On paper, the drive from Hewanorra Airport, in the south east of Saint Lucia, to The Landings, in the north west, looked relatively straight forward. However, once we arrived on the island it didn't take long to realise why everything here is a little bit further away than it seems. For such a small island, Saint Lucia has an incredibly dramatic topography. And I'm not talking about the gentle undulations of the Isle of Wight; this is an island of monolithic, craggy peaks, jungle clad valleys and winding roads that take you up and up as you cross the centre of the island, before plunging back down towards the coast on the other side. The drive was a spectacular introduction to a spectacular place, and a taste of the adventures to come.
Thanks to the island's volcanic make-up, Saint Lucia doesn't enjoy the same reputation for picture perfect white sand beaches as some of her neighbours, but the beach at The Landings is a particularly glorious exception. Powder fine sand shelves gently into clear, turquoise waters against the stunning backdrop of Rodney Bay and Pigeon Island, an arc of emerald green hills looming over the fishing villages that dot the coastline. Arriving for the first time you are struck by the exclusive feel of the resort, with its cavernous, gleaming marble lobby and private marina, but The Landings soon reveals itself as a laid back and friendly affair where you aren't going to be judged on the size of your yacht. To say the suites are spacious is something of an understatement, and with their fully equipped kitchens they're great for families or groups wanting to self-cater, but there is plenty to entice couples here too. We especially loved our private plunge pool, perfect for a late night dip with a cold bottle of Piton beer overlooking the harbour.
We were lucky enough to be staying at The Landings during the annual St Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival, which happens every April/May and is centred on Pigeon Island national park, right next door to the resort. While we didn't make it to any of the big concerts on Pigeon Island itself, the festival atmosphere permeates the whole of the island, and we found plenty of 'fringe' events going on, with live music at a host of venues around Rodney Bay Village, as well as at the hotel itself. The islanders are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and rightly proud of the festival - pretty much every taxi driver, bar tender, waiter or market seller we met asked us if we were on the island for Jazz, and which events we were going to.
After three days of relaxation at The Landings, we took the short trip to the other side of Pigeon Island and checked in at our second hotel, Cap Maison. I love staying in smaller, quirkier places, and Cap Maison ticks all the boxes. The Spanish hacienda style may not be typically Caribbean, but it really adds to the feeling that you're staying as a guest in an exclusive private estate, rather than just another hotel. And this is a hotel that has got things the right way round: a glass of Champagne as soon as you arrive, the keys to your room straight away, and then, once you've pulled up a chair on your balcony and maybe mixed yourself a glass of rum punch, you can fill out those boring check-in forms at your leisure, rather than the usual frantic rummaging around for your passport at reception. The hotel's thoughtful approach doesn't stop there: complimentary iced water by the pool, an umbrella delivered to your room if it looks like it might rain, and countless other surprises that I won't spoil for you… These are the small but brilliant touches that make you think, 'Wow, they really have thought of everything'.
The thing we really couldn't stop talking about while we were there, however, was the food at the Cliff at Cap restaurant. Everything from the omelettes at breakfast to the tapas at lunchtime and the 5 course tasting menu for dinner was sublime, each dish a work of art with wonderfully grandiloquent names like 'A Theme on one Flavour: Pineapple' and 'A study on Vine Ripe Tomatoes'. If you want my advice, and if it's still on the menu when you go, try the gooey Guayaquil chocolate fondant with vanilla pod ice cream; it takes 15 minutes for the chefs to carefully craft each one, but it's worth the wait for that warm and fuzzy feeling of chocolatey contentedness as you waddle back, full-bellied, to your room at the end of night.
We did what we could to try and burn off some of those calories during our stay at Cap Maison, including a relatively leisurely hike to the top of Pigeon Island, where you can find out a bit about the naval history of the island while taking in the magnificent views of Rodney Bay and, on a clear day, the neighbouring island of Martinique in the distance. We also spent a morning ziplining through the forest canopy at Babonneau in the east of the island, an exhilarating way of seeing Saint Lucia's natural beauty up close, and had a wander around the tiny capital, Castries, an exotic mélange of pretty colonial architecture, buzzing markets and booming sound systems blasting out reggae and soca.
