Bored of St Barths and over Mustique? Sophia Wilson discovers why the Grenadine island of Canouan is ready to come out of its shell.
Considering the emerald speck that is Canouan is half the size of St Barths and is inhabited by more wild tortoises than people, it has a startling investment history – one that reads like a who’s who of tycoons. Italian developer Antonio Saladino came to the island in 1998, creating a Sardinian village-inspired hotel that was taken on by Rosewood and then Raffles. Irishman Dermot Desmond (co-owner of Barbados’s Sandy Lane) later came on board and Donald Trump also joined the party – opening a Trump casino and the Jim Fazio-designed Trump International Golf Club.
It became known as the island where billionaires (including Bill Gates) came to avoid millionaires, but Canouan (which means island of tortoises) failed to truly find its luxury mojo or the global recognition of its glitzy neighbour Mustique.
Most of Saladino’s original hotel was bulldozed after the 2008 crash and the Trump casino closed its doors for good. However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a $100 million (£77.9m), 26-suite hotel opened in 2016, the island’s runway has been extended to accommodate Boeing 737s and a new 120-slip superyacht marina has been built. Add the fact that Mandarin Oriental has taken over the management of the hotel – the brand’s first foray into the Caribbean – and it seems Canouan is finally poised to fulfil its luxury destiny.
Comfort is definitely the word that comes to mind with the cream-stoned hotel that is a deliberate mini-me of Sandy Lane. Its suites are clad in Italian marble, swathed in luxurious cottons and cashmeres, and feature the latest tech: in my room a showpiece mirror doubles as a television but also opens at the touch of an iPad to reveal a lounge and ocean views beyond.
The attention to detail in its design is remarkable but it’s the service level that elevates the property, which now commands one of the highest room rates in the Caribbean. Background research has been done on you before check-in, a private butler (on call for anything during your stay) will unpack and repack your bag, and flower-filled baths are prepared in advance of your return from excursions. There are also personal touches; having arrived with a Dickensian-sounding chest infection, staff practically chased me around the hotel, suggesting remedies from ginger tea to locally brewed Sunset Very Strong Rum.
The hotel is just one part of the 4,850-hectare site that makes up the northern end of the tropical island and which is also home to the villas and residences of the Canouan Estate, all of which is now controlled by another new Italian developer. As part of his vision, a series of new elevated, Italian-designed Patio Villas have been built and are for sale as Mandarin Oriental-branded residences. “You can tell that there has been an Italian influence for the past 20 years,” says James Burdess, director of Savills Caribbean. “It’s style combined with accessibility.”
Guests are free to roam the entire estate either by foot or golf cart. Its twisting paths are lined with tropical flowers and the main challenge is avoiding the roaming tortoises that occasionally opt for a mid-crossing nap in the road. Those looking for a less formal vibe can head to the L’Ance Guyac Beach Club, which serves up Caribbean seafood in its romantic dining space created from driftwood and cream canvas shades. Alternatively, on the other side of the headland, the palm-tree lined Shell Beach offers toes-in-sand relaxed lunches, luxurious navy sun-loungers and a spectacular evening barbecue, with treats including mahi mahi ceviche and Iberico pork. In each location beaming staff are on hand to suggest a signature cocktail or the freshest catch of the day (the area is great for deep-sea fishing so there are always plenty of options).
If you are looking to burn off some calories you can take on the challenge of hiking to the top of Mount Royal, the highest point on the island. At 240 metres, it takes me less than 30 minutes to get to the top, and I am feeling fairly pleased with myself until my guide announces that he can run to the top in under 10. My effort is rewarded, however, with panoramic scenery from its viewpoint of the island’s verdant landscapes, pearly beaches and waves breaking over the long reef that protects it from the Atlantic Ocean. From there I scramble up a further 10 metres over a series of boulders to reach the summit for views in the opposite direction over the south of the island and the new superyacht destination, Glossy Bay Marina.
The site, which is so sparkly and new it feels as if you are looking at a CGI mock- up rather than reality, is being developed by Desmond and will include shops, bars, a provisioner and real estate. Handily, it’s just a short golf-buggy ride to your berth from the recently extended runway, which is also the only place in the area where you can land aircraft in the dark. The island has limited protected anchorages so the marina is a welcome addition for superyachts and the ability to fly in directly by private jet and meet your yacht is a huge bonus. The 62.5-metre Baton Rouge (available for charter with Burgess) visited at the end of last year and Captain Robert Puddifoot described the set-up as a “game changer” for the region. Tim Clark, director of yacht brokerage company MYSEA, agrees that Canouan could potentially “blow your socks off” as a charter hub. “As a gateway to the Grenadines, it really is pretty extraordinary,” he adds.
Tempting as it is to join the tortoises and simply lounge among the island’s greenery, you can’t come to Canouan and not go out and explore, so I set sail on one of the estate’s crewed catamarans. The Tobago Cays Marine Park, one of the chain’s most picturesque stop-offs, is less than five nautical miles away but the crew still ensures we are hydrated with chilled champagne en route. Arriving in the impossibly turquoise waters, it quickly becomes a game as to who can be the first to spot a green turtle. The waters are teeming with them and it takes less than a minute before one bobs to the surface. Jumping in, I am greeted by half a dozen of the gently gliding creatures, which can weigh up to 160 kilograms. They are seemingly unperturbed by their snorkelling companions – you can either float above or swim alongside them (provided you don’t get too close). Afterwards, a quick scamper around the tropical shrubbery of the island of Petit Rameau reveals sunbathing iguanas, which can swim underwater for up to 30 minutes. Just 10 minutes away the yacht stops again so that I can snorkel the fringing reef. It is packed with a kaleidoscope of tropical fish – including parrot fish and snapper – which swarm around my guide as he lures them in with sausage meat.
“Personally, I love the Grenadines area,” says Baton Rouge’s Captain Puddifoot. “Most of the Leeward Islands are developed and often have quite a busy feel to them, both literally in terms of people and boats but also in the way of life. The Grenadines feel more authentic and with the many varying islands, all in close proximity, with ultra-short cruise times between them, they offer the ‘definitive’ Caribbean feel.” I couldn’t agree more, which makes it surprising that during my cruise I am surrounded only by bareboat catamarans rather than superyachts.
Back on dry land, the Mandarin Oriental staff have one more trick up their sleeves – sundowners at the “13th hole”. I naively presume that this is the name of a bar but instead I am whisked up to the highest point of the golf course (at 180 metres) where a private drinks party awaits, complete with canvas chairs, chilled champagne and freshly prepared canapés. Watching the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon, I consider the changes that still lie ahead for Canouan – Soho House is set to take over and refurbish the existing Tamarind Beach Hotel, and Aman Resorts is reported to be opening a property on the estate. The local community is also about to see some changes with the estate developer funding the island’s first secondary school (currently children have to go to St Vincent), a new clinic and a shopping centre.
Waiting for the elusive green flash to appear in the darkening sky, with the neighbouring islands appearing as shadows in the Caribbean Sea, I am torn. Part of me wants this emerald gem of an island to get the fame and fortune it deserves, but another part of me doesn’t want the secret to get out.