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Tucked away in paradise

As a college kid in the grip of American novels, I encountered two words that I had to look up and that have remained with me. I liked their sound and feeling: "sybaritic" from John O'Hara's A Rage to Live, and "insouciance" from F. Scott Fitzgerald, maybe in his The Great Gatsby.

An ancient Greek people dedicated to pleasure and luxury, the Sybarites vanished in the fourth century B.C. But they would not be disappointed if their gods resurrected them at the Ocean Club on this island to continue their insouciant _ carefree _ ways.

Whatever they used to say in Sybaris for living high on the hog, you could find it at the Ocean Club. For instance, at the Dune Restaurant, the robust, smiling Cecile Wilson toils as one of the superb chefs. Her version of what is a national morning dish is a specialty: chunks of boiled local grouper in a spicy broth with chopped potatoes, onions and cayenne pepper.

It is accompanied by fresh orange juice, grits and home-baked johnnycake.

If boiled fish is not your reveille cup of granola, there's always French toast with mango and passion fruit, smoked salmon with potato cake and chive sour cream, crispy semolina cakes and roasted pineapple, waffles with whipped cream and sauteed bananas. Loads of fruit and berries plus the standards. Anything.

What's more, the open-air section of the Dune Restaurant hangs above the almost deserted honey-toned beach, looking to the Caribbean. Lolling in its numerous blues, the sea will become predominantly turquoise by late morning and caressingly hospitable.

All quite relaxing, and almost unpretentious. In fact, this sun-and-ocean-splashed tract, once virtually empty, formerly was named Hog Island. It kept that name until 1962, when a wealthy New Yorker, Huntington Hartford II, heir to the A&P fortune, bought and rechristened it, setting up his own hideaway for a limited clientele.

Hartford had style. Imagine, he hired the magnetic world champ Pancho Gonzalez as his resident tennis pro during the early years.

On the property's heights, Hartford directed the reassembly, above the harbor, of a lovingly crafted Gothic cloister from a medieval French monastery. As the focal point of a rising garden of seven terraces, it is gorgeously lined in royal purple walls of bougainvillea.

Skilled masons needed a year to make sense of, and put together, the precious pile of stone that Hartford bought from a friend, the publisher William Randolph Hearst (a.k.a. Citizen Kane of filmdom).

Hartford also commissioned for this garden gigantic statues of his heroes: Dr. David Livingstone (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Embellishing FDR is his presidential quote: "A nationality no matter how small has the inherent right to nationhood." Certainly that pertains to the Bahamas' breakaway from Britain and colonial status.

Hartford is gone. Paradise Island is no longer the untrammeled speck that beguiled him. Bridges connect it to the principal isle, Nassau, a brief flight from Florida.

Other hotels have arisen. Still, the club remains secluded, tucked into a tropical forest brimming with bird choruses and bright floral colors of pink, red, fuchsia, purple and salmon, scented by gardenias.

Though Hartford's gem eventually tarnished, it has recently made a sparkling comeback under a new ownership, along with general manager Russell Miller. He is dedicated to the proposition that small (108 rooms) can stand tall in elegance, coddling and such unobtrusive good taste that it seems very normal. The understood credo: Whatever you wish can happen.

You would like a candlelit private dinner on the beach? Why not? Or a shaded alfresco massage on the bluff overlooking the sea? Of course.

I want to kidnap Martha Beneby, who introduced herself as my butler.

Butler? You mean somebody like Jeeves? Or Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day?

Having never dealt with butlers before, I asked what buttling entailed.

"Anything and everything," Martha replied. "Pack, unpack for you. Put your clothes away. Special needs or requests. Twenty-four hours a day we butlers, male and female, are on call. Just ring."

This is like Upstairs Downstairs with an ocean.

Or a decompression chamber with high tea, served in the library of the handsome, white, colonnaded main building to the tune of soothing classical music.

You just gaze at the sea, accept the scones, cakes, and whichever of myriad brands of tea you select from Carlease Johnson. Carlease? Chuckling, she anticipates "a question I've heard many times. My middle name is Ida, not Hertz, Avis or National."

Eating can be a problem. I mean, where to do it? Quality is the watchword throughout. The Dune handles three meals, and the local fish is terrific (I liked the snapper). Dinner with moon and stars as witnesses in the Courtyard comes with a combo playing softly.

Lunch can be had by the swimming pool and tennis courts.

Some people prefer chlorine to salt, so apparently there is a need for a swimming pool. The sequestered hammocks nearby make it a lazing alcove.

Some, such as Michael Jordan, feel the need for golf. He is reported to be a regular on the highly regarded oceanside course.

Let me swing instead in a hammock, recalling the crisp, welcoming clang of the large brass bell at the front door, signaling the arrival of a newcomer.

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