QUIRKS, COMFORTS AND QUIETUDE IN THE PLACE THAT TIME FORGOT
By Gemma Handy
AT DAYBREAK the only sound is the warble of tropical birds, the gentle chirrup of tree frogs and the roll of the waves in the distance. As the sun makes its graceful journey over that wonderful place where land meets sky causing the turquoise ocean to glisten in response, it bathes everything beneath in a rosy hue.
Another morning in paradise.
Remember a time when the Caribbean meant an understated old worldcharm? When traffic jams were as rare as a post office on the moon and comrades still addressed each other with formal titles? A time before amiable service was replaced by its obsequious counterpart. And before high rises shot up like meerkats in the desert and confined the horizon to a distant memory.
When the world moved on and got itself in one big rush, it left Pine Cay behind.
This idyllic two mile long private island, part of the achingly beautiful Turks & Caicos archipelago, is just a short boat ride from the tourist hub of Providenciales. But while the breakneck speed of development has prompted a wealth of well-heeled travellers to sample the rest of the tiny British territory’s delights, Pine Cay has maintained its marvellously esoteric status.
In fact its only resort, the Meridian Club, is the country’s oldest, continuously operating hotel, having opened 40 years ago when Providenciales was still a sleepy little fishing village.
And very little has changed since at this fabulously eccentric 12-suite beachfront complex. Quirks and anomalies are in abundance. Like the blanket ban on cell phones in all communal areas. Or the banging of the gong which tells guests dinner is served, a nostalgic nod to days gone by.
The absence of room keys is an enchanting testament to the family atmosphere which envelopes you like a soft blanket from the minute you set foot inside. Crime is on indefinite French leave here.
Outside on the sun-drenched deck, guests – more than half of whom are repeat guests – greet each other like old friends. Which indeed many of them are. Newcomers are quickly made to feel at home, however. A cheerfully unruly scribble on a blackboard in reception bids me “a warm welcome”. Underneath “a sad farewell” is given to the handful of people for whom the holiday is over.
Apart from the hotel and a smattering of privately owned homes, the 800-acre isle comprises pure, undisturbed nature. Some 80 per cent of the land is green space, much of it designated as park land.
There are no paved roads, no cars, no TV and no radio – barely anything to signify there’s an outside world at all. And its inhabitants blithely go about their business as if there really isn’t. Owing to the lack of motor vehicles, travel is by foot, bicycle or electric golf cart. The delightful colonial architecture, evidenced in the scattered houses partially concealed by trees, is another beguiling throwback to yesteryear in this place that time forgot.
The cay’s north side boasts a two-mile stretch of pristine white sand as fine as talcum powder. Lapping its edge is the awe-inspiring aquamarine water that put the country on the tourist map. Pine Cay is one of the last places on earth where it’s safe to stroll the beach day or night.
These days the Meridian Club is run by affable American couple Beverly and Wally Plachta. They first took over the reins in 2000, a stint which lasted four years. The island’s magnetic appeal prompted a return in March 2007 and they have stayed put since. Bev is au fait with all her regulars’ dietary whims, pastime predilections and room preferences.
The guests are an eclectic bunch, hardly the batch of listless retirees I had envisaged. There are quite a few younger people who prefer the laidback appeal of Pine Cay to the after dark action of Providenciales; a middle-aged couple from Louisiana who come at the same time every year to indulge their passion for bird-watching; a handful of bone fishing fanatics; some first-timers renting one of the private houses.
There is an older couple too who met here two decades ago under a tiki hut. The pair hit it off immediately and have been married 16 years. They visit annually, both in commemoration of that first tender acquaintance and to soak up the delights of a place that has become a second home.
Nightlife on the cay – Bev laughs – is looking at the stars.
“We are unique here,” she says. “I know all resorts say that but we truly are. Pine Cay redefines what it is to relax. We have very nice, comfortable facilities but you can go barefoot to dinner. It’s a place to recharge – a lot of people don’t even realise they need to recharge until they get here.”
One of the most appealing aspects is the complete lack of pressure to do, well, anything. From the moment you step off the boat, the stresses and strains of modern life seem to slip away like water down a mountainside.
With the beach just a single step from each room and a bed so comfy you could lose yourself in it, it’s barefoot living at its finest. The suites are thoughtfully prepared; one or two minor furnishings might have seen better days but that just adds to its charm. Where the TV would be, there’s an old-fashioned map of Providenciales instead – I find it far more intriguing.
Living in harmony with Mother Nature is a pervasive theme, from the real flowers in the folds of the towels to the tacit ban on plastic – a reusable shopping bag is left in each room along with a refillable water bottle. Rainwater catchment systems are integrated in all buildings. There’s even an outdoor shower. Just watch the prickly pine cones underfoot.
A vast and interesting selection of literature can be found in each room and stretched along an entire wall in the bar cum library. I make plans to immerse myself in the well-thumbed, yellowing pages later. After all, ‘midnight’ here is about 9.30pm.
Among a long list of organic activities in the guest information booklet – from sailing and kayaking to fishing, snorkelling and tennis – is one that instantly appeals. “Doing nothing” is cited as a “very popular and therapeutic activity”. I am assured that, within a day or two, I will have perfected the knack of gazing vacantly at the horizon without having to lift my head from the lounge chair.
Pine Cay is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. There’s an array of intriguing reptiles from the ubiquitous curly tailed lizards and geckos to rare rock iguanas which have sadly died out on most of the neighbouring islands but thrive here.
Nestled among the world’s third largest coral reef, the island affords breathtaking views for snorkellers and divers just metres from the beach. If you’re lucky you might even see a humpback whale in the distance. These majestic creatures make their annual migration past here each winter.
