There's no denying it – the Caribbean is the poster girl of holiday destinations. It doesn't have to clumsily woo you with its architecture, or charm you with its art galleries, it just sits back and lets its dazzling natural beauty do the talking. But St Lucia's beauty is more than skin deep, and whether you want to get back to nature and experience total, blissful relaxation in the south, or enjoy late nights of music fuelled by seafood and Chairman's spiced in the north it's all there waiting. You never know, you might even find time for the beach.
Southern St Lucia
Touching down in St Lucia, the view that greeted me was not what the postcards had promised – my planned afternoon arrival had been pushed to the pitch black of early evening due to a delayed flight, and my jet-lagged brain and I were trying to navigate a puddle-covered concourse and a stuffy concrete airport. If there's one thing that will make any Caribbean holidaymaker feel cheated, it's rain. But if there's one thing that can make it all better again, it's realising that the drive to your hotel is only about five minutes, and you can go from touchdown to rum cocktail inside half an hour. Such is the first benefit of a stay in the south – very little travelling means more time for relaxing. And that's really what the south is all about – taking an actual break, slowing down and stopping to smell a few tropical flowers along the way.
Almost every inch of St Lucia is covered with rainforest: large prehistoric-looking fern trees and sturdy vines line the roads, while gangly palms poke their heads above the mess and apricots the size of tennis balls lie scattered in the streets. Those who want to get into the thick of things can find plenty of tours to cater to their needs, I started my exploration with a visit to the Tet Paul Nature Trail, a community project that combines tourist-pleasing views with a dose of island history.
The steep path takes trekkers up one of the smaller pitons, while guide John Nestor talks you through island heritage and the medicinal capabilities of the plants and herbs, pointing out coffee plants, a breed of hibiscus used for shampoo (the crushed leaves smell delicately floral), and the obvious edibles such as bananas and mangoes. Seeing the components of your fruit bowl hanging from branches or springing up out of the ground is a surreal experience; the pineapple in particular, fully grown and perched on its spiny base, looks like it's been strategically placed to fool gullible tourists.
The trek lasts no more than an hour, so there's more than enough time for another dose of nature in the form of the sulphur springs. St Lucia is a volcanic island, and this now dormant crater – touted as the world's only drive-in volcano – is living proof. The island might be too young for diamonds, but we are told there are plenty of semi-precious stones hidden in the rock, and the crater's colours of white, yellow and orange represent a host of different mineral deposits. On the opposite side, the water temperature hits a mere 38°C, and tourists enjoy the mineral baths and skin softening mud.
Once you've left the springs behind, you can get back to civilisation with a visit to Soufrière, the south's main town. Brightly coloured buildings, in every shade from sunny yellow to lime green make it look as though it's been hastily constructed out of toy bricks – at least from a distance. At the marina, equally colourful boats take tourists fishing and snorkelling. But the wildlife isn't confined to the underwater world – I board one of the boats for a trip around the coast to the black sand beaches of luxury hotel Anse Chastanet, and catch glimpses of bickering sea birds on their rocky perches and hundreds of hanging fruit bats hiding from the heat in cliff-side caves. The breeze and salt spray are mercifully cooling, cutting through the humidity – it is hard to imagine ever picking up the pace again.
Northern St Lucia
The next day I bid goodbye to the south, and start the drive north through thick forest and sunny banana plantations. Our first stop is the Treetop Adventure Park in Dennery, halfway up the island on the east coast: if trekking's not your thing, then there's another way to explore St Lucia's densely packed green spaces, and that's zip lining. Tours start at around £14, and after a quick tutorial, you're strapped into an especially unflattering harness, (complete with helmet and, for some reason, hairnet), before you join a queue of nervous-looking punters. There are 12 lines in total, and I'm relieved to make it down the first without any of the horrible mishaps I'd pictured (getting stuck halfway down/plummeting to my doom/having a wayward tarantula land on my face), but it's not easy to stay straight; the temptation to grip the wire is strong and too much of a shift in your weight will leave you spinning, stuck and forced to haul yourself in manually. Avoid those pitfalls, though, and you'll be treated to amazing ariel views of the lazily winding rivers and forest clearings below. The eighth line is the highest – an incredible 150ft drop – while the final line is the fastest. By this point, though, even the most height-phobic will have been eased in, and if they aren't, there's an option to give up at the first and sixth lines (although the merciless mocking doled out by the staff makes continuing seem like the safest option).
When you've finished zipping around the jungles, venture into the capital of Castries for a more gently administered shot of adrenaline: shopping. Castries market – named the third best food market in the world – is especially fun if you're in the mood for a Hawaiian shirt, a postcard from 1987 or some suspicious-looking spiced rum. There are some good finds among the touristy tat, though, and a little light haggling might earn you a small discount. Stallholders vary from friendly to forceful, but a polite 'I'm just browsing' gets the message across sufficiently. Being a little too polite, I leave with a Hawaiian shirt, a postcard from 1987 and some suspicious-looking spiced rum.
One of the island's biggest draws is the annual St Lucia Jazz festival, held at Pigeon Island. Jazz is perhaps a bit of an ambitious title – the focus is mainly on R&B with a sprinkling of gospel and brass – but the music is loud and the atmosphere is incredible. If you're not in town for the festival and like your music a little more intimate, there's plenty to be had in Rodney Bay's bars – from steel drum bands to one-man-and-his-guitar outfits. Continue the party at Anse La Raye Friday night Fish Fry, a weekly street party that serves up seafood, live music and karaoke to packed crowds – if you do it right you won't even touch your hotel bed.
Coconut Bay (01582 792260) in the south is only a few miles from the airport, it boasts four restaurants, including a traditional Caribbean eatery and a beach grill, as well as three pools, a spa and plenty of family-friendly entertainment. For a stay in the north, Blu resort (+44 1268 242 463) is conveniently located for Castries and Rodney Bay. It is currently being refurbished to include a rooftop bar and the first Caribbean outpost of renowned cocktail lounge chain Trader Vic's.
There are 10 weekly non-stop flights from London Gatwick to Saint Lucia Hewanorra Airport operated by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, with return fares starting at £640.