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Your Own Private Caribbean, Departures

Whether it's a tiny cottage on St. Barths or the grand Mustique estate of the late Princess Margaret, there's a villa for you, reports Ian Keown.

NEWPORT, RI, November 2002 - THERE ARE FEW EXPERIENCES MORE GENUINELY relaxing than staying in a private villa with the owner's personal staff in attendance. The terrace at sundown. Hummingbirds hovering around the bougainvillea as you're served a martini or late afternoon tea. Ah to read, chat, play backgammon, or just snooze. A bell tinkles, dinner is ready. Candles flicker, tree frogs chatter, the surf swishes. No crowds, no cares-just you and the family.

After nearly two decades of writing on the Caribbean, I have my own select checklist of rental villas, ranging from Jamaica to St. Barths to that quintessential private island of one's dreams, Mustique. Most of these have a gourmet kitchen, swimming pool, air conditioning (a few of the most coveted still depend on louvers, ceiling fans, and trade winds for cooling), and much more. Tennis and gym? Try Temenos on Anguilla. Racquetball? Bon Vivant in Barbados. Nine-hole golf course? Shogun on Mustque. If I were planning a vacation in the Caribbean this season, here's where I'd start:

The newest villa-or, rather, complex of villas-is Temenos on Anguilla. Spread over 2.2 acres next to Long Bay Beach are three exquisite two-store houses: Sand, Sky, and Sea. The first two feature four bedrooms, the third has five. Temenos is Greek for 'sanctuary' and there is a remarkable appropriate sense of well-being in the design and décor here. The color schemes harmonize with the names of the villas; master bedrooms have indoor-outdoor bathrooms; skylights filter light down on high-ceilinged living rooms with panoramic windows and curving walls. Each villa has its own infinity pool, formal dining room, and casual pavilion for outdoor dining. Upstairs there's an atelier office complete with laptop, Internet access, printer, and fax machine. The three villas share a beach pavilion, a gym, and three lighted tennis courts. They also share a polished staff, including several chefs and a tennis pro.

Mustique in St. Vincent-Grenadines, may be the ultimate villa vacation-1,400 private acres that are both rural and grand. There are no crowds, no peddlers, no paparazzi, and no cruise ships. There's also no traffic. In fact, there's nothing at all to distract you. But this island does have its surprises, which include a remarkably well stocked public library of 4,000 books, even a clinic and medical staff.

Of the 89 private houses on the island 55 are available for rent. They are one-of-a-kind, their designs and locations often quite dramatic. All have live-in staff (who overnight in mini-villas on the premises), and each zealously guards its privacy and seclusion. Yet they are all within a short drive of two very sophisticated little inns with restaurants and a couple of fairly lively nightspots. But that's it. This is not St. Barths. One eats at home, and for the most part, home (assuming that you have the proper staff, especially a cook) can be very, very delicious. Nor, surprisingly, is Mustique as pricey as St. Barths. In fact, rates on this toniest of tony islands compare favorably with much less glamorous hideaways. Last year ten new villas entered the rental pool and a few more reemerged from major renovations. The most glamorous renovation has been at Les Jolies Eaux, the villa-estate-compound that once belonged to Princess Margaret. She, of course, made the island famous. Translated as "Beautiful Waters" and built overlooking Gelliceaux Bay, the estate was a wedding gift from English aristocrat Colin Tennant-always referred to as Lord Glenconner-who developed Mustique in the late sixties. Margaret's son, Viscount Linley, recently sold it to an American couple who have completely redone the villa in very grand style. The property, which overlooks both Caribbean and Atlantic, leads down to a heavenly clifftop pool with a cabana on one side and a free-standing bedroom-cottage on the other. Hilltop Serenissima, a four-bedroom Balinese-style villa, overlooks Macaroni Beach-perhaps the best beach on the island because of its cool windward location and the absence of those dreaded little sandflies. Owned by a stylish Italian couple with children, it has the advantage of being both urbane and child-friendly. There is even a 'rec' room downstairs, and one of the best-equipped kitchens on the island. 