After three days at Cap Maison it was time to move on again, and this time we were heading south, towards the volcanic heart of the island. The scenery seems to get ever more spectacular as the road snakes along the coast, treating you to stunning ocean views before sweeping back down inland through banana plantations and plunging valleys. The terrain feels rugged and untamed, a setting perfectly complemented by our third hotel, the secluded and remote Ti Kaye Resort & Spa. Unpretentious, laid back and at one with its natural surroundings, this is a place that feels like home the moment you arrive. We stayed in a lovely little cottage with an amazing double hammock strung across the broad wooden veranda. I'm a big fan of hammocks, I genuinely don't know why more resorts don't have them, and it was absolute bliss gently swaying from side to side, rum punch in hand, watching the world go by. And there is plenty to watch, with all manner of visitors to the surrounding foliage, from the cheeky little birds who try and steal your sugar sachets to the lizards basking in the sun and tiny hummingbirds flitting amongst the bougainvillea. If it all sounds unfeasibly idyllic, then that's because to me it was, a simple, rustic hideaway that felt incredibly far away from my everyday life in hectic London. Ti Kaye's beach, a beautiful silver colour due to the mixture of white and black volcanic sand, is nice and quiet too, with some incredible snorkelling and a laid back bar serving snacks throughout the day. The resort also employs a 'beach dude' who will make sure you have everything you need, whether it's an ice cold drink or a snorkel and flippers.
When we departed Ti Kaye a couple of days later, it occurred to me that we had been in Saint Lucia over a week and had not yet seen the island's most famous landmark, the towering Piton mountains. Well, we'd seen them on postcards, T-shirts, bottles of rum and beer, just about everywhere, in fact, but it wasn't until day 8 of our holiday that we rounded a bend and were suddenly confronted with the real thing, rising up behind Soufrière like two giant green chunks of Toblerone. I always worry when I'm visiting such an iconic landmark that it won't live up to expectations, that the visual impact will be somehow diminished having seen the same view so many times in photos, but my worries were unfounded, as the first sight of these majestic mountains truly takes your breath away. And we couldn't have chosen a better resort from which to appreciate this view, staying as we did at Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort for the last two nights of our holiday, a real treat.
Chances are, if you've already heard of Sugar Beach, then you will have been subjected to every superlative under the sun by those describing it, as had I, and you'll be thinking 'surely it can't be that good'. However, it doesn't take long for any lingering cynicism to melt away. We stayed in a Grand Luxury Villa up on the hillside, spacious and effortlessly stylish with its colonial colour palette of crisp whites and deep browns. The outdoor sun deck was huge, with an infinity-edged plunge pool looking out on the impossibly picturesque bay, cradled as it is between the Pitons themselves. The service is impeccable yet never stilted or false, and we felt a real warmth from every member of staff that we met, from our butler Peter to the drivers who ferry you to and from the main facilities at the bottom of the hill in buggies or Thai-style tuk tuks.
Everything about Sugar Beach felt absolutely spot-on, whether we were enjoying a breakfast of perfectly cooked Eggs Benedict out on the Terrace in the morning, lazing on one of the ludicrously comfortable sun loungers by the beach, or sipping on delicious cocktails and trying not to embarrass ourselves too badly playing pool at the über stylish Cane Bar. (I particularly recommend the timbale, by the way, a creamy concoction of white rum, condensed milk and vanilla syrup). At Sugar Beach you are also well placed to visit the many natural attractions of the south, including the colourful Botanical Gardens and pretty Toraille Waterfall, as well as the world famous(ish) drive-in volcano, an ancient crater pock-marked with bubbling, steaming pools of mud that churn out a pretty pungent sulphuric pong. It's definitely worth braving the smell though, as the accompanying visitors' centre gives a fascinating insight into the geological processes that have shaped Saint Lucia's otherworldly landscape, including, of course, those famous Pitons.
Finally, sadly, we had to say goodbye to Sugar Beach and head home, completing our circuit of the island by travelling along the southern coastal road back to the airport. After ten days spent in the north, the east, the south and the west, we really felt like we had seen a little bit of everything that Saint Lucia has to offer, and I can't wait to go back and see the rest.