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St. Lucia Redefines the Caribbean Vacation

A view of the Pitons, on the southwestern coast.

Photo: Paul Costello

The term paradigm-shifting is seldom used in regard to a Caribbean vacation.

But this is St. Lucia, and it is hardly your typical Caribbean vacation spot.

That this lush volcanic island has stayed largely below the radar is a minor miracle. Plenty of people have heard of St. Lucia—its reputation for beauty precedes it—yet relatively few have been. That’s too bad for them, because this former British territory (it gained independence in 1979) has a staggering variety of landscapes, from jungle-draped peaks and black-sand beaches to tranquil cocoa plantations; luxurious marinas to sleepy Creole villages. Diving, hiking, bird-watching, sailing, yachting, and sport-fishing are all superb here. As is eating: those verdant slopes and dense forests are the source of fabulous produce, a rarity in the Caribbean. Because of its diverse population (a mélange of African, Creole, Carib Indian, French, East Indian, and British), St. Lucia also has a colorful homegrown culture that’s surprisingly accessible to travelers—another Caribbean rarity. It is a small island, one-sixth the size of Rhode Island, yet whole swaths of it remain undeveloped and remote. The roads are so switchbacked that a drive from the northern to the southern tip, 27 miles as the blue-plumed jacquot flies, can take three hours.

This all may change very soon. A sweeping—and highly unorthodox—plan is in the works to take this relatively unsung gem to the next level. It could use the help: St. Lucia accounts for only a small slice of the Caribbean’s overall visitor numbers. And the Caribbean is hardly the juggernaut it once was: the region’s share of the global tourism market has dropped from 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent. If St. Lucia’s bold stroke hits the mark—an effort that will require billions of dollars and some two decades of development—its success could have broad implications for both the Caribbean and global tourism in general.

St. Lucia made its name not on black-sand beaches but on bananas. “we called them green gold,” recalls Lyton Lamontagne, owner of the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation resort. During the island’s banana-farming heyday, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, some 10,000 islanders made a living off the fruit. But the industry collapsed in the 1990’s with the loss of preferential trade agreements with the European Union. “The banana died,” Lamontagne says, “and tourism came in to replace it.”

Although St. Lucia draws upward of 1 million visitors in a good year, 700,000 of them are cruise-ship day-trippers, not crucial overnight guests. The island already had a handful of high-end resorts—Anse Chastanet, Ladera, Jalousie Plantation—as well as three Sandals properties (where 70 percent of U.S. visitors stay). But by the new millennium, with tourism still lagging, the government began aggressively courting investors and developers with tax breaks and other incentives.

These efforts showed some payoff. L.A.-based Viceroy Hotel Group chose St. Lucia for its first Caribbean-island Tides resort, which will take over the Jalousie Plantation in 2011. And more luxury properties have arrived in recent years, including the stunning Jade Mountain, a resort-within-a-resort at Anse Chastanet, and the Mediterranean-style Cap Maison, on the northern coast.

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