May 8, 2010 1:34 am

The striking mix of cultures of St Lucia

 
Motor boats and houses line the coast at Soufri�?re, St Lucia

Soufrière, St Lucia

Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet, vividly described the landscape of his home as “furious with vegetation”. Its mountainous heart is wrapped in the kind of luscious rainforest depicted by painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau; its west-coast beaches are fringed with coconut palms while the cliffs of its wild Atlantic east coast are host to spiky cacti. There is no lovelier island in the Caribbean and no better time to see it than early summer when the vivid orange flamboyant trees are in bloom.

But what makes holidays here memorable is not just the sights but the conversations, most of which come down to politics – “our national soap opera”, as one waiter remarked. On a trek through the forests of the Edmund Reserve, in the heart of the island, with a forester-cum-guide, our talk segued from parasitic strangler figs to local corruption scandals; the forester, it turned out, was a former senator.

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Such delights may elude those holidaymakers who don’t stray from their resorts – St Lucia has a reputation for mid-market all-inclusives and is home to some fairly unlovely resorts. But these are not the only blights on the island. Earlier this year, unchecked development in the area near the fabled Pitons, the conical twin lava spikes, prompted Unesco to warn that they may be placed on the World Heritage in Danger list.

Certainly we were surprised by the look of the first hotel we stayed at. Cap Maison, which opened last year, is a 49-suite hotel on a clifftop in the north, within sight of Pigeon Island, St Lucia’s national historic park. Until recently, the island has lacked properly luxurious places to stay and, positioning itself as a “fashionable new boutique”, Cap Maison sounded alluring.

It’s extremely comfortable. The staff are attentive. The refined French-Caribbean cooking is great (is there a better breakfast than its saltfish, bakes and cucumber salad?). And, but for a shortage of shade and sunloungers on the beach and the lack of a swimming pool big enough to swim in, the facilities are fine too.

But the look of the place – a crowded Spanish-style enclave of terracotta tiles, fancy wrought ironwork, bright white render and bougainvillea – seems inappropriate. Christopher Columbus may have claimed St Lucia for Spain when he happened on it in 1502 but the Spanish never settled here. And it’s not as if there’s a shortage of existing cultural influences to find inspiration in: Amerindian, African, French, British and even Indian, thanks to the 6,000 indentured workers shipped here from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the 1880s.

 
A room at the Jade Mountain hotel

Jade Mountain hotel

I discovered something of St Lucia’s history in the next hotel I stayed at, Jade Mountain, where I attended its weekly Creole-history lecture and signed up for a walking tour of an abandoned plantation. “They should call this the colonial guilt trip,” whispered my husband, as our guide spoke of the cruelty of St Lucia’s colonisers.

Just north of the Pitons, Jade Mountain consists of 29 expansive “sanctuaries” (no mere rooms here), most with infinity plunge pools. All have breathtaking views and a completely open fourth wall, so the only thing between you and the Pitons is a fragile hip-height fence of high-tensile wire (they make you sign all sorts of indemnity documents at check-in). No phones, televisions or music are allowed lest you disturb other guests – but you are given a Firefly, a tiny mobile-phone-like gadget through which to communicate with your “major domo” (no mere butlers).

On paper, it shouldn’t work. It is hilariously precious (at turndown they write “love” in petals on your bed and leave you a difficult poem by Derek Walcott) and eye-wateringly expensive. From the outside, it is an eyesore and looks like a concrete multi-storey car park. But just as Guy de Maupassant, the 19th-century French writer, ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower whenever he could on the grounds that it was the one place in Paris from which it couldn’t be seen, so Jade Mountain’s guests are spared the sight of the building. It’s mad but it’s heaven, and I long to go back.

Fortunately it is not visible from the Jalousie Plantation, which lies just south on a 192-acre estate. This resort, one of the oldest in St Lucia, is midway through a $100m makeover, which will see it rebranded next year as The Tides Sugar Beach, as well as the creation of 85 new villas.

The new villas, some of which are already open, are gorgeous: clapboard “gingerbread” cottages painted in pale pastels, with wrap-around verandas, louvred sliding shutters, finials shaped like pineapples and attractive understated blanched interiors, all-white upholstery and dark wood floors. In these respects, it is close on perfect, as was the service. Each cluster of villas is attended to by a butler, and ours, Tyson, seemed almost telepathic.

That said, Jalousie is very much a work in progress. The hotel has been kept open during the renovation process in order that its 250-odd staff should not be laid off, for jobs are scarce in the town of Soufrière. So, the new five-star villas, for which rates start at $720 (£475) a night, are several times the price of the unmodernised bungalows. But the swimming pool, beach set-up (old sunloungers and not enough shade) and existing spa speak more of a three-star.

For the moment then, Jalousie is something of a mixed bag. Plans for the forthcoming spa, a cluster of coconut-thatched treatment pavilions set amid rainforest on a private trail, look wonderful. And I liked the new animated Bayside beach bar and restaurant, which features delicious goat and fish. I was less taken with the more formal Great Room in the old plantation house, a gloomy space where they showily decant Wolf Blass, presumably to justify the staggering mark-up on the workaday wine list. I’m hopeful that with the imminent appointment of a food and beverage director things will improve.

 
A bedroom in The Fond Doux organic plantation

The Fond Doux organic plantation

Overall I have high hopes for Jalousie, not least because, for all its artifice, it feels essentially Caribbean. For genuine authenticity, however, it’s worth considering Fond Doux, an organic cocoa plantation. In addition to supplying cocoa beans to Hershey’s and the Chicago company World’s Finest Chocolate, Lyton Lamontagne and his wife, Eroline, collect old colonial wooden houses, some dating back to the early 19th century, which they restore and reconstruct on their 130-acre estate and let as holiday cottages. It’s a charmed and atmospheric place, at one with the island’s heritage, at one with nature and just the sort of model I bet Unesco wishes more developers would adopt.

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Details

Prices are all per night for two people.

Cap Maison, from $478; www.capmaison.com.

Jade Mountain, from $1,062; www.jademountainstlucia.com.

Jalousie Plantation, from $342; www.thejalousieplantation.com.

Fond Doux Estate, from $153; www.fonddouxestate.com

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