The morning sun breaks through drifting clouds, flooding my balcony with tropical heat even at this early hour. The calls of island birds float across the lush, hushed grounds of the Royalton Saint Lucia. I grab my goggles and head for a pool. This is my fourth and final day on this Caribbean island. I’ve been here to get off the grid, be alone with my thoughts and replace my daily dose of corporate-speak with the pleasing musicality of patois.
The Royalton is silly with pools — all sparkling, each with its unique allure — and just past dawn I have my pick of them for lap swims. Today I head for the adults-only Hideaway, climbing stone steps for a fabulous view of Smuggler’s Cove and the green hills that ring the resort. This pool is enormous. The 35 laps that make a mile swim at my gym at home are equal to just 12 here — and what laps they are. I immerse myself in a world of cool, shimmering blue tile and stone swim-up bar stools that resemble the silhouette of a distant underwater city. I spy a tiny crab skittering along a step, so young he hardly has a shell. He’s white with colorful patches of orange and yellow.
Post-swim, I order a banana smoothie at the beachside Dorado restaurant. The fruit is the island’s main export and is so fabulously fresh, I work it into as many meals as possible — none better than the pancakes delivered to my room the previous morning. It’s another perfect morning in paradise. Pristine kayaks and sailboats, inviting in bold primary colors, sit ready in the watersports area, soon to take more travelers on explorations beyond the beach. My gaze shifts across the cove and settles on a few residential homes tucked here and there in the Cap Estate neighborhood, where the wealthy have enjoyed the luxuries of exclusivity and isolation for decades.
Suddenly, my heart skips a beat. I am looking at a ghost.
Island History and Mystery
Saint Lucia, like all places rich in complicated history, has its fair share of ghosts — some whose tales have been told and others whose stories have been lost, quietly carried away by time like grains of sand on a beach. Pirates, including the legendary Francois “Peg Leg” Le Clerc, favored its many coves, tucked into rugged volcanic hills.
Europeans started laying claim to the 27-by-14-mile island around 1600, bringing an end to the Carib population. Saint Lucia changed hands between the French and the English 14 times over 150 years until British possession was confirmed in 1814. Fast-forward another 165 years: In 1979, Saint Lucia became independent, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The British legacy is extensive. English is the official language and vehicles travel on the left, for example. But the French influence continues in the names of most towns and landmarks and in the Creole spoken among the island’s inhabitants.
Saint Lucia’s riches came from sugar, coffee and cocoa plantations. Throughout the 18th century through the 1830s when slavery was abolished, shiploads of Africans provided back-breaking labor while a locally born Creole population of slaves developed. Indentured servants from India replaced the slave workforce in the latter half of the 19th century. My driver, who gave me a lively narration of the island’s history on the hour and a half drive to the Royalton from the airport, told me his grandmother was a slave, though she never spoke of those brutal days.
Today bananas are the chief agricultural export, most sent to the United Kingdom, though the shifting winds of international trade keep that industry in flux.
The most promising contemporary economic driver is tourism. Boasting almost 20,000 acres of National Rain Forest (great for hiking, ziplining and birdwatching — look for the Saint Lucia Parrot!), diving areas with abundant coral reefs and abandoned sunken ships, a beach for watching nesting sea turtles, the Pitons (Gros and Petit) — twin volcanic plugs that were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 — and much more, Saint Lucia is a destination spot for couples looking for a romantic spot for a wedding or honeymoon, ecotourism adventurers, families escaping the daily grind and celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, Justin Bieber) getting away from it all.
Doing my best to help the local economy, on my second day I had embarked on a Nexus Tours’ Tout Bagay day-long trip with a small group of fellow travelers.
I needed to see a volcano.
