Sandals scoops up Four Seasons in the Bahamas

All-inclusive chain stamps its brand on shuttered Grand Exuma resort

It was literally a virgin island with no golf to its name, and golf was to be its salvation. Of course, the world was spinning a little faster in the post-9/11 era. Times were heady, the money was flowing. Anything was possible, even on a remote, lightly populated Out Island in the Bahamas.

Throughout the Caribbean, enterprising developers with golf-based real estate plans were teaming up with island governments who saw golf as a way to spur tourism. Paspalum, a newly developed salt-tolerant turfgrass, had begun to make golf possible on islands that previously could not support it because of brackish water sources. Everything was in place for Great Exuma, a former pirate’s hideaway in the Bahamas, to establish itself as a luxury golf destination.

In 2002, I traveled to the Bahamas to research a multi-island destination piece for GOLF Magazine. Before the trip, I had been contacted by Emerald Bay Resort Holdings Ltd., a Florida-based development group. One of the partners agreed to meet me in Nassau and fly me down to Great Exuma, which lies astride the Tropic of Cancer and is the largest of the 365 mostly uninhabited islands and cays sprinkled across the Exuma archipelago. On an unsullied island of only 3,400 residents known mainly to fishermen, scuba divers and sailors, a 470-acre resort and residential community called the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay was envisioned.

The pool at Sandals Emerald Bay

We toured the Greg Norman-designed course, then under construction. The interior holes were routed around mangrove swamps and coral rock outcrops, their angled fairways framed by irrigation lakes, waste bunkers and native vegetation. Very low profile. The layout reached a climax at holes 11 through 16, which traced the perimeter of Emerald Bay’s thumb-shaped peninsula. Each hole brought players to the brink of the turquoise-blue sea as it lashed the encrusted shore. The landing areas were generous enough, but the targets seemed small given the wind. Clearly Norman had an expectation that a golfer, even a Snow Belt refugee, could hit the ball reasonably straight.  The paspalum on the fairways, tees and greens, the only grass varietal that could thrive on a rocky site moistened by sea spray, had just been sprigged.

“Rarely does one have the opportunity to utilize such a magnificent setting,” Norman said at the conclusion of six years of planning and construction. “When I first saw the site for Emerald Bay, I fell in love with the location. I took a ‘least-disturbance’ approach and built the course to the style and shape of the land. As a player, I love the front nine, but the back nine…well, there are few prettier settings for golf anywhere in the world.” Or for yachts. The Shark got slip No. 1 in the resort’s deepwater marina.

I returned to Great Exuma in 2004 for the grand opening of the resort. The $400-million, 183-room Four Seasons Resort, its pastel-colored, low-rise units clustered around a crescent-shaped bay and a mile-long beach, had just made its debut. It was the first luxury property to be built in the Out Islands of the Bahamas. The color scheme in the guest rooms and suites was a soothing mix of soft blues, pale yellows and sea grass greens. Each room had a teak-furnished balcony or terrace with an ocean view. A deep soaking tub, separate glass-walled shower and a marble dual vanity were found in each bathroom. Bahamian Colonial in style, the hotel had the unmistakable stamp of Four Seasons quality.

The Shark himself was there to cut the ribbon and play three holes each with a small media group. Norman and his long-hitting colleague, Hank Keuhne, teed off from the black tees on the 10th hole. The writers, each of us pale and rusty, were shown to the regular tees. With perhaps 300 people watching, I managed to launch a high fade down the right side of the fairway that narrowly missed trickling into a lake. At the 11th, a short par three set on a bluff overlooking the crystalline bay, I bunted my tee shot onto the fringe of the green and then managed to coax my ball close to the hole with a putter. The Shark strolled over, gathered my ball on the back of his putter, and with a gentle backhand flip tossed me the ball. A conceded putt. For a par. From one of the game’s all-time greats. Priceless.

The finest hole at Emerald Bay is the 12th, a majestic par four that sweeps from right to left along the shore, the fairway rising to a long narrow green at land’s end, the sea pounding in from the left, an elaborate waste bunker dotted with scrubby islands on the right. A yanked drive will dance crazily on the ironshore before tumbling into the boiling sea. A little nervous, I scraped a 3-wood onto the fairway. “Not your best, but it will do,” said the Shark as I moped back to my bag. Encouraged by his comment, I hit a 4-iron over a yawning greenside bunker to the back of the green. I chipped to three feet. Without a care in the world—maybe it was the Balinese massage I had the night before—I rolled the ball into the cup for a par. Norman and Kuehne moved ahead with a new pair of scribes, the crowd surging forward. I milled around the green for a while and walked closer to shore, where the sea spray cooled me off but did not stanch the flow of adrenaline.

