The grounds of the West Indian Club, the home of the Dart family, in the very heart of Seven Mile Beach, have undergone a stunning transformation over the years, at the hands of Sandy Urquhart, who until recently also headed the team which took responsibility for the design and landscaping of the Camana Bay project. Sandy was honoured at the 2010 Governor’s Award for Design Excellence, having been shortlisted as one of seven outstanding designers. Here, he takes the Journal on a privileged journey through his labour of love.
The gardens that surround the West Indian Club have been created in stages, after Hurricane Ivan did its best to wreak havoc on Grand Cayman in September 2004.
Starting with a blank canvas, or in this case an empty, single-level 2.8 acre, designer Sandy Urquhart, first sat down with his clients to establish their brief and then let his imagination run wild. Then drawing on his years of experience and a passion for local plants, combined with extensive knowledge of the flora in the Arboretum Ltd nursery, the remarkable design became to take shape, – a multi-level area that is now home to plant species from around the globe.
The result is a beautiful tropical garden, made even more interesting when you consider that it was actually around 18 years in the making, with the Arboretum team beginning the cultivation of plants and trees for their client all those years ago in anticipation of planting both in the private home and Camana Bay.
At the beginning
For our tour, Sandy begins at the front of the house, with its unparalleled vistas of Seven Mile Beach. The expansive patio area was designed before Hurricane Ivan with flat coral stone floor tiles bisected by small channels dug at intervals. The area is a perfect example of how advanced engineering techniques, seen again in the creation of the man-made lake and differing elevations, are carefully hidden behind natural flora and materials.
“The patio has never flooded because we incorporated natural drainage,” Sandy explains.
The sea wall is made from hand carved local stone that extends an incredible 26 feet down into bedrock. For added protection, the wall is steel reinforced.
Ancient gargoyles poke out from the wall at intervals and act as further drainage for the patio.
As we walk from the ornately designed, Mediterranean-influenced front space through an archway to the back of the house a stunning orchid garden graces the view, further enhanced by ancient stone carvings placed on the wall.
Sandy is quick to congratulate the Arboretum staff for their skill in nurturing these precious blooms.
The first phase
Now at the back of the house, we slowly make our way through the gardens all the way to West Bay Road. Sandy leads me into a tranquil walled garden that has almost mystical qualities. Faces are carved into the rock (it’s known as the Garden of Faces) and magical miniature trees that have been “bonsaied” decorate the space.
“These trees ought to be around 40 foot high,” Sandy explains, “but, thanks to the expertise of Silvestre Bongaling, who is highly skilled in the ancient art of Bonsai, they grow into these miniature versions, which are truly stunning.”
The arboretum staff have ensured that all trees are properly labelled, using a meticulous system pioneered by a UK-USA based company, installed by the Arboretum for use on this project.
“It’s a fantastic computer software resource that tracks every aspect of each plant and tree in the collection. The developers have chronicled such details as the temperatures needed for each plant to germinate, the types of insects that are attracted to the plants and whether the plant has any medicinal uses,” he comments.
Thus, as we pass by tree after tree, each are carefully labelled with their botanical names. Red labels indicated endangered species.
“Wherever possible we have used plants that are indigenous, endemic or native to the Cayman Islands,” Sandy explains, adding that from the inception of the nurseries nearly 20 years ago all those who work on the gardens have to refer to the plants by their Latin, botanical names.
“It marks a gardener from a maintenance person,” he confirms. “We only employ gardeners here. It’s a profession to be proud of.”
We continue through the first phase with a series of twists and turns into an incredible natural Caymanian forest, with a canopy that immediately makes you feel a good few degrees cooler.
“We’ve used a lot of rescued trees for this part of the garden,” Sandy says. “For example, when the airport project began clearing ground a few years ago we were able to save many trees.”
These mature trees form a natural protective canopy to shield the more sensitive flora beneath. Trees are artfully “sculpted” to provide interest with trunks and limbs intertwining in dramatic embraces throughout the space. The visitor never knows quite what they will find around every turn in this garden.
Sandy is proud of the fact that they have hardly needed to use any fill to create the garden and it is mostly only 5 feet above sea level.
