Visited mostly by droves of love-struck honeymooners and cruise ship passengers, the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia is the most developed in the region. Luxurious beachfront all-inclusive resorts are the main draw to the island, but venture outside the bubble of timeshares and destination wedding scene setters and you’ll find a raw Caribbean culture that drips with color and echoes of simpler times.
The famous Pitons of St. Lucia.
Geographically, St. Lucia is as rugged as it is beautiful. With two distinctive mountains called the Pitons the view of the northwestern portion of the island serves as an epitomic postcard background for anyone wanting a visual sense of place. The iconic pair of tower-like luscious green hilltops overlook the Caribbean Sea and can be seen from the air when landing into Hewanorra International Airport. It is absolutely the most recognized part of the entire island and it fits well within the tropical oasis of volcanic rock and rich jungle.
Delve deeper into St. Lucian culture, and you may feel conflicted. Rastafarian characters are aplenty here; adorned with expected bright Jamaican colors, dread locks, and a conspicuous passion for the "bob marley". And no, that wasn’t a typo; bob marley in St. Lucia isn’t the king of reggae as you may know him; bob marley is code for marijuana and it may sound something like this:
The colorful town of Soufriere.
“Hey mon….I got some good bob marley for you! You want some bob marley? Very good quality!” Although it is illegal in St. Lucia, locals will often target tourists who are looking for an authentic island experience. More noteworthy about the rastas than their local blend of cannabis is their existential attitude. The rastas believe in connecting to the Earth, nature, and to spread love and respect to one another. If you meet one, you may hear something of the sort before they transition into a sales pitch for a hand-made beaded necklace that they need to sell to afford to live.
Due to its lack of available natural resources, St. Lucia’s economy is limited mostly to the sales of banana crops and tourism. More than 20% of the local residents live below the poverty line with one district claiming a distasteful 44% of its residents living in poverty according to Wikipedia. As a result, don’t be surprised if locals chase after your car and tap on the window to get your attention in larger towns like Soufriere. But they’re not out to harm tourists. Mostly, they just want to sell locally made beads, necklaces, bracelets, and other trinkets to make ends meet. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a general sentiment among locals to “not trust anyone” as one woman mentioned to us, and she wasn’t the only one to say such a thing.
Other indications of poverty are hard to ignore on the island. From forlorn garb to a general aura of empty desolation, many local St. Lucians sit on their decrepit porches and watch the world go by.
The Manderley's Tower master bedroom.
Not far away, by contrast, are thousands of elated travelers from all around the world excited and anxious to partake in what luxury resorts deem to be an exposé into the brighter riches of St. Lucian culture. As pleasant and safe as those places may be, they sometimes include an air of inauthenticity. One of the Sandals resorts, for example, imported white sands from the neighboring island of Antigua to make for a better experience for tourists.
On a more local level, every Friday night St. Lucians and travelers converge in the northern city of Anse La Raye for the weekly “Fish Fry” event. Here, musicians take the stage, and a cornucopia of street vendors setup shop to boast their arts, foods, and drinks. One such drink is a rum marinating with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other local spices giving it a uniquely tropical but strong flavor. If you’re a lightweight like me, you may start to feel buzzed after one drink.
As convenient as it may be to stay in one of the many high-profile resorts on the island, a more romantic and interesting route may be to consider some of the VRBOs (Vacation Rental By Owner) available on the island. And that’s exactly what my girlfriend and I did.
Manderley House sits on a lush tropical hillside.
Situated on the edge of a hillside with incredible panoramic views overlooking both the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea is the Manderley House – a secluded storybook fantasy home inspired by the romantic house in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. This is where we stayed and it was unquestionably unique. It is a private four-bedroom estate shielded from the world by two acres of tropical gardens, an iron gate, and scores of protective lizards. Well, that last part may be debatable, but I’d like to think they were there to ward off the droves of mosquitoes.
Built and owned by Penny Barnard, this property has been a labor of love for over 25 years. Designed by Italian architect Mario Spinelli, who also designed Mick Jagger’s house, Manderley is a textbook example of the island’s style. The weather-boarded exterior is laced with gingerbread and adorned with pink, turquoise, and lavender pastels on the outside.
