Before the dawn of jet flight, the proprietor of a Caribbean hotel provided his guests with good beds, food and drink. He kept the scorpions out of the bedrooms, the flies out of the food and counted on the natural blessings of the area—the sand, sun and water—to keep business coming his way. Today these simple, agreeable appointments are rarely considered enough. Tourism is now a big industry; the mark of Hilton is not only on the land but on the sea as well, and Total Recreation is the order of the day.
A Caribbean resort may have the best beach this side of Bora Bora but, to be sure of customers, it must also have a swimming pool, preferably two. And convenient to these chlorinated wallows the resort must have various sheltered and open areas where the patrons can lunch, lounge and drink. There should also be one formal dining room where coat and tie are required, so that the guests, by shunning it, will feel they are going slightly to seed in the tropics. There should be one indoor cocktail lounge called The Buccaneer Room or perhaps Blackboard's Den, a dark and intimate place.
The complete modern resort has a shopping district, of course, and a casino, and tennis and golf. The golf fairways can be as wide as Red Square and so charitable that anyone can play around using only a wooden-shafted deck, as long as the layout is studded with coconut palms and is as well groomed as any in Grosse Pointe or Sewickley. To sum up, a successful Caribbean hotel need not have all the extravagant flourishes of Huntington Hartford's new Bahamian resort, Paradise Island, but it should be loaded with fun and games and have some of the casual magnificence of, say, Versailles or the Taj Mahal.
Considering all that Caribbean proprietors do offer and feel they should offer their guests, the little resort called Marina Cay in the British Virgin Islands is 20 graceful years behind the times. Marina Cay is a small island, a luxuriant, six-acre hillock that somehow managed to keep its head above water through the geologic contortions of the past. Although Marina Cay does not have the floss of a superresort, in every functional way it is modern. It is a suitable place for idle musing or profound thinking, and equally good for socializing, lolling, basking, dunking, drinking, boating, angling, casual snorkeling and serious scuba diving. The international set from the C√¥te d'Azur and the guys and dolls who play in Vegas and Palm Springs could not stand Marina Cay. If suddenly exposed to its low pressure, they would explode.
January 20, 1964
Marina Cay is by no means unique. Graceful recreation is still possible elsewhere in the Caribbean, but it is a losing cause. The travel ads promise lavishness, and the calypso drums throb loud. The tourist kingdom of Greater Caribbea is running out of unspoiled islands. Measured in time and space, the British Virgins are the end of the line. They are the easternmost mountaintops of a submerged cordillera fronting the Atlantic abyss. None of the 30-odd islands and islets in the group is very large, and because of their small size and situation on the windward edge of the Caribbean, they have usually been passed up by exploiters ancient and modern. The alluring come-on, "unspoiled," can still honestly be applied to all of them. They will succumb in time, but Marina Cay, one of the least, will spoil slowly, because it has several unusual forces working for it, the most tangible and obvious one being its proprietor, 47-year-old Allan Batham of England.
Batham is an innkeeper, a sailor and a diver, all by choice. He is a large man. His hands and arms are the sort dock workers need; his calves are the kind often seen in football defense platoons. In the face of minor setbacks, he sometimes erupts, fuming and emitting a few bellows, but before hot lava squirts from either ear he falls silent. Ordinarily he is soft-spoken and collected, his countenance often dominated by a wide smile that exposes some of his molars. Like many sailors and divers, Batham adheres to the rather old and humble idea that the human race does not own the world but is merely a tenant, privileged to use it and responsible for leaving it in decent condition. His particular ambition is that Marina Cay shall be for people who do not need or want Total Recreation—a place "for those who have enough inner resources to recharge their own batteries."
Certain requirements of Total Recreation, notably golf, are out of the question on little Marina Cay. A swimming pool could be blasted out of the cay's rocky core, but this will not happen as long as Batham is in charge. There already is water enough all around. A quarter-mile arc of fringing reef, fretted by surge and decoratively edged with palm coral, guards the windward side of the island—a suitable playground for shell collectors, flotsam pickers and novice scuba divers. The shoals off the north quarter support spotty pastures of finger coral and bramble patches of stag-horn, where spunky demoiselles and little wrasses play peekaboo for novice snorkelers. Between the snorkeling grounds and the western edge of the fringing reef, a sand bottom slopes away gradually enough to suit any dunker too timid to lift a foot from the bottom or put his head below the surface.
