What's striking about this place, I think to myself while clambering along a jagged bluff, is how un- like the West Indies it seems. Or, rather, how unlike the postcard tropics we have come to expect at island resorts.
The setting, for one: In place of clipped lawns, coconut palms, and neon-bright bougainvillea is a chalky, hardscrabble landscape of cacti, palmettos, and scrub. The coastline is largely iron-shore, a rough mix of pitted limestone and lava. Meanwhile, the resort's design—open-sided pavilions made from Indonesian woods, teak-and-rattan armchairs, daybeds upholstered in Jim Thompson silks—recalls Southeast Asia. And not just that: My lunch this afternoon used liberal amounts of shiso, wasabi, and lemongrass. Almost half the staff is Filipino.
As for island iconography, well, no one is performing a fire dance, doing the limbo, or playing "Buffalo Soldier" on steel drums. I have not been served a single conch fritter (though the chef did prepare a fabulous conch carpaccio). Nobody has issued me a drink with an umbrella in it. During two days at Amanyara, here in a remote corner of the Turks and Caicos Islands, I've heard no whirring blenders, no whining Jet Skis, no whooping parasailers. Despite intensive searching, I have not seen a trace of pastel.
The first few days are a bit of a shock—a pleasant one: Where am I, anyway?
Amanyara, which opened last month after eight years in the making, is the first West Indian outpost from Singapore-based Amanresorts, and the largest Aman property yet, with 40 guest pavilions and 33 multi-bedroom villas, the latter of which are being sold as condominiums for $6 million and up. For a company that made its name in Southeast Asia, Amanyara represents a bold move into new terrain. Its arrival in the Turks and Caicos may also be a watershed for this semi-obscure archipelago, thrust again into the limelight after decades of fits and starts.
A British crown colony located southeast of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos (or TCI) comprise some 40 islands and cays, only eight of them inhabited. The entire population numbers 30,000, although some of those are expats—mainly Americans and Britons—who have bought into the thriving real estate market. Travelers come for superb diving (on the world's third-largest coral reef), sportfishing, and impeccable white-sand beaches. This isn't just hype; the beaches are magnificent. Nearly 300 square miles of TCI are given over to protected parkland and wildlife sanctuaries. Launch a boat from the busy marina on Providenciales (a.k.a. Provo) and within 10 minutes you can land on a sand-fringed cay whose only residents are iguanas.
Although Grand Turk is the official capital, Provo has become TCI's commercial hub—solely because of tourism, and only over the past two decades. Few visitors came before 1984, and then Club Med set up shop along Grace Bay Beach, on Provo's northeast coast. Other developers were ready to pounce, but a drug scandal intervened: in 1985, DEA agents in Miami arrested the Turks and Caicos' chief minister for helping Colombian cartels smuggle cocaine into the States via the islands. Many investors were spooked, and the expected boom fizzled. For nearly 10 years Club Med Turkoise had the beach mostly to itself. How idyllic Grace Bay must have seemed back then: a 12-mile stretch of sand with hardly a development in sight.
In 1993, Grace Bay Club opened—a 57-room resort that raised the bar in style and service; it would remain Provo's top hotel for years. (The property is now completing a $45 million renovation, with a new spa and redesigned suites.) But the real shift was still to come. Just north of Provo lay a small uninhabited island called Parrot Cay, upon which Kuwaiti investors had begun to erect a hotel—until the Gulf War caused them to abandon it. The property sat dormant for years (the site briefly drew the interest of Amanresorts) before Singaporean hotelier Christina Ong scooped it up; she remade the hotel in the mode of a British colonial plantation with Balinese details, opening it in 1998. Today Parrot Cay bills itself, without apparent irony, as "the world's most exclusive resort," and draws an admittedly fabulous clientele. Strolling across the pool terrace is like attending a performance of Us Weekly Live: there's Christie Brinkley en route to the spa; there's U2's Adam Clayton ordering sashimi; there's Keith Richards with a bunch of weird stuff in his hair.
Parrot Cay brought bona fide buzz to the Turks and Caicos, proving that the islands were ready for high-end tourism. A mini-wave of hotel openings and residential development followed. The two trends coincided at the Palms, an opulent coral-stone resort fronting Grace Bay with interiors that recall the theatrical designs of Oliver Messel; all 72 hotel suites were sold as condos before the resort opened in March 2005.
Grace Bay Beach itself—and I mean just the sand and the water—is still quite lovely, but it's being built up within an inch of its life. A little beyond the sand, developers are erecting cookie-cutter condo towers with names like Toscana and the Tuscany, each somehow touted as "private and secluded." Locals tell me there's not a single acre along Grace Bay that's not claimed by some future resort or condominium.
