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<< Back to Robb Report, November 2012

The New Mustique

Jack Smith

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mustique Island, a three-and-a-half-mile-long expanse of powdery beaches and cedar forests in the heart of the Grenadines archipelago, was a hotbed of scandal. British royalty and their friends flocked to the Caribbean island to swill Champagne and frolic nude on the beach during the day and party in palatial villas with the help at night. Shielding the island-goers and their torch-lit orgies from the paparazzi became a matter of British national security, with MI5 patrolling the shores to guard against interlopers. Indeed, Mustique was off-limits to all but a select few—the famous, the glamorous, and the excessively wealthy.

Much has changed about the island in the decades since. Where there were once no rules and things happened at the whim of its eccentric owner, Mustique now bows to a corporation that keeps every aspect of life running smoothly. There is an amiable, country-club feel to the villa owners’ weekly socials at the 17-room Cotton House, one of two hotels on the island (the other being the ultra-quaint, five-bedroom Firefly Mustique). And most of Mustique’s 100 villas can now be rented without a personal introduction, though that never hurts.

And yet, as it has for more than half a century, the island remains an exclusive playground of the privileged. "Mustique is not just a holiday destination," reads the foreword to a glossy coffee-table book from the Mustique Company. "It is the celebrity holiday destination capital of the world."

Despite this billing—and in sharp contrast to its paparazzi-packed neighbors in the Caribbean—Mustique seems completely disinterested in celebrity. Among island regulars, a kind of upper-crusty omertà prevails. "We have plenty of celebrities on Mustique, but people don’t talk about who’s here and who isn’t," says Gordon Overing, the Mustique Company’s villa services manager. "It’s not a place for publicity seekers or gawkers. That crowd is more likely to settle on St. Bart’s."

To help keep gawkers at bay, Mustique employs a 25-person security force headed by Simon Humphrey, a rugged veteran of Scotland Yard. The force frequently turns uninvited boats and planes away from the island, and overly aggressive photographers might see their camera gear disappear to the ocean floor. "We don’t have any trouble," Humphrey says. "It’s a self-regulating situation. Bookings are for a minimum of a week and typically cost from $7,500 to $50,000—far more than a grifter is willing to spend for the opportunity to rub elbows with our guests."

Among the first guests on the island of Mustique was Lady Anne Tennant, whose husband, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, acquired the isle in 1958 for £45,000. For all its unspoiled vistas, rolling hills, crystalline waters, and secluded coves, Mustique failed to impress the British noblewoman. "You are quite mad," she is reported to have told her husband upon first sighting his rustic hideaway. "Why would you buy this ghastly little island? Who would want to come here?"

It was a good question at the time. When Glenconner purchased Mustique, the island was a desolate, mosquito-ridden outpost so far away from everything and everybody that the new owner’s vision of turning it into a haven for the international jet set seemed delusional at best. Lady Anne, for one, would not be a part of it; she packed herself off to England, where she spent the greater part of the rest of her life, still married but thousands of miles removed from her dotty husband and his misbegotten Caribbean paradise.

Her spouse did not lament her departure. Now he could devote more time to his two obsessions: Mustique and Princess Margaret.

When Glenconner was in his twenties, he had been touted as a likely match for the princess. The Scottish baron, whose great-great-grandfather had invented industrial bleach, was heir to a vast fortune and the noble rank that came with it. His early life was stereotypically aristocratic; there was Eton, then Oxford, and then the Irish Guards before joining the family firm. He traveled the world—mostly the West Indies and India—looking for and exploiting business opportunities, but it is hard to fathom how much business potential he saw in his little island in the Caribbean.

This is where the princess came in.

In 1960, Margaret—young, pretty, easily bored, and recently married—was honeymooning on the royal yacht Britannia with her husband, Lord Snowdon, when they docked on Mustique. Glenconner viewed Snowdon as unworthy of the princess, an opinion reflected in the baron’s wedding gift: a 10-acre plot of land on Mustique for the princess and the princess alone.

The following year, her marriage already shaky, Margaret set to building a royal residence on the site. She dubbed her villa Les Jolies Eaux, or "The Beautiful Waters," and, with Glenconner playing gatekeeper, the royal retreat came to epitomize the hedonistic lifestyle of the Swinging Sixties.

The princess’s lovers came and went, most notably Roddy Llewellyn, a gardener 17 years her junior. British intelligence—always sensitive to issues pertaining to the throne—became especially concerned when the princess took up with gangster John Bindon.

Of course, with Princess Margaret firmly in place playing royal-in-residence, Glenconner’s dream of making Mustique the world’s most chic destination came to fruition. A trip to Mustique soon became de rigueur for the London smart set, among them David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Even Queen Elizabeth II came to look in on her mercurial sister in 1966; she enjoyed it so much she returned in 1977 and 1985.

Mustique was, without question, a smash success on the international scene. From the more conventional perspective of Glenconner’s balance sheet, however, the island was a flop. In the late 1970s Glenconner announced, to no one’s great surprise, that he could no longer afford Mustique. He soon sold the island to a group headed by Venezuelan paint manufacturer Hans Neumann. Glenconner stayed on the island for several more years but eventually moved to St. Lucia, where he bought a restaurant.

It was the end of an era. But it was by no means the end of Mustique.

Though now in its fifties, and far more modest than in its younger years, Mustique remains a favorite of the jeunesse dorée. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made visits, and the duchess’s parents, the Middletons, are said to be house-hunting on the island. Their potential neighbors on Mustique include Jagger, Paul McCartney, Raquel Welch, Kate Moss, and Tommy Hilfiger.

