Vertiginous peaks blanketed in virgin rainforest rise from the azure Caribbean Sea, marking out the little island of St Lucia. Beyond, trickling streams and waterfalls rush through a lush forest of giant fanning palms and exotic blooms, hummingbirds flash past, lizards scuttle through the undergrowth and parrots parade over the canopy. Below the shoreline, another world beckons. Silent schools of fish twist and turn amid a cornucopia of pink, orange, purple and red sponges, fans and corals, while leatherback turtles drift across the sand and seagrass plains.
If you want to immerse yourself in the natural world, this pocket paradise is pure bliss. Known as the Caribbean's prettiest island, St Lucia's mountainous topography means it has retained its rainforests, while other islands were stripped bare for farming. Its undisturbed coastline also offers a sanctuary to rare marine species such as the leatherback turtles that nest on the island's eastern beaches.
On such a tiny island – only 14 miles from east to west and 27 miles from north to south – all this natural beauty can be explored in one trip and is made accessible to travellers by St Lucia's endless list of adventure activities. There are sky trams, rainforest ziplines and helicopter rides; jungle biking, jeep safaris, guided treks and nature walks; whale-watching, turtle-spotting, snorkelling and diving; and even a drive-in volcano.
The fuel that fed St Lucia's creation still burns within – the island's famous twin Piton peaks are in fact giant lava domes formed more than 300,000 years ago. Around them sulphurous cauldrons and hot springs bubble on in an area billed as the world's only drive-in volcano. A road runs through the collapsed Qualibou caldera past a primordial soup of boiling water and minerals, and downstream, visitors can wallow in the hot therapeutic mud baths created by all this seismic activity.
Rising above St Lucia's oldest town of Soufriere, the Pitons are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island's most photographed sight. In testament to their dramatic beauty, they are in the running to become one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and you can scale them in two hours on a hike with Heritage Tours. You will have to be relatively fit for the steep climb, but the views from the top are something spectacular. You can stay here on the heritage site too, in the small boutique Ladera Resort, which has views right between the peaks. Nearby, the island's most famous resort, Jade Mountain, is the last word in luxury escapism and has similarly stunning views.
For picturesque scenery and nature right on your doorstep, Soufriere is one of the best bases on the island. Its name means sulphur in French, and the pretty town is sandwiched in a flat coastal valley between the thickly forested hills of the surrounding caldera. A network of trails fans out from the town into cool benign jungle, winding through the undulating landscape to the scenic Enbas Saut Falls and some great lookout points. Try Tet Paul Nature Trail for maximum natural diversity and minimum exertion.
Bike, hike, fly
The sultry wilderness of St Lucia's central mountains is criss-crossed with good trekking tracks that can be traversed without a guide, though hiring one with local knowledge of the flora and fauna will almost certainly enhance the experience. Mountain biking is another option for visitors who prefer to explore on two wheels, with good tracks and equipment available locally. The private rainforest reserve of Anse Mamin near Soufriere is specifically geared up for jungle biking, while four-wheel drive tracks into the central mountains make way for Jungle Tours' jeeps and pick-up trucks.
For a more manicured look at a fantastic array of paradise plants, from Lansan trees and boughs laden with bright blooms to exquisite orchids, fragment lilies and frangipani, St Lucia has a clutch of beautiful botanical gardens. Centred on a beautiful cascade, Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens is one of the best spots, while the hidden Mamiku Gardens cover 12 acres of tranquil and exotic woodland on the east coast.
Unsurprisingly, some beautiful birds inhabit this Garden of Eden and bird-spotting is a popular and rewarding pursuit on the island. A guided walk through Acquilas Nature Reserve will give you a good chance of glimpsing the blue, green and red plumage of the rainforest's emblem – the St Lucian parrot. Around the island's highest peak, Mount Gimie, and the forestry reserves, you can see Antillean crested hummingbirds flitting about the flowers and catch sight of endemic species like the St Lucia warbler, oriole, peewee and black finch singing in the trees. For a birds-eye view of the Pitons, don't miss out on the opportunity to take an exhilarating 20-minute helicopter ride over the thickly forested south.
A more sedate method of exploration can be experienced aboard the sky-tram, which glides across the dense canopy of St Lucia's lush wilderness. At the opposite end of the spectrum, visitors with a head for heights can channel Tarzan and whizz through the jungle from tree-to-tree on a network of zip lines and rope swings run by Rainforest Adventures.
Scuba, snuba, snorkel
One of the volcanic Windward Islands, St Lucia is washed by the Atlantic to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the west. The natural beauty of the island's rainforests is easily matched by the wonderful underwater world hidden beneath its shores, and turtles love St Lucia's beaches as much as the tourists do. Leatherback turtles are common in the east, where you can take the night watch at Grande Anse for the best chance of seeing them. The east coast is generally a great place for wildlife watching. On a tour with Mystic Man, there's a good chance of spotting the whales and dolphins breaching the waves.
Of course swimming is the simplest way to immerse yourself in St Lucia's aquatic landscape and the idyllic creamy beaches of the west are the perfect setting. In particular, Marigot Bay – a bay within a bay – has still, crystal-clear water. A marine reserve skims the west coast protecting a rich underwater habitat that's prime territory for snorkellers and divers. In fact, there are marine reserves rimming the southern and eastern shores of St Lucia too. The shallow underwater coral garden of Anse Chastanet is one of the best snorkelling spots, where you can see the branches of giant gorgonians reaching tree-like towards the surface amid a rockery of bright soft corals resembling strange shrubs.
A novel alternative – snuba – is also offered in the area. New to the island, this scuba-snorkel hybrid is an unusual way to explore the seascape. You descend into the depths with your head in a round clear helmet that, rather ironically, resembles a fish bowl. The helmet is fed by air from the surface so there's no need to equalise or grapple with diving equipment, and you're free to float about eyeing the colourful marine life without even getting your hair wet.
St Lucia is usually thought of as the dream Caribbean beach retreat. But look beyond the luxury sand-hugging resorts and you can discover an exotic world of natural wonders and adventure, both above and below the waves, which offers a much more enriching experience. The island's UNESCO-listed volcano and its marine and rainforest reserves ensure its precious natural bounty remains intact and the more visitors treasure it, the greater its protection will be for generations to come.