Anguilla: Malliouhana Resort and Spa
When Malliouhana (the Arawak Indian name for Anguilla) opened in 1982, it made an enormous splash--for its dramatic headland setting, vaguely Moorish archi- tecture, and enormous marble bathrooms, which set a new resort standard. When the 15,000-square-foot spa opened in 2002, it caused barely a ripple--I don't know why--despite being one of the best and most beautiful in the Caribbean. A two-story $5 million glass-and-white-stucco building done in the same style as the rest of the resort, it commands an ocean view. However, the interiors are warmer, with an earth-tone palette and floors of bamboo and tile. Three of the eight treatment rooms are spa suites, with bathrooms and private terraces.
The spa's menu is rooted in director Tanya Clark's long experience in Japan and Thailand, and her partially Asian staff executes it with aplomb. Ticky, one of two Thai massage therapists, perfectly delivered the Suite Dreams treatment (150 minutes, $325), a hydrotherapy bath followed by a scalp massage, citrus salt glow, and Swedish-inspired massage. Her colleague Tang gave me a stellar Balinese massage (60 minutes, $95).
The things that made Malliouhana a milestone in the Caribbean are still there: the enormous rooms (the smallest is 720 square feet); the fan-shaped cliff-top restaurant with a drop-dead ocean view; chef Alain Laurent, from the three-Michelin-star restaurant of La Bonne Auberge in Antibes, France; the wine cellar of 25,000 bottles, second to none in the region; the gorgeous beach. Some things have changed for the better: Laurent's French-Caribbean cuisine is much lighter than it used to be. And some haven't: The 55 rooms, which seemed so beautifully spare in the '80s, now look underfurnished and the rattan pieces a bit pedestrian. As for connectivity--there's no TV, radio, clock, or Internet portal in the rooms--that's your call. On balance, though, Malliouhana, 23 years on, is solidly in the top tier of Caribbean resorts. --E.P.
The Bahamas: One&Only Ocean Club, Paradise Island
If you ranked Caribbean resorts on a luxury scale from barefoot to Manoloed, this 101-room hotel would effortlessly hold down the latter end. It's urbane (the reigning aesthetic is contemporary planter) and self-consciously cultivated--the centerpiece is the gorgeous Versailles garden, crowned by a 14th-century Augustinian cloister brought from Europe. And it draws a clientele that's accustomed to being catered to (24-hour butler service, beach attendants who give foot massages), likes things customized (few group fitness classes, lots of personal training options), and is breezy about public displays of wealth: I saw one woman in the pool wearing about 50 carats of diamonds.
Opened in 1962 by Huntington Hartford II, the heir to the A&P fortune, the Ocean Club was a jet-set playground in the '60s and a Wall Street one in the '80s. Now, after a $100 million makeover by One&Only Resorts in 2000, it's recapturing elements of both eras. The redo included the addition of a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, Dune, a seductive beachside room designed by Christian Liaigre. The restaurant serves inspired Bahamian-accented versions of Vongerichten's signature French-Asian dishes, like local lobster in a light curry sauce with fried plantains and bok choy.
The spa, which opened in December 2001, has eight superdeluxe (760 square feet) Balinese-style villas, brimming with teak carvings and luscious silks. Each has a changing room and shower, garden courtyard, and daybed for resting between treatments. It's a cocoon, and of course the therapists all come to you. I half-expected six-hand massages and precious-metal oils on the spa menu, but here the resort wisely chose to play it straight. Treatments are from the very good marine-based line Elemis. I tried the Cellutox Aroma Ocean Wrap (110 minutes, $189) and the Pro-Collagen Marine Facial (75 minutes, $140). The therapists were technically proficient, if a bit impersonal (and I didn't like the product hard sell after the facial). But their ministrations made me feel glamorous--which, in the end, is what the Ocean Club strives to do most for its guests. --A.A.
British Virgin Islands: Biras Creek, Virgin Gorda
This resort sits squarely on the Tropic of Rusticity. It's accessible only by boat; the roads are dirt and guests get around by bicycle; the 31 cottages are comfy but no-frills, with air-conditioning only in the bedrooms and Pier One furniture in the living rooms. The spa, created in 2003, occupies one of the cottages. "It was the least popular room," says GM Christine Oliver candidly.
