When you visit a "sea, sun and sand" destination like St Lucia, it can be tempting to spend your entire holiday on a sun lounger. Luxury resorts and all-inclusive hotels add more impetus to stay put, with activities, entertainment and international cuisine at your fingertips.
But no matter how good the hotel buffet is, if there's one thing I learnt from my recent trip to St Lucia is just how enriching it is to get out and explore. Everywhere I visited gave me a different perspective of the island and, if I'd stayed put at my hotel in Rodney Bay, my impression of the island would have been very different to the one I left with.
St Lucia, a vibrant tourist hub
Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay was my first port of call when I visited St Lucia last December. Set in the north, this sweeping bay is the island's busiest tourist hub. It has a long sandy beach, a strip of hotels, and a wide choice of Western, Caribbean and Asian restaurants.
For beach access and amenities, Rodney Bay is hard to beat. Many hotels sit directly on Reduit Beach, which has golden sands, safe swimming, sundown bars, and the option of boat trips, snorkelling, island tours and more.
A five-minute taxi ride from Reduit Beach is Rodney Bay Marina. Here, you'll find even more bars, restaurants and shops. The nightlife is particularly good, especially if you visit during an annual event like the ARC rally (December).
As a stress-free holiday base with everything on hand, Rodney Bay is ideal. However, I soon felt the urge to escape this tourist bubble and experience local life. I wanted to get away from the crowds for a day and discover a less commercial side to the island. Luckily, experiencing all this is easy.
Easy half-day escapes
A five-minute boat trip across Rodney Bay lies the national park of Pigeon Island. This is where I got my first taste of the lush vegetation and tranquil Caribbean beaches I'd been dreaming of. An emerald-green islet with no hotels and just two restaurants, Pigeon Island is a world away from busy Rodney Bay.
Here, you can snorkel off tiny beaches, trek along sandy tracks, and stumble across colonial ruins that reveal the island's history. After half a day on Pigeon Island, I felt far more informed about St Lucia's history, natural beauty and idyllic appeal.
For a slice of everyday life, the town of Gros Islet is easy to reach from Reduit Beach. A ten-minute taxi ride away, this is where the locals live. Here, you'll find rum shops, fishing shacks and authentic Caribbean food. On Friday nights, a weekly street party attracts floods of locals and a trickle of tourists with late night bars, food stalls and a fantastic party vibe.
St Lucia's heart and soul
Although I was eager to venture further afield, motivating myself to travel the hour and a half from Rodney Bay to Soufriere was tough. In the end, it turned out to be the best decision I made.
Located on the southwest coast, Soufriere is widely considered to be the heart and soul of St Lucia, and it's easy to see why. This former capital has colourful buildings, busy bars, and eclectic eateries. A historic church rises in the centre, and the town beach is visited by everyone from fishermen to day-trippers.
With an authentic local atmosphere, Soufriere sits in stark contrast to Rodney Bay and, with a stunning setting beneath The Pitons, is more striking than Gros Islet. Even better, Soufriere is within easy reach of some of St Lucia's best beaches and landmarks. In my opinion, no St Lucian holiday is complete without a trip to Soufriere.
Finding your favourite beach
The beauty of St Lucia's beaches is that each and every one is unique. Whereas Reduit Beach is long, golden and full of amenities, others are small and quiet, with black, white or silver sands.
Rather than settle for the beach that's nearest to your hotel, finding other places to lay your towel can add a whole new element to your trip. For me, Anse Chastanet and Anse Mamin hit the spot. Located down a rugged track near Soufriere, Anse Chastanet has a private and exclusive feel while, a little further on, Anse Mamin has an enchanting desert-island appeal.
Nature and natural history
Swaying palms, lush vegetation and glowing green rainforests back St Lucia's beaches, swathe its plains, and coat its hills, valleys and peaks. Enjoying the views is all well and good but immersing yourself in nature is even better.
Part way through my holiday, I climbed Gros Piton – one of the island's iconic volcanic "plugs." Gros Piton's lush vegetation and incredible views made me realise just how beautiful St Lucia is, while my visit to the nearby Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens gave me a deeper understanding of the island's botany and biodiversity. I also visited the Sulphur Springs – the world's only drive-through volcano experience – which gave a fascinating insight to the island's tectonic make-up.
How to get around
To explore St Lucia I relied mostly on taxis, which are efficient but expensive – especially if you're travelling alone. Organised tours were an option but I was keen to travel independently, rather than in a group.
If I'd had more time, I could have used the local buses. A cheap way to travel, buses are good for travelling directly between towns like Soufriere and Castries, but journey times can be lengthy for longer distances – my 90-minute taxi ride from Rodney Bay to Soufriere could have taken all day by bus, with a long change in Castries.
In hindsight, the best way to tour the island would probably have been by hire car. If you want to head-out most days, a car gives you plenty of freedom and will cheaper than taxis.
Why planning ahead pays off
As with any holiday, you'll never manage to see it all. There's so much more I'd liked to have experienced in St Lucia, from zip lining through the rainforest and kite surfing in the trade winds, to visiting the capital of Castries, and the white sands of Sugar Beach. Nevertheless, if I hadn't explored beyond Rodney Bay, my impression of St Lucia would have been far narrower.
Motivating yourself to get out and explore can be tough when you're basking in the sun on your hotel beach, so it's always good to plan ahead, and even pre-book a trip or two to make sure you don't miss out. Believe me, you won't regret it, and that sun lounger will still be there when you get back.