Capt. Aeneas Hollins looked out the car window, trying to see into the future. The year was 2007, and he was on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts as a guest of Charles Pinckney “Buddy” Darby III, who had just bought a share in the 154-foot Perini Navi Andromeda la Dea. Darby needed a captain. He had already shown Hollins the boat. Now, he wanted Hollins to see one of the places they might someday cruise.
Darby drove Hollins near White House Bay, an anchorage favored by private-yacht captains for its views, calm waters and 50-nautical-mile buffer from the crowded bays of Sint Maarten, St. Barts and Antigua. The site on St. Kitts was an anomaly, left pristine by the government, which, until 2005, had focused on sugar cane instead of tourism. Decades after the yachting industry had grown elsewhere, St. Kitts was just starting to burn its old cane fields to make way for high-end development.
Which, Darby told Hollins as they wound the car across the terrain, was his business. Darby is the grandson of J.D. Long, whose Isle of Palms property in South Carolina created a real-estate empire following World War II. Darby himself developed luxury properties on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island and in Ireland (Doonbeg golf resort, now a Trump International property). His company had just bought more than 2,500 of the 2,700 acres at the tip of St. Kitts where he was showing Hollins around. He didn’t just want to develop it; he wanted to do so in a way that would lure captains, yacht owners and charter guests, and add St. Kitts to the Sint Maarten-St. Barts-Antigua loop.
Hollins listened and looked out the car window. He thought about all the experiences he’d had as a captain at marinas from Antibes to Anguilla. He thought about all the things he’d always believed could be done better.
The car stopped.
“We got out and stood on the hillside and looked down at what is now the marina site,” Hollins recalls. “I shook his hand and said, ‘Sure, I’ll be your captain, but I want to be involved in this.'”
It would make for a tidy story if Darby had gotten the idea for Christophe Harbour while sitting on the aft deck of a yacht, but that’s not how it happened. To be sure, Darby had spent plenty of time on boats. As a child he was on an O’Day Daysailer and his grandfather’s Grady-White. Later he moved up to a series of yachts he owned, including Hinckley’s Bermuda 40, Sou’wester 51 and Picnic Boat. But he was landlocked in business shoes, not beachside in flip-flops, when the St. Kitts opportunity found him.
“I was in Denver minding my own business during a coffee break at a convention, and a recruiter I’d known asked me if I’d be interested in something in the Caribbean,” Darby recalls.
The Kiawah and Doonbeg projects were wrapping up, so Darby flew to St. Kitts in November 2006. He liked what he saw, especially combined with what he knew from sailing in the Caribbean. Like so many boaters, he’d been visiting the popular islands and seeing bigger yachts.
“I’d been going down to St. Barts, spending New Year’s down there, and I’d been down in the Caribbean for four or five years,” Darby says. “St. Barts was established. So were Sint Maarten, Antigua and Anguilla. But this was unspoiled. When I looked at it, it was just the perfect hurricane hole. From a marina standpoint, you couldn’t design anything better, and I knew this was the cruising ground for most of the megayachts, and I knew there was a lack of dock space, so I knew we could go down and eventually create a marina village.”
Inside Tip: “As soon as you get to the boat, sit down with the chef for 10 or 20 minutes and let him pick your brain about what you like. The preference sheets you fill out? They just don’t cover it all.” — Chef Adam Glick, 126-foot Christensen Sea Bear
The public soon learned about Darby’s plans for restaurants, boutiques, a Tom Fazio-designed golf course, upscale homes and a megayacht marina. Hollins spent the next five years serving as Darby’s captain aboard Andromeda la Dea, watching the project evolve. And salivating. As Hollins recalls it, “I regularly begged him to come ashore.”
In February of this year, the first phase of Christophe Harbour’s marina opened with Hollins as its director of yachting, encouraging owners and captains to visit.
“It was difficult persuading people at first,” Hollins says, “but we did it. And people fell in love with it.”