In short, Biras Creek forgoes style for seclusion and simplicity. Substance it has, though. The food is very good, especially the daily "healthy choice" specials. The main dining room crowns a hill, and the view down the long finger of North Sound is divine at sunset. The wine list is smartly chosen and reasonably priced. And the tiny spa surprises with a long treatment menu and an excellent corps of therapists, many from India.
I sign up for "Mind, Body, and Spirit," a one-on-one yoga session followed by a massage and then a very cooling aloe wrap (180 minutes, $250). Prya, then the teacher, is an almost yoga master, and the class is a solid run-through of basic and intermediate poses. The payoff comes in the excellent massage, in which she focuses on areas of inflexibility that turned up in yoga. Thai massage (75 minutes, $140) the next day with Appu Ganesan, a lithe Indian with bridge-cable strength, is formidable and effective.
One big trade-off here is limited, albeit good, service. There's no room service, no beach drinks patrol, and no one at the pool to turn to in late afternoon when the "Clean Towels" bin is empty. Mealtimes are set: Breakfast is from 8 to 10, and when I turn up at 9:50 for coffee one morning, the staff is already breaking down the tables.
Nonetheless, Biras Creek has a certain appeal, especially for Brits, who make up some 30 percent of the guests. It depends on how much you value simplicity--bicycling to the beach, hearing little but the desultory clank of sail cable against mast, having the pool (and the IMAX ocean view) to yourself. It costs more than $800 a night in high season, but that includes three meals. Pricey or priceless? Your call. --G.W.
British Virgin Islands: Little Dix Bay Virgin Gorda
Renaissance is occurring at this venerable property, one of the original Rock Re-sorts (opened in 1964). While it still has many rooms from the '60s and '70s (their main drawbacks: modest size and tiny bathrooms), the resort has recently built two villas (one two-bedroom, one three) and eight very spacious junior suites and created four handsome one-bedroom suites out of older rooms. And last year it unveiled a cliff-top spa, which gets the Caribbean gold for "extraordinary views." The waiting area, chaises around the spa pool, looks out on Sir Francis Drake Channel, and the nine treatment rooms, nicely hidden in the vegetation, enjoy the same prospect.
The Cliff Spa Suite, the couple's treatment room, has the largest terrace and the best ocean view. You could easily spend a morning at the suite, going from eight-o'clock yoga or Pilates by the pool to the divine little beach at the base of the cliff for a swim, then back up to the suite for treatments, with the finale being an alfresco lunch from the spa menu.
The therapists are first-rate. Nancy Brock gives a dynamite trigger-point massage (pressure applied to a specific point to relax a muscle; 50 minutes, $115). The hydrating body treatments, particularly the Mango Pineapple Sugar Scrub (25 minutes, $70) and the Virgin Gorda Goat Milk and Honey Wrap (55 minutes, $125), are a good way to counteract the drying effects of the omnipresent wind.
The guest rooms at Little Dix Bay stand just back from the scallop-shaped beach. That and the Children's Grove play facility draw a fair number of couples with young children to the resort. Nonetheless, the atmosphere is adult and smart-casual, with the bar and restaurant very lively and social in the evening--although the food is just so-so. On Saturday nights, the place to go dancing is Chez Bamboo, just over the hill.
It's great to see one of the Caribbean's old-timers in the prime of life. --G.W.
Cancun: Ritz-Carlton Cancun
Upon checking into this spa, you hear one cuckoo-clock chime and then, a moment later, a spa valet materializes from inside. It's your first clue that the Kayantý Spa marries two distinct (and most unlikely) personalities--Swiss punctuality and Mexican graciousness--into one smoothly functioning operation.
Having a spa valet is a great idea. He or she explains the layout, functions as a kind of butler--mine even brought a bottle of water into the steam room--and then takes you to the waiting area. "Your therapist will be here in two minutes," he said pleasantly, while arranging an amenity more spas should offer: a warmed, spice-laden neck pillow. I
couldn't help but watch the clock, and sure enough, 120 seconds later, Alejandra Ochoa appeared.
