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Great Escapes: Nicaragua

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
WHERE TO STAY Granada: Hotel Plaza Colon, in front of Parque Central , 213-908-1472, www.hotelplazacolon.com. Rates range from $89 to $219 for a suite with a balcony, plus breakfast. San Juan del Sur: Pelican Eyes Resort and Spa, De la Parroquia, 1 1/2 Cuadras al Este, 310-776-9364, www.pelicaneyesresort.com. Rates range from $180 to $430, depending on the room size, view and season. Rivas: Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, KM 10 Carretera Tola-Las Salinas, 1-800-390-8844, www.mukulresort.com. Rates start at $500 per night, including breakfast, lunch and domestic premium open bar during the day. WHAT TO DO Doña Elba Cigars, Xalteva Church, 1/2 block West, Suite 515, 505-2552-7348. Aracne Rappelling Tours, 505-8887-6255, www.aracnerappel.com.
The Flor de Caña Macuá 1 1/2 ounces Flor de Cana four-year white rum 1 ounce guava juice 1 ounce orange juice 1/2 ounce lemon juice 1/3 ounce simple syrup Orange slice and green Maraschino cherry, for garnish Fill a cocktail shaker three-quarters full of ice. Add rum, juices and simple syrup. Shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Serve in a tall glass and garnish with the orange slice and cherry. — Recipe courtesy of Flor de Caña.

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In Nicaragua, there’s a special word for luxury: Pellas. It’s not official, of course — the dictionary’s favorite is still lujo. But traveling through this wild and wonderful Central American country, you soon learn that anything associated with Pellas, the surname of one of the country’s richest and most high-profile families, is sure to be superlative.

Take the latest Pellas endeavor, Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, which opened in February along a pristine stretch of beach on Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast. Mukul, which means “secret” in Mayan, is a spectacular, multimillion-dollar property that seeks to re-create the experience of staying at the private estate of a friend. If your friend is someone like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. Or maybe Don Carlos Pellas, who actually does own the resort.

The Stanford-educated entrepreneur can trace his family’s fortune back to 19th-century investments in sugar cane. The family also founded the region’s leading rum brand, Flor de Caña. Pellas has continued the family’s Midas touch, growing its holdings and venturing into new areas like computers and banking (the sale of a financial network he founded is considered the largest business transaction in Central American history).

With Mukul, which is part of a larger, $250 million real estate development that includes a private beach community, golf course and country club, Pellas intends to stake a position among the world’s most exclusive boutique hotels, and to put Nicaragua squarely on the world tourism map.

Will he succeed? Will he entice the world’s luxury-seekers to bypass more familiar, more developed Central American destinations like Costa Rica and Panama to venture to an area that less than two decades ago was under U.S. sanctions?

These are the questions I pondered while soaking in the cool water of the plunge pool on the terrace of my casita at Mukul. Then I started thinking about how I needed to talk with my butler about how to safeguard the breakfast cookies he left for me that morning, because I think a howler monkey made off with them. And then I just stared straight ahead, watching the Pacific Ocean waves in the distance. Inhale. Exhale. Total, complete peace.

I’d arrived in Managua earlier in the week and was instantly enchanted by the chaos and contrasts of this capital city. Tangles of traffic mixed together sleek town cars with “chicken buses,” brightly colored and creatively bedazzled ancient school buses turned mass-transit gypsy cabs. At stoplights and slow roundabouts, eager young men wove in between vehicles to hawk small plastic bags of clean water. Driving through the tony side of town, known as “New Managua,” where the young, monied set goes for bistros and discos, we passed an impressive new InterContinental hotel and the adjacent Metrocentro mall, home to not one, but three Benetton stores.

But we were merely passing through on our way to Granada, the country’s capital of tourism. Founded in 1524, this vibrant Spanish Colonial city grew to prominence as a Caribbean port for Spain, whose treasure-laden ships accessed it from the Caribbean via the sinuous San Juan River.

Throughout the centuries, Granada’s narrow streets of painted facades have charmed visitors. But they’ve also attracted plenty of uninvited guests, like the infamous pirate Captain Morgan, who raided the city in the 1660s, and American lawyer William Walker, who, while trying to colonize Latin America, captured Granada in 1856 and ruled for a New York minute as the self-styled King of Nicaragua.

