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Harbour Island High

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).


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