Travel

Hermes Mallea's “Escape"

Between 1920 and 1970, thanks to an unprecedented confluence of talent, vision, wealth and natural beauty, the Caribbean went from a sleepy, agricultural backwater to a tourism hotspot in just 50 years. The region’s unspoiled nature promised visitors an escape from the realities of their daily lives.
ESCAPE
by Hermes Mallea


Click to order Escape.
Ed. Note: Today's piece by Hermes Mallea is written around his new book “Escape,” which is about the history of Resort Life in the Caribbean. “Escape” is a beautiful book, as well as a history and social history of that part of the world. It's coffee table-sized and so the images are luscious and generous in conveying the message.

Now, in the 21st century, almost the entire area is a mecca for people all over the world in search of a warm winter’s sun.


The glamour of a Caribbean holiday was popularized to a large extent by fashion and travel magazines, as well as gossip columns which brought the fantasy life to the folks back home – inspiring them to dream of living, dressing and having fun like the very rich on holiday.
Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller enjoying dinner with friends during their 1957 honeymoon at the Jamaica Inn.
The informal yet elegant lifestyle that has come to be associated with the best of the Caribbean was first fleshed out in the exclusive enclaves profiled in ESCAPE.
The stylish Audrey Pleydell Bouverie, a good friend of the queen mother, enjoys her needlepoint in the central patio that was the heart of her Bahamas home designed by Palm Beach architect John Volk.
In writing ESCAPE I was able to draw on my personal perspective. As a Cuban: my genetic connection to region helps me visualize the Caribbean as a mosaic of distinct islands with very different personalities.

As an architect, I help our firm’s clients escape the pressures of urban living to getaways custom-made for their personal style. So, I understand the process of making a client’s dreams buildable that is at the core of the houses and resorts I selected as the milestones of my design history of Caribbean travel. When presented all together – something which has never been done before – they tell a fascinating story.
The colonnade at Point Lookout, designed by Oliver Messel on a spit of land between two beaches on Mustique, an island known for encouraging all architectural as well as all lifestyle fantasies.
My goal in writing ESCAPE was to transport the reader back to the glamorous heyday when the international smart set made these resorts the most stylish places in the world.
Since the days of Colonel Bradley’s casino, Palm Beach has loved gambling. Mrs. Benjamin Black, Raymond Schindler, Jerry Rowen, Betty Bosworth and Mrs. Schindler enjoy an al fresco game of canasta in 1955.
Click to order Great Houses of Havana.
My previous book, Great Houses of Havana, celebrated bygone romance of the Cuban capital. This new book also celebrates romance – in fact if a single word sums up ESCAPE, that word is romance, because a getaways to the Caribbean has always been associated with the promise of the romance that is missing from our daily lives.

ESCAPE is a story of the extraordinary individuals who created the setting for this glamorous life to take place: the home owners, tourism pioneers, socially-connected innkeepers and talented designers who made these fantasy playgrounds a reality.

