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Tom Austin

The forgiving ease of the Caribbean has always inspired designers and artists of every variety, often bent on creating intensely personal hotels as a kind of public art. In Jamaica’s Montego Bay, the venerable Round Hill Hotel and Villas, which debuted in 1953 with guests like John and Jacqueline Kennedy, is all about great social design. Founder John Pringle, a Jamaican with a Ford Model wife and ties to England’s royal family, wielded snob appeal like a scalpel and built an enduring masterpiece. Another singular hotel vision is Nevis’ Golden Rock Inn: The 96-acre property is owned by artists Helen and Brice Marden, who received a 2006 retrospective at New York’s MoMA.

Credit: Douglas Friedman

In 2005, the Mardens, both passionate gardeners and couture hoteliers—they also own the Hotel Tivoli in Tivoli, New York—had lunch at the Golden Rock Inn and immediately bought the place. They brought in Raymond Jungles, who has worked with such architects as Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron, to reimagine the landscape design. Architect Edward Tuttle, known for his work with Aman Resorts, nailed every nuance of their restrained sensibility, designing a domed pavilion and The Rocks restaurant. Everything in the hotel is as thoughtfully composed as a Marden painting.

The Mardens met in the 1960s at the counterculture corral Max’s Kansas City and have stayed in the thick of hip, remaining confirmed nomads with homes in Marrakesh and Hydra, Greece. Golden Rock is a Caribbean boutique hotel for design aficionados, a precise suggestion of other worlds and possibilities with Moroccan Berber rugs, Patricia Urquiola’s Tropicalia daybed and such prints as Then Love Takes Us…, created by Warhol-crowd stalwart Rene Ricard.

Credit: Douglas Friedman

Brice Marden paints every day in his Nevis garden, and for Helen Marden, Golden Rock is about the “yearning for beauty within everyone. Our gardens, as in ancient Persia, express our love for color and life.”

In the early days of Jamaica’s Round Hill, John Pringle made sure his set owned cottages at the resort. Noël Coward was an early investor, along with Adele Astaire, Fred’s socialite sister. Pringle’s mother hosted Vincent Astor at her nearby Sunset Lodge Hotel, and he grew up knowing everybody.

Coward discovered the island while staying at Ian Fleming’s GoldenEye, the house built on James Bond. Later, at his own villa, Coward entertained swells like Cecil Beaton and David Niven and wrote the play Volcano, a merry vivisection of the Jamaica fast set. His crowd included Blanche Blackwell, the mother of hotelier Chris Blackwell, who now has the Fleming Villa at GoldenEye.

Courtesy of Round Hill Hotel and Villas

In recent years, Ralph Lauren has recalibrated Round Hill with such touches as black granite floors. But in his Rizzoli book Escape: The Heyday of Caribbean Glamour, Hermes Mallea devotes a chapter to the island’s golden age, when Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller honeymooned at the Jamaica Inn and Errol Flynn entertained Bette Davis at his Jamaica Reef Hotel. Pringle would eventually denounce his own creation as “Levittown for millionaires,” but to Mallea, Round Hill lives forever in a 1954 Slim Aarons photograph of Babe and Bill Paley, who then had CBS, striking artful poses by their pool.

“Pringle was a gentleman innkeeper who ran Round Hill like an exclusive private house party, allowing his guests to be whatever they were supposed to be,” Mallea says. “Everything in that photograph, from the unfussy furniture to Babe Paley’s clothes, has a true coherence of style. It’s absolutely perfect, all the simple money can buy.”

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