When I finally pull myself away from the terrace above the cliffs it is because I want to read beneath my bed’s mosquito net, keep the shutters open and listen to the waves breaking on the reef. I want to hear the crickets and frogs in the tropical vegetation that cradles my wooden cottage.
Then I pick up the sound of reggae. The beat reverberates deeply across the water, mixing with the click of backgammon tiles as they are pushed across suede. My companions are still to go to bed and I can hear the murmur of their conversation along with the regular roll of dice and the clink of ice in a tumbler. Someone offers more rum in the long vowels of the local patois. I think of Waugh and Capote, Graham Greene and Cecil Beaton and others who have lost their sense of time to this very spot over the decades – pristine, natural Jamaica, the patina of colonial 1950s glamour shot through with soulful Afro-Caribbean cool.
Such is the energy of GoldenEye, Ian Fleming’s former home in Oracabessa Bay, a one-time port for the banana trade on the north coast of Jamaica. It is hard to know if the spot inspired Fleming, or Fleming’s fiction put the glamour into the one place he felt he could write freely, but from 1949 until his death in 1964 he came for three months of every year.
All 14 James Bond novels were written at GoldenEye at a pace of 2,000 words a day and Fleming’s fantasies are almost tangible with every turn. GoldenEye might have been turned from a private home into a full-scale luxury resort, but you still feel as if an apparition in a white bikini will emerge from the ocean at any moment; that the cocktails will be perfect and the sex even better; that the sheets are always crisp and cool and the lagoon’s water is somehow clearer than a martini.
Yet in 2010, GoldenEye is more than cinematic cliché; it is about luxury, style and heritage but it also speaks to people who seek something true to Jamaica now.
“I hate air-conditioning,” says Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and the estate’s owner since 1976, who is offering guests who don’t use it $25 credit per room per day. “You don’t feel the air, hear the birds.” All but three of GoldenEye’s 150 staff are Jamaican, with more than 90 per cent from Oracabessa (one staff member, Ramsay Dacosta, used to work in Fleming’s garden). The cuisine is a spicy, impeccable reflection of the rich fruity flavours of Jamaica’s home kitchens. The classics (saltfish and ackee, curried goat) have been tweaked by Conroy Arnold, GoldenEye’s Jamaican chef who has cooked at New York’s Nobu and Le Bernardin. Local farmers provide the vegetables and meat; local fishermen provide the lobster, with only the bare minimum of specialist goods imported. And in terms of service, perfection isn’t the aim. Blackwell says: “It is about hiring local people with personality.” Last time I stayed at one of Blackwell’s hotels in Jamaica, it was on my honeymoon at Strawberry Hill and Jake’s, two other properties under Blackwell’s Island Outpost umbrella. Ten years on, I still remember the names of the barmen.
I am an early visitor to GoldenEye. This weekend the resort opens to paying guests, having expanded from the author’s original three-bedroom house to a much more ambitious undertaking. Spreading out across the 52-acre site, there are six new Lagoon Suites as well as 11 new one- and two-bedroom cottages on an island of reclaimed land linked to the mainland by a narrow wooden bridge.
Three of the cottages flank the internal lagoon (you can dive straight off your private pontoon into the water); the rest sit on white sand and face the sea and reef. Some of the houses are privately owned, bought for about $1m a piece, with a few put back into the resort’s room inventory. Fleming’s villa remains, with its cliff-top garden and private curl of beach. Two one-bedroom guest cottages have been added, flanking the villa’s free-form pool, which together with the main house sleep up to 10. There are two main pools, a bar, two restaurants, and a watersports centre. But this is just the first phase of a big idea that will keep evolving as Blackwell develops his masterplan for Oracabessa.
He tells me that he owns another two miles of coastline adjoining GoldenEye’s site. He envisions a town, a community re-invigorated, a corniche and a marina to one side of the marine sanctuary he has already established to resuscitate the reef. On January 12, a new airport, Ian Fleming International, opens for private aircraft, a four-minute drive from GoldenEye. As we jet-ski across the bay, it isn’t hard to imagine how the waterfront will look. I can picture Russians bringing in their super-yachts like modern-day Dr Nos, dropping anchor alongside the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who already frequents these waters in The Octopus. “Don’t you want to just do it all immediately?” I ask. Blackwell shakes his head. “The record industry is a good way to learn patience,” he says: “You have to wait forever for someone to tune their guitar.”
