“ Address: La Brelotte Bay, Gros Islet, St. Lucia, West Indies / Tel: + 1 758 452 8212 „
Never, they say, go back. To revisit somewhere you've enjoyed is to invite disappointment. It won't be the same. The lustre of novelty will have faded, while any faults overlooked in the first flush of enthusiasm will make themselves only too apparent the second time around. Better to move on and discover a fresh enthusiasm for somewhere else.
With this precept in mind, my wife and I approached our return to the East Winds Inn with a degree of trepidation. We hadn't been for over ten years. At the end of the 1990s it had become our favourite retreat for occasions when we wanted nothing more than to relax, and then we'd risked going back three years in a row without being disappointed. But after a decade away we were no longer certain what to expect.
* The East Winds Inn... *
...is a hotel on the west coast of the island of Saint Lucia. La Brelotte Bay, where it is to be found, is small and secluded, half a mile or more down a little lane off the main road to the north of the island. Another hotel (Windjammer Landing) occupies the far side of the bay, but is separated from the East Winds by a stretch of rocky foreshore. No beach on Saint Lucia is wholly private, but few non-residents find their way down to the one in front of the East Winds.
The hotel has just thirty rooms, most of which are located in 'cottages' (two to a cottage) dotted around twelve acres of lush gardens. Also dispersed around the grounds are the swimming-pool, pavilions for indoor games and yoga, and the restaurant with a lounge/bar on the landward side and another bar adjacent to the beach. Those in need of liquid refreshment to assuage the heat are thus well-catered for, especially since the tariff at the East Winds includes all drinks, as well as food and on-site activities, without restriction. Only laundry and external phone-calls are additionally charged. For most purposes you need worry neither about running up bills nor carrying cash. Assuming you've managed to stump up the cost of going there in the first place - and it has to be admitted at the outset that the East Winds isn't cheap - this approach all adds to the care-free atmosphere.
Atmosphere is, I think, the secret of the East Winds' appeal. The location is attractively and archetypically tropical, but hardly out of this world. The rooms are comfortable and well-furnished, but not palatial. The food is tasty, ample and imaginative, but not ambrosial. The service is friendly and efficient, almost but perhaps not quite extraordinary. What really makes the place extraordinary is that all these things come together smoothly and seamlessly to create a surpassingly pleasant and stress-free atmosphere in which it is easy to - indeed, impossible not to - relax.
* On the beach *
Let's start with the beach, since much of the point of the place would be lost if it were not beside the sea. This being the Caribbean rather than Atlantic side of the island there is little tide, though the sea can surge a bit if the weather is windy. The beach is sandy across the whole of the hotel's frontage - perhaps a hundred yards, perhaps a little less - but it slopes quite sharply down to the waves, and under them. Stepping out into the water you lose your footing within ten yards or so. It is a good beach for competent swimmers, or for those who simply want to amble up and down, perhaps looking for shells or chunks of coral washed ashore; it would be much less suitable for toddlers wanting to build sandcastles or splash in shallow water, but then the East Winds caters more for mature guests than for young families.
Few guests choose to settle on the beach itself, since just behind it is a sandy foreshore within the hotel's grounds. The sand here is a touch too gritty for lying on, but there are plenty of loungers available, many of them in the shade of palms, frangipani and sea-fig trees, or the under the palm-thatched parasol-like 'huts' dispersed around the area. Personally, I have never much been one for lying on beaches all day, but I make an exception of the East Winds. The warmth is soporific, though usually tempered by a breeze, and the hours pass as one reads, sips a drink, watches the changing patterns of the waves, the occasional skimming above them of flying fish, the birds - turnstones, gulls, a magnificent frigate bird wheeling high in the sky, a blue heron that patrols the rocks - and the morning ritual as a little fishing boat pulls in for the crew to try to sell their some of their catch to the hotel's chef. Until finally dusk arrives, to culminate in a resplendent array of colours as the sun sinks beyond the sea. With the right weather, the East Winds can be the viewpoint for some dazzling sunsets.
