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."