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Breaking out of the Beltway

Mount Vernon Couple sells house to buy Caribbean Hotel.

The Coolidges were, said Cal Coolidge, a “typically involved Washington family.” Cal and his wife Joan lived in Mount Vernon for 14 years. They sent their two girls through West Potomac High School. Cal Coolidge had had a successful career pitching advanced electronic systems to officials at the highest levels of the Defense Department and Congress. Joan was a library assistant at West Potomac. Their life was comfortable. For Cal this meant driving down the George Washington Parkway to play golf with his buddies at the Mount Vernon Country Club. Joan loved her students and coworkers at West Potomac, her neighbors in Westgrove. They both enjoyed eating out in Old Town and taking trips to the Homestead in the Shenandoah Mountains or to the Caribbean.

The metro area had given the Coolidges their home, their recreation, their livelihood. Life could be stressful, of course. And the only thing that seemed to keep pace with the congestion on the beltway was the saturating creep of news and politics into each nook of day-to-day life. What are you going to do, sell your house and buy a hotel in the Caribbean?

Why not?

Since their second daughter graduated from college, the Coolidges had been wondering whether they had to settle in the current trajectory of their lives. “We had reached the point where we could make the decision to do something different,” explained Cal Coolidge. They considered building a home in Savannah, Ga. But that plan changed abruptly late last year.

“I walked downstairs one night,” said Joan Coolidge, “and I said we should just buy a B&B and move to the Caribbean. And [Cal] shot out of his chair and started looking on the internet.”

AFTER SEVERAL MONTHS of searching, the Coolidges found the perfect destination: a community with roots dating back to the early 1700s, where a grid of cobblestone streets overflowing with historic buildings, good restaurants and diverse nightlife runs down to a refurbished waterfront.

The Coolidges appreciate the resemblance of Christiansted, on the 27 mile-long island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to Alexandria. But they believe being ringed by a warm ocean has an effect on people’s approach to life that is the opposite of being ringed by 495. “I think you can have the quality of life that you can have in Alexandria without the stress and the intensity of Washington,” Cal Coolidge explained. “I’m looking forward to meeting people that have a relaxing lifestyle, that know how good they have it.”

The Coolidges had never been to St. Croix before, and their first visit in February impressed them. Although they treated the trip like a vacation, they did plenty of fact finding. “We even went into grocery stores to see what we could get,” said Joan Coolidge. She added that they liked the people on the island, both the natives and the many American expatriates. And they loved the hotel.

“[The hotel was] the right size, the right price,” said Coolidge. “We were looking for a property that would be manageable to run … The real beauty of it is it’s within easy walking distance of fifty really good restaurants.”

The Coolidges’ daughter Melinda, a law student at Georgetown University, recalled the February day her parents called her from St. Croix.

“Would you be really mad at us if we bought a hotel?” they asked her.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “No.” They signed the paperwork February 10.

THE PINK FANCY was built in 1780 and converted into a hotel in 1948. The Coolidges will be the third consecutive owners with roots in the D.C. area, said Cal. A Maryland state legislator bought and renovated the hotel in 1980. He sold it in 1999 to two men from Logan Circle. They were so successful with the Pink Fancy that they bought a larger hotel in Austria.

Although the pastel walls and excellent location drew the Coolidges to the Pink Fancy, they based their final decision on the hard numbers that had to undergird the idyllic lifestyle they dreamed of. “This is part of our retirement planning really,” explained Cal Coolidge, “a way for us to shift the significant equity that we built up in the Mount Vernon area to an income-producing property that can be fun while we do it … I’m confident that we bought a property that, while it won’t make us rich, will keep us from getting unrich.”

The Coolidges flew to St. Croix on June 22. They will spend one month living with the current owners to learn the hotel’s management. For the next five years, at least, they expect to do much of the work at the hotel themselves. They hope to eventually reach a point when they can step back from day-to-day operations.

But even when they are working overtime to keep their guests happy, the Coolidges say they will strive to remember their reasons for moving. “We’re going to do our darndest to set aside time,” said Cal Coolidge. “We don’t want to get down there and let the hotel dominate us. [We’re] trying to keep perspective on enjoying our own life.”

“There’s plenty of things we’re going to miss,” Coolidge added. “[But] I’ve got a list of things I’m going to miss and a list of things I’m not going to miss and my list of things I’m not going to miss is longer.”

MELINDA COOLIDGE expressed little ambivalence about her parents’ decision. “I’m really looking forward to vacationing in the Caribbean,” she said. She acknowledged that it is “sad they are leaving the area, but you just can’t get any better than this.”

Coolidge said that the move was in keeping with the family’s culture. “We like to vacation,” she said. “It’s sort of a priority. We don’t do other things so that we can vacation.”

Still, she admires the boldness of her parents’ plan. Coolidge said that for a person in her twenties, moving to the Caribbean may not be a difficult decision. “They just asked the young person’s question and went ahead and did it,” Coolidge said admiringly.

BUT CAL COOLIDGE said the risks of staying may have been greater than the risks of leaving. He said he and his wife view the move as “a chance to regroup in life.”

They are eager to meet laid-back expatriates and vacationers from all over the world, some of whom will be their guests. “We’re looking forward to meeting them and helping them have a good time on the island,” said Coolidge.

“The Caribbean,” said Joan when asked what she looked forward to, “I love the weather. I love the people. I love the warm water very much.”

“We felt like we lived the corporate life. We lived the Washington life. And now it’s a chance to live a different life,” said Cal Coolidge. “It was nice we had the resources to do it, and we just think it’s probably the kind of thing a lot of people dream about doing and perhaps, for one reason or another, don’t take the plunge.”