My travel story about St. Lucia that ran on the cover of Virginia Living’s April 2013 issue (woot!) was finally published online so I thought I’d share it here with our photos from the trip. (Also check out my Tips for Traveling to St. Lucia post, video tour of a Sugar Beach Villa and the dramatic shuttle ride to the beach.)
Welcome to Sugar Beach. I’m Curtley, and I’ll be your butler during your stay,” said the affable young man standing before us with two fruity drinks on a tray strewn with flowers. It all seemed like a dream after 12 hours of travel from Richmond that landed us at the bottom of a teardrop-shaped Caribbean island twice the size of Nantucket.
St. Lucia’s new Viceroy Resort, Sugar Beach (formerly Jalousie Plantation), had lured my husband Scott and me with the company’s reputation for hip, well-designed resorts, but also with its stunning setting on 100 acres of tropical rainforest sandwiched between two UNESCO World Heritage Site mountains. The goal was a detox from our active 2-year-old and relaxation before another baby would enter our lives in five short months. You could call it a Babymoon; we called it much needed.
With drinks in hand, Curtley gave us a tour of our whitewashed private cottage: sitting room, bedroom with mosquito-netted bed, walk-in closet, one-and-a-half baths and shutters on all windows and doors. Its simple elegance was perfect. He then led us through French doors out to a cascading series of decks, one hugging an inviting round plunge pool with an infinity edge and views of the massive, rocky Petit Piton mountain bookending the resort to our right and its slightly larger twin volcanic mass, Gros Piton, just to our left.
While I wondered just how we might use Curtley’s services (he had shown us how to use the two-way cell phone in our villa to ring him) aside from calling for the shuttle to take us down the resort’s winding roads to the beach, unpacking our bags gave me that answer. Somehow in our groggy rush out the door at 2 a.m., I’d forgotten my contact lenses. Soon, Curtley was on the case, and on the phone finding me replacements. The contact lenses took a couple of days, but the wait and several phone calls it took with Curtley’s crew (and the $30 it cost to send a driver three hours up the coast to the capital of Castries to retrieve new lenses) were a small price to pay for a day saved traveling. Curtley proved himself very handy indeed.
Though we’re not a big spa-going couple—treatments based on local customs usually strike me as phony “me-toos” in a tourism trend—at Sugar Beach my husband and I found what seemed like the antithesis. Their rainforest spa hit all the right notes of authenticity, serenity and simplicity; something that we’d soon learn carried throughout the Sugar Beach experience.
The spa’s thatched-roof entryway leads down a series of elevated, wooden bridges to seven timber treehouses perched in the rainforest. Our couple’s treatment hut had one wall open to a trickling waterfall filling a natural-stone dip pool. Built by local Rastafarian craftsmen, it sat in perfect harmony with the thick rainforest canopy in this part of the resort. As we lay on our side-by-side massage tables, we could hear the water streaming and tree frogs chirping, real nature sounds that put to shame the “serenity” CDs piped into most spas. Vacation had officially begun.
Over the course of our four-day stay at Sugar Beach, we’d learn from various friendly staff members the story of its owner Roger Myers, a British expat who is currently sinking $100 million into the resort. He earned his fortune as an accountant for The Rolling Stones and later grew it with a successful chain of restaurants in the UK called Café Rouge. He sold the restaurants with plans to retire to St. Lucia but was drawn into the hotel business in 2005 when he saw the property.
It’s hard to believe any resort could warrant a $100 million upgrade, especially one that has been named to the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler “Readers’ Choice” and Travel + Leisure “World’s Best” lists. But after experiencing this former sugar plantation’s perfect setting nestled in the valley, smack-dab between the dramatic Pitons (which will remain development-free due to their World Heritage Site-status), I’m not sure there is a more idyllic spot on the map. Its pristine beachfront and lush grounds winding up the mountainside are definitely worth a hefty investment.
From the vantage point of an upholstered daybed on the beach, the mountains—one stark and rocky, the other covered in green—appear to be within reach. Rising sharply out of the water 2,000 feet, they are equally steep underwater, where the bottom can drop to 900 feet just 100 yards off shore. Walking in, I notice how quickly the water rises above my head, making me wonder if a return with the kids would be practical. But then a mango smoothie and a white chocolate-almond amuse-bouche arrived at my lounge chair (which would happen often), and another glimpse of those two fantastically close mountains cemented the certainty of our return one day.
Our first excursion off the resort was ambitious: a hike to the top of Gros Piton. (We had opted to avoid the capital city altogether, though most tourists stay near it or at least make a trek to the famous Castries Market.) We knew nothing about the hike when a driver brought us to a village at the foot of the mountain to meet Marva, our guide—a slight, 26-year-old wearing Top-Siders. (We weren’t intimidated.) Marva led us through her 80-person village, greeting everyone: women drying herbs, men patching a thatched roof, a mother hanging laundry. “So how high is this mountain, anyway?” we asked. 2,600 feet? Still not fazed.
