Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

A golden eye:The vision of Chris Blackwell

February 03, 2016

At age 78, Chris Blackwell is just coming into his stride as a hotelier.

Last summer, he announced the addition of 26 "beach huts" to GoldenEye, the upscale compound built around what was once James Bond creator Ian Fleming's Jamaican hideaway.

But the beach huts, which will accommodate guests beginning April 1, are only an incremental step in his plan to develop Oracabessa Bay as a thriving resort area that presents more than just an alternative to Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. He seeks to revive and amplify a north coast region that has a legitimate pedigree as a center of creativity, glamour and celebrity.

If all goes as planned, in a year's time Noel Coward's former retreat, Firefly, currently a museum-like homage to the playwright/actor, will become a lively hotel/country club.

Blackwell wants to expand GoldenEye further, adding a 20-unit hotel to complement the freestanding beach huts and existing villas and cottages.

He owns other swaths of land in the area that he's hoping to sell to hospitality companies with a simpatico aesthetic.

And Blackwell envisions the day when enough traffic is flowing into the region that tiny Ian Fleming Airport -- whose runways are currently too short to meet NetJets minimum length requirements -- will receive scheduled commercial air service on commuter jets from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, sparing guests the 90-minute drive from Montego Bay.

But this is only a portion of his vision for growing a company that in some ways could be viewed as his second career.

Or, perhaps, a continuation of his first.

From Island Records to Island Outpost

Chris Blackwell started Island Records when he was 22, signing and recording Jamaican talent and distributing the records locally and to Jamaican expatriates in London. He produced an early hit with "My Boy Lollipop," by Millie Small, which sold more than 5 million copies worldwide in 1964, and he found himself expanding his music ambitions into the worlds of talent management and touring.

The list of artists he subsequently signed indicates a strong eye for picking winners -- Steve Winwood, Traffic, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Melissa Etheridge and U2 are among the musicians who recorded for Island -- but he is most closely identified with Bob Marley, whose music he exported from Jamaica to the world.

Chris Blackwell at a farm-to-table lunch at Pantrepant, a former sugar plantation that now is home to an organic farm.
Chris Blackwell at a farm-to-table lunch at Pantrepant, a former sugar plantation that now is home to an organic farm. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

His ability to help shape raw potential into something commercially successful evolved and extended beyond music. Just as he played an important role in bringing reggae to a broader audience, after he sold Island Records he played an instrumental role in the revival and redevelopment of Miami's South Beach, helping convert it from an unappealing mix of drug activity and low-rent retirement homes to the nexus of hip pan-American style.

He wasn't the first to take a crumbling South Beach art deco property and turn it into a hotel, but he was the first to invest in inventive designs and other hooks. He attracted celebrity friends from the music world to South Beach by putting a recording studio into his first property, the 12-room Marlin Hotel, and the celebrities whose very presence creates buzz began arriving in earnest.

He renovated six other South Beach properties, including the Tides, before tiring of the scene and selling them all.

But he didn't tire of hospitality. He had bought property in Jamaica over the years, purchasing GoldenEye, which he had visited socially when Fleming was still alive, from the author's family. He also bought Strawberry Hill, an 18th century estate in the Blue Mountains, 3,100 feet above Kingston, where he had gone as a child with his family for Sunday tea, and converted it into an upscale property whose guest quarters are cottages perched on the edge of a mountain top.

He also owned (and subsequently sold) Pink Sands, on Harbour Island, Bahamas.

His hotel company, of which he is the sole owner, is called Island Outpost.

"I call it Outpost because, well, you don't really have too high an expectation for an outpost," he said.

Bond. James Bond.

Although there was a Bond film called "GoldenEye," and Fleming wrote all 14 Bond books at GoldenEye, there was never a Bond book by that title. But Fleming did bestow the name on the Jamaican property he bought in 1946, in part because the nearest town, Oracabessa, means "golden head," and also because it was the code name for plans to defend Gibraltar during World War II, when Fleming served in British naval intelligence.

