If you drive too fast along the Runaway Bay main road on Jamaica’s north coast you’ll miss the entrance to Hidden Bay, a cliff side villa hideaway identified only by a tiny sign on the outer wall. Indeed, on entry, when one contemplates the steep cliffs that fall dramatically beyond the 450-degree cut stone wall behind the entrance gate, one wonders who would have thought to build a villa here. Bounded on one side by the main highway, the Caribbean Sea on the other, the property hugs the coastline, barely 30 feet wide at its narrowest point.
But this is the beauty of the location: the seeming improbability of its existence that is dispelled by the contemplative design. Hidden Bay’s two villas, a main four-bedroom house, and a two-bedroom cottage are both ingeniously constructed to make the most of the property’s location, and offer a completely uninterrupted view of the entire Runaway Bay. The owners, a Jamaican couple close to retirement whose main home is in the capital, Kingston, spotted the property on a weekend trip to watch their daughter play golf at the nearby Runaway Bay Golf Club.
“We were driving past and I saw a tiny little sign that said For Sale.’ It was on a wire fence with some little bush so you could actually see through it. We stopped, inquired, and the minute I stepped foot here, I began to visualize. So we bought it, and that was in 2005,” says the wife, whom the couple agrees was the driving force behind the acquisition and transformation of the property.
At first glance, it didn’t seem possible to achieve what they wanted: a villa that could accommodate several generations of family in the comfortable island luxury that they had become used to at their former holiday home in Silver Sands, a resort community further along the highway toward Montego Bay. In any event, with their children grown and now starting families of their own, the Silver Sands home didn’t meet the mark.
“When we decided to sell that house and build here, people thought we were crazy! But we waited and waited, and we’d come down on weekends and clean it up, and over time it became clear,” she recalls. To make the dream a reality, there was only one option. “I realised there was only one architect who could really make the property work, and I hounded her till eventually after one year I got Ann Hodges to agree to take on the project, and I think she’s done a marvellous job.”
Ten years later, the result of the long visioning process and three-year construction project is a Jamaica Institute of Architects Excellence Award-winning embodiment of Jamaican traditional craft that is warm, inviting, and yet offers a range of spots for solitude. The group of professionals, Jamaica’s top names in architecture, construction, landscaping, woodwork and surface finishing, who worked on the project came together like a dream team.
For three years the owners and Hodges worked with contractor Bruce English, and ace landscaper Suzanne Spence, to remodel the space, their work complemented by the palette of master painter and surface finisher Leroy Daley. Artist and friend of the owners Jeanie Beck did the intricate fretwork that adorns each doorway throughout the property, all from locally sourced Jamaica mahogany.
The main house has four spacious bedrooms, each with its own balcony, en suite bathroom and louvred mahogany windows. Each bedroom has its own unique touch: the master bedroom has its grand ocean view, the ground floor bedroom has an atrium outdoor shower, while the remaining two bedrooms are luxuriously appointed to accommodate children. The two-bedroom cottage is a stand-alone home unto itself, its own private jacuzzi and suntan deck shaded by mature broad-leafed almond trees.
“To be honest with you, I find that a lot of people are building luxury villas that do not in any way represent Jamaica. I wanted something that would allow my guests to be able to see what Jamaica used to be like. For me, Runaway Bay puts me back to my childhood, to old Jamaica, and that’s what I wanted,” she says, recounting her formative years as a little girl, spending summers in nearby villas along the Runaway Bay coastline including the Earl Levy-designed Oasis, and Folks Bay.
The “old Jamaica” elements run through both villas in large and small ways. The owner, a self-professed “antique fanatic and quilter,” whose exquisite quilts adorn select pieces throughout both houses chose each piece of furniture and art herself, a long project that’s still ongoing. In addition to massive fretwork-framed doors and windows painstakingly crafted from Jamaican mahogany by a “little man in Ocho Rios,” the main house also features mahogany-panelled walls and floors throughout. Another quintessentially Jamaican feature is the wide veranda, which can either be enclosed or left wide open to make the most of the sea breezes.
Beyond the veranda, a grassy area with a small infinity pool ends by the cliff’s edge. Also carved into the cut stone perimeter wall is an outdoor lounge for sunset cocktails and conversation. A small cliffside stairway ends in a romantic swimming cove accessed from a hanging terrace that accommodates two sun beds. That cove is only one of six such secluded inlets with seemingly bottomless turquoise swimming holes dotted along the western end of the property, ideal for snorkelling, sunning or just gazing out to sea.
East along the coastline, the steep cliff rocks give way to a wide private sandy beach dotted with seashells and coconut trees. Access to that beach runs through a passage the owner has named Hodges Hollow, in honour of the property’s architect, a flight of stairs cut through a natural gap in the rock, reinforced with a rounded archway and a massive wooden gate that’s also cut to fit the form of the rock. Throughout the property, no fewer than 10 little nooks dot the landscape, each with a unique sea view, some with hammocks, others with locally crafted Adirondack chairs, each with its own accompanying piece of garden art, allow for lazy afternoons filled with butler-served drinks.
Those design elements, she points out, are in keeping with the couple’s philosophy toward building: to be as unobtrusive to the natural features as possible while modernizing and beautifying.
“I was adamant through the whole project: no trees were to be cut, and all construction must complement the natural surroundings,” she explained, pointing out that the beach below was a nesting ground for sea turtles.
“Well actually, we did cut two trees,” her husband interjects. “But they were male guinep trees so they weren’t a major loss. Then again, men always get cut out of the decorating process don’t they?” he says with a chuckle.
The current owners were not the only ones who saw the possibilities: the original owner of the property was a gentleman from Brown’s Town who is said to have hosted fabulous parties both on shore and off shore, aboard his private yacht.
Back then, the owner clearly had a penchant for puns, and Sharp’s Flats as the property was called, comprised three small holiday cottages, respectively named A Who Dis, A Who Dat and A Who For. A little board house on the westernmost tip served as a doctor’s office, and while it had to be demolished for safety reasons, the structure that took its place, an outdoor bar, still facilitates healing of a sort. Homage to the space’s previous use is now a rusty antique sign salvaged from the former surgery, and of course, cocktail concoctions by bartender Richie that cure all ills.
In all, the property has been transformed, but the most important elements remained the same. The old property’s most infamous guest, the current owner recalls, was an English lady, who at the time was principal of St Hilda’s High School for Girls (a prestigious boarding school in nearby Brown’s Town).
“I know this may sound insane,” the owner confides in an almost conspiratorial whisper, “but I’m almost positive she would sit there, under that tree and read her books and sip her drinks.”
“There is such a powerful vibe there,” she adds. “In fact, I feel like this place is almost magical, and that we’re so blessed to have it.”