St Lucia 2010: Sandals, Halcyon & Grande

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Review of our 14-day holiday at Sandals Halcyon Beach & Sandals Grande St Lucian on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in Nov 2010.

Tomas

We were alarmed to hear that the Category 1 Hurricane Tomas had hit St Lucia hard exactly one week before we were due to arrive, although hardly mentioned on UK TV.  The problem with Tomas wasn't just the wind, but the rain, which fell in huge quantities for many hours, and caused landslides, mudslides, swept away bridges, houses and roads, and killed 14 people.  We'd read on the internet that the island was without water, since the mains water pipes from the island's main reservoir, and even the access road to the reservoir, had been swept away by landslides.

Just two days before our flight, we rang Sandals to suggest that the holiday should be cancelled or postponed, but they refused to entertain this idea, stating that there were no problems with water, as the Sandals hotels have desalination/filtration plants to generate their own water.  They fibbed, as we were soon to discover.

We also pointed out that the main reason we had chosen St Lucia was because we wanted to get out to see the beautiful island scenery, and we were concerned that excursions might be affected by the after-effects of Tomas.  Sandals stated that they didn't know if excursions were being affected - another fib, since they have a close relationship with three local tour operators: Island Routes, Sam Knows and Simon Says, who have a desk in Reception in the hotels.  They knew very well that for example the beautiful Diamond Waterfall was no longer running as the river's course had been altered by a landslide upstream of the falls.

I planned to do lots of scuba diving (included as part of the all-inclusive deal at Sandals), and was concerned that Tomas would have stirred up the sea and reduced visibility.  Again Sandals stated that they didn't know.  Another fib.  Each of the Sandals resorts on St Lucia has a dive centre, who knew very well that the torrents of boiling brown water that had swept away houses and roads had all emptied into the surrounding Caribbean and turned the sea into brown soup.

Now of course we understand that Hurricane Tomas wasn't Sandals' fault.  But misrepresenting the post-hurricane situation was.

There was a horrible sense of déjà vu about all this – two years previously we'd booked to go to sister resort Beaches in Turks & Caicos, which got pasted by the much nastier Hurricane Ike a month or so before we were due to go.  Then, Sandals had magnanimously offered to cancel and rebook us for a later date at their expense, as their hotel had been devastated.  This time, they'd clearly decided that they didn't want to take such a financial hit ever again, and were determined to make us travel even though things were far from perfect.

Note that at this time, Virgin had cancelled their flights to St Lucia, and both BA and Kuoni were offering their customers either postponements, or cancellations and refunds.

Since there were still problems at St Lucia a week after Tomas, our otherwise satisfactory BA flight was diverted via Trinidad (crew were having to stop over in Trinidad instead of St Lucia because the hotels they stay in near the airport had no water).  This meant the flight time was lengthened from 9 to 11 hours.  Bummer.  It also meant that, once we got there, our bus transfer to the hotel was after dark.  A shame, as we'd been looking forward to seeing the island scenery.  In the bus headlights we could frequently see felled trees, mudslides, downed power lines, and lots of men and big yellow earth-moving machinery working at the side of the road.  Once we had to leave the road and bump across a muddy river bed where a bridge had been washed away.

Fortunately, since Tomas had passed across the southern part of the island, there was less damage in the north where the Sandals hotels are situated, so we had a warm welcome when we eventually arrived at Sandals Halcyon after a 90 minute transfer.

Halcyon

The smallest of the three Sandals resorts on St Lucia, Sandals Halcyon Beach is quieter (despite the efforts of the entertainment staff) and prettier.  The grounds are beautiful, with tropical flowering plants and shrubs in profusion, and with pretty Bananaquits and Antillean Crested Hummingbirds flying around the resort.  The gardening staff are to be congratulated on a first-class job.

We soon discovered that it was in fact much quieter than usual, with much less than 50% occupancy – presumably many people had taken the offer of a chance to cancel.  This wasn't the only effect of Tomas – the beach was small (we were told it had nearly all been swept away, and had been restored by JCBs and trucks carrying tons of sand), the sea was an unpleasant brown because of the silt, and it was rough – the waves swept right up the sand nearly to the wall at the back of the beach, only starting to calm down on our last day there.  There were sunbeds and sunshades at the top of the beach, but they were regularly lapped by the waves at high tide.

