Travelling the Caribbean by island routes can be both a challenge and an adventure, but always an experience, as was mine from George F.L. Charles airport at Vigie to Norman Manley international in Jamaica, which took all of 14 hours and three flights, including a six-hour overnight stay, through Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago, from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Landing in Kingston and adjusting my mind’s clock to Daylight Saving Time, another long ride awaited: from Kingston to Ocho Rios, along the Edward Seaga Highway.
The hours-long drive along Jamaica’s new, long but time-shortening north-south highway was another island-route experience, the seemingly-endless pedestrian-free four-lane, two-way stretch mainly looking like a Highway to Heaven, with no sinners left walking.
But it was worth every minute of my latest overseas assignment chronicling Caribbean life – this time a return to the roots of the route that led to the endearing and enduring story of a boy, a beach and a big dream.
Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart grew-up walking the Ocho Rios beach daily, selling fish to hotels — and it was on one of those fishy walks that the roots of today’s Sandals hotel chain were planted.
One of the hotels he sold fish to was the famed Arawak – and many moons later, what seemed like a faraway dream in the island’s Blue Mountains was fast-forwarded into the first Sandals Dunn’s River, where yet another dream (this time shared between father and son) is about to be given what Saint Lucia’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott describes as ‘Another Life…’
Long before Dunn’s River, Butch started living the Sandals dream in Montego Bay, leading (four decades later) to Sandals Resorts International (SRI) now owning the best luxury-included hotel resorts across the islands — from Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados and Curacao (Sandals’ ABC islands) to Grenada, Saint Lucia and Turks & Caicos islands.
I’ve scribbled the Sandals story from 1993, when Butch’s vision saw him purchase a beach property at La Toc, in South Castries, into SRI’s first Saint Lucia property.
I saw Sandals Regency La Toc grow from a European-owned Caribbean hotel in April 1992 into one of SRI’s and Saint Lucia’s leading properties — and 30 years later, it still stands tall alongside SRI’s three other Saint Lucia properties: Sandals Halcyon, Sandals Grande Saint Lucia Resort & Spa and the Sandals Cap Estate Golf Course.
I covered the opening of Sandals Barbados in 2014 and Sandals Royal Curacao in 2022, witnessing Sandals first move outside the Caribbean Community’s English-speaking region into the Netherlands Antilles, combining the historic mix of languages and scenic island life at the former Santa Barbara hotel compound into the new tourism gem it shines in another ‘ABC islands’ group (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).
After 40 years scribbling the Sandals story, I can say today, without doubt or any fear of contradiction, that Sandals has been one of Jamaica’s best success stories – and a very significant contributor to Saint Lucia’s Treasury over the past 30 years
In less than half-a-century, SRI has not only become a national symbol of Jamaican determination in pursuit of success, but also a pivotal example of how well-led Caribbean businesses can, in exemplary ways, not just stand the test of international competition in the region’s tourism business, but also a prime contributor to employment generation – and the public purse, contributing over EC $260 million in annual tax payments here in 2022 alone, also training and employing over 2,000 Saint Lucians.
After the legendary ‘Butch’ boarded the ultimate flight to The Great Beyond (that we’ll all eventually take), his successor son Adam has (in two years) undertaken to improve and expand on all SRI properties across the region, while continuing to give longer life to his and his dad’s dreams by constructing new hotels, including the Buccament Bay resort under way in St. Vincent & The Grenadines.
SRI has also since linked with Adam’s alma mater, Florida International University (FIU) and The University of the West Indies (The UWI) to create the Caribbean’s first hospitality university in Jamaica – in the name of the most iconic pioneering and groundbreaking investor in the globalization of the regional tourism and travel industry.
And after surviving COVID, SRI has also promised to create 5,000 Caribbean jobs across its Caribbean properties.
But clearly, the biggest Sandals dream came to life yesterday (May 19) through the reconceptualization of what SRI Executive Chairman Adam Stewart calls “a hotel with a legendary past and a legendary promise.”
As he explained to me, “Along this incredible stretch of Ocho Rios beach is where my dad grew-up — a place close to his heart, filled with family and friends — and some very big dreams…
“It was there, selling fish to local hoteliers that he witnessed first-hand Jamaica’s burgeoning tourism industry and became awed by new visitors who arrived by air and soon fell in love with our Caribbean playground.”
The SRI Executive Chairman added, “Rising from the original site of the famed Arawak, Sandals Dunn’s River is not only an homage to my father but to Jamaica, which he so deeply loved.”
Highlighting the auspicious nature of yesterday’s formal ribbon-cutting opening of Dunn’s River 2, Stewart acknowledged that “Every hotel opening has significance…”
But, with the pioneer in his dad still very-much in mind, he stressed that “For me and my family, this one is truly special, it’s personal — our last collaboration together and filled with tremendous meaning and memories.”
Describing the opening of the wholly-reconceptualized Dunn’s River as “The Return of a Legend”, the younger steward of the Stewart Family’s ever-growing multi-national and regional exclusive and exquisite hospitality ended this way:
“Now it’s our turn, with great responsibility and humility, to delight the next generation of travelers to Sandals Resorts and to our home island of Jamaica.
“In this way, my father’s story, our family’s story, the legendary story of Sandals Resorts, continues…”