Every Friday in the small village of Gros Islet there is a fish fry.
I’m holding a potent, vibrant orange rum punch. The sound system stacks at the crossroads of the village are pumping out a delirious mix of Soca and Reggae. The air is thick with a dense, moist heat. The week before there was talk of a tropical storm hitting the island. At any moment we’ll all be drenched in warm, heavy raindrops, but the Soca keeps the party driving on incessantly.
I head into the heart of the dancing. It is pure energy. Young Saint Lucians vigorously move their legs in choreographed moves, middle-aged European women flail their limbs, their hair is matted with sweat, an ageing Rastafarian veers from side to side toward me.
“Respect,” he mutters, before veering away.
In the corner of my eye I see ‘Peaches’ – not his real name. Earlier in the day he’d taken our group on a segway tour of the hills just outside of Rodney Bay. The route is covered in tropical thicket. We stopped at a secluded part and looked out over the turquoise blue sea while eating sweet bananas and melon. Tonight is very different.
Peaches nods to me, “You enjoyin’ yourself?”
A smiling lady takes my hand and leads me away to dance. Locals and tourists of all ages are free from inhibitions in this old fishing village at the north of Saint Lucia. The main street is flanked by rum shacks, and Spanish-style verandas, with faded greens, burnt oranges and yellows. Local women have ice boxes out on portable tables, selling rum punch in plastic cups for five East Caribbean Dollars (about £1.50).
This was my first time in the Caribbean. It wasn’t what I expected. Adverts for couples’ holidays present a morbidly saccharine existence, where mindless, loveless, ageless lovers walk hand-in-hand along plastic-looking beaches. It’s always made me think, if I ever wanted to save an ailing sexless marriage, the Caribbean would be the last place on earth I’d want to go.
I imagine that you can get your fill of suffocating schmaltz if that’s what you’re looking for. But under the surface of pristine commercialism, St Lucia’s true character glimmers.
“We have a saying here in Saint Lucia,” our driver Adam says as we drive through the gates of our hotel for five days, the five-star, boutique Cap Maison, “No pressure, no problem.”
No pressure, no problem. The adage was first vindicated when I was taken to my room. The hotel is a series of classical Spanish houses, which look out over the coast. Robinson, Cap’s sommelier, guides me up the stone stairs, and hands me the key to my room. He asks me if there’s anything else he can do for me, and I realize that I don’t have any tobacco with me. Robinson assures me that won’t be a problem.
I shower with Acqua di Parma. White-blue Spanish tiles cover the bathroom. My feet feel cool against the wet, terracotta floor. I step out into my room and onto the balcony. Looking out over the turquoise Caribbean Sea, I light a cigarette and pour myself the hotel’s own-made rum punch. The warm tropical wind softly blows my hair dry.
Later I have dinner with Ross, the hotel’s General Manager at the hotel’s beach bar and grill – The Naked Fisherman. Ross is a Scottish ex-pat who has made St. Lucia, and Cap Maison, his home. A tall man, and a keen cyclist, he is a warm and friendly host; his manner is marked by a quiet, conscious attention to detail.
Ross speaks enthusiastically about the island as we dig into sweet dorado ceviche, and meaty grilled razor clams. “Why would you ever want to be anywhere else?” he effuses, gesturing across the bay.
Crab claws arrive. A little chili and ginger adds heat. The saltiness of the sea breeze breathes through subtly. Our waitress chuckles. “They’re good aren’t they?” she winks. She’s about to head back to the bar, but Ross asks her to stay. “What did you say about The Naked Fisherman sign?” Ross asks her. She blushes. “I said to Mr. Ross it doesn’t look very naked to me,” pointing out the lack of any visible appendage to the naked fisherman on the bar’s sign.
You wouldn’t get that kind of banter at the Four Seasons, or The Ritz – but Cap Maison is a different kind of five-star hotel. Famous visitors include Mick Jagger and Sacha Baron Cohen. The luxury is abundant throughout the resort, but it’s not pretentious, haughty or off-limits. Ross and his staff keep it that way. Everyone at Cap Maison is a character.
