Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ecotourism delight

Tiny island in Lake Nicaragua offers harmony with nature

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On a nearby island,a rooster crowed before the first sliver of light cracked the horizon over Lake Nicaragua.

Dawn roused the birds. The avian chorale rose gradually in a hallelujah crescendo just as the morning sun burst into full view through the window of our cabin on Jicaro Island.

This was my wake-up call for the three days spent on Jicaro (pronounced he-ka-roh), one of the 365 isletas that form a bustling archipelago off the colonial Nicaraguan city of Granada.

Jicaro is secluded and serene. The eco-lodge getaway was a chance discovery while websurfing for beach resorts in neighbouring Costa Rica. A side trip into Nicaragua was on our itinerary, so a stay at Jicaro was very appealing. So was the promotional offer of three nights for the price of two.

I wanted to spend a few days in Granada, a charming city I visited in 1983 during the American-led Contra war against the Sandinista government. Back then, tourists were known as sandalistas, because most wore sandals and sympathized with the left-leaning revolutionary government. Nowadays, Nicaragua is attracting price-conscious backpackers and gringos looking for vacation properties.

We booked a stay at Jicaro on the understanding we'd arrive between Monday and Friday and take our chances on finding an empty casita, or cabin.

Imagine our delight when a smiling Carolina Gomez greeted us at the Jicaro reservation desk on the mainland and confirmed our casita was ready. She then escorted us to the lodge's water taxi. Our landing on Jicaro was surprisingly ceremonial. Four staff members greeted us dockside, bearing tea made from a local grass, pastry, and hot towels.

The rocky island protruding from the murky Lake Nicaragua is barely large enough to hold a dozen buildings. Our casita was a simple two-storey structure. The bedroom took up the entire second floor, and the polished wood gave our haven a Japanese feel. Here, we were in harmony with nature -- inside and out. Our daily meals could be taken on the restaurant terrace, our private balcony, the yoga deck, or poolside. A romantic dinner on the floating deck was an evening option.

Meals were prepared by the American-trained chef Calley Prezano. Her culinary delights stressed freshly made daily specials using local ingredients, be it fish, meat, greens, jams or sweets.

Jicaro was developed by Karen Emanuel, who was intrigued by an Island for Sale sign she saw in a Nicaraguan restaurant in 2007. A few months after returning to England, the London businesswoman made an offer for her fantasy island.

It took more than a year to erect the casitas, made of reclaimed timber blown down by hurricane Felix in 2007, said Matt Prezano, the chef's brother and member of the Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality team who handled the hotel's transition to Nicaraguan managers. He came to Nicaragua in 1998 as a Peace Corps volunteer. "I surfed here for about six months after my Peace Corps work was done. Love the place and decided to come back," said the California native and former banker.

Prezano showed me around the isleta, detailing how the resort was built with the minimum impact to the island's natural setting. "Water for guests and the kitchen is heated with solar panels; cross ventilation and ceiling fans replace air conditioning; waste water is treated; grey water is used to water the plants; energy-efficient lights are everywhere, and all the electrical wires are underground," he said.

The only motors heard here are the small fishing boats puttering past the idyllic Jicaro, named after the bountiful tree, whose seeds are used for medicinal remedies and beverages.

"For the eco-lodge to succeed," Prezano said, "it's important to hire local staff, train them and let them run it. They know the place better than anyone. This is their country, and tourism their livelihood."

We were curious about the local birds, and Fabian Espinoza took us on a two-hour walking tour of the nearby island where we saw blue herons and a cluster of oropendula nests hanging like slingshots from a huge tree.

Mostly, however, we spent our time at Jicaro lounging by the chlorine-free pool and cooled off as the day grew hotter.

We also curled up in the hammocks outside our casita and watched the locals go by in their fishing boats. The scenes were pleasant reveries of my summers growing up on Istria's Adriatic coast.

The isleta isn't big enough for a walkabout, but you can climb the lookout tower and a get a treetop view of the surrounding islands.

Eco-lodge visitors can get a massage; hike to a plantation, natural reserve and hot springs; kayak at sunrise or sunset, even paddle along the islands' shores at night -- full-moon tours are especially popular.

There's birdwatching; nature hikes along the Asese Peninsula; half-day and full-day adventures to Mombacho, the volcano that's clearly visible from Jicaro; and fishing for tilapia, snook or rainbow bass in a wooden boat with one of the local fishermen.

History buffs can tour the colourful colonial city of Granada or take an hour-long boat ride to Zapatera Island to see the local archeological finds.

Silvio Dobri is a former Edmonton Journal copy editor.

If you go

Visit jicarolodge.com and check for specials deals. We stayed three nights for the price of two.

Karen Emanuel's story on building the eco-lodge can be found at karensisland.com

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2011 E1

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