My front-row seat for the Fyre Festival

Fyre Festival. If you think it sounds like the name of a new sort of natural disaster, you might not be wrong

It started with an eye-catching video offering a luxury Bahamas festival weekend with models and celebrities galore. It ended with thousands of people stuck on a small island in tents meant for refugees, eating limp sandwiches from trays, and with the organiser, Billy McFarland, jailed for fraud.

As two new documentaries highlight the chaos of the Fyre Festival weekend in April 2017, writer T.R. Todd explains what he and others witnessed.

The party of the decade.

That’s how the video promoted it. And it wasn’t just any video: Bella Hadid and other supermodels, promoting an upcoming festival in the Exumas, an island chain in the Bahamas.

It promised luxury villas on the beach, gourmet chefs and a musical line-up topped by Blink 182 and provided by Kanye West’s label.

There was a buried treasure hunt worth more than a million dollars. Oh, and they would fly you in on a private jet, touching down on an island once owned by former Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The backdrop was perfect: glamorous yachts, secluded beaches and the bluest, clearest water you had ever seen.

But for us, back then in February 2017, that video was just Exuma – our stomping ground. We had been up and down the archipelago a million times. If anything was happening in Exuma, we knew about it.

Yes, the water and beaches are that beautiful. And granted, there is indeed an island once owned by Escobar, otherwise known as Norman’s Cay. That’s where the truth ended.

The Fyre Festival, like it or not, was very definitely happening.

The man behind it was Billy McFarland, and the festival truly began when I heard the words: “Billy McFarland is at the gates.”

I’ll never forget those words.

I was sitting down to breakfast at the Grand Isle Resort, an upscale community in Great Exuma. After a few years at The Nassau Guardian, the country’s largest newspaper, I was hired by Peter Nicholson, the largest owner at Grand Isle, to run his marketing and communications. He was beside me at the moment we got the call.

Billy McFarland is at the gates.

We stared at each other in disbelief. Just 48 hours earlier, I had made a call of my own. Like everyone else, I had seen that mind-blowing video, but I was worried.

Years before, we had launched a marketing campaign for the famous swimming pigs of the Exumas that spread around the world. For decades, these pigs had lived on a secluded island, all by themselves.

As tourists passed through, the pigs grew accustomed to swimming out to the boats for food. So in 2014, we released a documentary that received millions of hits, setting off a chain reaction of publicity that gave Exuma its first true taste of fame. I would later write a book about it.

We had also organised a small music concert for only a few hundred people, twice, and it almost killed me. I understood how hard it was to pull off an event on the islands.

But Fyre Festival? How was this even possible?

So I called them.

Exuma is made up of 365 islands and cays, small sandy spits of land. Most of these islands, the ones not owned by celebrities and business moguls, are incredibly isolated. They lack basic infrastructure.

You want to have a major, upscale festival in the Exuma Cays? It wasn’t just “on the boundaries of the impossible”, as they advertised. It’s impossible, I told them.

I asked: have you ever heard of Great Exuma? (They hadn’t).

It was clear they had no clue what they were doing. Worse: they had no idea where they were.

Then they showed up, marching through the gates of Grand Isle. There was a gaggle of models brandishing smartphones, beautiful people flanked by fancy marketing executives and event planners from New York.

Caught in the middle of it all were the locals, about 20 them, wearing black T-shirts and hats, all branded with the Fyre logo. It felt like they were transformed by Fyre, or indoctrinated into some cult. The brand’s orange zigzag with the flame on top would soon spread all over the island.

It was such a departure from the Exuma we all knew and loved.

There isn’t a single traffic light on the island. There is one main road. And if you don’t pick up a hitchhiker, that’s rude. Millionaires and billionaires mill around locals with a few dollars in their pockets.

People come here to disappear, to melt into the landscape, to just be themselves. Exuma is arguably the most beautiful place in the world, but it is unpretentious.

