Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Making St. Lucia a Caribbean Hot Spot

Can a slew of ultra-luxe hotels, more weekly direct flights, and government incentives “make” a high-end destination? On St. Lucia, ambitious investors are banking on it.

As we wander a densely thicketed path, sheltered from the sun by rows of bamboo with trunks as stout as baseball bats, one thought recurs: St. Lucia smells. It reeks, actually, like a carton of rotten eggs. This isn't exactly unexpected, though, considering that our destination today is, well, a noxious pit. We cross a footbridge spanning a small stream and make our way up a hill until we reach a point directly overlooking a virtual moonscape. Qualibou, billed as the "world's only drive-in volcano," is an awesome sight. Steam rises from craters; pools of black liquid like vats of squid ink roil. Once, you could walk across the caldera, but not any longer. About 20 years ago, we're told, a guide decided to demonstrate the integrity of the ground by jumping up and down on it. He fell through a hole of his own making, and when he was pulled out—alive, amazingly—he was horribly burned. "Some people," says our guide, gesturing at the hissing earth, "believe there is a god sleeping in there." Presumably, one who doesn't suffer fools.

Minutes after we leave the volcano, the sulfurous stench is gone, the craters replaced by views of the iconic Gros and Petit Piton mountains, two almost perfectly triangular peaks that evoke the South Pacific. St. Lucia is seriously gorgeous, full of waterfalls and tropical rain forests, a place where birds-of-paradise seem to range freely. Of course, it possesses the standard Caribbean inventory: sand, sun, and, due to its popularity among honeymooners, probably more French manicures per square mile than anywhere east of Vegas. It also has some of the most winding roads you'll ever encounter. As my taxi careens from switchback to switchback, I silently recite the mantra of the whiny child: Are we there yet?

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At this stage in the island's development, that question, figuratively speaking, is on a lot of lips. One of the Lesser Antilles' Windward Islands, St. Lucia is closer to South America than to more easily accessible destinations like the Bahamas and the Riviera Maya. Until the early 1990's, banana production was the island's leading industry, but with the phasing out of preferential EU trade agreements looming, the banana trade is in a death spiral. Partly in response, the St. Lucian government has stepped in to accelerate tourism projects by offering a range of incentives, including waiving taxes on imported materials used in new hotel construction and giving a rental income "tax holiday" to buy-to-rent investors. The strategy is working—by the end of 2007, St. Lucia will have gained more than 1,500 hotel rooms, most of which will cater to the money-is-no-object traveler. (In part because construction and operating costs are higher here than in many middle-market destinations, almost all new hotels are chasing the lucrative higher end.) Not coincidentally, many of those rooms will be ready by March, when St. Lucia will be the home base for the English team in the Cricket World Cup. This event may not stir the hearts of Americans, but for the 12,000 to 15,000 British holidaymakers who will descend on St. Lucia, and for television viewers worldwide—an estimated 1.2 billion for the semifinals alone—it's a very big deal indeed.

The boom is resonating across the entire island, from the $165 million Landings resort in the north to the embryonic Ritz-Carlton (opening 2009) in the south. On the northwest coast, the new five-star Discovery at Marigot Bay aims to reinvent a once popular but now faded yachting hangout, while the Jade Mountain addition to the Anse Chastanet Resort—a longtime fixture on practically every Best of the Caribbean list—kicks the luxury bar up at least a notch. Cotton Bay Village and the still-under-construction Le Paradis are staking out the previously untapped Atlantic side of the island, underscoring a fairly new phenomenon: even off-the-beaten-track real estate is being scooped up. Last February, Air Jamaica resumed its thrice-weekly nonstops out of JFK and added a fourth; combine that with daily direct flights from Atlanta and Miami, and visitors have more inbound options than ever before. All told, it's clear that something more intoxicating than rum punch—or drive-in volcanoes—is now being served.

Arriving at the Discovery at Marigot Bay on the island's northwestern quadrant, the first thing I do is a double take. The Pink Snail, its lobby-level champagne lounge and reception area, is a shocker: a glowing pink-resin bar and see-through Philippe Starck Ghost chairs, crowned by two huge pink glass chandeliers. The name is a bit of a head-scratcher, until you're informed that the design pays homage to the giant pink snail from 1967's original Dr. Dolittle, filmed in Marigot. That's not the only reference to the area's colorful past. The rustic Hurricane Hole bar, once a place where visiting yachtsmen and everyone from Sophia Loren to Michael Caine bent elbows, has been restored to its slightly louche glory, cask-barrel tables intact.

