PRIVACY PLEASE
Travel+Leisure India|July 2021
For nearly a century, Guana Island has drawn jet-setters seeking sun, solitude, and an ethos centred on the environment long before it was a trend. As the Caribbean slowly reopens, Heidi Mitchell dips her toes in the balmy waters of this singular tropical retreat.
Heidi Mitchell

BETWEEN US, my friend Camila and I own 26 headlamps. I know this because we tallied them as we stumbled in a race against the setting sun down Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point on Guana Island—the dramatically lush British Virgin Island resort that seems practically flung into the Caribbean Sea. We cursed ourselves as we stepped through giant spiderwebs and danced around skull-size hermit crabs while the crescent moon became our only source of light. We cursed because all those headlamps we own remained back home in our camping kits. It never occurred to us to pack them. Who would have thought one could get lost in the dark on an 850-acre island whose highest peak is a mere 242 meters? And anyway, who would consider strapping on a headlamp at a resort where dressing up for dinner is de rigueur, and where Nobel laureates, prime ministers, and members of Hollywood royalty are your companions at the nightly cocktail hour?

We shouldn’t have worried about appearances, since it turned out none of those luminaries would be at our very, very private cocktail hours. In order to protect its 30,000 residents against the coronavirus, the British Virgin Islands closed the borders in March of 2020. Although the government reopened them in December, there were strict protocols in place when I visited in January, including proof of a negative test before arrival, and two tests once there—one upon landing, and another a few days later.

Travelers were starting to trickle back into Guana, among them an American tech billionaire, who, earlier in the season, had bought out the entire place for 30 of his luckiest friends. But for most of my week at the resort, it was just Camila and me. We both needed an escape—Camila from her work as a frontline social worker in New York, and me from the brutal Chicago winter. I hadn’t set foot on a beach in ages, so while I came without my headlamps, I did arrive with a few modest goals: to swim daily; to spend quality time with my friend; and, after almost a year in lockdown, to finally take a moment to exhale.

Typically, the resort is sold out in January, with all 14 rooms and five villas taken over by “Guanaphiles” who stay every winter. Some regulars have been coming for three decades. Others are third-generation visitors, and the resort has an extraordinary 60 per cent rate of return. I got the sense that even at full occupancy, though, the feeling of privacy would remain strong.

Our first 24 hours were spent in quarantine, confined to our spacious compound and its surroundings—though this particular quarantine would have been the envy of anyone back home in snowy Chicago. We walked along our private beach and collected sea urchins and nautilus shells in absolute isolation. We swam in our own pool overlooking the crystalline sea, and I read up on the history of the place I’d be calling home for a week.

GUANA IS one of 16 inhabited islands among the roughly 40 that make up the British Virgin Islands. Archaeologists determined that ocean-faring, Arawakanspeaking Taino tribal groups were the first to arrive here from South America between 200 BCE and 100 CE, though there is some evidence that nomadic tribes from Venezuela set up fishing camps here as far back as 1500 BCE. In any case, all were displaced by the Caribs from the Lesser Antilles in the 14th century, who gave the surrounding sea its name and set up farms and fisheries as part of a thriving permanent settlement.

But in 1493, directionally challenged Christopher Columbus sailed into this archipelago and named his “discovery” Las Once Mil Vírgenes, after the legend of St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. Columbus’s arrival meant the extermination of nearly all of the inhabitants. In the ensuing centuries, the rocky islands swapped ownership often, trading between the Dutch, the Spanish, and, eventually, the British. By 1773, the BVIs were granted semi-autonomous status; since 1967, the islands have had their own constitutional government, though they remain a territory of Great Britain.

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