Flip Flops and Laptops
Words by Juliet Austin
In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to confess to being a die-hard U2 fan, longing for the day I am plucked from the moshpit by Bono. Not one to succumb readily to nerves, I also admit to a few twinges of anxiety as Maguiva winds our taxi around hairpin bends atop death-defying drops on our way up to Jamaica’s luxury Strawberry Hill hotel. Making matters worse, the refrain, “Oh, you’ll never go to Heaven… in a taxi cab… ” loops incessantly in my head. Forget the 3,100-foot ascent. That I can deal with. It is the thought of meeting the man behind the myth; not just the hand that has touched Bono, but the man who made Bono. I am on my way up to Heaven to sit at the right hand of….
The son of an Irish father and Costa Rican-born mother of Jamaican parentage , Chris Blackwell’s auspicious childhood in Jamaica’s ‘old country’, was an experience that profoundly affected the course of his life. Despite his Harrow education, it was in his native Jamaica that he felt most at home. Inspired by the rootsy rhythms of ska music forged in the crucible of Jamaica’s backstreets and ghettoes, he began recording artists on his own independently founded label, Island Records, returning to the UK in 1962 to sell records from the back seat of his Mini Cooper to a burgeoning West Indian immigrant population eager to get its hands on sounds from home. With a genius for ferreting out new talents and trends – Island Records produced artists of the calibre of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, as well as Steve Winwood, Roxy Music and U2 – a legend was born, propelling the unassuming man behind the music into the spotlight as one of the most influential players in music industry history. Credited with introducing rocksteady and reggae into the mainstream, Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 by the mighty Bono himself, where he humbly thanked his people and “his country,” Jamaica.
Blackwell’s loyalty to Jamaica is paramount. His British accent softened by a lyrical West Indian brogue, he says: “Jamaicans are very generous, funny people. I’d like to think I’m one of them.” Driving through Kingston, observing its industrious inhabitants so adept at making silk purses out of sows’ ears, I wonder whether this is indicative of Blackwell’s penchant for hitting the creative bullseye time and time again. Like a mystical diviner, during his music mogul days, he invested in real estate. Perhaps driven to create something solid and permanent in contrast to the ethereal legacy of music, he set his sights on nine rundown Art Deco hotels in Miami, transforming them with his signature low-key luxury into a mecca for affluent South Beach crowds. Recognised as having helped revitalise Miami’s South Beach with his individualistic boutique approach, it also proved to be the seed of a luxuryhotel empire that would later become Island Outpost.
Other properties followed – Pink Sands and Compass Point in The Bahamas – but Jamaica owned his heart, calling Blackwell back to its shores where, in 1972, he acquired Strawberry Hill, debuting it as the first Island Outpost property in 1992. Having visited the former mountaintop estate as a child with his mother, Blanche, he felt magnetically drawn to the Blue Mountains. Here, he created a haven for artists and musicians, where for decades talents percolated and emerged unhindered. Encapsulated in the casual black and white snapshots lining the walls of Strawberry Hill’s legendary bar, the faces of so-called ‘A-listers’ and ‘legends’ testify to the purity of Blackwell’s intent. It is clear that, here, imposed hierarchies are meaningless. This is a place where talent matters more than Tinseltown reputations; where photographs do not steal the soul but rather, capture the magic. These artists are Blackwell’s people. I feel every nuance, every idiosyncrasy of this special place, is a mirror of the man himself. In my epiphany, I understand: CB, as he is affectionately known, collects people… it is what he does best.
As long-time managers, Paula and Jonathan Surtees, show me around, I am struck by their passionate loyalty. This is no job to them. I partake in an early morning hike through the recently replanted coffee plantation, past laden mango trees and exotic shrubs bursting with blooms. The ratio of green space to buildings is staggering but, as Paula reminds me, “Strawberry Hill is about a quality of life that some people have forgotten. That is the luxury.” Looking up from the bottom of the Devil’s Steps, I reflect how Strawberry Hill alters one’s perspective. The black-bottomed, negative edge pool defies gravity, flowing seamlessly into an endless sky; casting the shutters open at dawn my head crests the clouds while, at dusk, hawks circle the valley below. Here, I can sit for hours listening to the chorus of cicadas, watching the storm clouds brew over the city below. If you want white glove service, go elsewhere. Strawberry Hill offers a different kind of luxury borne of simplicity, quality and authenticity. It is, as Blackwell states, “a place where you feel life.”
