Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Anse Chastanet: St. Lucia

If you’ve ever visited St. Lucia, I bet you’ve either been on a cruise or stayed at a resort near Castries. Not us. We discovered Anse Chastanet in a Fodor’s Caribbean guide many years ago, visited and fell in love with it- so much so that we return there as often as we can. We fly into the Hewanorra International Airport at Vieux Fort and a driver from Anse Chastanet picks us up. It’s still a hefty drive to the resort- about an hour, but the main roads have improved drastically over the past 10 years or so; I can remember when we were all carsick by the time we got out at the hotel. But still, the last mile or so climbs up a mountainside on a dreadful dirt road with potholes- it must be deliberately so; perhaps it will always be like that.

The drive from the airport: Soufriere on the right, Anse Chastanet in the distant middle.
I’ve nothing against Castries, we have visited this capital city of St. Lucia often enough. The boys play golf at the St. Lucia Golf and Country Club once every trip and my daughter and I have done some fun shopping in the local markets followed by a delightful lunch at The Green Parrot- a steep but short cab ride away.

                                                  The Green Parrot, courtesy of their website.

As I recall, there are two boats a day leaving from Anse Chastanet to Castries so you can go day-tripping when you like, or you can make special arrangements as my sons do for a golf outing. There is a lot of history here and it’s worth a trip. But Castries is a comparatively big city after all, and we come to St. Lucia for quiet time. Or as my children say: “we need to get on island time”.

On our first trip here long ago we arrived at night and it seemed as though we drove up a mountainside (not far from the truth) and were deposited in the middle of nowhere, rather like that movie Enchanted April. The only thing we didn’t have was rain; it was dark, we were exhausted and by the time we hiked up to our room, we fell into bed with mixed feelings, relief to finally be there and fear we might have made a bad decision. It was not quite like any other resort we had visited.

At night: the main resort entrance leading to reception area.

But in the morning….Wow. What a view. The Pitons in the distance and the ocean below.

And this is what greeted us on our coffee table. In fact, there were flowers and flowering branches all over our room.

Our first room- no other word for it but island-charming. Since then, we have stayed in a number of rooms AND in their new section, Jade Mountain. Some rooms look out over the ocean and others have the Piton view. Once, we stayed in a room that had a tree growing in the middle of it!

First things first. Where do I begin to describe the island? It is mountainous and beautiful. A small, lush tropical gem that is still relatively unknown. One of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, it is located midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain, between Martinique and St. Vincent, and north of Barbados. St. Lucia is only 27 miles long and 14 miles wide. Its' dramatic twin coastal peaks, the Pitons, soar 2,000 feet up from the sea, sheltering magnificent rain forests where wild orchids, giant ferns and birds of paradise grow. Driving along, you will see fields and orchards of banana, coconut, mango, and papaya trees. The island's steep coastlines and lovely reefs offer excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. The rain forest preserves of St. Lucia's mountainous interior are one of the Caribbean's finest locales for hiking, biking and birdwatching. Not to be missed is St. Lucia's Soufriere volcano, the world's only drive-in volcanic crater. There are even waterfalls here and there- but unfortunately as the island welcomes more tourists, they are not as hidden and private as they used to be. We used to wander in off the road and luxuriate under the cold waterfall; now there is a path and you are charged for dunking! Sometimes progress is disappointing.

Piton Falls, before the admission charge
If you want to look into other places to stay there are any number of them scattered about the island, ranging from small guesthouses to elegant resorts and even a choice of three different Sandals. A travel agent would be a big help, check good travel guides or go online.
But we are prejudiced: we adore Anse Chastanet. I can't imagine staying anyplace else. You feel at one with the island and nature; and although there is no air conditioning, between the ceiling fans and the night breezes the rooms are cool at night. All rooms are wide open to the lush gardens, trees, birds and the most beautiful vistas- no screens; in some rooms there are louvers on the windows as needed for privacy, but in most rooms, you are totally private- looking out over forested hills and mountains.

There are no TV sets and no phones in the rooms, something we appreciate; our cell phones work if necessary and there is a bank of phones by the reception area. There is also computer access in the reception area if you need it. As you can see in the photos, mosquito nets are above every bed. Some rooms have open air showers- you feel as though you are showering outside in the wilds.

