Ruffian designers Brian Wolk and Claude Morais, who are now L.A. boys, write in with their latest adventure to Nicaragua. Thinking about your next travel destination? The Ruffians have some great ideas…
“The United States and Nicaragua have had a long, storied relationship. The Nicaraguan-American saga has involved governments, dynasties, and perhaps most famously, the proposed and never executed Nicaraguan Canal, which predated the Panama Canal. Cornelius Vanderbilt established the first commercial route for Americans to transverse Nicaragua by river, lake, and land as a safer, more efficient passage from New York to San Francisco during the gold rush of 1851. This route, made infamous by Mark Twain’s book Travels with Mr. Brown, would eliminate 1,000 miles and weeks of travel. There’s a new gold rush: a race to establish Nicaragua as the next hot tourist destination. When we heard our dear friend Jean Marc Houmard, proprietor of the legendary Indochine and Acme in NYC, and his longtime collaborator, Ivan Cussigh, were opening Tribal hotel in Granada, we had to investigate.
Thanks to the extraordinary team at Delta Air Lines, the passage to Nicaragua is a lot more luxurious and comfortable these days. Our journey from LAX to Managua was flawless. We began our first-class voyage sipping Central American coffee (a foreshadowing of what was to come!) under the beautiful rotunda of their LAX Sky Club. After a delightful breakfast, we arrived in Atlanta, were picked up at the air bridge and whisked to the Sky Club via Porsche, never stepping foot in the airport, thanks to Delta’s VIP Select service. After a short layover, our driver picked us up at the club and escorted down to the tarmac. Off we were again, speeding alongside Boeings and Airbuses until we arrived at our plane. After ascending the staircase and entering the plane, we had a glass of champagne, enjoyed a steak dinner, sketched a few dresses, reclined in our enormous seats and began our short three-hour flight to Nicaragua’s Capital, Managua.
After perhaps the quickest customs line we’ve ever been though, we met our driver and headed east to Granada, about a one-hour journey from Managua. Arriving at Tribal Hotel was a magical experience. Like Puck in a Midsummer’s Night Dream, we were transported into another universe, one that was personal, luxurious, and unpretentious. We quickly understood why Tribal Hotel is becoming the celebrity getaway for Hollywood A-Listers including Halle Berry. As we entered through wrought-iron gates and mahogany doors, the black and white tiled foyer was curated by Ivan, the hotel’s resident creative director, with indigenous Nicaraguan smoked pottery, modern Central American art and exquisite custom designed furniture. The beautifully-cast staff escorted us to our suite, which was impeccably decorated. We enjoyed caipirinhas made with the delectable local rum, Flora De Cana.
We were awakened by the bright Nicaraguan sunrise and the sounds of tropical birds and monkeys. In the courtyard, the immaculately-uniformed staff styled in white caftans served us a three-course breakfast of tropical fruits, croque madame and locally grown coffee, which rivaled any of the best cafes in Paris. After some pleasant morning confabulation with the other guests about Nicaraguan native Bianca Jagger, we explored the streets of this romantic city. The clip-clop of horses and oxen, still a primary form of transportation, harkens back to a time when humans actually relied on each other and animals without the assistance of technology. After a stroll through the colorful Central Market, we ascended a 16th century spiral staircase to the top of the bell tower of the Iglesia de La Merced, one of the oldest churches in the town, and enjoyed magnificent panoramic views.
Ivan invited us to dinner at Granada’s finest restaurant, Expressionista. Located in the genteel consulate neighborhood, this former colonial mansion turned eatery is overseen by culinary alchemists Andreas Lazar and Puzsar Zoltan. They incorporates flavors of world cuisines including those of Asia, Latin America, Germany and France.
In the morning, after studio visits with Nicaraguan craft artisans responsible for the decor of Tribal Hotel, we headed an hour west to Aqua Wellness Resort on the beautiful Emerald Coast of Nicaragua. Our duplex casita was ensconced in a forest of trees and included a private plunge pool and a gourmet kitchen. On our balcony, we soaked in sweeping views of the ocean stretching to the far reaches of Costa Rica. The eco-curious can go on on guided hikes, sporty guests can canoe and fish, and the pleasure seeking (like ourselves) can go to the world class spa or take open-air cooking classes. The resort has its own organic farm supplies meat and vegetables served in its two restaurants. We dined with Chris Shanks, a native east coaster who’s dedicated the past last decade to agricultural sustainability in Nicaragua. That afternoon, on Chris’s advice, we went through a jungle path to the neighboring bay. Playa Gigante is for the the bohemian at heart; Camino del Gigante’s restaurant and bar is the expat hipster set’s clubhouse. The youthful crowd, perfectly clad in patinate garments worthy of Talitha Getty, exude the virtues of gypsy life. Sipping rum and snacking on thin crust pizza, it felt like Tulum 20 years ago.
