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GREAT EXUMA, Bahamas -- How do you rate a luxury property that has only been open six weeks, following a brief but intensive $20 million retrofit and remake?
Sandals Emerald Bay in Great Exuma opened its doors on Jan. 22, five months after Sandals purchased the property, the former Four Seasons Resort. It's the 14th resort for Sandals and the first with a world-class marina and designer golf course.
Butch Stewart, chairman and founder of Sandals Resorts International, walked his new Emerald Bay property last month, talking with and listening to his guests.
The back story: Stewart's challenge when he purchased the resort last fall was to stamp a new identity onto a former luxury property located on a small Bahamian Out Island, in less than five months.
He set the opening date for Jan. 22 and met it, following a multimillion-dollar tweaking to "Sandalize" the 500-acre property.
"It's still a work in progress," Stewart said. "The plasma TVs arrive this week, the handmade rugs from India and the king canopy beds for the guestrooms the week after. Guestroom WiFi is in; the espresso coffeemakers are due to arrive very soon. We're adding more butlers, and we know where we need more walkway lighting."
Dune grass will remain intact to protect the mile-long beach from erosion, more on-site retail stores will open and 2,500 travel agents will tour the 183-suite, all-butler resort on fam trips this year.
Many guests said they expected some logistical and staff problems, given the resort's recent opening, and they were impressed with the daily improvements in the restaurant service.
"The sugar-sand beach is more beautiful than the pictures in the brochure, and we love our butlers," a Michigan couple said. "They quickly adapted to our quirks and fantasies."
Tour excursions offered by Island Routes Luxury Adventure Tours scored high ratings from guests, especially the full-day Thunderball excursion that travels 130 miles along the Exuma Cays, stopping to allow participants to feed swimming pigs, photograph iguanas, swim at coconut-tree-lined beaches and bite into homemade rum cakes on a mile-long sandbar.
Emerald Bay is full for the Easter holiday in April, according to General Manager John Keating. "We were at 50% occupancy in February, and that figure is increasing week by week," he said.
Rates start at $350 per person, per night, double through April; from May through August, the rates start at $333.
When the Four Seasons opened in 2003, it was the largest and only branded resort on Great Exuma, an island sitting midway in the 120-mile-long Exumas chain.
It had been viewed as the engine that drove the Exumas' economy until it closed last May, putting more than 440 employees out of work on an island with a population of 1,400 and in a destination economically battered by climbing unemployment rates, declining visitor numbers and resort closures on other Bahamian islands.
At the time of the purchase, Stewart said the resort was in pristine condition.
But Stewart had more planned for Emerald Bay. He summoned a brigade of bulldozers last fall to tear up the existing central pool and replaced it with a one-acre pool complex, complete with a Sandals signature tower; a swim-up pool bar manned by head bartender Jaime; a Jacuzzi; bronze dolphin statues that spew water; a fire-pit seating area in the center; and pool deck cabanas equipped with plasma TVs, lounges and WiFi.
Two restaurants were added, bringing the resort total to five, including the oceanside Barefoot by the Sea, an open-air, toes-in-the-sand kind of place; Il Cielo, a sophisticated Italian fine-dining, white-linen-tablecloth restaurant serving delectable, five-course meals; the brick-oven Dinos pizzeria for thick-crust pies; and Bahama Bay, open for three meals a day served buffet and a la carte style.
The fifth is the Drunken Duck Pub, a Stewart favorite that can be found at all his resorts. It's an English-style pub with snooker and pool tables, dartboards, a wide selection of ales and lagers and framed tavern prints. Caribbean-style pub grub mixed with island music and a nightly staff song-and-dance routine are part of the ambience.
This pub, like the others at Sandals resorts, was designed and constructed by a company in Ireland, shipped by container to Exuma and reassembled in less than a month by the same Irish designers.
Stewart commissioned gardeners and landscapers to lush up the property, added a separate, smaller "quiet pool" for guests, renovated the 183 guestrooms and suites, rehired and retrained many of the former Four Seasons employees and expanded and rebranded the existing spa as a signature Sandals RedLane Spa.
Stewart partnered with pro golfer and course designer Greg Norman, naming Norman the new lifestyle spokesman for the resort. Norman will talk up other resort activities, such as diving, snorkeling and fishing, as well as create golf packages, events and tournaments for the 18-hole course.
One golfer guest described the course as a "windy challenge where I lost a lot of golf balls and had the time of my life."
Emerald Bay hosted its first Sandals Wedding by Martha Stewart on Feb. 27, sealing a partnership forged between Sandals and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia last October.
Facilities opening later this year at the 140-slip marina include the renovated marina clubhouse with Wahoo's restaurant and bar, a wraparound terrace for sunset views and a new pool.