From Swamp to Sanctuary

Photography by Cafe Moka/Carol Ann Ferris

When Frenchman Roland Fruytier travelled from Paris to Trinidad 18 years ago to work on a documentary film about calypso, it proved to be a major turning point in his life.

Roland fell in love with Trinidad and, many years later when the opportunity arose, he bought four and a half acres of land, mainly swamp and bush, at Grande Riviere on the remote north east coast of the island with a view to perhaps building some houses.
But as he and his partner Laura first became more familiar with Grande Riviere, the sheer primitive beauty of the area made such an enchanting impression upon them that they decided they wanted to give their souls to their land and create a sanctuary for the eco-conscious traveller.

The result is Acajou, a delightful holiday retreat reached after a two-hour drive from Port of Spain on a road which finally winds down towards the coast out of the valley of San Souci—which, fittingly, means “No problems” in French.

Acajou is situated a two-minute stroll from the beach and nestles adjacent to the clear water river which flows through the village of Grande Riviere. Its name comes from the French word for “tropical wood” and it’s apt because it consists of six individual lodges built from hard wood mainly imported from Guyana. Each lodge has been built on sturdy stilts which raises them several feet off the ground.

Viewed from the outside, each lodge appears to offer the traveller a rustic simplicity, but to step inside each one is to find the decor and design stylishly elegant yet supremely comfortable with double doors which open on to a sun deck with relaxing views across Acajou’s grounds to the beach beyond.

While swaying gently in the sun deck’s hammock and gazing across the grounds towards the sea, it’s hard to believe that Acajou’s garden was once swampland. Now that it has been dried, cleared and re-planted, it boasts lush tropical coconut palms and tulip trees, and a variety of plants, including ginger, frangipani, jasmine, and pommerac trees which leave a pink-coloured carpet of fallen blossom around the base of their trunks. The scent from the flowers, the chirping of myriad species of birds and the gentle flutter by of various types of butterly add to the feeling of serenity.

Acajou’s airy dining room is an impressive structure inspired by Indonesian, Polynesian and Japanese architecture and looks out on to the river meandering its way to the sea flanked on the far side by a wild forest of trees and vines with cathedrals of tall bamboo and foliage arching over the paths. The setting offers a glorious backdrop to breakfast and lunch and makes for a romantic ambience during a candle-lit dinner.
Not unexpectedly, Acajou’s cuisine has a French influence, but menus are also inspired by Laura’s extensive travels during the 20 years she spent working in charge of logistics for huge rock concert tours all over the world by superstars such as Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Santana and Joe Cocker. “Here we serve shrimp, fish, chicken, Thai food for which I buy the ingredients in Paris, as well as Indian and Middle Eastern food,” she says. After dealing for two decades with the whims and demands of rock music’s elite, Laura reckons she can meet requests to satisfy any palate. “We’re able to cater for whatever people demand,” she says, “whether they want vegetable juice or champagne and smoked salmon.” One favoured speciality is Laura’s French chocolate cake. Once tasted, it’s irresistible.

What makes Acajou unique is that it is the ideal base from which to venture out at night to witness one of Trinidad’s natural marvels—female leatherback turtles lumbering laboriously up from the sea on to the nearby crescent beach to lay their eggs. During the nesting season, as many as 400 of these large turtles a night drag themselves from the waves up on to the sand to dig a deep hole with their back flippers in which to drop around 80 eggs each. Acajou has professional on-site security, and to be woken up at an appointed hour by one of the guards to be led down to the beach to watch this remarkable spectacle by the light of the moon is a truly awesome and unforgettable experience.

Thanks to a locally-organised turtle protection project, which allows visitors on to the beach at night only in the company of a conservation officer, the Grande Riviere beach is one of very few in the world which can report a growth in the arrivals of nesting females.

Roland bought his slice of paradise close to this beach in 1996, construction began in 2002 and Acajou has been up and running most efficiently since 2004. Now there are plans to expand the number of lodges to ten, to build a swimming pool and to explore the tremendous spa potential of the pristine waters of the river.

Roland and Laura’s Acajou venture has been of huge benefit to the village of Grande Riviere. Responsible tourism in every way is the ideology behind Acajou and the couple currently employs 15 locals, mainly women. Laura says: “We are very aware of our responsibilities to the villagers. We’ve been able to put our dream together in their place and we want to give something back to them, to train and to educate, because they’ve given us the beauty of the place. I’ve also learned a lot from them—not least, they’ve taught me to take my time.” Which may explain why Acajou has such a timeless tranquillity.M

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