Savvy prospectors are now looking beyond Grace Bay and Provo. The protected isle of West Caicos—with a 500-acre nature preserve—has been opened to (limited) development for the first time in a century, and the Ritz-Carlton Molasses Reef is being readied for a 2007 launch. The complex will include 125 suites and 70 condo-villas. And Grand Turk is adding a new cruise-ship terminal, which officials expect will bring another 350,000 visitors to TCI annually.
Meanwhile, the past three years have seen a 25 percent increase in scheduled flights to Provo, among them easy nonstops from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami. A direct flight from London's Heathrow via Nassau brings a steady stream of British visitors; nonstops from Gatwick are reportedly in the cards.
Yet despite the gold-rush talk, the islands remain unknown to most Americans. Passenger arrivals, up to 171,000 in 2004, are still negligible compared with those in Jamaica (1.5 million) and the Bahamas (1.3 million). The Turks and Caicos haven't crested yet. And that's how Adrian Zecha—the 73-year-old founder of Amanresorts—would prefer it.
Zecha created the Aman brand expressly for places on the verge. His first resort, Amanpuri, opened in 1988 on an isolated coconut plantation on Phuket; only in its wake did other luxury chains set their sights on the island. Most of the 16 Amans that followed were set in rural, far-flung locales—an obscure atoll in the Philippines, a Javanese forest, a remote valley of Bhutan. If the arrival of a 400-room Marriott indicates that a destination has reached its tipping point, the opening of an Aman is assurance that overexposure is still years away.
From Java to Jackson Hole, Aman resorts offer a consistent service formula: healthful, uncomplicated food; Asian-themed spa treatments; and an uncannily attentive staff. This is a company that's been known to spray beach sand with cold water to ensure it's cool to the feet, a company where even busboys greet guests by name. Properties are intimately scaled and oriented toward privacy; guest "rooms" are usually stand-alone pavilions with ample outdoor space. Most of all, Aman resorts sell the promise of pure, unadulterated quiet. As such, they've become a refuge for the overstimulated urban elite.
Aman's clientele is small-scale compared with that of most luxury hotel brands, but it is enviably faithful. So-called Aman junkies greet new openings with a cultish fervor—even if there's a similar haute-luxe exoticism to the properties, regardless of their location. But maybe that's the appeal. "Next fall we're heading to 'Wella / 'Kila / 'Gani," they'll say, using only the suffixes of each.
Sound familiar?Zecha is in many ways the Steve Jobs of the hospitality trade: defiantly niche, yet hugely influential; devoted to simplicity and personalization; possessed of exceptional taste and a keen eye for design. Both Amanresorts and Apple cleverly sell their products as lifestyle statements, so that one's laptop or hotel becomes an expression of identity. Coincidentally, both men were temporarily exiled from their companies (Zecha from 1998 to 2000, Jobs from 1985 to 1997), only to return with renewed ambition. And both brands have been saddled with that tiresome Zen tag—as in "Amanresorts' spare, Zen-like interiors" or "the iPod's sleek Zen minimalism."
Like Mac addicts, Aman junkies have had plenty to talk about lately, with four openings in the last two years. "We'd eventually like to see thirty resorts around the globe," Zecha says. With Amans now scattered across Southeast Asia, additional properties there will only compete with existing ones. So the West Indies—and specifically the Turks and Caicos—seems a logical move.
"At most places there's a clear dividing line where the sprinklers stop and the outside world begins," says Nathan Browning, Amanyara's landscape consultant. We're rattling along in his truck at the edge of the 100-acre property, and Browning is explaining the Aman philosophy of landscaping—or, more precisely, not landscaping. "When you arrive here, we don't want it to feel as if you left the native habitat and stumbled on some Balinese oasis," he says. To that end, all vegetation used on the property is native to the region: the squat, century-old gumbo-limbos, the hardy locustberry, and green buttonwood trees.
Amanyara sits on Provo's undeveloped western shore, inside a 5,000-acre nature and wildlife reserve called Northwest Point. Reaching this remote corner entails a long, bumpy ride from the airport, past the sleepy settlement of Blue Hills, where the salt air has peeled the paint off tabby bungalows; past Baptist church marquees (EXPOSURE TO THE SON CAN PREVENT BURNING); past uniformed schoolkids kicking crab shells along the shoulder. Soon the buildings fall away and the road becomes a rough gravel track, winding through a rolling expanse of pine and palmetto that's surveyed by the occasional osprey or pelican.
At the far edge of the reserve, a rocky headland juts into the surf like a ship's prow. Just to the north is Malcolm Road Beach, a smashing stretch of sugary sand. Reachable only by four-wheel-drive or by boat, it's as private as any nominally public beach could be, and seems oceans apart from crowded Grace Bay. Offshore is a protected marine park with a pristine barrier reef and, just beyond, a diving wall formed by a 6,888-foot drop along the ocean floor.