So That’s a Volcano
Gliding across the Caribbean, our catamaran passed the majestic Pitons, rising sharply and dramatically along the coast. Soufrière came into sight — a colorful, congested village with narrow streets and wide charm. Our hour-long cruise here had been a tonic. Fresh sea air, abundant sunshine, a never-ending horizon dotted with distant islands and a dress code of swimsuits are a formula that lends itself to easy conversation and fast friendships. Relaxing on the stretched ropes that created a hammock at the bow of the ship or seated inside near the captain and crew, our group instantly attached ourselves to our mobile devices, recording our good fortune.
A minibus took us straight to the Toraille Waterfall, a somewhat frightening and beautiful example of the power of water and gravity in a drop of about 25 feet. Laughing, we took turns standing in the cold, clear rush of water, deafened by its roar and unsettled by its sifting bed of mud and sand.
We made our way to Morne Coubaril Estates, established in the 1740s as a coffee plantation. Today, the plantation produces mostly cocoa and coffee and offers horseback tours, ziplining and a brief historical tour, which we took. We wandered through replicas of stick huts “similar to those used two centuries ago by local villagers,” according to the plantation’s website (those villagers being, I believe, the plantation’s slaves). Our tour guide cut into a cocoa pod and let us taste the white fleshy pulp that surrounds the seeds or “beans.” We then followed her into a hot, airless building that replicated the kind of place where beans were dried, and a young man demonstrated the wretched process of breaking up the beans by jumping on them in an exhausting “cocoa dance.” Outside again, we watched a mule demonstrate the tedious process of crushing sugar cane in a mill. We liked the mule and took a lot of selfies with him, and then thoroughly enjoyed a Creole-style lunch at the estate’s restaurant.
Next stop: Sulphur Springs Park, home of the island’s rejuvenating mud baths in the collapsed crater of a dormant volcano. The sulphur gave off the distinct odor of rotten eggs, but we gamely pressed onward, first immersing ourselves into a dammed pool that had been created in a stream and then packing on the warm mud that was constantly being refilled in buckets for the many visitors who arrive daily. We slathered it on ourselves and each other, studying others who were using the mud and its various colors, wet and dry, to create artistic murals on their skin, including an enthusiastic bunch of college kids from West Texas. As the mud dried on us in the hot sun, we saw steam wafting from fumaroles on the volcano, which looked nothing at all like the snow-topped cartoonish mountain I had pictured in my head, but more like just a big rock.
Back on the boat, our hard work of sightseeing accomplished, it was time for cocktails and cold beer. As we made our way back, we popped into Marigot Bay, where part of “Doctor Doolittle” was filmed in 1967. We stopped in another cove for swimming and snorkeling, refreshed by the cool waters of the sea. As dusk started to settle, the music onboard grew a bit louder and our guides starting leading us in choreographed dances. Even the captain, dreadlocks swaying, was moving to the music, a fact that seemed highly hilarious and not at all dangerous. We were now all fast friends under the night sky — friends who dissolved again into laughter when a replica of a 16th-century pirate ship fired its powder cannons at us.
The Royalton Treatment
The Royalton proves to be the ideal antidote to my suburban stress. It’s exactly the kind of place you’d want to hole up in for a multigenerational getaway, a self-contained property with abundant options for dining and unwinding.
An all-inclusive resort, it offers teens and tweens a bit of independence. You can give them a kiss in the morning and send them off to the teen club (a lively spot when I ducked in, with air hockey, ping pong and video games) and let them get lunch or a coconut gelato on their own. There’s also a drop-in kids club for ages 4-12, a playground, a pool area just for children and a robust number of daily activities for them, including fitness classes: One afternoon I saw a group making dolls, which looked like a lot of fun.
There are daily activities for adults too. I lazily watched a Zumba class in one pool, and I sipped a cold mojito with fresh mint while listening in on a stirring trivia contest beside another. The activities go into the night with talent shows, disco dances and more.
There is also a duty-free outpost of Colombian Emeralds and a little shop, nicely curated with T-shirts and souvenirs. So if a gusty wind blows your red wine over, straight onto your cover-up on your very first night on the beach, you’ll be able to find a nice replacement frock.
