Monday, June 27, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Coral Beach Club, on the cliffs of Bermuda's south shore.
by Carol Joynt

There’s happy news for fans of Bermuda’s Coral Beach Club: the plan to turn it into a Four Seasons Hotel fell through. The collapse of the deal was announced last week by the private equity firm that has the lease on the property, citing “the realities of the economic malaise.” My guess is opposition from the club’s membership played a role, too. Their reaction was described in one word: “Joy.”

Nonetheless, the parent company, Brickman, said that members have to pay a price to go forward and “sustain the Club substantially as it has been for these past 64 years.” Essentially the plan calls for members to buy an equity stake in the club and to pay a 10% increase in dues. In fact, the dues increase was included in the same letter that announced the failure of the Four Seasons project. So, they got a little salt with the sweet.

Since CBC is a club primarily of rich people the terms set by Brickman are probably tolerable, and reasonable, too, given that most members did not want to see their lovely slice of paradise become part of a hotel chain, even if it is a reputable luxury brand. However, I wonder how long a private equity firm will stay interested in a property that cannot be redeveloped. Isn’t that like asking a Ferrari’s driver to rest at a red light?

Last year I visited Coral Beach Club to report on its history and the proposed takeover. It was a delightful getaway to a beautiful and beautifully managed hotel. We run that piece again here in full:
Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte at dinner at Coral Beach and Tennis Club in "The Deep."
To get a fix on the Bermuda of 2010, it helps to go back to 1977, and the release of the film, “The Deep.” It was a heyday for Bermuda, practically the peak of its last great fashionable moment, when it managed a balance of chic, old world elegance and modern day tourism.

The film was the first major motion picture shot on the small but pristine British island out in the Atlantic at the edge of the Gulf Stream, and celebrated its geographic assets to great effect, as well as the geographic assets of 33-year-old Jacqueline Bisset, who mesmerized audiences in the film’s first few minutes, wearing not much more than sea water and a white t-shirt.
Another sunny day in paradise at Bermuda's Coral Beach Club, with more to come.
Coral Beach Club, on the cliffs of Bermuda's south shore.
Welcoming morning seated at the top of a rock.
Another natural beauty had a bit part in the film. Discerning eyes would recognize it as Coral Beach and Tennis Club, which today as in 1977 occupies 26 flower-filled acres at the edge of cliffs that fall to a virtually perfect expanse of pink sand beach lapped by aquamarine waters. While the other players in the film aged or died, and Bermuda itself changed, Coral Beach has stayed gloriously what it is – refined, familial, comfortable, intimate and well run.

It is not the least apologetic for preserving a frankly WASPy way of life that makes its almost 2,000 international members feel at home. With the polished wood, the details of fine linens, good wicker, art and Chinoiserie, the gracious service, the residential fabrics and wallpapers from Brunschwig, the area rugs from Stark and Canovas, for some it probably does feel like home, or possibly even better.

Oh, it can be fuddy duddy, that’s for sure. But it’s an affable old fashionedness that gives the back of the hand – politely – to the world out there; a world’s that not too far away. From the U.S. east coast, with several nonstops, it’s a two hour flight; from London its about seven hours. The taxi from Bermuda International to Paget, CBC’s home parish, is 20 minutes.
Surf with the incoming tide.
Most of CBC's beach is pure sand, but a part is also rocky and more dramatic. The beach at morning, photographed from the terrace of Noon Tide Sun.
The beach at sun rise, photographed from the terrace of Noon Tide Sun.
What sets Coral Beach apart is its authenticity. This is not aspirational old money, like the weathered but nouveau-centric lifestyle marketed by Ralph Lauren. It’s the real deal and shares an attitude and bond – and probably more than a few members – with strictly U bastions like Lyford Cay in the Bahamas and The Spouting Rock Beach Association (Bailey’s Beach) in Newport. While its not that expensive to join - $2500 for a non-resident family, $8500 for a resident family – it is difficult to make the cut.