As with any clubby, tight-knit community, Mustique has spawned its own rites of passage. One way to fit in is to join Firefly Mustique’s Martini Club, which requires drinking 14 of the bar’s martini variations, though not necessarily in the same night. This entitles members to sport the club’s official T-shirt. Then there is Firefly Mustique’s Cham­pagne Club, whose members have, at one time or another, downed the eight Laurent- Perrier Champagne cocktails on the menu. This, too, earns you a T-shirt. Despite Mus­tique’s current state of corporate rule, pool hopping—which involves running from villa to villa in the buff and hopping into each pool—remains popular among the younger set.

The celebrity’s celebrity of the generation is man-about-Mustique Basil Charles, a native of nearby Saint Vin­cent. Charles is proprietor of Basil’s Bar, the thatched-roof, Robinson Crusoe–style watering spot that perches out over the water on stilts. In 2005 he was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the island’s tourism and for providing employment for the islanders. He also has been known to dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas and hand out candy to the island’s children with none other than Mustique householder Jagger trailing along dressed as an elf.

According to householder James Archibald, the main event for Mustique regulars is New Year’s, when everyone gathers on Macaroni Beach at dawn to greet the rising sun. "Yacht owners are tolerated as long as they buy a ticket," said the architect and former rugby player as we climbed into his SUV for a ride around the island. "Otherwise it’s impossible to get in."

Archibald, one of several former rugby players on Mustique, came to the island to do a short-term rebuilding project and was persuaded by Glenconner to stay on. "I was close enough to aristocracy for him to want me to stay," Archibald said. "He never had a plan for commercial gain; he just wanted to be king of his island, and he was."

It is fair to say that today’s Mustique transcends even Glenconner’s wildest ambitions for the place. The hillsides gleam with villas evoking French chateaux, Moroccan riads, antebellum plantation manors, Balinese pavilions, gingerbread-house-style cottages, Oriental temples, and Georgian mansions. A certain cachet accrues to the homes designed by British theatrical designer Oliver Messel (who happened to be Snowdon’s uncle). From 1960 to 1978, Messel erected Les Jolies Eaux and 17 additional villas on the island, as well as the Cotton House hotel. The properties—marked by canary-yellow color schemes, trompe l’oeil ceilings, verandas, and interconnecting rooms with individual roofs—have come to represent the classic Mustique style.

The proliferation of styles on Mustique, explained Archibald, is a simple matter of capabilities. "The new harbor allows us to deliver building materials in 40-foot-long containers; we couldn’t do that 40 years ago," he said. "As a result the new villas are grander, costing up to $50 million or more to build. The build quality is higher, but the properties are not as quaint."

Archibald’s firm, James Archibald Designs, is responsible for much of the island’s current look, having refurbished or built more than half of the homes on Mustique. Some of these, he admitted—while driving past a house that appeared to be half–Moorish palace, half-observatory—can best be described as gaudy. "That house," he noted, "has gold shower fixtures."

But that is part of the fun of Mustique. "It gives you the chance to express yourself," Archibald said.

After Archibald’s tour, with dinner over and the last of the wine gone, the charismatic Basil Charles convinced a group of visitors to follow him out to the beach to see the Hawksbill turtles nesting. Once at the beach, Charles led the way across the wet sand like the Pied Piper.

"Are you sure the turtles are here?" somebody asked, yelling to be heard over the pounding surf.

Basil assured the group that we would see the turtles any minute now.

"Have any oligarchs bought on the island?" asked another visitor out of the blue.

"Not so far," one of the Mustique homeowners said over the surf.

"I heard Abramovich was looking on Mustique," came a fourth voice. "His yacht apparently caused quite a stir."

For a minute there was silence, then another voice piped up from the blackness.

"He went to St. Bart’s."

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH
In addition to the 17-room Cotton House and five-room Firefly Mustique hotels, 74 of the island’s 100 villas can be rented through the Mustique Company (855.261.1316, www .mustique-island.com). In January, the company introduced two new villas, Sienna and Tanama.

The Tuscan-style, five-bedroom villa Sienna overlooks Macaroni Beach and Pasture Bay, its grounds lavishly endowed with tropical gardens, statuary, and bubbling fountains. An enormous chandelier festoons 20-?foot ceilings in the great room, and three Messel-style bedroom pavilions offer views of sea and gardens. A semicircular diving pool finished with smooth black stone measures 23 feet by 40 feet, while a larger pool fashioned from white Mexican stone features a swim-in cave with seating. Equally attention-grabbing is a crown set casually in the middle of a courtyard at the villa. With the flip of a switch—which initiates a powerful stream of water below it—the crown hovers high overhead as if by magic. ($30,000–$38,000 per week)

The Oliver Messel–inspired four-bedroom villa Tanama (the Arawak Indian term for “butterfly”) abounds with such signature details as elliptical arches, glazed fanlights, pickled tray ceilings, molded architraves, and pebbled showers. The floor plan of the canary-yellow residence (Messel’s trademark hue for Mus­tique) flows seamlessly from the formal dining and seating areas to a pool terrace and outdoor lounge. The property is set in the island’s Endeavour foothills, within walking distance of tennis courts, stables, a dive shop, a cricket pitch, beaches, and bars. ($10,000–$18,000 per week)

This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue.

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