Point Lookout is one of the most satisfying beachside villas I've ever stayed in, sole occupant of a narrow headland with stereophonic sea sounds. L'Ansecoy Beach curves off almost from the front door, a tiny patch of sand awaits a few paces from the terrace, and a small circular swimming pool perches amount the rocks at the end of the lawn. Beyond the elegant, if slightly untropical, façade of native stone and dark hardwoods is a leafy garden foyer that leads to a spacious open living room. Three of the four bedrooms are grouped in a wing, an arrangement better suited to a family than to four couples.

One of the villa's most inviting features is an octagonal dining pavilion facing the water, casual by day and just formal enough by candlelight to make family dinners special. After dark you won't see another light except for the occasional fishing boat. It is quiet, peaceful, and blissfully secluded-and yet a short, bumpy ride in the villa's "mule"  (a cross between a golf cart and Jeep) will take you to a chic bar and as much socializing as you can handle.

Thee butlers and a private chef at your beck and call, and an excellent wine cellar with 1,000 bottles: You'll find them all at Anguilla's two-year-old Altamer. The architecture is ultramodern, with a four-store wall of glass facing the beach. The stylish interiors are filled with antiques brought back from Turkey and Russia (the owners are international bankers) and custom-designed Murano glass fixtures.

Take the elevator to the second floor and you can while away an hour or two at a custom-built billiard table. There's also a "communications center" with a computer, phone, and fax, a lighted tennis court, and an air-conditioned gym. The lap pool is practically on the beach (a ravishing crescent of white sand), and the trio of butlers will keep you supplied with chilled drinks and fresh towels ad infinitum.

Warning: This may be the last year of Altamer's coveted absolute privacy. A second villa is planned to go up 120 feet away.

Saba, one of the Netherlands Antilles, is not your typical Caribbean island. The peak of a volcanic cone, it shoots straight up from the sea to a height of almost 3,000 feet without the usual lowlands of beaches and palm trees. It's perfect for adventurers, with spectacular scuba diving and equally dramatic hiking through the rainforests. Notched into the side of Troy Hill, high above the village of The Bottom, Haiku looks almost like a birdcage among the mahogany and breadfruit trees. It's a setting of sublime serenity. The Japanese-styled exterior hints at its minimalist interiors by Jan des Couvrie, one of the Netherlands' leading decorators: comfortable sofas, wooden rockers, and pencil-post beds, a teak dining table that seats 12, and a state-of-the-art kitchen by Siemens. There's a television and DVD player, but with its rustic post-and-beam construction, high ceilings, and panoramic views of forest, sea, and sky, it feels more like the ultimate luxurious treehouse.

I fell in love a few years ago with this tiny house designed in vernacular French West Indies style. A wood-framed cottage just off much-photographed St. Jean Beach (St. Barts), it's a real find. The living room and kitchenette are on the patio, screened from passersby by high walls draped with hibiscus. Louvered shutters lead to the air-conditioned bedroom, casually done up in white and buttercup. It's the sort of spot romantics love-despite its jarringly unromantic computer code name, CHI. The beach is just a stroll way beneath the sea-grape trees, while the familiar bistros and boutiques are two minutes away in the other direction. If you prefer something less dainty, right behind are BOO and DAD, two brand-new villas that are also done in local style, but with four bedrooms each.

Most rental villas in the Caribbean come with a swimming pool, and those close to the beach are usually stocked with snorkeling masks and floats, too. On Barbados, Bon Vivant $26,500 for eight bedrooms; staff of ten has a lighted tennis court, air-conditioned racquetball court, a gym, trampoline, and an army of staff to keep your polo shirts freshly laundered; the Leamington Pavilion ($24,500 for four bedrooms; staff of eight;) treats guests to afternoon tea on Wedgwood china after they've worked out on the villa's tennis courts or in the private gym; ... 

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