Fyre felt like the opposite. It was flashy. It was shallow.

The entourage made for the bar, ordering whatever they wanted. It was clear that money was not a concern.

And then there was Billy: the ultimate millennial villain.

When I’d see him in the following weeks, it was always the same: a big smile, a handshake, a pleasant word, but then he’d dash behind a phone or computer. To me, he was never at ease with himself or those around him. And he never listened.

I was by Nicholson’s side when he told Billy: “Don’t do this.”

With the right expectations, Fyre Festival could have been successful. But they needed at least six or eight months, maybe even a year, to prepare. At this point, they had three months.

Despite all the warnings, McFarland couldn’t be stopped. If it was going to happen anywhere, it was on Great Exuma, right across the street from Grand Isle.

So much of those three months were a blur. McFarland and his team never allowed anyone on site. There was a sense that they weren’t ready, but nobody knew just how bad it was.

On 27 April, the day before the festival was due to start, I walked down in the rain to the restaurant where three months earlier I had first laid eyes on Billy McFarland. The place was jammed with partying millennials. Many of them were influencers with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers.

It wasn’t long before the hysteria set in, when people saw the tents they would actually be staying in.

By now, we all know what happened next. Because so many of them were influencers, the Fyre Festival is engrained in us through images on social media: the disaster relief tents, that infamous cheese sandwich in Styrofoam.

I mostly saw it play out from Grand Isle, with people begging me for a bed, a couch or a pillow on the floor. Some of them frantically called home and stomped around in anger. Others were in a state of shock, weeping silently to themselves in frustration. Well-to-do millennials were now affectionately known as “refugees”. We took in as many of them as we could, as did others at Grand Isle. It could have been a lot worse. In the end, they all went back to their normal lives.

What was lost in it all, however, were the locals. They didn’t have millions of followers. This was their home.

For them, the Fyre Festival was more than a rip-off, a disappointment or an inconvenience. It was a loss of livelihood, and in some cases, the loss of their life savings. It shattered a dream and the promise of something better. Fyre consumed everyone in its path, especially the less fortunate that needed it most.

Everyone wanted the fantasy to be real.

That night, I went over to the festival site to see it with my own eyes.

There were hundreds of Bahamians that had worked day and night to try and make the impossible possible.

Defeated, with tears in his eyes, one of the festival’s organisers had one request: can you help get these workers home?

So in the middle of the night, I jammed our car full of workers, people that would never get paid. It was pitch black because the roads don’t have street lights. The houses don’t have addresses.

I would later find out these people were from the capital Nassau, not Exuma, because the festival couldn’t find enough labour on the island. An hour or two later, we eventually found a nondescript, darkened house, and I began my long drive back to Grand Isle.

Fortunately for the locals, there may yet be a happy ending.

Earlier this month, two documentaries on the festival were released. The Netflix documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, tells the story of Maryann Rolle, who owns the restaurant Exuma Point with her husband, Elvis.

She bore the brunt of the chaos, feeding up to a thousand people a day without ever getting paid. In the documentary, she says she lost $50,000 (£38,000) of her savings.

Since the documentary aired, a GoFundMe page has raised more than $190,000 for her family. And now, together with the filmmakers and the Exuma Foundation, we have set up another GoFundMe page to help the hundreds of other workers impacted by Fyre.

The same social media monster that helped create Fyre may also provide salvation for the people of Exuma.

The Exuma Foundation GOFUNDME here. 

T.R. Todd is a journalist, biographer and novelist now based in Ottawa, Canada.

Read the original story here

 

Grand Isle featured on HGTV’s ‘Bahamas Life’

Christina Walters explains why the high quality villas, warm locals and unrivalled natural beauty instantly made Grand Isle ‘home’

 When Christina Walters travelled to Exuma, she had no plans to purchase a vacation property. But the moment she set eyes on Grand Isle Resort, she knew: “We needed to make it home.”

