Founder of Island Records gives his top Caribbean tips
He brought Bob Marley to the world stage, but music wasn't his only love. For 30 years he's been quietly creating a collection of very special places to stay in the Caribbean. To Chris Blackwell, there is no better place in the world to take a holiday
Sunday 27 November 2005
Although I was born in London, my mother is Jamaican and we moved here when I was six months old. So I know Jamaica very well. I understand the language, I understand the people and I like them very much. I also love the country. That's the reason why I moved back here permanently in the early 1990s. It really feels like home to me - I feel it's deep, deep within me.
I started Island Records in Jamaica in 1959, then I moved to England in 1962 and set up the London division. I came back to the Caribbean in about 1975, when I was living in the Bahamas and running a recording studio. But throughout my career, whenever I had a little spare money I'd put it into property here. If something became available that I thought looked great, I would buy it. It was all with the intention of coming back one day and starting my business, Island Outpost, which is a group of small-sized resorts where people can come and enjoy the environment of Jamaica naturally.
I have five resorts now, one in the Bahamas - Pink Sands - and four in Jamaica - Goldeneye, Strawberry Hill, The Caves and Jake's. Each property has its own character. You can't have a chain of boutique properties; it's not possible. By definition, "boutique" has to give a certain flavour of its own that's unique. I love them all for different reasons. To be honest, I tend to stay in Jamaica most of the time. Like most people who live on an island, when you leave you usually go to the mainland - Miami, New York, Toronto or London. You don't travel to another island unless you're working there.
Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains has to be my favourite resort in Jamaica because it was the first property I developed. I bought it in 1972 because I was very familiar with the place. It was originally a guest house and I used to go there when I was a child of six or seven for Sunday afternoon tea with family and friends. It's a tradition we've carried on to this day under our new chef Darren Lee. The property is positioned in a unique place, 3,100 feet above the Caribbean Sea, with its own microclimate. It's very difficult to photograph and get a feel of how great it is. You really have to go there to fully appreciate it.
Before I started my Caribbean resorts, I owned six hotels in Miami. The Tides was probably the best known, but I also had The Marlin, which was a great place with great character. It had only 12 rooms but it had its own recording studio. There was also The Kent, The Cavalier, The Lesley and The Governor. When I started up in South Beach, in 1987, Miami was an exciting place to be in because it was completely derelict.
It was like a frontier. You had very inexpensive properties for about $200 a month where people would live out their last days, and you had a whole load of Cuban exiles. It was just like it is in the Al Pacino film Scarface - a mixture of old couples and Cuban crack-dealers. Now it's all prissed up, very developed, with brand-name places everywhere. It's just not my thing. I liked it at the beginning and then it was time for me to go.
As far as I'm concerned, you can't beat the Caribbean as a winter-holiday destination. In fact, I'd recommend travelling here any time of the year, with the exception of September and October when it's often very wet and humid. The most important thing of all is to get out and about and really explore the islands, especially Jamaica because it has so much variety.
Jamaica is like four separate islands in one because different areas have different climates. Port Antonio, for example, has well over 100ins of rain a year, so it's lush with beautiful beaches and it has a powerful atmosphere. Then you go to a place like Negril, on the western tip of the island, where The Caves are situated, and the land is volcanic, so it's quite arid and dry-looking. Treasure Beach, a small fishing village on the south coast, is even more arid because there's even less rain. It's a popular location - it has a great restaurant, Jack Sprats, and a bar called Duggie's. So wherever you go, you're not seeing the same thing.
I've been to Bali, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it's the same kind of beauty, certainly in the rural areas, pretty much wherever you go. It all looks like Bali. Driving around Jamaica, you feel as though you're travelling through different countries.
In the 1950s Jamaica had a real peak in tourism, but it was only for small, upmarket properties, so you seldom saw young people, unless they were the children of the guests. Nowadays, you see a lot of people who are wealthy in their 30s. The whole music scene has obviously had a lot to do with attracting younger people.
Right from the early 1960s I worked closely with Bob Marley, one of my artists signed to Island, although I didn't hang out with him or anything. A lot of music fans come here to visit the Bob Marley Museum, and now there's even a tour of Trenchtown, which is basically the ghetto where he grew up. I am still in touch with his family. His sons Damian and Ziggy obviously have their own music careers, and his eldest daughter pretty much runs the day-to-day business of the Bob Marley estate.
