“This is Flintstones meets Swiss family Robinson,” says Leslie Barnard Gonsalves of her retreat amidst the treetops and rocks in villa, on the Southwestern tip of the island of St Vincent, in the Eastern Caribbean.
The whitewashed pitch pine house is part of a family nest of four houses which sit on an acre or so of hilltop land. An unpaved track crawls several hundred yards off the main road and then stops at the base of an ascent of jagged steps which twist and turn up and under an awning of palms, ferns and bamboo until, breathlessly, one attains the summit of wide open front doors, which say, “follow me,” to a broad deck, pitched in the sky, 50 feet to landfall.
“I’m a bit afraid of heights,” says Leslie, maddeningly. The house was built around, under, over and atop forbidding grey boulders that look as if they were meant for a fortress.
“I used to sit on this rock and watch the sunset,” says Leslie (the house is much too playful for honorifics and surnames). The Rock shoots up about 15 feet from the living room floor to the bedroom loft above it. “My husband insisted he wanted this rock in our room, ‘ she announces. To get to the loft, you clamber up a twirl of rock and wood steps and, no surprise, there is no door. You are in Leslie’s room, with its rows of books, framed family photographs and quirky art pieces, including a doll made from crocus bag.
Leslie never bothers to close the french doors which open onto a balcony and a view of harbour and the glinting tin roofs of Kingstown. The bannisters and floor boards are cut unevenly around the bulges of The Rock to accommodate its bulbous girth. The bathroom is a grotto with flat rocks and smooth pebbles on all sides. It would be like showering outside, except you are inside.
A narrow corridor leads to the two other bedrooms which were added as, first, son Andrew and four years later, daughter Jade were born. The children’s bedrooms sweep one into the other, connected by a hop and skip of some steps. “I think I could use a door now,” jokes Jade. from the cave of the shared bathroom, one can step forward and peep out through an iron grille within a huge arch, to glimpse the deck below and sea beyond.
“It’s like raising kids on a boat—they get used to it. They were like little mountain goats, those kids were,” Leslie says, airily, brushing off the most obvious question of how the family navigated the terrain. Big, fluffy beds, weathered trunks and wooden dressers anchor the space and each bedroom has windows flung open to views of sea, sky and junglelike gardens rolling down the hillside. The wooden floors are scratched and nicked, as though carnival masqueraders pranced across the varnished boards.
Below, in the breezy living room, you could hear the mild toc-toc-toc of Stella the chihuahua roaming her queendom, as if a tiny diva in high heels were strutting a catwalk overhead. The kitchen is a stark arrangement of stove, sink and fridge, with open shelving, brightened by colourful crockery and blue glass bottles. Sparkling dreamcatchers of glass and metal, the melodious bamboo wind chimes, and the driftwood mobiles were all crafted by Jade and Andrew, to fend off the spell of somnolence cast by the house. “It’s too easy to do nothing here,” says Jade.
A scramble down the hill leads to a rock pool, where the water is always warm, to an orchard of grapefruit, lime, wax apple, plum and pawpaw, and a panorama of white sailboats on the periwinkle waters of Blue Lagoon. But Leslie’s own spot is the deck. “I spend my day running around. I come home. I crash onto the couch, and in the evening, I live on the deck,” she says. And at night, “It’s just magical, the way it is lit up.” Like crystals
From the edge of the sky deck, you can see the bright turquoise of the waters of Young Island, the black strip of the E.T. Joshua airport, and dove Island with the huge white cross, which serves as the tomb for entrepreneur Sylvester Gonsalves de freitas, who, it is said, was buried upright within the cross, so he could always look out across Indian Bay. The deck began as a mere five-foot fringe but two years ago was supersized into a broad 15-foot long expanse accommodating a row of varnished Adirondack chairs facing the sea, a circular supper table, and a proliferation of ferns, desert roses, and pale pink and burgundy potted bougainvillea, all cultivated by son Andrew who is a horticulturist. Leslie insisted the deck shoot right out into the towering rockscape.