Ian Fleming’s original writing desk is still in the building where he wrote when he lived there.
Ian Fleming’s original writing desk is still in the building where he wrote when he lived there. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

GoldenEye guests will find a set of James Bond novels on the dresser of its villas, and flat-screen TVs mounted on the walls provide complimentary viewing of Bond films. Fleming's writing desk is among the furnishings of the resort's top accommodation, the Fleming Villa.

You'll find other nods to Bond throughout the property, including, in the dining room, stills from the first Bond film, "Dr. No," showing Ursula Andress emerging from the sea.

But there are also plentiful references to Blackwell's own story. Hotel matchbooks are imprinted with "Catch a Fire," the name of the first Wailers album Bob Marley recorded on Island Records. Blackwell's Black Gold brand of rum is in the minibar (he established the label; his family until recently owned J. Wray & Nephew and Appleton rums). The linens and robes are from Royal Hut, a design label started by his late wife, Mary Vinson.

The goals of Oracabessa Foundation
Arnie Weissmann
The goals of Oracabessa Foundation

Jonathan Gosse is executive director of the foundation, which focuses on three goals: Get more people working, improve the health of Oracabessa Bay and motivate youth to be "positive and engaged." Read More

Blackwell's celebrity clientele who donated to his Oracabessa Foundation are acknowledged with their names on signs pounded into the ground in front of trees planted in their honor. A quick survey discovered Johnny Depp's guava tree, Naomi Campbell's apple tree, Harrison Ford's lime tree and Willie Nelson's cinnamon tree.

And, in a nod to where Fleming and Blackwell intersect: Pierce Brosnan's mango tree.

A gold record, thank you note and the handwritten lyrics to "Every Breath You Take" is signed and framed and hangs on a wall in the Fleming Villa; Sting acknowledges in the note that he wrote the song while staying at GoldenEye.

It's not likely that guests will run into celebrities -- the well-known and wealthy usually stay in villas along a path marked "private" -- but there's a reasonable possibility that guests will come across Blackwell himself, who swims in the lagoon and spends about a third of his time at his home on the grounds. It is, he said, his "main base."

Even in his absence, Blackwell's aesthetic is pervasive. The casual, open-air Bizot Bar is named for counterculture tastemaker Jean-Francois Bizot, who introduced World Music to French audiences. Music from the station Bizot founded, Radio Nova, is piped in.

The blend of the casual, elegant and hip, exemplified by fine toiletries in outdoor showers, characterizes the atmosphere at GoldenEye. Likewise, day-trip excursions on offer include having tea with well-known Jamaican artists or taking a music-oriented "Route of Roots" tour.

The Blackwell philosophy of hospitality, which is found throughout Island Outpost properties, was largely shaped by his experiences as a guest.

"What's great about the music business, the touring, is that when you start, you're staying in very funky hotels, but if the band succeeds, you might end up staying in the very top hotels," Blackwell said in an interview with Travel Weekly. "From very early, I'd just study each place -- what worked, what didn't work, the things you really need and what you don't really need. For me, I don't think you need a room to be decorated a lot. It doesn't make sense. People have their own stuff they travel with and need to find a place to put it down. I just learned a lot about the functional side of hotels."

A favorite property from his early traveling days is the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood.

"It's vastly different," he said of the place today, compared with when he first stayed there. "What it used to cost for a room it now costs for parking. But it had a little kitchenette, and that was really, really great; you weren't dependent upon room service. You could be in control of your own room. I love that hotel, just really practical in so many ways, the way it was laid out."


Nothing too corporate-ish

Indeed, the GoldenEye villas do have kitchenettes. The barefoot chic atmosphere promotes Blackwell's belief that while the finer things in life are there to be appreciated, guests should be wary of insulating themselves from their environment.

To that end, there is no air conditioning in the beach huts, and guests in the villas will get $25 off for each night they forego air conditioning.

