England followers with a healthy appetite for cricket and a healthier bank balance are looking forward to plenty of days in the sun this winter and next spring. First there's the Ashes series Down Under, which will occupy them from 23 November until 13 February, should they stay for the one-day tournament as well. Exactly a month later, the Cricket World Cup starts in the Caribbean, more than six weeks of action spread throughout the islands of the West Indies.
And the good news for the England team, and their supporters, is that Freddie Flintoff & Co will be based in St Lucia.
St Lucia's reputation as an enviable holiday destination is out of all proportion to its size. And there's the rub. Will an island of only 238 square miles, with a population of a little more than 160,000, be able to cope with an influx of up to 20,000 cricket fans? At first glance, the prospects don't look too promising. At the start of the year, the island's hotel beds totalled 4,500, but most of these will not be available to cricket fans. "The problem is not to annoy the regulars," said a spokesman from the Rex St Lucian, the hotel where the England team will be staying. "Our percentage of repeat bookings is very high."
Another 1,000 hotel rooms are scheduled by next March, and the St Lucia Tourist Board has instituted a "home hospitality" programme to help take the strain. The island's director of tourism, Maria Fowell, explained: "Families with spare rooms or separate apartments will make them available, and there's an inspection programme to ensure a certain standard."
Yet St Lucia's topography restricts the areas suitable for visiting fans. The volcanic island may be only 27 miles long, but its centre is mountainous, with dense rainforest, and the trip from Vieux Fort on the southern tip to the cricket ground, Beausejour, in the north, can take up to two hours along winding roads.
John Davison, the managing director of Gullivers Sports Travel, one of the World Cup's official travel agents, said: "We're promoting the family-stay programme, and St Lucia is one of the most organised places we've dealt with for this kind of accommodation. The difficulty for UK tour operators is the complaint mentality; if we were to book something that we hadn't seen ourselves, it could come back and bite us on the bum. It's just too complicated to get involved in as a company. But for individuals making their own arrangements, it's perfect."
Gullivers, in common with other operators, sees cruise liners as the answer. It will have two on stream, or rather on the Caribbean Sea: the 1,850-berth Galaxy and the 1,226-berth MS Maasdam. They can be used as floating hotels and offer the flexibility to visit other matches in the World Cup's second stage such as England's games against Australia (Antigua) and India (Barbados). Prices for various packages of between 12 and 19 days start at £4,250 per person full board (booze extra), compared with Gullivers' land-based St Lucia offerings for 13 days, which range from £2,560 to £4,350. Flights are included in all cases.
At the top end of the market, ITC Sports is also going the cruise route with SeaDream, a luxury yacht with room for only 55 couples, who will be pampered by a crew of 92. Most things are thrown in: flights, transfers, meals, ocean-view cabins and an open bar. It's a mouth-watering prospect, at some eye-watering prices: the full-monty cruise from 30 March to 30 April in the Commodore Club Stateroom weighs in at £33,500 a head, though you can join the Graham Gooch Scholarship Cruise between 15 and 25 March from a mere £6,230.
Those of more slender means could consider travelling with the Barmy Army. These England fans have evolved into a very professional marketing and travel outfit, and are offering several land- or-liner-based packages from £2,499.
So, you can get to St Lucia, you can find a bed for the night; what about the cricket? The signs are good: England will play their first-round matches, against New Zealand, Canada and Kenya, at the Beausejour ground, which was completely renovated in 2002. I watched the first floodlit one-day international in the Caribbean there a few months ago, and I couldn't fault it: the wicket has had four years to bed in and the outfield was lush and smooth; for the fans, the stands offer good sightlines and the atmosphere was as lively as you could wish for.
Afterwards, as I shared a rum or five with some of the West Indies and Zimbabwe players in Reduit Beach's lively Lime Bar, they were unanimous in agreeing that it is the best-appointed ground in the Caribbean. One sticky point may be access, with only one main road in and out.
There have been differences of opinion between the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the St Lucia organisers, as Ernest Hilaire, the chief executive of the local organising committee, pointed out. "There's the ICC way and the Caribbean way; the ICC wants to impose a universal order. It demanded more turnstiles, as it wanted to get everyone into the ground in 90 minutes, but I said that's not how we do things here. The St Lucia way is to take food and drink with you, come early, sit down with your mates and play dominoes."
