Beach, sand, sun, sigh. Sandals Emerald Bay creates tropical paradise in the Caribbean.
How do you improve on a Four Seasons luxury resort in the tropics? That was the challenge last year facing Sandals, the high-end, all-inclusive Caribbean chain, when it acquired the 200-hectare beachfront property on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas a few months after Four Seasons decided to close. Sandals Emerald Bay, situated 230 kilometres south of Nassau, is now open after a $US15 million makeover and has set its sights on being the most luxurious of the 14 Sandals properties.
The 183 room Four Seasons resort, built in 2003, had a lot going for it – a prime location on a kilometre and a half stretch of smooth, white coral sand facing a brilliant turquoise sea, good spa facilities and a series of two and three story buildings that have large, comfortable and well-equipped oceanfront and ocean view rooms. In addition it included an 18 hole, Greg Norman-designed championship golf course with many fairways hugging the sea.
What it didn’t have was a giant swimming pool (a Sandals signature attraction) and enough restaurants and bars to be worthy of a luxury adult resort where all meals and drinks are included.
The resort’s general manager, John Keating, a genial Irishman who’s worked primarily in top European hotels, arrived in November last year with a formidable task – get the property ready and open by late January. Eighty of his 320 employees worked at the Four Seasons and adapted quite well. The rest were either hired locally (a challenge with a tiny population base) or brought in from other Sandals resorts or from overseas.
Vancouver native Robert Lemky is in charge of training in the Rooms Division and is responsible for work permits (“A big challenge,” he said) for outside employees. “This Sandals is unique because if its setting,” he told us. “The beach is probably the nicest one we have in the company.”
Because the property had been neglected for the better part of a year, landscaping was a significant challenge. Landscape manager, Canadian Steve McFarlane, trained at the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, was brought in to “Sandalize” the grounds. From replacing most sods to bringing in five container loads of colourful plants and shrubs, the Port Perry, Ontario native and his 30 helpers have transformed Sandals Emerald Bay into a tropical oasis.
It’s also remarkable that the new construction was completed so quickly. The massive swimming pool is the largest zero-entry pool in the Caribbean (and includes the largest Jacuzzi in the region) and the three new restaurants – Barefoot by the Sea (seafood specialties in a beachside, open-air location), Dino’s Pizzeria (outstanding thin-crust pizza) and the Drunken Duck Pub (traditional British food and drink) – are up and running with no problems. The two more formal restaurants (Bahama Bay and Il Cielo) were holdovers from Four Seasons.
Some guests told us they felt the resort opened too early because service in the two main restaurants could be slow and inefficient and the highly touted butler service (this resort boasts butlers for every room, a Sandals first) wasn’t yet up to speed. John Keating acknowledges the problem (he’s opened 10 hotels in his career and said there are always teething challenges) but is bringing in several more experienced butlers from India and his veteran restaurant managers (one is from Germany; one from Russia) have intensified the training programme. “If a date is set,” he said, “It drives you to reach your goal. If you delay and delay, the same first things will happen.”
With a year of experience, the Emerald Bay management is now confident that food, accommodation and service will all make this resort the best in the Sandals chain.
Tim Godfrey and his wife, Barbara, of Toronto agree. “People here are wonderful and friendly,” he told us. “We knew there’d be growing pains but it didn’t bother us a bit. We love the laid-back attitude, the white sand and the vivid turquoise water. The colours are amazing. There’s no place on the planet that looks like this.”
All photos © John and Sandra Nowlan
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