Saint Lucia was recently voted Best Island in the Caribbean by Global Traveller magazine.
So it was the spur to visit and see if it deserved such a lofty accolade.
It is an easy eight-hour flight from London and the descent to St Lucia’s Hewanoora airport offers a bird’s-eye view of the most spectacular volcanic peaks in the Caribbean – the mighty Pitons, a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.
Saint Lucia’s volcanic soil is rich in minerals and the local cacao industry produces some of the finest chocolate in the world. When I first heard that there was a chocolate-themed hotel in the island’s rainforest, the ‘Rabot Hotel from Hotel Chocolat’, I imagined we would find an eccentric Willy Wonka type and a theme park-like factory of delights, complete with a gently flowing chocolate river.
Frank Mannion explores St Lucia, journeying into the island’s rainforest to check in to the ‘Rabot Hotel from Hotel Chocolat’ (pictured)
‘With 29 stunning Lodges in a lush rainforest overlooking the Pitons, the Rabot is a heavenly oasis,’ writes Frank
In actuality, it was founded by the charming British entrepreneur Angus Thirlwell, who freely admits that chocolate is an obsession. It’s only a 45-minute scenic drive from the airport. With 29 stunning Lodges in a lush rainforest overlooking the Pitons, the Rabot is a heavenly oasis, whether you are a chocolate lover or not. We feel like golden ticket winners being able to spend a couple of nights here. Our delightful Luxe Lodge has an expansive veranda and a vast rainforest shower.
The 50-foot infinity pool, lined with black quartz, overlooking the Petit Piton is the perfect way to while away the day. The hotel’s restaurant has a chocolate-infused menu that seemed gimmicky at first, but in the hands of the talented chefs, is inspired. Our morning hot chocolate and banana bread are the best we ever had. In fact, every course is divine and imaginative, especially the freshly caught wahoo fish, glazed with coconut and cacao butter sauce, and the Rabot Chocolate Lava dessert, inspired by the Soufriere volcano behind the hotel.
Rabot Hotel has a chocolate-infused menu that ‘seems gimmicky at first, but in the hands of the talented chefs, is inspired’
If actor Timothee Chalamet is looking for inspiration to get into the mindset of an eccentric chocolatier for his upcoming Wonka movie, the hotel chefs here have all the mouth-watering chocolate dishes to get him into character.
We walk off lunch by taking a picturesque Jurassic Park-style ridge walk through the plantation. A truly magical experience. The next day we take the hotel’s Tree to Bar experience, a walking tour through the rainforest, culminating in an enjoyable chocolate-making class at the high-tech cacao farm, Project Chocolat (once visited by a sweet-toothed King Charles III who officially broke the ground a few years ago).
Sulphur, so good: Above is the world’s only drive-in volcano, five minutes away from Rabot Hotel
The Rabot Estate is a five-minute drive from St Lucia’s most-visited tourist attraction – what’s billed as the world’s only drive-in volcano.
After a guided tour around its dramatically spewing sulphurous hot springs and boiling geysers, we walk a couple of hundred yards down to the mineral mud baths.
There is something life-affirming about spreading black volcanic mud all over the body, letting it dry off and then soaking in the naturally heated sulphur mud springs.
We have the baths to ourselves as we arrive first thing in the morning to avoid the cruise ship crowds. Resting in the mud springs makes you feel rejuvenated and ready to explore the rest of the island.
We are next dropped off at the spectacular Toraille Waterfall.
Frank stands underneath Toraille Waterfall, pictured above, describing the experience as like a ‘powerful hydro massage’
Frank pays a visit to the ‘Superman Falls’, so-named because they feature in Superman 2, in a scene in which the caped superhero picks an exotic plant for Lois Lane
Being underneath it has the pleasant feeling of a powerful hydro massage. Although we already feel like superheroes emerging from the water after a restorative swim in the natural plunge pool, we head over to Superman Falls, a waterfall that is a little more off the beaten track and less crowded.
In Superman 2, Christopher Reeve flies off to a tropical island (an uncredited Saint Lucia) and picks some exotic plants to bring back to his sweetheart, Lois Lane. The establishing shot of Saint Lucia’s Pitons was filmed from a peak, 1,000 feet above sea level, where the ultra-luxurious Ladera Resort now stands.
Each of the 37 luxurious suites at Ladera Resort has its own plunge pool and comes with a butler who is only too happy to whizz guests around on his golf buggy, Frank reveals
Ever since Oprah Winfrey stayed here leaving a giant tip in the 1990s, it has been a celebrity haven.
Amy Winehouse loved it here, as did the late St Lucian Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, who always celebrated his birthdays here.