Sea turtles still abound in the Pine Cay channel and in the deep cove at the opposite end of the island referred to as the ‘aquarium’ on account of its abundance of marine life. Two kayaks are tied there for guests to use for more intimate enjoyment of the secluded spot.
It’s a bird lovers’ paradise too. Ospreys, kestrels, thrashers, herons and pelicans squawk overhead, offset by the call of the black Cuban Crow. If you’re unfamiliar with its peculiar cry, it’s a little like stepping repeatedly on a rubber ball. There are even some flamingoes who moved here recently, setting up home on one of the island’s seven freshwater lakes. Bev is convinced they too are escaping the hullabaloo of the outer islands, along with the rest of the Club’s members.
The climate is kept comfortable all year round thanks to prevailing trade winds and low humidity. Midday temperatures range from the low 80s in winter to just over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in late summer.
To explore the island, I choose one of the hotel’s rickety-looking bicycles. It’s the first time I’ve been on one in years. Happily my momentary sense of panic is quickly replaced by the realisation that it is, in fact, just like riding a bike. Cycling in sand however is a slightly different kettle of fish. (The only stretch of tarmac on Pine Cay is the island’s minute runway.) It requires a little more patience and a far slower pace – which is of course thoroughly in keeping with the lackadaisical nature of the island itself.
With the wind in your hair and the cleanest, purest air in your lungs it’s impossible not to feel a distinct sense of camaraderie with the world. I pass three buggies in the space of 10 minutes and conclude I must be on the main road.
Down at the marina, a statuesque heron casts its steely gaze across water as clear as glass in search of food. Unperturbed by my presence, it comes here to vie for the ocean’s treasures with the visitors who flock specifically to take advantage of the island’s excellent bone fishing.
Back at the resort, I find the bar’s balcony is perfect for sipping sunset cocktails. On a clear day you may just catch a glimpse of the famous green flash as the sun slips over the horizon. The bartender – affectionately known as ‘Bang Bang’ (he used to be a drummer) – pours me a Pine Cay Smile.
After a few slugs of this heady mix of coconut rum, dark rum, Tio Pepe, orange juice and pineapple juice, I see how it got its name. My grin is impossible to shift. But maybe this is less to do with the enthusiastic pouring of the liquor and more due to the overall ambience.
Downstairs, dining is a casual, unhurried affair – what else is there to do? It’s a welcome departure from the lightning speed of too many fashionable restaurants where over eager staff snatch your plate while you’re still chewing the last mouthful. As with everything else here, dinner attire is entirely a matter of choice. Some guests prefer to kick back in shorts and sandals, others choose to dress up for the four-course affair. There have even been a couple of necktie sightings in the last 10 years.
Enamored by the bonhomie of the dining room, I tuck into a starter of fresh mango and onion, followed by an avocado and pine nut salad. My entrée is specially-prepared vegetarian chickpea fritters, cooked to perfection with Moroccan sauce and grilled veg.
Somehow I find room to top it off with a sumptuous Pine Cay lime pie. Afterwards it’s all I can do to refrain from curling up on a lounger like Sampson the resort cat.
Dining is one of the things the resort prides itself on. In the kitchen, the talented culinary team work their magic. There’s almost always fresh ‘catch of the day’ which includes locally caught fish, lobster and conch. Guests can also choose from steak, chops, rack of lamb, duck and Cornish hen. Vegetarian meals, like mine, are prepared upon request. Wednesday evening’s ‘native night’ features an abundance of traditional Caribbean specialities with a poolside barbecue and buffet.
In the morning, there are homemade pastries plus the usual breakfast comestibles cooked to order. I opt for ‘island style French bread’ which basically means it’s dunked in enough syrup and brown sugar to make a doctor recoil in horror. I polish off the lot greedily. English-style afternoon tea is a delightful tradition with an array of tantalising sweet treats expertly whipped up each day by Chef Amy Caffarel.
The pace picks up slightly on Saturday night with a weekly ‘jump up’ bash, although it’s still not exactly the frenzied affair the name suggests. It’s quite possible to indulge in some gentle dancefloor shindigs – while keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground. Local musician Quinton Dean gets the party started around 7pm as guests tuck into a variety of barbecued fare, salads and desserts.
Another of Pine Cay’s zany customs is ‘birthday junkanoo’. Tonight it’s Hilda, one of the Club’s long-term members, who will be celebrating. Based loosely on the Bahamian festive street parades, known for their vivid costumes and rhythmic beats, the staff grab colourful accessories, drums and whistles before launching themselves on the unsuspecting victim.
A box full of gaudy hats, masks and hand-held instruments is kept in the kitchen specifically for this purpose. We all giggle as we delve in for the best maracas, cow rattles and headgear before snaking our boisterous way around the tables. Hilda does her best to look surprised.
Sporadically, resort management stage a ‘drive-in movie’ night with the island’s inhabitants lining up in their golf carts to watch short comedy classics with popcorn. Favourite shows include Fawlty Towers, The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello.
Within just a couple of days here I find I’ve already adopted an island stroll and devil-may-care demeanour. This is complemented by an excellent Swedish massage at the on-site spa, not to mention a certain smugness at having been let in on the secret which is Pine Cay.
And, from my picturesque balcony perch, watching the incandescent sun prepare to bed down for the night, it seems Bev was right. This insouciant sanctuary with its anachronistic charms and just the right mix of luxury and home comforts is precisely what the doctor ordered.
If I could bottle it, I’d be a millionaire.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, call: 866-746-3229 or 649-941-7011 www.meridianclub.com