The Hotel Plaza Colon is a gracious building that, like most structures in the city, is constructed around a central courtyard. This is the heart of the hotel, where you can relax surrounded by flowers and the colorful tiles typical of the region, or go for a dip in the pool. Or, like me, you can make a mental note to do both of these things while heading up the wrought-iron and wood courtyard stairs to enjoy a few minutes of rest in a cool, quiet room before giving in to the pull of the city.

The hotel couldn’t be better located for exploration — its lobby doors open onto the city’s main square, the Parque Central, where a spired church painted egg-yolk yellow anchors a charming mini Mayberry filled with strolling families and stalls selling everything from nuts to handicrafts.

In the midday heat, it was tempting to idle away the afternoon sitting under a palm tree, enjoying the light breeze from nearby Lake Nicaragua and people-watching. But my horse-drawn carriage awaited, and a friendly driver provided just the right amount of commentary. Plus, he was quite willing to stop for photos and a quick tour of Doña Elba Cigars, a rustic little factory where you can watch as women turn wads of wilted leaves into tightly wrapped tubes, all offered for sale in the front store area.

Once the sun sets, it’s carnival time in Granada’s pedestrian zone, Calle la Calzada, thanks to the myriad street performers vying for your córdobas with traditional dances (complete with life-size puppets), Western-style break dancing, and a range of random magic acts and robot impersonations. Just be sure to keep track of your macuá (pronounced “mah-qwah”) consumption as you bounce among the outdoor cafes and cantinas. Considered the national drink of Nicaragua, this ubiquitous blend gets its mild, sweet smoothness from guava and orange juice, but remember there’s plenty of rum in there, too.

In 2010, more than a million tourists visited Nicaragua, a record in its long history. Most visitors enter the country like I did, through the international airport in Managua, and they tend to stay in the same general area, on the western side of the country. This low-lying zone along the Pacific Coast hosts most of the country’s tourism infrastructure, and two picturesque lakes — Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. Both offer additional breezes and beachfront, plus flourishing ecosystems for anglers and bird-watchers. Volcanoes dot this area of the country, and intrepid travelers can take a day trip to Ometepe Island to stand on a volcanic beach and look up at two of the most majestic peaks, the dormant Maderas and the actively puffing Concepción.

While Nicaragua is relatively undiscovered at the moment — it’s often referred to as the Belize of the 1990s or the Costa Rica of the 1980s — change is most definitely in the air. The Nicaraguan tourism officials I spoke with stressed that the country is trying to manage its growth the right way, to protect its lands, wildlife and natural resources. The hope is that the country will be able to maintain this principled stance as the tourist count continues to shoot past the 1-million mark.

That’s the hope of Nicaraguan entrepreneur Javier Baldovinos. After years of traveling to promote Nicaraguan surfing competitions, Baldovinos — “Baldo” for short — decided to settle in San Juan del Sur and launch Aracne Rappelling Tours.

The tour offers a unique blend of nature and history. During the 30-minute uphill hike to the rappelling point, Baldo and his guides share stories about Nicaraguan history, including the shifting fortunes of San Juan del Sur. Who knew that this laid-back seaside town was once a bustling hub of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s transportation company that ferried hopeful forty-niners from the American East Coast to San Francisco during the Gold Rush? Our tour also included a stop at the ruins of a bunker that may have been used by William Walker — or not. But it was still interesting climbing on top of weathered rocks and down sets of stairs overgrown with weeds, wondering what the crumbling walls would say if they could talk.

Then came the actual rappelling: a nearly 330-foot drop into the refreshing surf of the Pacific Ocean, where a boat waits to whisk you back to shore. Yes, I did it, and yes, it was exhilarating. (Needless to say, I was a tad tired that evening as I sipped my macuá by the moonlit pool at Pelican Eyes, a beautifully designed resort nestled in the hills above San Juan del Sur. And a little sore, too.)

Any lingering soreness disappeared the following day — or rather, melted into the massage table, upon arrival at Mukul, which included a visit to Spa Mukul about a nanosecond after my bag hit the floor.

