I arrived by the Barbuda Express on a full ferry: people heading home for the weekend, a bevy of Antiguan women chattering about attending a party at a club, a cargo of baby chicks in double-decker boxes, and a few tourists.
“We carry two types of tourists to and from Barbuda,” said Greg, the ferry’s owner. “One says, ‘It’s wild and empty. We love it!’ The other says, ‘It’s wild and empty. We hate it!’”
My trip was a 48-hour, two-part mission. The first phase entailed surf. I’d been nursing an obsession with Palmetto Point for 30 years, ever since a Leeward Islands Air Transport propeller plane I was traveling on made a swerve over the island to avoid a rain squall. As it did, a vision appeared between the clouds: fat, roping lines spoking down an endless beach and bending around a sandy corner. The swell seemed to charge down the whole side of the island, each wave clear from 16,000 feet until the clouds blocked them again. I pressed the call button and asked for a parachute, but that wasn’t a service the carrier offered.
Since then, I’ve been haunted by the vision. And lately it had been bugging me. I was in my early twenties then. Now I’m in my fifties. Ticktock, ticktock. Over the years, the wave came up with some frequency. We ran photo spreads and even a cover story about Barbuda in the surf magazine I edited. The island and the spot went unnamed, of course, because until now they have been a secret of sorts. There are no surfing Barbudans. A handful of pros knew about it, and some of their stories ran in American and European surf mags. All also unnamed, of course. Some of the cognoscenti became obsessives, developing long-term relationships with this tubular belle, returning low-key and on the regular.
Nearby Antigua, St. Martin, and Guadeloupe all have locals with boat access and the occasional perfect timing. I’m a neighbor from the Virgin Islands, another tiny territory a little downwind of Barbuda, and most years our crew would solemnly agree that we’d definitely head over that season on so-and-so’s boat, or charter a plane, or some other wishful vagueness. Years passed. It just never happened.
The other reason for my journey was to learn more about the behemoth development. Word of it had been wafting in from the east for some time, making me sick to my stomach. I spend my days in micro-wildernesses strikingly similar to Barbuda’s, mainly in a lagoon where I paddle, exposing visitors to the wonder of both its small things and the larger scale of the intricate webs holding these coastal ecosystems together.
Twenty years ago, after 14 years of courtroom wrestling, the mangroves we explore on my island and the wild country we hike were saved from another billionaire’s golf course development. In the end, the battle was won by people and the power their voices brought to bear, as well as the inarguable fact that golf courses and luxury developments willfully destroy habitats essential to our survival as a species.
Many Barbudans reportedly feel similarly concerned. They have been leveraged into a position of being reliant upon the development and losing their ancient rights in the process—or remaining outside its economic upside and still losing their ancient rights. Barbudans who oppose the development point out that surfers are fellow stakeholders, an interested party, and because they need all the help they can get, they’ve teamed with a group of veteran surf visitors to spread the word via surfing’s social-media network. Now they co-manage savebarbuda.com and #savebarbuda to fight on their behalf.
I’d heard about our neighbor’s much bigger fight and been linked online to a man named John Mussington, the head teacher of the island’s secondary school, a marine biologist, and one of many Barbudans trying to stop the project. I wanted to meet him and them, and learn more.
COVID-19 had kept me grounded for two years, so when a different job came up that took me halfway to Barbuda, I rolled the dice and added a leg. At the time of booking, the long-range forecast showed a faint possibility of swell.
No Sunblock at Coco Point
On the ferry, I identified a problem: I’d left my sunblock at home. It sounds minor, but the three things I know about an island like Barbuda are that the beating sun rules the day, sand flies rule the evenings, and mosquitoes rule the night. Fuck. This was actually kind of urgent.
I soon discovered there are only two shops in Codrington, and neither of them sold sun protection. My next option was to head toward Coco Point, one of the developments.
Coco Point is one half of the giant Peace, Love, and Happiness development, called the Barbuda Ocean Club, or BOC. Next door is Nobu, De Niro and Packer’s aforementioned global sushi and hotel business. Its 251 acres includes the site of an abandoned hotel, the K Club, which was Princess Diana’s favorite escape.
