Saint Lucia is unapologetically one of the most lush and fascinating islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Rich, green canopied forests, blue green ocean waters, black and white sand beaches, waterfalls, incredible flora and unique fauna, all mixed in with stories of battles fought, love lost and won, it’s little wonder the Word Travel Awards has lauded her nine times as the world’s leading Honeymoon Destination.
Saint Lucia was much sought-after for her deep water harbours. The British and French were constantly at war over who should own this majestic gem and the island changed hands many times with the British as the eventual victors.
The heavy French influence is still present in the people’s language (a French-patois is spoken) and in their many cultural traditions and food.
But what makes the island so attractive? Perhaps the secluded bays at Marigot and Soufriere, or resorts that offer spectacular views of the island’s famous twin peaks, Gros and Petit Piton, or maybe it’s the promise of peace and serenity. Chief among those offering this calm is Mamiku Gardens, located on the East Coast, quite off the beaten path in the community of Praslin.
Mamiku Estate previously known as the Union de Micoud was also called Madame de Micoud (after its owner) which has been corrupted over the years to Ma Micoud and now Mamiku. A strong resilient woman, Madame De Micoud was born in Soufriere as Marie Deveaux, in 1742. She married Claude Anne Guy de Micoud, a French general, who served twice as Saint Lucia’s Governor. He acquired the estate around 1760. Madame de Micoud survived much emotional turmoil in her life, including the deaths of a daughter, two grand-daughters, her son and her husband Baron de Micoud (the details of his death remain a mystery).
During the French Revolution around 1796, while the Baron was imprisoned in Holland for spying, the French were driven out of Saint Lucia by the British, who then issued a decree that no Frenchman could own land. De Micoud’s estate was taken over by the famous general Sir John Moore. Rising tensions between the land owners and slaves culminated in a furious battle with the Brigands (Freedom Fighters) which Sir John recounts in his diary. This battle left 15 soldiers dead, 20 wounded and the de Micoud home a burnt-out ruin. The captain of the post committed suicide after the battle.
As for Madame de Micoud, she died in 1817, two weeks after a devastating hurricane hit Saint Lucia. Her remaining child immediately sold the estate. The de Micoud Estate ruins were left undisturbed for decades until it found new owners who returned it to its former glory as an agricultural estate.
Fast forward to 1905, after several owners, the 3,000-acre estate was purchased by a young English gentleman whose wish was to become a farmer. Martin Shingleton-Smith acquired the land for 500 pounds. Limes, bananas and copra were the big crops supported by mule breeding.
Martin Shingleton-Smith fell in love with a beautiful Mon Repos village girl but the union was not to be. While the young farmer was off fighting for Britain, ironically a Frenchman came knocking and claimed the young lady’s heart and hand. Shingleton-Smith would eventually return to the island with a wife and the two began their life in Saint Lucia. Michael Shingleton-Smith, deceased, was the youngest child of the couple and husband of the present owner of Mamiku, Veronica.
In her exists a sense of the strong determined personality that existed in Madame de Micoud. As she tells it, Mrs Shingleton-Smith did not see a tiny island in the Caribbean as part of her future. When her father volunteered to become the police chief in 1948 she was well on her way to forging her career in the theatrical arts, having already appeared in a film and a staple on stage. But in 1952, after relenting to his wishes, she traveled to Saint Lucia. Veronica would never return home permanently.
“I was in my early 20s and my father had been begging me to come because he would soon be moving to Africa to another post so I came,” she recalls. “I had not been here for more than ten days when I saw this gorgeous man on the beach at Reduit. He looked at me. I looked at him and that was that.”
Veronica kept up her work in theatre and did not immediately think about running an estate or even establishing a garden, although she did enjoy horticulture.
“I remained in theatre arts and met with all the folks here in Saint Lucia who were mad about poetry and theatre,” she says. “I was introduced to Derek Walcott who was just on his way to creating such extraordinary poetry. It was unbelievable that I could experience this here in this tiny island. I also visited Trinidad and spent time there running theatre workshops.”
Her foray into landscaping was quite accidental, but perhaps destined. “We knew this landscaper vaguely from visits to Barbados,” she says, “He was from Kew Gardens and now he had been asked to landscape the hotel property Holiday Inn at Reduit in Saint Lucia. He had asked at the Union agricultural station in Saint Lucia if they could plant ornamentals and other plants for him and they said no. There were no gardens here at the time. So my friend and I said, ‘well, if you give us the list and the seeds and cuttings we will do it.’”
A new seed was planted that would blossom into a lifelong career. The pair worked tirelessly, helping and learning. And for the next 20 years Veronica would be a sought-after landscaper at the Holiday Inn, La Toc and Cunard as they were known.
Eventually, as times were changing and tourism was becoming popular in the Caribbean, Veronica’s dream to create her own garden took root. It would be a place of natural beauty, blending flower gardens within the woodland of indigenous trees. With the great support of her late husband, Michael, and their four children Impy, James, Richard and Stephen, work began on Mamiku Gardens in early 1997. Later that year the garden was open. Many visitors remark on the peacefulness they experience during their visit; Veronica says this is the most wonderful aspect of the garden.
Twelve acres of land offer a colourful variety of gardens separated by woodland walks. Start off from Tamarind Hill and follow along on part of the trail taken by the Brigands (Freedom Fighters) to the archeological site on the hill. See wonderful views of the rugged East Coast, Praslin Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Break away from the Brigand’s trail and hike down into the valley, through a mango grove and, if weather permits, swim in Mamiku River.
Mystic Garden features naturally growing orchids while Secret Garden is home to Grandpa’s House (a bath house for de Micoud’s overseer) and a variety of medicinal herbs and water lilies. Finally there is Veronica’s Garden and the Casse, a mini rainforest showcasing a natural spring. Bird watchers are often surprised by the Golden Oriole, the White Breasted Thrasher, the Black Finch and at least three species of humming birds.
A small interpretation centre showcases a plethora of artifacts of the 18th century plantation period and from the time soldiers were stationed there. Many of the items were unearthed at the site of the de Micoud’s house on the hill.
Today, Mamiku Estate is now only 400 acres, but it still produces bananas, cocoa, tropical flowers and fruits. At 80, Veronica’s indomitable spirit will not let her rest. She continues as landscaper at the luxurious Sugar Beach resort in Soufriere. In 2007 Veronica Shingleton-Smith was awarded the Saint Lucia Medal of Merit Gold for her contribution in the field of horticulture.
Battles fought, loves lost and won and dreams growing into reality all wrapped up in the Mamiku experience.