* The pool *
Some people prefer the pool to the sea, which is all to the good since it reduces competition for the best spots on the beach - not that there is ever much competition, given that there are many good spots and not that many guests, even when the hotel is full. Similarly, there are ample places around the freshwater pool, which is attractively enclosed by tropical trees and shrubs, and it is seldom crowded with swimmers; if you pick your time you'll probably have it to yourself. The swim-up bar beside - or perhaps one should say, in - the pool might be regarded as something of a cliché, but is none the less welcome for that, and is fully stocked with a wide range of beverages. We visited the pool mainly at tea-time, when it is the venue for a traditional English-style tea, complete with cake and freshly-baked scones. You need to be on your guard though, since these attract not only fellow guests but avian scavengers - grackles, banana quits and Caribbean bull-finches - who will flit down at the smallest opportunity to steal crumbs right off your plate.
* The restaurant... *
...is beside the beach and open at the sides, so that if you pick the right table you are almost dining al fresco. Indeed at lunch, if you prefer, you can eat at an outside table under one of the thatched 'huts', with a sea view through the shrubbery. It is informal in style, but comfortable, with furnishings, crockery and cutlery all of a discreet good quality. The cuisine at the East Winds is continental with a Caribbean flavour, or vice versa, whichever way you prefer to look at it. The main chefs are always French; the current head chef, Didier Lagauzére, was, I think, sous-chef when we were last at the hotel, typical of the continuity that is one of the East Winds' hallmarks. The style is to combine classic French technique with local ingredients and spices - and flavourings from further afield if they seem to suit.
Breakfast is relatively conventional - juice, fresh fruit, cereals, a buffet of all the usual and some not so usual hot foods, plus the services of the smiling Paula behind the hob to make sure your eggs are cooked to your liking, then toast or freshly baked croissants or pains au chocolat. At lunch, there are always meat, fish and vegetarian options, usually with a range of salads and vegetable accompaniments. If you like your food grilled, it can often be cooked to order on the massive barbeque just outside the restaurant. The fish, fresh from the sea, is particularly tasty and often of a kind seldom found on this side of the Atlantic: kingfish, snapper, barracuda, rainbow runner... and so on. I lost count of the species. Steaks and chops are tender and always cooked to perfection. Sometimes the barbecue is available at dinner too, but only as one course out of four, not counting the amuse-bouche. Within the four courses, there are always at least three choices for each, and all include choices suitable for vegetarians. Such is the variety that I won't attempt to summarise them here, but I remember in particular a starter of lobster in cream and rum, followed by a kind of gazpacho utilising local vegetables, followed by baked kingfish in a spicy sauce, followed by a homemade cinnamon-flavoured coconut ice cream - which may sound odd and was indeed unusual, but absolutely delicious.
To drink, we tended to have champagne before dinner - and yes, it is real champagne, no extra charge - since the local Piton beer is nothing to write home about, and the recommended 'cocktails of the day' all seemed to contain lethal doses of rum and/or other liquors. Some of the non-alcoholic cocktails, however, are delightfully thirst-quenching to keep one going through the day. At all meals, probably including breakfast if one felt so inclined, a choice of wines is available: generally, two whites, two reds and at least one rosé. Mostly, they come from France, Italy, Spain and Chile, and while there are few if any vintage grand crus on offer the selections are all of first rate quality and well-suited to the dishes being served.
* The rooms... *
...come in three styles. The 'Superior' rooms are not in fact superior to the others, but the most basic available; even the East Winds is not above the occasional hotelier's euphemism. Nevertheless, having stayed in them a couple of times, I am able to confirm that they are very basic, but comfortable, characterful and well-furnished. They are smaller than the 'DeLuxe' rooms are more spacious and have better terraces for sitting outside and surveying the scenery. Good views are also to be had from the 'Ocean Front' rooms - just four of them - which are charged at the same rate as the 'DeLuxe' although they are closer in size to the 'Superior'.
