Villa vacations: Jamaica's other side

Freelance writer Claudette Covey journeyed to Jamaica to check out a sampling of Villas by Linda Smith properties. Her report follows:

o say I was stunned is an understatement. Until I sampled the goods, I had no idea that Jamaica had an array of luxury villas.

The term "villa vacation" usually evokes thoughts of Italy's Tuscany region -- or it did for me, until I visited and stayed in some of the products offered by Villas by Linda Smith.

If you or your clients think that Jamaican villas are little more than A-frames on a beach, think again. Spartan they aren't.

I can only speak for the properties represented by Villas by Linda Smith, which operates 50 such accommodations in Jamaica, primarily in the Montego Bay/Runaway Bay area.

The driving force behind the company is its namesake, Linda Smith, whose hands-on approach to villa representation accounts for much of the firm's success. (For more on Linda Smith, see related story, Smith vouches for villa vacations.)

For her part, Smith has been compared with Martha Stewart (although not for insider trading). She is smart, tenacious and fully committed to ensuring that each property meets her standards. Martha Stewart would be well-served to stay out of Smith's way. I should know -- I spent five days with this villa maven.

When Smith decides to take on a new villa -- these houses typically are second homes for the affluent -- she makes her policy crystal clear to the owners. Simply put, it's her way or the highway.

Owners must agree to Smith's terms for renovations and for a thorough re-training of villa staff.

Smith actually moves into each house while assessing the renovation process.

"I spend a minimum of three days when the home already is virtually perfect," she said. "The longest I stayed while renovating someone's home was 19 days. I moved the furniture out on the lawn and started all over again with the guts of the house."

Fortlands Point, near Discovery Bay, Jamaica, sits on a promontory that once was a stone fort. The estate is one of the 50 Villas by Linda Smith properties. While at the villa, Smith trains the staff "in the services my firm promises," she said. "At the same time I write the fact sheet that goes on the Web site throughout my stay. It's very detailed and accurate. There are no surprises."

There certainly aren't. The villas I visited came in all shapes and sizes, and, when the math is done, they are relatively affordable.

"The biggest misconception is that villa vacations are too expensive," Smith said. "The economy of the villa vacation kicks in when multiple parties share the cost.

"For example, I have one group of 13 people sharing a house with six bedrooms and five-and-a-half baths for $7,000 per week, or $1,000 per night for seven nights.

"Divide that by 13 people and the per-night rate comes to $76.92 a person, including a cook, butler, housekeeper, gardener and laundress."

Granted, some villas are more expensive than others. Silent Waters, for instance, which can accommodate 20 guests, costs $24,750 per week in the low season and $29,150 peak season. On the other end of the spectrum, the three-bedroom Serenity sells for $4,100 and $6,000 per week, respectively.

Rates also fluctuate depending on the number of guests. The price for one couple renting Serenity in the high season is $5,000 per week, but drops to $3,100 in the low season.

Silent Waters

Silent Waters is flashy but classy, an elegant Balinese wonderland that sits on a mountaintop amid 18 acres overlooking Montego Bay. The property contains a main pavilion, a dining pavilion, five freestanding villa suites and an owner's villa.

Carved Balinese, Burmese, Thai and Chinese statues accent the gardens while lily ponds and pools separate living spaces.

The heart of Silent Waters is a 900-square-foot main pavilion featuring an 80-foot reflection pool. Paths lead from the pavilion and weave through the gardens to individual villa suites.

The suites also are reminiscent of the Far East, particularly artwork from Thailand and Indonesia and accents such as granite wet bars with coffeemakers (and, of course, Jamaica's Blue Mountain Coffee) and marble bathrooms larger than many Manhattan studio apartments.

Amanoka

Amanoka mirrors the Indonesian elegance of Silent Waters, albeit on a smaller scale, although the 9,600-square-foot home on the beach at Discovery Bay holds its own among the finest of Linda Smith's roster of villas.

Amanoka can accommodate a maximum of 12 guests. Like Silent Waters, its interiors and lawns are designed with an Indonesian flair, including lily ponds, fountains and gardens.

From the pool and veranda, guests look out on a pastoral lawn that leads to a beach and waterfront gazebo. Agents, take note: Amanoka will not host weddings or allow families with more than two children under age 12.

Fortlands Point

Just a stone's throw from Amanoka is Fortlands Point, located on a promontory that once served as a stone fort. Seven cannons stand guard over stupendous views.

Fortlands Point's interior exudes more of that Indonesian ambience with Persian rugs scattered over marble floors.

The house has seven bedrooms, five for adults and two for children, and sits on three levels. Many of the rooms contain balconies.

The villa even features a freestanding squash court and a gym with universal equipment and an elliptical cycle. The nearby reefs are ideal for snorkeling.

Good Hope

Good Hope is all about Old World charm. I felt to the manor born at this 2,000-acre estate, with its riding stables and stone buildings.

We traveled up a circuitous, bumpy road to reach Good Hope, which sits 600 feet above sea level, affording views of the Queen of Spain Valley and the Martha Brea River.

There are 22 species of birds at Good Hope, which also is a bird sanctuary.

The stone buildings on the estate include a four-bedroom, Georgian-style Great House, built in 1755; a five-bedroom carriage house; and the Counting House, directly behind the Great House, which is popular with honeymooners.

My favorite was the three-bedroom River Cottage. Good Hope can accommodate a total of 35 guests.

Noble House

The aptly named Noble House, a four-bedroom/six-bathroom oceanfront estate on five acres, is located eight miles west of Montego Bay and tailor-made for elegant parties and clients who plan to entertain while in Jamaica.

The 6,000-square-foot main pavilion features a great room with 56 glass doors and a wraparound veranda. Stone walls add to the property's castle-like feel -- as does a massive crystal chandelier in the main dining room.

Noble House also has a 2,000-square-foot pool cottage on its grounds.

Tranquility

Two of Noble House's neighbors, Tranquility and Serenity, appeal to travelers (such as myself) who want a less formal environment for their vacations.

Tranquility was Linda Smith's first villa, which she renovated as her second home.

The four-and-a-half-bedroom house comes with a pool, a seaside dining gazebo and a tennis court. It is marble-floored throughout, and the great room overlooks an 86-foot veranda. This house also contains a two-story guest cottage.

Serenity

After Tranquility came Serenity, the second property in Smith's 50-villa collection.

This cozy house was the most modest of the properties I inspected but one with great appeal. Each room in the three-bedroom house opens onto the water, and the villa's interior is a series of octagonal gazebos with rafters and beamed ceilings.

Highland House

For a taste of old Hollywood and Broadway, there's Highland House, the Oscar Hammerstein Estate, also in the Montego Bay area.

This 7,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house, set on 17 mountain acres, is glamorous, with chandeliers, flower-printed couches and lounges.

Dorothy Hammerstein played bridge with Lady Sarah Churchill, Noel Coward and his male secretary on the back porch. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in South Pacific, "So this is what it's like living on an island."

• • •

Villas by Linda Smith
Address:
8029 Riverside Drive, Cabin John, Md. 20818
Phone: (301) 229-4300
Fax: (301) 320-6963
Web:www.jamaicavillas.com

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