“We are very near to the sea and also to the road, yet by using mainly indigenous plants and varying elevations we’ve managed to curtail both the wind and the noise to make an oasis of calm,” he confirms. “Everything we’ve done in this first phase is reflective of the natural Caymanian landscape using plants from all areas of the island. We’ve managed to create some intriguing spaces in the process.”
The second phase
A series of ornamental gardens flows through in this next phase, with trees growing out of local rock and a xerophytic (dry) area of exotic looking cacti for drama and further interest.
Climbing into a higher garden we witness strange and rare palms and more sculpted trees (this time a ficus) for even more excitement.
“I see plants as living sculptures,” Sandy says. “You have to be patient, but eventually they develop over time.”
I ask him how he had the ability to envisage the entire project all those years ago with just the beginnings of the flora population that he has today.
“Its similar to the way that an artist envisages their final artwork, having established what the subject is to be they review their palette of colours and textures; or how an interior designer recognises the right materials and lighting that will fulfil their ultimate vision,” he answers. “The main difference is that you have to think ahead over several decades, considering how high plants will grow over time etc.”
The final phase
The last phase of the project is just a couple of years old and takes us all the way to the West Bay Road. A majestic bridge made of local stones sitting on enormous rock boulders straddles a freshwater lake and the entire scene is reminiscent of Monet’s bridge over the Water Lily Pond.
“This is still a young garden and they are still experimenting with plants,” Sandy confirms, leading me up and down rocky steps to a hidden sunken garden that will eventually be covered in a cooling canopy of leaves, and a raised area with seating carved from the rock and many exotic flora overhead.
The bridge is actually the central driveway to the property, although Sandy has done everything in his power to turn the road into an intrinsic part of the garden, rather than a purely functional part of the grounds, using palms to fringe the top layer and plants down below to blur the edges of where the road begins and the garden ends.
Sandy explains “It was a real conundrum to figure a way of keeping the road in place without splitting the garden in two. Yet the owners wanted to retain the driveway that stretched from the House to the West Bay Road lined along the way by Royal Palms, the clients recognised the driveway as a historic landmark for the island,”
The Royal Palms are a majestic sight, leading all the way back to the house.
“We’ve never needed to brace our plants and trees as they do elsewhere,” Sandy confirms. “We use a special medium that compacts the soil without losing aeration, keeping the trees upright, even after strong winds have buffeted them. These Royal Palms are the original trees that have been lifted to accommodate each phase of the project.”
Tough, hardy plants have been used right next to the West Bay Road planted at varying levels to mask the sounds from the road, including a mastic red-birch forest that spills down into the pond. Standing at the highest point in the garden (around 20 feet above sea level) the area is bathed in the heady scent of jasmine, while the Burger King sign can just be made out through the green foliage.
Walking back to the house, Sandy leads me through a particularly beautiful sight – sea grape trees that have branches intertwined in a loving embrace.
“These sea grapes are at least a hundred years old. They are a really interesting plant because if they get blown over by the weather they simply root where they are and change shape. These trees in particular have plenty of tales to tell!” Sandy says.
Sandy says the entire project has been a layering process, taking each stage a step at a time, with his clients bringing their own passion into the garden – including a particular love for colour and a penchant for the dramatic. This partnership has led to a truly unique landscape. From native forests and whispering bamboo groves, to a puzzle garden made from entwined palms, to sunken rooms with exotic orchids and frangipanis growing out of natural coral-stones in man-made ponds, it is a marvel to behold.
Sandy’s passion for this project is tangible. Although his remit as senior vice president of the Camana Bay design team, responsible for managing the combined design disciplines of the town centre, took him far beyond his landscaping roots, this garden remains a highlight of his time with the group.
“The project started with fantastic clients and was created and is maintained by an incredibly talented team. It’s really like nothing else on Island,” he confirms. “Since leaving the company the landscape reins have been passed to Andy Adapa now in charge of the Camana Bay landscaping and Elke Feuer who runs the Arboretum team and the West Indian Club Gardens. Both are carrying out their responsibilities in a manner that makes me extremely proud.”
“These sea grapes are at least a hundred years old. They are a really interesting plant because if they get blown over by the weather they simply root where they are and change shape. These trees in particular have plenty of tales to tell!” Sandy Urquhart