The spa's name comes from the Mayan phrase ka a yaan tah, which means "to be reborn," and the spa hits the anthropological note consistently throughout its extensive menu (49 treatments), while also offering modalities from around the world, such as shirodhara, Zen shiatsu, and Balinese lulur. (Spa director Simona Dumitru's picks: the Mexican Vanilla Wrap, the Warm Sea Fango Therapy, and the Piedtitas Stone Facial.) The Mayan Avocado Yogurt Wrap (50 minutes, $130) left my skin feeling superhydrated as promised, although the execution is a bit awkward as the therapist tries to work the avocado paste onto your back while you're lying down. Why not just have you turn over?
The spa has a gorgeous outdoor treatment palapa on its spacious terrace and inviting relaxation patios with whirlpool baths, and the 365-room hotel is an enclave of exclusivity and good service on what is admittedly a hoi polloi coast. But the color of the sea (an ivory-turquoise blend) still rivals that of Anguilla, and Cancýn is an easy shot from almost every major U.S. city.
What remains in my mind about the Kayantý Spa is another sharp trick. Before the therapist leaves the treatment room so you can disrobe, she hands you a small remote control. When you're settled on the table, you click it. In the hall, the light above the door turns green, the signal for the therapist to enter. Why hasn't anyone thought of that before? --G.W.
Jamaica: Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort Rose Hall
The spa at this montego bay resort is among the most polished and professional in the Caribbean. The locker room attendants were incredibly attentive--bringing me water and cool cloths in the steam room, then returning after ten minutes to take me to the cold plunge. And the therapists are well trained, both in executing and in explaining treatments.
The lengthy menu draws heavily on local plants and June Jacobs products. The signature Sugarcane Body Scrub (60 minutes, $135) is the most popular nonmassage service, according to spa director Samantha Telesford, though the Tropical Enzyme Body Polish (60 minutes, $135) is gaining. It's a scrub with lemon sugar granules, a wrap with papaya and pineapple enzymes, a grapefruit bath, and an application of citrus lotion that smelled great and left my skin soft.
Aesthetician Trecia Lunan didn't just follow the script but looked closely at my skin and suggested I swap the Ocean Elements Facial (75 minutes, $165) I'd booked for a Collagen Lifting one (75 minutes, $165). It was the right call: After the treatment, in which she used Academie Scientifique products and a cloth collagen mask, I looked unusually well-rested.
The 8,000-square-foot spa is what you'd expect from a Ritz-Carlton--neoclassical looks, blue-and-yellow color scheme, mahogany furniture--though it's leavened with rattan furnishings and bright flowers. Nice touches: high-thread-count sheets on treatment beds and warmed towels provided after the bath portion of the body polish. Treatments can also be given oceanside.
The 427-room resort is textbook Ritz-Carlton, too. The scale is grand, the grounds manicured, and the style traditional, though guest rooms are spiced up with vivid colors and geometric-patterned rugs, and food options with a "jerk center" on the beach along with the more formal restaurants. Service, too, generally meets the company's high standards, so its fans should feel at home here--Perhaps that (and the golf course) is why the resort does a booming weddings and conventions business. --A.A.
Jamaica: Round Hill Hotel and Villas
The architecture at this old-school Montego Bay resort is colonial Jamaican--it was once a pineapple plantation and opened as a hotel in 1953--but the vibe is Nantucket South: old money, refined taste, nothing showy. The floors are mahogany rather than marble; the lighting, lanterns rather than chandeliers. Ralph Lauren has a rental villa and a home of his own here--probably because he was so at home with the resort's aesthetic--and he designed the Piano Bar and some of the guest rooms. The resort consists of 36 traditional hotel rooms, all oceanfront, and 27 two- to five-bedroom villas that hug the bougainvillea-splashed hillside up from Round Hill Bay. Most of these have glorious private pools, and all have part-time staff.
