settling on the island of Pine Cay a generational adventure
“My husband George always loved to fish,” says Sallie McBride, as she begins the engaging tale of how the island of Pine Cay became such an integral part of her family members’ lives.
The Chicago based couple’s first introduction to the Turks and Caicos was the February 1972 edition of Argosy magazine and its images of picturesque, unspoiled islands. “It had wonderful pictures of fishing and that appealed to George,” explains Sallie.
“It also said there was beachfront property for $1,000 an acre, but we never found that,” she laughs. It was early that same year when the McBrides boarded their first flight to Grand Turk. Travel and flying was always a thrill for Sallie who had been a stewardess for PanAm until the birth of her eldest child.
On the final day of that holiday, George happened upon an intriguing note in the lobby of their hotel with the words “Hotel for sale” and a US phone number.
Just days after their return George made contact with the owners. “The first thing the gentleman asked was how long George had been back from Turks and Caicos,” Sallie says of the lawyer who was reluctant to send the prospectus. Apparently he had already sent it to a number of individuals who returned it once they’d sobered from their vacation enthusiasm. “Well, this was a challenge to my husband,” Sallie says with a loving grin and a few months later Sallie and George returned to Grand Turk to sign the papers that made them the proud new owners of the island’s Turks Head Inn.
“When I tell people the story I think myself, ‘what we were thinking?’ We had two children in college at the time.” The story of the McBrides and the Turks Head Inn is a fantastic narrative all unto itself, with various twists and turns including a spaghetti and meatball dinner with Prince Charles.
But the part that led them to Pine Cay began in December when their Inn keeper left without notice and Sallie had to spend five months on Grand Turk running the Inn. George visited regularly and it was during this time the McBrides were invited by a friend, Liam McGuire, to visit the island of Pine Cay where he was involved in building a hotel.
For most of its known history the island of Pine Cay was uninhabited. That was until the 1960s when Austrian Count Ferdinand Czernin discovered the island and had visions of creating a secluded island hideaway, ideal for escaping from metropolitan life. His unfortunate death in 1966 did not stop his vision from being carried on by his widow, Helen, and his friend George Nipanich. South Caicos representative Liam McGuire was installed to manage the project and complete the construction.
Every two weeks a DC3 would bring in supplies and workers from Bermuda. One weekend in 1973 it also carried the McBrides.
As McGuire showed them around, Sallie says, he casually slipped into the conversation that his house, the only one built at the time, was for sale. “And before we knew it, we had a house (on Pine Cay),” she laughs.
The residence had four bedrooms, four baths and a deck offering postcard views of the ocean. “When we told our lawyer on Grand Turk we wanted to buy the house, he said ‘are you sure?’ But that was just another challenge for my husband George,” says Sallie.
For about a year whenever they would visit Pine Cay, Sallie and George would sit on the deck and watch the hotel go up across the pond. The generator would go on around 7 a.m. and off about 10 p.m., a schedule Sallie says “was the sign you had to go to bed.”
The original plan called for over 100 homes and a golf course, but things weren’t materializing as quickly as McGuire had hoped. In addition, friction was building with his financial partners and something would have to be done if the idea of an island oasis was to be saved.
It was about that time, Sallie remembers, being invited to the Vermont home of Bill and Ginny Cowles. Both flying enthusiasts, the couple had visited Pine Cay and were interested in investing in the island. “There were six of us and a lawyer. I didn’t understand a lot of what they were talking about, but at some point I remember him saying, ‘I have seen these things fall apart in the middle of the night’ and I thought it wasn’t going to work out, but it did.”
Today’s Meridian Club grew out of the handful of families that invested in most of the island, buying out the various interests and continuing to develop the island and operate the hotel. “There must be a little adventure in all of us,” says Sallie of their collective decision. Today you will find 38 homes sprinkled across the 800-acre private island and a hotel that lives up to both its heritage and appeal as a secluded island resort.
The idea was simple: have a hotel people would enjoy and serve them really good food. The Cowles were the first to live full-time on the island, taking care of things and running the hotel.
Bill’s daily rituals included listening to the news after his morning swim, writing down the headlines and posting them in the dining room. Ginny could usually be found busy cooking in the kitchen, something Sallie says she did well. Around cocktail hour men wearing sports coats would arrive at the main lodge alongside ladies wearing long dresses and bare feet. Sallie remembers fondly, “We had three big tables and you ate wherever there was a seat.”
Friends visited regularly and there was always someone to entertain.
In 1973 after their daughter Margerie celebrated her nuptials on Grand Turk, the McBrides invited the new in-laws to Pine Cay. A weathered tractor pulled up to the arriving plane and the luggage was loaded into a green trailer pulled behind it. Sallie describes the laughter as the Waggoners stepped onto the makeshift stairs. When she asked if everything was alright, Mrs. Waggoner replied, “You can’t imagine how worried we were about what we should bring to wear.”
At one point George was so pleased with his visits to Pine Cay he considered building a motel alongside the runway. “I said, George are you really going to leave your job at IBM to run a motel on Pine Cay?” Sallie recalls.
George and Sallie never built that motel, in the early 80’s they also sold the Turks Head Inn, but they continued to spend happy holidays on Pine Cay. “In retrospect the whole adventure seems crazy. George was there for two years before he even went fishing.”
In 1982, George McBride died at the age of 53, but his passion for Pine Cay lives on with three generations of McBrides who continue to enjoy the quiet island. Sallie spends several months a year on Pine Cay, a place the children and grandchildren fondly call their second home.