At the airport in San Juan, while our luggage is taking a sweet eternity to arrive, my date insists upon teaching me to swing-dance. And so we twirl between the carousels, oblivious to the bemused passengers. This is a novel experience. Soon, in an unrelated episode, a woman I have never met before places heated stones on my oiled body. This, too, is new. Ah, the new. How we love it. But a few days later (yes, at a resort just 45 minutes away), another woman I have never met before places heated stones on my oiled body. How quickly the new becomes old.
In the Caribbean, resorts are perpetually opening like so many hopeful flowers. Or – when I’m feeling less charitable – juddering to life like so many Frankenstein monsters. It is a difficult thing to capture a location at the eureka moment: At the time you choose to visit, some will still be lying on the slab, waiting for that jolt of life-giving electricity, whereas others will already have gone on to terrify scantily clad innocents. It is rare when delivery matches anticipation, but I spend a few weeks trying to find just this as I investigate the latest resorts at every level of price, from the shiny and new to the shoddy and nouveau.
Stirred, Not Shaken
Unless you’re a supermodel, a billionaire, or an East German mole, chances are that Goldeneye in Jamaica will be pretty new to you. The property was originally Ian Fleming’s estate, and it was here that he conceived James Bond. Later, Goldeneye was bought by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who made it available to his personal friends. Only now is it open to the public – not to John Q. Public, mind you, but to John D. Public III: Goldeneye is not for the faint of pocketbook.
Take the main house, for instance, which I occupy all too briefly with my haughty, tempestuous date. With three glorious bedrooms, it generally houses six occupants, paying a collective $2,500 a night. Each bedroom opens onto a huge outdoor bathroom: You have a choice of an antique ceramic tub raised on an altar or a shower that drains into smooth stones. And when you are nice and clean, you can make your way into the living-and-dining area, equal parts opium den and animist temple, where you can worship or recline upon echt-Balinese objects, including totemic sculptures and bedlike chairs.
Long before Vishnu sent his chic avatars to retool the décor, Liz Taylor hung out here, as did Errol Flynn and Noël Coward (whose own decadent estate, Firefly, is a short drive away). Fleming’s desk still stands in a corner of the master bedroom – you can write a prurient thriller at it, should you so desire – but chances are you will entertain in a somewhat different mode. An expensive stereo with a changer full of CDs provides a library of reggae and world music: Chris Blackwell, the owner, sold Island Records for a whack of cash in 1989 and now operates a new label, Palm Pictures, and a handful of the most sophisticated hotels in the Caribbean.
Goldeneye’s fifteen acres include four slightly lesser villas. Naomi Campbell, for instance, prefers the two-bedroom farthest from the main house: It’s nicely private and is $400 a night. A three-bedroom villa is only $1,000. The living quarters are splashed with bright paint and feature idiosyncratic baths handcrafted by locals. Three of the villas have a kitchen and the option of dining indoors or out. A TV-VCR and a stereo ensure that you will never be too far from the benevolent influence of Island Records.
Blackwell prides himself on his eco-sensitivity – this tends to happen to people who spend too much time with supermodels – and guests are invited to plant a tree. Martha Stewart planted a lemon tree; Christy Turlington and Jim Carrey have plaques on theirs.
Dr. No was filmed here, and I’m prepared for rafts of kitsch: naked waitresses painted gold, gymnastic security guards in bikinis, a fat concierge stroking a white Persian. But no: The predominant aesthetic is Balinese, which has more to do with the latest trends in island décor than with sophisticated sexism from the sixties. Bazillionaires in the Caribbean compete, it seems, to see who can be the most authentically Balinese. Virgin CEO and frustrated balloonist Richard Branson did up his entire private island like Bali, and Blackwell poached his designer to renovate Goldeneye in 1998.
Sitting is done low to the ground on impressive cushions. I don’t really get this; I’ve just been to Bali, and nobody there is stealing cultural artifacts from Jamaica. Why can’t people be satisfied with an indigenous version of paradise?
