I've always thought of St Lucia as a luxury beach getaway or honeymoon destination. Somewhere where the serene scenery – turquoise waters, sugar-sand beaches and forested peaks – makes you feel good to be alive. But after a recent meeting with St Lucia's tourist board, I discovered that there's so much more to this idyllic Caribbean island – from jungle adventures and a drive-in volcano to vibrant festivals and delicious local cuisine. Something, in fact, to reinvigorate all five of your senses.
Saint Lucia - Simply beautiful
There's nothing like an exotic experience to lift your senses and the eastern Caribbean island of St Lucia is truly alive with the sights, sounds and smells of tropical paradise. With little rainy season to speak of, the island offers travellers the best of both worlds all-year round, from the mountainous rainforest tracts and tumbling waterfalls of the south to the superb entertainment hubs and colourful festivals of the north. The island's southern region is given over to verdant mountains and idyllic powder-soft beaches bordered by aquamarine seas and bright blue skies. The flatter north is also blessed with beautiful stretches of sand, but with the added benefit of plentiful shopping, history and carnivalesque street parties to keep you busy. In fact, combining the sleepy south, with its huge natural appeal, and the bustling north, with its considerable cultural clout, makes for a great all-round holiday.
SEE – Natural beauty
Long celebrated for its enchanting beauty, St Lucia is the emerald jewel in the Caribbean's lofty crown. Draped in a verdant canopy, its southern saw-tooth peaks rise above a lush hinterland of rainforest and cascading waterfalls, teeming with wildlife and exotic plants, and fringed by pale sweeps of sand. Bathed in shimmering sunlight, colours seem brighter and more intense in St Lucia, so you may find yourself a little wide-eyed when you first arrive, surrounded by deep blues, greens and vibrant blooms. Make the most of the island's natural bounty by taking one of the rainforest walks that fan out from the former French capital of Soufriere in the south. Tet Paul Nature Trail is a leisurely option. When you need to cool off, take a dip beneath one of many graceful waterfalls such as Enbas Saut Falls.
The island's volcanic origins have given rise to must-see geological marvels, not least the monolithic Piton peaks, two gigantic lava domes that have become recognisable the world over. In fact, Soufriere means ‘sulphur' in French and the area around the town is a dormant caldera where seismic activity still churns beneath the surface, creating hot springs and gas vents. Billed as the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano, the Sulphur Springs, bubbling up through the crust of the caldera, are a popular sightseeing spot. Downstream, tourists can bathe in the hot mud baths, thought to have therapeutic benefits.
TASTE – A world of flavours
Brimful of vibrant markets selling exotic fruits and spices, St Lucian cuisine takes your taste buds on a Caribbean adventure. As well as the typical tropical island fare of freshly cut coconuts, juicy mangos and refreshing watermelons, St Lucia has its own unique blend of French, Creole and British food. The island's most famous dish is banana and salt fish, and traditional stews containing meat, plantain, dumplings and coconut are served throughout. French influences can be seen in high-end restaurants serving delicious Michelin-worthy scallop dishes, while a love of spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pimento – was bestowed on the island by the British, epitomised by the ubiquitous spiced rum punch and spiced tea.
Like many islands, fish dishes are a staple in St Lucia and a Friday night Fish Fry in one of the coastal villages is the perfect chance for travellers to sample the marine feast on offer. Anse la Raye in western St Lucia, near Marigot Bay, is a good option. On Friday evenings local fisherman descend on the picturesque town to showcase their catch and cooking skills – serving up fish and lobster on the seafront.
SMELL – Sweet aromas
Fresh salty breezes mingle with the scent of fragrant blooms and dense moisture-laden foliage to create an invigorating island aroma. Explore one of St Lucia's beautiful botanic gardens to experience the true allure and sultry scent of paradise, where a rich diversity of flowers peek out from beneath giant palms. Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens is one of the best spots, centred on a majestic waterfall. While the Mamiku Gardens, in the east, are tranquil and exotic. As an island of luxury spa retreats, there's no shortage of flower-infused therapies to experience either.
A visit to one of St Lucia's bustling food markets also gives travellers a chance to immerse their senses in island life. The aroma of countless street food stalls wafts through the air at the fantastic market in the island capital of Castries, for instance. The smell of classic Caribbean jerk chicken and spices such as cinnamon and star anise is everywhere, and a visit to the market is also the perfect excuse to shop for local spice mix and hot sauce.
FEEL – On top of the world
As an alternative to exploring St Lucia's bewitching jungle interior on foot, there's also the option to whizz through the canopy on a series of high zip lines run by Rainforest Adventures. But if adrenalin-inducing activities don't appeal, a much more sedate sky canopy ride gives you panoramic views over the densely forested landscape.
Elevate your mood even further with a hike up the pyramid-like Pitons, a Unesco world heritage site slated as one of the new seven wonders of the world. These towering volcanic plugs – Gros Piton and Petit Piton – reach up out of the Caribbean Sea on St Lucia's southern coast and can be scaled in two hours. The reward is a view sure to stir the heart and enrich the soul.
St Lucia offers exhilaration and relaxation in equal measure. Alongside exciting activities, you can feel the simple pleasure of powder-soft sand between your toes, warm sun on your back and the cool Caribbean Sea against your skin. Beneath the clear aquamarine water lies another paradise no less colourful than the land above the waves. Coastal coral reefs teeming with psychedelic fish should be experienced at least once during a stay on the island and there is a marine park in the south that's ideal for snorkelling. If diving in St Lucia feels like floating in space above a beautiful alien planet, dipping down beneath the island's southern shores on a helmet dive is a sensation akin to walking on the moon. It's a unique way to experience the island's spectacular underwater world.
HEAR – The call of paradise
Bird-watching tours are something special in St Lucia, with birds of paradise aplenty and resplendent Antillean crested hummingbirds flitting about the fragrant foliage. At dawn, you awaken to a sweet symphony of unfamiliar sounds: the chirps and calls of St Lucia Warbler, St Lucia Oriole, St Lucia Peewee and St Lucia Black Finch, all endemic to the island.
Despite its shock of blue, red and green feathers, the herald of paradise – the St Lucian parrot – is surprisingly tricky to see, though you may hear its distinctive caw. A guided walk through Acquilas Nature Reserve will give you a good chance of spotting one.
But it's not just nature that creates a distinctive sound in St Lucia. This is an island state that really embraces music and dance. Festivals are held throughout the year, with the annual St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival, held in April or May, bringing a wealth of musical talent to the island. Weekly street party Jump Up brings a carnival atmosphere to the lively northern town of Gros Islet every Friday evening. It's a not-to-missed experience if you want to get immersed in the rhythm of island life.
Split your stay
From north to south, east to west, this diminutive tropical island offers travellers a multi-sensory experience and is ideal for a twin-centre holiday. Split a few days enjoying the culture and entertainment of the north, with time exploring the natural delights of the south, and you're sure to have an enriching trip. The bustling northern hub of Rodney Bay is a good place to start, before heading south to the area around Soufriere, full of natural wonders and creamy sand beaches.
For more on the sultry delights of the Caribbean, don't miss my Barbados blogs, where I am reporting back from a whirlwind trip around this idyllic isle.