I drove right into Nobu with no problem. It’s mostly a construction site, but they’ve already opened a small, fancy beach restaurant. Its maître d’ didn’t know what to make of me, so he opted for the white-privilege approach: “Welcome back, sir. So nice to see you again. Will you be having lunch today?”
I eventually determined there would be no help from the Nobu staff, who knew without even looking that there was no sunscreen anywhere on the premises. Next, at the outer defenses of PLH’s Coco Point development, I was convincingly assured I wouldn’t be allowed in, not even for sunblock. The interior was accessible only to staff, construction workers, and prospective buyers.
Here’s something to chew on: According to unverified sales information I’ve seen, plots at Coco Point have been sold to the heads of multinational conglomerates, global banking institutions, investment firms, and other private citizens whose names carry billion-dollar associations, for prices all in the millions.
Meanwhile, the developers themselves are a blizzard of glitz. John Paul DeJoria is the principal investor behind PLH. He’s by most accounts a wonderful man who came from poverty, made billions, and gives a ton of it away. Owner of nightclubs and Harley-Davidson dealerships, his biggest haul has come from co-founding Paul Mitchell hair products and then Patrón tequila, the latter of which he sold to Bacardi for $5.1 billion in 2018. His Twitter bio reads, “Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Environmentalist.” He’s not joking. Not only is his PLH Foundation big in global human uplift and eco protection, but he also bought a sailboat for Sea Shepherd Conservation, which named another vessel in their fleet, a former US Coast Guard cutter, after him.
His partner is Michael Meldman, co-founder of Casamigos tequila along with George Clooney and Rande Gerber, and the founder of Discovery Land Company (DLC), which has around 25 of these enclave properties, mainly in the US. It seems DLC’s modus operandi is to buy large tracts of wilderness and “protect it” by excluding all but the richest of the rich, who can hang there in total privacy. There’s always a golf course “to anchor the community,” and the talk is always of “legacy” ownership.
It is, they appear to want to insist, all about buying these special slices of the planet with the intention of passing them on to their children and generations to come. It implies a deep commitment to the land over the very long term—kind of like the relationship Barbudans have already established.
Sometimes, though, the properties are flipped. One source in an effusive article in the New York Post titled “This Blue Chip Caribbean Island Hopes to Dethrone St. Barts,” written by Christopher Cameron and published in April 2021, had this to say about Meldman and his business: “‘So many real estate junkies follow Mike,’ a fan of the Discovery brand, who requested anonymity, said. ‘When they buy at the beginning of the development, which means they have to wait a couple years to actually see it, they make a significant amount of money.’”
The same article describes BOC’s elitist ethos: “This is a place where masters of the universe let down their hair, where wild horses drink straight from the pool, where sea turtles flap their flippers right along the shore and where Thursday nights can rage until 2 a.m. at the bar. Why gamble with the uninitiated?”
Here’s another telling paragraph from the piece, which is trying to explain why the tiny island where billionaires and celebs famously go to play isn’t cool enough for masters of the universe: It has too many mortals. “‘[Barbuda Ocean Club] will be like St. Barts,’ said Mike Meldman…the project’s developer. ‘Like if you made St. Barts private and really limited to the people who go there.’”
All that aside, I still needed sunscreen. While firmly entrenched on the outside of the Coco Point gate, the security guards barring me from entry actually saved my skin. Once the two Barbudan women got a handle on my quest, they went all out to help. One radioed inside and asked someone to bring sunblock to the gate. When that failed, they directed me to Barbuda Cottages way back down the road, saying, “Tell them we sent you.”
Barbuda Cottages was busy. In fact, it seemed like a thriving example of the low-key, local-owned tourism that was once the only kind of development this island knew, before Hurricane Irma and PLH and Paradise Found. Neat cottages on stilts close to but set back from the beach, reasonably priced, informal.
“You are very welcome,” said the lady handing me a can of spray-on factor 50. And no, she wouldn’t take any money for it. “Guests are always leaving them!” she explained.
I went upstairs to their restaurant, Uncle Roddy’s, and splashed out on the last square meal I would have for a while.
[Excerpted from TSJ 31.5. For the full 5500-word feature, subscribe today. To learn more about how you can help save Barbuda, click here. Images by Al Mackinnon]