The Christophe Harbour siren song is about far more than St. Kitts as a beautiful island offering historic sites and ecotourism. At its heart, the place is built to cater to the specific needs of yachtsmen, crew and charter clients. Christophe Harbour offers duty-free fuel (currently less expensive than on Sint Maarten or Antigua) and duty-free parts, in-slip bunkering, easy customs and immigration procedures, and a future marina village designed with the yacht guests (not shoreside visitors) as the priority. To anyone who has chartered a yacht or two, or owned one larger than about 80 feet, finding all those things in one Caribbean location is akin to unearthing gold.
Like Darby, many Caribbean charterers and owners have experienced breakdowns and watched the yacht sit at the dock, waiting for a part to clear through customs. Darby says that won’t happen on St. Kitts: “We’re taking care of the crew and their needs, and that in turn makes them look good for the owner and the charter guests.”
Like Darby, many guests have had their yacht tie up stern-to at a marina, with the aft deck adjacent to a roadway where busybodies snap photos. At Christophe Harbour, not a single slip backs to the marina village. They’re all side-to.
Like Darby, many guests going ashore have tried to step off — or climb out of — a tender onto a dock that’s at an uncomfortable height because it was built for fishing boats or cruise ships. “Our docks at the Salt Plage bar are designed for superyacht tenders,” Hollins says. “Forty- to 50-foot tenders.”
Like Darby, many guests have been dragged off their yacht to sit for an hour or more in a sweltering room, awaiting an immigration stamp on their passport.
“We have a facility called the YU Lounge,” Darby says. “They put you in a Porsche Cayenne right off the plane and you go to the lounge. They gather your bags and check you through customs and immigration while you sit there with champagne and canapés.”
Some of the world’s most experienced cruisers find that last one too promising to be possible. In fact, Hollins says, one of the first yachtsmen to visit Christophe Harbour entered the YU Lounge defiantly, challenging the team to make good.
“He walked through the doors and said, ‘Hello, Aeneas, this is very nice,’” Hollins recalls. “Then he looked at his watch and said, ‘The clock starts now.’ It was five minutes, the time to get his bags from the plane to the car, and he was off. He was at the boat in less than 20 minutes.”
That’s the kind of beyond-the-boat thinking that makes for the best luxury experiences, Darby says.
“I purposely wanted someone who had been on a big boat to run the marina, and who from a hospitality point of view, more so than an operational point of view, can train people so they understand the mentality and the clientele,” says Darby, whose yacht Andromeda la Dea charters through Churchill Yacht Partners at a weekly base rate of $130,000. “We know how to take care of people from the crew to the owner. That’s going to be our trademark — that, and that we’ve got the latest and greatest.”
Inside Tip: “If you’ve always chartered out of the British Virgin Islands, consider starting a charter in St. Thomas, USVI. It’s easier to book out of St. Thomas now that it’s lifted the six-passenger rule that used to exist.” — Ann E. McHorney, Select Yachts
So far, Hollins says, 12 of the 24 slips that are part of the marina’s phase one construction are sold. Charter yachts began arriving last winter, and they stayed longer than in previous seasons, he adds.
“Before, you’d maybe stay one night at St. Kitts and Nevis,” Hollins says. “Do a tour of the island, anchor out by the Four Seasons, play golf the next day and then leave. In our opening season, we had 50 yachts over 24 meters [about 80 feet length overall], and we saw a new market emerge that we haven’t seen in St. Kitts and Nevis: yachts between 90 and 115 feet coming. They need a dock. Their tenders are a little smaller than the superyachts have. We’ve seen several boats stay a week. It took me by surprise.”
So far at Christophe Harbour, two restaurants are built, and construction on the main waterfront village building recently started. Village shops are scheduled to be built next. Charter guests who want to dock at the marina, relax at the Salt Plage bar and head inland for tours can do that now. For the 2016-17 winter charter season, the first retail shops and additional eateries should be ready. By winter 2017-18, Darby says, the southeast end of St. Kitts will be fully operational.
Hollins plans to be there, right where his boss first explained his dream about the Caribbean’s newest yachting experience. “He’s a visionary,” Hollins says, “and he’s intoxicating in that vision.”