicaragua blogs." It was really fun to read! I'm headed to Nicaragua for 3 weeks in December with my husband and two kids (ages 10 and 12) so I was interested in what you did, where you went and how you made out. Sounds like it was a great trip. We will be going without a guide, staying in midrange hotels, and we speak not a word of Spanish between us. I wondered what suggestions you might have in terms of highlights, things not to miss, etc. Our itinerary right now is roughly: 2 days in Granada, 7 days in Playas Marsella and Maderas, 4 days on Ometepe, 4 days in Matagalpa, finishing up with 3 days at Laguna de Apoyo. Any suggestions or pointers? Stuff to bring, stuff to be aware of? I'm particularly interested in how you got from place to place and around within each destination. We're not renting a car so will be looking at a combination of taxis, Paxeos shuttles and chicken buses! We're hoping to get by on $150 day (average) -- does that sound reasonable?

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Thomas
10/11/2012 8:50pm

Hi Patti...glad you read my blog. Hope you read the whole thing. I didn't give too much touristy info as I'm not good at that. I just like writing about my observations and things I find amusing and touching.

Anyway...I do ave some good advice about the places you're going. First of all, your kids are at a good age to enjoy things. They should do well. We are fortunate in that my wife is fluent in Spanish...big help. But don't sweat that as many people speak enough English for you to get by. Lots of pointing and gesturing, but you'll be fine. It could be tougher when you get out into Ometepe and Marsella. But go for it! It'll be fun.

Some tips on the places you mentioned.

Granada: This is a good, central location for day trips to places like Mombacho, Masaya and maybe a boat trip to the isletas. 2 days may not be enough as walking the city and experiencing the town smells, sights, vibe, etc. is a day unto itself. I know it's not very authentic, but we got pizza at a place called Monna Lisa Pizza (yes, 2 N's) near the La Calzada (main touristy drag). It's some of the best pizza I've ever eaten. Not kidding. There's also a good place called the Garden Cafe. But don't forget street vendors. Very cheap food and very tasty. I ate a lot of it and never got sick.

Ometepe: 4 days might be a lot. And you need your own transportation or a full-time driver. There is no dependable, regular transport to where you want to go. I STRONGLY recommend you go to Finca Montania Sograda and spend the night (or 2) and ride horses with Harri, the owner. It is the least expensive and best run horse trip you'll ever do. The horses are $8/hour and you can do trips from 2 hours to all day. Harri will take you up the volcano, to waterfalls, through the jungle and you'll have a blast. Don't worry if you've never ridden. My 6-year old daughter had never ridden and she took right to it. Harri is a true horseman and can handle anything. WEAR LONG PANTS! I don't care how hot it is. WEAR LONG PANTS! Don't let your kids convince you otherwise. Saddles chafe and jungles cut.

Spend the night there and have Harri and his wife cook for you. Holy crap, it's delicious and served in a beautiful outside dining area. Make sure you have some home made yogurt with home grown honey. For 5 of us to spend the night, take a 2-hr horse ride and have dinner and breakfast was $150. No joke. Here's a link to Trip Advisor. You can make arrangements with Harri via e-mail with no problems: http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotos-g304024-d2509657-w2-Finca_Montania_Sagrada-Isla_de_Ometepe_Rivas_Department.html

We spent a day at Aqua de Ojos, a natural spring for swimming and goofing off. They've fixed it up so you can eat, buy drinks and buy from some local merchants. I think it was $2 for each of us and it was a nice, refreshing way to spend a few hours. We could have easily stayed longer. They have a great rope swing.

The BEST pizza we had was at a place called Pizzeria Buon Appetito in Moyogalpa in Ometepe. There's a ferry departure in this little village. No kidding about the pizza. Find it and try it. It's near the ferry place. If you're in a hurry, take the pizza and eat on the ferry.

(I have to go to bed now. I'll post this and then write some more about Marsella. You'll want a car there! Good night)

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Patti
10/12/2012 9:57am

Thanks so much for all the info! (I did read your whole blog -- very entertaining!) Is there an email address I can reach you at with follow-up questions or should I just leave comments here? For example I'm wondering which part of Ometepe Finca Montania Sograda is located in. We already have a booking made (and partially pre-paid) at Finca del Sol, but I love the sound of the horseback riding. The kids would be all over that (we'll bring long pants just for the occasion!!). I'm also curious about needing a car in Playa Marsella....it sounds like our guesthouse is a 15-minute walk from either Marsella or Maderas beaches, and all we plan to do during our time there is beach stuff. We're splitting our time between 2 guesthouses: Empalme as Las Playas (at the fork in the road where you can choose Marsella or Maderas) and Casa Maderas. I had assumed there would be a least a few restaurants/snack shacks/shops within walking distance since I think it's fairly touristy? Anyway I will stay tuned for your extra info on Marsella. I may not be able to read or reply again until after the weekend, so no rush. Thanks again, I appreciate it!

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Thomas Fuller
11/30/2012 6:04am

Patti...I'm really sorry I didn't send more about Marsella earlier. I'm sure all your plans are finalized by now, but I'll address your questions a little.

There is not much in Marsella, but is a good place to relax. We spent a week at a rented beach house there. Since we had no plans for excursions or anything that week, we didn't rent a vehicle. Big mistake. The beach at Marsella is pretty secluded. It's about a 20 minute drive from San Juan del Sur and there is no regular transportation. I hitchhiked once, but don't recommend it. I did it without the wife and kids, but was warned by a local that walking by the dump on the main drag may not be a good idea. There have been robberies near there. But don't worry....you're not staying near the dump. You'll be fine.

7 days in Marsella will be OK if you're planning excursions. It was too long for us to stay in one place with 2 kids who were getting antsy.

There is a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar at the beach at Marsella. Try the fish strips with the sauce. Outstanding! And everything is cheap. You can stand on the porch and look for crocodiles in the pond. Seriously.

I didn't surf at Madera, and I wish I had. I grew up surfing, but it's been a long time. I figure giving myself a hernia or a stroke in front of the kids was not a good idea!!

Based on where you're staying, there will NOT be a few restaurants/snack shops within walking distance. "Touristy" is relative. This literally is a fork in the road. If you can, I really encourage you to get a vehicle. It shouldn't be rainy season (I don't think) so you can get by without a 4x4. But if you can afford one, get it anyway. Peace of mind. Plus, you'll like being able to pop to San Juan del Sur when you want.

I can't say enough about Hari's Horses in Ometepe. Even if you don't spend the night there, you can arrange a horse trip with Hari.

Keep this name and e-mail handy: Rodolfo Ortega (rodolfo.nicaragua@hotmail.com). If you run into trouble, e-mail him and he'll get back to you quickly. He can help you organize transport, accommodations, etc. anywhere, anytime, quickly. You can trust him. Feel free to even e-mail him in advance and let him know you're coming and let him know you may be calling on him. He's great...and speaks great English.

Feel free to drop me a note with any more questions! Have fun!


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10/15/2012 7:06pm

Hi,
I've started reading your blog (and plan to finish it over the next couple of days), but I was wondering if I may trouble you for some advice on my family's trip to Nica and CR in the spring? My daughter will be 3 1/2, and we are leaving the states mid-March and plan to be in Central America until the end of May. So, we are planning on renting a furnished apt. in Granada for about a month and a half, and then renting a place somewhere in CR (not sure where yet) for a month. We will not have a vehicle, so that's why I decided on Granada since it seems to have good access to many things. If you get a chance, can you please pm me? Only if you're not too busy. I'm sure I'll get plenty of good info by reading your blog, too. Thanks!

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