St. Lucia's Stone-Age beauty is drawing brand-new growth - 2006-03-15

Fourteen hundred miles southeast of Miami, in a Caribbean nation you've likely given little thought, where the locals speak a patois you won't understand, a game you know nothing about is helping to morph the island into an incentive destination you can't ignore.

When, in 2004, St. Lucia was selected as one of four West Indian nations to host the 2007 Cricket World Cup, the government committed 57 million Eastern Caribbean dollars ($22 million U.S.) to related improvements and sweetened the pot with incentives for development. The news came at a time when the island's economy was becoming more dependent on tourism; the result has been a small boom in development. With better roads and new resorts and golf courses, this naturally beautiful volcanic island is becoming much more attractive for groups.

"A year ago for incentive groups, I had Jalousie Plantation Resort [to recommend] and that was all," says Simone Champaigne, CEO of SNC Destinations, a Sunrise, Fla.–based company that helps U.S. groups plan trips to St. Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. "When I found out everything that's going on, I was like a kid at Christmas."

With all the projects either underway, recently completed or scheduled to break ground soon, the most remarkable fact might be that each offers an experience unique on the island—a quiet property in the valley of the Piton mountains; a resort in a tranquil bay with high-end shopping and dining; an enclave of villas with 36 holes of golf nearby; twin properties near a lively, up-and-coming dining district.

"[The island will] have a variety of options, something for just about any group," says Allen Chastanet, former head of the tourism ministry and now managing director of the Coco Palm and Coco Kreole hotels.

Down by the Bay
"This is the most beautiful and most photographed bay in the Caribbean," says my normally shy driver, as we wind downhill to Marigot Bay. He says it proudly with absolutely no hint of irony or indication of hyperbole. To him, it is just a fact. The bay, about 20 minutes south of Castries, cuts into the western coast of the island like the upturned corner of a smiling mouth. The location that made it a strategic outpost for the British and French navies also makes a great photo. Brilliant blue water snakes into the green hillsides; a white sandy beach juts out, dotted with made-for-a-postcard palm trees; and yachts, sailboats and catamarans sit at the ready.

Soon, incentive groups will be able to do much more than stop by for snapshots. This summer, British developer Doubloon International will finish a project converting the locale into a reward destination unlike any other on the island. Its anchor is Discovery at Marigot Bay, a 57-suite, 67-room Sonesta-managed resort. Like many of the island's developments, the suites are being sold as condominiums to investors, and so are outfitted with full kitchens. The design is modern Caribbean, with clean lines, integrated kitchens, slate flooring and dark rattan furniture. Each room has a large porch with a view of the bay, and 30 have private plunge pools. The property also will have a spa with combination indoor/outdoor treatment rooms, a Zen garden with Japanese soaking tubs and a tree house for small events. In the shadow of the suites, Doubloon is developing The Shops at Marigot Village, and the Rainforest Hideaway restaurant has already earned a strong reputation locally.

Hermina Danzie, who operates destination management company Carib Travel, based in the capital city of Castries, eagerly anticipates the coming changes on the island, including the opening of Discovery. "We recently used Rainforest Hideaway for an evening for twenty-five," she says. "It has a great view of the sea and wonderful ambience at night."

Discovery isn't on the sand, but a one-minute boat ride across the bay will put sun-worshippers on a gorgeous beach. The location lends itself well to marine excursions, from dinner cruises to day trips to nearby Martinique or St. Vincent. When I sat for lunch with Discovery's public relations manager, Molly McDaniel, a party of four sitting near us paid their bill and stepped from their table into a dinghy, sputtering off to a yacht anchored nearby.

"Nicholas Cage just put in a bid to buy that place," McDaniel said, pointing to a house less than a hundred yards from where we were sitting. If your goal is to make winners feel privileged, this location fits the bill.