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Rum Cay: the “Sleeping Beauty”

Rum Cay: the “Sleeping Beauty”

Old-world charm blends with new-world innocence

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 27, 2007
June 27, 2007
Paul Hallihan

Why would a soft-spoken Englishman with no experience in tourism decide to build a luxury resort on a tiny, sparsely populated island 185 miles southeast of Nassau? And having decided to build there on Rum Cay, why would he want to leave parts of the resort relatively untouched?

Rum Cay “is a very innocent island,” says John Mittens, chairman of Montana Holdings Ltd, in his international real estate and investment firm’s Nassau offices.

“I just found Rum Cay absolutely charming … I like the geographic location, I like the people, I like the weather and I like the opportunity.”

In 2004, Mittens’ company signed a Heads of Agreement with the Bahamian government to build his 875-acre luxury Rum Cay Resort and Marina on the 30-square-mile island.

Mittens says his company remains intrigued by the history of Rum Cay and wants to avoid a “cookie cutter” approach to development, which tends to make one resort look like another. Accordingly, parts of Rum Cay’s resort acreage will be left relatively untouched to preserve the environment.

“So if you like, we’ve compressed everything into a relatively small corner,” he says, leaving parts of the resort in its natural state.

Incredible diving
The nine-mile-long by five-mile-wide island is a haven for world-class surfing, boating, scuba-diving and deep-sea fishing.

Game fish such as marlin, wahoo,  sailfish and mahimahi are found off the shores of Rum Cay. Bonefish enthusiasts can also try their hand by casting in salt pond flats on the island.

The island’s coast features beautiful beaches, secluded coves and 75-foot cliffs. The interior includes rolling hills, salt lakes, scrub brush and native trees and the ruins of former settlements. Twenty-seven bird species have been recorded on Rum Cay, including herons and songbirds.

The island also has “incredible diving conditions,” says Mittens, including a 2,000-foot coral wall just off the beach and 60-foot walls of coral rising to just below the surface.

Scuba enthusiasts can also explore remains of the 101-gun man-of-war HMS Conqueror, Britain’s first sail- and propeller-driven warship. It sank in 1861, just off Sumner Point. The warship, sometimes called “the underwater museum of The Bahamas,” is owned by the Bahamian government and cannot be plundered.

A second sailing warship, the 32-gun frigate HMS South Hampton, was also wrecked off Rum Cay in 1812.

Slated for opening in 2010, the $700-million Rum Cay Resort Marina will offer condos, second homes and an 80-slip mega-yacht marina along the island’s southeastern shore at St George’s Bay.

The project could employ up to 400 during its construction in 2008-09, and create about 400 permanent jobs once the resort is complete.

Phase I of the project this year has Nassau-based Heavy Marine and Foundations Ltd dredging the 26-acre marina, which could later be expanded to 220 slips.

A marina village of luxury shops, dining and other amenities, called Port Santa Maria, is also part of the build out along with 100 condominiums and 80 cottages.

Phases II and III will include additional residences, a nine-hole golf  facility, an equestrian centre and a 155-room, five-star RockResorts luxury hotel and spa.

Mittens, 61, says he is aiming for a Spanish-style, Mediterranean atmosphere with villas and cottages cascading down terraced hills near the centre of the resort marina on Cotton Field Point, flanked by about 1.2 miles of pristine white-sand beach.

History and beauty
After spending about $750,000 on historical and environmental assessments of the island, Mittens says he wants to tap into and preserve the history and natural beauty of Rum Cay.

Old crushed limestone and coral roads will be maintained on the property. Vehicles, aside from golf carts on the links, will be kept to a minimum. Resort residents will call for a horse-drawn carriage instead of a cab to get around, says Mittens.

“There’s that je ne sais quoi, that ambience, that makes a place special. And we believe Rum Cay is very special … we’re trying to preserve that special effect.”

Cave carvings by Arawak Indians, pirates, sunken warships, plus the ruins of Loyalist plantations and slave quarters are all in evidence on Rum Cay today.

