a-discover-the-north-shore

It's true: Puerto Vallarta is a great place. A neat new Malecón abounds with people, slick new clubs and trendy restaurants are on every street - why, PV is practically a big city! So, maybe now it's time to get out of town for a while. There's no need to travel far to get a taste of small-town life around the bay. It's only about 40 kilometers from the airport to the northern tip of the bay at Punta de Mita and there's plenty to see and do along these 25 miles.

By public bus or private car, you'll cross the new four-lane bridge into the state of Nayarit and go by the entrances to Nuevo Vallarta with its golf courses, private homes on scenic canals and all-inclusive hotels. Pass through Mezcales and then by the charming seaside town of Bucerias, but be sure to exit when you see the sign to Punta de Mita.

The fishing community of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle is located just two kilometers after the Punta de Mita exit, and it's certainly worth a stop. In fact, better than just a quick look at the fishermen working with their nets on the town square built alongside the sea, consider staying in La Cruz for a night or so at the charming Villa Bella Bed and Breakfast and make it a base for exploring this end of the bay. The views from Villa Bella are spectacular - it's like having a living map of the area spread out in front of you. Explore the charming La Cruz beach, La Manzanilla and the small shops of the town by day and the rustic restaurants and burgeoning music scene in the evening.

A bit farther down the road is the fabulous Destiladeras Beach. Stroll along the wide white coastline for several kilometers or venture far into the sea walking way out on the smooth sandy bottom while the water barely reaches your waist. And it's hard to beat this beach for sunset watching. Walk for a while, and there are flat rocks on which to set out a picnic feast or plan to sit under a shady palapa and eat at the aptly named Restaurant Destiladeras. Open 10 am - 7 pm every day, the menu includes everything from hamburgers and French fries to burritos de camarón.

Passing Destiladeras, Villa Vera Beach Club at Los Veneros, 221-1401, is another top choice for a great day. Arrive at 10 am and have breakfast poolside and lunch on the beach, while the children play in their special pool and kids' area. Staying until closing at 6 pm gives you plenty of time to enjoy the gardens as well as the water.

If you can catch it open one evening after 4 pm, Restaurant Las Amapas, located a few kilometers closer to Punta de Mita and directly on the road, serves traditional Mexican dishes including some you won't find in most PV eateries. Señora Santilla has been preparing estofado de borrego (lamb stew), duck in mole, chivo (goat) adobado and rabbit since 1973, when the highway was just a dirt road. Today, far from being a dirt road, the smooth pavement carries you past the gates of communities boasting million dollar beachfront homes to the northernmost point of the bay, where the ocean and the bay waters meet.

El Anclote, the northernmost community of the bay shown on the map, certainly merits a long day's visit. Start off in the morning with breakfast and coffee at Galleria Paquime, (329) 291-6272, open 8 am - 5 pm. Paquime is also an Internet café, part-time real estate office and general meeting place. But, best of all, it's a wonderful art gallery with fine Mata Ortiz pottery, as well as contemporary paintings and crafts from Mexican and American artists.

When you're finally ready to leave your Italian cappuccino and the comfortable veranda at Paquime, head down to El Anclote beach and consider doing some sightseeing by boat. Rent a kayak, catamaran and snorkeling gear or hire a panga and guide for a couple of hours to look for whales, sea turtles and giant squid on your way toward the Marietta Islands, a protected nature preserve. If you've always wanted to try surfing, contact Tranquilo Surf Adventures, located on calle Pez Vela, (329) 291-6475, where Kemi Vernon provides surfing lessons for all levels and specializes in instruction for women.

Shopping is always a fun activity, and La Pecera, on the main street of El Anclote, boasts the latest beach fashions in swimwear and accessories for the entire family. There are bathing suits from California, shirts from Hawaii and sandals that look like they came straight from St. Tropez. Stroll by the Mini-Super Las Palmeras and check out their mini-clothing store for cotton fashions or buy a petate for only $30 pesos and stretch out on the white sand.

If you prefer more luxurious "accommodations" than a woven straw mat, settle down in front of any of the numerous restaurants along the beach and enjoy their lounge chairs and palapas for the price of a delicious lunch and some drinks or a modest rental fee. El Anclote, El Dorado and Rocio's are just three of several bar-restaurants with ice-cold beer and a variety of fresh seafood and typical Mexican fare.

Once the sun has begun to sink toward the horizon, bathing everything in a beautiful mauve glow, you'll probably start to think about eating again. If you've had your fill of guacamole, give serious consideration to a fantastic Italian dinner and head over to Vito's Ristorante Italiano located at 133 Pez Vela, (329) 291-6480. Vito Latrofa came to Mexico from Vancouver and built his restaurant himself to resemble the Italian villas he knew in his native country. Open Thursday through Sunday from 7 pm until everyone's finished sipping espresso and chatting with Vito and his wife Teresa, the blackboard menu changes nightly depending on what's fresh.

There may not be enough time to see and do everything on the north shore of the bay this trip, so just plan to get out of the city again soon.