We therefore mainly used the sunbeds by the Paradise Pool.  This was very civilised, with attractive surroundings, plenty of sunbeds and sunshades, a swim-up pool bar, and without music and entertainment staff, but did suffer a bit from traffic noise from the main road running 100 yards the other side of the back fence.

Nobody was using the Watersports centre, as the sea was too rough.  The dive centre was closed, because the sea was too murky for diving with vis just a meter or so.

The Island Routes tour desk was non-committal about exactly what trips were available, reluctantly admitting that some of the tours were unable to run, either in part or completely.

We'd looked forward to a quieter Sandals than the usual young and rowdy North American mob, but all this meant it was a little too subdued.

None of the St Lucians outside the hotel had fresh water...

We were told by the hotel manager that the hotel did not have a water production plant, but was being supplied with water by Sandals Grande, which did.  He told us that none of the St Lucians outside the hotel had fresh water, including himself, and that the Grande, along with other well-equipped hotels, had upped production of water, and were using their spare capacity to supply the local population via tankers.  During the first few days while were at the Grande (see later), we frequently saw water tankers entering and leaving the hotel premises.  This also meant that we had to suffer occasional water cut-offs, though these were scheduled for the afternoons when we were generally out enjoying the sun by the pool, so weren't too much of a problem.  We were glad that Sandals were doing what they could to support the island people – one of our taxi drivers showed us some large capped buckets of water in the back of his car that the resort had given him to take home for his family.

Our room

Our top-floor room overlooked the Paradise pool at the back of the hotel.  It was very comfortable, equipped with a huge four-poster bed, a big TV with lots of stations including BBC World (but no AV inputs for the MP3 player or camera), several free UK-style 13A electric sockets, a reasonable-sized room safe, a minibar fridge, tea- and coffee-making facilities, lots of drawers and hanging space, a desk and stool, and an excellent bathroom with a good big bath with room for two, lots of shelves and drawers and a hand-basin.

There was a ceiling fan which only had one speed – too fast.  The noisy aircon drowned out the sound of the traffic from the main road just behind the room block.  We had a pleasant balcony, with a table and chairs, which we only used to ensure a good mobile phone signal.

Food and Drink

There were several restaurants to enjoy at Halcyon, and the quality of the food was very good at all of them.  Service was always cheerful and helpful.

Restaurant Dress Code

We were irritated by Sandals' rather pretentious, highly variable, and little-enforced dress code at the restaurants.  At Mario's, for example, gentlemen are required to wear long trousers, shirts with collars, and closed-toed dress shoes.  Closed-toed dress shoes?  In a holiday resort called Sandals??  Worse, the dress code for a particular venue varied wildly, depending on which document you were reading – the holiday brochure, Sandals' Daily Breeze newspaper, the explanatory folder in the room, the Sandals' web site – they all stipulated different variations of the code.

Bayside

Good quality breakfasts, lunches and dinners, with a good selection of stuff.  Buffet style, with a fry station for freshly-cooked breakfasts, pasta etc.  You are welcomed at breakfast with a glass of Bucks Fizz.  Only slightly spoiled for us by the Carib Grackles (starling-like birds) that flew around the restaurant, raiding unguarded food on tables, and perching above the salad buffet and dining tables underneath.  They had discovered that each table had sachets of sugar in a little pot, and would take any opportunity to carry them off to be torn open and consumed.

Mario's

Rather pretentious Italian restaurant.  Reservations needed here (make all your restaurant reservations the day you arrive to avoid disappointment).  Good food.  Very formal dress code.

The Pier

The best evening dining.  More relaxed dress code, excellent food.  Delicious steaks.

Beach Bistro

Daytime snacks – burgers etc.  This was closed while we were there due to the resort's low occupancy, only opening on our last day there.

Pool bars

The Paradise Pool Bar and the Sunset Pool Bar were both well-used, and included a swim-up counter with underwater stools.  Service usually prompt.

Main bar

Rather atmosphereless bar with pool tables and seating areas next to Bayside restaurant and the Sunset pool.  Evening entertainment (steel bands, dance troupe etc) was performed in an open space next to this bar.

Piano Bar

Pleasant, quiet air-conditioned indoor bar tucked away near Reception, with comfortable chairs.

