x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

St Lucia stands ready as sun-seekers begin to discover it

The Caribbean island is steadily coming into its own as a fashionable holiday destination with distinctive geographical treasures and an ambience unique in the region.

Jalousie Beach. Courtesy of the Jalousie Plantation
Jalousie Beach. Courtesy of the Jalousie Plantation

The first time I visited St Lucia, in November 1992, it rained so much that my abiding memory of the trip is watching honeymoon couples with faces like thunder playing Scrabble under dripping beach umbrellas.

On my second visit, in July 2005, it rained so much that the beaches were deserted, the golf course looked like a boating lake and I could not sleep for the rat-a-tat of rain on the roof, punctuated by rumbles of thunder.

St Lucia owed me one, basically, and while I was not brimming with optimism as I got off the plane - a hurricane had battered the island just a few months previously - at least the sun was shining. In fact, it was blazing down.

There was a very slight breeze and a few wispy clouds hovering above the mountains, but nothing to worry about. The sun, invisible on my previous visits to the island, looked as it was here to stay.

"Been like this for weeks," said my taxi driver, Eugene, with a note of pride. When you live in an island paradise, you want visitors to see it at its best. By the time we got to my hotel, every detail in the picture was right.

The blue waters of the Caribbean danced in the sun. Waves tiptoed up the beach. Frigate birds circled and swooped, framed by the silhouettes of the palm trees. A lizard stirred in the bougainvillea.

In less time than it takes to order a drink and check the local weather forecast on my laptop, I was feeling at peace with the world, blessed by the weather gods. The St Lucia I had heard about, but never been lucky enough to enjoy, could finally unveil its magic. And what magic.

Quite apart from the laid-back charm of the Lucians, who could hardly be friendlier, it is just such a beautiful island: the Caribbean in glorious miniature with dainty beaches backed by high, wooded mountains, none more dramatic than the famous Pitons - volcanic cones, each more than 1,220 metres high.

There are only two of them, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, but they are so spectacular, rising steeply into the clear blue sky, that it is not hard to see why this Unesco World Heritage Site has become one of the most sought-after addresses in the region.

Other islands may have sandier beaches, better scuba-diving and noisier carnivals, but if you want a view from your bedroom window that will put a spring in your step, there is nothing to touch the Pitons. They have an elemental grandeur.

My hotel, the Jalousie Plantation, had an unbeatable location, nestling in the valley between the Pitons and overlooking the sea. Sitting on the balcony of my villa, I found myself admiring one of the Pitons, then the other one, then looking back towards the first one, trying to decide which one I preferred.

They looked quite different depending whether they were in the sun or shade. At night, they looked almost sinister, looming over the resort like dark sentinels; but at twilight, or in the early morning, they were suffused with colour, a dainty palette of pinks and greys and dark greens. They were crying out for a great painter - a Turner or a Monet - to do them justice.

The five-star Jalousie Plantation is already one of the very best hotels on the island, with luxurious villas furnished in a colonial style, complete with private plunge pools and perfumed gardens dense with tropical flowers. Sensational food prepared by a head chef from Mexico is another plus. So is the adjacent coral reef, less than 100 metres from the shore - a snorkelling heaven. And if the hotel is pretty luxurious already, it is about to raise its game to a higher level under new and enthusiastic ownership.

The British-born Roger Myers, who has developed a string of successful restaurants in the UK, including Dome and Café Rouge, has already invested more than US$100 million (Dh367m) on the site.

His ambitious redevelopment plan is still in its infancy but has already been named Best International Property at the prestigious International Property Awards 2010.

This autumn, the Jalousie Plantation will be rebranded Sugar Beach, with multimillion-dollar residences cheek by jowl with hotel suites and villas. A newly opened Rainforest Spa - wonderfully restful and based on traditional Arawak Indian huts - is typical of the love and attention being lavished on the project.

Will Sugar Beach take off? It is in the lap of the gods. But it certainly feels like the right development in the right place at the right time.

