The original Sixties barefoot-chic Caribbean resort that’s still pulling in the jet set

There’s a certain magic to arriving at Little Dix Bay for the first time, by night. After the long haul via Antigua to Tortola, the hotel’s catamaran whisked me over the moonlit waves for the final 25-minute hop to Virgin Gorda, the rum punch and sea breeze on the top […]

There’s a certain magic to arriving at Little Dix Bay for the first time, by night. After the long haul via Antigua to Tortola, the hotel’s catamaran whisked me over the moonlit waves for the final 25-minute hop to Virgin Gorda, the rum punch and sea breeze on the top deck blowing away any residual cobwebs. 

I arrived in a broad bay surrounded by forested hills, to be greeted on the pier by my butler, and was delivered – somewhat punch-drunk – by buggy to my room. The swishing of the surf told me I was not far from the water’s edge, but in the discreet exterior lighting of the resort, I could not make much out beyond the swaying palms. For the view, and a sense of orientation, I would have to wait till dawn. 

It was with a similar sense of anticipation that Rosewood Little Dix Bay reopened in December 2019, after a four-year closure due to Hurricane Irma. I was among the first guests to arrive then, before Covid struck and the hotel was forced to shutter again. Now, however, the hotel has reopened and the British Virgin Islands are back in business for tourism, albeit with fairly stringent regulations once Britons are allowed to travel (more on which below) which include four (glorious!) days of quarantine at the resort.

A shot of one of the original rooms from the Sixties – today the exposed stone walls remain

Credit:
ROCKEFELLER ARCHIVE CENTER

Little Dix Bay, the environmentally aware brainchild of philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller (grandson of Standard Oil founder John D Rockefeller) first opened in 1964 with a glittering three-day party of New York’s elite. The concept was new – a 50-room resort with the vibe of an unpretentious but sophisticated fishing village. Low-tech, low impact and with an aesthetic of barefoot chic, it ditched the concept of room keys and saw saronged guests shimmy from restaurant to sand. Built for $6.5 million, it would kick-start tourism, and pave the way for the social and economic development of the British Virgin Islands.  

In 2016, the hotel closed for an 18-month facelift – but Irma had other ideas. Three months short of the scheduled reopening, the storm destroyed the property. Rosewood, which bought Little Dix Bay in 1993, engaged US-based architects OBMI and designers Meyer Davis to rebuild the hotel (costs would come in at an estimated $150-$185 million). The relandscaping of the gardens, alone, was a tour de force, with its ocean of palm trees and riot of ixora and allamanda, bougainvillea and schizanthus, beloved of hummingbirds, among 500 granite-boulder-strewn acres.  

“The buildings retain the same footprint, and we were careful to remain faithful to the original spirit,” Andreas Pade, managing director, told me over a lunch of Caribbean-style tapas and a crisp own-edition rosé at the Sugar Mill restaurant back in February. “The reaction of guests has been very positive.” 

An archive photograph of the restaurant

Credit:
ROCKEFELLER ARCHIVE CENTER

Interestingly, the standout feature of the resort – the four conical roofs of the Pavilion, each of different height and pitch to echo the hills – were undamaged, but for 11 wallaba shingle tiles. As before, local woods – red cedar, purple heart, locust, mahogany – predominate. 

The history of hotels such as Little Dix Bay – where British royals were guests – is part of their DNA. Rosewood, while retaining the brand’s reputation for luxury, has proved sensitive to the founder’s intentions “to keep the environment as undamaged as possible, to keep things simple and informal, to utilise natural resources and benefit the local economy,” as the original architect, Walther Prokosch, noted in his 1983 book, Detailed Design.  

Little Dix Bay has attracted the elite to the British Virgin Islands since its opening in 1964

Credit:
ROCKEFELLER ARCHIVE CENTER

Rooms and suites, which had grown to around 100, were pared down to 80, alternating between square and hexagonal shapes: those closest to the beach on ground level, those set back in the garden raised on stilts, ensuring all had a sea view, and none was further than a few steps from the shore. 

