Akwasi McLaren is the owner and designer of Escape 3 Points, an eco-lodge located just outside the village of Cape 3 Points in Southwestern Ghana. Drawn by the region’s stunning natural scenery, Akwasi felt a deep longing to create an ‘escape’ from the outside world, and in 2008, he began the Escape 3 Points project.
Built along a golden sand beach, Escape 3 Points nestles between two rivers, which flow into the Atlantic Ocean. The structures at Escape 3 Points are handbuilt with natural and recycled materials; from the lodges to the composted toilets, everything is made with earth, bamboo, raffia, thatch, and wood. The source of electricity is solar, and Akwasi and his team are consistently researching and exploring different renewable energy sources to maintain the environment’s eco-friendliness.
At a place where one sleeps to the sound of the sea and wakes to the melodies and chirping of birds and sunrise on the beautiful beach and ocean, the lodgers have only great things to say about their experiences. A guest noted that staying at the eco-lodge made them feel connected to nature and rejuvenated their soul, and another said the sounds of nature were so peaceful and relaxing that it felt like the trees were speaking to her.
With an origin story that begins in Canada and Cape 3 Points, Escape 3 Points has become that popular destination for those seeking to escape the noise and connect with nature. In this interview, we chat with Akwasi about the Escape 3 Points story, his motivations, challenges, beautiful moments, his guests and his plans for the future.
NOTE: This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Ifunanya Okolie: Who is Akwasi? We know the story of a young man who came to the centre of the world and camped on the beach with his friends and discovered the intention to build what is now ‘Escape 3 Points.’
What is this man’s story? Who was he before he came on this beautiful adventure? What year did he arrive here? Where was he travelling to?
Akwasi: Well, thank you for the question. It’s a big question. My name is Akwasi Mclaren. I was born and raised in Canada. My mum is Ghanaian. I made my way back to Ghana in 2003. At that point, I was helping my parents manage their hotel and came on a camping trip to get away with some friends and found this place.
After finding this place, I said, ‘I want to be able to come back here and build my house. My father advised me that ‘you like the place, because it’s beautiful and natural. What happens if you get bad neighbours? You should try and get as much land as you can.’ So, I came to get the land from the neighbour there (Akwasi gestures with his hands) to the neighbour on the other side.
But then, because I did that, it wasn’t so simple to just build a house. Some six years went by, I was still managing my parents’ hotel, dreaming about what it was that I wanted to do here and realising that as I was managing my parents’ hotel, which was more of a standard hotel that welcomes every kind of person, that I really wanted to focus on certain types of people that are really interesting, and draw those people here because I could also see that tourism was really helping the local communities.
I said okay, I’m going to build something, but it won’t be a hotel. It would be a place where people can come and stay and also experience the area.
I’m an architect by training. I did my studies in Canada, and I did my thesis at a hands-on, low-cost trade school in Ghana, where the whole concept was a school that had no money but located on the roadside with access to the local resources and the first project for the school was to build the school.
I’d had an interest in composting toilets and compressed earth blocks. And so it was a question of putting it all together. Because of this fact and also that I grew up on the farm in my father’s workshop, it allowed me to come to a place where there was nothing and just began to build.
We started this whole process at the end of 2008 and since then, a lot of things have changed and the whole place has been built organically as we’ve realised we need this or that, we’ve just built, and it’s still a continuous process.
You mentioned ‘we.’ Who are your co-creators?
I’m the primary person who started the whole thing. During that time, my wife and I were dating. She’s been very supportive since the beginning. I also have some members of my team that have been with me since the beginning. They came as labourers, have grown as well with the place and become much more than labourers. They know a lot of different corners, the spirit, and all the things we’ve done to make this place what it is.
Great! How would you describe the experience of creating this paradise?
It’s been a journey, that’s for sure. Since the beginning, it’s been a difficult journey in the sense that I’ve learnt a lot about myself. I’ve also learnt a lot about the fact that one of the things I love and dislike the most would be people. It’s people that have given me the strength to continue to do this, but it’s also people that have also made me completely crazy where I thought, ‘I think I have to stop doing this.’
And that balance of trying to see where things are going, but overall, in the end, we’re still doing it, and the power of people still saying ‘don’t stop what you are doing, keep going’ and inspiring us has allowed us to continue to do what we are doing.
Thank you. What inspired the name ‘Escape 3 Points?’
