At first glance, landing a resort destination project seems like a dream come true. The sites are invariably spectacular, and potential buyers are eager to tack on plenty of lucrative options. The build is usually a creative challenge, because those same buyers (retirees and people looking for a vacation home) often want homes that look like they fell from the pages of an architectural magazine.

These projects also tend to be more complex and costly than a conventional community. The sites may be beautiful, but they're often located in pristine settings where environmental regulations and habitat issues can give a developer nightmares. The need to provide amenities, build high-end homes, and meet the expectations of a demanding customer base requires a team of architects, planners, marketers, and habitat specialists, all of whom have to work together seamlessly, like a well-oiled machine. Getting the job done means sweating a variety of small details while never losing sight of the project's vision.

Still interested? We asked some experienced pros to share their approach to one of the toughest projects in the industry. Here are nine keys to building a great residential resort community.

1. STARTWITH A GREAT LOCATION The most crucial ingredient needed for a unique resort destination is obvious: a great site. The best sites have a natural beauty that lends itself to innovative design. “We look for places known for incredible beauty that are relatively easy to get to,” says Mark Harmon, CEO of Auberge Resorts in Mill Valley, Calif., which owns resorts in California, South Carolina, and Baja, Mexico. He says that good locations aren't just in undeveloped areas. They include established destinations such as Napa Valley, Calif.; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and Aspen, Colo. “Having a spectacular site [no matter where it is] allows us to create something memorable by taking our cues from the land.”

ENDLESS SUMMER: Many resorts are built around the theme of water recreation. One is River Dunes in Oriental, N.C., which the developer says is considered the state's sailing capital. Not only do many homes overlook the water, but the community includes a large marina.
ENDLESS SUMMER: Many resorts are built around the theme of water recreation. One is River Dunes in Oriental, N.C., which the developer says is considered the state's sailing capital. Not only do many homes overlook the water, but the community includes a large marina.

With the exception of ski resorts, the common thread that runs through most of the best sites is access to water. “Water is what drives these communities,” says Larry Zucchino, a development planner with J. Davis Architects in Raleigh, N.C. “The community needs access or potential access to water, be it a river, lake, or oceanfront.” Zucchino has two resort projects under construction: Skysail luxury condominiums and marina in New Bern, N.C., and River Dunes in Oriental, N.C., which he describes as the state's sailing capital, and which also includes a large marina.

“People buy into these communities because they want to feel like they're on vacation all the time,” explains River Dunes president Ed Mitchell. “You need to put elements in place to help produce that feeling.”

Sometimes, what makes a site great is the way it lends itself to an activity. That's the case with the Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which includes approximately 300 homes (prices begin at $1.6 million) located on 650 acres and a high-end, ultimate golf experience. “In our case, the address on PGA Boulevard differentiates the site,” says Mike Curtin, senior vice president of marketing and sales for WCI Realty in Naples, Fla., the developer of the site. “We made the acquisition back in the late '90s and earmarked it for a higher-end golf community, because it's uniquely located in one of the prime golf locations in the country.” While golf is the major attraction, the community is also 15 minutes from the water and near “the great shopping, restaurants, and theaters of West Palm,” says Curtin.

Even the best site won't work if it's too hard to get to. Many buyers come from densely populated areas where their children still live and work, so airport access is important when the kids and grandkids come to visit. Zucchino says the ideal scenario is to have a major or at least a mid-sized city within an hour's drive.

2. DESIGN TO NATURE Finding a great site is just the first step in the process. The design and layout of the community has to complement the site's natural attributes. Says Harmon: “The quality of design has to be well thought out, and it has to have a scale that works well in a particular environment. You want something that delivers a service at a very high level, graciously and unobtrusively.”

Auberge's goal at its Esperanza resort in Baja was to give everyone the sense of being right on the water, according to Harmon. The community, which includes residences and a hotel, has an open-air restaurant and dramatic architecture that makes use of the site's natural outcroppings. Even the swimming pools are surrounded by indigenous tropical plants. “We just spent a lot of time creating an environment that drew from the strength of the land,” Harmon says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greensboro, NC.