But the spa, added in 2002, feels like an afterthought. Built in an 18th-century guesthouse, it's a ten-minute walk from the rest of the resort. On the plus side, this means the spa pool is quiet--a boon as the villas attract many families with young children. But its seven treatment rooms aren't so much understated as undecorated, with plain white walls, no plants, and ghetto blasters on the floor. They're actually three larger rooms separated into smaller ones with partial walls and curtains--the setup reminded me of a hospital room. Your best bet is to book one of the four packages ($125-$260) that include a hydrotherapy treatment, as these are done in a lush outdoor space with the hydrotherapy tub, a rain shower, and a massage table.
The products and treatments are Elemis, but my therapist didn't seem to have undergone the usual Elemis training. She couldn't tell me anything about the products she used for my Exotic Coconut Rub and Milk Ritual Wrap (60 minutes, $100), a scrub with ground coconut followed by a wrap with Elemis's milk bath. She kept trying to twist my chin-length hair into Princess Leia buns but didn't place a bolster beneath my knees and failed to check in with me during the treatment or let me know when she was leaving the room. It was all the more surprising because service in the rest of the resort was so polished. --A.A.
Jamaica Strawberry Hill
This upscale-rustic resort is in the Blue Mountains, 50 minutes from Kingston. An 18th-century plantation, it was purchased in 1972 by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who used it as his own residence until opening it as a hotel in 1994. He's dressed it up but kept it true to its roots. The 12 airy cottages are decorated in colonial style, with handmade mahogany furniture and Jamaican fretwork, and have wide balconies. Like the restaurant and infinity pool, they have views of the mountains and the ocean beyond. The restaurant serves some of the spiciest resort food I've had. Carole Fullerton, GM when I visited, tells me Blackwell is committed to hiring within the community. It's an admirable idea that results in a genuinely friendly staff but uneven service.
As for the spa, the question is why Blackwell imported Ayurveda, in the form of an Aveda Concept Spa, to a remote area that's rich in healing traditions of its own. The Aveda script--"would you like to go on a sensory journey today?"--sounded strange in a Jamaican accent, and it seemed to me that the therapists weren't comfortable with it. One told me he learned Ayurveda by reading a Deepak Chopra book.
I sign up for a customized full body massage (60 minutes, $90) and the Body Elixir (50 minutes, $120), a body scrub and Vichy shower, but scrap the latter when I learn there's no heat in the treatment rooms--late afternoons get cool in the winter--and book the Essential Back Treatment (30 minutes, $45), a back facial. The therapists tried hard but displayed a dismaying lack of knowledge and professionalism: They hadn't heard of Renova and answered my questions about ingredients by reading the bottle labels. The male massage therapist interrupted our consultation to compliment my hair, then began the massage on my upper thighs; the woman who gave the back treatment offered only a perfunctory apology when she caught my hair in the electric spinning brush used for exfoliation.
If the spa left me cold, I loved the hiking, led by local guides on trails through villages. It epitomizes what the hotel does best: immerse you in the authentically Jamaican. --A.A.
Nevis: Four Seasons Resort Nevis
Bring the Callaways and the nanny if you come to this intensely kid-friendly slice of Greenwich-on-the-Caribbean. The resort's driveway slices through the impeccably manicured golf course, leading you to expect a palace. What you find instead is the beach shack as reimagined by Four Seasons. The 196 rooms are spread through two-story wood-sided buildings with screened porches. Arriving at your room, you step into the classic Four Seasons womb of luxury. The signature spaciousness (doubles are at least 490 square feet) and marble bathrooms are here, but so are coral-colored walls, rattan furniture, and bright kilims. Families and corporate groups come for the country club coziness, the kids program, and chef Cyrille Pannier's prosciutto-wrapped black cod with breadfruit and sunchoke ragout. Factor in the beach, where you're spritzed with Evian by fawning attendants, and you see why many guests never explore this sleepy island.
The centerpiece of the 12,000-square-foot spa is a garden with six yellow gingerbread cottages, each housing a treatment room, lining a winding path surrounded by thick tropical foliage. The interiors are modern, climate-controlled environments with earth-toned tile. Massages are also offered in a spacious beach cabana.
