November 12, 2014—Ariel Sands Drive, Devonshire.
It’s mid-afternoon. Overcast but still balmy. Summer has yet to beat a full retreat and the clouds are high and thin, obscuring the sun just enough to make the growing crowd at the old Ariel Sands property squint as they crane their necks to spot the hosts. Something is amiss.
I’ve been to dozens of these sorts of events and never seen such muffled enthusiasm. Groundbreaking ceremonies are supposed to be dull affairs—laborious for everyone involved. The media, the PR reps, the politicians. Everyone. Even the suits in their brand new hard hats must find it awkward posing with shiny, beribboned shovels in callous-less fists. The entire premise is comically shameless. Some dirt is moved from one arbitrary position to another, or as in this case a building is demolished, pictures are taken, and everyone calls it a day.
This afternoon is different. Nary a dignitary missing. Public relations officers by the handful. Backslapping and bro-hugging abound. Every media source represented; every microphone, camera and notepad armed and ready to record. Weaving toward the restored model cottage serving as a staging ground for the event, the energy is grossly apparent.
For forty years, Ariel Sands Beach Club stood as a grand monument to Bermuda’s place in the world’s collective conscience. Today, the coterie of secluded guest cottages more closely resembles a collection of storm-blown flophouses cut from a Steinbeck novel. But unlike other woebegone reminders of our hubristic peak in the tourism industry, and the precipitous fall from grace that followed, an air of optimism has evidently rolled in over the desiccated cottages at Ariel Sands Drive.
From under the large tent set up on the lawn in front of the cottage, a public relations officer peels away from the crowd to squint at the sky, furrowing her brow like a protective mother. From real-estate CEOs to government officials to your local Four Star deliver guy (a Dill family member, it turns out), everyone that is anyone is here. And while they’re all trying desperately to play it cool, their faces belie a collective determination to make sure everything—even the weather—goes according to plan.
Led by the Academy-Award-winning Michael Douglas—co-owner of the land that has been in his family since the 1840s—the Ariel Sands Hotel Cottage Colony is slated to open in 2017. At $85 million—$15 million less than the Green family is estimated to have sunk into renovating the Hamilton Princess—the development represents the biggest singular investment in Bermudian hospitality in recent memory. Despite the monumental price tag, the plans are intentionally far from extravagant, part of an over-arching effort to keep with the original charm and spirit of the property.
The ultra-luxury 85-room resort will comprise 33 cottages and six suites, with a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability and creating a product that, like the original Ariel Sands, can attract both local and visiting customers year-round. To that end, there are also plans for a new arrival building and clubhouse featuring a welcome lounge, restaurant, spa, salon and gym, as well as an overhauled beach club housing another less formal restaurant and bar.
The implications of a redeveloped Ariel Sands, however, extend far beyond property boundaries and personal enterprise. The project has a special meaning for almost everyone involved.
For Douglas, every cracked window, every splintered beam embodies a time in Bermuda many of us look back upon with chartreuse-tinted glasses. College Weeks. Spring flings. Deadbeat summers spent channeling the Cooler King. But imbued within that longing for the past are more private memories, personal to Douglas alone. Sing-alongs with Uncle Lawrence on the piano. His family. Ariel, the bronze statue of a boy frolicking in the hotel’s signature saltwater pool. Childhood.
For government and the Bermuda Tourism Authority (BTA), the push to redevelop the property, a former symbol of national glory, is driven by the desire to pull Bermuda out of a long decline and the belief that Douglas can lead the way.
But celebrity credentials can only go so far. Although Douglas can list “successful real-estate developer” on his already hugely impressive resume—he led the development of Wildcat Ranch in the Aspen-Snowmass area of Colorado—the other half of the Ariel Sands equation comes in the form of Seth Weinstein, principal at New York-based Olympic Property Partners LLC, a “full-service, vertically integrated company with expertise in all facets of development, ownership and management of commercial real estate.” He also happens to love Bermuda.
Sitting down in the refurbished cottage that day in November, six years after Ariel Sands was shuttered, Weinstein and Douglas discussed their plans for the property, as well as their desire to help an island for which they both have a deep affinity.
The Dill family: Mrs. Darrid with her mother, Mrs. T.M. Dill, and three brothers (l ro r), Mr. Laurence Dill, Sir Bayard Dill, and Mr. Thomas N. Dill
For Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bermuda is as close to a permanent home as it gets. Outside of their house in Warwick—which they currently lease out—the pair own apartments in New York and Los Angeles, a country estate in New York, a ski house in Colorado, a villa in Majorca, a house in Zeta-Jones’s native Wales, and a beachfront abode in Turks and Caicos. That they’ve raised and educated their two children, Dylan and Carys, in Bermuda is a testament to their long-term commitment to the island.
It’s been a long time since Douglas was a young Bermudian enjoying the trappings of College Weeks and island life. The son of legendary actor Kirk Douglas and Bermudian actress Diana Dill, his career has rarely wavered from its upward arch since winning his first Academy Award as producer for the 1975 Best Picture winner, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Four Golden Globes, an Emmy, a successful battle against throat cancer, and another Academy Award later—this time for his portrayal of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street—Douglas says that throughout it all, his thoughts have inevitably returned to Bermuda, his home, and his childhood.
“I’m basically a gypsy,” he tells me matter-of-factly, his trademark wispy, white hair as unruly as ever. “My work takes me all around the world, and you kind of reach a certain age where you’re looking for your roots.”
