Aqua Wellness Resort
One of the many elements that make Aqua Wellness Resort so special is its staff. Consisting of a wide array of multi-talented ex-pats, they resemble a family (and by the end of your trip, they will feel like your family). The Director of Sustainable Systems is a Vermont-educated farmer. The Managing Partner who originally hails from British Guiana is also a Manhattan hedge fund manager. The Wellness Director having “broken up with winter years ago,” spends her winters in Nicaragua and summers in Canada. The General Manager who is developing the spa into a world-class program, was born in the Ukraine. The German architect is married to the Managing Director (ask about how they met: she was a tourist in Manhattan’s Central Park, he offered her directions, they fell in love…) The English chef biked around Asia for two years perfecting his craft.
An eco luxury property comprised of 25 tree houses, Aqua Wellness Resort sits on the protected Redonda Bay on the Pacific coast. The resort emphasizes nature, in particular the stunning ocean at its feet. The houses, built on pilings amid the tropical forest and made of sustainable local wood and stone, feature rain showers and un-chlorinated private plunge pools. Ideal for families, the tree houses can accommodate several people and even have full kitchens, dining rooms and lounge areas. The Nicaraguan furnishings are comfortable and the views of the rainforest and ocean act as the world’s most spectacular decoration. One of the directors described their mission: “We’re intentionally taking people out of their comfort zone and bringing them back to basics. We’re in nature, but in a luxurious way.”
Activities include hiking, surfing, fishing, kayaking and yoga. The 1,100-square-foot yoga platform overlooks the ocean and the instructor also offers a raw-food cooking course. The protected nature of the bay allows for snorkeling and swimming in the very warm and gentle ocean, and phosphorescent sea creatures are visible at night.
The food at Bromelia restaurant is a balanced mix of American (omelets, fajitas, pasta, and sandwiches) and Nicaraguan (ceviche, locally caught seafood, churrasco, gallo pinto and curry). All food is locally grown as the resort works closely with the farmers in the nearby town of Rivas. Also on offer is an extensive menu of smoothies – all of which include all-natural, locally grown ingredients (a great post-yoga treat).
Hotel Plaza Colon
Granada is a city filled with centuries of history and is a must-see for anyone visiting Nicaragua. With just 25 guest rooms located directly on Granada’s Parque Centrale, this grand hotel offers the perfect combination of intimacy and luxury (the building was a private home, which explains the rooms’ large size and high ceilings). Book a room with a balcony to get the full sense of the city.
Jicaro Island Eco-Lodge
When London-based Karen Emmanuel visited Nicaragua’s Lake Managua Las Isletas in the early 2000s, she had just left the country’s first eco-lodge, Morgan’s Rock. As Emmanuel was guided through the majestic, lily pad–covered lake and around this stunning archipelago of 365 islands, she was still thinking about the game-changing mission and style of Morgan’s Rock. Upon seeing an uninhabited one-acre island, she had a vision for Jicaro Island: a sustainable, eco-friendly, service-focused lodge with an emphasis on nature but with the constant theme of luxury.
Designed by fellow Brit (but a resident of Nicaragua for 12 years now) Matthew Falkiner, the casitas and public buildings were created with nature in mind. All lumber is cedar and eucalyptus, provided by felled trees from 1998’s Hurricane Felix and water is provided by the lake. The organic lines of the modern luxe nine casitas blend into the forests of trees that protect the island. Indeed, the entire island feels as though it sprung up from the lake, fully-formed. There isn’t an ounce of concrete or material that seems unnatural, and only when the boat is yards away from the island, can you actually see any buildings—they fade into the landscape. The island’s stone paths, carved into the rocks, seem to have existed for centuries. Virtually no trees were cut down when building the lodge.
The nine, two-story villas all have a porch suspended over the lake with a Nicaraguan hand-crocheted hammock. The first-floor sitting room with a pullout sofa is built of local hardwood and the dark-reddish-brown walls create a cool respite. The bathroom includes a shower that, thanks to the slatted walls and floor, makes you feel like you’re standing under a waterfall. A king-sized bed draped with mosquito netting takes up the entire second floor, with the exception of the breathtaking views. There is no air-conditioning in the casitas, but with the (screened) windows open a light breeze flows through the room throughout the night and allows for the symphony of sounds from monkeys and birds to act as your natural alarm clock in the morning.
A couple of hours drive from Managua airport, the resort welcomes guests at a non-descript dock on the edge of a massive lake where Jicaro staff greets you. After a fifteen-minute boat ride, during which you enjoy views of Mombacho volcano, weary travelers alight onto what can only be described as a treasure island, with staff members waiting with cold towels and refreshing iced drinks.
