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Bother on Paradise Beach

Michael Winner on the troubled big-budget villa development that is causing heartache among the Barbados celebrity set

Published 21 July 2010
The Telegraph

Michael Winner on the beach in Barbados: calm down dear Photo: Islandpaps / Splash News

The dream of celebrities owning a villa facing a sandy Barbados beach, adjacent to, and serviced by, a Four Seasons hotel, turned from idyll to nightmare as a bizarre saga unfolded.

It started in March 2005, when the Sandals hotel company announced it was selling Clearwater Bay, near the island's capital Bridgetown, to a group of international investors headed by local hotelier Michael Pemberton and Robin Paterson, a London estate agent. Pemberton, an audacious if not always successful entrepreneur, was photographed looking at plans of the area and trumpeting the advantages of snapping up sites priced from $10 million to $20 million. As I sunned myself at the nearby Sandy Lane hotel, expectations reached fever pitch. Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd-Webber bought two plots. Eddie Jordan, Lucien Grainge, head of Universal Music, and other luminaries joined Pemberton's Valhalla.

Sir Michael Caine, offered a deal to buy a villa, saw tourists diving in from hired boats to swim with turtles, and decided against. Sir Philip Green had lengthy meetings with the developers at Sandy Lane’s beach restaurant, couldn't get the guarantees he wanted, so wisely stayed away. Any ideas I may have had of owning my own little bit of Barbados were put aside. If it wasn't good enough for Sir Philip, why should I rush in?

Building of villas on the $380 million development started. In February 2008, the Four Seasons website proclaimed their adjacent hotel and spa would open in 2009. The villas were to be finished a year earlier. On July 27 2008, things went wobbly. A local website described the project as "smoke and mirrors". The Four Seasons website disclaimed "all responsibility or interest in the villas". Robin Paterson, head with Pemberton of the developing company Cinnamon 88, told me he wasn’t aware of that. "What planet is he on?" I wondered.

Then, a few weeks later, rapprochement: Four Seasons re-announced the villas project and stated that the 106-room hotel would open in 2009. But on February 20 2009, the Barbados Free Press reported: "Construction has stopped on the Four Seasons hotel project which does not augur well for the island’s economy." Cinammon 88 had run out of cash. The villa 'owners' - celebrities and others who had paid up to commence the building of their properties - didn’t even own the land on which their villas were being constructed.

Pemberton’s company representative wrote to me the day the press announced the project was going pear-shaped: "The developers decided to take a strategic review of the development . . . It is expected construction will resume in the next week." It didn't.

Fantasy enveloped everyone in charge. On March 14 2009, the Four Seasons website reported the residence and spa would be completed in 2010. The building site remained deserted. Pemberton said, "We're hoping things will be OK." Two of the major celebrities involved wrote to the boss of Four Seasons in Canada saying that, since they came in on the name of the Four Seasons brand, shouldn’t his organisation get the matter sorted? No chance. Four Seasons is a servicing group that advises on hotel building for a fee, then, when complete, runs it for the owners. Various major international developers looked at the project. They came, they saw, they went.

Angry villa participants who'd put down massive cash to be embroiled in this mess wondered what fees Michael Pemberton and Robin Paterson had taken and if they were to be put back into the diminished pot. When I questioned what was going on, Pemberton wrote, "I have passed your communications to my lawyers." His "clients" described him in language that made Gordon Ramsay sound like Listen with Mother. A press release was issued by Pemberton and Paterson on June 3 2009 joyously announcing the development would be back on track before the end of August, a deal having been done with the Maybach Corporation.

Local creditors received a letter from Pemberton saying, "negotiations with our new capital partner are now complete. Be assured once construction is reactivated all accounts will be settled promptly." Ignoring reality, Pemberton announced: "A deal could have been done with others. But I wasn’t willing to compromise on quality." The Maybach deal also turned to dust. One villa "owner" got so frustrated he bought an alternative house on the sandy Lane Estate. Construction remained dormant. Pemberton stayed in cloud cuckoo land.

Toward the end of 2009, the Barbados government, reeling under bad publicity for the island, got involved. Last month, Paradise Beach Ltd, who'd taken over, told the villa refugees they'd secured a government guarantee for $60 million "to help recommence the project". A new group of directors was announced with Colin Scaife as Chief Operating Officer. The project and construction management would be undertaken by an internationally recognised company, yet to be chosen. The Four Seasons hotel went onto the back burner. No longer could villa residents expect to turn up for a pina colada or a sunlounger. The concept of villas adjacent to a posh hotel is in limbo. A "re-design is required", read the announcement, "which will take considerable time and money". The new group severed all connections with Pemberton and Paterson's Cinammon 88. As one villa person put it to me: "At least Pemberton’s only there as a token." His official title is "consultant/senior adviser for design and quality". Whatever that means.

Colin Scaife had, per the announcement, "spent a considerable amount of time rebuilding the relationship with Four Seasons" so damaged by Pemberton and Paterson. The new company planned to "transfer land to the existing villa owners". How could any punter put in so much money without even owning the land?

The happy ending hasn't yet arrived. Before work can start a new workforce has to be taken on under new management. If the villas are ready by 2013 I'll be surprised. The new group plan to purchase the "Esso land" at one side of the development. It houses hideous oil storage tanks. The other side belongs to Irish billionaire Dermot Desmond, the principal owner of the famed Sandy Lane hotel. He said jokingly to me, "I think I'll put up a centre for drug addicts and criminals."

If the hotel does go ahead, work is unlikely to start for two years. Then villa owners, living next to a construction site, will face an eternity of noise and dust, as well as the public massing to swim with turtles. When I took my fiancee, Geraldine, she had to murder six tourists to get anywhere near a turtle.

Then there's the X-Factor: Simon Cowell. Simon, who I introduced to Barbados in 2000 when he was so unknown even his mother didn't recognise him, has paid up for a sea-front villa. He’s too famous to reside in public. Every tourist ship disgorging 2-4,000 people onto the quayside in Bridgetown will be besieged by local taxi drivers saying: "Do you want to see Simon Cowell’s house?"

There are no private beaches in Barbados. Even at Sandy Lane I face revellers lying in front of my sun lounger. Villa owners may find their beach filled with ten-deep rows of tourists ogling Simon’s house, the sea full of others swimming with turtles. Paradise Beach needs a marine expert to tempt the little darlings away and a massive bribe to coax Simon away, who could buy the whole place ten times over. Not much chance there.

Paradise at the Beach is still some way off.