“I had these memories, all these memories—of Ariel, of the family coming around, of my Uncle Lawrence who played the piano every night, hallway sing-alongs, other ‘encounters’ as a college kid…” He trails off momentarily, lost in an apparent moment of nostalgia.
“As hard as it may be to remember, but like Cancun this place rocked all through the ’50s and ’60s as a kind of college hangout.”
Douglas, like the rest of us, wonders where it all went wrong.
“It’s one of those things everybody kind of scratches their heads over,” he says. “Why is tourism not working now when it worked so well all into the ’70s?”
Seated in the garden chair next to him, Weinstein—who has been in love with the island since stepping off a sailboat in St. George’s some 45 years ago—echoes Douglas’s sentimentality for Bermuda.
“I’m a sailor and I’ve always loved the island, and I looked at opportunities over the years as I had increasing experience and success with my real estate business—thing
s that I could do—but I never found a project that I thought was as exciting and as meaningful as redeveloping Ariel Sands,” he says.
Ariel Sands Opening (l-r) Sir Bayard Dill, Mrs. A.G.T. Chaplin, A.G.T. Chaplin (signing register), and Lady Dill
Between the pair of them, they have a firm grip on the troubles facing the island. As businessmen, their primary goal is to create a successful hotel. But imbedded within that is a determination to help Bermuda and the tourism industry in the process.
“I think now that the attention has sort of changed from everything being focussed on reinsurers and offshore financing; tourism has to be a larger part of Bermuda’s income,” Douglas notes. “What [we’re] really hoping to do is to set a blueprint for the future and to encourage other people in the tourism business to come forward. [Bermuda] desperately needs hotel rooms, and if we can help this, with the support of government, so much the better.”
For Weinstein, the potential for competition in the industry only sweetens the deal.
“I’m never concerned about competition because I always believe that I’m going to produce absolutely the best product,” he says. “So in comparison we’re always going to be better.”
“On the other hand, I don’t see competition as being anything but synergistic because I don’t ever believe that life or business is a zero sum game. I believe that the world is structured, and business is structured, that if you have the right approach and right attitude, everybody can win.”
The “right approach” for the Ariel Sands development, they say, leans heavily on sustainability and maintaining a small carbon footprint. In terms of maximising the potential of the property, Douglas and Weinstein have “worked diligently to find a balance that did not overpower the size of the land.”
The idea, says Douglas, is to create a fiscally sound business without attempting to wring as much money out of the land as possible—“It’s still going to be financially successful, but you don’t have to pig out, you know.”
Weinstein puts it in more tangible terms.
“What we are going to do here is produce an environmentally friendly, low- impact project. We’re bringing in the best thinking from around the world on sustainable energy, [and] both active and passive ‘green’ practices, which I’ve been doing for most of my career.
“We’re going to employ a lot of Bermudians in the construction of the property as well as in the operation and management of the property, and so we think that the project will be a good economic engine in and of itself for Bermuda, and hopefully jump-start a whole process of people taking another look at the island to invest their money in.”
The two appear to be tailor-made for each other, as well as the task at hand.
“I think before you look on the outside as a match, you gotta make sure on the inside that it works as a partnership, and I think we complement each other,” says Douglas.
Between his inside relationships with Bermuda and “Seth’s world-wide expertise in real estate,” Douglas is almost bristling with excitement at making forward progress on a project that has become somewhat of a bugbear for him over the years.
“It’s difficult to do just from the outside,” says Douglas, “because you don’t know where all the bodies are buried—so that part helps.”
“I think the premier and the government know how active Catherine and I have been in supporting Bermuda whenever we can. So I think that’s an added plus when you’re promoting or trying to sell a villa with people that, you know, probably get a little more attention [than others].”
This isn’t lost on the premier, nor on the Tourism Authority. The luxury resort is aiming to cater to exactly the kind of crowd the BTA under CEO Bill Hanbury has identified as a target audience for future marketing efforts. Douglas’s promotion of Ariel Sands on social media sparks news articles across the world. That kind of free publicity is extremely hard to come by.
“It freshens up our product. It gives us a chance to sell a new dimension of Bermuda,” Hanbury tells me after the ceremony. “Everybody knows and loves the Bermuda that exists today, but we’ve got to find additional markets, and these are the kinds of products that will bring new markets to us, whether it’s on the luxury end, the millennials, [or] families; these are the kinds of products that the global tourism industry wants—that the global marketplace demands.”
“You can’t cater to the hamburger and hotdog crowd alone,” says the premier, recalling a phrase used by former tourism minister Jim Woolridge. “Bermuda is not inexpensive.” To get a project like this going, he says, government will “do everything we can to break through the red tape.”
At the same time the project could also be a catalyst for other developments around the island. “It’s a confidence builder for us,” says Hanbury. “As you know, there’re five or six projects that are in the cue that potentially could go in the next year.”
And that’s the key. “Potentially.” While it hasn’t been short on groundbreaking ceremonies to attend, the One Bermuda Alliance might be left understandably frustrated with a lack of action thereafter. Of the projects Hanbury speaks of, only the Green family’s development of the Hamilton Princess is moving forward with any purpose. The belief is that Ariel Sands, in attracting the likes of a high-end clientele and in creating a business that can sustain itself throughout the shoulder months, will help re-establish Bermuda’s reputation among the East Coast’s landed gentry and draw the envious eyes of any developers in need of encouragement to invest in Bermuda.
“It also helps to have the lure of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones,” adds the premier.