Costa RicaCosta Rica

Villa Vanilla and Kapi Kapi

Destination: Manuel Antonio

Knock, knock. At 7:30 a.m., room service delivered a huge tray of goodies. The waiter unpacked our breakfasts -- French toast for me and an omelet for Fabian -- and garnished the table with homemade bread, a fruit plate, and fruit juice. The whole meal had a homespun taste, and reminded me how much I enjoy fresh, local foods.

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The van from Villa Vanilla picked us up and we climbed into the mountainous outskirts of Quepos. Henry, the farm's owner, greeted us with a friendly smile and announced he would be our guide. Villa Vanilla is a sustainable farm sitting on 152 acres -- 27 acres are used for agriculture and 125 are designated as secondary forest. Using natural and organic methods, Villa Vanilla produces vanilla, black pepper, allspice, turmeric, cocoa, and Ceylon cinnamon.

We began the tour with a taste-and-smell session. Did you know that there are more than 25,000 orchid species in the world, but vanilla is the only edible variety? We sampled the tasty interior seeds of vanilla pods, which are green and smooth before being sun-dried. As a hobbyist cook, my interest was already piqued -- fresh vanilla tastes nothing like its imitation counterpart. The scent was headier and the taste incomparable; no wonder real vanilla bean ice cream is so mouthwatering!

Next, Henry cracked open a large, yellow-orange seedpod. The seeds were covered in moist, white pulp. He invited us each to take one, and I popped the sweet seed into my mouth. From previous experience, I knew this was cacao. Our guide explained that the ancient Maya, the creators of chocolate, considered cacao to be sacred. They always flavored their cacao with vanilla, and I could see why. The two flavors were delectable on their own, but together, they were positively ambrosial.

Henry also showed us his recent crop of Ceylon cinnamon. Known in the spice world as "true cinnamon," this species (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is different from most supermarket cinnamon, or cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum). Ceylon cinnamon has much lower levels of coumarin, a chemical compound some countries identify as unsafe for human consumption. On a more palatable note, Ceylon cinnamon is softer, lighter colored, and sweeter than cassia. Its aroma was gentle, but a quick nibble filled my palate with a sweet and spicy blend reminiscent of the cassia cinnamon I was used to.

We took a walk along the Epiphyte Trail, where Henry introduced us to fresh cardamom, allspice and green peppercorns, which tasted more tangy than spicy. Like tiny appetizers, all the scents and flavors tickled our appetites, and when we arrived at the scenic overlook, we

From the shade of an open-air wood cabin, we sampled several organic treats prepared by Villa Vanilla's pastry chef. We started with mandarin lime cheesecake topped with mango -- the tart citrus contrasted perfectly with the sweet and silky fruit. He proffered a cinnamon chocolate chip cookie and cinnamon ice cream. What a treat! Next was a taste of chili-infused hot chocolate. The muted spice was delicious, though not for the faint of heart -- several guests coughed from the stark flavor surge. We rounded out our spice tour with oatmeal chocolate cookies made from cacao nibs; I loved the strong, unsweetened flavor and decided to try it in my own cooking.

We ended at the Spice Shoppe, where each of us stocked up on Ceylon cinnamon, vanilla beans, and cacao nibs. I was particularly excited to purchase the vanilla pods since I planned to make my own vanilla extract and vanilla sugar.

Fabian and I rested that afternoon, alternating between drinks poolside and wildlife watching. In our villa, I opened up the large, sliding windows, and the wall completely disappeared -- our room was open to the great outdoors.

That evening, we had a dinner reservation at Kapi Kapi, one of Manuel Antonio's most celebrated restaurants. The restaurant's name means "welcome" in Maleku, the language of a Costa Rican indigenous tribe. As we walked through the front entrance, a chipper voice called out, "Bienvenidos! Welcome!"

Suzan Krane, a jewelry artisan and world nomad, is the creator of the Global Gypsy Collection. She displays her one-of-a-kind pieces at Kapi Kapi each night, and was already fielding a crowd of interested buyers. Her jewelry was truly unique -- using semi-precious stones such green and black jade, she created wearable works of art.

In the restaurant, tables were lit by candlelight and soft music played in the background. I reviewed the tempting cocktail menu, but settled on water and fruit juice to restore my energy after the sun-soaked day.

Our appetizers arrived, the delicious food carefully arranged to please both our eyes and taste buds. I ordered seared yellowfin tuna: the tartar fish slices were coated in a wasabi aioli and accompanied by avocado tempura. Thai chicken lettuce wraps were Fabian's choice, and the mixture of ground chicken, sweet plum sauce, and chopped peanuts contrasted well with the crunchy lettuce.

For our entrees, we chose macadamia-encrusted mahi mahi and lobster ravioli, which had been recommended. The ravioli was filled with only the purest ingredients: fresh basil and lump lobster meat. It was topped with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and a delicious saffron white butter sauce. The flavors melded in my mouth, and I knew why Kapi Kapi received such great reviews. Fabian agreed; his dish was delicately prepared to preserve the flavors of both the mahi mahi and macadamia crust.

Over iced coffee and artisan tea, we shared a hot chocolate souffle -- he nibbled while I devoured (I love chocolate!). The souffle was simply the best I'd ever had, reminding me of a molten brownie. Accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream, it was a decadent and delicious way to end the evening.

Villa Vanilla and Kapi Kapi in Pictures

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