A fisherman plying his trade around Lake Nicaragua's Las Isletas archipelago may not even notice the Jicaro Island Ecolodge, so discreetly is it nestled amid the rocks and jungle vegetation of its private island. Yet once you step through the palm fronds fringing the path up from its little stone pier, you feel you have passed into one of those dream places that are the stuff of Hollywood fantasies or Survivor reward challenges.
My wife, Erika, and I have come to Jicaro for three days "to rekindle," as our 17-year-old put it. The love, she might have meant. Or maybe whatever it was that made us human before urban family life gave us a perpetual look of the undead, or, in my own case, before the real world lost its battle with the virtual one inside my computer.
Nicaragua may not be the first place most people think of for a romantic escape, but good value and the perpetual lure of the unspoiled - not to mention Survivor: Nicaragua - may be about to change all that. Already on the Condé Nast Hot List less than a year after opening, the Jicaro Island Ecolodge promises me and my wife a rare synthesis. For her, a level of luxury and pampering that rises beyond even her high expectations, including a wellness centre with yoga and spa treatments, a designer menu that gives local ingredients an international flair, and a private, two-storey casita with lake view and terrace that is one of only nine on the island. All this, however, is offered while adhering to international standards of eco-friendliness and community sensitivity. As someone who typically spends the first half of a sun holiday sulking at having morphed from the marginalized bohemian I can pass for at home into just another over-consuming gringo, I look on Jicaro's guilt-free billing as a big selling point.
After the little welcome party that greets us on arrival, hands us drinks and whisks our bags away, we are shown the dining area overlooking Mombacho Volcano, the Zen-like spa, the saltwater dipping pool, built around the island's natural rock. The casitas, hidden like duck blinds amid the ceiba and banana and ficus, look modernist and sleek and yet entirely in their element. There is a floral smell in the air, rank and vaguely sexual. At once, I am skeptical: Any place this seductive can't be good for you. Erika, however, is smitten. She has been reading the brochure: "All the wood was salvaged from Hurricane Felix," she informs me, adding: "The water's all heated by solar, and they do their own filtration." These are not details Erika would normally concern herself with. It is that smell in the air, I suspect.
I note that there is no television in our casita, no telephone, no electronic device of any sort, nor, of course, have I been allowed to bring any of my own. Erika tries to call home on her cellphone to check on the children but can't get a signal. "We can Skype them," I say. "The directory says you can borrow a laptop from the front desk."
Erika catches the Borg-like glint in my eyes at the thought of reconnecting to The Machine.
"It can wait," she says. For Erika, who normally requires hourly updates from whatever security team she has put in place to look after the children, this is a tremendous concession. "We'll call from town later."
We have a bit of time before a scheduled tour of Las Isletas. The play of light and breeze and sound through the slats and screens of our second-storey bedroom makes it hard to tell inside from out. We hear howler monkeys barking at us from the mainland, hear birds making sounds at once mocking and obscene.
Something is tugging at me: that smell again.
"How long before that tour?" Erika says.
Though Jicaro feels like a place cut off from the world, it is only a 10-minute boat ride from Granada, and over the course of our three-day stay we manage to squeeze in a tour of the city, a visit to the craft towns of Masaya and a trek through the cloud forest of the Mombacho crater. Tourism seems a novelty here, and because franchise culture has yet to gain a foothold, these visits have the feel of actual explorations, of newness, of unpredictability.
The bulk of our time, however, is spent at the resort, where I receive my first-ever yoga lesson and, on our last day, the massage of a lifetime, from the laconic Silvio, a George Foreman look-alike who manages to locate the hidden spot beneath my left shoulder blade that for years has cried out for a healing touch. Erika and I swim together in the lake, which is as warm as bathwater; we take early-morning dips in the pool. Sometimes, and not just in the mornings, we stay in bed.
We get to know the staff, including Fabian, the tour guide and sustainability co-ordinator, retrained by Jicaro after he had worked as a carpenter on another project; and Howard, the lodge's ebullient manager, among whose projects is a new school Jicaro is helping to build nearby for the hundreds of fisher families who populate the tiny islands of Las Isletas. Howard tells us of his hope to develop "community tourism" among the islanders, where for a few dollars a day visitors stay with locals and learn about their lives - helping to ensure Jicaro's stability by ensuring that of the locals. More than anything, it is this human side of ecotourism that impresses us.
The morning we leave, Erika and I sit at our breakfast table watching the birds that come out to scavenge for their own breakfasts among the trees and shrubs and rocks at the waterside. We are shocked when we realize we have passed more than an hour this way, mesmerized by the birds' individual quirks and habits.
A few more days at Jicaro and the transformation would be complete. We'd be alive again. Part of an actual ecosystem.
We're not sure we can afford the risk.
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