It’s not your everyday vacation activity.
Clad in a hairnet and awkward food handling gloves in a commodious industrial kitchen, I earnestly make sandwiches. I stand beside Michelin-starred Chef Jose Andres at work. Under the tutelage of his World Central Kitchen organization, and at the behest of a friend, I’ve joined a clutch of other eager volunteers at this temporary outpost on Paradise Island in The Bahamas. We chop lettuce, scoop chicken salad and arrange cheese on a parade of bread that fills a table stretching some 40 feet through a brightly lit room. “Keep working,” says Chef Andres, hugging some of my comrades, thanking them. “We’ll make our millionth meal since Hurricane Dorian today. You’re all doing great. Keep up the good work. Together, we are making a difference.”
My feet hurt, but the camaraderie and the desire to help feed those displaced by Hurricane Dorian (which devastated some of The Bahamas islands a few weeks before I visit) fuels me — as do the stories of survivors, many of whom work beside me. Though sugary white sands, Van Gogh-sky blue waters and a sun-dappling day beckons, I refuse to leave the kitchen until we’ve completed our goal — 5,000 sandwiches, not to mention boatloads of hot meals. When I finally step outside, exchange my hair net for a wide-brimmed straw hat, take a gander at the plethora of pink bougainvillea and hear the pounding of the waves calling, I actually feel I’ve earned my repose.
This isn’t how I had imagined my vacation at Four Seasons Ocean Club, which was booked originally for the very days the hurricane hit. But, when I finally take my rescheduled trip a month later, it feels good to do something to help. Paradise Island, home to the iconic Ocean Club, lucked out. One of some 700 islands that comprise The Bahamas, they were not in the path of Hurricane Dorian’s havoc in September. Nevertheless, the island, connected by a bridge to New Providence Island, where capital city Nassau lies, felt the storm’s sting. “We are all Bahamians,” one employee tells me as he delivers a frosty Sky Juice (a welcome libation consisting of gin, coconut water and a tad of condensed milk). Another staff member, attempting to describe the solidarity of the Bahamian people, put it this way: “Our weather is good, but the air — and our hearts — are heavy.” Doing their part, the hotel has established a fund in collaboration with International Medical Corps, and many workers have volunteered in various capacities since the hurricane. “Bahama Strong,” says a waiter when I tell him about my day in the sandwich kitchen.
At first glance, Ocean Club seems familiar. That’s because it evokes just what you always imagined a Caribbean hideaway would be. This storybook enclave has carpet-like lawns and pale pink-painted low-rise buildings, which bafflingly match the afternoon light’s rose glow. Splotched with pools, festooned with flowers, edged by a quintessential beach, the retreat gets rave reviews for such attributes as its Jean-Georges Vongerichten-led restaurant, Dune, and beachfront suites and villas. But Ocean Club’s dreamy reality sets it apart from all the world’s other resorts. It seems conjured from vintage films, spy stories, whispered secrets and perfume advertisements. It’s a place so romantic that it might be an alternate universe. There’s even a 12th-century cloister, imported from Europe, and reconstructed piece-by-piece to ensure a fanciful mood. The folly-like ruins anchor a garden, peppered with flowering plants, fountains and weathered, centuries-old statues. Known as the Versailles Garden, this showpiece unfolds to the sea.
But the Ocean Club isn’t just about indulgence, fantasy, relaxation or celebration. Even in its surreal loveliness, clear opulence and otherworldly splendor, the resort emits a marked soulfulness. It feels like a place where something more important than mere fun might happen. Partly, that gravitas comes from the employees, many of them loyally in service for decades. Tennis Pro Leo Rolle, for example, retired after some 50 years on Ocean Club’s courts. During his tenure, he tutored luminaries as varied as Bill Gates, the Shah of Iran, Richard Nixon and Robert De Niro. “I’ve played with them all,” he quips, keeping the details to himself but smiling warmly. Bartender Keith Cash has been making drinks for 32 years at Ocean Club venues. Now lording over The Martini Bar, he serves up his signature Chocolate Martini, but also mixes the 007-perfect Vesper, an ode to Daniel Craig, James Bond, and the time the Ocean Club became the setting for the 2006 remake of “Casino Royale.” “I’ve got some stories to tell,” he says laughing, as he shakes, not stirs, our libations. Across the resort, The Ocean Club crew brings something unique to their workplace; it’s down to how they interact with the guests. “This isn’t just my job — it’s my heart,” explains concierge Bridgette Poitier. That shows.