Grande

Sandals run regular free shuttle buses between Sandals Grande St Lucian and the other two resort hotels for guests, and we'd taken advantage of this to try out Le Toc restaurant at Sandals Regency one evening (a pleasant, intimate French restaurant with excellent food), and also (from Halcyon Beach) to try out the Grande's beach one afternoon.  We felt that the Grande's beach was far better than Halcyon's – the water was calmer and clearer, the view was better, and there was a good wide beach with plenty of sunbeds and sunshades.

Because the Halcyon's beach was a write-off while we were there, we persuaded Sandals to allow us to transfer us to the Grande further north, so after 5 days at Halcyon, we moved to the Grande.  A good move, and thanks to Sandals for being so accommodating.

The Grande is bigger than Halcyon, with more pools, restaurants and rooms.  The gardens are not quite as pretty as Halcyon, but there are still plenty of flowering shrubs and some hummingbirds.  The hotel is built on a wide causeway linking Pigeon Island to the mainland, with ocean on both sides, with the spectacular Rodney Bay at the front of the hotel and a view of Martinique out the back.

There was lots to see on the beach.  There was a continual back and forth of sailing boats entering and leaving the bay, heading for the big Rodney Marina, or coming in to moor overnight just off the beach.  Every hour or so, there would be couples exchanging vows on the beach or in gazebos placed around the grounds (weddings are big business at Sandals). The girls always looked a picture in their wedding dresses on the beach, while their husbands (and guests) sweated in suits.  Each day, some local boys brought horses down to the water at the end of the beach.  The horses enjoyed a dip in the sea and had water splashed over them by their young charges, who were happy to take money off Sandals' guests in return for being allowed to ride the horses in the water.

Our room

This was similar to the room at Halcyon, but in a block at the back of the hotel, on the top floor of three, and with a good view out over the sea to Martinique on the horizon.

Food and drink

Bayside

Similar to Bayside at Halcyon, but with more Carib Grackles.  Don't leave food unattended at your table.  Some of the chairs around the perimeter were streaked with bird droppings.  Good food, but sometimes ran out of wine.

Toscanini's

Very good Italian restaurant, recently renovated.  Superb for a leisurely full breakfast in the morning and good in the evenings for a very filling Italian meal.

Barefoot on the Beach

Great informal place on the beach, with excellent food and good service, both lunchtimes and evenings.  On the very rainy days toward the end of our stay, rainwater was streaming off the slope behind and running under our feet, scouring out deep channels in the sand and carrying a lot of the beach under our tables into the sea.  One lunchtime Linda spotted Butch Stewart, founder and chairman of Sandals, coming in to Barefoot to have lunch and presumably to check up on his post-Tomas hotels.  All the catering under-managers were flapping about like nervous virgins.

Josephine's

Excellent lunchtime baguettes and pizzas.  Air-conditioned inside, plus tables outside in the sun.

The London Pub

Fake pub for reasonable food and drink.  Air-conditioned.  Can get unbelievably loud when a garrulous group of our transatlantic cousins get together in the pit.

Jasmine's

Oriental food.  You are shown to seats on one of half a dozen large round tables, each with four other couples.  Waiter service.  The main course (of about 8 dishes) is arranged on the lazy susan on the table.  You help yourself from the dishes as they pass in front of you.  Good for getting to know other guests.

Pool Bar

Incredibly busy swim-up pool bar in the main pool.

Beach Bar

Next to the pool, very busy.  The entertainers borrowed a corner of this bar for their PA system to entertain the poolistas.

Reception Bar

A strange venue, open at odd times to serve people hanging about in the vast Reception area.

Piano Bar

Quiet air-conditioned bar almost completely without atmosphere.

Other facilities

Shops

At the Grande there are a couple of fashion shops, a souvenir shop, and the credit card got a hit at the Colombian Emeralds jewellery shop.  There was a souvenir shop at Halcyon.

Internet access

Steep at USD 15 for 24 hours or USD 43 for a week.  We signed up for a week at the Grande.  Some rooms wired, others Wifi.  Reception sold us an Ethernet patch cable for USD 10, refundable on return at the end of our stay.  Speed was slowish, but useable.  Useful for reserving seats on the return flight in advance.

