BIG CORNISLAND – When it comes to relaxing and having fun, some people like to do things the hard way.
These are the people who think the best way to enjoy the beach is to jog along the surfearly in the morning. Or the best way to see Mombacho Volcano is to hike to the top.
Now perhaps I’m lazy (I like to think wise), but my idea of a fun day at the beach involves a hammock, a good book and beer(s).
And I think the best way to see Mombacho is to take the old Soviet-era military transport to the top, conserving energy for walking around the crater-rim nature trails.
I’m not a slug, mind you. I like adventure and excitement as much – if not more – than most folks. But I am also mindful of the key ingredients to a good vacation: sun, beer, blissful moments of indolent lounging, and a refreshing ocean/lake/lagoon/ pool into which I can plunge my overheated body in the event that the sand/ rock/concrete that separate me from said body of water is not too hot/sharp to cross in bare feet.
My perfect vacation also has to be uncrowded, friendly, exotic, pleasantly flowered and landscaped, unique, lush and affordable on a journalist’s salary. Until now, the closest I had gotten to finding the perfect vacation spot was Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, both of which fit many of my criteria except for – most notably – being affordable.
But on a recent trip to BigCornIsland, a palm-treed landmass sticking out of the turquoise Caribbean waters 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, I had one of those rare vacation experiences that meets every notion of perfect.
Big CornIsland is only “big” in that it is larger than neighboring Little Corn Island, which is little even by itself. But the “big” island is still small enough to explore intimately in one day.
The newly laid brick road that loops the island – one of the few achievements of the previous government – is only about seven miles long. So the whole island can be explored easily on bicycle, taxi or even on foot in a matter of hours, depending on one’s pace.
Big CornIsland is unique from the rest of Nicaragua in virtually every sense. Culturally, the island has its own history, traditions and expressions. The islanders speak English, listen to 1970s U.S. Country/ Western music, and seem generally friendly and chatty with tourists. The political problems plaguing Managua and the rest of Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua seem worlds removed from CornIsland. Here it’s a different pace of life, a different reality and a different scenery. Really, the only clue that you are still in Nicaragua is that people are drinking Toña and Victoria beer. But other than that, the uniqueness of CornIsland makes a trip here an exotic adventure even for most Nicaraguans.
My girlfriend Cecilia and I stayed at Arenas Beach Hotel (www.arenasbeachhotel.com) a very comfortable and friendly establishment facing one of the most picturesque beaches in all of Nicaragua. The white-sand beach, with its gently lapping waves, is truly one of the most family-friendly beaches imaginable: the ocean water is calmer than most swimming pools I’ve been in.
After a great tropical breakfast at the hotel of gallo pinto with coco, fried tajadas and fried cheese, and a side of fresh fruit to make me feel okay about the fried stuff, we decided to wander next door to Corn Island Car Rental (email@example.com) to inquire about renting a golf cart, which seemed to be the preferred mode of travel for other tourists on the beach. The rental agency also offers bicycles, motorbikes, jet skis and other various aquatic means of moving quickly across the water. But the golf cart seemed like the most leisurely option, and I was already well into leisure mode.
After throwing a backpack with water, camera, suntan lotion and other essential survival gear into the rear basket of the golf cart, I peeled out of the sandy rental lot whistling the theme to the Dukes of Hazzard.
At the first intersection, facing the airstrip that takes up much of the island’s center, we took a right, heading toward the beaches of the South End. Cruising along the brick road with the warm island breeze in our faces, we waved like goofy tourists at the people we passed on the road. They smiled and waved back, making us feel Ok about being goofy tourists.
After a mile or so of driving, we were worn out and decided it was time to pull off for a drink.
Our first stop was at Casa Canada (casa-canada.com), on the South End of the island. Casa Canada is the island’s most high-end resort. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, hugging the side of the rocky shore, and highlighted by an infinity pool overlooking the ocean.
Cecilia and I sat in bar swings and ordered a cocktail and looked at the ocean. The drink was great, the view was fantastic, but the price of the cocktail was outrageous, so we quickly scampered back to the golf cart and zipped off in search of better deals.
Our journey to the next pit stop took us up around the beach bend past one of the most idyllic spots on the island, a corner known as “Sally Peaches.” The palm trees, white sands and various shades of turquoise and blue water makes this strip on the northeast corner of the island a must-stop for photos or a quick dip in the ocean.
Several hundred meters farther on, we pulled over again at a no-frills roadside stop called Pulpería Victoria (We had to ask the name because there’s no sign).
Sitting in plastic chairs, facing the ocean and the occasional passing motorist, we got a couple of cold beers and chatted with Victoria and several other locals who agreed with us that beer was a good idea to beat the heat. (The best thing about an inexpensive Toña is that it tastes as good – if not better – than an expensive one).
Old country music songs that seemed vaguely familiar in the recesses of my childhood memory played softly on Victoria’s radio, as she hung her laundry between two palm trees to dry in the ocean breeze. “It only takes 20 minutes to dry here, then we have to bring the laundry in before the sun begins to fade the colors,” she told me. I nodded understandingly.
Before the laundry was dry, the beers were gone and we were off to check out the next spot – an enticing wooden-stilt house that sits at the end of a pier 20 meters out in the ocean. Anastasia, as the place is called, accurately captured my romantic ideals of what rustic Caribbean charm should look like.
Sitting on shaky wooden stools that were balanced unevenly on the warped woodenplank porch, the view of the ocean from Anastasia is 360 degrees, and beers are served from a rusty old refrigerator. From my perch on the stool, schools of fish can be seen swimming underneath the restaurant, and light reggae music plays softly on the sound system.
We had the whole place to ourselves, and enjoyed its solitude as we relaxed and talked about unimportant issues while gazing at the ocean and the lush island behind us.
After driving on past the windy beaches of the North End, we stopped again at a small gift shop to buy some island souvenirs, and then parked next door in front of Nautilus Water Sports, a great old wooden house with a big porch facing the road. With reggae playing on the sound system, we had a coke while other tourists chatted and played chess at neighboring tables, enjoying the afternoon sun that filtered in through the porch.
Our penultimate stop was at the local favorite restaurant Fisher’s Cave, just past the municipal dock on Brig Bay. Located on the harbor overlooking the fishing boats and a natural fish tank shared by several large fish, including two nurse sharks, we enjoyed a tasty lunch of fish fillet as we watched fishermen moving about the boats, bringing in that night’s dinner.
After lunch, it was home, sweet home back to Arenas Beach Hotel to enjoy the rest of afternoon on the near-empty beach, reading and swimming. I was comforted by the thought that only 100 meters down the beach, the Picnic Center restaurant has a full stock of cold Toña and great ceviche – a great place to watch the sunset and wind down a great day.