4242 Miles to St. Lucia – The Boiled Frog Guesthouse

Danielle and Steve Unruh are the owners of the Boiled Frog Guesthouse in St. Lucia. Their story is an unusual and interesting one that takes them more than 4242 miles from Canada (I calculated from Vancouver – so no doubt it’s even more) to the tropical island of St. Lucia and we thought it would make a great post for our “Making Your Tropical Obsession Your Profession” Series. The Boiled Frog is currently #1 on Trip Advisor’s List of Castries BB’s & Inns.

We became FB friends with Danielle and Steve a couple of months ago when we saw a picture of a beautiful rum drink being served at the Boiled Frog Guesthouse. We’re planning a visit St. Lucia for the first time this fall and are hoping to meet them in person and to enjoy a rum drink on the deck with their amazing view. I’m sure you will enjoy Danielle and Steve’s story as much as we did.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Well, we’re a family of five. Myself, my wife Danielle, and our three boys, Alex 17, Sasha 14, and Kieran (aka, The Podamus) 2. Together, we are from north eastern British Columbia, Canada, from the area around Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway.

Danielle and I were both employed in the oil and gas exploration industry. She was originally an environmental consultant and I started out in oil and gas production and later moved into Environment, Health and Safety. We met working on industry projects together. We were both doing very well financially, both earning six figures, plus benefits etc. etc. and both not enjoying what we were doing. In an industry starving for talented, experienced people, we had boundless career possibilities in front of us but no desire to get even deeper entrenched in something that was obviously not what we wanted to be doing.