The builder, at first, told her it was impossible. “I said of course it is possible. I took him down below and said this is where we will drive the concrete pillars.” ferns and variegated vines flourish amongst the rocks and a leafy wild cedar-lookalike protects the deck from the brilliant sunshine. “Dominic [her husband] cut the top off one year because as a pilot he wanted to see the airport, and we almost died of heatstroke,” Leslie jokes.
The living room is true to its name—life tumbles in and out, and this is one space where people will never have to worry about taking their shoes off. Instinctively, you want to wander barefoot, strip down to cotton shorts and swing blissfully in the navy hammock. Or maybe plunge into the fat cushions on the daybed. “The wind blows so strongly sometimes, it pushes this [a swoop of a cane-bottomed planter’s chair] and knocks the cushions off the couch,” Leslie says, as she girlishly tucks her heels under the cushion on the rim of the painted wooden armchair.
An eight-foot tall ficus grows near the entrance to the living room and yellow-breasted bananaquits have built a nest in the uppermost branches. Leslie is still deciding whether she likes the ficus in its latest position. But, on the rocks, nothing is meant to be perfect. “nothing is straight, nothing is properly finished. It’s all so bad, it all works. It’s pretty rough, it’s rustic. I’m really comfortable.”
The house is also a secret art gallery. Leslie’s grandmother Mary Doransky, aged 100, began painting when she was in her seventies, and some of her bright paintings are displayed. Jade, an artist and photographer, paints smiling faces on smooth rocks which her mother has propped against the roots of the potted plants on the wooden deck, and stuck in nooks and crannies here, there, everywhere.
The family strolls the beaches of Brighton and Georgetown on the east coast and collects deep green and blue sea glass, pebbles and shells, as well as driftwood, which is then cleaned and bleached and fashioned into unique lamps and mirror frames. Leslie carves intricate designs on dried calabash gourds, which she then makes into lamps and hanging light fixtures—a skill she learned from her son. The nine dogs (all rescues) have the reign of the house and trot in and out, darting among the furniture and beautiful Asian porcelain stools. When they were puppies, they could be riotous. Leslie, who used to run the restaurant driftwood, came home late one night to find a feather storm had engulfed her living room. The dogs had torn apart the cushions and scattered the innards everywhere. “It was so bad, all I could do was laugh.”
As a teenager, Leslie lived with her parents in a two bedroom house with a cottage lower down the hill. When she married Guyanese pilot dominic Gonsalves in 1988, the couple moved into the cottage, where the wind whispers through the tall, tall bamboo.
They were scouting around for the right location to create their own love nest when her father suggested they build up the hill. “I think he meant it as a bit of a joke,” Leslie says. “I couldn’t see how to get a foundation started.” But she was inspired by Moon Hole, on the Grenadine island of Bequia, where Tom and Gladdie Johnston, who were friends of her grandparents, had built a craggy mystery at the mouth of a huge arch formed in volcanic substrate. Using whalebone and hardwood, the Johnstons had created large open rooms with unimpeded views of the sea.
Also, Italian architect Mario Spinella encouraged Leslie to take on the challenge. He told her, “Let’s start with telephone poles in four corners.” Plans were somewhat fluid, but the house was completed in nine months. “We would sit on the rocks, sipping cocktails and decide what to tell the workmen to do tomorrow. Mario would give me a three-day plan. I was like the foreman. I ordered every grain of sand, every nail, every bag of cement.” The living room and bedroom loft were built over the cottage, which is now the part of the house that guests fight over.
The house became her sanctuary after her husband died 10 years ago, when his plane disappeared as he was flying back to St Vincent from canouan. His body was never found. The disbelief, shock and grief were overwhelming and friends suggested she move out of the house, but uprooting the children from their nest would only have added to the loss. So Leslie and her children stayed where they belonged. “There is still a lot of him here,” Leslie murmurs. “His surfboards were all over.” Above Jade’s window is a wooden swirl of her name which was carved by her father. She recently covered it in bits of broken mirror so it sparkles. Almost as if her dad is winking at her.