Brave new world

Sally Ann Lasson conquers her fear of flying so she can take a trip to the fantasy island of St Lucia

I have been hypnotised many times. Usually, just as you're about to enter a hypnotic state, the hypnotherapist says imagine a "happy" place, somewhere you feel peaceful and calm. I close my eyes tightly and picture a desert island, fringed by palm trees, the deep azure sea lapping the beach. Not terribly original, I know, but a perfectly respectable image nonetheless.

I have been hypnotised many times. Usually, just as you're about to enter a hypnotic state, the hypnotherapist says imagine a "happy" place, somewhere you feel peaceful and calm. I close my eyes tightly and picture a desert island, fringed by palm trees, the deep azure sea lapping the beach. Not terribly original, I know, but a perfectly respectable image nonetheless.

In a rash moment, in bleak midwinter, I booked myself yet another session, the latest in my countless attempts to come to terms with air travel. It is very boring to have a flying disorder. But it is probably even more boring to live with someone with a flying disorder. For my latest appointment I went to an Australian hypnotherapist called Shareen Lovegrove - with no great expectations, I have to admit, of being induced to fly anywhere. Shareen did not ask me to picture a "happy" place, however. She explained rationally that I was in charge of my own destiny, that my phobia was misplaced and that airline pilots had a vested interest in getting the plane to its destination and also had no desire to be squashed to an irrevocable pulp.

I had heard this before, but it hadn't ever had the desired effect. Until now. Two weeks later I had committed myself to a week's holiday in St Lucia (flying time 10 hours, 50 minutes including a stopover in Antigua). The long days of winter are clearly the optimum time for a non-flyer to be persuaded to fly because, along with everyone else, we have lost the will to live anyway. So with the aid of drink, drugs and Shareen's calm logic on my Walkman, I managed the flight. And in economy class, too. I was still in a bit of a haze when we arrived at our hotel, the Royal St Lucian, and quickly passed into a coma-like slumber. The following morning, I realised why I had put myself through the ordeal. I opened the French windows and there, in full technicolor, was the "happy" place of my imaginings: deserted, white sandy beach, palm trees, the glittering, deep Caribbean Sea.

St Lucia is a small island, manufactured by huge volcanic eruptions, that created vertiginous mountains that rise up directly from the sea. It is green, lush and dramatic, with large swathes of its interior covered with rainforest. The temperature hardly varies from 27C throughout the year, but the heat is deflected by constant, cooling trade winds.

The Royal St Lucian is a five-star hotel in Rodney Bay, at the island's north-west tip, close to Castries, the capital. It is built, compound-like, around magnificent gardens and a swimming-pool. There are two restaurants and a luxury spa, and our suite had a large terrace overlooking the sea and out towards Martinique, its closest neighbour.

The England cricket team stayed here (no damage was visible) and Prince Andrew chose it as the venue for one of his many holidays - sorry, official trips. Actually, he was representing the crown to celebrate 25 years of St Lucian independence. He had left before we arrived, and we were told that, aside from some onerous hand-shaking, he kept mainly to his room, ordered all of his food (no drink) from room-service and had copious spa treatments.

Had he ventured out, Prince Andrew could, perhaps, have appreciated the picture-book beach and enjoyed meeting the locals. Lying in the shade of our thatched cabaña, the St Lucians casually strolling by would all stop to introduce themselves. At first this seems intrusive, but after a couple of days you begin to revel in being somewhere where everyone has got the time to say "hello" and ask you how you are, even if some of them want you to go snorkelling, fishing or windsurfing. Every morning, Gregory arrived in a boat, festooned with the flags of the world and bearing the legend: "Must Be There Happy Hour Floating Market". You wade out to him, and he sells you fresh fruit that is no doubt ludicrously overpriced.

For a small island, there is plenty of variety in St Lucia. As well as the full panoply of water-borne activities, you can, for instance, visit the old French capital of the island, Soufrière, where there are sulphur springs and the Pitons, two volcanic plugs ascending out of the sea; or go to Castries, where there's a large market every day and where you will see the world's most bizarre road sign, "Coconuts cannot be sold here between 6pm and 6am".

Alternatively you can hike in the rain forest, preserved as a nature reserve; or explore a banana plantation (bananas are St Lucia's biggest export). Or, of course, you can take the option that we found most seductive: lying under our cabaña and reading. The only downside of this was that, three days a week, an American cruise ship would put down in Castries and its inhabitants would be disgorged on to our lovely beach. What was a lazy, deserted spot would suddenly resemble the noisy beaches of the Côte d'Azur in August.

The island is also no place for gourmands. Next to the hotel was a pretty beach-front restaurant called Spinnakers. We went with high expectations, and ordered the fresh lobster. A huge spiny beast weighing at least 5lb arrived. It tasted odd. On further inspection, we realised that the shell did not correlate to the contents, which had clearly been emptied out of a tin. This was without doubt our strangest dining experience but we soon understood that common menu phrases such as "locally caught tuna" actually meant "locally opened tuna".

There is very little local fishing in St Lucia because the Japanese have bought the fishing rights. There are other anomalies. For example, there was a sugar shortage a couple of years ago because, although it is one of the few things grown on the island, it is all used for rum production. The tomatoes come from Egypt. Even the pineapples are imported. Very little fresh fish, no local fruit and vegetables: it seems impossible. But, I suppose, a St Lucian might, equally, have difficulty understanding the Common Agricultural Policy.

That's not to say you can't find good food anywhere on the island. The Coal Pot in Castries, where you sit outside and watch boats chugging along the estuary, is a jewel, and, high up in the hills, is The Great House, all French colonial splendour where a lobster really is a lobster. We sat on the elegant terrace and looked around. Most of the women were wearing white dresses and tiaras. Out of about15 tables, four were occupied by wedding parties, including a Scottish contingent in full kit - kilts, sporrans, socks and garters. St Lucia is, understandably, a favourite wedding location: if you can't get romantic here, where can you? But, as our guide book so helpfully pointed out: "Don't forget to bring your Decree Absolute."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) offer flights from Gatwick to St Lucia while BWIA (0870 499 2942; www.bwee.com) flies from Heathrow. BMI (0870 60 70 222; www.flybmi.co.uk) flies from Manchester.

STAYING THERE

Sally Ann Lasson travelled with Carrier (01625 547020; www.carrier.co.uk), which is currently offering a seven-night trip from £990 per person based on two sharing a deluxe suite, including return flights with British Airways, private transfers and a complimentary spa massage.

The Royal St Lucian (001 758 452 9999; www.rexcaribbean.com), Rodney Bay has doubles from $500 (£278), room only.

EATING THERE

The Coal Pot (001 758 452 5566)

The Great House Restaurant (001 758 450 0450)

FURTHER INFORMATION

St Lucia Tourist Board (0870 900 7697; www.stlucia.org).

Aviatours (01252 793250; www.aviatours.co.uk) offers "fear of flying" courses in conjunction with British Airways at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh airports.

Virgin Atlantic (01423 714900; www.flyingwithoutfear.info) also hosts courses at Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester. Both cost around £235 for one day.

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