How one couple is living the dream and the headaches of a private, 50-acre Caribbean island.
"When I go to the grocery store I get in a boat," muses Libby Brown with a laugh that could rustle palm trees.
Brown also doesn't mind the locals charging $6 for a box of Cheerios. It's just part of the price you pay for living on your own private island.
And Libby Brown can't wait to get back to hers. Stewart, her husband, is there, probably tooling around on a Bobcat, planting palm trees.
They've already had two careers as the founding force behind This End Up, the furniture chain, and behind The Arcade on Grove, the shopping area at Libbie and Grove avenues. Brown is 57 and her husband is 61.
After 33 years of marriage, two kids, two highly successful businesses, 12 years living on a boat sailing everywhere from Nantucket to Venezuela, and the birth of their first grandkid, Richmonders Libby and Stewart Brown decided they needed an alternative homestead and a site for a small resort.
So they scouted the Earth for the closest thing they could find to Paradise. They found it.
"We were having a cocktail one night at sunset and our captain, George, pointed out over the water and said, 'Right there is your island,'" Libby Brown remembers.
Instantly they fell in love with Fowl Cay (pronounced "key"), a tropical 50-acre island 240 miles southeast of Miami in the Bahamas' Exuma Islands. It got its name as a refuge for wild chickens. Today, tuna, wahoo and conch are among the varied and spectral creatures nesting in its turquoise waters. Indigenous pigs from nearby islands swim along the shores. Rolling hills cascade against the sky.
The Browns set about convincing the current owner to sell it to them. After several attempts and offers, they succeeded. (They won't say how much they paid.) It then took more than two years to get approval from the Bahamian government to purchase the island, acquire the proper building and environmental permits, and put in a new dock.
The adventure was just beginning. "We were starting from scratch," Brown says. "We had to import everything. Every screw, every nail, every shingle, every man, every grain of rice they were to eat." For two years the Browns hired a crew of 45 native Bahamians to live on Fowl Cay and help build their dream. They had to install electricity and a septic system and figure out how to convert saltwater and rain water into drinking water. Water on Fowl Cay is gold, says Brown. It's one of the many resources that they have learned to conserve and regard as precious. Today the island can produce 9,000 gallons of water a day.
A lot of people have fantasized about escaping to a private paradise, far from the madding crowd. And there are plenty of places to do it, where ribbons of white sand and blue sea stretch as far as the eye can see. But, for most, the chance of ever owning such a place is as remote as any isle could be. Currently, there are for sale some 125 private islands that could fetch anywhere from $7,000 for a small island in Nova Scotia to $14 million for a lush retreat in the British Virgin Islands. Of all the tens of thousands of islands, big and small, only about 3,500 are privately owned by people, not companies.
In the midst of building the infrastructure, the sweat and guts of the operation, the Browns kept thinking about what their vision of Paradise would look like. "Some of our friends think we've lost our minds," says Brown. "I had never used the word stress in connection with anything we'd done," she says. "But it was stressful."
They waited months for a backhoe that could dig through solid coral and limestone ground. Just as it was about to arrive something awful happened. The heavy machine hadn't been secured properly. It fell off the boat into 3,000 feet of ocean. The silver lining, Brown says sheepishly, is that it turned out to be the wrong kind of backhoe. They had to wait six weeks for another.
"It's been a personal rebirth of our management style and our understanding of what achieves goals," Brown says. "Patience, soft talk, lack of anger and patience. You can begin and end with patience."
At first, the Browns had thought they would build a house for themselves and one for both of their children. But it occurred to them that the houses would stay empty for much of the year. They decided to turn their idea of a family compound into a miniresort, and invite friends and guests to share the island, too. In addition to their own house, they designed three houses that can sleep up to 18 adults, and a clubhouse with tennis courts, a swimming pool and an exercise room.
Now all Brown has to do is empty their rented warehouse in Richmond and pack its contents onto six 40-foot-long tractor-trailers bound this week for Jacksonville, Fla.
From there she has to trust that everything she's spent four years collecting from queen-size beds to Cole Porter CDs to potato peelers won't spill into the sea on its way to Fowl Cay. If she's lucky the barge will reach the island in a matter of weeks. Then the Browns will rally as many Bahamian neighbors as they can to help them fill up four beach houses and a clubhouse with the comforts of home.
Once the houses are furnished, the resort will be ready for business. Fowl Cay's first official season will open in January 2002. Prices average $240 per person per day and include all food, beverages and recreation, plus a golf cart and 65 horsepower dinghy for transportation around the island.
But it's a business that doesn't have to make money, Brown says. They're in it for the memories, she says. Like when the barge pulled up recently with 75 palm trees. "Everybody's waiting to see what barge it is. You pull up the binoculars. 'It's the palm trees!' People from neighboring islands are following it on dinghies and it's loaded down with fronds. There are wide red ribbons tying them down and all the people are flapping in the breeze, too, honking horns, digging holes. It's just wild," Brown recalls.
These moments, she says, are why they're there.
Back in Richmond, the sky is Caribbean blue, and summer heat has stretched into October. This could explain why despite being far from her latest project Brown appears shamelessly relaxed sitting at a table outside the Arcade on Grove.
Brown is quite used to this place. She and Stewart bought the Grove Avenue building, renovated it and turned it into the Arcade, then sold it. That was more than five years ago. Perhaps by now it seems like a lifetime ago.
A friend at a nearby table has heard all about Brown's latest venture and offers to help in what he's certain will be pure Paradise. Brown invites him to make the trip anytime. Before Brown continues, she takes a bite of chicken salad and sips her Diet Coke.
It's all about what's good this day, says Brown. "If September 11 teaches us anything it's this," she says. Instantly Brown thinks of her Bahamian friend, Salty Dog. "When he comes over on our beach it's because he's caught a conch. He cuts it up so fast you can't see his hands move. He adds lime and sour and goat peppers. And he's laughing and talking all the time. Then we have Kalik, a Bahamian beer named after the noise cowbells make when cows are walking. We just sit and have Kalik and conch salad on the beach."
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