Slowly but surely Central America has been emerging as new temptation for golf travelers, with resorts combining high-end lodging and high-profile golf architects. But in almost every case these have been one offs that stand alone, unlike the clusters that defined the rise of golf in Mexico, where Los Cabos and the Riviera Maya each offer a week's worth of courses.
Costa Rica's Peninsula Papagayo pairs an Arnold Palmer design with a Four Seasons resort, while in Honduras, the island of Roatan, long famous for world-class diving, has the Pristine Bay dive resort and its Black Pearl Course, designed by the Dyes.
Now Nicaragua is getting into the act, and the year-old Mukul Resort is a perfect example of this destination golf trend -- it combines a remote and over-the-top luxury boutique resort with a gorgeous course by David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes and Castle Course fame. When you go to Mukul, you go for Mukul -- there is no other golf and little else within a two-hour drive.
Don Carlos Pellas is the second-wealthiest man in Nicaragua, a billionaire industrialist and fifth-generation scion of a network of family businesses, the best known of which is the high-end Flor de Cana rum distillery, the pride of his country's mixologists. Pellas is a leading philanthropist, cheerleader for all things Nicaraguan and an avid angler, passions that coincided at Mukul, which sits on a site known as Guacalito de la Isla. It is a perfect bay whose long sandy beach is protected at both ends by dramatic peninsulas, both lush and rocky, and backed by verdant mountains rising steeply from the coast. It's the kind of spot best appreciated looking in from the Pacific, and Pellas first spied the fairy tale coastline while fishing, becoming understandably infatuated. It took him years to purchase, plan and develop, but about a year ago, the golf course and resort opened to almost instant acclaim.
Golf at Mukul Resort
The signature 18th hole on Mukul Resort's Guacalito de la Isla golf course, an unusual par 3, has been replicated in photograph form in just about every golf magazine in the world. It's a priceless shot because the green is literally on the beach -- take one too many clubs, and you'll be playing from what is likely the world's largest bunker, the beach, while sun worshipers on chaises sip rum with lime and a splash of soda water, the local cocktail of choice, and laugh at you. There is no hole like it in all of golf.
The rest of the golf course winds through a rolling tropical valley at the foot of the mountains, and between the short rainy season in May until winter, everything is ultra-lush, from the fairways to the mango trees teeming with monkeys to the multi-colored tropical flora dotting the hillsides.
Arroyos become raging rivers at this time of year, adding greatly to the topical feel, and the course has more than a dozen footbridges hand hewn from fallen native hardwoods.
Even in the spring, when the streams turn to dry washes and the course turns a decidedly Scottish brown, it remains quite playable and impressive. Pellas is an ardent conservationist who loves trees and forbade Kidd from cutting a single one down, and as a result, the course features several specimens that are among the most impressive you will see on a golf course. Kidd and his crew came up with a new way to move huge trees, digging a circular ditch around them, hammering a steel plate under the dirt below the entire root ball, then dragging the plate with bulldozers so the tree and the dirt it lives in are moved as one. They did this repeatedly to open up the routing.
After criticism of his difficult layouts and heavily contoured greens at Scotland's Castle Course and Oregon's Tetherow, Kidd very publicly embarked on a return to the player-friendly wide fairways and flattish greens that made his Bandon Dunes so popular. And this is a perfect example of the reborn philosophy, reveling in the setting and natural beauty while allowing even the 20-handicapper to get around on a single sleeve of balls.
It is a very fun golf course to play, with forecaddies and several memorable holes and views, in addition to the unforgettable finale. The fun factor is enhanced by the fact that resort guests can play pretty much whenever they want without tee times, even in peak holiday season, and often without seeing another group, since there are only 37 rooms at Mukul.
Lodging at Mukul Resort
"Rooms" is a bit of an understatement, since two thirds take the form of "Bohios" (or casitas) -- freestanding, thatched-roof bungalows terraced into the hillside with private plunge pools on the decks, walk-in double rain showers, walk-in closets and plenty of charm, from whirring ceiling fans to handcrafted furniture of local mahogany. The remaining third of the rooms are larger villas with full-sized pools and private gardens with outdoor showers.
At check-in, you pick a time at which a coffee and biscuit tray is delivered to your deck each morning to start the day in style, overlooking the Pacific. As part of Pellas' full press of Nicaraguan culture, all the local products in the mini-bar, from soda to beer to snacks, are free, while you pay for Coke or Red Bull.
There are also sample bottles of Flor de Cana for all guests and a rum room in the main building where you can opt for an expertly guided educational rum tasting session. Part of Pellas' mission was to create employment and training opportunities for his countrymen, so the staff is almost entirely locals who seem to revel in their roles. The wide smiles and excessive friendliness at Mukul are palpable, with an eagerness to serve that rivals anyplace on earth.
While you are not likely to see much of the rest of Nicaragua from this isolated perch, the sense of place is omnipresent, as design features, furniture and art are all purposefully local, much of it custom made. Unlike many luxury resorts, the menus heavily stress actual local specialties, and the food is first rate.
Pellas did not know it when he started the project, but the beach at Mukul has one of the best surf breaks for beginners in the Americas, and since this realization, the resort brought in TropicSurf, an Australian luxury operator of surfing schools and expeditions to run the instruction here. Almost overnight it has become the place for well heeled travelers to take up the sport. While other famed destinations from Hawaii to Bali have seasonality, this expanse of the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan coast opens to the Pacific in a way so that it catches both the summer and winter swells for good conditions much of the time.
Adding to this allure is the fact that one of Central America's most famous advanced surf breaks, Manzanillo, sits just off the rocky peninsula here, making it a hotbed for all abilities. TropicSurf also uses boats to explore the many other nearby surf spots around the region, while Pella's original passion, fishing, is excellent here, with charters available from the resort. The 1,670-acre resort is set up in such a way that virtually everything special about it involves the beach, which touches the golf, the dining, the pool complex, the other recreational activities, and is the heart and soul of Mukul.
For more information, see www.mukulresort.com.