One of our favorite bathroom and shower areas

As with most vacation spots, the most important thing is the staff; after all, they are your first introduction to the resort. They were welcoming and friendly from our very first visit and welcome us back with open arms each time we return.

The resort itself is owned by Architect Nick Troubetzkoy and his wife Karolin, who are both firm believers in living with nature. Anse Chastanet is built along and around the sides of a rather steep hill. The estate encompasses 600 tropical acres bordering two soft volcanic sand beaches. Some of the rooms are down near the beach and 37 others are scattered up above the reception area, on both sides of a lush hillside. Some are octagonal wooden cottages and others are lovely suites or rooms that have marvelous balconies with fabulous views.

At the top of the aforementioned “hill” is the new Jade Mountain area- more about that later. The rooms are all furnished with handmade furniture made with local woods; pillows, spreads and fabrics make use of the charming madras pattern that predominates at this resort and is also used in aprons and caps worn by the staff. The women tie knots in the hats, numbers of knots indicating their marital status.

Photograph courtesy Anse Chastanet

Located in the center of the resort halfway up the hill, you will find the reception area, a breakfast area, two “treehouse” dining rooms and a bar- each a few steps up or down from one another. The walk down (and more importantly- up) to the beach from this area is a twisting trek of 120 stairs built into the hillside. It certainly is not a trip for the faint-hearted, but it’s great exercise and, if necessary, you could call for the complimentary shuttle from the beach to hillside level or to Jade Mountain.

The intersection of several levels, center hillside, for eating, drinking, reception.

We always have breakfast in the hillside restaurant with the birds flying all around. Of late, we have seen some small water pistols in the shape of seahorses to give a squirt at particularly annoying birds- they will eat off your plate while you go back for seconds at the buffet. Cute little sugar birds, but pesky.

After breakfast, we all go our separate ways; some of us go diving with Scuba St. Lucia- which goes out twice a day. I really cannot say enough about the diving here; there is so much to see and the diving operation is well handled. They have locker space so I dump my snorkel gear in order to avoid hauling it up and down 120 steps each day. Some guests play golf in Castries, others have made arrangements to climb Petit Piton with a guide (my kids have done that several times), there is mountain biking, some take a tour of the botanical gardens or plantations in the area, or go see the Sulphur Springs, Volcano and the Diamond Mineral Baths, or you could take a rain forest hike; we have also gone horseback riding.

There are also two tennis courts on the grounds and assorted beach activities. Whether you want to have an active vacation or a quiet one, there are a lot of choices here; there are any number of guided tours and lectures to sign up for. You could even visit other islands nearby if that's your wish.

My granddaughter, the youngest diver ever at Scuba St. Lucia.

I am here for quiet time; so I pack up for the day (I am NOT going to walk back up that mountain until it’s time to change for dinner- I can usually talk one of my kids into fetching something for me!) and walk down to the black sand beach where there are tiki huts galore. I snorkel, read, go to the spa, shop- there are several small shops here- and lastly, look through the art gallery. I have purchased many things here for my home- wooden figures, artwork of all kinds and even pottery, all locally made.

Anse Chastanet's black sand beach and tiki hutsThe nearest town to Anse Chastanet is Soufriere. There is not much there- a few shops on the waterfront. It's biggest claim to fame is the absolutely ghastly movie Creature starring Craig Nelson. It was filmed here.

A street in Soufriere with a storm brewing over the mountains

We usually all meet for a late lunch at the Trou au Diable restaurant on the beach- the only meal not included in the room rate. There is also afternoon tea served here- and a busy and always entertaining bar. Once a week a dinner buffet is served down at this beach restaurant- it is always a beautifully presented buffet and quite tasty. On the other six nights there is an Indian theme menu titled APSARA in this same location.

Trou au Diable bar and restaurant

However, at night we prefer the Treehouse restaurants up on the hillside. They are also open air restaurants but these are nestled among the treetops. Treehouse I has been here since the beginning and we find it charming. All the tables overlook the forest, although in the one pictured you are seeing the art on the wall behind.

Treehouse I

Treehouse II is new and quite glamorous as you can see; the view is just as spectacular.

TreehouseII and Bar (look at those wood carvings!)
Photograph courtesy of Anse Chastanet

The food is quite good, using island grown products and offering a limited menu each night- but with several courses. There could be some improvement here, but with the special one night a week buffet on the beach and the Indian food nights along with some local restaurants AND Jade Mountain's new restaurant (which I think resort guests can use) there is enough variety to please everyone.

