Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pink-sand PARADISE

Harbour Island lures celebrities, Canadians year-round

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First Don Purdy tells me how he had to deny Jennifer Aniston access to the gym at his Rock House Hotel on tony Harbour Island in the Bahamas.

And then he mentions he had to kick Cameron Diaz off the hotel's private beach.

"If you're not staying at the hotel you can't have access to our amenities -- celebrity or not," says Purdy matter-of-factly.

"I would have loved to let Jennifer use our gym -- after all, we have the only gym on the island. But she wasn't staying here, she was staying at a private rental. And I know Cameron from a party in Miami, but in the end she understood that if she's not a guest of the hotel, she can't use the beach."

This is quite the position of power for a guy originally from Kingston, Ont., who now finds himself owning and operating one of the hottest properties on Harbour Island -- the pink-sand paradise just off the east coast of North Eleuthera.

Via an event-planning company in Toronto and then construction-project management in trendy South Beach in Miami for clients such as Cher and the late fashion designer Gianni Versace, Purdy took a vacation to Harbour Island and was smitten.

First, he and late partner Wallace Tutt bought two small islands, built beautiful homes on them and rented them out under MyOwnPrivateIsland.com

And then they saw the private home on the bayside of Harbour Island that was a dump, but had lots of potential.

"In a bolt of insanity, we bought it -- and the old Catholic school beside it -- and turned it into a 10-room boutique hotel," says Purdy.

An incredible renovation produced Rock House Hotel -- a stylish Bahamas colonial meets South Beach fusion complete with dreamy rooms, a pool tucked hillside in the palms and a restaurant on a two-tired veranda overlooking the water that's considered the finest dining on the island.

Take note, Aniston and Diaz, you don't have to be a hotel guest to eat there.

Try the hogfish special, a delicious type of snapper that can only be caught with a spear.

While tiny -- it's only five kilometres long by one kilometre wide -- Harbour Island has managed to make a big tourism impact.

It offers tourists the choice of buzzing around on their golf cart between their little hotel, restaurants, activities and Bristol's liquor store and the Piggley Wiggley grocery store to pick up essentials, to doing nothing at all on the beach.

When my wife and I visited, we definitely put in our time relaxing at the beach, but also whipped down on the golf cart to Valentine's Marina for a snorkel tour to nearby Man Island.

The first stop was coral heads populated with colourful tangs, snapper, triggerfish and conch.

The second stop was the shallows, where we spotted a sea turtle, stingray and barracuda.

But back to the beach.

Pink Sands Beach is the island's biggest asset -- a powder soft strip that runs the entire length of the east coast of the island.

This is where I catch up with transplanted Brit Pamela Barry, the manager of the 39-room Coral Sands Resort, located smack dab in the middle of the beach.

"This beach is consistently ranked the best in the Bahamas, if not the whole Caribbean," she says.

"I don't think we can overstate how beautiful it is both to look at and lounge and swim or scuba-dive at the reef farther out."

Descriptions can also fall into the cliché of gin-clear waters melding into the lightest greens and blues against an almost purple sky. But that's because the cliché is true.

Such attributes attracted the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue crew to use the Coral Sands grounds and its beach for the 2006 edition -- the one featuring supermodels Rachel Hunter and Elle Macpherson. To keep coming back, Macpherson bought a holiday home on the island.

Celebrities who favour Harbour Island's beauty and respect for privacy run the gamut from Robert De Niro, Richard Gere and Harrison Ford to Peyton Manning, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Buffett.

Apparently, Buffet's hit Cheeseburger in Paradise was written after eating such at Ma Ruby's restaurant, an authentic island eatery run by the 77-year-old who's been knighted by Prince Charles.

For a drink at the quintessential island dive bar, drop by the Vic-Hum Club, where the decor is all dented car licence plates from around the world and there's an outdoor dance floor, basketball and ping-pong.

Proprietor Humphrey Percentie Jr., a.k.a. Shabby and Crooked Dog, will also show you the world's biggest coconut, which is 84 centimetres in diameter and holds pride of place over the bar.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Air Canada and WestJet have year-round daily flights from Toronto to Nassau, where you can catch the 15-minute connector fight to North Eleuthera and then the water taxi to Harbour Island.

-- Overnight rates at the Rock House Hotel (RockHouseBahamas.com) start at US$300.

-- Overnight rates at Coral Sands Resort (CoralSands.com) start at $250 for hotel rooms and $600 for the new beachfront cottages.

-- General information at HarbourIslandGuide.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 D3

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