What we love:
- The staff: During my stay, I witness numerous instances of newly arrived guests running to a butler, waiter or pool attendant, throwing their arms around them as if they were family and exclaiming how happy they are to be back. It’s like being at an airport and people-watching the reunions. Ocean Club boasts scores of repeat guests, many of whom started coming as children. Today, they bring their own children — and grandchildren, too. For their part, employees greet well-loved, returning guests with a proffered cocktail (the one the guest always sips), a small welcome gift, kind words and inquiries — and, of course, the key to their “usual” room or villa. “We’ve been waiting for you,” says Nelson, my butler, when I arrive — as if I am a much-anticipated, long-lost friend. Now inducted into the Ocean Club “clique,” I vow to be back someday, even before I’ve stayed awhile. Not every resort has Ocean Club’s capability to instill that “love at first sight” effect.
- The versatility: This resort is ideal for families, honeymooners, even solo travelers. It makes a fast break from New York or Miami — even Austin. A den of tranquility, the storied retreat offers complimentary access to nearby Atlantis, a busy resort known for its pools, casinos and restaurants.
- The history: Like many Bahamian islands, Paradise Island, once called Hog Island, was a haven for bygone pirates, including Blackbeard. By the time handsome Huntington Hartford II, the A & P grocery scion, art aficionado, society playboy and entrepreneur bought it in 1959 for $11 million, it already had historic cachet. Hartford envisioned adding to the allure by building a tropical retreat that would attract the global creme-de-la-creme. He planned it to be the embodiment of elegance and opulence, a place of class beneath the palms. Spending another $20 million, Hartford opened Ocean Club in 1962, complete with 52 rooms, tennis courts, the Versailles Garden and a golf course. For the opening party, he flew 2,000 of the world’s elite and illustrious — movie stars, royalty, musicians and billionaires — to the island. They arrived in private jets and even a charted Pan Am airplane. Upon landing, the noblesse were whisked to the resort by a fleet of white Cadillacs. The lionized, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Benny Goodman and William Randolph Hearst, would have seen the sky aflame with fireworks, lit up by specialists Hartford had brought in from Monaco. Newspapers at the time reported the rooms of the hotel brimming with white roses, the drinks flowing, the soiree an eye-popping success.
- The grounds: From the pristine, sugary sand beach with its turquoise seas to the 125-foot-long pool that fronts the ocean to the unique folly, set amid the gardens, the Ocean Club defines oasis-like escape.
Need to know:
- Guests of The Ocean Club not only get to enjoy all of the luxurious amenities a Four Seasons vacation provides, but also receive complimentary access to all the attractions of Atlantis, including its 141-acre waterscape Aquaventure, 11 swimming pools, private beaches and much more.
- The hotel offers a bevy of customized activities meant to immerse guests in local culture, Changing seasonally, they include everything from meeting and greeting artists in their homes to fishing expeditions.
- Go to the Martini Bar and let bartender extraordinaire Keith Cash make you a “shaken, not stirred” martini in honor of James Bond — or any of his other inventive local cocktails.
- The Hartford Wing, the original portion of the hotel, has recently been updated with contemporary panache. The rooms sport sea and pool views. The Crescent Wing, less central, wedged between a jungle and an ample lawn, invokes a more classic Caribbean decor and has unobstructed sea views.
- For families or groups traveling en masse, the hotel the now offers gorgeous private home retreats.