If you've had a vision of what an ideal family hotel might be on a tropical island, we think we may have found it at Anse Chastanet, St. Lucia.
Say "St. Lucia, West Indies" to almost anybody and they immediately conjure up a picture of the famous Pitons, twin volcanic peaks rising steeply out of a sparkling blue sea, each covered with a mantle of lush green vegetation. So strong is this image of St. Lucia that even the St. Lucia Tourist Board admits it still has a job to do to convince the world the island has much more to offer than its admittedly wonderful scenery.
Traveling south after our arrival at the George F.L. Charles Airport in Castries, principal city and seat of the St. Lucia government, the well made, narrow road winds breathtakingly along the west coast. This gave us wonderful panoramas of small fishing villages, deep bays and banana plantations, often against a backdrop of the always present mountains. The island's highest point is Mt. Gimie at 3,118 feet (960 m) but it has competition from at least 10 other lofty peaks, including the Gros Piton and Petit Piton.
Suddenly we came upon a community of some size and greater importance than the coastal villages we had seen. But our introduction to Soufriere had to wait for another day as our taxi slowed abruptly to follow a one track road around the hillside. Avoiding the worst of the potholes, our driver told us that many taxis "from the city" (by which we presume he meant Castries) refuse to drive this two-mile road to reach the 600-acre property which was our destination. It was worth every second of those bone-shaking few minutes. The Anse Chastanet Hotel was like arriving in paradise, so friendly the welcome, so charming the reception, so splendid the views everywhere.
Families Welcome at Anse Chastanet
As grandparents looking for a romantic getaway, we were startled but delighted to see so many families at the resort. Looking ahead to our next family reunion, we asked a mother of three young boys, ages 6, 9 and 11, why she had chosen this hotel for their family vacation when the island of St. Lucia boasts world-class hotels and deluxe resorts with well known brand names and elaborate facilities.
She said, "I consciously chose to come to a place with no TV, without telephones in the rooms, where the boys would have to get involved with all the outdoors things there are to do here and spend time with each other." She chose well.
When we asked another parent, this one with a girl and a boy both under 10, the mother used almost the same words in her reply and added, "It's been a real learning experience for the whole family. We are all doing new things for the first time and doing them together is such fun."
Yet another multi-generational family group consisted of two grandparents, two parents, two teenage boys. They were into the professionally run scuba training classes, the kayaking, the mountain biking, and last seen were heading for the beach to check out the windsurfers and to book a sunset sail. The parents told us the boys grumbled a lot at the prospect of a hotel without phones in the rooms and "What do you mean, no TV?" but it didn't take them long after arrival to adjust their sights and find, to their own admitted surprise, that doing all these things plus swimming in warm, crystal clear sea water and exploring the nearby sugar plantation with a very knowledgeable guide had its own rewards.
Hillside Oasis for the Fit
Anse Chastanet ( 800/223-1108) is the architectural vision of Nick Troubetskoy and his wife who developed a pre-existing property of 14 units purchased in 1974 into a romantic resort nestled into a hillside "just around the corner" from the town of Soufriere. In its pristine isolation, it is still romantic, but also appeals to families with children. Actually, a better transportation option for families than a land taxi is the hotel's own water taxi, the improbably named vessel Another Peach on Earth piloted by the efficient Captain known to all as "Jungle."
Forty-nine uniquely designed rooms, scattered up and about on the hillside and nestled at beach level, have a view of the ocean and/or the Pitons. Twelve rooms, better suited for the physically challenged, are at beach level. The rooms vary in size and style but all have either clay tile or tropical wood floors, ceiling fans, jalousie windows and louvered doors, and large patios. Some of the superior rooms are decorated with the work of local and international artists, which can be seen and purchased in the hotel's own art gallery. This is a place where exercise is not an option, since the hotel's main facilities, reception, office, main dining areas and bar are 100 real cut-rock steps above beach level, with the highest rooms up to another 100 steps or so above that, too much for less active adults and those under the age of 8 or so (but there is a complimentary shuttle).
