The Barefoot Mogul: Chris Blackwell
Credit: Photograph by Joao Canziani

One arrives at Goldeneye after passing through Oracabessa, once a hub of the local banana trade, now a sleepy town with a handful of shops, pleasingly remote compared with bustling tourist zones like Montego Bay and Negril. Behind an old metal gate, a dirt road wends through a miniature forest of banyan and mango trees, which does nothing to prepare visitors for the spectacular view of a hidden bay just past Fleming's original house. A footbridge leads down to a beachfront bar and a row of villas.

Though Blackwell has maintained residences all over the world, Jamaica remains the place where he's most at home. He loves living near the ocean and still swims and jet-skis regularly. And Jamaican culture is inexorably part of his own, no matter where he happens to be. A former Island Records employee told me about the heavy Rastafarian presence at the label's London studio in the Eighties, along with Jamaican cooks who made delicious communal meals for the entire company.

When Blackwell stays at Goldeneye, he lives in a modest two-room hut overlooking an impossibly clear lagoon. Technically, it's one room and a covered porch, all very open-air: Blackwell does not approve of air-conditioning – "Sweating is good for you," he says. "All this stuff is one of the reasons people are getting cancer. It's ridiculous" – and only grudgingly conceded to the demands of luxury tourism by installing units in the guest lodging. Framed, oversize Rolling Stone covers featuring Bob Marley and Bono hang on his walls; a small stack of books near his bed includes The Last Sultan, a biography of Ahmet Ertegun, and Brother Man, a 1954 novel by the Jamaican writer Roger Mais that's considered one of the first popular depictions of Rastafarianism. There are also, throughout the hut, framed photographs of his late wife, Mary Vinson, a fashion and interior designer Blackwell met in the early Eighties through their mutual friend Grace Jones. The couple didn't marry until 1998, finally doing so in part to celebrate the fact that Vinson's bone marrow cancer had gone into remission. The cancer eventually returned, however, and Vinson died in 2004.

While the hut is certainly understated, Blackwell, of course, also has all 52 acres of Goldeneye on which to roam freely, which he does, less like a traditional hotelier than a lord of the manor. The resort employees, who seem to appear out of nowhere bearing what food or drink he desires, no matter where on the property he ends up, feel like his personal servants. And Blackwell's fussy attention to detail, combined with his ever-present patrician air, keeps everyone on edge. While Blackwell displays an easy familiarity with the help that's certainly friendly, over the course of a few days I also watch as he tells one waiter the pepper grind is too fine, another that his rum punch doesn't taste the way rum punch is supposed to taste. A third, while clearing a table, accidentally moves a cup that Blackwell was using to prop up his iPad. The tablet falls over, and Blackwell glowers at the man and says, "You know, I had that cup there for a reason." The man nervously apologizes, and then Blackwell slowly smiles – he's just teasing!

Some mornings, Blackwell descends the stone steps leading from his hut to a private, lagoon-side bar, stocked with 15 different types of rum and only a handful of other liquors, for a breakfast of fresh fruit and scrambled eggs. Alternately, he'll dine with his guests at the rustic resort bar overlooking the beach, where the hip world music and EuroDisco soundtrack come courtesy of Radio Nova, a favorite station of Blackwell's. (If you seek out Radio Nova online, he warns, make sure it's the one based in France, not Ireland, because the latter is "terrible; they play Bon Jovi, things like that.")

After breakfast, Blackwell takes me on a tour of the grounds. Today he's wearing cargo shorts and an old T-shirt from U2's Achtung Baby tour. As we stroll along a path, two kids dash past us. They're chasing a rooster. When one of the kids, a skinny boy with glasses who looks like Harry Potter, ends up hopping onto the back of a golf cart and riding off, he calls out, "Goodbye, Father!" I wonder if I'm witnessing some sort of strange paternalistic ritual, whereby the children of Blackwell's employees refer to him deferentially as "Father," but soon I realize the boy is actually Blackwell's 12-year-old son, Chance. Later, another employee mentions that Chance and Blackwell's "baby mother" have just arrived from another part of the island. The latter, Blackwell's girlfriend, Joanna Saulter, used to work at the Marlin, one of Blackwell's Miami hotels, but she grew up in Negril in the 1970s with her hippie parents. The place was so undeveloped back then, Saulter recalls picking her dinner from the trees and walking the seven-mile stretch of the main beach without seeing another soul. Saulter's parents partnered with Blackwell in 1990 to open a luxury resort in Negril called the Caves.

