It’s not all mangoes, mosquitoes and margaritas. Meet Phil and Judy Buckley, the plucky British couple who moved 4,000 miles from home to restore Hotel Chocolat’s 250-year-old cocoa plantation.
Phil and Judy Buckley arrived on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia in 2006 at the bottom of a mountain, with four suitcases, three dogs and a hire car.
The newly married Buckleys’ mission was to restore a 250-year old distressed Caribbean cocoa plantation to its former glory. Getting stuck in right at the roots of the cocoa trees, they would unite local farmers and bring back the exceptional chocolate the faded 140-acre estate had been famed for over a century ago.
Eight years and two hurricanes later, they’ve created a stunning hotel described by Marie Claire as ‘a luxury bolthole’. Condé Nast Traveller places it on their coveted Hot List as ‘understated luxury with a hint of sex appeal’, and Tatler simply murmurs, ‘Chic’.
“I was filled with excitement,” says Judy of her first days on the island, now relaxing with a cup of coffee on the Rabot Estate house veranda.
“My mother is from the Caribbean and I felt like I was coming home.” But reality soon shoved aside any picture-postcard dreams the Buckleys may have arrived with.
“After the first two months it hit me,” she says. “We didn’t have a bank account. We hadn’t bought the land. We had meeting after meeting after meeting with the government. And I missed my family and friends terribly. It wasn’t all mangos, mosquitoes and margaritas and lying by the pool all day.”
In something of a culture shock, the pair found themselves on a primordial Caribbean island with intense heat, looming volcanoes and hurricanes, unsure if they had a home.
“It was the local Lucians who brought us in and made us feel that we belonged,” says Phil. “They involved us in the local community, invited us to Christmas dinners, communions – the lot. They’ve stood by us and helped us for the past eight years.”
An engineer by trade, Phil had never designed a hotel before.
“I designed factories. but I like a challenge,” he smiles.
And a challenge it was, every step of the way. In 2007, Hurricane Dean ripped through the island, flattening a year’s hard work on the plantation. Hurricane Tomas followed in 2010, demolishing much of saint Lucia and tragically claiming the lives of close friends of the buckleys.
“The hurricane ripped the coconuts off the trees and turned them into cannonballs,” Phil recalls sadly.
“The government issued a state of emergency. We were devastated, all of us. but we never wanted to give up.”
“You just plough through together,” adds Judy. “We went out into the community and helped our friends put the roofs back on their homes.” When Boucan opened in 2011, it became a wild success, drawing worldwide acclaim, numerous celebrity guests and appearances on television.
The monumental scale of the landscape around Boucan is jawdropping. A real-life Jurassic park roars into life before your eyes, the piton mountains towering majestically in a vivid, glossy riot of greenery and tropical flora.
Everything has been meticulously thought out, from the showstopping view at the infinity pool to the perfectly positioned Lodges that catch the cooling breeze from the Caribbean sea.
Better than any West End show, the natural stage unfolds every evening for an unforgettably dramatic experience. The golden sun gently slides between the theatrical Pitons, resting finally behind Petit Piton for the perfect backlighting. Sitting and watching the sun set with a Cocoa Bellini in hand is an almost spiritual delight to the senses.
“This isn’t about glass elevators going up to the mountains,” explains an animated Phil. “It’s not a hotel. This is barefoot luxury. Guests come here and they experience a whole new lifestyle during their stay with us. Hitting the wow factor is what we wanted to do and I think we’ve done it.”
Phil also went on to establish our Island Growers programme, forging an ethical trading partnership with more 150 local farmers that has restored Saint Lucia’s fame for its prized variety of fine cocoa.
In 2012, Hotel Chocolat also created the world’s first ever single-côte chocolate bar, with cocoa harvested from the Marcial côte of Rabot Estate. Billed by The Telegraph as the ‘world’s most exclusive chocolate bar’, with notes of ‘shiraz wine, antique oak, roasted cocoa and stewed spiced plums’, it swiftly sold out.
The passion and energy that pours out of Phil and Judy is captivating. Listening to them talk and finish each other’s sentences, you quickly realise that they are something of an inimitable force. Phil gestures around expansively as he tells me excitedly about Project Genesis, the long-anticipated chocolate manufactory currently under construction. Judy has quietly left, her lilting Welsh tones in the background warmly welcoming the latest open-mouthed guests to Boucan.
Loved and respected within the community here, the pair are happily, as Phil says, “stuck in like an Alabama tick”. And they’ve only just begun.