Town & Country


May, 2005

Special Home Edition: The Exotic Life

Easy in the Islands

By Sarah Medford, Photographs by John Hub

For Monica and Walter Noel, their hilltop retreat on Mustique is all about the mix-of family, friends, great times and a sexy global design style.

They may be living on three different continents, but the five Noel sisters still manage to meet up several times a year-here at Yemanjá, their parents’ new house on Mustique. From left: Arianne Sodi, Alex Toub, Lysine Della Schiava, Corona Piedrahita and Marisa Brown. Opposite: A lap pool adjacent to the three-bedroom guest cottage overlooks the island’s unspoiled east coast. Hair and makeup by Kelley Quan for Kramer + Kramer.

Last Christmas Eve, Monica Noel e-mailed me from her new house on Mustique. “I just finished setting the holiday table and am off to the carols at the bamboo church,” she wrote. “The table was so much fun – red-and-white floral cloth made at the last minute to fit a plywood top – the table hasn’t arrived yet from Colombia – and I have a sculpture of five girls (a la Matisse) going around in a circle for the centerpiece. We used some leaves from the palm trees and added red butterflies and candles and some wonderful moving snakes from the market on Manhattan’s 28th Street – I wonder what my blue-ribbon garden-club friends from Greenwich would say!”

One guess: “Why don’t I have a house on Mustique?”

The island’s laid-back charms are a departure from the social rigors of Connecticut, New York City and Southampton, where Monica and her husband, Walter Noel, also live. At just 1,400 lush and mountainous acres, Mustique, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is basically one big house party that has escalated over the decades to encompass all ninety residences and two small hotels. This past Christmas, gossip-column headlines buzzed in New York when Mick Jagger’s dog, Star, was turned away from an evening at Tommy Hilfiger’s. (Mick ad his houseguests, as well as Tom Ford, the Noels and others, were allowed to stay.) For an adventurous few with capital, charisma and caprice, Mustique is a fairy tale brought to life.

“The first time I came to Mustique, I didn’t quite know where I was,” Walter Noel is fond of saying. “The second time I came, I didn’t quite know where I’d been the week before.”

The Noels are on house number two here, having bought their first in 1995. “Mustique is the antithesis of Palm Beach or Hobe Sound,” observes Monica, a lithe, attractive woman with the self-possession and the drive of a morning-TV anchor. She is striding barefoot down an almost deserted Macaroni Beach on her daily walk, sporting a pink tank suit with an orchid-patterned pareo knotted expertly on the hip. At ten paces away she might be mistaken for one of her five grown daughters. “It’s still rustic, you see,” she says, scaling some wet coral stones edging the front yard of a dilapidated guesthouse. “It’s also very international. And there are no Hermés bags. At least I don’t see any. Careful, you need Brazilian feet for these rocks.”

Monica has them, thanks to an upbringing in Rio by Swiss parents. When she and Walter, a patrician Tennessee-born financier, were raising their daughters in Connecticut, t hey used to take them to Rio for summer break, with predictable results. The girls grew up fast, each with the sunny self-confidence of their mother; they learned to dress in a way Greenwich had never seen; and they developed a collective taste for foreign men that has led four of the five to marry and settle abroad. In other words, the Noel family is right at home on Macaroni Beach.

High above the half-moon of sand is Yemanjá, the house Monica and Walter have completed after four y ears of planning and construction. Named for the goddess of the seas in Brazilian folklore, Yemanjá is a stylistic stew whose dominant flavors are Brazilian, Mexican and African. The news on the beach this spring has been the palapa, Yemanjá’s Mexico-style parasol roof made of palm thatch, which tops off one Mustique’s higher peaks like a coolie hat.

The Noel’s compound may look Mexican from afar (opposite top), but visitors get a taste of its eclecticism as soon as they reach the entryway, whose West Indian stone walls and cypress ceiling hold a Brazilian trestle table and rush-seated chairs from Holly Hunt in New York.

Alix Toub and her three children by the guest-cottage pool, with the palapa poking its head up above them. Her caftan is by Lotty Bunbury, a local designer and family friend. Opposite, clockwise from top: Extreme water sports at Macaroni Beach; Ariane with two of her four children; Mustique’s unofficial public-works crew; a lunchtime buffet under the palapa.

Yemanjá’s palapa may be unique on the island, but it is not out of place. From the seat of a small plane, you’ll see amid the palm and frangipani trees a Moorish stronghold looming on one hill, a Tuscan villa on another, an ode to Mind-dynasty China on a ridgetop and a Japanese compound spread out along the coast. Mustique’s openness to just about any architectural fantasy has been part of its allure since its development, in the late 1950s by Scottish vagabond Colin Tennant. (Tennant’s own contribution was a white marble Indian temple whose lineage he somewhat dubiously traced back to the Taj Mahal.) Another part of Mustique’s allure is that most of its houses, soon to include Yemanjá, are up for rent when their owners are not in residence.

It’s almost lunchtime at the new house, and the mood is one of relaxed pandemonium. Monica is back from the beach to welcome two Kawasaki Mules discharging a horde or kids in tennis whites, speaking mostly Portuguese and Italian, from blond to brunet and all Noels. They race to the pool or under the palapa to claim real estate on one of its three cushioned daybeds. All five daughters, sons-in-law and fifteen grandchildren are in residence for the first time, an event the senior Noels had been anticipating for a while.

In 2001 the couple bought a villa on this hilltop with the intention of enlarging it to use as a vacation home for their growing family, dispersed over three continents. “The house has been on the rental market for five years before being put up for sale,” Monica says, inured to the noise around her. “At the beginning it seemed wildly overpriced for a place that was eccentric, to say the least: there was just one bedroom, and the living room was built around a gray boulder the size of a Volkswagen. It was really a mess. But it had an enchanted perch up here. Well, by 2001 the price hadn’t changed and suddenly it seemed like the deal of the island.”