We had traveled quite a bit to the Caribbean, to Jamaica and Mexico together and Danielle to many of the windward islands on her own and we LOVED everything about it. Every time we left we were asking ourselves why we kept going back to someplace so cold and to jobs so unfulfilling. We just decided to stop talking about it and to really explore if it would be possible to move permanently. We had no idea where or what we could or would do so we just started exploring and researching, looking at every possibility.
One day, while Danielle was in Calgary at a management training session for Shell, I was working my way through a book that I had bought for Christmas for my staff, called “5”. It was a book I picked up at Starbucks, and it’s intent was to challenge you with the very simple question, what are you going to do with the next five years of your life. (http://www.amazon.com/Where-Will-Five-Years-Today/dp/1932319441/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336326158&sr=8-1)
It’s a fun book, I highly recommend it. Anyway, as I said, I was working through it and one of the things it asked you to do was to draw a picture of the house you wanted to live in. So I drew a picture of a house, with pillars on the front, beside the ocean, on a little peninsula, with a couple of palm trees in the front yard. Meanwhile, down in Calgary, Danielle was being asked by the facilitator of her training session to do a similar exercise, so Danielle drew a picture of a two story house, with pillars, on a little point, on the ocean, with palm trees in the yard, but she added two little plastic lounge chairs to her drawing. The funny thing is, she and I had never actually discussed anything about this. Danielle took a picture of her drawing and emailed it to me, just to show me what they had been working on and when she got home later in the week I showed her what I had drawn. It was one of those twilight zone moments. But it gets better.
A couple of weeks later I was getting frustrated with my Caribbean business searching. I wasn’t finding anything on the western side around Mexico or Belize so I thought I’d broaden my search out to the rest of the Caribbean and I started a real estate search in the windward islands and a website for St. Lucia popped up. I started scrolling through the businesses for sale and on the third or fourth click a guesthouse for sale flashed onto the screen, and the picture that came up was identical to the pictures that Danielle and I had drawn, right down to the two plastic lawn chairs. I immediately emailed the link to Danielle and we decided that day that we had to go and check this place out.
Well I’m going to fast forward a little. We did come and visit the place. We loved it. The owners were great and we even came back a second time with the kids to see how they felt about it. They were skeptical but willing to give it a try. However, to make a long story short, we didn’t end up buying that place. Now you might think that it would make a better story if we had because it was a perfect fit for the image we had of the place we wanted to live, so I can assure you that the place we did end up moving into actually looks the same too! Only it’s bigger! It has pillars and palm trees and sits right on the ocean on a little point called Choc Bay and that’s where we set up The Boiled Frog Guesthouse.How we ended up here instead of there is a story in itself and in the end, turned out to be a very fortuitous turn of events for us. We had driven by this place several times during our stays on the island and every time we did we would look and say wow, wouldn’t that be a great place for a guesthouse. We even went so far as to make inquiries about whether it was available for sale or rent but we were never able to get much help from the realtor. When we got back to Canada we called up another realtor that we had taken a realty tour with the second time we were down and asked her if she knew anything about this place. She said that as a matter of fact, she knew the owner personally and she would make inquiries for us. Turns out she was renting her office space from the same guy who owned this house and she convinced him to let us rent the place. So in a matter of weeks she had the lease set up and let us know that if we were still interested, the place was ours. Soooo we decided that night to make the leap and we signed the lease. From that point on we had to sell two houses, two vehicles, a boat, and somehow manage to sell or give away pretty much everything else. We managed pull it off. We sold the house we were living in for about 30% above market value (which was good cuz we knew we needed the money if we were going to survive long enough to figure out how to generate revenue here), we sold the other house for market value, we sold two vehicles and pretty much gave away everything else and what we couldn’t give away we threw away and moved down here with 16 suitcases, two teenagers and a baby.
We had no idea if we were going to be able to set up the guesthouse business. We knew we had six months to get something going. Six months to figure out what was required to stay longer than six months. Six months to develop and launch a business of some sort that would generate enough revenue within a year, to allow us to stay here full time.
In the end we ended up doing a number of different things! It turned out that the gentleman who owns the house is a very successful businessman on the island and he has been instrumental in helping us navigate our way around. By accident Danielle picked up some regular work for one of his many companies, doing sales and marketing (something she had done a little of back in Canada). Together we do quite a bit of on-line health and safety consulting for companies we were involved with back in Canada as well. By accident as well, I do some maintenance on gym equipment at one of the local gyms and I also do a little personal training on the side and on top of all that we run The Boiled Frog Guesthouse which, in the space of less than a year, went from being non-existent to the number one rated guesthouse on Trip Advisor, in the Castries area, and the number two rated guesthouse on Trip Advisor on the whole island. We only have three rooms to rent out, so it’s not enough to make a full living off of but it helps pay the bills and it lets us stay living in this beautiful home, in this beautiful setting on this beautiful island.
SO! that’s the readers digest version of our story (sorry if it was too long!) Now I’ll try and answer the rest of the questions.
2. How did you decide upon St. Lucia? Tell us what is great about St. Lucia.
We decided on St. Lucia for a couple of reasons. It has a friendly outlook on foreign ownership of property at the moment, so if we decided to buy here, it would be relatively easy to do so.
Being a former British colony, it actually has governmental systems that at least feel familiar to us as Canadians. In addition it’s official language is English and pretty much everyone speaks English at some level although the Patois is not easy to understand. Really a different language.
Having two teen age boys, schooling was a big question mark. We were prepared to home-school them as this is a fairly common practice in Canada and the home schooling systems are well developed but in the first year here we found an excellent international school and we enrolled the boys there. It was a very good year for them and they made a lot of social contacts which was also important to us.
Aside from the weather, which is amazing, and the beauty of the place, which is breathtaking, the best thing about St. Lucia has been the people. They have really made us feel welcome and are incredibly friendly. Living some place like this is so different from visiting it at a resort and it has been unquestionably the best experience of our lives to immerse ourselves in a community that is so foreign to what we have always known. The world is both a bigger and smaller place to us and our children because of it.
