Oh, you’re going to love this tour! It’s a holiday from our regular peeks into our everyday homes as we venture to a vacation home in Nicaragua. Certainly, there’s much less clutter and personal items – good thing Legos can fit well into carry-ons – but there are still signs that this is a wonderful home to fill with family memories. Like naps in hammocks. Crashing waves. Sand castles for days. Surfaces that get dirty and wet, but just need a good sweep every so often. Even better when those good sweeps are performed by a caretaker!
One of the greatest things about Natalie and Jeff’s tour is that it comes to life with one click over to House Hunters International. (Consider this tour a spoiler if you haven’t seen their episode yet! Sorry!) So, Friends, please enjoy a little trip south of the border. Way south!
Q: Tell us about the family who vacations in this incredible beachfront home!
A: We are a family of four. My husband, Jeff, is a VP of Risk for a large regional bank – nothing like Along Came Polly! I am the communications director for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is a museum of conscience that enables modern abolition through the lessons of the Underground Railroad. Our son, Colin, seven, is a sweet, gentle soul who nurtures an obsession with birds when he is not building Legos. Our son, Graham, four, is full of energy, loves to be the center of attention, and is always afraid he is missing something. His favorite question right now is, “Is it tomorrow?”
Jeff and I met at a Christmas party right after I graduated from college. He had just come home from several years in South Africa, and I had just moved to Cincinnati. We discovered we both attended Vanderbilt University but he’d graduated right before I began. Despite the connections through school, we did not hit it off until several months later when we ran into each other through volunteering at our church. Once we did connect, we discovered a mutual love of travel and discovering other cultures. This eventually led to a wedding filled with lots of lime green and a solo bridal dance to the song “Brick House” by the Commodores.
Even though they are both sons, Jeff and I can both claim we each have a carbon copy in our children. Jeff is cautious and introspective, as is Colin. I am impulsive and led by emotion, just like Graham.
Q: How did this home come to be yours? (It sounds like you searched for a while!)
A: Jeff and I separately read the same article in the New York Times in 2006 called “The Rediscovery of Nicaragua” and then I brought it up at dinner. The gist was, get to Nicaragua before it becomes developed like Costa Rica. Back then, the roads were just getting finished after years of disrepair. The electricity was sometimes spotty. Few people spoke English. We could travel in old school buses with chickens. It sounded like a great adventure. Not long after, we decided to check it out. it was all we hoped for, plus lots more. But I thought it was probably once-in-a-lifetime.
Instead, we made Nicaragua our annual-ish couple vacation, thanks to the generosity of our parents’ childcare. But we wanted to share it with our kids, so a few years ago, we brought the boys and rented a beach house in the little town where we now own. I immediately knew we had found a forever kind of place for our family.
We love Las Penitas because it’s an authentic fishing village of maybe 1,000 people, with a smattering of small hotels, hostels, and restaurants. The only time it’s very busy is on Sundays when the locals come out from the town to hang out by the bocana – an area with massive tidal pools that lead into an estuary and nature preserve. It feels like a real Nicaraguan town first, and a tourist destination second.
Plus, it’s only 15 minutes from colonial Leon, the second-largest city in Nicaragua. It was established in the 16th century and boasts several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the largest cathedral in Central America. Leon is the university town where the revolution began. It has several grocery stores and a huge local market, which is where we get fresh produce. The fish we eat we get right on the beach.
But most of all, we’ve fallen in love with the people.
We live in a regular suburban neighborhood. Jeff is pretty thrifty. We buy most of our clothes at Target, and we buy groceries at Aldi. We’re not the most likely candidates for a second home. But eventually, looking at real estate listings turned into looking at real houses. It wasn’t an easy process, as our first choice fell through, and it required another trip. But we ended up with a better house in the end.
Q: We’re able to see your journey on House Hunters International! Tell us about your experience on the show.
A: You can’t say brand names on the show. Do you know how hard it is to tell a three-year old that he can’t say “Lego,” he can only say “brick?” And then Colin is correcting him, “It’s not even a brick, that’s a plate!”
Filming the show was a lot of time but ultimately a lot of fun. The crews they sent for our Cincinnati and Las Penitas segments were family friendly, and my kids still talk about “Mr. Dan” who taught them a new version of high-five’ing.
I spent a lot of time standing on bricks for our interviews, so that Jeff and I could be in the same shot; he’s a foot taller than I am.
I’m glad we did the show because it’s a great memento for the kids of that time in their lives.
Q: You decorated the house from afar, which was made a little easier by Pinterest and the help of your realtor’s wife. Tell us how that worked out for you, and what you would do differently if you had to do it all over again.
A: Our realtor’s wife, Brooke, is a designer based in Nicaragua, and she helped us source everything for the house. With the exception of a few Ikea bed linens, we furnished the house locally; everything was either hand-made for the house or was recycled from the previous owner and made new.
I created a Pinterest board and shared ideas with Brooke, and I also got opinions from a few other friend with great style. We had hiccups: some communication with the carpenter was lost in translation, the yarn for some of our blankets was held up due to a customs strike in Honduras.
Nicaragua is known for high-quality furniture and hammocks. There are different little towns known for different types of handicrafts, mostly near the town of Masaya.
I love everything about the house, but if I had to do it over again, I’d add a little more lime green.
Q: What were your goals with the overall decor in this house? How different is the aesthetic from your “real” home?