At Goldeneye, all meals are included in the price of the room. The resort has no restaurants per se: Chefs are dispatched to your villa to cook for you. A nice touch; I just wish the rotation featured David Bouley. The food, you see, is a bit uninspired. It is here I would have appreciated a flight of pan-cultural inauthenticity: Everywhere else in the Caribbean is doing Asian fusion, for instance, or Californian light cuisine. But Goldeneye seems to think it can get away with a fairly ordinary Jamaican spread. My date expects more than chicken and lamb curries with rice. Dr. No, surely, would have demanded more.
The most Bond-like moment, for me, is a midnight skinny-dip at the main house’s own private beach, shielded by huge boulders from the prying eyes of hoi polloi. All the resort’s beaches have a covelike quality, which I prefer: They enfold rather than expose you. As for fully clothed extracurriculars, there is only one hard tennis court and no resident pro (although a local pro can be brought in). Still, Goldeneye is nicely tricked out with gadgets, including kayaks, Jet Skis, and a private charter plane so we could stage our own stunts, were we so inclined. Day trips are encouraged: Management will happily set you up rafting or horseback riding. One of everybody’s fave things to do at Goldeneye is to take the heli over to Strawberry Hill, another Blackwell resort on the island, where there is a newly opened Aveda spa.
Goldeneye itself is in Oracabessa, twenty minutes from Ocho Rios on the northeast shore of Jamaica and almost midway between the airports at Kingston and Montego Bay. Count on a two-hour drive to either (if you can’t afford a chopper).
(Book through Island Outpost, at 800-outpost.)
Sitting on Balinese cushions at Goldeneye, I wonder why people can’t be happy with an indigenous version of paradise.
Of course, between skinny-dips and spa treatments, Bond and his mistress of the moment are occasionally forced to confront less pleasant circumstances. Sports bars, for instance. I did not exactly plan to stay at a sports bar – does anyone? – but I was intrigued by a recently renovated property in Barbados. Time Out at the Gap is not precisely new; it’s part of a program in Barbados to transform dilapidated hotels into cheap and cheerful winners. And Time Out is indeed cheap – a hundred bucks a night ($125 in high season)! But there’s such a thing as too cheerful.
As we approach by cab, the music from the bar can be heard a block away. The first impression, apart from the live rock band, is moderately uplifting: There’s a dramatic sign over an almost credible entryway: a jaunty canopy leading past a jaunty fountain. But the discerning Goldeneyeball quickly falls upon garish lights over the pool tables and TVs blaring live soccer matches. The Whistling Frog Pub offers three happy hours a day, for those who prefer happy hours to meals. And it appears many American frat boys (and their Brit equivalents) very much do. If you insist on a meal, you can always order a flying-fish burger or a Scotch egg for less than $10 – no mean feat in Barbados.
I question the wisdom of visiting this funster retreat immediately after staying amid the elegance of Fleming’s manse. The rooms are considerably more manic, painted peach, with buoyant floral upholstery to clash with your Hawaiian shirt. You get air-conditioning to chill your soul and a fridge to chill your Red Stripe. Cable TV? But of course. Still, it’s a notch more sophisticated than a hostel. Time Out has a “transportation center,” where guests can rent Rollerblades or mountain bikes, and a water-sports center on the beach featuring aqueous volleyball, submarine aerobics, and scuba instruction. (Aerobics and volleyball are free, but the rest costs extra.) A bonus: The band plays only until about 10:30 p.m., after which you are welcome to read, think, or sleep.
The hotel features a passable swimming pool, but then, you haven’t come all this way for chlorinated water: Just across the street is a happening stretch of beach. Of course, happening is not everyone’s favorite adjective when it comes to the beach thing. The beach is, in short, populous. And for those who are populist – a category that certainly excludes my date – it’s a blast.
