Beach perfect: Jet off to St Lucia for the ideal winter escape
Claudia Winkleman heads to St Lucia's Windjammer Landing resort with friends and family in tow
Saturday 24 January 2009
Let me start by being totally frank. Going away with my two children and a girlfriend and her two children on a package beach holiday sounded like fun. But I was nervous. Would we get on? Would one of her children decide to beat up one of mine? Or worse, would one of my kids try to drown one of hers? And when you're promised all-inclusive, does that mean a tired-looking buffet that's been sweating all day is free but anything from the menu is not? And where would we all sleep? You get the picture: it sounded perfect but it could easily be a disaster. I packed three swimsuits and 10 bottles of sun lotion but truthfully I was slightly terrified.
On a daytime-to-St-Lucia-package-flight outside of term-time there are only other families clutching wailing children on board. You don't have to feel bad about one of your small people singing the Cinderella song too loudly when somebody else's four-year-old is chanting the theme tune to Spider-Man and demanding crisps right next to you. If you're a romantic couple going away to be sexy and want to talk about cocktails and saucy loungewear then be very, very afraid of this flight.
We landed in fantastic, treacle-thick heat and then travelled for an hour and a half through really beautiful countryside. The four kids had now been up for what felt like six days and they were covered in felt tip and most of them had bits of old muffin in their ears. They were scratchy and fidgety until the amazingly nice driver pointed out the banana trees to them.
If you're ever in need of a photograph of a banana tree – or if ever indeed you just fancy picking a fresh banana – then St Lucia might just be the place to visit. Other than the odd pastel-pink house or small whitewashed shop selling bottles of Coca-Cola and lollies, the whole of St Lucia, it seemed to me, was taken up with banana trees.
"But you get bananas from the supermarket," said one child. "Exactly: a man called Tesco brings a bunch every Monday morning, Mummy," said another. When we explained that bananas didn't actually come from a big strip-lit shop and were in fact from trees, there was much excited chat amongst the little people in our party.
The upshot was that they now believe that the man who occasionally delivers the weekly shop travels all the way to the Caribbean to pick the very best bananas and then brings them all the way home. "Does he also milk the cow for our cereal, Mummy?" You know what? Sometimes there are just too many questions after a long-haul flight, so: "Yes, darling."
The Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort is a large hill dotted with individual villas that snuggle into the lush greenery. At the bottom of the hill there are three pools, plus bars and restaurants and a beach. There's also a little shop that sells everything from Pringles to sunhats to fresh coconut. Think of the Windjammer as you would a cruise ship: you never have to get off. Check-in proved quick for us (one of our tearaways was screaming for the loo), but we might have been the lucky ones. Other families with better-behaved kids looked like they might be there a while. There were some non-alcoholic fruit juices being passed around to keep people calm.
Everyone gets an "ambassador". This is not someone who stands in a black tie following you holding a platter of Ferrero Rocher, but someone whom you can call whenever you need new towels, a blow-dry (I am being perfectly serious – you didn't expect me to let go totally, did you?) or absolutely anything. It saves time, because you don't need to talk to 10 people at reception if you need an iron. You have one person who just looks after you. Anyway, ours was Hélène, who drove us up to a lovely villa high up on the hill.
The villas are big and most have plunge pools. Our one was bright white, very clean and on two levels. It had a kitchen and dining area and we excitedly unpacked, stuck our bright white bodies into swimwear and jumped in the pool. Then it was time to go to the beach; we called for a shuttle bus to take us there as it's a freakishly steep hill and about a 20-minute walk down to the main hub of the hotel.
"We're coming right now," the nice man at the reception told us. Now, "right now" in Windjammer is very, very different from back home. Forty minutes later, we were still standing there holding an inflatable dolphin (I know, they are spoilt, and it took me and my friend a good 20 minutes to blow it up) and a couple of buckets and spades, and we were about to lose our cool. Happily, another family, who had moved into some rooms in the Hibiscus part of the resort (more modern, two minutes from the beach) were looking for a villa further away from the centre, so we swapped sharpish.
This would be my main piece of advice. If you've got a lot of small people and don't want to rely on a bus coming to get you or take you back, then you must take a room in the Hibiscus. The rooms are definitely smaller, and you don't get a pool, but you have a balcony and a jacuzzi. And even though you're in more of an apartment block, it still feels airy and private.
Once on the beach, you never, ever leave it. It's a small cove, but long enough to grab a couple of sun-loungers and not be overlooked or overheard – and it feels very safe. This is important on a family holiday, as you can let the kids just run. And they did. One side of the beach had rocks, which meant only one thing: hermit crabs. And the other side had lots of trees, and that meant only one thing: lizards. We spent nine days naming hermit crabs and trying to keep lizards alive (my two-year-old was almost certain they wanted some of her banana milkshake) and the children had the best holiday of their lives.
There are water sports for those who are adventurous, and everything you want to do is included in the all-inclusive price. This is extremely handy if one of the five-year-olds wants to have six goes on the banana every day – that's the long, bright yellow thing that is dragged around at breakneck speed from the back of a speedboat. It sounds scary. And it is.
A relaxed attitude to timekeeping is reflected in a couple of the resort's restaurants. Don Pepe is an Italian restaurant, and the Dragonfly offers Asian and Thai cooking. They were both fine but the service wasn't super-fast, so we ate mostly at Jammer's, a great restaurant on the beach. Jammer's does a brilliant Caesar salad and club sandwich and their children's menu had all the things that kids like.
Even though before I left I was rather nonplussed about the idea of a buffet, the help-yourself lunches were the best, because you could persuade a child to try some Cajun chicken alongside their usual hamburger and carrots.
The buffet at breakfast also became such a kids' favourite – we'd often sit down to eat at 9am and not leave until 11am. They had freshly baked bread and a brilliant man who was in charge of the "egg station"; we had omelettes and waffles, and a chocolate pancake almost every morning. You should not even consider going into the breakfast buffet room if you're on a diet.
The other thing that was brilliant at the Windjammer is the kids' pool. Situated just behind the larger main one, in a little enclave all of its own, it sits a shallow pool. It is surrounded by trees weighed down with massive beautiful pink and peach flowers, so all the girls thought they were in princess world and the boys used the falling blooms to throw at unsuspecting lizards.
With so much activity all around, how do you get the children to wind down? All the rooms have really big flat-screen televisions, DVD players and the reception has more Disney titles to rent than Walt Disney World itself. So at the end of a long day of locally caught fish, cups of peanut ice cream and hermit crab-catching, the children could wash their sand off and watch 20 minutes of Dumbo. Genius.
The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.com), which offers seven nights at Windjammer from £1,329 (£399 per child), room only. All-inclusive prices start at £1,889 (£679 per child).
Admission to the Virgin V Room at Gatwick costs £17 per adult and £10 per child (0844 573 2610).
St Lucia is served direct by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick and Manchester and by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www. reducemyfootprint.travel).
Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort, Labrelotte Bay, St Lucia (001 758 456 9000; windjammer-landing.com).
St Lucia Tourist Board: 020-7341 7000; stlucia.org
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