Many are on the wait list. New members must be proposed and seconded by existing members, in writing, on personal stationery, with emphasis on “personal knowledge” of the candidate’s family, schools, career, sports and hobbies. “Letters which indicate only a business or professional relationship will not be considered favourably by the (membership) Committee.” If a proposed member does not pass muster, its two years before a second try is permitted.
Breakfast first, even though a tempting day at the beach awaits.
Breakfast on the Longtail Terrace.
Flowers on the breakfast terrace.
The birds come calling during breakfast ...
... and swoop in on leftovers.
Time for the beach.
Beach reading.
Collecting sea weed for a project.
The irresistible pleasure of sitting in the surf.
But here’s the rub, and it’s a tough one. Coral Beach Club and its exclusive membership and loyal staff, and all that it and they represent, may be in the last days of their moment in time. While CBC has an invested membership and a board, it is now owned by the Brickman real estate private equity firm, and Brickman did a deal with Four Seasons Resorts and Hotels, and together they plan to redevelop the property as a public hotel with “fractional” units, which is high hat real estate jargon for timeshares.

Brickman honcho Rod O’Connor confirmed as much in March: “It is our intention to commence the initial phase of the redevelopment later this year. Our plans for the initial phase include renovating several existing structures, and beginning construction on the amenity buildings and new hotel rooms.” Those are carefully chosen words, because the plan is controversial, both within the club and on Bermuda.
The Longtail Terrace, set for dinner.
Lobsters at the seafood buffet.
An assortment from the Thursday night seafood buffet.
Twilight dinner under a crescent moon at Coral Beach Club.
Family dinner.
To talk to the people affected by the deal, as I did during a week’s holiday at Coral Beach, is an experience out of Rashômon. A devoted member said, “Oh, this has been talked about for years, but Rod O’Connor promised it won’t actually happen.” Various employees said they’d heard rumors but were dubious and mostly want to know “if we keep our jobs.” Executives from Brickman, however, say it is moving ahead as scheduled and they “hope” to be able to preserve the club’s special “charm.” On-island industry competitors predict in a few years it will be fully a Four Seasons with Coral Beach Club but a treasured memory. It would be a shame if that happens.

Respectfully, one has to ask: can Four Seasons grasp what makes Coral Beach Club special and worth preserving? Will they see the value in maintaining its intricacies and uniqueness when their specialty is mass-market luxury? It’s like comparing the family’s treasured Hinckley sloop to a new superliner. Where CBC is in fact exclusive, Four Seasons sells exclusivity to anyone who can afford the prices.
The bar at the Longtail Terrace.
Children come with their parents - and have Shirley Temples - at the Manager's Cocktail Party
The Manager's Cocktail party.
Four Seasons is the epitome of new money and they succeed brilliantly – I’m a qualified fan - but they are also masters of sameness; their design ethic is earnestly beige with fitted carpets, veneer and marble. The only marble I saw at Coral Beach was on the tops of the 40-year-old white wrought iron tables on CBC’s elegant Longtail Terrace. Also, at check-in, the front desk receptionist looked me in the eye rather than tapping madly on a keyboard, staring at a screen and reading from a script.

On the other hand, from Brinkman’s point of view, Four Seasons is a world class conglomerate – 82 hotels in 35 countries - and with that comes an infusion of money and reach and the potential for a return on their investment.
The discreet front entrance to Coral Beach Club.
The drawing room.
The games room.
A sitting area off the upstairs bar in the club house.
The upstairs bar, looking toward the drawing room.
Detail of a chair. A comfortable and bright spot to sit and read.
Another question bouncing around CBC’s butter yellow and coral pink walls is what happens to the membership? I brought it up to some members at the weekly cocktail party hosted by general manager David Woodhead. They said they’ve been assured that nothing will change, but is that possible? Will hotel guests be granted temporary membership and, as with the members, not see a bill until check out or in the mail? Will the staff learn their names instantly, as they do with members and members’ guests? Or, will there be a demarcation line across the property, segregating members’ facilities from the public spaces used by hotel patrons? Who gets the prized tennis courts? The beach is big, but it’s not that big.
Flowers in the drawing room.
Reading material at the club house.
The club house. Alonso's home/cage is on the right.
Stairs down to the Coral Room, the indoor dining room.
The Coral Room.
Upon first arriving we thought, hmmm, the infrastructure could use a little uplift. But a few days in I didn’t want to change much that a sizable boost in membership fees couldn’t handle. I became enchanted with the molecular structure of the place, particularly the staff, who remembered – by the second day – how I liked my toast, my bacon, my rum, and that I was fond of the club parrot, Alonso, and access to the internet. We welcomed having no TV in the room and didn’t mind the strict dress code.