"Some of my people who have worked in a lot of different hotels were very against this," Blackwell said. "They said people will claim the $25 but use the air conditioning anyway. But I think that if you trust somebody, that's a good thing. They know they could [cheat you], but why are they going to do that? Maybe some will. And if a lot of people do, we'll stop it."

He recalled how one staffer had told him, "'You want to be green, but you can't be green in the hotel business because you need these elements to give comfort.' But I'm not saying we should do this because I want to be green. I'm saying it because I think it's a better experience to feel immersed in the environment than to seal yourself off from it."

Blackwell said he has a two-pronged approach to expanding the footprint of GoldenEye.

He plans to build a hotel on the property near the center of the resort that will have 20 "proper suites and rooms," which he hopes will open in 2017.

"It could look like a factory almost," he said. "You remember all the James Bond movies, the sense in which everything from the outside looks very industrial? In fact, when you arrive, you might think you've arrived at the wrong place. It's only when you get in that it reveals itself. My plan is that there's a large room where you could have an event or a show or a multipurpose room, perhaps with a screen or stage at one end, and different areas where people could play cards, backgammon or whatever: a common room, a multipurpose room. If the weather is bad, that's where everybody would go."

Chris Blackwell, in his own words
Arnie Weissmann
Chris Blackwell, in his own words

At the invitation of Island Outpost, Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann inspected Strawberry Hill and GoldenEye, then finished his visit to Jamaica spending 48 hours at Pantrepant with CEO Chris Blackwell. Weissmann interviewed Blackwell for several hours there. Following are snippets of their conversation that didn't fit the flow of the Island Outpost overview but seemed too interesting to leave on the cutting room floor. Read More

His other expansion phase, which began about four years ago, involves identifying guests who want to buy units in GoldenEye. They could live in the units for up to 200 days a year, and the balance of days would go into the resort's room inventory.

"My vision is to see a residential community which has [GoldenEye's] facilities," he said. "If [buyers] want to spend Christmas, New Year's there, that's fine. I'd really like maybe 25% of the guests to also be residents, because when people own something, they put some of their own heart into it. I don't want every [unit] to look the same. Already, a lot of the [buyers] have become friends, some of them doing business together, that kind of thing. So far, it's great; the model seems to be working. Three of the people have even bought second houses."

Blackwell owns property adjacent to GoldenEye, and in addition to expanding the resort, he would like to bring in other developers to add to the local scene.

"I see GoldenEye as being the first stage, of developing Oracabessa Bay as, potentially, a little resort town. But I'd like others to come in, too. If it's only one company, you end up with a big company in a tiny place, and then it starts to feel corporate and loses its natural feel."

He said he approached Ace Hotels to build in Oracabessa. "I love Ace Hotels, what they're all about; I thought they'd be great. I'm in touch with them, but I'm not sure if it's really going to happen because they're more urban than resort.

"I'd love people like Eric Goode [developer of the Bowery Hotel in New York and founder of the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy]. He's very into the turtle world, he's a very cool guy, and we have turtles right here. He's an independent spirit, nothing too corporate-ish."

Enter Noel Coward

Although GoldenEye has a spa, it does not have a workout facility. Still, one excursion from the resort will get one's heart pumping: The seven-mile bike ride up to Firefly, which ends with a 1,300 foot rise over the last mile.

Among the celebrities Blackwell met when growing up was Noel Coward. After Coward died, his property, Firefly, located seven miles east of GoldenEye, between Oracabessa and the town of Port Marie, was donated to the National Heritage Trust. But the donor was unhappy with the way the property, which had been turned into a shrine to Coward, was being managed. "He asked me if I would take it over," Blackwell said, "and so I worked out a lease with the trust."

The lease has now run out, and Blackwell said: "I want to make it alive."

He has childhood memories of Firefly as a lively social center, and by the fall of 2016, he plans to reopen the pool; start a restaurant; build 11 or 12 standalone, beach hut-style overnight accommodations; and create a country club atmosphere that would be available to day guests. "It will be managed out of GoldenEye," he said. "It's going to be great."

Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill was going to be Chris Blackwell's first hotel, but he got "sidetracked" by South Beach. Atop a mountain with stunning views in every direction, a two-century-old "post-plantation" estate is surrounded by more-recently constructed cottages and villas that seem to hang off the mountainside.

It couldn't be more different from GoldenEye in setting, yet it adheres to Island Outpost's aesthetic and philosophy. The colonial structure of the main house is balanced with Rasta-influenced details carved into ceilings and panels in rooms and public spaces. The landscaping is stunning, and the pool overlooks Kingston, more than 3,000 feet below.

It's a much smaller property than GoldenEye, and there's not much in the way of on-property activity, but the excursions are interesting and very, very Jamaican. Tours to Kingston include visits to the Bob Marley Museum and the Trenchtown neighborhood where he lived. (After Marley was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt in 1976, Blackwell brought him to Strawberry Hill to convalesce.)

I enjoyed a half-day walk to a waterfall-fed swimming pool in the company of Rasta Dave, one of the more entertaining guides I've encountered in the Caribbean. The lush, winding trail -- downhill all the way -- passed through small villages, past subsistence farms and isolated homes until we reached the welcome (and surprising cold) swimming hole. We returned in a local cab.

Guests can walk 10 minutes downhill to a Blue Mountain coffee plantation for a tour of how the coffee is grown.

Another excursion was a short walk to the Craigton Estate Plantation, where Blue Mountain coffee, the most expensive in the world, is grown. (The entire crop of this plantation, and many others in Jamaica, is exported to Japan.) The guide employed by the plantation told the story of coffee, Blue Mountain coffee in particular, in a wonderful narrative, and the mountain scenery provided a beautiful backdrop.

Jenny Wood, who handles trade relations for Island Outpost, said Strawberry Hill and GoldenEye are frequently paired and promoted together as a "two-post Outpost" option.

"Strawberry Hill is a great place to stop for a couple of nights and decompress before heading to the coast," she said. "Both properties, though very different, attract the same type of person."

One difference between the properties is that there are no televisions at Strawberry Hill, something that General Manager Clemens Von Merveldt said requires a leap of faith for some guests. He added that, no matter how skeptical they might be, once guests have stayed a couple of nights on the property, they end up grateful to have had a break from TV for a period of time.

Going further off the grid

On the highway west from GoldenEye, past Montego Bay, a left turn brings you into the rural center of Jamaica. The land rolls, and the road passes former cane fields that now contain orchards. Eventually the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt.

Not long after, you reach Pantrepant, an old sugar plantation. An enormous tree behind a large house dominates the view. A rock/reggae mix plays loudly from the house. A small pack of dogs, alert but friendly, greets visitors.

Pantrepant is both Blackwell's retreat and the site of an ambitious dream. He spends about 80 days a year there and would spend more except, he said, "I hate to leave. That's the biggest problem. If I'm only coming for a day, it's not really satisfying -- you're leaving before you're really settled in."

The pace and vibe of all the Island Outpost properties is mellow, but compared with Pantrepant, GoldenEye bustles. Pantrepant activities include riding an inflated tube down a (mostly) lazy river, eating meals on white linen under that giant tree, hiking to caves and looking for petroglyphs, taking a tour of an organic farm on the grounds or exploring the stone remains of abandoned sugar plantation structures.

And, hanging out with Blackwell, if he's there. ("I'm always interested to meet people.")

The property had offered trail rides on horseback but has put a moratorium on that activity until liability and insurance issues are worked out.

Pantrepant is seen primarily on weekends, as an excursion from GoldenEye, with the promise of a day in the country and a farm-to-table meal, cooked by Mama J, who has worked for Blackwell for decades, and her daughter Aldrene.

There is one spacious cottage for rent to overnight guests, decorated with tasteful local flair by Pantrepant's general manager, Marika Kessler, who also designed the interiors of GoldenEye's beach huts. People who stay there, Blackwell said, tend to be repeat visitors who enjoy its slow tempo.