Adrian Zecha came upon this deserted spot eight years ago, stood atop the bluff, and immediately knew he'd found his site. "It took us two or three more years to actually work out the details—we can't own the property, of course, since it's government land," he explains. In the end, Amanyara was granted a 75-year lease. Though it may not resemble the lush island fantasy we've come to expect of the brand, the terrain feels more natural, more genuine. "There's a ruggedness to Northwest Point that Adrian really responded to," Browning says, as our truck is enveloped by a cloud of dust. "It's a dry and brutal landscape, but it has a subtle beauty you won't find anywhere else."
For a design that would coax out and complement that quirky beauty, Zecha turned to architect Jean-Michel Gathy, who had designed Aman-i-Khas (in Rajasthan), Amanwana (in Indonesia), and the Setai hotel in Miami Beach. "We wanted to give guests a reassuring feel in a harsh and hostile environment," Gathy explains. So he created a network of tranquil ponds throughout the property and a reflecting pool at the heart of the resort. The public buildings are mostly low-slung pavilions constructed of kapur and balau wood, with shingled roofs of slate-gray African wallaba. Several are open-walled, creating a pleasing flow between indoors and out, while others have tall louvered shutters that swing open to the sun and the air.
Materials for the structures and interiors were hauled in from 39 countries: hand-carved stone from Indonesia, silk from Thailand, coconut-wood table mats from Vietnam…the list reads like a roll call for an ASEAN summit.
Guests enter via an airy, colonnaded lobby-that-isn't-a-lobby (per Aman custom, check-in is conducted in your room). There's no proper reception desk, but instead a phalanx of smiling staffers to greet you. There are no welcome banners, no AMANYARA logos, no snorkeling sign-up sheets. From the lobby a terrazzo walkway winds around the reflecting pool, drawing you across the shaded central courtyard toward the sea. Two more pavilions flank the pool—one a clubby library, all satiny teak floors and silk paneling, the other a restaurant, with three dining rooms and two outdoor terraces.
Just past the reflecting pool is the resort's tallest structure: a 45-foot-high, conical-roofed bar that rises from its perch like a lighthouse. ("Our temple to alcohol," the manager jokes.) Inside, eight window nooks are outfitted with reclining mats and bolsters.
The 40 guest pavilions, identical in layout (660 square feet) and interior design, are situated either beside the ocean or inland alongside the ponds. With low rooflines concealed by dense groves of locustberry and sea grape, each feels utterly secluded; three of the four walls are almost entirely glass and can be slid open to two side terraces, creating a single indoor-outdoor space nearly twice the size of the original. Two side terraces are furnished with enough daybeds and chaises to accommodate a family reunion; bamboo blinds descend from the wide-hanging eaves to let in the breeze while maintaining a sense of enclosure. At the front of each pavilion is a shaded dining terrace with a sunken table and, beyond, a timber sundeck where two lounging mats face a pond or the sea. The outdoor space is clearly the focal point, as there's no occasional furniture inside—only one spindly armchair. Under the pitched ceiling, a king platform bed—shrouded in white—floats at the center of the room, which is floored in Zamboni-smooth, sand-hued terrazzo with teak inlays.
Throughout the resort, Gathy's architecture is faithful to signature Aman themes: the obsession with symmetry (every line finds a counterpoint directly across a pool or pond), the regard for right angles (excepting the bar, there's nary a rounded edge in sight), the low center of gravity (every 14 feet you pass a daybed or chaise that commands, Lie down now). Muted earth tones predominate, and the architecture rarely distracts from the natural landscape.
"When we're developing a resort, we continually ask, What was it that attracted us to this site in the first place?" Zecha says. "The answer is always, 'The way it was.' So we try to minimize alterations. Of course, the ideal would be to not do anything at all." Zecha believes a resort should merely "frame" its setting, as a cinematographer would a face, and Amanyara is filled with subtle forms of flattery: a perfectly spotlit flower, a window aligned just so with a mahogany tree. This rock-garden exactitude is presumably what people mean by Zen-like. That, and the near absence of interior decoration. Why add clutter when you have a forest's worth of exotic timber to show off?And here it must be said: for all the Aman rhapsodies about "connection to the environment," Amanyara still feels more like Thailand or Bali than the British West Indies. (Zecha refers to the look as "tropical design," neither Asian nor Western.)
But ultimately, does a sense of locality matter?Well, not necessarily, particularly in the West Indies or Caribbean, where so much resort architecture is imported and ersatz. (Witness the red-tile roofs and Moorish arches proliferating on Grace Bay.) In the end, Amanyara is just a beach resort; it doesn't have to be authentic or sui generis to succeed.