First called Mamana by the Lucayan Indians, the island was later named Santa Maria de la Concepción by Christopher Columbus. It is thought that Columbus made Rum Cay his second stop in the New World after landing on nearby San Salvador in 1492. Local lore says Rum Cay got its modern name from a shipwrecked cargo of rum.

About 80 people, including approximately 30 children, live on the island today. In the mid-to-late 1800s, Rum Cay’s population was more than 1,000. In its heyday, the economy was powered by exports of salt, pineapples and sisal hemp to England and Canada. The island was also a major horse breeding centre for The Bahamas in the pre-car age, says Mittens.

But Rum Cay went downhill in the early 1900s. The tipping point was a disastrous hurricane in 1926 that wiped out the island’s salt flats. People started leaving. Rum Cay settlements such as Black Rock, Gin Hill and Nicholas Village are now faded memories. These ruins point to a more vibrant past on the island where wild cows and goats now roam. Today, Rum Cay relies primarily on the tourist boating and guest-house trade.

Falling in love with an island
Rum Cay is Mittens’ first crack at developing a luxury resort. In 1995, the radio and satellite engineer founded Europe’s then biggest fibre-optic cable network company, Interoute Telecommunications, which linked 70 cities in 17 countries. He and a partner also founded Global Internet Billing Ltd in 1999 to provide billing services for e-commerce.

He has developed telecommunications projects worldwide, working in jungles, deserts and on remote islands. So building a remote island resort is not such a stretch for him, says Mittens.

While looking to diversify his investments, Mittens was approached in 1999 to invest in Montana Holdings. He took out a 10 per cent stake in the Rum Cay project after his eldest daughter first visited the Out Island and reported back with pictures of the place.

Then, in early 2000, Mittens flew from Britain to check out the island in person. “I fell in love with Rum Cay … [I was] completely besotted by it,” he says.

Mittens, who also owns property in Spain, increased his stake to more than 90 per cent of Montana Holdings. In 2003, he sold his home in London and moved to Nassau.

“The lifestyle here I enjoy immensely,” he says. “I’ve taken up boating, sea fishing, things like that.”

Montana Holdings will also, as part of a franchise agreement with Bahamas Water and Sewerage Corp, take over solid waste disposal for the island.

The Bahamian government has upgraded the 4,500-foot runway at Rum Cay’s Port Nelson Airport. Montana Aviation Ltd, a subsidiary of Mittens’ firm, and FirstAir Group Ltd will offer regular 10-seat executive-class flights to the island from Nassau and Fort Lauderdale. Mittens says his resort marina will eventually produce economic offshoots that could attract more than 1,000 Bahamians to live on Rum Cay.

It seems that Rum Cay is gradually opening back up to the rest of the world. “Anyone who wants to work on Rum Cay has got a job,” adds Mittens.


Matriarch’s approval
Delores Wilson, 75, looks forward to the new resort as something that could lure former Rum Cay residents or their descendants back home.

“I’m very pleased with what they are doing, because it’s a boost for Rum Cay,” says Wilson, owner of Kaye’s Bar and Restaurant in Port Nelson, the only town on the island.

Wilson, affectionately called “Lauris” by friends, is the unofficial matriarch of Rum Cay. She is retired from the local council after 25 years of service.

“This is one of the most beautiful islands in The Bahamas,” she says. “You know, they call Rum Cay the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of The Bahamas. It’s time to wake up now.”

Wilson met developer John Mittens at her restaurant after he moved to Nassau. “He came as a common man. I didn’t even know then that he was rich,” she says with a chuckle. “He doesn’t talk much, but I’m the talker and tried to bring him out.”

Now, Mittens typically drops in to see Wilson and other community leaders whenever he is on Rum Cay.

Although born in Nassau, Wilson was raised by her grandmother on Rum Cay until age 14. She then moved back to Nassau and became a teacher. Wilson returned to Rum Cay for good when she was 35.

She later wrote Rum Cay—My Home, a book chronicling the island’s history and her experiences there. “We have a lot of history on this island,” she says.

Wilson is now working on a second book charting the changes on Rum Cay. “I’m looking forward at 75,” says the mother of two, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three. “There are going to be a lot of changes.”

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