Secret hideaway: Nicaragua's Mukul focuses on fun

An aerial look at the Guacalito Golf Club in Mukul, Nicaragua.

An aerial look at the Guacalito Golf Club in Mukul, Nicaragua.

RIVAS, Nicaragua -- Let’s say that a deep-pocketed developer were to spend $250 million building a Five Star-quality resort on four miles of windswept Pacific coastline, in a region with a temperate year-round climate. Sound interesting?

Now, let’s say that rather than erecting a large hotel on the beach, the developer instead built just 37 individual villas – small homes, really – with butler service, wraparound decks, private pools, huge bathroom suites and glass walls that offer sweeping beach views. Still interested?

Let’s also say that this resort had a wonderfully entertaining golf course with an array of memorable shots, such as reachable par 5s and delightful par 3s, including the closing short hole that finishes on the beach, where a staff member will be waiting with a cool towel and an even cooler drink. Still interested?

Then let’s say that, rather than having a large, impersonal spa building, the resort had six, uniquely themed casitas set on a hill high above the resort, allowing guests to enjoy a private spa experience, after which they can meditate quietly while enjoying the relaxing panorama of the Pacific. Still interested?

Finally, let’s say that you could get all of this and more – ready access, for instance, to top-notch fishing, diving and surfing – for $550 per night, which includes breakfast, lunch, open bar during the day and an airport shuttle. That’s not cheap, certainly, but less expensive than comparable hideaways in Cabo or the Caribbean. Surely, you’re still interested, right?

Now let’s reveal that this resort is in Nicaragua.

And there’s the rub. Mukul, a luxury resort and spa that opened Feb. 1, has all of the bones of a world-class resort. Nicaragua also has enviable assets – 565 miles of coastline, average temperatures that hover near 80 degrees and the largest freshwater lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua. Yet it remains the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. (Anecdotally, visitors to Mukul are likely to see locals using oxen-drawn carts to haul food and supplies.)

The man behind Mukul – the name is Mayan for “secret” – is Carlos Pellas Chamorro, whose family first came to Nicaragua in 1875 to start a shipping business that transported travelers between the Atlantic and Pacific. (It was a popular route for Americans, including Mark Twain, traveling between the U.S. East and West coasts.) The Stanford-educated Pellas now oversees a conglomerate, Grupo Pellas, with holdings in banking, sugar, media, health care and other industries.

Pellas is thought to be the wealthiest man in Central America, but the unassuming mogul is just as likely to greet Mukul’s guests wearing shorts, an untucked shirt and a baseball cap, with a Padron in one hand and a Flor de Caña rum (part of the Pellas portfolio) in the other.

Mukul, Pellas’ first luxury resort, could be one of his most impactful investments, and not just for the tourists it will attract to Nicaragua’s southwest coastline. The resort opened with 157 employees; some were local subsistence farmers, and most had no concept of Five Star service. Pellas and Federico Spada, Mukul’s general manager, viewed the staff’s training not just as preparation for jobs but for better lives.

“We have to treat (employees) like guests,” Spada said. “We have to feed them what the guests will be eating, (let them) sleep where the guests sleep, make them understand why they sleep with a sheet, why they

eat with a fork. It’s all sustainable training, not just serving people. It’s lifestyle training.”

One person who, quite literally, has bought into the Mukul vision is golf-course architect David McLay Kidd. On a hill overlooking the third green lies a graded plot where construction is about to begin on Kidd’s vacation home, which is scheduled to be completed by November. Kidd views Nicaragua as having all of the assets of Costa Rica, the more popular tourist destination just to the south, but at a fraction of the price.

During the past 15 years, Kidd has carved out a lucrative niche as the architect to the stars of the business world. He has built courses for, among others, Charles Schwab, Jon Huntsman, Austrian billionaire

Dietrich Mateschitz and now Pellas.

Along the way, he has endured blowback about the severity of some of his work. At private clubs such as Schwab’s Nanea in Hawaii and Queenwood, an English haven for tour professionals, his mandate was to

create demanding tests. That approach filtered into his work on other projects.

“When I hear the same comments about not being able to hold the greens at the Castle Course (in St. Andrews, Scotland) or a minor error at Tetherow (in Bend, Ore.) being badly punished, even the most arrogant person can’t ignore it,” Kidd said as we neared the conclusion of a second round at Mukul’s Guacalito Golf Club. “You have to think, what do I need to do different?”

Lately, Kidd has been giving a lot of thought to his first major design, Bandon Dunes in Oregon. That course, the first at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, still is regarded by many as their favorite among the resort’s four 18-hole layouts. Why has that course been such a critical and popular success? Kidd concluded that the enduring message of Bandon Dunes is that playability and strategic design are not mutually exclusive concepts. The goal of much of his previous work was to present players with daunting scenarios. At the 6,700-yard Guacalito, he said, “I turned that approach on its head.”

“I’m going back to what made Bandon so successful: making the courses playable and fun, making sure there’s some relatively straightforward strategy so there’s some challenge there, but recovering is not that hard,” Kidd said. “Here, everyone seems to be having a blast even though it’s so windy.”

Breezes exceeding 20 mph are common here, yet players can find even the most wayward of shots and attempt a recovery. Time and again, mounding helps players funnel shots onto the greens.

Kidd, however, has struck a clever balance between playability and challenge. The par-3 sixth requires only a sand wedge downwind, yet is one of the hardest pars on the course. The eighth is a short par 4, but if you lay up on the left side of the fairway, a tree might block your approach. The 11th is a brutal par 4 – long, uphill and usually into the wind – but one can’t complain because it follows a short, downwind par 4 and a reachable par 5.

At 15, Kidd created something golfers probably have never seen: a green that is both a Redan and Biarritz. In so doing, he turned an uninteresting piece of land into something truly memorable. The 17th is one of his favorites, with good reason: a split fairway with diagonal fairway bunkers, which, if cleared, leaves nothing more than a flip wedge down the hill. If not, par still is in play, birdie much less so.

When guests walk off of 18, which requires nothing more than a short iron, Kidd said he’ll have just one question for them: “Did you have fun?”

One suspects he’ll like the answer.

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