The Accidental Hotelier - Gregor Nassief’s Secret Bay, Dominica
Secret Bay has graced magazine covers and won a dizzying array of awards since opening in 2011, but building a luxury eco-resort was never part of the original plan. Inspiring and exceptional though the resort is, it really came about by accident.
Words by Natasha Were. Photography by Derek Galon.
Unlike other Caribbean islands, Dominica has no all-inclusive resorts, no golf courses and few white sand beaches. What it has in abundance though are rainforest-clad mountains, fast-flowing rivers, shimmering waterfalls and hot springs that bubble up out of the ground. Frequently dubbed the Nature Island, it is a nirvana for those who love the outdoors and a land of opportunity for those who dare to dream big.
Generously scattered across four acres of the island’s lush rainforest on the northwest coast, enjoying sweeping views out over the Caribbean Sea, stand six supremely elegant villas and bungalows. Appearing to float above the treetops, with floor to ceiling windows, and walls that fold away to let the outside in, Secret Bay immerses guests in its pristine jungle surroundings.
Owner, Gregor Nassief, was neither a hotelier nor an environmentalist prior to developing Secret Bay four years ago. Although his father and brother were shareholders of Dominica’s largest hotel, Fort Young, Nassief never intended to follow in their footsteps. As a youngster he entertained notions of becoming a heart surgeon, and later a poet. Then the world of computers drew him in and after a stint studying in New York, he moved to Latin America and set up a software technology business.
Although Nassief had not lived on Dominica since he was five years old, he visited regularly, and Secret Beach had always been a favourite place. “It’s rugged there, where the jungle meets the sea. I went there every year as a child and used to free climb the cliffs around Secret Beach with my cousin Jean Claude,” he recalls. “Even then, I had a dream of returning ‘home’ one day and Secret Beach was at the centre of that vision.”
Then seventeen years ago, while back on a visit from Latin America, Nassief's father told him of a parcel of land for sale above Secret Beach and he wasted no time in purchasing it. Over the next decade or so he acquired neighbouring parcels until he had a 4-acre plot of pristine forest, with a river running through it, two beaches at its base and a sea cave.
“The land I had been acquiring was to be our family home. I had convinced my wife, Sandra, who I met in Venezuela, to return ‘home’ with me,” he explains. “The idea was to live there and continue managing the business in Latin America.”
As a wedding gift his father-in-law, celebrated Venezuelan architect Fruto Vivas, gave Nassief and his wife the plans for the house of their dreams to be built on that land. Once they looked at the plans in detail, however, it became apparent the house was too big for the plot.
While he has never claimed to be especially ‘green’, a deep-seated love for the pristine nature of his island home made Nassief instinctively want to protect it. “We would have had to excavate and build retaining walls and so forth, and the one thing Sandra and I agreed on is that we did not want to ‘change’ the land.
We wanted to build something that would fit into the landscape, so that if you passed by at sea you would not even know it was there.” And so that dream came to an end. But a different one began. Rather than shelve the dream completely, they adapted it. Inspired to share the island’s untrammelled beauty and their own vision of a stunning, sustainable home, they scaled down the house plans and built Zabuco, an impossibly romantic honeymoon treehouse, which was voted Third Sexiest Bedroom in the World at the Smith Hotel Awards. Built from sustainably sourced hardwoods, flooded with natural light and filled with locally crafted furniture and a state-of-the-art kitchen, it’s the perfect place to escape reality in unparalleled comfort.
Five more villas and bungalows soon followed, each featuring the same warm, sunlit wooden interiors and ample, breezy decks. With outdoor showers, private infinity pools and Jacuzzis overlooking the forest, each offers unfettered luxury and an appeal all its own.
While the very mountainous topography of Dominica – and hence its small airport – creates a natural barrier to mass tourism, Nassief has no intention of undermining the exclusivity that Secret Bay offers. He plans to add just two more villas to the existing site, and a Residences project for those who want to own their own home on an adjoining piece of land.
The tagline ‘Embrace Simplicity’ captures the essence of what Nassief’s Secret Bay is perfectly. It’s a new interpretation of luxury: a place where guests have the time and space to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures in life – the sound of birdsong, the flavours of freshly picked fruits, a cool breeze on a hot day. There may be no restaurant, no front desk and no shared swimming pool, but never has less been so much more.
Now firmly settled back in Dominica, with Secret Bay earning rave reviews, Nassief is turning his attention once again to building his own home amidst the natural splendour of the island. Whether he succeeds in this or is again waylaid, whatever he does will be guided by his commitment to ensure that all the things that make Dominica special today, will remain tomorrow.
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