“The Gap” refers to the St. Lawrence Gap on the south coast, one of those enclaves thick with souvenir shops, theme bars (Boomer’s, Shenanagans, etc.), and young folk in a bleary search for lurv. For Barbados – the island that we are nominally visiting – this really is a peculiar introduction. Barbados has a reputation for colonial hauteur; it vies with Bermuda to draw Anglophiles and golfers from around the world. The rest of the island is really quite different from what we are experiencing at the Gap: thematic tourism and tight painter’s pants (arr!). The locals, who call themselves Bajans, derive mostly from West Africa, but the shared hallucination foisted upon tourists remains mostly Waugh. A tour of the island reveals numerous restored great houses from the plantation days, lovely colonial mansions in which my date might feel almost at home, stoning local fauna with empty bottles of Bollinger.
It is important to be philosophical, however. As we return to our sprightly nest of cheapness, I instruct my companion in the importance of contrast: how we might not have minded Time Out had we not just boarded chez Bond. And she instructs me – a silent lecture; in fact, a single eyebrow raised with exquisite irony over an arctic eye – on the need to decamp first thing in the morning.
(Standard rooms at Time Out are $100 to $125. Call 888-599-6666 or 905-677-1330 to book.)
Time Out From Time Out
Within minutes, we have booked a room for tomorrow night atTropical Escape, an all-inclusive resort less than two years old in a far more tranquil location. Not that booking a room at Tropical Escape is the simplest matter: In general, the resort takes reservations only through agents in the U.K. and Canada. If you’re on the island, however, you can call the front desk and try your luck. Tropical Escape is on Paynes Bay, generally considered the best stretch of the west coast and within walking distance of the most vaunted restaurants in Barbados. This relative proximity is crucial: While all-inclusive by definition includes meals, they are the one aspect of Tropical Escape from which you may wish to escape. The dining room is aggressively tropical – with all of the colors generally associated with that condition – and proves a bit extreme when you’re trying to revive the synapses over bacon and eggs. The cuisine is interchangeable with the food you’ll find at a hundred all-inclusives across the Caribbean: hearty cafeteria fare ladled out in huge portions, largely edible, entirely forgettable. And you can order all the bad wine you can drink.
Still, for about $200 a night, the rest of Tropical Escape is refreshingly dignified: a long gracious sweep of white stucco, introduced by a fountain spilling into a white bowl. The public areas come very close to qualifying as tasteful (um, lose the lobby murals). Low arched windows overlook a free-form blue pool: When the sun is strong on the whitewashed walls, you could easily imagine yourself in Mykonos. The rooms are open studios, also washed in white. Chairs and tables are bent from bars of raw iron; pastel fabrics hang in the windows. The floors are cool to the touch with ceramic tiles. I could live like this. More important: My demanding date could tolerate this for a couple of days.
The beach is across the road, and intervening is the Bombas Bar, which quickly becomes our hangout: The bar is really an extension of the beach, with barefoot, semi-naked surf bums kicking back between a graffitilike riot of color – orange, yellow, green, and red. The banana daiquiri has the inviting consistency of a milk shake and the subtle kick of a cornered mule.
And the beach itself? Again, populist, but considerably more charming than the cheek-by-jowl party at the Gap. There’s plenty of room to lie down, and even to jog: The beach seems to go on forever. It winds around the coast and disappears from sight. Your core activities – sailing, windsurfing, snorkeling – even paddle-boating – are included in the price.
I don’t mind the crowds. In my long study of this aquasphere, I’ve decided that you really want only two kinds of beach experience: You want solitude, or you want multitude. The latter has its champions, and for good reason: It’s hard to rent a Jet Ski from a buff local if there are no buff locals about. And my date – as she disappears on the back of a Jet Ski with a buff local – briefly displays populist tendencies.
(If you’re on the island, book at the check-in desk – 246-432-2148 – for Tuesday through Saturday stays, or call Air Tours at 246-228-9800 for Sundays and Mondays.)
I have worried about the spiritual health of my date. She has withered, somewhat, since the loss of our private estate in Jamaica – she is beginning to take on the long-suffering look of a Chekhov sister. An haute dinner out should prove the ideal restorative.
We canvass the various experts – our concierge, the local tourist board, innocent passersby – and a consensus seems to emerge: The three hot restaurants at the moment are Sandy Lane, Carambola, and the Cliff, all a short hike from Tropical Escape.
