Destination Bermuda

Edward Trippe’s new luxury resort, the Trippe family’s Bermuda adventure comes full circle



Edward Stettinius Trippe, the youngest child of aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, inherited his father’s habit of dreaming big. Trippe enters the restaurant on Greenwich Avenue — straight-backed, silver-haired, tanned — armed with photographs of a 200-acre patch of Bermudian paradise that he has spent more than a decade creating. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, he’s not done yet. The center-piece of the Tucker’s Point Club, a luxury hotel and spa still under construction, was delayed — one might say imperiled — by the financial aftershocks of 9/11. That enormous hurdle was only the latest in a struggle that goes back a half century. The dream of a perfect Bermudian enclave originated with Trippe’s father. It was not among Juan Trippe’s wildest dreams, considering those dreams he did accomplish: His Pan American Airways made the first passenger flights across the Atlantic, across the Pacific and round the world, and Pan American ushered in the jet age.

Ed Trippe does not recall his father’s history-making role — not to mention the friendships with world leaders and titans of industry — making a big impression on him during his youth on Zaccheus Mead Lane. “My memories of Dad growing up were that he was a typical dad: very hard working, successful but with plenty of time for family and friends,” Trippe says. Every so often, however, the son caught hints of the father’s atypical importance. “One memorable trip was in 1949. We went to Paris for Christmas and on to Switzerland for a family ski trip. In Paris, Dad met with General Eisenhower on Christmas Eve and tried to convince him to become the Republican candidate for President.”

Juan Trippe usually got what he wanted, and not through force or bluster; indeed, he was often described as shy. “I would not characterize him as a powerful man, and as a son I never thought of him in that context,” Ed Trippe remarks. “He was quiet, single-minded in his focus on issues and stubbornly resilient in pursuing everything he did.”

But the Bermuda project, owing to strict and sometimes eccentric zoning practices, remained elusive. “My father kept saying, ‘Let me develop a residential community and build the community around the existing hotel [the former Castle Harbour Hotel], and then I can make the hotel even better,’ ” Trippe recalls. “And they wouldn’t hear of it. The Bermudian government took the view that there were enough second homes out there already.” It would take Ed Trippe — and Ed’s own brand of stubborn resilience — to bring this dream full circle.

Today, discreet colonies of estate homes and fractional-ownership villas, and a beach, tennis and golf club featuring a spectacularly redesigned course with expansive water views, are already built. The five-star hotel and spa, with cottages dotting the green hillside down to the blue water, will be ready to receive guests in spring 2009.

The Tucker’s Point Club is a relatively new approach to tourism, a mixed-use resort where one can spend days or weeks or live permanently, depending on one’s level of commitment (emotional and financial) to this spectacular piece of “the rock,” as Bermudians call their limestone archipelago. As it happens, the mixed-use resort is also a clever business strategy. “The old model, the stand-alone hotel, either succeeded or failed based on how many tourists you could get to come,” Trippe says. “Under the new model, the capital to finance the hotel comes from the sale of residential properties and condominiums, which hugely mitigates the financial risk.”

This does not mean the $350 million venture was without risk. Far from it. Tourism to Bermuda fell off dramatically in the eighties (491,000 air arrivals in 1980 down to 272,000 in 2004) as resort hotels sprouted up all over the Caribbean and low airfares lured travelers to exotic destinations like Prague and Istanbul. In the nineties, several of Bermuda’s old stalwarts closed down, including the Bermudiana, Club Med and Marriott’s Castle Harbour, whose bones lie beneath Trippe’s new hotel. Bermuda seemed a place whose golden age had passed. As Trippe notes, however, Bermuda has led a charmed life. Instead of collapsing economically, Bermuda reinvented itself as an offshore haven, particularly for the reinsurance industry.

But travel writers still used words like dowdy and fusty to describe the island’s hotel scene. So when Trippe and company conceived Tucker’s Point around 1990, the whole idea seemed sort of iffy. The new luxury hotel would be the first on Bermuda in thirty-five years. If they built it, would people come, or was Bermuda old hat and too expensive besides? Would the Bermudian government let them build it in the first place? “The risks were huge,” Trippe admits with a retrospective sigh.

