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Weekend: Travel - Heaven for a hedonist; The all-inclusive deal never appealed to Features Editor Jess Hybert. But nine days of pampering turned her into a convert.

Byline: Jess Hybert

Tropical Depression 13 is crashing through the Caribbean but it's likely to sweep South-east of Barbados. And as I breathe in the ozone-charged air of Pigeon Island I tell Butch Stewart, the charismatic millionaire behind the Sandals holiday resorts, that I hope it moves closer and we can stay a few more days on the island.

It's the second last night of our nine-day stay in paradise and the Sandals team have brought us across to the brand new Grande St Lucian Spa and Beach Resort for a nose around before it opens the following weekend. And as Butch is in town, I have been offered the chance to interview him.

He explains the Grand St Lucian site was formerly the Hyatt Regency hotel, but when it went into receivership following the economic downturn of September 11, Sandals jumped at the chance to open a third resort on the island and embarked on a $10 million renovation programme to 'sandalise' (I'm afraid they do really use this word as a verb, and totally without irony) the site.

This third hotel will offer added value to all Sandals guests on St Lucia as when you stay at one, hourly bus services ferry guests between the other two, so you can take advantage of the golf course and spa at Sandals St Lucia, or dine in any of the resorts' restaurants.

'You really will get three hotels for the price of one,' explains the tanned and portly Butch, a former air conditioner salesman from Jamaica.

As we chat through Sandals' image in the UK, I tell him that I think the technicolour brochures the company publishes probably puts British travellers off. He smirks and shrugs off my impertinent suggestion. He's not a man plagued by self-doubt.

Sandals resorts are for couples only (the sister company Beaches caters for families) and this uniquely-exclusive strategy (which controversially, I think, forbids same-sex couples) has meant that Sandals has always been aimed at honeymooners and married couples on romantic getaways.

Hedonistic is the best way to describe the ultra-inclusive policy which means mainline spirits and bountiful gourmet food is available any time day or night, in waistband-straining quantities.

'We have always been ultrainclusive,' says Butch over a rum cocktail on the balmy beach. 'Once guests arrive here, they can leave their credit cards behind as everything, including watersports is included in the price.'

But getting British tourists to regard this lotus-eating policy without cynicism has been an uphill battle.

'I understand that in the UK people associate all-inclusive deals with budget holiday companies like Butlins,' he explains. 'We get a bad name from them. It's a constant struggle. I wish we could think of another name for it.' Fancy titles aside, the ultrainclusive policy helps to make a stay at a Sandals resort totally relaxing and stress-free. We never tired of leaving our room at Sandals St Lucia with nothing but the key. Any towels we would need were available by the pool and when we felt peckish or thirsty, we strolled from the beach or poolside into any one of the seven restaurants or ten bars.

There were three pools to choose from, but we had an additional option - a private plunge pool built into the patio of our suite.

I struggle to think of anything our two-storey apartment lacked. One of 56 rooms located on the bluff at SSL, it felt satisfyingly discreet, up the hill away from the main centre of the resort along a well-manicured tropical road.

The top floor was easily bigger than our flat in Worcester, dominated by an enormous sleepinducing mahogany four-poster bed, at the foot of which was a huge TV. Enormous windows framed an exquisitely simple view, half aquamarine ocean, half cobalt sky.

A jacuzzi stood in the corner, behind which was the shower room, big enough for two of course - the resort's catchline is 'love is all you need' after all.

Downstairs was another huge old-world style room, filled with elegant French furniture, a second TV, a free minibar topped up daily with soft drinks and a trolley laden with gin, vodka, whiskey and wine or champagne.

Behind glass doors was the patio, equipped with loungers, lilos and pretty wrought iron dining chairs and table. But the pice de rsistance was the plunge pool. Plenty big enough for the two lilos, it was totally screened from the next door apartments by a yellow-washed wall and pergola - ideal for shy naturists or anyone requiring an all over tan.

In fact suites guests need never leave their rooms as 24-hour butler service all included in the package, so anything from a basket of bread rolls and coffee for breakfast in bed, or a plate of pasta and a bottle of wine for a lazy supper can be promptly delivered to your door on request by beaming staff.

Which brings me on to the one aspect of Sandals which would bring me back, despite my usual aversion to beach holidays. The staff surpass superlatives. From the gardeners and golf course managers, to the cleaners and waitresses you get nothing but gracious and sincere service with a smile. Our cleaner had even learned our names by the first morning and always said 'hi' and checked how we were every time we met.

Sure, training must play a large part in this but the sincerity, I believe, is a charming St Lucian trait. When we ventured off site in a hire car one day, we encountered the same easy-going good naturedness from everyone we met - how can you be jaded when your country's leader is called Kenny for goodness sake?

One afternoon while sunbathing on the immaculate beach we got chatting to Alouicious, who was raking through a patch of sand. As we were British, he was surprised we hadn't yet tried the Hobie Cats and as his beach shift was switching to a watersports shift in half an hour, he was determined we should have go with him as our guide.

The two-man catermerans are designed for novices and within 20 minutes we were hairing up and down the coast in full sail wondering how long it would take to get us to nearby Martinique. Alouicious could hardly contain his glee when he realised we'd loved it so much we hadn't returned the boat to the beach until late afternoon.