In the hierarchy of Caribbean hot-spots, St Lucia to date has never quite received its due, certainly not as fashionable holiday destination. Barbados - though a far less interesting island scenically - is where you go if you want to catch a glimpse of a celebrity sunbathing. French enclaves like Martinique and St Barth's also attract serious money. In St Lucia, like Antigua, three-star resorts have traditionally dominated and there is a relative dearth of high-end hotels.

But all that is changing fast. Word has got out that St Lucia is not a bit-part player in the region but a classy destination with a distinctive ambience. And with more and more direct flights to the island from outside the Caribbean, it has a bright future to look forward to.

George Foreman owns a house here. Oprah Winfrey is a regular visitor. Other celebs spotted soaking up the St Lucia sun include Simon Cowell, Bono, Harrison Ford, Amy Winehouse and Pierce Brosnan.

If the Pitons are the natural magnet for upscale hotels, the Cap Estate at the northern tip of the island is also going places. It used to be an old-style colonial enclave, with peeling plantation houses growing old gracefully, cash-strapped owners pottering about in Panama hats and goats wandering among the abandoned sugar mills.

But there have been some exciting developments in the past few years, typified by Cap Maison, a stylish boutique hotel, with hacienda-style architecture, friendly owners and 24-carat hospitality.

Cap Maison overlooks Pigeon Island, once a fortress, but now linked to the mainland by a causeway. It is a glorious spot, with a sandy beach overlooked by one of those cheap-and-cheerful Caribbean beach bars you never want to leave. You order a drink, a club sandwich, or jerk chicken, or a fish platter; then the waiter tells you his life story, and what is wrong with West Indies cricket, and asks your life story; then you order another drink, and another, and the smell of grilled plantain is so beguiling that you have to order some of that too ...

For such a diminutive island, little more than 600-sq-km in area, St Lucia takes a surprisingly long time to drive around. But that is all part of its charm. It is really several islands in one, each with its distinctive character. From beaches to golf courses, from mountain walking trails, overhung with creepers, to volcanic springs, where you can wallow in sulphurous mud and give yourself an ad hoc spa treatment, St Lucia has something for everyone.

I stayed near the Pitons because I was after seclusion: a bit of peace and quiet in serene surroundings as an antidote to the bustle of the city. The bar at the Jalousie Plantation was the perfect place for a nightcap, but it was not Manhattan and I did not want it to be. Other visitors to St Lucia will have different priorities.

For shops, restaurants and night life, Rodney Bay ticks all the boxes. It is brash, boisterous and packed with party animals of all races: bronzed yacht-owners with platinum blondes; backpackers called Hildegard and Jules; British honeymooners still high since their wedding night; dreadlocked locals with roguish smiles and multi-coloured hats.

If you are not a party animal, the yacht haven of Marigot Bay, halfway up the west coast, makes a pleasant alternative: it is great place to have a drink, watch the setting sun and enjoy the non-stop activity on the water: the boats coming and going, the chatter and the laughter.

But wherever you lay your head for the night, you would be remiss not to explore the interior of the island. Only a few 100 metres from the coast you find yourself in dense rainforest - a pristine landscape of steep valleys, tinkling waterfalls and scruffy banana groves flecked with colour.

A worker tramps through the trees with a rusty machete in his hand and there are a couple of rickety shacks clinging to the hillside, but in terms of human habitation, that is it. You really have got away from it all.

St Lucia affords the visitor many and varied pleasures. But the one that lingers in the memory is the sense of peace: a beautiful, unhurried world that you are reluctant to leave.

 

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to London Gatwick cost from Dh4,435. Return flights with British Airways (www.britishairways.com) from London to St Lucia cost from £657 (Dh3,916). Prices include taxes.

The hotel

Double rooms at the Jalousie Plantation (www.jalousieplantation.com) start from US$375 (Dh1,377) per night. Bed and breakfast at Cap Maison (www.capmaison.com), a luxury boutique hotel on the Cap Estate in the north of St Lucia, costs from $405 (Dh1,487) per night.