Vacationing in TCI takes a turn for the affordable
By Kathy Borsuk
When I visited the Venetian Ridge Vacation Villas office to interview developer J. Kelly Sullivan for this story, I met him bubbling over with enthusiasm. He had just returned from his hometown of Toronto, where he was a lead sponsor of Toronto’s Ultimate Travel Show, Canada’s largest travel showcase. Interest in the Turks & Caicos Islands was enhanced by his new affordable opportunity for almost anyone to vacation in this upscale destination.
This reflects a long “flirtation” between Canada and the TCI, which at one time nearly developed into a marriage (the annexation of the Islands). Many interested suitors continue to visit, with an eye out for a good bargain. Venetian Ridge Villas are especially appealing, Kelly explains, “Because they represent the affordable way for couples and families to vacation in Turks & Caicos Islands. Why go to Florida, the Dominican Republic, Cuba or Mexico when you can get a private island vacation villa located two minutes from the best beach in the world? This hits the market just right and is a huge support to local businesses, as well.”
Venetian Ridge Villas is a Caribbean cottage-styled condominium community of 39 fully equipped vacation villas. It is nestled along a hillside just off Leeward Highway in Providenciales, in the central part of the island west of Graceway IGA shopping center. Because it is not directly on the beach, rental rates are shockingly low on an island where bargains are few and far between. At the same time, everything that makes Provo such a desirable vacation destination is within easy driving distance—beaches, watersports, golf course, restaurants, nightlife—yet the five acre enclave is a quiet, tranquil place to relax away from the crowd.
Venetian Ridge Villas were originally design-built for the long-term extended stay rental market in the mid-2000s, when the economy was booming and there were long wait lists for prime rental properties. Kelly is proud that they maintained the best long-term occupancy rates on Provo. Since 2008, however, the overbuilt residential rental market has faltered and, ever the astute businessman, J. Kelly Sullivan, decided to cater to the “play crowd” instead of the “work crowd.”
The well-built and charming vacation villas, nestled in a tropical oasis with a pool and spa pavilion scheduled for completion in early summer, perfectly suit the value-conscious vacationer, family reunions and groups of up to 150 people attending weddings at beach resorts just minutes away.
From the moment you are greeted, you realize you are at home with a friendly and dedicated staff to assist with everything from concierge services to housekeeping. At approximately 600 sq. ft., each fully furnished vacation villa has two bedrooms, a living/dining area, fully equipped kitchen and bath with shower. Furnishings and fittings are good quality, and include an LED TV, high speed Internet, air conditioning and ceiling fans. There is even a small porch on which to catch the warm, fresh breezes and rich scents of the surrounding vegetation. Identical villas are available in a sister development called the Ridge Residences Inn. As Kelly explains, “The rates at the Inn are even lower, as the property is self-catering to those who may not need all the amenities of a vacationer. It is perfect for extended stay rentals from a few weeks for businesspeople to snowbirds who want an affordable place to get away for the winter.”
Current plans for Sullivan’s Equinox group focus on One On Marlin, a four star, 110-unit, adults-only spa resort for singles and couples, now under construction on a large parcel of land to the west of the Venetian Ridge property. This gated vacation community is more upscale, with high-end, one-bedroom villa suites that are also affordably priced. Kelly explains, “One On Marlin is a central, but ‘off the grid’ enclave terraced on one side of a ‘nature valley.’ It is very private, contemporary and luxuriously affordable. Guest will book their vacation at One On Marlin for the sensory experience.”
At One On Marlin, 35 luxury villa suites are now built, surrounded by organic botanical gardens that rival the best at any beachfront resort. Once complete, the development will boast terraced, lagoon-styled pools connected with rock waterfalls, saltwater hot springs, a poolside lounge, nature trails and O2, a full service spa that will only open to private bookings for a maximum of six guests at a time.
As I toured the Venetian Ridge Villas grounds, two things especially appealed to me: the driveways and parking areas are newly paved (no muddy shoes) and the entire property seems to burst with an abundance of organic tropical fruit trees, flowers, shrubs and vegetable and herb beds, lending color, fragrance and authenticity to the visitor experience. Kelly says, “We are growing so many different species that it is hard to keep track!” There are three University-educated horticulturists on site, willing to nurture nearly any seed a visitor might bring. During our fantastical tour, I saw everything from plantain to papaya, mahogany to moringa, grape vine to guinep tree and Kelly even presented me with a fragrant pink rose plucked from a hardy bush.
