Magazine article Geographical

Paradise Sustained: Once Notorious as a Hotbed of Conflict and the Bane of Ronald Reagan's Presidency, Today, Nicaragua Is Becoming Better Known for Its Exceptional Natural Beauty. Clare Kendall Visits a Luxury Island Resort, with Impeccable Eco-Credentials

Magazine article Geographical

Paradise Sustained: Once Notorious as a Hotbed of Conflict and the Bane of Ronald Reagan's Presidency, Today, Nicaragua Is Becoming Better Known for Its Exceptional Natural Beauty. Clare Kendall Visits a Luxury Island Resort, with Impeccable Eco-Credentials

Article excerpt

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As I swim past the dining room, I notice that a sandpiper is sitting under my breakfast table, its tail bobbing up and down in time to the gentle lapping of the water. The irony of this role reversal doesn't escape me.

I swim on around the corner, past the massage suite, and now I'm at the service entrance, where Vanessa is sorting the food scraps into the pig bins. I roll onto my back. Kiskadees, mangrove swallows and ringed kingfishers swoop overhead and alight in the branches above me.

The couple from Chicago in number seven are drinking coffee on their veranda, and I tread water while we exchange pleasantries. A few strokes more and I pass my own casita or suite. The white-throated magpie jay that has taken up residence in the tree outside my bedroom seems unimpressed by my morning exertions.

On a little further and I'm soon rounding the bar. Out in the lake, an osprey loses its catch. More ominously, a vulture is circling over me as I swim the last few metres to the landing jetty, coming close enough for me identify it as a turkey vulture. General manager Howard Coulson, who apparently has more faith in my swimming ability than the vulture, greets me with a towel and a latte, making me feel like a James Bond villain in my own private fantasy hideaway.

NATURAL BEAUTY

It has taken me 20 minutes to circumnavigate Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a resort with such immaculate eco credentials and high-end service that you might imagine you were in Costa Rica or Ecuador, certainly not in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

'When people think of Peru, they think Machu Picchu,' says lodge owner and founder Karen Emanuel, a London-based entrepreneur. 'When they think of Ecuador, the Galapagos. When they think of Nicaragua, they think of the war, and that ended more than 20 years ago. People have no idea just how much unspoilt natural beauty and fabulous wildlife there is here.'

And this is what made Emanuel decide, four years ago, to buy an undeveloped island she had seen advertised on the wall of a local restaurant and construct a ground-breaking luxury eco-resort on it. Jicaro Island Ecolodge, which opened in January last year, nestles behind the shoreward side of the Asese Peninsula in Lake Nicaragua, a few kilometres southeast of the old colonial port of Granada. The resort is located on one of 365 isleta (islands with an area of more than 1,000 square metres) collectively known as the Isleta de Granada.

The top of Jicaro's water-tower-turned-viewing-platform offers an excellent view of the other isleta and of the lush slopes of the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, one of 78 sites protected by the Nicaraguan government, which lies a short boat ride away.

The open water of Lake Nicaragua--which, at 8,264 square kilometres is the world's 19th largest lake, and supports populations of sawfish, tarpon and bull sharks, as well as a rich mythology of piracy and colonial intrigue--is away to the southeast. The dual volcanoes that make up the island of Ometepe, which is rapidly becoming Nicaragua's top tourist attraction, can be seen on a clear day.

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WORKING WITH NATURE

In truth, the lodge itself isn't so much on the island--it is the island. The nine casitas (bedroom upstairs, living area and bathroom downstairs) and four communal spaces fill the island's entire 5,000 square metres, working around natural objects rather than the other way around. Paths wind through rocky crevices, trees envelope and conceal the casitas, and the swimming pool swallows entire volcanic boulders. As you arrive at the island after an eight-minute boat ride from the mainland, Jicaro looks uninhabited, so well camouflaged are its standing structures.

'From the point of conception, the idea was to not flatten or change the landscape but to work around it,' says award-winning Nicaragua-based architect and furniture maker Matthew Falkiner. …

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