Plantation-style checkered walkway by pool.
Looking outward from the wraparound balcony, we were awestruck by the way the pool seemed like a jungle oasis surrounded by lush tropical plants. But even more beautiful is what happens during sunset. Each night we stood on that balcony and watched the sun paint the sky with vibrant colors as the tower building glowed a deep pink, a symbolic transition as we faded along with the sun toward the relaxing end of the day.
Entering from the balcony, we passed through a large reception area, which divides into a dining room and sitting room; all part of the great room. This room encompasses the entire floor of the main part of the house. Three sets of double doors with hurricane shutters provide access to the balcony and are left open all day allowing the breeze and light to be filtered and diffused by the fretwork.
Gingerbread detail and pastel colors.
We were lucky enough to score a reservation in the tower bedroom, a real jackpot. This master bedroom features a four-poster white canopied bed covered with mosquito nets – which are absolutely necessary if you’re anything like me and attract every mosquito within a ten-mile radius. It also includes an oversized bath large enough to fit myself - a rare commodity. There’s also a bidet.
On one side of the bedroom is a somewhat hidden spiral staircase that meanders its way down into the secret library that has a feel from another time. We started smelling the rich scent of sandalwood only halfway down the staircase. One thing that makes this room special is that it has air conditioning. In fact, it is the only room in the entire house that does.
Four-poster bed in the Master Suite.
For the most part, the ingenious open-air design of the entire property rarely needs air conditioning. The tower suite, for example, has a raised ceiling that functions as a holding area for rising heat. The construction of the building creates cross breezes, views, and an occasional indoor bird.
Speaking of indoor birds, there’s one in particular that seems to enjoy flying inside the house. He’s not an obnoxious pooping pigeon; he’s more of the small cute could-fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand type. He flies in, stands on the railings and occasionally lands on one of the three crystal chandeliers in search of leftovers. Perhaps he too enjoys the lap of luxury like my girlfriend and I did. Or maybe as he flies by the fichus arches and stone fountains, he just gets confused as to where the garden ends and the house begins.
Storm shutters open to gingerbread fretwork.
Visually, the warm, late-afternoon light invited us daily to relax and curl up with a good book. Our sense of time, marked only by the stretching shadows that sketch along the wooden floors, faded into oblivion as we truly felt as if we were sinking into another world.
For such a majestic tropical oasis, you might wonder why everyone wouldn’t want to stay here. Well, according to the property owner, many high-profile celebrities have. Morgan Freeman has stayed here for a week, Lisa Kudrow came with her own photographer, and countless others have bathed in the lap of luxury at the Manderley House.
Dining nook near the edge of the property.
In fact, as I’m writing, I can almost hear Morgan Freeman’s voice painting his special god-like tone over these words. Let’s try it: In a place like this, you can either get busy living, or get busy dying. The choice is yours, but up on this green hilltop, I choose life. (Not a bad impersonation if I do say so myself!)
But celebrities aside, we felt magic all around this property. Even the furnishings and accessories for example were bought, found, or made locally here on the island. Local wooden pots, plates, shells gleaned from diving trips, a sleek colonial chaise-lounge carved by a blind St. Lucian, all may make a visual cameo on the property.
A comfy guest suite awaits.
One thing that truly made our stay unforgettable was Kehrtama. Born in St. Lucia, she is the sweetest, most generous amazing woman you could meet in such a place. A woman who is so devotedly loyal, she travels more than an hour each day to come and take care of guests. Kehrtama is not a maid. She’s not a servant (although her official title may be just that). She’s a friend that you inherit when you book a stay at Manderley.
Kehrtama catered to our every need. She cooked and cleaned for us and had tons of information about the island, the house, and all type of interesting anecdotes laden with local culture. She even baked my girlfriend a chocolate birthday cake (which was delicious by the way)!
The Grand Room - charm and style.
I’ve seen postcards and Facebook photos of beautiful villas and all-inclusive luxury hotels in St. Lucia, but never have I seen anything like this. If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to stay in a d¬reamy white-laced gingerbread house with sweeping vistas; one that has the intricate detail of a doily or the icing on a wedding cake or doll house, stay at Manderley House. Leave behind those inauthentic cruise destination expectations and take a trip to the rugged, beautifully detailed, real St. Lucia.