On our first day, we tennis and golf-playing grandparents wondered if we would survive this rigorous up and down lifestyle. After initially pausing for breath at several strategic points–just to look at the view–we found that the rate of acclimatization is very high. The walks up and down soon went unnoticed, except for the staff's congratulatory mentions of how well we were doing.
Few Facilities Distract from Nature
Anse Chastanet has every convenience with few facilities to distract from the views. At the beach level are cushioned chaises, big plantation-style hammocks–the perfect shady resting place for a late afternoon nap–and a couple of small shops under thatched roofs with a very definite flavor of the island.
The beachfront Kai Belte, or "House of Beauty" in the island patois, has a professional staff providing every imaginable kind of massage and beauty treatment from manicures, facials and body treatments to aromatherapy. The spa staff pay special attention to couples, who can sign up for a very private mini-course and learn the basics of Swedish massage, an experience especially popular with honeymooners and us second honeymooners.
The Trou Au Diable is an open-air creole restaurant open for lunch and, on certain nights, a beach barbecue dinner complete with flaming torches and an excellent steel band. Nightly at The Treehouse restaurant, musicians are aided in an inimitable and informal but truly melodic and harmonious fashion by the waiters and waitresses who know all the island songs as well as those more universally recognized. The totally charming restaurant staff not only takes care of your table, they become friends and, we noticed, mates for the children.
The hotel's St. Lucian staff have a style of their own and a polite, shy friendliness that is perhaps unique. When we commented on this strikingly different attitude which prevails and contributes so much to the pleasure of the hotel experience, Mrs. Troubetskoy put her finger on it with: "We want them to please our guests but we want them to be themselves. We try not to over-train them." A wise and thoughtful approach.
Exploring St. Lucia by Foot, by Pedal, by Fin
Part of Anse Chastanet's 600 acres is the site of an old French Colonial Plantation and sugar mill accessible only by boat from the hotel's dock, or by clambering along the rocks above the high tide mark, around the rocky point at the north end of the hotel's main beach.
One afternoon we signed up for a group "walk" through the plantation and one of the highlights of the experience was the lively and informed guide named Menno. Proud as can be of his heritage, of the flora and fauna, of the plantation and the hotel, Menno was a walking-talking fountain of knowledge on all subjects to do with the colorful history of the place as well as the great variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and natural herbal medicines to be found there. The ruins of the sugar mill and the foundations of the old out-buildings and plantation houses, reservoir and viaduct system can be seen to this day.
Bike St. Lucia on the neighboring Anse Mamin estate, offers jungle biking adventure trails of graded severity. We learn this is considered a world class biking experience by the younger generations, one of few to provide a refreshing dip in a swimming hole along the way or end with a splash into the ever present ocean at the Anse Mamin beach. Cannondale F800 suspension bikes and professional helmets are on hand, maps provided, and trails patrolled. From novices to highly skilled riders, we find something here for everyone to enjoy.
Many guests above 12 years use the hotel's Scuba St. Lucia facility to visit major dive sites on the reefs close by. Others find the snorkeling so enjoyable that they enroll in the four-day Dive 'n Discover course, and end up making the requisite number of dives to go home with an impressive certificate, all set to enjoy their new interest at another time.
Less active family members will enjoy the daily sunset sail on the hotel's 37-foot sailboat, a popular event booked days in advance as it caters to four passengers only. With snacks and drinks on board, it was a peaceful, pleasant and romantic way to watch the sun go down, and to see the hotel and the most impressive coastline from a very different perspective.
Time for the Next Generation
Remarkably, there is nothing at Anse Chastanet to mar the serenity, the views, the privacy or the comfort. Our balcony overlooking the ocean was graced with a potted palm. On the upper side of one palm frond we found a delicately woven, perfectly balanced but absolutely secure hummingbird's nest about an inch and a half across. It had two tiny eggs in it, each the size of a child's aspirin. As it sat on its eggs the bird was obviously wary, but perhaps used to visitors, and she watched us breakfast at a table not four feet away. The bird's movements to and fro were almost too quick for the human eye to follow, but its presence spoke wonders about the environment and the quality of life at this splendid resort.
The baby hummingbirds will have hatched and flown by now, but we hope the parents will choose to nest in the same place next year, as we will, with our children and grandchildren.
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