It's a hot day, and as we tour a shadeless section of the property, Blackwell wraps an extra T-shirt around his head like a turban. Spotting a tree with a tumorous-looking black growth, he pauses, mid-conversation, to grab a stick and scrape at one of the ashy veins growing up the trunk. "Termites," he says, frowning. "Anyone have a match?" No one has a match. "You need to burn their nest to save the tree," he says. Later, he alerts one of the gardeners.

Along with the Caves, Blackwell owns Strawberry Hill, a resort located in an 18th-century coffee plantation in the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston, purchased by Blackwell in 1972. A few years later, Bob Marley convalesced there after armed assailants burst into his Hope Road compound in Kingston and shot him. (Blackwell, meanwhile, "hastily chartered a private jet and left the island," writes Timothy White.) Strawberry Hill became a restaurant in the mid-Eighties and eventually a hotel. When Yoko Ono stayed there, "she thought it was going to be like the Himalayas, but you could hear sound systems blasting all night," Blackwell recalls with a chuckle, adding that she checked out after a single night. Another property, Pantrepant, a 2,500-acre cattle ranch near Montego Bay, has become an organic farm Blackwell hopes could be a model of sustainability for the island as a whole. "If you match agriculture with tourism, you're going with Jamaica's biggest assets," he says. Gesturing out at an empty field and a rocky, isolated cove, he details his plans to build 25 more huts, eventually developing the coast and expanding the tiny Ian Fleming International Airport (built largely thanks to Blackwell's lobbying efforts) and integrating an expanded tourist trade with Oracabessa. "It's really a long shot, but I want to try and create a resort town," he says. "The problem with Jamaican tourism is that it completely cuts out Jamaicans. They're natural entrepreneurs. They'll create in the worst of the worst conditions. So you need to bring the community into the loop, and encourage visitors to not be cooped up in a hotel the entire time and instead go out to a little bar or restaurant or sound-system dance or grocery store. Just like people do when they go to France or anywhere else. Without that early model of 'Come to Jamaica; you'll be perfectly safe because we look after you,' there wouldn't have been any tourism, so I don't put that down. But I think there should be a mix."

And the gate at Goldeneye?

Blackwell narrows his eyes. "There's a gate, but it's a very rural gate. You could push down that gate with a bicycle. It's the original gate Fleming had."

The sight of a pair of snorkelers approaching his cove distracts him. "Let's see what they're doing," he mutters, gazing coldly at the couple as he makes his way along a sharp, rocky inlet in bare feet. When a man and a woman emerge from the water, though, he quickly brightens, shouting, "Ah, Marco! I was about to arrest you for trespassing!" It turns out to be Marco Fila, the Italian sneaker heir, who owns 50 acres on a nearby hilltop formerly owned by Blanche Blackwell.

Making our way back to the bar, we pass a rocky stretch of beach cut off from the rest of the property by a chain-link fence. Blackwell says he owns the beach but allows area fishermen to use it; the restaurant at Goldeneye buys fish from the locals when possible, and Blackwell sponsors an annual contest in which they decorate their canoes. A group of the fishermen, all black Jamaican men, stare at us warily. "What up, CB?" one of them finally calls out. He's the youngest of the men, skinny and shirtless, with a belly button protruding at least an inch and a half from his navel. Blackwell waves, and the man peppers him with questions in patois that's incomprehensible to me. Blackwell nods, understanding everything, and responds affirmatively in standard English. In general, Blackwell speaks softly, often pausing to clear his throat with very regal-sounding ahems.

After we walk away, he says that he encourages the men not to overfish the local waters but that they don't listen. "Fishermen are very difficult to deal with: They have their own boats, they're independent, and they'll just say 'Fuck you' if they don't want to do something," he says. His tone suggests a mixture of annoyance and respect. "Very similar to musicians, actually!"