Journeys: Bond Yields

  • Jack Smith

In the distance the Caribbean surf broke over a coral reef and rolled gently onto the beach before returning to the ocean with what sounded like a muted sigh. Farther inland a channel led past a dock where Chris Blackwell sat straddling a Jet Ski. A rangy Brit with a wispy white goatee and a beachcomber manner, Blackwell looked on dubiously as I scrutinized the watercraft intended for me. "Have you ever done this before?" he asked.

I had not, but how hard could it be? Blackwell rode a Jet Ski every day while here in Jamaica, and he was what, 70? Without responding to the question, I climbed on and twisted the throttle, causing the craft to spin first clockwise then counterclockwise, like a matador practicing a watery veronica. This impromptu performance seemed to have answered Blackwell’s question in the negative.

As we drifted through the channel and into a lagoon, he offered a few words of advice over the burble of the idling engines: "Don’t sit down when we get into the ocean. Make sure you’re standing up so your legs take the shock, or you’ll get thrown off. The trick is to go fast enough to keep the water flying over your head. But most of all, make sure the ski is attached to the cord around your wrist in case you fall off."

With that he sped off toward the horizon while I tried to follow. The ocean beyond the coral reef had appeared so placid from shore. Now it flexed and thrashed around us like the coils of an angry kraken. Nonetheless Blackwell seemed to be in his element, first disappearing into the troughs between swells and then launching himself over the whitecaps and into the air.

I was struggling to keep up as my Jet Ski slammed nose-first from one wave into another. I clutched the handlebars to keep from sliding off into the water, letting go with one hand only to wipe the stinging brine from my eyes.

After several minutes of this futile pursuit, I shut down the throttle and bobbed haplessly in the middle of the ocean until Blackwell reappeared at my side. "I love the water, don’t you?" he asked. "It’s the only time I can get away. Here there is no TV, no newspapers, no Internet. Nothing ever changes."

Blackwell looked toward the horizon, where the afternoon sun was sliding into the sea. Somewhere out there it is still 1962, and movie producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Terence Young, and Blackwell, then a location scout in his mid-20s, have gathered in a screening room in Jamaica to view the rushes from the movie they are shooting. The mood in the room is glum; the movie is a low-budget production and not an especially promising one.

"The adventure genre had not lent itself to major motion pictures, so the producers were determined to keep the budget under $1 million," Blackwell had recalled earlier that day, before we manned the Jet Skis.

Cost overruns aside, the movie had been a disaster from the very beginning, he said. The action was clumsy, and the script was awful. That night in the screening room, the producers were seriously considering pulling the plug on their project when the female lead, a Swiss actress named Ursula Andress, appeared on the screen. She emerged from the sea dripping wet and wearing a white bikini that clung like shrink-wrap to every curve and dimple of her body as she shook herself dry. "There was this sudden sharp intake of breath from everyone in the room," said Blackwell.

Their resolve buttressed by the vision of Andress undulating across the hot sand, the producers pressed on and finished the movie, launching what would become one of filmdom’s most successful franchises, a series of 22 productions that is still going strong. The leading men and locations change, but the basic formula never varies. Each installment features outlandish villains, breathtaking derring-do, sultry femmes fatales, and one particular line of dialogue: "My name is Bond. James Bond."

The departure point for our Jet Ski adventure was Blackwell’s GoldenEye resort, a 52-acre stretch of beach and jungle and luxurious villas. Six decades ago, a portion of the property belonged to Ian Fleming, who, in a shuttered cliffside hideaway overlooking one of the beaches, wrote the 14 novels on which Dr. No and the other Bond films are based. Three of his best sellers—Dr. No, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun—and the short story "Octopussy" are set on or around what are now the resort’s grounds.

Blackwell reopened GoldenEye in December following a two-year renovation and expansion project that added nine beachside cottages among other accommodations and amenities. Now bigger and better, it remains one of the most charismatic resorts in the Caribbean, in part because its owner has resisted the temptation to excessively exploit the property’s 007 connections.

