St. Lucia’s St James Club: the All Inclusive Strikes Back

St. Lucia's famous Pitons
St. Lucia's famous Pitons

To all-inclusive or not to all-inclusive, that is the question. Caribbean destinations seem to be gravitating towards this trend of high-end mega-resorts that take an upfront fee and then give you everything your heart (and stomach) desire in large volumes.

St. Lucia's famous Pitons
St. Lucia’s famous Pitons

Recently, I took a trip to St. Lucia to figure this out once and for all. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about all-inclusive resorts, especially after some friends recently told me horror stories of late night binging and bad cruise ship-style games. It didn’t help that my husband looked at me like I had three heads and said, “We’re doing WHAT? We don’t have kids. It’s not a family reunion. Why would we stay at an all-inclusive?”

St. James' pool
St. James’ pool

For the sake of journalism I braced myself for a week in St. Lucia staying at the St. James Club Morgan Bay, an all-inclusive. Much of the negative feedback towards these one stop mega-resorts is the feeling of being stuck there. So I set myself a challenge to really discover the culture of St. Lucia. There is a lot more to the Caribbean than just pretty beaches and rum punch but most travelers do not venture past their hotel beach chair.

Grabbing my usual weapons, I armed myself with guide books: Hunter Adventure Guide, Fodor’s, Insight Guide and Footprint. I poured through them and discovered two important elements. St. Lucia has more Nobel laureates per capita than any other country. Two to be exact. Derek Walcott and Sir Arthur Lewis. Walcott won the prize for literature. Before he won the prize he joined with other St. Lucian artists and writers to create a small but influential group which attracted worldwide attention. So my first focus would be art and literature. The second thing that stood out for me were the Pitons, two majestic mountainous volcano plugs that UNESCO deemed a world heritage site. Now I know what a volcano plug is. Ready to immerse myself in beauty both natural and man-made, I boarded the plane.

The Pitons by Llewellyn Xavier
The Pitons by Llewellyn Xavier

Upon landing at Hewanorra airport in southern St. Lucia — Hewanorra means “there where the iguana is found” — I rented a car. This is key for many reasons and ended up being a lifesaver. The drive to the hotel, and most hotels, ranges from an hour to two hours. A taxi costs $100 minimum one way, so there and back is half of a rental cost. Staying at an all-inclusive means it’s difficult to get off the property when you want to, unless you hire a taxi which is costly and inconvenient. Have wheels will travel is my motto.

St JamesArriving into St. James Club Morgan Bay, my all-inclusive destination, I was struck by the authentic architecture, smaller-sized buildings tucked into the hill and how they fit in perfectly with their surroundings. Nothing gaudy or massive here. Even though there were many buildings to accommodate the 345 rooms it felt like a smaller boutique hotel. The lobby was gorgeous, service wonderful and a rum drink was handed to me the instant my feet hit the parquet. Of course this was after I tried to drive down the wrong way to the horror of the watching employees. My suite was fantastic – views of the bay, a balcony, two rooms and an impressive tub that I couldn’t wait to soak in. So far the all-inclusive was feeling very personal and fabulous to me.

After staying there for five nights I was really shocked at how wonderful and well-done the resort was. Having a car enabled me to spend days completely absorbed in the hotel, leisurely moving from pool to bar pool to beach, without a care in the world.

St. James' Beach Club
St. James’ Beach Club

I wasn’t panicked about making my escape because I would alternate between resort days, aka lazy days, and adventure days driving around the northern coast looking for local cuisine and art. I was surprised at how easy the all-inclusive experience was. No need to worry about tips, paying tabs or where my next meal was going to be. The food was fantastic, the all you can drink swim up bar didn’t hurt and the beach was soothing, gorgeous and just steps from our room.

St. James pool by day
St. James pool by day

The first day I decided to stay put and enjoy the resort completely. My sunburn was my souvenir of just that. Good thing the boat “Prosper” floated up with a colorful palate of fruit on its bow, a large bottle of Bounty rum in its cooler and a large machete to cut off the coconut tops and mix a drink for anyone who wanted to swim up. The spa was incredible. Truly. As I walked in, a woman told the front receptionist that it was the best massage she’d ever had and wow was she right. I actually had to go to my room after and take a little nap while the ocean breeze blew in from my balcony. Not a terrible way to spend an afternoon. Most evenings I avoided the nightlife, musical acts that made me feel I was in an odd variety show. Going to bed early isn’t a bad thing when the mornings are so magical on the island. I do have to come clean however. There was a certain conga line that I somehow found myself a part of. I also supposedly wrangled other vacationers to join in as well. Hmmm.

A proper Prosper pineapple
A proper Prosper pineapple

When I did make my escape, I drove around the island feeling confident in my research. Pigeon Island and its secluded beach was my husband’s favorite. I loved meeting Llewellyn Xavier, a local artist who uses his art to create environmental change and awareness. The first glimpse of the majestic Pitons as I drove perilously around a mountain curve will be etched on my brain forever. When we came back after a long day the welcoming arms of our St. James Club Morgan Bay Resort were waiting for us. Part of the fear of the all-inclusive is the all-imprisoned feeling that comes with it, no local color, very little panache, too much booze. With a little effort, research and your own wheels an all-inclusive resort can be magical. We found this one to be just that.

I also had some very memorable moments at St. James Club Morgan Bay that didn’t involve pampering, conga lines or floating bars. It’s the little moments sometimes that turn a vacation into a time capsule, one which forever reflects that exact period in life and the emotion that goes along with it. The impromptu soccer game on the beach was mine. One comforting law in St. Lucia is that all beaches are public, much like California.

Sunset soccer on the sand
Sunset soccer on the sand

One afternoon, some local kids started coming down from the hill by the side of the resort, soccer ball in tow. They grabbed driftwood and made makeshift goalposts. Soon a very heated soccer game was in full swing and the hotel guests were as involved as the kids, cheering and smiling at the competition. It was even more memorable for me because it was right before World Cup started and soccer was making the world smaller and more intimate with the anticipation of the international tournament. Long after the game started, I went back to my room to freshen up. Gazing out from my balcony, watching the sun’s last rays disappear over the sparkling water, I looked out over the beach and saw the soccer game. The kids were still playing with passion, no signs of fatigue, using the last of the waning light to hopefully score one final goal.

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