I had a solid Nevisian Massage (50 minutes, $110), essentially a Swedish massage with some deep elbow work. The Rum Tonic (80 minutes, $190) began with a sugarcane exfoliation and rum-ginger-and-honey glaze. It continued with a Vichy shower and an application of shea butter. Refreshing, sure, but it felt a bit rushed, as if there were one too many steps. I found tranquillity on a chaise at the sala pool, gazing at cloud-capped Nevis Peak. But only temporarily: A loud bass thumping from an adjacent corporate meet-and-greet shattered the calm. (An hour later at dinner, it sounded like a battle of the bands.) Alas, the resort's thriving meetings business and its peaceful spa don't always coexist harmoniously. --E.P.
St. Martin: La Samanna
From the accents and brisk attitudes of the front-desk staff, you'd think La Samanna had been airlifted to St. Martin from the Riviera. Still, it's not French enough for some Parisians. They bemoan the Creole-speaking waitstaff's casual use of tu rather than the formal vous. To its credit, the hotel is content to let the Parisians fume--this is the Caribbean, not Saint-Tropez, after all.
The 81 rooms are in two-story white stucco villas with bright blue doors. Each room opens to Baie Longue, the island's longest beach, but it's the pool, perched 30 feet above the ocean, that's the dreamiest spot. My one-bedroom suite (830 square feet) was handsome enough in pale yellows and Mexican tiles, but like 31 rooms already, it will soon undergo a minimalist makeover, turning white and beige, with dark wood and just a hint of warmth. And those tiny '60s-vintage bathrooms are finally being enlarged.
The Elysýes Spa stands alone, with five treatment rooms arrayed around a courtyard but no relaxation room. Four of them have delightful alfresco showers and louvers, so you can hear Caribbean songbirds mix with the New Age music or French pop that's playing. The seven therapists are French, and my Swedish massage (50 minutes, $130) was invigorated by a strong Chinese accent. If you're brave, go for the Moxa treatment (90 minutes, $260), administered by the singularly gifted Pascale Panot, who studied traditional Chinese medicine. The Moxa is a cigar-shaped roll of mugwort (artemisia) that's lit until a glowing ember forms at the end. Panot moves the burning tip in small circles about an inch above 25 or so acupuncture points on your body. It hurts as much as you might imagine--she admits that many people cry. Reflexology and an abdominal massage follow, meant to release deep tensions and emotions. While I felt relaxed immediately afterward, a fitful night of sleep followed. It's pain as purgative, and whether you consider that catharsis or torture, Elysýes's therapists are among the most intuitive and inventive I've encountered. --E.P.
Turks & Caicos: The Palms
Give the staff time to mature: That's the gist of this new mega-million-dollar property on the main resort island, Providenciales. The 72 suites and public spaces are gorgeous, with a neo-Palladian look inspired by British set designer Oliver Messel. The restaurant is sexy, the food is fantastic, and the resort provides of-the-moment amenities like iPod Minis. But the cast, as of my March visit, didn't have the polish to cater to a clientele paying upwards of $750 a night. It took 20 minutes to get a breakfast check, no one at the pool bar could make the signature cocktail, housekeeping left room doors unlocked, and, in one instance, a staff member let himself into a room when the couple was in bed asleep.
It was the same story at the spa. The 25,000-square-foot facility has a glorious T-shaped reflecting pool, shoji-screened yoga studio, and two huge couple's suites. The therapists are experienced and skilled, but the support staff is neither on the job--shampoo and sandals were in short supply--nor winning. One ordered me to sit down because "you look tired."
The spa menu is exotic--the signature services are the Mother of Pearl Scrub (25 minutes, $65), which uses ground conch shells, and the Zareeba (80 minutes, $175), an inhalation therapy. The scrub was too abrasive--and too gimmicky. There's no local tradition of using conch shells in skin care, and they're so hard to grind that it takes two hours to get enough for two treatments. I liked the Zareeba, which means "safe enclosure" in Arabic and refers to the shoulder-height, canvas-front teak box in which you sit. In front of you is a clay pot full of dogwood, eucalyptus, lemongrass, and about a dozen other herbs in boiling water, which purportedly improve the functioning of almost all the body's systems. Afterward, Earl Blake, who learned the treatment from its originator, Jamaican herbalist Shirley Genus, gave me an assured full-body massage.
