Last year, after Christmas, I did something I had never done before but that is very much in vogue with the one percent, according to travel agents. Industry jargon hails it as "soft adventure," but I prefer to call it "insulated risk." In a nutshell, I vacationed at a five-star resort in what used to be called the Third World.
The trip occurred serendipitously. I had just spent an entirely risk-free week of tennis and golf at a family resort in the Caribbean, and I was facing the week between Christmas and New Year's alone. (My significant other was 5,000 miles away, in Hawaii with his adult children.) A girlfriend invited me to join her at Mukul, a luxury resort on the so-called Emerald Coast of Nicaragua. With its open-air restaurants and café tables spread out under a vast thatch palapa, it reminded me of Costa Careyes in Mexico, or what Costa Careyes may have looked like in the 1960s: a wild, raw coast offering intoxicating isolation, before the arrival of mansions and private jets. But Mukul had comfort, too: a golf course, pools, and a spa, as well as the broadest, whitest beach I had ever seen.
I also thought it sounded pretty cool to go on holiday to Nicaragua. I would earn what Klara Glowczewska, T&C's travel editor, calls "bragging rights," which travelers have long coveted, she said. And my limited knowledge of Nicaragua definitely put the country in the braggable category. I had childhood memories of scary-sounding headlines: armed uprisings, volcanoes, malarial rainforests, war, all of which could be safely absorbed from the safety of the palapa, should they still pose a threat.
My only concern was that Bahía Manzanillo, the bay beyond Mukul's gorgeous white beach, looked on the internet as if it had some very significant surf, so before accepting I called the resort to see if the water was safe, since I love to swim. Oh yes, the receptionist assured me. Now the only impediment was a steady stream of negative commentary from my other half, in Hawaii.
"Why on earth would you go to Nicaragua? There are beaches closer to home. It's dangerous, it's baking hot, there are bugs."
I am not a thrill-seeker. In fact, I am a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. But I am also a bit stubborn and Type A, one of those people who believes that "no" is just the start of a conversation. So "Hawaii," as we shall call him, had me fired up. I wasn't hoping to fall into a volcano (I am a mother of young children), but I was hoping for something--just what, I wasn't sure.
On December 27, I traveled to Miami, whence American Airlines was supposed to fly me to Managua. At boarding time the passengers were told that a stewardess had called in sick, and immediately my anxiety started humming. Was it possible the stewardess just didn't want to go to Nicaragua? What did she know that I didn't? Was she really sick? Was it contagious? An hour later a steward clutching a Starbucks cup arrived to claps and cheers, and we were off.
In Managua I transferred to a small propeller plane with peeling leather seats that had clearly seen better days. I tried to relax by looking down at the haze-covered mountains and red dirt roads twisting through jungle. Upon landing I was met by a driver from Mukul who coolly told me that our car, a white SUV, had both air conditioning and WiFi. Some crazy adventure. Suddenly, in front of us a villager walked with his oxen. What a great Instagram, I thought, clicking away, except my phone promptly seemed to stop working. (Ahem, Verizon.) Ha, I thought, fishing out my other cell, an AT&T iPhone, the one I keep for emergencies. This one worked. A bit smugly, I did feel that I was prepared for the developing world.
The gates of Mukul opened to immaculately manicured grounds where, unlike outside, livestock did not roam freely. I was met by my personal concierge, who showed me my accommodations, a charming bungalow with French doors. It was now the end of the day. Too late for a swim? According to the concierge, it was a long walk to the beach, but in 30 minutes I could take a shuttle bus. My Type A instincts kicking in, I grabbed my bikini and goggles and asked the concierge if she could kindly drive me herself (she was, after all, my personal concierge). Not only did she, she handed me a local cell phone on which to call her should I need anything else. I would come to nickname this device the "Bat Phone," since over the next five days the poor woman was summoned at least as often as the Caped Crusader ever was.
At the beach I raced into the water. It took me 10 minutes to get beyond the surf and the sandbars. When I looked back at the shore, I realized I was farther out than I had thought, and completely alone. The water was black. For the first time ever while swimming at sea, I was slightly frightened. As I fought my way back to land, ducking in and out of crashing waves, I wondered if the receptionist had really meant that it was a swimmer's beach.
