The Peter Island Principle

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Private-island resorts are the Greta Garbos of the luxury-travel world. They're tailor-made for couples who vant to be alone--or, rather, want to be alone with a few other couples who want to be alone, too. At such resorts, geography becomes mind-set: That nice big moat between you and all that lifestyle chaff flying around out there is a subliminal reminder that you're here to log off. In the Caribbean, such resorts are, as a rule, not the swishiest places, more stalwart Swiss francs in a world of flashier currencies. Even Mustique, with all its bold-face-name villa owners (Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger), is about privacy, not publicity.

It's just such notes that compose the siren song of Peter Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands, which makes up a small beachhead on the 1,200-acre granite-girded Peter Island. This year the property added a new line to the harmony, a very good 10,000-square-foot spa with its own pool. It represents a considerable investment, given the fact that Peter Island has only 52 rooms, but has paid off. The spa's reputation is such that it's already on the yachting crowd's itinerary. They now sail in for treatments.

Peter Island's forte is simplifying life--it's a savings account, not a derivative. It's not about style--the room decor (dark wood, stone, conservative-print fabrics) is yachtsman on shore leave. It's not about nightlife, either: According to general manager Sandra Grisham, the ambition of many guests "is just to read a good book." Early to bed, early to rise is the resort rhythm, with many guests also melting away after lunch for a siesta. At two on most afternoons, there are far more chaises on the beach than bodies in them.

One of the curious things about private-island resorts is their capacity to arouse proprietary feelings in guests. It seemed particularly prevalent at Peter Island. I made the acquaintance of one dapper gent--he wore a cream jacket and black bow tie to the resort manager's cocktail party--who had come for two weeks to recover from open-heart surgery. Within 48 hours of arriving, he had somehow convinced himself that the GM was going to offer him the job of maýtre d' in the restaurant. Moreover, he had already decided to accept. His only concern was how to broach the subject with his wife back in Lancashire.

Another guest, who sails over frequently from St. Thomas on his yacht, acted like the captain of the beach-restaurant dining room, collecting nods and greetings from the staff as he walked to his table. And in the spa, a guy tells me, without prompting, "There's so few people around here, I kinda feel like I own the place." Before disappearing into the steam room, he adds that he's already reconnoitered his room for next year. It's number 201, a ground-floor Beach Villa, which he wants because there's a hammock right off the terrace. (I know: It happens to be my room.)

The Building Code
The new spa is built in the saddle of two hills at the far end of Deadman's Bay. (And, yes, the name does come from the sea chantey "The Pirate Song," better known by the line "Sixteen men on a dead man's chest." Legend has it that the treasure mentioned in the lyrics was buried on Deadman's Island, which lies just outside the bay.) The site is a wild spot, with the new landscaping only making the island's austerely beautiful granite-and-cactus visage more apparent. The treatment rooms are mostly in the back of the spa building, which faces Big Reef Bay, the island's wildest stretch of coast. The bay is floored in rock and coral--you can see the ocean sheeting after the waves storm over the reef.

The building is, frankly, a puzzle at first. It's an irregular polygon of nine or ten sides--I could never get the count to agree--with a second, smaller polygon on top, and some three stories high in all. Yet once inside, you see that the spa occupies only the ground floor, with the rest of the space going unused. The architecture also does something most island spas don't--draws a clear boundary between inside and out. There's no feeling of flow.

My bafflement must be manifest because spa director Maggie Wagner mentions that the person who drew the plans was a furniture salesman from Atlanta, a friend of the resort's owners who fancied himself an architect. By the time they realized he wasn't, the building was up. They did, however, have the interior redone to make the best of the awkward design.

Which it does. The treatment rooms are very spacious, and several have Jacuzzis the size of Mini Coopers. The rooms in the back have private terraces that look out over the ocean. There are also two bohios--freestanding studios with large louvered windows--well away from the spa building, right on the ocean. They can be booked for massage, one-on-one yoga classes, or a private spa day that includes lunch.

My time at the spa is a reminder that it's the staff, not the building, that ultimately makes the experience. The Kur, a remineralizing body mask and wrap, makes novel use of a Vichy shower: It's turned on while the wrap is around you, supplying additional warmth. The treatment culminates with a hydrotherapy bath and a gentle massage with lotion to seal in the moisture.

Even better is the Thermal Sand Bundle Massage. It employs what look like small flak jackets, each consisting of eight roughly five-pound casings of purified sand from the Peter Island beach. The bundles are heated to 120 degrees in a hydrocollator and then placed on towels spread over the body. The heat seeps through the material and into the muscles. As the bundles can be precisely placed, this is a good massage for something that ails you.

I have the same therapist, Carrie MacInnis, throughout my three-day stay, and I make the most of that by having her concentrate on my hips and lower back, which have been giving me trouble since spring, when I started bicycling long-distance again. Our daily contact enables her to respond with initiatives of her own. On my last day, she gives me a myofascial massage (not on the menu) that includes a stretching of my neck muscles, especially around my throat, because she thinks that tension there might account for the tightness in my upper back. The concept is known as referral pain--the body's version of passing the buck. I can't say it's the reason I leave the resort without those back twinges, but it's a reminder that the source of the problem is often not the site of the pain.

