Smugglers Cove where Old Man and the Sea was filmed

Ernest Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, first filmed in 1958 staring Spencer Tracey, was filmed again in 1969 staring Anthony Quinn as Santonio. The second time around, most of the film was shot here in Tortola—in Smugglers Cove—right below where we are staying.

I remember visiting here in the mid 90’s and meeting Nell Deniston. She and her husband, Bob, owned the beach property where the film was shot. At the time, part of the set was still standing. It was one large open shell on a cement slab and had a makeshift “honor bar” on the side. There was a fridge in back room where you simply helped yourself and left money in a cigar box on the counter. A huge stuffed shark (prop) still hung in one corner and a couple of dilapidated tables and chairs were strewn about.

Now picture this: in the centre of this space was a long, white

The white convertible used to be proudly displayed here in the centre of the floor.

Lincoln Continental convertible—the one in which Queen Elizabeth II toured Tortola in 1967 when visiting here to dedicate the newly constructed bridge connecting Tortola with Beef Island and the airport. The car happened to be Bob and Nell’s, which they had painted especially for the Queen’s visit. There’s a great back story about the visit and a photo of the car.

But what I remember most is meeting Nell. I always thought of her as a shipwreck in human form; keeper of the lagoon and lost dreams. I guessed her to be 80 but a local who dropped by for a swim and a beer said she had yet to flirt with 60. Her eyes were rheumy, the left one in a permanent droop; her salt and peppered hair was matted, strewn and straggly. Yet she had a quiet, regal presence. I felt she was knowing and kind.

Nigel rents kayaks at Smugglers (and you get them for free if you buy food or drinks from him.)

When there was a squall, the bar filled with beach people looking for shelter; chatter sometimes turned back to the days of making the movie. I imagined studs and starlets, salty love and hurricane-dashed hopes.

Today, the shell remains but it’s a sorry sight. The white convertible is to the side in the bushes, a heap of rusted metal overcome by litter and tropical plants. Most people don’t know the remnants of the old set even exist as you can no longer see it from the beach. But I can’t help but think of Nell every time I visit Smugglers. When I last saw her years ago, someone happened to mention Anthony Quinn and a tear slipped slowly from her right eye. Nell died in 2000. I wish I had spent more time with her.

Have you ever met someone in passing and, later, wished you’d taken the opportunity to get to know them better?

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12 Responses to Tales from Tortola … Smugglers Cove

  1. John says:

    I suppose the first version of The Old Man and the Sea would have been filmed in Hemmingway’s original setting of Cuba, an impossible feat, especiallly for Americans by 1969.

    I, too, have met several expat white folks who have spent a long time soaking up the sun and the salt. For some, it seems to dry them out; others it tends to moisturize and preserve so that they appear younger than their chronological ages. I am happy to be one of the latter, so they tell me. Of course, I wasn’t spending all my time on the beach.

    Interesting story about the fate of the Queen’s Lincoln.

    And how many are those people that pass through our lives with whom we have been able to spend a few minutes or hours, if lucky, and wish we had days, months, years to be with them, laugh with them and learn from them? The only consolation is to hope that in the next life, all time and place constraints will be abrogated.

  2. Sandra says:

    Not sure where the filming took place but I suspect you are correct … Cuba. I’ll check that out.

    And, yes, let’s hope that in the next world John that time and place constraints are non-existent.

  3. Sharon says:

    Again.. loved your tales. :) I can’t believe how much the pics look like Antigua.. I guess it’s not that far away, so makes sense. I’d love to paint the first pic… I have just the right colour of Viridian green. :)

  4. Sandra says:

    Thanks Sharon. By the way, if you are interested in painting any of the photos I post here or to FB, let me know and I can send you larger files to print.

  5. Sharon says:

    I would love to do the beach pic as well as the kayak…. both great shots! :)

  6. Sandra says:

    No problem. I’ll email to you tonight.

  7. Deborah Carr says:

    As usual, Sandra, elegant writing and a vivid tale to share. You are so skilled at finding the heart of a story. There have been so many times in my writing career, when I wished I had more time to sit and really get to know the subjects I was interviewing. I simply love people and their stories…thanks for sharing Nell with us.

  8. Sandra says:

    Debra, I’m flattered. Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. Right now I’m reading your book, “Sanctuary,” and am captivated by Mary. You certainly got to know her very well. I’m totally taken by the depth and scope of your writing about her. I can only imagine the hours and hours and hours it took to research and interview. Look forward to having you as a guest on my blog!

  9. Donnie says:

    Wow, you brought back memories. I too spent a day at Bob and Nell’s bar back in 1996. After snorkeling at the cove, wandered up to what appeared to be an abandoned building. I ran into a couple of other folks who told me I could grab a beer in the back. I grabbed a beer and put my money in the cigar box. A bit later Nell came down and started talking with us. You describe her to a tee, except for one detail; she had a big diamond ring on that had string wrapped around the underside to make it fit her finger. Bob came down later and as he walked up he said, “I suppose you are all wondering why I have called this meeting?” We spent the whole afternoon and early evening with both Bob and Nell telling us endless stories about the island and their lives. The car, the barracuda they saw everyday and named, and then inadvertently caught and ate, (as Bob said, “We were sad that we had caught Barry, but at least he was delicious.”) the fact that the name Smuggler’s Cove was made up to sound catchy, and on and on. They had moved to Tortola in the 60′s with their kids from the mid west U.S. The early years were pretty primitive according to Bob. In any event, Sandra, you have captured both the bar and all of the other details perfectly. Thank you for bringing back a great memory.

  10. Donnie, I loved reading your comments and about your own experience. Nice details that add to my story! Great post. Husband Barrie was going through some old files in Mike’s office and found an aerial photo taken in the early 60′s in support of a prospectus designed to get investors here. There was only ONE home in over 200 acres of what is known now as Belmont Estates (directly above and around Smuggler’s Cove and Bob’s “hotel.” Sure is different today! You should come back for a visit. It still has lots of charm.

  11. Rebecca Raney says:

    I remember Bob Dennison and the Continental from my visit at the end of January 1998.I was not fortunate enough to talk with Nell. But the casual cigar box and the relaxing view live on in my heart . I returned last February(2011) and was sadden to see that the self service bar was gone along with the pristine environment . Now there are great BBQ meals and drinks served seaside but for some reason there are not enough trash cans to keep the place as lovely as it once was. I did get a kick out of a bird immediately helped itself to my rice and beans when I put my plate down to make a comfortable seat . I love Tortola . Thank you for posting your experience and thoughts.

  12. Great to have you pop into view Rebecca! Tortola is pretty special, as is Smugglers Cove. We are returning this year and I’m so looking forward to being on this gentle island with everything she has to offer. Hope you can return soon too.

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