WHAT – AND WHERE?
This teardrop-shaped island, 4,200 miles south-west of Gatwick, manages to pack in lush rainforest, scores of golden beaches and striking mountains into its 238 square miles – twice the size of the Isle of Wight, and rather more sultry. Its scenic splendours, added to the fact that many battles had been fought over it, led a British historian to give it the sobriquet "the Helen of the West Indies", after Helen of Troy.
Apart from its stunning scenery and excellent climate, St Lucia offers possibly the best balance of places to stay, restaurants to savour, sights to see and things to do in the entire Caribbean. It is part of the Windward Islands chain in the West Indies and its nearest neighbour is Martinique, officially a department of France, 21 miles north. St Vincent lies 24 miles to the south, while Barbados is 100 miles south-east.
The island's location in the trade winds keeps the climate pretty even: an average of just over 80F by day and 70F by night from November to March, increasing by about 5F for the rest of the year. The rainy season runs from June to October (sometimes later). But at any time of year you can expect a warm welcome, a choice of places to stay from historic to hedonistic, and a vast amount of activity options.
WHY THE NAME?
The original settlers were Amerindians who migrated from the north-east shores of South America between 1,000-500 BC. They called the island Iouanalao, "the place where the iguana is found". They were eventually driven out by the more warlike Carib Indians from the ninth century AD onwards, whose version of the Amerindian name was Hewanorra - now celebrated in the island's airport, at the far south of the island.
The present name came about, according to local tradition, when a group of French sailors was shipwrecked on the island on 13 December 1502, the feast day of Sainte Alousie of Syracuse. (This story is somewhat undermined by the fact that the island had already appeared earlier that year on a Vatican globe as Santa Lucia, but the islanders still celebrate 13 December as their national day.) Sadly for Sainte Alousie, a 3rd-century martyr, she had her eyes gouged out while being tortured for her faith, and so would not have been able to appreciate the beauty of the place named in her honour.
The first European settled here in the 1550s. He was a French buccaneer named Francois Le Clerc, who in the best piratical tradition had a wooden leg and was nicknamed Jambe de Bois. Establishing a base on Pigeon Island to the north, he sallied out to raid passing Spanish ships. In 1605, 67 English colonists bound for Guyana were blown off course and landed on the island. Deciding to settle, they bought huts from the Caribs, who soon turned on them. A month later only 19 were left, and they fled by canoe.
From the 1650s onwards France and Britain squabbled over the island, and it changed hands 14 times before it was finally ceded to the British in 1814. St Lucia achieved independence in 1979, and is now a member of the Commonwealth.
ENOUGH HISTORY. I'M A PARTY ANIMAL
Rodney Bay is the place for you, then. Named after Admiral George Rodney, who sailed out of the bay to defeat the French in one of those interminable battles, it's the throbbing hub of the island's nightlife. Tune up with a cocktail or three in the Village at Ti Bananne restaurant and bar (001 758 456 2800), whose mixologist Kirma Mongroo was crowned the island's top bartender earlier this year. If you want to keep within tottering distance of the action, stay at one of Ti Bananne's sister hotels, the four-star Coco Palm (double rooms from US$145/£103, excluding breakfast) or the three-star Coco Kreole (US$115/£85), a cosy, 20-room boutique hotel. These Coco Resorts (020-8874 8333 for UK sales; coco-resorts.com) are run by Feolla Chastanet, who took over the business from her brother Allen Chastenet when he became the minister of tourism, so the family know a bit about the holiday industry.
For dinner, you're spoilt for choice, but recommended are Ti Bananne's French Caribbean cuisine, succulent seafood at Buzz (001 758 458 0450), grilled fish on the beach at Spinnakers (001 758 452 8491) or, if you're missing your curry, a Tandoori at Razmataz (001 758 452 9800).
Still not sleepy? Party on into the small hours down at the Lime Bar – "to lime" is the local slang for "to hang out" – or enjoy the disco and live music at Delirius. If you'd been out for the recent one-day cricket international at the Beausejour ground a few miles from Rodney Bay, you'd have ended up rubbing shoulders with some of the England team and West Indies legend Brian Lara. Expect to pay EC$6 (£1.60) for a local Piton beer or rum and coke, EC$15 (£4) for a cocktail. And if it's Friday night, head for the Jump Up at nearby Gros Islet, a raucous street party with barbecues, booze and Caribbean beats.
SOME LAID-BACK LUXURY?
The stand-out hotels are Rex Resorts' St Lucian and Royal (020-8741 5333; rexresorts.com), which sit side by side on Reduit Beach - a golden expanse more than a mile long. The 260-room St Lucian has long been a favourite of the England cricket team, although when they played on the island a couple of weeks ago they opted to stay elsewhere; perhaps the fact that the pedalo in which Freddy Flintoff launched himself out to sea after a late night during the World Cup two years ago is still sitting on the beach there might have had something to do with it. However, in keeping with the excellent service they offer, it was one of the staff who rescued him.
