Recalling its decadent heyday and falling for its latest lonely but lovable incarnation, Andrew Spires explains the lure of Sea Ranch.
If the films Total Recall and Blade Runner had a baby, it would be called Sea Ranch. What was designed as a HK$40 million utopian pocket of seclusion, with 200 five-star apartments, now sits as an inaccessible, virtually deserted anomaly. Originally marketed, at the very end of the ‘70s, as a swish retreat for senior executives, Sea Ranch is now inhabited by a quiet bunch of retirees and reclusive/ artistic types – and people who get to work from home.
Situated on Lantau’s southern-most tip, the initial resort concept failed quite dramatically but, like a phoenix, it’s beginning to see a resurgence, albeit with a different clientele.
“It’s cheap, spacious and on the sea. What’s not to like?”says Josef Raasch, a resident from 2013 to 2015. Josef describes spending time on the helipad above the resort, enjoying the tranquillity while watching the sun set. “It’s such a magical place; sitting there with a drink or some food you brought up is incredibly relaxing. We had awesome picnics up there.”
The only access to the complex is on the residents’ private ferry from Cheung Chau, or by a hefty hour-long hike from Pui O, which is what Josef Raasch and I decided to do. Cresting the Tai Long Plateau, the view is remarkable and Sea Ranch’s gleaming towers only add to that. The real sense of seclusion and isolation is what must have brought the party people to buy here back in the day. It was a kind of Eyes Wide Shut, secret handshake of a development that only those in the know, knew.
A jutting path and 502 steps later and I am propelled out onto a pristine beach, with only two sets of footprints – one of which is clearly a paw – disturbing the spotless sand.
Stretching into the distance, the legendary Sea Ranch complex shines surprisingly white. The first glimpse of any corrosion or neglect comes at the main staircase up to the resort, which has long been washed away by the sea. The rest of the development looks in remarkably good order, with evidence of recent paint splatter on the many staircases. The few remaining residents clearly care about their communal spaces as they are neat and well cared for; flowering plants festoon the walkways.
Trouble in paradise
Josef estimates that only 40 people now live at Sea Ranch. What’s more, homemakers have been fleeing the resort from as early as a year after its 1979 completion. By 1983, the original developer Hutchison Whampoa had accrued debts of around HK$7 million on the project, and sold the holding company Holiday Resorts to apartment owners for HK$1. There was further disruption in 1996, when a group of residents parted ways with Holiday Resorts and formed a new committee named Incorporated Owners, which now holds majority control.
The closure of all of the original lures, including the clubhouse, swimming pool, a buzzing cocktail lounge replete with full-size snooker table, saunas and a children’s nursery, was inevitable. The man-made beach is still there, but everything else has been covered with tarpaulins or chained up.
Over the years, Sea Ranch has been picked at and poked over, with looters reportedly scavenging 30-year-old bottles of claret and luxury cigars, although what condition the smokes were in after all that time is questionable. Residents – check out the interview with the resort’s founding chairman Pamela D. Barton in Piotr Zembrowski’s elegiac 2014 documentary The Sea Ranch – have been dismayed at finding pieces of their chinaware dotted around the bars and restaurants of Cheung Chau. This could explain the zealous security I encountered on my visit.
“Please exit the same way you came in,” I was told almost as soon as I stepped onto the beach. I’ve heard stories of people being told to get straight back on the boat they came in on. Prospective residents will find it reassuring that a tight watch is now held over the community.
Living so far off the beaten track, security isn’t the only issue. If you’re out of milk at Sea Ranch, you’re better off exploiting one of the local buffalo as the closest shop is a ferry ride away. The closest anything is a ferry ride away. But accessibility isn’t a plus for everyone – even everyone in Hong Kong.
When living at Sea Ranch, Josef worked from home as a software developer, so he wasn’t fazed by the distance to the city; he in fact embraced the boat ride off the development. “I loved the commute to Cheung Chau,” he recalls. “Just sitting on the front of the old shuttle boat, and seeing the Macau ferries flying by. That 20-minute commute was always relaxing.”
That said, Josef admits to a downside. “You have to plan your groceries, limit yourself to certain products since you can’t get them all at Cheung Chau,” he says. “And you have to find a handyman on Cheung Chau and they are usually busy, or don’t want to come all the way to The Ranch.”
So what drives people to live at this level of seclusion in a city as densely populated and accessible as Hong Kong?
It could simply be the cost. A 1,240-square-foot, two-bedroom Sea Ranch apartment, with a large balcony and beautiful sea view, comes in at around HK$4.9 million. Compare this to a similar space in Tung Chung selling at HK$12.9 million, or in Discovery Bay at a whopping HK$20 million and you can see the appeal.
If you can overlook Sea Ranch’s isolation, Kim Jomar of Lantau realtor HomeSolutions has a 814-square-foot apartment on her books for a relatively affordable HK$3.1 million. “Sea Ranch would be perfect for a weekend retreat,” she says. “If the management company reopened the clubhouse and swimming pool and renovated all the units I think it could be a goldmine. The kind of people who would live on Sea Ranch are those who are looking for a quiet paradise away from the crowds and those who don’t mind travelling.” No doubt.
I was expecting an overgrown crumbling pile, occupied by ageing hippies who aren’t ready for the party to end. What I found was a tidy, beautifully designed complex with so much potential. As long as I didn’t have to walk up 502 steps every day to get to work, I would consider living at Sea Ranch. The peace, proximity to the sea and sheer value for money are fantastic. All it really needs is a Marks & Spencer Food Store and I’d move there tomorrow.