Presumably working on the absurd theory that beauty must be explained, on certain reefs of the American Virgin Islands the National Park Service has put underwater signs identifying the corals and fishes, crassly thrusting knowledge upon those who may not want it. On Batham's reef the corals still grow unnamed and the little fish still swim namelessly about. The mystery that enhances natural beauty is preserved.
In the perfect model of a modern resort in the sun, the coconut palms, the omnipresent totems of Caribbea, are often wired. They light up at night, washing away the stars. There are five young palms on Marina Cay, all of them situated on low ground near the edge of the water, where the cumbersome seaborne seed of the species normally takes hold. They do not light up. On Marina Cay the night overhead is preserved; the moon, the bright eye of Taurus and the jewels of Orion's sword belt are elegantly displayed. The nearby islands and the silver sea are sometimes glorified by the lightning winks of distant storm, and this is as much of an electrical show as Batham feels his small island needs.
There is one lounge, one dining area and no organized bar on Marina Cay. The guests bartend for themselves from a selection of very good whiskies, gin, rum and liqueurs stored in a dissected wine tun on a thatched roof veranda outside the lounge. The veranda, which also serves as the dining area, is architecturally ordinary, but like every portal and window on the island, it looks out on beauty. There are flowers close by—sea oleander, poinciana, yellow cedar and pride of Barbados—and in the background the many colors of the sea. Across the water the larger islands of the group ordinarily shine bright and green; but sun shafted through the clouds can suddenly turn any one of them to solid silver, while a nimbus cloud dragging rain changes another into a dark, soggy monster. There is no fixed tropical scene but, rather, a constant flux of colors and shapes, moods and perspectives.
Batham and Marina Cay, though suited to each other, met quite by chance. Back in England after naval service in World War II, Batham had progressed to the managing directorship of a meat-packing firm. Though he was forging ahead, striving to keep up with the fiscal spiral, playing a resolute part in the minority Liberal Party and having some fun as a sailor and scuba diver, Batham did not consider his future altogether attractive. He was leading more and more the commuter's life—one in which he might well end up addicted to the leathery fastness of a London club, while his good wife Jean became a habitué of various worthy committees in suburbia. "There was," Batham explains, "no human future in it." In 1958, when both their children's education had been secured, the Bathams gave it all up and came out from England in their 36-foot ketch, bound for British Columbia.
While laying over in Jamaica, Batham learned of a shipyard that needed managing in the British Virgins and took the job. For lack of capital the yard foundered, and the Bathams, also low on capital, were castaways. Marina Cay lay only a gunshot out from the shipyard, and there was on the cay even then a concrete house built some 20 years before. While deciding where to go next, the Bathams subleased Marina Cay. Private and charter yachts anchored often in the lee of the island, and the Bathams frequently invited the crews ashore for lunch. In this way they backed into the resort business, and Marina Cay has been humming along at the sociable pace of an English country house ever since.
Here and there in the British Virgins the discarded beer cans already shine in the sand, but there is no real blight on the islands yet. This is because the heaviest traffic in the past has been sailors chartering out of the American Virgins (SI, Jan. 11, 1960). The sailors are joined now by a growing crowd of divers who, like sailors, get their pleasure from the natural offerings of the sea and are rarely impressed by elaborate accommodations. With these two breeds ascendant, the immediate future of the British Virgins is attractive, and as a resort owner, a sailor and a diver, Allan Batham is a triple asset.
To fill the needs of his clientele, in the past few years Batham has been collecting boats the way some people collect stray dogs—all kinds and sizes. In his pleasure fleet there are now two Tortolan sloops, one Dutch double-ended sloop, a 30-foot Pacemaker cruiser from south Jersey, a Boston Whaler, a Norwegian diesel launch, a Sunfish from Connecticut, a surfboat from South Carolina and assorted runabouts, skiffs and dinghies of plastic and wood. Batham does not teach diving, but he has the equipment and a compressor to fill tanks and will go as a companion with intermediate and advanced scuba divers who want to see bigger country than the small reef off Marina Cay. Batham has dived some ragged part of every island in the British Virgin group, and has traveled more than 50 miles underwater, towed behind a boat. He knows the best and safest underwater caves in the tumble of house-size boulders off the island of Virgin Gorda. He has found traces of eight of the 53 wrecks that lie off the flat and lonely island of Anegada and has spent many hours picking through the vast, tangled skeleton of the steampacket Rh√¥ne, which went down with 135 people off Salt Island 97 years ago. He is an old hand at diving and, though he still savors it fully and is a model of caution, his matter-of-factness can be disarming to scuba guests who have spent, say, a mere 100 hours below. Before a dive he is apt to conclude his topside advice by saying, "We may see a large shark here. If so, be aggressive." While the guest is mulling this cogent tidbit, Batham flops over backward into the sea.