The Royal is a step up in luxury; all its accommodation is suites, most of them with a sea view. In May and June Thomas Cook Signature (0844 871 6650; tcsignature.com) is offering seven nights all-inclusive at the St Lucian for £939 and seven nights room only in a Deluxe suite at the Royal for £1,259, including return flights and transfers from Gatwick with British Airways. If you feel like splashing out, the Presidential Suite starts at about twice as much, and has its own Jacuzzi, a terrace the size of a tennis court, enough sun loungers to cater for a small sun-bathing army, and a king-size bed.
The Royal's go-ahead British manager, Mark Grebby, played a major part in setting up Jamie Oliver's Fifteen project in Cornwall, and one of their graduate chefs is on a placement at the hotel. If the mouth-watering signature dish of seared kingfish he created for the hotel's premier restaurant, Chic, is anything to go by, both sides have gained a lot from the experience.
TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL?
Head down south on the west coast. First stop, Anse Chastanet (001 758 459 7000; ansechastanet.com) - an anse or ance means a bay in the local patois. No TV, no Wi-Fi, no phones in the 49 individually designed rooms scattered down the lush hillside or down by the beach - just a dreamily idyllic resort on a secluded beach, with plenty of watersports on offer, including snorkelling and scuba diving. Its three restaurants include the island's first vegetarian establishment, with organic produce grown on its own farm.
Amy Winehouse first fell in love with St Lucia while staying here, but now she's feeling friskier she's decamped to the north of the island. Wherever you're staying, though, don't emulate her recent topless antics; it's neither legal nor appreciated on this deeply Catholic island (a legacy of its French past).
Perched above Anse Chastenet, and under the same ownership, is the recently opened Jade Mountain (001 758 459 4000; jademountainstlucia.com). Its chunky architecture looks rather utilitarian from afar as you sail into the bay, but close up the rooms are simply stunning. Completely open on one side, 24 of the 29 rooms feature substantial infinity pools where you can laze gently while admiring the Pitons in the distance.
Caribtours (020-7751 0660; caribtours.co.uk) offers a week at Anse Chastanet from £1,367 per person or at Jade Mountain from £2,487 per person. Prices include return flights with British Airways, transfers and breakfast.
WHAT ARE THESE PITONS?
The defining image of St Lucia: Gros Piton and Petit Piton are the second- and third-highest peaks on the island at 2,619ft and 2,461ft respectively. They are much more spectacular than St Lucia's highest, the 3,118ft Mount Gimie in the central rainforest.
Volcanic plugs formed by an eruption aeons ago, their foliage-covered flanks tower majestically over the southern coast, and they have been recognised as a World Heritage site by Unesco.
For an even closer look, stay at Ladera (001 758 459 7323; ladera.com), a magical little hotel of just 26 suites and six villas which shimmers 1,100ft up on a forested ridge like a giant treehouse, with the Pitons on either side. The u
orooms too have only three walls (don't worry; in the St Lucian climate, it just works) and a pool, so it's probably sensible that they have a minimum age of 15 for guests. The loudest noise you'll hear is the frogs when they start their dusk chorus. Or just visit for lunch or dinner at its restaurant Dasheene, where Chef Orlando, from Jamaica via Beckenham, devises Creole dishes with a flamboyant twist. And if the water pistols on the table mystify you, they're not for squirting fellow diners but to deter the birds if they get too inquisitive in the open-sided dining room.
BUT I HAVE A YOUNG FAMILY
Peer down from Ladera and you will see the 192-acre Jalousie Plantation (001 758 456 8000; thejalousieplantation.com) close to the sea in the Val des Pitons. Originally a sugar plantation, it has a long history as a distinctly upmarket resort - former owners include Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner, a close friend of Princess Margaret, who often visited. Guests who choose the luxury villa category from the 112 villas and rooms can enjoy a whiff of elegance with their own butler, who will unpack their luggage, organise their laundry, make any reservations and be constantly on tap via a mobile phone. This compendium of comfort will cost you US$637 (£455) for a night.
Apart from its unique setting, a major attraction of the resort is the Jalousie Dive Centre, just feet away from the protected underwater park and National Marine Reserve, which offers the best dive sites on the island. The PADI-accredited centre offers guests who are qualified divers one complimentary scheduled dive each day except Sunday, while beginners can have a complimentary introductory dive. (Marine Reserve fees of US$7/£5 and wetsuit hire if required, US$10/£7, are extra.) Jalousie is offering a special all- inclusive deal on its Sugar Mill rooms of US$353 (£252) per person, including all meals and wine and some activities.
The capital, Castries, on the north-west coast, has little architectural heritage, having suffered a series of disastrous fires, the most recent in 1927 and 1948. But the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, decorated with murals by local artist Dunstan St Omer, is worth a visit. The Vendor's Arcade caters for determined souvenir hunters, but the local market is far more fun; visit one of the little food shops and try a roti, curried meat or seafood in a pancake wrap, for around EC$15 (£4) includng a soft drink or a beer.
