Turks & Caicos: The Meridian Club

IMG_2803More and more often in recent years, my wife and I have found ourselves in a certain sub-genre of vacation spot: a small, once-exclusive resort that was started by a visionary or crackpot entrepreneur (often one and the same) back in the Sixties or Seventies and enjoyed several decades of well-deserved allegiance from devoted clientele, but which, somewhere along the line, fell into a time-warp and has remained stubbornly unchanged as its patrons aged but kept coming back year after year, steeped in self-congratulatory nostalgia and as bound by habit as migratory geese, until they died, while the rest of the resort world discovered wi-fi and flat-screen TVs, bottled water, Pilates, and air conditioning.  Stumbling upon such an establishment, one inevitably wonders what the current owners think will happen when their Boomer clientele has passed on to that Big Beach in the Sky and has not been replaced by Google employees and other thirtysomethings who insist on having the Internet with their morning cappuccino.

Such a place, for better or worse, is the Meridian Club, on Pine Cay (pronounced “key,” for you stateside landlubbers), in the Turks & Caicos islands, just northeast of Cuba, an easy flight from Miami.

I’ve wanted to go to the Turks & Caicos, and specifically to the Meridian Club, for over 20 years, having read quietly ecstatic reviews of the place in Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report ‘way back when it was a simple — and reliable — newsletter and not a front for the megalithic travel business it has become. Though the reviews made it clear that this was a place steeped in “old world” Caribbean simplicity, without any of the flash and dubious glamour of, say, the nearby Parrot Cay or the new Amanyara over in Providenciales, we’d been led to expected a small, elegantly unpretentious resort.

What my wife and I found on our visit (in March 2015) was a uniquely odd establishment, more like an overgrown bed-and-breakfast than a resort; a summer-in-winter camp for well-heeled geriatrics, a mini-Sandals for the retirement home set.  And that’s just how its guests — and presumably its owners — seem to like it: The Way It Has Always Been.

IMG_2808It is indeed unpretentious, and sits on a breathtakingly beautiful, miles-long, unspoiled and nearly empty beach of powdery white sand, gentle surf, and translucent turquoise waters —the stuff of every Caribbean fantasy.  A beach like this can compensate for a lot.

But the Meridian Club isn’t really a hotel or a resort in the sense that any modern traveler understands the words. There are only 13 rooms, decorated as your grandmother might, in tidy little duplex and triplex bungalows strung along the beach; no TV, no wi-fi (except in the central dining/pool area), and no air conditioning except in the two rooms closest to the dining structure, for which a premium is charged. A small, one-room “spa” is attended by a talented little Thai lady (I had an excellent massage).  The usual water sports, but no room service, no gym.  No roving waitstaff in starched white frocks as I’d fantasized. Instead, there is a guest-facing staff of three or four, with dispositions ranging from welcoming to surly, who may or may not appear at any given moment to provide actual service.  This startlingly casual level of service was the biggest surprise of all, but again, one suspects it’s The Way It Has Always Been.
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On arrival after a fifteen-minute boat ride from Provo (one of the scruffiest, least appealing islands in the Caribbean if you ask us), you are greeted not only by a pleasant staffer, but by half the guests, who, perhaps bored with one another, seem to have lined up by the pool to check out the new meat. I’d charitably estimate the median age of the clientele while we were there at over 70, and that low only because of a couple of teen-aged grandchildren who had been dragged along.

One quickly learns that boundary issues (in the sense of a failure to have any) are pervasive and in fact encouraged at the Meridian Club. Everyone feels entitled to enter your space and inquire if they can join you, ask what you did that day, where you live, and so on. The guests all seem to assume that no one could imagine a more wonderful way to spend a vacation, and bask in one another’s smugness about it.  It’s indeed like a club.  Or perhaps a sweet little seaside cult.

Most dining is family style, with only limited options for a couple’s privacy, which my wife and I initially sought as guiltily as adulterers, then succumbed to peer pressure and joined geriatric gangs of six or eight. This “enforced socialization,” as one guest aptly put it, makes the quality of your experience something of a crap-shoot dependent on who you fall in with.  And forget romantic intimacy-for-two, unless you hole up in your bungalow and starve.
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As in a summer camp for grade-schoolers, a bell is rung to summon you to meals, which are served strictly within periods of an hour and a half (so you’d better be on time), and on Wednesday night there are screenings of Sixties sitcoms that you can watch from golf carts lined up on the nearby private runway, drive-in movie style.  I am not making this up.

Depending on your personality, your age, and certainly what you expect by way of service given the Meridian Club’s price point (starting at around $1500 per night including tax and “service fee”), you will find all this either utterly charming or deeply strange.

A partial explanation for the compulsory social atmosphere may be found in the fact that Pine Cay, where the club is located, is essentially a private island, and it turns out that the Meridian Club is indeed a “club” owned and operated by the owners of the 37 homes on the island, providing a subsidy for their expensive homeowners’ association fees. The homeowners have the right to — and do–use the Club’s dining and pool facilities, with the result that there is a subtle, built-in caste system to the place: the staff know who they really work for, and each group –guests and homeowners– as they rub elbows on the deck at sunset or in the pleasant little dining room, can’t help but feel that the other group is invading its turf. This violates one of the most important, if unspoken, principles of an enjoyable hotel experience: that as a guest you are as IMG_2806important as every other guest, that in your anonymity, armed only with your credit card, you are king.

This is not to say that the place is the least bit snooty.  Most of the homeowners seem to be Midwesterners and New Englanders of stolidly democratic mien, happy that you’re there to subsidize their retirement, and therefore eager to confirm that you’re having a good time.  The flip-side of this lack of pretension, however, is, sadly, a lack of pretension to good service, to innovation, and ultimately to excellence, which is something you want a hotel owner to at least pretend to. Here the standard is a self-satisfied complacency that presumes you would have be crazy or insufferably uppity to want anything more.

The rather steep nightly tariff is all-inclusive (alcoholic drinks excepted), and the food, at least at dinner, is uniformly excellent, on par with any chic urban restaurant (but again, be forewarned: the chef told us he was about to depart to open a food truck business in Cincinnati — again, I couldn’t make this up). Lunch is buffet style, but more than adequate nonetheless. Breakfast is strictly B&B: again buffet-style (though you can order eggs and pancakes): pastries encircled by flies, juice and milk in plastic self-service jugs, coffee from spigoted urns, and a grumpy waiter.

That grumpy waiter deserves pause. The entire staff is black, with the exception of the managers, who, like all the guests and homeowners we saw, are white, lending the place the unmentionable air of a plantation in the deep south in some other century.  It isn’t difficult to imagine that our waiter’s grumpiness might have something to do with his nation’s long history of colonial exploitation, of which Pine Cay might seem a perfect microcosm. But that’s for a more investigative journalist than I.

IMG_2809It’s hard to know what the endgame is here, once the aged guest population dies off and the surrounding homes devolve to younger hands.  Maybe there will be a revival, some new paint, updated decor, some forward thinking. Maybe the hotel rooms will be sold off as time-shares. We met the thirty-ish scion of one of the homeowner families, who seemed extremely bright but was skeptical of the idea of wi-fi in the rooms, as it might lead to noise problems (what with the potential for streaming video and all).  I didn’t bother to point out that any iPad (or Walkman, if you’re old enough) with music stored on it could easily cause the same trouble, and that ultimately one has to rely on the good sense of one’s patrons and one’s ability to run an actual hotel. Didn’t bother, as I say, since it was ten o’clock at night and he was the only one left in the bar to serve our drinks.  I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

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About Keith McWalter

Keith McWalter is an author and lawyer. His essays and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.