The Easy Chic of Harbour Island

Harbour Island offers an idyllic escape in the Bahamas.

WORDS Tom Austin
January / February 2020

Harbour Island in the Bahamas. / Photography by Lucy Hewett

As a 1970s teenager growing up in Miami, the Bahamas, just over the horizon, was an oasis with history. In Nassau, I’d order lunch and atmosphere at the Graycliff hotel, dating back to 1740, and then take in the jet set at Paradise Island’s Ocean Club. In 1962, A&P heir Huntington Hartford launched the property with an assortment of Lyford Cay swells and catered guests like Zsa Zsa Gabor.

It is now The Ocean Club, a Four Seasons Resort, and like many other hotels in the Bahamas, has joined the ongoing effort to support Hurricane Dorian relief organizations. Thankfully, most of the Bahamas was spared the devastation of Dorian, including old haunts like Nassau and Harbour Island.

Forty years ago, Harbour Island—a tropical Nantucket adorned with the architectural legacy of the British Loyalists, American colonists who fled to the island after the Revolutionary War—was bone quiet. On a recent visit, it proved to be a little louder and a lot richer, but gems such as the circa-1797 Loyalist Cottage are still crystallized charm. 

Designer India Hicks at her residence, Hibiscus Hill.

At The Landing, a rooster struts over the hotel’s Afro Head logo painted on a wooden floor and then perches on a rattan plantation chair, a piece straight out of Somerset Maugham. Details like these, colonial-era prints of tropical plants and such, are the aesthetic legacy of the hotel’s designer, India Hicks, a granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten.

Brenda Barry, the first Miss Bahamas, is the inspiration for both the Afro Head logo and the hotel’s bespoke rum and vodka. She and her daughter, Tracy, bought The Landing in 1995. In the hotel’s bar, lit by tea candles tucked behind starfish, Tracy points out a wall of photos featuring her mother, attending the Thunderball wrap party in Nassau and strolling in London with Richard Burton.

As Tony Bennett’s rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” plays over the stereo, Brenda’s life in fashion unfolds: A shot of her modeling caftans on the beach is akin to a Bahamian version of Blow-Up. The stylish images—including a photo of Sir Sidney Poitier, the Bahamian-American acting and civil-rights legend who came from Cat Island—work as a sly subversion of the postcolonial decor. As the Sorbonne-educated Tracy observes, “It’s good to see Bahamians being glamorous, isn’t it?”

Pool deck at The Landing.

The Landing’s main building, which dates back to 1800, had been the home of Richard Malcolm. In 1951, his father, J. Allen Malcolm, opened the pioneering hotel Pink Sands overlooking Harbour Island’s famed pink-sand beaches, kick-starting the island’s fame during the era of such luminaries as Aristotle Onassis. An adjacent 1820 wing once served as the Picaroon Cove Club, where 1960s jazz combos played formal outdoor dances on the elegant black-and-white Cuban-tile floor. During World War II, Barry’s nearby private home, built in 1798 and draped in bougainvillea, was known as The Little Boarding House and housed Royal Air Force officers.

The Landing’s restaurant—featuring stone-crab stacks, chili salt squid and goat-cheese ravioli—hugs Bay Street, the main drag of Dunmore Town, named after the fourth Earl of Dunmore, who served as governor of the Bahamas. Harbour Island is tiny, only half a mile wide and just over three miles long, but it attracts a cornucopia of boldface names, from Charlize Theron to jet-set figurehead Jean Pigozzi. Diane von Furstenberg has been on the island forever, along with such stalwarts as Brooke Shields, Régine, the model Helena Christensen and designers Trish Becker and Alessandra Branca. Musicians turn up at the nearby home of Dave Stewart, who co-founded the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox.  

Hicks’ influences at The Landing include Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters.” None of the guest rooms, featuring romantic linen-draped four-poster beds and stylish touches, have televisions. After flipping through a collection of books spanning P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, I turn to Tracy Barry’s Island Rhythm: The Way We Live. With the photographer Cookie Kinkead—known for Harbour Island and her work with Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki—Barry assembled a smart cast of characters for the book. The Landing is also featured in Hicks’ Island Life: Inspirational Interiors, which includes an image of Lord Mountbatten playing polo in Rajasthan, a photo given to her by the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

The Sugar Mill boutique.

The Landing was Hicks’ first big public design project, a 1999 effort accomplished with partner David Flint Wood. The couple sold their shares in the hotel a few years ago, but they still have several elegant rental homes on Harbour Island, adorned with such touches as seashells in curio cabinets and old magazine stories on debutante balls. Apart from their design efforts, the couple is raising five children at their place, Hibiscus Hill, tucked at the end of a beachfront street. Hicks also co-owns The Sugar Mill boutique in town, featuring jeweled Catherine Prevost caftans and Idle Assembly pieces created by her son Felix, also responsible for painting the walls in an on-target zebra pattern.

