A pink-sand paradise in the Bahamas, Harbour Island is being called the next big thing. Michael Gross asks whether that is a blessing—or a curse

May 07, 2009

This spring, supermodel Elle Macpherson, who owns a house on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, hosted a Full Moon Party at Sip Sip. A new snow-cone-green restaurant perched on a dune above a three-mile-long beach, Sip Sip is named after Harbour Island's two favorite pastimes: drinking and gossip. After indulging in the first, Macpherson's guests proceeded to generate the second.

"You can really judge an island by the detritus people leave behind at a party," says one of Sip Sip's co-owners, Julie Lightbourn. When the sun rose, Lightbourn collected several beaded purses, a pair of Armani sunglasses, and an abandoned pashtoosh from her sandy deck. Not long after, news began spreading around the small community that one of Elle's guests, duty-free mogul Robert Miller, had cracked up a golf cart on his way home and had to be helicoptered off-island for medical attention.

The incident took place just as Miller was about to move into a compound in the elite Narrows district. He'd come to Briland (say "Harbour Island" fast to understand the nickname) thanks to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, the mother-in-law of one of his three very social daughters. Von Furstenberg has owned a Harbour Island house since the late 1980's; she fell in love with the island after seeking shelter there while yachting in a storm with media tycoon Barry Diller. Miller bought his compound from an Italian playboy, who'd acquired it from a British aristocrat, who left the island just after he shot a black Labrador belonging to his neighbor, a wealthy, widowed American matriarch from a colonial family. And she had been there long before the taut wire that connects the chic began humming with word of what was happening on Harbour Island.

So what was happening?Start with brilliant bloodlines. Then add beauty and big names and stir them all up with big money on a picture-perfect beach less than an hour from the North American mainland.

It's no wonder people are calling Harbour Island the next St. Bart's, though you won't hear that from the island's residents. Brilanders are eager to tell you that it isn't an easy place to reach. You must fly to Florida or Nassau, change planes and fly to North Eleuthera, where you catch a taxi, then a speedboat, and then another taxi before getting to your room on an island that has no golf courses, no gambling, little shopping, electricity that switches off for hours at a time, and so few good hotels and restaurants you can count them on your fingers—leaving a few fingers free to pilot those golf carts, the preferred method of transport.

But humor them and Brilanders will admit that the trip doesn't really take that long. You can leave New York City at 6 a.m. and by lunchtime be alone on a beach where those restaurants and hotels turn out to be—shhhhh!—quite good indeed. It's hard to fault the locals for trying to keep their island semi-secret.

As a journalist specializing in the trendy, I've spent years dissecting the phenomenon of the Next Big Thing, from rock bands to fashion to hot destinations. Sometimes, in writing about these things, I've played a part in making—and unmaking—them. Having ruined something you enjoyed inspires a certain sympathy for those who want to keep things the same, not to mention an appreciation of the irony that making a place more appealing can hasten its devolution into something less so.

Part of me hates myself for writing this, because Harbour Island is at its tipping point. It is about to happen, yet its allure is rooted in its authenticity and rusticity. Briland is having its momentnow because it still resembles what we imagine it was like then—albeit with better sheets.

This balance, brought into being by the island's unique history, is tenuous at best. Inevitably, newcomers become atavistic, wishing the door could be locked behind them, worrying about each enhancement. "Every time you get something, you lose something," says one boldfaced Brilander, who demanded anonymity in order to avoid hastening the very process that attracted him to the place. Already he sees signs of decline, most notably inappropriate "improvements" unsuited to the island's essential identity. And he's not alone.

Co-owner and figurehead of the chic Landing hotel, India Hicks attracts attention because she's a daughter of the decorator David Hicks and granddaughter of the late Lord Mountbatten of Burma, who was Queen Victoria's great-grandson. A bridesmaid to Diana, Princess of Wales, a former fashion model, and a distant heir to the British throne, Hicks tripped alarms not long ago when she issued an ominous prediction to London's society glossy Tatler: "As soon as Harbour Island becomes St. Bart's, we'll move on."

Many Sip-Sippers wondered aloud how she could say that when the recent increase of attention paid to the island has been in large part her doing.

