Angus Thirlwell has a Willy Wonka twinkle in his eye – or at least that's the impression I get from the photograph in the brochure of his latest venture, a hotel in Saint Lucia. Thirlwell is the British co-founder of Hotel Chocolat, the chain of grown-up chocolate shops found throughout the UK. With a name and an idyllic location already in place, a hotel was the next logical step: the Hotel Chocolat opened on Thirlwell's cacao plantation last spring.
The hotel is situated in a corner of the Rabot Estate, which has been in operation since 1745, in the south-west corner of Saint Lucia. The estate, the oldest on the island, had fallen on hard times when Thirlwell, who grew up in the Caribbean, and his business partner Peter Harris bought it in 2005 and set about transforming it into a viable cocoa-producing business. It now supplies the raw material for their top-end single-estate chocolate.
The hotel is a quietly luxurious place that makes the most of its surroundings. Checking in at reception, which doubles as the entrance to the restaurant, I took in the dramatic view of Gros Piton, one of the island's iconic twin peaks.
This year, the plan is to build a chocolate factory on the estate. I took a stroll up to the site – currently only a large clearing in the forest – past cacao trees bearing pendulous, green, red, yellow and purple pods, depending on their variety and ripeness. Now and then I'd catch the scent of something fruity – a fallen pod that had begun to ferment, which is how the Aztecs got the idea for xocolatl.
As dusk settled in, the air began to pulse with the tiny lights of fireflies and the chirp of tree frogs. Cocktails beckoned at the restaurant, Boucan, simply decorated in warm brown wood and open-air on four sides, with a view of Gros Piton silhouetted in the moonlight. Dinner is served here too. The menu uses cocoa in just about everything: from confit duck with orange and cocoa sauce and white chocolate mash to cacao-pulp sorbet. It's all surprisingly subtle, and delicious. Breakfasts are less choc-focused, but no less tasty – bittersweet green oranges, papayas, bananas, eggs and bacon, chocolate granola, "smudge" (posh Nutella), and Saint Lucian cocoa tea – an intense shot of ground cacao nibs, hot water and a splash of milk.
After this you can either laze by the small infinity pool, have a spa treatment or take the free shuttle down the forested hillside to Jalousie Beach, a long arc of imported white sand with clear, warm water and excellent snorkelling.
I toured the estate with Rabot's nursery supervisor, Cuthbert Monroque, who explained how their aim is to make cocoa a more viable crop for Saint Lucian farmers, who have historically relied heavily on banana production. While it takes six years for a new cacao plant to reach maturity, this can be shortened to 18 months by grafting on to root stock. I had a go at grafting – a surprisingly fiddly business. "Come back next season," said Cuthbert, "and perhaps you'll taste the chocolate from your tree." It was a tempting prospect.
The Hotel Chocolat is close to the coast in the south-west of Saint Lucia, a 40-minute drive from Hewanorra airport. It's a quiet, rural area, mostly given over to forest with pockets of agriculture. Nearby are nature reserves and hill walks to explore and a tiny, active volcano. The nearest town, Soufrière, is about 20 minutes away.
There are eight stilted wooden "cocoa pods" dotted around a courtyard; further up the terraced hillside stand six larger and more luxurious villas. Everything is decorated in the brown and cream livery of Hotel Chocolat's high-street shops, in a Caribbean plantation-meets-contemporary style. A bottle of prosecco and Kilner jars of cocoa butter-encrusted nuts and a selection of chocolates awaited in my pod. There was also free Wi-Fi and an iPod loaded with everything from rainforest sounds to Queen, but no TV or telephone to disturb the natural order of things. The glassless windows, narrow gaps in the floorboards and stilted position of the pods are designed to make the most of cooling breezes here, 300m above sea level. However, ventilation was sometimes an issue in my room. More refreshingly, the sleek bathroom featured a big open-air rain shower.
Hotel Chocolat, Rabot Estate, Soufrière, Saint Lucia (0844 544 1272; thehotelchocolat.com).
Doubles start at $475 (£296), B&B.Reuse content