Little did Walters know that not only would she buy a villa at Grand Isle, but the experience would be chronicled by HGTV’s “Bahamas Life”, a popular lifestyle show where prospective buyers explore a new  destination and choose between three different properties.

There are no bad locations in Exuma, which is commonly considered one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, after seeing all that the island had to offer, one place stood out from the  others.

“I was a sales manager for new home construction, and when I saw the villas at Grand Isle, I was there taking photos of the fridge, of the dishwasher. Some of the appliances were nicer than the stuff we had at home,” Walters said, who now runs a real estate company in North Carolina.

“It has a very high-end feel, but it also feels like home. The floor plans are open enough where you are not just sitting in a hotel room on vacation. You feel like you are in an open space that is large enough to be  home. You can do laundry. You can cook a meal. And I think the windows make a big difference. You feel like you are outside when you’re inside.”

In terms of the show itself, which first aired in the United States in late December, Walters said it was a “wonderful experience”. The crew were gracious and hospitable, she explained, and she enjoyed sharing Exuma with them.

Walters filmed the episode with one of her best girlfriends  from college.  

With the cameras rolling, she not only toured Grand Isle Resort and its offerings, but also explored the Exuma Cays, its famously blue (and clear) water and the many attractions, such as the giant iguanas, sandbars and the world famous swimming pigs. 

Remarkably, the episode also featured Walters’ trip on a jetski from Nassau, the capital of The Bahamas, all the way to Exuma.

Peter Nicholson, the President of GIV Bahamas and the largest owner at Grand Isle Resort, said Walters is exactly the kind of owner that falls in love with Exuma.

 

“Grand Isle is a fantastic property and a great investment.  That’s first off,” explained Nicholson, who originally purchased 31 villas back in 2012.

“But beyond that, Exuma is just special. The 365 islands that make up this archipelago are still so beautiful, so untouched. 

I have been around the world twice and I still believe it is the most beautiful place for its water and beaches. Exuma has this adventure and innocence to it that I think just appeal to people like Christina. We were thrilled to welcome her as an owner of Grand Isle.”

But there is one other element that takes Exuma over the top. 

For those that visit Exuma regularly, or even once, Walters said the warmth of the locals and the entire community makes for a charming experience you just can’t get anywhere else.

“As soon as you hit Exuma, you immediately notice a difference in pace through the attitude of the people. You just automatically relax,” she explained. “The island is just a breath of fresh air.”

To learn more about villa ownership at Grand Isle Resort, visit https://realestate.grandisleresort.com/ 

To book an experience at Grand Isle, write Stenner Travel at Lori Beal lori@stennertravel.com

Grand Isle Resort offers shark week of its own

Philanthropic work by GIV Bahamas leads to unique program where guests can participate in shark tagging to help research and preserve our oceans

Clients looking for an out-of-the-ordinary watersports adventure this year should consider an excursion  available at Grand Isle Resort & Spa, located an hour’s flight from Miami on the shores of Emerald Bay on Great Exuma, Bahamas.

The adventure offers resort guests the opportunity to help promote healthy oceans while studying up close and personal four species of shark in their native habitats.

Guests can reserve a spot on a research vessel to join Austin Gallagher, a leading marine biologist, and the team of Beneath the Waves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of sharks, to search for, study and tag hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks, nurse sharks and reef sharks.

The price for each guest who books the one-day shark adventure is $500, and the money directly funds the nongovernmental organization that is working with Beneath the Waves’ research efforts, which are aimed at driving real-world change in the oceans.

There are spots available for four guests each day from Feb. 19 to 26. Multiple additional trips will be announced in the coming months.

The shark-tagging adventure includes hands-on research, collecting data such as measurements and tissue samples and attaching satellite tags to monitor the sharks’ movements. 

“Grand Isle Resort is deeply engaged in the conservation of our environment, and through this partnership we are able to contribute to the incredible research being done to protect our oceans and marine life here in the Bahamas,” said Lester Scott, the resort’s general manager.