It’s a bit of a play on words. We are located here at Cape 3 Points, and I wanted to build an escape: an escape from the city, the stress, and the outside world we find ourselves in. And to offer this refuge, the two came together, even though initially, the full name was going to be ‘Eco Escape 3 Points,’ but it’s a bit of a mouthful, so we reduced it to ‘Escape 3 Points.’
I am amazed at how many people come in here with their valuables and come back to find their valuables intact. The charging point is an example of that. How did you make security work without security guards and CCTV?
Before I came to live here, there was a story of a surfer who left his bag on the beach when he went out surfing. I had come to greet the chief to check on the land, and the chief passed me this bag, not knowing I didn’t even know the story beforehand, and he said, ‘we’re very sorry, this won’t happen again.’
I’m also from a small town, and this town wants to uphold a certain name. So, it helps, for the most part, that people want to do the right thing. They don’t want anybody going away and speaking badly about how this is the kind of people that we are. Having said that, of course, we’ve had small incidents where there are petty thefts incidents and things like this, where many times, the community also comes and helps sort out the situation.
I see. Because my next question was going to be, ‘have you had an instance of theft and violence here before?
Not so much violence. Theft, petty thefts, but not so much on-site. Mostly, a lot of those incidents usually happen on the beach. One thing I learned just coming here at the very beginning is that as much as you’re in nature and feel like you’re alone. When you’re in trouble, there are people around.
I got my truck stuck on-site before we had a properly established road, and people could hear the truck. They came out of nowhere to come and help so that we could get the truck out. There’s always somebody around, and that’s good and bad.
Sometimes, there are people around that don’t have the best of intentions, and they’re opportunistic, especially for the youth, which was part of the reason I came to meet the chief.
Initially, he knew that my parents had a hotel, so he really wanted me to establish a hotel, which, when I heard it, I thought, ‘okay, well, that wasn’t necessarily what I was coming to do, but let’s see what we can do.’ But for him, it was more about the importance of creating jobs for the youth, and I could definitely see that. I mean, for this community as it’s so remote, there are not many opportunities for the youth. So either they start to follow in their parents’ footsteps of becoming fishermen or farmers, or commit petty crimes out of boredom because if people who want opportunities don’t get the opportunities, they’ll find ways and means to get it. So, definitely, there’s still an opportunity for the youth to have more experiences here so that we can minimise these kinds of incidents.
I agree. I hear what you’re saying. Have you experienced a case of culture shock from a guest before? What was it about, and how did you handle it?
I don’t know if we had people who experienced too much cultural shock once they reached here. Typically, just the fact that they’ve already arrived in Ghana in a car, and they’ve had to have a bit of a journey before they reach here.
But for people who’ve never been to Ghana, coming here – even here – I like to say that Accra is not Ghana. Accra is its own entity, Escape is also the same. So, we don’t have all the daily issues of Ghana here. In some ways, it’s a bit easier to acclimate yourself to what’s going on in Ghana and try to understand the culture better because there are different things about people’s understandings and mindsets that are different from everywhere else. And here, it allows you time to sink into it, so it’s not so much of a high-speed shock.
I’ve met one or two volunteers here. What is your process for signing up volunteers? What do you look out for?
We’ve had volunteers from different places. We have a post online with Workaway that people are applying through. We’ve also had people who either come as guests, and they have family members, or they know somebody who is also interested in coming here.
We’ve also had guests who have said: ‘Oh, well, we want to come back. We really want to take part in what you are doing.’ When I look at volunteers, I look at a combination of the projects we have going on and their skill sets and try to see how we could balance things and also improve upon things. Because a lot of times when people are coming, they want to learn more about what we’re doing, but I also want to try and find a balance where they’re able to learn more, and the team can also gain from their experiences and knowledge because definitely, everybody who comes here comes from a completely different background.
So, there is always something we can learn from each other. And that is part of the whole concept from the beginning; it is about sharing knowledge from people from outside, people from here because there is a lot of local knowledge that is very valuable, but a lot of times, people don’t see the merit in it. But people coming from outside can see it.
And the same with people coming from outside; they’ll know things, but they won’t necessarily write on their CV that they know certain things because they don’t feel it’s important, but afterwards, it turns out to be something very valuable that works very well with the environment and what we’re doing.
Thank you. Do you have any projects you’re currently working on?
You know, right now, I think I don’t have a project for once. We finished this working space here at the end of last year, and we’re doing some renovations around it.
So, at the moment, I’m just brainstorming about which project I’m going to take on next. It’s also the Christmas holiday period. It’s a moment where we focus on the people coming to make sure they also enjoy their experiences. And now, as we’re moving into 2023, it’s the moment to see what project we will take on next.