Blackwell has big plans for Pantrepant, but in keeping with the pace of the property, he's content to let it develop leisurely and incrementally.

"I want to keep it as a country place, simple, and then grow it," he said. "The plan in my mind is to identify some locations where one would build cottages, but I don't want to change the feel of it. We do have a lot of land, and you could place a hundred houses here and no one would see each other. We could do that, though we don't want to do as many as that. I am thinking that perhaps it could be around 50 houses."

A cottage at Pantrepant, a former sugar plantation that now is home to an organic farm.
A cottage at Pantrepant, a former sugar plantation that now is home to an organic farm. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

But not just any houses.

"What I'm thinking is that they would be off the grid. They could be solar-powered but still hooked up to Internet and everything. If one could own a place like that here, with its privacy and silence and access to good agriculture and an abundance of water, my sense is that there will be a demand for living in such a way."

Especially, he said, if it's managed and connected to a group of properties.

"The problem with getting a cottage in the country is you've got to look after the damn thing. I had done that once, one cottage for me and one for my band Traffic. We had a little farm in the Midlands [in the U.K.] with a rehearsal room, and they lived there. But my cottage, every time I went there it was a nightmare. You open the fridge and it's full of mold and this and that, so the first day is miserable and this isn't working and that isn't working, and then the last day you've got to be closing everything up. At Pantrepant, it would be our responsibility."

His timeline to develop Pantrepant? "I would say in about five years. I'm waiting a bit on the technology, the solar batteries, for it to be feasible."

The reference to Traffic was not the only time Blackwell brought up an Island Records experience to explain what he was doing with Island Outpost.

"It's in our DNA, the record label," he said. "It's still the base of the Island brand."

Butch, Chris and all-inclusives

Chris Blackwell shares two things in common with Jamaica's most prominent hotelier, Butch Stewart, the founder and chairman of Sandals and Beaches Resorts. The first is that they both started their careers in air conditioning sales in Jamaica. They knew each other and competed for business, though Blackwell says Stewart was far better at it than he was.

They remain friends, and Blackwell is quick to say he's not in Stewart's league.

Of Blackwell, Stewart said, "Our relationship goes back many years, and I'm proud of all he does. He has been both an extraordinary friend and an extraordinary Jamaican. Island Outpost's creative blend of native luxury appeals to everyone, and Chris is equally passionate about his music and his hotels. He not only has developed unique hotels, but he's brought unknown artists to prominence. And I know he's proud of the partnership that Sandals now has with the Marley family." (Sandals recently formed a partnership with Bob Marley's grandson, Skip, whose music will be used in Sandals promotions.)

Blackwell's and Stewart's approach to hospitality does overlap in one region and one style: Like Stewart, Blackwell runs an adults-only all-inclusive in Negril.

The Caves has only 13 rooms but -- and by now this should come as no surprise -- Blackwell has a growth plan for it.

"Well, the Caves is another one which needs [more] development," he said. "I've got work to do there."

Blackwell said he has enough surrounding land to "easily have 40 rooms. From the day it opened, it has been successful, really successful. It runs at 80-something-percent occupancy all year. It's the classic 'if it works, don't fix it,' so, the question is how to expand it and not lose the feel. And our audience."

The property is all-inclusive, Blackwell said, because "it's really tiny. But I don't know if it will continue to be when we add rooms."

Pushing out the timeline

The development of Firefly and expansion of GoldenEye, the promotion of Oracabessa Bay into a resort area, the evolution of Pantrepant from a farm to a community and the tripling of the number of rooms at the Caves all add up to a fairly ambitious agenda, even for a septuagenarian who is physically fit and mentally sharp.

"You have to live life as if you're going to live to be 94," he said over dinner at Pantrepant one evening. "It helps you think in the long term." He paused. "Actually, that's getting a bit close. I may have to revise that and push it out further."

His mother, he noted, is still going strong at 103.