Cays to Paradise
Before I traveled to the Parrot Cay resort, the Turks and Caicos Islands had always brought to my mind a musical number that might have appeared in an Errol Flynn extravaganza. I imagined the Flynn pirate ship moored off a beautiful island, and Turks swinging sabers as they guarded their buried treasure, singing "Turks and Chaos!"
My musical fantasy turned out to be somewhat correct. In the 17th century, the Caicos Passage in the Bahamas swarmed with pirates looking to pillage ships. And Parrot Cay (pronounced "key") was once known as Pirate Cay—a favored stop for Calico Jack Rackham and his lieutenants Anne Bonny and Mary Read. (Calico was an equal opportunity employer.)
The Turks and Caicos are a union of eight major islands and more than 40 smaller keys. Although they are just a 70-minute flight southeast of Miami, even from an airplane the untouched beaches look remarkable. Many of the islands would appear familiar to a 17th-century seafarer. This is a pristine part of the West Indies, amazingly unscathed by condo-mania. It is the right place for those seeking natural beauty and evenings lit only by the moon and stars.
Because of its international airport, Providenciales—called Provo by all guests and inhabitants—is the most developed of the islands. When I arrive a beautiful woman holds up a small sign for Parrot Cay, and I follow her, along with a fellow passenger I pegged as a model during the plane ride, and her boyfriend. We are to be pioneer holidaymakers at Parrot Cay. It takes courage and stamina to be the first visitors at a luxury resort, but I feel we are up to the challenge.
Parrot Cay opened with a high pedigree. The 56-room hotel is partly owned by Christina and B. S. Ong, the hoteliers of "chictels" around the world, including the Four Seasons in the Maldives and London's ultra-trendy Metropolitan and suave Halkin. I'm not surprised that the model is following the Parrot Cay sign; I had anticipated a world of the fashionable and famous, with just a soupçon of Eastern hip to keep us all relaxed.
We drive through Provo, where development is imminent. Though this is still an island of dirt roads and empty beaches, signs announce anticipated condos and an established Club Med.
On board a speedboat that will take us to our destination, the group includes a Philadelphia lawyer and his wife, two English couples, the New York photographer Clifford Ross and his wife, Betsy, and a CBS News producer. It is immediately obvious that Parrot Cay will draw an international clientele. In fact, my first assessment of fashion chic was slightly limited. This is not a place where you run into everyone you saw in the Hamptons last summer, Aspen last winter, and Palm Beach this spring. Happily—perhaps because the Ongs' partner is Robert Earl, the English entrepreneur who is the chairman and CEO of Planet Hollywood—many of the guests are European. As we pull out for the 25-minute trip from Provo to our island, we catch a group of Club Med revelers, rum punches in hand, climbing onto a day cruiser. I thank heaven I am not among them.
A word about the ocean surrounding these islands. Glorious. The CBS producer, who has brought along cumbersome bags of scuba and snorkeling gear, is beside himself. Tracts of virgin reef make this a diver's dream. Who knew there was true paradise just an hour and a half by plane from Miami?I feel the tension in my New Yorker's neck beginning to ease.
At our first view of the hotel I'm not quite sure we have arrived. It is pink and unassuming. A golf cart takes our group from the dock to the main house. In many ways, staying at Parrot Cay feels more like being on a small luxury ship than at a hotel. It is cozy and friendly, and after two days it's possible to recognize, and fantasize about, every face on board.
The main house is the center of activity, with its check-in desk, bar, dining room, and library. The rooms—done by Keith Hobbs of London's United Designers—are light and airy, a cross between Balinese and Caribbean chic. There are no notices for scheduled get-togethers, and anyone looking for singles nights and costume parties would be wise to take the next speedboat home. This is a well-lit, breezy place conducive to evenings of talking and reading.
Guest rooms at Parrot Cay maintain Hobbs's Caribbean minimalism. White muslin curtains envelop the four-poster beds. On the private terrace of each room is a rattan chaise facing the ocean. There are grander accommodations as well: Near the ocean is a group of eight villas. During my stay one of these was occupied by a certain infamous Italian fashion designer who traveled with her bodyguards. We were all told to refer to her as "Mrs. Brown."
