It all started in 2005 when Karen Emmanuel saw a handwritten sign that said “Island For Sale.” Four years later she was opening Jicaro Island Ecolodge, one of Nicaragua’s first (and only) truly sustainable and ecologically minded luxury resorts. Throughout the process Karen kept a blog called Karen’s Island, which is equal parts inspiration and nightmare. Depending on your constitution you will either run right out and buy an island in a developing country and begin building a luxury retreat right now or you will scratch that item off your bucket list forever.
Luckily for us Karen had the stomach for it and, in 2009, the resort opened on Karen’s Island in Lake Cocibolca, just a 20 minute boat ride from the Colonial city of Granada.
The pool is kept clean using natural salts, not chlorine, and was built around the natural landscape and rocks. Biodegradable shampoo, soap, lotion and conditioner are provided. Solar panels heat water. Tap water is drinkable and biodegradable water bottles are given to every guest (water is not sold in regular plastic bottles at all). There are recycling bins in all casitas. Specialist Chris Shanks consulted on the eco building plan and very few plants or trees were removed down during construction and more plants were added during final landscaping. All black and grey water is treated using naturally occurring microbes, not chemicals, and treated water is used in irrigation. Cleaning is done using vinegar and baking soda (not chemical cleaning products) whenever and wherever possible. There are no plastic straws on the island. Biodegradable bamboo straws are used instead.
Jicaro is still setting the standard for sustainability (not just eco-ness) in the region. Jicaro uses some of its proceeds to support education about environmental issues in communities in the area. More solar panels are being added this year to take the resort totally off the grid. And Jicaro is now a partner in a pig farm (not on the island) which will produce methane gas fuel to be used by local communities as an alternative to cutting trees.
These measures and more have qualified Jicaro as the only property in Nicaragua managed by Cayuga Collection, a management and marketing group which only takes on hotels and resorts that meet strict sustainability requirements, not just green or eco benchmarks.
Bu you don’t notice all that green and sustainable stuff. What you do notice is the style and comfort Karen and architect Matthew Falkiner have achieved assisted by the true artists at Simplemente Madera who seem to be able to manage and mold wood as if they were sculpting clay. I spent a good portion of my stay wondering how I could get one of their exquisite chairs into my luggage.
And speaking of wood, though it seems to go against the resort’s roots, the beauty of Jicaro is due, in large part, to dead trees. The nine duplex casitas (those with mobility issues will have trouble here) are almost entirely made out of rich wood used with abandon. Of course the structures are wooden. Every nail head has been covered over by tiny discs of wood. Every stick of furniture is made at least in part out of wood. Even the signs reminding you to leave towels on the rack if you don’t need them changed are made out of wood.
But it’s a true silver-lining story. In 1997, just as Karen was beginning to build, Hurricane Felix struck this area of Nicaragua leveling millions of square acres of rain forest. The luscious hardwoods that were used to build Jicaro and its furnishings were salvaged entirely from trees downed in the storm and every plank is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Though the island is small and the casitas are built quite close to each other, clever design and lush vegetation foster a real sense of privacy. You may not see your neighbors but you will see the water birds, turtles and local fishermen who also call this lake, the largest in Nicaragua, home. For an even better look, take out one of Jicaro’s kayaks for a spin around the resort and the neighboring islets.
English is spoken, to varying degrees, by all Jicaro staff members which average a nearly two to one ratio to guests. Even better than English is the staff’s apparent mastery of ESP. For example, while talking to other guests in the supremely inviting pool, a tray of frosty glasses of jamaica (a refreshing infusion of hibiscus flowers) appeared just as we were all beginning to feel thirsty.
Rates at Jicaro include all food and a cadre of chefs prepares everything from fresh bread to spectacular house made hot sauce. There’s a set menu with wide-ranging choices for breakfast and lunch. I could eat Jicaro’s fried egg sandwich (with salami and cheddar cheese) every day of my life. The garlic shrimp tacos were scrumptious and the steak sandwich was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The roasted beet salad with grapefruit was a revelation.
The dinner selections change each night. Saturday night features a buffet of traditional Nicaraguan dishes but all other nights offer international choices including lamb in mole sauce over cornbread, lasagna made using plantains instead of pasta, fresh fish and more. All the dishes benefit from the impressive herb garden which flourishes in the center of the island and many ingredients, including cheeses and free-range, organic beef, are sourced from local farms.
The only F&B misstep was a big one. A luxury lodge in a region which produces some of the best coffee in the world should be able to brew a good cup. Unfortunately, the coffee I had at Jicaro was bitter and poorly brewed. A real shame since Jicaro offers one of my favorite treats: coffee service to your room in the morning.
Spa treatments, in two serene lakeside treatment rooms, are not included in rates and therapists, brought in from spa-dense Granada, can deliver all of the usual pampering at reasonable rates (a 60 minute massage, for example, is $65). Jicaro also has an open-air lakeside yoga platform where you’re welcome to practice alone or you can book a session with an instructor ($45 for a private lesson, $30 per person for two and $20 per person for three or more).
Jicaro Island Ecolodge
Phone: + (505) 2558-7702
Rates from: US$380 double occupancy including all food and island transfer from Granada
Our review of this hotel was originally published by iTraveliShop
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