Each of the 37 luxurious suites has its own plunge pool and comes with a butler who is only too happy to whizz guests around on his golf buggy.
The absence of a fourth wall in the suites allows for a panoramic view of the Pitons and the sparkling Caribbean Sea below. Even without an outer wall, our spellbinding suite still feels sheltered enough and provides a calming night breeze. The romance is heightened by the swing in the plunge pool and the hand-crafted four-poster beds and hand-tiled mosaic walk-in showers.
Ladera is the perfect destination for lunch or dinner or just a sunset cocktail on the terrace where Harrison Ford used to enjoy watching the sun set behind the Pitons. There is something mesmerising about gazing at its peaks.
We take the Ladera Ridge walk and have some freshly cut coconut at a dramatic treehouse moulded around a massive 300-year-old mango tree that still bears fruit.
Later, dinner at Dasheene is imaginatively overseen by the charming local chef Keith Mitchel, who creates sensational dishes such as the chilled asparagus gazpacho and the shellfish tagliatelle with homemade creole sauce.
This is a truly extraordinary romantic island paradise that feels authentic, where all the staff are local and genuinely want to please guests. A pool-side yoga session with Anson is exceptional. There is a thrice-daily beach shuttle for Ladera guests to Sugar Beach, which is our next destination.
‘Sugar Beach – A Viceroy Resort (pictured above) is a breathtaking utopia,’ writes Frank
‘Sugar Beach – A Viceroy Resort’ is a breathtaking utopia. Designed in the colonial Plantation style, it has 129 villas, cottages and luxury beachfront bungalows, spread discreetly in a 100-acre rainforest that was formerly a sugar plantation. The resort has two gorgeous white-sand beaches. The smaller and quieter one is called Glenconner Beach after the notorious Lord Glenconner, the friend of Princess Margaret, who decamped from Mustique to spend his last days here.
Saint Lucia is exotic with its tropical rainforest, stunning corals and cocoa plantations. Its English-speaking people are the friendliest and most welcoming in the Caribbean. There is no aggressive hawking of goods, everyone is good-natured, and we feel safe in every public space
With its own pool and garden and a rich canopy of trees to provide soothing breezes, our amazing Luxury Cottage is a tranquil and romantic place to stay. While it is possible to walk down to the dining areas and beach, every suite comes with a super-efficient butler who ensures that a shuttle is waiting just in case. The resort has great water activities, a brand-new fitness centre and a lush rainforest-style spa where the treatment rooms are in treehouses built on stilts. The Sugar Beach is equally suitable for honeymooners and families, as Gwyneth Paltrow will attest, as she enjoyed a family holiday here a few years ago.
The fine dining restaurant Saltwood is excellent, while the beachfront Bonté restaurant is more casual. Bonté means ‘good times’ in Creole and good times were certainly enjoyed here by Matt Damon and his wife when they renewed their vows on the beach here in front of guests Chris Hemsworth, Ben Affleck, and Stanley Tucci. He booked the entire resort for his friends and family and to keep it under wraps, booked it under the name of Mr and Mrs Naff. (Damon had made an exploratory trip two months previously, arriving by yacht.)
Past guests at Sugar Beach (above) include Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon and Chris Hemsworth
The best breakfast on the island is the green fig and saltfish creole breakfast at the Terrace Restaurant on the ground floor of the elegant Great House, which is served with local cocoa tea, Johnny bakes and fried ripe plantain. Banana was and still is an important part of the St Lucian economy and is known as ‘green gold’.
SHINE BRIGHT LIKE A DIAMOND
Next stop is the unmissable Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, Waterfall and Hot Mineral Bath Springs on the outskirts of Soufriere town. A walk through the lush six-acre Botanical Gardens is simply breathtaking. It’s a haven for gravity-defying hummingbirds as they peck at tropical flowers and plant life. The therapeutic effects of these wonderful mineral baths, originally built in 1784, were enjoyed by Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, who bathed here as a child when holidaying at her father’s nearby plantation.
Frank checks in to Anse Chastanet, pictured, which he declares ‘one of the Caribbean’s most singular and breathtaking hotels’
Jean-Pierre, our friendly guide from Soufriere (and father of 10 kids), takes us over a bumpy track to an island oasis, Anse Chastanet, one of the Caribbean’s most breathtaking hotels, perfectly situated above an enchanting beach.
It has 49 individual bedrooms and reveals itself over a steep jungly hillside.
The architect and owner Nick Troubetzkoy bought the 600 acres of land from sceptical local owners in the early 1970s and spent 10 years developing it.
Our stupendous Premium Hillside suite has a four-poster bed and a terrace with a stunning panoramic view of the Pitons and of the twinkling lights of the bay below. As the sun glistens through the louvred windows, the setting is reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s captivating villa at Goldeneye in Jamaica.