Men at Coral Beach come to dinner formally dressed, an island standard, meaning jacket and tie but with Bermuda shorts and knee socks. Thankfully, nary a cargo short in sight. Women were turned out in colorful linen or jersey chemises, smart cotton shirts and cropped pants, tee’s and beach wraps, casual jewelry (and the occasional monster rock). Shoes are required only in the clubhouse. I went a whole week without seeing a single pair of platform stiletto bondage hooker heels, recalling there was a time when women didn’t wobble around on shoes only a transvestite could love. There are lots of children and teenagers – out of their beach wear only for dinner - and they all seemed to be having a blast.
David Woodhead, CBC's long-time general manager. Henry the club cat.
Alonso, the much-adored club Amazon parrot.
A rare visitor in the shallows of the beach.
Longtail in flight.
We left Paget Parish only a few times. Once was to visit Hamilton, which I remembered from long ago as a delightful shopping opportunity. Not so much anymore. Developers created a tourist park and shopping mall at the old Royal Naval Dockyard, at the far end of the island, where cruise ships tie up. The passengers can disembark, shop, and then climb back aboard. Alas, the mall sucked a lot of retail juice out of Hamilton, which now seems forlorn. The town is packed with banks and offices, pubs and nightclubs, but Front Street no longer caters to the serious shopper. Bluck’s, The Irish Linen Shop and the Bermuda Book Store still operate, and there’s Calypso and a scaled down Louis Vuitton, but the landmark department store, Trimingham’s, is sadly gone.
A sign on the street posts throughout Hamilton.
Office buildings outside City Hall in Hamilton.
Traffic in Hamilton.
At Hamilton's City Hall. Inside City Hall, the Queen by Curtis Hooper.
Instead of shopping we stopped into the esteemed Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for a couple of Dark n’ Stormy’s in the bar. It’s a wood-paneled pub-like gem, a great spot where one can’t help but think, “If these walls could talk.” So many races, so many stories to tell. “Ya see, we were going to weather in a force nine gale…” Aye, mate, let’s have another round.

Our Hamilton foray was crystalized in a banner that hangs from most of the town’s lightposts and on City Hall. “Help Save Our City.” It relates to a Hamilton vs. Government political drama, but resonated beyond.
The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, in pink, viewed from inside its marina.
Inside the lobby of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
Inside the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
Half hulls. The door to the men's bar, which is now also open to women.
Inside the bar.
Yacht club burgees at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
The crest of Britannia, the former yacht of the British Royal Family.
Gosling's makes Bermuda's favorite - and most popular - rum.
Bermuda is loaded with attractions, including historic sites, botanical gardens, caves and acres of golf courses, but we were there primarily for beach and books.
Everywhere we went we went by taxi. I expected, as in the past, to ride mopeds or scooters around the island, but we were discouraged, even by Bermuda tourist authorities, who warned of too much traffic and bigger cars that go too fast. All true. We were also warned about crime, though, from everyone I talked to, and from reading the paper, it seems to be more gang related – gang against gang – rather than aimed at tourists. Still, the thought of gangs on Bermuda is jarring. That’s too much of the real world, and islanders know it.
One of the tennis courts.
Cottage with a view of the sea and the tennis courts.
Chairs for big and little.
View from the Breakers cottage, high on a hill.
A chair given by the family of Joseph C. Hoopes, Jr.
The CBC property is lush with flowers and tropical vegetation.
For all of that, nothing has changed on the beaches, among the most beautiful in the world. The pink sand remains pink, the water temperature in July was an ideal 80 degrees, reefs keep the sharks at a distance, and we saw no blobs of oil or tar and not one Portuguese Man of War.

