'This your first time to the Caribbean?" asks the driver as he putters his way around the narrow mountain steeps from Hewanorra airport at the southern end of Saint Lucia to its western heartland. He smiles sagely when I nod. "You've come to the most beautiful island first."
His words might just be patriotic braggadocio, but perhaps there is also good reason to believe him. When the French and British were wrestling for imperial control of Saint Lucia – a battle fought 14 times over an island the size of the Isle of Man – it came to be known as the "Helen of the West Indies".
It doesn't take me long to understand why it was the object of such feverish colonial adoration. In the 45-minute drive from the airport, we take in the island's range of natural wonders. Saint Lucia has a dazzling amount given its size. A drive-in volcano, sulphur springs and two World Heritage-listed mountains – the Pitons – all streak past the car window in our dizzying trip up bumpy hills and down plunging valleys. There are yard-long flowers hanging by the roadside, with petals the size of dinner plates, lush plants with leaves that look like gigantic outstretched palms, and fields upon fields of cocoa trees. Sudden, swift downpours of warm rain are followed by great arching rainbows that look as if they have been painted on to a perfectly blue sky.
"Oh," adds the driver, pointing to the towering foliage around us, "We have a rainforest here, too."
We pass though the bustling town of Soufrière, where food sellers sit beside green bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, dasheen and breadfruit, all laid out on the pavement, and we come to a road so uneven that the vehicle bounces like a bumper car ride. This is the remote path leading to the hilltop resort of Anse Chastanet, a world apart from the sprawling Saint Lucia of street sellers and ordinary island life. Built high on the jagged coast in the west, it sits at the most luxurious end of the island's spectrum of resorts, surrounded by the Caribbean idyll of scorched white sands and turquoise waters.
The hotel rooms consist of three-walled suites, opening up to a vista of sky, sea and the Pitons. The effect is thrilling, with the din of birdsong filling the room by day, and the chirp of crickets by night. The shower is exposed to the elements so you can bathe al fresco while looking out onto a sparkling expanse of sea. My room is large and luxurious, and from it I can watch the light dim across the proscenium arch of the sky. The panoramic view, the shower, the four-poster bed, all conspire to create the most romantic of settings – and it is unsurprising that Anse Chastanet, among other resorts on the island, draws large numbers of wealthy honeymooners.
I potter down to the dimly lit beach restaurant, which serves Indian-Creole fusion food. As I eat, I watch distant lightning flashes illuminating the waves. A storm is raging miles out at sea while I sit in the quiet of the beach. My eyes begin to fill with tears – a combined response to the dramatic show of light and my spicy samosa starter.
However, dreamy as these resorts are, they exist in their own boutique-style bubble, sealed off from ordinary life. And it's the island that I have come to see – so we hit the bumpy road once again.
The island's first French colonisers arrived in 1660. The British took control in the early 19th century, and Saint Lucia gained independence in 1979. Since then, it has attempted to excavate and reinstate its indigenous culture. There has been a conscious effort to look back to the ways of Carib ancestors, from cooking, to dancing, to folk songs and domestic habits, such as washing with stones and making "bush tea" to relieve ailments.
Before independence, English was the only language spoken at school, but now Creole is taught again. Of course, more than 300 years of French and British rule has rendered indigenous culture sometimes undistinguishable from imported elements. The Creole language, for example, is French patois, while the traditional dance, Kwadril, is derived from the French Quadrille. The food has elements of Indian and African cuisine – a reflection of the slave legacy.
"Creolisation" began in the early 1980s and included the inception of a celebratory "Creole Day" at the end of October, with which my trip to Saint Lucia coincides. The yellow and green bunting announcing "Jounen Kweyol" flutters across the branches of coconut trees and French colonial wood houses. Some islanders have opened up roadside stalls with "yard food" such as saltfish, green bananas and rum punch. Others have hiked to the three official destinations – Laborie, Anse La Raye and Dennery – with vats of freshly-made food and drink. This gigantic street festival is one of many the island celebrates (the Jazz festival every May is the biggest, and there is another annual party before Lent). Creole Day distils the culture of the island as it is experienced all year round – its home-made food, its music played with traditional drums, and its folk songs sung in schools and churches.