Craig Jones, the chef at the hotel’s main restaurant, is another of the hotel’s characters. Craig is a white Welsh Rastafarian, who has spent over a decade in the Caribbean. He wanders through the sun-kissed resort in his chef’s whites and a prodigious Rastacap covering his dreadlocks. He’s an incredible talent. At 24 he became Head Chef of a Michelin one-star hotel, and worked under Raymond Blanc at the Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons.
At The Cliff at Cap, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Craig serves French-inspired gourmet West Indian food. Kobe short rib with caramelized plantains, kurobota pork belly with razor clams and coconut foam are highlights.
Craig’s sous chef, Nico, is a local from the south of the island. A towering, gentle giant, he has an infectious, deep chuckle. He is wearing his immaculate chef whites, and a pair of wraparound sunglasses. He looks at me in the rear view mirror. “Have you heard about Bois Bande, Tom?” Bois Bande is the name for Spiced Rum on the island. It means “stretched wood” in local French creole, and as Nico explains, “Don’t bother with Viagra, just have some Bois Bande.” As it happens, there wasn’t an opportunity to test Nico’s claims during my stay.
At the market, everyone knows Nico. We veer from stall to stall, the bright pastel blues and reds glisten in the blinding midday sun. Holes in the wall are built into the sides of the market, behind prison-like bars lean men in grubby white vests hack at hunks of meat with machetes. One of the women at the fruit stalls spies Nico and jumps at him, hugging him tightly. Nico explains that we’re visiting the market. She offers us to try some of her fruit, beaming with pride. The avocados are gnarly, gargantuan things; fleshy, and slightly sweet inside. I turn my head and notice more machete-wielding men. They slash at coconuts from the back of a pick-up truck. It’s a flurry of knives and noise. Nico, calm and collected, towers over everyone in his chef whites, looking supremely chilled as he sips from the straw sticking out of one of the coconuts. The market tour is a personal touch that feels ‘off menu’ from service you might expect from other hotels, and what Cap Maison does rather well.
That service is also why it would undeniably be a good place to propose, if you were ever in that situation. The hotel has a little rock pool/jacuzzi at the foot of the restaurant in the sea. You get down there by navigating some slightly hazardous steps, reminiscent of a smuggler’s cove. The waves splash up into the rock pool, and there is a little spot for two glasses and some champagne.
Above the Jacuzzi there is a wooden platform in the middle of the ocean. Soft lights droop over the platform, and are terribly romantic in the midnight blue of a Caribbean night. As I mentioned before, my own experiences on the island were terribly unromantic, but I still enjoyed myself, as I dined and drank with my fellow guests. Out of nowhere, suddenly I heard a cry from Robinson the sommelier. “Look out!” Suddenly a bottle of Laurent Perrier was hurtling down a zip wire from the restaurant. It’s cracked open and we toast a fine stay. As I say, if you were romantically inclined this would be sure to get your paramour’s pulse pounding.
A less romantic, but highly enjoyable, zip wire is a stone’s throw from the hotel. We took a car out into the rainforest and were met by the very friendly female staff at Rainforest Adventure Zip Lining. For some reason they found my manner rather amusing, and in the midst of the jollity of it all I smashed into a tree and injured my hand. Nonetheless, as a hardy chap I laughed it off and carried on. I understand this is a rather unusual experience, and I would perhaps advise you to take a more sombre, and less flirtatious, approach to zip lining if you ever get the chance.
Yet to take such an approach would be antithetical to the mood of St. Lucia and the Caribbean. St. Lucia is a hedonistic place. It likes to dance, it likes to drink, it likes to party and have good food – and it doesn’t take itself seriously. What I loved about Cap Maison is that it reflected that light-heartedness, its five stars were there because it took not being serious very seriously. Would I go back? In a heartbeat.
A garden view room at Cap Maison starts from £275 per night on a B&B basis (two sharing). For more information, visit www.capmaison.com or call 020 8977 6099.
For more information on the island of Saint Lucia, please visit www.saintluciauk.org
The ziplining at Rainforest Adventure costs from £75 per person (including hotel pick up and drop off). For more information, visit www.rainforestadventure.com.