Above all, ESCAPE celebrates home-owners falling in love with an idyllic site and imagining the new life they could make for themselves there.
ESCAPE chronicles the efforts of architects and designers who explored the requirements of a gentleman’s home transported to a warm weather setting, reflecting the increasingly informal lifestyle with an emphasis on connections to the outdoors.
This is one of my favorite images, showing Irenee duPont with the staff of his Cuban beach house, Xanadu. It illustrates the effort required to transport an American industrialists’ lifestyle to the as yet undiscovered sands of Varadero Beach. Not to mention all the infrastructure that had to go in before his architects could break ground on the house. Throughout the book the passion of the home builders like duPont trumped the many challenges they encountered when building at a remote site.
Among the many Innovative vacation concepts first developed in the Caribbean were the Rock Resorts: providing communion with unspoiled nature in a setting of discrete contemporary architecture – reflecting the philosophy and style of tourism visionary Laurance Rockefeller.
The Rock Resorts’ Caneel Bay property was accessible only by launch and oriented to the enjoyment of a vacation on the water, with seven unspoiled beaches,
Another innovator was Jamaica’s John Pringle who pioneered an early form of time-share at Round Hill resort, selling his fancy friends simple cottages which took advantage of the resort’s amenities without the bother of maintaining a second home.
Life magazine’s cover story on Round Hill featured Mrs. Pringle, a former Ford model, enjoying beach front chess with John McConnell. This image captures the relaxed yet stylish atmosphere of this celebrity colony, where café society went to let their hair down.
I’m fascinated by socially connected innkeepers, who not only created their own distinctive resorts, they convinced their friends to share their dream and invest in the new playground.
Ronald Tree created the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados, attracting international celebrities with a convivial atmosphere that was said to feel like an exclusive house party. Here, his wife Marietta shelters beneath a parasol in the oceanfront gardens of their home, Heron Bay – one of the most beautiful houses in the Caribbean.
Each of the resorts profiled in ESCAPE had a distinctive personality, based on the natural setting, the architectural design and the shared interests or background of the community of members.
Architect and tourism visionary, Happy Ward set the deliberately low key esthetic that characterized the original Mill Reef style: confident, informal and comfortable.
Huntington Hartford was a resort dreamer – envisioning every detail of his Nassau Ocean Club, based on his intimate knowledge of the world’s most exclusive getaways. He was more successful at creating a stylish resort – pictured on the cover of ESCAPE – than he was at managing a profitable hotel.
The development of tourism in the Caribbean was made possible by the expansion of post war air travel. The arrival of Pan Am’s weekly flight from New York, known in Antigua as the Mill Reef Special was often greeted with rum punch and a steel band.
Designers working in the region were fortunate to draw on the abundance of historic regional styles that conveyed the individuality of islands. One island that was especially rich in historic architecture was Barbados.
Fustic House illustrates theatrical designer, Oliver Messel’s talent for expanding Barbados plantation houses to appear as if they had been sitting in the tropical landscape for centuries. His designs perfected an informal yet elegant indoor-outdoor lifestyle with gardens blurring the connection between the house & its surroundings.
A sense of fantasy became part of the brand in resorts like Coral Gables, where visionary developer George Merrick employed a Mediterranean style architecture that might have been built there by the conquistadors if they had actually landed on that part of the South Florida coast.

ESCAPE is about the home-owner’s search for an appropriate resort lifestyle that reflects their personal standards while remaining appropriate to a warm weather getaway.
At Government House in Nassau, the Duchess of Windsor worked to create a suitable setting for her husband when he was Governor of the Bahamas – balancing the stateliness of a royal palace with the informality of a warm weather getaway. The stylish furniture, wallpaper and elegant curtains were all part of the Duchess’ improvements.
Babe Paley’s Round Hill cottage is a milestone of resort design, a house that re-imagined traditional room use for the warm weather – boiling things down to an open air living room flanked by two open-air bedrooms – and that’s it.
Resorts represent specific moments in culture – they enjoy their heyday and then they often disappear.
Haiti’s Habitation LeClerc, represented the hedonism of the 1970s disco era brought to the tropics. Owner Olivier Coquelin offered visitors from around the globe an uninhibited vacation destination.
Resort owners juggled maintaining traditions that loyal customers loved with staying fresh to attract visitors always on the lookout for the next fashionable spot.

Savvy hoteliers know they need to reinvent to stay relevant – take the Ralph Lauren team’s recent facelift of the Round Hill resort.

Finally, there are rare cases where a resort’s original appeal and esthetic remain enduring – like the Lyford Cay Club, whose winning formula has been perfectly maintained.

ESCAPE celebrates bygone glamour – but is not stuck in that historical heyday. One hundred years after birth of Palm Beach our love affair with Caribbean is going strong – at both the high-end and the mass market.
The excitement of catching a blackfin tuna in Caribbean waters teaming also w/ blue marlin, wahoo, bonefish & tarpon.
The region’s timeless natural beauty continues to capture our imagination with a promise of the romance that is missing from our daily lives.
Weary jetsetters relax by the pool of Olivier Coquelin’s Plantation des Cocoyers, located on a private island off the Haitian coast.