Obliterated in 1988 by Hurricane Gilbert, the three-hundred-year-old former coffee plantation was skilfully re-imagined in creative collaboration with deeply respected heritage architect, Ann Hodges. Initially commissioned to restore the main villa, one became two, then three and so on until the ‘new’ Strawberry Hill somewhat organically emerged. Using Hodges’ sketches, based on a contemporary interpretation of the Jamaican vernacular, craftsmen, carvers and artisans were required to bring on board apprentices to pass on traditional techniques. Everything wooden was made in workshops and crafted by hand from mahogany fourposter beds to the unique cedar fretwork and working shutters that adorn each cottage. Do not expect air conditioning or ceiling fans – they are not needed here. At Strawberry Hill, fresh mountain air provides the coolest ‘grassroots’ luxury you could imagine.
Another heart-stopping drive across to the former banana port of Oracabessa, “a magical sliver” of Jamaica’s north shore, and I enter the wrought iron gates of Island Outpost’s iconic flagship resort, the inimitable GoldenEye. Once home to author, Ian Fleming, this is where James Bond, “icon of international cool,” was dreamed into being; where Bond girls Pussy Galore and Honey Chile were born. I descend the hallowed stone-cut steps to a platform overlooking the lagoon where CB’s jetski is tethered. ‘Very 007,’ I think. Standing there, it is easy to imagine the swashbuckling heroes and glamorous parties that played out on this spot or at Noël Coward’s nearby home, Firefly, during Jamaica’s glory days. Acquired in 1977, the original 17-acre estate is reputedly Blackwell’s favourite property, featuring the five original – now gently refitted – water’s-edge cottages in jaunty pastels, and Fleming’s own three-bedroom cottage with private swimming pool, secluded beach cove and dreamy outdoor garden soaking tub. Naseberry, Sweetsop and Purple Starapple join trees planted by a host of celebrities – Johnny Depp, Grace Jones, the Clintons and Naomi Campbell to name a few – creating an intimate canopy over this “tribal enclave.”
I spy Chris Blackwell and Ann Hodges, armed with flip flops and laptops, strategising the continued 35-acre expansion, relaunched in part in October 2010. Amid six new “sexy-andsecluded” lagoon suites and eleven beach and lagoon cottages on the 52- acre site, I notice that mature trees and rock formations remain intact. Hodges’ knowledge and respect for the environment are integral elements of her portfolio: landscapes, not overly engineered, retain a romantic, organic quality completely at one with the easy charm and nostalgic glamour of the original resort. A beach village emerges at Low Cay with nature as the superstar: pretty cottages overlook a tiny island complete with seawater pool and a stage for entertaining. Historic forms combine with modern technologies and comforts to create an intimate retreat characterised by cedarshingled cottages, traditionally sandcast to create a patina that sparkles in the sun. Casually chic interiors by renowned interior designer Barbara Hulanicki, comprise handmade oversized furniture, billowing muslin drapes, claw-foot tubs and generous, white pickled cathedral ceilings. It is a dream of a place. Of course, Blackwell understands just the reason why: “Good hotels,” he explains, “are places where you dream of staying. Great hotels are places where you want to live.” And, were it not for two little girls awaiting my return, I am tempted to throw caution to the wind and hang up my hat.
Later, we dine on the most delicious fish fry, and I am surprised. The man sitting beside me listens more than he talks. He is neither puppeteer nor megalomaniac. I realise that I made a foolish assumption. Chris Blackwell does not take ‘nobodies’ and make them into ‘somebodies’. With him, everybody begins a ‘somebody’. As if to prove my point, Ann jokes, “Chris is as likely to ask the laundrette her opinion as he is me.”
In creating places where everyday people like me, or demi-gods like Bono, are afforded the freedom to be ourselves, Blackwell dispenses with pedestals. His places are not about fast cars, fast money or fast women – as everyone keeps telling me, “This is Jamaica.” CB is more interested in doing it right, taking it slow, even if (as is the case with GoldenEye) it takes fifteen years to come to fruition. Bob Marley astutely called Chris Blackwell a “translator” and I can think of no better moniker for this deeply intuitive man. So much more than a suit in a hoodie, Blackwell looks into the heart of man and sees the communality of all people. He, of course, explains simply: “It’s like a band. It has a lead singer, but if the drummer doesn’t show up….” At aged 71, he is, I decide, the quintessential dude.
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