The History of Mount Irvine Bay Resort
The Mount Irvine Bay Resort on the island of Tobago is one of the most iconic properties in the Caribbean, known for its award-winning golf course and four-star hotel. The resort is a modern traveller’s paradise with a fascinating past.
During construction of the hotel in 1971, evidence of an Amerindian settlement was unearthed in the form of human remains, crockery, and tools. This discovery prompted the hotel developers to commission an archaeological survey of the property and establish the Mount Irvine Museum Trust. Artefacts collected from the building site and beach are now housed in the Tobago Museum, which used to be located on the hotel property.
European settlers from many nations – Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Sweden, Latvia, Great Britain – arrived in the Courland Bay (Mount Irvine) area from 1600 onwards. In 1763, Scotsman Charles Irvine bought 400 acres of Courland Bay land for $5 an acre and christened his new property Mt Irvine. Today the Mount Irvine Bay Resort sits on 154 acres of Charles Irvine’s original property.
Charles Irvine was a member of King George III’s House of Assembly in Tobago. His brother Walter was also a Tobago landowner. Charles built the Mt Irvine estate into a prosperous sugar cane plantation with over 100 slaves, making it one of the major sugar producers on the island. The remains of the sugar factory complex form part of the building that today houses the resort’s spa. The resort’s beach facility is built off the foundations of the storage depot where sugar was warehoused, awaiting transport to England by ship.
Around 1774, Charles Irvine sold Mt Irvine to a Cornishman, Daniel Matthew. Daniel was the brother of Edward Matthew, Governor General of the Leeward Islands. Daniel renamed the estate Mt Matthew. Daniel Matthew’s ownership of Mt Matthew was short-lived; he died in 1777 and his son George sold the estate to Walter Irvine. The name of the plantation reverted to Mt Irvine.
By this time sugar was Tobago’s prime crop, with peak exports in 1799. The high profits generated in the 1790s coined the phrase “rich as a Tobago Planter” in London. A small windmill on the golf course, possibly part of an early irrigation system, is a reminder of cane stalks waving gently under the hot Caribbean sun.
When Walter Irvine died in 1824, ownership of Mt Irvine passed to his son-in-law, Lord William Robert Keith Douglas. Lord Douglas, a British politician and landowner, was the son of the 4th Baronet of Kelhead, and the younger brother of the 6th and 7th Marquises of Queensbury. Mt Irvine was willed to him as part of the dowry upon his marriage to Walter’s daughter Elizabeth.
Lord Douglas built the sugar mill around which the hotel’s main restaurant is located today. It was at the time the largest sugar mill on the island. Other remnants of a sugar plantation heritage can be seen throughout the resort grounds in the form of sugar boilers, hoppers, cannons, aqueducts, water tanks, and ancient walls.
The mid to late nineteenth century was a transition period for Mt Irvine. Sugar fortunes began to sour due to a number of factors – the abolition of slavery and subsequent labour shortage; a devastating hurricane in 1847 that badly affected Tobago’s sugar crop; the collapse of the West Indian Bank, and the drop in sugar prices due to competition from European sugar beets. By 1900 the Mt Irvine estate was in the hands of Lord Douglas’s son Walter, who styled himself Walter Douglas Irvine, and the decision was made to convert to a coconut plantation.
Mt Irvine thrived as a coconut plantation until 1963 when Tobago was hit by another deadly hurricane that decimated the island’s coconut crop. Irishman Patrick Boyle Lake Coghlan, who owned the estate at that time, had the vision to convert his plantation to a hotel and golf course surrounded by residential lots for luxury homes. Thus the Mt Irvine Golf Course came to be in 1969 and the Mt Irvine Hotel opened its doors three years after.
Pat Coghlan co-owned Mt Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Club with Kulim Berhad, a Malaysian state company. Pat Coughlan sold his interest in the property to Kulim Berhad in 1979 and the hotel became wholly Malaysian owned. By 1985 the former Mt Irvine estate was once again up for sale and for the first time, the purchaser was a son of the soil, the self-made businessman Dr Robert T Yorke.
Dr Yorke grew up in Patience Hill, just over 2 miles from Mt Irvine. As a boy he had been fascinated by the coconut plantation and as a man, he desired the property. The irony of a descendant of slaves owning a property developed by slavery was not lost on him. Dr Yorke died in 2015 but ownership of the property remains within the Yorke family.
In 2015 Mt Irvine Bay Hotel & Golf Club was rebranded Mount Irvine Bay Resort. The elegant statue of a belé dancer surrounded by cane stalks that greets patrons upon entrance to the hotel pays homage to the land’s sugar plantation history. From Amerindian settlement to tourist haven, the magical lure of the land has drawn people to this property for hundreds of years – a historic legacy worth preserving.