But maybe even Manderley house high up on a hill isn’t far enough away. If you’re interested in getting completely off the grid, even on the relatively remote island of St. Lucia, we have one more option for you. Read on.
Wood-carved furniture in Crystal's largest villa.
Winding up and down the jungle-lined roads in St. Lucia can be quite disorienting, so much so, that we often wondered if we had veered off path. En route to our next destination, each turn felt as though we were disappearing into an alternate reality. With the help of some friendly local neighbors, we finally found our way to the beautiful tree-top villas at Crystals St. Lucia; our jungle hideaway for the next few days.
Within five minutes of our arrival, Monica, the owner of the resort, greeted us with a warm smile and a cold rum punch. We sat together in the “lobby” to enjoy our homemade cocktail while chatting with Monica about the island and her resort. Instead of the usual hotel with stiff couches, patterned carpet, and a long reception desk, this cozy space had the feel of a warm, ornately decorated tree house. The decor was as colorful as Monica herself, who had clearly infused every detail of the resort with her own personal style and character.
Grand Living Room shutters open to the Pitons.
We felt more like long awaited friends than hotel guests as Monica explained her background in the hotel industry and what lead her to create Crystals. Monica had a vision to build a one-of-a-kind resort; a place where travelers could feel taken care of while also enjoying privacy in a uniquely beautiful and serene setting.
Situated at the top of a hillside with breathtaking views of the Pitons, Crystals offers guests a unique piece of paradise. We were escorted to our villa, which to our surprise, was just as ornate and interesting in its details as the lobby. Inside the Silver Palm Villa, which is the largest of the villas at Crystals, we felt as though we were visiting the Flintstones (or some distant relative thereof). It definitely had the feel of another place and time, with large, beautiful leather furniture and woodworking which we later discovered was all done by Monica’s husband.
The majestic Pitons poolside.
In each of the three bedrooms, we were surrounded by art and culture. From the wooden bedframes to the hand carved statues in every room, Monica’s attention to detail was everywhere. The villa boasts a large, open kitchen, making this the perfect villa to escape reality for days (or even weeks, like some of the other long-term residents). That’s exactly what we did. With our own personal infinity pool and large deck with a breathtaking view of the Pitons, why would we have any reason to leave?
Breakfast was served every morning in each of the villas, which made it all the more compelling to stay hidden away in our home away from home. We ate alongside friendly local birds who were patiently awaiting our table scraps. Only a few feet from the breakfast table, two giant doors open up to a private deck, perfect for sunbathing after a quiet meal.
All villas have a private pool.
We did manage to drag ourselves out of our beautiful, private villa to enjoy the complimentary “happy hour” which Crystals offers every day at 5 p.m. This gave us the chance to chat with other extremely relaxed and happy guests from around the world. Many of these guests were honeymooners, which made sense as Crystals is clearly the perfect place for a romantic getaway. The villas are all comfortable, private, and uniquely beautiful.
Canopied beds with drawn mosquito nets.
After getting the chance to check out some of the other villas, we were amazed to see that each had it’s own distinct feel and look. With art collected from other islands in the Caribbean, each room had a completely different aesthetic. What each villa did have in common was a warm, colorful and bohemian look. Every nook and crevice at Crystals has something visually stimulating, be it the art, the views, the pools or the colorful details.
On the last night of our stay, we had the pleasure of dining with Monica and the other guests at the Treetop Restaurant. Enjoying great conversation, delicious wine, and a five course meal prepared by their in-house chef, we spent our last night in style; the only way Monica would have it.
Treehouse-inspired balconies for jungle views..
For those that value staying at places that spare no expense when it comes to creating an alluring mood, Crystals will not disappoint. The villas are perfect for honeymooners and families alike. If you’re looking for an ideal staycation, beautiful details that ensure unforgettable experiences, and hosts that welcome you like long lost friends, Crystals St. Lucia is the place.
— Feature and photos by Josh Edelson, Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Correspondent.