With a government programme promoting village tourism, a farm-to-table food culture and myriad outdoor pursuits, St Lucia is making all the right moves.
Soca music throbs from roadside speakers, fresh fish sizzles on barbecues, rum flows freely.
An elderly local throws his arm around my shoulders, we grin at each other and clink glasses.
I feel like I’m in an intoxicating dream, dazzled by neon bar signs, gyrating hips and pulsating bass.
What else could I expect from Gros Islet’s famed Friday night Jump Up street party?
This jamboree has been enticing tourists and locals for decades, who congregate in this northern St Lucian town to sample authentic Creole cooking, hear the sound systems and enjoy a rum punch or two.
The potent rum has loosened my limbs and inhibitions enough to attempt a “whine” – rhythmic rotating of the hips, much to the embarrassment of my friend Kristina, who has joined me on the trip.
For an Irishman cursed with two left feet, my moves are nothing short of a miracle.
I strike up a conversation with a local landscape gardener who has just clocked off for the evening.
“Things really kick off after 11pm when people finish work,” he laughs. “This is when the locals come out to play. The question is, are you ready to experience the real spirit of St Lucia?”
The St Lucia Ministry of Tourism has recognised the need to encourage visitors to experience local life, with a new Village Tourism initiative promoting off-the-beaten track locations.
“The programme is well under way with Soufriere taking the lead, having opened a new beach park, town square, bus terminal and market,” says Dominic Fedee, minister of tourism, information and broadcasting. “In 2020, we will see further development of our community tourism destinations in eight villages: Gros Islet, Anse La Raye, Canaries, Soufriere, Choiseul, Micoud, Dennery and Vieux Fort.”
"I’m enamoured by its rustic vibe and breathtaking views of the nearby Pitons."
I head to the new Soufriere Beach Park, where on-site facilities are modest, with a small gift shop and bar, but I’m enamoured by its rustic vibe and breathtaking views of the nearby Pitons.
I recline on the golden sands with an ice-cold beer, content to spend an hour listening to the lapping waves and laughs of families enjoying a Sunday morning picnic.
It’s here I meet Marvin, aka Baby Shaq, owner of Maximum Chill-Out, a Castries-based tour operator that’s been offering catamaran excursions, fishing trips and taxi transfers since 1998.
“It’s great the government is encouraging people to visit Soufriere. It’s especially important between the peak seasons when there are fewer tourists on the island. Tourism is vital for locals, so our priority is to treat [tourists] well and make sure they have a great time.”
Soufriere, from the French for “sulphur in the air” to describe its volcanic location, was once the island’s capital during colonial times.
It is best known for its natural springs heated by the nearby Qualibou volcano – a popular haunt for visitors and locals alike – and hiking trails to the peak of Gros Piton.
I spend an afternoon roaming its streets, stopping to admire the new Freedom Monument sculpture – a powerful tribute to the slaves who defeated their British captors in 1796 – peering into local bars and following the smell of homemade Creole cooking to pastel-coloured food shacks.
I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy Caribbean dishes in Antigua, St Kitts and Jamaica, but
St Lucia’s culinary offering tops them all.
At the Fond Doux Plantation & Resort, a charming 15-cottage eco-lodge, I’m the first to breakfast for its “plantation to plate” menu: a freshly prepared cornucopia of Caribbean and French-influenced dishes including saltfish and “fry bakes”, fluffy baps dusted with sugar or flour.
With Hotel Chocolat only a three-minute drive away, I couldn’t pass up the chance to experience the cocoa-infused on-site restaurant Boucan.
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And so our stay at beautiful @marigotbayresort has ended! Huge thanks to all the team for making the experience so memorible. However, the highlight for me has to be the private Treehouse dinner with @pakalnute_k, where we sat down our own chef to craft a bespoke menu! Definately recommended for clients celebrat\u00ecng a special occasion @travelsaintlucia #travelstlucia #letherinspireyou . . . . . #luxurylifestyle #luxurytravel #luxurytraveller #forbes #natgeo #luxuryresorts #luxuryhotels #luxurycaribbean #lovecaribbean #views
Each item on the menu comprises an element of chocolate; whether it’s slow-cooked pulled pork on a bed of white cocoa nibs or yellowfin tuna served with roasted garlic cacao butter and sweet potato mash.
For a three-course meal for two with wine, clients can expect to pay more than $200, so it’s not cheap.
“It’s a terrific wow-factor option for honeymooners or couples celebrating a special occasion”
However, it’s a terrific wow-factor option for honeymooners or couples celebrating a special occasion.
For a truly magical culinary experience, the private dining options at the Marigot Bay Resort & Marina are a sure-fire winner.
During our stay, Kristina and I are offered the private Tree House experience (from $350), where after a consultation with our chef, we gorge on a bespoke menu of spiced pumpkin soup, rib-eye steak and a chocolate sharing platter in a softly lit hideaway, nestled in botanical gardens.
Fortunately for my expanding stomach, St Lucia offers plenty of options for outdoor enthusiasts.
From hauling myself more than 180 metres by rope to the top of Marigot Ridge, to zip-lining at Morne Coubaril Estate, I feel as though I’ve burned enough calories to last a lifetime.
The highlight, however, is tackling the 771-metre-high Gros Piton ascent.
WATCH: @kriztute and I hiked St Lucia's Gros Piton, which at its peak reaches 771m, offering stunning views of Soufriere, Vieux Fort, and on a clear day, the island of St Vincent. Stay tuned for my full video round-up of the trip! @SaintLuciaUK #travelsaintlucia #hike #views pic.twitter.com/eGPBVGpQ5k— Andrew_TTG (@Andrew_TTG) October 13, 2019
At 7am, Kristina and I meet our guide, Kaurene, to begin the five-hour journey.
It’s a moderate to challenging climb but the experience is worth the stiff knees and aching muscles for the views of Soufriere, Vieux Fort and, on a clear day, the island of St Vincent.
Tell clients it’s important to wear comfortable shoes and take plenty of water, as what begins as a pleasant stroll through the village at the foot of the mountain soon transforms into a steep incline.
Despite the tropical downpours and encounters with St Lucia’s insect population, we make it to the top exhausted but bursting with pride.
Yet it’s actually by the sea that you’ll get the best views of St Lucia – Sea Spray Cruises offers an eight-and-a-half-hour Tout Bagay Soufriere Catamaran Day Tour (from $121pp), which includes visits to the Toraille Waterfall, hot springs and snorkelling.
With my legs dangling over the edge and the Pitons disappearing in the evening mist, I think back to my horticulturalist friend at the Jump Up, confident he’d be satisfied with my new-found appreciation of his beloved St Lucia.
Inspiring Travel Company has seven nights at Calabash Cove with flights from £3,179pp (inspiringtravelcompany.co.uk); Caribtours offers seven nights’ B&B at Marigot Bay with flights from £1,629pp (caribtours.co.uk).
Flights: British Airways operates daily flights from Gatwick to Hewanorra International airport, which takes about eight-and-a-half hours.
Currency: Both US and Eastern Caribbean dollars are accepted.
When to visit: St Lucia has a year-round tropical climate, with peak travel taking place between December and April. Hurricane season is from June to November.