Nine or 10 restaurants, 20 bars and a food truck are on site: Try the cafeteria-style Gourmet Marché Buffet for a fast in-and-out experience, the Japanese restaurant with tableside grilling, or the Tex-Mex place with the familiar comfort of nachos and a bowl of queso that was unlike anything I’d seen before but delicious in its stringy cheesiness.
Or, you can just call room service.
To be honest, I could have spent four days in my room and been more than happy. They are sleek, contemporary and high on amenities: dual-head rainforest shower, two big TVs with an abundance of viewing options, USB plugs for devices and excellent, quiet air-conditioning. Fast, free Wi-Fi makes it easy to stay connected to your fellow vacationers and (unfortunately) even the office back home. (It’s nice to be selectively off the grid, at least.)
It was nice to have a private butler on call, which is one of the many perks of a Diamond Club upgrade. The Diamond Club is an exclusive area that includes a private pool, clubhouse and beach area, and even a pillow menu. My trusty butler, who immediately answered my call with the special personal device provided just for this task, whisked away my wine-stained garment and returned it two days later, restored to a brilliant white.
If you’d prefer an adults-only experience, Hideaway is tucked on the other end of the cove with its own restaurant, bar, pool and other niceties. Note: The Royalton prides itself on creating custom packages for weddings.
I also spent quite a bit of time at the Royal Spa, which promised to “relax, recharge and renew.” It made good on its words with a facial featuring German-made natural Barbor products and the Custom Barbor Ritual, an 80-minute modern twist on the volcanic mud bath including a body scrub and mask followed by an I-feel-like-I’m-melting-in-a-good-way massage.
My Personal Ghosts
This wasn’t my first trip to Saint Lucia. Back in the 1970s, when I was in junior high, I had surgery for scoliosis and spent six months, including the summer, in a walking body cast. When winter came, the cast came off, and an acquaintance of my dad offered my family a stay at his vacation home on the island.
In my days at the Royalton, my eyes frequently searched the hills of Cap Estate, wondering if that house was still there and where it could be. This is an island of dense vegetation and steep hills. Something can be practically under your nose and you won’t see it until you turn a corner and have a new view. I went for a walk one day, wandering up and down the twisting streets, but saw nothing that looked familiar.
I was at breakfast on my last day, savoring a smoothie, and suddenly I saw my “ghost.” Was it the house I had vacationed in so long ago? I had remembered our vacation house as being high on a hill. This house wasn’t. I had remembered it as vast and mansionlike. This one was not, by modern standards. But something about this house hit me like a hurricane wind. The house called to me. Was it the spirit of my younger self beckoning?
I don’t know. It was weird.
My brother is a better family historian than I. He has a great memory and he keeps pictures from days before the Cloud. Through Facebook, he sent a photo of my mom in front of the Saint Lucia house. Same architecture. He had pictures that showed the cove and its relative placement to the house, and they matched the house I had spied. My sister weighed in: Now that she was really thinking about it, wasn’t Smuggler’s Cove what we called our beach then?
Did the Royalton just happen to build its resort in the same place I’d stood as a teenager and apparently heartlessly not helped my brother when he was stung by sea urchins?
I think so.
But even if it wasn’t the same house (which we were asked to leave midtrip when Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, commandeered it, settling us into a less fancy place and creating a bit of family lore when my father taped a note to a door that didn’t close properly: MADE IN CANADA), did it matter?
Saint Lucia had once again captivated me with its charms.
My quest to be alone with my thoughts had led me to new adventures, new friends, new perspectives and, curiously, straight back to the grid, to reconnect with family back home.
Royalton Saint Lucia
Smugglers Cove Drive, Cap Estate, Saint Lucia
Catherine Mallette has a Caribbean soul she can barely control and a healthy respect for volcanoes, dormant or not.