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Elise Hofer | Photo: Ken Kochey | May 28, 2013
The secret’s out! The travel-savvy are jetting to Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa on Nicaragua’s sparkling Emerald Coast.
In English, Mukul means “secret.” It’s a word plucked from the parlance of the precolonial Mayans who inhabited Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. Today, the secret is out—the “land of lakes and volcanoes” is a hot spot for jet-setters willing to venture off the beaten path. The New York Times ranked Nicaragua third out of 46 select destinations to visit in 2013, and swell-seeking surfers have long made pilgrimages to Playa Colorado and Popoyo. But Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, on the Emerald Coast, is the country’s first luxury boutique resort for refined travelers looking to savor Central America in style.
Arriving midday at Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, we’re met by our amiable chauffeur and excitedly settle in the car for the two-hour drive to Mukul. We head south toward Granada, Nicaragua’s fifth most populous city and a Spanish colonial outpost peppered with pastel-colored buildings founded by 16th century conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. It’s here that the coastal mountains come into view. One-lane highways, cattle farms, plantain fields and genizaro trees give way to dirt roads and dense brush, and before we know it, we’re facing the massive metal gates of Guacalito de la Isla (guacalitodelaisla.com).
Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America yet, like many posh resorts in Third World countries, Mukul sits on a sprawling (and heavily guarded) 1,670-acre private community. The $250 million, low-density resort property is the dream of Nicaraguan entrepreneur Don Carlos Pellas, the fifth-generation heir to the Flor de Caña rum fortune. From the beginning, Don Carlos and his wife Vivian envisioned Guacalito as a sanctuary where guests could connect to the land, culture and locals—hence our first night on-property, which finds us releasing a hatchery of green sea turtles on Mukul’s Playa Manzanillo.
Don Carlos vetted several firms before hiring Houston-based HKS Hill Glazier Architects to helm the design of Mukul—with one steadfast stipulation: that they use local labor and materials whenever possible. Ensuring Guacalito de la Isla is a continuous catalyst for benefiting the surrounding community through sustainability—of jobs, the environment and Nicaraguan culture—is the Pellas’ mission. At the time of our visit, the first of Guacalito’s three design phases was nearly completed, availing Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa (including the 18-hole Guacalito Golf Course), 28 four- and five-bedroom Verdemar Ocean View Villas (private residences; all but three had been sold as of press time) and the three-bedroom Las Terrazas condominiums. Future development includes an ecologically sound marina and a second, yet-to-be-named hotel. To date, the project has resulted in approximately 2,000 jobs, with Mukul training its Nicoya employees at a Pellas-funded hospitality school in the nearby town of Tola.
One such staffer is our personal villa butler, Domingo; others oversee Mukul’s 37 total villas and bohios (“little huts,” although there’s nothing little or hutlike about them). We’ve booked a spacious ocean-view villa with 9-foot-high ceilings, wraparound windows, a walk-in closet, his and hers vanities (stocked with Molton Brown bath goods), a soaking tub, indoor and outdoor “monsoon” showers, and a private pool. From the clay floor tiles to the hand-carved teak tables, no detail was overlooked. Our king-size bed, fashioned with a headboard made from rum barrel staves, is dressed in custom Marshall Quentin linens courtesy of designer Nancy Vignola, who worked for Ralph Lauren for 30 years, launching the Ralph Lauren Home Collection. It’s a challenge to get out from beneath the cozy covers each morning, but a task made easier by homemade pastries, fresh-squeezed orange juice, strong Nica coffee and plates of fanned-out fruit that Domingo brings at our behest.
Our days most often begin at Mukul Beach Club, selecting our chaise du jour. Immediately, Eddy, our pool and beach concierge, appears with extra towels and ice-cold bottles of water. Cooling off in the infinity pool or with chilled aperitifs (think lime smoothie shooters with bits of strawberry and vanilla ice cream atop frozen grapes) is a frequent pleasure—after all, we’re only 800 miles from the equator. And Eddy is always on hand should further refreshments be needed.
