Before the hurricanes of 2017, about 500 employees worked the grounds between the old Morningstar Beach Resort and Marriot Frenchman’s Reef and with the reopening of the “reimagined” Buoy Haus on St. Thomas last week, most returned, with many stepping into leadership positions after waiting more than five years for the damaged property to be rebuilt.
There’s a lot that goes into an overhaul like the one Morningstar experienced, and when new ownership comes in, the blending of new teams, ideas and perspectives adds extra wrinkles.
“But at each obstacle, each step, the project has continued to move forward and there were so many key players that worked here prior that assisted the owners and construction crew, bridged the gap and come full circle – our director of transportation, concierge managers, culinarians, for example – to help form a leadership team that has such a great deal of pride and has taken ownership over the evolution of the property, where it was, and how far it’s come,” said hotel manager Catherine Totman, who has been working at Morningstar since 2014.
And what has emerged, Totman added, is also an homage to the design, food and natural beauty of the territory, from the wicker and cane light fixtures to the pepper water on the restaurant tables, sourced with produce from local farms.
Incorporated into the rooms are pieces from businesses like Silk Greenery and Furniture Inn, along with SOS Antiques for some of the nautical elements, while the open-air build of spaces like the lobby embrace the cool ocean breezes that flow over the water. Meanwhile, on the menu at the Salt Shack, formerly Coco Joe’s, are staples like chicken roti, oxtail and, for vegetarians, dishes made from provisions, christophene, and pumpkin. Sejah Farms is among the providers adding greens to the menu, which Food and Beverage Director Davide Crusoe said gives restaurant staff the ability to connect with guests about the culinary experience and journey that’s unique to the territory.
“We have a lot of partners that we’ve started working with and a lot of the way we pay homage is using a vienna cake, local brands like Mutiny Vodka, using sea moss, doing coquito so that it’s deconstructed, passion fruit, conch and fish from local fisherman, sweet potatoes – whether you live here, or are visiting, we want to highlight the amazing, rich flavors that are part of our palette,” Crusoe said.
Authentic experiences are also in the works for guests, including a smoked sea salt workshop, which offers visitors to the property the chance to make their own seasoning using salt harvested from St. John’s Salt Pond.
“We’ve tried to do a good job of tying into what makes the Virgin Islands unique,” Kurt Wiksten, Frenchman’s Reef General Manager, said. “The history of Morningstar and the property itself is important to the island and our ultimate goal is to invite our community back, future guests back, and let everyone know that we hope to set the standard for what a resort should be.”
The 94-room boutique hotel is part of Marriott Bonvoy’s “Autograph Collection” and held its soft opening last week. Though a larger percentage of bookings are anticipated to come from the Bonvoy network like most other brand resorts, Totman said it’s not a requirement and doesn’t prevent locals from reserving a staycation, dining at the restaurants or using the beach, which she said continues to be open and accessible. And, as the hotel fills up, the team is also looking at how to bring back experiences for non-guests – like day passes for residents for some of the amenities.
“This always has been such a special place, both for the staff here and those who have stayed with us before – we’ve even started to see repeat guests booking,” Totman said. “One couple is celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary and so many years ago, celebrated their honeymoon here. It was happenstance that they looked online and when they saw we were open, they jumped on a plane and told us all about how the hotel was when they first came – it was an incredible story, but so indicative of what Morningstar always was and will be.”