Inside Nicaragua’s First Luxury Resort

Dallas architect and interior designer Paul Duesing teams up with one of the wealthiest men in the Central American country to create a unique vacation property.

The beach club features swinging beds; Duesing’s signature table made by a local pewter shop. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
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.”

The artists at Tapices Luis have been making hemp tapestries for 60 years. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

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.

Etched pottery from San Juan de Oriente. photography by Elizabeth Lavin
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.

A pewter factory near Masaya photography by Elizabeth Lavin
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.

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