Where in the Caribbean can you own a piece of paradise that is at once hassle-free and provides a reliable income through rentals? Arabella Youens thinks she’s found the answer.
St Lucia is blessed with what has been described as the most ‘arresting sight in the whole of the caribbean’: the lush and precipitous volcanic cones of the Petit and Gros Pitons. Between the two peaks lies a half-moon crescent of fine sandy beach behind which thick rainforest rises up the steep hill. the setting is so dramatic that, when the late Lord Glenconner, friend of Princess Margaret, and founder of chic Mustique, discovered it in the early 1980s, he fell under its spell and bought the former sugar estates.
Several decades on, the setting— except, of course, for the glorious Pitons—would be barely recognisable. In the transformation from the original hotel built on the site to its current incarnation as Sugar Beach, the resort has commandeered the top spot as the island’s most iconic and charming—as well as the most expensive. Barely a few decades ago, St Lucia was known as a honeymoon destination for those who wanted a more low-key (and cheaper) alternative to ritzier and glitzier Barbados. these rules are now being rewritten but in a gentle manner.
‘I wanted to create somewhere that would have the cachet of Ibiza for the hip family traveller,’ explains Roger Myers, the former restaurateur who was persuaded out of retirement when the estate came on the market. ‘This was a location we could make into a destination that could attract the great and the good, but still keep it cool and fun in a sort of barefoot and unfussy way.’ Today, Sugar Beach, whose white sand is shipped in from riverbeds in Guyana, costs from $1,000 (£615) to more than $5,500 (£3,380) a night in peak season. It was the choice of Hollywood actor Matt Damon for his recent wedding vow renewal ceremony.
But you’d never guess that this is a celebrity haunt. Guests stay in hotel villas that are caribbean-style one and two-bedroom cottages organised in clusters and pegged into the folds of the hills that rise sharply from the teal-coloured bay. Each is served by a butler—the majority of the staff hails from local villages—and transport around the estate is on golf buggies or Thai- style motorised tuk-tuks you can hail at any time of day or night by using the mobile phone that’s provided.
Days can be whiled away in the Rainforest Spa, where treatment rooms are traditional Arwak Indian huts suspended in the trees and linked via wooden walkways, or, more energetically, in the spacious pool or snorkelling along the reef. It’s blissful, completely switched-off living.
The only thing that might interrupt your lime-daiquiri-inspired snooze on the beach would be the distant drumming of a hammer. The hotel is developing a collection of villas, which are selling at some speed—for the Caribbean, that is—to international investors, such as Rodney and Michelle Michell, who, having enjoyed careers in the Far East, are now based in London. ‘About six or so years ago, a funny thing happened. My wife was reading a copy of COUNTRY LIFE International in the dentist’s waiting room and she came home enthusing about an article she’d read on buying in a hotel development in St Lucia. By coincidence, I’d read a different article in the Sunday Times on the same development. We’d never been to St Lucia —never been to the Caribbean—but decided it was worth investigating.’
The couple took the opportunity to visit Sugar Beach, which was then undergoing its transformation from the Jalousie Plantation. ‘It really appealed. First, the location is exceptional: it’s the best on the island and a glorious mix of jungle and beach. Okay, it’s not near the nightlife and the action is all in the north of the island, but the restaurants in the hotel are very good. And the place is very well managed: it’s done well but not overdone, it’s not pretentious.’
After owning holiday homes outside Florence and in Provence in the past, the Michells have had their fair share of long-distance headaches when it comes to meeting the daily needs of a home maintenance. ‘The joy of buying one of the villas at Sugar Beach is that it’s all managed for you, so you really can sit back and enjoy it.’ Having originally invested in one of the hotel villas, and enjoyed a healthy return on the investment, the Michells now own a one-bedroom (with a separate study/bedroom) Sugar Beach Residence which has glorious views of both the Pitons and the bay. ‘My wife, being French, wanted something pieds dans l’eau and you can lie in the bath and look at the Caribbean, which is rather wonderful,’ explains Mr Michell.
Both the Sugar Beach Residences and the larger Glenconner Residences have been thoughtfully laid out. They are being built by a team of local craftsmen—happily, Sugar Beach is located in the skills centre of the island, with Soufrière being known for its woodwork and Choiseul for stone masonry—and each comes with an Italian-made kitchen (which can be stocked with produce from the hotel, or you can send someone out to do a food shop for you for $50— St Lucia’s answer to Ocado).
They have swimming pools and barbecue terraces and the gardens can be individually designed by the hotel’s landscape designer. Critically, however, all the properties are designed so that, should the owners wish, they can be rented back into the hotel. The Michells planned to do this and their villa has been designed for the honeymoon-couple market in mind—somewhere that you can be private and do your own thing one day, but embrace all the facilities of the hotel the next.
‘We’re principally interested in the investment—it’s a risk, of course, but the hotel’s room and occupancy rates seem to have set a new standard on the island. We don’t anticipate that we’ll use it for longer than a couple of weeks here and there and, the rest of the time, the hotel can take charge,’ explains Mr Michell. In the case of both Sugar Beach Residences and Glenconner Residences, renting back to the hotel is entirely optional. If you chose to do so, owners receive 75% of the rental income.
As of last week, only four Sugar Beach Residences remain for sale, with 15 having been purchased already —something of a marked difference from activity on the rest of the island. Prices start at $2.75 million (£1.67 million). ‘The average age range is between the mid forties and mid fifties and buyers range from entrepreneurs and bankers to lawyers and doctors,’ says property director Penny Strawson.
They’ve all been attracted to the security factor and the simplicity of ownership, as well as the potential for rental return and capital appreciation that buying one of limited number of properties in a rare and beautiful location can offer.’ With a three-bedroom residence renting for $2,800 (£1,708) a night in peak season, the rental-return potential is strong.
Sugar Beach has UNESCO World Heritage Site status so the development of future villas is limited, but, under way, is the building of one of the six Glenconner Residences, which has been bought by a French-Canadian entrepreneur. It’s right next to the chattel house that once housed Lord Glenconner’s restaurant, Bang, the opening party of which was attended by Princess Margaret.
Ranging in price from $5.5 million (£3.35 million) to $12 million (£7.32 million), and in size from 3,735sq ft to 7,741sq ft, all but one of these villas stand just above a small sandy beach and, once finished, will have sleek interiors, high-end kitchens, outdoor showers, vast pools and dining gazebos. Like the sister Sugar Beach villas, the Glenconner collection has been designed, in traditional Caribbean style, by RIBA-member and St Lucia-based Lane Pettigrew and the gardens have been conceived by the award-winning landscape architect and British expat- riate Veronica Shingleton-Smith.
NEED TO KNOW
* How to get there: Sugar Beach is about one hour from Hewanorra International Airport (British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer regular non-stop services from London Gatwick)
* The supermarkets in Castries are full of Waitrose products
* Maintenance charges are $1.20 per sq ft per month (from approximately $29,000 (£17,690) per annum for a two-bedroom house)
Sugar Beach Residences (00 1 758 456 8091; www.sugar- beachresidences.com)