Tucked away in the British Virgin Islands is Oil Nut Bay, one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Back on its feet after last year’s Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc through the islands, I discover its hidden depths.
The first thing that strikes you are the colours: cobalt, teal and turquoise swirl around like someone’s dropped a huge pipette of blue inks in the ocean. Meanwhile, above you, the cornflower-blue sky is scudded with cotton-wool clouds to create a seamless sensation of endlessness. Welcome to the British Virgin Islands.
A famous destination for sailing holidays, the cluster of islands in the Caribbean, close to Anguilla, is, of course, all about the water – from its famous Baths (a collection of massive granite boulders off the south-western tip of Virgin Gorda) to its spectacular diving and snorkelling (healthy coral reefs, underwater caves and shipwrecks mean you will swim with a host of sea-life, such as turtles, devil rays and barracuda) – this is a veritable playground for water babies.
Looking around the pristine scene, it’s hard to imagine the devastation caused a year ago by Hurricane Irma – the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. Many of the islands were destroyed with the storm running a straight course through the island chain. Playing its part in the area’s recovery was Oil Nut Bay – one of the destination’s most recent developments and, arguably, the most interesting. Found on the north-eastern tip of Virgin Gorda (one of the four largest islands out of the 60 that make up the BVIs), the only way to check in is by boat or by helicopter. The sprawling resort is spread across 300 acres, and consists of a collection of uber-luxury villas and suites, available to buy or rent, all with sweeping views across the Caribbean Sea.
One of the first resorts in the BVIs to reopen to guests, despite being hit by the 200 mile-per-hour winds, it has since set up the North Sound Foundation to support the local community. In addition to ongoing clean-up, supplies and long-term planning with the government and community, the Foundation and Oil Nut Bay have adopted the Robinson O’Neal Elementary School in the North Sound and will be spearheading the rebuilding of the school, which was heavily damaged during Irma.
It’s no coincidence that the idea of Oil Nut Bay was conceived by the world’s leading expert in waterside developments – American developer David V. Johnson, veteran of 42 high-end projects, but most famous for the landmark $1 billion Bay Harbor development on the shores of Lake Michigan. After travelling the world for ten years looking for the site of his next project – and the place he wanted to call his ‘forever home’ – he finally settled on the British Virgin Islands. “It’s the only place in the world that fulfilled my ‘location criteria’,” he says. “It has physical beauty, a stable government, no corruption and is extremely safe.
“Following Irma, our immediate goals were to make sure our team members have a job to come to every day, to support the relief efforts of Virgin Gorda and to build the public’s confidence in the future of the British Virgin Islands,” he continues. “Oil Nut Bay and the BVIs are back, and they will be better than before.”
Attracting the world’s glitterati – think CEOs and leaders from the fashion, music and business industries – Oil Nut Bay is still in its infancy and due to its unique architecture – sculpted with the diverse topography of Virgin Gorda and with nature’s forces in mind – damage was fairly limited. Currently offering 17 villas – tucked away in the hills, beaches and ridges of the estate – it will eventually expand to around 67 properties in the next ten years.
Architectural excellence, sustainability and social responsibility are key concerns for Johnson – as they are, he says, for the people who will buy here. Ticking the first box is the fact that each villa is built with leading architects in conjunction with the owners. While each is wonderfully unique they all implement an abundance of natural materials – carved wood features, rock walls and stone surfaces – and have an emphasis on light-filled rooms to showcase the ocean views. Al-fresco details (such as outdoor tubs, jacuzzis and lounges) are also key, not to mention the luxury finishes and attention to detail throughout.
The eco box, meanwhile, is ticked by the resort’s Environmental Excellence policy – there is low-density planning and 50% of the land has been designated as open space, with nature trails and land preserves. Solar power-generated electricity is used for air conditioning, refrigeration, hot water and community lighting and there is also extensive water management at play. What’s more, many properties have green roofing technology so that from the ocean much of the resort appears hidden as it blends in with its natural surroundings.
One of the stand-out villas that holidaymakers can rent is Water’s Edge, perched high on the ridge on the north side of the resort. Contemporary décor is sleek and modern. Rough-hewn granite walls line the al fresco lobby area, while the focus is firmly put on the dramatic infinity pool, which seems to merge with the aquamarine sea beyond. It’s Instagram heaven.
Inside, décor is contemporary and pared back – with no sign of the usual Caribbean chintz. There is an elegant living room and kitchen with state-of-the-art amenities, and the master bedroom comes complete with an open-air shower and soaking tub.
The newest villa, meanwhile, is the impressive Poseidon’s Perch. Push open the huge carved door with its motif of the Greek god of the sea and inside you’ll find a paean to open-air living. Carved into a ridge, the villa is spread across a series of pavilions on different levels, so each area feels private and secluded. Inside, vaulted ceilings and natural stone features give a tactile feel. Luxury touches such as vast beds, walk-in wardrobes and thick rugs give a nod to the top-tier travellers who will be checking in.
As well as villa accommodation, there are also three Cliff Suites available complete with their own pools. The standout is the Cliff Penthouse with glamourous interiors designed by Fendi Casa – expect black croc lined bathrooms, white leather furniture and Murano glass chandeliers. It’s like Milan-on-sea.
At the heart of Oil Nut Bay is the Beach Club where guests can dine in the al fresco restaurant. Be warned: you’ll have a hard time choosing between the Caribbean-Euro fusion dishes that chef Leonard Sorce has artfully conjured up. From the appetisers of Mahi Mahi Tacos and Coconut Red Curry Calamari to the mains of Red Snapper with Wild Mushroom Ravioli and Roasted Jerk Wahoo Filet with Rainbow Swiss Chard… it’s the sort of menu you can order from time and time again and still be inspired. Mornings are kicked off with American-Caribbean style breakfasts – think: Breakfast Roti, Blue Cornmeal Buckwheat Pancakes or Frittata with Lobster. While, for lunch there’s an al forno pizza oven and a casual menu for informal dining.
Luckily – as well as the three pools and cabanas – there’s also a plethora of water sports to keep waistlines in check. While Oil Nut Bay’s USP is all about offering privacy and seclusion – there’s still a real focus on providing an innovative range of activities and sports – with paddle boarding, sailing and kayaking being just a few available. As well as tennis, volleyball and yoga there are also pickle-ball courts (said to be one of the fastest growing sports in the US), and hiking trails to make the most of the great outdoors. A must is an early morning hike to Pajaros Point. There are a variety of trails – according to ability – which will take you through the rugged landscape – covered with its strange Turks Head cactuses and fragrant frangipani flowers – and bringing you to the highest and most north-easterly point of Virgin Gorda with its scenic views to the islands beyond.
For younger guests, the Nut House Kids Club and Nature Centre focuses on educational activities and there’s a changing daily calendar of activities to cater for all the family. “It’s all about a multi-generational appeal,” says Johnson. The next project on the horizon is a community organic garden to supply the restaurant kitchen but where guests can also visit and purchase produce.
A social conscience is clearly important to Johnson who, after discovering that 90% of local children can’t swim – has set about to provide swimming lessons in a nearby school. “I want to make a difference in the BVI,” he says. “Living here is all about community and neighbourhood. That’s the attraction for us all.”
Carrier (0161 492 1354, carrier.co.uk) offers seven nights from £3,965 per person based on two adults sharing a one-bedroom Cliff Suite on a room only basis, including return flights from London Gatwick with British Airways, and private transfers.
*This feature is also published in the September 2018 issue of Canary Wharf Magazine