When Gordon “Butch” Stewart built the first Sandals Resort in Montego Bay, he allowed his imagination to guide the design. He had to, because hotels in Jamaica at that time had not yet captured much in the way of imaginations. Stewart envisioned something totally different: An all-luxury experience, where guests would open their eyes in the morning to breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea.
There would be gorgeous beachside pools, lush tropical landscaping, gourmet meals served under the stars or in those suites, and a team of employees exemplifying what Stewart appreciated so much about his Jamaican home: personal service to make all guests feel this is their home, too.
At the heart of his vision was a couple. Two people in love. They’d escape to Sandals and remember what’s important … and forget what isn’t.
In his mind, Stewart imagined a couple just like Leonard and Barbara Barnes.
Leonard and Barbara fit the picture perfectly in 1981. Stewart even had a five-word phrase that described the looks in their eyes, and it would become the foundation at all Sandals Resorts: “Love is all you need.” But no one knew — not Leonard, not Barbara, and not Stewart — how they would become Sandals pioneers back then, or the incredible perseverance they’d have returning nearly 40 years later.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been so long,” Barbara said when she and Leonard stood again at the white welcome mat known as the beach at Sandals Montego Bay. “After all this time, it still feels like home.”
Sandals Montego Bay (“home”) officially opened its doors on November 27, 1981. The dream was coming to life, with a pool near the sea, the scent of from-scratch dinners wafting in the warm Caribbean air, and service as friendly as it was professional.
Honeymooners began to arrive in the afterglow of their marriage vows, filling the suites and making side-by-side footprints in the freshly groomed sand. Stewart thought the resort might someday do the unthinkable: host an island wedding.
“Someday” happened by accident one month later, on December 30, after Leonard and Barbara checked into the hotel. They hadn’t come to be married at Sandals. They came with the intent of tying the knot at a local courthouse in Jamaica. For that to happen, they hinted around for some direction.
“I can still remember Barbara saying in her shy kind of way, ‘We aren’t quite married yet, but we would like to get married here in Jamaica,’” remembers current Beaches Ocho Rios General Manager Brian Roper, who at that time worked at Sandals Montego Bay. “Our staff assumed they already had their wedding, so her comment came as a surprise to us.”
The Sandals team made their own proposal: Why don’t you have the wedding here? Leonard and Barbara had been given the royal treatment from the moment they arrived on property. It seemed reasonable that a Sandals wedding would be dripping in happiness and glory.
“We were excited to ensure they had a fantastic wedding,” remembers Dalton Smith, one of Sandals’ first-ever employees, “even though we had never done one yet.”
For two days, the Sandals team used the resources at hand to prepare what they hoped would be a memorable wedding. They used tropical flowers and palm fronds to dress up a gazebo and positioned it next to the pool. The kitchen staff baked a special cake. There was no shortage of good champagne, which would be served within view of the Caribbean Sea where the weather late December is better than a fairytale. In a way, that’s exactly what the wedding became: the first Sandals fairytale.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of it,” says Smith.
The servers and managers would be witnesses. A maid of honor and a best man were chosen from the Sandals team members. Barbara’s beautiful white dress matched the white sand.
After exchanging vows, Leonard and Barbara stood for pictures on a just-completed boardwalk, unfazed by other resort guests lingering in their swimsuits a few feet away like extras on a movie set.
The sequel would take decades.
Without knowing it, Leonard and Barbara’s wedding provided a springboard for Sandals to rewrite the entire concept of destination weddings.
The resorts have since hosted thousands of wedding ceremonies in gardens, on beaches, and over the water. Nature in the Caribbean provides the best venues. The desire to exceed expectations is in the DNA of the people. And that sensation started with Leonard and Barbara’s first wedding.
The first couple of Sandals returned home in the U.S. as Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, with a legendary wedding story. Ten years later they dropped into Sandals Montego Bay for a brief look while they were on vacation at another Sandals property. Their little peek fed a desire to return for real, perhaps for a renewal.
Another 28 years passed until Leonard and Barbara finally set aside a week to experience for themselves what they’d heard about Sandals Montego Bay: The site of their impromptu wedding had become the standard bearer for bridal fantasies. They would recognize very little aside from the care-free vibe.
Before they could make the trip, however, Barbara found out she needed a kidney transplant. The travel plans had to be postponed while they found a match. It didn’t take long. Leonard promised Barbara his heart in 1981 and thirty-eight years later he gave her the kidney she needed.
After Barbara made a full recovery, they finally flew to Montego Bay and strolled into the resort where they’d become one. They looked around in reflection of the past and in awe of the present.
“It’s wonderful to be back,” Barbara said, “and to see all these amazing changes.”
Their wedding in December 1981 inspired them to Retie the Knot in the Over-the-Water Wedding Chapel at the end of a magical glass boardwalk at Sandals Montego Bay. This time they made their way through a tunnel of witnesses. Some of them were familiar, like Brian Roper and Dalton Smith. Adam Stewart, Sandals’ Executive Chairman, also came to see the couple who made Sandals history in 1981. So did several of Leonard and Barbara’s family members. The employees planned every detail — linens, flowers, food, and photo displays of the original wedding.
Leonard kept one detail in his pocket. During the ceremony, he knelt to one knee on top of the ocean and pulled out a new ring. In it, Barbara saw two diamonds.
“To represent two weddings,” Leonard said.
A first and next. A then and now. A once upon a time and a happily ever after.
As Sandals Resorts enters the next 40 years, we're tying together the past, present, and future under five familiar words that resonate more profoundly today than yesterday: Love is all you need.
Watch Leonard and Barbara Barnes return to the place where they said 'I Do" surrounded by the people who took part in writing their love story 41 years ago in the video below.