Sandy Lane is a legendary golf resort trying to make a radical transition from warhorse back to prancing foal. The owners have torn down most of the property and are rebuilding it from scratch, at the cost of $300 million. It remains to be seen whether Sandy Lane will rise to the position it occupied in the sixties, when the most glamorous Brits competed to lounge on its private beach. In the meantime, in order to keep the venerable name alive and kicking, Sandy Lane has opened a year-old restaurant called the Restaurant, serving French-Asian and receiving serious attention from international critics.
A patio on the second floor of the golf clubhouse, the Restaurant has embarrassingly attentive service and fine (if not quite life-altering) cuisine. I have a mix of Asian hors d’oeuvre to start, including lobster and sprouts rolled in rice paper. A substantial tenderloin – unimpeachable, if not exactly inspired – is my main course. Culinary genius emerges only with dessert: When the chef turns his hand to pastries, he channels the ghost of Buckminster Fuller to create dazzling architectural follies with spun sugar. My particular edifice contains three kinds of crème brûlée protected by a delicate sucrose dome. Unfortunately, the restaurant was so well reviewed that the chef recently decided to leave and set up his own as-yet-
unopened establishment. Ah, the food chain. (Dinner for two with wine comes to $130; reserve at 246-444-2000; double rooms haven’t been priced yet.)
Pockets of the Caribbean have become culinary hothouses, but not since Anguilla have I run across a place this species-rich. The next night, we dine at Carambola, whose new chef, Michael Harrison, is Bajan but has done time in haute apprenticeships throughout England and America. At Le Gavroche in London, he prepared dinner for Lady Di, and at Maine’s White Barn Inn, he cooked for George Bush. Now, to bring this epic crescendo to a crashing whimper, he is going to cook dinner, at Carambola, for me.
Carambola occupies a particularly dramatic location, on a low cliff down by the water with the waves exploding about fifteen feet below your table. Sometimes, an unusually loud wave will send up a spray that captures the light and threatens to return your calamari to the sea. Service is perhaps a little less formal than at Sandy Lane, but warm and genial. The colonizing power exerting force over this particular kitchen is Continental, via the East Indies: Our soup of the day is a lobster cappuccino, which is as rich and frothy as its name. I have a stir-fry of scallops and shrimp with a roasted-peanut sauce, and my dazzling, fully recuperated companion has the roasted rack of lamb in a honey-mustard crust. And as with Sandy Lane, the experience (dinner for two with wine at Carambola comes to $120; reserve at 246-432-0832) is just slightly sexier than the food itself; it is only at our next restaurant that the two meet in Wagnerian union.
Our final dining excursion on the west coast takes us to The Cliff, which competes with the dining room at Malliouhana in Anguilla and – in terms of atmosphere and design – easily kicks sand in the face of that aging champ. At the Cliff, old stone walls have sprouted wrought-iron candleholders sculpted to look like trees, and the dining area is an amphitheater of balconies overlooking the water. Manta rays can regularly be spotted frolicking in the waves below, and Prince Andrew has been spotted at the best table above. The kitchen, too, is quasi-miraculous: Emphasis is on the freshest local catches (sometimes served as sushi), with Bajan-Asian sauces. Specials of the day include, to start, a carpaccio of dolphin – the fish, not Flipper – marinated in a honey-soy sauce and accompanied by Chinese greenery. For the main course, red snapper completes a tower of mashed potatoes scented with saffron; across the table, local shrimp of prodigious dimensions swim in a green Thai curry with coconut milk, fried basil, and coriander rice. I always recommend any dessert bearing the “Please allow ten minutes” warning: In this case, it’s a pudding of warm deep chocolate, drenched in vanilla sauce and rum. I would wait hours, on a deserted street corner in Loisaida, for this particular drug. (Dinner for two with wine is $140; reserve well in advance at 246-432-1922.)
Turtle Beach would suit Monica Lewinsky – lots of brazen thongs in evidence.