For those travelling with one of the official agents, tickets come as part of the package, at face value. And fans won't be short of expert opinion, as the operators all have ex-England Test players in tow. Gullivers field, among others, Mike Denness, Peter Walker and Syd Lawrence, while ITC offers Allan Lamb, Graham Gooch and Robin Smith, plus Flintoff for selected events.
And what do you do when there's no cricket? Come on, this is the Caribbean. Apart from the bars and beaches, surf and sports, St Lucia has rainforest treks, mountain biking, hiking and plenty else. Let play begin.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
Simon Redfern travelled to St Lucia with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic.com). Return fares cost from £390. Virgin will also start a weekly flight from Manchester on 16 November. He stayed at the Rex St Lucian (00 1 758 452 8351; rexresorts.com) at Reduit Beach, near Rodney Bay. Official World Cup travel agents include Gullivers Sports Travel (01684 293175; gulliverssports .co.uk), ITC Sports (01244 355390; itcsports.co.uk); The Cricket Tour Company (0149 471 3007; crictours.com) and Barmy Army Travel (0845 061 0612; barmyarmy.com). For details of other official agents, tickets and latest World Cup news go to cricketworldcup.com and cricinfo.com/stlucia.
For information about the home hospitality programme contact Barefoot Holidays (001 758 450 0004; accommodations-stlucia@ candw.lc).
The St Lucia Tourist Board (020-7341 7000; stlucia.org).
1. Pigeon Island
The first European invader, a French pirate know as Jambe de Bois (Wooden Leg) based himself here in 1550 to attack Spanish ships. The English landed in 1605 and, over the next couple of centuries the island changed hands 14 times between England and France. It has good beaches and impressive 18th-century forts and is the location for the St Lucia Jazz Festival each May.
2. Beausejour Stadium
Heart of the cricket action. The best-appointed ground in the Caribbean, it is in a natural bowl a few miles from Rodney Bay and within easy reach of the capital, Castries. Its 12,000 capacity will be increased to 20,000-plus for the World Cup, when it will stage England's group matches and one semi-final.
3. Rodney Bay
The main tourist area, with a magnificent, sweeping sandy beach, Reduit, and a marina that was carved out of swamp land in the Seventies. It has accommodation to suit every pocket, and is a major watersports centre. A causeway links it to Pigeon Island.
The capital and commercial centre, home to more than a third of the population and the inter-Caribbean airport. Almost destroyed by fire in 1927 and 1948, it still retains a few historic nooks and crannies. Bustling but friendly, with a good market; try the local speciality, roti, a curry dish of meat and potato wrapped in a flatbread, from one of the many little restaurants. Or visit the duty-free shopping complex or take a boat to the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
5. Marigot Bay
This deep, natural harbour surrounded by densely forested hills is arguably St Lucia's most beautiful bay. It is the site of an impressive new development, Discovery at Marigot Bay (001 866 440 6600; discoveryatmarigotbay. com), which opened in September. It can accommodate yachts of up to 16ft draught and 160ft-plus length, and there are 124 rooms and all the luxurious extras you would expect from an upmarket resort.
The original capital, this fishing town has a French feel and some striking colonial architecture, though half the town was destroyed by fire in 1955. Napoleon's Empress, Josephine, spent most of her childhood here on her father's plantation. A handy base from which to explore the Diamond and Toraille waterfalls, the Sulphur Springs and the Pitons.
7. The Pitons
St Lucia's emblems, the Gros and Petit Pitons are two 2,500ft fingers of rock pushed up like a gigantic V-sign by volcanic activity. The energetic can climb them in around two hours, to be rewarded by unforgettable views. At the nearby Sulphur Springs you can bathe in a warm, mineral-rich river.
8. Vieux Fort
The second-largest town is the site of St Lucia's international airport, Hewannorra. The reef-protected Anse de Sables Bay offers some of the best windsurfing in the Caribbean, and boat trips are available to the Maria Islands Nature Reserve.
Saturday night is fish fiesta night at this Atlantic village, 45-minutes from Castries. From 6pm, the day's catch is cooked on the waterfront and the party begins. Be prepared to dance barefoot on the beach to the local DJs. Anse La Raye on the west coast holds a similar event each week, Fish Friday; the hardy can then move up the coast for the Friday Night Jump Up at Gros Islet.
10. Barre de l'lsle Trail
Most of St Lucia's lush rainforest is pretty impenetrable, but 29 miles of trails have been carved through the jungle. The four-hour trek through the Edmund Forest Reserve is arduous and the Des Cartiers Rainforest is isolated, but The Barre de l'Isle Trail can be completed in two hours.Reuse content