We've had some great parties here over the years. I remember an incredible one on New Year's Eve in 1994. It was in the beautiful location of Firefly, where Noël Coward once lived. That night there was a full moon, so the whole coastline was lit up as though it was daytime. It's a very spiritual type of place so everyone was wandering around enjoying the whole feel of it - and then the rain came down.
I hadn't bargained on rain so we only had a small tent with us. Suddenly, all the guests clamoured to get into this tiny tent and that's when the party really took off! It was amazing to see what happens when everyone joins together with one common enemy. That party is legendary.
I travel back to England up to five times a year, but I don't miss living there. I mean, today it's 72 degrees with a nice breeze and the sun is out. It's really beautiful. I very much like to come back to visit England and I still have an office in Portobello, west London.
Over the past 10 years, I've been working with the designer Barbara Hulanicki and she's an absolute genius. She's also a workaholic. She did the refurbishment of Pink Sands, our resort in Harbour Island, the Bahamas, which consists of 25 pastel-coloured cottages on a three-mile stretch of pink-sand beach.
She's used a variety of local artwork and batik fabrics, and the cottages are stunning. She's helping me to redesign Goldeneye. Barbara is a fantastic person to work with and I was a huge fan of Biba (her chain of stores), although I didn't meet her until the 1980s.
My next project is to develop a resort in Antigua - I like it a lot there. It's well organised and located in that it's close to North America and closer to Europe than Jamaica is. It also has a huge airport, yet the island is small enough so that nowhere is more than 20 minutes from it. There are a lot of beautiful beaches and very nice people. I'm really looking forward to it.
Keeping it chilled: An insider's guide
Get on the Bob Marley trail
The museum Reggae Explosion at Island Village runs trips to Bob's birthplace and where he's buried. You can also visit the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, which used to be his studio. And now there's a tour to Trenchtown, where the singer lived and where a lot of the music comes from.
Pack a punch
The best drink has to be rum punch. You can get a good one in any of the main hotels in Jamaica. Make sure it's made with fresh limes. Jamaica is also said to be the best place in the world for coffee - which was grown from the 1700s at the plantation which is now the Strawberry Hill resort.
Mad dogs and Englishmen
There's a multitude of incredible views in the Caribbean but a hard one to beat is the one from Firefly. It's where Noël Coward lived and it looks out on the north coast of Jamaica, which is the same as it was when Christopher Columbus arrived. There are no buildings, nothing. It's totally unspoilt.
The name's Bond ...
Join us at the Goldeneye Film Festival (7-13 December) to enjoy the films and see Ian Fleming's former home. The building is now the main guest villa. It still has his desk where he wrote all 14 of the Bond novels. But the place where Ursula Andress came out of the water in 'Dr No' is private and can't be visited.
Hit the road
The roads are getting better. There's a highway in the middle of the island now, though it's frustrating because you go from whipping along on it and then everything is being dug up. In two years there will be good roads everywhere but at the moment this is not a place to get around in a hurry.
An email from paradise
The Caribbean is the perfect place to relax, but people still want the latest technology. So we have wireless broadband in all our properties because it's nice to have the option to switch on. Often, when you're relaxing, you suddenly think of something. The best way to clear your head is by calling or emailing somebody.
Even the waiters take it easy
In the Caribbean, everything is comfortable and laid-back. It's not somewhere people focus on efficient service. That's not to say there isn't great service, but it's not based on a kind of "master and servant" relationship. People do not make outrageous demands - it wouldn't look right.
My favourite getaways
Dominica is extraordinary. It's the least developed area in the Caribbean because it doesn't have big, white sandy beaches. It's very lush because it gets a lot of rain. I think it will come into its own soon because people are far more aware nowadays of the dangers of the sun. So a place that doesn't have blazing sun all the time is increasingly attractive. Dominica is pretty much as it was 300 years ago. I also love Trinidad for the music and the people.
My favourite food
I like street food, whether it's fruit, fresh fish or jerk chicken. I love that way of eating rather than going to proper restaurants. Wherever I am in the world, I eat the local food. One tends to eat at home a lot in the Caribbean. Fortunately, I have a cook. I can barbecue a steak, but that's about it. Out here, when you're driving and you're hungry, you stop off and get a patti or some fried fish. It's delicious.
My favourite playground
I love The Caves in Negril. Our property at The Caves is built on cliffs that lead down into the water. The water you swim in is crystal clear - it's just incredible. You can swim right into the caves, through them and find little places which are like natural Jacuzzis. It's also a great place to snorkel.
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