A: I love lime green. No, like really love it. That is evident in either house you might visit. In Cincinnati, our kitchen walls are called “Limeade” and honestly they look like the green screen in a recording studio.
Our Cincinnati house has more clutter, and other than a lot of color, it doesn’t have a streamlined feel. When we bought our first home I was 25 and was not far removed from the college dorm aesthetic. I hadn’t developed home style. My favorite pieces are our mid-century modern tables in the living room that we got from Jeff’s grandparent’s basement.
For the beach house, the house needed to feel like us, but it also needed to leave an opening for others to feel at home there, too. Being on the beach and in Latin America gave us leverage to use a really bright color palette, but we also drew upon the simplicity of the white cedar plank walls and stone floors.
We also had to think about other practicalities you don’t usually consider. Nearly all of the living spaces are outdoors, so furniture has to weather the weather. We put cane on the chairs for the dining room table so that wet bathing suits wouldn’t wear them down too soon. We needed screen for the windows, but it had to be light enough so it didn’t obstruct the views.
It’s hard to think about strangers using our furniture and worrying about what could happen, but I have to remind myself that it’s more like we are sharing our home with them.
Q: Describe what it means to you to have this escape from your daily life. Did you ever think you’d have a holiday home?
A: I’m originally from Eastern Kentucky, but going to Nicaragua feels like going home in a way that is hard to explain. We only speak English to our kids, otherwise, it’s Spanish. It’s always warm (well, hot), the ocean is always warm, and it’s almost always sunny. We sleep with the windows open and listen to the waves crash. The kids play with local boys and they practice speaking each other’s languages.
We don’t have a TV at the house, and we use pre-paid internet, which forces us to be intentional about being online. I tell work colleagues if they have an emergency to message me through Facebook, so I am really able to disconnect from work email, and my husband does, too.
We’ve also established many meaningful relationships with the people who live there, which has resulted in many a meal of fresh fish or shellfish caught for us by friends who are fishermen! Mary, the caretaker of the house (caretakers are common, especially for rental properties), cooks the meals and cleans up, so that’s another nice disconnect.
We have friends show up at our house on their horse, I’ve rescued a cow stuck in a neighbor’s yard, we buy ice cream from a little cart that walks up and down the street, and the waves crashing right outside our yard were just part of an international surf tournament. It’s a world away from our normal life. I always wanted to live on the beach some day, but I can’t say I really thought we’d have a beach house in our 30s.
Our house is a vacation rental that is managed by a local real estate agency. We are actively engaged in communicating with prospective guests, but our agent manages everything on the ground, which is a huge relief. They also help to stay on top of the maintenance needed to keep a beachfront house looking new. Let’s just say it involves a lot of painting. And then more painting.
Q: We all wonder how our kids will remember their childhoods and our role in them as their mom; how do you hope they’ll remember you from this time in their lives? The good, the bad, and the ugly!
A: I hope they’ll remember having a picnic in front of the TV and staying up on a school night to watch the movie “The Hobbit,” to celebrate finishing the book. I hope they will remember our night-night time before bed when Mom and Dad switch off between kids in their bunks. I hope they will remember socials at the swim club. And joy and imagination and laughter. I hope they will forget that manic 20-minute period before the school bus arrives in the morning and that Mom always made Dad trim their fingernails.
Q: What do you think this holiday home has added to your family’s life together? What do you hope will stick the most to your kids’ memories?
A: The home has meant so much for relationships on many levels – the local friends we’ve made whom the boys now call family, and the family and friends who have shared the house with us on their own trips and enhanced our love for the home. Since we started them young, I hope they will remember us as always having this place. I hope they become lifelong friends with the kids we’ve met, and that even as they grow up, going back to Las Penitas will be like a family reunion.
The local children we hang out with are very poor. Their parents cut wood in mangroves or catch conch, mussels, and fish everyday to live. So, the cross-cultural experience extends beyond language and culture to a socio-economic sharing of experiences that the boys haven’t yet noticed, except to ask why the other kids swim in their clothes. But I hope as they grow knowing these kids will deepen their empathy for and understanding of others.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What surprised you the most about being a mother? And what do you feel yourself already missing?
A: My favorite part about being a mom is showing the boys affection. I have two great cuddlers, and they think I’m their princess. We love to cuddle and read stories or watch a movie. And dance parties. I love dance parties. What surprised me the most about being a mom is how much I’ve learned to love my own parents in new ways and appreciate them.
I don’t feel I’m missing anything – I’ve never been one to look back with sadness or regret. I eagerly anticipate every phase as it comes along and think things keep getting better.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: I wish someone had told me earlier not to strive for balance. What is balance, anyway? The most frustrating times I’ve had as a mom have been related to trying for balance. I like to do everything full-throttle, and any other pace just seems, well, out of balance.
Natalie, your very first note to me mentioned that your Cincinnati house wasn’t so special, but your holiday home could be of interest. You were right about the last part, for sure! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
Friends, if you had asked me if I would ever have a second home, I would have answered “Maybe in my dreams!” So it was nice hearing Natalie’s take on it, too. It’s possible! Financially and emotionally. (Didn’t you love when she said she feels like Nicaragua is home? I am anxiously awaiting that same feeling when our cottage is finished.) And it could all begin with an article shared at dinner! So let me ask you: Will you ever own a second home? If yes, where will it be?