Entertainment provisions were faultless at SSL too, with countless watersports on offer, from scuba diving, snorkelling and windsurfing to canoeing and kyaking. Land-based activities can be as energetic or relaxing as you like, with incredibly competitive beach volleyball, thanks to the win-ordie attitude of the American competitors, golf on the nine-hole course, ping-pong, giant chess and shuffleboard (all of which I lost at incidentally).

And if you weren't feeling pampered enough already, there's a considerable range of spa treatments on offer, though none of this is included in the price. I tried the reflexology. As the therapist rubbed all over my feet the sensation ranged from pleasurable to excruciating - where the pain is in the feet corresponds accurately to another organ of the body. I had headaches, neck and shoulder pain and a dickie knee according to the reflexologist - a deceptively strong yet diminutive woman who chuckled every time I was sucking the breath through my teeth with the pain.

A couple of days later, together with my husband, we were treated to a couples massage, which he absolutely adored, but which I spoiled for myself by coming over all ticklish. It's a nice idea though and much less intimidating than going in on your own.

We also joined two of the island tours run by an independent company, which has an office at each of the resorts. A land and sea tour taught us a great deal about St Lucia's rich colonial history, echoes of which remain in the French and British-influenced architecture and allowed us to try a traditional island meal in a wonderful restaurant overlooking the magical Piton mountains, rising like a two fingered insult from the coastline.

We also took a rainforest tour one morning, where we heard, but never glimpsed treefrogs, photographed the colourful St Lucian parrot and smelled the seeds of an incense tree. Despite my vigilant nature watch, sadly the reticent boa constrictor had better things to do than scare the bejesus out of a bunch of gawping tourists.

We did get to swing on vines like Tarzan though, good for building up an appetite for lunch back at the ranch.

Not all of the restaurants open for lunch, but there's a vast feast of salads, sandwiches and cooked dishes served buffet style at the Pavillions, burgers and pizza at the Arizona tex-mex bar and grill and antipasta and pasta at Armandos.

For supper everything opens, Jess Hybert stayed at Sandals St Lucia Golf Resort and Spa.

For more information on this and other Sandals resorts visit www.sandals.co.uk or call 0800 742 742 for a resort brochure.

Virgin Holidays offer a week at the luxury Sandals St Lucia from just pounds 1569 per person including direct flights to St Lucia with Virgin Atlantic Airways, seven night's all-inclusive accommodation and transfers. To upgrade to a Honeymoon one bedroom oceanview suite costs pounds 183 per room per day, and is well worth the luxury. For more information, call Virgin Holidays reservations department on 0870 000 0870 or see their website at www.virginholidays.com

from the open-sided Piton Caribbean style restaurant, where you are serenaded by the waves crashing on the beach below, to the teppenyaki style Kimono, where you need to be feeling sociable as you'll be sat with up to five other couples, the majority of whom will be newly-wed Americans who want to compare lavish weddings with one another.

White glove service is on offer at La Toc, the only one among the restaurants to request a shirt and long trousers for gentlemen. You get the works here with attentive table service and a compact French-influenced menu.

If you give them enough warning, or you're one of the many hundreds of guests who are on a Weddingmoon package (buy five-night's holiday get a wedding free), you can book one of the pretty oceanside pagodas for an intimate candlelit supper.

It all sounds like off-the-peg romance, but SSL really offers one of the most lavishly sybaritic holidays I've ever experienced.

My preconceptions were wide of the mark. Yes it was mostly filled with Americans, but the 210-acre site means it's easy to escape company. Yes it's slightly bizarre there are wall-to-wall couples but it does mean there are no overexcited children, or over-excited, over-drunk adults to spoil the leisurely atmosphere. Yes there are as many as ten weddings a day, but despite my best efforts to get invited to be a witness, it's actually quite entertaining gawping at the beachside nuptials.

Yes you can drink as much as you like, but rather than this resulting in group binge-drinking, guests seem to stop at the amusingly merry stage (I was relieved to see that one afternoon's poolside beer drinking challenge was about downing a single bottle of beer faster than your opponent than about being the last man standing).

And yes, even though I thought I'd hate this kind of all-inclusive holiday, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Travel Facts

Fact File

St Lucia is part of the Windward Islands, located between Martinique and St Vincent.

With 612 square miles of beaches and rainforest, there's plenty for tourists to see. The bustling capital of Castries and its colourful market should be top of the list, with the majestic Piton mountains a close second.

Since its discovery in the 16th century, St Lucia passed back and forth between the warring French and British until in 1979 the island achieved independence.

Other than tourism, banana farming sustains the St Lucian economy - 40 per cent of the island's export. The majority of these bananas are shipped direct to the UK, though products like banana ketchup and savoury dishes made from the unripe fruit are consumed by the locals.

There are 11 couples only Sandals resorts in the Caribbean and six Beaches resorts for families

All branded spirits including a massive selection of cocktails are included in the price of your stay at Sandals.

Watersports including use of Hobie Cats and Aquatrikes, scuba diving, snorkelling, kyaking and windsurfing are all built into the ultra-inclusive price.

The Sandal's Halcyon resort has 170 rooms and three restaurants including the picturesque The Pier (pictured above), built out into the ocean on its own 150 foot pier.

The brand new Grand St Lucian has 284 rooms and a huge white sand beach in sheltered Rodney Bay. GSL highlights include The Olde London Pub - complete with London street signs and a state of the art spa - treatments include Swiss showers, reflexology and herbal wraps.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 9, 2002
Words:2147
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