True to Mukul’s theme of personal hospitality, there is no central spa building — no locker rooms, no stranger-filled saunas, no wandering around a gift shop looking for the checkout. Instead, Spa Mukul is a collection of six individual spa casitas — elegant, individualized sanctuaries wholly devoted to a specific experience. Think indulgent Turkish-style treatments in an opulent, exquisitely tiled hammam or holistic Asian healing rituals like ayurvedic and Thai massages in a soothing Zen retreat with tranquil mountain views. Haste does not exist here — three hours is the minimum time for each reservation, which allows guests ample opportunity for recovery, relaxation and restoration time, whether it’s an extra-long steam shower or alone time in the sauna. Following my massage at the Secret Spa, I retreated to a chaise shaded by a rustic palapa — an open-sided, palm-leaf-thatched structure — in the casita’s private garden overlooking the ocean to let the vitamin E and cocoa oil sink in before heading back to my room.

Actually, it wasn’t a room — it was a treehouse-style, raised-platform villa called a bohio. There are 23 of them nestled into a hillside above the resort’s four-mile beach, all accessible by foot or chauffeured golf cart. They’re so expertly positioned that, between bamboo screens and angles, it’s possible to skinny-dip in your terrace plunge pool (or just enjoy a coffee or cocktail in your bathrobe) at any time of day with only the monkeys and birds bearing witness. (Yes, I did it, and yes, it was exhilarating.)

Mukul also offers 12 red-tile-roofed beach villas with one or two bedrooms that are more spacious and closer to the beach. Each villa boasts a swimming pool and a walled garden with an outdoor shower.

The lucky few can actually rent the Pellas family beach house (when they’re not using it, that is). Casona Don Carlos is a 20,000-square-foot, two-building oceanfront compound complete with six bedrooms and a shared indoor-outdoor living area with a soaring palapa-style ceiling.

Despite the privacy, the resort really does foster a sense of community. There are complimentary group activities every day like morning yoga classes and surfing lessons. A favorite meet-up spot for many guests is the Mukul Beach Club (aka the hotel lobby/lounge area). This giant palapa is the resort’s primary gathering area, and it’s easy to sink into any of the comfy, colorful sofas and chairs, especially with a macuá in hand. Don’t forget to look up — hanging from the club’s 52-foot-tall ceiling is a dramatic lighting installation of 152 baskets crafted by two groups of Nicaraguan weavers.

Plus there’s a gorgeous pool, a kids’ club to keep little ones safe and entertained, and special events throughout the week, like a mixed-grill dinner event that takes place on the beach with a steel-drum band and dancing. It’s all orchestrated by executive chef Cupertino Ortiz, who hails from equally exclusive boutique resorts like Las Ventanas al Paraiso and the Viceroy’s Sugar Beach resort in St. Lucia.

Pellas brought Ortiz here not only to preside over the kitchen but to create an entirely new interpretation of local culinary styles for Mukul guests — a style Ortiz has dubbed “Cocina NiKul.” That’s the other part of the Pellas approach to creating the ultimate vacation destination: enlist top-tier talent at every level. Like Scottish golf course architect David McLay Kidd (who put Mukul’s 18th hole steps from the surf — what a photo op!) and Dallas interior designer Paul Duesing, who directed the efforts of countless local artisans to create the resort’s casually elegant furnishings and sumptuous decor, which blend indigenous craft styles with native materials throughout the property.

Behind the scenes, however, Mukul’s success isn’t just about making well-heeled travelers happy. It’s also about raising the living standards for ordinary Nicaraguans. Years before the doors opened, Pellas began the significant investments necessary to create the infrastructure to support his expansive vision. He established a foundation to provide grants and microloans to local entrepreneurs who wanted to improve or open restaurants and other tourism-related businesses in the villages surrounding Mukul, and once the resort was in the final stages of construction, his managers hired more than 200 local Nicaraguans as staff, training many of them in the art of Western-style guest service, including English-language skills.

On my last night at Mukul, I joined a few newly made friends in this beach club and happened to look up again at that palapa ceiling. The baskets were now illuminated, creating the effect of a star-studded firmament above us. I raised my macuá and made a toast to Mukul and to Nicaragua, both enchanting down to the tiniest detail.

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