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A Chocolate Retreat In The Caribbean

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The following story appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of AFAR Magazine.

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Alphonsus "Stan" Stanislas stretched a pole above our heads and slid it along a branch of a cacao tree. Using the blade at the end of the pole, he cut a squashlike pod from the tree, then scored it with a pocket knife to reveal a hive of white, pulp-covered beans the size of grapes. Stan directed me to pop a bean in my mouth. It was a little slimy but fruity. These beans--once they're fermented, dried, roasted, and ground--will become chocolate, the star ingredient of Hotel Chocolat, a new 14-room lodge set in a 140-acre cacao plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

The lodge is a spin-off of a boutique chocolatier (also named Hotel Chocolat) based in the United Kingdom. It aims to restore St. Lucia's cacao farming, which thrived before mid-20th-century industrialization drove prices down. Since 2005, the company has been refurbishing the Rabot Estate, which dates to 1745. Hotel Chocolat has planted 13,000 trees and retrained local farmers to grow cacao.

When I checked in to my whitewashed cottage, I found champagne in the fridge, along with house-made truffles and chocolate chip cookies. I sampled a cookie before testing the outdoor shower, with its solar-heated water and stone-tiled floor.

Then I joined the plantation tour led by Stan, the estate's agricultural consultant. As fellow guests and I tramped through the cacao orchards, we learned how farmers graft saplings and nurture pods from blossoms. After we sampled the cacao beans, Stan turned us over to chef Jon Bentham, who was waiting at the bar beside the infinity pool. He stationed each of us at warmed marble mortars with individual jars of roasted-and-hulled beans.

"Throw those into your bowl and start grinding until you get a paste," he instructed, and we muscled our beans into a shiny mush. Next we added cocoa butter--a bean by-product--and powdered sugar. "It's very chocolaty. Try it," Bentham tempted us.

I didn't need the invitation. I had already dipped into the blend, still crunchy with fractured beans. A machine did the rest of the work, producing the smooth, molten chocolate we poured into candy-bar molds. The chocolate set while we ate lunch at the resort's Boucan restaurant, where every dish--from gazpacho to snapper--is prepared with cacao.

After our meal and a cacao-oil massage, it was time for my handmade candy bar. It was bliss, and I polished it off all too quickly. I thought, as I gazed out at the pod-laden trees, I'll just have to make another one.

- ELAINE GLUSAC

Hotel Chocolat Soufrière, (800) 757-7132, The Hotel Chocolat, From $450.

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