In the fall of 2009, I was invited to participate in the first official press trip to Nicaragua. A group of five travel journalists was escorted to 10 hotels and resorts on the Route of the South. The small hotels we visited were gussied-up eco-lodges, most without air conditioning and with too many howler monkeys in the trees to leave the windows open. We traveled to San Juan del Sur, the southernmost city in the region, and boarded a yacht to cruise up the Emerald Coast. We stopped at a stunning property with a long crescent beach anchored by steep, jungle-covered cliffs. We drove golf carts to the top of the hill and looked at the raw land. Our escort described the plans for the property: it would become the first five-star hotel in the country and change the profile of Nicaragua forever.
In the summer of 2012, I learned of Duesing’s involvement in Mukul Resort & Spa. I’d fallen in love with the country, and the idea of a Dallas designer taking on this momentous project was exciting for me. I met with Duesing and Carolyn Day, vice president of marketing and product development for Paul Duesing Partners, at their office in Dallas. By the end of the meeting, we’d arranged a trip: D Magazine photographer Elizabeth Lavin and I would meet Day and Duesing in Managua and shadow them on their quest to put the finishing touches on Mukul. Together we’d visit artists, furniture makers, and textile mills and get a firsthand look at how Duesing creates a five-star luxury hotel in an emerging nation.
On September 5, Lavin and I sit in the bar of the InterContinental in Managua sipping our first macuá, a cocktail of Flor de Caña rum and fresh guava, orange, and lime juices. We are waiting for Day and Duesing to return from the site and are wondering if they will even show up. Earlier in the day, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit the neighboring country of Costa Rica. Aftershocks are still shaking parts of northern Nicaragua, and there are tsunami warnings for the Emerald Coast.
Around 10:30 pm, Duesing and Day make their way through the crowded bar, both loaded down with notebooks and backpacks. The waitress delivers a double Flor de Caña to Duesing. He has obviously spent time officing here.
As the rum flows, Duesing details the day. “I was in the van going over some bumpy roads and all of a sudden I thought it was breaking down,” he says. “When I got to the site, they were evacuating 750 workers. I figured I was already there, so I kept working. At one point, I looked up and watched the seawater retreat about 500 yards from the shore. It was phenomenal.”
Knowing that Nicaragua is on volatile land— there are 50 volcanoes in the country (only seven are active)—I ask Duesing if he now has to redesign around tsunamis and earthquakes. “Oh, heavens, no,” he says. “That was done ages ago. This was a good trial run.”
Natural disasters aside, Duesing goes on to describe how he set up shop at the Inter- Continental and scoured the surrounding area for talent. Unlike many of his other emerging-nations projects, Duesing’s quest for sourcing artists, furniture makers, and textile mills in Nicaragua has been an arduous adventure. Most of the artisans he has encountered are small, family operations with low production capabilities. Artists have been even harder to locate. He spent a year and a half traveling the countryside, poking around markets and shops to round up vendors. “It’s important for me to have the locals buy into a project like Mukul,” Duesing says. “This project is the focus of the country, and I want them to celebrate the fact that they are a part of it.”
Duesing admits that Mukul is the most ambitious project he has ever done, not just from the design perspective. It has been tricky to train people to build something they have never seen. Most of the locals have never left their villages, much less the country. Instructing staff in a country with an average yearly income of around $3,500 on the fine points of five-star service has been a challenge. A one-bedroom beachfront villa at Mukul rents for $1,000 a night.
The lack of infrastructure is one of the negative aspects of Guacalito. So is the difficulty of access. But in the high-end tourism market, the perilous path is pure gold. “People are running out of places to really get away,” Duesing says. “Nicaragua is untouched. There are very few private and remote beaches left like this in the world.”
I stop taking notes after the third round of drinks. When the alarm goes off at 7 the next morning, I can’t imagine how I am going to make it through a 12-hour day of traveling the bumpy roads, some even paved, and dodging overcrowded buses, bicyclists, scooters, cattle, goats, pigs, and the ubiquitous chickens.
At 8 am, a clean-shaven and fresh-faced Duesing, dressed in khaki cargo shorts, a crisp light blue shirt, and madras Sperry Top-Siders, bounds off the elevator. He pulls a well-traveled and worn leather Globe- Trotter suitcase full of notes, drawings, and samples. He is ready to work.
Carolyn Day and Alicia Robleto, a 29-yearold architectural designer whom Duesing has hand-picked to be his eyes and ears of the project, are already waiting for him in the lobby. A native of Managua, Robleto spent nine years studying and working in Spain. Duesing has given her the chance of a lifetime: to be part of the design team of Mukul, the most extravagant and industrious project ever undertaken in her country.
