Viva Vallarta!!

Ultra-chic lobby bar at the adults-only Secrets Vallarta Bay

It was a heated off-screen romance during a classic John Huston-directed movie that first thrust the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Vallarta into the international spotlight. When filming “The Night of the Iguana” in 1963, the R-rated shenanigans of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor transformed the Pacific Coast hideaway’s image from provincial to provocative.

Today, Puerto Vallarta’s romantic aura remains. But it’s courtesy of a drop-dead gorgeous setting, enduring Old World charm and magical atmosphere, that attracts visitors lusting to embrace all the layers making the destination so captivating.

In fact, earlier this year, Puerto Vallarta registered record hotel occupancy rates. From January to June, international visitors occupied 613,854 hotel rooms compared to 590,921 for the same period in 2011. The destination also reported a 71.75 percent occupancy rate during the summer season from July 2-Aug. 19, compared to 62.18 percent during the same period last year.

extreme makeover

With its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, Puerto Vallarta’s historic downtown is fresh from a massive enhancement that spiffed up its iconic malecon (beachfront boardwalk) fringing Banderas Bay—its most significant tourism investment in 20 years.

PV purists need not worry. It’s simply easier to experience that authenticity keeping the beach resort destination so grounded.

With mosaic pavement inspired by native Huichol Indian myths, the revered malecon remains garnished by an impressive collection of public art. Crowning nearly 20 creative sculptures is the city’s beloved symbol, the 9-ft. “El Caballito” depicting a waving boy riding a giant seahorse. Enhancements have thoughtfully maintained the promenade’s traditional feel and fiesta ambiance while weaving in pedestrian-friendly touches.

A gleaming four miles of renovated public space extends from Hotel Rosita (downtown’s oldest) to Hotel Los Arcos. The program covers new underground lighting systems for improved safety and visibility. Additionally, sidewalks were widened in the Romantic Zone and along the popular dining and shopping street, Basilio Badillo.

Other infrastructure improvements include the addition of a third bridge over the Ameca River connecting Vallarta to Banderas Bay, the new Los Muertos pier and a $5.5 million upgrade of nearby Highway 200 to make Puerto Vallarta more easily accessible.

Beyond the physical, safety and security measures have been ramped up as well. “In February, we initiated a Taxi Safe notification system allowing anyone witnessing or falling victim to a crime to report the event to any taxi,” says Guillermo Ohem, managing director of the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board. The cab contacts its call center, which in turn notifies the Police Emergency Call Center (the equivalent of a 911 call in the U.S.).

Among marketing initiatives, the tourism board unveiled a multi-faceted rebranding earlier this year. Major components include the launch of a more user-friendly website (, and creation of both a new logo and slogan: “Puerto Vallarta, Live It More Than Once.”

Ohem notes that the slogan lives up to its claim with fresh recreational offerings, seasonal eco-tourism opportunities, and a perennial slate of special events. “Especially with our world-renowned culinary and arts status, our festivals have much appeal to the returning visitor market,” he says.

“Each May, we celebrate award-winning gastronomy in our Restaurant Week. And in November, we have our International Gourmet Festival.” The city’s dynamic artist community also works hand-in-hand to host weekly art walks between October and May where gallery owners display their works and chat with visitors.

“In terms of experiential opportunities, Puerto Vallarta provides the possibility of enjoying a different type of vacation each visit,” says Ohem. “This is why we’re so frequently revisited by national and international travelers. Like our slogan suggests, there is always something new to discover here.”

new to the neighborhood

Puerto Vallarta has an inventory of 20,784 hotel rooms, with three new Hotel Zone resorts adding to the mix near the new 161,500-sq.-ft. International Convention Center of Puerto Vallarta. So the properties are mega convenient for travelers wanting to be near all the action as well as those taking in convention center events.

AMResorts has addressed a quartet of distinctive niches with its two-brand resort complex. Secrets Vallarta Bay caters to the adults-only market, while Now Amber is geared toward families. Together, they’re also a dream fit for the destination wedding market and family reunions.

“What makes these two resorts so special and unique is the fact that they’re next to each other, and share a variety of restaurants and space without taking the exclusivity away from Secrets,” says Ana Santos, groups and convention sales manager. “That’s why many groups of friends choose these resorts. Couples can stay at Secrets while their friends with children can be at Now Amber, and they can conveniently share time with each other.”

The duo follows the expected all-inclusive formula of boundless drinking, dining and non-motorized activities. But it’s done with AMResorts’ signature Unlimited-Luxury upscale flair. A la carte restaurants are reservation-free and limitless, room service is around the clock and top-shelf liquor is served by wait staff. The only thing missing is the wristband.

The more sedate Secrets Vallarta tower offers couples, singles and honeymooners an extra measure of romance and sensuality in 271 contemporary suites. With its 327 oversized suites, Now Amber serves up a livelier atmosphere for couples, friends and families.

Accommodations and amenities are relatively similar throughout. Guests are privy to turndown service, daily refreshed mini-bar, Internet access, iPod dock and a private balcony. With Secrets, the bathroom and jet spa are subtly separated from the sleeping area via a curtain. There’s also the signature Secrets box for private room service delivery. At Now Amber, bathroom privacy is secured with a sliding door to accommodate the mix of family members or friends sharing the room.

For the most part, the separated towers offer adults a more peaceful pool and dining scene. Now Amber also tosses in The Explorer’s Club for ages 3-12 and Core Zone teen club. While Secrets guests may dine at all restaurants, Now Amber guests with children in tow are limited to those eateries in their tower.

Both kick it up a notch with Preferred Club rooms offering dedicated concierges located on the ground floor, and an exclusive lounge where snacks and beverages are served throughout the day.

Through Dec. 21, 2012, nightly pp rates are from $109 at Secrets Vallarta (two max) and from $146 at Now Amber (up to four).

Hilton has finally tossed its hat into the ring with the October opening of its first Mexico all-inclusive. With vanguard and elegant architecture, the 259-room Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort plays up the destination’s elite culinary status with four gourmet restaurants highlighted by the hip beachfront O West Lounge that serves tapas and handcrafted martinis.

“The introduction of the all-inclusive resort,” says Dave Horton, global head, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, “provides Hilton the opportunity to expand its already strong presence within the travel industry by offering this unique all-inclusive experience—the brand’s first all-inclusive property in Mexico and 10 worldwide.

“Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort will attract travelers who are seeking a five-star resort experience in a well-known Mexican beach destination, while enjoying confidence in our Hilton brand that offers a high level of service and experiences at all our properties around the world. The range of activities on property—from a kids’ club and salsa lessons to fine dining and water activities—all with breathtaking views of the mountains and Banderas Bay also sets the resort apart for travelers.”

Each guestroom, incidentally, is decked out with a private balcony, so clients can truly take in those mesmerizing views.

Through Dec. 15 rates are $180-$350 pp nightly for up to two adults; up to two kids 12 and under share the room for $49 additional nightly.