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.