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Putting Cape Eleuthera back on map

Putting Cape Eleuthera back on map

Resort development conjures up former glories, builds for a sustainable future

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 1, 2009
January 1, 2009
Simon Cobb

In the early 1970s Powell Pointe, at the very tip of the Cape Eleuthera peninsula, was a favoured playground of the Kennedys, boasting its own 6,500 ft-long airstrip that could facilitate them flying directly to and from New York. There was a championship golf course designed by Robert Von Haggee and Bruce Devlin, that rivalled Pebble Beach. And Billy Jean King was the visiting tennis pro.

Conceived and developed by Juan Trippe, founder of Pan Am, Cape Eleuthera Resort always had a whiff of Citizen Kane’s megalomanic Xanadu about it. The size alone was extraordinary—4,500 acres comprising almost the whole of the peninsula as far inland as Deep Creek, with more than 16 miles of shoreline.

When Trippe and his business partner, the Florida-based real estate firm General Acceptance Corporation (GAC), unveiled the project in 1971 it consisted of an airport, golf course, a marina and 60 villa units, but with infrastructure for another 1,500 residential lots. The estimated investment was $30 million. Within seven years the infrastructure was in place, but without the homes it was meant to support, and the resort was $150 million in debt.

GAC went bankrupt, Trippe died in 1981 and Cape Eleuthera Resort fell into the hands of a Saudi developer called Abdul Bougarya. Two years later it was abandoned, and Powell Pointe returned to scrub.

But with such a glittering legacy Cape Eleuthera wasn’t going to stay out of the spotlight for long. Today there is a brand new marina with 55 slips and capacity for 145 more, and a 450-ft dock wall, which is the largest on the island. A 12-ft deep entry-channel means that vessels up to 200 ft in length can enter, although the shallow seas around Eleuthera make it unlikely that anything over 130 ft will actually visit.

Another noteworthy feature is the surge channel—a canal extending from the rear of the harbour and cutting across the tip of the peninsula to rejoin the sea. The channel simultaneously allows tidal action to flush out the marina, keeping it clean, and ensures against rising water levels during storms by providing an exhaust for any waves that are driven inside. The plan is to turn Powell Pointe into only the third Blue Flag marina in The Bahamas judged by an international panel to meet rigorous environmental standards. The other two are Atlantis and Old Bahama Bay.

Lining the marina are 19 two-storey, two-bedroom town homes with high-end finishes, fixtures and appliances. The effect is elegant rather than opulent, although a touch of luxury is provided by the location. As general manager Stephen Kappeler points out, each town home offers a view both of the sunrise—from the guest bedroom, over the shallow, dappled waters of Rock Sound—and the sunset, from the master bedroom, over the deeper, greener waters that stretch towards Exuma.

Low-key resort
Bucking the recent trend of developers to build mega resorts, Cape Eleuthera is opting for a more understated, sustainable policy. One of the stated aims of the development is that no building should be taller than the nearest mature palm tree, and at the moment there is only one retail outlet, one restaurant (a relaxed, thatch-roofed building on the beach) and one coffee shop.

“Cape Eleuthera is not for everyone,” says the resort’s managing director, David Green. “It will never be a Las Vegas transplanted to the Caribbean, but our guests are able to enjoy an authentic, Bahamian Out Island experience.” One word that sums up the current development is “unspoiled”—a characteristic that is attracting a surprising new type of client.

“I’d guess that 40 per cent of our enquiries about buying here have come from people who already live in The Bahamas,” says Kappeler. “We get people from Nassau who want a place to escape to on weekends, and even Abaco seems to be a pretty good feeder, with people who say they loved what Treasure Cay was 20 years ago, and now they want that again.” Cape Eleuthera is scarcely more than an hour’s boat ride away from Nassau or Abaco, he says, which makes it perfect for those who feel they need a tropical island home away from their existing tropical island home.

However, at the moment there is nothing for sale. Following an $85 million investment the resort had what Green calls a “soft opening” in 2007, trying to “feel its way” as to the best marketing strategy. At the time the plan was to sell at least some of the town homes for approximately $850,000 each, then move on to the construction of a new tranche of beachfront properties. “Since then there’s been a softening of the sales market,” says Green. “Also we’ve approached companies who might want to run it as a hotel operation, so we’ve taken the homes off the market.” Although Green declines to name potential partners, it is understood that representatives from Disney have visited the site.

Long-term approach
The new Cape Eleuthera Resort and Yacht Club is more modest, carefully thought-out, and flexible in the face of changing market conditions than its former incarnation. “You can’t flick a switch and do a massive project all at once,” says Green. “I’ve personally been involved here for 17 years.” The resort now belongs, says Green, “almost entirely” to the DeVos family of Michigan, former owners of Peter Island in the BVI, whose patriarch, Richard, co-founded the billion-dollar Amway Corporation.

They acquired the land 18 years ago and have been patient in developing it. Physical work only started in 2005, with the redredging of the marina, and there are no plans to break any more ground in the next 12 months, or to reopen the golf course or the airstrip any time soon. “We see this as another 20 or 30 year project, at least,” says Green.

The conservatism of the DeVos’s approach is reflected by their gift of 18 acres of land near Powell Pointe to the Cape Eleuthera Island School, an institution that for the last ten years has attracted students from all over the world and encouraged them to research and solve practical ecological problems, from generating clean energy to farming fish. Within the last three years, two more non-profit organizations have spun off from the school, Cape Eleuthera Institute and Cape Systems Limited, both of which research, promote and develop sustainable industries.

“It reflects the DeVos family’s vision of nature and how things should work here,” says Kappeler. “The school and Institute are not directed by what we do. They’re completely independent, but we definitely see ourselves as in a partnership.”

Sport fishing is one of Cape Eleuthera’s main attractions, he says, and the school’s research into reef and other ocean ecosystems, and its status as one of the world’s foremost authorities on bonefish, will help preserve that. Even the school’s fish farm contributes to the resort’s appeal because it entices sharks that circle outside the net, making it one of the most interesting of the many sites offered to visiting scuba divers. And of course some of the cobia reared inside find their way onto the restaurant menu.

Green energy
In one of its most far-reaching initiatives, the school takes used cooking oil from cruise ships and turns it into biodiesel. “At the moment they’re not producing enough for us to use it too,” says Kappeler, “but they’re saying that they might have found a way of getting more oil through the hotel association. So we’ve arranged that we can get a 500-gallon tank to store it.”

Some of the school’s research into alternative energy is already in use. “The food and beverage outlets use solar power,” says Kappeler, “which also heats all the water—and when you take account of laundry, that’s one of the large energy consumers for any hotel or resort.” The resort also supports the school, with all its waste food contributed as either compost or pig-feed.

Although Bahamians seem keen to buy here, Green says that the long-term future of Cape Eleuthera Resort depends partly on the kind of research being done next door and partly on US demographics: “It won’t fade like it did last time… . South Florida was nowhere near as densely populated then. It provides a whole new clientele.”

When discussing the future Kappeler also talks about Florida, and how, over the years, population centres followed the I95 highway down through the state. “We’ve got the same thing here,” he says. “One long road leading down from Harbour Island, which has a beach that keeps getting voted the most beautiful in the Caribbean. People will migrate along it. And when they come we’ll have millions of dollars of infrastructure already in place waiting for them—sewers, roads, pipes, cables—from the last time they tried to build here.” Everything, it seems, can be recycled on the new Cape Eleuthera.

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