When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he had the disorientated conviction that he had found a western route to Asia, which is how the region’s islands came to be known as the West Indies. Some 500 years later that journey has become a well-worn path, as first steamers then seaplanes and finally jets have brought sunseeking visitors from around the world – 29.3m in 2016.
The West Indies has more than 7,000 islands and 25 nations stretching south from the Bahamas to the yacht-friendly bays of the Grenadines. Their clarion call is based on a sybaritic lifestyle of warm seas, pale sands and spirit-lifting temperatures, but equally important to those flying into Barbados or berthing in the British Virgin Islands is the community of like-minded people they find there. A round of golf at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, a Bajan polo match at Holders Hill or cocktails at Basil’s Bar on Mustique are all shorthand for an unofficial yet highly compatible club.
Buying a holiday home in the Caribbean never seems to go out of fashion, but now old favourites such as plantation houses and estates have been joined by a fresh choice of upscale properties in contemporary resorts and on previously off-the-radar islands. These young pretenders are vying for the attention of a modern generation of active, style-sensitive visitors accustomed to peerless five-star facilities.
“The Caribbean has certainly evolved,” says James Burdess, head of the Caribbean desk at Savills. “Thirty years ago wealthy international investors bought a plantation house in Barbados or an estate in Jamaica, whereas now they might choose a managed residence. Privacy, security and top-level service are crucial and buyers often look for the comfort of a brand. These managed estates allow affluent owners to create their own club, still with excellent facilities and most certainly one that embraces the local community, and possibly with a philanthropic element too.”
Examples of emerging destinations include Oil Nut Bay, a residential district in North Sound at the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, and Albany on New Providence in the Bahamas. Both feature substantial homes in blissful waterfront locations with extensive, top-quality facilities and standout service levels – not always a given in the Caribbean.
Oil Nut Bay is being developed by Victor International, whose chairman David Johnson spends half the year living onsite with his wife, Pamela. There are plans for 88 detached homes, either beachfront or on the hillside, with prices ranging from $3.95m to $19m, and $16m for prime plots that look across to the private islands of Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page. New facilities include tennis courts, a gym, a clifftop spa, three cascading swimming pools, a restaurant and a bar, and a concierge will be on hand to arrange diving trips, helicopter transfers or simply to change a light bulb.
“Living here is all about the neighbourhood,” says Johnson, a veteran of 42 high-end projects, including in his native Michigan. “We want people to stay with us, enjoy our wonderful facilities but also to explore the British Virgin Islands, go out sailing, experience the restaurants. Our owners are interested in preserving the local environment and the character of the BVIs. After all, that’s what brought them here.”
To that end, Johnson is working with the BVI government to preserve the delicate ecology in the protected waters of North Sound. He is proud that the majority of properties sold will be available to rent (penthouse from $1,750 per night) when the owners are not using them, thus creating a year-round community that benefits both owners and local staff.
Albany, at the south-western end of New Providence, less than 15 minutes’ drive from Lyford Cay – the first high-end resort in the Bahamas – also represents the “new” Caribbean. Golfers Tiger Woods and Justin Rose are among the sporting stars with homes on the 600-acre resort, and the extraordinary facilities include plasma-screen televisions in pool-front cabanas, lap pools, family-friendly water parks, a palatial gym and even, remarkably, a full-size boxing ring. Prices start at around $5m, and Knight Frank reports that sales were “strong” last year.
Savills is promoting two new Caribbean resorts: Silversands on Grenada, known as the Island of Spice because of its production of mace and nutmeg, and Pink Sands on Canouan in the Grenadines. Villas at Silversands start at $5.4m; the current entry point at Pink Sands for three-bedroom cottages serviced by the resort hotel is $7m – and three of the eight homes have been sold even before the hotel operator has been announced (Burdess is staying tight-lipped, saying only that it will be a “top global brand”). Both resorts feature the full management services that time-poor, cash-rich buyers demand. Pink Sands offers a Jim Fazio-designed 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, watersports, a spa and fitness centre and five restaurants. Silversands aims to pull in the St Barths crowd with a slick, modern design, a peerless spa and a 100m pool, the longest in the Caribbean.
