Show me a tropical beach and I’ll lie on it gladly. But the pleasures of an afternoon’s idling in the shallows and soaking up warmth redouble after a morning’s exertions.
To my mind, this makes St Lucia the most perfect island in the Caribbean. For this is a place rich in things to do, from riding Creole thoroughbreds through the waves on Cas-en-Bas beach to zip-lining through the rainforest canopy.
It’s also paradise for walkers as St Lucia abounds in trails. The obvious challenge is to climb the Pitons, the almost perfectly conical twin lava spikes designated a World Heritage Site. The reasonably fit can get to the summit of the Gros Piton (2,618ft), in around two hours, from which the views, as far as Martinique to the north and St Vincent to the south on a clear day, more than justify any breathlessness you’ve suffered on the way up.
At 2,408ft, the Petit Piton ought to be easier, but it’s a very steep, much tougher ascent that involves knotted ropes and officially the path, or what exists of one at least, is closed for safety reasons.
If Gros Piton sounds a trek too far, there are plenty of less strenuous options in the hinterland around St Lucia’s highest peak, Morne Gimie, and through the Edmund Forest Reserve, an area cloaked in the sort of improbably beautiful jungle imagined by the painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau: of waterfalls you can bathe under (the Enbas Saut Falls feed a sequence of three idyllic pools), cloud forest, stunted “elfin woodland” and extraordinary trees. Immense chataigniers, for example, their buttressed trunks bound by strangler figs; spidery tree ferns, whose woody stems sprout parasitical bromeliads; and sprays of heliconia thronged by humming birds no bigger than your thumb.
No wonder Derek Walcott, the more famous of St Lucia’s two Nobel Prize winners (the other was the economist Arthur Lewis), makes repeated references in the opening chapter of his epic novel-in-verse Omeros, to laurier-cannelles, the bark of which is revered as a kind of forest Viagra when made into a tea – our guide winked knowingly – and gommiers, whose highly flammable sap smells of fire lighters.
Indeed, in the 1790s a band of escaped slaves known as the Brigands used it, along with hollow shafts of the giant bamboo that also grows here, to construct makeshift cannons, the roar from which frightened their French rulers into thinking they were well armed. The uprising led to the abolition of slavery in 1794 – at least until Britain regained control of the island and brought it back.
Few places have been as fought over as St Lucia, which changed hands between the French and British 14 times before it secured independence in 1979. But it makes for a fascinating fusion of cultures: Amerindian, African, European and Indian, thanks to the 6,000 indentured workers shipped here from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh after slavery was abolished.
For those who prefer their vegetation “colonised”, as Walcott put it when he spoke of the “civilising decency [of] botanical gardens” in his 1992 Nobel lecture, St Lucia has several notable public gardens to explore. The best-known are the Diamond Botanical Gardens near the old French capital Soufrière, part of a defunct sugar estate bestowed on its owners by Louis XIV. But after the rainforest, it all feels a little tamed and over formalised, the incongruous Japanese water garden in particular.
By contrast at Mamiku – a Creolisation of the name of its first châtelaine, Madame de Micoud, the St Lucian-born wife of a 18th-century French governor of the island – you’ll find a dozen acres of what its now septuagenarian creator, Veronica Shingleton-Smith, calls “controlled jungle”. It may look natural, but this dazzling array of brilliantly coloured anthuriums, crotons, flamboyants, hibiscus and orchids was every bit as planned and contrived as the orderly garden of Creole medicinal herbs.
Shingleton-Smith came to St Lucia from England in 1952 when her father was stationed here, married into a family who’d arrived in 1906 and has lived here ever since. In addition to growing Fairtrade bananas for Waitrose, she has designed gardens across the island for hotels such as Cap Maison and Discovery at Marigot Bay, and residents such as the great Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Her latest venture, however, is the 100-acre grounds at Jalousie Plantation.
Established by the late Lord Glenconner when he moved to St Lucia from Mustique in 1992, Jalousie stands on the beach that stretches between the Pitons and is currently in the midst of an expensive makeover that will see the resort rebranded next year as The Tides Sugar Beach.
Paradoxically its work-in-progress status is a compelling reason to come here this winter, for though the building work is ongoing, the majority of its 85 new luxury villas are open and its rates are a bargain compared with what they will be. Certainly in terms of comfort and design, I can’t think there is lovelier, more luxurious accommodation on the island than these pale pastel-painted, quintessentially Caribbean “gingerbread” cottages with their ornately carved bargeboards, wraparound verandas and understated white interiors.
Nor is there a more promising spa than the one that’s about to open here next month, accessed by a private trail that winds though woodland, its six elevated coconut-thatched treatment rooms set amid the tree canopy.
The staff, too – our butler, Tyson, in particular – couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive. But then I sensed this was a good place to work. Other hotel managements might have taken the decision to close while they renovated; here the decision to stay open was driven primarily by a reluctance to lay off any of the 250 staff, even temporarily, at a time when jobs are scarce.
Inevitably, though, there are caveats. Though the new villas categorically count as five-star, as do the restaurants and bars, much of the place still feels a bit run down, the pool area in particular. I loved the Creole additions to the menu at Bayside on the beach, but not the pretentiousness of the gloomy Great Room, nor the ultra-urban Cane Bar, with its arctic air con and wall of white curtains.
The beach – one of the few, incidentally, off which the snorkelling is first rate thanks to an abundance of marine life around the base of the Petit Piton, where it rises dramatically from the water – could do with new sunloungers and more parasols. And the hotel as a whole is crying out for a fleet of golf carts. For the moment, guests have to rely on an infrequent service of shabby shuttle buses to get about the huge hilly estate.
Usually I’d advocate walking, but if you’ve been trekking all day in high humidity, or just climbed a Piton, the last thing you want is a 20-minute hike uphill to your villa.