Christina Patterson gathers up her friends and heads for St Lucia, in search of the beauty and history behind a Nobel prize-winning poem

Arriving in St Lucia from London in October is a bit like switching from black and white to colour. It's not just the brilliant blue of the sky that greets you as you stagger down the steps of the plane and into the sauna-like afternoon heat. Or the throbbing, vibrant green that lines the road from the airport and stretches out in a thick mass of palms and trees and bushes as far as the eye can see. It's also the shacks and houses that are dotted around by the road-side: duck-egg blue, candy pink, mint green and an aquamarine so bright that it almost hurts your eyes.

Arriving in St Lucia from London in October is a bit like switching from black and white to colour. It's not just the brilliant blue of the sky that greets you as you stagger down the steps of the plane and into the sauna-like afternoon heat. Or the throbbing, vibrant green that lines the road from the airport and stretches out in a thick mass of palms and trees and bushes as far as the eye can see. It's also the shacks and houses that are dotted around by the road-side: duck-egg blue, candy pink, mint green and an aquamarine so bright that it almost hurts your eyes.

"This island is heaven," said the poet Derek Walcott in one of the first works he published - and he should know. No one has written better about this tiny island in the eastern Caribbean that changed hands 14 times as France and England vied for its possession. No wonder St Lucia was known as the "Helen of the West Indies". And no wonder it inspired an epic poem in the Homeric tradition. Derek Walcott's Omeros is a dazzling, multi-layered celebration of St Lucia's beauty and a lament for its turbulent history. It won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and shot him to a St Lucian stratosphere that's somewhere between rock star and patron saint.

Walcott is the only poet I've ever met who literally bit the hand that fed him. After a reading and dinner at the Royal Festival Hall that I was hosting, he grabbed my hand and gave it a friendly nip. Here, his name triggers smiles from taxi drivers and tales of glimpses in the barber's and on the beach. His photo is on the cover of the phone book. His poetry, I decide, will be my guide to this island which even its poorest inhabitants call paradise.

But even in paradise things can go wrong. On the road out of Hewannora airport, we pass a mass of people milling around the crushed remains of two cars. "Yes, there are many accidents," says Peter, our driver, matter-of-factly. A few minutes later his mobile rings. Yes, he will stop by the roadside. By the Texaco garage, in fact. We must wait, he tells us. Someone else came to the airport to meet us, and they've got the key to our villa.

Half an hour later we decamp in darkness from one white Transit van to another. Franklyn, our new driver, is friendly and cheerful. Yes, he'll stop off so we can buy some food. It's only 27 miles from Hewannora, in the far south, to Pointe du Cap, the northernmost tip of the island where we are staying, but the road is twisty and slow. It's a relief to see the lights of the capital, Castries, and then to draw up at a sign for Julian's Supermarket. Instead of the corner shop we're expecting, we find a room the size of an airport hangar that is packed with every variety of imported produce, including Waitrose own-brand foods. We stock up on bread, cheese, salad, crisps and wine. There are four of us on this extended girls' night out and we're going to need plenty of chardonnay.

Clutching our precious bottles against the bends, we snake up the hill from Castries, past the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, the Derek Walcott Theatre and the tiny beach called Smugglers' Cove. Finally, we sweep up a long driveway to a large, white bungalow. Seed Pearl, the villa where we're spending our first couple of nights, is huge and posh and gorgeous. The table is laid for dinner. There's a spicy chicken casserole on the stove and a lemon meringue pie in the oven. This, we agree, clinking glasses, is the life.

We wake with the sunshine and the birds and we can't believe our eyes. It is like a parody of paradise: a perfectly manicured lawn stretching down to a cliff over a sparkling, sapphire sea. To the left, round the bay, is the peninsula known as Pigeon Island. Around the garden, birds - hummingbirds, bananaquits and lesser Antillian finches, according to our guide - are swooping and darting over pink and purple flowers. A knock on the door heralds the arrival of a magnificent woman in a flowery dress. We'd giggled nervously when we discovered that our "luxury villa" came with a housekeeper. But we're soon tucking into Portia's bacon and eggs and hearing tales of her wedding on Pigeon Island. St Lucian men, she says, are afraid of commitment. Her husband, she adds proudly, proposed within three weeks.

We spend our first day lying by the pool and feasting our eyes on the riot of colour. Darkness falls swiftly and with it the cacophony of cicadas and other croaking creatures of the night. The isle is, indeed, full of noises and we can't help feeling, in this sultry heat, as if we're in a Tennessee Williams play, waiting for the climax. It comes in the night: claps of thunder like the opening bars of some monumental symphony, followed by hour after hour of pounding rain. It is, as Walcott says in Omeros, as if the gods are "holding a hurricane-party in their cloud-house".