Not long after the couple bought it, they were introduced through two of their daughters to Manolo Mestre, a Mexican architect known for his work in the resort of Careyes, on the Pacific coast. They invited him to visit them on Mustique. “Manolo moved in with us at Callaloo,” Monica recalls, referring to their former house. “He was so charming. We came up to see the new place a few times, and after thirty-six house he worked up the courage to tell Walter the whole thing should be knocked down.”

Sketching out an alternate plan, Mestre suggested reorienting the house on the hill to allow for better views in all directions. He then proposed putting the living room and its inevitable boulder at the center of the scheme under a circular palapa and surrounding it on three sides with living spaces. Five discreet stone buildings would contain bedroom suites and a media room; a sixth would serve as an alternate living and dining space, with a generous kitchen below. The view to the south would be left open for an infinity-edged pool.

“Where Manolo was a true genius was in seeing how to place the house better on the hilltop,” says Monica, who immediately realized the advantages of the plan. Particularly pleasing was Mestre’s development of some outbuildings a hundred yards down the hill from staff housing into family quarters: now a three-bedroom guest cottage with its own miniature palapita and pool sits on a small lawn fringed with bougainvillea and flowerings shrubs. Nearby bunkhouses, as Monica calls them, can sleep up to sixteen children. (Girls, are you listening?) By creating a hierarchy of residences, Mestre was able to give the Noels what they most wanted – a house big enough to hold the entire family without losing its sense of intimacy. Discreet new buildings are home to the caretakers, cooks, housekeepers and gardeners who make Yemanjá go.

The Noels did pause before buying into the architect’s idea of an open-air living room in a climate that can get steamy before breakfast. But Mestre knew about hilltop sites and predicted that the sea breezes would take care of the heat. He was right. Throughout the day and even in the rain, the palapa, with its patterned cement floor and  thatched roof anchored by stout hardwood beams, is remarkably welcoming.

“It’s primitive luxury, that palapa,” says Tommy Hilfiger, who has known the Noels for more than twenty years. A neighbor in Greenwich as well as Mustique, he’s already spent a few evenings camped out with the family beneath its welcoming canopy. “It has a great party ambience,” he reports. “The siting is spectacular, and it’s done up in such an exotic way.”

Deciding on that look, and carrying it through the entire house, was a four-year odyssey for Monica, who has always handled her own decorating. At Callaloo she’d opted the traditional English-accented style that had worked so well in Connecticut and at the Noel’s Park Avenue pied-á-terre. There were blue-and-white chintzes, crisp pillows, white painted furniture and needlepoint carpets. But the boulder’s presence at Yemanjá pretty much vetoed needlepoint; what’s more, the house has a man-made stream paved with stones meandering through the living room. Add the palapa idea and the vertiginous siting of the house, and it all amounted to something more James Bond than Billy Baldwin. Monica decided on a younger, earthier approach that the girls and their families would like.

“I really wasn’t sure my mom had the bandwidth to take on a project like this,” confesses Marisa, the youngest daughter by ten years and in some ways the most involved, since she lives in Manhattan while her sisters are all overseas. “I mean, our houses in New York and Greenwich are very nice, but they’re polite – it wasn’t the sexy, chic feeling this place needed.”

Knowing their mother’s love of a challenge, the sisters decided to stand back and watch. “We would give her advice and tips, but at the end of the day she just needed our positive reinforcement,” Marisa says. “There were some mistakes – we grilled her once over some tiles that we all hated – but then she’d bring in something like that Brazilian rain-forest bench and all would be forgiven.”

Marisa refers to a wide seating carved from a single block of wood by Sao Paulo artist Hugo Franca. Monica found it at a Manhattan furniture show, one of many she couldn’t resist during her forty-eight-month adventure. Though she can no longer remember which source begat which, one led to another, and soon her PDA was humming with contacts. She shopped uptown Manhattan at Holly Hunt, Scalamandré and Waterworks. She shopped way-uptown Manhattan at textile dealers in Harlem. She shopped downtown at an African importer, who would turn up truckloads of carved wooden stools and benches for her to choose among. Indefatigable, she scoped out the furniture market in Highpoint, North Carolina, and the designer showrooms in Dania, Florida, for bamboo side tables, dining chairs and ceramics. In Miami, she worked with Roberta Schilling, an importer of Brazilian goods. When she and Walter safaried in Africa, she shipped back pottery and carvings; when they visited their daughter Alix in Rio,  she found a craftsman in a local market to carve plaques with the Brazilian names of each room on them. In the end, though she hadn’t quite known what she was looking for, Monica felt her way into just the insouciant, global primitive style she was after.

The Noels also relied on a sizable list of professionals for their project. The roster included Mustique architect and builder Thomas Dehen, who filled in Mestre’s “broad brushstrokes,” as she calls them, and moved the house along by supervising detailed site drawings. Virginia-based project manager Eyre Baldwin helped refine the plumbing, electrical and media systems. Monica’s friend Jeanne Taylor Hansford helped choose some fabrics early on; Jennifer Bradford Davis came in at the end to help with curtains and other details. And Miami-based landscape designer Cecelia de Grille helped the house and the gill come together in a way that looks both lush and uncontrived.

Despite the fact that Yemanjá is officially up and running, Monica still finds plenty of work to do.

In late January she sent me another email. “I am home from Mustique for the first time since Christmas. Mail piled high, I don’t know what to tackle first! I spent this morning on 28th Street buying tall vases to act as hurricane lamps with it blows at Yemanjá.

This time, it didn’t even occur to her to wonder what her garden-club friends in Greenwich were thinking. Her daughters were e-mailing her the dates of their next visits – the house had made the grade.


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