As volcanic islands go, St Lucia must be way up at the top of the list. Previous trips to Barbados and Antigua had prepared me for the Caribbean way
As volcanic islands go, St Lucia must be way up at the top of the list. Previous trips to Barbados and Antigua had prepared me for the Caribbean way - tropical sunsets, lazy days on the beach, rum punches and spiced-up food. But the food is very different from island to island, so I didn't know what to expect.
We certainly had our share of sunsets, and plenty of rum punches, but lazy days on the beach aren't for me. I'd have to be plied with a bucket of rum punch to be made to bask in the sun for more than an hour. Nothing was going to stop me seeking out the local food - even if I had to go out and catch it myself.
We were on the south-west coast, the Caribbean side of the island, by the Pitons, the landmark volcanic peaks. All the action takes place by or on the sea. Getting around by road is a challenge, so the way to travel is water taxi. Or, if you pay a little extra, you can hire one as your own aqua limousine for the evening.
I wanted to enjoy a sea breeze - the non-alcoholic type - so I chartered a fishing boat to try for some bonito, barracuda and dorado offshore. We were after some serious game fish on the fly and went in search of sailfish, tarpon and black-fin tuna, which have been here in abundance the past few years. But as in most parts of the world, the fish here are suffering, the stocks depleted by over-fishing - though here it's just local guys in small fishing boats trying to make a living. Coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution, which could also help to explain the lack of fish. But it was only when we left that we discovered the best excuse for our shortcomings - there was a hurricane brewing and the fish got out of the way first.
I'm not making excuses for our non-eventful trip, but even the displays in the fish markets were sparse. Maybe that explains why the catch of the day recommendation in one restaurant was tuna or salmon. Hardly a local catch, that one. So often on Caribbean islands, hotels try too hard - imported salmon and even Dover sole weren't what I had in mind. Local restaurants fall into the trap of jazzing up their simple local grub to suit the tourists' tastes. I prefer to sniff out what's going down away from the tourist trail, whether in a shack on the roadside serving spiced chicken wings or, if I can manage it, an invite to someone's home. We managed to do both, to the distaste of my twin daughters, Ellie and Lydia, whose delicate palates had yet to be tickled by Caribbean spices. f
Nutmeg, mace, ginger, tamarind, turmeric, cinnamon and vanilla are all native to St Lucia, and most of the local dishes are delicately seasoned with a blend of the island's home-grown spices. They're displayed in markets and shops, packed in neat little jars along with fat cigar-shaped cocoa sticks.
For a big chocolate hit, visit the cocoa shrine at the Fond Doux estate, just outside Soufrière. Forget 70 per cent cocoa solids, we're talking 100 per cent. Here you'll taste the real thing - like a cross between raw coffee and extra-bitter chocolate, almost straight from the oval coconut-sized pods you see growing in the plantation. The beans are dried in the sun then ground up and rolled like cigars. There are no chocolate bars at the end, but you can buy one of these Cohiba-shaped bars of pure, ground cocoa. Avoid the café. They could have at least made a chicken stew cooked with chocolate and spices, but hamburgers and pizza made with sliced white bread ruled the menu. Ellie and Lydia loved it, of course.
My favourite food experience was the fish fry night at Anse La Raye, a small fishing village a short way down the coast by water taxi from Anse Chastanet, where we were staying. It was basically a weekly street party where the villagers set up market stalls, cook their local catch, and sell it to the wealthier locals and braver tourists. We had rock lobster, little stuffed land-crab backs, conch stew, octopus, big black whelks and fish baked in foil in local spices, washed down with rum punches. You can buy local griddled bread "bakes" which look a bit like English muffins, and similar dough just deep fried like doughnuts or beignets. Both these breads go well with the conch and octopus stews, and big - make that huge - boiled lobsters.
This, for me, is what eating in St Lucia was all about. As we left on our regular aqua limo the street party was hitting full swing, music filled the streets and the local bar-cum-hardware store-cum-supermarket-cum-whatever you needed it to be, started to create a bit of a rumble. Locals drained their rum-filled plastic cups, which were quickly filled by the owner, easily the best (and the only) bar man in town and the whole place swayed in the distance (or was that us reeling from the punch?). Returning next morning to buy some of the bottles of rum we'd sampled, we were not surprised to see a few locals in there doing the same thing. Whether they'd been home or not, it was hard to tell.
Another memorable meal at Archie's Creole Pot in Soufrière would satisfy the most intense yearning for spicy, marinated, barbecued chicken wings. Archie's is nothing more than a café serving local food from a pavement barbecue but it was still a culinary highlight.
At Villa Piton we got to try St Lucian home-style cooking, at a restaurant that opens for private parties. It was a special night, with the chef Makrina knocking us up a feast that started with bullion, which is a bit like a pig's tail gumbo, a gluey, sticky treat full of beans, then moved on to the rich, dark St Lucian stew nicely perfumed with local spices.
For a bit more cabaret with your supper, head for Bang, in between the Pitons. The owner is Colin Tennant, once the patron of the trendy island of Mustique. He sold up several years ago, bought land in St Lucia and created Bang, a Wednesday-night spectacle of fire eaters and performance artists, compèred by an eccentric local in a linen gown and panama hat. You don't get a menu, just spiced or un-spiced chicken and fish. We had juicy, delicate king fish with a good coating of subtle native spices.
We stayed at the Asne Chastanet Resort, one of the longest established hotels on the island. It was opened in 1974 by Nick and Karolin Troubetzkoy. It's simple but elegantly rustic with fans instead of air conditioning creating the effect of a soft breeze fluttering through rooms, and with beds draped in white muslin to keep out the mosquitos. Rooms are either hilltop suites overlooking the sea and the Piton mountains or beachside suites, with no phones or televisions to distract. Our suite had two large bedrooms off a spacious and open main living room plus another single room, perhaps for the nanny or (in my case) heavy snoring.
Luxurious by anyone's standards, but the Resort's new development, the Jade Mountain Club, will leave it in the shade when it opens in June. Each open-plan room (sorry - "infinity suite") will have its own infinity pool over looking the Pitons and the surrounding sea. You can catch the sun in a raised part of the pools, cooled as you lounge in a foot or so of water, or soak in the huge tub while taking in a 180-degree view - this is elevated outdoor living at its best.
Above the rooms, with an even better view of the Pitons, is the bar's roof terrace, where you can get stuck into a rum and white chocolate martini. If you fancy something a bit longer and bespoke, it's there for the shaking.
Our preview dinner began with chilled pumpkin and coconut soup or some barbecued local crayfish. Mahi mahi wrapped in plantain leaf and served with a salad of palm heart shavings and green papaya was a delicate mix of flavours. Ceviche of local fish with crisp green banana chips followed by a light fragrant herb salad with roasted local cashews should leave room for the deliciously light coconut and chocolate cheesecake made from chocolate from the Fond Doux estate. And if that's not enough chocolate, move back to the pool for a chocolate fondue with St Lucia's version of beignets to dunk into it. OK, it's all some way away from the world of the fish fry, but it's still local food, and that's what I like to eat best.
Virgin flies from Gatwick to St Lucia, with prices from £679.40 return (08705 747747). Rooms at the Anse Chastanet Resort, from December to April, start at £285 per couple, per night, including taxes. For details, see www.ansechastanet.comReuse content