Round Trip to Yesterday
by ELEANOR EARLY
Author of many travel books, especially on New England and the West Indies, ELEANOR EARLY lives in New York and vacations in the tropics.
THE Saint Antoine in Saint Lucia is an old-fashioned West Indian hotel with a number of fine things about it that you would never guess from the prospectus.
“Electric light,”the prospectus says, “and running water. Open-air dining room and spacious verandas. Seven doubles and eight singles.” Not a word about the tall rum punches, or the crab-backs and the guavas, the moonlight on the harbor, and the litthe red hen in the drawing room.
I’ll admit that rum punch is not everyone’s dish of tea, that some people mightn’t like crab-backs, that there’s moonlight everywhere — and heaven knows the drawing room is no place for a hen.
It is a long time since I fell in love with the Saint Antoine. The affair started about eighteen years ago when I was on a West Indies cruise out of Boston on the Lady Nelson, a ship beloved by a generation of voyagers. (A few months later, the Lady Nelson was torpedoed off Saint Lucia and limped home to Halifax. She continued in service throughout the Second World War and was eventually sold to the Egyptian government.) She put in at Saint Lucia and passengers went ashore at Castries. We asked the Captain the best place to eat and he recommended the Saint Antoine.
Travelers say that Saint Lucia’s deep, landlocked harbor is the most beautiful in the Caribbean. There was a law at the time which prohibited begging in Castries every day but Saturday. It was Saturday and the beggars had come to town. We gave them money and it made us feel good and happy. The sky was incredibly blue. The sea was the color of sapphire and turquoise and amethyst. We hired a car to go to the hotel, and drove up the Morne.
We rounded a sleep curve and came to the Saint Antoine. There was nothing pretentious about it. It had a staid Victorian air, gabled roof and fenced veranda. But there were flowers everywhere. Coralita, which the natives call “chains of love,” clutched at the staircase, and bougain villea bloomed against the walls.
We sat on the veranda overlooking the harbor, and drank rum punches and ate crab-backs, and guavas in coconut cream. The view was the most beautiful view, we told each other, and the Saint Antoine the nicest place in the world. I have thought about them (the view and the hotel), off and on, ever since.
Recently I went again to Saint Lucia. I took a taxi through Castries and up the Morne. Two thirds of the town, destroyed by fire in 1948, has been rebuilt. And when I saw Castries, I wished I had gone on to Tobago. But when I saw the Saint Antoine it looked exactly, thank God, as I remembered it.
I went up the stairs to the veranda, pinned a spray of bougain villea in my hair, and ordered a rum punch. The good smell of burning charcoal drifted up from the yard and soon the butler came to ask if I would stay for dinner. There was calalu and there were crab-backs, mutton with pigeon peas, cush-cush, plantain, breadfruit, and christophene.
I ordered crab-backs and remarked that I had been thinking about them for eighteen years. I didn’t wish anything else. The butler, understandably puzzled, conferred with the cook, (Crab-backs are the highly seasoned meat of blue crabs mixed with a great deal of melted butter and a few breadcrumbs, stuffed back into their shells and baked.) I was served four of them, sizzling hot, fragrant with garlic and spice. When I had finished, a turbaned waitress set before me a bowl of stewed guavas and a pitcher of coconut cream. I had another rum punch and decided to stay for a while.
It was the off season, which begins in April and ends in December, and rates (American plan) were down to about $7 a day. The manageress showed me to a room whose jalousied windows look upon the sea.
The chambermaid adjusted the mosquito netting, and I sat in bed like an Arab in a tent. The moon was full and the harbor, bathed in light, seemed refreshed and lustrous. Offshore rose the twin peaks of the Pitons, two lonely spikes of lowering rock. In the distance I could see the French island of Martinique and Diamond Rock, dark and dramatic. British naval records tell the story of the Rock. A hundred and fifty years ago, a hundred and twenty Englishmen camped on its bare crest and harassed the French navy for seventeen months. When their powder kegs were empty, they surrendered. And when the war was over, the British navy commissioned their stronghold as a ship, H.M.S. Diamond Rock.
In the morning I learned the history of the Saint Antoine. It was built as a private home in Victorian days, about the same time as Government House, a magnificently ugly edifice. A few years later a hurricane swept the island, and the owner was forced to accept paying guests. Eventually the Saint Antoine became a hotel, remaining in the family until the recent death of the last daughter. She left the property to two brothers who live in England. One of the present owners is Sir Aubrey Claud Davidson-Houston, a distinguished artist for whom Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have sat for their portraits.
The butler took me to the drawing room to show me photographs of the paintings of the Queen and Prince. And there on a marble-topped table, nesting on Punch and the London Times, was a little red hen. The butler clapped his hands. The hen cackled and fluttered to the floor, exposing an egg she had laid.
The butler smiled all over his kind, dark face. “Eh! For you, Mistress,” he said. “Une petite she lay a egg. You eat she egg, Mistress — déjeuner du matin.”And so I did.
I stayed for a week, and slept in the room whose jalousied windows look upon the sea. In the morning the chambermaid, walking soft on bare feet, brought me strong Creole coffee, and the little red hen laid eggs for my breakfast.
The owners have given orders that the Saint Antoine shall continue to be run as an old-fashioned West Indian hotel, and that is why hens lay eggs in the drawing room, the housemaids wear turbans, and the butler has a hibiscus behind his ear. There’s hardly a hotel left in the West Indies to compare with the Saint Antoine.