Do the more established resorts feel threatened by these new pretenders? Not the best ones, says Edward de Mallet Morgan, head of the Caribbean desk at Knight Frank. “Mustique in St Vincent and the Grenadines is the original private island resort where the first homes were built 40 to 50 years ago, yet newer resorts still look to it as a template,” he says. “It is essentially an island of about 90 villas in a jungle but with a 21st-century infrastructure of fibre-optic cables, desalination plants and an eco-friendly vision. It has always been incredibly popular with those who know it, rather like a private members’ club.”
Past and present members of the Mustique “club” are the Duchess of Cambridge, whose parents regularly rent a villa, Tommy Hilfiger, Mick Jagger and the late David Bowie. “The island attracts quirky, interesting people,” notes de Mallet Morgan. “Mustique is probably one of the safest resorts in the world. It is cultured and old-style and there isn’t a huge amount to do; a place for cocktail and dinner parties but with a low-key, unpretentious feel – and no ties or jackets.”
The island operates as a self-contained resort. All villa owners are shareholders in the Mustique Company, which manages the island, organising rentals, property maintenance and even house design and build. Residents share the costs for the desalination plant and the regular ferry service and everyone has access to sports facilities, including tennis (Tim Henman coached there during February half-term), cricket, horse riding, scuba diving, fishing and sailing.
There have been more villa sales on Mustique in the past 18 months to February 2017 than in the previous three years, with prices from $5m to $35m, adds de Mallet Morgan. Architecturally, Mustique spans a range from original, colonial-style homes painted in pastel shades with coral stone and louvred windows, to expansive modern, geometric designs, as two properties currently for sale through Knight Frank demonstrate. Taliesin (price on request) on the east coast has six double-bedroom suites plus a two-bedroom guest cottage and was built in 2009 in a clean, linear style with extensive terraces. Over on the northern coast, Sea Star ($18m), one of the original Oliver Messel villas built in 1970, is a traditional Caribbean beauty that has its own private beach – unusual on Mustique where many homes are built on the hillside.
Lyford Cay in the Bahamas has an even older history, having been established in 1958 as a private gated community by Canadian businessman Edward Plunkett Taylor. Villa prices average $2m but rise significantly for a waterfront estate ($11m). The communal facilities rival any of the newer resorts (18-hole golf course, a dozen floodlit green-clay tennis courts, a marina with an active sailing programme, an international school, a spa and gym) but there is more formality here, with men required to wear jackets in the restaurants after 7pm and the use of mobile phones banned on the club premises. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, George Damianos of Damianos Sotheby’s International Realty says the average age of owners has fallen in the 30 years he has been selling homes here.
“It reflects the fact that people are making their money younger in life,” says Damianos. “But it is also true that many of our newer members are children or grandchildren of legacy members, second and third-generation owners who want to be part of a place they remember from family holidays. They appreciate the traditional yet low-key life Lyford Cay offers,” he adds.
Barbados, the most eastern nation in the Caribbean, has a long, happy history as the island of choice for many affluent buyers, especially those based in the UK. This is a safe, small island, only 21 miles by 14, with activities including international cricket, horse racing, polo and – of course – golf. Current holiday home options include detached villas on the Sandy Lane Estate, established in the 1960s along with the illustrious hotel of the same name, where about 170 properties are built around three famous golf courses. One is Casablanca, a seven-bedroom villa overlooking Sandy Lane Golf Course that has its own tennis court, gym and infinity pool and is on the market for $6,250,000 through Savills.
High-net-worth buyers across the Caribbean, wherever they choose to buy, are unified by a select wish list, says Knight Frank’s de Mallet Morgan. Security is crucial, running costs must be clear and the local economy should be stable. “Beyond that it comes down to personal choice,” he says. “Newer resorts often have easier air access and more modern facilities but they might not provide a wide variety of architecture or the evocative history found in older resorts.”
The old and the new: divided by styles, ease of access and a boxing ring or two, perhaps, but united by soft breezes, warm days and the promise of adventures on the open seas.