Appropriately enough, Harbour Island's earliest visitors were also aristo-Brits. In the 17th century, the first white settlers arrived from Nassau. In the next century, British loyalistsfrom America followed, escaping the Revolution;the fourth earl of Dunmore built a summer house and planned Dunmore Town, the capital of Harbour Island. The town's neat grid of shady lanes is still lined with the Colonial-era clapboard houses that inspired someone to dub the island the Nantucket of the Caribbean (even though it's in the Atlantic).

J. Allen Malcolm, whose uncle owned Hillsboro, a clubby resort in Pompano Beach, Florida, opened the island's first resort, Pink Sands, in 1951, promoting its "perfect South Seas setting" in a postcard sent to all the names on his mailing list. "You had to know someone," says his son, Richard, who later took over. Fast-forward to the sixties, when the Rogers family, centuries-old Brilanders, turned their beachfront home into the Oceanview Club hotel. The property attracted a rarefied crowd, advertising in Harvard's alumni magazine before it was sold to a wealthy Canadian family. Nineteen-year-old Philippa "Pip" Simmons, who had just graduated from the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, took over in the late seventies and started cooking dinners for French advertising and magazine executives and the photographers who worked for them: Peter Lindbergh, Bruce Weber. "We were there to do summer pictures in winter," says the art director Regis Pagniez, one of the earliest arrivals. Simmons is proud of her role in putting the island on the map: "It was all me, and everyone knows it, too, whether they say so or not."

Like Pink Sands, Oceanview ran on word of mouth; you could get a room only through connections. But fashion types have bigger mouths than the WASPocracy. By the mid eighties, Briland was awash with lensmen shooting girls in bathing suits (and less). One driftwood tree off Girl's Bank, a tidal flat on the bay side of the island, has appeared in so many magazine photos that it seems like an old friend when you encounter it.

Then, with a crack of thunder, everything changed. Hurricane Andrew hit in August 1992, flattening Pink Sands. Demolished furniture was still suspended in the few remaining trees when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell saw the hotel later that year, bought it, and began a four-year renovation. Simultaneously, Blockbuster Video billionaire Wayne Huizenga snapped up an estate for a rumored $4 million.

"That marked the turning point," says Charles Carey, whose family had owned Oceanview. "The standard started to rise," adds Lionel Rotcage, son of the Parisian nightclub legend Régine. He'd heard about the place from photographers and in 1996 bought an estate called Romora Bay, converting it into a sprawling, eccentric hotel.

Harbour Island had either been relaunched—or ruined.Pip Simmons calls what happened next "horrendous...a sad story." Blackwell admits: "You know, that's always an unfortunate trade-off, and I can't argue with it. It's no longer quite so heavenly." Yet oddly enough, Briland's latest angel was about to flutter into town.

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd ripped the roof off a small inn called the Landingand sent its bay-view balcony flying into its backyard. "I was devastated," says the Landing's owner, Tracy Barry, whose mother, Brenda, once managed Pink Sands. Enter the angel, India Hicks, who had spent childhood Easters at her family's house on Eleuthera, and her boyfriend, David Flint Wood, a London adman who had taken a job managing Oceanview. When Floyd roared through, the couple had just finished building a beach house and were up for a new challenge. They put in cash and set about re-creating the Landing. Flint Wood designed huge netted four-poster beds and a dark-wood bar; Hicks secured crisp, white linens from Ralph Lauren, not to mention loads of publicity. Barry's husband, Toby Tyler, added a stylish-but-serious restaurant.

"We have tried our hardest to keep it as simple as possible," says Hicks. "We don't do anything flash." Yet hers was the last nudge en route to the island's tipping point.

"Five years ago, there were thirty golf carts," says Rotcage. "Now there are five hundred." Recently, the SUV's arrived. Pip's once lonely boutique, Miss Mae's, has been joined by another, run by Hicks, that carries Elle Macpherson's lingerie line and caftans by Hicks's sister-in-law, Allegra. At the Princess Street Gallery, Charles Carey sells museum-quality canvases. A John Bull duty-free shop full of expensive watches has opened near Government Dock. And Arthur's, the bakery, has added broadband Internet service.