Back at the bungalow I discovered that another friend of mine, fellow T&C contributor Holly Peterson, had been in the space just before me. This meant two things: First, I was in the right place, since Holly has impeccable taste and a great love of adventure, and second, that Mukul's beach was probably just for surfing, since, unlike me, Holly is a passionate and excellent surfer.
Meanwhile, thanks to the lovely young concierge, various petty grievances seemed to be in the process of being rectified. My friend had lost her luggage, which was now en route from the airport. The bungalow, which had been filthy when we arrived, was now clean. The refrigerator, which had been barren, now contained food and drink. We enjoyed a good dinner under the palapa and said goodnight. Just before I got into bed I told Hawaii he was fussing about nothing.
"Just wait," he said. "There'll be something."
Five minutes later something hit the floor of the bungalow. I switched on a flashlight I had brought from New York and pointed it under the bed. Nothing. So I rolled back under the duvet. There was movement around me and much clattering, and suddenly I too was deposited on the ground. I got up and discovered that one side of the bed had collapsed. (I weigh 108 pounds, incidentally.)
It was after midnight, too late to call the concierge on the Bat Phone, so I slept on the bed's other side, hoping it would hold up until morning, and anticipated the mockery from Hawaii. But first there was more drama. In the morning my friend's daughter got stung by a stingray, which apparently Bahía Manzanillo was full of. "You have to shuffle when you're wading," we were told, a bit late. Hawaii called as the resort doctor arrived, his mockery turning to genuine alarm. "Do not leave her side," he said in staccato. And the excitement kept coming: That night on the way home from dinner our golf cart started going slower and slower and finally stopped altogether. We pushed like crazy, got nowhere, and finally left it stranded while we walked home in the dark (not so easy for the young woman with the greenish, swollen foot).
The next night my bed started to shake again. I got up, checked the slats--all was in place--and went back to sleep. In the morning I discovered there had been an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Now the calls from Hawaii were becoming more frequent, each one beginning with: "So what has happened now?" Truth be told, we were having a fantastic time. We had nicknames for our wounded cart (Herbie) and our stick shift rental car (Ramona), which I repeatedly stalled driving up hills too slowly. We signed up for surfing lessons and loved them, even though the instructor, a tall Australian, told me he hadn't seen wipeouts like mine in a long time. I had sizable bruises as evidence, the sight of which, e-mailed to Hawaii, would elicit exasperated sighs. A lifeguard named Juan was now swimming in flippers alongside me when I went into the water. At dinner we got used to the hourlong wait between ordering our food and eating it. I ran into friends from London, who shared their stories of the hotel's growing pains. "We asked for a tennis pro," Rachel, a mother of five, told me. (A search had to be conducted and someone driven all the way from Managua.) Holly told me weeks later that she had been stung by a scorpion. On New Year's Eve the resort threw a beach party, during which they ran out of glasses, a situation the staff resolved by picking up used ones, wiping them off right in front of us, and filling them up again.
When we arrived we'd have minded this sort of service. Now we just laughed and drank from used stemware. The truth was, we'd gotten used to not being in control. My image of Nicaragua turned out to be woefully outdated; the country has had a thriving tourist industry for more than a decade. But there was a lot of well-intentioned, hit-or-miss service. All began to make sense when Mukul's effervescent general manager told us that his favorite TV show ever was Fantasy Island. Mukul was our Fantasy Island, and it taught us that expensive paradise, unexpectedly, takes the form of chaotic goodwill.
Since I got home I've thought often about that trip, and here's what I've decided: It wasn't in spite of the difficulties and annoyances that I enjoyed it, it was because of them. I asked Lisa Cohen, the ebullient travel agent who had booked my trip at the Caribbean family resort, for her perspective. She said that over the last decade or so, roughly during the technology boom that has filled our lives with so much gadgetry, there has been a rise in demand for trips that take us slightly out of our com- fort zones, maybe because we are now accustomed to, and perhaps bored by, efficiency and order. We actively seek disorder--just not too much.
"People want adventure. They want to go somewhere exotic, but afterward they want to return to the comfort of the Four Seasons," said Cohen, who works for Valerie Wilson Travel, one of the top corporate travel agencies in the country.
