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Tales from Tortola … Smugglers Cove

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?


  1. John John
    January 5, 2011    

    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. January 5, 2011    

    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 Sharon
    January 6, 2011    

    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. January 7, 2011    

    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 Sharon
    January 8, 2011    

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

  6. January 8, 2011    

    No problem. I’ll email to you tonight.

  7. January 14, 2011    

    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. January 14, 2011    

    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 Donnie
    February 17, 2011    

    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. February 17, 2011    

    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 Rebecca Raney
    September 28, 2011    

    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. October 23, 2011    

    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.

  13. Leah Lepage Leah Lepage
    October 24, 2016    

    just happened upon this site, as we were looking up the name of Bob’s wife, Nell – a very interesting portrait of a time & place we’ll probably never know again – one bit of an error, the version of Old Man & the Sea filmed on Tortola was no earlier than 1989, not 1969, as we’d been coming down since 1985 & noticed the changes made to create the ‘set’ – a hurricane, it may have been Hugo if the filming was in 1989, wrecked up part of that set, but for a long time Bob had a huge rubber shark hanging inside the building, one of the props from the film – we twice tried to stay there, but each time there was some issue, so we’d had to stay at Long Bay Hotel – quite a contrast from Smuggler’s.

    • October 26, 2016    

      Thanks for the correction Leah! I may have mixed up the earlier release of that film (not shot in Tortola). Not sure but you are correct. I believe that version with Anthony Quinn was 1990. Have you been back since the film was made? We haven’t been since I posted those blogs many moons ago it seems.

      • Leah Lepage Leah Lepage
        October 27, 2016    

        oh yes, we’re fortunate to have a home there, so we get down there pretty much every winter for 2-4 weeks – a lot has changed, believe me!

  14. Eileen Rutledge Eileen Rutledge
    March 27, 2017    

    We were there 19 years ago. I have some great pictures and memories of the Honor Bar, with the brown fridge in the back and of course the Queen’s Lincoln. We are headed there in a week, it will be a sorry site to see. I hate to see cruise ships coming to Tortola although the economy needs it.

    • March 27, 2017    

      I agree about the Cruise ships Eileen … some places you don’t want to be near when the ships are in town (always good to call places to see when traffic from ships is expected, and you can work around that by going “wherever” at different times. The last time we were in Tortola (5 years ago) the powers-that-be had put a stop to vendors being on the beach at Smuggler’s Cove so it should be nice and quiet (and clean) again. The Honor Bar is no longer (pretty well destroyed when we were last there) and I think they were planning to put washrooms in the back of the structure/shell that was there but it was not complete by the time we left. It’s still a sweet, sweet island. Enjoy your return!

  15. Steve Tait Steve Tait
    May 6, 2017    

    My Dad ran the beach bar in the 1960’s for Bob and Nell. My sister and I grew up on the beach and I had my own lemonade stand in the beach bar. Dad showed movies on a big outdoor screen on the weekends. Smugglers Cove was very popular with expats in the late 60’s.

    • May 8, 2017    

      Great to see you pop into view Steve! You must have had some very special experiences there! The first time I visited Tortola (early 80s?) the stuffed shark was still hanging on the edge of the veranda and Bob and Nell’s white car was parked inside. I met Nell once. She wasn’t well at the time but still came down to see people and chat. Do you get back to visit? So much had changed. I think the entire structure had been removed and replaced with washrooms. At least that’s what they were building there the last time we visited (5 years ago).

      • October 28, 2019    

        I haven’t been back since 2000. I’m sure the beach is still beautiful but the original buildings must be long gone. It must be the only beautiful beach in the world that had a hotel and now has been given back to nature to take care of it. There is an old distillery ruin about 100 yards inland past the old beach bar. I’m glad the government has kept the beach free of vendors. When we lived there the convertible must have been kept somewhere else. I never saw it until that visit in 2000. I lived there from 1966 to 1970. Wish I still lived there!

        • October 29, 2019    

          I haven’t been back since 2011 … I know that the hurricane wipe the island out and they are still trying to recover. If you are interested in going back, my niece, Kate Mallin, has a home overlooking Smuggler’s Cove and the roof is now back on and she does rentals. I can provide you with her contact info. if you wish!

  16. John Russell John Russell
    November 10, 2019    

    I need to set the record straight on the history of smugglers cove. My parents, Fred and Dale Clerk, became business partners with the Romney family around 1962 and part of the partnership gave our family 11 acres on belmont bay, which is smugglers cove. I was 14 years old when we started cutting in the road from Sopers Hole to Smugglers Cove. What a great adventure that was. Learning to operate a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer and blast thru bluebitch granite to get there.Took over a year to complete and the pavillion at smugglers was open for business in 1965-6. To say life was great then has got to be the most profound understatement ever. The happiest days of my life were spent there with parents and brothers Bink and Jibby, ie William and Fred the third. Bringing lunch and dinner off the reef every day was awesome. I was called to serve my country during Vietnam and joined the Navy in June 1967. By the grace of God and some hard work on my part I was stationed at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Third week there took an air hop to St. Thomas, Tortola Sunshine, piloted by captain Fishy Soars to west end then walk my road to smugglers. Arriving around dusk I found it empty. Mr Bruely from Apple Bay was walking through and When asked where my family was he pointed to the Hassler house on the hillside. When I arrived I found everybody all packed and ready to go to England where they were to study Scientology in order to get the family matriarch out of her wheelchair. So that was that as they say. My returning to Tortola to spend the rest of my life at smugglers wasn’t to be. That being said we all met back there in 1970, started a real estate / ice business, and for the next few years I ran the ic factory, surfed ( poorly ), and generally enjoyed life.
    I am John Clerk Russell, the Tortola Iceman.

    • November 11, 2019    

      Thanks so much for popping into view John! Appreciate this information. Will pass on to my niece who is moving there to her dad’s former home up on the hill overlooking Smuggler’s Cove.

      • John Russell John Russell
        March 9, 2020    

        Can I ask the family name of your nieces parents

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