Aside from lounging poolside with a Guacalito Sunset in hand (Mukul’s version of the Miami Vice, a frosty piña colada and peach daiquiri concoction made with 4-year-old Flor de Caña rum, natch), the prospect of experiencing Spa Mukul most excites me. Up the mountain sit six treatment casitas: Secret Garden, Hammam, Healing Hut, Rain Forest, Casita Mukul and Crystal Temple. All are 100 percent private—meaning no waiting around in a “relaxation lounge” with strangers—and tailored to treatment type. Seeking hydrotherapy using minerals from the sea? Book the Rain Forest casita. Prefer a Turkish detox? Ask for Hammam. Chakra work? Your Crystal Temple awaits. Each casita and exterior space has its own distinct decor (plunge pools, open-air treatment huts), panoramas and, depending on one’s preferred path to revitalization, a custom mix of Phytomer, Argania and Aromapothecary products. We choose Casita Mukul for massages, which incorporate indigenous healing practices and medicinal Nicaraguan plants grown on-property.
If there’s only so much pampering you can handle without getting antsy, head to Granada and San Juan del Sur (a quaint fishing village known for its chill nightlife scene and authentic restos)—both are about an hour away by car. But with 4 miles of coastline, including four white-sand beaches and 12 kilometers of nature trails for hiking, biking and taking in the wildlife that resides in the lush coastal forest, there’s little reason to leave Mukul. Our favorite excursion is an afternoon at Guacalito Beach. A few clicks past the golf course by bike, the secluded beach is available for guest use. Without a soul in sight, we drop our towels, crack open a pair of Toña beers and explore the beach and rugged coastline.
Evenings are equally fun at Mukul, and most often kick off with cocktails at La Palapa lounge. The central palapa (an open-sided dwelling with a thatched roof made of dried palm leaves), the largest in the country built as an oval, took a team of 15 from Cabo San Lucas a month to craft, a process that involved transporting Hurricane Mitch-uprooted trees 400 kilometers from the Atlantic coast to use as support beams, so as not to have to cut down any ancient nanciton (Caribbean rosewood) spruces on the property. It’s as much a work of art as it is a respite for gathering for rare-rum tastings and Cuban cigars before dinner at La Mesa or La Terraza restaurants.
Cupertino Ortiz, Mukul’s executive chef who was brought onboard this spring, brings a respected resume to the resort, including more than five years at two award-winning five-star hotels in Los Cabos, Mexico (One&Only Palmilla and Las Ventana al Paraiso), not to mention time with star chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Charlie Trotter. La Mesa is Mukul’s more formal dining room; La Terraza its more casual, open-air sibling. Both share the same menu, so the decision of where to dine is really about atmosphere and attire. At both, Ortiz’s ceviches steal the show. (Try the baby shrimp with ahi tuna, mango, hearts of palm, rum and leche de tigre.) Main courses run the gamut from marinated spare ribs with a sour orange sauce to baked whole fish—all are deliciously prepared using local ingredients. And, the fresh-caught daily fish, be it mahimahi or dorado, is a fast favorite.
It’s nearly impossible to tire of Ortiz’s offerings, but after almost a week we catch wind of a six-table, alfresco restaurant called Pili & Mon’s Kitchen and decide to stretch our culinary legs. A 15-minute drive from the property gates, Pili’s is nothing more than a slab of cement off the side of the road in the heart of the jungle—but don’t judge a book by its cover. The owner, Pilar de la Peña, is originally from Spain, but Nica through and through. And her cuisine, much like herself, is a delightful fusion of cultures (think basil and peanut linguini; garbanzo hummus with tahini, garlic and almond slivers; and rotating Mediterranean specials). Guests can bring their own wine, but I recommend the house sangria sweetened with cinnamon.
When it comes time to say goodbye to Mukul, our departure is unceremonious. We sneak off at 3am to catch an early flight through Miami. Back on the road headed to Managua, I can’t help but wonder: What is the secret? Being able to share in the Pellas’ legacy? My newfound love for Nicaragua? And then it hits me… but I’ll never tell.
Opening rates start at $500 per double night (including breakfast, lunch and domestic premium open bar during the day). Suites within Casona Don Carlos, the Pellas’ 20,000-square-foot private beach house, may be booked when the family is not in residence. KM 10 Carretera Tola-Las Salinas, Rivas, Nicaragua, mukulresort.com