Between showers the next day, Portia helps us move our bags and food across the soft, springy lawn and through a gap in the barbed-wire fence to the villa next door. We don't want to leave Seed Pearl or Portia, but we cheer up at the sight of our palatial new home. Saman House is larger than our combined flats in London. It has four big bedrooms, a vast kitchen and sitting room and a verandah that runs the length of one side of the building. There are hammocks and enough clusters of chairs to serve a small hotel. There's a pool, a tennis court and a terrace on the cliff's edge overlooking the sea. The garden is dotted with vivid swathes of colour: pink and orange hibiscus, bougainvillea, Christmas candle, bird of paradise, frangipani and the flamboyant tree Barbados bride. With names like this, you hardly need poems.

Best of all, there is Rosemarie. Not a flower, or a herb, but a solid, warm-hearted woman described in the villa's information folder as "the boss". Her daughter, Shermaine, she tells us, will do the cleaning and she will do the cooking. "Everyone loves my cooking!" she beams. After seeing the miracles she works with our tins of tuna and salad, we're keen to sample her repertoire. Stuff the salads, we decide. We'll have creole chicken with rice and peas, spiced dolphin fish with baked okra, saltfish with cocoa tea, pumpkin soup, banana bread and rum punch. We need another trip to Julian's.

At the breakfast table the next morning, my friends seem to have been hit by a sudden bout of chicken pox. They have spent the night discovering the truth of the statement in the information folder that mosquitos "love new blood". Mine, for some reason, has proved less seductive. "This is a tropical house," says the folder helpfully, "and many types of wildlife make themselves welcome, both inside and out." We've already seen the birds flying around the house - perching, even, on the rim of my laptop. When nature's this beautiful, you clearly can't tame it.

We set off to the rainforest to find out more. Even the wrecked cars by the side of the road are half buried in green tendrils and fronds, like symbols of defeat in the war between nature and man. Workmen with strimmers try to trim the tangle of wild green at the edge of the highway. Against the massed jungle behind, they might as well be nail scissors. As we weave our way deeper into the forest, the strimmers are replaced by scythes. Here we find men hacking at palm trees, picking and packing the bananas that ripen behind clusters of blue plastic. "Leave the women here with me!" says one of them, but Randall, our driver, smiles and drives on. Later, after more stomach-churning hairpins and a final dead-end, we realise that he was trying to warn us. The torrential rain has made the bridge impassable. Nature has won again.

Resourceful Randall has a Plan B. Tragically, we now can't do the three-hour trek that was planned. Instead, he drives us back across the island to a smaller rainforest and manfully decides to be our guide. No trained forest ranger, he's still able to point out and name a wide range of the trees and bushes - cabbage palm, bamboo, balsa wood and mahogany - that cover the face of St Lucia's earth. "Under the thick leaves of the forest," says Walcott in Omeros, "there's a life/ more intricate than ours/ [that] seethes under the spider's veil on the wet leaf". Here in the forest, under a lush green canopy of palms and giant ferns, it's not hard to believe it's true.

Over the next few days, we discover more of the beauties of the island. In the south-west, at Soufrière, we see the Pitons, the volcanic mountains rising out of the sea that Walcott describes in his long poem, "Another Life", as "breasts of a woman, serenely rising". Then we see the sulphur springs of the volcano itself. Or rather, we smell them. Like Walcott's narrator in Omeros: "We smelt the foul sulphur of hell in paradise/ on the brittle scab crusting its volcano's sores". It really does make you think of some kind of Dante-esque inferno and it's a relief to make the short journey to the cool, clear waters of the Toraille waterfall. Nigel, a stunning youth from Soufrière, guides us through the botanical gardens that surround it. Here we see flowers so vividly dramatic that they don't look real: ginger lilies, shrimp plants, French kiss, dragon's blood and the imperium lily that, Nigel tells us with a giggle, is also known on the island as little boy's willy.

At a traditional farm by the Marquis river we eat coconut fresh from the tree and cassava bread sweetened with cinnamon. Canice, who is trying to keep the old traditions alive, explains that the farm has been in his family for generations. We watch his father, ancient and wizened, saw wood as other family members sing Creole songs. "There are different songs for different jobs," he tells us. "Or, if you have a broken relationship, you just put it in a song." So that's what you do.

At Pigeon Island, we climb to the fort whose flags switched so often between French and British, and see the cannon that kept the enemy invaders at bay. And there, across the bay, we can see Derek Walcott's white house. Randall points it out to us, but we've already heard about it from Egbert, in our taxi to the supermarket the day before. "Every day of my life I quote the poetry of Derek Walcott," said a voice on the car radio suddenly. It was the British-Jamaican actress Yvonne Brewster, but Egbert turned out to be a major fan, too. "I've been following Walcott's progress for 30 years," he told us.