Activities include exploring Las Isletas, the 365 islands created when volcano Mombacho erupted 10,000 years ago. The islands are home to millionaires and fishermen alike and luxury mansions co-exist with shacks. Jicaro offers kayaking tours to see the islands as well as myriad wildlife, including birds (I saw herons and egrets), monkeys and butterflies. They can also arrange tours of nearby plantations, tropical forests and hot springs. Local fishermen take guests out to catch tilapia and the 42 other kinds of fish that live in the lake. The lake’s papahonche flowers and lily pads the size of breadboxes are particularly stunning.
On island, guests can enjoy yoga classes on the yoga deck, the freshwater pool (which is cleaned out daily eliminating the need for chemicals) and massages in the eucalyptus-roofed open-air spa. The observation tower, which doubles as the water-collecting tower, can be climbed and has the most incredible views of the archipelago and Mombacho.
The food served in the resort’s chic open-air restaurant is local and organic and cooked in the outdoor kitchen. The chef offers cooking classes and, while teaching me how to make homemade tortillas and heuvos rancheros, told me about the “breakfast in bed” classes he’s taught to eager honeymooning husbands.
Jicaro’s staff is completely devoted to the guests’ experience and relaxation. Indeed the whole island feels like a complete escape: there are no TVs or cellphone service and Wifi is available only in the lounge, bar and restaurant.
The distinctly gadget-free rooms at Morgan's Rock were all designed by British sustainable designer, Matthew Falkiner (the same designer who helped create Jicaro Eco-Lodge), with the emphasis on featuring reclaimed wood interiors, natural stone details and local crafts. The bedrooms, outdoor showers and swinging-double-chaise lounges are protected but allow guests to feel completely at one with their surroundings.
The property sits on 1,800 acres of farm and rainforest, and resort guides can lead tours to spot howler, white-faced and spider monkeys and dozens of species of birds. The farm includes cashew, avocado, mango and citrus fruits and 55% of food consumed at the resort is produced on the property. Kids and their parents will love the Farm Breakfast which includes milking the cows and picking up eggs from the chicken coop, then having breakfast cooked for you in an authentic adobe house with dirt floor. Needless to say, the resort takes pride in the certified-organic food.
Guests can relax on the one-and-a-half mile private beach with adorable cabanas or in the salt-water pool, which boasts breathtaking views. Other activities include kayaking through the property’s estuary, horseback rides on the beach and nature walks and hikes. World-class surfing at Maderas beach is just a fifteen-minute drive away.
Morgan’s Rock, like most Nicaraguan hotels and resorts, is highly concerned with supporting the local communities and economy. This resort alone supports six schools (educating a total of 250 students) and even comes in to teach lessons on such subjects as recycling and health. They are currently running a program teaching local women candle-making (the resort will buy their products to keep their electricity use low.)
The resort does not have a spa but can arrange for an in-room massage. The staff is all local and most live on the property making for a very warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Nekupe Sporting Resort and Retreat
Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa
Designed in 1989 by Chris Berry, an American ballet dancer and Stanford-educated lawyer, Pelican Eyes resort has 69 villas whose undulating lines and red tiles give an impression of Gaudi-meets-Mexico. The spa with a magical view of the beach crescent and towering statue of Jesus offers treatments with products using ingredients grown on the property. The bar and restaurant, also with stunning views, is overseen by a Mexican chef and Argentine sommelier. Ingredients are local because the management is concerned with sustainability, healthy eating and supporting the local economy. Pelican Eyes Resort can arrange a sunset sailing cruise along the coastline in their private sailboat with a crew.
Once an artisan co-op building, Tribal Hotel is the brainchild of childhood friends Yvan Cussigh and Jean-Marc Houmard. They're veterans of such New York hot spots as 60 Thompson, Bond Street and Indochine, so naturally, a cool city vibe reigns at this joint project. Upon entering the classic barred iron doors of the hotel’s white washed exterior, it is immediately apparent that this is not another traditional colonial hotel to add to old-world Granada’s list. Instead, this is a mini urban oasis that only adds to Granada’s age old charm.
Each of the hotel’s five Premium rooms and two Junior Suites are uniquely decorated with sophisticated artifacts from across the globe (think kilims from Turkey, graphic prints, gnarled driftwood, black and white Kenyan fabric and decorative animal skulls), but it is Tribal’s courtyard that steals the show. The pool is ideal for a dip post-touring and at night, the courtyard transforms into a romantically cozy, candlelit terraza, perfect for enjoying one of the hotel’s jalapeño martinis with your fellow guests. While the rooms are not large, each room has a terrace or balcony that provides additional space.
Like most hotels in Nicaragua, five-star service and amenities are not to be expected, however at Tribal this is made up for with friendly, personal service from the small yet dedicated staff. There is no gym, spa or restaurant but the staff offer recommendations and help with setting up touring in and around Granada. Included in the room rate is a delicious breakfast that is whipped up just for when you wake and can be enjoyed on your private terrace.