Carenage Bay Beach's Renovation
Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Star-crossed from the beginning—cursed, even—the resort on the Caribbean island of Canouan has reinvented itself from top to bottom. <b>Christopher Petkanas</b> checks in and wonders if the makeover will do the trick.
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.
"You have great architects and great architecture," says Korach, who is chiefly responsible for the redesign. "But not all great architects make great architecture. The upper string of villas looked like a concrete necklace. The comment we always got was that the place didn't have a heart. This is what we have spent so much time and money on, acquiring a heart."
Korach's bosses invited more trouble by running Carenage themselves. When that didn't work, they signed a deal with Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. Based on its track record in the area—Rosewood manages Caneel Bay on St. John—the partnership seemed a winner. But just like some people, some resort owners and operators are never meant to get engaged, let alone walk down the aisle. Rosewood refused to comment on the marriage, which crumbled after 15 months.
Even before Ivan, from which the reborn resort has substantially recovered, some followers of the saga had simply concluded that the place was cursed, an assessment Jennie Chua, Raffles International chairman and CEO, rejects.
"Cursed is a strong word," Chua says evenly. "It comes from superstition. What you're talking about is a troubled history. Why does one hotel make it and another fail?Relationships. Not only do we respect the owners, we think they're really super guys. We were aware of the weaknesses from the beginning. As a prospective manager, you ask yourself, 'Are these contracts I can live with?Can the investors give me the product that allows me to fly my plane?' The answer was yes."
Amazingly, Chua insists that the due-diligence study she conducted did not include "asking why the other guys didn't fly the plane so well. We were more interested in the fit—was it a good one?" Similarly, she will not discuss how things might have been done differently on her watch, asserting that criticism after the fact is too cheap, too easy.
Of Course, if Chua and Saladino fall out of love, there is always that boxing ring. For the moment, though, everything is hugs and air kisses. If you overlook tacky additions like the glass water wall outside Jambu's Restaurant, there's a lot to love at Raffles Canouan beyond three-digit martinis and personnel who perform small acts of kindness while you dream.
Carenage was not famous for its service; now it's superfriendly, if not quite the "gentle breeze" Raffles promises. You can arrive by water, imagined as the tropical version of traveling by boat from Venice airport to Piazza San Marco, or by land, through a gate that opens onto a magnificent file of grugru palms. The color volume on the villas has been turned way down, from yellow and pink to beige, which does much kinder things for the landscape. Dressed up with stone arches, Vietti's bunkers look like the sumptuous villas they were always meant to be.
The rooftop air conditioners are history, replaced by discreet ground units. Heroically, and against every law of nature, the beach has been lowered three feet, so guests in the pool no longer get sand in their eyes. The pool is one of those biomorphic affairs with bridges and an island of lush vegetation. Handsome canework canopy beds invite conking out. Say what you will about swim-up bars, they do embody a certain ideal of hedonism. If they also recall some of the more extreme episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, who cares?Raffles Canouan makes no excuses for guilty pleasures.
But what, you are entitled to know by now, could possibly cause a martini to cost more than many American families spend on groceries in a week?Anchored for the evening on a stool in the Jambu Bar, romanced by a steel band and the glassy night sea, with a hot breeze at my back, I learned that the answer lay partially in the glass. It was handblown, asymmetrical, strung with beads, and twisted with wire.
The other thing that made the drink so expensive, and I hope you're sitting down, was the 24-karat-gold toothpick, a facsimile of General Robert E. Lee's fabled sword Old Glory, which gives this concoction of bourbon and sweet vermouth its name. I was invited to take the sword, which speared a cherry, home, a kind of gift-with-purchase. But as good as the Old Glory is, it cannot help being upstaged by everything going on in and around it. Sometime later, I remember, barman John Paul Ford, who served under General Tommy Franks in Korea before seeking a career in outrageous cocktail creation, persuaded me to try another of his fantasies in the same series, involving an Excalibur. After that, my memory is unreliable. My 2 a.m. crawl to the new casino was a blur of vermilion Venetian stucco. The next day, Korach told me it was conceived to evoke a high-class cathouse. She was joking, I think.
The only thing more decadent than wrapping your lips around an icy, bank-breaking martini at Jambu Bar, I discovered, is summoning one while stretched out on a lounge chair on the beach. You know how the beaches of some Caribbean resorts are packed so tightly, you can read the small type of your neighbor's chick-lit paperback?Well, that kind of thing never happens here. Like the tables in a good restaurant, the lounges are spaced for privacy. Without having to lower my voice in the slightest, I began making the kind of treacly noises to my loved one that are the fallout from too much alcohol, too much spicy food (lunch was chicken-habanero empanadas), and too much sun.
Having warmed to the idea of collaborating with people who are experts in their fields, CRD went on to enlist The Apprentice taskmaster, a.k.a. Donald Trump, to manage the two casinos as well as a community of 135 yet-to-be-built new villas, and to build the par-72, Jim Fazio- designed golf course, which has been renamed the Trump International Golf Club. (The villas are a long way off, but if you think Raffles Canouan may be for you, book before they go up. Once they do, many of the resort's most beautiful vistas will be swallowed up.) CRD has also been instrumental in bringing in the Moorings, the charter yacht company that has made Canouan the sailing capital of the Grenadines.
Indeed, CRD seems to be doing everything right these days, including working with airlines to guarantee seven nonstop flights a week from San Juan and Barbados. The resort's brass were humbled by Ivan but at their desks the next day, tapping out orders to fluff the bougainvillea. The fate of Raffles Canouan now lies in the hands of the guests checking in for its first big season. They're the ones who will ultimately decide if the place has been able to acquire a heart. As everyone knows, you can't buy love.
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is the special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Fly to Canouan via San Juan, Puerto Rico, on American Eagle, or via Barbados on Grenadine Airways.
Raffles Resort Canouan Island
DOUBLES FROM $675. ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES; 877/226-6826; www.raffles-canouanisland.com