It is the dark, hot finale to one of those interminable days of travel. Two flights. A few time zones. We've dragged our eight-month-old twin boys to the bottom of the Caribbean, grabbed a cab when our rental car didn't show and strapped in for the last leg of the journey that has stretched on too long. It is a nighttime rollercoaster, the taxi van sweeping around tight corners and plunging down steep drops, passing a most remarkable sight for a Sunday night: road-side barbecues, crammed with people.
Everywhere else, the weekend is over. In St. Lucia, which has the good sense to make weekends three-day affairs, the festivities are still on display. Which means that suddenly, there is a bright light at the end of our long day. We crest a hill and find ourselves approaching a couple of outdoor bars. Our cab driver is only too happy to pull over. I hop out, along with my brother-in-law and his wife, is along for the ride, and stride to the bar. We grab four Piton beers, crisp lagers that are sweating and delicious. We head back on the long road to our resort, and clink bottles.
We have made it. We are in St. Lucia, that West Indies volcanic knuckle of verdant rain forest slopes, wind-swept Atlantic shores and gentle Caribbean vistas. We got here almost by accident. The trip started with an impulse charity-auction bid for airline tickets that proved unexpectedly successful, leaving us with a vista of destinations to choose from. We settled on St. Lucia, with its mix of mountain hikes, sunny waters and lazy afternoons.
It didn't take long to discover that we had stumbled into a place where the natural beauty was backdrop to a place suffused with an unusually gracious spirit. St. Lucia is not beach heaven. Its honeyed sands do not stretch on forever, nor are they the brilliant white that draw droves to neighbouring islands. Reduit Beach, the island's largest and best-known, is less than a kilometre long. Which happens to be exactly why we've come here: I'd rather thread through winding island roads then lie on a beach.
We drop our bags at the Landings, the condo-cum-resort where we arrive to find staff waiting with golf carts to take us to our marble-tiled haven in paradise. It's our first big trip as a family and the resort, built by Frank Heaps, founder of Upper Canada Brewing Co., presents us with a kitchen so inviting we end up cooking most of our meals and cavernous space, which proves perfect when both boys learn to crawl on the island.
St. Lucia is generous with surprises. There is the old British fort at Pigeon Island, a quick beach walk away, where dirt trails climb past ruins to a sweeping view punctuated by cannons. There is the jaunt to Gros Islet, past a beach where sunset-seekers set down tire rims to cook jerk chicken, with lots leftover to share. Then there is Gros Islet itself, where the rum shop is stocked for late-night emergencies, where fishermen repair nets as dusk falls and where a cookshack billows smoke into the night, with a menu of deep-fried conch, squid, abalone and several types of barbecued fish, just waiting for us to drop down a couple of bucks for our fill.
Without expansive beaches, St. Lucia invites a different kind of Caribbean getaway – one that requires getting off the resort. And with hours and hours of narrow, winding roads, it would take particular self-restraint to do so on any more than two wheels. So we rent motorcycles and set out, one at a time, taking wives to explore hilltops rimmed with million-dollar views – and the mansions to match – before the spouses set us free. For one glorious day, we follow Des, a resort worker, who leads us on a magnificent tour on his day off. We lean up and down hills, past empty beaches and soaring views of gentle surf, stopping to gorge on cassava root bread flavoured with raisins and cherries and cinnamon, still hot from the stone oven it was cooked in. We slip down the hill to Marigot Bay, a Caribbean gem whose resort-dominated waterfront we pass by on a small pedestrian ferry, crossing to a palm-dotted beach. Then it's through a forest thick with bamboo and coconut trees, past the end of a washed-out road, where a trail takes us to a waterfall that no one else has discovered on this particular day. The day's heat melts away in the torrent.
A few days later, after opting for a change of scenery, we move into the town of Rodney Bay at Cleopatra Villas, with a 3,500-square foot, three-storey vantage on the quiet harbour. This is our first major trip with the boys, who have introduced us to the joys of a pace slower than the frenetic approach we normally take to vacation. We discover the not-so-remarkable truth that – surprise! – there is merit to relaxing on holidays. And so we eat late breakfasts and spend hours next to pools and beaches. When it gets hot, we retreat into air conditioning. I devour 2,000 pages of books. Then it's time to explore again.
We rent a minivan to cart around the full entourage, kids and all, this time. We ease our way down precipitous wet roads to Soufriere, and its spectacular views of the bulbous Piton peaks that inspire the beer. We grab lunch at a cocoa plantation, where a worker hacks open fresh cocoa pods for us to sample, before giving us a taste of the dried, chocolatey product they create. We stop at the St. Lucia Rum Distillers plant – and its unlimited samples – before pulling in to a restaurant-bar perched atop a ridge.
Spying a dirt road through a banana plantation to an isolated beach, we bounce our way to a stretch of white sand that only a few locals have found on a sunny afternoon. They have Pitons. We have cash. It's a friendly transaction. It can be easy, as a traveller, to walk around with your head down. Amicable locals often have ambitions on your wallet. Not in St. Lucia. Several times a day, people came up to ask where we were from, to find out if we were having a good time, to wave at our boys – even to invite us over for dinner.
St. Lucia is not cheap. Groceries cost roughly what they do in North America. Hotels and resorts are expensive – it's difficult to find decent accommodations for less than $300 (U.S.) a night, and surprisingly easy to find them at $1,000.
Yet the rewards for setting foot here are also substantial: the landscape, the people, the delicious food. Rodney Bay restaurants serve remarkable cuisine – including, oddly enough, the best brisket nachos I've ever tasted at Firegrill, and plates piled high with delicious fare at the tiny roadside Jerk Pit. Then there are the voluminous drinks. For happy hour at Spinnakers, two-for-one drinks means you order one and two arrive at your table.
By the end of our two-week visit, we have learned, with a contingent of Brits, how to play cricket on the beach. We have guzzled rum punch and turned our skin a few shades darker. And we have discovered, amid the sun and the breeze and the scenery, the water and the warmth, that accidentally bidding on airline tickets can sometimes be the best mistake to make.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Landings A condo resort next to 240 metres 800 feet of beach. Two-bedroom harbour-view villas start at $500 (U.S.). Pigeon Island Causeway, Gros Islet, 866-252-0689, thelandingsstlucia.com
Cleopatra Villa Rentals Colourful townhouse- and apartment-style villas next to the Rodney Bay marina. High-season rates range from $200 to $400 a night. Rodney Bay, 758-458-0703, villasinstlucia.com
What to do: Rent a small 125cc motorbike to explore the island. It's all the power you'll need for slow, winding roads. From $40 a day at Wayne's Motorcycle Centre. 758-452-2059
Cruise past smoking slopes at the Drive-in Volcano ; interesting in part for its location near Soufriere, a town in the island's south near the Pitons, which are soaring and scenic volcanic plugs. Entry is $8 a person.
Where to eat: Firegrill Head here for a terrific assortment of grilled meats and sides. Reduit Beach Avenue, opposite the Royal St. Lucian Hotel in Rodney Bay.
Spinnakers Restaurant & Bar This is a fantastic spot to watch the sunset. Assorted seafood and mixed drinks, served in pairs at happy hour. On Reduit Beach; 758-452-8491
The writer received a discounted room rate at the Landings.