IF THE AVERAGE LUXURY establishment in the tropics is compelled to wage an unceasing and, by my lights, depressing battle against the elements (those armies of seaweed rakers, that air conditioner racket and drip, drip, drip), a novel strategy is to be found at the Golden Rock Inn, an 11-room gem tucked into the verdant rise of Nevis Peak.
The owners of Golden Rock like it when nature is (almost) winning. This is something of a motto for Helen Marden, who, with her husband Brice Marden, both art world luminaries, acquired the property in 2005. It was previously a bed and breakfast, and before that a sugar plantation, until the pair reimagined it in collaboration with the architect Ed Tuttle and the landscape architect Raymond Jungles.
The result is a sophisticated retreat where nature is the big star, and the bungalows, swimming pool, and restaurant are almost buried in a terraced abundance of green: massive philodendron, fat avocado, fragrant jasmine, royal palm, petticoat palm, every other kind of palm.
The day I flew out of the Northeast, new powder dusted the road, but I landed on a gray slash of island runway surrounded by humidity and vegetation. The international airport is located in the slightly more populous St. Kitts, with Saint Christopher and Nevis being part of the Leeward Islands that separate the Caribbean from the Atlantic.
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To reach Nevis, the smaller sister island, I boarded a van playing a tourism jingle and smelling charmingly of diesel. I went up and down a high, slender ridge, passing a strip of beach shack bars where swimmers jumped off little piers. I boarded a water taxi, crossed the body of water known as “the Narrows” that separates the two islands, and was welcomed by a driver named Smile, who ferried me around the ring road that circles the dormant volcano at Nevis’ heart. Grazing among the stone ruins of sugar plantations — old mills, cisterns, and boil houses — were goats, sheep, cows, and donkeys. A green vervet monkey dashed across the road.
One can quickly see why Princess Diana chose the island to vacation with her children in 1993 after her separation. It is small, remote, and there is very little doing. That’s why a royal visit almost 30 years ago still registers as a major event. “I have never seen so many journalists in my life,” another taxi driver, Dale, told me. He easily recalled the precise date of her arrival and how the paparazzi, working in pairs by necessity, tried to cajole him to get as close as possible for the best shot. Dale, it emerged as we talked, also delivered the mail.
I really had no plan in the beginning. I just loved the old buildings; I loved the site. We worked from there. It came together in a way that felt auspicious.
As Helen tells it, the idea for a hotel in Nevis emerged organically. When the Mardens’ daughters were younger, they vacationed in St. Barts, but it no longer appealed. They were looking for someplace more peaceful where there weren’t a lot of people they might know. On a tip from their oldest daughter, Mirabelle, the Mardens visited Nevis one Christmas and had lunch at Golden Rock. “I’d had a rum punch, and I kept saying, ‘I want this,’ and Brice kept saying, ‘What do you want?’” It was something about the frog sounds and the possibility of a garden. Helen describes the initial renovations as a grand improvisation. “I really had no plan in the beginning. I just loved the old buildings; I loved the site. We worked from there. It came together in a way that felt auspicious. Three brilliant men [Brice, Ed Tuttle, and Raymond Jungles]. It was all very loving.”
Golden Rock is the passion project of a singular aesthetic vision, and the work of both Mardens reveals a deep engagement with nature. For example, in art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s write-up in the New Yorker on Brice’s 2006 MoMA retrospective, he discusses the paintings’ relationship to colors found in nature that Marden observed and eloquently detailed in notes across his extensive travels. (The Mardens are also part-time residents of Marrakesh; the Greek island of Hydra; and Tivoli in upstate New York, where they own the Hotel Tivoli). Similarly, in 2021, Gagosian exhibited a new body of Helen’s work, touting her “vision of a world in which environmental forces and human culture might be reconciled and reunited.”
An intelligent, idiosyncratic use of color is part of the visual logic of Golden Rock. The island norm may be pastel houses emerging from a symphony of green, but at Brice and Helen’s, there is a preference for the bold and bright — a rich, orangey-red for the doors and cobalt for the desks in the guest rooms. The rooms are decorated with thoughtful, eclectic touches, many chosen by Helen in Morocco. High art and design details, like a neon orange Campana Brothers bench and a cotton-candy pink sculpture by Gary Hume dot the landscape but never overwhelm it. Brice keeps a studio on the property, but it’s attached to a guest room, making the whole thing feel low-key — one has the sense of being invited into the family’s world and way of looking, of being told to relax and stay awhile.
Down at Pinney’s Beach, which stretches toward the Four Seasons, the scene was laid-back. I talked to the proprietor of a beach shack bar (built temporary in style, with deference to hurricane season). He told me cruise-ship people used to come right onto the beach, but now they must first go into the capital Charlestown to have their temperature checked. We watched the sunset, and from the other direction, clouds rolled in over the peak. I asked if it would rain, but he assured me it was what they call farmer’s rain, enough to water the plants but not wash them away. Or lover’s rain, rain that takes its time. The weather came and went. Later, up in the hills, 1,000 or so feet above sea level, the sky was clear, deep black, and pinpricked by countless stars.
The wild garden vibe at Golden Rock is lovingly cultivated, a curated mix of indigenous and imported flora. Keith, the head gardener, explained the presence of many plants by saying that Helen liked how they looked. The plants were her thing, he told me. The rocks — Brice’s. During the excavation to build out the restaurant, several volcanic boulders had to be moved, and Brice oversaw the placement of these to create unexpected sites of contemplation. In other places, shade is created by a canopy of towering ficus and kapok trees that predate any hotel activity. Jungle has reclaimed the stables of the old plantation. The paths through all that green are not particularly marked, and I occasionally found myself disoriented, unsure which side of the swimming pool I was on, or if I was approaching my bungalow or someone else’s. It was a nice lost, though, the kind where you might shake off some preconceived notion of what to do, who to be, and encounter a more authentic present moment.
Mostly I found myself disinclined to venture far. As Helen told me, at Golden Rock “time goes by in a sweet way.” I wanted to sit, and look, and listen. Plus, the food at the restaurant The Rocks is very good. The guest beds are vast and heavenly. The service is gracious and unobtrusive. The pool is rimmed by a deck of soft, coral stone, and beyond the surrounding island pine and alocasia, there is a view of pure blue, the Atlantic spreading out toward Montserrat and Antigua. One afternoon I walked through the stone gates and hiked up the nature path toward Nevis Peak to take in a little more of that dreamy blue. When I came back down, I had a homemade coconut popsicle on the patio.
The breeze was up, the bamboo creaked, the birds were carrying on. Insect life coursed through the air, the sun was warm, last night’s rain had long since evaporated. My senses were heightened by all the elements. The elements were winning.
Anna Godbersen Writer
Anna Godbersen is the author of several novels for young adults, including the best-selling Luxe series. She is the current Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence at NYU.
Victor Stonem Photographer
Victor Stonem is a Dominican photographer who specializes in still life, spaces, travel, and storytelling. Growing up in the Caribbean, as well as living in Barcelona, helped him create a strong focus on the use of natural light and its reflection on textures and surfaces.