By Tom Calicchio:

San Francisco is the home base and headquarters for Virgin America and they launched their newest route to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this month … and I was lucky enough to be aboard their inaugural flight! This is the third Mexican city for the carrier along with Cancun and Cabo. Initially, there will be five flights per week, every day except Mondays and Thursdays. The inaugural flight was celebrated with a Mexican fiesta at the departure gate, complete with a mariachi band, Mexican food and drinks. Nothing says breakfast like a few frozen margaritas when you’re on your way to the Mexican Riviera! The party continued in the air as the mariachis boarded with us and played during the three and a half hour flight. Arriba!

Virgin America strives to be unique among airlines and they’ve definitely created a fantastic flying experience for their customers. Most notable is each seats interactive touch screen system called Red, that not only carries live satellite TV and movies (I loved Bad Teacher!), but also lets you order snacks, meals and drinks, play games (for both kids and adults) and have seat-to-seat chat. There is also an AC power outlet at each seat and WiFi through Boingo. By far the friendliest and most good-natured crew I’ve ever encountered in the sky, the Virgin America flight staff really creates a positive vibe. For more information, visit

Conde Nast Traveler’s Friendliest City
Puerto Vallarta is a fantastic vacation destination, preserving its heritage of a Mexican coastal village and integrating a wide variety of modern hotels, outdoor activities and amazing cuisine to create the perfect getaway. Idyllically situated at the base of the Sierra Madres, it lies on the semi-circular Bay of Banderas, the second largest bay in North America.

Marriott CasaMagna
I stayed at the Marriott CasaMagna, ideally located near the marina, less than 10 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the historical central district. The Marriott is just the right size: large enough to have everything you could want, yet intimate and uncrowded, and walking distances throughout the property are short. The main lobby boasts a grand, open-air hub with reception, concierge and car rental services as well as five restaurants just a few steps away. Cross the small bridge over a poi pond and you are at the pool area, which features a vanishing edge that blends into the beautiful blue Pacific beyond. Further on, you can sink your toes in the sand and participate in any of the variety of beach activities, which include jet skis, kayaks, volleyball, snorkeling and scuba.

But who could blame you if you just want to relax by the pool? There’s a wonderful service of drinks, or a bucket of iced Coronas accompanied by excellent snacks like fresh guacamole and homemade chips or the fantastic ceviche of local fish and shrimp. If you’re inclined to work off your snack, you can swim over to the in-pool bar, or if you’re more serious about exercise, hit the fantastic gym (open from 7am to 11pm) that has all the latest treadmills and other fitness equipment machines.

All the rooms have ocean views and you need not splurge on a pricey room. They are all beautifully appointed and have large terraces, but since you’ll likely only be there to sleep and shower, I recommend allocating a decent part of your travel budget to Puerto Vallarta’s many exciting outdoor activities.

Ohtli Spa at the CasaMagna Marriott
The 22,000 square-foot Ohtli Spa at the CasaMagna Marriott integrates diverse traditions of soothing and hospitality inspired by the shamanistic rituals of the areas Huichol Indians, believed to be one of the last indigenous group in North America to live according to their ancient pre-Columbian traditions. Ohtli Spa offers a wide range of services by an extremely talented and friendly staff that include body scrubs, facial treatments, massages of every kind, skin care enhancements, special programs for kids, teenagers and men, as well as a steam room, sauna, pressure showers and relaxation rooms. It is a first class facility, utterly peaceful and tranquil and the prices are extremely reasonable. My massage was only $50 and would be over three times that price at a spa of equal caliber in the US.

Food and Drink
The food at the Marriot is diverse and consistently excellent. There is a plethora of top chefs in this town and among them is standout Executive Chef Fred Ruiz. For dinner, I had a velvety roasted corn soup, followed by an Angus filet of beef, crusted with five chilies and a strip of chocolate blueberry sauce. Amazing! Also of note is that the hotel produces its own tequila from blue agave grown on the grounds under the direction of tequilier Audrey Formisano. CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, Paseo La Marina 435, Marina Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, 48354, Mexico.

Viejo Vallarta
Highly recommended is a leisurely exploration of the Old Town. Wear comfortable shoes and venture aimlessly through the cobblestone streets to immerse yourself in the historical past of this once small fishing village. You will find beautiful indigenous buildings of white stucco and clay tile roofs with wonderful architectural details, flower filled balconies and lots of native restaurants to savor local specialties.

When to Go? Anytime is Great!
The summer months are on the warm side, but make for an excellent family summer vacation. The ideal months to visit are between December and April, when the temperatures are moderate and there is typically very little rain. In fact, during the rainy season of June to October, it usually rains only for a short while in the afternoon. And even though it can rain almost daily, it’s usually only late afternoon or evening showers, leaving most of the day clear for fun outdoors. The shoulder seasons of September to December and May to June are the times when room prices are lowest.