The next day, we headed to the fabled Rancho Santana, a world-class resort set on thousands of acres overlooking the Pacific. Arriving through the multi-mile manicured driveway, we knew we were in for a five star experience. Our host was Erik Wetz, a hotel and restaurant veteran. We stayed in Casa Sara, a five-bedroom compound that’s perhaps the resorts’s most impressive estate, with an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, gourmet outdoor and indoor kitchens, and full staff. We had a quick lunch prepared by our chef, then had massages in individual cabanas overlooking the ocean. Then, we had a couple martinis, played a game of pool, and had a steak and lobster dinner by Rancho Santana’s restaurateur Brian Block, at the clubhouse.
Early the next morning, we headed to the stables and met our equestrian director and instructor, Beverly Bean. We were matched to horses based on personality compatibility and then trotting down the beach and through beautiful trails. Our breakfast was waiting back at Casa Sara, sustenance we would need on our mission to suntan at all five beaches at Rancho Santana. Each beach offered it own unique personality; some secluded, others with perfect surfing waves. Walking down a cliff’s 150 rock stairs to our favorite, Playa Duna, felt like Swept Away. Cloistered by cliffs and prehistoric jagged lava stones, time seemed to stand still.
The following day, we headed deeper south on an unpaved road toward San Juan Del Sur. We’d heard stories about Nicaragua’s first five star luxury eco-resort, Morgan’s Rock, from fellow travelers. Located in 4,000 acres of Nicaraguan Jungle, nearly half the resort is government-protected reserve, with 15 exquisite bungalows overlooking a mile of sandy beach. Like a modern day Swiss Family Robinson, we settled into our beautiful treehouse, which was completely energy independent, powered by solar panels on the roof. Then, we headed over a suspended bridge to the main hacienda. This open-air living room, restaurant, and lounge overlooking an infinity pool with million-dollar views of the pacific ocean is the epicenter of activity at Morgan’s Rock. After a delightful lunch, we we spent the rest of the day lackadaisically luxuriating in the sun on the beach, sipping rosè and swinging on a hammock in our private ocean side cabana.
The service at Morgan’s Rock is flawless, polished, and French, like its owners, the Poncon Family, who created this oasis in the jungle 25 years ago. Even early morning coffee service delivered to the room was utter perfection (the coffee served at Morgans Rock is grown and roasted onsite). That afternoon, we decided to venture into the town of San Juan del Sur, a famous mecca for surfers worldwide. This charming fishing village offers a shot of youthful adrenaline and nightlife to the otherwise laid-back coastal lifestyle. We were lucky enough to have our local friends and designers Bart and Flora of the label Roots and Soul, show us the hot spots, including Bario Cafe (the best coffee in town) and Republik, where the tacos are as hot as the hipsters. That evening we headed to Munchies Bluues pizzeria, which was started by an American expat almost 20 years ago. Only open three nights a week, reservations are mandatory, and after his nightly quota of 40 pizzas, the shop closes.
The next morning we headed to our final destination, Jicaro Island Ecolodge. Located on an isleta (a mini-island) in the center of Lake Nicaragua, Jicaro is the jewel box of all the eco-resorts in Nicaragua and was recently rated one of the top 25 eco-lodges by National Geographic Traveller. The Brain Child of Karen Emmanuel and executed by Architect Mathew Falkiner, this tiny little island is robust with culture and design. Arriving by boat, we were greeted at the dock with Jicaro tea, made from an indigenous herb, and escorted to our casita. Our beautiful duplex home had large windows, mosquito netting over our bed, comfortable furniture, and dim lighting, and we fantasize about what it would have been like to be a settler on this fantasy island. Through a beautifully landscaped trail we strolled to the open air restaurant and were dazzled by the eco-chic cuisine and the beautiful views of Mombacho Volcano in the distance. The isletas of Granada hold a unique place in its history, and their mystical energy is undeniable. A sense of calm comes over one once you swim in the mineral rich waters, only further enhanced by a massage from the expertly trained team at Jicaro. With the sounds of birds and howler monkeys as a score, we settled into our bed suspended above the ground like a luxury treehouse.
Our journey ended, and we learned so much about this wonderful country and people. A land of enchantment, warmth, nature, and beauty, Nicaragua is at a crossroads with the future. We are grateful to all of our hosts and friends who made this La Vie en Ruffian perhaps the most epic and memorable.
Until the our next adventure…
Brian and Claude