At the Helm
The winning touch of Peter de Savary
By Tom Dunne

The entrepreneur Peter de Savary is the type of person whose character often invites the kind of larger-than-life descriptives—"maverick," "trailblazer," "swashbuckler"—most often reserved for explorers and adventurers. There is no question that a less forceful, risk-averse personality would not be capable of producing the string of success stories that Mr. de Savary has authored with his many extravagant clubs. However, what stands out in conversation with "PdeS," as he is known to seemingly everyone around him, is just how much he is enjoying it all.

It would be easy for a man in de Savary’s position to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, and all the more so given the opulence of his creations—from Bovey Castle in England to Cherokee Plantation in South Carolina to Carnegie Abbey outside Newport, Rhode Island. But this is not his style. As someone who has made, lost and regained fortunes, De Savary is clearly not motivated merely by money. It would seem, instead, that he is driven by the creative exhilaration of transforming the world around him, bringing his passion for the sporting life to new locales, and ultimately sharing his vision with memberships that appreciate the finer things in life.

Peter de Savary is not a golfer (yet), but he is an avid sportsman, and draws on his experience as a yachtsman and equestrian—both sports that he has pursued seriously since childhood—to inform his business philosophy. He started sailing on his ninth birthday and eventually reached the highest levels of the sport, representing Great Britain at the 1983 America’s Cup. In sailing, de Savary points out, there is no such thing as a team of superstars. Success is totally dependent on the quality of teamwork, no matter how talented the individuals are. A helmsman can be judged by his skill as a manager. During the run-up to a big race, one of de Savary’s favorite methods was to intentionally maneuver the vessel into awkward situations—to see how the crew would respond to adversity. In contrast, de Savary draws quite a different set of lessons from horseback riding. Horses are deeply sensitive creatures, with complex personalities, and it is up to the rider to develop a special rapport in order to draw forth their best, which he views as a metaphor for fostering one-on-one relationships in life and in business.

Although they are spread out across the globe, there are points in common among all of the clubs in the de Savary collection. They are situated in beautiful locales, but remain understated. The staff is friendly and attentive but not overbearing. The atmosphere is casual yet elegant. The clubs are accented by touches of European style, naturally and without pretension. And, of course, they each offer sporting opportunities that cannot be manufactured in most other places—from galloping across the moors near Bovey Castle to exceptional wingshooting at Cherokee Plantation, to world class deep sea and bonefishing at his latest venture, The Abaco Club.

He has always had plenty of irons in the fire. After beginning his career in the shipping and petroleum industries, he entered the hotel business in the late 1970s with the St. James’ Club in London, the success of which led to branches in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Antigua. He would eventually sell these properties at a handsome profit, just as he would with his major project of the 1990s, Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Situated north of Inverness and next to Dornoch, Skibo was once the estate of the richest man in the world in the early 20th century—steel baron Andrew Carnegie. The magnificent castle, romantic scenery and secluded atmosphere has been a magnet for well-heeled travelers of all descriptions, from princes and presidents to pop stars like Madonna, who tied the knot with film director Guy Ritchie at Skibo in 2000.

An ocean away, on the shores of Narragansett Bay near Newport, Rhode Island, de Savary founded the Carnegie Abbey Club, an international private golf and sporting club. The spirit of the club is found in its ties to the land itself, connecting with and gracefully responding to everything from a Revolutionary War battlefield to a Benedictine monastery to Narragansett Indian tribal lands. The golf course is at the center of it all, but Carnegie Abbey also features an Elemis spa, equestrian center, and—in keeping with Newport tradition—world class yachting facilities. The Carnegie Yacht Club is a 79-slip deepwater marina with casual bistro dining, dressing rooms and a ship’s chandlery. Residential options are available at Carnegie Harbor and the Golf House and are the next best thing to a "summer cottage" on Bellevue Avenue.

Peter de Savary had also long been intrigued by the American South, and jumped at the chance to develop the ultra-exclusive Cherokee Plantation in the Carolina Low Country. Surrounded by National Wildlife Refuge land, Cherokee Plantation offers a grand total of 25 partnership shares, at $2.5 million apiece, with an annual stipend of $180,000—so members can rest assured that they will be in very refined company. A gracious Georgian-style plantation house, furnished with period antiques and surrounded by a Frederick Law Olmsted landscape, greets members and their guests upon arrival, at which point they have the run of the 7,000 acre property. Whether it is exploring the Combahee River in one of the club’s unique plantation boats or taking to the woods with a Purdey shotgun in search of quail, Cherokee Plantation is undoubtedly a very special place.

Yet another recent enterprise took de Savary to the Dartmoor National Forest, near the cathedral city of Exeter in southwest England, to restore the elegant estate of Bovey Castle. Built in 1906 by W.H. Smith, the famous British bookseller, Bovey Castle is animated by the spirit of changing times, from tranquil Edwardian gardens to the Art Deco splendor of the Roaring ‘20s, as expressed by the hand-painted Chinoise silk walls of the Palm Court dining room. The resort does a remarkable job of preserving the traditions of this gracious way of life, with sporting pleasures ranging from grass court tennis and falconry to horseback riding and salmon fishing. J.F. Abercromby’s 1926 golf course, meanwhile, recently received a careful restoration and remains one of the finer parkland courses in the country. Guests flying through London have a special treat in store, as well. The London Outpost of Bovey Castle is a stylish pied-a-terre in the heart of Chelsea—a perfect place to overnight before or after making the trip to the Devon countryside.

It took five years exploring the Caribbean before de Savary finally found the perfect site for his first tropical club, a spectacular 600-acre peninsula on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas. The topography is both stunningly beautiful and remarkably diverse—rocky cliffs, grassy dunes, and more than two-and-a-half miles of pink powder beaches curling along tranquil Winding Bay.

Although it is only 170 miles from the Florida coast, Abaco is decidedly remote, a far cry from the hyperdeveloped ports-of-call so common to the Caribbean. The island is served by two airports, neither of which is any larger than a dentist’s waiting room, and are most notable for the indifference of their service—a problem that de Savary has circumvented by building a private terminal at Marsh Harbour airport for Abaco Club members and guests.

The octagonal plantation-style clubhouse, with its airy interiors and wide verandahs, serves as the centerpiece of the club, while just a few meters down the promontory the Elemis spa offers a fitness center and luxurious tropical treatments. Watching waves crash against Sugar Cay from the infinity-edge pool is an experience to be savored. The club’s real estate component, meanwhile, radiates outward from the clubhouse complex, with a diverse array of luxurious cottages reflecting the grace of Colonial Bahamian architecture.

The golf course at The Abaco Club is being heralded as "the world’s first tropical links"—a bold claim, but one that is fulfilled. Indeed, there is no course in the Caribbean quite like it.

In 1993, when de Savary solicited bids to renovate and expand Andrew Carnegie’s old nine-hole course at Skibo Castle, most firms put detailed line-item budgets on the table. However, Donald Steel, best known as the first architect to work at St. Andrews since Harry Colt in 1913, was a notable exception. He simply asked the developer to name his price when the project was complete. Obviously, de Savary was impressed by the final result—Steel has designed every course in the de Savary portfolio since.

Steel and project manager Tom Mackenzie—a native of Dornoch, Scotland, historically the world’s foremost incubator of great golf course architects—have brought the full Scottish links palette to Winding Bay. Everything from dauntingly steep sod-wall bunkers to heaving split-level fairways to tightly mown collection areas finds expression at The Abaco Club. The course should quickly establish itself as one of the best in the Caribbean and provide lasting delights for club members and their guests. After all, with Peter de Savary at the helm, one has come to expect nothing less than perfection.

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