Inspiring Lives: The Tylers, India Hicks & Harbour Island

A few years ago, I had to fly to a tiny out island in the Bahamas for a photo shoot – one of those rare work treats you get to experience once in a lifetime if you're lucky. Unfortunately, the journey took longer than the photo shoot. Caught in a small hurricane, I had to hole up in Nassau hotel for 4 days until the palm trees were vertical again. Then I got on the wrong ferry and ended up in the Bermuda Triangle somewhere. Two ferries and 48 hours later, I finally landed, staggering like Tom Cruise in Castaway, onto Harbour Island.

This is what I saw.

I was as transfixed as Lady Gaga in a sequins store. After a week of hell,  a swim in a serene sea, a hefty cocktail, and a couple of nights of calm, Hurricane-free sleep were all I could think of. Thankfully, my new friend, Toby Tyler,  happily obliged.

Toby, you see, is part-owner, with his wife and mother-in-law, Ms Brenda Barry, of The Landing (above), an incredibly beautiful boutique hideaway with an huge international reputation.

He's a Australian, a former Sydney restaurateur. His wife, Tracy Barry, is Bahamian, a former New York model. They met at a dinner party in Sydney. Or a blind date? I can't remember but they disliked each other at first. Toby introduced himself by telling a sob story about his life and business. Ever the cheeky wit, Tracy casually replied: "Well top this–" and proceeded to trump him with a truly worthy tale about getting divorced and losing all the international property she and her Brazilian husband had collated in the settlement. She only thing she received, she said, was a small hotel on an even smaller place called Harbour Island.

Impressed by her sad narrative, they bonded. A few days later, they fell in love. Aint sob stories grand?

A few months later, they travelled to this small island to inspect this small hotel. (They had the children later. They're highly productive hoteliers, but not that productive!)

Their original plan had been to sell the hotel, but when they travelled to the island to assess the property and found themselves standing in front of two of the most architecturally significant buildings in the Bahamas, on an island that was arguably the prettiest in the greater Caribbean, they decided to put down their bags and stay.

As Toby says: “I fell in love twice; once with my wife, and then with her island.”

With typical Aussie enthusiasm – and a lot of Bahamian beer – they set about restoring the two buildings: an 1820 plantation-style house, built by the first doctor on the island, and a neighbouring 1820 property called The Captain’s House, which is just as gracious. They also got around to getting married. Then, at 8AM on September 14th, 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit. The 155mph winds tore the building apart again. A quarter of the island's extraordinary architecture, including The Landing, was destroyed. The Tylers were heartbroken. Fortunately, the bones of their buildings were still standing, even if the roofs weren't, so they deliberated the way forward.

Enter India Hicks, daughter of famed London designer David Hicks, and granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten. She offered to help rebuild The Landing, if they would accept it. Together, the Tylers, India and her partner David Flint-Wood, set to work bringing The Landing back to life.

The Tylers' new venture, a stylish hotel and restaurant with the feel of a welcoming, colonial-style island home was so different from anything else in the Bahamas, it attracted guests right from the start. Although their children, as most island kids are, were fairly blase about the celebrity factor.

It also helped that Harbour Island is one of the most idyllic destinations you can imagine. Think of the charm and clapboard prettiness of New England's architecture crossed with the pastel colours of the Caribbean, then throw in an extraordinarily beautiful pink beach, a charming bustling harbour, a lot of eccentric but marvellous (and astonishingly good-looking) locals, and a culture that's part colonial British and part Bahamian, and then wrap it up in an island that's only a few miles long. The place is enchanting. No wonder people like India Hicks live there.

Since then, the Tylers have raised four children, seen hundreds of thousands of guests pass happily through their restaurant and rooms, chatted to the likes of Bette Midler and Mick Jagger, (Mick's a regular), and received an invitation from Richard Gere to design one of his restaurants. Which they graciously did.

They've also had a few parties, had a few more, made some rum (Afrohead; a great label), laughed a whole lot, and generally had the kind of life we all dream about.

So where does this story lead? Well, when I first stepped foot on this place, bedraggled, hurricane-weary and five days behind in my work schedule, my first thought was: This would make a beautiful book. It was such an inspirational story. The first date. The hurricane heartbreak. The love. And when journalists hear wonderful stories, their noses twitch with excitement like Jack Russells on the scent of a rabbit. I knew then I would do everything I could to orchestrate a book on this beautiful family, and this idyllic place. It was a story that needed to be told.

Five years later, we're getting close. We're now in the process of creating an extraordinary book. An extraordinary book about an extraordinary couple.

Now the Tylers don't need anything in their lives. They have everything. But what they do need is to be recognised. Celebrated. Applauded and cheered with rum-filled drinks. And I will do everything I can to ensure that happens.

(If you're lucky, you can grab a $200 return flight from New York to Nassau. From there's it's only a short ferry ride. And the prices are so reasonable, you can easily stay a week!) {Party and family photos by Cookie Kinkead or Tracy Barry, via Tracy Barry. All architecture images by me.}

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