Hicks comes by her talent naturally: She’s the daughter of the legendary English designer David Nightingale Hicks, an icon of Swinging London who married Lady Pamela Mountbatten and had a clientele that included Prince Charles. One of her rental properties is Savannah, a fortress of seashell-textured concrete David Hicks created as a family retreat off nearby Eleuthera that was inspired by Egypt’s Temple of Zoser.

To Hicks, holidays in her father’s “Egyptian mausoleum” inspired a “lifelong connection to the inviting atmosphere of the Bahamas,” she says. “Harbour Island is so bloody lucky to have missed the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. We took in survivors from Marsh Harbour and Grand Bahama, but it will take years and a long-term vision to rebuild.”

Hicks is engaged in the life of Harbour Island, and her dead-on recommendations during my visit include the smart coffee shop Cocoa—“run by the hardworking young couple Gem and Ryan Austin”—and Queen Conch, “a family conch stall on the water that’s always an obvious choice.” Cocoa and Queen Conch are both first-rate, and Hicks is also a fan of the Green School in town, an elementary school with a focus on environmental sustainability. “I could not live in a gated community,” she continues, “and Harbour Island is integrated in every way, a unique and gritty island with a real heart and soul, a true balance of life—it’s not just a tourist destination.”

It’s certainly an easy place to love. On a sunny morning, the pastel-colored clapboard cottages in Dunmore Town—Eden House, Coral Key, the Doll House, Dunmore Cottage, Hearts Ease—resemble a necklace of charms. Many homes have white picket fences with cutouts of pineapples, a symbol of hospitality. Some people need people, but to my taste, buildings, especially old buildings, are so much more rewarding.

A new era of sophistication is also at hand. Gourmet health food is now available at the Sweet Spot Café. My old favorites, such as the social ritual of lunch at the oceanfront Coral Sands, are augmented by such smart shops as Shine, Blue Rooster, Dake’s Shoppe and Princess Street Gallery.

Ben Simmons at The Other Side resort. 

In the age of Dorian, The Other Side—a collection of shacks and evolved tents on a remote beach in Eleuthera—feels like the future. In hurricane season, owner Ben Simmons is able to disassemble most of the property and store it away. On a hill is the staunch hurricane-resistant house Simmons built for his Irish wife, Charlotte Phelan—the couple first met at boarding school in Ireland.

The solar-powered complex, with an organic garden and a heated pool in the ocean, has a restaurant with dishes like grouper baked in banana leaf and what Simmons calls “an Out of Africa vibe.” The artwork ranges from blown-up copies of Tintin cartoons to Barkley L. Hendricks’ “Birth of the Cool” series, stylized portraits of 1970s African-American hipsters. Everything is simple, just canvas, sawhorse tables and a certain sensibility.  

Barefoot and clutching a local Sands beer, Simmons jumps on his boat, talking about “one of those macroeconomic things in Harbour Island.” Just past the sandbar Girls Bank, marked by a driftwood tree that’s become a backdrop for countless fashion shoots, is the Narrows, with vast estates built by Revlon’s Ron Perelman and the duty-free tycoon Robert Miller. This is the isle that care and common sense forgot: One house has an enormous louvered fence along the water, a major architectural statement that neatly shuts off anything real.

Bar and sitting area at The Other Side.

At Valentines Marina, we hop in a golf cart for a short trip to The Ocean View Club, a bohemian operation—one new canvas-covered cottage has two coconut trees jutting through the roof—on the beach. Simmons took over The Ocean View from his mother, Pip: “Pip’s Place” was the fashion hotel, with guests such as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and the photographers Gilles Bensimon and Peter Lindbergh. In the lobby, equipped with copies of Surface magazine and studies of the art activists Guerrilla Girls, Simmons shows me The Plop-a-Lop Tree, a 1993 Pip Simmons book with evocative images of old Harbour Island.

Standing on the terrace and sipping a rum concoction before a moonlit dinner of lobster curry, the island’s allure washes over me, the prospect of endless fragrant evenings slipping into gentle dissipation. The Bahamas is a seductive world unto itself, in the business of generating and selling myth. The perfect moment, when the right people frequent the right resort, slips away in an instant, and the caravan of glittering hordes moves on. But for now, as a fashion-forward visitor noted, Harbour Island is still “invincibly chic without making too much of an obvious fuss.”


More Destinations

Mesa, Arizona Is the First Autism-Certified Destination in the U.S.

New York Harbor Is Becoming A Whale Watching Hotspot

Neighborhood Watch: Route 66 Renaissance

Sailing the Northwest Passage