Walcott's house is just round the corner from ours. We keep expecting to bump into him. In Gros Islet, the fishing village where Omeros is largely set, we meet someone who just has. "I saw Derek on the beach this morning," says Philip Jules, who after years in Europe has retired to St Lucia and built a house on the plot of land in which his umbilical cord is buried. Down the road, we find the rum shop that features so heavily in the poem. In real life, it's not Ma Kilman's but Scotty's Bar. We recognise it from the description of its "gingerbread balcony", "mustard gables" and "green trim around the eaves". Hector is sitting inside, having a beer. The fisherman Hector in the poem is, he says, his cousin. He himself is a builder, who until recently lived near me in Dalston. Over rum and cokes we reminisce about the Rio cinema.

"Why hallow that pretence/ of preserving what they left," asks Walcott in Omeros, "the hypocrisy of loving them from hotels?" His poem is, in many ways, a searing indictment of colonialism and also an expression of the discomfort of the exile. Walcott has spent much of his life in the US and is painfully aware that his documentation of the beauties of his homeland comes from one who is rich enough to leave. Well, we are tourists of course, and for our last few days we are going the whole tourist hog.

"Champagne, ladies?" says the porter as we check into LeSport, the all-inclusive spa just up the road from our villa. We shake our heads. It is, after all, only three o'clock. A few minutes later we crack. Champagne is followed by a spot of afternoon tea - tiny sandwiches, cakes and tarts, served to a background of piped classical music in the club house - and then by piña coladas in the Jacuzzi (a subject on which Walcott is strangely silent). We just about manage to waddle to our rooms for a quick shower before meeting again for cocktails and dinner.

"Give us your body for a week and we'll give you back your mind," says the brochure for LeSport. Well, my mind is already well on its way to becoming a barely functioning blob, and at this rate my body will be, too. There's an impressive array of activities on offer for the sporty, including yoga, circuit training, scuba-diving and golf, but they seem to involve a degree of will-power that I can't quite summon. I do, however, manage to make it down to Stress Management at 8am. The teacher doesn't turn up.

I decide instead to focus on the more leisurely aspects of LeSport: to drink in the beauty of the place and the delicious coffee at the Deli bar. The complex is set in gorgeously landscaped gardens in a secluded bay, fringed with palm trees and exotic flowers. There's a stunning beach where you can try a range of water sports or just lie on a lounger and wave your red flag when you want a strawberry daquiri or a rum punch. You can't move, in fact, without a friendly face offering you a drink. It seems rude to say no.

It seems rude not to try the full range of food, too, which proves quite a challenge. The breakfast buffet offers everything from full English breakfast to cassava bread and tropical fruits. The lunch buffet includes a whole roast piglet and a bank of puddings ranging from tiramisu to trifle. It's all pretty good, but dinner at the Tao restaurant, which you have to book in advance, is (not literally) the dog's bollocks. There, we eat hon-dashi salmon tartare, grippsland lamb with sesame seed polenta and pan-seared fillets of banga mary. The waiters are unbelievably attentive. "Your dinner was excellent?" asks one of them anxiously. How can you possibly disagree?

There's one bit of enforced exercise at LeSport, and that's the climb up the stairs to the spa. The first time we go for our daily treatment, it's in vain. We're told that the therapists are all busy and we must come back tomorrow. In the end I have three treatments in one day: a deep-tissue massage, an aromatherapy facial and something called a devil's mint scrub, which involves being coated in a green cream and wrapped in plastic. I'm so relaxed when it ends that I can hardly stagger back to the beach. Or perhaps it's my extra weight - back home I discover that I've put on eight pounds.

On the way back to the airport, we stop off at Castries, and what used to be Christopher Columbus Square. "When I was at school I was told that Christopher Columbus discovered St Lucia," our waitress at the Tao told us the night before. "Later," she added, "I realised that he hadn't." Under the huge Saman tree, there's a plaque announcing that it was renamed Derek Walcott Square in 1993. He's there, in the middle, at last - a bronze torso perched on an open book on a pillar. "There are no rites/ for those who have returned," says Walcott in his poem "Homecoming: Anse La Raye". On this occasion, the Nobel laureate, whose life work is a love song to this beautiful island, was wrong.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Christina Patterson travelled as a guest of Prestbury Travel (01625 858158; www.prestburytravelgroup.co.uk), which can put together similar packages for £795 per person, based on eight sharing a villa. This includes return flights from either Gatwick or Manchester on British Airways or BMI, transfers and seven nights' accommodation at Saman House with a maid service. The guests provide food, which is prepared by the staff. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies direct from Gatwick to St Lucia and BWIA (0870 499 2942; www.bwee.com) from Heathrow. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.co.uk) operates direct flights from Manchesters with connections from Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Heathrow.

STAYING THERE

Both Seed Pearl Villa and Saman House can be rented through Prestbury Travel (see above).

LeSport (0870 220 2344; www.thebodyholiday.com) offers double rooms from $244 (£144), on an all-inclusive basis. Spa treatments for non-residents range from $40 (£24) to $250 (£147).

FURTHER INFORMATION

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

Sophie Lam

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