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Tiny islands, big plans

Tiny islands, big plans

$1-billion worth of new property developments is making Eleuthera the new "It" destination

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 1, 2006
July 1, 2006
Gillian Beckett

Once upon a time, the island opened its arms to Puritans seeking religious freedom; previously, it offered refuge to Lucayan Indians fleeing Spanish dominance. Centuries later, it became the site of the legendary Cotton Bay Club, a sanctuary for American industrialists and a hideaway for celebrities and royalty.

This tiny slice of paradise in The Bahamas is aptly named Eleuthera, from the Greek word eleuthero or “free.”  It has risen from the ashes of an economic downturn and once again, its pristine shores are receiving the latest wave of freedom-loving souls. Currently, the island is being trumpeted as the next “It” spot and attracting a who’s who of investors and visitors.

In just a few years, the island has seen a surge of projects with 10 planned or under way representing just more than $1 billion in new investment. And, on the crest of it all, rides a clutch of Bahamian developers and businessmen.

Eleuthera rising
The $300-million Cotton Bay Estates & Villas, just five miles south of the settlement of Rock Sound, is described as a “special community, nestled into 200 acres of unspoiled vegetation” on the southern end of the island. “We are particularly pleased that this Bahamian-led project is serving as a catalyst for the resurgence of tourism at Eleuthera,” Franklyn R Wilson, chairman of Eleuthera Properties Ltd, told a reporter on NBC’s Today earlier this year. The occasion was the naming of the island by the world’s most respected travel magazine Travel + Leisure as one of the top five destinations in the world.

The first stage of the 1,500-acre project is the development of two- and three-bedroom villas, 114 estate lots and a 26,000-sq-ft clubhouse. The next stage will include a 73-room boutique hotel, slated to open in December 2007, to be followed by the construction of an 18-hole championship golf course, spa and wellness centre, marina expansion and more homes and condos.

The hotel will be branded as part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Luxury Collection, which includes international gems such as the Hotel Imperial in Vienna and Hotel Gritti Palace in Venice, Wilson says.

Guests at Cotton Bay will also appreciate the resort’s natural surroundings, with access to two small private islands housing a 20-acre bird sanctuary and seven-acre secluded beach. The considerate attention developers have given to preserving indigenous plants such as the Gum elemi (kamalame) trees and pigeon plums, as well as other environmentally friendly initiatives, have earned the company membership in Audubon International’s Silver Signature Program.

“Cotton Bay is the first project of its kind to be branded both a Starwood Luxury Collection [resort] and a member of the Audubon International Signature Program,” Wilson says. “It’s a rare combination and there’s nothing like it in the northern Caribbean.”

A golden era of glamour
That must have been the sentiment over 50 years ago when the island’s first developer, Arthur Vining Davis, set his eyes upon Eleuthera. Located approximately 60 miles from Nassau at its nearest point and 270 miles east of Florida, the 110-mile-long, string bean-shaped island is blessed with rolling hills and peppered with pineapple plantations.

Unique geographical features such as the Glass Window Bridge, a narrow span of land that separates the eastern and western coasts and myriad natural bays, inspired the industrialist to create a playground for the rich and famous.

The American entrepreneur and president of ALCOA, the country’s leading aluminium manufacturer, had planned in 1952 to build a 300-room hotel in Half Sound, south Eleuthera. But his plans were dashed when the government refused to approve the development.

Davis sold his holding to Pan American Airlines founder Juan Trippe, who successfully transformed Eleuthera into the place-to-be for the glitterati of the United States and Europe. “The 1950s was the era of the Juan Trippes,” Wilson recalls. “These were people of exceptional means who themselves chose Eleuthera as their private vacation spots.”

Nearby Windermere Island became an exclusive destination for members of the British royal family such as Lord Mountbatten. Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, who was once caught there in all her pregnant glory by paparazzi, frequented the small island in the early 1980s.

The Cotton Bay Club was one of the jewels of The Bahamas for two decades, and the island prospered. However, the good times came to an end. “The people who triggered about 20 years of phenomenal growth – for all these people it was never about business, it was all about ‘this is our wonderful paradise’,” Wilson explains. “It wasn’t run in a business context of succession. When they all aged there was no one to come in and say, ‘let’s take it over’.”

Wilson adds that the demise of Trippe’s empire was also a key factor in Eleuthera’s economic decline.

“Juan Trippe was very much a towering figure and his fortunes changed rather dramatically with the deregulation of the aviation industry and the turbulence caused to Pan American as a result of that.”