Anse Chastanet ‘has 49 individual bedrooms and reveals itself over a steep jungly hillside’
The resort has a fun sunset jazz cruise and the best dive centre on the island. We snorkel in Anse Chastanet’s protected marine reserve just off its picturesque main beach and see colourful corals and incredible marine life including lobster, trumpetfish and a hawksbill turtle.
For those pining for Blighty, a daily afternoon tea is served at the Piton Bar.
We have a wonderful dinner at Anse’s stylish Treehouse restaurant – the chef’s tarragon roasted mangrove red snapper with grilled citrus, west Indian chow and shrimp salsa is outstanding.
Anse’s stylish Treehouse restaurant – the chef’s tarragon roasted mangrove red snapper with grilled citrus, west Indian chow and shrimp salsa is outstanding, says Frank
The Anse Chastanet setting ‘is reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s captivating villa at Goldeneye in Jamaica’, writes Frank
Anse Chastanet has the best dive centre on the island, Frank reports
Delightful Anse Mamin beach, where the Jungle Grill ‘serves lovely fish fillet burgers’
We spend the next morning at the hotel’s smaller, but delightful, Anse Mamin beach where the Jungle Grill serves lovely fish fillet burgers. One of the highlights of the trip is a sunset cruise on the beautiful hotel sailboat, the Suzi Q. As we sail past the Pitons, unexpected visitors in the form of a school of dolphins begin to jump playfully in the surf at the bow of the boat – a regular occurrence according to our cheerful local skipper, Kerwin.
Next stop is Anse’s stupendous sister resort, Nick Troubetzkoy’s Jade Mountain – possibly the Caribbean’s finest hotel.
Removing the outer or fourth wall allows each of the spellbinding open plan 29 suites to have an eye-popping view of the Pitons, with its own private infinity pool and hot tub.
Behold Jade Mountain – ‘possibly the Caribbean’s finest hotel’. It boasts eye-popping views
Each suite at Jade Mountain has a private infinity pool. Frank reveals that guests have been known to go five days without leaving their room
After a restful sleep in the four-poster bed, the uninterrupted view of the Pitons feels even more cinematic and more mysterious as they become shrouded in cloud or disappear in the early morning mist and emerge glistening in a tropical sun shower.
This is honeymooner heaven.
A host of obliging and cheerful local major-domos will respond to the slightest whim. It is no surprise to learn that guests have been known to go five days or more without leaving their ‘sanctuary’, as the suites are called here.
Jade Mountain is honeymooner heaven, with staff that respond to the slightest whim, Frank says
Jade Mountain’s classy Club restaurant, meanwhile, has panoramic views and an inventive menu that changes every day – the breakfast emerald chocolate crepe, the Caribbean lobster bouillabaisse, and the lemon and curried spiced Mahi Mahi will all live long in the memory.
Above the restaurant is the Celestial Terrace, a great place for a sundowner and one of the island’s most popular venues for marriage proposals.
Charmaine’s deep-tissue massage in the wonderful Kai En Ciel Spa is another highlight. Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain provide the greatest hotel experiences in Saint Lucia, if not the whole Caribbean. They are resorts that hold themselves to the highest standard of impeccable but friendly service with a flawless attention to detail that are almost unmatched in the region. It’s hard to leave this paradise behind.
WHY SAINT LUCIA IS THE BEST ISLAND IN THE CARIBBEAN
Saint Lucia is exotic with its tropical rainforest, stunning corals and cocoa plantations. Its English-speaking people are the friendliest and most welcoming in the Caribbean. There is no aggressive hawking of goods, everyone is good-natured, and we feel safe in every public space. Derek Walcott wrote that Saint Lucia’s ‘mountains tinkle with springs among moss-bearded forests… and a volcano… has made it a healing place’. Saint Lucia is indeed a healing place for the soul and after a week on the island, I can confirm that the travel accolades are deserved – Saint Lucia is indeed the best island in the Caribbean.
ST LUCIA JAZZ AND ARTS FESTIVAL
Sting and Shaggy are headlining the 2023 Saint Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival
The rapper Shaggy once described Sting as the brother that he didn’t know he needed. Such brotherly love will be on display at the Saint Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival when Sting and Shaggy will headline the closing night on May 14.
They follow previous headliners Rihanna, Wyclef Jean and Amy Winehouse, and all the hotels we stay in are preparing themed events around the festival, such as Jazz Au Chocolat at the Rabot.
Frank Mannion is an award-winning director and his latest film, Quintessentially Irish, will be in cinemas at the end of the year.