CELEBRITIES and the quietly rich have always relished the exclusivity of private clubs. Today countless hotels and resorts from Bermuda to Barbados are adopting the personalized, club-inspired, one-fee, no-hassle philosophy that has become one of the hottest ideas in warm-weather vacationing. Without exception, these ``clubs'' boast dazzling sites and alluring names: Coral Beach Club, Ocean Club, and Paradise Beach Club. Some require memberships; others offer time-share arrangements. Many are simply resorts or cottage colonies that feel ``clubby,'' with the same crowd vacationing at the same time each year.
Old-line clubs such as Mill Reef Club in Antigua and Lyford Cay Club in Nassau are still members-only places, with closely monitored gates. Entrance means rigorous admission policies, letters of recommendation, and annual membership fees.
Antigua's two-year-old St. James Club, cousin to the London and Paris clubs of the same name, is an authentic club that doesn't worry about members - yet. Fringed by two wide beaches, the lush facility accommodates more than 200 guests in long low villas unobtrusively tucked among 100 acres. This newest darling of the Caribbean features an array of water sports as well as a pool, five tennis courts, Texas quarter horses, and a gymnasium.
The British have always been clubby. Sixteen properties in Bermuda are called clubs, but only two really are. The famous Mid-Ocean Club offers the best golf on the island, and an introduction from a member is required. On the south shore's most splendid site, Coral Beach and Tennis Club overlooks miles of sand and rolling surf. Reservations must be accompanied by an introduction from a member or former guest.
Some deluxe vacation spots trace their existence to bottomless fortunes and boundless eccentricity. Huntington Hartford's unabashed love affair with the Bahamas caused him to rename Hogg Island, across the bridge from Nassau, as Paradise Island. Today the remarkable house with 70 guest rooms is part of a splendid resort called the Ocean Club. This raspberry sherbet-colored house accented with thick white columns overlooks the sea.
The combination of house and gardens makes Hartford's former estate an unforgettable retreat.
From the pool and tennis courts, 12th-century arched French cloisters establish a Mediterranean d'ej`a vu. Everyone pauses to inspect the marble cherubs and nymphs that hide among pale junipers and gauzy pines. They stare at the bronze likenesses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Stanley Livingston, and photograph each other with Napoleon's Josephine.
In the main building, newly refurbished rooms and suites off the veranda face toward the beach and pool. Meals that emphasize fresh seafood and local produce, are served around the pool, in the cozy dining room, or arranged at one of 14 local restaurants.
Windemere Island Club is another ideal, yet very different, Bahamian hideaway. The private island, a sandy sliver five miles long and a half-mile wide, lies 20 feet across a rustic bridge from the coast of Eleuthera. A pink beach the length of the island is Windemere's most charming asset.
Windemere's mystique is privacy and anonymity. Although many members and homeowners represent noble British families and American big business, guests soon realize that simplicity is the watchword.
The totally understated, weathered New England atmosphere includes two dining rooms, main sitting lounge, cupola-roofed library, cheerful rooms, suites, individually decorated villas, and apartments. When owners like Billy Baldwin and the Mountbatten clan are not in residence, the available rental list swells with splendid houses called Halcyon House, Savannah, and Coriolana.
Windemere Island Club was founded in 1968 by Sir Harold G. Christie and entrepreneur Harold A. Ley. When it was recently acquired by American James Sherwood, owner of Venice-Simplon Orient Express, guests quietly expected sweeping changes. But Sherwood insisted that while necessary improvements not be ignored, the unique signature of Windemere be scrupulously maintained.
Delicately tinted china and linens lend a soft look to dining areas that were once dominated by drip-dry cloths and institutional-type tableware. Jeff Belhaire, the new executive chef, emphasizes local products with a new taste that borders on artistry.
In addition to Windemere and the Ocean Club, there's always Tryall Golf and Beach Club in Jamaica, Oyster Pond Yacht Club on St. Maarten, and the Meridian Club on Pine Cay.
Just remember to pack at least one club tie with your Bermuda shorts and blazer. You never know when you'll need just the right clothes.
If you go
Windemere Island Club, Orient Express Hotels; (212) 839-0222. No membership required. Club rooms: Nov. 1-Dec. 15 - $230 a day; Dec. 16-Jan. 3 - $330; Jan. 4-Jan. 29 - $230; Jan. 30-April 16 - $330. Double occupancy, full American plan.
St. James Club, Antigua, First Resort Corp., 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016; (800) 235-3505. No membership required. Deluxe rooms: Dec. 20-April 3 - $450 a day; May 1-Dec. 19 - $245. Double occupancy, modified American plan.
Ocean Club, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas; 800-321-3000. No membership required. Rooms from $150 to $300 a day. Double occupancy, European plan. Gourmet dining plan: $52 per person/day, choice of 14 restaurants; $35 per person/day, choice of eight restaurants.
Coral Beach Club, Bermuda. Introduction requested. Rates are $140 to $220 double occupancy, plus 12 percent service per day. American plan.