October 12, 2012 9:39 pm

Move over Mustique

Can a resort’s $100m revamp help St Lucia challenge its more upmarket Caribbean rival?
The Great House, which contains a restaurant and bar, at the Sugar Beach resort, St Lucia

The Great House, which contains a restaurant and bar, at the Sugar Beach resort

When the eccentric and irascible British aristocrat Colin Tennant, later Lord Glenconner, arrived in St Lucia in 1982, he had in mind a plan to create a holiday paradise to rival Mustique, the magnet for royals and celebrities he’d forged two decades earlier. It’s fair to say that he failed.

Though tourism has grown over the past 30 years to become the country’s biggest employer, accounting for almost half its gross domestic product, it has tended not to target the top of the market. Even the hotel that Lord Glenconner established on the site of an abandoned sugar plantation, Jalousie, became part of Hilton, which ran it as a rather soulless four-star hotel for nearly 20 years.

But the island’s profile may be poised to change. This summer, for the first time, British Airways put newly designed first-class cabins in the 777s that fly the St Lucia route, a reflection of the fact that there are now several supremely luxurious hotels – Jade Mountain, for instance – charging more than $1,000 a night on the island.

Six Senses’ first Caribbean property is under development on Malgretoute beach (which is due to be renamed Freedom Bay). November will see the opening of Sugar Beach, a $100m-plus redevelopment and rebranding of the hotel Lord Glenconner founded three decades ago, in the sublimely beautiful Val de Pitons. He may not have lived to see it but the signs are that it will soon be the sort of properly glamorous place he had in mind.

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Four months before his death in August 2010, I’d been introduced to Lord Glenconner in a chance encounter in the small St Lucian town of Soufrière. Under the impression that I must surely know his daughters, as I was about their age and from London, he invited me to tea. It was an afternoon best described as surreal.

His seaside home, Beau House, sited in the lee of the Gros Piton, just south of what is now Sugar Beach, was majestic but squalid. Bats had colonised its domed ceiling, and there was guano everywhere.

I sat rapt as he told the story of how he’d found the valley, which had so succumbed to jungle it was accessible only by water. He had canoed down from his home in Soufrière, three miles north. Having bought the 480-acre estate, he then acquired two traditional gingerbread cottages elsewhere on the island, which he had restored and relocated. Next he opened a rum shop and restaurant, with exuberant decor based on stage designs by Oliver Messel, architect of the loveliest villas on Mustique. Then came the hotel, but it failed after three seasons, and Hilton took over.

map of St Lucia

He offered to show me his house, an extraordinary structure inspired by an Indian palace and topped by a Taj Mahal-like cupola, but built so cheaply there wasn’t even glass in its windows. By contrast, his possessions were fabulous. There was his Indian four-poster bed, ornately carved with peacocks and flowers and plated in heavily tarnished silver. The walls of an anteroom were lined in 19th-century mirrors painted with scenes from the Ramayana – a gift from a maharajah in Rajasthan, he told me. Chandeliers hung from every ceiling. “That one’s an Osler, but I expect you knew that,” he’d say airily.

Truly it was a treasure house. No wonder its contents, when they came to be sold at Bonhams in London last year, fetched almost £1.1m. The beneficiary of that sale and of Lord Glenconner’s entire St Lucian estate was his loyal and long-suffering manservant Kent Adonai, who drove me back to my hotel and who, I sensed, was his only real friend on the island.

Lord Glenconner told me he had left Mustique because of the sort of people who were buying up the villas (“brokers and bankers”, he called them), and because there was no longer any social life. But things were no better on St Lucia now. Apart from “the Russian pianist” – as he referred to his nearest neighbour, Vladimir Ashkenazy – he’d hardly a good word for anyone. Nobody, he railed, knew how to have fun any more.

Among the few spared his opprobrium, however, was Roger Myers, the new owner of Jalousie, another Briton, whose life, like Lord Glenconner’s, had taken him into the same orbit as the likes of Mick Jagger and David Bowie, both of whom owned villas on Mustique. A chartered accountant by training, Myers forged a career in the early 1970s, “giving tax advice to people in the music business”, he told me over lunch. His first clients were the Rolling Stones, “and once you’d got the Stones, you got everybody else”.

Among them was Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer, and together they set up a record label and a recording studio, after which his career veered into restaurants and pubs. He founded the Café Rouge restaurant chain and then, with Hugh Osmond (“the cleverest guy I’ve ever met”), Punch Taverns. But eventually retirement beckoned and, in 2005, he moved to St Lucia “to drink rum and do nothing”. He had been there a matter of weeks when he heard Jalousie was for sale.

One of the cottages at Sugar Beach, St Lucia

One of the cottages at Sugar Beach

“I hadn’t run anything for about three years. I had no office, no secretary,” he says. “But it’s so beautiful, and I knew I was never ever going to find anything else like it, so I bought it.” Little did he realise at that point that it would be seven years in the making and cost more than $100m.

When I stayed there this summer it was still a work in progress, but it promises to be very fine when it opens fully in time for Thanksgiving, rebranded as Sugar Beach.

In addition to 11 handsome, comparatively inexpensive rooms in part of the original sugar factory, there are 59 pricier cottages, with clapboard walls, wrap-around verandas and plunge pools, set on the steep jungle-clad hillside that rises above the glorious beach. So rich in marine life are the waters here that you can snorkel at night, when phosphorescence creates an almost supernatural atmosphere.

Among the other new additions are as enchanting a spa as I’ve seen, set within a tract of rainforest on the estate, each treatment room a treehouse. For those for whom proximity to the sea is more important than privacy, there are also eight thatch-and-adobe bungalows set right on the sand.

Myers has been a key creative force in the transformation of the hotel. He personally puts together the eclectic playlists for the public areas, where works from his art collection hang. The more formal and ambitious of the two excellent restaurants is decorated with a series of striking mixed-media portraits by the Puerto Rican photographer Carlos Mercado, in striking contrast to the traditional plantation-house architecture of the original 18th-century room.

The casual beach restaurant, which serves superb ceviches as well as local dishes such as jerk chicken and curries with cassava chips, has a wall of paintings by Jonathan Bishop. More of Bishop’s work can be found in the Cane Bar, where the air conditioning is turned up to 11, perhaps to reinforce the message that, with its wall of white curtains and lit-from-within white glass bar, it’s the coolest of the four bars. I preferred the elegant old-school Palm Court, with its marble floors, ceiling fans, antique Chinese jars, cane swing seats and views across the gardens to the sea.

For this is not the sort of place you spend all your time in your cottage, however lovely its pool, seeing no one but room-service staff. Rather it’s a place where people are encouraged to mix, whether they are staying at the hotel or one of the splendid beach houses under construction on the neighbouring bay, due to be named Glenconner Beach.

All of which, I suspect, would have pleased his lordship, for it all seems so true to the spirit of his original plan. “Whatever people say about Colin,” says Myers, “he was quite a visionary. What he created in Mustique made it the most expensive real estate in the world. Had he been younger and had a bit more energy, I think he’d have achieved it here too. If only he’d survived to see the hotel finished, he’d have seen his dream realised.”

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Claire Wrathall was a guest of Jalousie Plantation (www.jalousieplantation.com; doubles from $413) and British Airways (www.ba.com/stlucia), which offers seven nights in a beachfront bungalow from £7,129 per person including flights from London Gatwick in first class

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