Where dancing the cocoa is the in thing.

Here’s an ABC for magical escapes: Authenticity, Beauty and Charm. At Fond Doux Holiday Plantation, one could go deliriously alphabetic and add Design Details, Eco-consciousness, Green Globe, a big helping of History and more.

The Fond Doux estate lolls like a napping cat between the crusty old seaport town of Soufriere and the iconic Pitons of Saint Lucia. Its name means “sweet valley” and one sees why: here the twisting switchbacks of mountain roads relax to meander through gentler slopes where the wild rainforest cedes some of its manic fertility to tended orchards and patchwork cultivation.

Here, Fond Doux invites you to stop and examine your surroundings, to slip into an era when agriculture was the island’s mainstay, when nature, in its infinite variety, called the tune of time.

At 135 acres, Fond Doux still operates as a plantation, as it has for over 250 years, now growing fruit, vegetables, and cocoa. The owners are mindful of its heritage and committed to a sustainable future. They farm in harmony with nature with minimal chemical input; the cocoa is certified organic; and the eco-tourism property is a member of HERITAS and certified as Green Globe.

In fact, organic farming and heritage preservation were the main topics of conversation with Prince Charles when he and Camilla spent a couple of hours here, several years back. Yes, Fond Doux’s success in both areas is outstanding enough to warrant royal visits. Photos show the royal couple with true delight on their faces.

Its normal visitors come on tour buses, to immerse themselves not only in nature, but also in French colonial Saint Lucia whose economy depended on it. They tread the trail to the ruins where the historic battle of Rabot was fought. They gather in the plantation yard, overseen by the old colonial master’s house and its flowering terraces. There they see the juicy cocoa pods cut open to reveal the beans, and learn how they are fermented and then dried on giant racks that roll like drawers into a shingled cocoa house. They witness “dancing cocoa,” the ancient art of foot-rolling the beans in an iron cauldron. In a hulking old building whose original use is unknown, they feast on local cuisine, served by smiling ladies in traditional Madras clothing. A bit more wandering amongst tropical vegetation and bird life, and then they leave.

Many would yearn to return, to stay and savour. Luckily they can; the core acreage of the property is veined with paths leading to 12 utterly charming gingerbread-trimmed guest cottages and houses, each brimming with character. Most were purpose-built, but a lucky few historic homes were saved from demolition, picked down, trucked out and resurrected here in this haven. The effect is magical—gracious old houses renovated and nestled amongst fruit trees and flowers.

In a culture where old wooden houses are typically torn down and replaced with concrete, who in the world would go to this trouble? Owners Eroline and Lyton Lamontagne, a dynamic and attractive couple who share a passion for preservation. They live on site in the big house, eat from their land, oversee everything, and share their stories with guests.

Fond Doux Holiday Plantation happened almost by accident. By 1990 the Lamontagnes had left their positions at Lord Glenconner’s Jalousie Estate next door, and were focused on their grocery store in Soufriere. Then Lyton inherited Fond Doux, and began farming fruits and vegetables to supply the store and other outlets. Meanwhile, they opened Fond Doux as a heritage site.

It wasn’t long until Lyton became a builder—or rebuilder—too. When he discovered that an elegant, 160-year-old, two-storey wooden house in Castries was to be demolished, the couple were appalled. Later named Angelina, this was the first of their historic “interventions” and became the impetus for opening a heritage hotel.

Eroline said,

“What we’re doing at Fond Doux is ground-breaking. In Saint Lucia there are old buildings that are deteriorating and falling apart, and in other parts of the world they would be restored and you would be able to visit them. But here we don’t embrace our history.
The owners were going to burn this house for charcoal but they sold it to us for EC$2000 (about US$800). We fell in love with it and rebuilt it here.” Lyton adds, “The next generation may never know these houses. We’ve got to preserve them.”

As we speak, he’s contemplating where to site the one he has just bought in Dennery. “You can’t put these grand houses just anywhere.” This is especially true if you refuse to bring in machinery to level and dig the land. All of the built-on-site cottages were placed on shovel-dug foundations, so as not to disturb nature. Many were built around—or incorporated—trees as a feature. And it is all done without roads into the positions where the homes will rest.

Living inside the dwellings is just as sweet as discovering them scattered along forested paths. Whether it’s a little studio cottage, a spacious two-bedroom house like Avocado, or a town family’s converted home like Angelina, they’ve all got character.

Dark tropical hardwood floors gleam; the fragrant breeze wafts through wooden jalousies; gauzy netting protects dreamers in hand-carved four-poster beds; and a patio or veranda invites outdoor lazing. Whether old or new, the furniture is locally made.

Details abound. It may be the arrangements of ginger lilies and heliconia that add the final touch. Or the rustic clay basins that are locally made to serve as vessel sinks. Or flower pots with faces. Or the handmade cocoa soaps. And everywhere, there is gingerbread fretwork, a tranced-out Sufi dance of repeating arabesques running around the eaves.

Two restaurants serve guests on opposite sides of the courtyard. The cavernous Cocoa Pod with cheerful plaid accents can hold crowds for lunch or wedding receptions. Breakfast is served there too, with many of the tables out under umbrellas. The smaller one, Le Jardin Cacao, provides fine dining at lunch and dinner, and a bar for any time. This romantic, cosy space of bamboo half-walls rambles over a ravine where one of the streams runs. Much of it is actually built on a bridge.

Held in urns, huge sprays of flowers and greenery bring in the jungle outside. Basketry and woven jute screens add complementary natural texture. Fairy lights and candles provide a snoozy glow that makes it even more intimate. The cuisine builds on Creole favourites and takes chances with chocolate (on barbecued ribs!) with safer standbys for less adventurous palates. Stand-outs are the potfish, Lucian style and the cinnamon mousse. The rum punch is complex and more-ish.

Walking trails wander through the property. Each is a journey of discoveries. The Lucille Trail runs through the heart of the plantation, revealing a veritable Garden of Eden: orange, coffee, mango, calabash, avocado, mammy apple, pommecythere and cinnamon trees. Tree ferns lend a prehistoric note to the scene. “Can you imagine that future generations might never see and know many of these trees?” asks Eroline, sadly.

Mama Una’s Trail is equally delicious, featuring bananas galore, breadfruit, almond, grapefruit, nutmeg and lime. Rubber trees and red cedar, traditionally used for making furniture, are also on this route.

Sometimes a ramble leads to another cluster of cottages, either sitting pretty on flat land or clinging to a hill with a view. Or the spa, or the wedding pavilion at the end of a rare lawn.

The island is home to 177 species of birds, and Fond Doux is a good place to spot many of them, including falcons, kestrels, mangrove cuckoos, swifts, herons, warblers, thrashers and hummingbirds.

For those who wish to venture out, a daily shuttle goes to Jalousie beach; the sulphur spring mud bath is a 45-minute walk or 10-minute drive away; other dining choices are at nearby hotels; and excursions are available.

“What kind of clientele stays here?” we asked. “People who know what they want,” answered Eroline. If authenticity, beauty, charm and peace are what you want, you too should go to Fond Doux.

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