"Are we there yet?" Nicola had spent the journey behind a magazine, fed- up because the drive was cutting into our beach time, but now she looked up, just in time to see the shacks. We both peered at them for a moment, and then at each other, and I went to open my mouth but she frowned. "We've got a week," she said. "No politics, no economics, nothing like that, all right?"
Nicola's my oldest friend but we live hundreds of miles apart, so once a year or so we go on holiday to catch up. Like an old couple we know what we like and that's an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, one of those places where you don't have to pay for anything and you never leave the compound. The very notion will strike terror into the heart of any "traveller" and it's true that "difference" and "culture" don't come into it - in fact that's exactly what you're avoiding - but believe me, after a long winter bent over a keyboard, there is little more relaxing than this.
An all-inclusive resort is a microcosm, a sanitised parallel universe where going abroad involves no stress because it involves no difficulty, where everyone's pleasant and speaks your language and whatever you desire will be yours. It's the adult version of getting locked in a sweet shop. And Nicola, as usual, is right - if you're going to do it and pay pounds 1,300 a week for the privilege, you may as well leave your middle-class conscience at the gate.
This year we'd chosen Le Sport, famed on the all-inclusive circuit for its health spa and wide array of sporting activities. As the gate came down behind us, our finely tuned antennae checked out the essentials - if you're going to be here 24 hours a day then it's crucial that these are in place - but we were soon reassured. This is the tick list: 1) Room/hotel buildings a delight, low rise, pretty, quiet. Pools (three), bars and other facilities promising. 2) Beach uncrowded, adequate number of sunbeds, has shade. Not too far from room or restaurant. 3) Location picturesque. Also remote, therefore away from hawkers and hasslers. 4) Food fantastic. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, therefore eat-as-much-as-you-like. This is very good. Dinner is a la carte but not too formal. Light options available. A second restaurant serving fantastic Pacific rim food for twice-a-week dinner variation. 5) Classy fellow travellers. Too expensive for the prop-me- up-at-the-bar-until-I-swing-at-you-or-fall-over category of all-inclusive client.
The next morning, after a breakfast of fruit, pancakes, bacon, eggs and muffins, Nicola installed herself on a sunbed with a book and refused to budge until Wednesday. It fell to me to investigate. I started out with the board listing the day's activities: tennis, golf, cycling, fencing, archery, volleyball, table tennis, Caribbean dance, mountain walks, gym and all the usual classes, Tai Chi, aqua-aerobics, scuba-diving, wind- surfing, water-skiing, snorkelling, sailing - with free tuition available in everything. I returned exhausted to the beach where I drifted into a gentle snooze.
I was disturbed by movement on my left. A young man, one of the staff of "bodyguards" paid to see you through activities and make you generally happy, had placed a yellow flag by my side. I squinted up at him. "What's that for?" "Stick it in the sand if you want a drink," he said. "One of the waiters will come and serve you." I drifted off again, my life complete.
I was woken an hour later, this time by Nicola. We were due up at the Oasis, the monastic treatment centre, for the spa part of our holiday. I've not had a lot of experience of these things but Nicola has and she assured me that the treatments compared favourably with top-notch health farms in Britain. We were allocated our schedules for the week - one massage and one treatment per day, although you can request more, which you'll get free of charge. I staggered from a full-body Swedish massage into a seaweed wrap (where I was painted with seaweed then wrapped like a sausage in a thermal blanket to sweat out the toxins) while Nicola had a head and scalp massage and gruelling sea-salt rub-down, and in this way we worked up a healthy appetite for lunch. And so it went on.
Holiday friends are part of the all-inclusive experience and by day three we'd settled in with a gang: Chris and Lizzie in their forties from Bromley; Jack and Suzie in their fifties from New Jersey. We were united by shared interests (lying on the beach, eating lunch, that sort of thing) and we were almost perfectly representative of the client profile: evenly split between British and American, mostly couples, varied ages. This is typical for all-inclusives but, unusually, Le Sport attracts a lot of unescorted women who come on their own or with friends.
Neil, an American charmer with deep, liquid eyes, had stumbled across this fact and had become a regular there. Which would have been great entertainment for the ladies except, we discovered by chance, he was married with a family back home. Still he provided our entertainment - we got to watch him work his way shamelessly through the female population - until one night it was our turn. He'd chosen a bad moment - Nicola and I had skipped dinner to get drunk on free sea breezes, and sisterly solidarity was running high.
"Does your wife know what you're up to Neil?"
"Of course. We're soulmates, she knows everything about me."
"So you haven't told her then?"
"We're so close it's not possible that she doesn't know."
Apart from Neil and the honeymooners and despite the number of young women and handsome bodyguards, sex didn't seem to be that high on anyone's agenda. The single thirtysomething women I chatted to were either taking a holiday from complicated romantic lives or just couldn't be bothered. I was, frankly, more interested in the food, but for the sake of this article I did a little research and ladies, if you're looking for a bit of romance, you're unlikely to be disappointed. And that's enough of that.
So the week wore on. There were dramas of course - one day we woke up and it was cloudy; another day Nicola got burnt and had to cover the appropriate parts to sunbathe through it, that sort of thing - but generally we just got fatter, smoother of skin and more relaxed.
The last day, as the gang sat down to dinner, there was melancholy in the air. Lizzie stared at her menu. "I just can't do it anymore," she said disconsolately. "I want a boiled egg." We all nodded. But had they enjoyed it? Had it been worth the money? "Definitely," said Chris, an all-inclusive veteran. "You could work up a bar bill of half the cost of this holiday in a week in a four-star hotel." Jack nodded knowingly. The activities and treatments had gone down well. "It gives you a focus," said Chris, who'd tried everything from the mountain walks to meditation. "It gives me a chance to read my book," said Lizzie. "I'm getting more dessert," said Nicola. The rest of us followed.
Virgin Atlantic direct to St Lucia from Gatwick. The flight takes nearly nine hours and costs from pounds 301, plus tax (tel: 01293 747747).
Le Sport is on the north-west tip of St Lucia, close to the tourist centre of Rodney Bay. Brochure price for a week through Tropical Places starts from pounds 1,299; two weeks from pounds 2,099 (tel: 01342 825123). The price includes flights and transfers, all meals, unlimited drinks including house wine and premium brand spirits, treatments in the spa (there are optional extras, such as reflexology, at an additional charge), plus all sporting activities listed in the feature. Nightly entertainment - some of it quite good - is included, but most of the action after dark takes place in the piano bar, which stays open until the last customer goes to bed. Excursions around the island are available at extra cost, and car hire is available.