Peter Island - Side B
At 7:30 on a Sunday morning I find myself driving five black goats down a dirt road with my bicycle. They career wildly, then veer into the brush, and I carry on, winding around a knobby peak and running right into a headwind. Before me is about a trillion acres of Caribbean, floodlit by the rising sun. Another turn, a short sharp rise--and there on a turnout are five patio tables with chairs, a palapa, and, housed in a sturdy shingled box, a watercooler with a paper-cup dispenser. Dead ahead is Norman Island, supposedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

This is the back stage of Peter Island--a few civilized touches in a landscape of rock, cactus, and scrub, a goat's idea of paradise. But it's perfect for a morning workout as the road up is very steep but then levels off. The round-trip, five miles, is just right for a pre-breakfast ride, and the views are spectacular. Approaching the turnout, I can see the serrated profile of St. John ahead while the more massive Tortola lies beam-on to my field of vision.

The next day I do the ride again but take the looping switchback road down to White's Bay, a long, shallow U-shaped notch in the coast. The resort has put up several rudimentary shelters with chaises here, but other than that it's all natural. I decide to get natural, too. I peel off my clothes and plunge in--it's only 7:30 and the first shuttle from the resort doesn't arrive until after nine. What a luxury.

On my last day I take the shuttle to White Beach to snorkel, as it's supposed to be the best spot for doing so on the island. Most of the bay bottom is a grassy plain, and about 60 feet off shore I see clouds of sand in the water, as if someone had detonated a smoke grenade. When the puffs dissipate a little, the source is revealed: a stingray with a three-foot wingspan frantically trying to camouflage himself. He sucks sand in from the bottom and blows it out from behind his eyes. The cause of his agitation is a few feet above, an angry bar jack swimming in tight circles. Suddenly he dives down and gives the ray a good nip. This dislodges the ray and he flows off along the bottom with the jack in pursuit and touches down 20 yards on, at which point the process begins again. Finally, the exasperated ray heads seaward and the jack turns his attention to one of his own species and begins to pester him.

At the far right of the beach is a gorgeous garden of fan and staghorn coral, all of it anchored to boulders, some ten feet tall. And around the point off the left side of the beach is a smaller garden, with mobiles of French grunts and damselfish in the shallows and clusters of sea urchins, their spines a deep lacquered black, wedged into the rock crevices.

I spend some three hours at White Bay with only two other guests for company. They considerately camp out far down the beach so we can all feel the place is ours alone. Like being on Peter Island itself, the morning satisfies an urge in me that I think travelers feel more and more: to pull up the rope ladder. In the past decade, it has gotten harder and harder to feel that you're away from it all, because it has all already gotten there or, thanks to technology, can find you. White Bay offers that combination of simplicity and soul satisfaction that is increasingly what exclusive travel is all about. And it has just the right level of connectivity to make it a perfect morning: a two-way radio to call the shuttle so I can get back in time for lunch.


High: The setting, a wild stretch of coast
Low: The building: What a real architect could have done with the site!
High: The Thermal Sand Bundle Massage (75 minutes, $155; 90 minutes, $175)
Low: The small locker rooms
High: The bohios, two private studios for massage and yoga
High: The Kur (21/2 hours, $285), a wrap during which a warm shower is run over your body
High: The enormous treatment rooms and oversize Jacuzzis


Location: In the British Virgin Islands, directly across Sir Francis Drake Channel from Tortola.

Getting There: Fly to Beef Island Airport in Tortola, which is served by American Eagle from American's Caribbean hub in San Juan. The flight takes 30 minutes. The resort meets arriving guests; the boat trip to the resort takes 25 minutes.

Resort Forte: Providing a very low-key, lose-yourself-in-a-good-book escape.

Rooms: The top rooms are in the eight Beach Villas, which contain four rooms each. Top-floor rooms have balconies and are much sunnier than ground-floor accommodation, although in the heat of a Caribbean afternoon, a cool, dark room is welcome. Bathrooms are spacious, with double showers and large bathtubs. Ocean View Rooms are in A-frame buildings adjacent to the resort pool and restaurant. Ground-floor rooms have slightly more interior living space than second-floor ones because of the space taken up by the balconies of the latter. GM Sandra Grisham says, "Savvy guests choose the ones at the end because they have the best water view." There are also two villas, Hawk's Nest (three bedrooms) and Crow's Nest (four bedrooms). Each has its own staff.

Restaurants: Tradewinds, the more formal restaurant (breakfast and dinner), and Deadman's Beach, the casual restaurant (lunch and dinner).

Service: The one big variable. There are times when the staff just isn't very responsive--the glass of wine that never shows up, the table outside that can't be had because it might rain (it didn't), the beach-towel patrol that doesn't make the rounds often enough. One guest put it well: The service flaws aren't fatal, but they stand out because the other ingredients are so good.

Other Amenities: Two lighted tennis courts, half basketball court, complimentary mountain bikes, windsurfers, kayaks, Hobie Cats, and snorkeling equipment. Sailing excursions on the resort yacht are available for a fee.

Rates: $650 - $935 (Nov. to Dec. 19, but higher over Thanksgiving and Christmas) and $885-$1,170 (Jan. 4 to Mar. 31). Includes three meals daily. Villas: $2,850-$5,000 for Hawk's Nest and $5,700-$9,000 for Crow's Nest, depending on season.
Reservations 800-346-4451

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