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Features - Jan 2008



The Bahamas Investor

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Island hideaway

Island hideaway

With barefoot sophistication, eco-friendly Tiamo has found its niche

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 4, 2008
January 4, 2008
Paul Hallihan

An unusual mix of cultures and contradictions has brought an Indiana farm boy and his Jamaican wife to build the ultimate getaway in The Bahamas’ Out Islands. “We cater to people seeking the idyllic tropical island experience. They’re looking for a remote, out-of-the-way resort,” says Mike Hartman who, together with his wife Petagay, runs the Tiamo Resort in South Andros.

Voted one of the top 20 vacation hideaways in the Caribbean by Condé Nast Traveller magazine in 2007, Tiamo—Italian for I love you—is an ecologically friendly, sustainable resort that blends into, rather than overpowers, its surrounding environment. But Tiamo’s eco-friendly approach does not mean guests will be sleeping in tents and munching granola. The resort’s 11 private one-bedroom elevated bungalows are steps from a pristine beach along the clear, turquoise-blue ocean of the south bight (a curve in the coastline) on South Andros. Each individually decorated bungalow has a wrap-around screened porch for cool sea breeze ventilation, supplemented by overhead fans. There are no air conditioners, TVs, telephones or Internet connections in the resort’s bungalows, which can only be reached by boat.

“We cater to people seeking the idyllic tropical island experience. They’re looking for a remote, out-of-the-way resort,” says Mike. “Barefoot sophistication or barefoot elegance would be the style to describe the place,” adds Petagay, who took the name Tiamo from an old estate in Jamaica she remembers from her childhood.

The all-inclusive retreat, which prides itself on its close connection to nature, provides various sailing and snorkelling excursions, along with kayaking and catch-and-release deep-sea and salt-flats fishing trips. Trained “nature-concierge” staff can also provide guests with guided and unguided nature walks in 52 acres of untouched mangroves, broad-leaf coppice and pine forest, complete with iguanas and abundant bird life. Guests can also learn about Bahamian bush medicine and the history, ecology and culture of Andros.

Opposites coexist
“Tiamo is a contradiction in terms in that it’s rustic in many ways. Shoes are not needed… . Our focus is on the nature of the place,” says Mike. “On the other hand, it’s an extremely high-end, very, very full-service experience: incredible wines, fantastic food. Thirty superb staff for 22 guests. It’s very much about The Bahamas, its nature and the people of Andros island. It’s very real.”

Mike admits that it is a bit unusual for a Hoosier farm boy with no real experience in resort development to build an eco-friendly vacation spot in the Caribbean region. But growing up on a farm in Indiana gave him a practical bent, he says, along with the “naivety and tenacity” to get things done. “Tenacity is the key, I think.”

With a background in marketing and commercial publishing, Mike was once part of the rat race, eyeing the corporate fast track. Then, in 1995, he took a break and dropped out to become a waiter in the Florida Keys, where he met his future wife. While on a trip to Nassau, Mike heard about Andros. He went there in 1996 and was “stunned” by the island’s pristine beauty. Accustomed to 15 feet of underwater visibility and bleached coral in the overdeveloped Florida Keys, Mike found more than 100 feet of visibility and abundant live coral and fish just offshore in the south bight of South Andros.

Together with his wife, an interior designer and bartender who had always wanted to move back to the islands, Mike researched the idea of building an ecologically sensitive resort, but one that would also be a sound and cost-effective business investment. After almost five years of planning, with 10 other silent-partner investors on board, the Hartmans, who have a 53 per cent stake in the project, started construction on Tiamo in April 2000. Just over 10 months later, the $1.5-million resort opened with eight bungalows and an impressive environmentally sustainable infrastructure in place. The resort expanded to 11 bungalows over the next year and a half.

Choosing eco-business
The Hartmans have worked diligently to make the resort as eco-friendly as possible in every respect. Solar panels, backed up by a bio-diesel generator, provide electricity for the bungalows and the resort’s clubhouse bar and dining lounge. The panels cost about $125,000 compared to about $900,000 to connect Tiamo to the diesel-powered electrical grid on the opposite side of South Andros. High-tech composting toilets that turn waste into soil and a natural-water filtration system are sensible ways of conserving water while preventing groundwater pollution. The wood used in constructing the resort was treated with non-toxic preservatives, and the resort itself was designed to blend into the natural landscape.

Tiamo uses energy-saving light bulbs, non-polluting phosphate-free soap in its laundry and kitchen and, of course, all laundry is hung to dry in the tropical sun. Even the used beer and wine bottles are broken up and given to a local contractor for use as aggregate in concrete. And while the resort’s menu provides first-rate, Caribbean-infused cuisine, overfished lobster, conch and grouper are not on the menu. “It’s just good business,” says Mike. “Don’t destroy your product. And the product in The Bahamas, whether we like it or not, is sun, sand and sea.”

Relaxation is key
Tiamo attracts a diverse group of visitors, including honeymooners, retired couples and well-heeled corporate types who fly into Congo Town Airport on private jets, says Petagay, who handles reservations for the resort.

“There are people who come to us because of our environmental efforts, but it’s not a tree-hugger crowd,” adds Mike. “No one travels [here] to sit on a composting toilet. It’s just not a marketable feature.” What is marketable, though, is the stress-free tranquillity of unspoiled beauty in South Andros. That, combined with superior service, great food and lively conversation, keeps visitors coming back, say the Hartmans.

Guests can join in various daily excursions or simply take it easy, wander the property’s sand trails or relax with a book from Tiamo’s small in-house library. “The atmosphere … tends to be very quiet. You hear nature—you know the birds, the water,” observes Petagay. She says many of the corporate types who stay at Tiamo arrive with cell phones, looking extremely tense, but gradually show signs of relaxing once they settle in and distance themselves from the outside world. “We have very, very successful folks who run major corporations. They absolutely come here to relax,” says Mike. Often, the biggest decision they have to make while at Tiamo is which drink to have before dinner. “By the third day, guests look 10 years younger. It’s great to watch. I love that,” observes Petagay.

At Tiamo, evenings start with happy hour, where guests often compare notes on their day’s experiences. Although guests typically dine together, more intimate dinners can easily be arranged for couples by resort staff. Petagay admits that Tiamo is not for everyone and she tries to screen potential guests by recommending other vacation spots in The Bahamas for those who want casinos, television and nightclubs along with their sun, sea and sand.

Changing the world
If Mike sounds a bit sheepish in calling Tiamo a “resort,” it is only because of its relatively small size. Eleven bungalows do not provide the economies of scale to make one rich as a resort owner, he confesses. Still, the resort has put down roots in the sparsely populated local community, relying as much as possible on local suppliers and contractors. And after building a business that proves eco-friendly, sustainable development can work, he is planning for the future. As president of the Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board, Mike envisions another sustainable resort of 25 to 35 units that blends into the environment and culture of another Bahamian Out Island. Already he is in preliminary discussions with potential investors, including a number of Bahamians.

Meanwhile, he has also been contracted to help manage the Emerald Palms hotel and timeshare villas on South Andros. It is a move designed to help boost the local economy and create economies of scale for marketing and purchasing between the two different properties. Long-term, though, Mike’s big dream is to use sustainable development to build and run a grand hotel reminiscent of the pre-television 1920s—the golden age of leisure—complete with fine food, conversation and live entertainment.

When all is said and done, eco-friendly development makes both environmental sense and good business sense, says Mike. “The world is run by business. If you want to change the way the world is run, change the way business is done.”

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