He pointed out that the Bahamas is an important shark habitat, and “travelers who join us on this trip will view and work with these majestic animals in a safe environment while learning firsthand from marine biologists.”

Gallagher said working with Grand Isle Resort and its guests not only helps get more research done, “but is an incredible opportunity to expose people to the true nature of sharks in the hopes that they will become inspired to become ocean ambassadors interested in the future of our oceans.”

The family-friendly Grand Isle Resort features 78 villas ranging in size from one to four bedrooms. Of the 78 units, 71 are in the rental pool for guests.

Resort rates start at $400 per villa, per night.

Other watersports activities and packages include sportfishing, fly fishing, diving and snorkeling.

Facilities at the resort include the Palapa Grill, the Seastar Spa, the nearby 18-hole Emerald Reef Golf Club, a kids’ club and a choice of several beaches, including the one-mile Emerald Beach that fronts the resort.

Read original story here

Exuma Classic ‘hits stride’ in best year yet

Grand Isle’s soon-to-be opened beach club featured in pre-tournament party, as China’s Marty Dou wins the tournament, now in its third year

The Great Exuma Classic “hit its stride” in its third year, according to tournament organizers, as professional golfers and tourists alike enjoyed beautiful weather, signature events and world-class golf over the course of several days. 

Grand Isle Resort’s new beach club, 23 North, has the best views onto Emerald Bay. Photo By Kevin Bires / BD Global Sports

Some of the most exciting, up-and-coming professionals seeking a spot on the PGA Tour touched down on Exuma earlier this month to compete for $600,000 in total prize money.  The Emerald Bay Golf Course, which surrounds Grand Isle Resort, once again took center stage. Designed by Greg Norman, the award-winning course is recognized as the longest and one of the most scenic 18-hole, par 72 ocean-side courses in the Caribbean.

Grand Isle, Sandals and other nearby hotels were packed with golfers, tourists and members of the media for several days festivities. The tournament was also once again televised on NBC’s The Golf Channel, reaching millions of viewers worldwide.

 

“The Great Exuma Classic hit its stride this year,” said Catherine Clifton, the tournament director.

“The tournament began with  an added hospitality feature: a pre-tournament party at the soon-to-be opened 23 North, Grand Isle’s new beach club. More than 100 guests, players, caddies and VIPs enjoyed exquisite food options from the chef at Grand Isle and live music from three country stars from Nashville.”

Also prior to the big tournament was the official Pro Am. As an official sponsor of the Great Exuma Classic, GIV  Bahamas Inc. entered two teams, both of which played alongside a Web.com professional. 

Doug Smith gets in a shot during the Pro AM. Photo by Kevin Bires / BD Global Sports

In addition to the golf, Grand Isle guests playing in the Pro Am also received an island excursion to see the many sites around Euxma, including the giant iguanas, sandbars, celebrity islands and the world famous swimming pigs.

Greg Norman, the legendary Australian golfer, also participated in the Pro Am and socialized with guests at the tournament’s cocktail parties.

Doug Smith, a retired professional hockey player, participated as one of GIV Bahamas’ guests for the Pro Am. 

“Visiting Grand Isle Resort in the Exumas changed us,” said Smith, who is the founder of Doug Smith Performance. “We have found our ‘get away for life’ just a short flight from Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal. Thousands of beaches and an Archipelago that is breathtaking.  Bali, Fiji or The Maldives have nothing on the Exumas! For a fraction of the time and cost, we can have exactly the same experience and better. Awesome food, predictable sunshine, endless beaches, swimming pigs and a positive, nurturing, crime-free culture. If you really want to experience what it would be like to live in or visit am island paradise, the Grand Isle Resort delivers.”