We began our ascent up rock-boulder steps, which turned into a dirt path with a consistent and irritating incline. We’d soon learn from Marva that the village, Fond Gens Libre, or Valley of the Free People, is made up of descendants of African slaves who escaped life on a nearby plantation by hiding out in the forested Piton. Marva’s sure-footedness came naturally: Her ancestors navigated that mountain for survival, and now she does the same, leading groups on the four-hour round trip once or twice a day. Marva was just five years old when she first hiked to the peak. Seeing her casually step up the incline, which had become a full-fledged climb for us, requiring gripping tree roots and much panting, was slightly discouraging. At the quarter-way mark, we were grateful for the water break and views of St. Vincent, a less developed island 26 miles to the south that’s emerging as a tourist destination.
Marva probably started guessing we were short for this hike when we began asking, “So, how much better is the view from the top?” We continued until just shy of the halfway mark before it hit me that our climb down all these steps wasn’t going to be any easier. Scott agreed, and Marva, hands in her shorts pockets, turned on her heel with a “not a problem.” I was surprisingly content with our failure to summit. As typically hyperactive tourists, this was the first trip where we felt a deep need for relaxation.
Once descended from the rock-boulder steps, our driver Mike took us to Toraille Waterfall for a quick cool-down before heading back to Sugar Beach. We wound around on the two-lane main road which is the only way to get to most places on St. Lucia. Big swaths of it were taken out by mudslides during Hurricane Thomas in 2010. That hurricane was a major setback to the previous prime minister’s plan to invest in tourism, the island’s main economic driver now that banana farming has fallen victim to competition.
As we rode through Soufrière, the village three miles up the coast from Sugar Beach, Mike waved and beeped to nearly everyone, and they responded with a chorus of “Mike!” True, it’s Mike’s hometown, but the St. Lucians are friendly, and their culture is an interesting mix that draws influence from Carib natives, years of alternating English and French colonial rule, and slaves brought in from Africa and India.
We would venture into Soufrière on another afternoon, in search of roti, a wrap filled with local curry stew. Without Mike, we were followed by panhandlers in the town’s cathedral, and we felt a bit conspicuous taking pictures of the curbside farmers’ market and a pickup truck overflowing with locals—but these were brief uncomfortable moments in an otherwise lovely trip.
We made other excursions, too. Mike took us to the “drive-in” volcano, which wound up being a smoldering, rocky outcrop and a quick 10-minute affair. We also checked out the sulfur springs—a romantic mineral mud bath set beneath a waterfall—which I remember from its stint on the reality TV show, “The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love,” filmed in St. Lucia in 2010. On our visit, the place was crowded with tourists and looked a lot less picturesque than it had appeared on TV. I later learned that the St. Lucia tourism board spent a year’s budget luring “The Bachelor” to the island.
Maybe it was worth it. I’d visited the capital on a cruise stop as a kid, but “The Bachelor” turned me on to the rainforests, waterfalls and Piton Mountains of southern St. Lucia. Apparently I’m not alone. The Sugar Beach sales director says that after the show aired, she was inundated with requests to book the exact villa where Jake and Vienna stayed.
Scott and I also ventured to “Fish Friday,” a weekly fish-fry and street party 45 minutes up the coast in the small fishing village of Anse La Raye. We were a little shocked by the town’s humbleness, but this was a prime example of the types of initiatives St. Lucia’s villages are taking to lure tourist dollars. The plate of curried red snapper, plantains, rice and bread fruit ($10) from the street vendor was satisfying, but maybe more interesting was the scene of mingling Rastafarians, tourists young and old and village toddlers dancing to the reggae being pumped through huge speakers.
On another night, I was lured by the promise of chocolate. St. Lucia grows some of the finest varieties of cacao trees, a newly viable crop for local farmers thanks to an increased value in the global market and an emerging choco-tourism trend. I wasn’t seeking chocolate in bar form, but in the red-wine-and-cacao sauce on dorado, iced-chocolate shots, and citrus salad with white-chocolate vinaigrette being served at Boucan restaurant at the Hotel Chocolat, a small hotel set on a cocoa plantation opened by the British chocolatier of the same name that is a 10-minute ride from Sugar Beach. Boucan infuses chocolate into every dish on its menu, savory or sweet. Scott was humoring me with a visit but was quickly won over by his cacao-pulp martini and onion soup with cacao-leaf foam starter. We were delighted by such an inventive concept and not surprised to learn the company has plans for Manhattan and London locations.
We tempered all of our discoveries with quite a bit of lounging on the beach but, even when we’re on a mission to relax, we find curiosity usually gets the best of us. We have to do that hike, see that town and taste that local dish. But more often than not, our best experiences happen when we slow down. In St. Lucia, we probably could have made better use of our villa’s private pool and two lounge chairs overlooking the Pitons. Of course, if we had, we wouldn’t have learned the significance of those mountains, but pure spectacle (and a butler on call) can make for a pretty great vacation, too. We’ll try that next time.
If You Go
Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort
Val des Pitons, Soufrière, St. Lucia
Boucan at Hotel Chocolat
Soufrière, St. Lucia
St. Lucia Tourism Board
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