Published in The Sunday Telegraph 2001
LAST month, as dawn broke feebly over south-east England, we embarked on a journey that was to consist of two taxis, two flights and a boat – not to mention the hours spent hanging about in airport lounges and immigration queues. Three days later, we would pack away the suntan oil and do the whole thing again in reverse, arriving back at Heathrow (via Miami) just as the rush hour was reaching its peak. Parrot Cay may be one of the most stunning resorts in the Caribbean, but it’s a long way to go for the weekend.
So why do it – and out of season in June, when surely no one goes to the Caribbean anyway? Partly because commitments nibbled away at our original five-day schedule, and partly because I wanted to see what Christina Ong, the owner of London’s stylish Metropolitan and Halkin hotels, could do with a 1,000-acre desert island in the British West Indies. But mostly because I love the Caribbean in summer: the beaches are emptier, the resort swimming pools are deserted, and when it rains – which it does but rarely enough to spoil things – violent downpours are preceded by spectacular shows of light and sound: sonorous rumbles of thunder and great forks of lightning slicing through a darkened sky.
But as the resort speedboat took us on the final leg of our journey, it wasn’t a storm that provided the entertainment but a sunset of indescribable beauty. In silence, we watched the spectacle as seawater sprayed our hair and salted our skin. Meanwhile, a distant smudge on the horizon was slowly turning into a collection of low, wooden buildings overlooking a stretch of white beach. After almost 18 hours, we were nearly there.
Parrot Cay is one of 41 cays – only nine of which are inhabited – and eight larger islands that make up the Turks and Caicos. At just over an hour’s flight from Miami, they are easier to reach than a lot of the more popular Caribbean islands farther south, yet it’s really only in the last decade that long-haul visitors have started to visit the area. Indeed, before that there would have been nowhere much to stay: Providenciales – which boasts the islands’ only airport – didn’t build its first major beach resort until 1990 and parts of the island still look like a building site.
When Christina Ong bought Parrot Cay in the mid-1990s, the site was already occupied by an abandoned hotel. The tiny island had been colonised by mosquitoes, too – though in its favour it had three miles of white, sandy beach and 175 species of birds, including flamingos and ruby-throated hummingbirds. It was also perfectly located for the many excellent diving sites nearby – the Turks and Caicos have been voted one of the world’s top 10 dive destinations.
With the British designer responsible for both her London hotels, Christina Ong set about creating a stylish 60-room “holistic” hideaway with a gym, spa and two restaurants. All the bedrooms have a private terrace; the one-, two- and three-bedroom beachfront villas have a private pool. But forget the clamour of Barbados or the glitz of St Barts: this is a yoga-on-the-beach, grilled-tuna-and-rocket sort of place.
“It’s not very Caribbean, is it?” I observed, as, the following morning, we pulled open the doors of our vast, white sitting room and stepped into the bright sunshine. I was thinking not just of our exquisite villa – all pale wood, cream upholstery and Indonesian-style furniture – but of the efficient, self-effacing service in the poolside restaurant the night before. We had waited three minutes for our drinks to arrive – with a shy smile and a bow – and less than 10 for our first courses, surely some sort of record in this part of the world. “It looks and feels very south-east Asian, but then parts of it are actually quite European,” I continued, warming to my theme, as my companion squeezed out the final dregs from last night’s welcome bottle of Champagne. When I began on the provenance of the cuisine – “Mediterranean twists on Asian themes – or Asian twists on Mediterranean themes . . .” – I could see his attention wandering.
Later, in the resort’s chic little shop, I asked the assistant whether she had anything that had been made locally. She thought for a moment before pointing to a couple of dolls, bright splashes of colour in a sea of tasteful linen, beachwear and carved trinket boxes.
Does this lack of authenticity matter? Guests – a mix of Americans and Europeans and a scattering of big-name celebrities – don’t seem to think so. They come here for peace and privacy and, as the spa brochure puts it, the “chance to renew the body and rebalance its energies”.
As our stay was brief, we resolved to fit in as much renewing and rebalancing as we could. I drew up a timetable: after rising at 6.30 each morning, we would read by our plunge pool for an hour then breakfast on the terrace in the main building; next we would sunbathe on the (empty) beach and swim in the sea before proceeding to the poolside restaurant for lunch; after a suitable interval we would bathe in the fabulous infinity pool (daily body count when we were there: 10), have a massage in the spa, take a complimentary yoga lesson in the yoga pavilion, then round off the day with drinks in the circular bar overlooking the ocean, and dinner in the gourmet restaurant.
After our first visit to the spa for a Couples Massage (not as exciting as it sounds: two massage tables, two masseurs), my companion rebelled and I was forced to drop yoga from our schedule – though I added a few extra-curricular trips for me to our villa’s addictive open-air shower.
As for the weather – I got my light show on the first afternoon. From the comfort of a sun lounger, I watched the storm raging across the horizon. A few drops of rain were tossed our way, but it wasn’t until the second afternoon that it poured. No problem – we withdrew to the restaurant and ordered lunch. By the time we had finished, the storm had passed and the air, which had been muggy before, now smelled of suntan lotion, damp vegetation and garlic from the restaurant kitchen.
On the third morning, we shoved our swimsuits into our suitcases and prepared for the long journey home. Had it been worth it for two-and-a-half days? It had – although, with drinks at top-dollar prices and massages from £85, it had proved rather a costly way to unwind. Will we go back? Not unless we can fly on BA’s new direct weekly flight into Providenciales, which takes about 12 hours. Heaven is a long way to go for the weekend.