Born in 1937, Blackwell enjoyed a high-society childhood on Jamaica (the first time he saw GoldenEye was at lunch with Fleming and Noël Coward); his mother’s family, the Lindos, were among the island’s biggest landowners. Expelled from Harrow, he taught waterskiing at Jamaica’s Half Moon Bay. It was here that he heard the blind pianist Lance Heyward – the first artist he recorded – and not long after, Blackwell presented Bob Marley to the world. He also recorded Steve Winwood, Cat Stevens and signed U2 before selling Island Records for a reported £272m to PolyGram in 1989.
Yet he lives modestly on a farm an hour’s drive from GoldenEye, his land stocked with Brahman cattle. “Most people in big business – they live in strata,” he says: “I’m a hut fanatic.” He shows me his private residence at GoldenEye – an octagonal hut, each side 7ft long, with a small adjoining bathroom, outdoor shower, and stone steps down to the lagoon – and I start to understand why a gentle, patient approach to development is the only one he cares about. Blackwell’s vision is one I find convincing. In recent years, I have avoided the Caribbean because just a beach isn’t quite enough. I have lost confidence in a part of the world where authenticity – the vitality of living culture and identity – is raked out like the beaches of Barbados into versions of paradise easily consumed by the time-poor, risk-averse consumer. Many of us have come to prefer the deferential services of imported Asian staff over waiting a little longer for our eggs.
But now, when thoughtless profligacy is under scrutiny, we want luxury, but more important is a sense of integrity and surprise. At GoldenEye, the music from the restaurant and bar is Radio Nova, a French station that plays Shirley Bassey one moment, Jay-Z and reggae the next. “If you are independent, you have to be counter,” says Blackwell, who clearly reveres Radio Nova’s late, non-conformist founder, Jean-François Bizot, after whom the bar is named. “When nobody cares about something you can feel it. What I hope we are doing is raising our game on Jamaica with GoldenEye – but not losing the quirk.”
Jack Sprat and Noël Coward’s garden bench
“I can sit here for hours,” says Chris Blackwell of the garden bench at Firefly, Noël Coward’s former home. With its hilltop perch, Firefly has views up and down the north coast of Jamaica, making it strategically vital to its one-time tenant, the pirate-turned-governor, Sir Henry Morgan. Coward acquired the property in 1948.
Today, Firefly is owned by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and administered by Blackwell’s Island Outpost Group. It is an extraordinary place, the villa held in a Mary Celeste-state of suspended animation. On the grand piano sit photos of Lilian Braithwaite and Marlene Dietrich. First editions pepper the bookcases. In the bathroom, the towels are monogrammed “NC”, while inside the wardrobe Coward’s pressed short-sleeved shirts can still be seen. Firefly is about five miles from GoldenEye – and ideal for a picnic or cocktail. Along with the Noël Coward Foundation, Blackwell is looking at turning Firefly into a cultural centre to show films and host literary functions.
Blackwell spends most of his time at his farm, Pantrepant, a 2,500-acre estate high up in Cockpit Country, Jamaica’s largest area of rainforest. For visitors wanting to get a sense of the island’s lush hinterland, Blackwell recommends rafting on Rio Grande (one of Jamaica’s largest rivers), visiting YS Falls (a seven-tiered cascading waterfall) or climbing Blue Mountain Peak (the island’s highest at 2,236 metres).
The coastline is among Jamaica’s main draws, and Blackwell is regularly to be found zipping up and down the waters around GoldenEye on his jet-ski. He is particularly fond of Treasure Beach, a sleepy fishing village on the south coast. “In this undeveloped part of Jamaica, it feels like time travel; you go back into the 1950s.” Here he likes to eat at Jack Sprat, “a great, inexpensive restaurant where you can just show up and enjoy fresh country food. I always order the fish.” For children, Blackwell recommends Fisherman’s Beach in Oracabessa Bay; the sand is gently shelving, the sea calm and in time he hopes shops and restaurants will pop up as greater prosperity is brought to the town. Fishermen still use the beach; each year they paint their boats bright colours for a cash prize that Blackwell donates for the best design. In Oracabessa, local eateries will knock up jerk chicken, yellow yam with olive oil, and oxtail with rice and peas.
“What I want to do above anything,” says Blackwell, “is encourage visitors to eat Jamaican food and meet Jamaican people. Every Friday or Saturday night there is a sound system nearby wherever you find yourself in Jamaica. My advice is to get out there and enjoy it. Jamaican culture is now easily the strongest in the Caribbean.”