The grounds include an old and tropical plantation called Anse Mamin with numerous cocoa trees on the grounds for guests to see and for Anse Chastanet to produce their own chocolates. In Anse Mamin you will find turmeric, cashews, tamarind, mango, avocado, oranges, tangerines, guavas, papaya, coconut, breadfruit, yams and sweet potatoes. The garden and farm include vanilla beans, bay leaf, nutmeg trees, cinnamon trees, and numerous varieties of mango, sour orange, and coconut trees. The Emerald farm grows greens, vegetables, and herbs for the restaurant. Anse Chastanet has a close relationship with many fishermen in town which gives them access to the freshest fish. You can even special order lobster for the next night if you wish and if it's available. There is a bar up here as well and usually island entertainment every night- especially during the holidays. Christmas at St. Lucia is great fun- Santa comes around during dinner, gives everyone a lovely gift and there is a champagne breakfast Christmas Day.

Every once in a while we want to dine away from Anse Chastanet. We order a cab and here are some of our favorites: The Humming Bird in Soufriere; The Jalousie Hilton (air conditioned!); Dascheene at Ladera, a smashing small hotel mid island which has a talented chef (Chef Orlando) and a marvelous shop where we often find exquisite wooden jewelry and island wear; Dascheene is fun for lunch as the view is spectacular. Lastly, The Rainforest Hideaway on Marigot Bay- we take a boat to go there- delicious and fun. Considered the best food on the island.

Ladera Resort and Dascheene restaurant

You will find the most marvelous hand-carved wood art around the hotel- in the rooms, in the restaurants, everywhere. In the on-site art gallery you will find a lot of local art for sale. I especially love the hand-painted pottery by Wild Orchid Designs and have brought much of it home with me; Anse Chastanet will ship the bigger pieces. There are many talented local artists represented here; among them we especially like Lawrence Deligny who has done most of the large wood carvings (my daughter, son and I each have his pieces in our homes- he carved a beautiful seahorse-headed walking cane for my daughter) scattered around Anse Chastanet and we think he is brilliant; for funky we like Matthew Paul who signs his name Matthew Edge- as in living on the edge- and down on the beach, you will find several ladies with jewelry and island dolls for sale and usually Sunshine Biscuit- another wood artist.

By Sunshine Biscuit

By Lawrence Deligny

Recently, The Troubleskys built an addition to the resort called Jade Mountain. As I mentioned, it is at the very top of the hill; rather an unusual but attractive structure with fabulous rooms.

Jade Mountain, back side

We had the opportunity to stay in one of these rooms a couple years ago and the views are stupendous, the rooms breath-taking. There is lovely dining offered here called "Jade Cuisine" created by James Beard award winner, Chef Allen Susser. Jade Mountain can use all the facilities of Anse Chastanet, but not the reverse. The rooms here, of course, are much more expensive and would be super for a honeymoon.

Jade Mountain, overlooking our infinity pool to the Pitons in the distance.

The open bath and shower area on a level up
And now I suppose you'll want to know the skinny on room rates. First of all, Anse Chastanet requests you do not bring children under the age of four. Whether this will change in the future I don't know. It is a quiet and peaceful resort- at least in the hillside rooms- perhaps everyone wants to keep it that way. You might also check to see if this age limit is raised or lowered during Christmas or other holidays.

Amazingly, after years of having to stop in either Puerto Rico or Jamaica there are now non-stop flights from Miami. Prices for these flights depend on the time of year and the class of service. Perhaps you have some frequent flyer miles to use, that's what we try to do.
Anse Chastanet room prices depend on the room and location. We have tried them all. Off season rates range from $300 a night to $600. During high season, you can figure double these prices. Breakfast and dinner are included in this price and there are packages galore. This is one resort worth saving for. Jade Montain, of course, is much more expensive.

Climbing Petit Piton

As you can see, we are terribly fond of Anse Chastanet and feel it is one of the better Caribbean resorts; it is unusual, very native, very natural and you are treated like family. So many resorts give little thought to nature; Anse Chastanet blends in with nature and the privacy is just what the doctor ordered. Island time.

More Jade Mountain: