The beach was considered unusable. Covered in thousands of discarded conch shells that for a century had been tossed aside by harvesters, Long Bay—on Providenciales in the Caribbean Turks and Caicos—was not seen as a place for development. Prized by a few local residents such as Stan Hartling for its unspoiled beauty and solitude, it was a world away from Grace Bay on the island’s opposite side, a bustling strip where Hartling had built two successful properties.
“The contrast was evident,” he says. “The peacefulness of Long Bay, the ability to walk for a mile into the blue sea, was overlooked by the market.”
The shells were the problem, one that others had had little success overcoming. The brittle objects were embedded in the sand and difficult to dislodge. But Hartling encountered a bit of luck one day, when a vessel floated up onto his beach. As he was trying to remove it with his motorboat, his engine pushed the sand away, leaving the shells exposed at the bottom of a hole, easy to extract. The method, he discovered, could be done on a larger scale, and after three years of dredging, The Hartling Group debuted its most luxurious property to date, The Shore Club, perched on a strip of pristine white sand on Long Bay.
When he first visited Turks and Caicos in the mid ’90s, researching offshore tax planning after retiring from a career as an accountant and builder in his native Halifax, Canada, Hartling had no idea he would become one of the country’s premier developers. Today, his company operates three unique condo hotels that have progressively grown in vision, elegance and amenities: The Sands, from 1998; The Palms, 2005; and The Shore Club, which opened last year.
“I still have a hard time realizing just how much success the island has had,” he says.
When he arrived, Providenciales didn’t have 20 percent of the rooms it has now; Hartling credits an ideal confluence of factors that in a generation transformed a sleepy island nation into the Caribbean’s epicenter of luxury.
First, Turks and Caicos was not developed during the “cheap and cheerful” years of the ’80s, when modest facilities sprang up to crowd many a Caribbean beach, when it was “more about numbers than quality.”
Next, the Internet allowed easy communication with the U.S. and elsewhere, creating a “paradigm shift in people’s ability to be in Turks and Caicos and yet remain completely in touch.” And then there’s the demographic of the audience, who have the income to invest in top-line property at a time in their life when they also have more leisure. “We started with a clean palette in the ’90s and only developed high-end real estate. The fact that the islands are not a low-cost destination has been part of its success.”
The Hartling Group’s prosperity has been built on giving clients more than they expect. The first property, The Sands, offered guests such novelties as an on-site gym, Internet telephone service and, “simple as it sounds, a good dining component up on the beach.” That last point is key: Previous developers would build all the living units along the beach, which left guests bereft when it came to amusement. “Where do you spend your day at the resort if all the frontage is captured by residential? We made some sacrifices to ensure there was a flow to the amenities.”
The property also initiated Hartling’s operating system, which asks owners of units to rent them out through the company’s dedicated program to maintain their value. He also shunned corporate financing, preferring to broker each unit individually to prospective buyers. “We hand-sold Turks and Caicos to affluent individuals who took leaps of faith based on personal enthusiasm. Instead of $75 million from one institution, we got $1 million from 75 different people.”
Four years after opening The Sands, he saw that his clientele was ready to pay more for an enhanced experience that felt like home. “People thought I had lost my mind with The Palms, with units as much as $2 million,” he says. The property set a new standard for the island, with lush landscaping, a row of retail, and an 18,000-square-foot spa that landed on the cover of Condé Nast Traveler.
Now, The Shore Club has raised the bar yet again, incorporating 8,500-square-foot “ultra villas” into a serene community combining high-end dining and recreation with organic luxury. “We wanted to limit the amount of manmade physical structures, so we created a coconut grove going down to the beach, where the trees provide natural shade,” Hartling says.
Because they bought the only two parcels on Long Bay that could accommodate a resort of this size, The Shore Club will remain exclusive: “Where everybody else is going with increased densities, we did the opposite. It will always be tranquil.” And the conch shells are nowhere in sight.