A tropical fit in St Lucia

Calabash Cove

On the recommendation of a St Lucia resident, we booked and paid for a short break in the Caribbean a year ago. Thanks to travel restrictions, we have only just been able to redeem it.

The two essential ingredients in the success of any hotel are the character of its general manager and how well he or she understands the demands of the majority of the hotel’s core clientele.

These two factors appear to have merged somewhat harmoniously in the form of Konrad Wagner, the Austrian-born GM of Calabash Cove Resort and Spa on the north-west coast of St Lucia, a 90-minute drive north from the island’s international airport.

Wagner has lived on the island for most of his life, having arrived there over 30 years ago – deciding that the warmth of the Caribbean was preferable to the cold of Canada to which he had been sent – to manage one of the Sandals hotels on the island. He and his wife (who not only helped to found the International School of St Lucia but also helps to look after their six dogs) have lived here happily ever since.

In the late 2000s Wagner’s interest was piqued when the Calabash Cove Resort came on the market. Recognising its potential, he put together a group of investors, bought the property, renovated it in a style that must have been charming then and reopened the hotel. To stunning silence.

The global financial crisis of 2008 shrivelled demand for international travel and the first two years proved extremely difficult. But for the following decade, until COVID-19 reared its ugly head, the hotel has traded very successfully, for a number of different reasons (although none as important as the two I mentioned in the opening paragraph). 

An important factor is its size. The hotel has only 26 rooms, albeit of varying sizes and shapes. Wagner was adamant that this was a key to their purchase. ‘I do not want to manage a hotel where the guests feel that they have to bag a couple of sunbeds before breakfast. That has never seemed right to me.’ Here there is plenty of room for everyone.

Another is the quality of its staff. They all seem extremely happy in their roles and genuinely keen to please. A natural disposition to smile, to ensure that you are having a ‘good time’ naturally helps, as well as the attraction of working for such a small, privately owned hotel where the GM dresses as informally as one of his guests. When I asked Wagner which role in the hotel he would find most difficult to fill, he answered immediately, ‘I can’t say because nobody has left our hotel’s employment in quite some time’.

And then there is the beach, which at a length of 40 metres is not vast but is also an indispensable attribute for any hotel in St Lucia in Wagner’s opinion, even if this one does not accept guests under 16. All beaches on the island are public but the growing number of hotels being built in the north without access to any beach does not excite him.

It is this west-facing beach that provides another of the highlights of this hotel along with its neighbours East Winds and Windjammer Landing: sunset views. At this time of year, the show begins at about 5.15 pm every afternoon, concludes the first act at 5.45 pm when the sun sets, and then finishes its final act about half an hour later when the sky and all the clouds turn an incredible pink and orange, making a most impressive daily performance.

Caribbean sunset

All of this is also visible from the hotel’s restaurant, which has the physical capabilities of being one of the most stunning anywhere in the world. Down a short flight of stairs from the hotel’s reception, it has the most breathtaking view over the infinity pool and tropical gardens to the beach and sea. At night the lights of Castries twinkle in the distance with the island's highest peak, at 950 m, beyond.

Such an open vista makes mealtimes here quite different. Breakfast in the bright sunshine seems to attract  scores of apparently fearless, hungry birds, and certainly keeps the waiting staff on their toes, clearly anxious to clear any plates the minute you have finished. At lunchtime the sun is so hot that the tables closest to the edge of the restaurant exposed to the direct sunlight are left unoccupied. (Many guests chose to eat lunch in the shady pool bar below but we felt sorry for the staff who had to take dishes so far from the kitchen several floors above.) Whereas in the evening a cooling breeze can make the restaurant most inviting, depending on who is providing the music.

This could all be the setting for a great restaurant but there does not seem to be either the inclination or the investment to make it one. At one end there is a small bar where they mix excellent cocktails, Bounty and Chairman's rum being the local spirits. But it is the only hotel bar I have ever been to where there is nothing edible on offer. (Though perhaps Wagner has some spyware in my laptop; on our last night a bowl of dried plantain made an appearance.) At the other end, the small kitchen is located up seven steep steps, which every member of the waiting staff has to navigate while carrying several plates of food. The quantity of laundry, with a long brown slip added to fresh white tablecloths after the lunch service, seems not of this century. The same could be said of the appearance before every dinner of a tiny amuse-bouche.

Having attempted to work with a couple of more experienced chefs, the first from the region, the second an Italian, Wagner has instead promoted the local Burt Jules. He is enthusiastic and generous. All the portions of the first course dishes are on the large side and one serving of spaghetti in a tomato sauce with seafood actually seemed to me to have used up most, if not all, of a packet. Wagner appreciates both Jules’s enthusiasm and the need to add more finesse and is looking to send him to Europe for work and inspiration in the summer.

But Wagner also appreciates that Jules’s current skills and enthusiasm are sufficient to please his predominantly British clientele. One night when he visited our table, Wagner spotted our bottle of Ch Lamothe-Bergeron 2015 ($73), one of the better bets on the hotel’s short list of ‘Reserve du Patron’ wines. Picking it up he commented, ‘My guests don’t usually come here for the wine selection, they come for the rum.’ We certainly sampled St Lucia's rum brand Bounty, not least with honey and fresh lime juice – the perfect cough medicine.

You need to be reasonably fit but not a fitness freak to enjoy Calabash Cove. The gym is spacious but not state-of-the art. The pool is not suitable for lap swimming. And some of the walkways are pretty tricky. From the beach to the reception involves more than 80 steps that are demanding when dry and can be almost dangerous after a rain shower (Wagner assured me that a consignment of 150 new metal treads would be fitted soon but are currently held up). Wheelchair access? Not a hope.

But these seemed to be of little concern to the many British guests who have come to appreciate Calabash Cove for its numerous other charms: its small size, its natural beauty, the sense of space, and its relaxed nature. These are qualities that have been managed most successfully for over a decade now by an Austrian GM. What will become of this hotel in the future is hard to predict.

Calabash Cove Bonaire Estate, Castries, St Lucia