A day at Parrot Cay begins with the challenge of deciding whether to get up for breakfast or just have it sent to the room. The dilemma proceeds: Should I run on the nearly empty beach at sunrise, or wait until sunset?Most guests seem to make it to the poolside patio for a lunch of traditional grilled fish or salade niçoise, and tropical drinks served up by Rupert Francis, formerly of the K-Club on Barbuda and the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Talk to Rupert long enough, and he'll show you photos of himself with Princess Di. Rupert plans to write a book about all the notables he has made drinks for—but Diana was his all-time favorite. "Her life was hard," he tells me one night after my third rum punch.
Parrot Cay's pool is a triumph of illusion: from a distance it seems to merge with the ocean. The shallow end slopes like a beach edging a gentle sea. At sunset the pool is cause for euphoria.
Michel Neutelings, also formerly of the K-Club, is the general manager of the hotel. He tells me the Ongs intend to make Parrot Cay a holistic hideaway. Guests will be able to get facials, massages, meditation therapy, and other treatments at the Shambhala Spa, set to open in December. As we stroll the grounds, Michel shows me a yoga hut on the back of a truck. Already in operation, however, is a gym by the pool. It has all the necessary equipment, plus, at eight in the morning, the added treat of Mrs. Brown on a treadmill being urged on by her personal trainer. Mrs. Brown wears sunglasses so that no one on this private island will recognize her.
Although the yoga hut is parked, Parrot Cay does offer yoga classes during its premiere week. As I sit in the lotus position looking at the ocean, the Ongs' objective to combine the best of the Caribbean and the serenity of a Balinese resort seems miraculously realized.
But the ultimate Parrot Cay experience, even without the appropriate facility, is the Swedish, Thai, or Balinese massage. Randomly, I choose Thai. A polite man comes to my room with a mat and asks me to lie down. Suddenly my legs are elevated over my head; my arms are in places they have never been before. After an hour and a half I feel as relaxed as if I am in a trance, and my body feels like a Gumby doll.
After a few days of chilling out, any high-strung New Yorker would be prone to boredom. "Now what?" I find myself asking the CBS producer. I should have kept my mouth closed—it is this antsiness that results in my snorkeling for the first time. We cruise to Northwest Point, in Provo, and anchor by some thatched huts built as a backdrop for a French version of the TV show American Gladiators. I know snorkeling is supposed to be easy, but I am far more suited to watching Nova or the Discovery Channel. As my group marvels at the fish, I struggle with my fins and hope for the best. I miss the pool enormously.
Whenever I decide to write just for fun, it's a sign that I am desperate for distraction. Rather than volunteer to snorkel again, I write Turks and Chaos, a musical in one act. It happens that the resort is generously throwing an eight-course dinner for all the hotel guests. At this meal Turks and Chaos has its opening and closing performance-starring the model, her boy-friend, and myself, in a supporting part. For a moment I consider living in the Turks and Caicos full-time: I'd get an enormous amount of work done.
Neutelings takes the CBS news producer and me for a tour of the island. We learn that the future of Parrot Cay will include hiking trails, and canoeing on extensive inland waterways. Parrot Cay, like any new venture, still has kinks to iron out. Executive chef Rajah Pillay's insistence on going beyond simple Caribbean fare results in a mélange of French, Italian, Mediterranean, and Asian dishes that can be overcomplicated. Dinner might include spring rolls, duck À l'orange, and the obligatory rum punch.
When the plan for Parrot Cay is completed, however—and I know I will deeply regret admitting this—it may be the perfect spot for the end of the millennium this New Year's Eve. It is a place to hide without feeling alone. It is an escape from conventional luxury yet is sumptuously healing. There is nowhere I would rather be December 31, 1999, than under the stars walking into that sloping pool. By then I might even be able to work out the identity of the mysterious Mrs. Brown.
Parrot Cay, Turks and Caicos Islands, British West Indies; 649/946-7788, fax 649/946-7789; doubles from $390, including breakfast, dinner, and round-trip transportation to and from the airport, 25 minutes away.