A day in the life of Lisa Cohen, she joked, is not unlike that of a Park Avenue psychiatrist, featuring calls from Fortune 500 CEOs who are abroad and suffering from diarrhea, or who have landed somewhere and the weather isn't what they expected and realize they've packed the wrong clothes. One of her favorite stories is about the time she sent a pair of honeymooners to the Hawaiian island of Lanai and the resort was overrun by mice, so she flew them to a different island. (The couple have since divorced.)
Philip Lategan, the South African owner of the travel company Journey Beyond, told me that visitors to Africa used to want a real safari. "Now it's really entertainment," Lategan said. "The resorts are more luxurious than the Peninsula." Zarafa, a camp on the plains of Botswana, has a better wine cellar than some top hotels in the U.S., he said. Some of his clients bring bodyguards; others have asked to climb Mount Kilimanjaro "and not get dirty."
"We've pulled it off," Lategan said. "It just takes a lot of money, and 30 porters." One family he worked with had a phobia of insects, "so we nuked the place" where they were camping.
The real challenge, according to Lategan, is making safaris safe for children, who not long ago were expected to stay home, since a fearful cry or sudden movement can dangerously upset an animal in the wild. Now children get to see cheetahs and hippos from the safety of a covered vehicle. The real obstacle to giving high-end tourists the gentle buzz they want is, as Lategan put it, "idiocy." He cited an Australian couple so determined to drive rather than fly across the Botswana bush that they spent an unplanned night in the wilderness, having plugged the wrong address into their GPS and ended up at a camp that was full.
India too has benefited from the soft adventure trend, said Raju Singh, the owner of Ventours International Travel. "Delhi Belly is a thing of the past," he told me, adding that Indian hotels can be as good as if not better than their counterparts in the U.S. But outside? Some of Singh's clients seemed surprised to run into cows in the street. Others have said to her, "I'd like to come to India but not see any beggars."
A straw poll among friends tells me that the most rewarding challenge of any trip is relaxing into an uncustomary lack of control. Holly Peterson has surfed in dangerous currents all over the world, and her car once broke down in one of Brazil's notorious favelas, but the thing she found hardest? Keeping her cool when she was delayed at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. She and her posse of young surfers had to disembark from one vehicle, drag their luggage 100 yards, and, clutching 19 passports, stand in a line that included chickens and other livestock. "When that 90-minute drive turns into a six-hour adventure, it's important for your children to see you stay calm."
Last year Suzanne Herz, the executive director of publishing at Doubleday, took her 16-year-old son to see chimps in the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania. They began with a two-day safari considerably more basic than they anticipated, after which her son turned to her and said, "Mom, I need to be evacuated to the nearest Four Seasons." Instead, after flying to Mahale from Arusha, Tanzania, aboard a puddle jumper that kept stopping to deliver provisions to other camps, they arrived exhausted in humid 100-degree weather, hoping to cool off with a swim in clear, inviting Lake Tanganyika--but no, there were crocodiles, the guides told them, which led to a long boat ride to the middle of the lake, where the water was too deep for the crocs. A series of grueling four-hour hikes up a steep mountain followed, only some of which yielded glimpses of chimps (which Herz was unable to enjoy due to her glasses fogging up). "You have no control, you don't know what's going to happen, and you can't always get what you want," Herz told me. Nevertheless, her son ended up calling it the best trip he'd ever been on.
Travel takes us out of ourselves and opens us to new ideas, new places, and ultimately a more accommodating frame of mind. On the return from Nicaragua, our plane was delayed, and none of us minded in the slightest. Once we got to Miami, however, I was suddenly furious that my phone still didn't work. (It turned out that Verizon had suspended my account on suspicion of fraud. It also turned out that Verizon's fraud office is closed on Sundays.) I felt anxiety closing in, which is perhaps why I tried for so long afterward to conjure up those five slightly crazy days in Nicaragua and remember what it was like when the bed shook and the golf cart petered out, and the only possible reaction was to laugh. There was also, of course, the greatest fun of all, which perhaps was what I had been looking for all along, before I even signed up -- namely, listening to the perplexed skepticism of Hawaii. He'll never admit it, but from the barrage of phone calls and questions later on, I'd guess he was just a little jealous.