But as the song says, every beginning comes from some other beginning's end. And the island's latest beginning comes from Miami developer J. Wallace Tutt III, who built Gianni Versace's South Beach mansion. Last year, Tutt bought Rock House, a rental villa steps from the Landing, and spent some $4.5 million to combine it with a former schoolhouse and open a luxurious hotel. There's a high-design pool surrounded by private cabanas, a full gym, a serious restaurant, and nine orchid-filled rooms. Snarky locals, who think it's all too Ocean Drive, too ambisexual, too unsuitable, have coined some unsuitable nicknames for the place, like Rock-Hard House.

Several older hotels are being freshened up, including Valentine's, where ground has been broken for condos. Chris Blackwell is looking for a partner to develop 12 acres of land at Pink Sands. And the Dunmore Club, a gracious beach hotel where jugs of lemonade and plates of freshly baked cookies are still put out daily for guests, has just hired Manhattan decorator Tom Scheerer to work on a new guest cottage.

Despite all of this, many Brilanders are resisting the changes, and are delighted to point out that local characters still abound. There's the ninety-something Sarah Hutchinson, who runs a straw market at the end of Government Dock. There's Uncle Ralph Sawyer, the housepainter, who displays his collection of hand-lettered driftwood signs on a lot he owns at the corner of Dunmore and Clarence Streets. One in particular seems to speak, albeit oddly, of Harbour Island's evolution: I MISSED THE BOAT ONCE WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND STUPID, BUT NOW THAT I'M OLDER AND WISER, I ABLE [SIC] TO MISS THE BOAT OFTEN AND WITH GREAT SKILL AND ACCURACY.

Older and wiser since her Tatler flub, India Hicks—herself a character—has gotten with the program. She recently vowed: "I will fight any attempt to open a Gucci store."

THE FACTS

GETTING THERE
Flights to North Eleuthera originate in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Nassau. A fast ferry also leaves Nassau daily. Taxis and water taxis from North Eleuthera to Harbour Island are inexpensive and readily available.

WHERE TO STAY
Pink Sands DOUBLES FROM $475, INCLUDING BREAKFAST AND DINNER. CHAPEL ST.; 800/688-7678 OR 242/333-2030; www.islandoutpost.com
Oceanview Club DOUBLES FROM $350, INCLUDING BREAKFAST AND DINNER. GAOL LANE; 242/333-2276
The Landing DOUBLES FROM $180, DINNER FOR TWO $120. BAY ST.; 242/333-2707; www.harbourislandlanding.com
Romora Bay Club DOUBLES FROM $210. COLEBROOKE ST.; 800/688-0425 OR 242/333-2325; www.romorabay.com
Rock House DOUBLES FROM $245, DINNER FOR TWO $100. BAY AND HILL STS.; 242/333-2053; www.rockhousebahamas.com

WHERE TO EAT
Most of the island's hotels have good restaurants. Others to try:
Sip Sip LUNCH FOR TWO $66. COURT ST.; 242/333-3316
Ma Ruby's Restaurant Down-home Bahamian cuisine in a garden setting. DINNER FOR TWO $60. TINGUM VILLAGE HOTEL, COLEBROOKE ST.; 242/333-2161
BEST VALUE Seaview Take-Away A dockside shack that sells divine conch burgers. LUNCH FOR TWO $16. GOVERNMENT DOCK; 242/333-2542

BEFORE YOU GO
Check out www.myharbourisland.com.

Ma Ruby's Restaurant

Ma Ruby's simple eatery on Harbour Island in the Bahamas claims to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffet's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and the 70-something year-old legend is proud of it. The walls of the Tinghum Village restaurant are hung with awards and photos of Ma and friends (including one with Queen Elizabeth). She serves fresh, local Bahamian fare and American favorites such as grilled meatloaf-like burgers on toasted Bahamian bread—with or without cheese. After a meal and a few rum drinks, diners at the beachfront restaurant stroll the three-mile long pink sand beach, the stuff that made the Bahamas famous. 

Sip Sip

Order the conch chili at this bistro on the bluff above the Atlantic surf. Sip Sip is open during lunch, and available for private parties during dinner hours.

Seaview Take-Away

At the foot of Government dock, a bright pink-painted shack in Dunmore Town is the first seafood stand visitors encounter as they arrive on the Harbour Island ferry from Eleuthera. The Seaview Takeaway is a renowned melting pot of locals and visitors (and some of the hungry resident feral chickens) who come for fried grouper burgers covered in tartar sauce alongside crispy, fresh conch fritters. The no-frills eatery serves them up in paper-lined baskets. It's hard to beat inexpensive authentic fare like this.