But Discovery's overall impact is more au courant than Old Caribbean. The credit goes to Judith Verity, who oversaw the design and who, with her husband, John, developed the hotel. "We were going for a really sharp-edged look inside, as much as possible," she says. "And then a complete camouflage on the outside." The interiors of the 57 suites (they can be "locked off" into 124 separate hotel rooms) are bold and modern: rich, red-toned Brazilian cherry hardwood floors are matched with dark-wood kitchens by Italy's Aster Cucine. The landscaping needs to mature, but even at this early stage—the hotel has been open since mid-September—buildings seem to grow right out of the hills that surround them.

The Discovery is part of a $60 million project that also includes a 40-slip marina and village complete with an Italian restaurant, a grocery store, and a bakery—all of it intended to lure yachts back and position Marigot Bay as an upscale port of first call. Across the island, however, the competition is stiff. At Cotton Bay Village, high-season rates range from $550 for a suite to over $2,900 a day for a self-contained beachfront château complete with a dedicated Man Friday. ("We didn't want to call them butlers," marketing director Michael Bryant says. "That sounded too stuffy.")

But perhaps the boldest play is being made by Jade Mountain. Set atop the highest point of Anse Chastanet Resort, near the west-coast town of Soufrière, the addition wraps around the hillsides. Designed by the resort's owner, architect Nick Troubetzkoy, the exterior is organic and flowing, all sensuous curves and rough stone. Towering spires come out of nowhere and stop abruptly—rebars protrude from the ends like the tines of a dinner fork. Pedestrian bridges, large enough for a car, lead like gangplanks to the louvered wooden doors of each of the upper-floor suites.

Walk into the living area and, it seems, you walk right into the Pitons themselves. There is no "fourth wall" insinuating itself between the room and the view; the room is completely exposed to the elements. Several ceiling fans cool the space. Each of Jade Mountain's 24 suites is unique, but they do share critical features: infinity pools from 400 to 900 square feet, soaring 15-foot ceilings, and an open-plan concept that might seem just a bit extreme—although cleverly hidden by curving half-walls made of crushed-coral plaster, even the raised bathroom is essentially part of one huge space. (As in the rest of Troubetzkoy's rustic Anse Chastanet, there are no televisions, stereos, or phones.) This is, I think as I look around, a place clearly made for couples. Who know each other very, very well.

Not everything on the island is luxe. In the north, busy Reduit Beach, the island's most famous stretch of white sand, seems cramped, pinched in by a monolithic wall of hotels. Towns like Soufrière and Canaries, although picturesque, need much more in the way of tourist-friendly amenities if they hope to entice visitors away from the resorts and into their streets. But there is one thing St. Lucia hasn't yet developed that actually works in its favor. Tourist burnout, a common affliction on many islands, seems nonexistent. Everywhere I go, "How do you like St. Lucia?" is said so often, and with such authentic pride, that it might as well be the national anthem.

This means more than any Man Friday-equipped villa, I decide, as I wander the shanty-lined streets of Anse la Raye, a small west-coast fishing village where every Friday night the residents block off a main road for a fish fry. Jamaican dance-hall music pounds from a bank of speakers. Locals and tourists alike wander from stall to stall, checking out a ridiculous variety of fresh seafood: conch stew bubbles in a pot, skillets of crayfish and prawns crackle, and whole lobsters, as large as house cats, are hawked by the pound.

At 9 p.m., the party is just getting started.

And then the rains begin. The entire street runs for cover under the stalls' canopies. Everyone—the Rastas with their harlequin tams, wan British women, the newly married couple from New York—stands together patiently, knowing the deluge will be over in minutes. I take out a notepad, jot a few things down. As the rain breaks, I look up from my notes to find a young woman smiling at me.

"What are you doin'?" she asks, the accent and cadence of her patois turning the question into a melody. "Writin' me a love letter?"

I smile back. Could be.

Guy Saddy is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.

Guide to St. Lucia


The dry season runs from February to May. Intermittent (and brief) showers take place year-round.


Air Jamaica offers nonstop flights from New York's JFK four times a week. American flies nonstop daily from Miami; Delta does the same from Atlanta.


Taxis are expensive; to cover a lot of ground, rent a car. Driving is British-style.

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