Breakfast at the River Cafe
Located on the banks of the Cuale River, The River Cafe is a funky little spot with an award-winning chef who combines traditional Mexican ingredients with modern techniques. I had a wonderful breakfast of Machaca, a mixture of scrambled eggs, shredded beef and poblano chili peppers.

San Sebastian: A Great Overnight Side Trip
A small colonial gem, just a 90-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta, is San Sebastian. With a population of just 600, this sleepy, 17th-century silver mining village is nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains. First settled in 1605, San Sebastian flourished as the first silver and gold mining town in Mexico. There’s a tranquil central square, an 18th-century church, Hacienda Jalisco, a museum that chronicles the town’s rich heritage, and a coffee plantation that produces a specialty blend of coffee, lightly flavored with chocolate and cinnamon.

Sayulita: I Say You’ll Love It
Thirty-five minutes north of Puerto Vallarta is the small fishing village of Sayulita, located in Riviera Nayarit, which has a great surf break and attracts many native and foreign surfers and anyone who loves a perpetually laid back groove. A few American beachcombers who discovered this place in the sixties have spawned a second generation of hippies that I found really intriguing. Just beyond the surf break were a few shrimp boats whose daily catch was minutes later on the BBQ at a beachside restaurant. With the sun sinking into the Pacific, and a sweet chill, this was an awesome place to hang out. You can rent a board there and it’s a great place for the novice to take lessons from the super friendly instructors.

Crossing the Great Bay of Banderas
Take a taxi south to the quaint native village of Mismaloya, where John Huston’s film Night of the Iguana was filmed in 1963, then return north by a 40-foot boat that crosses Banderas Bay. It’s an extraordinary two-hour trip that makes a short stop at the famous Los Archos outcroppings, home to an abundant gathering of brown pelicans.

Viewing the coast from the sea is a wonderful treat, especially the way the mountains appear to drop into the beach. Lunch and drinks are served aboard, and it’s a great way to spend the afternoon. During whale watching season, late December through March, it is common to see humpback whales. On my visit in December, it was a little early for whales but I did see many baby manta rays leaping out of the water. The adult manta grow to over 25 feet wide, but only the young ones get completely airborne.

Golfing in Paradise
Puerto Vallarta is quickly becoming one of Mexico’s premiere golf destinations. It’s currently home to seven world-class golf courses, all framed by beautiful views of the mountains and the sea. There are two Jack Nicklaus Signature courses. The newest is at The Four Seasons in Punta Mita (also located in Riviera Nayarit), 30 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta and is a 7,104 yard par 72 with eight ocean front holes.

Canopy Tours
Canopy tours remain one of the most fun ways to see and learn about the varied tropical flora and fauna of the rainforest surrounding Puerto Vallarta. Three canopy tour options are offered around Puerto Vallarta and all are located within ecological reserves that have an incredible abundance of tropical vegetation (there are over 20 types of mangoes!), birds and animals. You zip line 90 feet in the air from one of the 14 stations to the next and get spectacular views of life in the canopies.

Deep Sea Fishing
The abundant marine life in the waters of Banderas Bay are known by fishing experts to offer some of the best deep sea sports fishing in the world. There is a wide choice of boats available for charter for half or full day trips. Some of the wide varieties of fish that can be caught in the area include marlin, sailfish, snapper, yellow fin tuna, roosterfish and mahi mahi. Puerto Vallarta also hosts a major deep sea fishing tournament every November.

Dolphin Experience
There is nothing like grabbing onto the dorsal fin with your right hand, the pectoral fin with your left and riding a friendly dolphin under water. This is the experience of a lifetime! There were also a number of sea lions, which were very friendly, and loved to be petted.

Horseback Riding
A memorable way to spend the day for those who love horseback riding, half-day or full-day excursions on horseback provide a challenging experience through diverse terrains amidst some of the finest scenery surrounding Puerto Vallarta. High atop the mountains, through trails of lush tropical vegetation, canyons, streams and waterfalls, riding here will also allow you to witness life in picturesque jungle villages, relax by refreshing cascades, and stop for a swim in the river. Horseback riding excursions can also be combined with visits to working ranches where visitors can savor a traditional Mexican barbecue.

I had more fun in my two days in Puerto Vallarta than I’ve had in a week at other beach resorts I’ve been to. It’s relaxed and uncrowded, but there’s lots going on so it is my number one choice for an easy-to-get-to (and now on Virgin America!) sun vacation destination. I love it more every time I go back, and can’t wait to visit again!

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