Kelly is quick to point out that Venetian Ridge guests have ample opportunity to patronize local businesses, infusing growth into the economy. Most all rent cars or scooters, an easy way to visit any beach, from the most-frequented to the most-deserted. (All Provo beaches are free and open to the public.) Each vacation villa is equipped with beach chairs, umbrellas, coolers and BBQs. With the supermarket close by, visitors can choose to cook at home or visit the cornucopia of island eateries, taking advantage of nightly specials or entertainment as they desire.
The Venetian Ridge website will soon offer new “click, pick and book” vacation packages designed around what a guest wants and nothing more. These range from all-inclusive meal plans (with vouchers for participating restaurants) to “drivin’,” “golfin’,” and “divin’” options. The “Wedding Bells & Conch Shells” package can help brides save money in lodging for groups as large as 150 people; the same concept would apply for family reunions, dive clubs or incentive travel groups.
Folks with long-term financial savvy are also snapping up investment units at Venetian Ridge Villas and One On Marlin. Kelly explains that for less than $200,000, investors can purchase a vacation villa in the Caribbean. The properties will be operated as a lá carte, “just off the beach resorts,” without the restaurants. For the cost of most TCI resort condos, investors can buy multiple units, enjoy free, turn-key vacations “whenever forever,” with hassle-free management by Equinox the rest of the time. In fact, he guarantees investors a minimum 5.25% net average annualized return on investment for five years. Kelly boasts, “We have investors who own Grace Bay beachfront condos. They stay there and make their money here.” Management fees are the lowest of all resorts, condo fees are less than $300/month, and TCI still has no property taxes.
Kelly’s goal for “Provo’s largest affordable vacation communities” is to achieve the highest occupancy levels in TCI. With a total of just over 200 bedrooms and the lowest rates around, once One On Marlin is complete, Kelly says, “We will have the largest inventory of room types with something for everyone regardless of age, lifestyle, or budget.”
An 18-year TCI resident and Belonger, Kelly runs a vertically integrated group of businesses in the building trade that span from BuildAll, a wholesale building contractor supply house, to Turks & Caicos Housing Company, a local construction company that has built over 140 buildings, and Equinox, a development and property management company. Kelly says, “I have had the pleasure of supplying materials and contractor services to so many people here through the years, but my passion has always been development. Land is my canvas. My preference is to complement as opposed to compete.” His key to keeping prices low and everything under control has been the vertical integration of the supply chain starting with the factory and ending with a positive guest experience.
Although J. Kelly Sullivan inherited the typically Canadian values of honesty, discipline and thrift from his father, he has an exotic side, too. After studying abroad in Italy during high school, Kelly, fascinated by all things Chinese, in 1984 made his way to China as an undergraduate student at top-ranked Fudan University. Kelly is quick to point out, “Although I am proud to call TCI my home, over the past 29 years I have travelled to all parts of China and lived there some 8 years to date.” (BuildAll has a small branch office in the major port city of Ningbo.) Fluent in both Italian and Mandarin Chinese, Kelly’s worldly exposure has cultured his own philosophies of life, as he embraces the “yin” and “yang” of the Occidental world.
In the vacation developments (and at home), this interest spills out into designing over-the-top spas, including the O1 spa-inspired pool which will open at Venetian Ridge in Summer 2013. Kelly explains, “This is all part of creating a healthy, harmonious environment for mind and body. Our guests love the simplicity.” O1 is being built on the south side of the property, canopied by large Royal Poinciana trees, bordered by a grove of papaya trees. It includes a seven-foot indigenous rock garden with water tumbling over a grotto into the depths of a stone-lined infiniti pool and a hot plunge surrounded by different varieties of banana and plantain. The outdoor shower is made from a specially crafted slab of granite from China, bordered by blue stone and green river rocks. It will include a private courtyard for massages and meditation rooms for personalized treatments from Spa Tropique. A more luxuriant version, O2, with a cutting-edge series of hot and cold air and water treatments, waterfalls and meditation pavilion, is planned for One On Marlin.
With Venetian Ridge Villas fully built, and only refurbishment work left to do on investor-purchased villas, Kelly’s boundless enthusiasm is now focused on the One On Marlin project. Obviously in his element, he says, “Being in real estate development is my passion. It’s where art meets science and I can exercise both my creativity and business acumen. I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.