Doug Smith mingles with Greg Norman at one of the tournament’s parties. Photo courtesy of ONE Exuma

After all of the events and festivities, it was time to get down to the golf.  In the end, it was 21-year-old Marty Dou, from Beijng, China, who captured the title and $106,000 in winnings, posting a winning score of -18. Dou was followed closely by Americans Ben Kohles (-16) and Steve LeBrun (-16). 

The next Great Exuma Classic will be held from January 9 to January 15th, 2020.

 

 

 

Astronaut Scott Kelly lends voice to ‘Pigs of Paradise’, the film

 Set to premiere on Dec 1st in Nassau, full-length movie, based on the new book, tells the true story behind the global phenomenon

On March 27, 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly embarked on what came to be known as “The Year in Space”.

 Chronicled by Time Magazine, Kelly’s record-breaking expedition in the International Space Station was well-known for many reasons, and partly because the American explorer documented the experience so faithfully on social media.

Through his Twitter, Instagram and other channels, he took snaps of the Earth from space in all its remarkable, awe-inspiring beauty. But one sight, against all others, stood out to astronaut Scott Kelly – Exuma, “the most beautiful place from space”.

Little did Scott know that, thousands of miles below, he would soon join forces with fellow social media stars known as the swimming pigs.  

With his genuine love for The Bahamas, and in  particular the  islands of Exuma, Kelly has come on board to narrate a new, full-length film based on the bestselling book,  “Pigs of Paradise: The Story of the World-Famous Swimming Pigs”.

Set to  premiere on December 1st , as the closing film at the Bahamas International Film Festival, “Pigs of Paradise” will be the cherry on top for the creators of the original film, “When Pigs Swim”. 

“When we did the first film, back in 2014, we had no idea what a global phenomenon the swimming pigs would become,” said Peter Nicholson, the President of GIV Bahamas and Executive Producer of the new film.

“It was much shorter, only about 15 minutes, and made people curious about these animals. So far that video alone has been viewed by more than 2.2 million people. I think the new story is : how did they become so famous? This latest film will look to answer that question, while really delving into the origins of these animals and the impact they’ve had on the whole Bahamas. We thank Scott for taking part in this true labour of love.”

Charlie Smith, of Earthbeat Films, is returning as the director of this second film on the swimming pigs, with Jeff Todd, the Director of Communications at GIV Bahamas Inc., and author of the new book, serving as the screenwriter.

The production crew will be walking the red carpet on December 1st with two piglets in tow. Back in 2014, upon the release for the first film, piglets also walked the red carpet with Smith when it premiered at festivals in Florida, before screening at many other festivals throughout North America.

With the swimming pigs’ global popularity at an all-time high, this full-length feature is expected to make an event bigger splash.

Unlike in 2014, the swimming pigs are now a house-hold name. After appearances on television programs (The Bachelor, Today Show), magazines, newspapers, and countless viral posts on the Internet, these animals helped bring Exuma to the world. From The New York Times, to CNN, to FOX, to Travel & Leisure, to the Toronto Star, the pigs have been featured by most major media outlets in North America, along with many more in countries such as Germany, the UK and Australia.

It is not a stretch to consider the swimming pigs global celebrities.

Today, the swimming pigs are the top tourism attraction for the island and a major source of revenue for tour boat operators, taxi drivers, restaurants, hotels and everything in between. In fact, there are pig colonies on six islands in The Bahamas, including Exuma, Abaco, Eleuthera, Long Island, Grand Bahama and Nassau.

In the film, government figures, including Dionisio D’Aguilar, the Minister of Tourism, have estimated that the swimming pigs have generated untold millions to the Bahamian economy.

The film follows shortly after the North American release of the book, also named “Pigs of Paradise”, which has been covered by outlets such as CNN Travel and USA Today.  The book can be ordered online here and can be found in major book stores throughout the holiday season

“Pigs of Paradise”, the movie, is expected to continue along the film festival circuit in 2019, before finally being released on DVD and other platforms for the general public. For information on screenings and other news, you can visit the movie’s website at www.pigsofparadise.com