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A post-pandemic trip to the Caribbean island of St Lucia gave Helena Lang’s relationship a much-needed reboot
What are you two celebrating?’ asked my therapist, Velma, while she and Julietta administered the most magical couples massage in a treatment room for two at the Red Lane Spa. ‘Being alive!’ said my husband, Simon. And we all had to laugh.
The past few years had taken their toll on our physical and emotional wellbeing, and as we emerged blinking into 2022 we grabbed the first opportunity to hop on a plane and head to the all-inclusive Sandals Regency La Toc in St Lucia, braving PCR tests, complicated immigration forms and all. Surrendering to Velma and Julietta’s skills in teasing the knots in our shoulders, while the sweet, fruity neroli oil fragrance filled the room, the memory of the tense drive to Gatwick, the relentless form filling and the post-pandemic travel anxiety faded away. Thank you so much, ladies!
What Simon and I needed more than anything was an opportunity to reconnect with each other after two years of working-from-home stress and an escape from all of our obligations, both pleasant and otherwise. We had a self-imposed laptop, email and Zoom-call ban, with digital activities restricted to Kindle, audiobook and Spotify only. Oh, and the occasional online yoga and meditation class... although, quite naturally, they never happened!
Step one of our escape started on the drive from Hewanorra Airport to the hotel, which takes about an hour. On the way, the lush and diverse environment had announced in no uncertain terms that we had left the cold, grey, rain-lashed UK for lush, vibrant and tropical St Lucia.
On both sides of the road, tree branches drooped with mangoes, soursop (a green prickly fruit), avocado, jackfruit, plantain and bananas, and our driver pointed out orchards laden with cashew trees, the fruit of which local villagers use to make jam or ferment into a distinctive wine.
The heat and humidity was like a blanket and we were pleased that we had taken advantage of the Sandals hospitality suite at the airport, where cold drinks and cocktails blurred our post-travel grumpiness and started to set the scene for our holiday. Eventually our car swept past colourful cottages and into a beautifully landscaped driveway, where bougainvillea blossom draped over walls and fences and the lush rainforest vegetation had shot its tendrils between any gap it could. We had arrived.
Checking into our smart, modern suite with its giant bed, luxury shower and fridge stacked with more booze than you can shake a stick at was a breeze. What took some getting used to was our butler, or butlers (we shared a team of three with some of the other suites). What is it with us Brits? According to Wikipedia, the word ‘butler’ comes from Anglo-Norman buteler, ‘an officer in charge of the king’s wine bottles’ and the general assumption is we invented the job. But having people ready to do our bidding day and night at first felt a little awkward. However, we soon got into the swing of things. Reservation for a sunbed on the beach? No problem. Change your booking for dinner? Of course. More beers for the fridge? We’re on our way.
My new definition of decadence is having a lurid Blue Lagoon cocktail, which had a colour that matched the ocean, delivered to my sunlounger by my favourite butler – thank you, Tricia! This was just about matched by watching the sunset from our large circular bubble-filled tub, which was scattered with rose petals. Again, the butler team read my mind.
The balcony was our sweet spot. It’s where we would start and end our day with either a piping hot cuppa or something cold and boozy. Just gazing out, we could watch small, light aircraft landing (or making several Indiana Jones-esque attempts) at the airfield in nearby Castries, St Lucia’s capital and largest city, and glamorous yachts on the horizon looked like children’s sailboats on a still, blue pond. In the afternoon, catamarans full of partying tourists chugged their way past, everyone bouncing to a steady reggae beat back into Castries harbour. Then in the early morning we would often marvel at a giant cruise ship reversing into the harbour bay; you might then see it departing late evening, lights blazing into the sunset. And, oh, what sunsets – they were as spectacular as a flame thrower at the circus and often as dramatic in colour as your favourite Turner painting.
Quickly converted to a laid-back Caribbean pace of life, we drifted down to breakfast at The Pavilion restaurant each morning, preferring to browse the buffet than opt for an a la carte option in one of the other restaurants. Platters of tropical fruits were closely followed by pillowy cinnamon buns, slabs of French toast and any combination of cooked breakfast we cared to try.
Dinner brought a seemingly endless choice but we quickly discovered our favourites. We love to eat outside at any opportunity, so the casual beachfront Neptune’s restaurant was often our preferred choice, with simple, healthy-ish dishes, and the lapping waves as company. Alternatively, one of the more glamorous options gave us an opportunity to dress up and focus on each other, rather than the environment. At La Toc, the Parisian-inspired fine-dining restaurant, I enjoyed a ratatouille-type salad, followed by a large, tender lamb shank glazed with a deeply savoury onion sauce. My dessert of chocolate opera cake was a patisserie miracle considering the climate.
Kimonos, the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant, was the most memorable culinary experience as our chef flexed his knife skills, juggling cleavers and cooking tools in an impressive display on a huge hotplate with us and other couples seated around a sharing table. Over the course of an hour, he delivered dish after dish – bowls of garlic-loaded egg fried rice, strips of chicken breast, chunks of tender steak, huge pink shrimp and slices of white mahi mahi fish fillet. A vegetarian’s nightmare, but a meat eater’s paradise.
One very special afternoon saw us on a snorkel tour with the team from local company Island Routes. We sailed away from Castries just as the cloud-laden skies opened, and the captain decided to open the bar early as the heavy rain drove us all under cover. As luck would have it, by the time we reached the Pitons – two volcanic spires rising from the sea side by side – and the Soufriere Marine Park, the rain had cleared and the fish put on a show under the calm waters. I’ll never forget the huge electric-blue parrot fish patrolling the sculptural corals, along with squadrons of needlefish, beautifully patterned fish, and the strange and ethereal stick-like fish who seemed to want to be my friend.
A golf lesson seemed – at the time – to interrupt our day, but it actually turned into a fun afternoon, with us learning to swing and putt from the resident pro. His instructions were simple and unintimidating, and we vowed to visit our local range when we got home, something we could do together as we slide into the next decade of marriage.
On some days, when the sea was rough, we hopped on the free shuttle to one of the other Sandals resorts. Sandals Grande St Lucian in the north of the island is larger and has more of a party atmosphere, with a spectacular beach. It’s worth the 45-minute drive each way. We enjoyed chatting to other guests on the journey, including a young couple from Washington and a wedding party all the way from South Africa. Other friendships were easily made or avoided. At the Pavilion bar, Simon met a beer buddy – Ben from Wisconsin – whose wife had turned in early with a good book, and I jumped at the chance to copy her. At the more elegant Sunset Bar, the pianist and singer got a group of us joining in.
The whole trip brought a series of firsts. It was the first time I’d had hot pizza delivered to me on the beach, or that I’d arrived at sunloungers in the morning to find a coolbox rammed with beers (for him) and sparkling wine (for me), should the mood take us. In between the drinking and the eating, you’d find us swinging in hammocks with our un-put-downable novels in hand, snorkelling in the bay, enjoying evening cocktails by the fire pits or just jumping the waves. Whatever we were doing, it reminded us that we were so very glad to be alive.
Seven nights at Sandals Regency La Toc Golf Resort & Spa starts at £1,879pp for two adults and includes all-inclusive accommodation in a Honeymoon Luxury Room, return economy flights with British Airways and transfers. Prices for a Sunset Bluff Oceanview One Bedroom Butler Suite with Balcony Tranquillity Soaking Tub start at £2,735pp. Visit sandals.co.uk or call 0800 597 0002 for more info or to book.
The Piton Sunset Snorkel Cruise costs from US$86 per person; visit islandroutes.com to book. Treatments at the Red Lane Spa can be booked directly at Sandals Regency La Toc.