My unflinching search for novelty is taking me back, believe it or not, to the land of sports bars. The newest resort in Barbados, Turtle Beach, just happens to be – oy gevalt – right next to the Gap. After dining our way to modest rapture on the west coast, we steel ourselves for a brutal anticlimax, and we are in a grim mood: me fearful, my date murderous.
Well, so much for preconceptions. Turtle Beach might abut the Gap, but it couldn’t be farther away, notionally, from the unruly throng at Time Out. It is an all-inclusive but suffers from surprisingly few of the shortcomings that plague this category. Turtle Beach is almost elegant. The lobby, for instance, aspires to an operatic stage set: vast, vertical, and stuccoed in pink, with sheets of water cascading down walls. The beach is remarkably clean and crisp for this bit of Barbados, and the resort has this stretch of sand pretty much to itself.
At the foot of the water-drenched walls sits the Chelonia restaurant, where the service borders on French formality: Breakfast is a real breakfast, with fruit pancakes and omelettes made to order. Dinner includes seafood served in peculiar combinations: A roulade of chicken and lobster. Or snapper and tuna dressed with exotic fruits and chive butter. Not quite the Cliff, but a huge departure from the spread at, for instance, Tropical Escape.
This is our first stop on this trip that I can seriously recommend to a family with children – mostly because Turtle Beach is properly equipped to relieve you of the little darlings between the crucial tanning hours of nine in the morning and nine at night. Tearfully deposit them at the “Tommy Turtle Kids Club,” where they’ll be entertained with treasure hunts and beach games, free of charge, and learn to make almost edible cookies that you will be forced to enjoy that evening. The club will feed your kids for you, plug them into video games, pacify them with television, and even sit the newborn for a modest fee.
Adults are properly looked after as well, with a potted nightlife that includes various lounge acts, calypso dancing, and a series of bars strategically lurking about the property. Speaking of which, Turtle Beach does, in fact, have a sports bar. But it’s a reasonably elevated instance of the genre, offering spa cuisine and a light Continental breakfast. I like to think that the Blue Turtle, with its four large-screen TVs, keeps the soccer-obsessed flotsam off the beach.
Turtle Beach is a largish property, with 167 rooms; all have views of the water and are conveniently modern, with satellite TV, air-conditioning, and voice mail. Furniture is wicker, telegraphing “Caribbean.” The pinkish hotel nestles right up against an okay-size beach – 1,500 feet long – at which we fail to encounter a single turtle. The activities offered here are astonishingly various: You can snorkel, surf and sail, kayak and Jet Ski, play tennis and engage in all manner of planned communal sports, or just let it all hang out. Amazing how many people let most of it hang out. Turtle Beach would suit Monica Lewinsky: lots of brazen thongs in evidence (as opposed to thongs as evidence). A casual hedonistic ethos prevails; should Bill Clinton decide to visit, he would get a special rate at the nearby Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design and generally considered one of the best courses in the Caribbean.
($522 to $840 a night per person for a double-occupancy “junior suite,” all-inclusive; call 246-438-4680 or 800-326-6898 to reserve.)
The Stepford Resort
We are on our way to Las Casitas, one of only two five-diamond hotels in the entire Caribbean (the other being the world-famous Four Seasons in Nevis). Las Casitas is a hotel within a hotel, an ultraexclusive holy of holies, nestled within the semi-exclusive El Conquistador at Las Croabas, about an hour east of San Juan. Everything at El Conquistador is larger than life: the buildings, the hair, the steaks. El Conquistador is mostly on Puerto Rico proper but has its own private island with a beach, water sports, and snack hut half an hour away by speedboat. On the mainland, there are a dozen restaurants and a whole fleet of swimming pools; Cortés would have approved not just of the name but of the scale of the place, 500 acres, close to 1,000 rooms.
Las Casitas is in many ways the opposite of El Conquistador, a toy town in the midst of radical bigness. Everything in Las Casitas seems smaller than life. The hotel sometimes feels like the set for The Truman Show: tiny, utopian, and just a touch unreal. Stuccoed row houses, each a different tropical hue, surround a squeaky-clean public space with a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, and a café. The public space could not, in fact, be less public: A guard stands at the border entrance, ensuring that none of the Conquistador conventionistas penetrate the privacy of this Legoland. Ideologically speaking, I find Las Casitas a bit scary.