Trips/Diving

We'd chosen St Lucia because it is a beautiful island, with much to see.  For the first few days, the Island Routes tour desk in Halcyon was very non-committal about the effect of Tomas on their regular tours, eventually admitting that some weren't running, and some sights on others were unavailable.  We therefore decided to wait until our second week to see if it settled down.  The weather then broke and we had two days of drenching rain.  We decided that it wouldn't be much fun on an open tour boat or bus for several hours in the pouring rain, so reluctantly abandoned the idea.

Pigeon Island

Right next to Sandals Grande is Pigeon Island, now connected to the mainland by a causeway built in the 1970s.  This is definitely worth a visit, both for the historical interest and the magnificent views from the top.  Now a national park run by the St Lucia National Trust, there's a small admission charge, and a guide book is available at the gate.  The paths are well sign-posted and there are regular plaques providing information.

There are two peaks, the lower one carries the well-preserved remains of Fort Rodney, complete with old cannon, used to guard the entrance to Rodney Bay.  The higher, called Signal Peak, carried the main look-out post and a signal-flag station to alert the fleet moored in the bay below.

Fort Rodney was used by the British navy in the 18th & 19th centuries to keep an eye on what the dam'd Frenchies were doing on Martinique.  In 1782, the look-outs on Signal Peak spotted the French fleet leaving Martinique.  Admiral Rodney immediately set sail with the British fleet from Pigeon Island to confront and defeat them in the Battle of Saints between Guadeloupe and Dominica.

There are also the remains of the soldiers' barracks, an interesting museum of the history of the island, and even a restaurant and a pub….!  It'll take a couple of hours to see the whole island, so take a bottle of water with you.

Diving

The sea was like brown soup...

I didn't go diving from Halcyon - for the first few days there was none anyway, as the sea was like brown soup, with vis just a meter or so.  Only on the day before we transferred did they take one person diving, and the vis was still poor.  Note that Halcyon doesn't have a boat – you have to have a ten-minute taxi transfer to get on a boat.

I eventually started diving on our sixth day, from the Grande, who have two boats of their own.  The dive centre staff were polite when I checked in, but I had to ask a lot of questions to find out what time to turn up, where to get kit, where the boat went from, etc.  They weren't that forthcoming with information.  I borrowed a BCD and reg from the centre, and they were usually good quality, nearly new Scubapro stuff.  Once on the boat however, they were pretty professional.  For example, you have to make up your own weight belt before each dive, and I once got confused between the 3lb and 5lb weights, which don't have the weight stamped on them and were of a similar size and colour-coding.  One of the observant dive leaders pointed out that I'd consequently loaded a different total weight from the previous day.  And in the murky conditions later, they demonstrated that they were continually tracking their charges to make sure no-one had strayed and got lost.  They twice stopped everybody for a head-count double-check, as they'd spotted that we were a man short.

There's a two-tank dive departing at 0800 (except Sunday), and there are one-tank dives later in the morning, and again in the afternoon.  I went for the two-tank dives.  At Sandals you get two dives per day included free in the cost of your holiday.  The dive boats are big, very fast, and well-equipped.  They could get us all the way down to the Pitons (a magnificent setting for dives) towards the southern end of the island in just under an hour.

One annoyance (common in the Caribbean, and especially so at Sandals) is that the first dive is restricted to 35 minutes, and the second to 40 minutes.   It's galling having to get back on the boat with your tank still more than half full.

I did six and a half dives.   (Half a dive? Read on…)

  • The first two were Coral Gardens (right at the base of Gros Piton), and Fairyland (just north of Soufrieres) - visibility in both cases was about 5 to 10 metres.
  • The second two were Virgins Cove and Salt Bay, both well north of Soufrieres, and vis was much worse – down to 3 metres at Salt Bay.
  • The third two were Jalousie (right at the base of Petit Piton), and Grand Kye, (just north of Petit Piton).  These were much better with vis 20m+.   It was pleasant being able to space out a bit and not to have to check on the rest of the group every couple of seconds.
  • The final dive trip was a disaster.  The rain started coming down like stair-rods just before we got to the dive site – the wreck Lesleen M, near Anse La Raye.  Then half-way down the mooring rope to the wreck, the strap on my mask snapped, and my mask came off.  I felt my way back up the rope, and returned to the boat.  While I waited in the water, the boat-boy found and fitted a spare strap for me, but it was the wrong size and shape and didn't hold very well.  I returned by myself to the bottom of the mooring line at 11m, clearing my mask every few seconds, but vis was only about 5m, and I couldn't see anybody else around.  I waited a minute or two before abandoning the dive.  So my half-a-dive was 4 minutes with max depth 11m.  After ten minutes or so back on the boat, while I was fitting a spare strap I had in my kitbag, one of the dive leaders surfaced up the mooring line as I'd been missed, and he was relieved that I'd rightly returned to the boat.  By the time the rest of the divers were back on the boat half an hour later, the rain was still pelting down, and we could see waterfalls of brown water pouring over the island's cliffs every 50 meters or so.  The vis, already bad, started getting very much worse.  We abandoned any hope of our second dive, and returned to the hotel.