Islanders drink coconut water straight out of the shell and the staple food of fish cakes is made in old clay pots and served hot. The island is rich in cocoa, and cocoa tea is brewed and drunk from calabash bowls with a dash of cinnamon. There are loud blasts emanating from the back streets at the street party I attend. Michael, a Soufrière-born driver, takes me to see the "bamboo bursting" – the island's equivalent of fireworks – when a bamboo stick is fitted with a plastic pipe and ignited with a kerosene.
The island's north, which embraces the capital, Castries, is far more urban, with a faster pace of life. It also includes the historic Pigeon Island, where the British military settled. The western side, however, has remained fairly unspoilt. No fast food outlets along this side of the coast – instead, the big food market bursts with activity. There are heaps of "ground provisions" – vegetables grown beneath the earth. The exotic fruits on offer include red avocados, a "golden apple" that tastes like a guava with spikes in the middle, and aci, a small green berry whose shell is broken and pip sucked for its layer of tasty pulp.
Orlando Satchell, a Birmingham-born chef who has worked at Ladera holiday resort for 12 years, believes there are serious misconceptions about Caribbean cuisine: "Everyone assumes that Jamaican cuisine is Caribbean, or Creole, cuisine. They assume it is all about rice and peas and jerk chicken. This isn't the case. Each island has its own tradition." He describes Creole cooking as the "original fusion food", collected from a blend of cultures: "It came from the slave ships. Whenever they took a trip from Africa, they picked up different ingredients from ginger to breadfruit to dasheen along the way and cooked with them."
His own dishes – one of which is named after Saint Lucia's Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott – blend Creole flavours with an international twist. Examples include lamb with jerk spices and guava jelly, as well as bananas cooked on coals and served with ice-cream, fish spiced with ginger and rum.
Fond Doux, a 135-acre cocoa plantation and holiday resort which looks like a tropical garden of Eden, showcases yet more of Saint Lucia's fertile abundance. Here there are nutmeg, almond and clove trees, bananas, coconuts, Whispering Willows and flowers with names like Ginger Lily, Lobster's Claw (with 20ft leaves) and Angel's Trumpet. Cocoa pods can be cracked open and their beans sucked (the locals call them "Jungle M&Ms"). Guests in the French colonial cottages can go fruit-picking to their heart's content.
Ti Kaye is a boutique hotel in the west, which overlooks a stunning strip of beach. It is among the less insular resorts, bussing visitors to nearby Anse La Raye for the weekly "fish fests". While these are just occasional outings, Ti Kaye is making an effort to join up the manicured and the real sides of the island. Its cottages are built in French Creole style, with pretty fretwork and a porch with a hammock and rocking chair. You might find yourself sitting there for hours, watching the sun fade in the sky and fireflies streak through the night.
The southern Atlantic coast is rougher than the western Caribbean waters. There are precipitous hills, and then a few miles along, flatlands filled with banana and cocoa trees. But it's the rainforest that dazzles: densely packed and with a colourful range of birdlife. The island bursts with life and lushness, and the sulphur smell of the springs that drifts in the wind occasionally left me choked with its sudden pungence.
Perhaps it's this diversity that is Saint Lucia's richest, most beguiling feature: its lush terrain, its eclectic cuisine and its Creole culture.
Travel essentials: Saint Lucia
* British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/stlucia) offers seven nights at the four-star Anse Chastanet resort in St Lucia from £1,759 per person, with breakfast and BA flights from Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) also flies from Gatwick to St Lucia.
* Anse Chastanet Resort, Soufrière (0800 141 2859; ansechastanet.com). Doubles from US$389 (£260), room only.
* Ti Kaye Village, Vieux Fort (001 758 456 8101; tikaye.com). Cottages sleeping two start at US$236 (£157), room only.
* A half-day "Kweyol Experience" cultural tour is offered by Heritage Tours (001 758 458 1454; heritagetoursstlucia.org) for US$55 (£37) per person.
* Fond Doux Estate, Soufrière (001 758 459 7545; fonddouxestate.com). Tours US$10 (£6.70).
* Saint Lucia Tourist Board: 020-7341 7000; saintlucianow.co.uk