Further south is Soufrière, the old French capital but now not much more than a fishing port. But it also has a busy market, and tourism is livening it up, as it's a convenient jumping-off point for the Pitons - and the spectacular Sulphur Springs. A stroll across the volcano's caldera takes you past hot, bubbling springs reeking with the rotten-egg smell of sulphur dioxide, but you soon get used to this, and then you can bathe in the rich, dark mud of the nearby river and man-made pool, which is rich in minerals and reputed to be particularly good for the skin, and also arthritis and rheumatism.
CAN I SET SAIL?
An all-day trip on the tall-ship brig Unicorn (001 758 458 0123; seaspraycruises.com), which you might recognise as the (i) Black Pearl (/i) from the film Pirates of the Caribbean, will take you to the Toraille Botanical Gardens and Waterfall and the Sulphur Springs, with a swimming stop and a visit to Marigot Bay. The US$110 (£79) price tag includes a buffet lunch and drinks.
Captain Mike's (001 758 452 7044; captmikes.com) and Hackshaw's Charters (001 758 453 0553; hackshaws.com) offer whale- and dolphin-watching safaris from US$50 (£35) for three hours and also game fishing expeditions, from US$80 (£57) for four hours.
If you're well-heeled enough to have arrived in your own yacht, by far the most picturesque of the many anchorages around the island is Marigot Bay. Narrow, deep and fringed with palm trees, for centuries it has been used as a hurricane hole for boats sheltering from the storm. The full-service marina (001 758 451 4275; marigotbay.com) offers berths for yachts up to 250ft. If you get bored staying on board there's always Discovery (001 758 458 5300; discoverystlucia.com), an unashamedly luxurious new hotel, set into the hillside. A double room costs $330 (£236), room only.
Families might prefer Mango Beach (001 758 458 3188; mangobeachmarigot.com), a four-bedroom guesthouse right across the bay created by John and Judith Verity, the English couple who had the original vision for Discovery. It's less than a minute's walk from the beach and welcomes children, with a special children's room featuring bunk beds and a large collection of books and games. Rates start at US$120 for a double-bed suite. As a bonus, the Rainforest Hideaway restaurant (001 758 451 4485; rainforesthideaway-stlucia.com), run by their son Jim and several times voted the best on the island, is at the bottom of the garden.
Explore the rainforest with Rainforest Sky Rides (001 758 458 5151; rainforestrams.com): you get lifted up 130ft into the tree canopy for a 90-minute gondola ride to the village of Chassin, followed by a speedier zipline glide if you're up for it.
The Treetop Adventure Park (001 758 458 0908; adventuretoursstlucia .com), set in 35 acres of rainforest, also offers ziplining, plus hiking, mountain biking and kayaking excursions.
For something a little more cultural, visit La Sikwi Sugar Mill (001 758 451 4245) and explore the history of the sugar plantations on the island. Admission US$5 (£3.50), or US$14 (£10) with lunch.
BRING ON THE MUSIC
You'll have to get a move on if you want to make this year's St Lucia Jazz Festival (stluciajazz.org); it runs 2-10 May. But the effort will be worth it if past experience is anything to go by; with concerts all over the island it's one long party, culminating in performances on the main stage at Pigeon Island, which forms a natural amphitheatre.
Don't be put off by the jazz tag - the artists are drawn from a wide musical spectrum, everything from new-age jazz to R&B and soul. This year's line-up includes Amy Winehouse, Chicago, KC and the Sunshine Band and Chaka Khan. Tickets for all four main shows at Pigeon Island cost US$195 (£139).
Additional research by Matt Gerlach
St Lucia: travel essentials
Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virginatlantic.co.uk) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) each fly to Hewanorra airport three times a week from Gatwick. No visas are required for British, Commonwealth and EU citizens. George F.L. Charles airport, just outside Castries, caters for Caribbean inter-island traffic.
The official currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$), known locally as the "ecee". It is pegged to the US dollar, which is also accepted throughout the island, at a rate of around EC$2.62. All ATM machines on the island issue EC$. Most restaurants include a 10 per cent standard tip.
Mini buses are widely used; to hail one, just stick out your arm. You can recognise them by their green licence plates, which begin with M. A sample fare is EC$8 (£2.20) from Castries to Soufrière.
Taxis, which need to be booked outside airports and city centres, are not metered, but prices are generally fixed for each destination. Be sure to agree the cost and currency before a trip. All taxis have blue number plates with a TX prefix. Sample fare: Castries to Soufrière, EC$175 (£48).
Car hire is available; weekly rates are typically around EC$900 (£250). St Lucia drives on the left, but you will need a temporary driving permit, which costs EC$54 (£16), and the roads are windy, so many people choose to travel by taxi, tour bus or boat; water taxis are available at marinas.
The official language of the 160,000 population is English, though many of the locals also speak a French-based patois.
St Lucia Tourist Board (020-7341 7000; stlucia.org)