By Paula Conway
Originally printed on NYDailyNews.com

The Pitons — St. Lucia’s imposing twin mountain peaks that were once active volcanoes — are a signature site on travel brochures, websites and honeymoon ads, and once witnessed in person, you’ll know why.

Nestled between these two monoliths is a sleepy vacation spot in the tropical rainforest, the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation. One of the oldest working plantations in the Caribbean and a World Heritage site, it is a unique escape for those on a tight budget who still crave luxury trimmings.

The 10 cottages at Fond Doux are expertly hidden for maximum privacy, no matter which one you’re staying in. Designed, like all of them, in the French Colonial period — with heavy timber frames and Indonesian woodwork — our cottage, the Angelina, was a standout.

“Angie,” as we called her, is more than 160 years old and was slated for demolition in St. Lucia’s capital city of Castries when the original owner of the plantation dismantled and trucked it to Fond Doux.

Here, she was rebuilt and restored by artisans who specialize in this style of craftsmanship. Two stories high, with an expansive balcony for reading or falling asleep in the rocking chair, Angie feels more like a house than a cottage. It’s just the sort of place you’d expect to see the great Jay Gatsby smoking a fat cigar in the evening under a black starlit sky.

Walking through winding lush paths to the Jardin Cacao restaurant, I could hear a harmonica and what sounded like a makeshift samba drum. It was Lawrence, a local who entertains at the Fond Doux each night in shorts, T-shirt and sandals, with a shak-shak (a can made of two insecticide cans with holes, filled with dried rice and seeds) and a harmonica.

His gentle shake and hum fills the indoor/outdoor restaurant as you enjoy tropical breezes and such local fare as Lamontagnes Sous Kaye, octopus and conch in a broth of local seasoning, with lime juice and hot sauce.

The owners, Lyton and Eroline Lamontagne, have created many signature dishes like this and are nearly always present for dinner to dine and chat with guests.

My plantation tour with Omo, a man in his early 20s, started at 7 a.m. He travels by bus two hours every day to work on the plantation, giving tours and doing whatever jobs are required.

Pointing out the cocoa beans, the main crop on the plantation, Omo grabbed a cocoa pod sitting on the ground, smashed it open against a rock and offered it to me. Covered in a white sticky coating, the beans tasted sweet until they dissolved and then needed to be spit out. The original cocoa-drying methods used in the early 19th century are the same still utilized on the plantation today.

When the sun is shining, the beans are rolled out on large, flat, open drawers. When it rains, they are rolled back in.

Omo pointed out the nutmeg, cardamom, coconuts and coffee, and we stopped to chew on some almonds before walking around lipstick plants, banana trees and lobster claws.

By the time I made my way to breakfast, I was nearly full — until I was presented with “bakes” and the signature cocoa tea, which is something like a tea, not quite a hot chocolate.

Sticks of cocoa, made on the plantation, are taken and ground into a powder, boiling hot water is added, and sometimes a dash of milk.

Clearly, there’s an art to making cocoa tea, because I have since tried to make it at home at least six times and, despite the detailed instructions, have failed miserably.

Bakes are gobs of bread dough, baked. Add butter and you’ll never be able to eat only one.

The need to burn off the bakes was overwhelming, so we hiked the Tet Paul Nature Trail with our guide, John. Lyton Lamontagne built the trail to preserve the culture and environmental heritage of St. Lucia. Along the 45-minute hike up the side of the mountain, we snacked on freshly picked peanuts, peas and grapefruit.

A Rastafarian who lives alone on the trail and manages the working farm was sitting in his modest hut, boiling water over an open fire. My mother asked him if he liked living on the farm.

“Yeah mon, life is simple, the way it should be,” he replied. He then offered us a type of pepper that, he said, “works like Viagra when you steep it in hot water and drink it like a tea.” I take it that this Rastafarian is not lonely on the side of the mountain.

Just before the peak, a very narrow and steep wooden staircase loomed before us. A large sign above read “Stairway to Heaven.” My mother, 72, has significant back problems but soldiered on.

At the top, we were overwhelmed by the breathtaking views: the massive Pitons, the southern expanse of the island, and since it was a clear day we could see both Martinique and St. Vincent.

Very tired and hungry from the hike, we returned to the Fond Doux and consumed more fruit while soaking in the three-tiered pool that overlooks the rainforest. We peeled and ate as we soaked in the crisp blue waters with tropical breezes washing over us.

The buffet dinner on this night was an endless table of blackened fish, barbecued chicken, ribs, eggplant with cheese, and dasheen (a yellowish vegetable that looks like a potato) pureed in milk and butter, with the most heavenly all-you-can-eat chocolate crème brulée for dessert.

Day three started with another hearty breakfast of cocoa tea and bakes. We then watched Phillip, a staffer, do the cocoa-rina dance. He stepped barefoot into a very large cauldron containing cocoa beans and oils, and used his feet to mix it up while gripping the sides of the bowl. This technique has not changed in more than 200 years.

A decision to venture to Castries meant that we either had to take a two-hour bus ride or hail a water taxi. We chose the water taxi. For EC$390 (roughly $150) round-trip, we had our own private speed boat affording outstanding views of the island. Katrina, anotther Fond Doux staff member, accompanied us.

In Castries we shopped at the market for souvenirs. I found clever little bamboo sailboats for my nephews, a coconut shell necklace for my aunt and a swim coverup for me.

We then hopped into a taxi to lunch at the Coal Pot, one of the best-regarded restaurants in Castries. Katrina discreetly pointed out that the table behind us held a group of local politicians and the former minister of tourism. Taking a cue from the reviews I had read of this restaurant, we sampled the lobster bisque, goat cheese salad and chocolate cake.

Upon returning to the Fond Doux, staffer Jerome drove us to the nearby Sulphur Springs. Aside from the ghastly smell, the tour and sulfur bath were memorable.

My mother and I made our way in our swimsuits down a winding wood staircase to the baths, a river of mud and water that weaves through the rocks. A man holding a bucket smeared sulfuric mud all over our bodies, including face and neck.

There we sat, all mudded up, in the sulfur baths waiting for the rumored healing powers to relax our muscles and heal our aches. I think it worked; Mom disagrees.

No matter, it was fun and clearly a popular island adventure for those willing to be slathered in stink.

After a long shower, Jerome drove us to meet the Mystic Man cruises, where 20 of us hopped onto a catamaran and sailed until sunset drinking champagne.

Exiting the boat, Mom overpaid for a plant-weave basket, but the purchase made David, the craftsman and side vendor, feel good, and it was pretty until it started to turn brown.

Hungry for more bakes, Jerome pulled to the side of the road, where we bought four of them from a young woman “baking” on the side of the road.

These, and an enormous bowl of fruit waiting for us back at our cottage, served as dinner. Spreading the apples, limes, star fruit, bananas and pineapple out on the bed, we were in heaven, and we slept like Rip Van Winkle.

Maybe that sulfur bath worked after all.

IF YOU GO

Rates at the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation range from $170 to $300 a night. For reservations, visit fonddouxestate.com, or call (758) 459-7545. Also see stlucia.org.