Besides, I realize while standing on the limestone headland, the setting speaks for itself. Here it becomes clear why Zecha chose this site: from this bluff, 20 feet above sea level, the ocean views are stunning. Just behind me is a 164-foot-long infinity pool made of coal-black volcanic stone, its glassy surface shimmering in the sun. To my left is craggy iron-shore, with small, sandy coves tucked amid the rocks. To my right is that sugar-white beach, backed by gentle dunes and a ribbon of green. There's not another person or a single condo tower in sight—nothing that would betray our location, whether it be the West Indies, the Far East, or somewhere in between.
Which, of course, is exactly how you'd want it.
Despite the April 2006 robbery of two American citizens at the resort, the Turks & Caicos has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean and such incidents are rare. Arrests and charges in the case were made within 48 hours, according the Chief Minister of Turks & Caicos.
When to Go
As with the neighboring Bahamas, high season runs from December through May, when daytime temperatures average 75 to 80 degrees. Summer and fall bring hotter and more humid weather, especially in September and October.
Providenciales (a.k.a. Provo) lies on the western edge of the Turks and Caicos archipelago, just beyond the Bahamas and about 575 miles southeast of Miami, a 11/2-hour flight. Almost all visitors to the Turks and Caicos arrive at the recently improved international airport on Provo (airport code: PLS). During high season there are frequent nonstops from most major U.S. cities. From the airport it's a 10-minute ride to Grace Bay, where the majority of resorts and commercial developments are clustered, or a 25-minute drive to Northwest Point and Amanyara. Boats to nearby islands—including Parrot Cay and Pine Cay—leave from Leeward Marina, on Provo's northeast coast.
Where to Stay
Northwest Point, Providenciales; 65/6887-3337; www.amanresorts.com; guest pavilions from $1,350.
Note: Amanyara's spa is scheduled for completion in 2007.
On a private 1,000-acre island, 30 minutes from Provo by boat, Parrot Cay is Amanyara's only true rival for location, polish, and sheer glamour, though the two differ in tone and design. Here it's all about the scene (Bruce Willis is among the house owners), and there's a palpable charge in the air in the evenings, when the pool deck morphs into a catwalk. The main hotel is a cluster of Mediterranean-style follies located on a verdant hillside well back from the beach; rooms in these buildings have balconies but no genuine privacy. Infinitely better are the freestanding beach houses and eight beach villas, nestled right off the sand.
877/754-0726 or 649/946-7788; www.parrotcay.como.bz; doubles from $620.
The spirit of Oliver "Mr. Mustique" Messel defines this Grace Bay Beach neo-Palladian newcomer, an indulgence of coral-stone, marble, and mahogany that cost $95 million to build and flaunts every cent of it. Rooms are enormous and exceedingly comfortable, set inside five-story towers that feel like apartment blocks. Outside, the vast serpentine pool, complete with a swim-up bar and throbbing dance beats, creates a high-energy vibe. (This is not the place for quiet reflection.)
Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales; 649/946-8666; www.thepalmstc.com; doubles from $575.
The antithesis of the Palms, and an entirely singular place. Like Parrot Cay, it's on a private island, just a short hop from Provo by plane or boat; unlike Parrot Cay, it's defiantly unpretentious and old-fashioned. Guests stay in 13 tropical-themed rooms in a single-story block beside the beach; each unit has a screened porch (creaky door and all), an outdoor shower, and paddle ceiling fans—there's no air-conditioning, no television, and no phone. There's not much of anything, in fact, besides the endless beach, the adjacent 500-acre nature reserve, and a small fleet of catamarans and Sunfish to explore with.
Pine Cay (6 miles northeast of Providenciales); 866/746-3229 or 770/500-1134; www.meridianclub.com; doubles from $650, including all meals.
Grace Bay Club
Grace Bay's original luxury property, this intimate Mediterranean-style resort consists of a 21-suite hotel and 38 newly constructed villas. Rooms are adorned with decorative pottery, Spanish tiles, and colorful textiles; all rooms have oceanfront views. Dine on chef Eric Brunel's Caribbean-inspired dishes in the Anacaona's candlelit beach palapas.
Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales; 800/946-5757 or 649/946-5050; www.gracebayclub.com; junior suites from $555.
At this British colonial-inspired resort complex, the smallest one-bedroom suite comes replete with an Italian granite kitchen and separate dining and living rooms—and measures more than 1,000 square feet. The 32 apartments all have spacious terraces and are housed in whitewashed buildings set around a central pool. Frette linens, fresh flowers, and complimentary cocktails lead the impressive amenity list. Traditional European thalassotherapy spa treatments take place in oceanside cabanas.
Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales; 866/924-7223 or 649/946-5096; www.pointgrace.com; doubles from $595.