It continued to pour down for most of that day, and half the next, so I didn't bother to do any more diving, as I wouldn't have been able to see anything, anyway.

Water temperatures were pleasant - between 28°C and 30°C.  The dives I did weren't bad.  There was plenty of colourful coral and lots of big barrel sponges, shrimp and small spotted morays, some spotted eels and lobsters, and quite a lot of reef fish.  We saw one turtle and a barracuda, but nothing else big.  The two dives with good visibility were enjoyable.  The rest weren't.

After Tomas

Road closures due to repairs to the main road back to the airport meant that many guests had to go all the way by boat instead.  We were fortunately spared this, and moreover our taxi transfer was during the day so that we could see something of the island scenery.  Much of the island was green and well wooded, there were large areas of banana plantations, and plenty of colourful villages en route.  As we approached the south of the island, the devastation caused by Tomas was very evident.  Rivers had burst their banks and covered the surrounding countryside with brown mud, trees had been ripped down and piled up in broken heaps by the flood waters, bridges and roads had been completely or partially washed away, banana plantations had been flattened, power cables brought down and so on.

The aircraft crew are normally billeted in hotels near the airport.  Because these hotels still had no water 3 weeks after Tomas, we had to fly back via Trinidad where the crew were being temporarily put up.

We felt really sorry for the islanders.  While we were mildly discomfited once or twice by the water being temporarily cut off, this was nothing compared to what the St Lucians had to go through.  Nobody had mains water for several weeks after the hurricane.  One of the boat drivers told me that the roof had been ripped off his house.  Others saw their house or garden washed away.  Everybody had suffered from the torrential rain - many houses had been flooded by water or mud.  Many farmers, already dirt poor and dependent on the FairTrade deal to get a half-decent price for their banana harvest, saw their entire crop wiped out overnight.  The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 80-100% crop damage to banana plantations.  The island government had to spend millions of dollars repairing roads and bridges, power lines and water pipes - money that the island can ill-afford.  The island's Prime Minister Stephenson King said the damage caused by Hurricane Tomas was conservatively estimated at in excess of US$100 million, and the government had to appeal for regional and international assistance.  Fortunately countries in the Caribbean region and worldwide have rallied round to help.  We were told by the hotel management that a British navy vessel had arrived just a day or two after the disaster and had put equipment and teams of engineers and some medical staff ashore to pitch in.

Photos

Around ten photos to a page.  Pages vary from one to three megabytes in size.

  1. Sandals, Halcyon Beach - our room and the gardens  (2.6Mb)
  2. Sandals, Halcyon Beach - more views around the gardens  (3.1Mb)
  3. Sandals, Grande St Lucian  (2.0Mb)
  4. Sandals, Grande St Lucian - Pools, bars and restaurants  (1.5Mb)
  5. Pigeon Island and the west coast   (1.8Mb)
  6. Diving 1  (1.4Mb)
  7. Diving 2  (1.8Mb)
  8. Hurricane Damage  (1.3Mb)

Conclusion

It was a shame that Sandals didn't offer us the opportunity to postpone our holiday until things had returned to normal after Tomas.  Sandals Halcyon is quiet and pretty, but the beach is not inviting.  Sandals Grande is perfect for those who are gregarious, social and want to have a good time. Grande's beach is great and gets quieter as you move further away from the main pool.  Rooms, restaurants and bars in both hotels were good.  The quality of the food was high, and in some cases excellent.  Service was nearly always prompt and smiling.  Diving was quite good but was marred by the aftermath of Hurricane Tomas.

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