Grand Isle: a luxurious jewel in the heart of the Exumas

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by turquoise waters, yachts and private islands owned by the rich and famous, a group of Canadians are playing ball hockey on an airstrip.

It is no ordinary gathering. Interspersed between the opposing teams are players from the National Hockey League (NHL), former Olympians and guests of Grand Isle Resort & Spa, a luxurious property located on the main island of Exuma in the Bahamas.
Earlier in the day, the teams left the resort and arrived by boat on Farmer’s Cay, a pristine 60-acre island with a population of just 27. The island’s 10 school children came out to watch.

With sweat pouring down their faces, the opposing sides take breaks when a ball flies into the nearby ocean, or when a private aircraft touches down on the airstrip. Laughing, the players scream – “PLANE!” – and move the nets to the side. 

A world like this is an anomaly for most, a dream that most people can only fantasize about.

But for Peter Nicholson, a Canadian developer in Exuma, and owner at Grand Isle, it’s a bold marketing strategy aimed at waking people up to Exuma. The dream, he said, is very much within reach.

“I often tell people that Great Exuma is the eighth Wonder of the World,” Nicholson said. “Of course, when you tell people that, they rarely believe you. But Exuma has probably the nicest waters in the world outside of Tahiti and the Maldives. We’re just over three hours south of North America’s eastern seaboard, perhaps the most lucrative market in the world. And yet many people have never heard of us.”

Paradise, as it turns out, can be hard to sell.

Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, has historically been the epicenter of tourism for the country. However, this archipelago is made up of some 700 islands, with 365 of them quietly resting in the Exumas.

Nicholson says Exuma is too beautiful and unspoiled to stay a secret for long, enough so that he purchased 31 luxury villas at Grand Isle in January 2010. Perched on a cliff, the resort overlooks a giant horseshoe beach known as Emerald Bay, and features panoramic ocean views, an infinity pool, restaurant and bar, spa, work-out facility and fully-appointed villas for sale and rent.

The furnishings, appliances and grounds are indeed luxurious, enough to justify the original $1,000 per square-foot price tag it commanded shortly after it opened in 2008.

The world economy, of course, had other plans. The resort went into receivership shortly after the financial crisis. The Four Seasons, located just down the beach, closed its doors before Sandals purchased it a couple years later.

So Grand Isle waited: A luxurious jewel in the heart of the Exumas. The paint was barely dry.

Nicholson, who is the founder of WCPD Inc. in Ottawa, a boutique financial services firm specializing in philanthropy and tax reduction, saw an investment opportunity at Grand Isle when a friend from the Bahamas alerted him to the property.

Tyrone Munroe had spent the last 30 years living and working in Ottawa, but in 2010, he returned to his homeland and became Nicholson’s business partner in the islands.

Armed with Munroe’s local knowledge, and Nicholson’s background in finance, the dynamic duo has fought to bring Grand Isle to the world.

“What is special right now, is we have a direct flight into Exuma from Toronto every Thursday and Sunday. For an island with a population of just 5,000, that is amazing,” Nicholson explained. “Air Canada does not fly anywhere else like that.”

Since 2010, Nicholson has sold off 12 of his 31 villas to a mix of Canadians and Americans. By marrying the development with his day job, he offers some buyers the freedom to become non-residents and tax-free citizens of the world.

He sees the tax benefits as the cherry on the Exuma sundae, served up on a silver platter of special events, such as ball hockey on Farmer’s Cay.

That game was just one event within two weeks of festivities over the Winter Olympics, known as Sochi Under the Sun. Grand isle has also become the stomping grounds of swim suit models from Sports Illustrated, Michelin-rated chefs, and high-net-worth race car drivers coming over from Nassau after attending the annual Bahamas Speed Week.

“Recognition has always been our biggest issue. All we ask is people give us a try, and then they are hooked,” he added. “I see the future of Exuma as being very bright. I firmly believe it will grow exponentially in the next 10 years.”

The potential has not been lost on other investors, apart from the celebrities that own private islands in the area, such as David Copperfield, Johnny Depp and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.

New resorts have sprouted up in recent years. Old ones have been renovated. More modest investors have built homes on the beach and rent them out to several couples for an intimate vacation.

For Nicholson, Grand Isle is only the beginning. After selling off his remaining villas, and keeping a good number for himself, he is planning another resort on Farmer’s Cay with Munroe, his business partner, which is expected to break ground within a year. In the meantime, Nicholson is positioning Grand Isle as a hub for high-net-worth individuals focused on philanthropy. The first philanthropic meeting is scheduled for November.

While resort ownership can be a pleasurable business, Nicholson said he measures success by the enjoyment and satisfaction of those around him. Zooming around these islands, he sees the same awe and enthusiasm that inspired him to take the plunge in Exuma in the first place.

“This is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It actually goes deeper than that. Those that come here, it becomes close to your heart,” he said. “I never get bored sharing it with people.”