Pacing it out, the DeLuxe bedroom seemed to measure about 6 x 4½ metres, with a separate space for wardrobes and storage (including a safe) and, of course, a separate en-suite bathroom, with two basins, loo and vast shower. The bedroom had a king-size-plus double-bed, table, comfy chairs, a chest of drawer/sideboard and lots of lights. There is a flat-screen TV, with about 50 cable channels, and DVD player; also a telephone and, I'm told, free WiFi (if you haven't brought your lap-top, there is a terminal in reception for the use of guests). For cooling, all rooms have large, multi-speed ceiling fans and some, including ours, have an air-conditioning unit; we found we didn't need it, since the fan was more than adequate for the mild January heat. The décor is not exactly lavish, but well-thought out and for the most part discreetly tasteful - discreet perhaps being the wrong word only for the 'Caribbean-Naïve' style paintings that decorate the space above every bedhead. We grew quite fond of ours - see pic - as the week wore on.
Tea-point and refrigerator - restocked daily with beer, soft drinks and water - are to be found outside on your private terrace, where there is another table together with two further chairs. Ideal for relaxing and watching the gardens if one feels in need of a respite from the daily round of beach and pool.
* The gardens... *
... are colourful but shady, full of attractive and unusual tropical plants. There is a leaflet-guided trail you can take around the grounds to identify 100 of the more interesting species - of palm, hibiscus, ginger lily, calabash, breadfruit, cocoa and so on. Having failed to bring the leaflet away with me I couldn't begin to describe more than a handful of them, but my horticulturally-inclined wife is always enthused by the range to be observed. I am more enthused by the overall effect, of exuberant by well-tended greenery, so conducive to the peaceful ambience. An ambience heightened further by the humming-birds that flit around from bloom to bloom by day, though given a eerie edge by the haunting hoot of the tree-frogs after dusk.
* Other facilities, pastimes and entertainment *
Also around the gardens, should you be energetically inclined, is a 'fitness trail', with exercise frames at intervals; I walked around it and looked at them, and can confirm that they looked suitably stretching for those of masochistic disposition. Also somewhat too demanding for my taste, though my wife went along, are the tutored yoga sessions that take place on selected mornings. Table tennis and similar games can be played in the adjacent pavilion, shuffleboard on the beach, and a selection of board games in the lounge. There is a Hobie catamaran that can be taken out under the guidance of Johnny, one of the beach staff, who will also give you advice on the use of the sea kayaks and pedallo, and the best places offshore for snorkling (kit available if you have not brought your own). I'm sure that I need hardly mention - since you will by now have understood the East Winds ethos - that these are all at no extra charge.
If you do want to purchase beachwear, souvenirs or postcards without leaving the hotel, there is a gift-shop, with prices perhaps a bit above what you'd pay at everyday Saint Lucian shops, but the isolation of the East Winds makes a trip out a bit of an expedition. There is a general store on the main road half a mile away, but for any variety you need to visit Castries, the capital, about six miles distant. We have done so in previous years - indeed we have driven all round the island in previous years - but on this visit we couldn't be bothered and therefore I can't give you an up-to-date report on outings.
Entertainment is rather low-key, which we find to our taste. If you want to boogie the night away, this is not the place for you. On some evenings, a pianist plays unobtrusively on the Steinway grand, on others a saxophonist plays solo to a recorded rhythm section; both are accomplished enough, but they are providing background music rather than foreground entertainment. Much more foreground is the Saturday lunchtime sound of the 'Babonneau Steel Orchestra' - a local steel-drum band in the Trinidadian style - which we enjoyed with our alfresco barbecue, but would not have wanted every day.
Finally on the subject of pastimes, typical of the East Winds is the notice on the bookcase in the lounge, inviting you to borrow books. "If you have not finished the book by the end of your visit you may take it with you, but please replace it with a similar book. Or bring it back another year."
* Staff and service *
'Welcome back' - so we were greeted by several of the staff when we first came into contact them after arrival. Given that it had been eleven years since our last visit, this suggests that they either have wonderful memories or are discreetly briefed in advance. Either way, I'm prepared to be impressed. Certainly, we could remember several of them, but they must have seen thousands of guests since we were last there. The retention of good personnel is only one of many aspects of the East Winds that makes me think it must be extremely well managed behind the scenes.
