When her brother and sister-in-law started a new life in the rain forest of Costa Rica, Zene Randall Morales was ready for a break.
A Darien native, she graduated from college in Boston and was teaching at a special education charter school in Chelmsford, Mass. The job was draining, and when you added the commute, it left no time for a social life.
So when she planned her trip to Costa Rica, she pulled out all the stops. Her brother said her first evening in the country would include a black-tie event, and told her to come prepared. Having never been to the tropics, except for one spring break in Mexico, she packed her formal attire without a second thought.
After driving 10 hours through the jungle, she and a friend finally arrived at her brother's place, a sport fishing lodge and sushi bar, in Zancudo on the Osa Peninsula. That night, she donned her gown and headed over to the party.
"I was in the middle of hippie hell," she said, realizing Zancudo wasn't an uptight enclave, and that her brother had pulled one over on her.
"My friend was wearing a taffeta gown," she said, reliving the embarrassment.
But little did she know, that one night on the beach was about to change her life.
Her brother told her she'd be back, but she insisted her visit was just that, a visit, and she had her life in the States. She left Costa Rica and headed back to Massachusetts.
But Costa Rica kept nagging at her.
"I was working my tail off," she said, but she felt like she was going nowhere. "I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I took a year off. And then -- it all came together."
A few weeks later, she said, "this kid from Darien was traveling nine hours through the Costa Rican jungle."
She planned to spend six months in Costa Rica, so she rented a beach house and helped out with her brother's business.
After three months, she knew she wanted to spend a full year on the island, so she headed back to Massachusetts to collect more of her belongings. While she was packing, her sister-in-law called from the fishing lodge.
"She said, `You're not going to be leaving. We just hired your husband.'"
Morales laughed it off. Henner Morales was 10 years older -- a Costa Rican native and a professional sports fishing captain.
When she returned to the lodge, her brother made sure the two worked closely together, and just as his wife suspected, they fell in love.
A year and a half later, they were married and decided to open their own resort in Playa San Miguel, Costa Rica -- Cristal Azul Ocean View Villas and Hotel.
The minute they laid eyes on the property, they knew they found their new home.
"There was nothing on the beach," Morales said of the unspoiled, remote area. "But when we looked up on the hill and we saw the cabinas, we fell in love with it."
It took the couple about a year to move in, and a few years later, they were running a full-scale bed and breakfast, which earned a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor in 2012 and was named one of the Top 25 B&Bs and Inns in Central America on the site's 2012 Travelers' Choice and one of the top 20 B&Bs in Costa Rica for 2013.
With only four cabinas, or small cabins, located at the top of the hill, visitors have an unobstructed view of the ocean below. Each cabina offers an open-air shower, hot water, air conditioning and ceiling fans -- so even though guests are in the middle of rustic Costa Rica, they still have most of the luxuries of home. Internet can be spotty at times, according to Morales, but really, who needs a signal when there's so much to explore?
The size of the boutique bed and breakfast also guarantees guests plenty of attention.
"We're not an open-door hotel," Morales said. "We work with other hotels on group packages, whether guests want heavy adventure, or if they want to relax with us."
Adventures include sports fishing, ziplining and kite boarding, but really, the staff at Cristal Azul is available to help guests plan whatever they wish while staying in Costa Rica.
"Guests come to us and say, `This is what we want to do,'" Morales said. "So we find it and we make it happen."
Some events include girlfriend getaways, surf camp and yoga retreats. Morales brought in a yoga instructor from Boston with more than 20 years experience, and her husband built a dock for guests to practice yoga.
Farm-to-table, three-course breakfasts are served poolside and cocktails are served every evening at sunset. If guests want to spend their days at the beach, Morales will whip up a lunch and send them off with a picnic basket. There's also a private chef available for lunch and dinner.
Morales said Playa San Miguel is still untouched by commercialism. It's off the beaten path, and tourists are few and far between, giving guests the true Costa Rican experience.
"You have the parrots and monkeys overhead and the waves crashing below," Morales said of their location.
"We're very hands-on with our guests," Morales said, adding that the bed and breakfast has become a hit for large family gatherings. "We know what families want and we want to make them comfortable. That's what makes it such a private and unique experience. They don't have to worry about anything. They're not our clients. They're our family."
And Cristal Azul isn't just their business, it's their home. Morales and her husband have forged relationships with the locals, and they spend time in the schools educating children about the environment. Henner Morales participated with the Blue Flag Ecological Program, through which the Costa Rica Tourist Board awards blue flags to clean, sustainable beaches.
Morales' hectic life in Massachusetts is nothing but a memory. Now her days are filled with nesting turtles, butterflies and that relaxing ocean breeze that dances up the hill.
"This is a lifestyle I never thought I'd have," she said. "Sometimes I think about it and it's so surreal. But then I remind myself -- it's just home."
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