Later that day, a few of us were invited to board the resort’s catamaran for a leisurely sail to a deserted island. As we neared the island, we saw what appeared to be a floating building in the water. It was Norman’s ship, Aussie Rules, at 228 feet the largest aluminum and composite private yacht in the world. Rising nearly five stories from the water’s surface, the ship had a fleet of sport boats and wave runners tethered to the dive platform on the stern. (Norman is an avid scuba diver). From the vantage point of our catamaran, the gleaming white vessel resembled a small ocean liner, a personalized version of the QE2. Success has its rewards.

Around the time I started hearing that the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma was having problems a few years ago, I remembered reading that Norman had sold his dream boat to Florida billionaire Wayne Huizenga barely 18 months after he took possession of the destroyer-sized vessel. Clearly a business proposition for the Shark.

Then came a Wall Street Journal report in May, 2009. The sharp drop in tourism to the Bahamas had claimed one of its largest victims. The financially struggling Four Seasons property was forced to close after failing to stem the tide of red ink. The receiver’s difficulty in selling the property coincided with one of the worst downturns in the commercial real estate market in decades.

According to the WSJ story, “The property was put on the block in mid-2007 as the credit markets began to contract and tremors in the economy prompted many to slash both leisure- and business-travel budgets.” It went on to describe the “AIG effect,” whereby spending at top-shelf hotels was squelched by budget cuts and public outrage following the news in fall, 2008 that top business producers at American International Group were cavorting at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, Calif. This was shortly after AIG’s massive government-funded rescue. Taxpayers were understandably upset. Resorts that depended on the lucrative corporate market began to tank.

The next bit of news came courtesy of Travel Weekly in August, 2009. Sandals Resorts International, the Jamaica-based all-inclusive chain with more than a dozen resorts throughout the Caribbean, had purchased the defunct Four Seasons property. The purchase was good news for the Bahamas, which had been financially battered by hotel worker layoffs and climbing unemployment rates. Declining visitor numbers had hurt the islands badly.

Sandals chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart said he planned to rehire as many Emerald Bay employees as possible. “This resort is in pristine condition, and I have nothing but praise for Four Seasons, which ran a magnificent operation here,” he said. “We look forward to bringing our ‘Luxury Included’ experience to this special property,” an experience highlighted by butler service in the guest rooms. The butlers are trained by the vacation company’s exclusive partnership with the Guild of Professional English Butlers.

Although terms of the purchase price were not disclosed, the resort firm earmarked $20 million in enhancements and upgrades to “Sandalize” the property by adding its own design motifs and architectural flourishes. These include an expanded pool complex with a giant Jacuzzi, a swim-up bar and a fire-pit seating area in the pool’s center. Pool deck cabanas, staked out by misting columns, are equipped with plasma TV’s, lounges and WiFi.

One of the striking seaside holes at Emerald Reef GC

New restaurants added by Sandals include a brick-oven pizzeria, a French-style café and the Drunken Duck Pub, a British-style pub with snooker, pool tables, dartboards, and a wide selection of ales and lagers. Designed by a company in Ireland, shipped by container to Great Exuma, and reassembled on site by the same Irish designers, I would guess the pub will become the 19th hole of choice at Sandals Emerald Bay, which opened for business in January, 2010. (The golf course, renamed Emerald Reef Golf Club, is slated to reopen this spring. The green fee of $175 for Sandals guests, including cart, yardage book and sleeve of balls, is slightly less than the Four Seasons tariff).

Like most golf course architects, Norman’s design shop is a bit quieter these days than it was a few years ago. As such, he is branching out. The Travel Weekly report noted that Stewart had named Norman the new “lifestyle spokesman” for the resort. In addition to creating golf packages, events and tournaments for the course he designed, the Shark will promote other resort activities, such as diving, snorkeling and fishing. No word if he’ll be partnering with Martha Stewart (no relation to Butch), whose company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, forged an alliance with Sandals last year. The first Sandals Wedding by Martha Stewart was held at the resort in February.

A savvy businessman and opportunist, I nevertheless salute Stewart for working with the receivers and the government of the Bahamas to revive the shuttered resort, its third property in the Bahamas.

I also like the Sandals’ tagline: “All you need is love. Everything else is included.” Including a branded luxury hotel and an overqualified “lifestyle spokesman.”

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