All too soon, the bustling airport that Trippe built up became quieter. And with the demise of the Cotton Bay Club, the island’s economy slowed down.

Despite a dismal economic situation lasting from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Wilson says Bahamian business interests stepped in to keep Eleuthera afloat for future development.

“By about 1985, it had become clear to observers of the economic scene that decay was beginning to grab hold,” Wilson explains. “It became particularly apparent to the late T Albert Sands, who was probably the most prominent businessman of the time in south Eleuthera.”

Wilson says that Sands was approached by the estate of Juan Trippe, and asked if he would be interested in redeveloping Cotton Bay. “Albert Sands then approached me about getting involved,” he says, adding that the founding of Eleuthera Properties Ltd was based on the initiative to get business on the island running again.

Along with Eleuthera Properties Ltd, other Bahamian companies came on board to take up the challenge, including Sunshine Holdings Co Ltd (a large residential developer); British American Insurance Co of The Bahamas Ltd; and the John Bull Group, a purveyor of luxury goods. Together they weathered the stock market crash of 1987 and the devastation of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

It was a long road to 2004, but in November, a week after the signing of the Heads of Agreement, a triumphant party was held to introduce the 1,500-acre Cotton Bay Estates & Villas to the local community.

An island renaissance
Like a sleepy child after a long nap, the island has awakened and attracted such notables as rocker Lenny Kravitz, chanteuse Patti LaBelle and Luci Baines Johnson, who have all fallen under Eleuthera’s spell. And the island is abuzz with new ideas and development.

The former Club Med site in central Eleuthera, abandoned after sustaining severe hurricane damage, is undergoing a major facelift with the development of the French Leave Resort, headed by US developer Edward Lauth, one of the principal investors in Governor’s Harbour Resort and Marina Ltd. The 270-acre luxury resort, due for completion in 2009, will offer ocean front lots, a boutique hotel, 60 condo/hotel residences, two restaurants and a spa.

Located near Governor’s Harbour and the airport, on the island’s western shore, is Eleuthera’s newest condo/hotel development, Pineapple Fields, headed by Pineapple Fields Development Co president Christopher Lightbourn. The 32-unit condo/hotel called The Club at Pineapple Fields, is set on 80 acres of lush tropical forest with 1,000 ft of powdered-sand beachfront. Each unit is also available to be rented out when owners are not in residence, with units maintained by Out Island Resorts Management Ltd. Future plans include the development of a spa and single-family homes. The first 12-unit phase has been completed and offers charming, fully equipped suites. Tippy’s, a funky beach bistro, opened in 2002 to rave reviews and has been called by The New York Times “the epicentre of the social whirl on Eleuthera.”

At the northernmost tip of south Eleuthera, the Cape Eleuthera Marina and Powell Pointe development by Cape Eleuthera Properties Ltd is beginning to take shape. The $34-million project includes the refurbishment of Cape Eleuthera’s 35-year-old marina, complete with 45 slips, as well as additional hotel rooms at the Inn at Powell Point, 15 estate homes, 12 beach villas, retail stores, a casual-dining restaurant and a reverse osmosis desalination plant.

New development is also taking shape in north Eleuthera with the acquisition of Royal Island by retail developer Cypress Equities, also an affiliate of Dallas-based real-estate developer Staubach Retail. The 480-acre island located off the coast of Harbour Island, is set to undergo a $500-million development with plans to construct a luxury boutique resort with a spa, restaurants and marina surrounded by retail shops and other amenities. Single-family estate lots providing ocean views are also planned.

Two initiatives on Harbour Island are in the works. Valentine’s Resort and Marina recently completed marina renovations and is set to construct the Villas at Valentine’s, which will include 46 one-, two- and three-bedroom condominium villas. The Romora Bay Club is planning an extension of its resort with a 40-unit condo/hotel and 50-slip marina; however, the project is awaiting government approval.

A golden future
Just as developers can look forward to a prosperous future with these new resorts, the people of Eleuthera will also be reaping the benefits of further economic growth.

For example, the Cotton Bay project is expected to generate up to 300 jobs within the next five years, while the Cape Eleuthera project expects to employ up to 100 Bahamians in the pre- and post-development phases.

“People originally from Eleuthera who have moved to Nassau and other islands are coming back,” says MP for South Eleuthera, Oswald Ingraham.

“I see tourism being our main bread-and-butter industry on Eleuthera,” he says, adding, “I am very grateful for the way it’s going.”

Like those ancient pilgrims who came before, once again Eleuthera awaits a new breed of pilgrim, weary urbanites seeking the freedom and peace of its beautiful shores.

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