That said, it’s all pretty luxe. We get our own two-story townhouse, with a view of the sea far below. We have two bedrooms, one on each floor, each with its own bathroom and sitting area. We get our own brace of butlers – everybody at Las Casitas gets a townhouse and butler service – and the one who checks us in is a sweet guy with an accent that would serve him well in the South Bronx. I’d much rather hang with this butler than with the bureaucrats behind the check-in desk (who have just a touch too much attitude for this glorified Disneyland).
Every once in a while, we venture into the vast resort that surrounds us. A trip into El Conquistador really is Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. We visit the steakhouse, an institution that makes Peter Luger look restrained. I order the “Cowboy Steak” (a rib eye, really), which is by no means the largest on the menu, and I still feel like a Flintstone: I want to pick up my Cowboy Steak by its bone and hammer the table with it, Khrushchev-style: bam bam. Bam. My date, however, might not approve, being not so much Pebbles as Marie Antoinette. Dinner for two, with wine, comes to $90.
Of course, should you choose to dine within the invisible force field of Las Casitas, the scale of the experience adjusts accordingly. Le Bistro has only a handful of tables – it may well be the tiniest dining room I’ve ever occupied outside a private home – and serves tiny, understated courses to match. Escargots in a rich butter come served in their own shells; the magret de canard is brushed with honey and sprinkled with black truffles. Desserts are not ambitious – I’m a bit tired of conquistadorial ambition, anyway – but they are lovely: a simple tarte aux pommes with cinnamon ice cream, and a mocha cake served with a raspberry coulis. Dinner for two, with wine, is $130.
Las Casitas is five years old, but the resident spa, licensed by the Golden Door people from California, opened last December. The spa is by far the most sophisticated institution in the republic that is El Conquistador: Built on three sun-drenched levels, with views over the water and up toward the rain forest, the Golden Door draws on Japanese minimalism, California body worship, and haughty southern decadence.
You get indoor streams and waterfalls, beachlike pebbles underfoot, faux-adobe walls, music that changes as you rise from the Welcome level to the Vitality level (the second floor). I suppose it’s all a bit silly if you think about it, but then, you didn’t come here to think. You came here to drink expensive fruit juice at the price of $3.50 a glass, run the treadmill to exhaustion, then get pounded into a state of ecstatic comfort.
Here I have the best classical massage I’ve ever had (ask for Rebecca). Other treatments are pleasantly arcane: The “targeted massage with parafango” applies heat in the form of mud and paraffin to some especially sore quadrant of your bod. “Shirodhara” involves dripping warm oil on your third eye – much more pleasant than Chinese water torture – before culminating in an upper-body massage and facial. On the Vitality level, I meet with – no, not George Orwell – a fitness expert, who guides me through a truly professional session employing various computational devices. She figures out my lung capacity (cavernous), my oxygen efficiency (astronautical), my strength (just fine), my endurance (unimpressive), and my flexibility (a joke).
Last, I am treated to “La’Stone Therapy” (gotta love that idiosyncratic apostrophe), a designer massage in which smooth lava stones are heated to a point just short of painful, then placed in strategic patterns all over my body. Weird. Beautiful. Do not try this at home.
You can book a massage at the Golden Door even if you’re only staying at the lowly El Conquistador, but you’ll get preferential treatment – first dibs on time slots and limited specialty treatments – if you’re a guest at Las Casitas. Massages range from $55 to $150.
(A one-bedroom villa at Las Casitas ranges from $475 in the off-season to $1,275 at Christmas; doubles at El Conquistador can be had from $365 to $595. Call 800-468-5228 to reserve at either property.)
Putting Up a Ritz
Gambling is accomplished at this new Ritz in a way that would please Steve Wynn.
My date has left. she has business in Manhattan, and I suppose she wanted to depart on a high note. That’s fine. I’m a pretty self-sufficient guy. And even if I weren’t, Golden Door has issued me into a state of cosmic whatever.
