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Puerto Vallarta: A Valentine's idea for next year

Now that Valentine's Day has passed, is it too early to think about next year's celebration? How about a getaway to an exciting foreign destination, only a short flight away?

Consider visiting Puerto Vallarta, only about 1,200 miles down the west coast of Mexico. It is a seaside resort area built along the shore and hills surrounding the Bay of Banderas. It combines the best qualities of luxury hotels with quaint historical architecture and the excitement of a major city.

Most of the streets in town are cobblestoned, like ancient European cities. An old cathedral, crowned with an actual crown, dominates the central square. The Malecon, a pedestrian walkway, hugs the shoreline and is decorated with Dali-like statues and huge nearby sand sculptures.

Many superb hotels dot the shoreline, including properties owned by Sheraton and Marriott. Melia, a worldwide hotel operator, has an all-inclusive property (melia_puerto_vallarta.com) located in the elegant Marina area that offers an terrific range of services at prices that make a visit an outstanding value.

As the term "all-inclusive" implies, everything is included -- meals, drinks (including alcoholic beverages), room, pools, beach, Broadway-like entertainment, activities, children's club, hospitality and service.

Guest rooms are large and well furnished. Many have balconies with stunning views of the ocean and city lights. Bathrooms are spacious and come with high-quality shampoos and sundries. The towels even are oversized full body, soft and absorbent.

The resort's restaurants offer extensive buffets or specialized Mexican and Italian cuisine. Poolside, hamburgers and hot dogs, chips, french fries and ice cream cones, are served near to the swim-up bar. It would be difficult for a guest to become hungry.

Locally, San Diego's Mexican restaurants offer excellent Mexican food made in traditional ways. El Agave (619-220-0692) in Old Town and Candelas (619-702-3694) in the Gaslamp, for example, position their cuisine as being genuine.

But what better way to experience the range of Mexican cuisine than by sampling restaurants in the country? When visiting Puerto Vallarta, it is fun to explore the authentic restaurants and to get away for a while, even from the "all inclusive" amenities.

Mexican cuisine is complex, with different dishes, flavors and the use of chiles that vary from region to region.

El Arrayan, which is named after a unique tree that grows in the state of Jalisco, offers very traditional recipes from a variety of regions. Taquitos are prepared with toasted pumpkin seed pure, an ancient recipe from the Mayas. The recipe for pigs feet is from the Yucatan. Fish in "Mone" sauce is a boneless fish filet, pan-fried with sauce from Tabasco state, made with mild tomatillo, cilantro, aromatic herb and Serrano peppers. The restaurant has won numerous awards under the direction of its owner, Carmen Porras, including "best Mexican restaurant" for five consecutive years.

Los Xitomates takes its name from the Aztec word for "tomato," honoring the tomato's contribution to the world's cuisine. Its owner and chef Javier Fernandez, traveled widely and also studied at Cordon Blue in Paris. The ingredients are all fresh and local. The dishes blend contemporary favorites -- duck, tuna, shrimp, beef and the like -- with old-time accents such as cuitlacoche, chayote and chipotle. Hibiscus is a favorite ingredient. Cabreria, a baked short rib with lots of tender meat, came with a tasty slice of cactus plant. The restaurant just received the 2010 Five Diamond Award.

Mestizo is an upscale, gourmet version of Mexican cuisine. It is the sister restaurant to the River Cafe, on the shores of the Cuale River that runs through the center of the city. River Cafe has thrilled diners for more than 25 years, to my recollection. Mestizo has been in business only six years, but has established an enviable reputation for quality and uniqueness.

Just as "mestizo" is a term denoting the blending of the Hispanic and native Indian cultures, the restaurant offers fusion dishes that mix old recipes with modernity. The ambiance is elegant. One enters a courtyard to dine under the stars (in glorious weather) surrounded by tall trees trimmed with lights. Small candles light the path to the table. It is very romantic. The signature dish of the restaurant, "Shrimp Al Pastor," is beautifully presented -- a high stack of shrimp, lightly peppered, sits on top of a bed of rice suffused with pineapple and cilantro to create an absolutely delicious mix of flavors on the palate.

Puerto Vallarta is a romantic, exciting destination that is very affordable now. It offers the ultimate vacation experience -- luxury hotels, wonderful beaches, great restaurants, many exciting activities and total relaxation. Think about a trip there for next year's Valentine's Day celebration. For more information and a vacation planner, go to visitpuertovallarta.com.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a member of the California Restaurant Writers Association and the restaurant critic for sdgodowntown.com.

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