Let’s take a ride to the Caribbean, circa 1950s. Travelers are beginning to discover a lush island with virgin beaches, impossible ocean views, and the friendliest people in the world: Jamaica. They’re drawn specifically to Ocho Rios, a hidden gem on the island’s north coast where they can be among the first to experience the new Arawak Hotel. The hotel is an architectural masterpiece. The rooms are creatively angled toward the sea. Art-deco elements, novel for the time, infuse sophistication into the tropical destination. At the center of it all sits a banyan tree, with its arms out wide, welcoming guests to this living island getaway.
“If you wanted to build a hotel at that time, you could have your pick of the best locations and this was among the best,” says Sandals Executive Chairman Adam Stewart. “The Arawak literally helped put Jamaica on the map. It was the place to be, and to be seen.”
The hotel emerged from the imaginative mind of legendary architect Morris Lapidus, who called his work “an architecture of joy.” Guests of the Arawak came to bask in luxury and experience that unique island joy, with designs subtly leading them from the banyan tree to the beach. On some days, they’d see a boy walking along the sand, carrying fresh fish he’d sell to the hotel so guests from around the world could share the affection he felt for his Jamaican home.
Remember this boy.
By the 1980s and 90s tourism was thriving in Jamaica, but still nothing compared to the architecture of the original Arawak, or the intentional joy it exuded. The spirit of the hotel had made such an impression on the boy who provided fish that as an adult, he would decide to welcome it into his family of Jamaican-born hotels.
This lifelong entrepreneur was Adam Stewart’s father, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, and his first version of Sandals Dunn’s River at the site of the Arawak quickly became the next pinnacle of all-inclusive luxury.
“The story of Sandals Dunn's River has special meaning to our family," says Executive Chairman Adam Stewart, "My dad grew up on the beach here at the Arawak Hotel in Ocho Rios, where he used to play and sell fish to the kitchen as a young boy. He dreamed of creating a place to showcase the splendor of the island with travelers from across the world - and with Jamaica as his biggest inspiration, he did just that when he introduced the original Sandals Dunn's River back in the early '90s.”
A waterfall, symbolic of Jamaica’s natural wonders, spilled into the largest pool in the Caribbean. Guests could swim up to a pool bar, an unheard-of concept at the time, and then retreat to suites with breathtaking ocean views.
But the two qualities that brought so much notoriety to the Arawak were left untouched: the beach, which remained as perfect as when it was first found, and the hotel’s most distinctive designs.
“The Stewarts have never been a family that looks to knock things down,” says Sara Hartman, VP of interior design for Hospitality Purveyors Inc., the exclusive design and procurement arm for all Sandals Resorts International properties. “They show an appreciation for superior architecture by honoring the past while also looking to the future.”
In 2020, the Stewarts recognized an opportunity to again transform the iconic hotel into yet another benchmark for Caribbean luxury. This time father and son duo would work on the 2.0 version of Sandals Dunn’s River together.
“Dad opened incredible resorts around the Caribbean,” says Sandals Resorts International Executive Chairman Adam Stewart, “but he always had an emotional tie to this one. I think he’d be amazingly proud of what’s been accomplished here."
The memories became the literal foundation for his final project, combining the celebrated designs of yesterday with unprecedented designs that are now being seen for the first time. It all starts with the original footprint that Morris Lapidus drew for the Arawak Hotel.
“As a designer, I knew he must have had a vision for this property,” Hartman says, “but I didn’t understand it until I came and saw it in person. There really is a certain kind of joy in the use of spaces. We wanted to retain that.”
Back then, it was a cutting edge for guests to enter an open lobby and immediately see the pool out back. The lobby, mezzanine, and columns are still here, but now they’re more open to the main pool and the Caribbean Sea. The pool that rewrote the meaning of “big” is bigger than ever, practically spilling out to the ocean.
It was also an architectural feat in the 1950s to angle two hotel towers and their balconies in such a way to make the ocean a constant focal point. That’s exactly what Lapidus did. “The towers are spot on,” Hartman says, “so we preserved them.”
The Mammee Bay Beachfront Suites open out to the Caribbean sea, a sweep of endless blue at your doorstep.
Lapidus ensured guests would always know they’re in Jamaica. It’s why, among other ideas, he kept the banyan tree in such a prominent spot. But the latest innovations for the new Sandals Dunn’s River create the island embrace that even Lapidus could not have imagined.
“We always challenge ourselves to stretch the limits of what can be done,” Hartman says. “Our discussions for this project eventually came down to this: Let’s use innovation to accentuate the raw beauty of Ocho Rios.”
The same crystal-clear water that flows from rivers to the ocean also meanders down locally inspired terraces. It’s designed into rain curtains in the lobby and privacy curtains in suites. Waterfalls accompany guests to the spa and pool. Live ferns drape elegantly from ceilings and walls. Palm trees and indigenous flora form corridors toward the ever-present beach and the massive banyan tree that has welcomed guests since they first ventured to Jamaica and its legendary resort.
“The tree is an architectural centerpiece,” Hartman says. “It helps tell the story of Sandals Dunn’s River and our mission: Elevate the experience and never lose sight of Jamaica.”
Guests can relax on the all-glass balcony of a Tufa Terrace SkyPool Suite, forging a connection with the sand and sea. The innovative Coyaba Sky Villa Rondovals invite couples to soak in rooftop tubs, surrounded by the moving waters that fuel the island’s natural beauty. Then, at night, you stand mesmerized by the Caribbean sunset and an incomprehensible galaxy of stars.
“We went off the chain a little bit with the new Rondovals,” Hartman says. “When I suggested we cut off the roof, Adam said 'let’s do it'. So, it’s a major ‘wow’ as soon as you enter and look up at this 13-foot ceiling. You have the serenity of the rain curtains at the private plunge pool. And then you go up to the deck to the freestanding tub and telescope. It all feeds into the Jamaican experience we wanted guests to experience across the entire resort.”
It's an experience where there are no boundaries between a luxury vacation and what Adam Stewart calls “a botanical wonderland,” or between past and present. In fact, on the ground floor of one of the original Arawak buildings, the design team created an ode to its heritage: the Lapidus Lounge, where guests can look at mementos from the famous architect and sip special cocktails from his era.
Jamaican joy extends beyond design into dining with the new Dunn's Rum Club, which celebrates the quintessentially Caribbean spirit in a sultry rum lounge setting and serves more than 30 rum varieties - the most extensive collection in any Sandals Resort. Guests can also enjoy the new BLŪM Café, inspired by Jamaica's quintessential Blue Mountains, where coffee beans are harvested and roasted exclusively for the resort.
"From its days as the Arawak to the now Sandals Dunn's River, I think my dad would be amazingly proud of what’s been accomplished here," says Executive Chairman Adam Stewart.
From Lapidus to the Stewarts, from the Arawak to Sandals Dunn’s River, this has always been, and always will be, more than a resort. It’s an immersive experience that honors the land and the joy pouring through it. It’s exactly what the boy selling fish dreamed of sharing with everyone.
To learn more about the story behind Sandals Dunn's River's architectural evolution, please listen to the Sandals PalmCast with Sandals Resorts' Executive Chairman, Adam Stewart, below.