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Caribbean Dream

American artists Brice and Helen Marden bring forth a colorful hideaway in the footprint of a 19th-century sugar plantation on the island of Nevis

The Ed Tuttle–designed dining terrace at Golden Rock Inn.
The Ed Tuttle–designed dining terrace at Golden Rock Inn.

Red isn’t a popular color within the pastel-dominated palette of the Caribbean. Save for the brief flashes that show up on stop signs and traffic lights, in the bougainvillea blooms that creep along buildings, and on the spiny crabs and lobsters that appear on your plate, the hue may well have dropped off the regional color wheel. But halfway up the slopes of the lone volcano on the island of Nevis, that’s decidedly not the case.

Caribbean Dream
Wild foliage creates a blooming canopy above the resort's stone-walled reception office.

Beyond a winding path overgrown with towering palms and philodendron leaves the size of your head, a scarlet gate signals your arrival at Golden Rock Inn, a low-key jet-set getaway owned by two unlikely hoteliers, the American artists Brice and Helen Marden. Originally a 1970s bed-and-breakfast established in the ruins of an early–19th-century sugar plantation, the property is now a sybaritic retreat shrouded in primeval vegetation; its laid-back character presents a refreshing alternative to the art-world party scene that had once surrounded the couple on St. Bart’s. “I loved the beauty of the old stone buildings,” Helen Marden says about her first visit to the inn in 2004. “The quiet, the breezes, the views of the ocean and the forest—I thought it could be our own little island in the hills.”

And just like that, a passion project was born. After purchasing the land, the Mardens set to work cleaning and restoring the centuries-old stone edifices, keeping the architecture intact wherever possible. In fact, the only space that was altered is the main building, which the couple reconfigured as three connected rooms that now serve as the hotel’s bar and indoor restaurant. To give the resort a modern centerpiece, they enlisted the help of a friend, Amanresorts architect Ed Tuttle, who created a minimalist colonnaded dining terrace and a pavilion bordered by reflecting pools that was inspired, in part, by the copper kettles once used by the plantation’s workers to boil down sugarcane. The back wall was constructed with stone from a ruin on the neighboring island of St. Kitts.

Caribbean Dream
Caribbean Dream
The brightly colored cottages feature a spare, simple aesthetic, yet have housed the likes of Lauren Hutton and Vogue's Anna Wintour.

Once the new architecture was in place, the color story came into play. With her artist’s visual sensitivity, Helen tested various shades of orange and red on the property’s massive doors—which were originally pale green—before arriving at an eye-catching red that acts as an immediate spark against the structures’ cool, gray stone. “I wanted it to look peppier,” she says. Around the pool, eschewing the typical island pastels, she opted for kelly green Vegetal chairs, designed for Vitra by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec; in several of the public spaces, instead of laying down rugs, she painted floors with alternating lines of black and white and topped them with bright-red chaises. “At first, the workers thought it was sort of funny,” Helen says. “But now they get it.”

Caribbean Dream
Red accents balance the weight of the gray stone in Golden Rock's main building. Textile-draped tables elevate an indoor dining room.
Caribbean Dream

If the public spaces subtly challenge the senses, the 11 guest suites soothe them. With white as the predominant color, richly burled blond-wood floors create a neutral background for Moroccan rugs Helen picked up during her travels, as well as her own designs for desks and stools, which are painted cobalt and finished with fabric sourced from both Africa and Harlem. Four-poster beds are topped with crisp Baltic linens and Peruvian wool blankets by John Derian. The green Vitra chairs also turn up on the suites’ private patios.

That such modern design staples appear on an old tract of land isn’t the least bit jarring—at least not for Helen. Despite her affinity for the history of the place, she prefers to furnish her life with contemporary pieces, a decision that is apparent at every turn. Patricia Urquiola’s butterfly-like Madame Dakar sofa sits outside the main building's lounge area; red stools by British designer Peter Marigold are lined up along the bar. The wire sofa on the dining terrace is by the Campana brothers. “I like an eclectic mix that feels cheerful but subtle,” Helen says. “I want things to look just on the verge of out of control.”

Caribbean Dream
Laid out by landscape architect Raymond Jungles, the grounds at Golden Rock Inn look wild by design.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the carefully orchestrated grounds, which were overhauled with the help of renowned landscape architect Raymond Jungles. “I always wanted a garden, but I could never own enough land [in St. Bart’s] to make a beautiful one,” says Helen. Here she saw an opportunity to build the green space of her dreams. Together, Helen and Jungles traveled to plant growers in Florida to choose the chaotic assemblage of foliage that has become the property’s signature, including more than 20 species of palm, over 150 different types of flora, and native boulders that were each placed on site by Brice. Primordial ferns and bromeliad join Helen’s beloved collection of cycads, and clusters of tiny orchids purchased from a neighbor add bursts of color amid the green. The next phase of the garden’s expansion has already begun.

Meanwhile, the Mardens are deeply invested in developing plans for the resort’s future. They’ve already broken ground on a stand-alone house on the grounds for themselves, with sliding doors from Indonesia, pale-green tiles from Morocco, and more sofas by Patricia Urquiola, one of Helen’s favorite designers. Slowly, each cottage’s interior has evolved accordingly. “It will always be a work in progress,” she says. “I see it as a gift—a gift to me and the island and the people who want to come here.”

Garden State

“Helen likes a wild garden,” says landscape architect Raymond Jungles of the grounds at Golden Rock Inn. “She said it almost should look like nature’s winning.” But despite that freewheeling attitude, an awful lot of planning went into overhauling the property. Here’s are five elements of the lushly textured look that makes Golden Rock Inn so memorable.

 

  • Circulation

     “It’s the most important thing,” says Jungles. Decide how you want to use the space, how you want people to move through it, and whether you want intimate or grand moments. “Golden Rock had really bad circulation, so we had to determine where the new entrance would be and make our 3-D topography and site plans accordingly.”

  • Drainage

    Some plants require more, some less. “Create microclimates based on the amount of drainage [you need],” advises Jungles. “In certain areas we designed retention areas to help prevent flooding caused by water running down the mountain.”

  • Foliage

    “Existing trees help determine where you make spaces; add large new trees, and together they become the foundation of the garden,” says Jungles. The understory trees—here, frangipani, petticoat palms, cycads—are the next level, and they fill in under the canopy. Last comes the small stuff: ground cover and grasses. “They add volume to the space,” Jungles notes.

  • Structural Extras

    “At Golden Rock we arranged boulders in different spots, such as underneath the shade trees, and built walkways where you can look to the water,” Jungles explains. “You’re creating destinations where people want to circulate and participate in the garden.”

  • Plant Color

    As the final step, says Jungles, “we added hues that tie the whole property together. We used reds and oranges that link to features such as the gates and doors of the hotel. It became a total immersion.”

Caribbean Dream
An old sugar mill on the grounds is almost overtaken by a tumble of sun-kissed philodendron plants.
Caribbean Dream
Jungles devised an understated water feature that flows on top of the plantation house's original wall.

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