I also had an exquisite Thai massage (50 minutes, $115) from Rosanna Dela Rosa, a native Filipina who's been a therapist for 14 years. It was almost enough to make me forgive the attendants who didn't understand that you're supposed to wear clothes for Thai massage. --A.A.
Turks & Caicos: Parrot Cay
This 1,000-acre private-island hideaway is an outpost of the Asian luxury chain COMO Hotels and Resorts. Therein lies the reason its Shambhala spa may be the best in the Caribbean: It's staffed by a corps of well-trained, experienced Asians from other COMO properties, and they are up to executing the pan-Asian menu of massage. All the modalities I sampled--Indonesian, tui na (Chinese for "push and grab"), and Thai (each 60 minutes, $120)--were excellent, as was the spa's great version of hot stone (90 minutes, $220), in which you're on your back most of the time.
Although it nearly doubled in size in 2004, the spa is still small, but it has dramatic views of the adjoining North Caicos Island. There's also the private Shambhala Cottage treatment pavilion and a separate Pilates studio with a Reformer and Wunda chair for private sessions, still a rarity at resorts. And in the restaurant, there's the alternative--and very good--Shambhala spa menu of low-fat, organic, nondairy dishes. Most resorts don't offer that, either.
Parrot Cay is the anti-St. Barts. Here purpose has been given a furlough, cell-phone reception is nil, and the essential accessory is a good book or two. The landscaping is largely native scrub, and the long beach is all sateen sand, unmarred by even a palapa. Public spaces and guest rooms eschew the traditional luxe signifiers--marble, silk, grand spaces, and gilt--and instead offer a pared-down but eloquent idiom of white, light, and weathered wood that meshes perfectly with the high skies and low-slung horizons of these islands. The top rooms, the six Beach Houses, have screened-in porches with Balinese daybeds, hammocks, and old-fashioned whistle-pull showers beside the plunge pools. The 42 double rooms and four one-bedroom suites, which are in eight two-story buildings on a hillside, adhere to the same aesthetic--white walls, canopy beds, understated furniture--with the second-story rooms having generous terraces.
Parrot Cay offers the coming yin-yang of our time. Worldliness without glamour. Luxury without excess. Spare but not spartan. It is, to cite the translation of Shambhala, a "center of peace and harmony." --G.W.
Turks & Caicos: Point Grace
The spa mascot here should be the little engine that could. The Thalgo Spa is tiny--just three whitewashed one-room cottages, two for treatments, one for reception, around a stone courtyard near the beach--but terrific. "It's not fancy, but people love it," says spa manager Edmonde Sidibe. Hers is a somewhat misleading title, as she gives nearly every treatment on the menu herself. The spa employs just one other therapist, Merna Alcansado, from the Philippines, whose massages (60-minute Thai-shiatsu, $108) win raves from locals and hotel guests.
The spa's strength is due in no small part to Sidibe, who got her spa education in Bordeaux and has worked as a therapist for 27 years. She's brought a results-oriented French approach to the spa, particularly the thalassotherapy-based treatments (which use sea elements) that are the spa's specialty. The menu is intentionally vague because she prefers to consult with guests about which treatments are best for them--a personal touch I loved. I tried a sea-mud wrap (60 minutes, $85), and she tweaked the usual script in a couple of inspired ways: She sprinkled a powdered-sugar-like mixture of corn powder and sea salt over the mud to speed drying, wrapped me in something that reminded me of a body-size hot water bottle, and followed it with a "classic drainage" massage for even more detoxing. Sure enough, my skirt was looser when I put it back on.
The 32-suite resort is similarly down-to-earth but luxe, with a sort of clubby vibe, encouraged by a daily complimentary cocktail hour and weekly manager's reception. The suites are all at least 1,080 square feet, and they ooze colonial style, with claw-foot tubs, Indonesian teak furnishings, and African artifacts. The Caribbean food at the two restaurants is perfectly passable, but sitting on the veranda and feeling the breeze is what I'll remember about my meals here.
While it's located on Provo's main hotel drag, Grace Bay's stretch of powdery beach is among the least crowded, and the property is neither undergoing renovations nor next to a construction site. That makes it a quiet rarity on this increasingly go-go island. --A.A.
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