How to Have a Perfect (and Perfectly Private) Family Vacation Like a Hollywood Star (Guest Column)
The founder of Discovery Land Company — George Clooney's partner and developer of ultraluxe membership-only retreats for Ben Affleck, Justin Bieber and more — shares his secrecy strategies.
Tom Brady golfing with Michael Jordan, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck powwowing post-divorce announcement, A-Rod romancing J.Lo: Hollywood has retreated to Mike Meldman's private-member Discovery Land hangouts, from Baker's Bay in the Bahamas to Silo Ridge and Yellowstone Club in the U.S., since he created the first of 23 in 1995. The hyper-exclusive real estate developments are unique for combining five-star resort amenities and adventures under a private-club model in spectacular natural settings. Owning a lot or home is required for membership for each destination, with some industry insiders owning up to half a dozen Discovery vacation homes. The newest opening, Playa Grande Golf & Ocean Club on Dominican Republic's remote north coast, epitomizes Meldman's model with 2,400 beachfront acres and the just-reopened Pebble Beach-level course designed by late iconic architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and renovated by his son Rees Jones (from $1.6 million to $35 million to buy a lot or home; $125,000 membership with $25,000 annual dues). For the first time, Meldman (one of George Clooney's Casamigos Tequila partners) shares his "secret sauce."
I didn't grow up a country-club kid. I never experienced that lifestyle in my very middle-class Milwaukee neighborhood. But Discovery Land Company started out in 1994 with golf. When my sons were 5 and 7, they fought with me about putting on a collared golf shirt, so when the pro said they had to, I said, "Why?" I wasn't trying to do anything revolutionary, I just wanted my kids to enjoy themselves. In business, I've made decisions organically in response to my lifestyle and my kids', and it's created a truly unique experience.
Golf clubs are intimidating, and you have to act a certain way — I love that, too, but no dress code makes golf more fun. At my place in the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic, for example, you can even golf shirtless. My attitude is, these are successful, smart people who know how to behave, and who am I to tell them what to wear and how to act? In hindsight, it's helped grow the game.
I also put coolers full of candy and Cokes on the tee boxes, because my kids were too young to golf, but they loved to run down the fairway. This evolved into Comfort Stations, filled with Casamigos tequila, chocolate-dipped meringues, guacamole, cheese and charcuterie, octopus salad and peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwiches.
If you're a high-profile person, a Type A personality, it takes a lot of effort to go on vacation. We've changed that. You show up at Playa Grande and everything is curated for you — you didn't have to plan anything. There's an Outdoor Pursuits menu of everything you can do, and we orchestrate it. Whether you're in the DR or Montana, you'll want to take advantage of the environmental and cultural options, from surfing to kiteboarding to skiing.
The whole idea stemmed from spending time with my kids. My third project was in Whitefish, Montana, and I wanted to turn my sons on to the mountains (they lived in San Francisco). I hired people who could teach not only me but everyone at the club how to be a mountain man. By the time they were 10, my kids could tie their own fly for fly fishing, go on backcountry pack trips to camp and eat fish they've caught for four or five days. This became ingrained in the culture of our places and resonated with members, because these people work hard, and probably their one regret in life is "I didn't spend enough time with my family." Kids want to be at these places, even as they get older. It gives families time to make all kinds of memories — that's a big part of the secret sauce.
It's family-first, but there is still tequila flowing. When I did El Dorado Beach & Golf Club in San Jose del Cabo, George Clooney and Rande Gerber came down a lot; we did George's birthday parties there. They bought a couple of houses, named the compound Casamigos. We were there drinking tequila, wanting to find one we all liked, when we came up with the concept. We didn't mean to sell it, but it took off overnight.
The private-club model has weeded out people. If you're a bad guy, you kind of know it, and you won't buy real estate or go through the membership process if you know you're not going to get approved. We have a very strong, friendly, educated membership, and a lot of them bring friends. It's great socialization for parents and kids — you meet like-minded people with diverse interests, making it even more dynamic.
We have captains of industry, athletes, actors, owners of sports teams. At all our places, they're able to actually relax and be themselves and enjoy the environment and their family. No one needs anything from them, because everyone has a lot. No one is hitting you up for an interview or job or picture, because everyone is at the top of their industry.
Many hotels and restaurants value the publicity of selling a picture of someone recognizable. We're the opposite — and we have good security to make everyone comfortable. At The Summit in Las Vegas, we have almost our own police force. Employees and even members are very careful about social media.
When I saw Playa Grande, I thought it's like Kauai on steroids, as close to off the grid as you can be for having so many amenities, combining luxury and privacy. If you have an adventurous side, there's more to do here than anywhere else, and we spent 19 months modernizing the spectacular golf course with bunkers to take advantage of the ocean.
A big part of what we offer is a farm-to-table experience (members can pick their own mangos and guavas), and Playa Grande has it all naturally. We don't have to fabricate it. It's organic.
3 Very Private Destinations for Disappearing
Perched on Costa Rica's Peninsula Papagayo, this 30,000-square-foot estate is surrounded by rainforests and the Pacific and inaccessible to all but guests. Kim Kardashian selected it for her first vacation after she was robbed in Paris in 2016. The property features a movie theater, two pools, private beach, full-service spa, gym and yoga platform. The concierge can also arrange fireworks shows, live bands and helicopter charters from the Liberia Airport 40 minutes away by car. Beyond Villa Manzu’s fortified gates lies a beach club, an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course and a Four Seasons. $16,500/night, for up to 14 guests (additional guests up to 22 are $500/person/night), villamanzu.com
Since it opened five years ago, Oscar-winning producers and directors, actors, fashion icons, real estate titans and tech entrepreneur-philanthropists have rented the fully staffed, seven-bedroom Bocas del Toro overwater villa — constructed from Panamanian teak grown on a neighboring island — yet not a single name has ever leaked. The owner also must personally approve rental requests. Boat access is for renters only; separate accommodations exist for security teams, but they've been known to be sent home early as unnecessary. Guests can set their own dress code, as posh or low-key — or clothing-optional — as they wish. $80,500/week for up to 12, sweetbocaspanama.com
In the Bahamas' Exumas Chain, David Copperfield's secluded 11 islands feature a private airstrip as staff watch for arriving boats in all directions. Large craft can't physically approach the 700-plus acres and 40 sugary beaches, including a mile-long runway of pink sand. Available only to rent on a buyout basis. Five sprawling guesthouses with tucked-away daybeds and concealed picnic areas accommodate up to 12 people, $39,000/night (additional guests are $1,500/person/night), mushacay.com
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.