As the van maneuvers the heavy earlymorning traffic in Managua and heads south to Masaya, Duesing pulls out a notebook and reads out loud. “We need to find more old doors like the ones we saw in Granada,” Duesing says. “And I think we should pick up at least six square feet of volcanic rock from the ground at the Masaya Volcano. It is perfect for the lava beds outside of the Mukul spa.” Robleto dutifully takes notes.
After a 30-minute drive, the van pulls up to the Masaya Market where, two years before, Duesing embarked on his inspirational journey into the handicrafts of Nicaragua. The gray walls of a castle-like structure built in the early 1900s enclose the tented outdoor market. The aisles are filled with Nicaraguan handicrafts: pewter picture frames and figurines, leather and colorfully embroidered bags, lacy woven hammocks. Stalls are crammed with ornate wood carvings, tacky t-shirts and souvenirs, elegant crocodile purses, and the trademark etched clay pottery that has been produced in the area since pre-Columbian times. Dogs of various shapes and sizes sleep in the sunny spots of the cobblestone walkways. Chickens peck at water dripping from an outdoor faucet.
It is hard to keep up with Duesing as he moves around in the 97-degree heat scanning shelves for inspiration. He stops at a barrel filled with dried seed pods. He picks up one, examining the slight curve of the pod, and looks to Robleto: “Let’s get these and use them for the amuse-bouche.” They purchase a handful from the shopkeeper and ask for the name and phone number of the person who made them. “I always try to find the creator and give them the chance to produce quantities.”
In the van, Duesing and Robleto discuss the headboards he designed using old rum barrels from the Flor de Caña rum factory. Acquiring the barrels was a cinch; the original Flor de Caña distillery was established in 1890 by Carlos Pellas’ great-great-greatgrandfather. The business is operated by the Pellas family, and the award-winning rums are now exported all over the world.
Day checks her watch and reminds Duesing he is expected to check on a custom tapestry and wooden stools he has commissioned at Tapices Luis, a small factory that has been producing woven hemp tapestries and furniture for 60 years.
The van creeps down a cobbled tile road, pulling over to let a horse-drawn carriage pass, and comes to rest in front of a limegreen and pink stucco building. Robleto enters, and Edgardo Trejos pulls items for Duesing to review. As Robleto and Trejos chat in rapid Spanish, Duesing, who says he does not speak Spanish, stands outside the door. It appears he is letting Robleto run the meeting. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and interrupts. “No, they can’t be that tall. The stools have to be short enough to put beside the dining chairs. They are meant to hold a lady’s purse.” He removes a sketchbook from his backpack and sits down in the doorway. Within minutes, he produces a scale drawing of the stool he wants.
In the next room, a sparse, concrete-floor workshop, Emelina Murillo is working on a loom, a thick, wooden board with a design outlined by 3-inch nails. She weaves the colored hemp strands back and forth through the nails, stopping only to thrust a 4-inch threaded needle into the hemp to tighten the strings together. Her fingers are gnarled and knobby from years of weaving.
Tapices Luis is one of several local artisan shops that have benefited from the Guacalito project. Duesing has placed the largest orders they have ever received. “I am pushing them to make things they have never made,” he says. “And if they have made it, I am pushing them to make it bigger and better. I am giving them a general description and letting them interpret it as they have been doing for 50 or 100 years.”
Duesing has tasked Tapices Luis with the job of weaving the original 1820 Flor de Caña logo onto a 5-by-10-foot wall hanging, which is to be installed in Mukul’s main dining room. Duesing wants the tapestry to pay homage to the history of the sugarcane and rum trade of Nicaragua.
The talk of Flor de Caña has made everyone thirsty, and we pile back into the van and head to a small restaurant on Laguna de Apoyo, a clear freshwater lake in the crater of Apoyo Volcano. We sit on a patio and sip rum while Duesing and Robleto discuss how to cut costs on custom cushions.
The next stop is a small bamboo furniture maker in Catarina. As Duesing makes his way down the narrow sidewalk paved in Tiffany blue-and-white Granada tile, the workers of the bamboo factory spring into action. Duesing sits on the sidewalk in the shade and watches as four men raise an umbrella he has designed. Before it is up, he says, “I’m going to have to readjust the base for the wind.” Once again, he begins to sketch.
After the umbrella and furniture are approved, we move on to a tiny pewter workshop on the side of the busy highway. We open the door and are greeted by the screeching sound of pewter hitting the rudimentary polishing wheel. The working conditions are atrocious. Barefoot workers step around electrical wires covered with an inch of dust. The temperature and humidity levels hover in the high 90s, and the workers wear sweaters, wet with sweat, to cover their heads and faces to fend off fl ying metal fragments. Before they encountered Duesing, they produced picture frames and small pewter figurines. Today, they are polishing pieces of an elaborate Versace-style table that will be the centerpiece of the shower rooms in the beach villas.