I am particularly glad that my date taught me to swing at the airport in San Juan. Because just five minutes away is the world’s most swinging airport hotel: the newish Ritz-Carlton. Okay, airport hotel doesn’t really do this place justice. Ritz built here because this is where the company found the best stretch of beach in San Juan; by coincidence, it’s also within sonic-boom range of the airport. But don’t worry about the planes: The rooms have been quadruple-glazed into silence, and the hotel is built in a U shape that effectively shields the beach and pool from almost all of the noise. And if the roar of the jets manages to pierce the perimeter, it is drowned out by the steel band playing “La Bamba” by the pool.
People don’t generally associate the Ritz-Carlton with Latin abandon, but this is by far the funkiest Ritz in the chain. When the sun goes down, those steel drums give way to jazz bands and orchestras. Suddenly it’s not such a disaster if you get bumped off your connecting flight in San Juan: Just put on your tux and your dancing shoes and book a room at the Ritz.
Of course, everything you tend to associate with a Ritz hotel is present and accounted for here: The ceilings are high, the carpets plush, the furniture dignified. Guests are well-heeled and demanding. Afternoon tea is served in the lobby lounge, as it is at most every Ritz. The bar is stocked with excellent Dominican cigars, and private humidors are available. Paintings on the walls and sculpture by the pool are all part of the hotel’s collection of major Latin American artists. Everything is done with the usual nod to plutocratic taste. It’s just that the place swings like a roadhouse.
The Caribbean Grill remains open until five in the morning, catering to red-eyed slot addicts. San Juan is the Vegas of the Caribbean, and gambling is accomplished at this new Ritz in a way that would please Steve Wynn: The casino occupies two floors. At 18,500 square feet, it is the largest on the island. And the spa – its décor more Fifth Avenue than Spring Street – can hold its own with the best in America and Asia.
The spa is a separate facility in stone and marble, next to the two lighted tennis courts and a short hop from the outdoor whirlpool. Hydrotherapy is offered, as are aqua-aerobics and body wraps; the usual array of facials, manicures, and pedicures is supplemented by aggressively weird therapies. Here, too, I have my body heated strategically by hot stones. It is no longer an entirely novel experience, of course, but certain details have been tailored to the Ritz: The stones are dipped in parcha, an oil derived from passion fruit, and the woman who rubs me down is a skillful amateur shrink who also cheerfully regales me with tales of the nude and famous: Seems these hands have been up and down the spinal column of Shaquille O’Neal (lengthy) and that of Sly Stallone (not so lengthy).
The rooms at the Ritz are acceptably luxurious, if not expansive; except for the occasional detail in rattan and wrought iron, you could be in a nice hotel just about anywhere. The nice Ritz people make sure your allergies are tickled daily with freshly cut tropical flowers, and most rooms look out over the sea. Still, I suppose you’re expected to spend most of your time by the pool, which I can see from my window. It takes up most of the U between the wings of the hotel and is laid out in the complex geometry of an Italian garden, with stone lions spouting water onto the heads of bathing children.
If you’re not staying at the Ritz, be sure to dine there: The Vineyard Room, with Frette linens and fancy paneled walls, ranks with the best restaurants in the Caribbean, and again, you’d have to go to Malliouhana to find an equally distinguished wine list. The Vineyard Room hasn’t capitulated to the Caribbean’s excessive love affair with Asian fusion; the dishes are mostly French, with a pronounced Californian influence. I had a tasting menu – five courses for $85 – and spent the next 24 hours in a food-induced stupor. Dinner opened with sashimi-quality ahi tuna served raw with avocado, and progressed through sea bass and breast of duck, culminating in a Black Angus beef tenderloin and finishing with a hot chocolate mousse. A dining room this new is generally trying to show off, but the Vineyard Room, where the chef is quietly perfecting more traditional fare, refuses to dance and sing.
(Rooms at the Ritz start at $275 – count on paying upwards of $415 in high season. Call 800-241-3333 or 787-253-1700 to reserve.)