The present relationship of host and guest in the British Virgins is an unusual one, not likely to survive the dulling effect of mass tourism, and that is a pity. As things now stand, a guest is not treated like a potentate, or even as a customer who is necessarily right. In the British Virgins hosts and guests are reckoned to be one species sharing the adventures of innkeeping. This does not mean a guest is expected to wash his dinner dishes, but merely that, if there are any harmless old skeletons in closets, any letters in the attic worth enjoying, the guest is welcome to share them. There has not been a rat on Marina Cay, for example, since the first guest arrived, but at breakfast Batham is apt to point out the wooden sugar spoon prized by him and prized also four years ago by an errant rat that carried it off three times. To prove this, Batham will point to the teeth marks on the spoon.
The perfect model of a resort manager in Caribbea does not show rat marks to his guests or even suggest that the grand old world traveler, the Norway rat, was ever there. Batham does, but he deserves little credit on this count. This sort of in-family confidence characterized the Treasure Isle Hotel and the Fort Burt in the British Virgins before Batham came. Until two years ago at the Treasure Isle, every night between two minutes of 10 and two minutes after, a rat would leave the roof of one guest unit and travel by way of a power line to a favorite palm. It was the custom of the hosts and guests of Treasure Isle, drinking together on the second-story veranda, to applaud this high-wire act. Alas, the rat is gone, and without this high point of the evening, at Treasure Isle as at Batham's place after dinner the hosts and guests have been reduced to random discussions of world affairs, the dramatic arts, the nebular hypothesis, Freud, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, agrarian reform, Christine Keeler, the Doppler effect and other trivial blather.
In the British Virgins there is one force, however unreal it may be, that is strongly felt. Like some small islands in Polynesia, the Virgins seem to have a capacity for eliciting proper love from all comers. For several centuries they were islands of desperation. Quakerism, an epitome of love, was tried there and failed. Slavery is the only human institution that ever prospered there. The two most distinguished sons of the islands—Dr. John Lettsome, a noted 18th century surgeon, and Dr. William Thornton, designer of the U.S. Capitol—both considered the British Virgins a good place to be from. The islands, for sure, have needed love and in some way now seem sensitized to it.
There are those who believe that the force of a man stays in the land when he leaves. Allan Batham of Marina Cay has himself remarked: "I know a church in Cornwall that is as dead as mutton, but I know a glade near that church that is so alive you can hardly stand it." The first time he climbed the choked path to the abandoned house on Marina Cay, Batham remembers a particular sense of peace—not an emptiness but a positive, compulsive force. Others have noticed it. When the fringe of a hurricane is tormenting the island, the foliage near the water flails the ground. On the brow of the hill, unaffected by the friction of the sea, the wind should be stronger, but it is actually slacker, as if in some way it were being fended off. There should be turbulence even on the lee side of such a small island, but in the middle of a gale the leaves barely stir. A sodden falcon sits unruffled on a bare branch. A brown booby goes its crazy, veering way, hunting fish as if the day were fair and fine.
Although Batham did not know it when he first came there, the prior occupants of Marina Cay had loved it much. Some Americans may remember them: a wanderer named Robb White and his wife Rodie, who went there in the mid-'30s seeking a place where they could make their own way untrammeled. Robb White wrote two books about their frugal and unusual life. His affection for the island is on almost every page, but in the end he lost his claim to the property.
The thought that any man's love for an island can have a lasting and protective effect is an attractive one, even if fanciful. Whatever the effect, Marina Cay has the ghost of Robb White's old love hanging over it and a very resolute man named Allan Batham now guarding its virtues. Few small islands in modern Caribbea are that lucky.