Its important to mention the food because Bermuda has long been food challenged. There are reasons for this. The island’s culinary foundation is British. Unlike the West Indies, it does not produce its own food. According to the Royal Gazette, carrots are the only crop. Otherwise, “Bermuda is completely reliant on food being shipped in,” and mostly from the U.S., including a lot of the seafood. This makes restaurant tabs quite high. What’s new today is that an Italian catering company, The Little Venice Group, runs many of the island’s restaurants, ranging from the venerable Fourways Inn, to the new Tucker’s Point Club. Still, with all those Italians we found no fresh-made pasta. With a few exceptions, like the great Newport Room, much of the mainstream cuisine remains cruise ship class – overcooked, fried, creamy, carb heavy.
The Newport Room, at the Southampton Princess, remains among Bermuda's very best restaurants. The decor is a faithful ode to sailing.
The murals of The Newport Room make diners feel they are aboard a yacht, watching a sailboat race.
The Newport Room's menu includes hand-carved Scottish salmon and fresh Dover sole finished and carved at the table.
On this, Coral Beach stood out. Offerings from the kitchen of CBC chef Patrick Hannan were delicious, especially his way with scallops, fresh (island caught) fish, lobster and with duck. There’s always Bermuda fish chowder on the menu.

There’s The Beach Terrace, which offers satisfying sandwiches and afternoon tea and the more dressed up Coral Room and Longtail Terrace, where dinner means candlelight and music, and by music I mean a jazz combo for dancing gently, romantically, cheek to cheek, which goes so well by the sea, beneath palm trees, the moon and a starry sky.
The "Frozen Hut," which has drinks, snorkel gear, rafts and noodles.
A "Dark n' Stormy" - Ginger Beer with Gosling's Rum. Rum punch.
Bermuda Fish Chowder, with a helping of sherry pepper sauce.
Guests at CBC have a dining alternative that’s within walking distance. A pleasant five-minute stroll along the soft pink sand is the Elbow Beach Hotel, a 100-year-old landmark whose rooms are managed by Mandarin Oriental. Apart from the lobby, the grand hotel itself is closed and due for possible demolition and rebirth.

It sits like a haunted, yellow relic. In the meantime, Mandarin poured millions into refurbishing a range of rooms and cottages that surround a beachfront complex of casual restaurants – also run by Little Venice – that include a sushi bar, a Mediterranean bistro and a nightclub. The setting is lively, contemporary and couldn’t be closer to the water without surf splashing on the plates.
The Elbow Beach Hotel, among Bermuda's oldest and most legendary, is closed and may have to be demolished.
Guests on the lawn at the Elbow Beach/Mandarin Oriental hotel.
A room at the Elbow Beach Hotel, which is managed by Mandarin Oriental
One of the Elbow Beach/Mandarin's surfside restaurants, which are managed by an outside restaurant group.
The view from Mickey's Restaurant at the Elbow Beach/Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Mickey's is literally on the beach.
Inside Mickey's, which is very much outdoors.
Champagne on the beach at the Elbow Beach/Mandarin Oriental hotel.
A photo for the family album.
The grounds of the Elbow Beach/Mandarin Oriental
Mandarin invested millions in creating new rooms near the water at the Elbow Beach hotel.
In the background, the old Elbow Beach hotel, in the foreground, rooms refurbished and managed by Mandarin Oriental.
Live entertainment at the Elbow Beach/Mandarin.
At Coral Beach we were spoiled, though. It would be tough to match our room, Noon Tide Sun, with its broad cliff top terrace and commanding view of beach and sea. We slept to the soothing sound of surf and woke to chirping birds as breakfast was set.
Noon Tide Sun, a suite with its own terrace, overlooking the beach. The gate that leads to Noon Tide Sun.
The terrace of Noon Tide Sun.
Noon Tide's terrace, looking up from the beach.
The beautiful aqua bedroom of Noon Tide, with a view of the sea.
The chaise in Noon Tide's bedroom, with door leading out to the terrace.
The living room of Noon Tide Sun.
The sunken whirlpool bath in Noon Tide. There's also a shower.
A great place to sit on Noon Tide's large terrace.
The interior of the Beach Terrace, where afternoon tea is served.
The colorful, whimsical bar of the Beach Terrace.
The exterior of the Beach Terrace, where casual meals are served, set for lunch.
The Beach Terrace, set for dinner.
One wonders if the Elbow Beach mash up of private ownership, plus outside hotel management and separate restaurant management portends what could happen at Coral Beach Club.

Clearly there’s much to be revealed in the coming months, but having tasted CBC’s rendition of paradise, here’s an affectionate suggestion: rather than Four Seasons taking over Coral Beach Club, maybe its Coral Beach that should take over Four Seasons.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.