Like all the best hotels, the East Winds is independent rather than part of a chain. The owners are Italian, but leave the day-to-day running of the place to the manager, Gareth Leach, who has held the role at least as long as we have been going there. He seems a little less ubiquitous than on former visits, but maybe he has set such momentum going that the place now almost runs itself. Certainly, all the staff seem to go about their business with calm, unobtrusive efficiency. They are friendly without being familiar, dignified without being aloof, polite without being servile, never officious and always eager to help guests enjoy themselves. Nor do they seem simply to be after tips; individual tipping is discouraged by the hotel, being of course included, and the staff show every sign that they accept this. I'd find it very hard to fault them.
Also deserving of mention is the hotel cat, Thomas, who went out of his way to escort us round the nature trail. My wife is convinced that he is the same as a kitten we met on our last visit, whom we called Gatto (or maybe Gateau, from his habit of scrounging cake at teatime); having checked our old photos I am far from convinced, but he is a worthy creature however long he has been in charge there.
* Fellow guests *
You can, at the East Winds, be as gregarious or as reserved as you wish. There are plenty of opportunities, but no pressures at all, to socialise. If you are of a sociable nature, however, you might want to know in advance that the majority of your fellow-guests are likely to be British, affluent and middle-aged. Younger people do find their way to the hotel, including some planning to be married there (we found ourselves impromptu wedding-guests on one occasion) and honeymooners who have undergone the ceremony elsewhere, but they tend to be in the minority. Similarly, Americans, Canadians and continental Europeans. Clearly, this limits the range of acquaintance on offer, especially in such a small hotel, though those you do meet are likely to be well-mannered and affable.
* Cost and value *
There's no escaping the fact that the East Winds has become quite an expensive place to stay. When we first went there in the 1990s it offered a well-above-average experience for an average price. Now the price has caught up with the experience. Checking the rack rates on the hotel website (www.eastwinds.com - worth a look for the mood-setting intro) I see that double rooms range from USD$470 to $910 per night, depending on type and season, singles from $370 to $630; in both cases, of course, these rates are all-inclusive full board, as explained above. The least expensive seasons are Summer (very hot) and Autumn (rainy with a risk of hurricanes - only last November Hurricane Tomas did a lot of damage on the island, though the East Winds survived pretty well unscathed). The hotel can be booked on a package-holiday basis through at least three inclusive tour operators (Kuoni, Virgin and Caribbean Expressions) and one probably secures a discount by doing it that way, though it is of course hard to disentangle the hotel cost from that of air-fare and transfer. We booked through Caribbean Expressions; after recovering from the shock when we first learned the price and having done some comparison-checking on the web, were not disappointed with the value.
Fellow-guests with whom we chatted who had stayed at ostensibly comparable places elsewhere in the Caribbean all felt that, given its special quality, the cost was competitive, even reasonable. One good sign is that a large proportion of these guests seem to be repeat visitors to the East Winds. I have read somewhere that as many as 75% come back, and often many times. With only four visits under belts we felt like relative parvenus. It is also notable that the East Winds tends to top ratings polls on TripAdvisor and similar websites, and that it seems to have won a whole range of industry awards in recent years. Or perhaps that's a pity, since being well-known can only increase demand and perhaps therefore the price. I can't find it in me to begrudge it, though.
* Going back *
So, the acid test: having gone back this time and not been disappointed, would we risk doing so again? And yes, we would, because there is a different risk incurred in trying other options for the same sort of holiday, that they would not prove so reliably enjoyable, whereas the fact that the East Winds had changed so little in its excellence over a decade gave promise - or at least hope - that it will change little in the years to come. We will, of course, have other holidays elsewhere for other purposes: exploration, novelty, the discovery of landscapes or cultures new to us. But for those maybe rare occasions when we want nothing more than to bask beside a balmy beach by day, to gorge ourselves in gourmet style every evening and to rest in cosseted comfort by night, the East Winds will be the effortless, and maybe our only, choice. Provided we can still afford it.
© Also published, with pictures, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011