Are you hiring?
You’re always hiring?
Not necessarily, but this year, we’re restructuring how we’re doing things. I can see that I need to take a step back from a lot of the day-to-day happenings here. Although, my problem is that I know how to do everything, which is good and bad. But it’s also not allowing me to bring things to the whole next level.
I’m also looking at restructuring and putting key people in between that can lead alongside me because I have a lot of strong people within my team, but leadership is where it’s more difficult. You know, when you’re on a team, you want to be a part of the team. You don’t want to be on the side.
And so it’s trickier to find the right people who want to be able to lead because a lot of the time, the people who want to lead are doing their own thing, which is normal. So right now, I’m looking at filling more managerial mid-positions within the company.
I’ve seen you surf. Do you have other hobbies or interests that help you think outside the box?
Surfing is a big thing that plays into my life. I also DJ a bit on the side. I’ve been learning guitar, but mostly, just doing what I do occupies a lot of my time, and yes, it’s my work per se, but at the same time, I’m my boss, and I get to research and learn more about a lot of things that have piqued my interest. So, my work is also my hobby. It keeps me quite busy, and I’m also able to do it at my own pace most of the time. Apart from some music and some surfing, I’m okay.
Oh, I have my children. That also keeps me quite busy.
On the 31st eve, I saw some workers picking butterfly pea from the farm, which was used to make blue rice for the 31st dinner. Do you get your produce from the farm?
There you go! That answers the question. I’d forgotten this. Yes, we have quite a bit of produce that comes from the farm.
Over the years, our farm has either been extremely abundant or not producing enough. It’s always been bearing a lot, and also, because we’re doing it organically, it’s a bit of a new concept to my team.
Currently, I have some people around, some permaculture experts, and we’re working on restructuring the farm to make sure that it is more productive on a consistent basis.
That is actually the first project of this year, which has already begun. We are already on the first project and because part of the whole point is that as we are here, the idea is to be self-sustaining in all aspects and showing an example of that, so definitely being able to produce your own food so that you don’t have to buy from outside.
Of course, there are certain things we will buy from outside, like rice or beans, but to be able to produce as much as we possibly can in terms of fruit and vegetables and herbs here on-site.
Is there something you would do differently as the creator of Escape 3 Points if you could go back in time?
I think I would be more careful to document and keep every documentation of everything we’ve done.
Apart from that, it’s difficult to know how the journey would have gone. There were moments when I was ready to stop the whole thing.
And it was just chance and what’s happened along the way that’s formed this. So, I don’t know if I would’ve done it any other way, but as I’ve been doing it, learning how to do it in a better way and better balance, just life balance versus work balance and making sure that everything is flowing.
Part of the thing is that what we do is not conventional. It’s tricky to see how to try and find a balance when there is no simple blueprint that we can just follow. Whereas, if we built a standard hotel, it’s easy. It’s like, (Akwasi gestures with his hands) do this, do this, do this, but as we’re pushing to try and do it differently, it’s also about trying to find solutions to unknown problems along the way.
Do you keep in touch with other creators and other guests who’ve lodged in here?
I bet, yes. And in fact, this past 2022, covid affected a lot of things here.
2022 was a wonderful year. We had several young creatives who came through. It was wonderful to have that kind of energy around because when people come and enjoy this, it’s wonderful, but also, to see and feel that creative energy through others is inspiring for me.
And so this year, we’re going to be encouraging more creatives to come into our space because there’s a lot of energy here that helps inspire things for different creatives.
Let’s talk about the naming of the lodges. I’m in the ‘Twin Sisters’ lodge, and saw the inscription underneath the name, ‘the person who pursues two rats will miss both,’ and there’s an image of an owl on the wall of one of the rooms. Is this symbolic?
Each part that you spoke about is symbolic. Even then, in the naming of the houses. Every house has its name, and every house has its own story about how it came to be.
So, that was the beginning of the process. Afterwards, when we were putting the names of the houses on, we added a number of different African proverbs that we thought were also fitting in relation to those houses. For example, the idea of the twin sisters was to build a two-storey house only with earth and Bamboo. After the whole process of building the house, we achieved it.
Afterwards, we got feedback that the round Bamboo was a bit too round and difficult on people’s feet. We did some modifications and changed things. Every house and space continues to evolve and change, and likewise with the owl on the wall. We had the opportunity to have a volunteer with us who was a painter. We discussed doing some murals. We did some painting. We brought the idea of the owl to add some small touches and feel to the space. Every house continues in that sense. But we can spend a whole day just on the explanations of each house. But yes, there’s a story. It’s much the same with everything that’s happened here. There’s a big story behind everything that’s happened here.