The last inspection of the day takes place at a ceramics factory in San Juan de Oriente. The municipality, founded in 1585, has produced most of the typical colorful clay pottery etched with the flowers, animals, and birds of Nicaragua. The van backs up a steep driveway nestled deep in the jungle. Howler monkeys shake the leaves on the trees. A turquoise-browed male motmot perches on a telephone wire. The sun is setting and the mosquitoes are stirring. Before the van is in park, the workers in the factory approach Duesing with samples of the baby sea turtles he has ordered for turndown service at Mukul.
Inside the factory, the pottery wheels spin, and blobs of red clay rise to form vessels. “These are the largest vases these ladies have ever made,” Duesing says. “Once they are finished, they will become gorgeous lamps.” Duesing confirms his order for 300 vases and 200 turtles. The roosters signal the end of the day. We have an hour-and-a-half journey ahead of us, and the heat, humidity, and fast-paced day have left all of us exhausted and speechless. Just as I begin to nod off, Duesing breaks the silence: “I hope they can get that done by December 1. I’m more than just a little nervous about that.”
ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 4, 2013, LAVIN AND I return to Nicaragua to check on the progress of the resort, which is now open to friends and family. We arrive at 10:30 pm and find Duesing standing in the Grand Palapa, a large, thatched-roof space he designed as the main gathering area for guests. He is looking up and shaking his head. His signature piece, a 24-by-36-foot chandelier made up of 152 woven baskets and lights, has not been installed.
Duesing takes a long drag on a cigarette and sighs. The chandelier is not the only aspect of the project that is running behind. “Today we put up five umbrellas,” Duesing says. “That’s it.”
The next morning at breakfast, we are joined by Nancy Vignola, Duesing’s longtime friend and former vice president of Ralph Lauren Home. She has volunteered her expertise to help get the bohios and beach villas set up. All of Mukul’s bedding and bath collection has been designed by Vignola’s new company, Marshall Quentin. Servers bring coffee. Duesing watches a crew assembling a stage at the end of the infi nity pool. The opening ceremony for the resort is in seven days. All of the rooms are booked, and dignitaries from all over Latin and South America are scheduled to appear at the party. Robleto approaches the table and sits down. The tension in the air is higher than the humidity in the air.
Vignola, Lavin, and I set out on a walking tour of the property. There are only 37 rooms at Mukul. Twenty-three bohios are nestled on the hillside in the rain forest, and 12 spacious villas sit just above the beach. The villas have floor-to-ceiling glass windows, private pools, outdoor showers, and wraparound terraces with far-reaching views that take in the beach, rocky cliffs, rain forest, and golf course.
The interiors showcase the talents of Nicaragua: colorful handmade tiles from Granada highlight the wet room’s walls and bedroom floors. The shower areas are showcases: there are two shower heads, octagonal glass walls, and hidden floor drains. A door invites you to explore the outdoor shower or the pool. The ceilings are high, and the TV is hidden. Casona Don Carlos is a spectacular two-story indoor-outdoor living area with 80-foot ceilings, six bedroom suites, two kitchens, and an infinity pool. When the Pellases are not in residence, part of the house can be yours for around $5,300 to $7,300 a night.
We head up to the hilltop and wander around the six spa casitas at Spa Mukul. The spa sits on the spot where I stood three years earlier and learned about Guacalito. Below us, thousands of workers, trucks, forklifts, and golf carts weave across the hillside. By late afternoon, they have made progress: villa gardens have been planted, and furniture has been delivered.
A few hours later, I walk into the Grand Palapa and find Carlos Pellas and his friends surrounded by crates containing parts of Duesing’s chandelier, and a crew is assembling a scaffold. A server with a box of Nicaraguan cigars on a silver tray stands still as the men choose their favorite. They look like proud fathers celebrating the birth of a baby. For Pellas, his vision is now a reality. “I feel like a kid I am so excited,” he says. He points across the pool to where Duesing and Robleto are still sitting. “Paul is the reason why the artists in Nicaragua can now work on a bigger scale. It’s a big part of the reason why I built this place.”
Seven nights later, all 152
lanterns sway in the gentle evening breeze, and the bands are playing.
Somehow the majority of the work was completed in time for the gala, and
hundreds of the Pellases’ well-heeled friends are celebrating the crown
jewel of Nicaragua.
Duesing hugs Carlos Hernandez and raises a four-finger glass of Flor de Caña in the air. Mukul is up and running, and it is time for Duesing to catch a plane. He has to check the status of the meat-aging room under construction at the five-star bow-hunting lodge he designed in South Africa.