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STRESS-REDUCING SPOTS : Two Ways to Rejuvenate, Caribbean-Style-in a Cruise Ship Mega-Spa or at a Tranquil Island Resort : SAMPLING RETREATS ON ST. LUCIA, ST. MAARTEN AND JAMAICA


T. LUCIA, West Indies — When my parents first took me to the Caribbean when I was 10, some 25 years ago, we rented an A-frame house on a quiet beach in Antigua. The highlight of the trip for me was meeting a local girl my age while playing in the sand. She invited us to her home, down the beach. We joined her family for a lunch of fish her uncle had caught that morning, sweet cornmeal steamed in banana leaves, and tall glasses of clear coconut water. At the end of our vacation, one of their neighbors came all the way to the airport to see us off, bringing a gift of homemade hot pepper sauce.

In those days, that was what Caribbean pampering was all about: strangers being graciously drawn into the friendly pulse of an island. I've returned to the West Indies countless times since then, on vacations and on assignments to write magazine and newspaper articles. Today busy hotels stand along the once-serene shore where my new friend and I fashioned sandy fortresses. Residents are still affable throughout most of the Caribbean, but invitations to home-cooked meals are almost as uncommon as fur coats. On more than a few islands, part of the change is that pampering now comes in the form of sophisticated health spas at plush resorts.

I'm not referring to the old style European spas where wealthy, elderly people went to soak in mineral baths and be cared for by doctors. And I don't mean simply massages and weight rooms. These full-scale health and fitness retreats offer a menu of exotic treatments; the exercise classes often include reggae dance or step classes, and there's usually state-of-the-art exercise equipment.

At Caribbean spas, meals may not qualify as strict "spa cuisine." When it's time for a culinary workout, diners usually have a choice of hearty fare and lighter selections, with an emphasis on tropical fruits, vegetables, seafood, and lean meats. Menus usually include a variety of high-style/high-health creations such as pumpkin bisque, red snapper with papaya relish, and passion fruit sorbet.

A word of warning: These hotels aren't for bargain hunters. During the more expensive winter season, rates begin at about $300 a night for two people sharing a double room. Some of the best are all-inclusive and can cost $400 or $500 a night. But this covers all meals, drinks, most sports and spa services--and means that once guests arrive, they never have to open their wallets. Also, many spas offer day packages for travelers who prefer to save by staying elsewhere.

The first time I visited a Caribbean spa a few years ago, I was hooked, and I've been to many of the 20-odd in the region. With dry, sunny days and cool evenings, the winter months are a great time to go. The resorts usually offer expert guidance in choosing treatments and activities, but in contrast to the Marine-Corps-style regimens of some health retreats, most have no structured daily schedule. They usually allow vacationers to create their own balance between spa activities and diversions such as hiking, jogging, sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, golf and tennis.

In fact, one of the best aspects of visiting a spa that's part of a tropical resort--as opposed to the classic self-contained type--is that traveling companions don't have to be perfectly in sync. My boyfriend, who sometimes travels with me, isn't into seaweed wraps or stretch classes, so he can head for the golf course, the tennis court or the beach while I do my thing. Perhaps because of the wide choice of non-spa activities, these Caribbean health retreats seem to attract almost equal numbers of women and men.

When people ask my favorites, I tell them about two places in St. Lucia: the Oasis at LeSPORT (with its extensive, guided spa program) and Jalousie Plantation (with wonderful views); one in St. Maarten: Port de Plaisance (with attractive architecture); and, in Jamaica, Ciboney Ocho Rios (with exceptional villas).

Ever since I first went to St. Lucia a few years ago to cover their water-sports festival, I'd heard great things about the Oasis spa at LeSPORT resort on the northwest coast of this island in the Eastern Caribbean. Last summer, I finally got the chance to stay there. Attracting many Europeans, LeSPORT sits at the edge of Cariblue Beach, about 20 minutes from Castries, the island's capital.

With dramatic Moorish archways, tall columns, decorative tiles and fountains, the Oasis spa complex mirrors the Alhambra palace in Grenada, Spain. It is perched on a hill overlooking the rest of the all-inclusive resort, and is one of the few spas in the Caribbean where a prescribed treatment program is designed for each guest. My warm-up began my first morning as I climbed the 72 steps to the entrance. Each new guest was interviewed and examined by the resident nurse. Then we were given schedules of the three treatments we would have each day. Clad in white robes, we floated in and out of the private treatment rooms along open-air corridors surrounding the swimming pool.

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