I’m curious to hear this story. We will set up another interview for just that. How many lodges are here?
We have 11 bungalows. We also have the dormitory that sleeps ten people.
There’s also the rainbow house, which consists of six rooms that sleep two in each room, with a shared toilet and bath. Typically, if we are full on a normal day, about 50 people can come and stay here.
Interesting. Would you design more lodges in the future?
In fact, one of my projects for 2023 is not here on-site.
It’s at Lake Bosomtwe, where my grandfather’s from. We plan to build a two-bedroom earth block building just as a small house. Also, the idea of taking some of our construction methods to other places so that people can experience it and know it will also help to inspire and bring better solutions for people to build.
It’s one of the things I’ve wanted to do for years now, and this is because building with earth makes so much more sense for me than building with concrete. And with the current prices, inflation and things with the price of cement, it makes it difficult for people to build, but for me, there are better options like using earth. While my parents were building their hotel, I encouraged my mom to build with earth, but she said ‘no.’ To her, it was too much village-style building. But, for me, it’s a question of education. Yes, earth is more on a village level, but people don’t understand that it’s the details and the construction that allows it to be something that can be sustainable and last many years.
So, being able to build like what we’ve been doing here allows people to touch and feel and understand better that this could be a better option; I can still have my air-conditioned house; it’s a much cooler space. There are different benefits of building in alternative ways. But many times, I see young architects, even in Ghana, that are not taught these methods because of the liability. And the fear is that people are not a hundred percent sure about how to do it.
So even when it came to doing what we’re doing here, I looked to discuss with different people, but it was difficult to find people who were knowledgeable enough and wanting to share their knowledge. So, for me, this whole journey has been actually experiencing and learning it.
And now, there’s a big push that we need to share all the knowledge we have here. I feel that it’s important that people know how to build with these kinds of methods and be more self-sustainable, especially after what we’ve experienced in the last two years with Covid and the world. And the fact that so much of the world is dependent on other people and other sources, and if we can be more self-sustaining, we can be in a better situation when conflict comes.
Thank you so much for sharing that. What emotions would you say Escape 3 Points evokes in your guests?
I think my guests are just really happy to be in a serene environment in nature. At the same time, some of those people have their jobs, and they also need to be able to check in, and we’ve been creating these spaces so that when they are here, and they are doing those things, they can take their moments, check in, do their work, and then also unplug again quickly.
This space helps us cut off from those things that would bring us too much stress or anxiety, but also, we are not completely cut off from the world.
What are some of your favourite memories of Escape 3 Points that you have?
That’s a good question.
The first memory that comes to me is during covid, we closed the lodge for two months. We’ve only closed the lodge two days in 13 years. One was for our wedding party. It was just to invite friends and be able to use the space. And the second was the outdooring for our daughter. Both times, people showed up without notifying us in advance.
We welcomed them to come and join. But for Covid, we shut down for two months, and upon reopening, we were getting a lot of pressure from people living in Accra that wanted to get out of being locked away in their compounds.
When it came to reopening, we said we’d allow people to come again and see how it goes because we didn’t want to bring Covid to the village. We did a soft opening and had a couple of families come in groups.
When the children came out of the cars, you could see that they’d been locked away for two or three months. They looked so free and happy. I had tears in my eyes watching these children run around, and I said, ‘okay, we have to keep doing this. People need this.’ It really helped us push and reopen the lodge because even when we closed it, I was upset that this is not a good reason to close. People need to be able to go outside, especially in this kind of time, But I understand that people are doing their best to make decisions that this is what we should do.
But I’m like, ‘no, people need to be able to get away from all these things and be able to breathe proper air and have space between yourselves naturally.’ So yeah, I think that’s the first big memory that comes to me. There’s a lot. There are a lot of stories.
Thank you so much for sharing that. Thank you for answering my questions, and for your honesty in sharing your answers to these questions. Hopefully, we get to have more storytelling sessions because I hope to visit soon.
My pleasure, thank you. And thank you for coming, and thank you for the opportunity to share. As many times as I tell the same story over and over again, it is nice to actually share this story. And when other people share this story, then I can tell the other stories and not the same story all the time.
Creatives Around Us granted permission to feature photos by Akwasi Mclaren; Additional photographs taken by Ifunanya Okolie.