September 1, 2014

Lonesome Love

When I arrived at Anse Chastanet late in the evening after the five-hour flight from Florida to St. Lucia, a porter led me up a frangipani-scented path to my room. He might just as easily have been called a bellman, but porter seemed more fitting since a porter is someone you hire to carry your bags up a mountain, and it was an Everest- like climb up that path. I was huffing by the time the porter unlocked a door and gestured me inside.

What little breath I had left was taken away as I stood amid 1,000 square feet of lovingly considered habitat created by architect Nick Troubetzkoy, Anse Chastanet's owner. Terra-cotta tile floors and a teak-beamed ceiling; soft lights that glowed under handwoven straw lampshades; a sprawling bed draped with a gauzy mozzy (mosquito net); a bathroom with an open-air shower that could have doubled as a bowling alley.

And I was surrounded by women. Well, paintings of women. They hung on the walls-bright, larger-than-life lusty canvases by the German artist Elvira Bach, one of a succession of painters and sculptors regularly invited to stay at Anse Chastanet in pursuit of inspiration. By all indications, they find it.

"What do you think of your room?" asked the porter.

I thought calling it a "room" was a lot like calling the QE2 a "boat."

"Nice," was all I managed to say.

I stepped to the balcony, which extended unimpeded from the main room-no windows or screens or doors-so that the overall effect was like floating above the island of St. Lucia or viewing it from a treehouse of unimaginably swank proportion.

The moon was almost full, and one of the Caribbean's dreamiest attractions, the volcanic twin Pitons-Gros and Petit, 2,620 and 2,460 feet tall respectively-loomed against the dark horizon like a couple of pointy-headed stone gods. Far below, fishing boats bobbed on the water. Lightning bugs flitted about in royal poinciana trees. Crickets and frogs competed for lead vocals in a counterpoint background score.

The porter said goodnight and headed for the door, passing the table where two wineglasses sat waiting to be filled from the bottle in the ice bucket. There were two place settings and two platefuls of goodies-smoked salmon, sliced papayas and mangoes, cheese-delivered from the kitchen as a late dinner. The porter paused as he noticed the two bathrobes spread out on the bed.

"You are by yourself?" he asked.

Yes, I told him. My wife couldn't make it. I was traveling alone.

"That is very sad," he said. "Especially in this room."

After the porter left I sat there feeling sorry for myself. Such a romantic setting and no one to share it with. Yes, how truly sad. Poor, poor pitiful me.

Then I slipped into one of the bathrobes and uncorked the wine, a nice Côtes du Rhône. It went down well, as did a plateful of salmon and fruit. So I drank some more wine and, since it wasn't like the food would save, I ate the other helping of salmon. I set the rest of the fruit and cheese on the balcony rail and within seconds a dozen chirping bananaquits had flown in for the banquet.

I stood on the balcony and took it all in-the sights, the smells, the sounds. Then I toasted my wife and I toasted the Pitons. I toasted the frogs and the lightning bugs and the birds. I toasted the lovely women peering at me from the walls. Yes, it was tough being all alone in paradise, but somehow I would manage.

If one is determined to hunker down on a Caribbean island and not wander widely afield yet still enjoy diversions aplenty, then the area around Anse Chastanet is about as good a place as I can imagine. In the week I was there, I dived reefs as unspoiled as any I've ever seen, hiked rain forests, showered in waterfalls, sniffed the sulfurous aroma of a sleeping volcano, trekked the crumbling remains of a 17th century sugar plantation and soaked in mineral baths once owned by Louis XIV. I lounged on the beach, ate foods I'd never eaten before, drank drinks I'd never drunk before and met an unending assortment of local characters and good people. It was the Caribbean in microcosm, and I never ventured more than five or six miles from my base camp, such as it was.

There are plenty of other resorts in the Caribbean that are bigger and fancier. But when it comes to romance, Anse Chastanet holds a singular cachet. For one thing, it's small-just three dozen or so hillside cottages and villas. And it's hard to get to. Unless you arrive by water taxi, you have to travel a couple of miles on what is surely one of the rockiest, bumpiest and tire-bustingest roads in the tropics.

But once there, you know you've reached a rarified enclave. Nick Troubetzkoy, a Canadian, arrived here in 1974 and immediately set out to create a tropical retreat that was both in harmony with the lush natural surroundings and rich in design. The villas and cottages tiptoe up the hillside as if they belong there, no two of them alike and all of them offering spectacular vistas of the sea.

Troubetzkoy's wife, Karolin, orchestrates the artful elements, inviting world-renowned talents to visit the resort for weeks at a time as artists-in-residence.

"In return for the room and board, they give us their creations," says Karolin Troubetzkoy. "We like to think of Anse Chastanet as an art gallery where you get to live for a short time."

During my visit, a Swiss painter, Claude Sandoz, was enjoying a month-long sojourn at the resort. When I met him, he was sketching a group of children from the nearby town of Soufriere as they played on the beach.

"I come here and it is as if suddenly I am seeing color for the first time," said Sandoz. "It is a place where all the senses come alive."

No more so than underwater. Anse Chastanet sits right next to Soufriere Marine Management Area, which encompasses some 80,000 acres and is off-limits to fishing. Divers and snorkelers can enjoy vast pastures of healthy coral and zillions of reef fish. During one of my dives, I was engulfed by a swirling school of silversides. No sooner would I fin through a seam in their procession than the school would fold back around me, as if I was in an underwater house of mirrors.

Some afternoons I would hop the water taxi to town, which takes its name from several nearby "soufrieres," or volcanic vents, remnants of a huge volcano some eight miles wide that collapsed here about 40,000 years ago. The gaseous belching and spewing that lingers on is billed as the "World's Only Drive-In Volcano," although most visitors park in a lot near the crumbled rim and see what's to see on foot. The town of Soufriere dates to the early 1700s when Louis XIV began parceling out chunks of land to certain favorite subjects who built estates from the riches born of cocoa, coffee and cotton. All told, St. Lucia changed handed 14 times before winding up under British dominion. But the Gallic influence still pervades. Most towns and geographical landmarks bear French names and while virtually everyone is fluent in English, most locals prefer to speak their lilting, French-based patois.

One afternoon, after a rigorous hike through Anse Mamin, an 18th-century plantation that adjoins Anse Chastanet, I stopped in at the resort's spa to get a massage and work out the kinks.

"You want the 'wosh cho'?" the massage therapist asked as I stretched out on the treatment table.

Wosh cho? I didn't have a clue.

"It's patois for hot rocks," she said. "We place them all over your body."

Sign me up, I told her. And for the record, wosh cho really rocks ...

And so the days unfolded at Anse Chastanet, until on my last evening I sat at the verandah restaurant enjoying a rum punch with some other guests. The lightning bugs were putting on their twinkling act. The crickets and frogs were tuning up. The air smelled as if the doors of a million florist shops had been flung wide open.

Someone said: "Too bad your wife isn't here to enjoy all this with you."

I mumbled something that seemed suitably glib and the conversation moved on. But privately I offered yet another toast to the woman I missed. Anse Chastanet has too much beauty and romance for one man to handle. When I return I won't be alone.

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