Perched above the craggy coast on the western tip of Jamaica, Rockhouse Resort & Spa feels like a small village that has stood still in time, its rustic architecture blends effortlessly with its surroundings. But when it first opened in 1973, the gentle waves of the Caribbean weren’t the only rhythms that occupied the space: the boutique hotel was an escape for music icons like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and members of the Rolling Stones, who appreciated the bohemian vibe and off-the-grid surroundings of Negril.
Today, the rustic, 40-room resort has managed to maintain its impossibly cool allure—and that's one of the reasons we paid a visit there to shoot for our 2022 Resort Collection. Like many, we were drawn to this special place not just because of the dramatic vistas and crystal blue water but for the exceptional sustainability values they integrate into everything from rainwater harvesting and low-voltage lighting to composting and an on-site organic farm.
We spoke with Paul Salmon, the chairman & CEO of the Rockhouse & Rockhouse Foundation since 1993, about the Jamaican resort's storied history and its impressive commitment to the environment and the local community.
Our photos from the Resort Collection shoot at your hotel were gorgeous. Tell us a little about the history and design ethos of the Rockhouse from when it opened in 1973.
Architecturally, it's tied to the original partners who designed the rooms. They were from Chicago and had their own architecture practice. They'd met when they both interned with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. They'd actually come up with the original sort of thatched roof and local natural timbers we use, in addition to a lot of local stone design for the rooms.
So when we bought it in 1994, we really loved that inspiration of connectedness between the land and the design. And we tried to keep thematically going with that. But we were also committed to the environment. So we got our first environmental certification back in 1997 with Earth Check.
That was really pioneering at that time.
Even back in the day, there was very much a sustainable ethos. There was no electricity in those days, so they used kerosene lamps. It was a getaway until the late seventies—very much off the grid with just a dirt road. Rockhouse was the first hotel on the cliffs that was a destination with quite a low carbon footprint. You had to bring in your food, or a local fisherman would catch your fish, and it had a very local vibe.
We carried on that spirit. Rockhouse's guiding principles revolve around responsibility, reinvestment, and regeneration and those core tenants have remained unchanged since we took over in 1994. We drafted this mission statement that revolved around responsible travel and created a paradigm around who we wanted to be responsible to. And we came up with these four corners of responsibility to the guests, our team, the environment, and the community.
One of my partners studied anthropology, and she was kind of very much into making sure that we were making the right choices. So we did a pretty deep dive into best practices on mission statements and what ideologically we wanted to achieve. And so a lot of thought went into the process, amongst myself and the partners, about the kind of place you want to be. And it took time for us to get traction behind that mission and make it something real. But, certainly, we were guided by those original principles.
Rockhouse seems to exist in harmony with the natural environment—and the community. Since it started almost 20 years ago, the Rockhouse Foundation has invested over $7 million in the community, modernizing six schools, among other initiatives. How did that start?
While we were always supporting local works, it wasn't until around 2001 that we sponsored a breakfast program at one of the local schools here. That sort of opened a portal to what was needed in education and upgrading the schools.
So we set up this foundation in 2003 and did the first project in 2004. We began to build community around these efforts with guests that have come to the Jamaican resort and our friends. And we were able to create a foundation that raised between a half a million and a million dollars a year to put into local education. So it slowly got real traction behind it.
As an ethical clothing brand, we’re impressed by your social responsibility. In terms of sustainability, how does a luxury resort coexist with environmentally responsible practices?
We analyzed where we used most of our power, then devised strategies to minimize that on a per guest, per room, or per se basis and attempted to rethink things. We have solar hot water, low lighting, and AC that turns off when you leave the room.
We have a lot of people working on an integrated supply chain for whatever areas we can. We have an organic farm on the property and are building a hydroponic greenhouse right now.
Every bedside table is made on the property in our wood workshop. We have candle making, where we recycle every candle ourselves, with glass made of recycled bottles. And we produce all our scrubs and treatments, facials, etc., with local products. All kitchen waste gets composted to reuse as ground cover throughout the property. So a lot goes on to create that sort of environmental commitment.
You recently fulfilled a goal of eliminating at least 90% of single use-plastics on site. When you think about the future, are there any new goals?
That has been successful. There's still that last 10%, but we've got all plastics out of the bars and mini-bars. We've eliminated all of the water bottles. We partnered with the local water company and we imported glass bottles that are now being recycled and refilled from a local spring here. At one point, we had about 40,000 bottles we disposed of in one year. Now we have zero. So it's quite a change when you think about the scale of just being a little hotel – what you do and stop doing when you think about these practices.
That's incredible. Since travel has one of the biggest environmental impacts on the planet, it seems like you're mitigating some of that with sustainable practices.
Ultimately, we'd like to find ways to be net positive or net zero to counteract the plane travel component. If you build in the community work we're doing, the positive impact that comes out of it balances things out. But there's always more to do and always ways to get better.