Until September, Canouan liked to boast that, being located below the 15th parallel, natural disasters were not a concern—hurricanes were something other Caribbean islands worried about. Then Ivan swept in and gave this far-flung outpost of the Grenadines a good swipe.
As it turns out, the island was already on familiar terms with damage, though of a different sort. At Carenage Bay Beach & Golf Club, it seemed that everything that could go wrong did. The luxury resort had opened on Canouan in 1999. It closed just three years later, vexed by design and logistical issues—including too few flights to the island to fill a reasonable number of hotel beds. It was one of the great flameouts in resort history.
But don't get out your handkerchief quite yet. The property's owners at Canouan Resorts Development (CRD) are not easily discouraged, they are not impatient, and they are not poor. Far from it. Carenage relaunched last summer with a surgically tweaked new look, having replaced a clunky pastiche of tropical styles with something a whole lot sleeker and more sophisticated. Among the catalogue of "enhancements" is a Bellini bar, an exhaustive spa with extravagant cliffside treatment palapas, a romantic motorboat that ferries guests to and from the airport, plus the next must-have in hotel fitness centers, a boxing ring.
The place also reopened with disciplined new management, Singapore-based Raffles International Ltd., and a resonant new name, Raffles Resort Canouan Island, that has put the region on notice. The rebranding of Carenage marks the arrival in the Caribbean of a legendary hotel company that helped make "invisible" Asian service the industry's gold standard.
The paint on the walls is still wet, but this time CRD may have finally got it right.
On my first morning at Raffles Canouan, I woke to find that the golf cart I had parked nose-first in front of my villa had been magically turned around while I slept. It was a small gesture by a phantom staffer—reorienting the cart so I could shoot straight out to breakfast—but a telling one. Oooh, I thought, logy from two too many $300 martinis the night before, a person could get used to this ($300 is not a typo). If this was how it was going to go all weekend, the readings on my indulgence meter would be crazy-high.
Two hundred million dollars was heaped on the property the first time around. A large chunk of that sum paid for infrastructure, from 20 miles of roads to desalination plants producing 640,000 gallons of water a day. For the makeover, CRD's shareholders, headed by Swiss-Italian banker Antonio Saladino, dug deeper into their pockets and came up with another $39 million. They did this as casually as one of them might charter a plane to St. Moritz for the weekend. Dianne Collen, Saladino's liaison, confirmed this over a baroque dinner of lobster with duck gizzards at the resort's La Varenne restaurant.
"We've never been frightened of spending money," Collen said, biting into a gizzard.
Of Raffles Canouan's four restaurants, La Varenne is the fussy fine-dining option, housed in Villa Monte Carlo, a grandiose whitewashed building with a swooping gable. It's a place where, according to printed material left in my room, "Culinary precision to preserve flavors dominates every single dish." That's a noble mission, but in pursuing their dream of a resort on Canouan, CRD's investors have often looked as if they were trying to invent a new extreme sport (division: hospitality). Four Seasons was approached on two occasions to run the resort, and both times said no. Still, Saladino and company are determined to reverse the property's fortunes. Canouan has been called the little island that couldn't, and the words sting.
Hindsight is 20/20, but it's hard not to see Carenage as a missed opportunity, one Raffles is betting its reputation it can recoup. Within casting distance of Mustique (on a clear day you can see Princess Margaret's former villa), Canouan has an embarrassment of assets: sugar-sand beaches, the best snorkeling this side of the Maldives, and topographical eye candy, including mountains that top off at 877 feet. Five years ago barely anyone had heard of the island, save for yachties, lending it a mysterious, exotic allure. Is there a traveler on earth who doesn't nurture a pioneer fantasy, who doesn't dream of getting in on the ground floor of a place before the crowds arrive and it's anointed a classic?Carenage would be that place.
Or not. For although on paper the property was a shoo-in to become the Caribbean's next great mono-destination, it was also a magnet for trouble. The late Luigi Vietti, Carenage's superstar principal architect, enjoyed a long leash. His design for Porto Cervo—the locus of Sardinia's ritzy Costa Smeralda development—is always held up as a masterpiece of urban planning. But Vietti made a catalogue of mistakes on Carenage that were as basic as they were expensive.
For reasons that died with him, he placed the entrance beside an inelegant service area. The 13,000-square-foot pool was positioned alongside and on the same level as the beach, allowing pounds of sand to be blown into it every week. Vietti was handed a sensational, amphitheater-like setting over which to disperse the 61 villas that would house 156 guest rooms, but many of the villas looked like, well, bunkers. Nobody noticed until it was too late that they had been built without air-conditioning; to correct the problem, cooling units were installed on the roofs. I don't know about you, but when I'm paying $900 a day for a bay view in something called an Orchestra Suite, I prefer it without a lot of nasty whirring machinery in the foreground.
It was a case of not minding the store as the store was being built. Having faithfully executed Vietti's plan, Elena Korach, general manager of CRD's construction arm, has just come off 28 grinding months of undoing large portions of it.