My Treehouse Suite on stilts, comprising two adjoining hexagonal rooms and bathroom with an additional exterior shower – had lofty pitched roofs, and a large wraparound balcony from which, when dawn broke, I caught my first glimpse of the golden beach, and enjoyed breakfast, to the twittering of birdsong. 

Rosewood took over the property in 1993, steering it through its most recent refurbishment

Credit:
COPYRIGHT Ken Hayden Photography/KEN HAYDEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Woods, local stone and neutral-coloured linens, enlivened with nautical blue, make up the interior, with references to midcentury design and photography a nod to the hotel’s 1960s heritage. Ceramic ornaments mimic coral, while a minibar stocked with rare gins and tequilas and glass bottles of Hildon water (there’s not a plastic bottle in sight) are homely touches. The coffee machine has biodegradable pods – a rare example of eco-consciousness trouncing taste (“We’re working on it,” Pade assured me).  

It’s a small quibble. Food here, under executive chef Francisco Sanabria, is something to dream about, from the ocean-fresh ceviches and conch and callaloo in coconut sauce at the Sugar Mill, to the juiciest, fattest Anegada lobsters, and the best tenderloin (glazed in lime and rum) I have ever tasted, at the Pavilion. I had never liked okra until I tried the chef’s version – straight from the resort’s new organic farm, lovingly tended by Ashley, an old timer of 29 years’ service, who is also in charge of 60 egg-laying chickens. His green-fingered success is celebrated in the new Reef House restaurant that specialises in farm-to-fork, as well as daily catches from the deep.

Guests can work off ­calories in the gym, on the tennis courts, or cycling around on smart white and tan bicycles – but most prefer to lounge beneath the palm-thatched parasols on the ­pristine half-mile of white sand beach that first drew Rockefeller to the site. It is spotless, with transparent jade waters, home to a dozen hawksbill turtles. 

There are vintage nods to the hotel’s history in the rooms through photographs and books

Credit:
COPYRIGHT Ken Hayden Photography/KEN HAYDEN PHOTOGRAPHY

It is tempting to while away the day supine, watching the sun cross the sky, while young children are entertained in the kids’ club and older ones amuse themselves with kayaks within the safety of the reef. With refreshments at the touch of a bell on your parasol (about as hi-tech as the resort gets), why not?

Well, there are tempting alternatives, such as complimentary boat drops to deserted beaches with picnics on request. Hire a yacht for island-hopping and snorkel in the caves of Norman Island, said to have inspired Treasure Island. Or climb to the hilltop Sense spa for a delicious pummeling with warm bamboo sticks and essential oils (the Signature Massage) and a frigate’s-eye view over the Caribbean from one of the hotel’s two pools. 

The signature conical roofs, which still remain more than 50 years on

Credit:
COPYRIGHT Ken Hayden Photography/KEN HAYDEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Before you know it, the sun has dropped behind the horizon, and it is time to make your way to the copper-toned Rum Room, where 107 varieties of rare, boutique rum compete with a weird and wonderful cocktail list (Truffle Martini, anyone?) A rum tasting, culminating with a Dictador Two Masters 1972, from Colombia, is guaranteed to inspire new respect for what you had thought of as humble pirates’ grog. And what more appropriate libation in an ambrosial Caribbean retreat?

Essentials

Rooms from $850 (£623) per night for an Ocean View Cottage (room only). British Airways (ba.com) offers direct flights from London to Antigua, connecting with Inter-Caribbean to Tortola. (001 284 852 5500; rosewoodhotels.com) 

New Covid regulations include a negative PCR test and completion of a health declaration before travel; a PCR test on arrival, four days’ quarantine at the resort, followed by a further PCR test. Visitors will also be required to download a contact tracing app and use a wearable device (tracking bracelet). Comprehensive Covid insurance is also mandatory. Full details at: bvitraveller.com/updated-bvi-entry-requirements

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