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St. Lucia Redefines the Caribbean Vacation

A view of the Pitons, on the southwestern coast.

Photo: Paul Costello

This is why tourism officials would like to see more small hotels located in towns, not isolated in remote corners. Bring them together in existing communities, Chastanet says, and they function as one collective resort: “The individual properties become like different room categories, with everyone sharing the same common space”—the town itself. He imagines visitors “stopping at a local rum shop, wearing sandals, and having an amazing meal.”

Until now, however, getting travelers into the villages has been a challenge. Hardly anyone, for instance, lingers in Soufrière, the dusty Creole town in the shadow of the Pitons, St. Lucia’s iconic twin peaks. Most travelers prefer to explore the beaches, the mountains, the rain-forested interior.

To that end, Chastanet’s office is lined with glossy before-and-after renderings, showing the planned redevelopment of St. Lucia’s dozen-odd seaside towns and waterfronts. Some changes are cosmetic (restored façades; flower beds), others are infrastructural (new piers and marinas; bypass roads to keep traffic out of the towns). The goal is to make the villages more functional and eye-pleasing without sacrificing their character. Ultimately, a new ferry service would connect the waterfront towns, encouraging visits from cruise-ship passengers and resort guests. All this seems an extraordinarily ambitious and costly undertaking when you consider that the intended result is not some future-world metropolis but a handful of simple, pleasant nostalgia-inducing towns and villages, made a few notches more pleasant. “You want to give people an authentic experience of St. Lucian culture,” Chastanet says, “but present it at a higher standard.”

To get a bead on the sort of experience Chastanet is talking about, I pay a visit to Fond Doux, a working plantation and eco-resort owned by Lyton and Eroline Lamontagne, in the hills above the village of Soufrière. Established by French colonials in 1745, the 130-acre estate is rich with tropical fruit, but its main crop is cocoa, for which St. Lucia has long been renowned. (Fond doux means “sweet valley” in Lucian patois.)

The plantation is open to the public for guided tours—visitors can see the cocoa beans being aged in the rustic fermentary house, then pressed underfoot, like wine grapes, in giant iron pots. Two open-air restaurants serve traditional Creole dishes like fish curry and jerk chicken. Overnight guests can choose between simple bungalows or one of several 19th-century cottages, which Lyton relocated from far-flung corners of the island and restored himself.

It’s a deeply charming place, and a fine model for the intimately scaled, distinctly St. Lucian experience endorsed by the ministry’s plan. More to the point, it’s owned and run by Lucians. “Ultimately you want to see local people starting hotels and restaurants,” Chastanet says. “Our goal is that any properties below a three-star rating be exclusively owned by nationals.”

And this is where the plan gets extremely interesting. Chastanet’s office is creating an umbrella brand called Village Tourism Incorporated. “Every small property must become a member,” he explains. “In exchange, the government will pay for the marketing, the accounting, product development, even interior decorators. New hotels must meet certain criteria, and existing hotels that don’t meet the standard, we’ll put money in to help them refurbish.” The properties will still be independently owned and managed, but they’ll be marketed and quality-controlled by the Village Tourism brand. Chastanet envisions even small restaurants and shops one day falling under the VTI umbrella as well.

It’s a daring proposal, but it might be precisely what the island needs. Right now, as in much of the Caribbean, an invisible line separates the locals’ world from the one travelers inhabit; a few places manage to cross over, but those are exceptions.

In a just world, for instance, every visitor would know about Theresa Henry’s legendary bakery, occupying a squat riverfront shack in Soufrière. Until her retirement in 2006, Henry manned the ovens for six decades; the only days she took off were the days she bore each of her 14 children. Her daughters now run the place. They open at sunrise and sell out of their famous Creole baguettes by eight. I went one morning and was, by one worker’s account, the first traveler they’d served in memory. But the bakery feeds plenty of tourists indirectly: chef Jonathan Dearden at Jade Mountain uses Henry’s baguettes for his heavenly pulled-pork sandwich; Jalousie Plantation serves them at breakfast. Why not, in Chastanet’s vision, skip over the middlemen and bring travelers directly to the bakery?

St. Lucia has already seen its star rise of late, despite the broader setbacks in tourism. JetBlue started service this fall, and other international carriers are adding direct flights. Most significant, it has been attracting some prominent hotel brands. For all the emphasis on small, independent properties, St. Lucia needs big-name resorts to raise its global profile and to convince other investors to put up tent poles. Since Chastanet took office, Ritz-Carlton and RockResorts have announced projects on St. Lucia—in addition to the Tides. Meanwhile, unconfirmed rumors fly about outposts from Banyan Tree, Six Senses, and Canyon Ranch. “Right now we have 5,000 hotel rooms. We’d like to get to 10,000—that will bring more nonstop flights,” Chastanet says. But he is cautious about developing beyond that number, citing overcapacity and vacancies in once-booming destinations like Miami.

Despite recent advances, “The Plan” has been met with a certain amount of skepticism. First, there’s the question of money: much of it was conceived in flusher times; public support has waned in the face of the new economy. In Chastanet’s view, the downturn makes it doubly necessary to follow through. “Every country faces this question: Do you put money in your productive sector [i.e., tourism] or in social programming?” he says. “I’m a believer that you keep your productive sector going, because that finances everything else. Especially in hard times.”

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