Trippe and company wended their way through a notoriously tricky approval process. Then they surmounted challenges from the Bermuda National Trust, which worried about the environmental impact, and others who objected to non-Bermudians owning and developing such a large tract of prime real estate. “There’s a fundamental feeling in Bermuda that land for residential homes should be owned and developed by Bermudians,” Trippe says. “We had to overcome that philosophy.”

It finally appeared that Ed Trippe was on the verge of doing one of the very few things his father had failed to do: turn this piece of land — secured by Juan Trippe fifty years ago — into a residential community of surpassing beauty, in high Bermudian style. In 2001, when the clouds of protest dissipated and Ed Trippe was poised to forge ahead, 9/11 intervened. With the ensuing state of massive insecurity, all the lenders withdrew.

In the late 1920s, when Bermuda was a sleepy paradise, Juan Trippe flew there for his first visit. The famous pink sand really was pink. The turquoise water really was turquoise. Pastel-colored houses with stepped white roofs really did sprout like orchids from the bright green hills. It was easy for Trippe to envision his fledgling airline bearing planeloads of mainlanders to this genteel British outpost 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Trippe’s dreaming did not end there. Bermuda may have been isolated — sitting well north of the Bahamas and its neighbors — but it would serve as the ideal stepping-stone to Europe. Of course, the idea of flying passengers across vast expanses of empty ocean seemed a little loopy at the time. When Pan Am carried its first bags of mail from Key West to Havana in 1927, Charles Lindbergh had only just made his historic solo flight to Paris. But Trippe, visionary that he was, understood the age of passenger air travel to be a present-tense phenomenon, and he wanted to capture as much of the business as he could.

Toward this end he hired Lindbergh — who was so famous that he could have chosen any employer anywhere — to map out new routes for Pan Am. Lindbergh investigated all paths to Europe and decided the continent was best reached via Bermuda and the Azores. Alas for Trippe, his ramped-up vision for Bermuda got snagged in British red tape. Instead, he developed his markets in South America and the Pacific and built Pan Am into one of the great success stories of the twentieth century. From the outset, Pan Am was the industry standard bearer, first to have cabin attendants and to serve meals in the air; first to develop an aviation weather service; first to navigate by instruments; first to plan tourist-class flights for common folk; and first to offer round-the-world service.

A driven and passionate man, Trippe forced the big flight-technology companies to adapt to his grand vision. Boeing built the 747 not because the world was ready but because Juan Trippe was.

Pan Am launched its Bermuda route in 1937 with a fleet of luxurious Sikorsky “flying boats” that landed in Hamilton Harbour. By actual boat, passage to Bermuda tended to be rough, prompting Mark Twain to write, “Bermuda is a paradise, but you have to go through hell to get here.” Unfortunately, travel by air was no less rough. “The aircraft would be tossed around and, with no warning, would drop hundreds of feet,” Trippe’s wife Betty wrote of those early flights. “Meals were often flung in the air, landing on passengers, on the ceilings or in the aisle.” And then there’s the BermudaTriangle.

But what was the point? Ah yes, paradise. After the Second World War, with tourism booming, Pan Am created subsidiary InterContinental Hotels to enable its passengers to stay in far-flung lands with maximum comfort. One of the most impressive Pan Am–related hotels — though not under the InterContinental banner — was the Castle Harbour Hotel on a Bermuda hilltop. A British shipping company opened the hotel in 1932 but sold it, with the sumptuous land, to Juan Trippe and other investors in 1958.

Ed Trippe often visited Bermuda as a boy (the islands had become something of a haven for Pan Am families). “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he recalls. “It wasn’t only the sand and the water and the climate. It’s got a European sophistication that you really don’t find in the Caribbean.” To this day, Bermuda encourages a neighborly manner and dress code that seem quaint in the best way.

Though Trippe would continue vacationing in Bermuda with his wife Bobbie and their (now grown) children Kristie, Weezie and Edward “Stett” Jr., he had no idea his business future would be so tied up in Bermuda. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1967, he worked for Pan Am in Saigon as a military traffic manager, then joined InterContinental, where he spent the bulk of his career as a senior executive. After Juan Trippe’s death in 1981, Ed and his brother Charles took a more active role in his father’s Bermuda Properties, which owned the Castle Harbour Hotel. They watched with dismay as the hotel would slip from its high standard, rebound, then slip again.

“Marriott was there running it,” Ed Trippe says, “but they were losing money, we were losing money, and we couldn’t keep it going. We had to take a deep breath and say, ‘We’re going to close it. Then we’re going to tear it down.’ But tearing it down without seeing where we were coming out on the other end was scary.”

Castle Harbour Hotel was closed in 1999 and razed in 2000. The question was, would anything rise in its place? For a while, it seemed Trippe would fail to gain the government approvals to build private homes, and after he got them, it seemed he would be bogged down in endless challenges despite his sensitivity to environmental issues. “We were tied up in court with people saying, ‘You’re not going to proceed with this.’ We had investors lined up at the time who came around and participated in these hearings, and they said, ‘No way in the world is this ever going to happen.’ ”

Though Trippe had always intended a luxury hotel for the centerpiece at Tucker’s Point, the hotel was also a government-imposed requirement aimed at boosting the island’s tourist trade. “The concern was that we wouldn’t get financing for the hotel,” he says. “And that was our agreement with the government: You can’t have this unique privilege to build a hundred homes unless you build a hotel. We got halfway through the process and the government began to say, ‘Where’s the hotel?’ We kept saying, ‘Well, it’s coming.’ And they didn’t believe us.”

The government’s skepticism, of course, had something to do with 9/11 and the fleeing investors. “We were able to replace them at the end of the day with the local insurance company and the local pension fund,” Trippe says, “people who, frankly, believed in what we were doing. But the financing was tenuous.”

Trippe had a sort of steely faith that the other great risk — the tourism decline — would reverse itself. He proved to be right. Bermuda has none of the negatives that now dog many Caribbean islands. “There’s no poverty in Bermuda,” he says, “and very little crime. And it’s got the highest standard of living, the highest per-capita income, the highest level of education in the Western world.” The one definite negative is that it’s so costly. As Trippe puts it, “This wonderful Bermudian dream, it’s expensive to maintain, even for their own people. There’s a cost to quality.”

That cost is steeper for noncitizens. Because of government rules, very few houses may be sold to non-Bermudians, and none of those for less than roughly three million dollars. On top of the sales price, there’s a wince-inducing tax of 22 percent. (The idea is to keep Bermudian real estate largely in the hands of Bermudians.)

In light of this, Tucker’s Point suddenly looks like a pretty good deal. The entitlements that Trippe won mean that non- Bermudians can buy a villa for as little as $2.5 million and a fractional condo (guaranteeing a minimum twenty-one days a year) for as little as $340,000, with a reduced sales tax of 10 percent. This in the most exclusive residential pocket of Bermuda. Your neighbors in adjacent Tucker’s Town would be Ross Perot, Silvio Berlusconi and Michael Bloomberg, who golfs at Tucker’s Point. But the residence communities are filling up fast; one’s last resort, so to speak, might turn out to be the new hotel.

It appears that the Tucker’s Point Club is spearheading a Bermudian resurgence. Noting its success, Hilton, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and the Dubai-based Jumeirah are either considering or have development plans firmly in the works for luxury resorts with fractional condos mixed in. “Yes, well, copying is the highest form of flattery,” Trippe says, “and we are very, very flattered.”

Bermudians themselves seem divided about all the new plans. On one hand, tourism remains the lifeblood of Bermuda. On the other, open space is dwindling, traffic is getting worse, and workers will have to be imported to fill all the new construction and hospitality jobs. The Jumeirah executives have come under particular fire. They can hear the voices of Bermudians calling for their grand, south-shore development to be abandoned and made into a national park instead.

As Ed Trippe could have told those executives, any dream of paradise is fraught with trouble. But, for Trippe at least, it’s been a dream worth pursuing.

 

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