Fleming got his first look at Jamaica in 1944, when England’s Naval Intelligence Division dispatched him to attend a conference concerning possible German submarine activities in the Caribbean. Captivated by the beauty of the island and its colonial charm, Fleming resolved that if he survived the war he would return and build a house there. The name of his tropical home, GoldenEye, might be a play on the pidgin Spanish name for the sleepy harbor town on the north coast of Jamaica where it is located, Oracabessa, which translates to "golden head." A likelier source of the home’s moniker is the code name of a contingency plan that Fleming conceived during the war. Operation Goldeneye laid out a strategy for defending Gibraltar if Spain allowed German troops into the Iberian Peninsula.

After the war, in 1946, Fleming returned to Jamaica, bought a 15-?acre plot of waterfront land, and on it built a house that seemed to embody British stoicism. It was basically one large room with plantation shutters and mosquito netting in place of glass panes and screens; meals were served on an old canasta table, and guests sat on wooden benches.

In 1952, Fleming, then 44, married for the first time. Marriage, he claimed, drove him to writing. He would tell friends he did not want to pass his remaining years sitting in the sun watching his wife, Anne Charteris, an artist, paint at her easel. As an escape he sequestered himself in his home every morning, shutters closed against all distractions, and did not emerge until lunchtime.

As for the name James Bond, Fleming had been looking for the dullest, plainest sounding name for his protagonist when, one day in his study, his eye fell on a popular bird-watcher’s book first published in 1936, Birds of the West Indies. Its author was James Bond. No name, he decided, could be more prosaic.

However rudimentary the amenities of chez Fleming—Anne disliked the place intensely—the couple rarely lacked for company. Postwar Jamaica was the playground of the rich and famous, and often as not they washed up on the Flemings’ doorstep. A frequent guest was Noël Coward, the consummate bon vivant of his time, who eventually built his own manor, dubbed Firefly, just 10 miles away. By the mid-1950s a constant stream of friends and celebrities—Evelyn Waugh, Katharine Hepburn, Donald Sutherland, Errol Flynn, Mary Martin, Laurence Olivier, and Truman Capote, to name a few—moved back and forth between the two properties.

Among the regulars at GoldenEye and Firefly was Blackwell’s mother, Blanche. A descendant of one of Jamaica’s most prominent white families, she owned several thousand acres of plantation land near Oracabessa and had sold Coward his property. She was also said to be Fleming’s mistress. Her son does not deny this relationship, which no doubt prompted Fleming to recommend the young Blackwell for the job of location scout for Dr. No.

After Fleming’s death, in 1964, GoldenEye languished until Blackwell acquired it from the Fleming family in 1977. By this time Blackwell was no longer scouting movie locations. In 1959, he founded Island Records, which over the years signed such artists and bands as U2, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, Mott the Hoople, Melissa Etheridge, and Bob Marley. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to which Blackwell was inducted in 2001, Blackwell is the person most responsible for awakening the world to reggae.

Blackwell sold his record company to the Dutch conglomerate PolyGram in 1989 for about $300 million and founded Island Outpost two years later with the goal of rescuing and restoring hotels with what Blackwell calls "an architectural point of view." His first project, the Marlin Hotel in Miami’s South Beach, debuted in 1991 and was followed closely by Strawberry Hill, Compass Point, the Caves, and Jake’s in Jamaica and Pink Sands in the Bahamas.

As for GoldenEye, Blackwell initially entertained friends at Fleming’s house and then gradually acquired more acreage around the original property and added accommodations. By the mid-1990s Black­well had transformed GoldenEye into one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive resorts; just as it had been four decades earlier, the property was again a popular destination for writers, politicians, aristocrats, and the Hollywood set. The main house had remained virtually unchanged since Fleming’s day; the typewriter and desk occupied the same corner they did when the author bent over them each morning, sucking on the first of 70 cigarettes he would consume each day.

