By Katie Hunt
Waking up at 5 a.m. isn’t unfamiliar to many of us yacht crew working in this fast-paced industry. So, as I walk into the “galley” and flick the kettle on for coffee, I’m already thinking about muffin batters and whatever else is going out for breakfast, and wondering what time our guests will be up. An active group from Albany Resort in Nassau who are here on a fitness week, I know they won’t be long to rise. I take a cup of coffee down to the pool deck and sit on the wall, watching pelicans glide along waves and fisherman coming in from a long night out at sea. For me, Nicaragua is absolute paradise. And after seven years of yachting, I’m now lucky enough to call it home.
My partner and I met on a yacht in 2012, although it absolutely wasn’t love at first sight! Damian was the guy who never put a chamois down, never stopped working and made us all (captain included) look lazy. I was the “prim and proper English girl” who lost any “properness” around glass No. 3. Fast forward to an evening in the Soggy Dollar in St. Maarten, and all of a sudden, we were together. Over the next six years we stayed on the same yacht, watching captains come and go. Finally, after three years of proving himself, Damian took the drive, securing his first role as captain of the 110-foot motor yacht Le Rêve.
During our second year on board, we took downtime to travel to Central America. Starting in Nicaragua, our plan was to travel down through Costa Rica and Panama before returning to the boat. That never happened. We fell in love with Nicaragua – the culture, the landscape, the surfing, and the incredibly hospitable people who never failed us with their generosity, even in a place that has so little. The spark had been lit, but we had no idea then what was in store for us.
The following summer we were docked up in Mattituck, a sleepy town on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. We had bought a small boat to keep the crew entertained during the week. It was on this boat that we got a call from a real estate friend who told us that Greensurf, a 1-acre beachfront property in Nicaragua where we had stayed for quite some time, was on the market. It was a run-down, neglected hostel, but the location was prime, the waves were cooking, and most importantly, there were no other accommodation options in this hidden gem of a village.
In that instant, our course was set. We had been saving, but not for a decided goal. Getting a loan wasn’t an option in Nicaragua, so we worked out a 5-year payment plan with the previous owner, with a $40,000 deposit to secure the sale. Over the next four years we cut out vacations, taking a week every other year to visit family. We cut down on nights out, ate all our meals on board, and spent hours designing, budgeting and planning for the massive changes that would turn the former Greensurf into “Mandla,” one of Nicaragua’s few luxury beachfront hotels.
In December 2017, we took a huge leap into the unknown. No more free food, no more nice monthly paychecks – and who knew how expensive toiletries are! Upon arriving in Nicaragua, the first thing we did was collect a rescue dog. I may be a chef, but a dog will always be the heart of a home for me. So, with one petrified, abused, cancer-ridden, broken-legged dog in tow, we pulled into our new venture.
It was an incredibly overwhelming project. The scale of work and reconstruction that needed to be done and the size of the property hadn’t really hit home until building commenced. Like all true yachties who are “leaving yachting,” I found myself back on my old boat freelancing a few months later. I’ve yet to meet a yachtie who truly never did even just one more stint after “officially leaving yachts.” After six different yachts, five years of saving, 14 months of construction, seven and a half months of freelancing, 4,673,940 different design ideas (we didn’t use an architect or designer, choosing to do all the work ourselves), we finally opened our doors in February this year, and our all-inclusive bespoke vacation packages have proved a popular escape for yacht crew.
We want to enable everyone who visits El Transito to experience the real Nicaragua – whether it’s teaching a lesson at the local school, cooking lunch for preschoolers or taking a fishing trip with the locals and learning how to handline. Those looking for a bit more luxury in that rare slice of downtime can enjoy private champagne dinners on the beach, daily yoga sessions, and a beachfront massage or manicure. For the more adventurous, there is beautiful hiking, mountain biking, motorbike tours or galloping along the beach at sunset. Take it up a notch with volcano sandboarding or surfing Pistols, our very own firing beach break right outside our front wall. The only thing that will remind you of being on board is our nightly turndowns.
We regularly reflect on what yachting has provided for us. Not only did it give us the opportunity to travel and explore places that we might have only dreamed of, but it enabled us to become owners of our own paradise. It may not be floating, but its proximity to the ocean is close enough to remind us daily of how we got to be here.
Katie Hunt has worked as a yacht chef for the past 7 years. She now resides in Nicaragua with her partner, Capt. Damian Bristow, where they co-own and operate Mandla, a beachfront Boutique Hotel (www.mandlanicaragua.com / Instagram @mandla_nicaragua). Comments are welcome below.