Caldwell’s Palm Island

John Caldwell is one of the most gracious hosts in the Caribbean, a T-shirt and shorts hotelier who's created one of the Caribbean's unique resorts. Garry Steckles shared his affection for a tiny island hideaway in the Grenadines

John Caldwell: I’m sitting right where I want to be. Photograph by Garry StecklesThere are 23 private homes on Palm

John Caldwell is one of the most gracious hosts in the Caribbean, a T-shirt and shorts hotelier who has created, almost single-handed, one of the Caribbean’s most unique resorts.

He’s also a man you wouldn’t want to cross.

Caldwell is a charmer, a genuine 42-carat Caribbean character in an age when there aren’t too many of them around. Now in his mid-seventies, he runs Palm Island, 170 acres of unspoiled paradise, with a beguiling mixture of charisma and casual tropical chic. Regular guests–and Palm gets many of them-are treated as old friends. Newcomers are made to feel instantly welcome. He’s ready, at the drop of question, to regale you with tales of how Palm came into being, and of the epic round-the-world voyage he made single-handed after the Second World War that almost cost him his life and resulted in a best-selling book.

He’s a captivating storyteller, his blue eyes twinkling, his craggy, weather-beaten face–more than a little reminiscent of the late Spencer Tracy–lighting up in a smile as he moves seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote.

OccasionalIy, though, the steel shows.

Last year, the staff of Palm Island most of them from nearby Union Island–decided to join a union. Caldwell, to put it mildly, wasn’t in favour. He promptly gave the 60-odd workers a clear choice–your jobs or your union. They were determined, and chose the union. So was Caldwell, who fired them all.

That happened last summer, during the resort’s low season, when there were few guests to, look after, and Palm, despite the disruption, continued to function while new staff were hired and trained.

“It was typical of our father,” says Caldwell’s eldest son, John Jr, who runs the hotel side of the resort while younger brother Roger looks after the boat-charter operation. “He made his mind up, made his position clear, and saw it through. That’s what he always does. I’m just thankful he was around to handle things. It was a very, very serious situation.”

Both John Jr. and Roger have also been on the wrong side of their father’s famous stubborn streak. They returned to the island only a couple of years back after spending several years away after a bust-up with John Sr. “We had a father-and-son confrontation a few years ago and I invited them to leave,” chuckles the elder Caldwell.

A guest who was at the hotel at the time recalls things a little more explicitly. “He ran them off at gunpoint. I saw it happen and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she told me.

Caldwell himself says he’s a much quieter character these days: “I used to have quite a temper but guess I’ve mellowed.” Mellower he may be, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have slowed down any as he oversees the running of the island he fell in love with when he was sailing the Grenadines three decades ago as a charter skipper.

In those days, Palm Island was known as Prune Island, and there were hardly any palm trees; just swamps, mosquitoes, and magnificent, untouched beaches. The only people who took advantage of them were those passing by in yachts, and one of them happened to be Caldwell, who was plying the Grenadines from a base in Antigua after spending almost all his life at sea and a good part of it sailing the world’s mightiest oceans in small boats.

Caldwell was intrigued by the island. He would overnight there whenever he was carrying passengers who didn’t mind the rather rough anchorage. And he started to plant palm trees. “I used to put a couple of dozen in our stern, and I guess I planted about 8,000 over six years of sailing from Antigua to Grenada. At first I didn’t know the first thing about planting them, but I got the hang of it after a while.”

That was in the early sixties, and Prune Island was beginning to look good, very good, to the feisty American charter operator. It was still totally uninhabited. And a dream started to take shape in Caldwell’s mind.

“I started to wonder why the island was sitting there doing nothing. The thought crossed my mind that someone should build a hotel there. The next thing I knew I was in the office of the Chief Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ebenezer Joshua, and I told him what was on my mind. He said: ‘You should do it. ‘ I said I would spend $150,000 on the island. I didn’t mention that I only had $10,000. ‘You got the island,’ he told me.

Caldwell was given a 99- year Iease, with the option to renew for another 99 years. The dream was becoming a reality.

John and his Australian-born wife Mary set about making their island paradise u place fit for permanent habitation by people rather than mosquitoes. The name was changed from Prune to Palm. Work started on filling in 18 swamps, using the only tools available: wheel-barrows and shovels. Acres of scrub had to be cleared, cisterns constructed, a jetty built. And, in their spare time, a resort designed.

All of which cost money. A lot more than $10,000. To finance the ongoing work, John Caldwell came up with the idea of selling small slices of Palm as building sites. Many of his charter regulars, who had fallen in love with the island during their stopovers, bought sites, and today there are 23 private houses on Palm. Most of them, not coincidentally, are decidedly modest, a far cry from the millionaires’ retreats of nearby Mustique.

By1966, ten resort cottages had been built, along with offices, a bar and restaurant, and Palm Island was open for business. Today, Palm Island has 24 double rooms, a handful of villas available for rent, and a loyal clientele which appreciates its laid-back charms.

“We’ve been coming here for 12 years and wouldn’t dream of taking our vacations anywhere else,” says Melinda Beard, a legal administrator from Pittsburgh, Pa. Melinda and her husband Phil are hooked as much by what Palm doesn’t have as what it does. “There’s no hassle here, no swarms of tourists,” she says. “Who knows how long it can remain unchanged in today’s world? But as long as it does we’re going to keep on coming back.”

Palm has catered to its share of the rich and famous. Barbara Streisand, Edward Kennedy, Quincy Jones, Donald Trump and Françoise Sagan are just a few of the celebrities who have stayed there, and the island was home base a couple of years back for the models and crew shooting Sports Illustrated’s famous annual swimwear edition.

But John Caldwell has never succumbed to the temptation– no matter how profitable it might have been–to turn Palm island into a fashionable, snooty resort for the glitterati. He still runs the island the way he wants to, from a combination of office-workshop cluttered with half-empty tins of paint, shabby furniture and tools of the hotel trade, his desk piled with mountains of paper. As he puts it, “I’m still a hands-on manager. You have to be here.”

Being a hands-on manager has allowed him to create a place he loves even more than the faithful patrons who return year after year. Ask John Caldwell where he’d most like to be in the world, and the answer, delivered without a second’s hesitation, tells you aII you need to know about why Palm Island is a Caribbean success story. “I’m sitting here right now.”