Then in 2007 came the news that Island Outpost planned to close the hotel for two years, beginning in 2008, to renovate and expand the property to include nine more one- and two-bedroom beachside cottages, six lagoon suites, two new restaurants, and a spa facility that would also serve as a sports center offering Jet Skis and other water toys. The project also would add two one-bedroom cottages to the Fleming Villa compound. Self-styled aficionados of the author and his work greeted news of the plans with alarm. "Ian Fleming’s beloved GoldenEye to be turned into tourist trap," groused one blogger.

To be sure, given that the Bond persona has been pimped out to flog everything from sunglasses to Coca-Cola Zero, the potential for kitschy excess was immense. Please, I prayed as I arrived at the hotel shortly after its reopening, do not let me find a Shaken Not Stirred martini bar.

Of course, it would be a disappointment if GoldenEye did not acknowledge its literary legacy, and I noted with approval that the walls of the Gazebo, a building that serves as a lounge and restaurant, are hung with a half score of photos of Fleming.

The view from the Gazebo leads over a suspension bridge, down to one of the property’s three beaches, and past a cluster of pastel-hued cottages to where a restaurant and bar are planted on the sand. The effect is inviting and rustic but not contrived.

It could have gone wrong so easily, said architect Ann Hodges, who oversaw the expansion project. "One idea was to have waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels serving drinks on the beach," she said. "Fortunately that idea was quashed. There was talk, too, of numbering the villas 001, 002, 003, and so on, but that didn’t get far either. Early on we thought of breaking ground for the expansion on 07/07/07 as a publicity stunt, but we were too late to do that."

Ultimately, Hodges and Blackwell decided the best thing they could give their guests was a sense of luxury. "In a hotel, the most important measure of luxury is space," said Hodges. "That’s why we built the cottages so large. That’s why we gave the bedrooms cathedral ceilings and made the bathrooms so spacious and placed the showers outdoors."

No less impressive than the new living spaces are the grounds themselves, which serve as a kind of tropical botanical garden. As landscaper and botanist Charlie Wilson explained, the abundance of birds and butterflies did not arrive by accident. "The landscaping is done to attract specific birds and butterflies," said Wilson, moving about the plants with pruning shears. "Green parrots and Jamaican blackbirds like pomegranate. For hummingbirds we’ll plant Jamaican cherry trees, ornamental banana, royal poinciana, or sweetsop, which also makes a nice cocktail with rum. [Blackwell owns an eponymous brand of rum, which is served at GoldenEye.] Lemongrass is good for repelling mosquitoes."

Considering GoldenEye’s James Bond ties, a fruit grown on the grounds, ackee, seems especially appropriate. "You have to let it ripen and open naturally on the tree before picking," said Wilson. "Then you must clean and wash it before cooking." After boiling ackee for 30 minutes, you throw the water away and eat the fruit. "If you do it right, it is delicious and nutritious," said Wilson. "If you do it wrong, it can kill you."

Except for ackees and maybe Jet Skis, guests are unlikely to encounter any Bond-style dangers in and around GoldenEye. In other parts of Jamaica, visitors are warned against venturing into the towns and villages or even hailing a cab, but not at GoldenEye. "We encourage our guests to go off-property and sample the restaurants, the fishing markets, and rum shops in the town," said Blackwell. "We are great believers in community tourism."

Indeed, a stroll through the tiny village of Oracabessa, with its brightly painted houses set above steep riverbanks and ravines, was the perfect way to cap a visit to Blackwell’s hotel. I had ridden a Jet Ski, enjoyed a massage, visited Noël Coward’s Firefly estate, and eaten ackee with salt fish (it was delicious).

In town that night I mingled with a sophisticated, attractive crowd and quaffed a vodka martini—shaken, not stirred—before dining on locally caught lobster. It was understandable if, in a certain light, I was taken for James Bond. If not the secret agent, then the bird-watcher.

GoldenEye, 876.975.3354, www.goldeneye.com