3. Has it been an easy transition to the islands?
To be honest, I don’t think this is for everybody, but for us it has really been a very easy transition. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been without it’s challenges but we have looked at it from day one as an adventure that we were going to embrace fully and as a result, despite some bumps, it just hasn’t been that difficult.
As an example, we had been here a month when hurricane Tomas hit. I was back in Canada, finishing up my work commitments and was actually en-route back when I got the news that the hurricane had hit the island. I was stranded in Toronto for 4 days while my wife and children rode out a hurricane. Something none of us had ever been through. Once it was all done, Tomas turned out to be the most destructive hurricane in St. Lucia’s history and for the next 6 to 8 months it felt like a real struggle for the local population. We had a few weeks of rationed water but eventually things came back around and now it feels like things are pretty much back to normal.
It has also been a very interesting experience just to live on an island. Canada is the largest independent land mass on the planet and you get very used to big spaces of land and always having everything you could possibly want or need twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. That is just not the case on an island. I remember going into a grocery story, fairly modern by North American standards, and finding that they had no milk. Went to the next grocery store up the road, and they had no milk either. Turned out that no one had milk anymore. That has never happened to me in Canada. I’ve never seen a grocery store without something as basic as milk, but you learn that on an island, sometimes they run out of things and then you just have to wait until the next ship comes in before you get more! Things like that happen frequently but these are things you learn to plan for and you just adjust. If having to switch to UHT milk for a couple of weeks is your biggest hardship…you’re not doing too badly.
4. What do you enjoy the most about your life in the islands?
Oh there are just so many things that I enjoy ‘MOST”! I love NOT having a 9 to 5 job! I love having so much time with my children, priceless! I love love love love love the weather!!!
I was born and raised in a place where 24 deg C is hot whereas here 24 deg C is a cool day. I love living right beside the ocean! I love living on a beach. I love working for myself. I love building something that has been received so well by the people who have stayed with us. I love meeting people from all over the world and having them share in the beauty of this place and sharing themselves with us. It’s been an amazing experience. I love the pace, I love the warmth of the people, I love the cheap and oh soooo good rum!! I love it all.
5. What made you decide to start your own business? Tell us about your business.
Well, a big part of moving here was the desire to find some sort of revenue generating business that would allow me the time to write. I’ve always wanted to write for a living (novels) but there just isn’t the time to do that when you have a full time job. So we needed to find something that would create that kind of income. When we came down and visited the first business we looked at, we saw that they had that kind of lifestyle and so we knew then that it could work.
Originally and hopefully somewhere down the road, we wanted to own a beach bar. The name “the Boiled Frog” actually came from the fact that we thought it would make a great name for a bar. The concept of the boiled frog was something we had heard from a speaker at a health and safety conference in Canada. She had described the idea that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in room temperature water and then slowly over a long period of time, turn up the heat it will eventually boil because it won’t jump out. She equated this to the kind of pressure that middle managers were under and how companies were asking more and more of middle management, turning up the heat so to speak, and this was eventually burning them out. We knew what that felt like, as it was particularly prevalent in under resourced health and safety departments throughout our industry. We wanted to get out of the water ourselves, and we wanted to create a place where others could do the same. The beach bar seemed like the perfect vehicle to do that. We just took the same concept and applied it to the guesthouse and it has taken off. The feedback from guests has been overwhelmingly positive, so we think we’ve hit on something that strikes a chord with people. We’ve had guests tell us that they chose to stay with us, just because of the name. They wanted to see what that was all about.
6. What are the challenges of living in the islands?
Well I’ve touched on some of the physical ones like running out of staples at the grocery store and there are lots of those kinds of things that can be interesting to manage. We get a lot of stuff brought down to us by guests and family. Things we can’t get here. A lot of people will do excursion shopping to places like Miami because the prices are better and there are things there you just can’t find here, but those are really pretty small inconveniences. Not that challenging. In truth the biggest challenges have been related to navigating the governmental requirements for work permits and visa’s that sort of thing. There are professionals, lawyers etc., who can help and for anyone seriously considering doing something like this it would likely be a good idea to contact someone like that. It’s difficult though because it’s hard to know who is reputable and skilled at that sort of work when you don’t already live here.
We got very lucky in making the contacts we made when first got here and in having six months to sort things out. Ex-pats from other countries such as the US and Britain don’t have that much time. Having said that, we know of others who have made the transition as well so it can certainly be done but just know that it will be a lot of bureaucracy that will be very frustrating at times and it will likely cost more than you think it should.
7. What advice would you give to someone who would like to relocate to the islands?
Ha, got ahead of myself there. My advice would be a) do it! b) don’t get discouraged by the things that don’t make sense c) don’t be discouraged by what seem like insurmountable walls, there’s always a way through or around if you want it badly enough, d) do your research, the more you know the more prepared you will be to ask good questions.
8. Is there anything else we should know about you or your business or your life in the islands?
hahahaha…ummm I feel like I’ve bored you enough so I’ll stop now!
Here’s our website and a link to our FB page and our page on Air BnB and on Trip Advisor. Thanks for this opportunity! I hope you can make use of it!


Other posts on Making Your Tropical Obsession Your Profession:

Tears of a Mermaid – Elizabeth Ivy, Glass Jewelry

Searching for Pieces of Eight – Thomas Gidus

Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge, Kailua Kona, Hawaii – Brice Ginardi

Vessels of Freedom – Captain Darrel Hearne

Through the Eyes of a Tropical Soul – William Anthony Torrillo, Photographer

A Pirate Looks at 10 – Fletcher Morton, Trop Rock Musician

I’m Gonna Live My Life Like a Jimmy Buffet Song by Anthony Bjorklund (book review)

Railean Distillers – San Leon, Texas, Kelly Railean

Comments

  1. Facebook link appears to be broken. The other links work.

    Great story. Usually the kind that drives us in the land of ice and snow crazy when we read it during February.

  2. Let’s raise a glass of rum. Here is to living the dream!

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