Pink Sands

The oldest and most vaunted resort on Harbour Island (it was first opened by entrepreneur/hotelier J. Allen Malcolm in 1951), the aptly named Pink Sands occupies an enviable spot on Briland’s gorgeous eastern beach. Though it's changed hands several times over the years, it's still considered a major destination, with 25 comfy sea-themed villas set among winding, palm-shaded gardens. The amenities include three tennis courts; a pink-edged, free-form swimming pool; kayaks, snorkeling gear, and sun umbrellas for the powder-pink beach; and a gorgeous, Barbara Hulanicki-designed main lodge where the cocktail bar, billiards room, and lounge feature Balinese carved wood furnishings, tinkling seashell chandeliers, and fabrics in (natch) various shades of pink. New owners PS Ltd. (which purchased the resort from Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell last year) plan to more than double the property's occupancy over the next few years, by adding a slew of new villas, cottages, and condo-style guest units. These new lodgings will be privately owned—good news for those who want their own access to those famous pink sands.

Room to Book: One-bedroom Oceanview Cottages are $100 more per night than Garden cottages—but the view is worth it.

Rock House

Harbour Island’s “hot” factor spiked with the 2002 opening of this super-stylish, nine-room boutique hotel overlooking the harbor in Dunmore Town. Miami developer J. Wallace Tutt—who achieved stateside fame building Casa Casuarina, otherwise known as the Versace mansion—and his partner Don Purdy brought more than a little South Beach glamour to their new venture. The property’s courtyard pool, surrounded by private cabanas and a soigné alfresco bar/restaurant, immediately became the see-and-be-seen nightspot after dark. And the themed rooms and suites—outfitted with tastefully opulent teak, bamboo, and rattan furnishings; plush, cream-colored fabrics; art books, vintage island photos and maps; and coral-tile bathrooms with glassed-in showers and rainfall showerheads—were, and still are, a hit with visiting A-listers (Robert De Niro, Colin Farrell, and Graydon Carter have all been spotted here). The one sort-of-downside is that the hotel’s not right on the famed eastern beach—but a short walk (or a driver-assisted golf-cart ride) leads you right there.

 

Tip: Want to get in on the ground floor of the next hot development in the Bahamas?Stop into the on-site sales office for Royal Island (www.royalislandbahamas.com)—a private resort community that Tutt is creating along with the Montage Group, Jack Nicklaus, and other partners. It’s due to open in 2011.

 

Room to Book: The Commodore suite, with a private veranda overlooking the harbor and a sitting room big enough to have a cocktail party in.

Romora Bay Club

Romora Bay Club rests on the bay side of a terraced hill, the very place to watch golden sunsets on Harbour Island. The resort offers 15 rooms, six of which are suites, and each has featherbeds, comforters, and unique decor with African and Bahamian accents. A 40-slip deepwater marina brings yachters dockside to Sunsets Bar and Grill, which serves popular frozen Goombay Smash and fish tacos. Fine dining at Vue (Romora's hilltop restaurant) from Napa-trained executive chef Matthew Ona is said to be the best on island. Most guests rent a golf cart to access the nearby beach and island attractions.

Oceanview Club

Oceanview Club, or "Pip's Place" as it is called by locals, is a nine-room complex transformed into a boutique hotel on the famous Pinks Sands Beach of the Bahamas' Harbour Island. Each room or cottage presents its own eclectic theme and vibrantly colorsthink intense mango or teal. The house bar displays a statue of Louis Armstrong and offers just three seats, but plenty to drink. The elongated patio with white-washed wooden furniture almost nudges the clear, turquoise water, a popular spot for wedding photos.

The Landing

The 12-room Landing has a decidedly patrician vibe. The hotel was conceived by Tracy Barry (whose mother was the first-ever Miss Bahamas) and Toby Tyler, a Sydney restaurateur. India Hicks—daughter of the iconic 60’s designer David Hicks, great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and bridesmaid to Diana, Princess of Wales—spearheaded the interiors. Her childhood holidays on Eleuthera helped her hit just the right tone, with crisp Ralph Lauren linens and classic plantation-style beds designed by her partner, David Flint Wood. There are no televisions or phones to distract you, only the periodic docking of the ferry at the small pier across the street.

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