Polly Want a Truffle
It feels odd to be arriving in the country of Turks and Caicos as a Canadian citizen. In one of the less dramatic international incidents of the past fifteen years, Turks and Caicos negotiated to become a part of Canada, and we, in the end, turned them down.
That must hurt. I hope nobody throws eggs at me as I drive in from the airport. Anyway, I’m here undercover. As an Empire loyalist stationed in New York, I imagine myself the Canadian equivalent of James Bond (which is, unfortunately, a Mountie). Parrot Cay, a property on a tiny islet 25 miles off the main island, Providenciales, is the newest of the resorts I am visiting. Barely finished, in fact. And if it proves a glorified sports bar, I’m gonna be glad we denied these guys a place in the confederation.
It is 20 minutes from the airport to the dock, and another 30 by boat to the resort itself. I arrive at night; the boat that carries me to the cay is impressively speedy (and the moonlight would be impressively romantic were I not convinced that my svelte and impossible date was now in the arms of some enemy agent in Manhattan – perhaps a literary agent).
Turks and Caicos is a peculiar experience after lush Puerto Rico. Even at night, Parrot Cay feels kind of desiccated. When I awaken and stumble about, Parrot Cay does indeed look like a desert resort: Most of the plants barely achieve shrub status, and with the washed-out colors of the property itself – white and coral pink – you could almost be in New Mexico. The dry atmosphere tints everything, giving water in particular that precious aura that liquid seems to acquire when you’re thirsty: The sea is a deeper, more vibrant turquoise here, and the beach is a saline white.
Parrot Cay is not, praise be, a sports bar. Parrot Cay is perhaps the antithesis, a nascent corner of extreme swank, a place that hopes to inspire the famous and moneyed from around the world to swing by and bless it (preferably with their fame and money). The staff is madly watering those shrubs in hopes of gaining big shady trees sometime soon – twenty years ought to do it – but you can certainly see what this place is going to be.
Beds are virginal in white muslin beneath high peaked ceilings in pickled pine. Terra-cotta floors lead out to wooden balconies, also whitewashed. Under this desert sun, everything is overbright, as in a fading postcard. The main house is a squat cylinder topped by an equally squat dunce cap and features dramatic flourishes like wide balconies off a circular dining room with giant French doors, and a bar framed by a grand stair that cleaves in two. The interiors were designed by Keith Hobbs of United Designers, the guys who did London’s Metropolitan hotel and the restaurant Nobu inside.
Parrot Cay hopes to seduce international food fanatics and has hired an appropriate team: Rajah Pillay, the executive chef, comes from Singapore and has presided over serious rooms at two different Four Seasons hotels, in Montreal and Bali. He has plans for Parrot Cay.
For dinner, I have a superb appetizer, a charlotte of courgette and tomato, sprinkled with sesame seeds and accompanied by local lobster; the main course is mahimahi with a concassé of fresh tomatoes and an olive tapenade – both engaging, vaguely Mediterranean riffs. Dessert is a five-alarm banana flambé. The next night’s bid to do the Asian thing is somewhat less successful – a shrimp roll with mustard sauce and a Sichuan chicken dish. (How come this sort of fare is always better in a cheap dive?) But I trust these guys to pull the kitchen together.
By the time you book your vacation here, Parrot Cay will have opened the first Asian-style holistic spa in the Caribbean, with Thai and Chinese treatments – $75 to $150 – complemented (exacerbated?) by yoga. It already has a lovely knife-edge swimming pool, whose lost horizon blends into the Atlantic; the 6,000-square-foot spa complex will incorporate yet another. Parrot Cay will be a much more exciting place when guests have access to the spa facilities, including Cybex equipment, and fitness classes. No, Parrot Cay does not really exist yet, except as hints and traces of the fabulous resort that it intends to be. Still, reading these entrails, I am convinced it has a tall and handsome future.
(Doubles at Parrot Cay are between $460 and $750, including breakfast, dinner, and round-trip airport transfer. Reserve through Crown International: 800-628-8929.)